Year of the Crust

Happy Chinese New Year! We’ve now entered the year of the horse, which is a year for decisiveness and adventure: a year where hard work yields success.  On this 40 degree January day, I set out for the Chinese New Year parade in Chinatown, feeling, finally, like jolting out of my post-holiday hibernation.  It was a good day for dim sum, and the right temperature to begin the victorious year of the horse.

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While I don’t pay too much attention to what the zodiac has in store for me, I do attempt to make sacred my new year resolutions.  At least ones that have a culinary bent:  two years ago was Year of the Vegan, last year was Year of the Sauce.

This year, I enter Year of the Crust.

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I’m drawn to crust for the challenge; it’s one of those “make it or break it” elements of a dish that you end up feeling really bad about when you fail. It can be a nutty, crunchy companion to the creamy cheesecake or a sodden flavorless layer that you wish wasn’t there.  It can be a light outer crunch of sourdough, or a burnt one.  To really wow, crust requires attention and flavor.

For my first attempt, my flirtations with gluten-free baking and soul food led me to a place where sweet potato pies have crusts of cornmeal, slightly sweet and and just a little gritty.  That’s the kind of wow I was going for.  I want to get you to that place, too.

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The cornmeal delights the silky, sweet filling with some southern grit.  The crust, defying all notions of the dreaded, soggy pie crust, holds its form against the whipped density of sweet potato puree.  You can even hold it like a slice of pizza (try it!).  And so my triumphant year of the horse begins.

Sweet Potato Pie with Cornmeal Crust (adapted from Martha Stewart’s Cornmeal Pie Dough)

Pie Filling:

3 whole sweet potatoes (yielding 1.5 cups sweet potato puree)
2 eggs
1/3 cup honey or maple syrup
1/4 cup milk or almond milk
1/4 tsp cardamom, ground
1 tsp cinnamon, ground
1/4 tsp coriander, ground
1/4 tsp ginger, ground
1/8 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp lemon juice
1/2 tsp salt

Cornmeal Crust:

1 1/2 cups flour (or gluten-free flour – try Bob’s Red Mill)
1/2 cup yellow cornmeal, preferably stoneground or coarse
1/2 cup coconut sugar
1 tsp salt
8 T unsalted butter, chilled and cut into small pieces
2 large egg yolks
3 T chilled water

Directions:

1. Make the crust: In a large bowl, mix together flour, cornmeal, sugar, and salt.  With your fingers, mix in butter until crumbs form.  In a small bowl, combine egg yolks and chilled water.  Add egg yolk mixture into flour mixture.  Using a fork, mix quickly and lightly.  Knead dough in a floured bowl until dough holds together and can be packed into a disk.  You can add up to 1 T of water if dry.  Press into a disk, and wrap in plastic.  Chill in the fridge until firm, about 30 minutes.

2. While the dough chills, make the filling: Poke holes in sweet potatoes and roast for 45-50 minutes at 400 degrees.  When cool enough to handle, remove skin, place into a large bowl, and mash with a fork.  When smooth, add the rest of the ingredients and stir until well blended.

3. Assemble the pie: Preheat the oven to 425.  Line a ceramic or glass pie pan with the dough, and fill with sweet potato filling.  Crimp the edges of the dough around the pie; there will likely be extra.  Bake pie at 425 for 10 minutes, then lower the temperature to 350 and bake until the filling has set, about 25-30 minutes.

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A quick look at what I’ve been up to with Local Roots NYC

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I’ve been working a lot these past few months on finishing up the final edits of a kitchen field guide that I’m making for the CSA that I work for.  Basically, we’ve included tips and tricks to help people maximize the potential of their CSA.  We’ve included our favorite recipes for dinner, our go-to formulas for preserving fruits and veggies, and even food storage tips.  Because the final product has not yet been released, I will share with you just a few screenshots of my work.

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Above is a map of what we consider “local”: anything within 150 miles of our home base in Brooklyn.  I created the map in Adobe Illustrator, and, using Google Map, placed markers that represent where our CSA shares come from.

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I developed this graphic to help new cooks find points of reference for unfamiliar vegetables that might appear in our CSA shares, like spigarello, broccoli rabe, or kohlrabi. When looking at recipes, I often visualize maps like these.   I want to share food knowledge with others in a way that communicates the simplicity and joy that you find when adapting recipes to fit your CSA share.

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This last graphic is part of a page that shows four ways of “extending” the CSA season, or in other words, preserving what you get in summer so that you can enjoy it in winter.  Pesto features one of my favorite color combinations in the guidebook.

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What do GMOs say about us?

