Presenting CULTIVATE: Connecting Communities Through Meals and Media.

Hey people – Naomi here, and I’m writing with some exciting news. It’s been a little over a year since we started The Big Ceci, hoping to create a space on the blogosphere where we could bring together our love for food and our commitment to justice. It’s been a beautiful year, and I’ve been excited and inspired by how many people have contributed to this blog – it’s truly been a community effort.

So, yes, blogging has been good to us, and we look forward to continuing in our second year and beyond. But the one thing you can’t do on a food blog is…you guessed it, folks – EAT!

That’s why this week, The Big Ceci is making moves – stepping out of the Internet and into the neighborhood – to present our first-ever event: a dinner-discussion-screening-salon-experience called CULTIVATE: connecting communities through meals and media.

Get ready, y’all…because this is gonna be a fun one.

CULTIVATE is a collaboration with the fabulous queer documentary project SIGNIFIED (please do the Internet equivalent of running-not-walking to their website if you haven’t already seen it…you need to). During this interactive evening of food and media, we’ll eat a delicious meal prepared by the talented chefs of 718 Collective, discuss food justice work in Brooklyn with Just Food and The Brooklyn Food Coalition, swap stories and recipes across the table, and get to see the premiere of the latest SIGNIFIED episode.

If you’re not catching my drift, people, let me put it to you this way: if you care in any way about alternative media, food justice, Brooklyn, hot queer chefs, or just really delicious food, you will want to find a way to get your butt to our table on Wednesday, June 20.

Space is limited, so we strongly encourage you to buy tickets in advance here: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/252443

And of course, for more info, check out the Facebook event here and the Tumblr here.

We’ll see you at the table!

Hooked on Aquaponics

Give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish these days and he may get mercury poisoning. Teach a man to do aquaponics and he will eat fresh fish and veggies for a damn long time!

I’ve been working on an urban agriculture project in Cincinnati over the past year with three friends. The big idea: to grow fish and vegetables, together. The fish poop provides the nutrients for the plants and the plants filter the water for the fish. It’s a closed loop system, so the water is recirculated over and over again. Welcome to the wonderful world of aquaponics! I’ll walk you through our basic system design.

Our tour starts in the corner of a garage that some generous friends allowed us to use for our fish tank. It was an old dome-lidded water tank that farmers use to haul water out to the pasture. We cut the lid off, patched the leaky spots, and voila! A 600-gallon home for our 300 tilapia. Isn’t that amazing? Tilapia can be grown at about 1/2 pound per gallon of water. Most of them will grow to a pound or so, meaning one fish for every two gallons.

Matt and the 600-gallon tank with biofilter barrel perched (pun intended) above.

Blue tilapia after two months of growth.

From the tank, the water flows out through a pipe, through the back wall of the garage, and into a greenhouse that we built in the back yard. The pipe distributes the water into three vegetable beds. These are basically wood frames that we lined with rubber so that they would hold water. On top of the water-filled beds are sheets of styrofoam insulation that are gridded with holes for our veggies. The vegetables are held in little slotted cups that allow their roots free access to the nutrient-rich water below. Because we aerate the water for our fish, the plant roots are able to thrive in this underwater environment without rotting. In the coming months, we hope to include freshwater prawns beneath the veggies. These creatures like similar water temperatures as tilapia and will act as muck-cleaners for the system, eating algae off the plant roots (which will improve their nutrient uptake) and cleaning up any fish gunk that gets into the growing beds.

Greenhouse with 3 planting beds. Distribution pipe from garage against the far wall.

In the foreground of the above picture, there’s a small experimental wetland that occupies a third of one of our beds. This wetland is multifunctional. It gives us an area to experiment with growing plants in gravel instead of floating rafts. It acts as a supplemental filter because it is full of plants that will remain in place. It looks beautiful. And it allows us to experiment with different crops. In this small 3×5 foot area, we have a papaya tree, passion fruit, irises, canna lilies, turmeric, strawberries, gotu kola, lemongrass, taro root, horsetail, oregano, duckweed, watercress, mint, chives, peace lilies, papyrus, cattails, water hyacinth, water lettuce, water celery, sweet potato, nasturtium, basil and philodendron! Matt and I actually ate the first ripe strawberry three days ago, on the 20th of January!

Mmmm. Strawberries!

