Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Alleycat Acres: urban farm collective breaks ground in Beacon Hill

Last weekend, the upstart urban farming collective, Alleycat Acres, broke ground on their first site. The goal of alleycat acres is to set up urban farm plots throughout the city of Seattle. Healthy, sustainably raised produce will be distributed and sold at affordable prices via CSA membership, farmer's markets, and eventually in corner stores and bodegas.

Last Sunday the alleycats marked out vegetable beds and cleared A LOT of sod. Next Sunday, February 28th, they will be further prepping the site by tilling Groco and Tagro composts into the vegetable beds.
They will also be constructing some raised beds with recycled concrete slabs.
They are looking for volunteers and equipment that can be loaned, and are especially interested in rototillers for this coming Sunday, 2-28-10.
For more information visit: http://www.alleycatacres.com

 signs of good soil beneath that lawn

Taking down the Laurel

Sunday, February 21, 2010

growing fruit trees in small spaces

Fruit trees are wonderful because:
1. They provide fruit for years with little work (in comparison to annual vegetables).
2. They provide structural beauty to the landscape.
3. They can help you to make friends. How? Usually the fruit all ripens at once, so you have to give some of it away... if you give someone fruit from your garden, they'll probably want to be your friend... or at least I would want to be your friend.

It is not very difficult to grow fruit trees in small spaces. Most nurseries carry dwarf varieties. Dwarf varieties are simply the smaller versions of their larger selves. Nurseries are able to make dwarf varieties by grafting the fruiting stock onto a dwarf root stock... the small root stock is what keeps the tree in a compact form. Dwarf varieties are great for the home landscape because the fruit is easier to pick... little to no ladder-use necessary! Dwarf trees are also excellent candidates for espalier. Espalier is a technique used to train trees to grow in a 2 dimensional plane. Notice how the espaliered apple, below, makes a beautiful living fence, and takes up very little space. Perfect for the urban garden.

Recently I have seen columnar fruit trees, like the ones above, more and more in nurseries and catalogues. Columnar fruit trees are very small, and can even be grown in pots on a patio garden.

Here is a cool video explaining how to espalier a tree

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Sun-dried tomato recipe for Joy

 photo: Joy Peters Kurtz http://www.photo-joy.com/

My family lives in the land of true sun: Los Angeles. At least that's how I think of LA now that I live up here in Seattle. In LA they can plant their tomatoes in early April, and get all the sun and heat units necessary to grow big, beautiful, beefy tomatoes. Yes, I am quite jealous.
My step-mother, Joy, is a tremendous vegetable gardener. Each year she produces WAY more tomatoes than she and all her friends, family, and co-workers can handle. She dries tons of them, and then has a year-round supply of home-grown sun-dried tomatoes. 

photo: Joy Peters Kurtz. This is a photo of my dad building
trellises for their massive tomato plants of 2009

Many moons ago Joy asked me to develop a bread recipe that would incorporate her sun-dried tomatoes. I've finally gotten around to it, and I think that what I came up with is pretty darn good.

Sun-dried tomato and herb focaccia

 Approximate ingredient measurements:
1.5 teaspoons instant yeast (1 packet)
3.5 cups all purpose four
2 cups warm water
2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus a little more for oiling the bowl
1 plus teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon dried thyme or 2 teaspoons fresh thyme
1 tablespoon+ dried or fresh rosemary
1/2 cup re-hydrated sun dried tomatoes, or use the kind packed in oil, diced

To rehydrate the sun-dried tomatoes: 
set the dried tomatoes into a bowl of very hot, salted water until they are soft and pliable (about 10 to 20 minutes). If you don't plan to use the tomatoes right away, simply coat them with a little olive oil and store in the refrigerator for one to two weeks.

