Entries from April 2010 ↓

‘Mum, you overgrew them!’: Dr Sister Outlaw’s bountiful home harvest

It’s been a lovely summer and autumn of eating in my vege patch. Every day since November I have been harvesting herbs, rambling for raspberries, slurping shockingly sweet strawberries and, when the alliteration got too much, unearthing spuds from mulch, snapping leaves of kale and silver beet and devouring zucchinis. The only disappointment of the season was the tomatoes, which resented the foot of rain we got in one weekend in January and sulked throughout the extended warm dry period we enjoyed until yesterday. I’m not bothered. That wet summer and long autumn made growing everything else easy. I still have strawberries!

strawberries

Easy is good, because I am not diligent in the garden (or many other places, if you really want to know). I am prone to fits and starts and sometimes ignore things. I’m not always cooking so I don’t get to things in time. In the garden, this forgetfulness can have spectacular results.

These Hollow Crown parsnips looked so pretty in the vege patch that I was loth to dig them up, but maybe I shoulda done it sooner, because they got a bit … large (that’s a full size 1940s sink they are sitting on). Notice the rather ladylike limbs on the top one? I did wonder if these were really mandrakes (or ladydrakes), but luckily they did not scream when cooked. Parsnips get a bad rap, as this story about Don Burke ripping Donna Hay a new one for daring to promote them reveals. He is wrong. Parsnips are delicious. Which doesn’t explain why I ignored them so comprehensively they grew legs.

But then my marrows got into a similar state, as you can see with this cucumber, modelled by my lovely assistant Aaron, who adores cucumbers but is not sure about this one.

I’ve blogged about the advantages of overgrown zucchinis before, but I love baby beets and slender parsnips, roasted with brown sugar and balsamic, so there’s really no accounting for letting things go to this extent.

Yet this neglect has had benign – nay, wonderful – results. OK, if you ever saw a parsnip the size and shape of the ones above in a shop, you would never buy it, and neither you should. It would be tough, woody of heart and bitter of taste, because it would have endured long periods in transit and storage. But when taken straight from the earth (with a giant fork and a lot of grunting), even massive parsnips are sweet, juicy and yielding. I casseroled some with a jointed chook, a cup of white wine, preserved lemon and a bit of sage and tarragon and the result was a sauce that looked like I’d added a cup of cream to it. I nearly died of pleasure eating it. I also made them into a vegan soup with vege stock and white wine – they smelled apple sweet. 

Same goes for the beetroot, which were so overgrown they stood up out of the ground but united heaven and earth when cooked into a soup with coriander and served with a dollop of tart yoghurt. But again, you wouldn’t buy beetroot like that in a shop. You’d surmise it would be past its peak of perfection, but you would be wrong.

It’s made me think a lot about how aesthetic notions of shop-ready produce lead to waste. What do the farmers do with the produce that does not meet Coles-Woollies specifications because it is too big, too small or looks like mandrake? I suppose some goes to canneries, but precious little would be returned to the earth via compost.

Growing to order can also afflict home gardeners, to their cost. If we only eat when vegetables reach a defined size, we miss the early tenderness of baby vegetables and shorten the eating season. If you cut the head off a cabbage or silverbeet or lettuce you kill it, but if you harvest outside leaves as you need them it will bear for months and months - over the course of a year a bunch of kale will become a palm tree. Peas and beans produce longer if harvested constantly, so it makes even more sense to pick early and often. If you leave things in the ground there is always something to salvage when you are hungry. And although most gardening books would tell you beetroots and parsnips take a lot of space, the fact is I’ve gotten almost six months of eating from stuffing a couple of dozen plants into a square metre of garden, and have not tired of either food. You see, even the instructions on seed packets guide you to producing shop-ready vegetables.

My slack gardening habits have led me to an epiphany. It’s time to break free from supermarket values. Don’t follow the directions on the seed packet but overplant and eat as you thin – the plants left over will fatten in the extra space and be there when you want them. Eat the leaf the caterpillar has chomped on, grow the artichokes to see their beauty, let the beets and parsnips stay in the ground until you are good and ready for them and save your harvesting energy for turning summer peaches into bellinis or racing the autumn frosts to tuck the tender things into the really deep freeze.

