Of magnificent firsts

This week was a week of magnificent firsts.

For starters, I took my first pond swim. Wednesday was the first day the heat broke 80, and I drove out to Great Pond and dove in. I took my first bike ride through the woods to the beach at Newcomb's Hollow, and at the restaurant, we were busy—crazy busy—for the first time this year.

Best of all, I stole the first four ripe red berries from my strawberry patch.

This was especially exciting in light of what happened last year. This year, if these four early berries have anything to say, is going to be a much better one as far as strawberries go. It has been months since we ate the last of my mother's jam from '08 and the few small jars from '09, and as soon as possible, I plan to rectify that.

In the meantime, I'll be eating our strawberries straight from the dirt, dipped in cream.


When we make this, it's an all-family, all-day event. We leave for the pick-your-own fields (Prout's in Bowdoin, Maine) around seven, have 40 quarts home by ten, and spend the rest of the morning washing, hulling, and watching the pots on the stove. One note: we do not slice the berries, and I think this is key. It makes for big globs of berries in the finished jam, a texture that I adore.

6 cups strawberries, washed and hulled
4 cups granulated sugar

Get out a large, non-reactive pan, put the berries in, and crush them gently with a potato masher or the back of a wooden spoon. Cook over medium-low heat for about five minutes, stirring frequently, until they begin to release their juices. Add the sugar and stir until it's dissolved. Turn up the heat to medium-high and bring the berries and sugar to a light boil.

Cook, stirring frequently, until the jam sheets off the spoon. (When you first start cooking the jam, pull your spoon out and watch the way the liquid drips off of it. The drops will be light and syrupy at first. As the jam continues to boil, the drops will get heavier, and eventually, they will come together to form a fluid sheet as they come off the spoon. This is the jellying point.)

Spoon out a little bit of jam onto a plate and let it cool. If it has a good consistency, pour it immediately into sterile jars. (If not, continue cooking until you feel it has the thickness you want.) Wipe the rims with a cloth dipped in boiling water and seal the jars with sterile lids. Check the seal by leaving the jars to cool on a dishtowel overnight—if they didn't seal, there will be juice oozing out.

Once it's put up, the jam is good for at least a year.

P.S. There's a list of places that do pick-your-own strawberries in our area over here. Tony Andrews Farm in East Falmouth is currently open for pick-your-own seven days a week, from eight to noon. I'll see you there!


The Local Food Report: handy in combat

Ryeon Corsi deserves a round of applause. In September, she came to Provincetown as an AmeriCorp volunteer, and the first task the Conservation Commission dealt her was to tackle this:

If you're not familiar with that pink and green wonder, it's Japanese Knotweed. It is an invasive, brought over, as rumor has it, as an ornamental by Frederick Law Olmsted. The Global Invasive Species Database lists it as one of the world's 100 worst invasives, putting it at number 37. It spreads through an underground network of huge, bulbous rhizomes, making it nearly impossible to kill. It can grow through concrete, and if you pull it up, the spears just grow right back.

It also covers half of the land that the Provincetown Conservation Commission set aside for a community garden on Browne Street. That's where Corsi comes in. Her job is to make this:

Look—without using any herbicides—like this:

It's not an easy task. So far, she's hired a backhoe to break up the roots, worked with a huge group of volunteers to carefully, painstakingly dig the rhizomes out (one particularly nasty specimen was so big it took three people to pick it up out of the ground), and set all the roots on a big tarp. Once they are dry—thoroughly, completely dry—she will either burn them, or compost them, and hope for the best. She knows it will be a year-to-year commitment, and that after she finishes her program in July, the gardeners will have to work to keep it at bay.

But in the meantime, she's been waging war by eating the knotweed. As it turns out, those pink and green spears are edible, at least in the spring, while they're still under three feet high. Corsi describes them as sort of a cross between celery and rhubarb, and for opening day at the garden, she used them to make a strawberry rhubarb pie. It was tricky—the stalks are hollow, and most people recommend peeling them, which made for a lot of meticulous work—but the finished product was a hit.

I haven't found any growing in my neighborhood, but in case you have, this recipe could be very handy in combat.


