Forum Holitorium

Month: August, 2012

Plan Beta

I have a confession to make: I have temporarily abandoned the garden. I feel incredibly guilty, especially when TC tells me that the rue wants to know where I’ve been. Things are growing; TC has brought back offerings of tomatoes, raspberries, and apples. There are still 4 fennel bulbs to eat, the leeks are coming along, the mint is begging to be picked and dried. But I feel overwhelmed whenever I think of the garden, a place where I no longer feel safe.

To explain: first, the loss of our peaches. They were nearly ripe the last time I was there, probably ten days ago, and we looked forward to savoring them in a way we couldn’t last year because we left on vacation precisely when the peaches became ripe. TC came back from the garden last Friday and said they had vanished. Nary a trace to be found underneath. Someone had taken them. He presented me with the 10 remaining. We should have had at least seven times that amount. A neighbor’s tree had also been picked clean.

This was just the latest in a series of attacks on our fruit. We lost most of our raspberries this year because the head of the garden association mistakenly told one of our neighbors that our red raspberry bushes belonged to his plot. One day we found to our astonishment that he had cut them all down. Thankfully they are a wild and ragged bunch that have since grown back, but there went the first raspberry harvest. In March we found out that our walnut tree was slated to be cut down because our neighbors (on the side opposite the raspberry bushes) didn’t want it there. It was mistakenly identified as being on their plot. Over the course of a nerve-wracking afternoon, we managed to save our tree.

Though I love the idea of growing my own and the act of tending the garden, I am retreating. What might happen next? I don’t feel able to protect the plants up there. They are too far away. Perhaps my expectations are too high for the garden, or maybe I have spread myself too thin. For now, TC is caring for them, which he enjoys doing. As for me, I have started lavishing the balcony plants with attention, to which they are responding in kind. I am reimagining the layout of the balcony and want to set up a new planter that will replace many of the motley crew of small pots that we regularly trip over.

Even though we buy most of our vegetables at the market, I had hoped that we would have enough growing in the garden to stop buying veggies for the month of August. No way. Unrealistic. A shattered dream. The silver lining is once I admitted this to myself, I felt OK with the idea of buying food from a kind of modified CSA. The Gemüsewerkstatt (hereafter Vegetable Workshop) allows you to order food online by Wednesday at noon and pick it up Friday afternoon. Everything is organic and produced roughly within an hour’s drive from my home. You select what you want à l carte, which means I won’t have to process green cabbage, celery root, or green beans, three examples of veggies currently in season that I don’t enjoy eating. Besides fruits and veggies, they also offer cow’s milk products, eggs, cereals, vinegars, oils – just about everything we buy that is produced locally except sheep and goat milk products. After our favorite sheep and goat farmer disappears for the winter in late October, this will also save us a trip into town Saturday morning, when we normally go to the market for our once-a-week shopping run. Besides the potential for saving fuel, buying groceries this way also means we don’t have to leave home when it’s cold outside.

Last week was our trial run of the Vegetable Workshop. A hands down success! Part of our first order were two huge beets. Like cabbage, beets were initially a leafy green plant growing wild by the sea (this ancestor, the sea beet or Beta vulgaris. var. maritimais still up to the same tricks today). Chard came about from the domestication of the sea beet and is still a leafy vegetable, but at some point beets parted company with chard and were selected for their sweet roots. It was the Romans who brought the cultivated beta north of the Alps, but the Celts and Germanic peoples were more interested in their turnips. Beets are thought to purify the blood and aid the liver. Containing betalain, an antioxidant, they are an excellent source of folic acid.

Betalicious Betalain Pie

This recipe is my modification of a recipe at the Vegetable Workshop website.

700 g / 1 1/2 lb. cooked beets, cubed or diced

2 shallots, minced

1 Tbs olive oil

4 eggs, beaten

200 g sour cream

100 ml / 1/2 cup water

100 g / 3 1/2 ounces semolina

nutmeg, salt, pepper to taste

Sauté the shallots in the olive oil until brown. Add the beets and sauté for 5-10 minutes.

Meanwhile, mix the eggs, sour cream, and water together. Add the semolina. Season with nutmeg, salt, and pepper.

Spread the shallot and beet mixture across the pie. Pour the egg and semolina batter over it.

Bake 30 minutes at 180° C/350° F.

Serve with a yogurt-chive dip. Simply add chopped chives to the yogurt.

So, dear reader, how do you enjoy preparing and eating beets?

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Seven Elements Harvest

The topic of five elements cooking came up at brunch a few weeks back. Friends had started to change their eating habits based on the principles of five elements cooking, an approach based on traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). I’m not the type of person who worries much about nutrition, but a few years ago I had read up on the subject and made a few positive changes to my diet. As a disclaimer, the description below is by no means comprehensive and is merely a summary of what I think is important for today’s post.

Instead of worrying about the calories, fat, and carbohydrates that many frustrated eaters currently agonize over in the Western world, five elements cooking is concerned with the thermal effect food has on your body. In TCM, it is believed that there are three sources of energy: energy you get from breathing, energy you get from eating, and energy that you were born with – a gift from your parents. The first two sources you can replenish, but when the last source runs dry, you die. So the more energy you get from breathing and eating, the longer you live.

This is why it is important to strengthen your center, the seat of your digestive fire, so that you can get the maximum amount of energy from the food you eat instead of drawing on that precious reserve of energy you were born with. Five pairs of organs (think acupuncture or shiatsu) correspond to one of the five elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, water), a taste (sour, bitter, sweet, hot (as in spicy), salty) and seasons (spring, summer, late summer, autumn, winter). All foods are associated with one element. Sometimes a food can belong to two different elements depending on how it is prepared. In order to maintain a good balance, every meal should include all five elements.

Now, the changes I made to my diet do not include making sure that every meal I cook includes the five elements – I’m too lazy and suspicious of diets where you need to think that much. What struck a chord with me was the importance of tending your digestive fire, which in my case means eating foods that are warm enough that I don’t tax my center more than need be. According to Christiane Seifert (who along with Barbara Temelie has done the most to bring five elements cooking to the awareness of those who can read German), you can harm your digestive fire by eating large amounts of raw fruit and vegetables and sour milk products as well as by consuming ice-cold meals and drinks. You can strengthen your center by eating veggies that are cooked (but not to death), local fruit stewed into compote (citrus is a no-no in Central European climes because it cools you off too much, but if you lived somewhere warmer, it would be fine), cooked grains, soups, and avoiding bread. Temelie goes as far as to say bread is the original fast food.

What this translated into in my life was eating more oatmeal, polenta, and cooked semolina (remember that the Romans were big fans of gruel, too). I started stewing fruit and only having yogurt and raw berries for breakfast in the summer (instead of all year round). The water pitcher came out of the refrigerator and remains at room temperature. I was never a huge bread eater, but now I prefer it toasted when I do indulge. I’ve found that I don’t feel cold as much as I used to and know how to warm myself up in winter with a bowl of polenta or a good soup. While there are some people who need to cool down and can eat raw veggies to no detrimental effect, I am not one of them.

Like in Ayurveda, the TCM approach to nutrition acknowledges that people’s constitutions are different and also that what we need to eat to remain healthy changes over the course of our life as well as over the course of the year. Yes, eating seasonally receives another vote here. And on that note, there is so much in season here now that I don’t know where to begin in processing it all. Apples. Plums. Squash. Tomatoes. Chanterelles. Figs. And it looks like we’ll have a tree full of peaches to be picked in about a week. So now it’s time to shut down the computer and head into the kitchen. A happy harvest to all!