To make the focaccia:
In a large bowl, the bowl of a stand mixer, or the bowl of a food processor, dissolve the yeast in the warm water and honey. Set aside to let the yeast "bloom" for about 20 minutes. In 20 minutes the mixture should be frothy and smell like a bakery or brewery (it should smell yeasty). If you do not see froth, which is produced by the respiring yeast, your yeast has been sitting in your pantry too long... go to the store and buy a new supply. Store what you don't use in the refrigerator, where it will last longer than in your pantry. 
At this point, add one cup of flour and mix until combined. Now add the salt. Do not add the salt before this, because it can retard the development of the yeast, and you really need the flour to buffer the yeast from the salt. Then, with your mixer on low, and fitted with a dough hook, slowly add the rest of the flour. This dough should be very wet.... just barely dry enough to handle. If you notice it drying out too much before you use all the flour, simply add less flour... this is where the "art" of bread making comes into play. Kneed the dough for about 10 minutes (about speed 4 on a KitchenAid mixer). In the end, the dough should be smooth and elastic. Kneeding the dough is what helps to develop the gluten (wheat protein) into long strechy strands. Well-developed gluten will yield a finished product that is chewy and fully of those prized air pockets.
Remove the dough from the mixing bowl, coat with olive oil, place in a bowl that is large enough for the dough to double in size (I just put it back in the KitchenAid mixing bowl). Cover the bowl with a kitchen towel or plastic wrap, so it doesn't dry out, place in a warm spot in the kitchen, and let it rise for 1 to 2 hours, or until it has at doubled in size... the timing here is not critical... just make sure you give it at least 1 hour. 
When the dough has finished rising, preheat your oven to 425 degrees. If you have a pizza stone, let it preheat along with the oven. Now mix in your herbs and tomatoes, and continue to kneed dough, while incorporating the herbs, for about 1 to 2 minutes. You can do the second kneed by hand, or in the mixer, it's up to you. 

After all the goodies are incorporated put the dough on a lightly floured counter top, and attempt to flatten in out into a rectangular pizza dough shape. The reason I say attempt, is because your dough should be very elastic... this is a good thing. What you need to do, is shape it, let is pull back a bit, let it rest there for a minute or so, and then shape it again... continue doing this until you are pleased with your dough, and it is no more than 1/2 inch thick. At this point, transfer your dough to the preheated pizza stone, or a baking sheet. Being careful not to burn yourself, press your fingers into the top of the dough to create dimples. Drizzle the top of the dough with olive oil, and then sprinkle with a touch of coarse salt, and more rosmary. 
Bake until the focaccia bottom is brown and crisp, about 25 minutes. Let bread cool for 5 minutes, and enjoy!!!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Eating locally in winter

For those of us who live in cooler, northern climes, eating local foods in the winter can be a challenge. Last Saturday, however, we got together for an impromptu dinner with our good friends and neighbors, Maggie and James. While bringing the food to the table Maggie and I realized that everything was local, right down to the wine. If a local winter meal can happen by accident, maybe it's not so hard after all...

The winter feast menu: 
potato leek soup, braised greens with onions, pork sausages, bread from Essential Baking Co., whiskey spice cake with vanilla ice cream.

Potato leek soup

Sausages with onions and braised kale, collards, and chard

dogs, food, friends... doesn't get any better

Local wine from Sunnyside, WA... a locale well known for its arcres of hops fields and cherry orchards... gorgeous

whiskey cake with vanilla ice cream

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture

I am currently eating my way through a winter CSA subscription via Jubilee farm, in Carnation, WA http://www.jubileefarm.org/. This week, I'm eating roasted root vegetables and squash, brussels sprouts sauteed in butter, sage, and garlic, eggs every way, braeburn apples for snacking, and cole slaw to go with tonight's braised pork ribs.

In the summer I try to exclusively eat produce from my garden and the farmer's market, and it's really not difficult. Stone fruits from the market are gorgeous, affordable, and delicious. I always get a bounty of vegetables from surprisingly small amount of space. The winter, however, is quite different from the summer. November through April I harvest little to nothing from my own house, and the farmer's markets are not that much fun either. Browsing for food in the cold and rain is just not my idea of a good time... I realize this is very un-Pacific northwest of me, but I am originally from southern California, so please give me a break. Rather than browsing for food in the rain, I subscribe to a CSA in the fall, winter, and spring. This means that each week I receive a box of fresh produce and eggs from a local farm. The farm actually delivers the box to a central location in my neighborhood, where I pick it up, along with about 20 of my neighbors.

What is a CSA?
CSA stands for community supported agriculture, and it is just that. A CSA is a direct link between a farm and a community of consumers. The general CSA model is that each season a farm, usually small and organic, will offer a certain number of "shares/subscriptions" to the public. Consumers, such as myself, buy a share before the season begins, and each week we pick up a box of produce.

