Sounds Good AND Tastes Great – Appetite at Strathmore Part 2: Everything Else: Saturday

Saturday at Appetite at Strathmore was packed with events, so many simultaneously that missing something good seemed unavoidable – however, we soldiered on into the fray, thankful for what we could experience. Which turned out to be very satisfying.

We arrived at noon (missing the earliest events, which started at 11), but on time for a Talk and Taste hosted by the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, pairing wine with charcuterie. The food sampling was very nice, and Wine Director Brent Kroll was free with his advice and opinions.

Wine Tasting

Wine Tasting

Charcuterie Went With The Wine

Charcuterie Went With The Wine

Some of them: don’t rely on the D.O.C.G. (Italian controlled origin) label for assurance of a quality wine; orange wine is ‘flawed’ on purpose – in his opinion, “not a wine to go back to;” for value, look for wine from places where the cost of living is low: Chile and Argentina, for instance.

Then, on to see the Grays (Chef Todd and Ellen Kassoff Gray, one of Washington’s premier culinary power couples) cook from their book, The New Jewish Table. While Chef Todd produced a mouthwatering dish of Fig and Port Wine Blintzes, Ellen recounted that Todd had never eaten blintzes or gefilte fish before their marriage, yet they have developed a cuisine and produced a book of lasting value.

Ellen, Chef Todd, Sous Chef Darnell

Ellen, Chef Todd, Sous Chef Darnell

The Grays' Audience

The Grays’ Audience

Camera Envy (On My Part)

Camera Envy (On My Part)

And A Bride-To-Be

And A Bride-To-Be

I enjoyed the session so much I went back for their second set, in which Chef Todd made a fried green tomato sandwich as an example of Farm to Table cuisine; local, seasonal and delicious. My only criticism of these sessions is that they were held in a room too small for the overflow crowd!

During a break in sessions, we strolled the grounds and rooms inside the Mansion, which held an array of food exhibitors. Ranging from Swing’s Coffee (local since 1916), Iceland Vodka, and the ladies representing the afternoon tea program at Strathmore, there was something to sample at every turn.

Tea Ladies - Cucumber and Salmon Sandwiches, Anyone?

Tea Ladies – Cucumber and Salmon Sandwiches, Anyone?

Would You Like an Iceberg With Your Vodka? Or a Cardboard Sheep?

Would You Like an Iceberg With Your Vodka? Or a Cardboard Sheep?

And we found an old friend parked amidst the food truck roundup.

Jon Rossler, The Corned Beef King

Jon Rossler, The Corned Beef King

Then we ankled over to the Music Center, where one of the big, echoing rehearsal halls was set up with a demo kitchen. Robert Wiedmaier, another of Washington’s top chefs, had two demos back-to-back. We stayed for both.

There was a lot of space between the audience seating and the kitchen. This did not sit well with Chef Robert. “Come, stand close!” he implored. Many folks did.

Chef Robert, Huge Space, Audience

Chef Robert, Huge Space, Audience

Getting Close

Getting Close

Scallops were on the menu for the first demo. With roe, the best kind. Hard to find around here, he gets them wholesale from Maine. “Find a good fishmonger, make friends with him,” he advised.

Scallop!

Scallop!

There was much banter and interaction with Chef Robert. When the dish, Diver Scallops and Sardines with Summer Caponata, was finished, generous tastes were distributed. It was indeed delicious!

Sampling

Sampling

Even A Group Pic

Even A Group Pic

After a short break, Chef Robert and his sous-chef Matt reappeared to cook up Mussels Provencal. It was a repeat of the first session, entertaining and delicious.

Cooking Mussels

Cooking Mussels

Mussels Cooking

Mussels Cooking

And then, it was time for a Party on the Patio. Earlier in the day, we had looked down from the Music Center atrium to spot a mysterious box being lovingly tended by a couple of muchachos down behind the pavement. Guess what? There was a whole pig in there, cooking away! Scott Drewno, yet another celebrity chef, had brought a crew to roast and serve that pig with steamed dumplings at the party.

