Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Roanoke gets a green star!

I think it will slowly come to light over the course of this blog that I have an unhealthy obsession with parks. Before I moved to Virginia I worked with New Yorkers for Parks, a parks advocacy group focused on maintaining equality of access across the New York City parks system. Did you know New York City has about 1,700 parks? Or that Staten Island is 20% parkland? These are the nuggets of KNOWLEDGE GOLD left over in my brain from working there.

One group I worked with a lot in that position was the New York City Community Gardeners Coalition. (Little known fact: I'm in the photo at the top of their home page. Can you find me???) The history of community gardens and urban agriculture in New York City is a long and twisty (and sometimes contentious!) tale that is better told by others with a  firmer grasp on the details. Be that as it may, urban gardening is exploding across the country, and people in cities are hungry for the land to do it on. Community gardens have long been used as a first step towards reclaiming or beautifying a neighborhood as it struggles to get back on it's feet. They are a way to put to use land that has been filled with trash, or is being used for drug deals or prostitution, or is simply an eye sore. Many people feel there is no need for government held land to be stockpiled until the neighborhood rebounds around it and makes it valuable in the eyes of a developer. Why not use it NOW to grow food or make a peaceful oasis for people to come together and plan their next steps?

The other side of this conversation is growing food on park land. In New York City the parks department had the Green Thumb program to help support and cultivate community gardens in the city. Green Thumb has done amazing work over the years, and presides over the largest community garden network in the country. However, as it is part of the city parks department, and the city parks department's stances on things reflect the views of the current mayor, there has been serious disagreements in the past between the program and the gardeners. While most food production by the public has been restricted to these community gardens sites (some of which are not mapped as park land) there are a few gardens popping up here and there around the city in more traditional parks, such as the farm site that is at Battery Park in lower Manhattan. (Of course this all gets super murky, as Battery Park is part of a public/private partnership and that is probably why this was given a green light. Sigh. I do not miss all the politics surrounding NYC parks!)

Anyway, as you can see it can be tangled and time consuming process to convince city parks departments that community gardening/urban farming on city park land is a worthwhile endeavor for them to allow. However, with the perfect storm of the local food movement, increase in urban populations, and a president that is focused on the obesity epidemic the time is ripe for city parks to get on board. And Roanoke, the nearest city to my new home, is doing so! This is very exciting to me. First of all I have to say that ever since I have moved here I have been very impressed in general with the parks departments in Roanoke and surrounding towns. They seem to be very well funded and have an incredible amount of programming going on. Kudos! (Again, park nerd. I'm not sorry for it.) And now it has just been announced that the Roanoke parks department is revamping it's five year plan to support urban agriculture. A good video on the topic is here. This is great news all around! I am on the edge of my seat to see where Roanoke's gardening is in a few years. I really think that once people grow fruits and vegetables, even just tomatoes in a pot on the window, they are more likely to eat them. Kids too!

What do you think? Am I overly excited about gardening for food in parks?

Monday, July 1, 2013

A bit more about swapping ingredients

New potato salad for the win! Also, I hope my food photography improves over time.

This weekend I did some grocery shopping at the Blacksburg Farmers Market. I hadn't been there on a Saturday in a while...dang, it was hopping! I was very impressed. And happy, since I am a proud board member of the market! Good job all around.

I didn't really go with a set plan of what to purchase, I just wanted to see what was available and go from there. This is a skill that takes time to learn, and it's one I don't think is ever really perfected. We all buy food we end up wasting sometimes. Our little family's goal is to eliminate as much food waste as possible. That usually requires shopping with a menu in mind, but that can sometimes be difficult at a farmers market as I have discussed. This is when the art of swapping comes in to play. Don't run to the store and buy every ingredient in every recipe, you'll spend way too much. Swap and save!

The first rule of ingredient swapping is have a go-to list of recipes that you feel very, very comfortable with. Most cooks have this. These are the recipes you make all the time and don't need directions for, recipes where you eyeball ingredients, recipes your family loves and you are known for. And of course, have a general idea of what the heck you already have at home! This is key.

Another good rule is to keep an eye out for variations of your favorite foods while you are out in the world. Does a local restaurant do mac and cheese with a special twist? Did you see a recipe in the paper that made chicken soup with a random ingredient? You don't have to steal these changes if you don't love them, but they are helpful to notice. These remembered unique takes on favorite foods will sometimes bubble up when I am faced with a pile of produce at a market and am desperately trying to fit the pieces together into a meal.

That is basically what happened to me on Saturday. We bought burger meat, and the hubs mentioned homemade French fries as a side. But the only potatoes I saw were teeny new potatoes. They were so delicate, it would be a bit of shame to lose that flavor. I thought. I considered. I looked over at the peas, and ogled the beautiful radishes, both grown by my neighbors at Glade Road Growing. I remembered seeing peas in a potato salad somewhere out in the world, who knows where? I bought the potatoes, peas and radishes and looked up a basic potato salad recipe. I didn't have all the ingredients, but I had the key ones and enough similar ones to pull it all together. This is my recipe, adapted from this one. People, when I tell you it is delicious you must believe me. It is the essence of early summer. Dig in.

New potato salad with peas and radishes
1 pound new potatoes ( I got tinyyyy red ones)
1/2 pound peas in their pods
3 French radishes
1/3 cup mayo, you may want less
3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon fresh dill, minced
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 tablespoon chives, minced
salt and pepper to taste

Cut the potatoes in half and boil them in salted water until you can pierce them with a fork (about 15 minutes) Drain them and set aside.
Meanwhile, cut the tips off of the peas and cut each pod in thirds. Cut the radishes into coins. Place in a bowl.
Add the drained potatoes to the peas/radishes. Drizzle with vinegar.
In a small bowl, mix the mayo, dill, chives, mustard seeds and salt and pepper. Add to the veggies in the big bowl and stir until fully coated with the mayo dressing.
Chill for an hour before serving.

And as always, if you don't have all the ingredients, forge on anyway! I believe in you!