Ryeon Corsi found this recipe on the NOFA website, but it comes originally from an old issue of Yankee magazine. The header says you can substitute rhubarb for knotweed, but it seems to me that would sort of defeat the point. The footer says to look for knotweed in disturbed habitats like roadsides, and to harvest thick stalks no more than 3 or 4 feet high that aren't fully leafed out by cutting a 1 and 1/2 to 2 foot section from the center of the stalk.

As for where to find strawberries, it's still a little bit early, but I ate my first three ( ! ) from the garden the other day. They should be turning up at the farmers' markets in the next two weeks.

4 cups strawberries, washed, stemmed, and halved
3 cups Japanese knotweed, peeled and chopped into 1/2-inch crescents
1 and 1/2 cups sugar, plus extra for sprinkling over crust
3 tablespoons cornstarch
dough for bottom and top crusts for a 9-inch pie
3 tablespoons butter
1 egg yolk, beaten with 1 tablespoon water

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. In a medium bowl, toss together the strawberries, knotweed, sugar, and cornstarch. Roll out your bottom pie crust, drape it over a 9-inch pie plate, and pour the filling in. Dot the fruit with the butter. Roll out the top pie crust and drape it over top. Roll the bottom and top edges together, moving around the edge of the pie, and press the log of dough against the rim of the pie plate as you go. Cut several slits in the top crust, brush it with the egg wash, and sprinkle the dough with sugar. Bake for 45 to 55 minutes, or until the filling is soft and bubbling and the crust is nicely browned. Serve hot, with vanilla ice cream.


I've fallen hard

I am well aware that we talked about rhubarb with gingerbread ten days ago, but today, we are going to have to talk about it again. The thing is, rhubarb season is short and sweet, and that was pudding, and this is shortcake, and well, what can I say. I've fallen hard.

Also, I have a feeling that once you take a bite—a bite of soft, puffy Raleigh Tavern Gingerbread with stewed rhubarb and a big pile of homemade whipped cream, you won't mind. You'll be thrilled, I think.

I found the recipe on a card a few weeks ago. It was a birthday card that my grandmother had sent to my mother, all the way back in 1994. It had a painting of the Raleigh Tavern in Williamsburg, Virginia on the front, and inside, two notes. I can hardly read my grandfather's writing—he passed away two years after the card was written, when I was only eleven—but I can make out the words "baby girl" and "moment of great joy," and given the way my grandfather felt about my mother, I think it's a fairly safe bet to guess he's talking about her birth. My grandmother gets a little mushy too, but she manages to keep it together enough to tell my mother that their favorite gingerbread recipe, the one from Raleigh Tavern, is printed on the back.

Which is a good thing, because my mother loves that gingerbread. We used to go to Colonial Williamsburg a lot when my sister and I were little—my mother's family is from Richmond—and we stopped at Raleigh Tavern for a bag of gingerbread every trip. The thing about the Raleigh Tavern gingerbread is that it's different from any other specimen I've ever had. It's dry, and crumbly, and almost biscuit-like, and when you buy it at the tavern, it comes all puffed up in the shape of a scone. It's almost like a gingerbread shortcake, I've always thought.

Which is why I was so delighted to dig up the recipe the other day when I had a jug of fresh whipping cream (our first from the farm!) and a bag of pink, fresh-cut rhubarb stalks from the farmers' market that were just begging to be stewed. I had a sudden flash forward to rhubarb gingerbread shortcakes, and there was no turning back. There was instead a rush of cranking up the oven, pulling out the molasses, and turning on a burner. And then there was rhubarb gingerbread shortcake, and first bites, and something that felt a lot like falling in love.


This recipe is adapted from a gingerbread cookie recipe my grandmother picked up at Raleigh Tavern in Colonial Williamsburg. I've tweaked it only twice—I substituted butter for margarine and heavy cream for evaporated milk. The cookies didn't rise quite as much as they usually do, which probably had something to do with the heavy cream, but for making shortcake they were a little bit moister, and just right.

