Zuke Alors!

Screen Shot 2013-09-07 at 1.27.08 PMNobody complains about too many cucumbers, tomatoes or eggplants. But zucchini, summer’s most underloved vegetable (technically, yes, it’s a fruit), comes in for a lot of grief. It’s so prolific! It’s so cheap! What are we going to do with all of it?

I suppose it’s not just zucchini’s omnipresence but its mild flavor — and indeed, the difficulty of bringing out some of its character — that makes us feel challenged.

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A Practical Farmer Who Showed the Way

Dick Thompson was a farmer near Boone, Iowa, whom I kept meaning to visit but did not. That was a mistake; he died on Aug. 17 at 81.

He will be missed, in no small part because he embodied the clear, pragmatic kind of thinking for which Midwestern farmers were once known, before so many became beholden to Big Ag.

Thompson began farming in the 1950s and was anything but beholden. He challenged every assumption and, especially as he matured, never accepted the reigning “wisdom.”

But when he first started working his 300 acres, he was a farmer’s son with degrees from Iowa State University and an enthusiastic member of that first generation of farmers to embrace industrial techniques. He set about modernizing his parents’ farm with a vengeance: “We purchased everything the salesman had to sell,” he said, meaning every line about intensive farming and every chemical it took to support it.

Read the rest of this column, here.

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The New Nuclear Craze

There is a new discussion about nuclear energy, prompted by well-founded concerns about carbon emissions and fueled by a pro-nuclear documentary called “Pandora’s Promise.” Add a statement by James E. Hansen — who famously sounded the alarm on climate change — and, of course, industry propaganda, and presto: We Love Nukes.

Before we all become pro-nuclear greens, however, you’ve got to ask three questions: Is nuclear power safe and clean? Is it economical? And are there better alternatives?

No, no and yes. So let’s not swap the pending environmental disaster of climate change for another that may be equally risky.

Read the rest of this column, here.

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How to Make Jam

Screen Shot 2013-08-22 at 6.50.51 PMThis is the time of year to make jam. Find the nearest bush or tree, go to a farmers’ market or pray that your local C.S.A. comes through in the next couple of weeks, but get it done.

You might never have considered making jam. You might be wary of it. But this isn’t old-fashioned jam we’re talking about, with Mason jars, canning tongs, pots of steam, near-guaranteed burns, loads of sweat and possibly even tears. This isn’t so much about preserving the harvest (that’s what freezers are for) but about making the kind of jam you keep in your fridge for a week or two. All that is needed is delicious fresh fruit and a half-hour of your time.

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Not All Industrial Food Is Evil

I’VE long wondered how producing a decent ingredient, one that you can buy in any supermarket, really happens. Take canned tomatoes, of which I probably use 100 pounds a year. It costs $2 to $3 a pound to buy hard, tasteless, “fresh” plum tomatoes, but only half that for almost two pounds of canned tomatoes that taste much better. How is that possible?

The answer lies in a process that is almost unimaginable in scope without seeing it firsthand. So, fearing the worst — because we all “know” that organic farming is “good” and industrial farming is “bad” — I headed to the Sacramento Valley in California to see a big tomato operation.

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It’s Wild-Salmon Season

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Atlantic salmon is an endangered species, but it’s also always in season: we have fish farming to thank for that, if “thank” is the word.

Therefore almost all wild salmon is Pacific. And in flavor, texture and color, the Pacific species of king (or Chinook), sockeye and coho are all superior to any farmed salmon.

Wild salmon is seasonal, and we’re smack in the middle of that season. Unless you live in Alaska or the Northwest, where fresh wild salmon are practically flung onto your doorstep along with the morning paper, these fish remain a rare treat, shipped to markets around the country for a few precious weeks in mid- to late summer.

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11 Trillion Reasons

Here’s a good line: “[U]nenlightened farm policy — with its massive subsidies for junk food ingredients — has played a pivotal role in shaping our food system over the past century. But that policy can readily be changed.”

With the possible substitution of the word “might” for “can,” this is pretty much an inarguable statement. It comes from “The $11 Trillion Reward: How Simple Dietary Changes Can Save Money and Lives, and How We Get There,” a report produced by the Union of Concerned Scientists (U.C.S.) to be introduced at the farmers’ market[1] at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital Wednesday.

That’s a big number, $11 trillion, but even if it’s off by 90 percent (it’s difficult to put a value on lives), who’s to scoff at a trillion bucks? In any case, this summary of current research, which contains the argument that even a tiny increase in our consumption of fruits and vegetables would have a powerful impact on health and its costs, agriculture and the economy, is compelling.

Read the rest of this column, here.

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Farmers’ Market Recipe Generator

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When the farmers’ markets are full of white eggplants, shell beans, baby squash, multicolored carrots and greens whose names you don’t even know, it’s time to go shopping: without knowing what you’re looking for, without any kind of plan, just shopping to buy what looks or tastes good — or what the farmer tells you is good. The Recipe Generator is essentially a one-armed bandit of ingredients and techniques, offering more than 50 combinations of things you’re most likely to find in a market or your C.S.A. basket, with recipes that make wonderful use of them.

See the Farmers’ Market Recipe Generator, here.

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It’s a Buyer’s Market!

Screen Shot 2013-08-03 at 9.45.55 AMAlthough there are areas of the country where farmers’ markets feature loads of fresh vegetables year round, those of us who live in regions with a different set of blessings experience long stretches when farmers’ markets (at least those that remain open) offer only cider, apples, root vegetables, frozen meat and things like candles and sweaters made of the coarsest wool. Which is all fine, but it mostly serves to enhance the excitement we can feel when we hit the big time: a farmers’ market loaded with stuff that was picked not only nearby but yesterday.

When you see mini-cucumbers, white eggplants, shell beans, baby squash, multicolored carrots and greens whose names you don’t even know (and which can be up for debate — I’ve seen mizuna referred to as “spider mustard”), it’s time to go shopping: without knowing what you’re looking for, without any kind of plan, just shopping to buy what looks or tastes good — or what the farmer tells you is good. This is food shopping at its best, and right now you don’t need to go to California or even Union Square to get it done. (If you belong to a community-supported-agriculture farm or have a garden, you may not even need to do the shopping.)

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Fast Food, Low Pay

Last November, following the Black Friday protests by Walmart employees, 200 workers at 30 New York fast-food restaurantswalked off their jobs.

Not much happened immediately. There was press and vocal support from organized labor and the nascent food movement. But the strike didn’t spread like wildfire.

Something else didn’t happen, however: no one lost his job. And that was a huge deal.

As far as I can determine, only one worker was permanently terminated as a result of the many actions that have followed nationwide. Usually, the striking fast-food workers are escorted back to work by co-workers, clergy, union leaders and even elected officials, who together insist that there be no retribution. That’s worked.

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