Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Getting Fed

I spent the week straddling the fourth of July visiting my friend Sarah Heller in Lexington, Kentucky. This is the third time I've visited Lexington, and it likely won't be my last.

Heller is a great host in so many ways. Her home is a ship sailing above a garage, all dark, softly lustrous wood and art hanging in every available spot. When a wet, heavy storm passes through, rain slams the roof and the back walnut above drops nuts in time with the thunder. She's funny and kind and nowadays has a funny and kind boyfriend. When I'm there, the laughter and bourbon flows, long slow walks ensue, and there's plenty of exploration at whatever pace we feel up up to for the day. We get along really well.

Additionally, she's the type of person who I most admire and the type I seek out. My closest friends fit this category: insatiably motivated folk who keep trying through challenge and even failure. She's had some real challenges, my friend Sarah, and on this trip I got to hear her speak about some of them at the Kentucky Governer's School for the Arts, a summer program at Centre College for very talented, creative high schoolers. She spoke of her failures, of her transformations, of the ways she's found new ways. The kids were rapt. "Fail, fail, don't be afraid to fail," she told them, for in stretching for what seemed impossible, they'd find their successes.

A Lincoln monument on the Centre College campus.
I've cooked for Heller, she's cooked for me, and we've cooked together. This is important. We've fed each other. How many friends can you say that about? In how many instances is the feeding mutual? One night, she made me and Nick, her boyfriend, ratatouille, and a following night, Nick and I used leftover ratatouille as a sauce for a homemade pizza, jazzed up with diced prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, and chile peppers. Another night, we all riffed together on a ridiculously awesome salade ni├žoise accompanied Heller's mothers' broccoli salad, rich with more of that prosciutto subbing in for bacon, a sweet and sour vinaigrette, and Miracle Whip (if you're in the South, you better make sure you call Miracle Whip dressing, not mayonnaise). I made a peach-marzipan tart.

No rolling pin. No problem.
I'm talking about food, but I mean more than food. I came home with a painting by Heller, one that could only come from her brain. And on the multiple flight legs back to California, I read a book: Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel. The premise of this book makes it sound dark and dismal, but it turned out to be one of the most uplifiting books I've read in a long time. Most of the book takes place after a pandemic that kills most of the world's population, yet a small band of artists persists, the Traveling Symphony, who borrow Star Trek's statement as their motto: "Survival is insufficient."

We must feed and be fed.

My new acquisition from Sarah Heller hanging in my home office.

Linda Dove's Ratatouille
Another friend, the poet Linda Dove, makes the best ratatouille I've ever had. While very different from Sarah Heller, Linda is in her own way an assemblage artist. She constructs her ratatouille like a mosaic, a collection of disparate parts that merge into something so lushly rich it's hard to believe there isn't an animal fat anywhere to be seen. Her poems are like that too, words put together in surprising ways, twisting meaning mid-line, turning into something new. You think you know what you're reading, then all of a sudden, you're reading something new. I hope this ratatouille works the same way on your tongue. Here's how she's told me how to make it—it's a loose recipe, just a list of ingredients that work really, really well together. I've made it following her directions many times now, and I'm never disappointed.

You will need:
Zucchini, thick slices
Eggplant, thick slices
Onion, thick slices
Tomatoes, thick slices
Sweet red peppers, thick slices
Whole cloves of garlic
Fresh basil leaves
Strips of lemon peel (yellow part only) removed from the lemon with a sharp knife or vegetable peeler
Good olive oil
Juice of that lemon or two you massacred above
Salt and pepper

To make the ratatouille:
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Oil a dutch oven and layer the ingredients in the order listed above. "Repeat, repeat, repeat," says Linda. Cook, uncovered, for an hour. Linda serves the ratatouille with hummus (she says, "I like the creamy with the melted veggies, and the overlap of lemon and garlic"), and I like it piled next to really good bread.

Sunday, July 19, 2015


This past week, my friend James drove up from Southern California for our long-discussed ocean fishing trip. I had booked two spots on a charter fishing boat out of Half Moon Bay for Tuesday. We were excited. Two days before the trip, James had brunched with his cousin in Monterey, overlooking a glass-like ocean. The weather had been so wonderful.

You know where this is going.

To quote George Costanza, "The sea was angry that day, my friends."

We carried food (far too optimistically, it turned out) with us and slapped scopolamine patches on when we left the house, around 5:30am, just in case we were bothered by the slight wobble of a calm ocean. By 7am, we were on the boat, and soon afterwards, we were exiting the harbor. The captain warned us that the ocean was bad. He threatened swells taller than men.

