How Italian Sagre Inspired a Joyful Celebration of Local Vegetables

The Culinary Breeding Network was founded by Lane Selman, an assistant Professor of Practice in the Horticulture department at Oregon State University, in order to start a conversation between plant breeders, farmers and the public about bringing more flavor to our food. In this essay she recalls the beginnings of those conversations and how they have evolved into a global network of discussions. Scroll down to get the schedule for this year's Winter Vegetable Sagra on Saturday, Oct. 24, and links to the segments as they are posted.

The first time I encountered the Italian concept of the sagra was the very first time I went to Italy in 2014. It was near the end of an epic day of overstimulation at Slow Food’s international Terra Madre gathering in Torino. At a quiet booth along one side of the Salone del Gusto, I came across a small, accordion-folded pamphlet advertising something called the Fiera Regionale della Zucca, the regional pumpkin fair of Cuneo, Italy.

On the cover was an illustration with an adorable gnome sitting under an archway made of pumpkins in the piazza of a medieval town. The inside listed three days of squash-filled festivities, from pumpkin cooking demonstrations and meals featuring pumpkin in every course, to squash carving expositions and classes for kids about how to make musical instruments out of winter squash. The sensation was one of immediate recognition, like discovering a word for a feeling in another language that your own lacks—the way political junkies must feel the first time they hear the word schadenfreude, or nostalgic lovers learning about saudade.

Winter Vegetable Sagra 2019.

At that time, I was working as an agricultural researcher at Oregon State University, and moonlighting on the side as the market manager for an organic vegetable farm. But the last few years, something else had been taking up more and more of my time. I’d been hosting events—what I called “parties”—to build some connections between the people who breed plants, and the people who eat them.

If the world of vegetables was the land of Oz, plant breeders would be the wizard behind the curtain. They have a huge amount of power over the foods we eat, but they’re only human. They can’t read minds to know, for instance, that chefs like smooth-shouldered peppers because they’re easier to chop without waste, or that most winter squash is sold in the days before Thanksgiving. And since most of us don’t really know that plant breeders exist, let alone know where to find them, we can’t tell them about the qualities we care about most. I wanted to reconnect academic and commercial plant breeders to their communities by creating opportunities for consumers to give feedback about in-progress breeding projects, but “party” just sounds a lot more appealing than “feedback session.”

If the world of vegetables was the land of Oz,
plant breeders would be the wizard behind the curtain.

My first party was a pepper party. I asked several local plant breeders to share the fruits of their current pepper breeding projects, with the goal of getting some solid feedback from chefs and consumers about which varieties they liked most. We tasted dozens of pepper varieties, raw and roasted, with the goal of helping shape the release of a new open-pollinated variety to replace an old hybrid that was getting hard to find. I went into it hoping pepper breeders would walk away with a better sense of which breeding lines consumers found most appealing. What I didn’t expect was just how fun the event would be—and what a sense of community it seemed to immediately create.

In hindsight, I’m not sure why I was surprised. It’s a truism that food brings people together, but the specific kind of energy I sensed at the pepper party was different than the generic good vibe of a dinner party. It was pleasure with sense of purpose and creativity, a feeling of community reinvestment in a food system that, in the United States, has long felt divorced from everyday life—hidden away behind a curtain.

A Radicchio Expedition went to Italy to talk to farmers about this quintessential Italian crop.

That chance encounter with the brochure at Terra Madre gave me a new word, a new language, for these gatherings: Sagra. In Italy, a sagra is a festival, usually centered around food. The word comes from the Latin word sacrare, to consecrate, which refers to Italy’s centuries-long history of bringing together—consecrating—a community with feasts that celebrate the harvest.

Ancient sagre usually had a religious aspect, and were celebrated in front of temples or churches during the Medieval era and often linked to specific saints or feast days. In addition to elaborate meals, sagre sometimes incorporated historical traditions, rituals, or sporting events, like horse racing or a cuccagna tree. Modern sagre are distinctly more secular, something like a cross between a state fair and a church picnic, but they haven’t lost steam; some estimate 20,000 to 30,000 sagre are held in Italy every year, usually between the months of June and September (prime outdoor dining season). They’re casual, family-friendly affairs, and many attract a mix of international and domestic tourists. Almost as a rule, they’re unpretentious, sometimes to the point of hokey—think fried foods, cheap souvenirs, and dunk tanks.

“Party” just sounds a lot more appealing than “feedback session.”

Inspired by that humble trifold, when I returned home to Portland, Oregon, I teamed up with fellow researcher Alex Stone to throw our most ambitious event yet: Squash Sagra. We had been working on winter squash breeding trials for several years. One of the most common complaints I heard from growers was that Americans bought most of their squash around Thanksgiving—but many winter squashes don’t taste really good until, well, winter. Could an epic Squash Sagra (despite hosting it in an unheated, albeit very groovy, old warehouse) get more Portlanders to buy and eat winter squash in January, February and beyond?

Like Selman's American version of sagre, Giàz wove together education, advocacy and joy.

