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August 2, 2012

Homestyle Gringa Tamales!

On August 13th, River Road Community Organization, of which I am a part, is hosting a Tamale Fiesta (follow that link for details). The idea is to bring neighbors together and improve our culinary skills by learning and teaching how to make tamales.

I volunteered to help organize the event, and I thought it appropriate to try to make some tamales at home before lending my skills (or lack thereof) to others.

The internet abounds with recipes, so I’ll just share my photos from last night’s experience.

To set the scene: My domestic partner was working late, my kitchen was already 85 degrees, not even the cat would hang out with me, but I did have some beer in the fridge and a some speakers through which to pump Pandora’s Reggaeton mix.

In my possession: A bag of masa harina (the corn flour which constitutes the tamale dough), a tub of lard (the other main ingredient in tamale dough), various cheeses, various garden veggies, and some dried California chilis (chilis pasilla) which my recipe strictly instructed only to handle with gloves.

Not in my possession: gloves.

One hour later:

Prepped tamale ingredients, from left to right: cottage cheese; chopped summer squash, tomato, cilantro, onion and garlic; prunes; masa harina dough; chili sauce; grated cheese; corn husks for wrapping.

Don’t worry, dismantling the chilis and cooking them into sauce didn’t cause my fingers to bleed or anything like that. The sauce actually wasn’t spicy at all. The recipe said just to boil them in hot water awhile and puree. I “gringa-ed” up this boring sauce with some spike, cumin, Tapatio sauce and cilantro. Much better!

Most tamales are made with meat. I’m not a vegetarian but I am a poor-atarian, so I used some veggies I picked up at the farm the day before.

To fill a tamale, all you do is put some masa harina dough down on the corn husk like you’re making a sushi roll. Then you put your other fillings on top, but not too much or you’ll never get the thing shut.

All wrapped up in their little husks. Aren’t they cute?

In my pressure cooker with a rack underneath them, they steamed for an hour. They expanded a little while cooking, but held together pretty well anyway.

Just before they went in my stomach: Tamales with chili/sour cream sauce, home made refried beans and Spanish rice.

The veggies cooked perfectly inside the tamales (the slice of squash in this pic is an escapee). The two cheeses were great together, all cooked into the masa harina dough.

Sweating from steam and improvised Salsa dancing, I sat down to a delicious and satisfying meal. This camera phone picture even speeded the arrival of my dinner partner (and a couple of co-workers). Just in time to wash the enormous pile of dishes.

The end.


August 23, 2009

>Farm Tour, part 2

>Aaaaand we’re back. Moving on from the strawberry patch, we venture out into the cow pasture. Watch out for, er, manure patches.

This is most of the herd, converted from the dairy fleet that the Collins kept for thirty years. Now they’re raised for meat, which we sell along with the produce on the local market.

These are the calves that were born this summer. The black one in the middle has grown quite a bit since the first part of the tour! (That’s virtual reality for you – the time dimension doesn’t always line up.)

This is the hay field, which was just cut before the photo was taken. A neighboring farmer baled it for us and we picked it all up and put it in the barn. With the help of the Collins’ sons I learned how to drive a tractor and how not to stack hay bales, and earned myself three red blisters for the effort. Turns out lifting 100 pounds of hay by thin pieces of baling twine a few dozen times is tough on an ex-city-person’s fingers.

This is the hay field that was cut earlier in the summer, now hosting a flock of real Canadians (geese!). Behind them are three huge cottonwood trees, probably some of the biggest on the island according to some forestry people who paid a visit recently.

We just hiked all the way back across the fields and returned to the garden. These sunflowers are grown for the market, where they’re sold along with the cosmos and dahlias here. Although Andrea and I first considered flowers an almost criminally useless thing to grow, we have conceded that they really are quite pretty (and, as Ann points out, people buy them).

Tour guests Jordan and Madison, aged 7 and 4, stop for a photo with some tomatoes they found in the greenhouse before heading up to see the pigs living in the pen beside the barn.

Henrietta and Hernia, the two pigs who swam the river. They’re a lot bigger now but excitable as ever. Hernia earned his name by herniating part of his intestine through his belly button. They usually running a lap or two around their pen whenever people come to see them, and they go crazy rolling in the mud pit in the middle of their pen.

The pigs love berries, potatoes, and being scratched on the back. Turn on the hose on a hot day and they’ll go hog wild, so to speak, frolicking like pups and grunting the whole time. (The pigs are probably my favorite, so please avoid discussion of bacon at this point in the tour.)

Hernia: “Pigs are smarter than dogs.”
Carmen: “Well, at least I don’t lie in mud all day and get fat.”
Hernia: “I hear your mother has fleas. Oink.”

