Preserving America's Food Traditions.
Have Chestnuts, Will Roast
(First Published Dec. 20, 2007 in the St. Augustine Record)
Nat King Cole’s famous rendition of The Christmas Song opens with the magical words, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire….” and every year, the 1944 classic announces the beginning of the Holiday Season. Though actually penned by Mel Tormé and Bob Wells, it was Cole’s version that most people are familiar with today. Regardless of who made a hit of the song, each time I hear the tune, I can’t help but wonder where all the chestnuts roasters have gone. Once a central part of holiday festivities, roasting chestnuts is no longer a winter mainstay in America.
Every late autumn like clockwork, my father Eusebio reminisces about the chestnuts he cherished so much as a boy in northern Spain and how much he pines for them again today. He recalls his walk to school every day and the chestnuts that covered the path from home to the schoolhouse—all free for the taking and a treasured after-school snack. He talks of the traditional breads that the women would bake in their stone ovens and of the hot cereal his mother would make for him on cold mornings, both using homeground chestnut flour. Apparently, my father is not alone in his wistfulness. Here in the USA, though not as popular as in days of past, when colder weather arrives and Jack Frost starts “nipping at your nose,” chestnuts begin showing up in grocery stores everywhere and many people nowadays think of them with fond nostalgia, even if they have no idea what they would do with them once they took them home.
So what was it that inspired the famous line in the song? Roasting chestnuts was once a typical sight on the sidewalks of cities of the Northeast, such as New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, where pedestrians looking for a warm snack could pick up a sackfull and carry it along with them as they continued their Holiday shopping or their walk home from work. Today, chestnut vendors are not as common as in the past, though the tradition of roasting them in autumn and winter is still practiced in some parts of the country and throughout Europe and Asia.
Numerous cultures have been consuming chestnuts for centuries. In fact, the trees were growing wild in Asia long before the Romans introduced them into Europe from the region of Turkey called Kastanum (thus the Latin word for chestnuts—castaneas). By 37BC, the Romans were harvesting and grinding chestnuts as a mixture with wheat flour for bread. In Europe during the Middle Ages, groups that lived near forests used chestnuts as their main source of carbohydrates because of the scarcity of wheat flour. Chestnut trees are a particularly impressive food source because they can produce 6000 nuts per tree. Today, Italians are once again making cakes, breads, and even pasta out of chestnut flour, a rediscovered ingredient that is being employed increasingly thanks to a renewed interest in traditional foods. Meanwhile in Spain, roasting chestnuts continues to be a winter custom on the sidewalks of cities like Barcelona and Madrid.
Back home in the U.S., Native Americans relied on chestnuts as a significant part of their diets well prior to colonial times. But chestnuts largely fell out of the public’s eyes and tastebuds in the modern era because of a blight on the American chestnut tree at the beginning of the 20th Century. First discovered at the Bronx Zoo, the fungus, which was carried on imported Asian chestnut trees, spread quickly and decimated the country’s native chestnut population in less than 50 years. On the eastern half of our nation, which was once covered in mighty chestnut trees that stood over 100 feet tall, few chestnuts remain, almost all having been wiped out by the disease. Since then, the American Chestnut Foundation has led efforts to restore the native population by crossing them with Chinese and Japanese chestnuts, which have proven resistant to the fungus. The hope is to increase the number of chestnut trees in America over the next 30 to 50 years to near the healthy level found in the past, when it was said that a squirrel could travel all the way from Maine to Florida by hopping from one chestnut limb to another without ever touching the ground. They are slowly making a comeback, though the U.S. still gets the bulk of its chestnuts from Italy.
