Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Make Them Eat (hormone-added) Meat

Food Is the New Bully Pulpit

This year’s food news sounds like a lot of rejected pilots for new television shows. First there are some sitcoms:

~ Star Industries of New York goes into the kosher tequila business, producing a half million cases on their first run.

~ Fifth Third Ballpark, home of the West MichiganWhitecaps, decides the timing is right to begin serving 4,800-calorie burgers. Pizza cutters are given to those who want to share.

~Gau jal, a new commercial drink based on cow urine, goes to market in India. It’s a big hit.

~The Environmental Protection Agency puts forth a plan to tax farmers and ranchers for their cows and pigs’ farts and belches. The Food & Drug Administration objects starting a turf war.

Then there are new Sci-Fi shows: ~Mexican scientists find that the heated vapor from 80-proof tequila blanco, when deposited on a silicon or stainless steel substrate, can form diamond films.

~Storchen restaurant in the exclusive Winterthur resort of Switzerland begins serving dishes made with human mother's milk.

~The Fat Duck, Heston Blumenthal’s three star restaurant in England, closes after 40 people reported flu-like symptoms after dining there. After the word reaches the media - another 400 people claim to have also been struck ill after eating there.

We also have potential 60 Minutes segments:

~93 year old Clara Cannuciari becomes an internet sensation with her You Tube cooking show, Great Depression Cooking. Canned peas with pasta, anyone?

~A Lebanese restaurant worker finds 26 perfect pearls in an oyster she is preparing for the table.

~ University of Iowa scientists link the deadly MRSA bacteria to hog lot confinements. Should you worry?

Next there’s a potential Bill Moyers script about injustice.

~Angry dairy farmers march on the Iowa capitol to dramatize the fastest drop in milk prices since the Great Depression.

And finally there are a couple 20/20 exposés on political correctness run amok:

~Scientists at Queens University in Northern Ireland determine that crabs recall the effects of electric shock and conclude that the seafood industry needs to protect all crustaceans from pain.

~ After successfully waging war against trans fats and cigarettes, New York City began pressuring food companies to remove sodium from their products. One can almost hear John Stossel asking “What’s next?”
Just when it didn’t seem possible that the food news could get weirder, two presidential administrations teamed up to produce a pilot for one of those old Peter Sellers comedies about the politics of absurdity. On their way out the White House door, Bush Administration trade representatives announced new tariffs on European foods like Roquefort cheese, bone-in ham, beef sausage and San Pellegrino water. With the World Trade Organization’s blessing, their stated purpose was to bully the European Union (EU) into legalizing beef that has been given hormones for growth purposes. The EU banned raising and importing such beef in 1998 and added a ban on livestock given antibiotics for growth purposes in 2006.

Most non bureaucrats in America can understand why. Way back in 1993, E coli O157:H7 became famous serial killer of people who ate fast food hamburgers. Such antibiotic-resistant bacteria were not a human medical problem before modern feed lots changed the American beef industry in the 1980’s. Today’s corn-heavy feedlot diets have shortened the average life of a steer from 5 years to 15 months, while adding body fat to its carcass. Grass, the preferred diet of cows that Europeans and South Americans prefer to eat, can’t take a baby calf from 80 to 1,200 pounds in a year and a quarter. For that matter, corn can’t do the job alone either - it also needs protein supplements, antibiotics and growth hormones. However, feed lot diets create so much acid in a cow’s stomach that some bacteria become resistant to the human stomach acids that used to kill them. Food chain bacteria have also become resistant to antibiotics.

In 2003, McDonald's Corporation announced it would only buy chicken from producers who do not use antibiotics for routine disease prevention. More recently four of the nation’s top ten chicken producers announced they have stopped using antibiotics for growth promotion. Most of the food media thought that the world’s opinion about hormones and antibiotics would sway the Obama Administration to rescind the bullying tariffs.

But these are strange times. Instead, the tariffs were pushed forward, giving the Europeans only an extra month to think it about it. Rather than back down, Europe fought back. Germany banned the cultivation of genetically modified corn, claiming that one Monsanto seed is dangerous for the environment. The EU also released a series of studies they say prove the American growth hormones in beef cause cancer. Now we have a full fledged trade war because our leaders think they can force the EU to accept foods they refuse to eat.

This is an extension of an age old dynamic. Before the 20th century, all politics were said to be a conjugation of the verb “to eat.” Countries went to war, if necessary, either because they wanted to eat someone else’s food or they wanted to force someone else to eat their foods at a set price. Today’s trade war takes that to a second degree - the US wants to make the Europeans eat meat that ate something they don’t want their meat to eat.

Tell me that doesn’t sound like a Peter Sellers script.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Roots of Stimulation

Radishes Gratify the Senses

Each year now, when radish greens pop through the late-March snow, I remember these once curious words of my Irish grandmother.

“Give a child a puppy and he will love animals. Give him radish seeds to plant and he will love farming.”

Her earthy wisdom was long lost on a city kid but, as Grandma used to say, revelations are never untimely. Decades later I would finally understand - radishes teach the most basic lesson of husbandry with the closest thing that exists in agriculture to immediate gratification. They are to gardening as “1 plus 1 equals 2” is to math and the word “mama” is to language - the happiest short cut to understanding a complex system.

You Can't Mess Them Up

“What’s there to know? You can’t mess up radishes,” replied master gardener Khanh Hamilton, when asked for tips about growing radishes.

“They grow so fast you don’t even need to worry about bugs. Just plant them in a row and watch them grow. In three or four weeks you have food, ” she explained. Hamilton grows some of the most complex and beautiful radishes on her Dallas County Sunstead Farm. She supplies some of the best chefs in Central Iowa too. Yet, she says radishes are so simple to grow that most children can do it.

In Iowa, radishes are usually the first garden crop of Spring, or even late winter. They were probably the first crop that Columbus and his followers transplanted from Europe to the Americas. Though radishes were barely known in England before the middle of the 16th century, they became one of the very first crops that English colonists brought to North America.

While many Americans take them for granted today, they have been revered in other cultures.

~Radishes were so highly valued by the ancient Greeks that small replicas were made in gold whereas beets were shown in silver and turnips in lead.

~Nearly a third of the tonnage of vegetables grown in Japan is the radish daikon.

~Apothecaries in China, where most botanists believe radishes originated, use different parts of different radishes as medicines.

~A German botanist in 1544 reported a miraculous radish weighing a hundred pounds.

Some historians believe radishes were the missing link in the development of civilization. In “Food in History” Reay Tannahill writes that around 10,000 B.C. woman (as opposed to man, who was too busy hunting) discovered that radishes and turnips could be preserved better if stored in surroundings similar to where they had been gathered. So they began re-burying their roots. That led to the discovery that transplanted root vegetables would multiply into clusters, which led directly to the knowledge that new plants sprout from old seeds. That discovery created agriculture, permanent settlements and cities.

Scientifically the radish is a swollen hypocotyls and only partially a root. Its coloring comes from anthocyanin, which is related to tannins and has no function other than to give color. Radishes are divided into Spring and Winter types. Spring radishes are smaller, grow faster and are preferred in America. Winter radishes have longer growing seasons, larger and more elongated roots and are preferred in Asia. Europeans like both kinds.

Spring radishes are mostly eaten raw with butter and salt, or with vinegar and oil in salads. In China, Korea and Japan, most of the winter radish crop is pickled in brine, much like Americans pickle cucumbers. They are pickled whole in large tubs, with rice hulls added to the brine. The pickled product assumes a rather attractive yellow color but an acquired aroma. Salty and sprightly in flavor, pickled radish is a staple of the North Asian diet. There are also many esoteric uses for this versatile winter plant. In China, one kind is grown for the oil in its seeds. In India the rat-tailed radish is grown for its fleshy, edible seed pods. In Egypt and the Middle East another form is grown only for its greens. While there is probably nothing unwholesome about American radish greens, they are far less palatable than the leaves of turnips, beets and members of the cabbage clan.

Radishes are usually either round or elongated though some olive shaped radishes can also be found. Round radishes range in size from that of a marble to that of a basketball. Long ones range from the length of a finger to that of a forearm. All radishes, but particularly Spring radishes, are best known for their snappy bite. Most of the enzyme- creating heat comes from its skin, which reacts with another substance to form mustard oil. Hamilton says the bite of this mustard oil increases dramatically in hot weather. The same plant will produce a much hotter radish when it’s 90 degrees than when it’s 60. Of course, peeling reduces that tremendously.

Some flavor aesthetes believe that same enzyme stimulates dormant taste buds on the tongue, thus making other foods taste better. To test that theory, I asked five people to judge iced teas. Between the first and second taste test, they were told to cleanse their palettes with crackers; between the second the third test, with sliced radishes. In actuality, they were given the exact same tea three times in a row. Yet four out of the five rated the third one as either “superior,” or “vastly superior” to the others.

Growing Tips

Soil Preparation and Fertilizing

Radishes need loose, well-drained soil so their roots can expand. Crusty soil causes misshapen roots, so be sure to remove rocks, trash and sticks from the planting bed. Spade the soil 8 to 12 inches deep, turning each shovel over completely. Some experts suggest you scatter 1 cup fertilizer such as 10-20-10 on the soil for each 1feet of row to be planted. Rake the soil until smooth and work up beds.


Plant as soon as the soil can be worked.

Make a furrow half an inch deep down the center of a ridge. Plant seeds half an inch deep and 1 inch apart in rows. Cover lightly with loose soil and sprinkle with water. Plants should be up in 4 to 6 days.

Begin thinning radishes when roots start expanding. Pull every other plant. Larger ones can be eaten. Those left in the row will get larger without being crowded.
For a steady supply, plant 8 to 10 days apart. Most will be ready for harvest 4 to 5 weeks from planting. Keep radishes free of weeds. Scratch the soil around the plants lightly to keep the soil from crusting. If it does not rain, water heavily once a week.

Since radishes mature so quickly, bugs and diseases usually are not a problem. After the radishes start going to seed, pull and place them in a compost pile if the soil is to be replanted soon. If the soil is to be left idle, old radishes and tops can be spaded into the soil.