1 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 and 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 cup butter, melted
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 cup molasses
3/4 teaspoon vanilla
4 cups all-purpose flour

1 pound rhubarb, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup brown sugar

whipped cream

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. In a medium bowl, whisk together the sugar, ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, salt, and baking soda. In a large bowl, mix together the melted butter, cream, molasses, and vanilla and stir until smooth. Add the flour a cup at a time, stirring until just incorporated after each addition. The dough should be stiff enough to handle without sticking to your fingers; you may need to add up to an extra 3/4 cup of flour. When the dough is smooth, roll it out 1/2-inch thick on a lightly-floured surface. Use a biscuit cutter to punch it into rounds, and bake for 8-10 minutes on greased cookie sheets.

To make the stewed rhubarb, combine the rhubarb, water, and brown sugar in a medium-size saucepot. (Do not use an aluminum pot; the rhubarb is acidic and will react with the metal.) Stir to combine. Cover and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes, or until the mixture comes to a boil. Turn the heat down to a simmer and continue cooking 10 minutes, or until all the rhubarb pieces break down.

To make the shortcakes, cut each gingerbread cookie in half and spoon about 1/4 cup of stewed rhubarb over the bottom piece. Top this with a dollop of whipped cream and the top of the cookie, and serve at once.

P.S. About the photographs. Alex and I in a terrible joint blunder managed to drop and break my Minolta Instant Pro several weeks ago, an accident that almost cost us our marriage. And although our union survived and I just won a new one on eBay that should be arriving very shortly, I am currently without my Minolta and instead using an old sx-70. It works perfectly, but the only film currently available is old, wonky expired Polaroid film that does not seem to have its colors quite right. So, we're going with it, getting into the crazy, and holding our breath for a change in either film or cameras soon. Until then, bear with us. I do know that rhubarb should be pink and red, not orange and blue. I swear.


The Local Food Report: make it official

The first farmers' markets were last Saturday. I have whispered this, I know, several times, but I wanted to make it official: The farmers' markets are open in Orleans and Provincetown, and I, for one, am thrilled.

Last Saturday, I came home with the following swag: one bunch of fennel fronds, a bundle each of overwintered parsnips and carrots, a bunch of Ron Backer's asparagus, two leeks, five shoots of spring garlic, four scallions, a pound of rhubarb, one head of butter lettuce, and a stunning spring bouquet. On my night off on Tuesday [insert squeal here!], I roasted the vegetables—all but the lettuce and asparagus—with the last of our sweet potatoes and blue potatoes from downstairs. I tossed them with olive oil, sprinkled them with salt, cranked the oven up to 400 degrees, and that was it.

The results were magnificent—crispy spring alliums, sweet, melting parsnips, caramelized fennel, and just enough potato heft to go around. We ate them with fresh fried butterfish (more on that soon) and rhubarb gingerbread shortcakes (that too), and a salad made by our two new roommates (Hi Rob! Hi Siobhan!). It was absolutely sublime.

There's a list of when all the markets will be opening up over here; the next one will be Falmouth on May 27th. Thank you, farmers, and thank you, spring, and thank you, of course, to all of you.


Once you get the hang of roasting vegetables, there is really no need to follow a recipe, but for those of you who like one, here it is. Feel free to substitute, add, and completely wing it—everything, this time of year, is good.

2 medium-size sweet potatoes, scrubbed
1/2 pound blue potatoes, scrubbed
4-5 medium-size carrots, scrubbed and trimmed
4-5 medium-size parsnips, scrubbed and trimmed
1 bunch spring fennel, fronds removed
4 scallions, washed and trimmed
4 shoots of spring garlic, washed and trimmed
2 leeks, carefully washed and trimmed
olive oil
sea salt
freshly cracked pepper

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Chop the sweet potatoes, blue potatoes, carrots, and parsnips into rounds roughly 1/4-inch thick. Slice the fennel stems, scallions, spring garlic, and leeks into rounds roughly 1/8-inch thick. Toss all of the vegetables together with a good glug of olive oil and sea salt and freshly cracked pepper to taste. Spoon them into a large roasting pan (if you only have pie plates and casserole dishes, just use two smaller pans; you want the veggies to be spread fairly thin). Loosely tent the pan(s) with tinfoil, and bake for 20 minutes. Remove the tinfoil and continue baking until the vegetables are tender in the center and crisped around the edges, 20-35 more minutes. Serve hot.


