SOMETHING TO PONDER IN THE WORLD OF FOOD AND FARMING
Infected Irish Lumper potatoes doing the Great Hunger. Did you know that the Irish do not call the potato famine a Famine? The Irish hunger was political, not agricultural, and at the time millions of Irish were starving, dying, and leaving as refugees, Ireland under English rule was a net exporter of food, shipped out under armed guard.
Here, the holiday merry-go-round is already churning. We’ve barely started with the shamrocks & green beer and Easter & Mother’s Day are already hot on its heels. Could I ask you to indulge me for a minute? I would like to tarry just a little at St. Patrick’s Day.
Not because I’m so very Irish (I am), but because Ireland offers one of the most memorable and recent cautionary tales about why we should be petrified about the extent of our current American practice of growing just a few varieties of a few crops year after year (monoculture).
It’s hard to imagine famine when you take for granted the endless array of processed foods in the typical American grocery store. But, do a little Googling and you’ll soon learn that the huge cornucopia of shiny boxes and bags are manufactured from less than 12 crop varieties. And new GMO options are being introduced and approved fast.
It is so, so dangerous to have your entire food supply invested in one single variety of one single crop, yet it’s unbelievably commonplace and even celebrated as the kind of modern progress needed to feed the world. Which, freed from war and corporate overreach, the world is perfectly capable of feeding itself.
I can’t decide if our choice to play agricultural roulette is due to an over-abundance of confidence or ignorance, but it’s frightening. The really crazy thing is how many of us are Americans today because our ancestors were forced to flee starvation and workhouses in Ireland. The Great Irish Hunger wasn’t all that long ago – how quickly we forget.
For a while, the potato was a true savior for Ireland. It found its convoluted way from the Andes in South America to the struggling Irish peasants. The Irish climate suited the tuber perfectly and these poor families were finally able to grow enough food to feed their families well on their tiny plots of land.
In the Andes, farmers cultivated diversity in the potato and enjoyed as many as 4.000 varieties. A really good source for learning about agrobiodiversity is the website SustainableTable (dot)org. Here’s a bit of Sustainable Table’s take on the potato situation in the Andes:
“This abundance of diversity is the result of farmers artificially selecting traits over generations for specific purposes, like resistance to disease, tolerance to high altitudes or poor soils, etc. This diversity is important for food security—in the event that a particular crop variety fails due to drought, flooding or a disease, another variety might survive to avoid food shortages.”
Meanwhile the Irish tale goes a little differently:
“In stark contrast to this [Andes] model of agrobiodiversity, the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s was the result of a fungus that completely destroyed the Irish potato crop because only a few varieties of potatoes had been imported from the Andes to Europe, none of which were resistant to the disease. Because of a lack of crop diversity and over reliance on one crop to feed many of its population, Ireland experienced widespread famine and death.”
The Irish you see, had a history of smallholder diversified farming but without their land, were no longer able to grow the variety of crops they relied on before the British occupied Ireland. The British made it illegal for Irish Catholics to own or lease land and Irish farmland had been repurposed to raise grain and cattle to satisfy England’s insatiable taste for beef. Irish farmers were forced onto tiny plots of meager land and struggled with subsistence wages. The potato was the only crop that could be counted on to keep a family fed under such restrictive conditions.
Irish potatoes were especially vulnerable because they planted just one kind, Lumpers. And, because potatoes grow from other potatoes, they are like genetic clones – each exactly the same as all the others. So, when an airborne mold blew into Ireland, the single crop expected to feed about 3 million people was devastated almost overnight, with few backup alternatives.
Of course, the suffering and starvation part of the tragedy was caused by a perfect storm of greed, prejudice and politics which amplified the already bad enough crop failure. I hope I’m wrong about this, but it feels like we may never get the greed + power = politics part right, but the lack of biodiversity? That we are able to avoid.
Yet, amazingly enough, we don’t. Industrial Farms plant huge monocultures of the three main government subsidized crops, year after year. They deplete the soil of beneficial microbes thereby becoming more and more reliant on synthetic (petroleum-based) fertilizers and pesticides.
Think about these statistics also from Sustainable Table:
Almost 96% of the commercial vegetable varieties available in 1903 are now extinct.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), humans now rely upon just 14 species of mammals and birds to supply 90% of all animal-derived foods.
Twelve plant crops account for more than three-quarters of the food consumed in the world, and just three—rice, wheat, and maize—are relied on for more than half of the world’s food.
Reliance upon modern varieties of rice has caused more than 1,500 local rice varieties in Indonesia to become extinct.
