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Here I am at the garden in July, 2014. Notice the white blossoms on the vining lauki plant in the foreground. Lauki is sometimes called “white blossom squash.” Photo by Thomas Egenes

It’s been a bumper gardening year, with rains coming throughout June and July and the cucumber and zucchini and other squashes growing to Findhorn sizes. After last year, when torrential rains washed out our seeds and roly-poly’s (pill bugs) mowed down our zucchini seedlings overnight, we had to replant so many times that many gardeners in our campus community garden, which is all organic, gave up for the season.

So this is like winning a big prize. “Free food,” my husband chirps when I haul in bags overflowing with kale, chard, herbs, tomatoes, strawberries and broccoli.

“I call it our loot,” says my friend Dianne happily. She and her husband Rod joined the garden this year, added heaps of soil to already fertile beds, planted a few seeds and seedlings, and it’s taken off big-time.

Dean Goodale, who established a one-acre greenhouse north of campus and now gardens on his own, tells me that the reason our tomato, zucchini and cucumber plants are Findhorn-size this year is because the abundant rains have kept us from having to use the tap water. He says he tested the soil of eight gardens in our area last year, and they all had a high sodium content, from the water treatment system here in Fairfield. The sodium especially affects the squashes, cucumbers and somewhat the tomatoes.

If anything, I and my gardening partner, Charlotte Judge, didn’t plant enough this year. We planned on planting an extra garden along the fence, but ran out of time.

Thinking it would be another year like last year, we skipped the zucchini and went straight to the bottle gourd, a long, thin, light-green vegetable that our Indian friends call Lauki squash. Lauki is a highly revered vegetable in Ayurveda, known to balance liver functioning and help with weight loss, urinary disorders, and even is said to prevent premature graying of hair.

Last summer's lauki squash, sweet potatoes and greens. Photo by Linda Egenes

Last summer’s lauki squash, sweet potatoes and greens. Photo by Linda Egenes

It’s commonly found in Indian vegetable curry dishes and also can be juiced. It has other names: opo squash, long white gourd, white pumpkin, Benares pumpkin, or dudhi in India, calabash in Asia, kakunsa or cucuzza in Italy, fuzzy squash in Canada, and slaouia in Morocco.

The best part is that it has slightly stinky leaves that fended off the sow bugs last year. In fact, it was our star performer, with the two plants vining around the edge of our garden producing at least 30 huge gourds as big as baseball bats, which, unlike zuchhini, tasted better as they grew bigger.

Our Indian friends, in fact, asked us not to pick them young and green but to wait until they were two feet long with seeds inside. We ate them, juiced them and still had plenty to give away to friends. Charlotte dubbed them the solution to world hunger.

But alas, this year, when everyone’s zucchini is three feet tall, our two lauki plants have yet to produce a single vegetable. We’ll see. Lauki grows slower and shines in the later part of summer, when zucchini falls prey to the dread root borer.

One thing I’ve found consistent—that every year is different. One year it was the bush beans that stunned us with their output, the next the beans barely blossomed and the chard was a star. This year the timely rains have created a bumper crop of cucumber, kale, tomatoes (and other people’s zuchini). Oh well.

Lauki also tastes great as an Italian vegetable, and can be substituted for zucchini in any dish. It melts in your mouth. Here’s how I prepare it when I’m planning an Italian meal:

 

Mint-Anise Lauki Squash, Italian Style

Ingredients:

½ lauki gourd, peeled and cut into small pieces

2 T chopped fresh mint

2 T chopped fresh anise hyssop leaves

2 T butter or olive oil

Steam the lauki squash. Melt the butter or olive oil on low heat, add the herbs and lauki and toss lightly. Salt and pepper to taste.

 

IMG_9146One of the simple pleasures of a living in a small town is riding a bike everywhere you go. My husband and I love to pedal downtown to Howard Park every Saturday morning for our local Farmers Market. We’ve frequented much bigger Farmers Markets in Florida and the Bay Area, but there is nothing like the friendly and eclectic mix in Fairfield.

There you can chat with Fairfield’s Amish and Mennonite neighbors who sell pasture-raised organic eggs (Robert Yoder Farms from Bloomfield), the healthiest flower baskets you’ve ever seen (Lengachers Greenhouse in Keosaqua), and freshly made pies and bread from a Brighton family. Smiling Amish teenagers help sell the produce, and shy younger children hide behind their mothers or chase each other in tag games under the trees, their bonnet strings and long dresses flying in the breeze.

