Archive for the 'Sustainable Food' Category

Varnish Top Mushroom

Friday, December 3rd, 2010

As explained to me by Cavan Patterson of Wild Purveyors, the varnish top (aka Lingzhi, aka Reishi) mushroom grows in shingles on hemlocks and other softwood trees.  The source of its American name is pretty easy to determine: the top of the fungus is shiny, like varnished mahogany.

Cavan recommends drying it, grating it, and adding a tablespoon or two to tea or soup as a remedy for gastrointestinal concerns.

I asked Cavan how he learned enough about mushrooms to be confident foraging for them.  “The mushrooms taught me!” he joked.

In actuality, he’s done ten years of research and has hands on experience and assistance from his brother and partner in Wild Purveyors, Tom Cavan, who holds degrees in plant pathology and mycology from Penn State University.

Apple Varieties

Friday, November 12th, 2010

So, tell me…are these different types of apples sprung from different tree species or is there something else causing the variation?


The different varieties of apple are no more different species than you or I are.  They’re just different individuals within the species.

Apples reproduce through bee-assisted cross-pollination: pollen from two trees is required to fertilize the stamen.  Therefore, each seed produced is a cross between the traits of two different trees, and each seed has the potential to grow a unique individual.  Plant the seed, wait for it to grow; three years later, you could find yourself as the sole progenitor of an exciting new apple variety.

Or, more likely, you’ll find that you’ve got a crab apple tree.  There’s no way to tell what you’ll get until the fruits appear.

If you do happen to hit the lottery and grow a varietal worth reproduction, it’ll take some old-school cloning to make it happen.  Grafting is the process by which, in the spring, when growth is happening at an exponential rate, a branch from one fruit tree is cored from its trunk and transferred to a correspondingly shaped hole in the trunk/ rootstock of a tree from the same species.  When the grafted branch takes successfully to its new home, it will continue to grow apples of its own variety.  Thus, it is entirely possible (and used to be common) to have a single apple tree yield 2 or more varieties of apple, depending on how many types have been grafted onto its trunk.

For more great information on the biology of apple reproduction, and the history of apples grown from seed (including information about how John Chapman [aka Johnny Appleseed], who got his seeds from the cider mills of Pittsburgh, was in the business of providing settlers with the means to make booze for the long frontier winter), check out Michael Pollan’s pop-ag classic The Botany of Desire.

Quinoa Update/ Variation

Wednesday, September 29th, 2010

I went to make my quinoa pilaf the other day and realized that my spearmint has all but faded for the year (perhaps helped to its dormancy by my enthusiastic pruning and use of its leaves throughout the summer).  My apple mint, though, still grew abundantly (perhaps helped along by my steadfastly ignoring its offerings throughout the summer, in favor of its mintier cousin).

Apple mint, for those who have never tried it, is a sweeter, less-minty varietal.  I made ice cream with it, once, was disappointed by its lack of sharpness, and have ignored it ever since–until now.  Spurred into action by the challenge of making it work, I contemplated: how can I take advantage of the apple mint’s sweetness and turn its erstwhile weakness into an advantage?

I found my inspiration in the varietal’s very name, apple mint.  I substituted walnuts for the pine nuts I had been using, added apples into the vegetable mix, and supplemented the golden raisins with dried cranberries; in addition to using apple mint for the final garnish.  The result was more pleasing to the eye (as a result of the spark of color provided by the dried cranberries), and was also quite possibly even tastier than the original.

Quinoa Pilaf featuring Apple Mint

  • 1 cup quinoa
  • 1/2 cup walnut pieces
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 2-4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 carrot, cut to fine brunoise
  • 1 apple, cut to fine brunoise (I used a wealthy apple)
  • 1/4 cup mixed golden raisins and dried cranberries
  • 1 1/2 cups vegetable stock (the apples provide enough moisture that a full 2 cups of stock is a bit more than necessary)
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 12-18 leaves fresh mint (apple mint does a great job, though other mints would work just fine, too)
  • cooking oil
  • salt and pepper

Rinse quinoa in three or four changes of water to guarantee that all of the bitter seed covering has been washed away (most commercially available quinoas have been pre-rinsed, but it’s worth it to make certain that the entire coating is gone).  Drain in a fine mesh sieve for 3-5 minutes before using.

Toast walnuts in hot, dry skillet, tossing constantly to make certain that they do not burn.  As nuts start to display a golden brown color and release a rich aroma, pour off to the side and reserve as a garnish.

Add thin layer of oil to bottom of pan and saute onion, garlic, and carrot with salt and pepper to taste.  As vegetables soften and begin to display a hint of golden brown, add the diced apples, and follow them up in short succession with rinsed and drained quinoa, dried fruit, stock, and cinnamon stick.  Cover, reduce heat, and let simmer 15 minutes.

Roll mint leaves the long way and slice into thin ribbons (chiffonade).  Stir mint and walnuts into finished quinoa.  Taste, adjust seasonings, and serve.

Sustainable Energy Source?

Thursday, August 19th, 2010

From News of the Weird:

Northern Ireland farmer William Taylor introduced his prototype Livestock Power Mill recently and claimed that the world’s 1.3 billion cattle, using treadmills for eight hours a day, could produce 6 percent of the world’s electricity requirement. (The cow must keep walking to avoid sliding down an incline.) [Popular Science, 4-16-10]“

Which got me wondering, what would such a contraption look like?  I imagined a huge treadmill that would require multiple cattle to walk in unison—especially after having seen the crowded conditions in which feedlot cattle are housed.  But, the prototype (at least) is a one-cow model—and is an interesting idea for a renewable power source.