For some reason, when Americans embrace new technology, we have a way of kicking the old to the curb so fast it’s lost forever. Few farmers preserve their old hybrid seeds just in case their new GM crop fails. I don’t know about you, but I like the security of knowing I’ve left a popcorn trail to guide me home if the new and improved turns out to not be so great after all.
Have we learned from the Irish potato famine? Let’s see:
Dominant food source invested in extremely few crops of one variety, check.
A national food system serving the desires of the few not the needs of the many, check, check.
Limited access to land discourages initiative and opportunity for people to feed themselves and rise above the limitations imposed by the system: check, check, check.
Well, it seems to me that what we’ve learned is how to do it again. The saddest thing is that we can’t even blame foreign occupation for our situation. At least not unless you believe America is occupied by Monsanto, Cargill, General Mills, Dean Foods & Friends. But blaming things on corporations implies you have no choice in the matter. Which is not entirely true.
So today, on this day in which we all claim to be Irish, you can take a small step or two to do your part to restore biodiversity to our food system.
First, consider planting a small garden and growing a few heirloom varieties of your favorite fruits and vegetables.
Or, if gardening is not your thing, consider signing up for a Community Shared Agriculture (CSA) share from a local farm growing heirloom fruits & veggies. Even better if they offer eggs and meat from heritage breed livestock. And if they have fresh, locally produced dairy products too, well lucky you. Go for it, please.
And, if even a weekly box of goodness is too much, at least do some shopping at your local farmer’s market. Buy from a farmer who grows his/her own produce, not a reseller. Home gardeners and small, diversified farmers are doing most of the work saving plants whose claims to fame are flavor and hardiness instead of uniformity and ability to withstand processing and shipping. But the success of their work is completely dependent on your commitment to buy from them.
Come ON, you can do it! The future is riding on what you have for dinner….
Wild California Rice. Have you tried it? It’s obviously not local to Pennsylvania, but it is a sustainable, healthful, and tasty addition to your year-round pantry. It’s perfect for stretching meats or mushrooms, stuffing poultry, making cabbage rolls, stuffing squash, tomatoes, or peppers, and adding to substantance tol cold salads and soups.
Wild rice is actually not a true rice, but is instead an aquatic grain. It is an extremely important food in Native American traditions, where the ritual of harvest, drying and hulling is an important cultural touchstone to old ways. Nutritionally it is a powerhouse, near quinoa in protein content. It is not certified organic, but no pesticides or herbicides are necessary, and the water used is carefully managed to conserve and reuse before allowing it to drain back to the source.
This California wild rice is a more production-oriented product than the wild indigenous product. It is farmed from similar grains as the truly wild rice, but is instead intensively managed making it more productive and reasonably priced. The flavor is hard to describe, being somewhat floral, nutty, and smoky at once. The texture when properly cooked is toothy and substantial; and a 1/4 – 1/2 cup portion is really filling. It really is a different ingredient entirely from regular rice – a direct substitution would certainly work, but might not be exactly what you had in mind.
Wild rice takes longer than more common white rices; about 45 – 55 minutes. Cooked rice also freezes well, so packets of precooked rice or other whole cooked grains like farro, spelts, or rye berry is a handy ingredient to have at the ready in your freezer. I really had no recipe in mind, just wanted to spend some time getting to know the rice, so I cooked the entire pound bag, even though I was cooking just for myself. I mean, if I am going to boil a grain for almost an hour, I want to make that hour count, right?
From my pound of dry rice, I got about 14 loosely measured cups of cooked rice, of which I scooped approximate two cup portions into zip lock freezer bags, squeezed the air out as completely as possible, flattening and sealing the packages. I lay them flat on a plate and freeze, then the packages once frozen will stack neatly upright and fill as little freezer space as possible.
So, now I have seven 2 cup portions of frozen rice, ready to quickly steam as a side or toss into soups and recipes. Your milaege may vary. What are we gonna make? When cooking Rancho Gordo products, I always return to their Rancho Gordo Recipes for inspiration. Steve Sando rubs elbows with some diverse and interesting food people, and the recipes and ideas always give me if not specifics, direction.
The linked recipe for stuffing caught my attention. Of course I did not make it exactly, since my rice was already cooked, and I didn’t really have all the ingredients, but I was close. And just because it is called stuffing, doesn’t mean it wasn’t good in a bowl, by itself, as a main dish. I did stuff a roasted squash for lunch, brushed first with Swad coriander chutney, garnished with a plop of thick whole milk yogurt, it was a bright spot in a dark, dreary, rainy day.
