Space. Food.

Here on planet Earth, it was another bountiful day. On billions of acres of farm and forest, trillions of plants went about their humble business of turning sunlight into food, and food into….more food. Taproots stretched in earthy soil, stalks sprouted determined from the ground, leaves broadened, fruits swelled. Billions of times. On planet Earth. Today.

Not so on the red planet. On the surface of Mars — well, I won’t pretend to be an expert here but — we can safely imagine that gases swirled and time sprawled out immemorial. As far as we know, not a single ray of sunlight was turned into chlorophyll and not a single drop of chlorophyll was turned into roots, stalks, leaves, or fruits. Not a single cow grazed and not a single chicken hatched.

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Not a problem, you might say, because lucky for us it was another bountiful day on planet Earth. Chances are good that the startling lack of food on our great neighbor planet didn’t even cross your mind today. Unless, of course, you are one of the fortunate few planning the first manned mission to Mars. Then, you have probably been thinking about it a lot.

Today researchers ended a mock space mission, in which they spent several months isolated in a space dome on the big island of Hawaii. Their goal: subsist on freeze-dried, pre-packaged, and shelf-stable for 118 days, creating recipes, tracking moods, and monitoring health status. Because somehow, with all we know, we don’t know what happens to us when we go months without fresh food, let alone years. We’ve never had to know.

Explorers of the New Age will not be able to set forth with a pocket full of seeds or a hunting spear, like those past. They will need to gather their ingenuity, spices, and Spam if they hope to survive. For the first time, we need to figure out what will happen to those who leave Earth’s bounty in the rearview mirror. What an exciting and terrifying proposition.

You can read more at: http://news.discovery.com/space/mars-food-scientists-end-mock-space-mission-130814.htm or by using the incredible powers of Google.

Polenta with Mushrooms & Onions

Also known as divine polenta. Also known as holy crap, could this really, possibly be so good polenta. This is one of those meals that seems like magic — a potion concocted in the stainless steel cauldron perched over the flame of my stove. And like most good food potions, it begins with a magical combination: butter and onions.

Once upon a time, when I cooked for the Redhouse Cafe, I developed a sort of morning ritual. Arriving before the cafe and theater were showing any signs of life, I’d move seamlessly through the quiet and empty space. After flicking on lights and unlocking doors, I headed straight for the cutting board, dicing the onions which inevitably formed the base of our every homemade soup. And when I sauteed those onions in butter, people would gravitate toward the kitchen as they streamed in, as though pulled by a magnet; remarking every time, “What is that delicious smell?!” Onions and butter. They are magic.

And so it’s not surprising that they are the base of divine polenta. Here is exactly what you need for two bowls of deliciousness:

1/2 white onion
1 pat butter
1/2c coarse ground polenta
2 cups liquid (use any combo of milk, water, or broth to suit your tastes)
{I used 1/3c half-n-half and the rest water}
1 large portabella, sliced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 splash balsamic vinegar

That is it! Magic. Here’s how to concoct your potion, err, meal:

Boil the liquids in a small saucepan and then add the polenta, whisking as you do. Add one clove of minced garlic (essential!). The polenta will need to cook at a low simmer for the next 30 minutes or so. Whisk it every few minutes to keep lumps from forming. You don’t need to dote but you do need to linger.

While your polenta cooks, start your onions — slice ’em in skinny half moons and add to a pan with melted butter. Cover and let them cook, low and slow, for awhile, stirring occasionally to keep them from sticking. Once they start to caramelize, they’ll be the best stuff on Earth. When they’re almost done, push them to the side and saute your mushroom slices. At the last minute, deglaze the pan with a splash of balsamic vinegar.

Pour your creamy polenta in a bowl, top with mushrooms and onions, add a dash of thyme, and enjoy. Divine!

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Growing the Urban Harvest

Urban agriculture is without a doubt an expanding phenomenon, or you might even say (pardon the pun) — a growing field. While the abundance of available land in post-industrial cities is great so to are the barriers to an urban harvest. Issues such as lead contamination and mitigation, property rights, and garden ownership can limit the harvests of projects with grand ambitions.