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My friend Brian’s poster from Oaxaca depicts GMO corn as “intruders”

On the side, I write for Food Politic: A Journal of Food News and Culture.  I write and edit their multimedia page, where I write about:  maps, photography, music, short films, and documentary films. Last month, I jumped at the opportunity to review the latest in food documentaries, GMO OMG! I started off with an interview with the director, Jeremy Seifert, and then wrote a review of the film.

GMO OMG!, Jeremy Seifert’s documentary film about genetically modified food, is most effective when viewed for what it is: a film about modern agriculture; a story about one culture’s mission to manipulate seeds for higher yields.

The immediate response to it was unsurprisingly controversial: Dr. Oz invited Seifert on his show to share his findings but top environmental writers at The New York Times and The New Yorker took issue with Seifert’s lack of scientific information, describing the film as “an oversimplified survey” and “aggressively uniformed.”

In comparing American pro-GMO stances with Haitian and European skepticism, it’s clear that the point of this film is not to prove whether or not GMOs pose specific health threats.  Siefert’s mission is to explore what GMOs say about us.

Seifert started his journey as a father deciding whether or not he should feed GMOs to his children, whose matter-of-fact opinions on food and seeds are featured throughout the film.  A trip to Papaye, Haiti – a hub of the anti-GMO movement led by Haitian farmers and religious leaders (who are part of the larger farmer-led movement, La Via Campesina) – turns his mission from personal to political.

He watched as impoverished Haitian farmers and families threw out bags of donated seeds from Monsanto and thought, “What could they possibly know that I don’t know?”

As the documentary explains, the people of Papay didn’t immediately throw out the seeds but those who planted them noticed that they grew horribly because they didn’t have the chemical inputs that the genetically-modified seeds were designed to accompany. The next year, unable to save their seeds and unwilling to ask Monsanto for more, they resisted the aid, forming one of the worlds’ strongest anti-GMO movements.

“They were fighting for something that we had lost without even knowing that we were giving it up,” said Seifert during our interview.  Seifert returned to the U.S. and completed the documentary with an ethnographic approach to understanding what did we give up when we accepted the GMO seed?  He questions farmers, scientists, grocers, political leaders, and his neighbors to find out.

After interviewing Seifert, it became clear that this moment of questioning the power of scientific ways of knowing and the realities they produce, drives the film, in which he invites viewers to dig as deep as he does.  To get you there, GMO OMG! flows more like Planet Earth than Super Size Me!   With vivid videography and minimalist watercolor-stylized graphics, Seifert invites viewers to create their own contexts for understanding the place of GMOs in our culture, the environment, and one’s body.

He poses questions about the patenting of life as a time-lapse video of the night sky harkens back to the Haitian belief “that the seeds of life are the common inheritance of all humanity, as numerous and diverse as the stars above, owned by none and shared by all.”

It follows, then, that Seifert’s social and political research is in frequent conversation with his seven-year-old, who shows the audience how anyone can grow food from a seed; all you need to do is save your seeds for next year.  His opinion is contrasted with that of the industrial farmer using Monsanto RoundUp ready seeds.  Saving Monsanto-developed seeds, as the documentary shows, (or even farming a field that Monsanto seeds have by chance drifted into) gets you sued.  One of the first things we give up with the GMO, then, is the power of a farmer to sustain their own food system – food sovereignty.

You eventually arrive at a place where the farmer disappears.  Wendell Berry, an inspiration for Seifert, explains, “The farmer too in effect has vanished. He is no longer working as an independent and loyal agent of his place, his family, and his community, but instead as the agent of an economy that is fundamentally adverse to him and to all that he ought to stand for.”  Seifert’s focus is bigger than the body’s experience of GMOs.  In showing the prevalence of GMOs in Americna farming, Seifert shows how, with a focus on agri-business, we loose agri-culture.

What revolutionaries in Papay understand is that we can’t be taken out of that equation.  While GMOs have no scientifically-proven negative health effects on humans, it’s clear that they break down the environment and disrupt farming communities.  As Dr. Vandana Shiva explains during an interview with Seifert, Monsanto GMOs are devastating India’s cotton belt, where cotton farmers are committing more suicides each year as their production becomes more and more tied to Monsanto.

The same dependency happens here, where farmers struggle against “yield lag.”  Production soars in the first year, but by the next year bugs and weeds grow resistant to the chemicals released by GMO seeds.

The Rodale Farming Systems trial proves that the organic farming can have equivalent yields to GMO farming.  What’s key here is a trial that occurs over at least three years.  The IAASTD report, a 3-year commissioned trial by the UN and World Bank and 500 scientists from around the world all consented that the only way to feed the world is through small agro-ecology.