The recipe makes about six cups, and I only used one, so once again, I have cooked for both now and later, and when summer squash and chickens arrive, I am so ready with a frozen quart ready and waiting. By the way, freezing grains has very little effect on their quality, particularly if you cook them a tiny bit al dente. Mushy overcooked grains will not magically improve in the freezer.
Okay, here we go, to the printable recipe:
Wild Rice Stuffing
This recipe will stuff a 12-pound turkey or half a dozen game hens. It's delicious as a side dish for meats, as a filling for cabbage rolls, squashes, ingredient in soups & salads, or simply on its own.
1poundlean ground beef, pork, elk, venison, or bison
1/2 large red onion, chopped
1cupchopped and lightly toasted pecans
2Tbsfresh orange zest
Sauté meat in heavy large skillet over medium heat until cooked through, breaking up with a wooden spoon, about 10 minutes. If your skillet has excess grease or liquid, drain the beef, and remove excess from pan.
Add chiles and onions to the meat. Continue to sauté over medium heat until onions are soft, about 10-15 minutes, adding a bit of liquid if necessary to keep beef from becoming dry.
Add the cooked wild rice (frozen is okay), sauté gently until heated through, again taking care to keep it moist, not wet. Stir in the pecans and orange zest. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Can be prepared a day ahead. Cover and refrigerate once cool. If you'd like to serve as a side dish, re-warm covered in 350°F. oven for 20 minutes.) Transfer to bowl and serve.
If using as poultry stuffing, cool completely and fill bird.
When I purchase a bag of wild rice, I cook the entire pound, which I then portion a loose two cups into ziplock pint bags for the freezer. Cooked slightly al dente, the rice is a really handy ingredient to have ready for fast meals and saved cooking time, as wild rice takes about an hour.*Also, about the orange zest - whenever I have good oranges, I always scrub the outside and zest the orange before peeling, saving the zest in a freezer container for later recipes. If you don’t have it, you could substitute chopped apple, parsley, lemon zest, raisins or cranberries for a fresh bit of bright flavor; it's a flexible recipe overall.
I don’t have much time, or kitchen space for elaborate preserving projects anymore. So, I have to be really selective and spend my time making the one tomato-y thing that will be quick, flexible, but still remind me in the heart of January that the dark, frozen nights will again be soft and desk, with tomatoes, still warm from the garden. See, that connection to my own Pennsylvania summer is a real spirit lifter – one which canned tomatoes from the supermarket just cannot match.
Elimination thinking makes my decision super-easy; this uncooked tomato sauce, straight from the freezer tastes exactly like summer, is compact and efficient to store in my freezer, and quick and easy to use in lots of ways later.
Before beginning, I’d like to make this one plea: Resist the urge to chef this one up until you’ve made it once exactly as it is. Yes, it’s a VERY simple, plain recipe, but therein lies the charm. The simplicity allows the special summertime quality of the tomatoes to shine which is exactly why I love it so much. You can add herbs and spices when you use it later if you wish. Oh, and this sauce plain is beautiful with fresh mozzarella… and allows a bit of good olive oil to really shine.
Here’s a link to the more specific recipe. It makes four servings to be eaten right away but to preserve larger quantities for freezing, simply repeat as many times as you like ( I just figure out how many pounds of tomatoes I have and work it backwards), throw the milled batches together into one large colander, drain over a large bucket then freeze the concentrated sauce in single serving portions.
The split skins will peel right away – then toss into your food mill. I use a Roma and run the tomatoes through two or three times to extract every last drop… If you don’t have a food mill, just do your best to skin, seed and chop as finely as you can. The texture won’t be exactly the same, but don’t let that stop you – it’s still going to be awesome.
The tomatoes after processing. Add kosher salt and ladle into your cheesecloth lined colander. Maybe you’re not like me with large pieces of cheesecloth lying around. Not to worry, you can use a simple cotton dish towel or pillow case but be prepared for it to be forever stained. I toss my clean cheesecloth into the boiling water for a few minutes before using. Line a colander with the cheesecloth and you’re ready to pour in your tomato mixture. Place the colander over a large bowl or bucket and drain for at least a couple of hours or overnight
For me,one cup portions in freezer bags is the perfect size. One cup feeds two with plenty of leftovers for the next few days. Looking at the chicken scratch I wrote on my recipe, apparently I used 24 pounds of tomatoes last year and today I know it was not nearly enough. A word of warning: a little of this sauce goes a long way. I use 2 or 3 Tablespoons to dress a serving of pasta. Really.
Fill your freezer bags, squeeze out any air, and stack flat on a baking sheet or plate to freeze. Onse frozen stiff, the packages can be stacked upright in a container, and are easy to see and access in your freezer, and take little space.