After the water passes through the vegetable beds, it collects in a 55-gallon drum and is pumped back into the garage. It passes through a simple filtration system, where bacteria turn the ammonia into nitrates, before landing back in the tank.

So that’s the basic tour. Not so complicated. It’s a really fresh experiment for us and we’ve got a lot of learning to do, but we’re excited about the possibilities of using aquaponic systems to grow healthy food in the urban environment. The beauty is that you don’t have to have soil to make these systems go. You can do it on a contaminated site. You can use old buildings. Abandoned urban industrial sites could be brought back from the brink of decay and turned into lush oases of year-round food production, creating jobs and making healthy foods available to neighborhoods that typically don’t have that “luxury.”

Aquaponics can also be put to tremendous use in other parts of the world, where resources are limited and sunshine is bountiful. From deserts to more lush environments, aquaponics systems can be much more efficient in the tropical and sub-tropical latitudes because there is no need to heat the water. There are possibilities for northern climates with coldwater fish as well, but these fish tend to be less resilient than the tilapia and using cold water is likely to make for a less productive system in general.

Imagine an agricultural renaissance in our urban areas and other typically marginal agricultural lands, our communities bursting to life with elegant food-producing ecosystems on properties that had been left for a slow deterioration! We’ll keep working on things from our end and with any luck, the next aquaponics blog post will be on herb-crusted tilapia filets with boiled taro root and passion fruit marmalade!

Update: Take Back the Morning Glory Community Garden!

A few weeks ago, Sowj told us about the NYC Department of Housing Preservation & Development’s raid on the Morning Glory Community Garden in the South Bronx. Since 2009, Morning Glory has been cultivating a space for growing food, composting, community building, and more. Just before the raid, they were working on beginning a CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture), which would have allowed them to share food from the garden with folks from all over the South Bronx. Then HPD came in, tore down the garden, and put up a fence around it – supposedly in the name of affordable housing.

But people are fighting back. This Saturday, the Occupy the Bronx General Assembly will take place at the gates of Morning Glory Garden, followed by a day of festivities. Check the image below for details.

In case you can’t read the image, here’s what you need to know:
Occupy the Bronx General Assembly, followed by a day of festivities!
Saturday, December 3 at 11 am
Morning Glory Garden – 147th Street and Southern Boulevard

Sweet Cherry Pie

Pie eaters, when you wake up grouchy and feel like listening to Cat Steven’s “Oh Very Young,” making a sweet cherry pie can feel like an impossible task. However, because I’m working on a deadline (and the thought of eating cold buttery crust dough made me feel like getting out of bed) I forged through. The hand pitting of the cherries felt meditative but the grouchies followed me into the process of rolling out the dough, and when it ripped halfway through I almost cried. It wasn’t until I pulled the finished pie out of the oven to cool that I remembered that pie making is a creative process, not an exercise in perfection. The pie was delicious, beautiful and a joy to share with everyone at the party I took it to.

With this pie, I made the dough the day before so it could sit in the fridge over night. I’m still having a confusing time trying to figure out how long to let the dough warm up after it’s chilled before rolling it. Anyone out there in Pieland have any suggestions? When I watch videos of Martha rolling out dough I mostly feel like punching her and then I have a hard time focusing on what she is doing (OK, I don’t really want to punch her but I would like to be the one to reveal to the world that she is actually a robot). I’m wondering if anyone out there would like to barter a crust making tutorial in exchange for some nursey skill I could offer, like assessing the functioning of your cranial nerves (actually don’t watch the link, it’s really boring).

Moving on, for this post folks, instead of discussing the hard science of botany, I would like to turn your attention to the flimsy science of the US Farm Bill. I wanted to include this because we talk a lot about food here at Pie Time, but I think it’s also really important that we talk about farmers and farmland, as without them, there would be no pie. I’m not gonna lie people, the government-agricultural complex is super complicated. As an example from my personal life, my family’s farm in Ohio is subsidized by the government through the Farm Bill. A few years ago, my younger brother and I were talking about starting a vegetable garden on a part of the farm that had not been in cultivation for 40 years. My father told us if we planted crops for human consumption on that land, we would lose our farm subsidy. The crops that grow on our 100 acres currently (corn and soybean) are for cow feed only. If we started growing food that we could eat, the government would no longer subsidize us. Am I the only one that thinks this is WAY sketchy? I found this really helpful article about the subsidy conundrum, if my story has created an itch that you would like to scratch. The article had some really good suggestions about changing farm subsidies that made me rub my hands together really fast! (Something I do when I get excited.) So, if you want a similar feeling you know where to go.

p.s. Dear Reader, this week’s Pie Time post is in honor of my good friend Ryvka. I heard through the pie-loving community that she might enjoy a cherry pie on her birthday and, though I could not share a piece with her as she is currently north of the border, this pie was made with lots of love for you, Ryvka.

p.p.s. Mondays are official Pie Time Post Days so watch out!!!!