IMG_8556And then there are our amazing certified organic farmers, like Steve and Susan McLaskey, who run the new MUM Student Organic Farm. Steve is from my hometown of Naperville, IL, and is a descendent of the Goodrich family, who more than a century ago donated their farmland for Goodrich School, where I attended elementary school.The talented Dale Goodale is wandering around the market, having already sold out of the spring greens and sweet organic carrots he started in February inside his greenhouse. In early May you could buy his spectacular hand-tapped maple syrup if you got to the market early enough.

IMG_6416I never miss a chance to talk with older, local farmers, such as Ernie Hinkle, who at age 90 still shows up every Saturday morning. He was one of the founders of the Fairfield Farmer’s market. Even though he’s not certified organic, Ernie hasn’t used pesticides or chemicals on his garden veggies for decades. The former mayor of Birmingham, IA, Ernie and his wife raised over 30 foster children and adopted six.

Last week I bought a bag of spring lettuce greens from Ernie and was treated to a story about his time in vaudeville. He’ll regale you with a song if you ask him. I also bought organic pasture-raised eggs from Steve and Kim Keller, whose father was a friend of Ernie’s and also a founder of Fairfield’s Farmer’s market. They carry on their father’s farming tradition and are certified organic. (The eggs, by the way cost only $3.50. In the Bay Area organic, pasture-raised eggs were 8.50 a dozen!).

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The Farmers Market is also a great place to meet friends, who gather for the food, music and fun. Eventually we settle down at a crowded picnic table and eat a hot lunch of the best Ethiopian food in the Midwest from our friend Gannet and her daughter Hermella. The lentil samosas are a treat I look forward to all week.

 

 

IMG_8533One of my favorite vendors in spring is Rolling Prairie Acres, run by the Webster family of Sigourney, Iowa. They start garden veggies in their greenhouse for the rest of us to plant in our gardens in spring. Every year I buy three kinds of tulasi (holy basil plant), tomatoes plants and zuchinni starters. All their plants are grown pesticide free, chemical free. Last year when the sow bugs mowed down my squash plants overnight, I asked Doug Webster for a bug-resistant squash. He recommended a bottle guord called Cucuzza, whose stinky leaves and thicker skin repelled bugs. Its vines wrapped around our garden and grew over 200 lbs of long pale green squashes that tasted a bit like zuchinni without seeds.

IMG_8529My Indian friends thought they tasted just like lauki, bottle gourd, and cooked them into fantastic Indian dishes. My gardening partner Charlotte Judge dubbed this prolific plant the Cure for World Hunger. I bought six starters from Doug Webster this year, to share with our friends.

It’s encouraging to see kids getting into the spirit of growing and selling produce along with their parents and grandparents. At Rolling Prairies, Doug’s son Dawson taught me how to plant a seedling in a peat pot. And Paloma and Marisol Braun, aged 13 and 10, run their own business selling snow cones at the Farmer Market. Marisol told me how she markets their tasty drinks: “I whisper to one of my friends that the stand is open and they whisper it to their friend and pretty soon there’s a whole line of kids at our stand.” Talk about word-of-mouth marketing savvy!

One Saturday in early May I drove my car to the market so I could buy flats of seedlings, and ended up with too much to carry away from the Lengacher’s booth, where the Amish parents had left the selling to a teenage daughter Lydia and her older brother.

IMG_8559Seeing my two flats, Lydia politely asked, “Would you like help?” I declined, not wanting to distract them from their job selling. I grabbed one of the flats and started to my car, only to hear bare feet padding behind me. It was Richard, the six-year-old younger brother of Lydia. He smiled shyly under his straw hat and I could see the gap in his teeth where a new tooth was growing in. He never said a word, but he carried my second flat to my car, happy to be helping and grinning all the way.

 

Photo credits: Linda Egenes

Photo of Linda Egenes by Charlotte Judge

BY LINDA EGENES

deborah madison, local flavors

Deborah Madison used her local farmers’ market in Sante Fe as a starting point for researching farmers’ markets all over the country for her book Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America’s Farmers’ Markets. (Photo: Lois Ellen Frank)

When I was a college student in Bloomington, Illinois, I rose at 3:00 a.m. one morning in 1972 to ride three hours in our food co-op’s truck to Chicago’s South Water Market. In the predawn chill I rubbed elbows with the windy city’s chefs and corner-grocery owners to choose the ripest zucchini, tomatoes, and string beans from the tailgates of farmers’ trucks.