As (which has photos of the machine) indicates, cattle walk while grazing, and one cow on a  treadmill can power four milking machines.

I gotta admit, it’s an interesting idea.  I still prefer the idea of cattle grazing, but if we’re going to pen them up, we’d might as well give them the chance to exercise, and being able to reap electrical energy from their efforts is an intriguing concept.

Next: using stationary cycles to illuminate gym facilities.

But on a More Serious Note…

Friday, July 16th, 2010

If kids at school get carrots in their lunch, there’s a pretty good chance that they’ve come from a can because the canned vegetables cost less, keep longer, and take less effort to prepare. Problem is, they’ve got lower quality (i.e. worse taste, which means kids will be less likely to actually eat them) and may come with excess salt for anyone who does eat them.

Federal reimbursement levels are set to $2.68 per student—including labor costs.  If you’re wondering how anyone can possibly make a decent meal for that level of funding, the answer is that it’s pretty much impossible.

Congress is in the midst of updating the legislation that funds the school lunch program, and Slow Food USA is doing their part to make sure that our legislators understand the dismal state that the school lunch program is currently in.  Please consider taking part in their email campaign and sending your representatives a note to let them know you want our kids to be served good food.

We’re not talking gourmet meals, by any means—Jamie Oliver will not be the “lunch lady” at your local school.  But by providing increased funding to reduce the amount of processed [garbage] that is served in school cafeterias and sold in school vending machines, our nation could simultaneously offer students better nutrition, have a legitimate shot at reducing incident rates of childhood obesity, diabetes, and other dietary health conditions, and provide better education to students about where food comes from and what constitutes a balanced meal.

Please send your congressional representatives an email today.

Farmers’ Market Purchases

Thursday, July 15th, 2010

I made it to Farmers at Phipps last night right before it closed, and was able to stroll through the Market Square Farmers’ Market this morning.  Such beautiful selections available at both!  Combined from the two markets, I bought corn, tomatoes, peaches, plums, blueberries, red currants, and apricots to supplement the vegetables I get from my CSA.  This is such an exciting time of year!

Click here to find farms and farmers’ markets in Pennsylvania!

Click here to find farms and farmers’ markets nationwide!

All-Purpose Guide to Vegetables

Wednesday, July 14th, 2010

Normally when I check a book out of the library, my basic plan is to read it and return it.  Very rarely do I develop such an attachment to the information contained therein that I decide I need a copy for myself.  But, Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse Vegetables has found a spot in my heart–and will soon be a permanent fixture on my cookbookshelf.  This is an alphabetized, all-purpose guide to not only cooking but growing and harvesting vegetables.

I don’t agree with every word written by Ms. Waters in this book, to be certain.  She relies very often on blanching and boiling as her preferred techniques for vegetable cookery, whereas I tend toward roasting–especially with green and white vegetables.  But the breadth of information that she conveys is astounding, and the advice on gardening mixed in with the cooking advice is refreshing and helpful.


Firehouse Demo Recipes

Monday, July 5th, 2010

I had a fantastic time cooking fresh foods at the Slow Food Pittsburgh table on Saturday morning.  How could I not?  Slow Food unleashed me to shop for whatever ingredients I could use, then I got to cook up whatever I felt like making from the freshest food available!  I just hope we collected enough donations to make the day worthwhile for Slow Food—because if so, I hope that will increase the chances of my being invited back soon for another Saturday of fresh food demonstrations.

Several of the shoppers/ samplers asked me if I had recipes for what I was cooking.  The simple answer was no, I didn’t—because I had no idea what I was going to make until the ingredients presented themselves to me.  For instance, the first dish of the day was a total shocker: Mott Family Farm had yellow transparent apples available, and the early, sour apples make an excellent applesauce—so that’s exactly what I made with them.

Instructions follow for each of the dishes I made: applesauce, Grandma Tolley’s salad (with my own twists), sauteed sugar snap peas with kale, pan seared summer squash with parmesan, freshly made croutons and vinaigrette (to spice up any salad), and maple sugar salmon.  Whew!  That was a full morning of cooking.


Farmers @ Firehouse 7/3/2010

Thursday, July 1st, 2010

Shopping in the Strip District this Saturday?  Be sure to swing by Farmers @ The Firehouse, the farmers’ market on Penn Avenue at 23rd.  It’s where you can connect with farmers for fresh, seasonal items straight from their fields.  I’ll be manning the demonstration table for Slow Food Pittsburgh this weekend, whipping up some improvisational items based on what the farmers have on hand.  Be sure to stop by and say hi.  If you have any cooking questions let me know–I’ll be glad to answer whatever I can for you!

Beef Cut Correction: Skirt and Flank

Tuesday, June 15th, 2010

It’s been a couple of months since I held my 4th annual beef draft.  The event has grown quite a bit since the first time I wrote about it, having graduated all the way from 1/4 of a steer (in 2007) to a steer and a half in 2010!  Moreover, the steers have gotten larger, too—perhaps as a result of having been sourced from a different farm; 25% of the 2007 steer amounted to about 80 pounds of beef; 150% of the 2010 steer came to  about 525.  That’s a lot of beef: