Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Bhutanese Refugees in Anchorage, Alaska with Recipe for Lamb's Quarters & Tomatoes with Eggs (Χόρτα και Ντομάτες με Αυγά)

Lush baskets of greens lined the table: crumpled dark Lacinato kale, sweet golden-stalked Swiss chard, deep maroon piles of earthy red orach. The sign read, “Fresh International Gardens.”

“Good morning! Where’s your farm?” The answer to my standard market question was a surprise: “Mountain View.”

Mountain View, a densely populated neighborhood within Anchorage’s urban core, is an unlikely spot for a market garden. “How much land do you have?” “8000 square feet.”

A commercially viable garden in Alaska on less than 1/5 of an acre? I looked again at the people staffing the booth. Of diverse ages and ethnicities, they didn’t fit the typical farm family image.

“Is Fresh International Gardens a farm? Or a group?” I hesitated. “Or what?”

The answer: “Or what.” Fresh International Gardens is part of the Refugee Farmers’ Market Program. This program helps refugees, newly arrived in Anchorage, adjust to uprooted lives in a new country. In addition to gardening, the program teaches entrepreneurial and life skills essential to succeeding in Alaska.

The thriving program grew from a seed planted by Julie Riley, longtime Anchorage Cooperative Extension Service Horticulture Agent. In 2004, Riley successfully helped Hmong refugees from Southeast Asia adapt their gardening skills to Alaska’s cold climate. This success inspired Catholic Social Services to work with Riley and others to create the Refugee Farmers’ Market Program. Using municipal land next to Mountain View’s McPhee Park, the program is now in its fourth year.

Most refugees working on the 2010 garden are originally from Bhutan. Over the last 10 months, a group of nearly 100 Bhutanese refugees began the challenging process of creating lives in Alaska after many difficult homeless, stateless years.

Bhutan is a land-locked country the size of Switzerland. It lies between China and India on the Himalayas’ eastern edge; Nepal is to the west. In the late 19th century, the Lhotsampa (meaning southerner in Bhutanese) began emigrating to Bhutan from Nepal, largely to work as laborers for the Bhutanese.

The Lhotsampa settled, built homes, and grew families in Bhutan. Life continued uneventfully until the late 1980s. At that time, the ethnic majority ruling Bhutan became worried about its ethnic group being outnumbered by Lhotsampas. To prevent this, the rulers began a program of ethnic cleansing, forcibly expelling many Lhotsampas from the country.

The forcible expulsions left over 100,000 Lhotsampas, including Anchorage’s new residents, stranded for nearly two decades in Nepalese refugee camps. It wasn’t until 2008 that various countries, including the US, began admitting Bhutanese refugees for permanent resettlement.

Last Thursday I went to the Fresh International Garden site on McPhee and talked with gardener and market entrepreneur Bishnu Subedi.

Subedi said he was forced from his home by the Bhutanese government in 1992. He lived in Nepalese refugee camps until Alaska welcomed him last year. “Seventeen years. Seventeen years, no home. Now, in Alaska, apartment. A home.” Subedi smiled, hesitantly.

While we talked, Subedi and a fellow refugee cleaned and turned a new garden bed, planting it with spinach seed. The men were neatly dressed; their shirts freshly ironed. They deftly and swiftly worked shovel and hoe with bare feet.

Subedi is just now learning English, and spoke it haltingly. He described his plans: work hard, feed his family, get a green card, become a citizen. He laughed, shrugged, and said, “For now, have apartment. But is home. Home.” He smiled again, this time broadly.

I walked further into the garden where three Bhutanese women were weeding beds of thickly planted greens. They heaped all but one kind of weed in piles for disposal. The women treated lamb’s quarters (Chenopodium album) differently. This plant was separated out and added to plastic grocery bags that were already full when I arrived.

Though weeds, lamb’s quarters are delicious edible greens. Since none of the women spoke English, I couldn’t ask if they planned on eating lamb’s quarters. Kelly Ingram, a Vista volunteer working for the Refugee Farmers’ Market Program, had an answer: the women used lamb’s quarters as an ingredient in curry.