Squash Sagra 2017 was a blast. We had squash “butchery” demonstrations. We served samples of squash-y delicacies, from savory dips to pumpkin ice cream. We demoed recipes. We let kids paint squash. We had a “cucurbit cuddles” photo booth. Many squash-themed outfits were spotted. And so, we kept going. The next year our sagra included squash and beans. In 2018, Chicory Week was created with farming and restaurant partners that includes an annual Sagra di Radicchio in Seattle.

Then, in 2019, we went to the next level when we attracted about 1000 attendees to celebrate nine fresh and storage vegetables at the Winter Vegetable Sagra in Portland in that same, but recently beautifully renovated and heated, old warehouse. In addition to turning people on to these often under-appreciated locally grown winter foods, the word sagra was introduced to many Americans vocabularies.

We share the same vision in weaving together education,
advocacy and joy into these celebrations.

In early 2020, right before COVID-19 descended on the globe, I even partnered with my friend and Italian farmer Myrtha Zierock to take a group of American radicchio growers, chefs and advocates to northern Italy on a Radicchio Expedition to learn more about this quintessentially Italian crop. We visited radicchio farmers and breeders throughout the Veneto, Trentino-Alto Adige and Fruili-Venezia Giulia regions for five days, culminating in a winter vegetable celebration called Giàz (meaning ‘ice’ in the Trentino dialect) at Foradori winery in the Dolomites. Myrtha claims her vision for Giàz was inspired by the sagre we have organized in the US which is a deeply appreciated compliment coming from an actual Italian. We share the same vision in weaving together education, advocacy and joy into these celebrations.

When my family came to the United States from Sicily in the 1920s, they were eager to leave their homelands behind and assimilate into American culture. I grew up surrounded by my Sicilian-American family, but nobody spoke Italian to me (despite my great-grandmother neighbor that nearly only spoke Sicilian dialect), and the first time I ever visited Sicily was as an adult during that trip in 2014. Like so many second and third-generation immigrants returning to their ancestral homeland for the first time, I experienced that dizzying sensation of feeling simultaneously like a tourist and as if I was surrounded by a vast family for the first time: people who looked just like my grandparents, like my cousins, like me. Re-establishing a personal relationship with Italy and Sicily over the past six years has brought a new layer of meaning to my life. Developing my own version of sagre at home the United States that fuse American and Italian traditions has been a major part of that experience.

I can’t claim that the Culinary Breeding Network’s sagre are “authentic” in any particular way (although few Italians would argue that modern Italian sagre are an authentic expression of Italian culture, either). Like any imported cultural artifact, there’s something altered in the translation. But that chance encounter with a whimsical squash brochure in Piemonte years ago planted the seed for an idea that I hope helps Americans get more excited about eating regional foods by skipping the preachy eat-local lecture in favor of enjoying delicious foods (and wearing hats shaped like a slice of pumpkin pie) in community.


RAD-TV 2020

Undeterred by the pandemic, this year's Sagra del Radicchio is going online on Saturday, Oct. 24, with a full day of rad and bitter programming. Dip in and out as you please, and all content will be posted for later viewing (see links with each segment):

Tune in via YouTube. The schedule (all times are PDT):

9:00 am: Intro and History of Radicchio Cultivation with Andrea Ghedina of Smarties.bio. Watch.

10:00 am:  Travel to Northern Italy with Myrtha Zierock and Lane Selman, organizers of the Radicchio Expedition.

11:00 am: “Cribs,” a tour of farms in the US and Italy.

Noon: Cooking Show Time! Culinary pros will show you their secrets to preparing delicious radicchio dishes:

  • Grilled Radicchio: Meredith Molli, La Medusa, Seattle WA. Watch.
  • Roasted Chicory Root Coffee: Brian Wells, Tougo Coffee, Seattle WA. Watch.
  • Radicchio Sauerkraut Recipe: Andrew Gregory, Post Alley Pizza, Seattle WA. Watch.
  • Radicchio Tarte Tatin: Elise Landry, Chicory, Olympia WA. Watch.
  • Warm Radicchio, Cauliflower, and Apple Salad: Lauren Feldman, Vif & Petit Soif, Seattle WA. Watch.
  • Garbanzo Bean & Chopped Dandelion Salad: Zarah Khan, Botanica, Los Angeles CA. Watch.

1:00 pm:  Farmer Chat and Virtual Raw Bar with Siri and Jason of Local Roots Farm, and Tim and Caroline of Kitchen Garden Farm.

2:00 pm: Seed: Where it all Begins with Brian Campbell of Uprising Organic Seeds and Linda Fenstermaker of Osborne Quality Seeds.

3:00 pm: Station Break: Stand up, go in the kitchen, and make a fabulous radicchio feast!

5:00 pm: Happy Hour! Pour yourself a glass of amaro and join us for a virtual hangout.

Photos by Shawn Linehan.

West Coast Albacore A to Z

With albacore season in full swing, it seems like a good time to rerun this post from 2011.

Wind off the ocean whipped through the rigging on his boat, and sea lions barked in the background as albacore tuna fisherman Rick Goché recalled growing up on Tillamook Bay on Oregon’s north coast.