Inspired by my father’s memories, I decided to start tinkering with chestnuts. A quick internet search led me to the discovery of a handful of enterprising chestnut producers here in America. One of the remarkable farms selling high quality chestnuts domestically is Allen Creek Farms of Washington State (www.chestnutsonline.com). To my Dad’s delight, I purchased stoneground chestnut flour from the farm and found it to be a versatile ingredient. In a period of a few weeks, I had made everything from chestnut crepes (nutty and good filled with fruit preserves) to chestnut cornbread (a little dry and too dense for my taste) to castagnaccio, a traditional Italian cake that has been around since the times of the Romans. Made with chestnut flour, olive oil, raisins, pine nuts, walnuts, and rosemary, it turned out to be a memorable sweet and savory experience. But it’s not for everyone—although I enjoyed it, others I shared it with didn’t care for the mélange of flavors. Finally, I decided to enjoy chestnuts in the traditional ways they have been consumed for centuries, either boiled or roasted. Boiling chestnuts leaves them slightly moister than roasting them, but I like the earthiness that roasting imparts. And roasting chestnuts is not as daunting or time-consuming as one might think. Simply preheat the oven to 350°, cut an X across the flat back of the chestnuts, place them on a baking sheet (or even better, a preheated cast iron skillet), and bake them for 15 minutes or so until the skin of the chestnuts begins to burst along the cut lines. Let them cool a bit, then while still warm, peel off the skin and fuzz that surrounds the sweet flesh and indulge. It’s an honest and simple winter pleasure and a trip down Memory Lane. Who knows? Maybe next year you’ll catch me on a sidewalk somewhere selling roasted chestnuts and whistling that familiar tune of old.
American Traditions: How Certain Foods Became Holiday Classics
(First Published in Palm Coast Lifestyles, Holiday Issue, 2007)
Ever wondered why Nat King Cole sang about chestnuts roasting on an open fire or why kids are so addicted to candy canes come winter? Every year, as Americans of all backgrounds sit at the table surrounded by family, we feast on traditional foods that reappear each Holiday Season. The following is a short list of classic Holiday foods and some interesting facts on each:
Turkeys have come a long way. Ever since Ben Franklin proposed making the turkey our national symbol (a sentiment not shared by bald eagle fans), the American turkey has played a central role in the traditional Holiday banquet. Known for their intelligence and ferocity in the wild, turkeys have been dumbed-down and have had their distinct flavor eliminated by the processes of industrial agriculture. Though there were once several native varieties found across America, today commercial turkey farming relies largely on one single type—the Broad Breasted White, aptly named for its unnaturally high amounts of white breast meat. The demand for “healthier” white meat has led to the transformation of one of nature’s tastiest birds into an insipid, dry, mass-produced fowl.
Remember when you didn’t have to deep fry, brine, marinate, or do much of anything to coax flavor out of a turkey? Those days sound like distant memories now. Industrially farmed turkeys receive little exercise or sunlight, are fed a monotonous corn-based mash so as to increase the rate at which they fatten up (despite being naturally picky eaters with a varied diet), and are often pumped with high levels of antibiotics to prevent illnesses under the crowded conditions in which they are confined. All this has resulted in admittedly higher production numbers, but at the cost of flavor, quality, and animal health and welfare. What this all means to human health is yet to be determined, but one thing is certain: relying on one variety or strain of any food is not good for the environment. When we reduce our genetic diversity, we make our food supply more vulnerable to disease and pests.
That’s where heritage turkeys come in. Perhaps the darlings of the sustainable agriculture movement, heritage turkeys are older, pre-industrial turkey breeds, such as the Bronze, Jersey Buff, and Bourbon Red, which are being grown on small family farms the way turkeys used to be: outdoors with a healthy diet and plenty of exercise. Groups like Heritage Foods USA (www.heritagefoodsusa.com), the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (http://albc-usa.org), and Slow Food USA (www.slowfoodusa.org) are coordinating efforts to ensure their survival. You can even go to the Heritage Foods USA website and upon ordering your turkey, monitor its growth and development on the farm with their turkey webcam! Talk about transparency! As for me, I can vouch for Amish turkeys, having made them the centerpiece of my Thanksgiving table on more than one occasion. This year I’ve ordered mine from Blackwing Quality Meats (www.blackwing.com). I’m looking forward to my organic, free-range bird that was raised humanely on a small Amish farm in Illinois. But just as importantly, my family can’t wait to sink their teeth into our delicious, succulent bird!