It's here

The asparagus is in.

If you see my mother, you can let her know I finally made that asparagus stir-fry she keeps raving about. She found it on 101 Cookbooks last spring—sautéed asparagus and greens with seared tofu and lime juice and hoisin sauce—and it became a staple for her and my father. Only by the time she got around to telling me about it, the asparagus was gone. It's been a long nine months.

You can also tell her that I changed the recipe a little bit. I couldn't bring myself to buy tofu, so instead I used local sea scallops from Alex's market. They were wonderful—perfect, even—except that the first time around, I didn't account for just how much liquid a block of tofu sponges up. Everything was a little too limey, a little too hoisony, a little too sauced.

The second time around, though—the second time, I got it right. I used a bundle of Tim Friary's asparagus, basil from E & T Farms, mint and spinach from our garden, and almost half the hoisin and lime. The vegetables were springy, and fantastic, and just right. The sweetness of the hoisin toned down the tang of the lime, the greens wilted into soft, aromatic ribbons, and the scallops stood firm, golden, fresh.

It was the kind of stir-fry worth waiting nine months for. And now that the asparagus is here, I have a feeling we'll be making it over and over again until the spears disappear.


I adapted this recipe slightly from the original over at 101 Cookbooks to take advantage of the beautiful sea scallops that have been at Alex's market recently. The most time consuming part of this recipe is preparing the ingredients—do all the chopping first—and once you fire up the stove, the actual cooking will be done in less than five minutes. Now that the farmers' markets are open in Provincetown and Orleans ( ! ) all of the vegetables can be sourced locally, just picked, and fresh.

8 ounces small sea scallops
1/3 cup toasted sesame oil, divided
4 scallions, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon peeled and freshly grated ginger
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 pound asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup cashews
1/4 cup slivered almonds
1/2 pound spinach or Swiss chard, roughly chopped
zest and juice of 1/2 lime
2 tablespoons hoisin sauce
1/2 cup fresh mint, slivered
1 cup fresh basil, slivered

Pat the scallops dry. Heat up half of the sesame oil over very high heat in a large soup pot or wok. When the pan and the oil are very hot, drop the scallops in and sear them for two minutes, or until they develop a nice golden crust. Flip the scallops and sear for another minute; this side shouldn't take as long. Turn the heat down to medium high, take the scallops out of the pan, and set them aside.

Add the remaining sesame oil. Once it's hot, add the scallions, ginger, red pepper, asparagus, and salt. Stir fry them for about a minute, then add the garlic, cashews, almonds, and spinach or Swiss chard. Stir fry, stirring frequently, for another minute or two, or until the greens start to wilt. Add the scallops back into the pan, pour in the lime juice and zest and hoisin sauce, and cook for another minute, stirring the whole time. Turn the heat off, stir in the mint and basil, and adjust the seasonings (more salt or hoisin) to taste. Serve hot, either on its own or over cooked oat groats or whole wheat noodles.


The Local Food Report: get this

Get this: If you know where to look, you can find wild morel mushrooms in Wellfleet.

I know. I didn't believe it either, until Richard Bailey took me out foraging the other day. We jumped a guardrail, headed down into a ravine, and there they were—hiding in the leaf litter beneath an old, abandoned apple tree.

Bailey is an amateur mycologist—he learned a lot of what he knows from his wife, who's German—and he says he found his first morel growing near an old apple tree stump in his driveway a few years back. He consulted a guidebook—Mushrooms of Cape Cod and the National Seashore by William Neill and Arleen and Alan Bessette—and discovered that the stump was ideal morel habitat. "Fruiting," the entry read. "Near dead elms, in old apple orchards, burned areas, mixed hardwoods, and sometimes under conifers." Bailey's been finding them every spring since.