“I’ve been fish crazy since I can remember,” he said. “When I was old enough to make my way down to the creek, I was fishing with a safety pin and a string. I can still remember when I got my first factory-made hook.”

Goché's boat, the Peso II.

Goché grew up to be a fisherman; today, he fishes the Pacific Northwest’s deep, abundant waters, casting off from Coos Bay for two to six weeks at a time. It’s hard work, and definitely not child’s play. “When you’re a hundred, 200, 300 miles offshore, it’s not like you can duck into a port when the weather gets bad,” he says. 

His brother, Larry, fishes with him, and his son, his daughter, and his grandson have taken turns on the boat as well. He has hopes that his daughter Lauren, who will be working on the tuna boat this summer, may eventually take up fishing as a career.

“Even though she won’t be on the boat,” he said, “it’ll be cool to be on the water with her.”

Today a few boats are woman-owned and run.

The average age of a fishboat owner is 62 (Goché is 57—“I’m one of the young guys,” he says), and the industry has had trouble attracting younger people into a career that not only is dangerous but also requires hard physical labor and long periods away from home.

Another issue facing the industry is consumer awareness, a concern voiced by chef Eric Jenkins while he was handing out samples of hot-off-the-grill wild West Coast albacore outside a Portland-area Whole Foods market. “I’ve had a couple of people say they won’t eat fish because of the mercury,” he said.

It’s a sentiment echoed by Wayne Heikkila, a second-generation albacore fishboat owner and currently executive director of the Western Fishboat Owners Association (WFOA). “[People] don’t know tuna from albacore, or skipjack from yellowtail.”

Fresh-canned West Coast albacore is only cooked once.

The tuna most of us grew up eating in casseroles and sandwiches was probably skipjack, which is caught on giant factory ships that operate in the deep, tropical oceans of the world and is sold under brand names like StarKist, Bumblebee, and Chicken of the Sea. Nearly all of those ships are longline fisheries, which tow a fishing line several miles long with thousands of hooks baited at regular intervals along its length. The problem with this method is that it produces significant bycatch—meaning that it also hooks endangered and threatened sea turtles, seabirds, marine mammals, sharks, and other fish besides skipjack.

The tuna caught in these deep waters are several years old and can weigh 40 to 60 pounds. They have absorbed mercury and other toxins, enough to cause the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency to advise pregnant women, nursing mothers, and young children to limit their intake of the fish.

Those warnings have caused big headaches for the West Coast albacore industry.

Line-caught West Coast albacore is MSC certified as sustainable.

That’s because the advisories don’t distinguish between the albacore caught in the deeper oceans and those younger and smaller tuna caught off the West Coast of the United States and Canada. Ranging in age from three to five years old and weighing 12 to 25 pounds, these younger albacore simply have not spent enough time in the ocean environment to contain the levels of mercury found in the larger, older fish.

Heikkila is frustrated that so much of the albacore caught off our own coast is exported to Japan for sushi, and that Northwest foodies would rather buy a can of albacore tuna from Spain—produced, ironically, from West Coast albacore that is exported to that country and shipped back to stores here—than albacore caught and canned on their own coastline.

“We’re trying to get consumers to eat more of the local product,” Heikkila said. Approximately 16,000 to 23,000 tons of albacore are caught per year. “It’s crazy—we send 80% to 90% of it to other countries and then the U.S. consumer has to buy it from overseas. That money could go into local fishermen’s pockets.”

Grilled albacore loin.

What’s more, Northwest consumers are generally unaware that these local fish are caught one at a time using what’s called a pole-and-line or troll-and-jig method. This approach employs 10 to 15 lines of nylon cord measuring six to 100 feet long that are towed behind a boat. Each line has a barbless “jig” or lure at the end that is attached to a double barbless hook. When a fish bites the jig, the fisherman hauls it by hand into the boat, allowing the fishermen to keep only “right-size” fish and eliminating bycatch.

The U.S. and Canadian albacore fisheries in the North Pacific, made up of mostly small, family-owned boats like Rick Goché’s, received a boost last year when Seafood Watch, a program of the Monterey Bay Aquarium that evaluates the ecological sustainability of wild-caught and farmed seafood, listed U.S. and Canadian troll- and pole-caught albacore from the North Pacific as a “Best Choice” due to negligible bycatch and the healthy stock of albacore in the region.

The MSC label guarantees the fish is sustainably caught.

But the biggest shift in public awareness may come from the announcement by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), which has certified the Canadian Highly Migratory Species Foundation (CHMSF), an albacore fishery of Canadian-based boats, and the U.S.-based WFOA as sustainable and well-managed.

“It’s a very rigorous, on-site process that looks at a fishery as opposed to a sweeping view of a species,” said Kerry Coughlin, the Regional Director for the Americas of the MSC. “It’s our view that’s how you get a very rigorous assessment process that’s accurate, and it’s how, in some cases where fisheries aren’t sustainable, you’re going to bring about change on the water.”