With almost 2 billion sold each year during the Holiday Season, candy canes are the classic Christmas confection. The original candy canes were not canes at all, but rather straight white sticks made by French priests in the 1400s. The first cane-shaped candies are believed to have been made in 1670 by a choirmaster in Cologne, Germany who bent white sugar sticks into canes (symbolizing the shepherds that visited baby Jesus) as Christmas treats for the children attending church services. As the tradition of decorating trees with foods (candies, cookies, sweets, etc.) for Christmas spread across Europe, candy canes were used as ornaments because of their functionality. Peppermint sticks with red stripes did not appear until the mid-1800s in Granna, Sweden.
Eventually, European immigrants brought the tradition to the United States. In particular, a German-Swedish immigrant named August Imgard of Wooster, Ohio decorated his tree for the holidays with candy canes in 1847. His simple act would inspire a nation to start a new tradition. By the 1900s, the red-striped variety common today was introduced into America and began its commercial domination when Bob McCormack of Albany, Georgia began producing them for friends, family, and local shopkeepers and his brother-in-law invented an automated machine that was capable of mass-producing them. Though red stripes and peppermint are the most common characteristics of the modern candy cane, other colors and flavors are often produced as well.
Some people hold strong religious associations with the candy cane. Not only does the cane still represent a shepherd’s staff, but for many people the three traditional red stripes embody both the Trinity and the blood of Christ. The color white and the peppermint flavor symbolize purity, while the hard texture of the candy represents the “rock” or foundation on which the Church is built. Finally, the staff, when turned upside down, resembles a “J” for Jesus. Regardless of religious convictions, the candy cane is the most widely associated candy of the Holiday Season and shows no signs of losing its popularity—just ask any six year old.
Sweet Potatoes and Yams
Having candied yams for Thanksgiving? How about a sweet potato soufflé for Christmas? Almost every year without fail, someone at the table will ask what, if any, are the differences between sweet potatoes and yams. (Usually, it’s the guest that nobody can figure out who invited.) Here in the U.S., the two root foods are often mislabeled in grocery stores or incorrectly have their names used interchangeably. The reality is that the two foods are similar to the casual observer but actually unrelated crops.
The sweet potato is a crop planted commercially in the United States and is by far more common than the yam. A member of the morning glory family, the sweet potato is added to a variety of traditional dishes, particularly in the South, including pies, mashes, biscuits, and pancakes. Sweet potatoes are native to the tropical regions of the New World and were called batatas (hence the word potato) by the Taino Indians of the Caribbean, in whose diet they played a significant role. Columbus was so impressed, he took them back to Spain and they became known as Spanish potatoes throughout Europe. Sweet potatoes can range anywhere from yellow with a dry flesh to orange with a moist flesh. It is this latter, more common, variety that is often confused with yams. The Beauregard, with its high moisture content, sweet flavor, and rather consistent size and shape, is the most widespread type of sweet potato found in produce aisles.
Yams, unlike sweet potatoes, are tubers of the lily family and African in origin. They are usually, though not always, larger than sweet potatoes, growing even up to 7 feet in length and weighing 120 pounds! Yams tend to be reddish in color, and denser, sweeter, and moister than sweet potatoes. They are not widely cultivated in the United States, though I am partial to Garnet yams grown in California, with their deep red color and sweet, moist flesh. They are often available for purchase at Whole Foods stores.
So how did sweet potatoes come to be casually referred to as yams? African slaves took comfort in the sweet potatoes of the Americas because they reminded them of the yams they ate back home. The word yam likely comes from the West African word nyami, which means “to eat.” In the 1930s, farmers in Louisiana decided to market their sweet potatoes as “yams,” so as to differentiate their moist, dark orange products from their yellow-fleshed, dry counterparts being sold in the North. The term “yam” quickly spread and today the vast majority of “yams” purchased in supermarkets are actually sweet potatoes. Sweet potatoes/yams are still big business in Louisiana, which holds an annual festival each October called the Yambilee to honor the root. In addition, Creole families still slowly roast whole sweet potatoes in the hot ashes of a fire for hours for a traditional treat creatively named patates douces, or “sweet potatoes.” No matter what you call them, sweet potatoes and yams are sure to please both the sweet-tooth and the health nut of your family.
