More photos about peacocks and choi sum

Veggielution’s workdays are on Saturdays now, and I’ve not been able to make it to the farm every week. Today was the last dry day before epic rain, and I decided to make pasta. Zan, one of our Americorps staff, helped me roll it out.

and I made a sauce for it out of, you guessed it! choi sum (as well as other bitter greens and some broccoli.)

(In the background, you can see the jar of incredibly spicy Pakistani pickled chilis that I was gifted at my knitting retreat last week. Good, though.)

Today we were preparing for the storms, mainly by mulching with straw. Al, one of the rangers, came roaring up on the tractor to deliver the rotten bales.

We had some very beautiful clouds at lunch time.

And here is the obligatory peacock photo.

So. One of the (lame) excuses I’ve been using for not blogging is that a project has come up that I didn’t feel comfortable talking about online yet, but which would dominate my sustainable food life, were it to come to pass. Then I saw an article in the Mercury News about it, and so there’s not really any point in keeping it a secret anymore, at least from my vast readership.

Veggielution, in the person of Amie and I, has been offered the opportunity of running the produce stand at the new downtown San José public market. Since hearing about this project, I’ve wanted to be a part of it, and now I have quite a large part of it, if I can make it work. This will entail creating a for-profit entity that will source as much as possible from Veggilution itself, and the rest from the Santa Clara Valley and as slightly-beyond as we can manage, trying to keep everything as local and seasonal as possible. Is downtown San José ready for a produce stand where you can’t buy tomatoes in December, or bananas ever? But one where you can get enthusiastic recommendations for recipes and techniques and free samples of roasted rutabagas?

On Wednesday, I’m off to the Ecological Farming Association Conference, known as “Eco-Farm.” I attended Eco-Farm two years ago, alone, and knowing no one (although I was happy to see Tom Broz and Debbie Palmer of Live Earth Farm there) but hoping to make some connections and somehow get more involved with the sustainable food movement, more involved than just reading blogs. I don’t know whether I accomplished that, but I did learn a lot. And when I got involved with Veggielution last year, I knew that we’d all make valuable connections and learn even more if we all went this year.

Two years ago, it rained nonstop when I was at Asilomar, and there was even snow on the Santa Lucias as we drove around on a school gardens tour. This year, it looks set to repeat the crazy weather, but I’m attending the sustainable business pre-conference, instead. And I have a private room, so I don’t have to put up with a skanky roommate bringing in a stranger into her bed after midnight. And I’ll have my Veggielution posse with me; I’m really looking forward to it.

Choi sum

I wake up on farm workday mornings and lie in bed thinking of what to cook for lunch. I have particular limitations about what I consider a meal, and, soups aside, I usually feel compelled to incorporate starch or protein with the veggies. I made (whole wheat, perhaps not entirely authentic) steamed buns filled with choi sum at the last workday of 2009, but I decided to switch cuisines and make pasta today.

Choi sum is a variety of mustard, but the flowering stalks are the peccant part. They have an incredible flavor, without a trace of mustardy bitterness, but a full, savory deliciousness. Two weeks ago, they were just starting to bloom; today I got a big bowl full. The purple stems are beautiful against the green leaves.

I chopped them up while the onion was frying.

(Every single time I start to cook something at the farm, I start by frying onions in olive oil, and immediately I get appreciative comments.)

I decided I wanted a bit of bitterness, so I picked some other greens, too. (Here they are posing with the onion.)

I added the chopped greens to the pan with the fried onion.

And then I stopped taking photos of food. But I seasoned these greens with salt and dried, crushed chiles and served them with pasta. Somehow the cooking went faster than it usually does, so I then got out a largish acorn squash, peeled and seeded it, and cooked it in lots of olive oil, too, again seasoned with salt and chiles. And then I went and picked a couple of pretty lettuces and made a salad. We switched the workday to Saturday, which prevented Todd from coming until he reorganizes his own schedule, so we didn’t get his usual bounty. But there was lots of lovely bread, both beer- and corn-, and everyone got plenty to eat.

After lunch, a peacock was displaying for a peahen, but kept turning away from me when I tried to get a photo of him, so I had to settle for taking a picture of his butt.

And all of the geese and ducks took a field trip away from their pond, and then came back in a honking, waddling line, with the chickens and guinea fowl straggling along.

Subway Full of Apples

I was offered today the excuse of being sick for my blogging hiatus, so I’ll take it. But the impetus for getting back to it right now is this amazing video.