Wild lamb’s quarters are gathered for food all around the globe. Uniquely, the Himalayan region, where Lhotsampas survived in Nepalese refugee camps, is the one area in the world where lamb’s quarters are domesticated. It is grown there for its leafy greens and as a grain crop. Lamb’s quarters is a quinoa relative; up to 70,000 poppy-sized seeds grow on every plant. The seeds are ground into flour, cooked as porridge, made into alcoholic beverages, and used as livestock feed.

Unlike countries with subsistence economies, wild foraging is a rarity in modern America. Lamb’s quarters and other wild greens are usually seen only as noxious weeds that pop up in home gardens and interfere with efficient commercial crop production. As a result, few Alaskans have tried tasty lamb’s quarters.

Lamb’s quarters are related to spinach and Swiss chard, and can be substituted for those greens in any recipe. Its flavor is milder, and its leaves slightly firmer, than spinach. Although young lamb’s quarters leaves may be eaten raw, I prefer them cooked. Then again, I also prefer spinach cooked.

Of the wild greens that grow in Alaska, lamb’s quarters is one of the easiest to harvest. (First time foragers may want to review my Rules for Gathering Wild Plants.) Cut off the top 6-8” of each plant, remove any damaged or diseased leaves (look carefully, lamb’s quarters are susceptible to leaf miner damage), and strip the leaves and soft seed heads from the stem. These are ready to use in your favorite greens recipe; the stem may be discarded.

Lamb’s quarters freeze well. Harvest the greens before seeds form, blanch in boiling salted water for 30-45 seconds, drain, cool, squeeze out excess water, package in freezer bags, and freeze.

Lamb’s quarters thrive on land that’s been previously cultivated, or any place they can get an easy foothold. In my yard, they're particularly fond of the topsoil pile, where loose dirt and ready nutrients attract a nice patch of lamb’s quarters every year.

Returning from my trip to the Fresh International Gardens, I had a powerful hankering for lamb’s quarters. Lacking a Bhutanese curry recipe, but being rich in farm fresh eggs, I lunched on a Greek village favorite: eggs cooked on a bed of wild greens and tomatoes.
Lamb's Quarters and Tomatoes with Eggs takes less than 30 minutes to make, including the time to harvest the lamb’s quarters (assuming you're behind on your weeding so have lamb's quarters readily available). Despite its simplicity and humble ingredients, the flavors are luxuriant: runny yolks combine with vegetable juices to form an enthrallingly rich sauce.

Lamb's Quarters and Tomatoes with Eggs (Χόρτα και Ντομάτες με Αυγά)
Serves 2
Any wild or domesticated greens may be used in this recipe. Milder greens, such as lamb’s quarters, nettles, spinach, and Swiss chard, taste best. Feta cheese, bread, and Kalamata olives typically are served with this dish.

6 cups greens, cleaned of stems and damaged leaves
1/2 cup diced onion, 1/4” dice
1 Tbsp. olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
1 cup diced fresh tomato, 1/4” dice
2 Tbsp. minced fresh mint or basil
4 eggs

Blanch greens in boiling salted water for 30-45 seconds. Drain, rinse with cold water, and squeeze out as much water as you can from greens (do this in batches using your hands or all at once using a clean dish towel). Roughly chop the blanched greens.

Sauté onion, lightly seasoned with salt and freshly ground black pepper, in olive oil. When onions begin to turn golden, add chopped greens and tomato. Mix well. When greens are hot, taste and add salt or freshly ground black pepper as needed. Stir in mint or basil.

Spread greens evenly over bottom of the pan and make an indentation for each egg in greens. Break one egg into each hole, lightly season with salt, turn heat down to low, and cover pan. Cook until egg whites just solidify and yolks are still liquid. Serve immediately.

Fresh International Gardens sells produce every Wednesday at the Northway Mall Farmers’ Market and alternating Saturdays at the University Center Farmers’ Market and the Spenard Farmers’ Market. Volunteers are needed to help with the Refugee Farmers’ Market Program; for more information about volunteer opportunities, contact Kelly Ingram at 786-6331.
This post is included in Weekend Herb Blogging compiled by Susan at The Well-Seasoned Cook.

Recipes for Swiss Chard Braised with Olives and Feta (Σέσκουλο με Ελιές και Φέτα) & Pancakes with Leftover Greens, Olives and Feta

Greens season is here. Gardens and farmers’ markets in Anchorage are filled with every type of cool weather green. Swiss chard, spinach, and kale are in their prime.