And when they see the blue MSC label in their grocer’s seafood case or on a can of albacore, “consumers can have the assurance that it is an environmentally responsible choice,” Coughlin said. And, because they come from younger fish, the fresh loins of albacore available from July through October at most retailers contain more have more “puppy fat,” as an industry spokesperson called it.

Many cooks can their own albacore.

“I think it’s moister,” Jenkins said. “It seems to have higher fat levels, particularly concentrated in the belly.” His suggestion to consumers buying a whole loin is to ask their butcher to keep the belly meat on, adding that many butchers either keep it for themselves even cut it out, which he considers a travesty.

Locally canned albacore would be almost as much of a shock to most shoppers. The major-brand tuna on their grocery shelves was caught and frozen at sea, then thawed at a cannery and cooked in big steamers, where it loses much of its natural juices and fats. It is then packed in cans and cooked again, requiring the addition of water or oil to keep it moist.

That contrasts with most local tuna, which is packed in cans when it’s fresh and cooked only once, sealing in the natural juices and not requiring the addition of oil or water to keep it moist.

Between MSC certification and a growing concern among consumers about where their food comes from, families that depend on the North Pacific albacore are seeing a brighter future for their children, and a way of life that they prize.

“On a boat, you have to have all your senses attuned to your boat and the fish and your gear, but what it comes down to is stay alive and fill up the boat,” said Rick Goché. “When I pull away from the dock and I cross the bar and I feel the ocean lifting the boat, I leave everything behind as much as possible. Sure, I miss my family, but I don’t miss all the complexities of being on land.”

Top photo of line-caught albacore from Tre-Fin Dayboat Seafood.

Fermentation Fascination: Garlic Dill Pickles

My 10-year-old nephew was coming over to spend the day, and while he's pretty low-maintenance—Legos and our vast collection of books, everything from Tintin to Narnia to Bulfinch's Mythology seem to keep him occupied—it's always fun to do a project together. That's when I noticed the bunch of cucumbers from my neighbor Bill that were needing to be used.

An ice bath helps firm up the cukes.

The cukes were the bumpy, prickly kind good for pickling, though they were larger than I normally think of for dill pickles and I was a little nervous about being able to jam them into the quart jars I had. But heck, there's a reason it's called a science experiment, so I washed the jars and stuck the cucumbers in an ice bath to firm them up.

When my  nephew arrived, we read the instructions for making pickles in the extremely informative and useful "The Art of Fermentation" by Sandor Ellix Katz, a tome suitable for fermentation nerds and newbs alike. As we let his words settle in, we walked around the corner to my neighbor's garden to pick grape leaves, which Katz recommends adding to the jars. Apparently the tannins they contain help to keep the pickles crisp, and with grape season in full swing there were plenty to choose from. (Katz also mentions that horseradish leaves, oak leaves, cherry leaves or other tannin-rich materials can do the same job.)

My able assistant was pleased!

Back home with our leaves, we gathered the ingredients to add to the pickles, including fresh dill, garlic and peppercorns, plus mustard seeds and dried chiles from Ayers Creek Farm. We measured the salt into two quarts of water for the brine, and while my able assistant stirred it to dissolve the salt, I cracked the peppercorns and peeled the garlic.

All that was left was to jam the cukes into the jars with whatever struck our fancy—I confess mine were probably more than a little garlic-heavy—and to fill the jars with brine. We placed canning lids on top and loosely screwed on the bands to allow gas to escape as fermentation progresses. It can also include some liquid bubbling out, so we prudently placed the jars in a baking dish before taking them down in the basement to ferment for a few days.

A couple of days later I was able to report to my nephew that not only had their color begun to change, there was noticeable bubbling and a tiny bit of liquid had escaped. The fourth day there was more bubbling, the brine was slightly cloudier, a larger puddle of brine had formed and there was a distinct vinegar aroma wafting over our jars.

Success!

I waited a full week before pulling out a jar to taste them.

Fresher and a bit milder than most store-bought brands, our pickles were nicely crunchy with a tart, light vinegar flavor that was infused with garlic, dill and mustard.

On his next visit, one jar went home with my nephew and the rest are sitting in our refrigerator—lacto-fermented pickles are not shelf stable—awaiting our next antipasto platter, hamburger extravaganza or albacore salad.

Basic Lacto-Fermented Garlic Dill Pickles

2 lbs. pickling cucumbers
12 medium-sized grape leaves
Mustard seeds
Garlic cloves, peeled
Bunch fresh dill or dill flowers
Dried red chiles
Peppercorns, lightly crushed
Sea salt

Wash four quart jars. Wash cucumbers, rub off the prickly bits and place cukes in an ice bath for one hour.

Make a 5 percent brine by dissolving 6 tablespoons of sea salt in two quarts of water. Set aside.

Start with a grape leaf in the bottom of each jar, then tightly packed in the cucumbers with one or two more leaves and a variety of flavoring ingredients. Leave an inch or so of head room above the cucumbers, then add brine to within 1/2 inch of the lip of the jar.

A "pickle pipe" fermentation airlock.

Place a canning lid, coffee filter, or a device called a "pickle pipe" airlock on top, then loosely screw on a jar band. The idea is to allow gas to escape during fermentation, so you don't want to seal it completely or the pressure buildup could cause it to blow off. 