And evidently, it was all done in CGI, and that link is worth watching, too. (Via Serious Eats.)

I went to a foraging dinner at Pie Ranch, where we took a walk to see mushrooms growing, and got an up close view of the red one with the white spots that is such a feature of German children’s literature, but is pretty poisonous.

I also attended a CAG meeting during this blogging break, where we started talking about land use. This is probably the area where we can make the most impact on the master plan process for the WPCP. We had a mini-charette where we split into groups, each with its own large-scale map of the plant lands and a pile of sticky notes to represent the acreage we’d devote to certain aspects. This time we discussed “social uses,” which means recreation. We were alloted an arbitrary 240 acres and 12 “dollars” to spend on different types of recreation, where a sports field complex, for example, cost 3 “dollars” and each inch of trail on the map 50 “cents.” (I don’t recall the scale of the map, but an inch was roughly 1/8 mile, I’d guess.)

There was broad consensus among the groups that a significant part of the budget should be spent on trails, but we weren’t entirely sure how other use of the plant lands would tie into park needs in North San José. The two other people in my group were in favor of sports fields, which I would support if there was a very pressing need in the area. The group with most of the environmentalists in it came out in favor of an educational farm (and I was pleased to hear the shout out the Veggielution got in the discussion of that) as well as an ADA-compliant playground further toward the Bay, with boardwalks to entice families with strollers to get closer to the water. The third group wanted smaller sports fields, and an interpretive trail as an educational component, as well as prioritizing a connection between the trails along the Guadalupe and Coyote Creek.

The members with detailed knowledge of where the sensitive habitat is located incorporated that information into their recommendations of where these park sites should be, but the rest of us will have to wait for the next meeting when we are set to talk about environmental uses of the plant lands. Ultimately, of course, there will be regulatory constraints on what can go where.

More links about water and food

Like a sickly Jane Austen heroine, I’ve been too delicate to do anything except read teh interwebs, but here are some things that are too good not to share.

This time, I’ll put the food links before the water links. Via Serious Eats comes this fantastic, interactive, fold-out pig illustration. It’s part of a great review of an 1917 reference book Bacon and Hams.

And for water, Boing Boing has a nice article on water recycling. (Thanks, Jens!)

Scrapple Flame War

I rise from my sick bed to give you a very funny blog post (that is, someone else’s very funny blog post) about food commentary circa 1872, in the form of letters to the NY Times about scrapple.

Over the next two weeks, the Times published more than two dozen letters on the subject of scrapple, which, taken together, form a sort of steampunk prototype for online food discussion. It’s all there: the pseudonymous “usernames,” the off-topic ranting, the preoccupation with pork fat. In short, it’s a modern-day food thread in very slow motion. … As always, the haters far outnumbered the fans: One reader declared that he’d just as soon fry bread in lard and eat it than partake in what others called an “abominable mess,” a “culinary fraud upon the stomach” and a great way to contract trichinosis.

Still working on Thanksgiving leftovers. Maybe I’ll make that soup tonight; I could certainly use it.

Cooking up at least a vort lobe

It will not be news to you if I say that I’ve been an unmotivated blogger, despite my oft-professed disdain for blogging about not blogging. But lots of blog-worthy things have occurred, so here’s a pre-Thanksgiving buffet of food and water excitement.

First, in the news, we have the NY Times holding forth, quite rightly, on combined stormwater and sanitary sewer systems that can’t handle heavy rainfall. My problem is the sentence in this graf (can I use that word, even though I never went to J-school? How about “lede?”)

When a sewage system overflows or a treatment plant dumps untreated waste, it is often breaking the law. Today, sewage systems are the nation’s most frequent violators of the Clean Water Act. More than a third of all sewer systems — including those in San Diego, Houston, Phoenix, San Antonio, Philadelphia, San Jose and San Francisco — have violated environmental laws since 2006, according to a Times analysis of E.P.A. data.

that seems to imply that San José’s own WPCP is routinely dumping raw sewage into people’s houses and escaping punishment. The Times has put together a very elegant interface to the EPA data, and the data on the WPCP’s violation is here. I can’t actually get anything out of that detailed page.

The point of the article is certainly much more important than carping about whether San José’s plant should be lumped in with antiquated combined systems, but I feel the need to defend our unloved, but necessary piece of infrastructure.