Pull radishes when they are young and tender. If left in the ground too long, they get tough, hot tasting and stringy. Cut off the tops and small roots for compost.
Radishes will keep 2 to 3 weeks in the refrigerator.



Red Globe, Cherry Belle -- The most popular and commonly found radishes in America. They mature in as little as three weeks.

Easter egg - Varies in color from a light shade of pink to dark crimson red, and provides a milder flavor.

French Breakfast or Flambo- Has an elongated shape that can grow to some three inches in length, displaying a bright red outer skin, which turns white at the root base. It turns quite bitter in hot weather.

Rose Heart, Watermelon, Beauty Heart, China Rose, Shinrimei, Misato, Asian Red Meat, or Xin Li Mei - The intensity of these contrary radishes decreases as they mature. Generally, the flesh is hotter toward the outside and sweeter toward the center, with white outer skin at the top, green shoulders and a pink base that ranges from a bright red to magenta. Khanh Hamilton says melon types are just as good raw as cooked.

Icicle - Has the shape of winter radishes, which are more elongated due to later harvest.


Daikon, Mooli, Chinese white radish and Japanese radish - Long, white and carrot-shaped, with a milder taste than red radishes. Daikon can be cooked for a long time without losing its flavor and texture. It can be sliced or grated for use in salads or with sushi. It is most popular pickled.

Long Black Spanish, Neckarruhn’s (White of Red), Szechuan Red, Hild’s Blue or Nero Tondo - Other than the dazzling colors, these all look like carrots. Glorious outside pigments cover white inner flesh providing horseradish flavors. With skin removed, these can be sautéed, braised or added to stir fry dishes.

Round Black Spanish or Nero Tondos - Other than shape, these are like long black Spanish. Jill Beebout, who grows organically in Columbia, Iowa, says they perform better in hot weather than other blacks because they resist bolting.
White Strasbourg - Black skin and snow white flesh. Famously served on the German-France border with boiled beef.


Beaseley's Radish Salad

Now Chef at Harrah's in Kansas City, Rob Beasley owned several Iowa restaurants in which he used as much fresh and local produce as anyone in Central Iowa. Rob serves this salad with as many exotic radish varieties as local farmers can provide. He recommends it as a side for fish dishes.

2 cups assorted radishes
1 cup arugula (rough chop)
Half cup Niman Ranch bacon (lardons)
Quarter cup roasted garlic oil
One teaspoon kosher salt
One teaspoon fresh ground pepper

Quarter half of the radishes, cut the other half thickly.
Toss all ingredients

The Tomato Art

Harvesting Sunlight
by Jim Duncan with art by Bill Luchsinger & Karen Strohbeen, courtesy of Moberg Gallery

“Food is normally the last thing on my mind after working all day in the kitchen,” says Le Jardin chef Tag Grandgeorge, “but I can’t think of anything better than walking around a farmers market stand and popping one of those green zebras in my mouth,” he continued, regarding a particularly sweet striped tomato.

Grandgeorge has thought hard on the subject, too. Each August he prepares a five course dinner featuring Khanh Hamiltons’ heirloom tomatoes in every course. Among the delicacies in years past: a warm white balsamic tomato vinaigrette on white fish; a black pepper ice cream with caramelized tomato slices and basil syrup; a green tomato and raspberry cobbler, with a coulis of Sweet 100 tomatoes.

Such culinary works of art inspire literal works of art too. At least three Iowa artists, Bill Luchsinger, Karen Strohbeen and Heyoung McBride, have used the Hamiltons’ heirlooms as models. Science can explain the fascination for artists.
Different carotenoids give such fruits their red, yellow and orange colors. In photosynthesis, they trap certain waves of sunlight and funnel their energy into the chlorophyll system. In this sense, different colored tomatoes are packed with different waves of sunlight. Artists can’t look directly at the sun but tomatoes can and artists can look inside tomatoes.
“They’re translucent, not just reflected light. They reflect and glow. They have that magic at the surface,” Luchsinger explains more artistically.

“Like a jewel,” adds Strohbeen.

We call them heirlooms for good reason. The Hamilton’s garden, Sunstead Farm, is a veritable jewelry store, showcasing the fruits of seeds from every continent on earth, sometimes within just one vegetable species. It’s a labor of love for the Hamiltons who came together themselves like windblown seeds . Khanh was displaced from the tea and coffee plantation of her youth by the Vietnamese Diaspora. She lived all over the world before circumstances brought her to Des Moines, and Neil kept her here. Neil left the family farm in Taylor County decades ago, but part of Taylor County stayed with him.

When first married, the Hamilton’s lived in a townhouse in Des Moines where Neil directs Drake’s Agriculture Law Center. While living in the city, they gardened on some friends’ farms. Then in 1997, they bought Sunstead’s ten acres near Waukee and began growing heirloom vegetables. At first they sold them to Des Moines area restaurants Café Su and the Des Moines Art Center Café. When they began selling at the Ingersoll Farmers’ market in 2001, the quality and the colors of their heirlooms attracted more professional chefs around Des Moines. So what keeps a couple of busy professionals, Khanh is also a designer, working the land and hawking their harvest on the urban roadside? Neil says they are in it for the colors.

“With tomatoes, the range of colors is the reason for working with heirlooms, same as with eggplants and beets. The full array of color is exciting and people respond to that,” he explains.

Khanh responds to the way heirloom beets (chioggia, golden, bull’s blood), eggplants and tomatoes are constant and grounded. “Their colors stay. Purple beans turn green when you cook them, so what’s the point? With these heirlooms, the colors stay.”

The Ironic History of the Love Apple

The great variety of the Hamilton’s heirloom tomatoes survived a history of misunderstanding. Ben Franklin didn’t think tomatoes were safe to eat, while less open-minded Colonial Americans thought they were poisonous, and even evil. The tomato did not become a popular food in Northern Europe, England or Anglo-Saxon America until the 20th century.

Coincidentally or not, this is also when tomato ketchup and tomato soup in tin cans and caught on in England and America. In appreciation of the tomato, northern Europe and North America were centuries behind Spain and Italy, and millennia behind Central and South America.

The tomato developed first in Mexico as a corn field weed, but was soon cultivated as a food. By 3500 BC, it was part of the native diet and by the time Cortez came to Mexico, the Aztecs were using tomatoes at all stages of growth. Immature fruits were sliced into salads and ripe plants were cooked with chilies into sauce for beans.

We stereotype the ripe tomato as red and round today, but the varieties that first came to Europe were surely yellow or orange, for they were called “golden apples” (pomodoro). The French name “love apple” (pomme d’amour) was either a corruption of that Spanish word, or of the Italian pomme di moro (“apple of the Moor“).

The Spanish, better informed about tomato sources, began calling them tomate, after the Nuhuatl word tomatl. Even in the late 19th century, northern Europeans wrote that the tomato was totally without nutrition and a cause of gout.

Khanh’s Gardening Tips

Start your seeds in March. Bring them indoors and outdoors regularly in April, this keeps them from getting spindly. When you first put them out in May, set them under a cloth at night.

Deer eat tomatoes in the city, but not in the country where they can find better things. They will eat Swiss chard, beet greens and lettuce anywhere, so chicken wire might be the only way to keep them out. (Some other gardeners believe that a spray of egg whites and water will repel deer).

Beyond Big Boy

Red, round tomatoes are one of the great things about summer in Iowa, but there are splendid minorities in the myriad family of tomato. Here are a few splendid species that break through the red and round stereotype.


Basinga. Heart-shaped fruits have a mild flavor and red blush on blossom end.
Beam’s Year Pear. Prolific supplier of 1 ½ “ pear tomatoes is best for salads and can bear fruit as fast as 70 days from transplant.

Czech’s Excellent Yellow. One of the strongest flavored yellows, these 3 inch fruits grow quickly.

Dr. Wyche’s Yellow. Big full pound tomatoes have lots of meat and orange flesh.

Gold Medal. Yellow with red streaks, these sweet tomatoes are almost acid free.

Golden Sunray. These slow growing fruits are remarkably consistent in size and shape, and blemish free.

Marizol Gold. This heirloom came from Germany’s Black Forest in the 17th century and produces red marbled meat with flat ribs.

Moonglow. These solid orange sweethearts have very few seeds and deep flavor.
Nebraska Wedding. Beautiful orange skinned and fleshed fruits come in clusters and are very slow to mature.

Orange Banana. The name says it all, banana shaped and orange in color, these are best for sauces.

Plum Yellow. From Russia, these look extraordinarily like lemons, but taste sweet.

Roman Candles. These have very smooth skins and are banana shaped.

Russian Persimmon. Mild flavored fruits are 3-4”s in diameter.

Wapsipinicon Peach. These prolific, certified organic 2” fruits from northeast Iowa have fuzzy skin and sweet flavors.

White Beauties. Flat bottomed heirlooms have the most acidulous flavor of all yellows.

Green Flesh

Aunt Ruby’s German Green. Huge beefsteak fruits, over a pound each, are sweet with a spicy flavor.

Black Sea Man. Red centered fruits have odd veins resembling a skeleton.

Green Zebra. Sweet zingy flavored fruits have green and yellow stripes.

Tasty Evergreen. Skin ripens to yellow-brown, but flesh remains green, with strong, sweet flavor.


Black Krim. From the Black Sea, these greenish-black shouldered fruits can turn almost totally black with enough sun and heat.

Black from Tula. An ugly Russian that some gourmets think is the most delicious of all tomatoes.

Cherokee Purples. With the color of a dusty rose, these taste a bit smoky.

Crnkovic Yugoslavian Pink. Deep red and full shouldered, these prolific plants have full flavors.

Dad’s Mug. Mug shaped with pink fruits, these have few seeds and mild flavor.
Federle. These 7 inch long paste fruits resemble peppers in appearance, but have more full flavor than other banana shaped tomatoes.

Grandpa’s Cock’s Plume. Heart shaped fruits from Siberia have few seeds and weigh up to a pound.

Hillbilly Potato Leaf. A heavy bearing plant, these produce red fruits that are streaked with gold.