Though not as popular a winter snack as in days of past, chestnuts have been forever memorialized by Nat King Cole’s rendition of The Christmas Song, in which he croons the opening line about them being roasted “on an open fire.” The song was actually penned by Mel Tormé and Bob Wells in 1944, though it was Cole who made the song a classic. Still, when winter arrives and Jack Frost starts “nipping at your nose,” the nuts start reappearing in supermarkets and many people today think of them with fond nostalgia, even if they have no idea what they would do with them.
So what inspired the famous line in the song? Roasting chestnuts was once commonplace on the sidewalks of cities of the Northeast, such as New York and Philadelphia, where pedestrians looking for a warm snack could pick up a sackfull for just pennies and carry it along with them as they continued their Holiday shopping. Today, chestnut vendors are not as common as in the past, though the tradition of roasting them in autumn and winter is still practiced in some parts of the country and throughout Europe and Asia.
Chestnuts have been consumed by numerous cultures for centuries. In fact, chestnuts were growing wild in Asia long before the Romans introduced them into Europe from the region of Turkey called Kastanum, thus the Latin word for chestnuts—castaneas. By 37BC, the Romans were harvesting and grinding chestnuts as a mixture with wheat flour for bread. In the Middle Ages, groups throughout Europe that lived near forests used chestnuts as their main source of carbohydrates because of the scarcity of wheat flour. Italians are once again making cakes, breads, and even pasta out of chestnut flour, a rediscovered ingredient that is being employed increasingly thanks to a renewed interest in traditional foods.
Back home in the U.S., chestnuts largely fell out of the public’s eyes and tastebuds because of a blight on the American chestnut tree at the beginning of the 20th Century. A fungus carried on imported Asian chestnut trees spread quickly and decimated the country’s native chestnut population in less than 50 years. On the eastern half of our nation, which was once covered in mighty chestnut trees that stood over 60 feet tall, few chestnuts remained, almost all having been wiped out by the disease. Since then, the American Chestnut Foundation has led efforts to restore the native tree population by crossing them with Chinese and Japanese chestnuts, which have proved resistant to the fungus. The hope is to increase the number of chestnut trees in America to near the healthy level found in the past, when chestnuts were the dominant tree of the East and it was said that a squirrel could travel all the way from Maine to Florida by hopping from one chestnut limb to another without ever touching the ground. They are slowly making a comeback, though the U.S. still gets the bulk of its chestnuts from Italy. Two remarkable farms selling chestnuts here in America are Delmarvelous Farms of Delaware (www.buychestnuts.com) and Allen Creek Farms of Washington State (www.chestnutsonline.com). I recently purchased chestnut flour from the latter farm and made light and delicious chestnut crepes—a new twist on an old Holiday ingredient. Who knows? Maybe I’ll roast a few on the sidewalk next year and sell them to my neighbors.
The story of Hanukkah, or the Jewish Festival of Lights, is a fairly well known one, though the foods that are traditionally eaten to celebrate the feast are not as widely recognized. The holiday dates back to the year 165 BC when the Maccabees, a band of Jews fighting for liberation, recaptured the Holy Temple of Jerusalem from the Syrian-Greeks. When they went to light the menorah, the seven-branched candelabrum, they soon discovered there was only enough olive oil to keep it lit for a day. Astonishingly, the menorah continued to burn brightly for eight days. Because of the central role of olive oil in the event, Jews all over the world traditionally eat fried foods as a way to remember and celebrate the miracle.