Kickin' Back With the Pig

Kickin’ Back With the Pig

That's Chef Scott On The Right

That’s Chef Scott At The Upper Right

Pig: What's Left

Pig: What’s Left

While we ate and drank, we were entertained by Victoria Vox on her ukulele and mouth trumpet. A fitting end to a delicious and entertaining event! I hope it will become an annual one.

Victoria and Her Uke

Victoria and Her Uke

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Sounds Good AND Tastes Great – Appetite at Strathmore, Part 1: Giada!

Previously known as one of the outstanding venues for music and performance in Montgomery County, Strathmore has taken a leap into the world of the taste buds with “Appetite – A Gastronomic Experience,” two days of talking, cooking and sampling in August. I had a good time at the inaugural event, and hope it becomes another annual date on our local culinary calendar.

Two headline acts occupied the stage at the Music Center on Friday and Saturday evenings. I had a conflict on Saturday, so I did not catch Andrew Zimmern, but on Friday I joined a hoard of fans to hear Giada de Laurentiis speak and cook.

Giada On Stage

Giada On Stage

Giada Close Up

Giada Close Up

Now, I don’t usually watch daytime television, but Giada’s show is on while I use the treadmill at the gym. (What kind of person watches the Food Channel while working out? Let us set that question aside for now.) She whips up delicious-looking meals while inspiring lifestyle envy over her California-casual house and garden. She uses olive oil, sugar and cream with abandon while never gaining an ounce. She’s cute as a button. I hate her.

But she’s also disarmingly endearing and knows how to please a crowd at a live event. She started out asking for audience participation with a twist – three men (a sparse demographic in that audience) to build muffalettas.

The Guys Build a Muffaletta

The Guys Build a Muffaletta

There were questions about her daughter and her aunt, her go-to family meal (Turkey Meatloaf with Feta and Sun-dried Tomatoes), and her favorite cake (her fellow Food Network star Ina Garten’s Seven-Layer Fudge Cake).

Then it was time for the second recipe, also with audience participation. This time it involved actual cooking and the other gender: Tortellini with Pea Pesto and Pancetta.

Cooking Tortellini

Cooking Tortellini

The Big Screen

The Big Screen

And a final question: What would Giada be if not a chef? A Formula 1 race car driver.

That was Friday. Saturday proved to be so full of scheduled demos, talks and music that one person could attend only a fraction of them. Still, I gave it my best shot. (That’s another post.)

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The Next Best Thing To Eating

The “Feast Your Eyes” Exhibit at Annmarie Garden, and a Related Book Talk
Books That Cook edited by Jennifer Cognard-Black and Melissa A. Goldthwaite, New York University Press, 2014.

Jennifer Cognard-Black could have filled the hour by lecturing on the subject of her book, or reading excerpts from it, both of which would be the sort of things one would expect from an author asked to give a book talk. Instead, Dr. Cognard-Black presented a visual and physical manifestation of her thesis, and asked the audience to prove it to their own satisfaction in a sort of culinary show-and-tell.

The Box Is To The Left Of The Podium

The Box Is To The Left Of The Podium

Some Of The Recipes

Some Of The Recipes

She brought a box full of her Grandma Peg’s recipe cards – all 1,400 of them – collected over a lifetime of cooking in the mid-20th century, and asked us to read them as if they were works of literature. Treating “recipes as manuscripts” allows one to bring a set of critical tools to an overlooked genre. We saw the recipes with new eyes, as stories with the elements of title, exposition (list of ingredients), resolution (set of instructions, beginning with a verb, inviting the reader into the “story”), and – always! a happy ending (eat)!

Grandma Pegs Recipe

One Of Grandma Peg’s Recipes

Reading From The Book

She Did Read From The Book, Afterward

 

Almost every one of Grandma Peg’s recipes includes an attribution to her source – usually one of the women in her circle of friends and relations. One can derive from this a picture of a collaborative community of sharing; a mutual respect inherent in the act of swapping “trade secrets” with trusted peers.

What a great exercise in deductive anthropology! Not what I expected from an excursion to Deepest Southern Maryland. Down Route 4, just before you fall into the Bay at Solomons, Annmarie Sculpture Garden and Arts Center covers 30 acres of Calvert County with art and nature. I had known about its existence but never had a good reason to visit until last week, when the exhibit and book talk coincided with several of my keenest interests.

