Last fall I saved tomato seed. This was not about my carbon footprint. It was just something to try, another life experience. And why not Sun Gold tomatoes, those portable flavor bombs that produce for weeks — months — in the garden? So there I was in my kitchen, fermenting, decanting, drying the fuzzy little things. Come spring, the seeds sprouted into beefy seedlings. Anybody can do this, I thought.

I was so proud I gave plants to friends, neighbors, a colleague at work. A fellow pea patcher planted two in the kids’ garden. Everybody exclaimed over them. “They’re so healthy!” they said. The plant I kept has outpaced them all, a novel situation for someone who’s usually a day late and a dollar short. It’s because the seed is so local, so acclimatized, I decided. Mid-July, despite of months of cool and rain, and the plant’s limbs are frothing over the top of their wire cage.

Yesterday I caught a glimpse of the first green fruits. On second look, they didn’t seem quite right. Not like Sun Golds of yore, at least. And well. Here’s why: Sun Golds are hybrid tomatoes. Which means the tomatoes themselves don’t produce true seed. Second generation F1 hybrids, which these are, tend towards a random smattering of yellow, red, and orange cherries — of uncertain taste and character, I hardly need mention.

So this life experience now involves calling seedling recipients to say, “Just letting you know about your mutt tomatoes!” And the kicker is I actually bought fresh Sun Gold seed this year. Just in case things didn’t work out with my little experiment. Never even opened the package.

Not much to brag about at the pea patch right now. Snow peas are done, fava beans distant history. We got our ten strawberries for the year. And owing to a cool, rainy June it’s still weeks before summer’s first beans, squash, and tomatoes.

Yet these rogue flowers from another gardener’s seed spill — calendulas possibly? — are producing like a dream. We don’t eat them, of course, but a jar of blossoms on the table sure makes everything else taste better.

The homegrown berry harvest has been stuck for years at about a dozen strawberries. Per year. In prior times this meant a few intense summery bites in a composed salad or a creamy dessert. Prospects were low for an increase in harvest size; our plants grew in pots, their runners stymied by by concrete and wood and trampled by dogs.

These days a free-range Biscuit pounces on anything showing a blush of crimson, meaning that the berries rarely make it back to the kitchen.

I’m coming to terms with the reality that we grow berries now mostly to make a point. Feeding a family has come to mean purchasing fruit in quantity, wherever it’s sold — at the grocery store, produce markets, from farmshares and from Costco, where berries are sold in giant plastic clamshells that carve up your hands if you’re careless.

It’s quite the opposite of what we first practiced when embarking upon this local food adventure, and not exactly the model I envisioned setting for our daughter. Fact is, though, we’re not doing very many composed salads right now. We’re reconsidering our household approach to dessert. And more to the point we’ve decided that good eating means you may eat as many fruits, vegetables, and nuts as you’d like, at meal and designated snack times. And that means having ample fresh supply on hand without killing the family shopper. It’s a method that works for all right now, including a toddler who manages to eat widely, and well.

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Here in the cool Northwest we’re still snapping snow peas from vines and pulling up the last overwintered fava beans. The Biscuit couldn’t be happier. She overgrazed the peas until a rationing program was put in place. She devours the favas warm and just skinned, can’t wait for a drizzle of olive oil or crunchy salt. She sits on the back porch and tears open the big spongy pods, samples the beans raw, says, “I want to eat them now — now — now!” Patience, grasshopper.

Because getting to those delicate, ethereally green favas is a process. There’s the shelling, the brief swim in boiling water, the fingers fumbling with pale, tough, hot skins. It’s meditative, yes. But you also feel it in your legs, planted for long minutes beside the kitchen table. Along the way, a generous pile of pods turns much smaller pile of beans. You worry there won’t be enough to feed your people. But it gets done and then dinner practically cooks itself: pasta tossed with ricotta, parm, a handful of beans.

This iteration incorporates wilted arugula, because ours was bolting. You can use spinach instead, or skip greens altogether. We found that cooked arugula delivers the mild, pleasing taste of spinach without the oxalic acid. Spring through and through, no matter that it’s June.

Recipe: Fusilli with Fava Beans, Ricotta, and Wilted Arugula

1 lb fava bean pods, for approximately ½ c shelled and skinned fresh fava beans / ½ lb fusilli / olive oil / 1 clove garlic, minced / ½ lb overgrown arugula or spinach / 2 tbls toasted walnuts, chopped / ¼ cup ricotta cheese / Parmesan cheese to taste / salt & pepper

Remove fava beans from their pods, drop the beans in boiling salted water, then slip off skins while still hot. Toss the beans with olive oil and salt to taste. Rinse the arugula or spinach. Leave some water clinging to the leaves and chop leaves coarsely.

Cook the pasta until al dente, then drain. Meantime warm 1 tablespoon olive oil in a saute pan. Add minced garlic and saute for 30 seconds over medium heat, until just fragrant. Add arugula or spinach and saute until wilted, about 3 minutes. Stir in walnuts, ricotta, Parmesan, and favas. Toss with pasta. Salt and pepper to taste. Feeds 2-plus.