My girls

I recently returned from the Allied Media Conference in Detroit. Along with sharing the multimedia curriculum developed by the Palestine Education Project, I was there helping Chef Walter Whitewater with his session entitled “Cooking As a Form of Media: Stories & Experiences of a Traditional Native Chef.”  After five days away from home, the first thing I did was drop my bags, grab all of the pitchers I have, fill them with water, and climb out my kitchen window, excited for a hydrating reunion with “my girls.” Thanks to the careful, loving attention of my sister Shalva, my plants were looking better than they ever have when left in someone else’s care. Yet they still seemed to perk up even more after a day of my talking to them and touching them (rubbing leaves, pinching off dead flowers, checking for bugs).  They missed me! Coming home from being on the road and communing with my plants was so grounding. And I harvested my first basil! Isn’t she gorgeous?

Excited about my lil herbs and inspired by a delectable little dish at The Village Cheese Shop in Mattituck, Long Island, involving tiny new red potatoes topped by dollops of pesto and crème fraiche, I pulled together this brunch for my parents and dear fellow food traveler and friend, Sonny:

New Potatoes

Bring a pot of water heavily salted to boil and add little new potatoes (I used about 20).

After about 10 minutes, check them by sticking a fork in them – as soon as you can easily poke it in and pull it out, they’re done! (You don’t want them too soft and mushy so just keep checking them – better safe than sorry.)

Drain them and cut them in half.

Green Sauce

In a food processor combine:

–       2 small cloves of garlic or one big one

–       1 cup basil, 1 cup parsley, and ½ cup mint

–       about a teaspoon of sea salt

–       a few pinches of black pepper

–        ½ cup pine nuts or walnuts

–       1 cup olive oil (or drizzle in until it’s the consistency you want)

Polenta

I used fresh stone ground “quick grits” from Farmer Ground. Farmer Ground – which is farmer grown, owned, and ground – is part of a larger effort to restore grain growing to New York state. Upstate New York once grew so much grain that Rochester topped the nation’s flour production in the mid 1830s, giving it the nickname “Flour City.” Federal subsidization of agribusiness in the Midwest undermined that once thriving local industry.

And I use my mother’s recipe for making polenta:

1.5 cups cold water

1/3 cup cornmeal (more or less course or fine depending on the consistency you want- the finer, the creamier)

¼ teaspoon salt

1/3 cup cheese

1/2 tablespoon each of chopped thyme, sage, parsley, and/or basil (or whatever herbs you like)

1 or 2 tablespoons butter (depending on how rich you like it)

Bring the water, cornmeal, and salt to a boil in a thick bottomed pot.

Reduce the heat and stir in the herbs.

Stir consistently, making sure to scrape the bottom, for about 15 minutes.

When it’s creamy and thick, remove from the heat and stir in the butter, cheese, and add salt and pepper to taste if needed.

You can serve it warm and creamy or spread it in a square pan or casserole dish and chill for an hour, cut into squares, and serve.

(Stay tuned for my sister’s upcoming posts entitled “Gritty City” exploring polenta and grits throughout NYC.)

Early Summer Veggie Sauté

To be honest, I make these things up as I go along. So here’s what I can remember about how I made this:

I sliced up garlic greens and shallots and started sautéing them in olive oil.

I like to sprinkle some dashes of paprika on my garlic/onions/shallots while sautéing them before adding the extra veggies.

I then added a couple of handfuls of summer squash (zukes and yellow) sliced thinly into half-moons and a handful of chopped asparagus (it was late May when I made this dish and the asparagus abounded here in NYC).

I sautéed them covered for a couple of minutes and then lifted the cover, added some chopped thyme, parsley, and maybe oregano and then a few pinches of this honey-lemon-saffron blend called Mishmish N. 33 that my mother gave me from La Boite a Epice.