Long Tom’s. These fruits average 5 “ in length and 2 “ in diameter, with very few seeds and sweet flavors.

Red Cup. These hollow tomatoes are good for stuffing.

Russian Black. Baseball sized fruits have charcoal-red flesh and full flavor.

Soldacki. These came from Poland in 19th century and bear large dense fruits of pinkish red.

Striped Cavern. These hollow fruits have thick, yellow-striped walls and keep as long as a month even when harvested ripe.

Tiger Tom. Gold stripes and tart flavors make this tomato a frequent winner of taste tests.


Tag Grandgeorge’s Green Tomato Cobbler with vanilla ice cream

For the filling:

1 ½ lbs firm green tomatoes, cored and finely chopped
2 cups sugar
1 lemon scrubbed, sectioned into 8 pieces and seeded
For the topping:
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ cup sugar
½ teaspoon salt
¾ stick cold unsalted butter, cut into bits
And vanilla ice cream as accompaniment


Spread half of tomatoes in bottom of large saucepan and cover with 2/3 cup of sugar and lemon and another 2/3 cup sugar. Layer the rest of tomatoes on top and cover with sugar. Let stand without stirring until most of sugar has dissolved, about one hour.

In a mixing bowl combine the flour, ½ cup sugar, baking powder, and the salt. Blend in the butter until mixture resembles course meal. Add ¼ cup boiling water and stir mixture until it just forms a dough.

Preheat over to 400 degrees.

Stir tomatoes and bring to boil over moderately high heat. Reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally for 30 minutes. Fish out lemon wedges and discard.

Transfer mixture to a 10 inch cast-iron skillet, increase heat and slowly bring mixture back to boil. Drop spoonfuls of the dough carefully on the boiling mixture.

Random placement and overlap are acceptable but do not completely cover mixture. Transfer skillet on to foil lined baking sheet and bake in middle of oven for 20 to 25 minutes, until topping is golden. Cool slightly and serve warm with ice cream. Fresh rinsed white and red raspberries make a nice

Love Me Tendril

Chinese Lessons: You Might Be Throwing Away the Best Part of the Pea

Two years ago, while flying to Des Moines for a cooking show, San Francisco chef/author Shirley Fong-Torres carried a bag of snow pea tendrils on her lap. She never expected to find the Cantonese delicacy in Iowa markets, but soon discovered a choice of tendrils, most of which had been picked fresh within 24 hours, at the Des Moines Downtown Farmers’ Market.

That market is home now to about a dozen Asian vendors who have helped educate Des Moines about new foods like baby bok choy, Asian eggplants, broccoli rabe, bitter melon, yellow chives, long beans, coriander (cilantro), ginger, lemongrass and ginger’s powerful twin - galanga. They have also taught the rest of Iowa to use parts of plants that we used to throw away, like squash blossoms, pumpkin flowers and, especially, pea tendrils.

Xe and Her Vue have been bringing their Marion County produce to the downtown market since 1998. Xe explains why many Asians prefer vegetables that white Americans avoid, “The only raw vegetable we eat is baby romaine lettuce. We like most things better when cooked. Spinach, collards, mustard, pea leaves. These are our greens, ” she said.

Xe knows that most vegetables turn sweeter when cooked, and that minimal cooking brings out the most flavor. Before refrigeration, European immigrants to Iowa cooked vegetables for preservation, “cooking them to death” by today’s culinary standards. Stir frying, Xe’s method of choice, brings out more flavor.
Choua Yang of Des Moines grows snow pea tendrils, bitter melon, lemongrass and flower blossoms from pumpkins, zucchini and bok choy. She too says that pea tendrils should be quickly stir fried.

Fong-Torres put the Asian perspective in context. “Because of the population density in Asia, people there learned to use the entire plant. It just wasn’t economically feasible to throw edible food away. In the case of pea tendrils though, it’s hard to understand why anyone would ever throw them away, they taste so good.”

Though peas originated in the Near East and found there way to Europe some 8000 years ago, only the dried variety were popular in the western world through the Middle Ages. Dried peas were cultivated by the ancient Greeks and Romans as an important source of protein. When the Florentine queen of the Renaissance, Catherine dei Medici, took piselli novelli, the sweet green peas of Tuscany, to France, they caused a sensation and earned their most prestigious name petits pois. Both the wife of Louis XIV and the mistress of Louis XV wrote about their love this new food and Louis XIV commissioned the first royal greenhouse because he wanted peas in the winter.

Though the tendril came late to the western plate, compared to the rest of the pea, they have always been cherished in Asia. After coming to China in 100 B.C., peas quickly spread through south and east Asia, where young leaves, shoots, pods and peas were eaten much as they are today.

Ironically, the French name for snow peas is mange-tout, meaning “eat it all.” All, in this case, isn’t everything. The French until recently ate the soft, translucent pods and the tiny, almost unnoticeable sweet peas inside, but not the tendrils, the leaves and shoots of the young pea plant. Only in China have tendrils, sometimes wrongly called sprouts, been considered a delicacy. Fong-Torres says that in China they are mostly stir fried with garlic and chicken broth, but that they are also used as a garnish on soups, sandwiches and salads in Hong Kong.

They are just beginning to find popularity on American menus. The pretty green tendrils are a Springtime delicacy in Canton, and Iowa, as hot summer weather burns them out. Several Iowa gardeners plant a second crop in early Fall. Larry Cleverley, of Cleverley Farms in Mingo, says that he knows he will always have tendrils, which are best picked at just four inches, even if an early frost prevents him from harvesting Fall peas.

Called dau miu in Cantonese, tendrils are traditionally culled from immature snow peas, but delicious varieties may be cut from a variety of pea plants. All varieties are sweet, tender, and have a strong pea taste. You can cook them as you might any green -- very quickly in hot oil with, perhaps, salt, garlic, and a splash of sherry or rice wine; or steamed with garlic, vinegar and oil.

Growing Peas

Americans grow two basic types of pea today, the starchy smooth coated ones that give us split peas, and the wrinkly, sugary kind that we eat immature. The latter produce better tasting tendrils and both are good sources of thiamine, B6, magnesium, phosphorus, sulfur and protein. Both the snow pea and the sugar pea are now eaten, before they ripen, in their pods and they have extremely sweet tendrils.

Most gardeners plant them in a bed of manure, peat, compost and fertilizers. Better Homes and Garden’s “New Garden Book” advises laying chicken wire down the center of each double row, for trellising. In Iowa, it’s important to sow the seeds as soon as the ground can be worked, as hot weather comes to soon. The plant begins to produce peas quickly and in large quantity, about 55-70 days after sowing.

Plant every three inches on both sides of wire and place double rows 4 feet apart. Keep the peas moist, and weeded. Pick the tendrils as soon as they leaf out, four inches is prime. Pick the peas when they are still small and tender.


For tendrils, Larry Cleverley recommends a variety called Dwarf Grey Sugar. “I like them because they're short and don't require trellising and have a beautiful bi-color pink and lavender blossom. They need to be picked just as the blossom opens and the season is short here in Iowa. I think our mid-June heat makes them tough. We also plant a crop in late August for fall picking. Try them sauteed in sesame oil with a little garlic.”

A consensus of web site reviews praises two other varieties: Oregon sugar pod snow peas taste infinitely better fresh from the garden, than bought from a store, and produce an abundance of tasty pods which should be picked when flat, before the seed forms; Cascadia snap pea have edible pods that are best in stir-frys. They have a 3", deep green, thick, juicy pod. The 30" vines are self-supporting and, like the Oregon sugar pods, resist mildew and pea virus.

Cleverley advises pea gardeners that “Menards and other fencing/lumberyard stores sell fencing panels, 52" high & 16' long, for about $13.00. They're made for cattle fencing but work great for peas and climbing beans and squash. We use them for our tomatoes as well.”

A Brief History of Peas

Peas, native to the Near East, were probably cultivated for the first time about 8000 B.C..

Swiss cave dwellers made bread out of crushed peas and other grains around 6000 B.C..
People in the Indus Valley were growing peas in 4000 B.C..

The Han envoy Jang Qian returned from Bactria in 100 B.C. with peas, cucumbers, grape seeds walnuts and pomegranates, changing the Chinese diet forever.

When the Carolina colonies were founded in 1670, the daily ration per colonist was one pint of peas.

When Louis XIV of France commissioned the first royal gardens in 1677, the greenhouse was ordered to supply peas in winter.

In April of 1863, as his armies prepared to invade the Union, President Jefferson Davis asked the citizens of the Confederate States of America to plant peas instead of tobacco and cotton.

Campbell Soup company began in 1869 by canning peas and asparagus.

When the first successful pea podding machine was installed in an Oswego, NY cannery in 1883, 600 employees were laid off.

When Clarence Birdseye introduced frozen foods in 1930, his first two products were June Peas and spinach, at the outrageously high price of $.35 a package.


Tendrils as Greens

Unlike collard greens, for which pea tendrils can be substituted in most any recipe, tendrils do not need to be parboiled to remove the bitterness. The stems do not need to be removed either, unless you plan to put them in a blender. The whole tendril tastes sweet and pea-like.

Shirley Fong - Torres’ Snow Pea Tendrils

1 lb. Snow pea tendrils
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons corn oil
4 oz. Chicken broth

Quickly stir fry garlic in hot oil, add the tendrils and stir fry for one minute over high heat, slowly stir in the broth and keep cooking until most of the broth is absorbed by the tendrils. Season with a dash of salt. Serve immediately.

Wroburlto Fong-Torres’ Snow Flower Soup
(Shirley’s father developed this recipe when he was chef at Trader Vic’s in San Francisco. The meat of chicken breasts gives the appearance of white blossoms on the deep green pea leaves. When the chicken “blossoms” turn white, the soup is ready to serve.)

1 lb. pea tendrils
4 cups chicken broth
4 oz. boneless, skinless chicken breast
1 medium egg white
2 tsp. corn starch
ground red chili pepper

Finely chop the chicken with cleaver, or mince it in food processor. Add corn starch and egg white and work into a paste.

Rinse the pea tendrils in cold water, discarding the tough stems. Drain and dry.
Spoon the chicken paste into balls, or form them into the shape of flower petals. Press them onto the tendrils.

