I love food. So what?

As a Jew raised vegetarian, with a sprinkling of Italian heritage, I learned life through food.  The kitchen has always been my comfort zone.  For my sisters and I, food was never something that appeared out of nowhere ready to eat.  We were our parents’ kitchen staff- garden assistants and prep cooks- peeling whole heads of garlic, picking green beans, serving soup, stirring the polenta, slicing the pickles for the requisite first course of the epic feasts for Shabbat and every one of the dozens of annual Jewish holidays for which the framework is primarily “they tried to kill us, they didn’t… lets eat!”

I am not a fancy chef. However,I have a passionate relationship with food- a deep reverence for the processes and people that make it happen.  (My partner laughs at me because I am often deeply moved by a recipe or a description of a meal and I can get the chills while reading an article about a chef). I was so emotional this summer when I harvested baskets of tomatoes that I grew from seed for the first time that I had to laugh at myself.

Although I have no professional cooking training, I do have to say that my forced conscription into the Sabbath feast preparations every single week until I left home, instilled in me a useful solid understanding of how to host- how to bring people together with artfully prepared delicious food, how to ritualize a meal, how to set a table with seasonal, conceptual unity between garden flower arrangements and colorful dishware, how to serve and clean up after large numbers of (often demanding) people.

Shabbat Dinner during a parental visit to BK

Brooklyn Shabbat dinner during a parental visit

My brain tends to work like a switchboard. In this way I am an apple that hasn’t fallen far from the tree; being the daughter of a rabbi and an artist-educator, I grew up directly witnessing my parents’ community organizing skills in action.  I think I just absorbed the understanding that what one does in life is build things- relationships, projects, communities, spaces. In a society where people do not often learn how to effectively communicate, get organized, solve their own problems, express love, connect with others…I was taught that those were the most important parts of being alive. And for me, food is a central part of that- a simultaneously creative and mundane act, an opportunity for gathering and for individual expression and experience.  Cooking is a collaboration with nature- it’s about drawing out the essence of the ingredients you’re working with, capturing them at the right moment, combining ingredients thoughtfully, understanding their needs, powers, and particularities, paying close attention, being humble yet confident, balancing age-old wisdom with innovation and discovery…just like effective cooperation amongst people.

There was a period of time during which I was in graduate school, helping produce the film Slingshot Hip Hop, running an after-school program, coordinating a collective of activists & artists doing workshops internationally about the struggle for self-determination in Palestine. I was so busy and so exhausted (while also, for the record, feeling excited and inspired) that the only time I ever felt ok stepping away from working was when I was cooking for the crew. I was never able to justify reading  a book or watching a film- I couldn’t escape the never-ending to-do list running through my mind. But cooking was a creative act and a form of decompression that I didnt feel guilty about because it was necessary in order to live.  I was able to relax into it. To this day, even though I’ve managed to balance out my schedule a bit more, one of the only times I feel completely present and never doubt my choice of place and activity is when Im cooking.

Birthday Brunch Tacos for Olivia- our New Years baby

Birthday Brunch Tacos for Olivia- our New Years baby

Along with my gratitude for my food-loving family and the wisdom it has provided me with, I have questions at times about the potential lack of healthy balance in my family’s relationship to food and drink.  Sometimes it seems that we could benefit physically and energetically from letting go and taking a more casual approach every once in a while.  There is a fine line, as it turns out, between intentionality and obsession. Boundaries and balance in terms of food and alcohol can be tricky for us as individuals and collectively. There are times when we need to challenge ourselves to focus on other elements of culture, other ways of being together.

I am trying to learn how to let go sometimes- knowing that my culinary ideas and organizational skills are valuable during my crew’s myriad celebrations but that even benign bossiness ain’t cute for too long 😉 Plus I want to be able to enjoy receiving as much as giving and to trust others to make things happen and teach me things.

Surprise Feast for Giovanna's Bday

Cava & Oysters feast in honor of our dear Giovanna’s birthday

I am currently in a period of transition in my life. I am considering shifting away from the community education work I’ve been doing within the Jewish community for a decade.  Although I have always bounced between worlds and woven together interests and communities, I am committing now to focusing in on culinary art/culture/community. BUT WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?!! In the current context, in which white 20 & 30-something-year-olds throughout urban centers of the U.S. are r(e)discovering food like Columbus discovered America, what is useful? What is necessary? It is not enough for me to say food makes me happy. I try not to consider my life choices in a void, ignoring the big picture of the country and world I live within.  Happiness is of course a goal (and one we all need to embrace more) but also purposefulness. While brooding over this recently, I found Patti Smith‘s questions in Just Kids resonant. She was speaking of art, I am thinking of the world of food:

“Once again I found myself contemplating what I should be doing to do something of worth. Everything I came up with seemed irreverent or irrelevant.”