The exhibit is housed in a large shed-like building with no internal supports other than a staircase to an open loft, conducive to flexibility of display space. The talk occupied a corner of the exhibit area.

The Exhibit Sign

The Exhibit Sign

Book Talk Corner and Wooden Books (Burger Night by Mark E. Elfman)

Book Talk Corner and Wooden Books (Burger Night by Mark E. Elfman)

Exhibit Hall Overview

Exhibit Hall Overview

The exhibit contained a congeries of artworks of varying media and styles, some more inventive and surprising than others, but most on the conservative, representational end of the art spectrum. Only a few were willing to be provocatively ugly; most would be welcome in any living room. Here are some of my favorites.

That Over Which We Have No Control, by Carolyn Tillie

That Over Which We Have No Control, by Carolyn Tillie

A Menu Dilemma: Seafood In Red Sauce vs Green Salad, by Julia Musengo

A Menu Dilemma: Seafood In Red Sauce vs Green Salad, by Julia Musengo

Cake, by Laura Shull

Cake, by Laura Shull

Brief History Of The Tomato, by Melanie Kehoss

Brief History Of The Tomato, by Melanie Kehoss

And on the way down, Route 4 offered up a surreal vision – a giant inflatable turkey, the size of a pickup truck. It was easy to make the comparison, since there were several of the latter parked directly beneath the huge fowl.

The Turkey That Ate Solomons

The Turkey That Ate Solomons

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Fun Guys and Fungi

You, too can be a mushroom farmer – at least for 10 days at a clip. I met Nikhil Arora, one of the founders of Back to the Roots, at the Fancy Food Show. This company was founded by Nikhil and Alejandro Velez fresh out of college, when they realized how easy it is to grow mushrooms on used coffee grounds (for them, maybe – more on that later). They abandoned their plans to become investment bankers in favor of promoting food awareness and recycling while making a living with a cool, Millennial-style business.

Nikhil generously offered to send me a trial Mushroom Kit. Now, this was not the first time I had tried to raise a crop of oyster mushrooms with this product; he had previously sent one which, due probably to my incompetence, failed to produce a crop. This just served to reconfirm my black thumb regarding raising mushrooms.

Many years ago I acquired a shiitake log which required a complicated regimen of soaking and sun exposure to get the inoculated spore to sprout. I nursed that log for months and produced exactly one mushroom. I wasn’t convinced the second Mushroom Kit would work either, but was ever hopeful.

The design of the Kit is a great big improvement on my log. It arrives as a self-contained box with a brick of inoculated growing medium (certified organic!) in a heavy plastic bag, a spray bottle, and easy instructions. The box is covered with attractive graphics, bad puns, and easy recipes designed to appeal to the whole family.

What You Get

What You Get

Box-top, With Riddles

Box-top, With Riddles

Making The Cut

Making The Cut

Soaking the Bag

Soaking the Bag

I followed the instructions, and guess what? It worked! I got a nice crop of oysters in just under two weeks.

The box sat there for more than a week, doing nothing, and then, suddenly, there they were. After they sprouted, they got big fast. Three days later, I harvested my crop.

It's Alive!

It’s Alive!

Bigger Overnight - With Ruler

Bigger Overnight – With Ruler

Ready To Harvest

Almost Ready To Harvest

Yes! Now!

Yes! Now!

The recipes printed on the box included one for tacos. I made it, adding a few ingredients I had on hand, and making burritos because I had larger flour tortillas instead of smaller, corn-based ones. They were tasty and gratifying, since I grew the mushrooms myself!

The Harvest - Cut Off

The Harvest – Cut Off

Cut Up

Cut Up

Cooked

Cooked

I imagine that watching those suckers grow is terrific for kids. Once they appear, they grow at an almost terrifying rate for a few days, then they can be cooked and eaten immediately. I’m now soaking the farm again in the hopes of raising a second crop. Fingers crossed, black thumb and all!

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I’ll Have a Basket of Maguey Worms and a Dog, Ready to Cook, Please.

You, too, can stand in the great marketplace at Tenochtitlan, capital city of the ancient Aztec empire, and absorb the sights and sounds of commerce. Acres of foodstuffs are spread out around you, all the bounty of the New World as it was just before the Spanish arrived, as a realistic hubbub of trade and conversation reaches your ears.