The next water-related news that caught my eye was an article from Water Online (via Aquafornia) about the Water Replenishment District down in LA, and its plans to use recycled water to hold back seawater intrusion. One of the important responsibilities of the SCVWD is maintaining the groundwater that supplies half of our local water. We don’t have to worry too much about seawater intrusion, but I think that recycled water is the future of groundwater replenishment here in California.

And in other news, I attended a focus group session and then a community meeting about the San Pedro Square Urban Public Market project (that will probably end up with a snappier name.) I haven’t run into anyone who’s not excited at the prospect of this market, but, being San José, there is a very strong current of “Please promise it won’t suck,” to everyone’s comments. I’m hoping that it will also be a force for good in local and sustainable food. I’ll certainly be posting a lot more about it as I learn more.

If the water articles haven’t spoiled your appetite, I can tell you about how I’ve been cooking all day. I’m hosting Thanksgiving here tomorrow, today I prepared

  • roasted carrots
  • brussels sprouts salad
  • cornbread dressing
  • cranberry orange relish
  • sweet potato rolls
  • white bean dip
  • onion confit
  • marinated peppers and eggplant

I wanted to get as much knife work out of the way before my dad starts making gin fizzes.

And finally, since Stan thinks I don’t have enough photos of myself in this blog, here’s one he took of me picking persimmons from a shed roof.

I wish you a very Happy Thanksgiving!

Fried Green Tomatoes

I was short on inspiration this morning, but I finally settled on stuffed chard to cook at the farm workday. I led a group of San José State students out into the field to pick chard; they were struck by the fact that we were picking weeds to eat for lunch, and a bit taken aback when I picked a mizuna leaf and popped it into my mouth.

I made a filling with baby chard leaves, onions and rice, but I put too much water into it, so in the end, we drained out some filling to use in the steamed leaves, and left the rest in the pot as a kind of chard rice soup.

Ditti (I hope I’ve got her name right) helped me.

One of the tasks today was ripping out the tomatoes from the original plot. This produced an enormous compost pile of vines (shown here with Annie and Todd for scale)

and afterward, I was vouchsafed a large bucket of green tomatoes

and decided to add fried green tomatoes to the menu. We had a large group of volunteers today, so more food was needed. I dredged them in masa harina, since I didn’t have any plain cornmeal, and salt and pepper, then fried them in corn oil. Then at lunch, I lectured everyone on why Pluto isn’t a planet.

And speaking of oil, I went to Mission San José yesterday

to buy olive oil from nuns in Christmas sweaters.

I was in this line of people for 45 minutes waiting to get to the little room on the right with the oil. It’s harvested from the trees at the mission and at the nuns’ chapterhouse just behind, then pressed and bottled in Manteca. Although it was only on sale yesterday morning (and maybe today, if there was any left) it’s actually last year’s oil. This year’s harvest is the morning of 5 December, and the public is welcome. I am even more likely to go if I can take some olives home for myself and cure them, but I’ll probably go, anyway.


Today is the last day of the 2009 summer CSA.

Tom has loaded us down with winter squash in time for Thanksgiving. And a good thing, because the nation is facing a shortage of canned pumpkin. Not that I use canned pumpkin; I usually roast Sugar Pie pumpkins and blend the flesh with eggs and sweetened condensed milk for my Thanksgiving pie. But canned pumpkin is really butternut squash (something that the Veggielution staff found very disturbing when I dropped that particular bomb at a meeting on Monday) so roasted squash it will be.

Anyway. Aside from the plethora of squash at the upper left, we have, continuing clockwise: turnips(!), beets, a tiny head of lettuce, collards, dill, cilantro, cabbage, radicchio (I took another orphan today, leaving behind some ruffled kale,) carrots and apples. There is also another bag in the middle, which has four small heads of garlic, but they’re lost in the glare of the flash.

I bought some celery today (since we never got any all summer) and made another huge lot of mirepoix with these carrots, and the parsley from the past couple weeks. The turnips I may mash, just so I can make “neeps hackit with balmagowry” in honor of Patrick O’Brian, although two neeps will make a small dish. I could go heavy on the balmagowry, as long as I don’t spill it in my car again. And maybe dill would go with that, too.


Wild chard grows all over Prusch park, and Amie asked me to cook some today. Did you know that chard and beet are the same species? Hence the Italian name for chard in the title. It’s also the same species as the mangelwurzel (which, to be honest, is really a large beet, anyway) and is called “silverbeet” in Australia. I can’t tell you why people say “Swiss chard,” though.