Heat the chicken broth until it simmers, but not to a full boil. Add the tendrils and simmer until the chicken turns white, about four minutes. Overcooked tendrils will turn yellow and taste bitter.

Serve at once with salt and chili to taste.

(Deborah Wagman’s Wire Whisk Workshops are a hands-on learning experience in Des Moines’ East Village. She uses tendrils on the outside of her spring roll stuffing because look dramatic through the translucent wrappers.)
Makes 12

12 rice paper wrappers
1 oz. rice noodles, soaked in warm water for 20 minutes, then drained
½ lb. fresh pea tendrils
3 carrots, cut into very fine julienne
1 cucumber, halved, seeded and cut into fine julienne
6 scallions, halved and finely sliced
4 oz. enoki mushrooms
Fresh leaves from 6 sprigs of mint
Fresh leaves from 8 stems of cilantro (Chinese coriander)
1 cup fresh bean sprouts
2 cups cooked crabmeat

Nuac Cham dipping sauce

Fill a large bowl with lukewarm water. Work 1 roll at a time.
Dip one rice paper sheet in the water for about 30 seconds until softened. Place on work surface.

Place 1-2 pea tendrils down the center of the sheet. Press leaves lightly into the rice paper to make them lie flat and try to keep the tendrils in their natural shape.
On top of the tendrils, place a small pinch of each ingredient in a line down the middle of the sheet. Fold over both sides of the sheet to enclose the filling, them roll up tightly, like a cigar.

Spray with a mist of water and set aside, covered with a damp cloth, while you prepare the others.

Serve with Nuac Cham dipping sauce.

Peacock of Nightshade

Eggplant Dazzles in All Shapes and Colors

Like the land of their origin, eggplant are a mystery wrapped in an enigma. Coming in all shapes, forms and colors, they are as varied and beautiful as most flowering plants. Long and skinny in green or violet, tear drop shaped with stripes, deep purple ovals, or actually looking like their name sake, these hot weather lovers are becoming more popular than ever in Iowa.

One expects some quirkiness from the nightshade family, which also gave the culinary world potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, tobacco and the hallucinogenic jimson weed. But even more than its dark cousins, eggplant has always been an exotic addition to the kitchens of the western world. Native to India, it’s a relatively young plant, unheard of before the Christian era. Arab traders brought it to North Africa and Spain in the Middle Ages and to southern Italy, via Sicily in the 15th century. But it took another 300 years to find its way to France and the rest of Europe.

Eggplant’s most distinguishing feature in cooking is its ability to absorb many times its weight in oil. Because of this, the plant is a metaphor for stealth and thievery in Arabic literature, where dowries are sometimes discussed in terms of “enough olive oil to satisfy … eggplants.”

Harold McGee, America’s premiere food scientist, explains this trait more pragmatically. Eggplant is the most absorbent of vegetables “because of the spongy texture of its tissue, a high proportion of its volume consisting of intercellular air pockets.” For chefs, this is crucial. “If it cooks too hot, the heat of the oil will collapse its structure and, like a squeezed sponge, it will give its oil up.”
So low to medium heat is essential in cooking eggplant, in any culture. And, despite its relative obscurity in the West, there is probably no other vegetable that is the focus of so many famous dishes. Let us count the ways. From India and Pakistan there are kharhai brinjal (eggplant in braising dish) and baigan bhartha (pureed eggplant).

From China there is hot braised eggplant in garlic sauce and stir fried eggplant. In Thailand its eggplant curry with coconut milk. In Africa kottu (stewed). In Turkey “imam bayaldi” (stuffed). In Lebanon baba ganoosh (pureed).

Europeans made it the focus of medleys: moussaka in Greece; ratatouille in France; and caponato in southern Italy, where it was also treated to dusting, pan frying and baking, with cheese and tomatoes in Melanzane all’agro’dolce. That dish morphed into melanzane Parmigiano when it moved north to Emilia-Romagna and “eggplant parmesan” in America.

Also known as aubergine, brinjal, magazine, garden egg and patlican, eggplant is truly a vegetable for all cultures. India and China remain eggplant’s largest consumers, but the most sophisticated applications come from southern Italy.

Growing Egg Plant in Iowa

Jill Beebout and Sean Skeehan moved to Columbia two years ago, from Houston, Texas. The 2004 growing season was their first in Iowa and since they grow everything at their Blue Gate Farm organically, they learned by trial and error.

“We started the eggplants in flats and transplanted them to the field on the second week in May. If I had it to do over, I would have used row covers before it got hot, but I didn’t and I ended up with terrible flea beetle problems. I go through the plants every day and smash the bugs, who love to eat the leaves.

“We also learned that of all the varieties, the Orient Express grows best in really hot weather, but I am told this was an unusually hot summer in Iowa, so we will keep using others,“ Beebout said last summer.

Greg Leon and Lena Khatir also grow organic eggplant, in Dallas County for their Elleon Produce farm. They raised two Italian varieties, including listada de gandia and Japanese black, getting all their seeds from Seed Savers Exchange. They had some beetle problems too, but found that spider webs were a big help with that.
“Basically, we used bat guana and compost T for fertilizer and spiders for pest control,” they said.

Xe Vue has probably introduced exotic eggplant to more Iowans than any other farmer. Her stalls at Des Moines” Downtown Farmers Market and at the Thursday night market on Pella’s town square have been fixtures for years. She prefers “tourmaline” and “airplane” varieties and uses cow manure for fertilizer. She has not had any pest problems for years.

John Tharnish and his sister Virginia work the Crooked Creek Farm in Auburn. They grow gorgeous little bambino eggplants, perfect for grilling on skewers, as well as black beauties. They prefer worm casting for fertilizer.
“We start them indoors in good potting soil and transplant them to the field with organic fertilizers only,” Virginia explained, reporting that bugs were not a problem last year for them.

Composite Growing Advice

Eggplant is a cold-sensitive vegetable that requires a long warm season for best yields. They are even more sensitive to cold than tomatoes, so they are best started from transplants. Transplant after the soil has warmed and the danger of frost has passed. Eggplants are slightly larger than peppers and should be spaced slightly farther apart. Given sufficient moisture, they thrives in the heat. The plants tolerate dry weather after they are well established, but need to be irrigated during extended dry periods. Harvest when still glossy.

Shopping Tips

Size matters, but not like you think. The best eggplants are young, small and firm. Older, puffy ones have too many seeds and tend to be bitter. As a rule of thumb, the skin is edible in young plants, but not in mature ones.
Best way to pick a good eggplant is to perform a thumb test. Push on the plant, if it does not give at all, it was picked to early. If it gives slightly and rebounds, it’s a keeper. If it gives and stays indented, it’s a loser. Also, tap on it to make sure it isn’t hollow.

Storage Tips

If at all possible, don’t store them. Eggplants are quite perishable and should be eaten within two days of picking. They also detest cold and don’t keep well in the refrigerator, so, if you must, wrap them well.


Eggplant can be baked, grilled, steamed, or sauteed. It loves oil and is works well with tomatoes, onions, garlic and cheese. Because it is so absorbent, it is a perfect main ingredient for curry and stews. The only way eggplant is unacceptable is raw.

“He who has not tasted a Caponato di melanzane,” wrote Gaetano Falzone, “has never reached the antechamber of the celestial paradise.”

Caponato is a medley of vegetables, greens and seafood, with a fried eggplant base. It is usually covered with a sauce of tomatoes, celery, capers, olives, fish roe and crawfish tails. Waverley Root wrote that every part of Sicily had its distinctive caponato and the only thing that they all have in common is eggplant.

Other Italian culinary legends were inspired by eggplant.

“Melanzane all’agro’dolce” comes from the Middle East via Sicily, where all foods are part European and part Oriental. The eggplants is browned in olive oil, then cooked in a sauce of vinegar, chocolate, sugar, cinnamon, pine nuts, walnuts, candied citron, raisins and Marsala wine. Some simplify it by only using sugar and vinegar.

“Melanzane al fun ghetto” is not “eggplant with mushrooms,” but eggplant treated as if it were mushrooms. It is chopped small and seasoned with garlic, then cooked with olive oil and parlsley.

“Melanzane ripiene,” or stuffed eggplant, has a million versions. Most include tomatoes, garlic, olive oil and parley. True Sicilian versions include anchovies. Some stuff the eggplant with eggplant puree, or baba ganoosh.

Here are some varieties that did well in Iowa the last two summers. All are available either from, or from

Long Purple Oriental Eggplant(Brinjal). Native to Pakistan, it has many culinary uses, from tempura and pickling by the Japanese, to stir-frying or for boiling by Chinese, to stuffing and baking by the Indian and Vietnamese. Cooked unpeeled, it is famous in Indian curries.

Applegreen Eggplant. Did well during a cold wet year at Seed Savers when no other eggplant did, these little green babies don’t need much time to mature.
Listada de Gandia from Italy are drop dead gorgeous, with purple and white marbling and Seed Savers reported terrific yields.

Casper. Probably the heartiest of the white varieties, these do best in sauces.

Baba Ganoush
Probably the simplest gourmet eggplant recipe is baba ganoush. We prefer this recipe so that the eggplant flavor dominates the sesame. Others call for far more tahini.
3 long skinny eggplant of any variety
juice of two lemons
1 ounce tahini (sesame paste)
3 garlic cloves
3 tablespoons olive oil
parsley sprigs
Hold the eggplants over an open flame, or lay on a grill, until both sides of the skin burn and the interior collapses, about 2-3 minutes. Allow to cool for half an hour, or run under cold water till easy to handle.
Peel and put the pulp in a blender or food processor. Add lemon juice while you peel and chop garlic. Add garlic and tahini and puree. Remove to a dish and stir in the olive oil and chopped parsley.
Serve warm or cold with pita bread.