Just get yourself on down to the National Geographic to see their new exhibit, Food: Our Global Kitchen. In the grand old museum tradition, one of the showstoppers is a panorama with a painted background and very real-looking fake food just beyond the low Plexiglas barrier. (How did they know I would be tempted to walk around inside the exhibit?)

You Are There!

You Are There!

And There, Too

And There, Too

Aztec Produce Closeup

Aztec Produce Closeup

Of course, there were explanatory placards to break the illusion of time travel. Helpful factoids explain that the Mesoamerican Indians ate a lot of insects and raised very few animals for consumption. The turkeys, dogs and iguanas on view are lone examples of domestication for food.

The panel describing the cacao-turquoise trade between Tenochtitlan and Chaco Canyon resonated with the program at last year’s FUZE Conference. And, as a bow to a sense beyond sight and sound, you can push a button and smell the chocolate.

Smell The Chocolate

Smell The Chocolate

I had to tear myself away from the marketplace to take in the rest of the exhibit. Pitched to both children and adults, it contained some geeky exhibits on varied ways of farming, as well as eye-catching hydroponics, a taxidermied chicken, and extreme examples of humans changing plants and animals to suit our purposes.

Wall Art

Wall Art

Hydroponics and Chicken

Hydroponics and Chicken

There were square watermelons and a display of the many kinds of potatoes of the Andes, together with translations of their Quechua names: Siren, Sparrowhawk Nail, Dazzling Like The Sun, Cougar Paw, Sleep In Your Eyes.

Ancient Potatoes

Ancient Potatoes

There were surprising facts, such as that, although India produces nearly 30% of the world’s bananas, more than 99% of those are consumed there; almost none are exported. And, while Holstein cattle comprise 90% of the U.S. dairy herd (an example of lack of genetic diversity), there are forty thousand known varieties of beans (an example of the opposite).

And so from the Farming section of the exhibit to the Cooking. I was again transfixed by the Great Wall O’Gadgets (and again, tucked away behind Plexiglas, so no touching). I indulged in a game of How Many Do You Own? with myself. Answer: many.

How Many Do YOU Have?

How Many Do YOU Have?

There were reproductions of ancient cooking implements from Chinese tombs and South American sources. And there, plopped in the middle of a photo-mural of copper pots, was Julia. Of course.

Julia!

Julia!

There were some more smell machines (herbs and spices), and an interactive table of virtual cooking. This worked by you pressing buttons, and the table sprouting arms and cooking. There were the appropriate sounds of chopping and sizzling as the food was prepared. It was mesmerizing, and only a little bit creepy.

Smell This! And This!

Smell This! And This!

You Watch, It Cooks

You Watch, It Cooks

And then, just as I was asking myself, “This is all very well, but what about that other sense – you know – taste?” I looked up, and there was the demo kitchen. Every hour on the hour, Meghan or another cook prepares a dish and provides samples. They are pretty basic during the week: today it was pumpkin smoothies (dump everything in the blender; blend), but Meghan assured me that it got more elaborate on weekends, when the exhibit draws its biggest crowds.

Meghan Blending

Meghan Blending

Fortified by a smoothie sample, I took in the remainder of the displays. There were historical tableaux and displays of meals to show how our consumption varied over time and space. An ancient Roman hostess’ parlor, tea with Jane Austin, and a meal in Kublai Khan’s tent; and then celebration food from around the world closed out an afternoon both educational and amusing.

Livia's Parlor

Livia’s Parlor

Close-Up On Livia's Food

Close-Up On Livia’s Food

Sugar Skulls

Sugar Skulls

The exhibit was a mostly-successful mix of old and new museum design. I would have appreciated more things to handle – pushing buttons doesn’t really satisfy that fifth sense. And, there could have been at least one docent to answer questions (Meghan assured me that they appeared on weekends, but I was there on a Wednesday). I’d really like to know if that was a basket of magnolias in the Aztec marketplace, or some other white flower!

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Quick! Before It Bursts!

New York has popup stuff happening all the time: restaurants and stores that are designed to be here today, gone tomorrow. Washington, not so much – until now.

