Category Archives: Food

The Five Takeaways of Gardening: Genie Gratto

Some of the best things in life happen by accident.  This was the case of Genie Gratto’s foray into the world of gardening.

“When I lived in the DC area, I tried to grow things and hadn’t been very successful.  My husband bought me an herb kit that had seeds, tools, pots, and an herb dryer.  I didn’t get anywhere close to having anything good that could even be dried!  Stuff sprouted up but couldn’t be used,” she sighs.

Gratto did not take up gardening again until she moved to Iowa City, a place described as having some of the best soil in the country.  Gratto put in a garden in 2006 and became fascinated with the idea of growing food.

“Gardening is a little bit miraculous to me – it amazes me that you can throw some stuff into the ground and have no idea what you’re doing, and then things, edible things, just grow out of there,” she says.

Gratto now lives in the Bay Area, and chronicles her adventures and misadventures in gardening in her blog, The Inadvertent Gardener. Below, are five takeaways gathered in conversation with Gratto.

1.  Gardening requires only a few basic tools.

Beyond the basics of seeds, soil, light and water, Gratto recommends a couple other tools.

“You need some kind of tool to dig.  It can vary based on the scale and size of your garden – for example a trowel for small containers, or a big shovel so you can move dirt around,” she explains.

“The other thing I recommend is having a sprinkly attachment for a hose or a watering can.  I thought they were silly at first, but I realized that if you pour a giant pitcher of water on a plant, it displaces the dirt.  You should sprinkle the water instead, let it soak into the ground, rather than creating runoff,” she says.

“If you want to get really fancy, a hoe is good to have to weed easily,” Gratto recommends.

2.  When planning a garden, remember that plants need their space.

“When you have a garden, you need to have a modicum of planning.  When you plant seeds into the ground, it’s easy to think ‘these plants will be small and cute,’” explains Gratto.

“However, most of the time, you don’t realize how big plants actually get.  For example, I had no idea how big zucchini plants would get. Artichokes are the same – they are these huge thistle-y plants that support one tiny artichoke, and they completely take over the space they’re in.  They consistently shade out the other guys,” she warns.

3.  Beware the guilt and heavy lifting of gardening.

Gardening, despite its geriatric and gentle connotations, has some minor hazards.

The first is a moral hazard.

“There is always that fear that you are killing things when you garden, and of course, guilt ensues,” says Gratto.

In one particular inadvertent gardening mishap, Gratto planted tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants under a tree that she hadn’t realized was poisonous – a black walnut tree.

“I had no idea how poisonous it was… I had never heard of this tree!  What happened was, as rain would run off the tree, the poison would run off with the rain and fall on the plants, and the plants were dying as a result.  This led to a transplant operation on a July 4th weekend – five tomato plants and two pepper plants were moved, but I left the eggplants under the tree,” she says guiltily.

On a more positive note, the post about the mishap ended up being one of the most popular storylines to ever hit her blog.

Transplanting operations also lead to the second hazard – that of physical hazards.

“There are standard physical things to be cautious of when gardening – remembering to lift from your knees and not your back, like when you’re hauling around piles of dirt or transplanting tomato plants.  There’s also a lot of resting on your hands and knees, so you need to remember to cushion all of that,” she recommends.

4.  Growing your food is the only way you can control what goes into it.

“One thing I do not understand is why someone would use something non-organic or synthetic in their garden.  Actually, a few years ago I caught my dad red-handed with a couple bags of Miracle-Gro, so I of course yelled at him.  This is your one opportunity to completely control what’s going in your food, without having to worry about government certification or about food miles.  This is the closest you’re going to get to your food source – why sully that?” exclaims Gratto emphatically.

5. After gardening for awhile, you begin to notice that plants have their own set of idiosyncrasies.

Michael Pollan discusses in his book The Botany of Desire, amongst other things, how certain plants have evolved in tandem with humans, how we both rely on each other for survival, and how some plants are quirky for a reason.  Gratto, while gardening, has noticed some of these quirks.

“One example is that of marigolds – if you plant them near tomatoes, it keeps the nasty bugs away.  There are also these flowers called Four O’ Clocks, which are both pretty and funny.  They have the name because they allegedly open at 4PM in the afternoon and after 12 hours, close again.  I planted them, and thought they were the lamest flower ever.  I would walk outside at 4PM and they were always closed.  However, one night when I walked out into the garden, they were actually open, and I thought to myself ‘how weird!  What kind of purpose does this have?  What kind of pollinating insects does it attract, how did it evolve into such a plant?’” explains Gratto.

There are certain things we will never answer, however Gratto nails on the head what it is that is so great about plants and gardening – that simple sense of wonder of caring for something and watching it grow.