Kamal Hamouda’s Grilled Eggplant Sandwich

Kamal developed this recipe at his Phoenix Café in Grinnell.
“It is my idea of comfort food and it has become the best selling sandwich we ever had in the restaurant. The trick is to prepare the eggplant, as eggplant is inherently bitter.”
1 medium sized eggplant
Sea salt
Olive oil
For Spread

Half pound Feta
third cup olive oil
Balsamic vinegar
chopped parley
Half pound Feta

Slice eggplant cross wise into three quarter inch sections. Press them between paper towels to dry. Lightly salt them and brush on both sides with olive oil. Grill each side to golden.
You can now reserve them for moussaka or use in sandwiches, preferably with hoagie buns or baguettes. Pita pockets work too.

Make spread by mixing crumpled Feta with olive oil, a drop of balsamic vinegar and a drop of Tabasco. Top with chopped parley to taste. Cover the eggplant with the spread.
Measures and Numbers

1 pound of eggplant equals 3 ½ cups chopped eggplant
1 average-sized eggplant will serve 3 people
1 medium eggplant equals 1 pound

Beyond Gazpacho

Chilled Garden Soups for Summer

Soup. n. (Fr) A liquid food made by cooking meat, vegetables, fish, etc. in milk or water.

Name a cold soup. Most people who can answer at all, say gazpacho. Yet by Webster’s definition, it isn’t really a soup. It’s not cooked and it adds no milk or water. Gazpacho is more like salsa, it’s liquidity usually comes from its own raw juices.

Hot soups were created as a means of preservation, long before refrigeration, and the classic European repertoire of cold soups was built around cooked soups that were chilled by adding cold cream, milk, or ice. Milk and cream work better in cold soups than hot, because cream’s dense complexes of casein and whey proteins coagulate and burn when heated, forming a skin on top of the soup. Remove that hard layer, and you lose many nutrients. Classic cold soups, like vichyssoise, add cold milk or cream just before serving, never while cooking.

Vichyssoise has an authentically ritzy reputation. In 1910, when the Ritz Carlton in New York City opened its first roof garden, chef Louis Diat celebrated by introducing a new soup to Knickerbocker society. He duplicated a dish his mother made, a traditional peasant soup of France, refined it and named it after the French spa. It was served for the first time to the steel magnet Charles Schwab.

While the French have taught the world much about cold soups, from crème de carrotes glacee (iced carrot soup) to consommé madrilène (tomato consommé), many of the best cold “soups” today are made for the moment, like gazpacho, without any cooking. Because they are raw, they are not overwhelmed by fresh herbs, which often overpower a hot soup. Made of the freshest herbs and vegetables in the garden, fresh, raw soups are far more perishable. Like salsas, they’re best served the same day, for many fresh things begin deteriorating the moment they are cut.

If you want a raw cold soups to stand up for a few days in the refrigerator, natural preservatives like vinegar, lemon juice, wine or olive oil can help. It also freshens up a day old raw soup to squeeze a little lemon or lime in it before serving.

We visited three Iowa chefs who enjoy cooling off in the hot weather with chilled spoonfuls of the garden. Two of their favorite recipes for cold soups are cooked, and one is raw. Fortunately, all were willing to share the secrets with us.

Champagne-Melon Martini’s

Owner chef Kim Wolff’s Pepper Sprout restaurant in old downtown Dubuque, was named after the sassy Johnny Cash and June Carter song “Jackson.”

“My friend and I used to sing that song while working in Chicago and we swore we going to own a restaurant someday. It’s got an attitude I like. The friend is gone, but I do have the restaurant now,” she laughed.

Wolff has the right attitude too and Dubuque has responded well to her Midwest cuisine with classic touches. She prepares all her stocks and sauces from scratch and buys local produce whenever possible. Area growers bring their garden harvest to her kitchen door. She gets mixed greens, onions and snow peas from her octogenarian grandfather. A mushroomer from Bellevue brings her morels. Another grows shiitakes and oyster mushrooms for her.

Her soups, for which she is locally famous, are personal family heirlooms. A sister in law grows her squash, an aunt grows her edible flowers and herbs. The local farmers’ market has 3 organic growers. The Fincel’s sweet corn she uses has a reputation that extends far beyond the county line.

Kim wastes nothing, “We utilize the whole food, the trimmings from the peeled vegetables tonight go into the stock tomorrow morning. She rotates several cold soups on her summer menu, including strawberry tarragon, gazpacho with chick peas and leek. But her personal favorite is a champagne and cantaloupe soup with fresh spearmint.

“It’s simple and an almost perfect blend of flavors and one of the best uses ever of spearmint,” she said, with attitude.

Kim Wolff’s Champaign Melon Soup

serves 8-12

3 fresh melons
1 shallot, or green onion
2 bottles Asti Spumante
½ cup chopped spearmint, plus as many sprigs as servings
¼ pint fresh blueberries
Salt and pepper to taste
Sugar or honey are optional

Cut the melon from the rind and puree, in a blender of food processor. Chop the shallots or green onions and add to the puree. Pour the champagne over the puree and let settle about two hours. Add spearmint and blueberries.

Serve in martini glasses with fresh sprigs of spearmint.

Cold Green Metal

Goldsmith Susan Noland has been making one-of-a-kind pieces of jewelry art for decades in Des Moines’ Shops at Roosevelt. For years she was the only art outlet in the area. Lately, the shopping center transformed with arty cafes and three new art galleries, including one that is home to several of Noland’s former students from Drake.

The venerable Noland is still the trendsetter and the mistress of metal. In her bamboo and jade bejeweled studio-gallery, we discovered she has a thing or two to teach the trendy café set too. “Gardening and cooking appeal to me the same way that metalwork does. I like to watch things grow, from just the seeds. A certain patience evolves in both activities,” she explained.

Partner Leslie Becker observed that “Gardening, cooking and metalwork are all elemental. Earth, wind, fire and air must be applied to the process and controlled in both cases. Susan‘s work is organic, the flow of metalwork is like the wind, it represents movement through a piece,” she said.

“That is what drew me to flatware and utensils,” Noland said of designs that have landed her works in major national shows, at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in New York City and at the National Ornamental Metal Museum in Memphis.

As if the flavor of her lettuce, pea and tarragon soup were not enough to dazzle us, she presented it with her “Tea Party” set of heart shaped spoons, remindful of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland. Noland also used an abalone bowled sugar dusting spoon and a caviar spoon in which the bowl is an oyster shell with pearls forming.

“I believe in one-of-a-kind creations, this soup can be frozen and served later, but it can’t be recreated, because the ingredients are only just right for a brief season.”

Susan Noland’s Lettuce Pea Soup

Serves 6-10

1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ cup chopped celery
2 heads shredded Boston bibb or Romaine lettuce
2 large peeled and thinly sliced potatoes
5 cups canned chicken broth
4 cups fresh peas
1 teaspoon chervil
½ cup rice milk
Salt and pepper
Sour cream
Fresh peas

Melt butter and add olive oil, celery and lettuce. Simmer 5 minutes. Add broth and bring to boil.

Add potatoes, peas and chervil and cook on a low boil for 20 minutes. Cool slightly. Puree in blender of food processor.

Return to pot, season with salt and pepper to taste. Chill and serve with garnish.

A Garden Workshop

Deborah Wagman is a food industry lifer, having owned restaurants, managed them, consulted for them, photographed them and written about them. In 2002, she opened her first cooking school, in Des Moines’ East Village and became a food editor at Meredith a few years later.

wagman supports locally grown and raised products, including Niman Ranch pork from Thornton and Cleverley Farms organic vegetables from Mingo. An avid gardener, Wagman recommends using Nebraska Wedding heirloom tomatoes in this recipe.

Deborah Wagman’s Corn and Tomato Soup with Fresh Basil

Serves 4-6

2 tablespoons good quality olive oil
2 medium leeks, white part only, finely chopped
6 ripe large tomatoes, seeded and coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3 cups corn kernels cut from 3-4 ears of fresh corn
(Reserve cobs and cut them in half lengthwise)
10 leaves fresh basil
1 tablespoon tomato paste
3 ½ cups chicken stock, preferable homemade
sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste


¼ cup sour cream
garlic croutons
extra leaves of basil

In a large non-reactive pan, sauté leeks in olive oil until softened, for about 5-6 minutes. Add chopped tomatoes and cook until slightly softened, about 3-4 minutes. Sprinkle the flour over all and cook, stirring constantly, for 3 minutes longer.

Add the corn kernels, the corn cobs, basil leaves, tomato paste and chicken broth. Bring to a simmer, then partially cover pan and allow it to simmer for 30 minutes. Remove from heat and remove the corn cobs.

In a blender or food processor, puree the soup in small batches until smooth. Pour the pureed soup through a fine-mesh sieve into a large bowl. Season to taste with sea salt and freshly ground pepper. Cool to room temperature first, then cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours.

Ladle the soup into chilled bowls and top with croutons, a spoonful of sour cream and a sprig of fresh basil.

Sweet Taste of Freedom

How Beetroot Changed the World

When Madison County gardener Bill Luchsinger was recovering from surgery last year, his partner Karen Strohbeen was trying to coax his appetite back with various favorite foods.

“We tried everything, baking and braising, raw and seared. Nothing was working. Then we tried beets,” said Strohbeen.

“There was this dark red earthy attraction. For awhile then I ate beets every meal. There’s nothing more elemental,” recalled Luchsinger.

"Beets" by Bill Luchsinger

Since Neolithic times the blood red beet has represented basic life forces as elemental as healing, sex and freedom. Today’s beets derived from a wild species that was widely used medicinally. Ancient Romans began cultivating beetroot as a food crop and a sexual stimulant. In the Middle Ages, beets became important to survival because they couldn’t be burned by marauding armies like most crops. After the discovery that they produced a sweetener comparable to cane sugar, beets, more than anything else, accelerated the end of legalized slavery.

Today beetroot is still championed as an elemental pancea - quite controversially in one case. South African Health Minister Manto Tshaabalala-Msimang, known as “Dr. Beetroot,” recommended beets for treatment of AIDS, in lieu of anti-retroviral medicines. That’s not the only way beets are misunderstood. Beet greens are off the charts in their concentrations of vitamins K, A and C and in magnesium. They also are quite rich in manganese, potassium, iron, vitamin E and dietary fiber and they have shown demonstrable results in preventing colon cancer and maintaining kidney health in diabetes patients. Yet, this healthiest part of the beet is often thrown away today.