Hurry down to Georgetown, because this Sunday is the last day that the Sabra Hummus House will be serving their signature product with some novel and intriguing toppings. Designed to be temporary, it’s a venue to test out the concept of a restaurant dedicated to hummus and its accompaniments: pita, tzatziki, babaganoush, and other Mediterranean tastes.

Hummus House Outside

Hummus House Outside

The decor has a few nods towards the Middle East theme, but most of the effort to transform this former clothing store has gone into the menu.

The Communal Table

The Communal Table

A View of the Open Kitchen

A View of the Open Kitchen

Inside Looking Out

Inside Looking Out

Along with more traditional hummus preparations, there are some more adventurous choices. I ordered the Mezze combination, one each bowl of babaganoush, tzatziki and avocado combined with Arcadia Farm vegetables (notice the attribution to a local farm? More on that below).

Mezze Entree

Mezze Entree

My lunch companion opted for East Meets West – hummus with inventive combinations of toppings, to wit:

  • • edamame, crystallized ginger and sesame oil – a great, offbeat flavor combination with eye-appeal from the bright green beans;
    • salty roasted pepitas and pumpkin oil – the tamest combination, and least successful IMHO; and
    • crispy rosemary roasted chickpeas and preserved lemon – a knockout.
East Meets West

East Meets West

But wait! There’s more! We had timed our visit to coincide with the weekly chef demo. It turned out to be not so much a demo as a tasting – an array of little bowls of hummus topped with a whole gourmet food store’s worth of condiments. Mary Beth Albright, the local cook and food blogger (also a lawyer specializing in food policy), who had designed the menu in the Sabra corporate kitchen in Richmond, had everything from Sriracha sauce to truffle oil for patrons to try.

Mary Beth Sets Up the Tasting

Mary Beth Sets Up the Tasting

Quite a Spread of Spreads

Quite a Spread of Spreads

There were more of these than usual, she told us, because some were left over from the private “top your own hummus” party at the restaurant a few days ago. Truffle oil truly improves a bowl of hummus. So does pickled ginger.

I asked Mary Beth about the process used to develop the Hummus House concept. She spent days tinkering with likely combinations of ingredients, because, unlike conventional restaurant openings, all the dishes had to be ready to serve for the entire run of the popup. There was no time for adjustments during the short duration of this experiment.

The staff did not seem fazed by the imminent demise of the establishment. They were having a good time.

L to R: Mary Beth, Chef Cory, Seba, Regina

L to R: Mary Beth, Chef Cory, Seba, Regina

The emphasis on locally grown produce is a connection to Sabra’s commitment to the Future Farmers of America (FFA). As a part of that, they are assisting a group of young farmers who want to grow chickpeas in Virginia, and will be donating $25,000 from the Hummus House to the National FFA Scholarship Program. I say, the more local farmers, the better!

Sabra Hummus House
1254 Wisconsin Avenue NW,
Washington, DC 20007
(202) 333-0500

Hours of Operation
Open September 29 – October 26, 2014
Lunch, 11am – 3pm & Dinner 5pm – 9pm

 

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Fun and Food at National Harbor

In May, the annual National Harbor Wine and Food Festival combined some of Washington’s top chefs with tastes of food and drink. Then they threw in a great venue – right on the water – and good spring weather. That’s the formula for a great weekend!

Alas, we could only stay for Saturday, but it was enough to see chefs Mike Isabella, Rock Harper, and Scott Drewno playing to the crowd (especially Chef Rock, who had his homies from Alexandria cheering him on!)

First, though, some observation on that crowd and the venue. The pier had a new attraction this year: the just-about-to-be-completed Ferris wheel.

The View From The Chairs

The View From The Chairs

The bubbly flowed at the Opici tent as Ann-Marie poured tastings. Sparkling wine is my favorite tipple, and they had Cava, Prosecco and Champagne varieties to be savored.

Opici's Ann-Marie Pours

Opici’s Ann-Marie Pours

Patrons could pose in a Big Chair with the river in the background and pretend they were on a cruise.

Edith Ann, Where Are You?

Edith Ann, Where Are You?

One guy wore his sentiments on his back.