It was horrible. As soon as we made our first stop over relatively shallow water to catch our black rockfish limit, most of the 26 anglers hugged the rails, puking—sometimes gently, sometimes violently—over the edge of the boat. I tried to will my nausea away, but found after catching a fish and trying to concentrate on it well enough to remove the hook and toss it in my gunny bag, that I couldn't hold it. The attempt to focus amplified how unstable the fluid contents of my body were, and I vomited over the side of the boat. Puking provided immediate albeit temporary relief. My friend James held out from the vomit party, but he was pretty green around the gills just the same. One man, a former member of the Coast Guard, was so sick I worried about him as he hunkered down on the back of the boat, only lifting his head towards the water occasionally to throw up. But, Wallace, our deckhand, stayed cheerful and helpful as he moved from person to person, hosing puke off the boat, helping to dehook fish, smiling when the rest of us couldn't. He was the hero of the day.

Pleasantly for us, within an hour or so, the scopolamine patches kicked in, and then both of us were free to enjoy the ocean. We brought in a steady haul; each of us caught 8 of our 10 allowed fish. The captain teased me about puking for fish, and I was well enough to laugh along with him. When I felt human again, being on a boat in the ocean was beautiful. To get from fishing spot to fishing spot searching for other species of rockfish, we flew over and between waves, the boat cutting into the cold green. I hung out along the side of the boat, facing forward, and the spray coated the front of me, drying to a wild mineral tang on my face. We saw whales blow, one even lifting its huge dark body out of the water. Sunfish dotted the surface of the choppy ocean, and gulls followed us wherever we went.

As we headed back to the harbor in the afternoon, Wallace lifted a guttered board from the side and strapped it down across the width of the boat. He set a hose of ocean water on one end and fit a slotted fence in place across it. Taking a wide, elastic-kneed stance to roll with the waves, he dumped a gunny sack of fish behind the fence, then cleaned and fileted our catches. The hose water carried guts and skeletons over the side of the boat, on which our trailing flock of gulls swept down to feast. Watching him work, I realized that a couple hundred years ago, I could have watched nearly the same scene. The cycle of fishing and cleaning and gulls could have come from a Melville novel, but Wallace smoked a cigarette, not a pipe, and I, thank God and science, had a scopolamine patch.

Last night, I brought rockfish ceviche to a party. I felt like a rockstar when I told other guests I had not only made the dish, but had caught the fish. I didn't, mind you, tell them what I used as bait.

When I make ceviche, I use Hank Shaw's basic recipe with some riffs, and I urge you to read his post as he explains the risks of raw fresh fish. In our case, I vacuum sealed one pound portions and threw them in our very cold chest freezer right after we got home from our fishing trip. I feel comfortable using the fish in a raw application, such as ceviche.

I recommend the grapefruit juice and addition of zest that Shaw uses in his recipe, and the fresh corn his recipe calls for is essential. However, instead of a diced Roma tomato, I prefer halved cherry or grape tomatoes for the sweet punch of summer flavor. Also, on occasion, I've added some mint and a healthy dollop of coconut cream to make the whole mixture lush and tropical.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Green Manure

Green manure and cover cropping are relatively synonymous; both describe plants we purposefully plan on knocking down and digging into the soil without harvesting from them. In fact, the harvest is the plant itself, feeding the soil from which it grew.

Where I'm hired to maintain an organic vegetable garden, I planted part of the beds with a summer mix of buckwheat and cowpeas. In other seasons and for other purposes, I'd plant something different.
Cover crop just after emerging from the soil.

The plants in bloom, just before cutting down.

Cover cropping can solve a myriad of garden problems. Some crops can protect soil from erosion, some can fight against root knot nematodes, others build tilth and inhibit the growth of weeds, but the most common use for cover cropping is to increase soil fertility by adding organic matter and often nitrogen. In my client's garden, I wanted to keep soil that wasn't growing food during the summer as healthy as possible, housing microbes and beneficial critters. I also wanted to continue to add nitrogen, so the buckwheat and cowpea combo was perfect. The plants grow well in the heat; the buckwheat builds organic mass very quickly; working in symbiosis with mycorrhizae, the cowpeas collect nitrogen from the atmosphere.

The felled crop.
I planted the mix last month, dosed with inoculant to give the cowpeas a jump start. Yesterday, the plants were mostly blooming—buckwheat is a great beneficial insect attractant, by the way—and ready to be cut down. Since it was only about 30 square feet I had planted, it was easy for me to use shears to cut the plants, after which I shoveled them into the soil. Turning the plants bottoms up, I could see the root nodules on the cowpea plants, housing nitrogen. That nitrogen will feed other plants, along with the nitrogen and other minerals the buckwheat will release as it decomposes. Additionally, the decomposed material will eventually serve as a sponge, helping the soil to maintain even moisture. It will be a happy home for all kinds of good insects and micro-organisms. Since the weather is currently quite dry, I watered the area I had turned under to help kickstart decomposition. In three weeks, remnants of the green manure will have turned into rich soil matter, and this area will be ready for planting fall crops.

Nitrogen nodules on cowpea roots.

More Resources:
Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education's Write-up of Cover Crops
Sustainable Agrigulture Research and Education Program's Explanation of Cover Crops
Rodale's Organic Life on Cover Crops