Planning, Applying, Building, Sustaining – how to grow a Stephanie Alexander Foundation Kitchen Garden

My son’s school (as I have mentioned quite a few times already) is the Demonstration School for the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation program in the ACT. The program is now being rolled out across Australia, funded by the Federal Departement of Health and Ageing. There’s a demonstration school in each State or territory, which gets established first, gets extra funding and then has a role encouraging and guiding more local schools to particpate.

The motto of the Program is “Growing, Harvesting, Preparing, Sharing”. But before you get to that point, you have to do all the stuff in that post header up there. It’s an absolutely massive undertaking; one I don’t think I really understood at the time, 18 months ago, when a bunch of kindergarten parents got the Principal on board, whipped up an application and crossed our fingers. The $100,000 that a Demonstration School is awarded sounds like a substantial amount of money, doesn’t it? $40,000 is for staff costs for the part time kitchen and garden specialist teachers for the first two years the program runs. Which leaves $60,000 to build a kitchen with 4 workstations, an covered outdoor area and a productive organic veggie garden. Then you have to find the money to pay the ongoing staff costs.

There’s lots of great information on the foundation site about why you’d want to participate in the program, the program goals, and the benefits for schools, children and communities. But this post is about what it’s like for community and parent volunteers trying to get this off the ground. It’s strictly my personal account and unconnected to the school, the foundation or anyone else.

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We found out our application was successful in December 2008, and we had a meeting during the Summer holidays inviting lots of community groups and members. We got off to a good start by dividing up the tasks into a few main areas, with a co-ordinator for each -

  • Project Management
  • Kitchen
  • Garden
  • Marketing/Information
  • School and community connections
  • Donations and Sponsorship

As the need was identified, we added Volunteers and Equity as separate areas.

I originally started off in the Marketing/Information role. I did a bunch of useful stuff like setting up a wiki and and a blog and trying to attract some community attention by writing an article for the The Canberra Times‘ Food & Wine section.

Part of the idea of the wiki was that we could document as we went along, so that we had a resource available for other schools implementing the program. But we were using free software that never really quite worked for some people and it fell into disuse. In my work life, my boss and I have tried (and failed) to get people to blog enough times to not take a lack of engagement personally. Despite the fact that it wasn’t that useful in the end, it does function as an accessible repository for all our application and planning documentation.

Left, the old “community room”, right, the kitchen shot from the dining room, which is three steps up. The door at the far left of the old pic is in the middle of the new pic.

I ended up taking over the Sponsorship role when another person couldn’t continue in it. Unfortunately I wasn’t very effective at all, due to a combination of lack of time, always having a rambunctious three year old with me and having no relevant skills or experience. I’m good at the talking to producers and making connections part of things, but not the more formal (and bigger $) sponsorship stuff. We’ve done some stuff I think is really great, like mostly stocking the kitchen from donations from school families (and scavenging at the tip and op shops). We wanted the kids to see that things didn’t have to be in pristine matching sets, or brand new, that cooking just happened with what you have. Despite some wins like this, I would suggest that where possible, you get volunteers playing to their strengths (and not trying to persuade anyone of anything while a toddler is holding their leg).

From the time we started trying to drum up some enthusiasm in the school, there were some people in the school community who were not pleased that the school was participating in the program and unhappy about the way things had unfolded.

The school’s initial application was rejected for insufficient kitchen and garden space, and the application period was extended. In that fortnight, a new group of parents got involved and wrote the successful application. But because all our kids were in kindy, we didn’t know some important context; for example, that parents had fought hard to create the school’s (excellent) performing arts program and were afraid it would be swallowed by the resource demands of a new, sexy program when the funding for staff ran out after the first two years.

Other threads of discontent centered around a view that there’d been a lack of consultation in the application process (true; but I don’t know how we could have conducted a meaningful consultation in that two weeks) and a concern that the school already struggled to attract enough volunteers to run the Canteen, etc. (For those non-primary parents out there, our school is unusual in having a 5 day a week Canteen; most are part time and some have shut.) Some just couldn’t see the point or relevance of the program and thought the curriculum was already overloaded.

One useful thing we did to address these feelings was co-host with the P&C a meeting inviting people to come and raise their concerns. People who couldn’t attend the meeting were invited to give us a few words on a issue they wanted considered. We made it clear that although our application had been accepted by the Department of Health and Ageing and the Foundation, nothing had been signed off. If there was sufficient opposition, we were prepared to pull the plug. There wasn’t a huge attendance, but we (in fact, mainly the Principal) covered all the matters that were causing concern or distress. It helped clarify for those of us pushing for the program that communication within the school community was vital, and reassured us that there were strategies in place to deal with the problems and difficulties as they arose.

