what are you doing to keep your cool?

DSCF0468Here in Eugene, we’re facing day after day of increasingly hot weather.  It’s 102 degrees right now, and very few houses have A/C.  Cooking inside is out of the question; moving?  Not so good either.

I discovered that fresh corn tortillas (warmed in the toaster oven) with tomatillo salsa, queso fresco, cilantro, and cold salmon and grilled jalapeños from yesterday’s grill make a perfect supper. I have a big jug of Korean roasted barley tea in the fridge for thirst-quenching.

Is anyone even interested in eating this week?  Any ideas for cool, refreshing meals, snacks or drinks?

roasted vegetable ratatouille

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Hot enough for ya?  With scorching temperatures continuing well into the week, maybe longer, I am feeling as lazy as everyone else in Eugene.  It even seems a stretch to water the garden, because I have to, well, turn on the timer.

Retrogrouch steps up during these difficult times and grills most of our meals.  He feels the grill should be dedicated to meat, so I have to sneak in little vegetable packages around the sides and after the main act is done.  I try to grill anything I can in this furtive, sloppy seconds manner.

One of the dishes I discovered could work well for day-after vegetable lunches and supper is a layered ratatouille, using fresh tomatoes and pre-roasted vegetables. The photo above shows one night’s version, made with a single, deep gold heirloom tomato.

Ratatouille, the southern French summer classic of sauteed eggplant, zucchini, garlic, tomatoes, onions and peppers, is a rather plain Jane.  It looks like the weeping stew it is.  So Thomas Keller, the chef of the French Laundry, came along and invented a layered version, dubbed confit byaldi to fancy it up. There, the vegetables are sliced into thin rounds and baked on a bed of sauce.

My considerably less fancy version involves layers, yes, and a quick jaunt in the oven first thing in the morning or last thing at night, before the heat sets in.  But I use vegetables that were cooked on the grill the evening before: skinny Asian eggplants and a head of garlic slowly roasted whole with olive oil in sealed foil packets, green and red peppers charred until their skin is black, and thick slices of sweet onion.

After peeling the black skin from the peppers, I cut the vegetables in thick, rustic slices and layer them in a Pyrex dish with slices of a juicy, perfect garden tomato and a thinly sliced zucchini, both of which favor being almost raw for a contrast to the mushy eggplant and peppers.  The onion and garlic can be either chopped and placed on the bottom of the dish, or integrated into the layers.  As I create the layers, I add fresh garden thyme and basil, and pour a healthy amount of olive oil atop the whole thing. Add plenty of salt and pepper, even more than you think you need.

After a quick jaunt in the oven at 425 degrees, no more than 15 minutes, the tomato has started to wither and melt, and the herb- and garlic-scented olive oil bathes the vegetables in a sauce that tastes of the very essence of summer.

Serve as is, with bread to sop up the juices, over rice or pasta, or even as a topping on burgers.  Because you have to use that grill again the next night, right?

i went to the coast and all i got was this lousy veggie garden

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My relatives were visiting this week, and I did quite a bit of cooking and dining.  We had some delicious Ethiopian with the injera I bought in Portland, burgers, little hard rolls stuffed with sirloin, garlic, mint, onion and tzatziki sauce, early corn on the cob and green and wax beans slathered in local butter, local tunafish salad, etc., etc.  We also made vinegar pickles and sampled my new recipe for bright green half-sours.

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Finally, seeking respite from the inland heat, we drove out to the coast.  We all enjoyed tidepooling and the lighthouse at Heceta Head, but I was far more fascinated with starfish eating mussels and the ripening salal, a dark berry that does well in the salt air of the PNW coast.

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And you better believe it that my kin and kith all but deserted me when I spied the potager, the little kitchen garden outside the Heceta lightkeeper’s house, which is now a B & B.  Everyone went to go do something else and left me with my camera and dreams of such a beautiful little space.  But you wouldn’t desert me, would you?

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I had no idea vegetables could grow so well in the damp chill of the coast.  Maybe it’s just that the innkeepers, both formerly executive chefs, know some vegetable magic.  True, the brassicas, lettuces, and artichokes were doing especially well, but nasturtiums, herbs, and squash were also outperforming mine by a mile.  Impressive!

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lookee what i found!

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I stopped by an Ethiopian market in Portland, and lo and behold, fresh, gorgeous injera.  There’s a woman in town who makes it — and I’ll tell ya what, I think every single Ethiopian in the whole city had ordered some that day, since they had a full standing display of them and each one was reserved.  The shopkeep sent me down the street to another market, and I scored.

Ethiopian tonight!

The same shopkeep advised me that one can easily freeze prepared injera.  Just fold each piece in four, then stack 3-4 together and freeze in gallon-sized freezer bags.  40 seconds in the microwave will make them, she assured, the same as new.