“I don’t understand why people would throw away the greens, they are the best part,” explained Dallas County gardener Khanh Hamilton, whose Sunstead Farm supplies some of greater Des Moines’ best restaurants with heirloom fruits and vegetables. Hamilton thinks beets have an overall acceptance problem in Iowa because of their history here as a survival food.

“They got people through winter. So many people here only know them as pickled beets. They don’t like pickled beets, so they think they don’t like beets at all. Many don’t even know you can eat the leaves, or the root before it‘s been pickled,” she said.

Ironically, that’s the same reason that Seed Savers Exchange founder and director Diane Ott Whealy thinks beets will be the next hot thing, along with other root vegetables, in heirloom foods.

“I think the next area of rediscovery will be root vegetables - carrots, turnips, beets, even parsnips. People are starting to look more toward root cellar foods in order to take more control over their food supplies,” she said.

Brief Bloody History

Excavated in Neolithic camp sites, wild beets are native to most of Eurasia from Britain to India. Ancient Greeks distinguished beet types based on color and Pliny was the first to leave a culinary, as well as medicinal, record of them. Romans became serious about them as a crop and distinguished types based on seasons.
The growing of beets became an agricultural science in 13th century Muslim Spain.

When the British blockaded France during the Napoleonic War, sugar-crazed French society pressured Napoleon into offering huge financial incentives for a cane sugar substitute. That led quickly to the development of economical methods for extracting sucrose from beets, the world‘s sweetest vegetable. By 1818 France was producing nine million pounds of pure crystal sugar from beets annually. Because sugarcane cultivation employed ninety per cent of all African slaves, beet sugar manufacturers began advertising “Slave-free sugar” and winning market share. Sugar beet farming and processing grew all over Europe.

In 1834, slaves were freed in the British Commonwealth. France, Denmark and Holland followed Britain’s lead before the American Civil War.

Since then, white beets have generally been grown to extract sugar and colored beets for eating and pickling. After World War II, one variety of beet dominated American supermarkets - the Red Ace. In the 21st century, heirloom varieties have become increasingly popular.

Khanh’s Growing Tips

Beets are a not-so-hardy perennial that are grown as an annual in Iowa’s climate. Hamilton says the best time to plant is early Spring.

“Then you will have them Spring and Summer and Fall. I always have them at Thanksgiving and sometimes even later. They are happy until temperatures get down below the 20’s. But you can plant as late as early Fall, and you will have them in November. The yellow ones grow slower. The white ones don’t grow as well as the red, yellow or pink ones.

"And the white ones tend to get woody, the others don’t do that. The upside though is that they have no color, so no mess to worry about. They can become sweeter too sometimes but only in hot weather. In the colder weather of Spring and Fall, the red and Chioggia beets get much sweeter, the gold ones a bit more so, the white ones just get more bitter,” Hamilton advised.

Hamilton gardens naturally so bugs are her biggest pest.
“Bugs have to be hand killed. the Asian beetle is the worst. I still have bad dreams about them,” she said.

Beet seeds are actually a cluster of seeds and will produce more than one plant. Spacing is flexible, but 2"- 4" between seeds is ideal. Beets are sensitive to soil acidity and a low soil pH stunts growth. Beets prefer 6.2 - 6.8 pH but will tolerate 6.0 to 7.5. Loose, well-drained, sandy loam soils rich in organic matter are ideal. Stones and debris hinder growth. If you have heavy soil, amend it well with compost prior to planting. Break up large clods and rake smooth prior to planting.


Beet greens are handled like other greens - boiled or steamed as a hot vegetable or served cold after cooking as a salad with oil and vinegar or lemon juice. Beetroot can be served hot or cold, pickled, roasted, juiced, deep fried, pulverized or even raw. Peeled and steamed, boiled or baked, it can be eaten warm with butter or olive oil. Cooked and pickled, it can be served cold as a condiment. Peeled and shredded raw, it can be eaten in a salad.

In Australia and New Zealand, pickled beetroot is a condiment for burgers. Classic Lebanese and Turkish cuisine usually features beets with yogurt. In Eastern Europe, beets are most popular as soup.

Hamilton says you should cut the stems an inch or two from the root and eat the greens as soon as possible. The root stores twice as long after the leaves have been cut, up to six months at 34 degrees. After washing the roots and wrapping them individually, skin on, in aluminum foil, you can bake them like a potato. Roast them in a 375 degrees oven for 45 minutes to an hour, until a knife glides easily in and out through the foil. Forty five minutes of baking is equal to 30 minutes of boiling. If properly baked or boiled, the skin will slide right off and you'll be left with colorful flesh firm enough to slice with a knife yet soft enough to eat like a peach.

Beets’ versatility makes them popular with creative chefs. Beetroot’s sweetness counters acidity in foods like oranges. Its earthy flavor balances the sharpness of pungent blue cheeses. Its color transforms foods - beets are usually used to makes lemonade pink. Hamilton thinks the elemental taste of beets is best served simply - with a generous drizzle of your best olive oil, a tiny pinch of sea salt and pepper “plus a little something to kick up the acidity, like vinegar or lemon juice.”

Khanh’s Beets

4-6 each of Chioggia, Golden, Albino White and Detroit Dark Red
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon black ground pepper

Trim off the green tops one inch from root and place beets in a large pot, covered in water. Boil and reduce to simmer. Cook covered for 30 minutes until beets are just tender. Drain and allow to cool in order to handle.

Peel beets and cut into one inch pieces. Place in mixing bowl and whisk together vinegar, oil and pepper. Salt to taste.

Pour over the beets. Serve at room temperature or refrigerated.
Tom Nieland’ s “Vanya” Borsch

After thirteen year old Tom Nieland moved to Iowa, he remembered watching his grandmother make borsch in Russia.

“I saw my grandma make borsch but I did not help her I just watched her make it. I memorized this recipe so I can make the borsch on my own,” he said.

Nieland makes it frequently in Iowa, with foods he grows, because his adoptive family likes it so much. His mother encouraged him to enter it in the Iowa State Fair’s International Cooking contest where it won the overall blue ribbon.

4.5 cups cabbage, chopped

4.5 cups beets, chopped

7 cups potatoes, chopped

2 Tablespoon oil

1 big onion, finely chopped

4 cloves garlic, pressedone fourth cup chopped

fresh dill one fourth cup chives, chopped

3 or 4 cubes vegetable bullion

1 teaspoon salt (optional)

2 bay leaves

18 cups water


sour cream
more dill
salt and pepper to taste

Boil water in a big pot. While water is boiling, cook onions and garlic in oil in a pan for 8 minutes, or until golden brown. Add potatoes to the big pot and cook 15 minutes. Scrape off foam. Add beets and cabbage. Cook 15 minutes. Add onions and garlic, bay, salt and bullion and cook for 8 to 10 minutes. Add dill at the end. Let sit 5 minutes. Serve with garnishes.


There are two main garden varieties of beta vulgaris grown in Iowa: chard
(beta vulgaris - cicla), grown for leaves instead of roots; and beetroot (beta vulgaris - vulgaris), for roots as well as leaves.

Hal Jasa of Phat Chef's serves pickled beets with wasabi

As many names suggest, chard cultivars are bred for beauty as much as yield or taste - Burbank’s Rainbow, Crimson Giant, White Ribbed, Neon Lights, Rainbow, Ruby Red, Silverado and Silver Beet Five Color. Large White Ribbed and Lucullus are prime candidates to become the first food grown in outer space because they are the highest yielding plants requiring the least amount of vertical space. The Italian heirloom Argentata is prized by chefs for its mild sweet flavor. Fordhook Giant works well in Iowa summer because of its heat resistance.

Popular cultivars of beetroot include:

Albina Vereduna - a white variety

Albino - completely white roots

Bull's Blood - dark leaves and sweet roots. Its juice makes red food coloring

Burpee's Golden - globe-shaped orange roots turn yellow when cooked and don’t bleed

Chioggia - from Venice, their unique flesh has alternating red and white concentric rings

Cylindra - carrot-shaped with dark-red flesh; sweet and easy to peel

Detroit Dark Red - the American standard beet came from Canada; Low in geosmin, which gives beets their earthy taste; good yields and good for storage

India Beet - not as sweet as Western beets

Lutz Green Leaf - red roots and green leaves, it’s the best beet for maintaining quality in storage

Red Ace - the principal variety found in supermarkets

Popular baby beet cultivar’s include Pronto, Kestrel and Baby Ball.

Seed Companies

Burpee & Company, 800-8881447

Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Seed Savers Exchange

Gourmet Seed International

Thompson & Morgan

Renee’s Garden

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Lily of Duality

The Double Life of Asparagus

From the moment its first white tips peak out from their underground home, asparagus lives a double life. It is the first vegetable of Iowa spring, sprouting with the crocuses. Yet, it is now available year round. In just the last 15 years, the percentage of home grown asparagus in American supermarkets has dropped from 70% to 35%. Asparagus is a lily that has grown wild for thousands of years, so much so that no one knows where it originated. It still grows wild in many parts of America, thriving along riverbanks and lake shores.

The Ancient Greeks foraged for it, like we hunt that other great harbinger of Iowa Spring, the morel. By 200 B.C. though, Romans cultivated it and had noticed its most distinctive duality. While nearly all flowering vegetables bear both stamens and pistils (male and female cells) on the same plant, asparagus has plants of different sexualities. About half have only staminate flowers; the others only pistillate flowers. Both kinds must be grown near each other if seeds are to be obtained. Our eating habits also have a dual nature.

There are just two types of asparagus to choose from, though either can be grown from the same plant. White asparagus, the favorite of Europe and particularly of Germany, is protected in the field from sunlight by reflective tarps. Green asparagus, the American choice and dominant variety of Iowa, is never covered, so that sunlight turns the spears green with chlorophyll. Similarly, about half of us prefer thin spears, which grow later off a plant. The rest of us, particularly serious chefs, insist on thick spears, the early bloomers and those often from pistillate plants. The only drawback to the thicker spears is that parts of them need to be peeled.