In those years, Chicago’s wholesale food market was the closest we could get to seasonal, locally grown food, other than our own gardens. A lot has changed in the American foodscape since then. Today, more than 4,000 farmers’ markets across the country directly connect consumer to local grower.

Deborah Madison, founding chef at San Francisco’s historic Greens Restaurant, author of nine cookbooks, and winner of the Julia Child Cookbook of the Year and three James Beard awards, has been instrumental in bringing about that change. In her colorfully illustrated Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America’s Farmers’ Markets, newly released in paperback this May, she visits 100 farmers’ markets and provides a cornucopia of recipes based on the regional produce she discovered.

When Madison spoke at the Eco-Fair sponsored by the department of sustainable living at Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield last month, I jumped at the chance to interview her. I found her to be as vibrant and nourishing as the food she writes about.

Linda Egenes: When you cook, do you first see what’s available and then plan your menus?

Deborah Madison: Absolutely. I always cook that way, whether I’m going to the supermarket or farmers’ market or my own garden. At certain times of the year, when the farmers’ market is predictable, you know ahead of time what is available. Say in summer you want to make the perfect ratatouille, you know that this is a time for peppers, eggplant, and zucchini. So you go with a recipe in mind. Otherwise, it’s good to go to the farmers’ market with an open mind, because you never know what you’re going to see there.

In Local Flavors I talk about the seasonal vegetables I saw and how they inspired what I cooked, to perhaps encourage other people to cook in the same way. I always work from the market out.

Do eating locally and eating seasonally go hand-in-hand?

What I have learned from writing this book is a kind of a truism that “in season” is where you live. In season and local aren’t separate. They’re only separate when you go to the supermarket.

When we try to treat our foodscape as a national one, we really have painted ourselves into some strange corners and ideas about what’s in season. June magazine covers will have pictures of strawberries, for instance, but I bought strawberries in Vermont in late October last year, because there are certain kinds of ever-bearing strawberries that last until the frost. Researching Local Flavors confirmed for me that even though we often cook by clichés, when you start to look around, you see that the available local produce is very different from what your national magazine is telling you.

It seems that Local Flavors is trying to break through those clichés.

Eating local and seasonal food is something I really care about. It’s not just about the romance of farmers’ markets. We want to become intelligent about who we are and how we relate to the world around us, rather than living in this kind of predefined encapsulated vision of what’s local and what’s in season. It’s really different when you go into a farmers’ market and look around. It’s an eye opener.

Is it possible to eat strictly what is local and in season?

Yes, it’s possible but I don’t think we need to do that. Certainly people used to eat from their local region year ’round.
A book I’m reading now, Kitchen Literacy, by Ann Vileisis, is a portrait of what it takes to eat locally. It’s a different way of living and thinking. It would be hard for us because we’re used to so much variety. It would mean returning to a life where you spend a lot of time preserving food. We would have to think about how to store food over the winter, how to grow food in winter greenhouses in a way that’s not incredibly fuel intensive.

How do you see the value of organic produce versus local?

When Local Flavors came out, I did some interviews with my friend Alice Waters, and she was very purist about organics. It had to be organic or else. I was saying, “I don’t know, after what I’ve seen, I really support local.”

Since then I’ve written a few articles saying, let’s not pit them against each other. Let’s try to see how we can look at each for what they are. Obviously, oranges aren’t going to be local in Iowa, but you’re not going to stop eating oranges. In that case, let’s try to find organic oranges. And at my local farmers’ market, if I have a choice between a vendor who is selling organic versus one who is not, I’m going to choose the one who is selling organic.

In general, though, I support local producers when that’s appropriate. There’s such a difference in taste in a vegetable that’s grown locally, picked ripe, and bought fresh at your market than a vegetable that’s been grown on an industrial organic farm and shipped from California.

(I originally wrote this article for The Iowa Source, July 2008. Reprinted with permission.)

Goin’ to the Country
July 9, 2010

Me celebrating the 4th with new friends Pakshi Raj and Vaj

Last weekend my husband and I were invited to a 4th of July celebration at the home of Claudia Petrick, my editor at the Iowa Source. Tom and I drove a mile or two north of Fairfield, turned onto a country road, and entered another world. Claudia lives on a five-acre spread with organic gardens, a pear and cherry orchard, and horses.