Potato pancakes, or latkes in Yiddish, are perhaps the food most often associated with Hanukkah in America. This is because potato pancakes were very common in Eastern Europe, home of the Ashkenazi Jews, who were the dominant Jewish group to immigrate to the U.S. Latkes are fried cakes usually made with shredded potatoes, eggs, and butter, and are often flavored with onions. Some people care to eat them with savory toppings such as cheese or sour cream, while others prefer sweet toppings such as applesauce, sugar, cinnamon, or fruits. Though they are regularly consumed during Hanukkah, latkes do not play a fundamental role in the holiday, but are simply a favorite dish because they are fried and flavorsome.
Another typical, yet less known, Hanukkah treat are sufganiyot (in Hebrew, or ponchkes in Yiddish), which are small, round donut hole-like sweets that are fried then filled with all manner of jellies, creams, chocolates, or even dulce de leche, and then sinfully dusted in powdered sugar. Unlike latkes, these sweet delicacies were dreamt up not by Ashkenazi Jews, but rather the Sephardic Jews that live throughout Southern Europe, Israel, and the rest of the Mediterranean Rim. They are considered more “Israeli” in tradition than latkes, though both are eaten in Israel during Hanukkah. Sufganiyot are indeed so popular that bakeries in Israel compete for customers by offering exciting new fillings. Angel Bakery, the biggest in all of Israel, claims to fry up more than 250,000 of the fried dough balls each day of the Hanukkah holiday. Italians make a very similar treat called bombolones which I tried this past summer at I Preferiti di Boriana, an Italian gourmet foods store in the San Francisco Ferry Building Marketplace. The dark chocolate-filled bombolones proved simply irresistible, and I returned to the shop twice more to indulge. But I would just as easily fly to Tel Aviv to try some authentic sufganiyot!
Black Eyed Peas
For many Southerners, no New Year’s meal would be complete without black eyed peas. It is commonly held that the legumes, which are actually not peas at all, but rather lentils, will give eaters good luck. The most universal tradition calls for eating a full 365 black eyed peas—one for each day of the calendar to ensure prosperity for the coming year! It is believed that even as far back as ancient Egypt, black eyed peas were considered a symbol of good fortune. Interestingly, Southerners never ate black eyed peas for many years (they were given to the cattle as feed), but everything changed when, during the Civil War, the city of Vicksburg, MS was under siege for 40 days and the populace was facing starvation as supplies neither entered nor exited. Left with no other choice, they survived the battle by eating the black eyed peas destined for the livestock. For this reason, black eyed peas are also said to represent humility, as they are a simple and modest food.
Black eyed peas are most frequently simmered in water with a ham hock or a ham bone for the meaty, salty flavor the pork imparts. On New Year’s, some Southerners will also eat greens or cabbage as an accompaniment to the beans. The black eyed peas on one’s dish represent coins and the greens or cabbage symbolize paper currency. So believe it when they tell you money doesn’t grow on trees—it doesn’t. It grows in Southern gardens! I have even heard of a family tradition in which a penny is placed in the pot of black eyed peas and the lucky person who finds the copper coin in his or her dish wins a prize for New Year’s. I guess that’s one way to get your kids to eat their veggies!
Hispanic Holiday Beverages
If it is said that America’s immigrant groups make our society a “melting pot” of cultures, then during the winter we must turn it up a notch and become a “blender of diversity,” because our numerous ethnic groups have each played a part in making their respective Holiday beverages our own American classics.
Take Mexican hot chocolate, for example. The ancient Mayan civilization of Mexico made the first chocolate drink, called xocoatl, for special occasions and important ceremonies. In those days, chocolate was a luxury item, and cacao pods were often traded as currency throughout the Yucatán and Central America. The Maya added spices to their frothy concoction, including vanilla, chile pepper, and achiote. It was seen as a remedy for fatigue and prized for its energy-inducing effects. Mexicans today still enjoy a much spicier version of hot chocolate than we do in the U.S., but Mexican hot chocolate is gaining in popularity thanks to our large Mexican workforce and the spread of Mexican cuisine into the American diet. Nowadays, you can even find Mexican chocolate tablets in most supermarkets to make your own hot chocolate drink at home. I like a brand called Ibarra, which has cacao nibs and a nice cinnamon flavor to it. But you can easily prepare your own chocolaty elixir at home with a mixture of dark or bittersweet chocolate, vanilla, cinnamon, milk, and for the more adventurous, a little cayenne pepper, to spice up your winter nights.