(I hope that this Israeli-born chef’s commitment to “the spices our ancestors used” is indicative of his respect and support for the indigenous peoples of the Mediterranean, Middle East, and North Africa from which he draws his inspiration and makes a living.)

When the veggies were soft, I added a dash of balsamic vinegar and salt and pepper to taste.

Egg

I used to be so freaked out by eggs but now am enchanted by their magic – how many forms they can take and how many nutrients they contain. Of course, fresh, free-range eggs contain around four times as many nutrients and taste infinitely better than eggs from factory farms full of miserable, unhealthy, over-crowded chickens who never see the light of day.

For this breakfast, I simply fried an egg in black truffle oil and tossed a pinch of salt and a sprig of fresh thyme on top.

Serving

As you can see in the above photo, I plated a healthy portion of the polenta next to a mound of veggies. Then I laid out the halved little potatoes, drizzled the green sauce on them, and topped them off with a drizzle of Liberté Goat Fresh cheese. I then added the egg to each plate and we dined on the deck amongst the plants from which the flavors of our brunch were derived.*

*As with all great culinary efforts, I had invaluable assistance provided by my mother. So really I should be saying “we…” when referring to the preparation of this meal. Here’s to all of the kitchen tops like mother who are humble and generous enough to be kitchen bottoms when called upon!

Broccoli: Unleaded

After years of gardening in Arizona (imagine elaborately constructed garden shades, waiting for rain for months on end, chopping at caliche and swatting javelinas), gardening in the northeast seems like a fairy tale. I barter a bag of magic beans, throw them casually out the door, and the next thing you know there’s a fava stalk grown halfway to Queens.  I drop a few broccoli roots in some composty dirt and weeks later I’m harvesting glorious, fragrant, emerald crowns, perfect for roasting.

Of course, every fairy tale has a villain, and in the urban garden fairy tale, the villain is urban humans, who have poisoned the soil with car fumes and paint runoff and turned that fertile luscious garden moss into a lead-filled poison pit.

In much of the world, having more than 100 parts-per-million (ppm) of lead in your soil is considered unacceptable. The US EPA rolls its eyes at this caution, and in a puff of SUV exhaust, proclaims that up to 500 ppm of lead is totally no big whoop.

In many urban areas, the soil has been contaminated to 2 or 3 or even 4 times that. (My soil tested at 1,008 ppm of lead, so even the EPA might squirm over a home-sowed salad from my backyard.) Lead won’t hurt your flowers – and flowers will, over time, help repair your soil – but lead contaminated soil can leach toxins into your homegrown food, especially my favorite leafy or rooty veggies.

Picture of my Vegetable Garden

In my lead-bed, I grow lots and lots of flowers that I fertilize with organic materials and put to bed every year under a layer of compost from my community farm. For my incredible edibles, my friends and I built a simple raised bed and dropped a few seedlings in it.

Last night we ate my first fresh broccoli of the season. Fresh-picked broccoli has a flavor that’s intense and deep and a little nutty, and completely unrecognizable when tasted alongside its wan grocery store counterparts.  It’s great raw but also pretty unbelievably fairy-tale good roasted with a little bit of lemon.

Roasted Fresh Broccoli: Unleaded

Ingredients

  • As fresh-as-you-can-get-it broccoli, including stems
  • ½ tablespoon of olive oil or sesame oil per head of broccoli
  • ¼ teaspoon salt per head of broccoli
  • sprinkle of sugar
  • black pepper to taste
  • a few lemon wedges
  1. Harvest your broccoli from low in the plant so that you get lots of stem.
  2. Preheat your oven to 400 degrees and put a baking sheet on the lowest rack in the oven.
  3. Remove the stem and set it aside. Cut the broccoli in quarters or eighths so that each floret has at least one flat side.
  4. Peel the stem, removing the tough outer skin (save this for your compost), and cut it into ½-inch thick (or smaller) spears.
  5. Toss the broccoli and stems in the oil, salt, and pepper. Sprinkle with sugar (this is just to help encourage some roasty browning on the broccoli’s edges – you don’t need more than a very tiny sprinkle).
  6. Working quickly so as not to cool the baking sheet, remove the baking sheet and spread the broccoli over it with the flat sides down.
  7. Put the baking sheet back in the oven and roast for 8-12 minutes, until the edges of the broccoli have browned a little bit and smell kind of toasty.
  8. Let it cool for a few minutes before serving. Serve with wedges of lemon.