Watch for color change, bubbles and cloudiness. A spongy mold may form on top, but you can just pull that off and dispose of it…the pickles should be fine as long as they have stayed submerged and they still smell good (that is, pickley). After five days, pull a jar and taste one of the pickles. If it's not pickled enough, put the lid back on and let it ferment another day or two (temperature plays a big part in the time it takes to ferment).

When pickles are to your liking, store in refrigerator for several months.

 

Cocktail Hour: Drink Like a Corsican

I am such a sucker for a good label, especially one with seriously old school fonts, and the one on the bottle of Mattei's Cap Corse Blanc Quinquina practically propositioned me from it's spot on the shelf. Fortunately I have a brother in the wine biz, so I didn't have to buy it blind, get it home and find out that I should have invested in a poster of the label instead.

(Yes, it's happened. On more than one occasion.)

Knowing my fondness for bitter aperitifs—Cocchi Americano Bianco, almost any Italian amaro and, of course, Campari—Bruce was more than happy to recommend adding it to our home bar. Looking it up, I learned it's one of the oldest and best known aperitifs from Corsica, "made from a base wine of Vermentino and Muscat, with subsequent additional macerations of herbs, spices, the local citron fruit, and cinchona bark (quinine, hence the name)."

It's bright, citrus-y sweetness with that typically bitter backbone only needed a cube of ice in a glass to make a late summer evening sitting on the front porch even more idyllic; a spritz of soda and a twist of lemon or orange peel wouldn't have been out of place, either.

But we're always looking for new variations on our tried-and-true list of cocktails, and since it's (nearly) fall and Manhattans are feeling oh-so-seasonal, Dave thought the quinquina might make an appropriate switch for the sweet vermouth in that cocktail. (We've done this before, of course, making a nutty, dark nocino Manhattan, among others.)

The quinquina brightens up the classic cocktail quite a bit, bringing a tinge of late summer sun, an almost-but-not-quite fall tone that matches the grapefruit color of the ash leaves falling from our trees.

Corsican

2 oz. bourbon
1 oz. Cap Corse Blanc Quinquina
2-3 dashes Angostura bitters
Amarena cherries

Chill cocktail glasses in freezer. Fill pint glass or small mixing pitcher half full of ice. Add whiskey, vermouth and bitters. Stir 30 seconds. Take cocktail glasses out of freezer. Strain liquor into glass. Drop in cherry. Serve.

Restaurant Memories: The Corn Soup That Made Me Swoon

For many people, their strongest memories center around firsts: the first time they rode a bike, their first car, their first kiss.

Chef Benjamin Schade.

For me, many of those memorable firsts center around—no surprise here—food. The first time I had spit-roasted whole pig cooked over a fire by my uncles at a tiny cabin in the Blue Mountains; my first taste of kimchi at a snowy mountainside inn on a student trip to Korea; my first pesto pasta in the early days of Papa Haydn's eastside location that was so packed with garlic I could still taste it three days later—which I adored, by the way!

I remember being floored by the broth served with rockfish made by chef Serge Selbe at the London Grill that was as clear as water but was intensely infused with the flavor of fresh tomatoes—he described it as filtered gazpacho. More recently my mind was blown by the corn soup made by Benjamin Schade when he was chef at the late, lamented Old Salt Marketplace in northeast Portland.

Slice kernels off cobs.

Regular readers know I'm a fool for anything with fresh corn in it, and this bowl was the essence of corn in a smooth, creamy, velvety robe, adorned only with a pat of butter melting seductively over its surface punctuated by a sprinkling of fresh pepper. I'd been so taken with it I pestered the poor guy for a couple of years, and just this summer he graciously agreed to share the recipe.

Recently Schade has been cultivating a working urban oasis he's dubbed Schadey Acres Farm, growing heritage varieties of beans, squash, peppers, turnips and other vegetables in the more-than-a-dozen raised beds he's built around his home. He makes use of this bounty in his capacity as a personal chef, but also produces a line of pickled and preserved goods under his own Private Reserve Preserves brand.

Purée kernels with onions, then press through a sieve.

When Schade arrived to show me how the soup was made, I was astounded to find out it had only four ingredients: butter, onions, corn and salt. No cream? What made it so velvety? He said it was all in the method, which he'd learned from Kevin Gibson while working at Castagna.

That answered a lot of my questions about this remarkable soup, since I consider Gibson to be a soup guru. (Anyone remember his remarkable Too Many Tomatoes soup from Castagna? I rest my case.)

With credit given where credit was due, Schade went on to say he basically makes the soup according to Gibson's recipe, which is incredibly simple but more technique-driven than one might guess given the number of ingredients.

Hot sauce, salt and it's done.

Starting with onions simmered in butter, Schade combined them with the kernels from 10 ears of corn which he then simmered ever-so-briefly in corn stock—Schade said Gibson told him the secret to corn soup was to "not cook the corn." Purée the mixture in a blender, run it through a sieve and it's done.