Coquito is another Hispanic beverage that is commonly consumed during the Holiday Season. This egg nog-like drink has its roots in Puerto Rico and is a celestial combination of coconut cream, milk, vanilla, egg yolks, condensed milk, evaporated milk, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. Usually imbibed around Christmas, it would not be an authentic Puertorican beverage without the national obsession—rum, of course. The name coquito might be derived from either one or two sources. The Spanish word for coconut is coco, and coquito could be a more affectionate take on the fruit’s name, which is common on the island. Another origin of the word might be the coquí, the beloved tree frog that resides in Puerto Rico’s tropical forests and serves as the island’s unofficial mascot. The frog produces a constant “coh-kee” sound that inspired its name, and perhaps the creamy beverage borrows its moniker because it is equally as adored. Though the sound of drinking an amphibian is not appetizing, I have never seen a person say no to a second glass of coquito after trying it once. Nat King Cole may have been singing about chestnuts, but if he had tried some coquito, he would have been belting out salsa tunes instead!
Beans, Beans, The Musical Fruit (First Published in the St. Augustine Record on 15 November, 2007)
It’s November and you know what that means in North Florida: our first cool nights have finally arrived. Yes indeed, the mercury is dipping below the 70s in the evenings and panic and pandemonium have broken out in the streets! Ok, not really, but the first chilly evenings around here are bittersweet like a Meyer lemon. On one hand, you realize that summer is now officially over. (I know, I know. Folks up North are laughing out loud right now. “It’s November, and the guy is lamenting the end of summer. Let’s throw him a pity party.” True, but it’s not our fault we have such terrific weather in Florida.) On the other hand, it’s time to pull out the jeans and sweaters and start cooking autumnal comfort food, and that is welcome news to me.
Recently, I decided it was time to make the first bean stew of the season. This summer while in Napa Valley, I discovered an heirloom food company called Rancho Gordo (www.ranchogordo.com), which specializes in antique varieties of vegetables that are not commonly found at the supermarket. Many of their foods are rooted in history and hard to come by, and I was particularly impressed by their grand variety of heirloom beans, with all manner of odd names like Goat’s Eye, Yellow Indian Woman, Santa Maria Pinquito, Black Valentine, and my personal favorite—Ojo de Tigre, or “The Eye of the Tiger” (an excellent choice if you are a fan of the 80s band Survivor or the third installment of the Rocky movies). I picked up a few bags of various Rancho Gordo beans and have been waiting for cooler weather to sample them in stews or soups.
The other day, at random, I reached into the cupboard and pulled out a bag of Rio Zape beans, which according to Rancho Gordo, was the bean that started the whole heirloom craze for them. The company describes Rio Zape beans as being similar to pinto beans but more complex in flavor and even having a hint of chocolate. These beans, sometimes also referred to as Hopi string beans, were originally cultivated by the Anasazi cliff-dwelling peoples of the Southwest and today appear on Slow Food’s Ark of Taste (http://www.slowfoodusa.org/ark/rio_zape_bean.html), a list of threatened and disappearing foods, because of their endangered status. The beans stand out immediately with their dark, almost maroon, color and their curious black stripes.
Eager to get to know these beans personally, I soaked the beans overnight and then simmered them with a ham hock to give them a slight smoky, meaty flavor. (If you are looking for a little more substance, drop some pieces of cut up pork loin in with the ham hock.) Now, anyone who knows anything about beans knows that a good potlikker, the liquid Southerners use to simmer beans and greens, is the foundation for a good bean stew. (Please don’t dare call it “pot liquor” as Yankees do.) Simmering a good ham hock with the beans will enrich the stew and give it personality and substance. Let the beans soak up the essence of the pork for a long while on low to medium heat, and you will later be rewarded with a true taste of the South.