Morels are strange looking—the ones we found were about four inches tall, sticking out of the ground at a slight angle, with a short, smooth, cream-colored stem and a golden top that looked sort of like a cross between a brain and a honeycomb. But they're also beautiful. They're delicate, and hollow, and they give off the air of something elusive. Partially, of course, that's because they are: they're one of the most prized wild edible mushrooms in New England. As my friend Eric puts it, they're the kind of mushrooms that can own a dish.

The time to forage for them is now. Bailey says to wait for a warm day following a wet day, around the season when the apple trees are in full blossom, or just after the petals have passed. The book says they're around anytime from April to June, and that they can be found alone, or in clumps. We found six by our tree.

Bailey's only condition for sharing was that I had to eat mine; I couldn't chicken out. I didn't—I did some research first, on what sort of false morels might be lurking around (read more on that over here and in the book)—but once I was sure, I dug in. I got out a scoop of oat groats from our grain CSA and a bag of shiitakes I bought from Julie Winslow a few weeks back, and simmered them with onions and mushroom broth into a rich, earthy pilaf. I cut the stems from the morels, used a paintbrush to dust them off, and spooned the pilaf inside.

I added a drizzle of melted butter and a sprinkle of grated Parmesan, and that was it. I put them in the oven, and the mushrooms sort of melted into the butter as they warmed up, while the cheese got crisp on top. My two prizes didn't last very long. Alex and I counted to three, took our first bites, and a few minutes later, congratulated ourselves on the fact that we weren't dead. I wish we could have them again, and again.

No luck yet, but I've been scouting old apple trees all week.


The good thing about this recipe is that if you can't find any morels, it has two parts, and you can at least enjoy the first. Step one is to make an oat groat, shiitake, and mushroom broth pilaf (adapted from Whole Grains Every Day Every Way by Lorna Sass), which any one of you can do once the Orleans Farmers' Market opens this ( ! ) Saturday ( ! ) and Julie Winslow starts selling again.

We got our oat groats from our grain CSA, but you can also buy them New England-grown from Wood Prairie Farm in northern Maine. If you've never had oat groats, you're in for a treat. Shape-wise, they're similar to rice, but they have a sort of silky sweetness that makes them ideal for things like pilaf or risotto. (Also, if you don't have a mushroom broth recipe already, there's a good one over here.)

Of course, if you have part two—the morels—you're in for a treat. They soak up the butter and Parmesan on the outside, and inside, the pilaf adds an earthy richness that makes the whole thing pretty divine. Either way, I think you'll find the pilaf, stuffed or on its own, is a nice side dish. I imagine it would go particularly well with a roasted chicken and a heap of creamed spinach.

2 cups mushroom broth
3 tablespoons butter, divided
1 cup finely chopped onion
1 cup finely chopped celery
1 and 1/4 cups slivered shiitake mushrooms
1 and 1/2 cups dry oat groats, rinsed
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons fresh thyme
2 morel mushrooms, roughly 4-5 inches long
1/2 ounce grated Parmesan cheese

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Bring the mushroom broth to a boil, and leave it to simmer, covered, while you work.

Melt 1 tablespoon of the butter in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the onions, celery, and shiitakes and sauté for about 5 minutes, or until the onions are soft and translucent. Pour in the oats and stir until everything is well-mixed. Turn off the heat and pour the boiling mushroom broth over the oats. Add the salt and stir well.

Cover the Dutch oven and put it into the preheated oven. After 35 minutes, taste the oats. If they're tender, remove them from the oven and let them sit for 5 minutes. If not, keep baking (you may need to add a bit of boiling water if the oats are not yet tender but getting dry). They shouldn't need more than another 10-15 minutes at most. Once you pull them out of the oven, let the pilaf rest for five minutes; then stir in the thyme. (Note: do not turn the oven off. You'll need it again in a few minutes.)

Clean the morels of any bugs and dirt (a small paintbrush works well) and cut off their stems. Spoon in pilaf—you may need to use something like the end of a chopstick to pack it down—until the mushrooms are full. (You will have extra pilaf. Quite a bit, in fact; save that for another meal.)

Arrange the stuffed morels in a small baking dish. Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter in a small saucepan, and drizzle them over the mushrooms. Sprinkle the tops of each morel with grated Parmesan. Bake 10 minutes, or until the mushrooms are soft and the cheese is crisp on top. Eat at once.