Gratto’s The Inadvertent Gardener can be found at http://www.theinadvertentgardener.com.

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The Five Takeaways of Olive Oil: Art Kishiyama

Olive oil tasting is a strange custom.  Beyond the fact that you’re sipping oil from cups, there is also all the noisy inhaling, sloshing, and sucking sounds coming from all areas of the room.

It was Art Kishiyama who initiated me into this strange practice.  Art is the owner and grower for Olio Nuevo, a farm that specializes in artisan crafted extra virgin olive oil in Paso Robles, California.  On Kishiyama’s farm, where he lives with his wife, he also raises a herd of alpacas.  Not surprisingly, the man with the colourful present also had a colourful past:  Kishiyama spent 26 years in the U.S. Air Force and retired as a Colonel, then spent 15 years working at Walt Disney, building theme parks and attractions.

So how exactly does someone go from the military to building theme parks, to olive oil and alpacas?

“The simple answer – it was the first time we had acreage, and we wanted to grow something.  Since I was entering retirement, I chose not to do grapes as with all my neighbours and friends, although if I was 10 years younger, I would’ve done it for the challenge!” he laughs.

There was also a business reason.

“Olive orchard farming is much less intensive that vineyard farming.  There is an abundance of vineyards in Paso Robles wine country and in California. Our domestic demand for olive oil is growing in double digits and nearly all of the olive oil consumed in the U.S. is imported.  What it boils down to is, there is a growing demand for high quality, locally produced olive oil.”

Art Kishiyama provides his five takeaways of olive oil below.

1.  There are hundreds of types of olives, however three are best for oil.

“Olives have been grown since 3,000BC in Syria, and since then hundreds of varietals have evolved, adapted to specific climates, usages, and taste.  Some do best as table olives and others do best as oil, and then some are good in either way.  In California, the most common varietals are Ascolano, Sevillano, Mission, and Manzanillo, for canning.  Mission and Manzanillo olives are also used extensively for oil because of their high, mostly over 20%, oil content.  More recently, super-high density farming techniques have favored Arbequina for oil,” explains Kishiyama.

“However, it’s hard to say what is best – it’s like asking what fruit you like best, apples, oranges or bananas?  Or alternatively, what wine do you like – Syrah, Pinot, or Chardonnay?  It’s strictly a matter of taste, preference, and usage,” he says.

2.  Olive oils can be like fine wines.

There are several ways that olive oils can be like wines.

First, is the environment in which olives are grown, which is much like wine grapes.

“You need a ‘Mediterranean’ climate – warm and dry days, cool nights – identical to wine grapes.  You also need good water, and the absence of hard winter freezes.  Generally, soil doesn’t have to be too fertile – olive trees seem to thrive in poor soils,” explains Kishiyama.

The taste of olive oils is also measured similarly to wines.

“The taste of good olive oils will strike a balance between fruitiness or the aroma, bitterness or the taste in the mouth, and pungency, or the peppery finish.  And, like a wine, it makes certain foods taste better, and will push the natural flavours of food such as fish or vegetables, without being intrusive,” says Kishiyama.

And lastly, olive oils, like wines, can have some health benefits.

“Good olive oils have a lot of monounsaturated fats and polyphenols, or anti-oxidants, that the body needs for nourishment.  Last year, we analyzed our olive oils for polyphenol content and found that it had about 288 mg/kg of caffeic acid.  Compare that to blueberries, which average around 225 mg/kg, and typical olive oil, which is usually around 150 mg/kg.”

Such high scores can be attributed to when Kishiyama picks the olives.

3.  Within the very involved process of creating olive oil, the timing of the harvest matters most.

“The key is the timing of the harvest, or the relative ripeness of the fruit.  Our olives are hand picked by a picking crew, which is really hard work.  The greener the fruit, the more intense the flavors, or rather, the riper and softer the flavours.  Also, the greener the fruit, the higher the anti-oxidant content, since the polyphenol content peaks well before full ripeness.  Immediately after picking, the fruit begins to oxidize, so the faster it is milled, the better your oil will be,” says Kishiyama.

The rest of the process is pretty involved, and Kishiyama explains below.

“The milling process goes something like this – first, the stems and leaves are separated out.  Then the fruit is washed and then milled into a thick paste with the skin, seed and fruit all together.  After that, a process called ‘malaxation’ is done – this is where we stir the paste until the oil begins to separate and the aroma builds.  Then, we move it to a horizontal centrifuge where the liquid oil and water are separated from the paste – the solids are removed as compost.  Then, the liquid is moved to a vertical centrifuge, which separates the oil and the water, and the water is discarded as waste, and the oil is captured as extra virgin,”  he explains.