With corn nearing the end of its season in the Pacific Northwest, I'll be heading to the nearest farmers' market this weekend and buying up as much fresh corn as I can, so you'd best get there before I do!

Benjamin Schade's Corn Soup

Adapted from Kevin Gibson

Makes approx. 2 qts.

10 ears of corn
3 med. yellow onions, diced finely
1/4 c. butter
2 qts. corn stock
Salt
Dash of Crystal hot sauce (or tabasco)

Cut the kernels from the ears of corn. (Schade recommends placing the cob on a cutting board and slicing one side of the kernels from the cob. Rotate the cob so the cut side is against the board and slice the second side. Repeat on the last two sides of the cob. See photo above.) You can also then scrape the cobs with a knife or a handy little tool called a corn slitter to remove any remaining kernels and juice.

Corn slitter.

If you need corn stock, place the scraped cobs in a large pot (a Dutch oven or pasta pot) and barely cover with water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer for 30 minutes. Strain through a fine mesh sieve.

While simmering the stock, chop the onions. Melt butter in a large pot and add onions. Sauté until translucent, stirring constantly to avoid browning. (Schade says it's critical not to brown the onions.) Add corn kernels and stir to combine then add corn stock and bring to a simmer. Simmer 5 minutes. (Remember Gibson's advice: do not cook the corn!)

Remove from heat and immediately strain the corn mixture through a sieve or colander, reserving the stock for another use. Put the corn in a blender, making sure not to overfill the blender; you can do this in batches—remember that hot liquids can explode out of a blender, so Schade advises holding down a thick towel over the lid of the blender while running it. Purée until completely smooth.

Strain through a fine mesh sieve into a large soup pot. If you're straining several batches, you can add strained bits of corn mixture back to the next batch to purée and strain. Discard the strained remains in the compost. Schade stresses that it's better for the soup to be thick since extra liquid can be added to thin out the soup but extra liquid can’t be removed. Start thick and thin to perfect texture.

When all the corn mixture has been strained into the soup pot, add 1 tsp. of hot sauce and salt to taste. (Schade recommends no more than 1 Tbsp. hot sauce for 2 quarts of soup; he said "the hot sauce is not for heat but for the vinegar to brighten the flavor.")

Heat briefly before serving, taste for seasonings and garnish with a pat of butter and grinding of pepper.

Guide to Peppers: Some Like It Hot!

A recent newsletter from Ginger Rapport, Market Master of the Beaverton Farmers Market, featured this guide to the peppers that are tumbling into local farmers markets right now.

Chile versus Chili

If you like it hot, then this is your time of the year because it is chile season.

According to Chef Mark Miller, author of the The Great Chile Book, the generally accepted convention is that chile refers to the plant or pod while chili refers to the dish made from meat and chiles. The name pepper is a misnomer that has existed since Christopher Columbus saw his first capsicum and erroneously thought that he had found the plant that produces black pepper, which has no relation to capsicum. However, the name pepper is still used interchangeably with chile.

Peppers, from hot to mild, are available in abundance right now.

The chemical in chile peppers that gives them heat is capsaicin [pron. cap-SAY-uh-sin] which is technically a neurotoxin. It stimulates the adrenal glands to release hormones, which theoretically create an energy rush. The fiery sensation you feel also triggers the brain to produce endorphins, natural painkillers that promote a sense of well-being and stimulation. They can also make you sweat, which is your body’s natural air conditioner. This would explain why chiles figure prominently in cuisines in and around the tropics.

Depending upon whether you like them hot, mild, or somewhere in between, you will want to make informed decisions when purchasing chiles. The first thing that you should know is that the heat level in a chile is rated on a scale known as the Scoville Heat Index. Invented by Wilbur Scoville, it ranks chiles in order from mildest to hottest with zero being the mildest and the hottest being over a million. In general, the smaller the chile, the hotter it is.

Scoville ranking for bell peppers? Zero.

We’ve included the Scoville ranking* for each. Most of the heat is located in the seeds and white ribs inside. Removing the seeds and ribs, using only the flesh of the chile, will give you all of the flavor and less of the heat. Keep in mind that you should use gloves when handling the hottest peppers to avoid irritating your skin.  It is important that you do not touch anything, especially your face, before disposing of the gloves and washing your hands thoroughly. 

Bell Peppers: Scoville 0. Bell peppers are sweet peppers. They add flavor but no heat to your food.

Anaheim Peppers: Scoville 1000. Big and mild, perfect for stuffing. The skin is a little tough but peels easily if you roast it first.

Poblano and red bell peppers.

Poblano Peppers: Scoville 1,000-2,000. The classic chile for Chiles Rellenos. The have great flavor and enough heat to be zesty but not scorch anyone. As they mature, the skin reddens at which  point they are dried and sold as Ancho chiles.

Jalapeno Pepper: Scoville 2,000-8,000. This is the most commonly used pepper in the U.S. It is spicy but not overwhelming.

Serrano Pepper: Scoville 10,000-25,000. Similar in flavor to the Jalapeno only much hotter, Usually small, about 2” and green in color. A general rule of thumb is that the smaller the serrano, the hotter it will be.