And that concludes our farm tour. This view is from the far pasture (where we saw the geese). The property ends here at the river. You can just make out the house, the barn and the greenhouse beyond all that grass – about 40 acres of it. I still can’t believe I live here.
The farm is doing well and people are coming out to the market in far greater numbers than last year. For the time being, then, it seems this piece of paradise will stay paradisaical and continue producing food for the valley. Hope you enjoyed the tour.

July 6, 2009

>The Amazing Shape-Shifting Blog! Plus, the next chapter.

>Blogs are funny things. I haven’t actually kept up with many since the whole craze started, but my limited observation of them tells me that, unlike with books or even magazines, it’s okay to change tone, intent, format and content entirely from post to post. Some are updated hourly; some – like mine – tend toward neglect. Still, it’s a project I enjoy, even if my purposes are not entirely clear.
With that in mind, I’m going to ask this blog to take yet another leap, and I hope this old faithful multimedia horse can keep up. What started as a class project two years ago turned into a venue for my rants, then a travelogue when I went to India. I believe the next stage in its evolution (or perhaps devolution) will be some sort of combination of its previous functions. I’ve changed locations again, and I’m feeling rant-y. I also have quite a few stories to relay. There are many pictures and recipes to post, and I’ve started trying to write more creative stuff which I may be brave enough to share. Now that I’m no longer required to think like a journalist (just the facts, please!) I’m trying to approach writing in a new way. Adding a dose of fun, hopefully, with less concern over word counts and marketability.
All of this re-evaluation tells me that this blog may start to have an even more confused identity than it already has. It’s taking a form of its own, one that I haven’t really pinned down.

I suppose this was to be expected with the recent changes that have come about in my own life. I’m no longer a college student. I participated in two graduation ceremonies (running, with tassels flapping in one hand an high heels clutched in the other, from one ceremony to the other, thanks to some bad scheduling on the UO’s part). I’m now qualified to serve up a double dose of BS (that’s Bachelor of Science, thank you): Environmental Studies and Journalism. I packed up my four years of accumulated junk and put the into my newly acquired automobile. I said goodbye to beloved friends, apartment, and bicycle. And I let out a big WHOOOHOOO!! as I crossed the border into British Columbia.

At the same time, I had no idea what to expect once I got here. I knew very little about my next stage in life as I zoomed up the I5, only that I was ready to get out of the city and try something new. A few months earlier, realizing that I wasn’t ready to launch a “career” straight away, and also that I had absolutely no reason to (no heavy debt, no dependents, no desire to own a yacht in ten years), I decided to look into other options. I thought about what I like to do (other than write, which I can do anywhere): eat, cook, garden, educate people about where food comes from. It didn’t take me long to start looking for farms.
WWOOF (Willing Workers on Organic Farms) is one organization that has gained attention along with the whole organics movement. SOIL (Stewards of Irreplaceable Land) Apprenticeships operates under a similar structure, but lists farms only in Canada. After spending a couple of weeks on both websites, I had my choices narrowed down to a few farms in the Pacific Northwest. I sent out emails and applications. I kept my fingers crossed.

When Ann Collins called me from Vancouver Island, BC, what she described sounded perfect. She told me that she and her husband had been farming for 30 years on a fertile piece of land by a river in the Alberni Valley. They grew vegetables and kept goats, chickens and horses. Securing the local food supply was their priority. As an apprentice, I would get to help out with all aspects of their farming operation, plus cook to my heart’s content and spend my free time on the river or in the abundant forests surrounding the farm. Worried that I was drooling into the telephone, I told Ann I’d think about it. I then spent the next week or so trying to come up with a reason I shouldn’t just go for it. I failed. I sent them an email and said to expect me post-graduation.

So here I am, typing in my bedroom at the farm house, my laptop resting on a handmade quilt. There’s dirt permanently under my fingernails and I’m completely blowing my new early bedtime in order to finally update my poor blog.
Pictures and more tidbits from the farming life to arrive shortly. In the meantime, check out the farm website. (Who would have thought those two words would ever go together? Ah, the digital age.) The short update is this: So far, I’m having the time of my life.

April 2, 2009

>Food in Washington: Two important new developments

>John Adams did it. Eleanor Roosevelt did it. The Clintons even had a few pots of it on the White House roof. Now, though, the Obamas are promoting the plants in a bigger way than ever before: a 1100 square foot vegetable garden just outside their back door.