Luckily, the quantity of food produced is one of many benefits of community gardening, seen in tandem with community building and neighborhood beautification. It is perhaps, however, the defining aspect of urban agriculture. As urban projects scale up from garden to farm, production becomes increasingly important. A recent BBC article asks the question, Can City Farms Feed a Hungry World?. Citing vertical farming and hydroponic innovations, the article concludes optimistically that, “Urban agriculture has the potential to become so pervasive within our cities that by the year 2050 they may be able to provide its citizens with up to 50% of the food they consume.”

No one knows what the future will hold, but another recent, well-written article in Next City also caught my eye. Beyond Adorable, Creating An Urban Ag System Smart Enough to Matter does a great job of bridging potential and reality in it’s assessment of Cleveland’s urban agriculture system. The learning curve is steep but little by little we are learning to grow food in our human-made ecosystems.

A view of the Ohio City Farm. Credit: MMW Horticulture Group.

Big-Business Organic: At Grocery Stores Everywhere

Phillip Howard, a professor and food systems researcher at Michigan State University, is creating information graphics that illustrate some of the complexities of our food system. For example, who really owns all those organic brands we’re picking up at the grocery store:

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For a closer look: https://www.msu.edu/~howardp/organicindustryzoom.html

Whether or not the explosive growth of mainstream organics is a good thing is a matter that could, and should, be the subject of much debate. Looking at this graphic raises so many questions, not the least of which is: Why is Pepsi this country’s #1 food producer?To me, this exemplifies the beauty of infographics — with all the information laid out so clearly in front of us, we can put the speculations and assumptions aside, and let the real conversation begin.

To see more of Professor Howard’s work, check out his website at: https://www.msu.edu/~howardp/index.html

Strawberry Fields Forever

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Looking out over the 8×10′ plot of strawberry plants in my backyard, I can only imagine John Lennon was inspired by this very scene. Alright, alright — that’s how it feels, at least. For every square inch of space, there seem to be three ripe strawberries, begging to be plucked from the stem; the rows having long since blurred into one giant tangle of plants. It is my first day in Bloomington, IN, my new home for the next few years, and these berries have got to be a good omen. My house has no furniture, I have no job, and I know not a soul, but there is a bounty of strawberries commanding my attention.

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(Lest you know me, and love me, and are worried that my only friends are strawberries — rest assured, I now know at least 12 souls in Bloomington.)

Over several days, I harvest what I can, maybe 4 or 5 quarts, stashing them in the fridge for grazing, and browse recipes to transform their already perfect flavor. Fruit leather, I think. But, do you know how expensive parchment paper seems when you’re un-gainfully unemployed? $4 for something from the grocery store I can’t eat or imbibe? Maybe next year. Strawberry pie, I think, but the thought of trying to craft the perfect homemade crust right now makes it just unappealing enough. Finally, I settle on strawberry cobbler — berries tossed in sweetened cream with drops of biscuit dough baked on top. And? It is so good, like all the pieces of a strawberry shortcake baked into one delicious dish. Somehow totally worth the kitchen catastrophes it precipitated…

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It’s the day after making this fantastic cobbler and I am writing from the midst of its aftermath. There’s the blister burn on my right arm, the fan pointed conspicuously toward the fire alarm, and the bubbles of black sugar carbon dotting the bottom of the stove. Let’s just say I was not prepared to make a cobbler, I didn’t know. I just wandered in, tempted by the promise of deliciousness So, in case you are want to do the same, STOP, right now.

Before you chop a single berry, cut a single cube of butter, before you turn the dial on the oven, get yourself some tinfoil, or a baking sheet, or best yet, a baking sheet lined with tinfoil and place it on a rack below the place where you plan to nestle your cobbler for baking. Because, there is a very good chance that the carefully crafted filling in this dish will boil over during baking, like sugary lava in a home chemistry experiment. Turns out this is a common cobbler phenomenon. But, somehow, it’s totally worth it.

Strawberry Cobbler
Recipe from: Drick’s Rambling Cafe

For the crust
1 3/4 cup all purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon baking powder
2 tablespoons sugar
6 tablespoons cold butter
3/4 cup milk (I used a little less, add slowly until you have the right consistency)

For the filling
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup cream (I used half-n-half, which may have made a thinner filling but was still great)
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 quarts fresh strawberries, stemmed and cut in half

For the topping
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons butter

Make the crust by combining the dry ingredients in a 2-quart mixing bowl. Using a pastry blender (or your fingers if short on kitchen utensils!), cut the cold butter into the mixture until it has the consistency of coarse meal. Add milk and gently knead just until a ball forms. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

In a 2-quart mixing bowl, combine sugar, flour, and salt for filling. Slowly whisk in cream, lemon juice and stir in the strawberries.