A pretty fair trade

According to my mother, there is a little lake town south of Montreal where we used to stop for ice cream as kids. I can't remember it, but she says we would drive through on our way to Cache Lake, somewhere along the fourteen hour corridor that led from my parents' front door to the dirt parking lot in Algonquin Park, Ontario. My parents rented a vacation cabin there, and my sister and I went to camp—all girls, with overnight canoeing trips. The little stop-over town, Coaticook, was a summer place, she says—about an hour north of the Vermont border, with the highway running straight through.

I wish I could conjure it up, but I can't. All I can tell you about Coaticook is this: the Rhubarb Gingerbread Pudding its newspaper published on May 28th, 1959 is, as advertised, so delish.

I found the recipe in an old old copy of the Coaticook Observer I dug up online, before my mother brought all her memories out. I didn't recognize the place, but I loved everything about the dish. I loved the way the rhubarb was peppered with orange rind, wrapped in sweet ginger dough, and served with a cold custard sauce. I made it in my mother's old blue-stenciled pudding dish, and I loved the way the tangy stewed rhubarb relaxed into the bottom of the pan while the hot, steamy molasses bread puffed into a sort of pillow on top. Alex and I ate it with the windows thrown open and a quilt over our laps, the pudding hot from the oven and vanilla ice cream melting on top. It was to-die-for, zingy, old-fashioned good.

It was only when I called my mother, sent her the recipe, and urged her to make it that I learned all the rest. I searched through pictures online and tried to remember the place. I tried to crawl back through to a time when summers meant paddling and singing and ten days in a canoe, but I couldn't conjure it up. I remember camp, of course, but I think Coaticook is lost for good. I can't say I really mind. I have rhubarb and gingerbread pudding these days, which I think is a pretty fair trade.


Before making this, I had never combined rhubarb and gingerbread. I was missing out. The Coaticook Observer says that the union of these two favorite flavors results in a unique and tantalizing treat, and it is absolutely correct. I added a bit more fruit to the compote, but otherwise, this recipe is straight out of Quebec, circa 1959.

4 cups rhubarb, cut into 1/2-inch slices
2/3 cup granulated sugar, divided
1 teaspoon grated orange rind
1 stick butter
1 and 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 and 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 egg
1/3 cup molasses
3/4 cup boiling water
1/4 teaspoon vanilla

Grease a deep 8- by 8-inch pudding dish. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. In the pudding dish, toss together the rhubarb, 1/3 cup of the sugar, and the orange rind. Dot the fruit with 2 and 1/2 tablespoons of the butter, and put the dish into the preheated oven.

While the fruit cooks, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, ginger, and cinnamon in a medium-size mixing bowl. In a separate bowl, cream the remaining 1/3 cup sugar and 5 and 1/2 tablespoons butter until smooth, then beat in the egg. Combine the molasses and boiling water in a large measuring cup, and stir until combined. Add the flour and molasses mixtures alternately to the creamed mixture, stirring until just mixed after each addition. Stir in the vanilla.

Spoon the batter evenly over the partially cooked rhubarb and bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until the gingerbread is a deep brown. (It should have the texture of baked gingerbread cake.) Serve warm, with whipped cream, custard sauce, or vanilla ice cream.

P.S. If you don't have a rhubarb patch, Jim Rose's rhubarb is in. He sells roughly 1-pound bundles for $5, in Wellfleet at his house off Route 6. If you're going from downtown toward Orleans, it's on the left just before the post office. And of course, the farmers' markets in Provincetown and Orleans start this Saturday, which means there'll be fresh rhubarb all around.


Important !

As of 5:10pm yesterday, the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture officially dropped the language to explicitly outlaw raw milk buying clubs from its proposed regulation changes. The hearing on Monday will go on, but the department WILL NOT accept testimony on this language.

"The passion and concern on all sides of the raw milk debate have led MDAR to plan for a broader look at issues associated with raw milk. While MDAR expects that there are many ways that raw milk can impact the milk market, further investigation into all aspects of this issue is needed."

