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Awake at the Whisk: July 2010

Friday, July 30, 2010


Sacramento Leads Nation in Farmers’ Markets & Farm Stands

Sacramento loves its farmers! And it shows. Yesterday marked the second week of a new Capitol farmers’ market at 6th Street and Capitol Mall. This market is just one more example of Sacramentan’s fondness for local produce. In fact, we lead the nation in farmers’ markets and roadside farm stands, according to a new study released and conducted by Shermain Hardesty, a Cooperative Extension economist with the UC Davis Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics.

The new market on Capitol Mall won’t last long. It runs every Thursday through September 30th from 10:00 A.M. to 1:30 P.M.

I stopped by the market yesterday to investigate. Unlike the other weekly markets, I found plenty of elbow room here. I had more time to ask each farmer about their wares.

An heirloom tomato farmer empathized with my home gardening woes. Although he had plump, gorgeous heirlooms covering his table, he said the cool start to summer set him back by about three weeks. Yet, his tomatoes are far ahead of mine. My heirlooms are still hanging green on the vine. So I paid $2.50 for a heavy Brandywine, which I intend to savor in thick slices with chunks of fresh mozzarella.

A melon farmer talked with me about this year’s crop as a luscious smell rose to meet my nose. The perfectly ripe orbs showed pale green and pale orange through their thin matted skins. After detailed explanations about the various flavors I might expect, I selected two happy, juicy melons for less than $5.

Although I’m a vegetarian, I decided to talk to the local free-range meat farmer. At the Sunday market, his booth is usually flanked (pun intended!) by swarms of people. Yesterday, I was able to speak with him at length. He had combined forces with the free-range chicken farmer so they could share the burden of working another market. He said his Sunday customers were pleased to come out to this market, because they could have first dibs on popular items like tri-tip, which he said are normally sold out by the time Sunday rolls around. Since my three brothers-in-law are currently visiting, each of them weighing in at over 6’ 3”, and one of them a hearty and devoted meat-eater, I plunked down $17.50 for a chicken I was told would easily feed four hungry men.

A local baker took the time to help me plan which tortillas might go best with the menu I was considering for dinner. She also gave me a sample of one of her freshly baked cookies. The caramelized sugars in her whole wheat and oat chocolate chip cookie danced and crunched in my mouth. I paid $1.25 to take one more home with me.

And of course, several stalls were overflowing with the ripe harvest of peaches, nectarines, pluots, plums, vegetables, and healthy produce. I heard the farmers explaining patiently, and repeatedly, to new customers what a pluot was, or the difference between a freestone peach and a cling peach.

When I asked each farmer why they were drawn to participate in this particular market, they each gave a similar answer: meeting new customers, expanding awareness, and hopefully, earning just a little more money during the week.

As I loaded my groceries into my car and was driving home, the heavy perfume of the melons filled my car with the bright scents of summer. I sure hope that Sacramento’s love of fresh farm produce continues to flourish in this fine city!

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Wednesday, July 28, 2010


Conscious Cooking Reignites Firehouse

Everyone knows The Firehouse Restaurant as a Sacramento icon for its picturesque court yard, abundant wine cellar, and historic charm. Yet, on a recent sit-down with Executive Chef Deneb Williams, I was delighted to learn that The Firehouse is also surprisingly alive and modern. From its menu to food-sourcing practices to a unionized kitchen staff, Firehouse is innovative and inspiring.
First, there’s the menu. Chef Williams has done some traveling in his day, and his global tastes are reflected in a new bill of fare that is bright and playful. The Mahi Mahi Tacos blend the flavors of honey, cumin, cilantro, mango, cucumber, and avocado, and are served as you might find them on the streets of Mexico, rustically wrapped in paper.

Classic Dungeness Crab Cakes come alive with the pop of plump corn, fresh cilantro, and a light, sweet pepper coulis. Another classic, the caprese salad, becomes a modern day display of creativity in Chef Williams’ Heirloom Tomato Napoleon, which appears in a rounded stack looking deceptively like a large, whole tomato.

In fact, most of Williams’ dishes are immaculately displayed, and even more studiously planned months in advance. Churning out three new seasonal menus each year, with the addition of nightly specials and formal occasion dinners, (like Valentine’s Day), Williams will run through 38 different menus and 50 tastings to test them, in a single year.

This is a guy who needs to be fully awake at the whisk! And he is.

Raised in the San Juan Islands near Vancouver, Canada, Williams was brought up on a macrobiotic vegetarian diet. His mother raised goats and had a large garden. Her philosophy sticks with him to this day. He still doesn’t eat much red meat, and when he does, he says he can only eat about four ounces at a time. He shops regularly at Sacramento’s Sunday farmers’ market. He works with seasonal themes, local farmers, and an environmentally strong food philosophy.