Even the nutrition of asparagus is double faced. It is high in folic acid and a good source of potassium, fiber, vitamin B6, vitamins A and C, and thiamin. It has no fat, nor cholesterol and is low in sodium. A half cup of raw asparagus has only 15 calories. However, if you cook it, the calories increase by half again that number, as the protein increases when heated. Asparagus loses quality very rapidly after harvest; sugar content declines and the amount of fibrous material increases. Hence there are two methods of picking it. The woody lower stems of imported supermarket asparagus retard the spoilage, but must be cut a couple inches under ground level. If you pick the plant to eat it within a two days, just snap it off above ground, and eat the entire spear.

Iowa’s Best

In Germany, the white asparagus of Beelitz has a legendary reputation. The French prize that of Argenteuil near Paris, and from Villelaure in Provence. Italians cherish the spears of Bassano del Grappa and the English argue between those of Sussex and St. Enodoc. Iowans who bother distinguishing among asparaguses, are partial to that grown near Fraser, in Boone County.

Each Spring, the Greg and Polly Rinehart Family sells fresh organic asparagus at farmers‘ markets in Des Moines and Ames, and to some of the best restaurants in Ames. Greg Rinehart told us that asparagus is one of the fastest growing foods in the world. “We have a 4 acre field of asparagus, it’s 20 years old now. We pick asparagus daily because it can grow an inch an hour at 70 degrees Fahrenheit. So you can get 12-14 inches of growth overnight during a week. As the season progresses the milk weed hides the asparagus.

He gave growers these tips.

“Plant in full sun and well drained soil. Mow it over in Summer and burn it off in the Spring to stimulate growth. We grow organic asparagus, but we have 10 kids, 7 of them still living at home, so we can pick daily and weed too. It takes three years after planting before you can pick anything and four years before you have a real harvest,” he offered.

“Later in the season, to reproduce itself, the plant puts out more ferns than stalks, so you have to pick around the ferns,’ explained Polly.

“We hand weed a lot,” added Greg. Elizabeth Rinehart, 9, put asparagus harvesting in perspective.

“It sort of peaks out of ground and you just snap it off. It’s not as easy as peas though, peas are the easiest because you don’t have to get your hand dirty,” she revealed. In other parts of Iowa, asparagus growers prefer chemicals to hand weeding.

Jean and Nathan “Mac” McCrary have a large 7 year old bed in Shenandoah. Mac advises burning down the bed and disking it, which turns the soil without plowing it, before applying weed killer in autumn.

“Then, hope it rains soon after that. If it waits too long to rain, your crop will be done for by May, instead of June,” he explained.

Mac’s told us his favorite method of cooking asparagus is to cut it in 1 to 2 inch pieces and microwave it for about 2 minutes, then butter, salt and pepper it.

The Quest for Madame Pompadour’s Soup

With the perfect climate for asparagus, as well as some good dairy farms, Iowa should be the epicenter for that legendary soup, cream of asparagus. We went to half the corners of the state to visit with three of its best chefs, with different takes on the soup that Madame Pompadour used as a love stimulant. Just off the square in Shenandoah, “The Sanctuary” describes itself as “Lunch, Desserts, Coffee, Gifts, Interior Design and Landscaping.” When Jim and Lucy Clark bought this 100 year old church and Christian Science reading room, they opened as a gift shop with their offices under the stained glass windows. Then they added a few home made food items and “Now days, I don’t even do much interior design work,” admitted Lucy.

“We don’t really have a chef, instead we have about six of us who cook,” explained cook Annette Beason, who gave us her word of mouth recipe for her fresh asparagus soup.

“I don’t write things down or really measure things either, I cook the way my grandmother did. Begin with fresh asparagus, we get ours from Jean McCrary, who has a huge patch in Shenandoah and brings us about five pounds at a time. I cook about 2 quarts of cut up asparagus in a quart of chicken stock, for five minutes. Then I add a quart of 2 % milk mixed with Half & Half and stir in my roux. (The roux is made by melting butter and white flour in equal amounts and browning the mixture.) You just add enough till it thickens.” In the opposite corner of southern Iowa, Martha Wolf and Sue Saunders began selling their baked goods out of their home kitchen in Fort Madison, as a way to cope with divorces.

“It was a glorified bake sale at first, and probably as much therapy for Sue and me as anything else,” explained Wolf. By the end of 1995 they moved into a 100 year old building on 7th Street and opened the Ivy Bake Shoppe, which now draws three fourths of its business from out of town. A chalkboard menu, a screened-in porch with river views, tin ceilings, oak floors and lots of brass create a 19th century wistfulness. So does their “pure butter and cream baking,” which sacrifices shelf life for the deep flavors of yesteryear. Wolf told us that they use spring asparagus in spinach salads and quiches, but their favorite treatments are the simplest.

“Just bake them lightly and serve naked, or with dip.” she said.

She believes that asparagus soup needs some weight.

“We start simmering the asparagus in a mostly vegetable stock, with some chicken stock. Puree the mixture as soon as the asparagus is hot. This is the Ivy Bake Shop, so we add heavy cream and thicken the soup with a roux.” Joel Lopez owns Rosario’s Café and R.C.’s Catering Company in Des Moines.

He prefers a classical French asparagus soup with the most fresh and local slant in Iowa. “I cook to order on the run, like a short order cook. So I always have a beurre manie ready,” he told us as he kneaded equal quantities of the ultra rich butter from Pickett Fence Creamery in Woodward with organic flour from Paul’s Grains in Laurel.

“Use fresh picked asparagus and snap it off above the ground. You can taste the difference between fresh picked and day old. So use the freshest asparagus you can find. I make my soup by sautéing shallots, garlic and onions in oil, then just barely browning the beurre manie, while simmering cut asparagus, without the tips, in chicken stock, about ten minutes. Then blend the asparagus and stock, and fold it into Pickett Fence’s (un-homogenized, antibiotic and hormone-free) cream, in the top of a double boiler. Stir in the sautéed vegetables and the beurre manie until it thickens. Add some asparagus tips when you serve it,” he explained.

Ivy Bake Shoppe’s Asparagus Spears with Tomato Basil Dip


4 pounds asparagus, stalks peeled and rubbed in olive oilSea salt and lemon pepper


1 cup mayonaise
Half cup sour cream
2 Tablespoons tomato paste
Juice from half a lemon
Half a cup of chopped fresh basil

Bake asparagus in 350 degree oven for 8 - 10 minutes, making sure they are still stiff.Blend the mayo, sour cream, tomato paste, lemon juice and basilServe spears with the sauce on side for dipping.

Food of Love?

Before asparagus was used for food, it had quite a reputation as a medicine for the prevention of bee stings to heart trouble, dropsy, toothache and, particularly, as a sexual stimulant.

~ A 16th century Arabian love manual gave an asparagus recipe.

~Jacob Boehme developed the “Doctrine of Signatures,” in the 1600’s. Supported by Paracelsus, the father of chemistry, this philosophy believed that God made herbs and plants resemble those parts of the human anatomy they were intended to aid. Hence, the phallic asparagus was the Viagra of the Age of Reason.

~In 18th Century France, Madame Pompadour ordered asparagus soup for sexual vigor.

~In his book “Food,” Waverley Root devoted a entire section to the sex life of the asparagus.

~Casanova, Rasputin and Princess Diana were reported to believe in sexual properties of asparagus.

Planting Tip

Asparagus is best grown from 1-year-old plants or "crowns" planted in January or February. Crowns grow from seed planted in flats or peat cups in October, for January transplanting, or they are transplanted from an existing asparagus bed. To get healthy, vigorous plants, buy 1-year-old crowns from a nursery or garden center, or order them from a seed catalog. It takes 1 year to grow a good crown.

Check 'Em Out

Ivy Bake Shoppe, 622 7th St., For Madison, 319-372-9939

The Sanctuary, 207 South Elm, Shenandoah, 712-246-5766

Paul’s Grains, 2475 340th St Ste B, Laurel ( 641-476-3373

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Buy a Burrito, Save the Family Farm

For Paul Willis, the Future Looks Like the Past

In the way that Proust could taste his childhood in a Madeleine cake, Paul Willis’ pork chops were a transcendental experience for Shirley and I. We were driving to Thornton, Iowa because it is the mother lode of the richest pork we could remember. We are food writers, not environmentalists. Our tongues compel us to travel to places like Thornton, not our consciences. It’s the destination, not the journey, that matters.

And yet, we took the slow route. Because Paul Willis’ hog operation in Thornton has been called “a vision of the future that looks like the past,” it seemed appropriate to get off the interstate and drive up US 69. North of Ames, we realized that the old highway now models another, distinctly opposite, vision of Iowa’s future. Where Burma Shave slogans used to dot the fence posts along this road, there are now skull & crossbones warnings -- not about dangerous curves, but about giant hog confinements. We could see the DeCoster hog confinements near Blairsburg from miles away. We cold smell them even further. Shirley said they reminded her of some factories she had seen in Vietnam, where they wouldn’t let journalists go. Then she asked me how come, if these were pig confinements, we couldn’t see any pigs.

According to Robert Kennedy, jr. such warehouses can shoehorn 100,000 sows into claustrophobic cages that hold them in one position, over metal grate floors, for a lifetime. Below them, aluminum culverts collect and channel their waste into open-air pits three stories deep. Swine feces has birthed a toxic microbe that killed a billion fish in one instance and causes brain damage and respiratory illness in humans.

Mathew Scully’s new book “Dominion” animates the horror. Pigs taken prematurely from their mothers root obsessively for something to chew. If they are spending their brief life out on Highway 69, the object of their obsession becomes the tail of another pig, one crammed in their face. Chewed tails often get infected, leading to “unauthorized deaths.”

A factory farm dumpster overflowed with dead pigs

So when such factory farmers wean piglets, 12-16 weeks before nature intended, they amputate the tails with a giant pliers. That leaves pigs with a lifetime compulsion to keep their sensitive stubs out of their pen mates’ mouths, a futile task when there is no room to turn around. When Scully asked an exec from Smithfield, the worlds’ largest pork producer, if there wasn’t something sad about this, he was told that the giant pig factories actually protected pigs from the dreaded free range, where they might “get mosquito bites.”