When I decided that the beans and the ham hock were on a first name basis, I sautéed peppers, onions, and garlic (my version of the Cajun Trinity) along with tomatoes in olive oil, and stirred them into the pot. I added dried oregano, a little cumin, sea salt, and the prized spice in my pantry: authentic ground Chimayó chile pepper from New Mexico. Also called the native New Mexican chile, Chimayó peppers, though once common throughout the state, are now only commercially grown in two little towns north of Santa Fe: Chimayó and Española. These rare chiles pack a potent punch in flavor with medium heat. They are often used pureed green in sauces or sundried red and ground into a bright orange, robust powder. The latter is the condiment that I used for this stew and it imparts a piquant, bold flavor to the dish. It is important to note that many purveyors will attempt to sell you imitation chile powder that is labeled as Chimayó, but is not authentic. Most of New Mexico’s chiles come from the city of Hatch in the southern part of the state, and none of these can compare with the quality and uniqueness of the Chimayó chiles. The handful of farmers that cultivate Chimayó chiles are beginning to band together in an attempt to trademark their peppers to eliminate the fraud of the cheap counterfeits that are commonplace. One way to tell if your chile powder is authentic Chimayó is simply by the color (which should be bright orange, as opposed to the brick red of most chile powders). To purchase authentic Chimayó chile powder, visit http://www.nativehispanic.com/. Depending on how much one adds to the dish, the Chimayó chile powder will impart a level of brightness and depth to the dish, as well as heat that can range from mild to sinus-clearing. But what’s impressive about the powder is that one can control the spiciness much more easily than with other chiles because Chimayós offer more flavor than heat. If your family loves heat, pile it on. If you like the taste of chiles, but you’re not such a fan of heat, go easy on the Chimayó and you’ll still get great flavor.
After slow cooking the pot for a couple of hours, the ingredients melded together to create the type of stew that the whole family will love on a crisp evening—even at a frigid 65 degrees outside.
Autumn. The very word evokes a magical transition from the heat of summer to the crispness of winter. Gone are August’s steamy days, and the frosts of January have not yet arrived, allowing us to partake in the Rights of Fall: our first day in jeans and a sweater after what seems like endless months of beachwear, opening our homes to young (and old) Trick-or-Treaters, and gathering with family for a traditional Thanksgiving feast. If there is one food that is most commonly associated with the season, it is the pumpkin. Whether used in the Halloween Jack-O-Lanterns that adorn our front doors or as the main ingredient in flavorful holiday pies, the arrival of pumpkins in grocery stores and roadside stands ushers in autumn’s celebrations of family and harvest.
But despite their abundance on every corner and in every supermarket, these ubiquitous pumpkins are not from Florida. They are trucked across the country from northern states where drier, cooler summer weather allows them to flourish, something the humid subtropical climate forbids here in the Sunshine State. But that may change as agricultural researchers at the University of Florida are experimenting with a few varieties that may bring the pumpkin closer to home. “It would be a great opportunity for farmers who are looking to extend the growing season after the potatoes have been harvested,” explained Tom Donovan, head of UF’s Agricultural Research Center and test farm, located in St. Johns County. “They have the potential to be a major cash crop in Northeast Florida’s farming communities, such as those in Flagler, Putnam, and St. Johns Counties.” The potato season ends in late July, just the time that pumpkins are normally planted.