These guys are living in horse heaven

Soon after arriving, I follow my friend Cynthia Arenander to the cob house barn where her impressive dressage steed, Pakshi Raj, boards with Claudia’s handsome Arabian, Vajrashrava (“Vaj” for short, meaning “thunderbolt” in English and “diamond” in Sanskrit, a perfect name since he has a white diamond on his forehead). At first I’m intimidated by Pakshi Raj’s immense size and mythical horse energy, but when Cynthia places a flower on his head I can connect to his playful side. I feel even less intimidated when Cynthia tells me that her husband Alarik plans to film Pakshi in a Mr.-Ed type video for their line of organic anti-aging products.

Cynthia has a mythical force of her own–she was given this spectacular steed when a horse whisperer told its owner that he would prefer to live with Cynthia. “I’ve been around horses all my life,” she says as she slips on the horses’ bridles and leads them to the front yard where they graze in idyllic beauty next to Claudia’s lily and bee balm garden.

Cynthia, Claudia and I relax on Claudia's deck while the horses graze behind us

It’s soothing to spend an evening in the country, and my mind and body relax in a way they can’t even in the low-stress environment of our home on the Maharishi University of Management campus. I wonder again whether we shouldn’t move to the country, despite the fact that my husband doesn’t like to garden or mow or work in the yard. I grew up on a tall oak forest about 5 miles from Naperville, IL, and found solace in nature—but also some loneliness from living so far from friends. Not to mention the work that goes into keeping up a country home. I know my own limitations, and I’m completely in awe of what Claudia has created. The question on everyone’s lips all evening is “how does she do it?”

Back inside there’s a vegetarian feast for the eyes and palate waiting, mostly prepared by Claudia: wild rice salad, mung bean cakes with a tangy tahini-lime juice-tamari-turmeric sauce, a golden quinoa salad, steamed beets, tomatoes with pesto. For recipes, Claudia says, “The wild rice salad comes from Miriam Hospodar’s Heaven’s Banquet, slightly altered. The rest is sort of made up. For the sauce, I started with tahini, and then added the other ingredients and a little water ’till it tasted right.”

Others have contributed: Dolly Donhauser with a creamy potato salad from Martha Stewart, the Arenanders with a green salad from their garden, Maggie Squires with crispy sweet-and-salty middle eastern crackers.

Claudia brings in the boys

After the meal, which ends in a sumptuous homemade fruit shortcake, we trail outside to put the horses to bed. “We treat our horses better than we treat ourselves,” says Claudia with a laugh. They get vitamins, organic food, loving attention, regular brushings.

Shepley, Pakshi Raj, and Maggie make friends

Fireflies spark the sky as Claudia and Cynthia take turns showing their horses canter around them in a circle. When the horses leap we “oooo and ahhh” in unison as if the horses were fireworks.

In the deepening twighlight we stand at the end of Claudia’s driveway and gaze at the fireworks display over nearby Cypress Villages, an up-and-coming eco-development of Vedic architecture homes that are LEED-certified. Beside it the Jefferson County fairgrounds fireworks also light the sky—and soon we spot the golf course display south of town, and in the far distance Mt. Pleasant’s. What better way to celebrate the 4th—with light in all directions.

Justin and Kimberly McSweeny - Sustainable Lawns and LandscapesWe’re spending the winter in Vero Beach, Florida, and while kayaking on the Indian River Lagoon, the intracoastal waterway that is home to one of the most diverse plant and animal populations in the world, I found out that many of the dolphins here have tummy aches because they are ingesting so many toxins from lawn run-off and industry waste.

So it was a wonderful coincidence when Justin and Kimberly McSweeny pulled up to the home we’re renting from our very green-conscious friends with an equipment trailer in tow. I knew I was going to like them the minute I saw their company name and tagline painted on the side of their trailer: Oasis Organics—Not Only Should Your Lawn be Green.

I can’t say I completely understood the slogan, but I got the drift. Justin and Kimberly are a man-and-wife team who tend lawn and landscape in the most environmentally safe way possible, so the Indian River Lagoon and the area’s drinking water can stay free of harmful chemicals. They look fresh and young and have the kind of organic fervor that I had in the 60s when I grew my own garden with college friends.

Justin started in the lawncare business 20 years ago when he was a chef by night and mowed lawns by day. (You could say eating organic has definitely given him lots of energy). He says he grew up in Maryland in the 70s and loved the local hippie yurts with gardens growing on them. He says the seeds of his interest in organic were sown then.