That said, it is important to note that they still consider buying clubs to be operating illegally. "A Milk Dealer is defined within the Milk Control Laws as anyone in the business of receiving, processing, distributing, or otherwise handling milk. This is still the case, and MDAR will take such steps to enforce violations as they become aware of them."

I'll keep you posted as the discussion evolves. Enjoy the weekend, everyone.


The Local Food Report: elemental, fundamental

Raw—or un-pasteurized—milk is contentious. Milk is elemental, fundamental, and the feelings surrounding it are, too. People talk about believing or not believing in raw milk the way they talk about religious faith, gods.

The history of the debate isn't all that long. Until Louis Pasteur discovered pasteurization in 1864, all milk was raw. His aim was to stop wine and beer from going sour, but before long, Franz von Soxhlet was applying the process to milk.

The idea took in the U.S. in the late 1800s. Huge numbers of Americans were leaving the countryside for the city, and the milk they demanded was either trucked into the city from the countryside—meaning it was transported further and at higher temperatures than ever before—or produced in crowded, unsanitary city lots. Swill milk—milk from cows fed a diet of spent grains from city breweries—was common and dangerous. At the time, the vile, blue-hued liquid was reported by the New York Times to have killed some 8,000 infants a year, and by the end of the century, people were fed up. Milk was a public health threat.

Some people pushed for farm reform and certified milk; others said pasteurization was the only absolute answer. In 1920 the city of Milwaukee took the argument to the Wisconsin Supreme Court: farmers contended that mandatory pasteurization would hurt their business and wasn't a valid answer to public health problems; the court said it was the only responsible answer. By the 1940s, similar regulations across the country made pasteurized milk the norm.

In Massachusetts, raw milk has never been completely outlawed. It can't be sold retail, but it is legal to buy straight from the farm. Farm reform groups and public health officials are still arguing over the regulations, and in recent years, as demand for raw milk has grown, the debate has grown heated.

Advocates of drinking raw milk say that it's healthier, that it has more beneficial enzymes, nutrients, and bacteria, and even that it can cure allergies and auto-immune disorders. The FDA says that it shouldn't be consumed "by any one, at any time, for any purpose," because of its potential to harbor dangerous pathogens like Salmonella, E. Coli, and Listeria. Science and statistics has been manipulated at times on both sides, and it's difficult to boil the issue down to any simple truth.

On the Cape, whether because of alleged health benefits or the popularity of the farm to table movement, demand for raw milk has grown over the past five years. The three closest raw milk dairies are on the Vineyard, in Dartmouth, and in Foxboro, so consumers—myself included—have formed coops to take turns driving to pick up the milk for other families at the farms.

Recently, the state has proposed a series of changes to the regulations governing the sale of raw milk, one of which would make these buying clubs explicitly illegal. The new language is in letter A of section 27.08 of the Department of Agriculture's Standards and Sanitation Requirements for Grade A Raw Milk (click on over here and scroll to the bottom to download the full copy), and the exact wording, to give you an excerpt, reads like this:

"No person shall sell, distribute, provide, or offer for consumption to the public any raw milk elsewhere on a dairy farm where that raw milk was produced."

I called Massachusetts Agricultural Commissioner Scott Soares to ask why the state is changing the regulations, and he said it's not. According to his department, the coops are already illegal, and the proposed language addition is a clarification, not a change.

"It sounds like it was very necessary based on the amount of response we've gotten around raw milk buying clubs and coops that in fact have always been an illegal activity here in Massachusetts," Soares said in a phone conversation last week. "We're hearing now that many folks are in fact engaged in these kinds of activities that are and have always been illegal."

The specific wording in the current regulations that spells out the current legal status of coops is tricky to find. I emailed Soares about this, and he replied that the regulations that make the clubs illegal are spread through a combination of statute, regulation, and policy, and therefore are not all clearly articulated in the regulations. "Therein lies the confusion that the changes to the regulations are trying to clarify," he replied.