Why participate in a CSA?
  • Each week you get a box of goodies, which to me feels somewhat like a grown up care package.
  • CSA's are an easy way to buy delicious, seasonal produce directly from producers (ie: no standing in the rain).
  • All of your produce will be fresh, organic, and local.
  • You get to try new produce. For example, I tried rutabaga for the first time this year because I got it in my CSA box. Rutabaga is delicious!!!
  •  Farmers get paid a fair amount for their product (much more than what they receive from produce distributers).
  • In addition to supporting a sustainable food system, by participating in a CSA one is also supporting a sustainable economic system. Supporting local farms, means supporting the local economy.
  • CSA participants are able to have an intimate connection with the way their food was produced. For example, I know that Wendy and Erik, of Jubilee Farm, are the ones who made sure that my food has been produced in a healthy, sustainable way. 
  • A successful CSA program allows farmers to spend their time marketing their product(s) early in the year, before their crazy, busy summers... when they need to focus on growing the food.
  • CSAs also provide farmers with cash flow in the slow season, which helps them prepare for the coming season (cash to buy seeds and equipment with), and maintain a sustainable economic model for themselves.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Why composting and recycling are more climate-friendly acts than trading in your gas-guzzling clunker for a Prius:

The world's first compostable chip bag will be launched by Sun Chips on Earth Day 2010. This is a wonderful example of corporate leadership in the right direction.


This is a very big deal, and here is why:

Garbage and landfilling
Our garbage is something that most of us do not think about once it leaves our homes. We fill up a can, take it outside to another can, and once a week a big truck comes by and takes it away. Good bye refuse! Out of sight, out of mind. The problem is that here on Earth there is no such thing as away.
Here is a description of what actually happens to the contents of that can, and a typical chip bag. The big truck dumps your garbage at a transfer station. At the transfer station an even bigger truck picks up your garbage and hauls it to a landfill. The landfill is probably no where close to where you live. Here in King county most of our garbage currently goes to a landfill Woodinville. The garbage for the city of Seattle goes to a landfill in Oregon. Here in the U.S., landfills and waste haulers are typically government-contracted, private sector companies such as Waste Management (WM), BFI, and Allied Waste. These companies get paid for taking your garbage away, sticking in a very big hole, and burying it. The more they take away and bury, the more money they get. Here are some of the problems associated with this model:
1. The huge hole becomes a toxic waste site that will never go away -- NEVER. Leachate (yucky liquid) is produced from our landfilled materials, which then needs to be "treated" (treated=$$$).
2. It is extremely costly to operate and manage the big hole. The big hole continues to be costly to manage, even after it is full, and all your chip bags have been buried.
3. We do not have an infinite supply of VERY large holes to put our garbage in.
4. Landfills are some of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases. Pretty sure most citizens do not know about problem #4.

Coutesy of USEPA, this diagram explains the relationship between waste management and GHG emmisions  

Why are landfills huge emitters of greenhouse gases?
When we put biodegradable materials such as paper, grass clippings, food scraps, pizza boxes, and branches in the landfill, they do not degrade in the same way they do above ground or in a compost pile. In the landfill they degrade anaerobically (without oxygen), and as a result produce methane instead of carbon dioxide. Methane is approximately 21 times more potenent of a greenehouse than CO2, which means that a little bit goes a long way. When the same materials (food waste, grass clippings, pizza boxes, etc...) end up in a compost pile, we have the potential to emitt 21 times less greenhouse gas equivalents. Furthermore, applying compost to your garden soil sequesters (stores) carbon in your soil, acting as a carbon sink. "Carbon sink" is a fancy term for capturing CO2 from the atmosphere.

What can we do?
We can compost, recycle, and use the compost in our yards.
Most of our U.S. cities have now adopted a 3 bin, source separation system for our refuse. Genearally this looks like the following: a black bin for non-recyclables, a blue bin for recyclables, and a green bin for yard waste. Here in Seattle we can put all of our food waste, including meat, dairy, and food soiled paper products like napkins, paper towels, and pizza boxes, into our yard waste bin. With the advent and increasing use of recyclable and/or compostable plastics, take out containers, and packaging, like the new Sun Chips bag, what we put in the black bin and the landfill will get smaller and smaller.
If your city does not accept food waste in the yard waste bin, please write to your council members and let them know that you want this to change. This is not only about landfill space, it is also about global climate change.
If your city does accept food waste in the yard waste bin, find out who the composter is, and buy their compost. Here in Seattle, Cedar Grove composts our food and yard waste in the city of Everett. Even though I am somewhat of a compost guru, I do not actually enjoy composting my own food waste. I'm sure many of you can relate to this. I thank Cedar Grove for composting it for me by buying their product and using it in my yard. Bags of Cedar Grove compost can be found at all the major nurseries and home improvement centers. Bulk orders of their compost can be arranged by contacting them directly http://www.cedar-grove.com/

If you are a back yard composter:
good for you!