“About five years ago I started poking around the internet looking around for a more holistic perspective on lawn care and home landscaping,” he says. “I  knew people up north were using healthier, organic pesticides and fertilizers, and that is always the first step, to wean yards and landscapes away from harmful petroleum products, which I call ‘Satan’s Pantry.’ But I wanted to take it a step further. I wanted to create closed-circuit environments where you feed the organisms in the soil and the soil feeds healthy plants, eliminating the need for dumping gallons of fertilizer and pesticides on the lawns and landscape, even the organic kind. I wanted to use sustainability and permaculture techniques that are used on organic farms and transfer them to lawn and yard care.”

Justin didn’t find many people doing that, so he taught himself. Here he talks about his vision.

Listening to Justin, I’m learning new terms like xeriscaping, which is from the Greek, meaning “dry landscape.” In xeriscaping and xerogardening, you use plants that thrive in the local area without irrigation. It’s popular in Arizona and other desert areas  areas, and could become more necessary as climate change renders other areas dry.  Justin uses principles from xeriscaping, and encourages his clients to save on the environment and their water bills by switching to landscape plants and lawn grasses that thrive on rain water alone, but he’s not a purist about this. Nor is he a purist about using native habitat plants. He encourages his clients to use them, but is also open to using plants from Australia and other countries with similar climates, as long as they aren’t invasive.

“I don’t like to ram anything down anyone’s throat,” he says. “I like to show up, make people happy, and make sure their yard looks good. I give my clients options and explain how using plants that naturally thrive in this area can save so much money in water and helps the environment too.”

For those of you from Florida, check out this video, where Justin points out a number of native plants that require  little water and need little pest control or fertilizers.

He also recommends getting away from water-and-fertilizer-thirsty lawn grasses. In our yard he’s working with the owners to switch to a more sustainable ground cover such as mimosa strigillosa. It’s a native wild flower with powder-pink blooms, much prettier than plain old grass. I’m looking forward to seeing it when we return next winter.

To contact Justin or Kimberly McSweeny, email them at oasisorganics@bellsouth.net.

Cooking with a Solar Oven
February 22, 2010

Probably I’m way behind the eight-ball here, but I’d never really thought much about solar ovens before I visited my sister Cathy and her family in northern California last Labor Day weekend. Cathy took me to a dinner party at the home of Alice Friedemann and her husband, Jeffery Kahn, the webmaster at UC Berkeley. Alice is a freelance journalist specializing in energy and peak oil issues. She is also developing a cookbook on whole-grain cooking, and has experimented with using a manual grain grinder and solar ovens to make truly sustainable and awesome breads.

In this video she talks about using a solar oven. Alice bought hers but recommends building your own.

Alice says she’s still trying to figure out solar cooking. She thinks the plastic on her oven needs replacing and that may be creating less than stellar (solar?) results. But she feels it’s worth the effort because solar cooking is going to become more and more important in the future.

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Besides learning about solar ovens that evening, we were treated to a sumptuous dinner featuring Alice’s homemade whole-grain flatbread along with beets, basil and Early Girl tomatoes from Jeffery’s amazing garden.

I was totally in awe of Alice and Jeffery’s gardening skills. First of all, the way things grow in sunny California, something like rosemary, found in Iowa as a small plant, grows as big as a tree. But it was more than the climate, it was super smart brains at work.

Check out this rather perfect apple tree that grows in Alice and Jeffery’s back yard. A neighbor grafted it with four different strains, so you stroll around the tree and find four types of apples, including Pink Lady and Misui.

According to Alice, most nurseries these days sell apple trees with more than one strain of apples grafted into them, but still, you seldom see such perfect looking trees in someone’s yard.

Says Alice, the trick to getting a lot of apples is to rigorously cut back the tree before spring (in California sometime in January or February) but not snipping off the buds that will produce apples. Later, you’ll get clusters of more than two, and you need to get rid of all but one or you’ll have very small apples and many will fall off in addition if you don’t, wasting the tree’s energy.

After dinner we peer through the telescope from Alice and Jeffery’s second-story balcony, and catch a rare glimpse of the Bay Bridge without any cars (closed for major repairs over Labor Day).

Now I feel inspired to make my own solar oven, but will have to wait until spring as the sun is at too much of an angle now. Will let you know how that goes.

For free directions to make your own solar cooker go to

http://www.solarcooking.org/plans/

Additional links on Alice Friedemann

http://www.energybulletin.net/node/2401

http://www.energyskeptic.com/