Anyway, I arrived an hour or so late to the farm, and Amie immediately went off to pick a peck of chard. Or maybe more than a peck. It was a lot.

I had half a onion from home, which I started frying in olive oil, while I cut the stems from about a third of the chard, and then sliced the stems thinly. I added them to the onion, and then set to stripping the stems from the rest. People often throw away the stems of leafy greens, but they are perfectly edible. They just need to cook longer. But I was afraid that I’d fill the entire pot with chard stems before I got a chance to cook the leaves, so I only used the first third. I added minced garlic, salt, pepper and chili powder, and then after a while, raisins.

When the stems were tender and a bit browned, I added the chard leaves, cut into strips. I managed to get the whole lot into the pot, although it took a while. But it cooked down to maybe just a third of the pot when it was all done. I toasted some pine nuts and fried bread crumbs in more olive oil as a garnish.

And it all got eaten up, which is always very gratifying. Lunch also featured Sean’s wonderful olives, which he made at a workshop at Hidden Villa last week.

I wish I had know about it. But I will be revisiting Mission San José next weekend, to pick up some olive oil made from the mission’s own olives.

Away the sewage!

Just as “alternative conveyance” is another word for “peripheral canal,” so “sewage sludge” has become “biosolids.” At last night’s CAG meeting, we talked about what we’re going to do with all of it, whatever it’s called. Currently, the WPCP devotes almost 800 acres of the plant lands to the sludge lagoons and drying beds that take out most of the water from the solid waste left behind by the three-stage water treatment process we use. This stuff, call it biosolids or dried sludge, spends four years out in the fresh air and sunshine, after which it is used as “alternate daily cover” for the landfill across the street. The current process is essentially free, in that it relies on solar power to evaporate the water (there is some pumping involved) but it uses huge tracts of land, is responsible for the stink, and depends on a landfill that is due to close within the time frame of the plant’s upgrade. It’s time to come up with a new destination for the biosolids.

You know already how proud I am of our sewage treatment plant, and I am also proud to say that it produces exceptional biosolids. That is, Class A biosolids of Exceptional Quality, which means that they conform to strict rules about pathogen levels (the Class A) and metal concentration (the Exceptional Quality.) Throughout California and the US, biosolids are used as soil amendments, and considered as one element in the cycle of growth and consumption of nutrients, the prospect of making more such use of our own biosolids is very appealing, especially given my agricultural bent. But if we use the other term, sewage sludge, we get to the fact that it cannot be used for organic agriculture (although to be fair, sludge is not the same thing as biosolids. Sludge comes straight out if the pipe, where biosolids have been “dewatered” and, in San José’s case, had the pathogen level cut near zero.) Further, many agricultural counties in California have banned the import of biosolids from other regions. Dale Ihrke, the plant manager, said last night that it seems more a case of rural counties’ not wanting to have to deal with the waste of the large urban centers, rather than a prejudice against biosolids per se, but the effect is the same. The plant produces many tons of biosolids, and to use them with any kind of efficiency, we’d have to load them on trucks and ship them elsewhere.

So, attractive a notion as it is, we’re probably not going to be using much of our own biosolids, Class A and of Exceptional Quality as they are, to build the soil of urban farms in Santa Clara County, or anywhere else in California.

The Plant Master Plan upgrade process is predicated on the idea that a big chunk of the plant lands will be developed to offset some of the $1 billion cost of the upgrades, and reducing the footprint of the drying operation is a key factor in that. Smaller technologies include centrifuges or belt presses for the “dewatering” and greenhouses or heated chambers for the drying. All of these will take energy, energy we’re not currently having to pay for with our passive solar processes. But the same energy content that makes biosolids usable soil amendments is also available to us in other ways, and it turns out that sewage sludge has roughly the same energy content as low-grade coal.

Further, systems that mechanically remove water from sludge and then incinerate the biosolids just about break even in energy use and production. But not monetarily; they are very, very expensive, with much of the cost coming from meeting air quality regulations. But they reduce the volume of biosolids by 90%, and the resulting ash, as well as being absolutely sterile, is also usable as a component of concrete.

So there you have it. I am now a firm believer in incinerating sewage sludge. My ideal Santa Clara Valley would use this rich source of nutrients to build the fertility in the soil of the many farms that would dot the landscape. But the valley I live in could do worse than to keep dealing with the biosolids on site, recover some energy from it, and sell the remains.

Working to build a local, sustainable food system in San José