Place fruit in 9 x 13 inch glass baking dish. Bake for 15 minutes, or until fruit is bubbly. Stir mixture in the dish. (Mixture will look very soupy. Dont panic, don’t lose faith. It’ll all come together).

Pinch dough into quarter inch disks about the size of half dollars and place on top of berry mixture covering almost the entire surface. Dot with butter. Sprinkle with brown sugar.

Return to oven and bake until golden brown, about 30 minutes.

Paradise & the places that scare you

Travel is scary, dredging up from deep within us an exhilarating fear. Fear of the unknown, the unexplored, the not-yet- understood. And that is precisely what makes it so enticing. Terri de Roche, the force behind the Fearful Adventurer, just came out with a new book and to celebrate it she is challenging her readers to write a blog post about their own fearful adventures. Here’s but one of mine:

I am on a nearly deserted island in southern Thailand. I am standing at the edge of a mangrove forest and I am terrified. Twenty yards up the sandbar I can easily spot our beached kayaks and twenty yards ahead I can see the waiting posture of my friend and guide, who has ducked seamlessly into the wall of mangrove skirting the island. My fear fills the chasm between us, a short section of deep ocean which taunts me. My breath shortens, its return to a natural rhythm in no way aided by the snorkel valve snugly flanking my face. The waves have picked up unexpectedly and they break at the tree line. “Maybe I’ll stay here”, I shout, almost succumbing to my senseless phobia. But Tom can’t hear me. He waits.

By all accounts, this is paradise. And the opportunity to snorkel through a mangrove forest? Something I have only imagined might someday come true. Here it is — and I want to turn around, because of an irrational fear of deep water. This moment becomes one like so many others I encounter while traveling. My hand is forced and I have to face my fears head on. Conquering those fears of all shapes and sizes, and proving triumphant, is a rush that drives me on, seeking the next and the next.

African savannah? Check. Western highlands of Guatemala? Check. Learning to navigate in places where language proves impossible? Check. Learning that foreign countries are generally not the harbors of crime and fear they are portrayed as in America? Check.

Somehow, I can’t seem to stay out of the places that scare me. I don’t know what the next fear I set out to conquer will be, but I’m sure it won’t be long before it makes itself known. And if history is an indicator, it will hopefully be in paradise.


Love with a Chance of Drowning – A Memoir by Torre DeRocheThis post is part of the My Fearful Adventure series, which is celebrating the launch of Torre DeRoche’s debut book Love with a Chance of Drowning, a true adventure story about one girl’s leap into the deep end of her fears.

"Wow, what a book. Exciting. Dramatic. Honest. Torre DeRoche is an author to follow." Australian Associated Press

"… a story about conquering the fears that keep you from living your dreams." Nomadicmatt.com

"In her debut, DeRoche has penned such a beautiful, thrilling story you’ll have to remind yourself it’s not fiction." Courier Mail

Find out more…


Khao Soi: Thai Curry Noodle Soup

I’m going to go out on a limb and say there is little else as comforting as curry: its warmth, its spice: sometimes subtle and sometimes a four-star alarm for your taste buds, and its offering of creamy, coconut milk-induced bliss. There are a few other foods that rival curry for comfort and one of them is surely soup, so indelibly ingrained in the memories of people accustomed to long, cold winters.

I discovered Khao Soi, a curry noodle soup endemic to northern Thailand, and it made an imprint on my palate that wasn’t quick to fade. When people inevitably ask me about the best food I tried in South East Asia, I don’t even hesitate before recalling the harmonious combination of flavors in this Burmese-inspired dish. Sometimes, I tell them about it before they even ask. ‘Hey. Do you know what’s delicious?’

Khao Soi, completed

Last week, my dad celebrated his 51st birthday and I recognized an opportunity to try my hand at making my new favorite food. After gifts, before cake, we could celebrate with bowls of Khao Soi. As I browsed the aisles of the Vien Dong neighborhood market for fresh ginger and chinese egg noodles, as I blended chili peppers and shallots to a smooth paste, as I shredded chicken that had simmered in coconut milk broth, it crossed my mind that maybe my people would hate it. After all, it isn’t exactly in their culinary wheelhouse, which would usually include the requisite birthday steak dinner. But I didn’t have a plan B, so it was Khao Soi or nothing…

People tentatively ladled polite no thank you portions into their bowls, before sitting down around a communal plate piled high with fresh cilantro, thin slices of red onion, and lime wedges. I sipped by broth, held my breath, and waited. And then, the exclamations started, the squeezes of lime, drizzles of hot sauce, and the trips to the kitchen for seconds and thirds.