Tell Us How You Really Feel!

Tell Us How You Really Feel!

There was a bachelorette party having a good time, posing and procuring headgear from the Balloon Man.

Busy Teasing the Bride

Surrounding the Bride

One Bridal Headpiece Coming Up!

One Bridal Headpiece Coming Up!

At the Stella Artois tent, I sampled the new line of cidre (European style cider) and admired the hostesses in their matching dresses.

Stella Cidre Sisters

Stella Cidre Sisters

Off the pier, a large beer tasting tent was pitched on the grass. It was a great place to picnic and chill.

Chillin' Out at the Beer Tent

Chillin’ Out at the Beer Tent

And more cider for tasting – my choice over beer any day!

More Cider

More Cider

Now, about those chefs. Mike Isabella of Graffiato in Washington, DC did a little tasting himself before his demo.

Chef Mike Sipping

Chef Mike Sipping

Then he got down to business and showed us how to make gnudi, which are like gnocchi (and just as much fun to say), poached in water and showered with goat cheese, prosciutto, eggplant and basil.

Chef Mike Makes Gnudi

Chef Mike Makes Gnudi

Chef Rahman “Rock” Harper continued the Italian theme with his preparation of risotto, using mascarpone, butter and Parmesan cheese (what wouldn’t taste good with those ingredients?) “It’s rice and cheese at the end of the day!” So true.

But First, a Selfie

But First, a Selfie

Chef Rock Rocks It

Chef Rock Rocks It

Plating the Risotto

Plating the Risotto

The Italian spell was broken by Chef Scott Drewno of The Source by Wolfgang Puck, who opted to prepare lamb skewers with Asian spices. He showed off his new toy, a stone mortar and pestle he got from Eden Center for $20.00, perfect for grinding spices and making marinades.

Chef Scott's New Toy

Chef Scott’s New Toy

Chef Scott Cooks

Chef Scott Cooks

The crowd at the demo tent appreciated the big monitors so they could get close-ups of the cooking action.

In The Monitor

In The Monitor

After the demos, the three chefs posed for pictures by Nycci Nellis of TheListAreYouOnIt, who organized the demos for the festival.

Would It Be Trite To Say "Cheese"?

Would It Be Trite To Say “Cheese”?

On the way back to the car, I couldn’t help but peek into the Peeps store. If you are hankerin’ for a sugar overdose, that is the place!

Peeps Store

Peeps Store

But we were sated for at least the rest of the day. Sweet wine, cider, food, and cooking camaraderie were plenty for us!

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By The Pricking Of My Thumbs

Something tasty this way comes. It’s chestnut season, and the Asian Chestnut tree in my yard is giving up its bounty this week.  It takes me back to the roasted chestnuts being sold on street corners in Philadelphia in my childhood.

Backyard Chestnut Tree

Backyard Chestnut Tree

Close-up of Nuts, Showing Prickly Hulls

Close-up of Nuts, Showing Prickly Hulls

Nut About To Drop

Nut About To Drop

Once a year, I get to try beating the squirrels to these abundant but annoyingly tedious nuts. They have spiky outer hulls (ouch!), papery inner hulls, and more than one competitor for their meat. Some will fall free before hitting the ground, but lots have to be removed from the hulls after they fall.  Besides us and the squirrels, a beetle lays eggs in the flowers in the spring. If the nuts are not processed within a few days of falling, the eggs hatch and the nuts deteriorate from worm damage.

So you need to be on alert if you want to gather a few pounds of nut meat to keep for the rest of the year. We’ve been boiling them after cutting a slit in the shell, peeling them before they cool down (or else the inner hull won’t separate), and freezing the result for the last few days.

Beautiful Chestnuts

Beautiful Chestnuts

Boiling With Slits Cut

Boiling With Slits Cut

Out of Shell, and Inner Hull

Out of Shell, and Inner Hull

The Mess and the Products

The Mess and the Products

Last year, I pureed the nuts with chicken stock and froze them in 1 cup bags.

Puree Ready to Freeze

Puree Ready to Freeze

I’ve been using them as the basis for soup and stuffing. This year, we’ve been able to get more large pieces out of the shells, so I am freezing them separately. Several years ago, I tried making marrons glacés, but it took a lot of time and the results weren’t worth the work.