Polarizing Iowa

Iowa is today as emotionally polarized about raising hogs as it was about abortion, Vietnam and the gold standard in other decades. As US 69 cuts through the legendary Des Moines lode, the giant confinements blot the hummocky habitat. This was the rich dumping ground of the most recent glaciers to cover north central Iowa. After ripping out Clear Lake and thousands of smaller potholes, they melted and left bogs and fens that weathered into the finest farm land in the world. When the Europeans came, they drained the slews and tiled the fields, put up fences and planted crops where wild grasses had reigned.

For Shirley and I, this was the last leg of a long, strange trip to the source of the greatest pig meat in America. The journey began at San Francisco’s Harris Ranch, arguably the home of America’s best aged beef. While comparing Harris Ranch’s steaks with rival Niman Ranch’s, Harris’ general manager Keith Reese mentioned that he served Niman’s pork.
“Niman’s pork was just astronomically better than anything else out there. We were blown away by it the first time we tasted it. With it, you can get the true flavor of pork,” he said.

Harris Ranch was using superlatives to praise a pork product made by its chief competitor in the high end beef business. Shirley and I determined to do what investigative food reporters do -- follow the taste. At Niman’s bustling operation in Oakland’s International District, macho men in hairnets prepared the next day’s orders. We knew then this was not a typical company. Niman has been developing discriminating markets for free range beef and lamb, mostly in food-hip northern California, since the 1970’s. In the last seven years, their sales doubled annually. This coincided with Niman’s return to the pork business.

When the federal government seized Bill Niman’s original ranch in 1976, to create the Point Reyes National Seashore, Niman was allowed to continue ranching cattle, but not hogs. Freed from an 18% mortgage, he could spend more money developing a superior product. He raised only black and red Angus, Herefords and their cross, Black Baldy, the ultimate beef cow. They grazed only on grass about to go to seed, for more than a year, whereas most commercial cattle never graze and are slaughtered at a year’s age. When Niman’s cattle go to feed lots, at 800-900 pounds, they are fed only sugar beet pulp, corn, barley, wheat, cane molasses, hay and soymeal. They are not slaughtered until they are at least 20 months old.

Bill Niman couldn’t find a pork producer with the same commitment to quality. Blind, countercultural luck intervened in 1994. Thornton farmer Paul Willis was visiting an old Peace Corps friend’s California lamb ranch which was supplying Niman. Bill heard that Paul’s hogs were raised much the same way as Niman’s cattle and sheep. Niman asked Willis to send some pork and, after tasting it, he asked him what a fair price would be for such hogs.

In Thornton’s Chit Chat Cafe, where Gary Muhlenbruck’s world famous duck decoys define the style, Paul Willis remembered that day in California, when his life changed.

“At that time, no one had ever asked me about a fair price. Buyers simply quoted their bottom dollar as take-it-or-leave-it. It wasn’t a hard decision, would I rather raise 50 pigs and make $2 each, or raise 2 pigs and make $50 each? Bill gave us a chance to farm another way, to maintain an alternative to what you saw driving up Highway 69,” he recalled.

Bill Niman had told us that when hogs sold for 8 cents a pound, he was paying over 43 cents to Iowa farmers. Shirley asked Willis what Niman got for the extra money? “Let me show you,” he replied.

We headed out of Thornton passing a house where a dozen cars were parked. “We call that the casino. A bunch of older guys get together there regularly, some say to play cards. It’s the busiest place in Thornton,” Paul joked. A casino in Thornton, however euphemistic, made as much sense as the luck that thrust this sleepy town into the culinary limelight. Niman Ranch pork has a story full of ironies and oxymora. Mingo farmer Larry Cleverley, who distributes Niman products in Iowa, calls Bill, Paul, himself, and almost everyone associated with Niman Ranch, “a bunch of hippie businessmen, who make gourmet hot dogs and like four star restaurants.”

In some large cities, Chipotle Grill has run an intense media campaign featuring Niman farmers.

Duane Dorenkamp, of nearby Sheffield, looks like Grant Wood in a tractor cap and is as well known in Washington DC, a Chipotle stronghold, as Subway’s Jared is here. The Chipotle ads suggest you can save a family farm by eating a burrito, a claim with considerably more merit than the average meat producer‘s, according to Diane Halverson of the Animal Welfare Institute.

“We run into PR firms trying to talk the humane talk without walking the walk. Pipestone Family Farms markets themselves that way, but, as the (Minneapolis) Star Tribune wrote, it’s simply not the case,” she explained, adding “There is so much at stake here. Companies like Du Breton pirate the Niman image, but they also do most of their business in the conventional manner. If that type of agribusiness gets a niche in this market, it will be impossible to remove them. We are not endorsing Niman because we care about selling pork. We care about selling a value system.”

Niman pigs are allowed to behave naturally and to fulfill instinctive behavioral urges. They are given continual access to pastures, dirt yards and pens with straw bedding. They are never given antibiotics, hormones or sulfas to mask disease. Niman also encourages farmers to husband their land, and Water Keepers Alliance, Kennedy’s group, endorses Niman.

Willis returns some of his fields to wetland. One of his farms, set on a hummock above fens full of buffalo skulls, reminded us that we were standing over eons of history.

Back to Future?

It was a good place to consider the past and future of pork in Iowa. The last 30 years brought catastrophic changes to the relationship between humans and their meat. Looser regulations, lax trade rules and huge farm subsidies have helped consolidate the agricultural industry. But the public’s loss of taste drove all the above. Politicians gave us cheaper meat because that’s what we wanted. There were predictable, “acceptable casualties” : family farms, local lockers and butchers, pure meat, safe meat, and good tasting meat.

This had been going on since 1970, but it took “enhanced pork” before Shirley and I really noticed. That’s what they call the tasteless crap that our major grocers have been selling the last five years. It’s “enhanced” (remember, bragging is legal in advertising) with a chemical water solution that accounts for as much as 18% of its weight (remember, pork is priced per pound). Grocers could fire butchers and replace them with lower paid stackers. Win-win, as long as customers don’t notice the taste.

Most didn’t. Pork became white, rather than pink and this was advertised as a good thing. Quality was marginalized. So when Willis passes out his pork at the Farm Aid concert each year, stunned tasters ask him what marinade he uses. He laughs and tells them they just rediscovered the taste of pure pork.

While Paul was reflecting on history, Shirley had a bigger problem. At each of a half dozen farms, happy pigs and piglets ran up to the pickup truck, much as dogs would. When she got out of the vehicle, they made eye contact. “Stop being so damned cute. If I have to give up cooking pork, I’ll have to find a new career,” said the chef to the piglets.
These pigs obviously trust humans, and they aren’t afraid. Fear causes animals to self-produce chemicals, like adrenaline, that toughen meat and disguise its natural flavors. Paul joked that his pigs only have one bad day in their lives, as he showed us farms where sows were busy building straw nests in large barns, while little pigs fought with one another like puppies. In the Spring, they run in the fresh grasses and alfalfa that surround the barns. In the summer there will be sprinklers, mudholes and fresh dry straw.

Niman’s pork operations are half owned by the farmers, 70% of whom are Iowans. The day we visited, Lori Janssen was busy testing pork loins, from Yorkshires. Janssen would be the quality control manager, except that Niman doesn’t do job titles. Everyone is a partner. Loins had been sent by farmers wanting to join the Niman family. Janssen’s goal was to find a Yorkshire that produced meat that wasn’t dry, a tendency of the breed. Color breeds produce good juicy meat, but they lack the Yorkshire’s mothering abilities. A Yorkshire bloodline could give Willis an extra piglet per litter. We helped taste the candidates. Sorry Charlie, not every pig can be a Niman.

When 50 hogs a week sufficed demand, Willis produced all of Niman’s pork. Now that they ship exponentially more hogs a week, he has recruited hundreds of farmers. These hogs don’t look anything like the industry’s standard, nor like show pigs. Willis showed us a picture of a so-called grand champion, calling it “an Olympic weightlifter on steroids.”
The “other white meat” usually comes from a lean, mean, fast growing machine of a pig that averages 54% lean in the USA, and 58% in Scandinavia, where most European imports originate. Niman hogs are only 48% lean, with up to an inch of back fat. Their meat looks like the pork our grandparents ate. You can actually see marbling and the flesh is much darker than supermarket pork. Taste is the startling difference, whether you try fresh cuts, or processed products, like Niman brand bacon, ham, sausage and hot dogs that are prepared in Webster City.

Most Niman pork goes from Iowa to Chicago and to the two coasts. While the three and four star restaurants that made Niman famous use prime cuts, Niman partner Rob Hurlbut has been building markets for cheaper cuts. “We sell the feet , the tails and even the fat back, which is prized for its high Vitamin D count and its lack of hormones,” he told us.

That market for low end cuts will increase with the rapid expansion of Chipotle. Each time the chain opens a new store, every three days, Niman brings one more family farmer on line. The math inspired Chipotle’s advertising campaign. Buy a burrito, save a family farm.

The Chipotle-inspired growth presents a new challenge for Niman. Because carnitas for burritos is made from the leg and shoulders of pigs, Niman anticipates an abundance of higher end cuts. Bill Niman says the low end markets might help make them more price competitive at the high end. Who knows, maybe we’ll even see them in a Hy-Vee someday. That’s the final irony of this story. The impetus of Niman’s marketing has gone from the high end, to the low end. They’ve come whole hog.

Des Moines Outlets

Andrew Meek serves Niman pork at Sbrocco

Niman pork is served in greater Des Moines at Azalea, Sbrocco, Phat Chef’s, Cyd’s Catering, Bistro Montage, Raccoon River Brewing Co., Star Bar, Cosi Cucina, South Union Bread Café, Centro, Splash and Django. It is sold retail at Gateway Market in Sherman Hill and to a lesser extent at Gateway Market in the Villages of Ponderosa. Cleverley Farms sells it at the Downtown Farmers Market.

Niman Ranch sells directly at, or 510-808-0330.