Now all week, no joke, I’ve been fielding calls and text messages asking for more. I’ve ferried containers laden with leftover Khao Soi across town and now it’s gone, but its imprint remains.

Try Khao Soi. You will not regret it, guaranteed.

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KHAO SOI
Recipe adapted from Bon Appetit

CURRY PASTE:

  • 4 large dried chiles, try a variety with medium heat
  • 2 medium shallots
  • 8 garlic cloves
  • 1 2-inch piece of ginger
  • 1/4 cup chopped cilantro stems
  • 1 tablespoon ground coriander
  • 1 teaspoon tumeric (I reduced this from 1 tablespoon)
  • 1 teaspoon curry powder

Place chiles in a small heatproof bowl, add boiling water to cover, and let soak until softened, 25-30 minutes. Drain chiles, reserving soaking liquid. Puree chiles and all other curry paste ingredients, with 2 tablespoons soaking liquid in a food processor, adding more soaking liquid by tablespoonfuls, if needed, until smooth.

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SOUP:

  • Hefty splash of vegetable oil
  • 2 14-ounce cans unsweetened coconut milk
  • 3 cups chicken broth (upped from 2 cups, still a very rich broth)
  • 1.5 pounds skinless, boneless chicken thighs, halved lengthwise
    (Great because they’re less expensive, especially when buying organic)
  • 1 pound Chinese egg noodles
  • 3 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 1 tablespoon sugar, preferably palm or light brown
  • Salt, to taste, of course
  • Sliced red onion, bean sprouts, cilantro sprigs, crispy fried onions or shallots, chili oil, and lime wedges (for serving)

PREPARATION

  • Heat oil in a large, heavy pot over medium heat. Add khao soi paste; cook, stirring constantly, until slightly darkened, 4-6 minutes. Add coconut milk and broth. Bring to a boil; add chicken. Reduce heat and simmer until chicken is fork-tender, 20-25 minutes. Transfer chicken to a plate. Let cool slightly; shred meat.
  • Meanwhile, cook noodles according to package directions.
  • Add chicken, 3 tablespoons fish sauce, and sugar to soup. Season with salt or more fish sauce, if needed. Divide soup and noodles among bowls and serve with toppings.

Bugs: They’re What’s for Dinner

Silk worms. Cicadas. Scorpions.

All of these and more were on the menu in Thailand, served up street-side, freshly fried and garnished with the ever ubiquitous chili sauce.

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In Laos, people harvest nutritious ant eggs to supplement a diet often wanting for protein. In Tanzania, during that brief window before the wet season, when termites alight from their mounds searching for mates, they provide an abundant, if fleeting, food source. There is no doubt that people have, and still do, tap into the nutritious potential of insect protein.

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And the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization would like to see more of it. A recently published report by the FAO, Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Food Security, begins:

It is widely accepted that by 2050 the world will host 9 billion people. To accomodate this
number, current food production will need to almost double. Land is scarce and expanding
the area devoted to farming is rarely a viable or sustainable option. Oceans are overfished
and climate change and related water shortages could have profound implications for
food production.

When put that way, the conclusion seems so obvious. If not from the land, and not from the ocean, well, then  from the sky. While citing many benefits, the report also identifies a major barrier to adoption of broader scale insect consumption: western attitudes toward the practice.

So, maybe we can all do our part for sustainability: with a net, a fryer, and a little daring. Maybe we’ll have to.

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The Long Road Home

Like so many others, begins with a single step. A single, sandy step.

The azure waters hugging Ko Tao lie behind me now; longtail boats with red umbrellas float lazily in the shallows at my back. Tiny grains of sand are crushed against my skin, woven inextricably in my hair. Twelve thousand miles and six days from home, I begin the sweeping arc of return.

The first stretch is made on foot, pack laden on my back — by now a weight of second nature. For the rest, we will rely on unseen, pre-carved pathways. Taxis and boats, buses and planes: an almost impossible testament to our global connection. And ingenuity.