According to Donovan, the Hastings research center has been tinkering with over 30 pumpkin varieties with great success. Recent heavy rains may have damaged some of them, but overall, the crop has thrived in the five years the UF specialists have been testing them. Last year’s dry summer season was particularly fruitful. “That’s the trick—wet weather is the greatest challenge to us developing a successful pumpkin crop here. If you get some bad storms in the fall, a hurricane or something like that, it can devastate your pumpkin production,” commented Donovan. “Plus if we get too much heat, the pumpkins produce more male flowers than female flowers, and they don’t fertilize well.” Other than hot and wet summers locally, infrastructure costs are also a hurdle for area farmers, who have most of their equipment and worker training invested in other crops, such as cabbage and potatoes. In addition, pumpkins must be grown on a plastic layer above the soil to minimize the chance of mildew or rot. This is an expensive start-up cost for farmers willing to give pumpkins a chance.
But researchers believe they can overcome these obstacles and make growing pumpkins more cost-effective for local farmers because they have found that several miniature ornamental pumpkins are growing well even in very hot conditions. Such varieties as the Jack Be Little, Baby Boo, and Munchkin have shown great promise. Though they could not be carved up as Jack-O-Lanterns (bigger pumpkins require colder temperatures than possible in Florida), they make excellent decorative pieces. Some can even be cooked and eaten, though they would mainly be used to embellish homes and tables during the holiday season. Many of these ornamental pumpkins are already sold in supermarkets everywhere in Florida, but growing them locally would reduce the shipping costs, as well as the fossil fuel consumption, that currently come with delivering and selling them here. That’s an attractive idea to both farmers and retailers.
In addition to the ornamental pumpkins, the researchers are also investigating edible pumpkins, called calabazas, which are very popular in Latin American cooking and can handle more tropical weather. They are featured in several Latin dishes and even in candy recipes. Calabazas are planted extensively in the Caribbean and Central America and are already being grown in South Florida. UF researchers believe they can have similar success in Northeast Florida with the tropical gourd, which is similar to butternut squash in flavor. It is sweet and has a smoother texture than big pumpkins. Home cooks that have used canned pumpkin in recipes should have no trouble switching to calabazas because they are close relatives.
Even more than the ornamental pumpkins, growing calabazas offers many advantages to local farmers, besides being an alternative to having fallow fields in the fall. They can withstand both wet and dry conditions, heat, and many pests. In fact, calabazas are so resilient that they require few fertilizers and pesticide applications, making them a very environmentally friendly crop. The only time they can not be grown in Northeast Florida is in mid-winter, leading the UF researchers to believe that they are a nearly ideal choice for local farmers. With such possibilities on the horizon, it may not be long until pumpkins even compete economically with the dwindling potato and cabbage harvests of Northeast Florida, which have seen a downturn in recent years. “We’re working hard to give our farmers options, and pumpkins are certainly one of them,” noted Donovan.
For more information on The University of Florida’s agricultural programs in Northeast Florida, please visit their website at http://stjohns.ifas.ufl.edu/agriculture.shtml
For the best pumkin pie I have ever tried, go to the Recipes section.
17 October 2007: Corn, Magical Corn
When it comes to fresh produce, it’s hard to beat the last days of summer and early days of fall. I’ve been stopping every other day at the local produce stand on my way home from work to pick up everything that’s in season—okra, tomatoes, cantaloupes, squash, you name it. But what’s most caught my eye of late is the fresh corn that’s been coming in. Some of it is local (yes, we do grow corn in Florida, believe it or not), and some of it has been coming from Georgia. The light yellow Florida Candy Corn is, as the name implies, as sweet as you can imagine, while the Silver Queen Corn from Georgia is a shimmering white and when you cut the kernels off the cob, bursts with sugary milk. I always give in to temptation and try a few kernels raw and I’m rewarded with the glorious taste of the season.
I’ve been sautéing the corn a lot lately, not just because it’s quick and easy, but because it just comes out so well. Corn is one of those things that, when fresh, needs little coaxing from a cook. I brown a little butter in olive oil, toss the corn in with some chopped garlic, add a little sea salt, fresh cracked pepper, and a squirt of lime, and stir in some chives from the garden. And there you have it: simple, honest food exploding with goodness. Ten minutes is all it takes and your family will be licking their plates and begging you to stop at the produce stand again the next day.
You Are What You Eat.
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