In the past, I tried freezing the nuts without shelling them, but didn’t have the gumption to process them afterwards, so they just took up room in the freezer. Now, I can just pull out a bag and it’s ready to use.

We also have a black walnut tree. Years ago we put a lot of work into shelling those nuts, as well. (One of these days, I will write an article titled “Things I’ve Done Once.”) Nowadays, we leave them to the squirrels. I wish I could make a deal with the little nut thieves to take all the black walnuts and leave the chestnuts to us!

Here’s a link to a recipe I intend to try: Apple and Chestnut-Stuffed Pork Loin with Cider Sauce

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Hope For The Future Of The Planet

North we drove, almost due north, until we swung north-east at York, up to a small town in Pennsylvania with big things happening on a farm just outside it. We took a road trip to the Rodale Institute Experimental Farm near Kutztown, between Reading and Allentown. There are more good things happening up there than I can count! Lest you think that the title of this article is a touch hyperbolic, let me tell you about some of them.

The Rodale name is familiar to anyone acquainted with organic gardening. Indeed, Organic Gardening Magazine is the flagship publication of an empire dedicated to healthy lifestyles, with books, magazines and social media encouraging self- and world-improvement; for instance, they published Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. The experimental farm puts into practice what the publications advocate.

Driving up to the farm, one is first impressed by the view of rolling green fields against a blue sky.

The View From There

The View From There

Then comes a picture-perfect farmhouse complete with cats, but inside it’s all bustling. The house is a business center, one of a collection of buildings: classrooms, barns, greenhouses, equipment sheds, a geodesic dome (!) among other livestock housing, and environmentally responsible tertiary-treatment recycling toilets. At least one of them has a green roof.

Farm House Complete With Cat

Farm House Complete With Cat

Tertiary Toilets

Tertiary Toilets

The Green Roof

The Green Roof

And rain barrels with messages (for the school groups).

Rain Barrel Lesson

Message On A Barrel

Aaron Kinsman met us with a golf cart, and gave us a tour. First stop was the organic apple orchard: 1100 trees, managed with LISA (Low-Input Sustainable Agriculture). Their leaves are sprayed with kaolin (clay) to make them taste bad. The coddling moth’s mating cycle is interrupted by pheromones. The result? Beautiful apples without pesticides.

Aaron And The Apple Trees

Aaron And The Apple Trees

There are 330 acres of experimental agriculture.  Aaron was eager to explain them all.

There are many animals. The pigs are heritage breeds, Large Black and Tamworth. They are raised for 7 to 8 months before their meat becomes a palette for some very lucky restaurant chefs.

Happy Pigs

Happy Pigs

There is a veterinarian on call, who treats the animals with a mix of conventional medicine, homeopathy, herbs, and acupuncture. Now, I find acupuncture barely credible for humans, but am stretching mightily to imagine it for pigs and donkeys.

Speaking Of Donkeys...

Speaking Of Donkeys…

We met Mr. Tuggs and Irwin. “They’re rescue donkeys,” said Aaron. “We didn’t plan on them.” But the goats are on purpose. Nigerian dwarf goats named Alfalfa, Rose, Daisy, Iris, Clover, Marigold, and Zorro – he’s the buck.

Flowery Goats

Flowery Goats

There are oxen, Lewis and Clark. There are chickens, of course there are chickens, housed in movable coops.

Free-Range Chickens

Free-Range Chickens

And there are bees, a colony of hives. It’s the Honeybee Conservancy, dedicated to studying how to make them thrive. They are Thomas Hybrid Hives, looking like nothing I’ve seen before, of vertical African design. The bees draw their own comb size. Forcing bees to live in over-sized comb cells is apparently one of the stressors contributing to honeybee decline in conventional hives.

Bees Up Close

Bees Up Close

And From Afar, With Bicycles

And From Afar, With Bicycles

Then we went to see the fields. We drove past the field leased to the CSA,

CSA At Work

CSA At Work

past the compost piles,

Compost

Compost

out to the flat rows of green. These were not so photogenic, but were educational. Rodale ran a great experiment here, for 30 years, practicing crop rotation, all varieties of cover crops, no-till methods, GMO, non-GMO, you name it. The Farming Systems Trial’s results show that organic methods are at least as good, and often superior to, conventional farming, by several measures: healthier soil, less greenhouse gases, less energy input, and more profitable. Read more about it at www.rodaleinstitute.org.