“I won’t serve seafood that is overfished,” Williams says firmly. “I try to balance both wild and farm-raised fish. And I get all my Ahi from the big island in Hawaii. It’s only caught using long line, and they don’t harvest shark.”

Williams proceeds to rattle off several websites on sustainable fishing that I should be sure to read. When I ask him how he keeps up with all the information, he doesn’t hesitate, “I’m completely obsessed with what I do!”

He speaks passionately about the farms he has visited in pursuit of the perfect ingredients for The Firehouse menu. He describes his process for sourcing quality ingredients for a menu that must be planned 120 days in advance.

With the oddly cold start to our Sacramento summer, the tardy tomato season sent Williams to Southern California for heirloom tomatoes he would otherwise have purchased locally. This is a quandary that he clearly approaches thoughtfully.

“I have to react quickly,” he says. “I’ve got squash, basil, and onions coming in locally now. I’ll definitely run specials when our local tomatoes are finally ripe.”

Williams trains his chefs to respond quickly, too. He trains them to prepare every item on the menu to meet the dietary needs of Firehouse customers. “We can make anything on the menu vegetarian, vegan, etcetera,” he explains enthusiastically.

He speaks highly of the chefs he works with, all of whom are part of this union restaurant. “I’m only as good as my cooks,” he says with pride. “Most of my cooks could be executive chefs at other restaurants.”

This pride and passion aren’t immediately apparent when you step through the ancient doors of this historic, quiet, reserved restaurant. Yet, somewhere inside the kitchen, hidden from diners’ view, an explosion of creativity and zeal is taking place. If you eat there, rest assured, you will experience it: in your mouth.

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Tuesday, July 20, 2010


Book Review of Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer

Feathers fly. Guns fire. Beets ripen. Salami cures. There’s a bit of flavorful adventure around every page in Novella Carpenter’s debut memoir Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer. Just as her urban farm tumbles with chickens, pigs, and watermelon, Carpenter’s book bubbles with a blend of funny, nostalgic, rebellious, and heartfelt tales not to be missed.

Raised by former hippies, Carpenter’s veins run thick with bloodlust to live in harmony with the land. Yet, like most children, Carpenter has her own ideas about how this plays out. Instead of running barefoot through the woods of rural Michigan plucking berries, she dons a headlamp to dive in Oakland city dumpsters in search of food for her rabbits and pigs. Rather than a white picket fence-lined home on a ranch, Carpenter builds her farm illegally on a vacant city lot next to her apartment. When she picks extra lettuce from her bountiful crop, she doesn’t package it for market. Instead, she carries it on her bicycle handlebars to donate to the local Black Panthers.

In this delightful story, Carpenter invites the reader to experience her initiation in becoming a tried and true “urban farmer” in a ghetto called “Ghost Town” in Oakland, California. The story opens with Carpenter’s newest purchase, and the beginning of her transformation: a box of assorted meat birds including chickens, geese, turkeys, and ducks. The story quickly unfolds in a comedy of trial and error as Carpenter educates herself through copious research and sweaty toil.

In one misadventure, Carpenter attempts a 30-day 100-yard diet, putting the notion of being locavore (trying to live off food sourced only from within 100 miles) to shame. Carpenter is choosing to live solely off her own farm and her food desert neighborhood. As her waistline shrinks and her coffee-cravings cause headaches, she stumbles upon a neighbor willing to barter: some of Carpenter’s urban farm-grown collards for the neighbor’s crispy-fried locally-caught fish dinner complete with fabulously-urban, yet equally homemade, cake frosted using pink food dye.

Such tales reveal a Carpenter whose lifestyle is equal parts nostalgia and practicality. Hers is not a life of abstinence, but one rich in abundance. Carpenter does not deny herself of urban pleasures in pursuit of romantic food ideals. Indeed, she pulls the resources of the city close to her, showing that there can be farmer’s harmony even in a concrete jungle.

For example, when Carpenter takes ownership of several rabbits, her first instinct is to draw on the city to provide for them. She finds Chinatown dumpsters overflowing with bread and greens ideal for bunny feed. For her chickens, she scours her neighborhood for a widely growing weed that the chicks find particularly tasty. As Carpenter puts it, it’s an “urban waste stream that I was tapping regularly.”

Yet Farm City isn’t just a story about farm life. In this urban setting, it’s plentiful with stories of the characters in Carpenter’s neighborhood and city. There’s Bobby, a homeless man who sleeps in abandoned cars on the street. There’s Lana, an artist who operates a speakeasy in her warehouse. And there’s Chef Chris Lee, who runs the upscale restaurant Eccolo, and teaches Carpenter to make Italian cured meats.

Anyone hungry for an inspired tale that stands out as a fresh addition to the food writing scene will be delighted by Farm City.

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