It’s easy to request “more scientific proof” of Seifert – but in doing so, the viewer misses out on the point he’s making with his cultural questions, which expose the grossly uneven power dynamics that shape agro-science. To start with, the only scientific studies available to us in the US are funded by the chemical companies themselves.  The request for more science thus reflects the same limited mindset that drives factory farming and confined animal feeding operations; the assumption critiqued by Wendell Berry, “that agriculture could be adequately defined by reductionist science and determinist economics.”  Asking for more science makes it possible for writers to disregard the rich socio-political, cultural realities that Seifert presents.  It enables science to be treated as truth. But science, like any other human endeavor, is objective and illusive.

GMO studies are especially scrutinized.  The New Yorker, for example, criticized Seifert’s use of Dr. Gilles Eric Seralini’s two year study, explaining that the study was “widely denounced throughout the world for its lack of statistical rigor, poor study design and small number of controls.”  The study was, unfortunately, the only long-term study on the effects of GMOs not produced by GMO companies themselves.   Seifert used it, obviously, for those reasons, and also perhaps for the disturbing visuals.  Rats were fed a diet of corn with roundup and roundup on its own, and by the end of their lifespans their organs were infested with tumors (seen most severely in female rats).

Long-term being a key factor in judging the value of GMO studies, Seifert’s other featured scientific study was one conducted by the Rodale Institute, which shows that side by side, over 30 years, organic farming outperforms industrial GMO farming.  A UN report, cited by the Rodale report, estimates that agroecological farming methods could double global food production in 10 years.  A recent large-scale study conducted by the UK Government studied 40 sustainable farming projects in 20 African countries (cited by the Rodale Report), revealed that that food production doubled over just 10 years.

GMO OMG! is important but all of the above messages are unfortunately depressing.  It asks, What do GMOs say about us?  -That we are a nation of mechanized eaters dependent on mechanized farmers – less than 1 % of our population – to feed us.  That we’re hooked on processed foods, 85% of which contain GMOs.

After viewing GMO OMG!,  I look at the American way of eating through the GMO.  What does the GMO say about us?  (1) That we are a nation of mechanized eaters who depend on mechanized farmers – less than 1 % of our population – to feed us.  (2) That we’re hooked on processed foods, 85% of which contain GMOs.

To feed the world, then, we don’t GMOs, processed foods, or the simultaneous obesity and hunger that they create.  Instead, we need more farmers.  They know the art of agriculture that we can’t afford to loose.

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Rogowski Farm in Warwick, NY, where NY’s first low-income CSA began. Photo by Aly Miller.

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Last week I put together a photoshoot to illustrate what you need in the kitchen. I was inspired by the photos I took as a test kitchen assistant. Every day, we lined baking sheets with parchment paper and arranged our ingredients: mise en place. With bright colors and whimsical shapes, my goal is to inspire the beginner-cook to be creative and have fun in the kitchen.

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Seasonality Chart for New York

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The past few months have been design-centered for me: less writing, more drawing, painting, vectoring, and photographing.  This is the rough draft of my latest project for work.  Our goal was to present a seasonality chart of local food in NY that contrasts with the typical shaded graphs we’ve all seen before.  This one is crisp, colorful, and more joyful – fitting for an illustration of produce.

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Going back to the Iowa Farmhouse Kitchen

My grandmother comes from generations of farmers, and when you’re on a farm, she said, you eat meat.  Growing up, her family’s kitchen was roast, chop and chicken central, with a dozen or more variations on potatoes.  On most nights, steak was served with pan-fried potatoes, and red leaf lettuce that my grandmother picked from the garden.  There was all the (raw) milk you could drink, and on Sundays, they made homemade frozen custard.

They grew corn, soybeans, wheat, and oats to sell, but there was more to it than that; there were seven bellies to fill.  And for that reason, there were cows for milking, pigs for butchering, chickens for eggs, and guinea fowl resting in the trees.

The land, registered as a Century Farm, remains in the family – though we are no longer the ones farming it.  Although no one farms, we are a bunch that gardens, cans, and cooks from scratch.  My fourteen- year-old cousin is probably the most dedicated; she keeps chickens in the backyard and plants her own vegetable garden. This is how we keep our ties with the Century Farm, but as a vegetarian, my veggie-burger-ways are at odds with the steak, roasts and pork chops.

I became a vegetarian in college, but the identity was really nothing new; everyone knew that I preferred the sides of pickled beets and okra to the roast and gravy.  Meanwhile, I was studying the American way of eating and farming, and I wanted to reconnect with my family’s rural roots while also showcasing my own ethics of eating.  My botany exam presented the perfect opportunity to do both.