Pouches of finished sauce, in my freezer stash. I freeze this in one cup portions in small freezer bags to use all winter. Thaw it in the bag and gently spoon over cooked pasta tossed with olive oil or butter. If you must heat the sauce, simply warm a little olive oil in a sauce pan and stir in the sauce until just warmed.
Because you are straining away most of the water, the volume will be greatly reduced. I started with a nearly full 5 gallon bucket of tomatoes, and ended up with about 5 cups of sauce. This will vary based on the water content of the tomatoes and the amount of time you leave them drain.
Use your sauce to make summer-fresh Margarita pizzas, toss in the crock pot or dutch oven for a stew or braise, soup, with a pot of beans, anything that can use some fresh tomato flavor. Since the star of this project is the tomato, I wouln’t bother with thick walled, tough-skinned, weak flavored commodity varieties. This is meant as a celebration of the flavor of local, peak-of=freshness, sloppy, flavorful old-fashioned and heirloom varieties.
Home made pasta, uncooked fresh tomato sauce frozen from last summer’s harvest and some good quality parmesan or pecorino – perfection in its simplicity!
Also, when you’ve finished making this sauce, especially if you made a bunch for freezing, you’ll have lots of nutritious tomato essence (the water left after straining the tomato solids for the sauce) left.
Base for Bloody Marys
Reduction for intensely tomato flavored sauces
Added flavoring for beer or vodka
Base for gazpacho or cocktail sauce
Poaching liquid for seafood, shrimp, calamari or lobster
Dressing for fresh oysters
Marinade for white fish
Liquid for cooking rice or grains
Refreshing chilled beverage served over ice, with basil
Or, simply use it in place of any liquid next time you make stock, bread, rice, bulgur, barley or risotto. These are kitchen basics you know you’re going to do anyway, so why not add a little free flavor & nutrient booster?
An icy glass of tomato essence…. yummy and refreshing straight up, and so many great uses in coctails…
The most complicated part of this approach is using a food mill if you have never used one. It makes for a really nice texture and removes the peel and seeds. A food mill is not necessary though, and this sauce will be just as tasty finely chopped by hand.
If you could only do one, what would your single tomato preserving project be?
Irish cooking tends to be a big joke here in the US, though that is quickly passing. The bad Irish food rap though, isn’t really Ireland’s fault.In reality,bad Irish food is more a symptom of poverty and repression suffered at the hands of the English.Irish people do not refer to the potato famine as a famine. Instead, they call it The Great Hunger.
The famine and starvation were more a form of genocide, and Ireland during the famine years was actually a net exporter of food. The Irish had been kicked off their farms, their land confisgated by the British, who then stocked the farms with cattle to satisfy the insatiable British demand for beef.
In 1845 alone, Ireland exported 200,000 head of livestock, 2,000,000 quarts of grain, thousands of barrels of “corned” beef (named for the corn-sized chunks of salt used in the preserving process) and several hundred million pounds of flour – all under military and naval escorts.
The Irish have a long history of healthy, diversified agricultural practices and certainly would not have been caught with their entire food supply dependent on one single variety of one single crop if they had a choice.
Facts and statistics don’t nearly convey the tragedy and cruelty these resilient people endured. According to one Polish observer, corpses lined roads with green mouths from eating grass, whole families standing in snow in complete nakedness having pawned their clothes, or a starving mother half insane thrusting her dead child forward and begging for a coffin.
England being, at that time, the wealthiest nation in the world.
Funny how today, we who rebelled with all our might against the golden handcuffs of England, have today, manifested a very similar nation to the old British Empire. The same platitudes about withholding charity and assistance lest the poor become lazy were popular among wealthy British then, just as they are today, here in the US.
Oh sure, tomorrow is a day of fun and revelry, well deserved for sure. But the great Irish thinker, Edmund Burke reminds us, “People will not look forward to posterity who never look backward to their ancestors.”
Sooo, on this eve before St. Patrick’s Day, let’s give a nod to the real Ireland, and the stoic pluck of all the Irish forced to harsh new lives in America, without whom The United States of America would be a very different place.
I’m a Pittsburgh girl, so maybe there are cultural Red-Beans-And-Rice nuances I am not getting here. Made on Monday, check. Our own Auburn Meadow Farm Classic Cajun Andouille, check, check. Slow cooked all day? Nope. This is a quicker version, because I had already cooked beans in broth waiting in my freezer for just such a day.
All you real-deal Cajun cooks? Sorry, but also, not sorry, because this is some really good, wholesome, hearty hygge for a dreary winter day.