A further event that worked well was a Harvest Festival held in late Autumn last year, inviting the broader community for lunch and a seminar about the four year old revitalisation project of the outdoor areas of the school, and how the kitchen garden continued that work. By this stage we’d got it together to feed everyone when we wanted people to turn up, and it was gratifying to see people tucking into to their frittata, soupe au pistou and home-made breads and observe the excitement building. We started to get some ideas about other ways to use the kitchen as a community resource, such as having the baker of the magnificent bread run a workshop to fundraise, inviting the new-ish Somali families at the school to teach a class, running a session on jam-making with the summer fruit glut and the like.

From a sad piece of failing lawn, to de-cooched green manure, and finally a giant veggie monster growing corn, melons, tomatoes, beans, edible flowers, pumpkins, etc, etc. Our awesome gardener, Rik Allan, tends to use heritage varieties because aside from being open-pollinated, they look cool and pique the kids’ interest.

We were successful in getting an ACT Government grant which meant we could employ the garden specialist to begin developing the garden while the kitchen was being built. It would be very hard to start as the kitchen teacher with no produce, particularly as the focus is on using what the kids have grown. Other grant applications were unsuccesful. Win some, lose some.

Those of us heavily involved have been relentless prosleytisers. The garden is at the front of the school, on a fairly busy road (for Canberra) across from the local shops. The visibility helps – a bunch of kids who’d broken into the garden and snapped a couple of trees one night were scared off by a guy in a flat over the road who roused on them and called the cops. He was visited the next day by our Principal bearing a gift of eggs from the school chickens to thank him. I was painting the kitchen one Saturday afternoon with a couple of others and a family who’d just moved to the area wandered in and asked us if they could look around, and what was going on; they stayed in the garden for about an hour. More than 250 people came through when the garden and kitchen were open as part of the Open Garden scheme.

There have been regular meetings and working bees and also times when the garden needs to be watered and cared for over the long holidays, or shorter periods when the garden teacher is away.  Like all community based and community building endeavours, you can’t build a school kitchen garden without substantial committments of time, not least from the school’s Principal.  In fact, I’ve left an crucially important thing out … fyrst catche ye Principal; you simply can not do it without their enthusiastic support.

Most people seem to be appreciating what they’re seeing, and I think once kitchen classes start next term and kids go home wanting to make dinner for their family more people will see what we’ve been on about. The kitchen and garden were launched a few weeks ago on 25 March, and there were a couple of hundred people there to celebrate with us; people from the Foundation and the Health Department, CIT (the local trade education body) and the restaurant community, parents and community members.

In her speech at the launch on 25 March, my friend Chris spoke on behalf of the community and touched on how hard the application process had been. The point was picked up by Stephanie Alexander in her speech who said she was glad to hear it said; it’s true and it’s supposed to be hard.  Because pulling it off, and keeping it going are really hard things to do.

But it’s worth it – in her speech, Stephanie Alexander read out a letter from a mother of a child in the program in country Victoria who has become a red hot veggie gardener.  Afterwards, in the kitchen, one of our teachers told her that since the school had become involved in the program, seven children in her class had started veggie gardens at home. That’s an amazing figure; roughly a third of the class.

There’s a report on the launch from the Foundation, and lots more garden pictures at the school’s site.

On the benefits of being a good cook

I’m fasting today in preparation for a colonoscopy tomorrow. Ew, I know. No symptoms, (thanks for asking!) it’s just a preventative measure given my family history.

Anyhow, if you are a really good cook, and all you’re allowed to eat for a day is “clear salty soup”, you can still have a really nice lunch made from your light Chinese stock which you infused with a shiitake, some more chicken and herbs last night.

I just thought I’d share that.

Anthony: Everyone’s a critic.

That was the slogan of last year’s Melbourne International Film Festival. It got me thinking about food critics, and what they do. We tend to only reflect on the role of food critics when they’re in extremis: Leo Schofield getting sued for defamation; the French chef Bernard Loiseau and the loss of a Michelin star; or – horror of horrors – the Australian’s John Lethlean laying into Cheong Liew.