It’s also the season during which many Alaskans are doing hard duty out on the salmon grounds, making sure freezers are filled with fish for the upcoming winter.

The best reason to eat greens and salmon is they just plain taste good. Luckily, both are good for your health: greens because they’re high in vitamins, minerals, and fiber and salmon because it’s loaded with omega-3 fatty acids

Freshly caught salmon has so much flavor it doesn’t need anything more than salt, pepper, and a little time on the grill or cast-iron pan.  Swiss Chard Braised with Olives and Feta is a good accompaniment. The greens’ earthiness, when paired with salty olives and feta, balances fresh salmon’s richness.

Swiss Chard Braised with Olives and Feta (Σέσκουλο με Ελιές και Φέτα)
Serves 4
Any greens, wild or domesticated or, better yet, a mixture of greens, can be substituted for Swiss chard.  This is delicious made with plain Kalamata olives, but I prefer using Roasted Kalamata Olives. Dry-cured or salt-cured olives (such as those from Thassos) may be substituted, but be sure to taste them and use less than 1/2 cup if they’re strong flavored. Most Greeks squeeze a lemon wedge over braised greens; I like them better plain. Serve lemon wedges on the side so each eater can choose their own amount of lemon. Swiss Chard Braised with Olives and Feta goes well with grilled or pan-fried salmon and other simply cooked seafood.

2 large or 3 medium bunches Swiss chard (about 10-12 cups cleaned, chopped leaves)
2 Tbsp. olive oil
2 Tbsp. minced garlic
1/2 cup pitted Kalamata olives, roughly chopped
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup feta cheese, crumbled
Lemon wedges

Strip Swiss chard leaves from stems; reserve stems for another use.  Wash and roughly chop the leaves (don’t dry leaves; the clinging water helps cook them).

In a Dutch oven or deep sauté pan, sauté garlic in olive oil over medium heat for 30 seconds, being very careful not to burn the garlic. Stir in Swiss chard, olives, a liberal seasoning of black pepper, and a light seasoning of salt (olives and feta also add salt). Cover, turn heat down to low, and cook until chard is tender, but not falling apart. (The dish may be made ahead to this point and reheated just before serving.)

Remove chard and olives from pan with slotted spoon. Put in serving bowl along with the feta. Toss well.  Serve with lemon wedges on the side.

Bonus Recipe

Pancakes with Leftover Greens, Olives and Feta
Makes 4-6 pancakes
Too lazy to make crepes, I mixed leftover Swiss Chard Braised with Olives and Feta into a simple batter and cooked it into pancakes. These cakes contain the same flavors as crepes, but can be mixed and cooked in less than 1/2 hour with a lot less hassle.  I served the savory pancakes with soft goat cheese, basil shreds, and thinly sliced prosciutto; they made a lovely lunch.

3/4 - 1 cup leftover greens, olives, and feta
3/4 – 1 cup milk
3/4 cup flour
1 egg
Freshly ground black pepper
Oil for griddle

Put leftover greens in a strainer set over a bowl, press down to squeeze out as much liquid as possible. Measure the liquid and add enough milk to make one cup.  Whisk egg and half the milk mixture into flour. Whisk in remaining milk mixture. Whisk in greens and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Heat small amount of oil in a griddle or cast iron frying pan over medium heat.  When pan is hot, ladle in 1/2 cup batter, spreading it out to form a 7” circle. Cook it on one side until it’s dry around the edges and the underside is nicely browned when lifted. Flip and cook on the second side.  Repeat until all the batter is used.

Serve plain, with cheese, or with thinly sliced prosciutto or salami.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Recipe for Squash Blossom Frittata (Κολοκυθοανθοί με Αυγά)

Haul from Wednesday's Farmers' Market: parsley, dill, Swiss chard, beets, spinach, broccoli, orach, zucchini, squash blossoms, cucumbers, tomatoes

Farmers’ market season is upon us. Stalls are bursting with fresh greens and herbs. Early broccoli and zucchini are spottily available. The first bunches of baby carrots appeared today. 