For more information on the connection between waste and climate change visit the following pages:

COOL 2012   http://www.cool2012.com/
USEPA  http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/wycd/waste/index.html
City of Seattle: http://www.seattle.gov/util/services/yard/composting/spu01_001997.asp
Seattle's Climate Action Now http://www.seattle.gov/util/About_SPU/News/Current_Issues/SPU01_003021.asp
US Comopsting Council http://www.compostingcouncil.org/

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Window sill gardens are good for you

Growing plants is good for the soul. Well, at least it is good for my soul. In the winter, especially in dark, wet Seattle, growing plants can be particularly difficult. In addition, this is a time when many of our souls need extra nourishment. Almost all of us are vitamin D deficient, we get outside less, we see very little daylight, and we eat fewer fresh fruits and vegetables. While growing plants in the winter is difficult, it is certainly not impossible. Here are two ways you can do it:

1. If you have south or east facing windows, pop some pots in the window sills. These areas will get a good amount of sunlight (especially south facing windows), and will still be warm enough to see a good amount of growth. I currently have an array of herbs growing in one of my window sills.

2. Use grow lights. Many of us Seattlites have full spectrum lights in our homes. While we may have originally purchased these lights to combat SAD (seasonal affective disorder), they also work as grow lights. I keep a full spectrum light on my desk. All day long it performs double duty, keeping my spirits bright, and providing photosynthetic energy to a small, indoor succulent garden.

Edibles that grow particularly well indoors:
Herbs: basil, cilantro, scallions, chervil, parsley, tarragon, mint, dill, oregano, thyme, rosemary
Salad greens: mescalin mixes, arugula, mustard greens, spinach.

 Don't forget that you can also start seeds on your window sill, so that they will be ready to plant when things warm up. Our growing season is relatively short, so warm season crops like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants will benefit enormously by being given the extra time to come to size indoors. These plants generally cannot be put outside until May 1st.

Chicken soup with matzo balls for a new family

A friend of mine had a baby last month, and I wanted to do something to make things just a tad easier for her and her husband. I decided to make them dinner, and drop it off at their house. When thinking about different meal options, I decided to go with the ultimate comfort food, chicken soup with matzo balls. It's delicious, healthy, and minus the matzo balls, it freezes beautifully. Who wouldn't love that?
I grew up in west Los Angeles, and lived in New York City for 4 years. Needless to say, I am quite familiar with the American Jewish staple, the matzo ball. For those of you who are unfamiliar, however, you can think of it as something similar to the dumplings in Chicken and dumpling soup... it is essentially a floating, stock-soaked, starch ball. yummmm. 
Here's how to make it:

Chicken soup with Matzo balls:

For the soup: 
  • 1 cup diced onion
  • 1 cup diced celery
  • 1 cup diced carrot
  • 1 cup diced Yukon gold potatoes
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons ground pepper
  • 2 teaspoons dried thyme
  • 2-3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 8 cups chicken stock (preferably home made)
For the Matzo balls:
  • 1 cup matzo meal
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 teaspoon salt

1. Saute onion, celery, and carrot, in 2-3 tbsp olive oil, 1 tbsp salt and 2 tsp pepper, over medium heat. 

2. Once vegetables are tender, add the thyme and potatoes, and saute for 1 minute longer.

3. Add 8 cups chicken stock. I keep home made in the freezer, but you can always use store bought. My favorite product is "Swanson's low sodium chicken broth"... always buy low sodium so that you can have better control over the saltiness. Simmer soup on low-medium heat.
4. Matzo balls: mix together 1 cup matzo meal (ground up matzo), 2 eggs, 2 tbsp olive oil, and 1 tsp salt. Let sit in fridge for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes roll mixture into 1 inch diameter balls (use wet hands to make this process easier). Drop the matzo balls into the simmering soup, cover with lid, and let cook 20 minutes.
*hint: for large fluffy matzo balls ('Floaters'), drop the balls into the soup as soon as you roll them out. For dense matzo balls, let them rest for another 15 minutes (or longer) before adding them to the pot.
5. After the matzo balls are finished cooking, add 2 cups of shredded chicken meat to the soup. For the chicken meat, I either roast off one or two chicken breasts before hand, or use meat from a store bought rotisserie chicken.

6. Serve as soon as the chicken is heated through to avoid a rubbery texture.

**hints to make this soup easily and quickly:
1. buy pre-chopped veggies
2. use store bought chicken stock
3. buy a box of Matzo meal, rather than having to process the matzo yourself.
4. buy pre-cooked chicken.