“There are usually small pieces of fruit, skin and seeds suspended in the oil, but it naturally settles out in the transport drums, and the oil is transferred into stainless steel containers called ‘fustinos’ for long term storage, and then it is bottled on demand for freshness,”   he says.

In a year, Kishiyama will produce from 500-800 gallons, or about 6,000 to 7,200 bottles per year.

4.  Olive oil is a great substitute for butter or margarine in baking.

Kishiyama likes to substitute butter or margarine in baking with olive oil, which is a healthier alternative and adds some flavour.

“I’ll usually make cookies or cakes using this equivalent table, which is at a 4:3 ratio for butter/margarine to olive oil,” he explains.

Of course, just be careful not to put a really strong tasting olive oil in foods where you don’t want that flavour, such as icing.

5.  The mass-produced olive oil you get at the grocery store could be quite old, or might actually not even be olive oil.

“An article in the New Yorker in 2007 about olive oil fraud really caused a big stir in food and food safety circles, and raised awareness of the issue,” he says.

“Some of the olive oils you can get at the grocery store could be two or three years old, or it might not even be pure olive oil.  Some packages have misleading information such as, ‘bottled in Italy’, but actually contain inferior oils from Tunisia or Morocco.  In some cases, extra virgin olive oil has been ‘cut’ with refined vegetable oils and sold as extra virgin olive oil.  ‘Light’ olive oils or ‘olive-flavoured’ oils are usually the product of such labeling.  In California, that’s the reason why a certification process is so important,” says Kishiyama, who gets his olive oils certified.

More information about Olio Nuevo can be found here.

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The Five Takeaways of American Chinese Food: Jenny 8 Lee

Jenny 8 Lee is a metropolitan reporter at the New York Times and author of the extremely funny and informative The Fortune Cookie Chronicles. As an American Born Chinese woman, Lee grew up eating both home cooked Chinese food and American Chinese food at restaurants.  She had always noticed, despite “Chinese” as a descriptor, there was a significant difference between the two.

“I thought it was just that my mom was a bad cook,” she laughs, referring to her mother’s home cooked Chinese food.

However, it wasn’t until she traveled to China for a year after college, where she started noticing patterns in how Chinese people ate food, how Chinese Americans ate food, and how Americans ate Chinese food.

It was, as Lee says, “an impetus for me to think about Chinese Food in a more critical way.”

The book details Lee’s travels around the world in search of answers to such confounding questions as “where do fortune cookies come from?”, “who is General Tso?”, and “where do Chinese restaurant workers come from?”

Chinese food is ubiquitous and as Lee says – it can be found anywhere that there is oxygen.  Or even in places where there isn’t oxygen – Chinese food is even served on the space shuttle menu.

Lee shares some of her five takeaways about American Chinese food below:

1.  Broccoli is not a Chinese vegetable.

Despite all the “Chinese” dishes with broccoli – beef with broccoli, stir fried broccoli with scallops, and many others – broccoli is not a Chinese vegetable.  It became popular in American Chinese food in the 1920s.  There is Chinese broccoli, or kai lan, which is related to kale.

“I can guarantee that General Tso never saw a stalk of broccoli in his life,” exclaims Lee.

2.  Chinese takeout boxes exist only in America.

The quintessential cardboard Chinese takeout boxes as popularized on television (Friends, Sex and the City, Seinfeld, and beyond) can only be found in America.  They were not a Chinese creation, nor are they available anywhere else in the world.  What are Chinese restaurants’ usual takeout container of choice?  Styrofoam clamshell boxes.

3.  Americans really love chicken.

In most American Chinese dishes, restaurants cater to Americans’ love for chicken.  Chicken balls, chicken and broccoli, General Tao’s chicken.  And if it’s deep fried, it’s even better.

4.  Americans don’t like food that reminds them of something that was alive.

American Chinese food is very much dissociated with the food from where it came from.  No one wants to know if an animal swam, walked, or moved.  As far as people know in the US, Chinese food is born in a Styrofoam tray – there are no feet, ears, claws, lungs, heads or blood hanging about.  Meanwhile, the Chinese like the “holistic” animal – they don’t let anything go to waste.

5.  There are dramatic variations between regions for American Chinese food.

American Chinese food varies significantly by region.  In the US, even fried rice can look different depending on where it is from.  In New England it’s brown, whereas in Miami it’s yellow, but in the Midwest it’s white.  In the south you can find Chow Mein, and in other places only Chow Fun.  This is largely an accident of history, dependent on regional flavours or even the mobility of restaurant workers who move one recipe from one region to another.

More information on Jennifer 8 Lee can be found at www.fortunecookiechronicles.com and at www.nytimes.com.

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