Thursday, June 14, 2012

Book Review: Michelle Obama's 'American Grown'

The Calm One sweetly gifted me with the American First Lady's book on how her White House vegetable garden came to be.  An engaging presentation by a charming person, the book has huge visual appeal, featuring many photos of the dynamic, smiling, brimming-with-health Michelle Obama working in the White House kitchen garden and out and about in various communities.  The prose is simple and direct, always grounded with her concern regarding the obesity epidemic affecting American children.  The sale proceeds of her book being channelled into her Let's Move campaign--aimed to help American kids get healthy--underscores this focus.

Full title:  American Grown, The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America

She explains her concern began as she realised despite all the Obamas' emphasis on giving their children the best support possible, they somehow did not give healthy food its due.  Identifying this oversight, she goes to the root of the problem which is that the American lifestyle has radically changed from the one which she experienced growing up.  En bref, kids eat empty calories and live very sedentary lives. The First Lady recalled how she ate with her family at home, eating everything on the plate which always included veggies.  Going to restaurants were special treats as was having candy.  She played hard each day and walked to school and the playground.

As returning to the past is not possible, she counsels parents and communities to make connections between food intake, exercise, and health in a dynamic way.  For her, that means involving children in growing vegetables and fruits and encouraging kids to be physically active, and what better way is there than use her very public person as a focal point to inspire and educate?  Her idea for a White House kitchen garden preceded her husband's winning the presidency.  Considering herself fortunate to have parents who made sacrifices which gave her a good start in life, she wants to give back to the community.  Accepting what a daunting task lies ahead, she equally accepts there is no other choice but to take on this grave problem.

As an inexperienced grower of vegetables, she was apprehensive if she could pull off a White House kitchen garden.  She did not even know if it was legally possible as the grounds are a national park or if the soil was suitable or even what the best location would be which turned out to be a place where the garden can be seen from the street because she regards the White House as the people's house.  Once the garden got going with the help of staff and schoolchildren, she started to make important connections between health, eating well, physical work, patience, flexibility, joy, and community.  She comes off as a thoughtful and gracious person in her pulling all these elements together.

Her attempt, however, to draw a historical precedent for actual White House kitchen gardens is uninspiring.  It is almost she does not want to admit how innovative an idea her White House kitchen garden is or how capable she is by actually getting it completed.  I say, well done!  Mentioning the three sisters of Native Americans--planting beans, corn, and squash together--along with the Second World War victory gardens rounds out the narrative.

Starting with 2009 going through 2011, garden plans are listed. Solutions to problems and changes based on learning from mistakes are explained.  The staff involved in the garden are presented and recipes prepared by White House chefs are described.  Various community gardens/outreach programs are given the spotlight.

Bypassing the problem of food corporations selling non-nutritious and fattening foods, she zeros in on how communities can assure the health of their kids by direct action and grass roots organising which includes using My Plate, an improved version of the food pyramid.   She acknowledges that despite parents wanting to feed their kids the best way, not knowing how to do so because of all the complicated and conflicting information leads often to their just giving up.  She admits some Americans have no access to fresh produce in their neighbourhoods, hence the focus on community kitchen gardens.

She provides medical statistics to show clearly how poor diets have made American soldiers subject to all kinds of health problems, especially bone fractures and bad teeth.  Therefore, unhealthy food intake is directly threatening national security.  Additionally she ties in faith groups and the concept of gratitude with a photo of her and a family saying grace together.

Harvested French-grown garlic and potatoes in the background!

As far as gardening information goes, her book does well as an introductory primer--I especially appreciated her year-round focus of growing food--while being visually pleasing, either with/without its jacket, closed/opened, and indoors/outdoors!


Wikipedia:  Epidemiology on Global Obesity

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Summer Soups: Fresh Pea ... and how to preserve grape leaves

Not only is fresh pea soup easy to make, it is also refreshingly delicious.  When served cold, it makes a perfect culinary accent to a sultry day.

Simple recipes shine when the very best ingredients are chosen so I used my own garden's petite pois/green onions/rosemary along with my home-made chicken stock.  If you don't have a veggie garden, consider going to a farmer's market. 

Fresh Pea Soup Recipe
(Makes 4 small servings, ideal for a first course or two larger servings that can be accompanied with cheese and bread.  Fresh pea soup can be served either hot or cold)

  • Peas, shelled and preferably fresh but a good frozen brand will work, 500 grams (3 cups/roughly 1 pound)
  • Cream, 75 ml (1/4 cup)
  • Chicken broth, if not home-made, get the very best available, 500 ml (2 cups)
  • Scallions/green onions, 4 medium
  • Butter, 30 grams (1-2 tablespoons)
  • Rosemary, fresh/frozen, a small sprig
  • Yogurt, plain, full fat, several tablespoons per serving
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Reserve the tops of the green onions for later garnishing and slice the white bottoms.  Saute them in butter for a minute or too, till soft.  Add broth, peas, and rosemary and simmer till peas are cooked, about five minutes.  Blend in a mixer for the most smooth texture--though a hand-held mixer would do a good enough job.  Season to taste, serve in cups, ramekins, or small soup bowls, topped with a swirl of yogurt and some sliced scallions.

How to make decorative swirls of yogurt without a multi-purpose pastry bag?  Think fluid dynamics!  I beat the yogurt still it is pretty runny and then practice first with a small amount of soup with how high I need to suspend the spoon.  I applied mine in a circular fashion, but a different pattern can certainly be used.

I enjoy crops with dual harvests: beets/turnips roots and greens,  green peas and shoots, onions and scallions, garlic and scapes.  Then there are grapes which bestow those perfect gems of concentrated fruit flavour along with delectable leaves for stuffing.

One of  our ten vines

I harvested our grape leaves in mid May when the leaves are light green, unblemished, and roughly the size of a woman's palm. Older, larger leaves are too tough for culinary purposes.  I snip off as much of the stem as I can.

With the fast and heavy pace of sowing, transplanting, weeding, mowing, harvesting, and preserving at present, I only had time for blanching and preserving them--eventually I will make stuffed grape leaves, one of my favourite foods.

Preserving Fresh Grape Leaves

Grape leaves need to be blanched first before using and before preserving. Wash leaves under running water, then either bring water to a boil in a large pot, turn heat off, and add leaves and let sit for around 3 minutes or pour boiling water into a pot, toss in the leaves, and let sit for the same amount of time. Remove with a slotted spoon.  Rinse under cold running water.  Separate leaves and pat dry with paper towels.  You can now proceed with the recipe or place them in a labelled bag for freezing.

The leaves turn olive green once blanched

As they are being patted dry, whittle down any remaining stem to prevent holes being made when they are stacked.

Such a lovely, burnished, gold-green colour

Sorted into piles of similar size

I tear up a few less perfect ones for cushioning layers of Dolmades

It is important to keep one's wits about her when the pace of gardening gets intense.  On that note, I leave you with this calm, cool, collected Calla:

Michelle's Astuce:

All green herbs--as in what you can do with all that fresh rosemary you bought so you can toss a sprig into this soup--can be chopped and frozen.  When needed, just crumble a bit off.  Or a little water can be added to the chopped herbs which are put in an ice-cube tray.  The cubes are then stored in a freezer bag.


How to sow peas
How to preserve peas by freezing