Ethiopian in two weeks!

blackberry tasting at frankenstein lab

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Wonderful tour at the OSU Lewis-Brown Horticulture Research Farm in Corvallis yesterday morning.  I was headed up to Portland and had planned to celebrate cherries along the way, but when I saw the advertisement for the annual tour, staffed by horticulture faculty and USDA research geneticists, I Could. Not. Resist.  Fascinating place, and just a tiny bit scary.  This is where they keep gene banks of as many varieties of small fruits and other plants, cross cultivars to make new ones, and experiment with things like disease hardiness, fruit size and quality and color, and other desired elements for commercial food crops.  I have mixed feelings about this, as you might imagine, because this research makes a product that is meant for mass production, but it’s still really cool.

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I had the opportunity to talk with Chad Finn, the friendly and accessible USDA geneticist who heads up the small fruit team, and some of his staff, about the breeding of blackberries.  They had a half-dozen varieties to sample, some so new they don’t have names, and others that could be appearing on the local market soon. Chad pointed out how some berries are adapted to be IQF (individually quick frozen) and others are perfect for baking, with a more compact profile.  The ones next to the Marions above are perfect bakers.  Others can be over 2-inches long and monstrous.  They didn’t sample any of those, sadly.

I took some dreadful pictures and notes for my upcoming blackberry article. I manipulated the images a bit so you can see how different the drupelets (berry bumps), berry size, and color look.  And a wide range of flavor, too.  I did learn that the Tupy-type blackberry, the one grown in Mexico and other places for long-range shipping, tastes like shit: bitter and watery and dull.  Avoid at all costs.  Come to Oregon instead.

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I’d write more, but I have to finish said article, as well as do about ten thousand other things before my house guests arrive.

meeting about future of lane county extension tonight

Extension’s Future: A Community Meeting
Thursday, July 16, 2009 7:00 PM – 8:00 PM

Oregon State University Extension Service officials are seeking local support to help keep educational programs such as 4-H Youth Development, Master Gardeners, Master Food Preservers and Compost Specialists in Lane County. Extension lost most of its county-based funding one year ago and is working to survive the current budget year.

A discussion of Extension’s future, including ways that people can help, is scheduled for Thursday, July 16 at 7 p.m., in the Lane County Fairgrounds Livestock Arena.

The above snippet is an announcement from the OSU Extension – Lane County calendar of events.  Extension provides many, many services to our community, including the education I received to be able to write posts on preservation and food safety for this blog, and the classes I and many others give at extremely discounted prices, often donating our own materials as well as time.

Quite frankly, the future doesn’t look so bright.  I don’t know what they’re going to say at the meeting, but it doesn’t look good.  They’re trying to put a brave face on it, but as a community member and dedicated volunteer at a place that has — hands down — the best community programming system I’ve ever seen, I feel obligated to share my sadness and helplessness over the whole thing, the end of an era.

The OSU, as a federal land grant university, is mandated in its charter to have an outreach “extension” program for education in agricultural-based fields (I’m simplifying, but you get the picture) in all Oregon counties.  The system was set up over a hundred years ago to ensure cooperative funds from the federal, state, and county level would keep the university and Extension operating.  Technically, Extension as an entity is one of the main missions of OSU and other land grant universities.  Over the years and budget problems, this mission has become blurred or forgotten, and funds have been diverted to other necessary (and perhaps not so necessary) areas.  Many Oregon counties have lost or drastically minimized their Extension programs.  In Lane County, we’ve managed to keep Extension alive even through budget crises in the past.

With the loss of county funding and the risk of losing state funding, however, Lane County Extension can’t survive as it is operating, even with its curtailed hours and decimated staff.  Worse yet, it risks losing its volunteers.  What you see on paper is only part of the true cost of losing or severely curtailing Extension programming.There is a huge corps of longstanding (10, 20 years or more) volunteers who lovingly give their time to help the community use its agricultural and horticultural resources, pumping thousands of hours into these programs.  I’m sure someone has figured out the true cost of radically altering Extension, assigning dollars to the hours committed by hundreds (thousands?) of people in Lane County who staff programs, hotlines, demos, classes, and events for free. It would be a major loss to dissipate all the volunteer energy that goes into that ramshackle little building north of the Fairgrounds, a place I’ve come to love.

If you’re as heartbroken as I am, come to the meeting and hear what’s been decided for the near future.  Perhaps they’ve come up with a workable plan.  I’m hoping, anyway.  But in any case, it would be very nice to have your support, both there and at our classes this year.

fresh local green beans meet their maker in a Thai stirfry

DSCF4965I’m workin’ on stuff, but I thought I’d just pop my head in here and sigh happily about the impromptu Thai stirfry I made with the season’s first local green beans.

I love, love, LOVE fresh, sunwarmed, slender green beans, their sweetness, their bouncy snap when you break off the little stems.

I had some leftover ground pork, so I browned it with some onion and new garlic.  Then, when it was crispy and rich brown, I added some Thai fish sauce and sugar, which carmelized beautifully, creating a sweet, salty, crusty, oniony pork confit.  Then I threw in big handfuls of green beans and cooked them for a few minutes.  Finally, I added a few leftover cashews and a handful of Thai basil.  I ate the whole mess over jasmine rice.  NOM.

In other news, have you registered yet for “Backyard Food Solutions,” this year’s Gardeners Mini College?  Tomorrow’s the deadline for registration.  More info if you click here and to the right.  Apparently, we’ve hit a record number of enrollees, but there’s still room for you!