The most homegrown thing on the table this Thanksgiving was pie, and though it was lovely, I’m not sure I want to have that life experience again.

The main trouble was that the pumpkins were just awful in the garden this summer. Maybe it’s that we’re city folk at the 48th parallel, with postage-stamp backyards and 24/7 shade. But they hogged all the warmth and sunlight, blocked access to the back steps and killed about half the grass, leaving behind a cold season mud pit. Much coddling was required to produce just three little sugar pumpkins, and even then powdery mildew brought down the vines in late September, the fruits dark green and speckled, not a blush of orange in evidence.

A blasting indoor radiator turned the eldest of them orange by Halloween. The Biscuit notched this as a major victory. The two remaining ones continued their ripening at a glacial pace. We finally roasted them yesterday morning, and I wish I could tell you it was an epiphany. For sure, we had fun running our fingers through pumpkin guts. We counted seeds until we got to twenty and lost interest. But truth be told, roasting and pureeing pumpkins was just one more thing to do on a long Thanksgiving prep list. It’s hard to want to go through all that again.

(Just in case, though, here’s what I learned: the more orange they get, the sweeter they taste. We followed Lane Morgan’s infallible instructions for pumpkin pie in the Winter Harvest Cookbook. )

Rempel Family Farm

In the USDA’s first-ever market report about the local foods economy in the U.S., the story that emerges is of two distinct farming cultures. Small farms, defined as those generating $50 grand or less in gross yearly sales, account for the vast majority of farms selling local fruits and vegetables, mostly to the actual consumer. Yet — no surprise here — a few much larger farms took in half of all dollars spent on local food, to the tune of $2.7 billion, through more traditional distribution channels.

Especially striking was how much time small-farm farmers devote to selling, as compared to the bigger guys. And yet these small-farm folks bring in an average of just $7800 per farm per year — and they don’t tend to work off farm, to boot. What that means is they take home less dough than just about anybody else in America including the unemployed.

This is worrying if you like eating locally. You wonder how many farmers will eventually decide they require more than sub-poverty level wages, no matter how obsessed and passionate they are about growing good things to feed people.

It’s also cause for soul-searching as a consumer. I know it’s heresy to suggest as much, but are farmers markets really the best way to ensure a strong future for local foods if they generate little income for farmers? Can retail markets evolve so that local foods are increasingly available, while paying small farmers a living wage? Will consumers continue to buy local produce if there isn’t a face and story to accompany it? Do the smallest craft farms deserve special support, or is the bigger-is-better model simply more sustainable?

What do you think?

The story starts with a fistful of cavolo nero leaves. Time was tight. There was no game plan to speak of, and cheesy ziti bubbled and browned in the oven. But who was ready to embrace winter — by which I mean stewed kale on the side? Not here. The snappy decision was raw kale salad. We’d declined to try it a few years back, when it was all the rage.

And well! I’m late to this party, but let me tell you this stuff is actually delicious. I love the salad’s slight crunch and green freshness; the lemon juice softens the kale ribbons just enough to blunt its raw edge. Should you require further proof of concept, consider that my husband, a skeptic through and through, packed the remnants for lunch today.

Recipe: Tuscan Kale Salad

1 bunch Tuscan kale, aka black kale, dinosaur kale, cavolo nero (see photo above) / 2 tbls lemon juice / 3 tbls olive oil / 1 small clove garlic, minced finely / 3 tbls Parmesan cheese / scant ¼ tsp salt / crushed red pepper to taste / ¼ cup breadcrumbs, toasted

Strip stems from kale and slice into ½-inch ribbons. Mix together lemon juice, oil, garlic, cheese, salt, and red pepper, then toss thoroughly with kale until all strands are dressed. Toss again with breadcrumbs and let sit for 5 minutes before serving. Feeds 4 as a side. Adapted from Melissa Clark.

Fifteen days left for these guys to put on some serious orange. My money is on indoor heating to beat nature this time of season. Any pumpkin-ripening tips — especially chants, spells, or strange brews — would be welcome.


One of the great things about living in a small farming town is that I really do get to know the people who produce food locally.

Vangie Alexander runs Tranquility Heights Farm, a small-scale poultry and dairy just outside Palmer. She sells eggs in area specialty stores, provides raw milk to those with shares in her condo cow, and works in a local doctor’s office (the same office where we take our kids in fact). And after talking to her about her operation I knew to search out Red Star hens for our backyard coop — they are impressive layers.

(I shot this video as part of a project for the Alaska Farmland Trust, with funding support from the State of Alaska Division of Agriculture).

Garden Carnage

A pair of rampaging moose put an exclamation point on the end of our 2011 growing season this morning.

Moose absolutely love brassicas, and these two made a meal out of our remaining cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and pea plants. The loss of the sprouts is the hardest to take — they’re very frost tolerant and most of the plants were still in the ground — though we were able to salvage parts of three plants.

Our gardening friends in Anchorage suggested we surround the garden with cheap pinwheels to avoid moosepocolypse. Next year.

Eat Local Northwest

A food blog documenting the adventures of two friends trying to cook and eat sustainably in Seattle and in Anchorage.
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