On the way back, we met James Burkholder, Rodale’s neighbor farmer. He is applying Rodale’s methods on his farm, thereby extending the oasis of organic farming in the midst of the conventional wilderness. He raises cows.

Farmer James

Farmer James

Neighbor Cows

Neighbor Cows

The Rodale farm welcomes visitors. There will be an Apple Festival on September 20, when the public will be invited to harvest those organic apples. There is much more information at www.rodaleinstitute.org.

 

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Prince Caspian for a Night

Singers! Food! Musicians! Food! Dancers! Food! Artists creating Art before our eyes! And did I mention food?

Most Americans couldn’t find Azerbaijan on a map, but the Azerbaijan America Alliance (AAA) gave a spectacular Gala Dinner and Cultural Evening that could rival the best any in Europe could offer. (For the record, it’s just south of Russia, on the western shore of the Caspian Sea.)

We were graciously invited to the event to write about the distinctive cuisine served at the dinner. Now, we didn’t know what to expect; like most of the Americans referenced above, Azerbaijan is not usually on our cultural radar, but we were in for a very pleasant surprise.

This Must Be The Place!

This Must Be The Place!

The Projection From Inside

The Projection From Inside

The Cavernous Hall

The Cavernous Hall

The vast interior of the National Building Museum held tables for about 500, and a large stage. Waiters passed wine and pomegranate juice (Azerbaijani wine? No, Californian). The waiters looked very fetching and exotic in their tall hats.

The High-Hatted Waiter

The High-Hatted Waiter

In a quick peek behind the scenes, I got a preview of the dessert course, the plates laid out in their hundreds behind a curtain.

Almost Endless Desserts

Almost Endless Desserts

We took our seats, and met our tablemates. Among them were a young couple, Jason and Tunzala. She is from Azerbaijan and remembered the dishes from her homeland, so I learned a few insider facts I would not have otherwise.

But first, there were speeches: A welcome by Anar Mammadov, the founder of the AAA; remarks by H.E. Elin Suleymanov, the Ambassador of the Republic of Azerbaijan; and a keynote by Congressman Dan Burton, the chairman of the AAA. Then, the music started, and dinner was served.

Many acts performed with great energy. This was frustrating, as their constant motion made unblurred pictures practically impossible! But I did manage to catch a few.

Sabina Babeyeva, Azerbaijani  Pop Star

Sabina Babeyeva, Azerbaijani Pop Star

The Pearl of Azerbaijan Dancers

The Pearl of Azerbaijan Dancers

More Dancers - And Some Schmoozers

More Dancers – And Some Schmoozers

Art Was Assembled While We Watched

Art Was Assembled While We Watched

The appetizer, Caspian Salad, was an artful arrangement of greens and salmon with pomegranate sauce. “It would be sturgeon at home,” said Tunzala. It was good nonetheless.

Caspian Salad

Caspian Salad

Next came Dolma. Stuffed grape leaves are most commonly thought of in America as part of Greek cuisine, but they are found throughout the Mediterranean, and, yes! Caspian countries. These contained ground lamb and rice, and were served with a minted yogurt sauce. They were delicious, exemplars of their kind.

Dolma

Dolma

There was a lovely brace of lamb chops with lavash and a sumakh sauce,

Lamb Chops

Lamb Chops

then a dumpling stuffed with Basmati rice, chicken, chestnuts, and dried fruits identified on the menu as Shakh Plov, “Signature Dish of Azerbaijani Cuisine.” Tunzala said that it is always served as the last course at weddings. I have to apologize for the quality of the picture; I had reached my wine limit just then!

Shakh Plov

Shakh Plov

Dessert came; the assortment of pastries, filled with nuts and honey, I had seen earlier. Tea was served in glasses with filigreed holders. Very agreeable.

The AAA’s stated mission is to further a mutual understanding between Azerbaijan and America. Events like this one will surely help to accomplish that!

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