Whatever the interpretation of the current law, it's clear based on the contention over its reading that some sort of language change is necessary. But raw milk advocates like Winton Pitcoff, head of the Raw Milk Network at NOFA, wonder why the state should work to constrict consumer access when there hasn't been an illness attributed to raw milk in the state of Massachusetts in over a decade. "I don't think there's any valid public health reason to differentiate between an individual picking up the milk at the farm and asking another individual to pick up the milk for them," Pitcoff said in a phone conversation this week.

Soares says that his department doesn't regulate public health issue, and that for him, it's a marketing issue. "Our primary concern with this is protecting the milk market itself," he said. "Although we're certainly concerned, as anyone would be, with the public becoming ill, our primary charge is protection of the milk market in Massachusetts. With the status of the dairy industry here in Massachusetts, we can't afford to have people stop drinking milk for fear or perception of it being an unhealthy or unsafe product."

Of course, raw milk farmers say that if the addition goes through, they could lose so much of their consumer base that they'll have to shut down their farms down. And for their part, consumers say they simply want the right to choose. Ellen Whalen, who belongs to a raw milk coop in Orleans, puts it like this: "Obviously, if one doesn't believe in raw milk they have the right to choose not to drink it, just like I have the right to drink it. However, the addition to the regulations could mean I won't be able to obtain it, because I won't be able to drive over an hour every week to the farm."

If you have strong feelings on either side of the issue, there will be a chance to voice your concerns this coming Monday, May 1oth. The state is holding a public hearing on the proposed regulations at 10am in Conference Room A on the second floor of 100 Cambridge Street. To find out more, click on over here. Enjoy the weekend, and maybe I'll see you there.


Hang on

You might remember the fuss I made over our caterer in the months leading up to our wedding. I declared finding her almost as exciting as meeting my husband, not to mention almost as trying. And so in the same way that I decided when I met Alex not to let go, I also decided with Katy to hang on. And so these days, when my mom or I write each other about a new recipe we tried, or one we'd like to find, we email Katy, too. We're still talking about food, only now that we're done with silverware rentals and napkin colors, it's lot more fun.

What you see up there—that simple combination of steamed wheat berries, torn fresh basil, a little bit of spinach, shaved Parmesan, and a sprinkle of pine nuts—is one of the recipes Katy sent along. She made it for Easter, tossed with olive oil and balsamic and sprinkled with salt, and she told us about it afterward, in the emails we were sending back and forth about Meyer lemon tarts and hot cross buns. I finally got my hands on a bag of fresh basil at the winter farmers' market last week in Marstons Mills, and this afternoon, it was the first thing I made. (For the record, Alex and I took our first ocean swim at LeCount's yesterday, so although we are still shopping the winter market, I think we can officially welcome the arrival of spring. If the basil doesn't prove it, I don't know what does. Hip-hip, hooray!)

At any rate, the salad was perfect: tangy balsamic with fresh basil, toasted pine nuts and crumbling Parm, and an excellent way to go through a fair amount of wheat berries from our grain CSA. If you aren't too busy watching out for thunderstorms or planning a wedding or waiting on your own basil to get big, I highly recommend you head into the kitchen and give it a try.

Thanks, Katy, for everything.


Katy warns against making too much of this at a time; make what you can eat, she says, but not much more. Wheat berries don't store well—they tend to get sort of smelly after a couple of days—and the greens will sort of ooze into the dressing overnight. Which is really to say, dig in, and hurry up, before someone else gets the last bite. The first time I made this I added a bit of spinach in addition to the basil, but I think I like it best with the tastes strong and plain. Feel free to experiment a little bit though; I plan to try it with cherry tomatoes once they come into season, and I think kalamata olives would be a nice addition any day.

2 cups cooked wheat berries
2 tablespoons balsamic glaze
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 pound fresh basil, torn into bite-size pieces
2/3 cup toasted pine nuts
salt and freshly cracked pepper to taste
2 ounces Parmesan, shaved

In a large mixing bowl, toss together the wheat berries, balsamic, and olive oil. Add the torn basil and pine nuts, and toss gently to mix. Season with salt and freshly cracked pepper to taste, and as you serve each bowl, shave the Parmesan over top.


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All text, photographs, and other original material copyright 2008-2010 by Elspeth Hay unless otherwise noted.