But what is restaurant reviewing all about? Nowadays, for most of us, if we want an opinion on a new restaurant in our neighbourhood, we’d probably go to some online site where diners rate the reasturant and offer their opinions. There’s a lot of debate about whether we’ve yet reached the age of the citizen journalist, but surely we’ve reached the age of the citizen critic? When it comes to something as quotidian as dining out, or a film, or a brand of whitegood or hi-fi, surely everyone is a critic. Do we really expect a food critic to add to this? Do we expect a restaurant critic to approach the task in the same way as a music critic will approach a recital, or a drama critic a play? Did they ever? Do we need a ‘specialist’ to interpret the dining experience to us in the same way as, for example, an art critic interprets art? What does it mean to a ‘specialist’ when it comes to consuming food in a restaurant?

I lived in Toronto in the first half of last year, in a neighbourhood at the west end of Queen Street West (that is, west Queen Street West). Queens St West runs from downtown, but the wester it goes the more it becomes like an extended version of Gertrude St Melbourne: a motley mix of convenience stores, pawn shops, second hand dealers, ethnic eateries, independent avant-garde art galleries, trendy cafes, social service providers and boutique hotels.

Gentrification Street West

The area, like Gertrude St, is bordered by public housing – or what they call ‘project housing’ – and a local performance artist, Darren O’Donnell (no relation), worked with kids from the local Parkdale High School on a project called ‘Eat the Street’, glossed as Parkdale Public School versus Queen Street West (Darren likes working with kids: one of his earlier projects was to offer passing adults ‘haircuts by kids’ – under the supervision of a stylist of course).

O’Donnell took a group of students from Parkdale to review eleven restaurants in the Queen Street West area, over a month and a half, culminating in an awards ceremony. Here are examples of what some of the schoolkids-turned-restaurant reviewers had to say about some of the restaurants on the project’s blog:

‘The washroom is too small, smells bad and it dirty. Atmosphere is good. Pretty room colours. Good outfit. I like the music’ – Tenzin Paldon

‘Very good chicken curry with rice. Okay service’ – Tenzin Chokden

‘Service was pretty fast for a big group. There was a hair in my food’- Anh

‘It was very good and spicy’ – Tenzin Choesang

‘Bathroom = 8/10. Small, but feels good, isn’t dirty. Although small, feels nice and comfy. Sorta loud. Deer Burger: I feel really disturbed and disgusted. Wonder how it’ll end up like… Burger good and all but the sauce and ingredients on top are too overwhelming and strong. Doesn’t quite fit in well’ – Ann

‘Talihun threw up some food in a toilet because it tasted like his hair’ – Monlan

(You may have noted the apparent surfeit of kids named Tenzin: the area is home to one of the largest expat Tibetan communities outside of Asia)

Badging this as Parkdale Public School vs. Queen Street West 2: Eat The Street is explicitly oppositional. But it highlights what is at stake here. When a street like Queen St West or Gertrude St starts to change and gets a reputation as a hip or cool or edgy place — whether for its food or its art or its clothing boutiques or whatever — it is because a group of people has interpreted it this way and sold that interpretation to the world. Sharon Zukin, an American scholar of gentrification, calls these people the ‘critical infrastructure’: they range from the museum curators to the art gallery staff; from the restaurant waiters through to the restaurant reviewers — and, we would now have to add, online reviewers and ‘subcultural guides’ and blogs and so on. As she says, they ‘establish and unify a new perspective for viewing and consuming the values of place’. And in this way, of course, they also establish market values. And for Zukin, what goes for the built landscape goes for the menu as well: that shift from place-defining to market-defining.

Yet although the group that is able to communicate information about new consumption opportunities is expanding thanks to the internet, the critical infrastructure is not a job for everyone: it requires people with the requisite cultural capital, if not financial capital. Those kids from Parkdale Public School do just what critics do: they visit restaurants and write up their reactions. But what they’re doing, in the context of the gentrification of west Queen St West, is also something totally different from what restaurant reviewers do.

Update: there has been an Australian version of Eat the Street in Launceston (with a photo blog and (pdf) awards), inspired and supported by the Toronto collective Mammalian Diving Reflex. There’s a lot to say about this phenomenon as performance art: the place of children in public dining; their empowerment and voice; being made to remember what was important to us as kids when dining out; and so on. In my post I’ve focused on a fairly narrow aspect of the Toronto example – the seeming opposition between Parkdale School and Queen St West – to make a point about gentrification and cuisine and the role of restaurant critics however broadly defined. I don’t know enough about the demographics of Mowbray Heights Primary School to say whether any of this is relevant to the experience in Launceston. Anyone? Anyone?