Ayers Creek Farm cayenne peppers.

Cayenne Pepper: Scoville 25,000-50,000. When you want to add heat to food this is a good choice. Red in color, the Cayenne is usually dried and used in powdered form.

Thai Chile: Scoville 50,000-100,000. This pepper is classified as “very hot." It is a very small pepper and is commonly called for in Thai recipes.

Habanero Chile Pepper: Scoville 150,000-350,000. Of the hot peppers most commonly used, this is the hottest. Its color ranges from green to yellow to pink. It is very short but don’t let that fool you, this chile is scorching hot!

Other peppers you will find in the market:

Small, boxy padron peppers.

Padron Peppers. Originally from Spain, they are harvested young and small and they typically have no seeds. This makes them mild, perfect for eating whole. Farmers tell us that about one in every 12 will be surprisingly hot and there is no way to know which one packs the extra punch. [Tradition dictates that getting the hot pepper brings luck.] Sauté in olive oil until blistered and shower with salt. Serve hot.

Shishito. Popular in Japan, these are very similar to Padron peppers, but are more consistently sweet and mild. Serve them sautéed like Padrons, or drizzle with soy sauce and sesame oil. Very tasty in tempura.

The Dozen Spiciest Cuisines

Chiles play a prominent role in the dishes of many countries. According to Eater.com, the dozen spiciest world cuisines are: Chinese (Sichan), Ethiopian, Ghanaian, Liberian, Nigerian, Indian, Japanese, Korean, Mexican, Peruvian, Senegalese, Southern Italian and Sicilian, Tibetan and, last but not least, Thai.

Creamed Collard Greens with Peanut Butter and Chiles.

If you are looking to spice up your life, make sure to look beyond Mexican food. While we love the spicy south of the border cuisine, chiles traditionally pack a punch in curries, stir-fries, rice and noodle dishes, salads and condiments from all over the world.

We love a good comfort dish like Chinese-American General Tso's Chicken and this West African one-pot favorite, Creamed Collard Greens with Peanut Butter and Chiles

Roasting Red Pepper Primer

Many recipes call for roasting your peppers and roasted red peppers are a great addition as a condiment to sandwiches or added to hummus. We found two foolproof methods for roasting and skinning your red peppers, no matter your kitchen setup. 

Our favorite method is charring over a gas burner. It's quick and easy with very little cleanup. If you have an electric stove, the next best option is to roast the peppers in the oven under the broiler.

* Scoville rankings are often given in a range because varieties and growing conditions vary.

Stories of Loss and Community: Oregon Comes Together in the Face of Calamity

It's Monday morning. Wildfires are still raging up and down the West Coast, including in my beloved state of Oregon. I am looking out the front window of my Portland home at the houses just a block away that are shrouded in a yellowish smoky haze. Trees three blocks away are mere shadows, barely discernible against the sky.

But I'm lucky.

I can stay inside my home with the air filter my husband jury-rigged from a furnace filter and our old box fan, only venturing out briefly when our dog needs a potty break. So many of my fellow Oregonians don't have that luxury because they, like Naked Acres' Gus Liszka in the video above, have had to flee their homes, many leaving their farms, their crops and sometimes their animals in the face of the fires sweeping across our state.

I have been so moved by our agricultural community that has come together to help their neighbors, no questions asked, and the facilities, community members and volunteers who have been caring for their neighbors and their animals.

And that little white farmhouse standing against the black skies on the left? That's Gus's home.

If you'd like to help, here are organizations that are aiding local farmers and ranchers directly:

Astiana Tomatoes: Born in Italy's Piedmont, Bred in Oregon

Forgive me, dear readers, but I'm about to be in head-down tomato processing mode for the next couple of weeks. I've got two sheet pans of chopped tomatoes in the oven that need to come out in 30 minutes, so this is going to be quick. They're the tail end of 60-pounds of the red-ribbed beauties known as Astiana tomatoes from Ayers Creek Farm, the first round of the 150 or so pounds I plan to process this year and squirrel away in the freezer for the winter.

I know, crazy, right?

A tomato ready for market can take years of careful selection.

Those tomatoes, with just the right balance of tart-to-sweet, are the product of more than a decade of selecting seeds for flavor, plant health and field-hardiness on the part of Carol and Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm in Gaston, Oregon.

Carol describes the discovery of this signature fruit thusly:

"We came upon the fruit at the market in Asti [in the Piedmont region of northwestern Italy], marked 'Nostrano.'  We knew it was the local variety, far less ornamental than the perfect, glossy imports displayed nearby. Had tomatoes not been on our shopping list for that night’s dinner, we might well have walked on by, but made the decision to select a few for the sauce. Their flavor was a wonderful surprise and it was after dinner that I scooped out all the seed I could find from the compost bucket."

(Anthony would remind me here that Italy's Piedmont is on roughly the same latitude as Oregon, meaning that the seeds could be adapted to our maritime climate.) 

Harvest also means
selecting seeds for next year.