A class of third-graders helped Michelle Obama break ground for the new garden on March 20th, creating an oasis of potential food in the otherwise immaculate house lawn (I commend her budget-minded use of free child labor). The entire Obama family plans on pitching in to keep the organic garden going through the growing season.
Why vegetables and why now? The plan didn’t come from thin air – food policy activists have lobbied the president for months to set this example for Americans, although Ms. Obama has cites her motivations as desire to increase the freshness of the produce her family consumes. Of course, there’ s more to it than that. Home gardens like this one are a simple, direct way to localize the food system and have the added benefit of educating the neighbors about diet and maybe even food politics. Although the idea is gaining momentum among the general public, it still has elite and/or west-coast-hippie-weirdo connotations, fears that will likely be alleviated by the sight of the Obamas getting their hands dirty and eating arugula.
The plan is not without historical precedent. Sixty years ago, Victory Gardens – as popularized by Eleanor Roosevelt – were incredibly successful in alleviating hunger and freeing up cash to fight a war. Today, hunger is still a concern, the underlying cause being that suddenly none of us have any more cash. The article about the presidential garden in the New York Times noted that the total cost of seeds, mulch and other supplies was $200 – a start-up cost that will be greatly reduced in future years.

This development demonstrates that the Obamas and others in Washington clearly have food system sustainability on their minds, even if they may not point directly to it for political reasons. That’s why I was surprised to get an email this week that cried out alarmingly from my inbox with the subject heading “Government may forbid organic farming!”
Well, it grabs your attention way more than “A House bill that is still in committee proposes reorganizing the FDA and placing greater surveillance on food production and processing,” but that’s really what the email was about. The scare was focused on H.R. 875, which is similar to another proposed bill, H.R. 759. The bills were written in response to the peanut scare and other recent food safety problems. H.R. 875, the “Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009” seems to be overkill, creating a Food Safety Administration under the Department of Health and allowing the FDA to mandate recalls (currently they can only “recommend” them, which they recently did for the salmonella-tainted peanuts). However, it says nothing specific about organics and in no way bans private vegetable gardens or seed saving, as the Ron Paul diehards who probably inspired the email I received are proclaiming.
Still, any legislation that requires small, organic farmers to undergo more inspections and fill out more paperwork will certainly hurt those businesses. Here’s what Oregon Representative Peter Defazio has to say on the matter:
“I am certainly mindful of the impact on small farmers this bill could have. My district is home to many wonderful specialty crops with small-scale producers, and I have been a backyard gardener for years. Routine inspections of farms would still remain under the jurisdiction of states. FDA officials will not be showing up on farms to inspect it on a regular basis. There is no language in the bill that would penalize or shut down backyard farmers.” (From a form email response to one I sent him.)

That pretty much resolved my qualms, though I still question why there is no legislation, at least none that I’ve heard of, that actually addresses the underlying problem of our industrialized food system that led to the peanut problem and countless other food safety issues over the years. One need only recall the name “Peanut Corporation of America” to be reminded of the enormous scale and complexity of the processing pathways that typically lead from the peanut field to a package of Nut Butters at the corner store. It wasn’t the “Peanut Company of Alabama” or the “Nut Processing Cooperative of Skippy County” that was running the rat-infested, leaky factory. We should know by now that having a huge, centralized processing facility run by a single entity makes it impossible to track and monitor food processing – be it for tomatoes, beef, spinach or Mr. Peanut. The system is simply too vast humans to control it. And the Ron Paulians, of all people, should recognize that.

Despite the false starts, there are good signs here that food policy is moving in the right direction in this country at last. If the Obamas have a vegetable garden and people are at least recognizing that the FDA is dysfunctional, it’s a good start. Get out there and play in the dirt, lawmakers, and let’s see what else we can uproot and change.

October 16, 2008

>A concise history of agriculture (5000 BCE – present)

>[Based on trips to farms across the region and discussions with experts on food politics of various degrees of irrationality, I’ve formulated the following easy-to-use historical guide. Accuracy not guaranteed.]

Pre-agriculture (the hunter-gatherers): Hey, those grains growing in the field are pretty good. Let’s pick up a whole bunch of them and then we’ll have more food. (Unknown number of grain varieties available.)

Cultivation (the farmers): Hey, let’s plant a bunch of one grain on the field, flood it with water to drown the plants we don’t want, and spread animal dung over the whole thing. Then we’ll have more food! (upwards of 50,000 rice varieties developed.)

The Green Revolution (the Western scientists): Hey, you farmers plant this hybrid rice and use our chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. Then you’ll have more food to give us! (6 varieties bred and sold.)

The Second Greed Revolution (the geneticists): Hey, since you now have a larger population than you can feed using hybrid rice, plant this genetically modified rice instead! Just don’t keep the seeds because we have an intellectual property right. Then you’ll have more food and we’ll get more of the cash crops you’re growing instead!

The Organic Movement (the Western backlash): Screw that. I know what, let’s plant a bunch of one grain on the field, flood it with water to drown the plants we don’t want, and spread animal dung over the whole thing. Then we can sell it at a high price to all the ex-farmers living in the city! (20,000 rice varieties remain to work with.)

Post-agriculture (the no-till enthusiasts): We shouldn’t have even been eating and cultivating grains in the first place. Let’s gather only what grows in the wild. Who needs more food?