In search of lost recipes

So remember that I’m a cookbook nerd? Sick and home in bed with a laptop one day this week, I saw this tweet from @eleg_sufficiency – simply brilliant idea for anyone with too many cookbooks and too little time to search through them > Cook & Eat

That’s me suckered. I checked out the Cook & Eat project, which is called Gobbledybook, a search engine for cookbooks by Seattle photographer, stylist and food blogger Lara Ferroni .

It’s a clever idea to use web searching mechanisms to render the (beautiful, expensive) books you already own more useful – for years Harold McGee has been using a sidebar link to a Google Books search of his On Food and Cooking at his site News for Curious Cooks as a super-charged index. I also use food blog search a lot, and have recently started using forage, the Australian food blog search engine (and you’ll find both of those in the sidebar).

The difference with Gobbledybook is that it searches cookbooks, not blog posts. And I have a lot of cookbooks, although not as many as Pat does.

Cookbook shelf

Gobbledybook seems to have a reasonable selection of Australian content, with titles by Luke Nguyen, Curtis Stone, Bill Granger and *cough* Donna Hay. Ottolenghi is in there, and a few baking and vegetarian books, 60 in all to date for a total of nearly 5000 recipes. It has started as Ferroni’s own collection, and she will expand it with more of her titles and is encouraging others to start logging their own recipes.

It requires you to sign in with facebook, which I don’t like. It’s unclear about how the sites interact, and the sign-in box makes it clear they might publish to your wall. I’m worried that if I accidentally look up a Donna Hay recipe it could get posted to my Facebook profile and I will lose the respect of my loved ones. (Updated: more seriously, if you purchased a book via Gobbledybook while logged in through Facebook, Facebook might keep your financial data without asking first.)

As it so often happens, someone else has had the same great idea. Another recently launched service called Eat Your Books does pretty much the same thing. In both cases, ingredients lists but not method are entered, there being no copyright in an ingredients list. Eat Your Books is in beta, but is still considerably more developed with 16,521 Cookbooks and 240,795 recipes entered. It costs US$25 per year or (for a limited time only!) $50 for a lifetime membership. There’s a 30 day free trial, which I’m doing at the moment. I can see myself handing over the $50 at the end of it.

Gobbledybook is a charming name the first time you encounter it, but gets pretty tedious to type. And “EYB” makes it a lot easier to stick to twitter’s 140 characters. The problem is, I’ve found Gobbledybook to be pretty buggy and it’s certainly not intuitive to use. Perhaps that comes from it being an individual’s project expanded? EYB is much better designed and has a more developed search function. You can request that books be added and indexed.

Gobbledybook says their service is better than Eat Your Books because you can add your own books to Gobbledybook rather than waiting for the service to do it, and they will “match up” data behind the scenes so that a failure to use a sufficiently specific term won’t bugger up your search results, a problem Ferroni says she’s had at EYB with things like searching for “soup” not picking up a “bisque”.

I haven’t played sufficiently with Eat Your Books a great deal yet, but haven’t found any problems. Adding just 24 of my books has given me 4800+ searchable recipes. Searching my books for “witlof” gives me 22 recipes, including chicory and witlof so it looks like someone’s doing some “matching up” there too.

I emailed to ask some questions and was really impressed by the substance and tone of their answers. I asked if I could import the few hundred books I had in my Library Thing and was advised that a data import is on the way, and that they’re linking with British suppliers and eventually Australian and New Zealand ones to expand the library. And already, somewhere in Canberra, is an indexer adding info from the most prominent Australian books (nah, not me, although I offered …) Their focus is on the last 15 years, but I hope eventually they’ll index older titles like the Time Life Good Cook series which I have so painstakingly accumulated.

I’m not so interested in the “community” parts of the sites, as I already have a food blog and a twitter problem, but there’s potential for it to really take off. Much as I love flipping through cookbooks, sometimes I’d rather just be able to find or remember what I’m looking for – so when there’s something new at the farmers’ market or a glut in the veggie garden, dinner need never be boring. Even if it’s zucchini again.


Updated:
disclosure! Eat Your Books has given me a free lifetime membership after reading this post. It didn’t cross my mind before writing, and I was going to pay up anyway, but as I don’t usually accept stuff I thought I should mention it.


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