Day 1, 3:00 pm: Endless Ocean

Leaning against the outside wall of Raung Rang IX’s VIP cabin, my legs dangle over the endless sea. Water stretches to the edges of a clearly flat Earth, where it tumbles over the edge in a horizon-wide cascade. Occasionally a silver fish leaps from the frothy waters of our wake and once a flock of diving birds appears at our flank, diving for dinner. But mostly, it is just us. Us and water and sky. It is a moment I could rest in for a long time.

Day 2, 3:37 am: Cities Never Sleep

“Last stop, Bangkok,” our driver announces to the crowded bus, before disappearing outside to unload luggage on a dark and mostly deserted sidewalk. 3:37 am and we are tumbled unceremoniously onto an anonymous roadside, still rubbing the sleep from our eyes. Lucky for us, Khoa San Road is gracefully nearby and it never sleeps. At 3:30 in the morning, it’s just starting to look a little worse for the wear. Drunk tourists and their conquests stumble toward hotel rooms — and we do the same, hoping to find one willing to let us check in at 4:00 am. Miracle of miracles, we do, after an hour of wandering and looking and waiting. Twenty four final hours to party like it’s… Bangkok.

Day 4, 1:15 pm: Sightseeing in Santa Monica

The sands of Santa Monica beckon our travel-weary bones, providing promised solace from the airports and climate-controlled cabins of our many days. When we touch down at LAX, I am still in travel mode — finding first a map, then the $1 bus route to the coast, and we are on our way. The sun is lightly toasting the earth and air of southern CA, nothing like the ardent boil of South East Asia. People pock the long beach next to the Santa Monica pier with picnics and sand pails — or like us, with nothing at all. We lay fully-clothed and face-down in the sand, crashing into a grateful beach-side sleep.

Our days of movement are filled with moments like these, an ever-changing set of circumstances drawing us closer to home. And then, finally and suddenly, there it is.

Day 6, 7:48 pm: There’s No Place Like Home

The Greyhound pulls into Syracuse as the sun is setting over Onondaga Lake and Alliance Bank stadium — so casually familiar. I stoop to pull Lug Bug from the side of the bus and throw it over my back. I walk outside and scan the sidewalk for a place to wait. Then a familiar shout and there they are: the people who will always be waiting, who I will always wait for – to embrace upon return. I could have traveled for weeks or months, or clicked my heels three times, there is no mistaking where I’ve ended up.

And one for Singapore

As far as I can tell, Singapore seems fabled in the American lexicon for one thing, and one thing only: illegal chewing gum. I remember so clearly learning about this in elementary school and thinking, among a few other places, that this was about as far outside my world as I could imagine. A place where the government decides everything, even the availability of chewing gum! In Singapore, I thought, everything must be so clean, so precise.

And so, I stepped off the plane from Hanoi into what is routinely voted the world’s best airport and had a look for myself. First stop customs: on the counter was one basket of candies, for while you wait of course, and a tiny receptacle, for ‘candy wrappers only’. Where was I? The bathrooms had touch screens with surveys for you to rate your experience. Walking to the ground floor, we hopped on the spotless MRT subway system, and with the help of our free city map, easily found our stop three lines over. Then it was onto the street, where there was not a single piece of litter and everyone used the crosswalk. And so it was, the fabled land.

As one of the richest nations in the world, the city-state-country of Singapore rests far outside our meager traveler’s budget, making it a place that had to be seen but not one for lingering. Two nights and a day for Singapore. True to character, we spent most of our time at the city’s free, sprawling botanical gardens.

We just hopped off the MRT at the stop labeled Botanic Garden and turned right into a stunning expanse of greenery; every part of this sentence unimaginable in our last six weeks of travel. With flashy tourist attractions like the island-dwelling Universal Studios, the “world’s first angry birds cable car experience”, and many other self-proclaimed biggest and brightest and firsts, it would be easy (and confusing) to blow a week’s Malaysian travel budget on a single day in Singapore. Luckily, we are suckers for flora; wandering instead for hours in a lush urban landscape.

Throw in lunch in Little India, dinner at the People’s Park Complex of Chinatown (great for a $3 backpacker’s feast), and an unexpected visit to an MRT-attached shopping mall which boasted $15,000 furniture and $200 steak dinners for two, and we found our way through one day in Singapore:

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