“Why commit to art? For self-realization, or for itself? It seemed indulgent to add to the glut unless one offered illumination.”

As someone exploring possibilities of jumping more fully into the word of making and serving food and the culture that surrounds it, I too should certainly feel concerned about not just participating in the gluttony that Patti Smith refers to. Otherwise I am just aligning myself with the wealthiest people on the planet- those with the resources and time to indulge in such things while the rest of the population is being pushed off their farmlands, picking fruit covered in poison, losing their olive trees to bulldozers, struggling to hold on to their food traditions, grocery shopping at Walmart, being served processed animal garbage in their schools….

Patti Smith created her boundary-crossing collaborative poetry-music-art as a heartfelt rebellion against the social and economic systems the music of her day was being shaped  by.  Her words, although originally written about rock n roll, provide us with perfect metaphors as we reflect on the “new food movement” we are a part of, wary of, reliant upon, and hopefully making an intervention into:

“We feared that the music which had given us sustenance was in danger of spiritual starvation. We feared it losing its sense of purpose, we feared it falling into fattened hands, we feared it floundering in a mire of spectacle, finance, and vapid technical complexity.”

So where to from here?

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

HPD Raid a South Bronx Community Garden

The NYC Department of Housing Preservation & Development (HPD) completed their raid of the Morning Glory Community Garden in South Bronx on Monday, November 7th, 2011. They pulled up kale by the roots, they trashed raised beds, and they erected a fence around the garden so the Morning Glory members could only stand by and watch. The HPD claims the community garden stands in the way of building “affordable” housing in the area, despite there being no concrete bid on the lot. They raided with no warning on Friday, Nov. 4th, and came back on Monday to finish the job. Morning Glory members and allies attempted to block the Monday eviction, in vain. In the wake of their garden’s destruction, Morning Glory members are reaching out to the community board to seek further action.

They could use your help in donations or even an email of support. You can follow updates on their blog Morning Glory Garden, or you can email them at morningglorygarden [at] gmail.

History of Morning Glory

The garden was originally an empty lot, owned yet abandoned by the city for 30 years. In 2009, South Bronx community members decided to re-imagine the space, creating an environment where children and adults could learn to grow, harvest and cook their own food. In the past few months they had accomplished quite a lot with very little resources. In their own words, they:

  • Doubled our growing space, for a total of 15 raised beds
  • Built a new compost system
  • Built a large seating area, with shade structure, cafe tables and chairs
  • Planted our first tree (A peach tree! And it actually produced peaches.)
  • Grown a lot of collards, kale, onions, beans, and tomatoes. Like, a lot.
  • Organized ourselves as a general meeting with working committees
  • Hosted an open mic and a community barbecue

Before the raid, they were attempting to raise another $400 dollars to work toward their own CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), which would provide affordable and healthy food for anyone in the South Bronx willing to participate. Grassroots organizing like this should be embraced by the city. It’s low cost, galvanizes a community and it allows for self-empowerment, education and fun. Morning Glory understands the mission of the HPD and doesn’t discount the need for affordable housing, however, I they make a valid argument, that “affordable housing is def needed, and would be easy to come by if the city would repair broken-down buildings or put rent controls on these new richy-rich developments being built.” They see that the HPD and Mayor’s housing plan doesn’t really support the communities they claim to. It supports contractors, the city departments, and those who can afford the new and pricy housing. Historically, most urban development leads to the complete displacement of the communities where development takes place. Since the 2002 implementation of The New Housing Marketplace Plan, there has been only 1 progress report in 2005, before the housing crash. It’s now nearly 2012, and self-mobilized communities like Morning Glory deserve reasonable communication from the city.

Access to Food

Morning Glory just posted this great video of community member’s voices.

Food access is a major issue in communities where there’s not much more than convenience stores and fast food chains. The South Bronx is a “food desert.” Morning Glory took this issue into their own hands, and gave the South Bronx access to healthy, organic food. Again, they deserve the respect of the city and answers for an unwarranted demolition. For more information and ways you can assist, please contact: elliottjliu [at] gmail.

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.