From that less-than-a-handful of seeds they worked over the years to adapt them to their Wapato Valley soil and climate to grow the tomato of their dreams. It's important to point out that since tomatoes yield only one crop per year, selecting and planting for reliable results can take a decade or more to achieve the desired result. Then it requires painstakingly selecting seeds each harvest season in order to have enough of a selection for the next year's crop.

Plant breeding is truly the commitment of a lifetime, and the knowledge of Anthony and Carol's hard work makes my enjoyment of these amazing tomatoes all the sweeter.

Roasted tomatoes

My method of roasting is super simple, and to me respects the integrity of the fruit's best qualities, not to mention giving me the maximum flexibilty when it comes to using them.

Preheat the oven to 400°, roughly chop the tomatoes into two-inch chunks, load onto two sheet trays skin-side down and roast for an hour. Cool enough to pull most of the skins off (most easily done by hand), load into quart freezer bags and you're done. If you want a sauce-like consistency, cool completely and run through a blender or food mill.

For a smoky flavor, you can build a fire in your wood-fired grill, spread the hot coals out and put a layer of tin foil over the grates, leaving the edges open so smoke can escape. Roughly chop the tomatoes as described above and place skin-side down on the foil. Place the lid on the grill and roast tomatoes until they are cooked, about 45 minutes to an hour. 

Limited quantities of Ayers Creek Farm Astiana tomatoes are available during their brief season at Rubinette Produce and at Real Good Food.


Here's a recipe for a fabulous tomato soup, one that I think rivals the best you're likely to find.

Creamy Roasted Tomato Soup

8 Tbsp. (1 stick) butter
1 large onion, chopped fine
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 c. flour
2 qts. (8 c.) roasted tomatoes or 3 28-oz. cans crushed tomatoes with their juices
2 c. chicken broth
1 Tbsp. kosher salt plus more to taste
1 tsp. celery salt
1/2 tsp. black pepper

In a Dutch oven or large soup pot, melt butter over medium heat. Add onion and sauté until tender and translucent. Add garlic and continue to sauté 2 minutes. Add flour and stir, making sure it doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan, for 3 minutes. Add broth, tomatoes, salt, celery salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer for 30 minutes, stirring frequently to make sure nothing sticks to the bottom of the pan. Remove soup from heat and, using an immersion blender,  purée the soup thoroughly until smooth*. Add more salt to taste, if needed. Serve.

* I don't mind a little texture from any bits that don't get totally blended in, but if you want a completely silky smooth finished product, you can press it through a fine mesh sieve, which will catch any remaining seeds or other bits.

Help Urban Gleaners Feed Hungry Kids

One of the hidden casualties of COVID-19 is the loss of food sources for the nonprofits that feed hungry people in our community.

Think about it for a minute.

With the closure of restaurants, convention centers, event locations and corporate campuses, food pantries lost a major source of food donations. Add to that the loss of access to distribution sites when schools and other community buildings were required to close, and you've got the potential for a major community hunger crisis.

Volunteers repackage food that might otherwise go to waste.

Urban Gleaners, a nonprofit with a 14-year history of reducing food insecurity and food waste in Multnomah and Washington Counties, normally collects over a million pounds of fresh food each year from local businesses before it can go to waste, then repackages and delivers it to people who need it—free of charge, no questions asked.

When the pandemic hit, the organization faced a 90 percent reduction in donations due to the forced shutdown of its donation sources. While donations are currently on the rise, it's gone from serving 4,700 people per week at 67 distribution sites to serving just over 2,500 people at only 11 sites. (At least half of those served are under 14 years old, and 70 percent identify as people of color.)

Urban Gleaners distributes food in city parks—no questions asked.

Because transportation is often the second barrier to food, behind economic hardship, and there are thousands of children whose families are unable to drive to pick up essential food from distant locations, Urban Gleaners has shifted to distributing food at parks throughout the city. They are also delivering food boxes directly to apartment complexes and school parking lots in high-need communities.

Though Urban Gleaners estimates that it will have lost at least half of in-kind revenue for the year, and it forecasts that program costs will increase by more than twenty percent, it is currently supplementing food donations and supporting local business by purchasing some products from local farms and small food businesses.

It is in the midst of fundraising to help combat hunger in our community, so if you can, please consider donating. If a neighbor or someone you know is facing hunger, here is a list of Urban Gleaners’ food pick-up locations and other resources.

Farm Bulletin: A Nod to State Fairs Past

Oregon State Fair, circa 1996, by Anthony Boutard, Ayers Creek Farm:

Among the activities on hold this year is State Fair, traditionally held over Labor Day weekend. Here are a few moments from State Fairs in the mid-1990s. The animals shown at the fair are the blue ribbon winners from the 36 county fairs, culminating in the big event before returning to classes. The intense concentration on the part of the young animal owners underscore their serious purpose. A lot of work has gone into this moment. State Fair is the wonderful blended fragrance of dung and saw dust, muted light and sound to keep the animals calm, and a lunch and nap next to the stall after a late night at the arcades and amusements. A short distance from the show buildings the noise of the rides, arcade bells, and the unceasing calls of the barkers and sellers of treasures found only at fairs, interspersed with the fragrance of fried foods of every sort.