Making Tostadas

Surprises abound at the markets: scarlet vine-ripened tomatoes from Delta Junction, Matanuska Creamery's Caramel Cashew ice cream made using only milk from Alaska, steaming pots of homemade pozole and elote, blowsy ‘Flemish Antique’ peony poppies, freshly gathered duck and chicken eggs from Future Farmers of America.

Among the abundance, golden squash blossoms stand out as a rare treat. Never in stores, they're available only during their short season to home gardeners and farmers’ market shoppers. So far this year, only Rempel Family Farm is selling squash blossoms in Anchorage (50 cents each on Wednesday at Northway Mall Farmers’ Market and Saturday at South Anchorage Farmers’ Market).

Delicate squash blossoms don't like plastic bags. If paper bags aren't available, wrap in newspaper.

All squash blossoms are edible and may be used interchangeably. Because we grow zucchini at home, I’ve gotten used to calling them zucchini flowers. The more generic term, squash blossoms, is usually more accurate when buying from farmers who grow a wider range of squash.

I love stuffing squash blossoms with cheese and cooking them until they’re crispy and oozing with hot, melted cheese. (Tastes Like Home: Mediterranean Cooking in Alaska has recipes for 2 different cheese fillings for zucchini flowers.) Herby essence of basil brightens the flavor of Cheesy Potato-Basil Stuffing for zucchini flowers, and pairs well with a side of fresh greens. Squash blossoms are also tasty dipped in a tempura batter and simply fried.

Blue and brown eggs from Future Farmers of America; both had deep golden yolks.

On days when I want the flavor of squash blossoms, and don’t want to fiddle around or mess with hot oil, I make Squash Blossom Frittata.  Today we had farm-fresh, golden-yolked eggs, fresh herbs, and creamy fresh goat cheese to pair with the squash blossoms. Sighs of satisfaction replaced conversation as we ate; I finished by licking my fingers, wanting more.

Squash Blossom Frittata (Κολοκυθοανθοί με Αυγά)
Serves 2-4
Food writers often advise to remove pistils and stamens from inside squash blossoms, as well as the green bases (calyxes/calyces) and stems. Don’t do it. These parts are all edible and add wonderful flavor and texture. I remove the stems in this recipe purely for decorative reasons; without stems, the blossoms form a perfect pinwheel in the frittata. Use enough flowers to complete a pinwheel; about 8 large, 10 medium, or 12 small.  Accompany Squash Blossom Frittata with a crisp garden lettuce salad and dry white wine.

8-12 squash blossoms
5 eggs
2 Tbsp. minced fresh dill
1/2 cup diced shallots, 1/4” dice (may substitute green onions, see Note below)
1 Tbsp. butter, plus 1 tsp. (divided)
Freshly ground black pepper
3-4 Tbsp. fresh goat cheese
Dill sprigs for garnish (optional)

Prepare the Squash Blossoms:  If necessary, gently brush off dirt or debris from flowers; don’t wash or get them wet. Carefully open flowers and shake out any insect hitchhikers. Cut off stems, but leave green bases attached. 

Prepare Eggs:  Whisk together eggs and dill with a light seasoning of salt and freshly ground black pepper.  Using a heavy 9-10” oven-proof frying pan (cast iron works best), sauté shallots, lightly seasoned with salt and freshly ground black pepper, in 1 Tbsp. butter until they soften and start to turn golden.  Add sautéed shallots to eggs and whisk to blend (reserve excess butter in pan for cooking frittata).

Cook Frittata:  Preheat broiler to high.

Melt remaining 1 tsp. butter in pan used to cook shallots, arrange squash blossoms in pinwheel around bottom, and cook over medium heat for 30 seconds. Turn blossoms, and evenly pour whisked egg mixture over them. Break goat cheese into pieces and scatter over eggs. Turn heat down to low, cover pan, and cook until eggs are almost set, but still runny on top, about 4-5 minutes.  Put under broiler to finish cooking eggs. Flip out onto platter, garnish with dill sprigs, and serve.

Note: Green onions may, but don’t need to, be sautéed. If you use green onions and don’t sauté them, reduce butter to 2 tsp. and whisk green onions into eggs with dill.

This post is included in Weekend Herb Blogging compiled by Cinzia from Cindystar.

Peony Poppy 'Flemish Antique', Papavar somniferum paeoniflorum