Since COVID, people have been hoarding good culinary beans, which is sad if they are just being stashed in somebody’s bunker – the ten pound bags of pintos at Walmart do a pretty decent job of resting on a shelf. The Rancho Gordo heirloom beans offer a range of flavor and texture that those ten-year-old warehoused beans just can’t bring. And, if you are planning a garden, those Rancho Gordos are good for planting too, so save some of your favorites and give them a go for some fresh shelling beans.
But hoarders can’t kill my bean joy. If you can’t have the bean you love, which for Red Beans and Rice would have been Domingo Rojas, then love the bean you have, which happens to be Ayocote Negro. Selecting beans by texture not color is key here. The Ayocote Negros are a gorgeous, substantial, shiny, black bean, and were perfect, if not red.
This should take ten minutes of prep and a half hour to forty minutes simmering, and serves four to six. Printable recipe here.
1# smoked Andouille, sliced into 1/2” disks
2 pint containers of pre-cooked cooked beans in broth* (or 2 cans of kidney beans, drained)
1 TBS good cooking fat, I use lard or bacon fat*
1 onion chopped
1 green pepper seeded and chopped
4 ribs celery, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2-tsp to 1 TBS cayenne pepper dependent upon how hot you like yours. I omit entirely as I cook for people who don’t tolerate spices.
1-28 ounce can whole tomatoes in juice
1/2 tsp ground sage or poultry seasoning
Smoked ham hock (optional)
splash cider vinegar
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Mild hot sauce like Frank’s or Crystal for serving
Cooked white rice for serving
In a Dutch oven, melt your cooking fat over medium heat, add onion, green pepper, and celery. Sautee until softened, do not brown.
Add garlic and andouille disks and sautee to release fragrance.
Add the tomatoes, ham hock if using, cayenne and sage. Allow to gently simmer, allowing the flavors to develop.
Add the beans, if you are using canned beans, strain the liquid before adding. continue to simmer to allow the beans to absorb the flavors. You don’t want to cook dry though, you are going for the texture of a thick soup. If your pot starts getting too dry, add some water (best boiled first – I use my teakettle).
Taste and add salt, pepper, and cider vinegar to taste.
Serve your beans with rice – this is important. It is honestly not difficult to make a perfectly cooked pot of rice. That detail makes a huge difference.
If you really want to eat like a farmer, try topping a bowl with a poached egg for breakfast . It’s even better next day.
*Some astericks here, because I am a pantry cook, and have stored in my freezer and pantry items you may not. That’s okay though, it’s not a big deal this recipe is pretty flexible.
Get these ingredients from us*: Classic very mild smoked Andouille from our pastured pork, smoked ham hocks, Ayocote Negro beans
If I was going to name one skill to master to save money and really intensify the flavors of your home cooking, it would be to deeply start exploring the juices. We throw away so much flavor and nutrition because we don’t value that extra bit of juice in the pan. Yet we will buy a separate spice or sauce to do exactly what that discarded juice will do if you would only recognize it.
Seasonal fruit is a great example of how harnessing the power and flavor of those natural peak-of-freshness juices makes your cooking extraordinary. Most recipes solve the issue of too juicy in pies and jams by cooking the fruits down, and adding thickener. But reverse that thinking, and slow down your process, and I think you will be amazed at the difference.
Got my first strawberries from the local Amish farmer a couple days ago. Plain, simple, straight-up strawberry jam may be one of my very, very favorite kitchen staples. But last year, I made this. And it’s a pretty wonderful way to celebrate that unmistakable flavor of a fresh, ripe, local strawberry in January. And a really excellent DIY gift idea, if you are inclined to think ahead that way.
2 pints strawberries, hulled and sliced, or 1-1/2 pounds frozen strawberries, thawed
1-1/2 cups Simple Syrup*
1 fifth vodka, 80 – 100 proof
Muddle the strawberries and simply syrup with a wooden spoon in a half-gallon jar. Stir in the vodka.
Seal the jar and put it in a cool, dark cabinet until the liquid smells and tastes strongly of strawberries, about 7 days.
Strain the mixtue with a mesh strainer into a clean quart jar. Do not push on the solids to extract more liquid – it will make your Strawberrycello cloudy.
Note: If you feel your berries may have been a little overripe, and the flavor of your liquor seems a little flat, add a Tablespoon of strawberry or raspberry vinegar to restore the balance.
Seal and store in a cool, dark cabinet. Use within 1 year.
Perfect for sipping on a summer day, for spiking a cosmo, mixing with a summery white wine like Prosecco – don’t forget to chill the glass!