This was an exam I was actually looking forward to: make a four course meal and host a small dinner party for the teaching assistants.  And perhaps because it was botany, and because the way I thought about the healthfulness and ethics of food was evolving, I wanted to make a vegan meal.

Or perhaps cooks always begin with what they know and then try to make it their own.  My Iowa farming forebears were meat and potato people.

Meat, monoculture, and identity were stitched together as tightly as the patchwork quilt that my great-grandmother left me.   It’s a quilt of farm and family history — my mother and her siblings recognize its patches as bits of shirts and dresses they wore as children — I wasn’t sure how to stitch my own, animal-free sensibility into the quilt. My grandfather gave me some ideas.

It turns out that he knows beans.  Everybody in post-depression Iowa knows vegetables, he told me.  Meat was too expensive for families like his who weren’t living on farms, so they grew their own vegetables.  Roasts and ribs were only served on Sunday or holidays, and leftovers were used to make bean soups, broths, and other, less expensive meals throughout the weak.  As the economy and his income improved, putting meat on the table everyday was a point of pride.  Listening to him softened my generational, college-learned distain for the meat-and-potato mentality. At the very least, it shed new light on the meat-and-potato mentality and allowed me to see that some food traditions are a result of remembered scarcity.

I started to wonder if my vegetarianism is, at least in part, a result of remembered abundance.  My grandfather had enough of fried eggplant. I’d had more than my share of meat growing up and wanted nothing more than to say: “pass the vegetables.”

The insight didn’t change my Digby Dinner menu.  Over the semester in my kitchen “lab” I pickled carrots, pureed beets, braised lentils in wine, grilled toast, and made potato salad and apple crisp over and over again.  Understanding the origins of meat-and-potatoes may have softened my outlook and may have set the tone for the evening, carrying guests back through history to a weekday meal in a hard-scrabble Iowa kitchen, where eggs, vegetables, beans, and grains fueled the work day and meat was only Sunday’s reward.

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A Day in the Life of the Summer Kitchen

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I woke up yesterday in an apartment that felt like a 100-degree oven.  At 9 AM it was sunny and humid outside, already climbing past 85 degrees; nothing out of the ordinary for late June in New York.  But today, it was warmer than usual.  Sure enough, the oven set to 475 degrees.  On the counter was a deflated ball of dough.  I scowled at the sight.  There has got to be a better way to feed ourselves this summer.

Despite the heat, I wanted breakfast tacos.  Since when have sensibilities outsmarted our appetites?  My stomach always wins.  So, I joined my bread-baking roommate in the heat.  Standing over the 475-degree oven, I achieved potato hash and scrambled eggs. By the time the potatoes were crispy, I looked like I had been running sprints all morning.

I was annoyed with myself; it was already hot in there and I made it hotter.  I resolved to cook off the heat for the rest of the week, commencing the summer kitchen challenge.

Running late but at least not on an empty stomach, I headed to midtown. That day, I worked at two CSA drop-off sites – one in Manhattan and the other in Brooklyn.  Many of our members were away on vacation and we had heaps of leftover radishes.  I must have looked like CSA St. Nick on my way home that night, riding the subway with one bag of radishes swung over my shoulder and the other cradled in my right arm, hands stained from the dirt-covered radishes.

At home, the kitchen had cooled off and I resolved to make something off the heat.  I chopped the leaves off of the radishes and hauled out the food processor to make radish-top pesto.  I boiled water for soba noodles, enduring just ten minutes of stovetop heat.  Minutes later, the summer-friendly dish was served.

After a week of radish pickling, pesto-ing, and crunching, and minimal stovetop cooking, I’ve learned a few tips for the surviving my summer kitchen: boil beans and noodles at night, keep lots of dips and pestos in the fridge, and refrigerator-pickle the CSA bounty before it starts to spoil.   I haven’t bought an air conditioner yet, but if our kitchen continues to moonlight as a bakery, I might have to.

Radish Top Pesto

Ingredients:
2 bunches of radishes, leaves cut off, washed, and torn apart from stems
1/4 cup basil leaves (loosely packed)
1 clove of garlic or 1 garlic scape
2 Tablespoons sunflower seeds (or nuts)
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
salt

Directions:

1. Sort through the radish leaves, pulling off any long stems or wilted leaves.  Toss into a food processor.

2. Add basil, garlic, sunflower seeds, olive oil, and salt.

3. Blend in the food processor until smooth and consistent throughout.  Serve with noodles, toast, or use as a dip for carrots.

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