|Drawing by Toki Oshima|
By Roberta Bailey
Happy Anniversary to me! This spring marks the 35th anniversary of my time writing this column. My entire adult life has evolved around the full flavors of homegrown food straight from the garden, pantry and root cellar. I have never thought of myself as a fancy cook. Instead, I feature fresh flavors and herbs and let the vegetables bedazzle the eater. Harvest Kitchen has always celebrated these simple palate-dazzling basics.
The passage of time has made me pause and reflect. When I started writing this column, I typed it on a small manual typewriter that my mother had passed along to me after high school. The MOF&G was published six times a year. It was a voice of the organic community and a vital connection with its calendar of MOFGA chapter meetings and events. There was no internet, no email. I didn’t have a telephone, and cell phones had not been invented yet. If I wanted to plan a get-together, I would send a postcard, which would arrive in one day, then await the response, which would arrive a few days later. I relied on the Maine State Library Interlibrary Loan Program for research, sending a request for any information on, say, biodynamic gardening. A package of books and printouts would arrive in the mail a few weeks later, along with a return-mail address card. Books on tape were available only for the blind, but Maine Public Radio read books aloud every evening. My first exposure to Star Wars was in the form of a radio drama … and then Ronald Reagan.
Fedco was a food distributor, serving a vast system of pre-order and storefront co-ops, a federation of co-operatives. Its seed pre-order was a multi-page grid. Most of the seed was bought in bulk from Johnny’s Selected Seeds. Often, MOFGA chapters got together to order as a group and later to break down the order. Organic Growers Supply (OGS) was a pre-order that was organized by MOFGA and distributed to depots throughout the state, often the same ones that were part of food orders. MOFGA later passed OGS on to Fedco. Moose Tubers was also linked to the food co-op distribution system (and to Tom Roberts, if memory serves me). It too eventually passed on to Fedco (and has just shed the confusing name with which it came). The MOFGA office was in Hallowell above a store that sold back-to-the-land supplies. The offices later moved to Augusta.
Organic food was not widely available. Tofu was available only in bulk through storefront food co-ops. I remember writing an article for The MOF&G titled “What is Tofu?” There were no CSAs, no high tunnels. No organic ketchup on the supermarket shelf. Multinationals had not yet recognized the future boom of the organic food industry. Organic produce was still trying to outrun its reputation of being dirt-covered, sad looking produce. Organic seed and bio-regionally produced seed crops were just whispers on the future wind.
I do not pine for the old days. I am glad for the calm person that I have grown to be. I am excited about the strong organic movement in Maine. I love knowing that if my squash crop fails, I can buy some in a number of places. I am glad for CSA opportunities. And winter-grown greens. And fish and meat shares in CSAs. And oh, the cheeses, and the micro-brews and the cider. And I am incredibly excited by the innovative farmers and dairy people on the Maine scene. MOFGA has been the cornerstone of making all this happen.
In a time when people are clamoring for real food flavor, when chefs are emphasizing locally made cheeses, beers, wines, meat, fish and vegetables, and when free time is the new wealth, take a moment to go out to your garden, pick some baby greens or fresh asparagus, and notice the sweetness. That sweetness is what it’s all about. In a few hours, it will be gone. You can’t buy that. But it can be yours. Hopefully for a lifetime.
Here are a few simple recipes to highlight simple flavors (aside from just eating some of these crops right in the garden, or steaming them.) And remember, just add fresh herbs, and people will think your food is amazing.
Seven Tree Asparagus
1/2 to 1 lb. asparagus spears
2 Tbsp. olive oil
Dash of salt
Squeeze of lemon
1 clove garlic, minced
2 Tbsp. fresh chives or baby garlic shoots, chopped fine
Parmesan or fresh feta (optional)
Steam the asparagus until just tender but still crisp inside. Place it on a plate. Heat the olive oil in a pan, add the garlic and salt, stir for 1 minute, then drizzle over asparagus. Sprinkle with chives. Drizzle with lemon juice. Grate and add Parmesan or feta, if desired. Serve immediately.
Mint Lemon Vinaigrette
(makes about 1/2 cup)
Serve baby greens with julienned carrots or turnip or radish and dress with this vinaigrette.
1/2 tsp. finely grated lemon zest (about 1/2 lemon’s worth)
3 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
2 tsp. white balsamic vinegar
6 Tbsp. olive oil
2 to 3 Tbsp. minced spearmint leaves
1 clove garlic, mashed in 1/2 tsp. salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Smash the garlic with the side of a knife. Add salt, and chop and smash the clove into a puree. Mix all ingredients. Adjust flavors.
Sauteed Snap Peas and Scallions
3 Tbsp. olive oil
1 1/2 lb. snap peas, stems removed
2 scallions, chopped coarsely
10 mint or parsley leaves
Lemon zest (optional)
Heat the olive oil in a large skillet. Add the snap peas. Saute for 2 minutes, then add the scallions and continue to stir and saute for 3 to 4 minutes, until tender but still crisp. Remove the vegetables from heat, turn into a bowl, add mint or parsley, and add salt to taste. Add zest if desired.
Pickled Mustard Greens
(Time: 2 days. Makes 2 cups)
3/4 lb. mustard or mixed spring greens, washed and dried
2 Tbsp. sea salt
1 c. unseasoned rice vinegar
2 Tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. dried chili flakes (optional)
1 clove garlic, minced
Chop the greens into half-inch pieces. In a large stainless or glass bowl, mix them with the salt. Cover with a plate that fits inside the bowl and weight it down with a 1-pound weight. Let the greens and salt sit for an hour at room temperature. Rinse the greens very well and squeeze out excess moisture. Pack them into a clean 1-pint jar.
In a saucepan heat the vinegar, sugar, chili and garlic, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Pour the brine over the greens, filling the jar to the brim. Cover with a jar lid and set the jar on the counter for 24 hours, then move it to the fridge for 1/2 to 2 days. Eat the greens over the next month. They are great with any rice or noodle dish, fried chicken or pork dishes.
Garlic and Chive Aioli
A great dipping side for steamed new veggies, bread, meat or fish
2 cloves garlic
1/4 tsp. salt
3 Tbsp. finely minced chives
1 large egg yolk
5 Tbsp. lemon juice
1 Tbsp. water
1/2 c. olive oil
Mash or blend the garlic and salt together until they resemble a paste. Add the chives, egg yolk, lemon juice and water. Blend in a small food processor or blender. Add olive oil, 1 tablespoon at a time, blending as you add. Taste the thick sauce. Add salt or pepper as needed. Chill until ready to serve. Makes about 1/2 cup. Note: This recipe uses a raw egg. Since eggs can, very rarely, harbor salmonella bacteria, the Centers for Disease Control (https://www.cdc.gov/features/salmonellaeggs/index.html) recommends against consumption of raw eggs, especially by infants, the elderly or immune-compromised people.
Serve with meat, fish, yogurt or ice cream
2 1/2 c. rhubarb stalks, cut into 2-inch pieces
1/2 c. evaporated cane juice or sugar
Mix rhubarb with sweetener and let it sit for 1 hour at room temperature.
Place a grill rack or grilling basket on a hot grill (about 350 F). Place the rhubarb on the rack/basket and grill for 5 minutes. Flip and grill for 3 to 5 minutes more. The rhubarb should be soft but not falling apart. Remove from heat and serve.