Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Summer Upon Us (and summer not)

We've almost come to the end of August here (and everywhere else, I can only presume) and it has become plain that this is all the summer those of us here in the Willamette Valley are going to get. We just got that burst of summer that everyone was looking for, temps in the low 90's (that would be fahrenheit, natch) and lovely warm evenings, but it only lasted four or five days. Just as quickly we've reverted to gray misty mornings and overnight temps in the 50's (we put a quilt on the bed last night) and today it even had the nerve to rain; a slow steady rain that's still coming down, while I was out stacking firewood. It's odd, or so they tell me, but I'm thinking this may just be a new part of the ever shifting weather paradigm.

The Willamette Valley is a major agricultural area and provides employment to nearly 225,000 people annually. There is a huge harvest of vegetables of all kinds, wine is, of course, becoming a big factor economically, but the Willamette Valley produces more exported berries, hazelnuts and wheat than any other agricultural area of the United States. Additionally, the Valley is home to a huge production of the famous Cascade hops, prized among beer makers for the distinctive bitterness they bring to the brew. Spread between the veggies and berries are the biggest agricultural cash crop of all, commercial growing for nurseries. There are hundreds of acres of land filled with potted shrubs, trees and flowers looking for a nursery in a neighborhood near you.

Summer didn't begin to give our valley much in the way of sunshine and support until mid-July and suddenly here at the end of August the entire area is nearly done with the seemingly spontaneous burst of energy of farmers and workers scrambling overtime to get the crops picked and packed in less time than usual. The strawberries and raspberries are pretty much done, there is still a final harvest of blackberries and blueberries going on and I must confess, they are among the best I have ever eaten anywhere. My esteem for raspberries in particular had fallen mightily since they became a nearly year round crop (thanks to Peru and down under), but this summer I have eaten raspberries grown right down the road that have made my jaw drop; fat, succulent and filled with flavor (as opposed to the pebbly, dry and flavorless berries that are passed off on cruiselines and hotel buffets year round).

I just picked up some peaches that were grown between here and Albany that rival most of those I've had from California and at the same farm they had four different types of heirloom varietal melon, including a Charentais, the French cantelope. The aroma in the truck emanating from the peaches and those melons as I drove home was heavenly. Back when I arrived here in March I would never have believed that produce this sweet and this ripe would come from an area so cold and damp.


Because I have spent my entire life in restaurants I have always been the beneficiary of other gardens and other gardeners. I began using local produce grown in Brentwood by David and Laurie Visher at T.R.'s Bar and Grill in Concord, CA, way back in the summer of 1985; bought produce from local gardens at Tourelle in Lafayette in the late 80's; and got "same day as picked" deliveries of amazing heirloom varietals from Summer Fog produce, George Gutekunst's tiny outpost in the fogbelt of San Francisco's Avenues in the 90's.
It used to be that chefs in cities used to have to really want to do the work to locate and serve farm fresh produce. It's only recently, and I'm talking the last 10-12 years or so that chefs and restaurants have been able to offer produce that has come out of the ground that day or at least, the day before.

And now cooking for just Kathy and myself, I'm getting the opportunity to use the product right as it emerges from the earth. Green beans to pot in three minutes and on the table in ten; what a concept. And the flavor, whew, remarkable!! It's a whole new thing for me to be able to use produce that comes right out of my backyard. Kathy did nearly all the work this past Spring, but I did run the tiller and did a fair amount of weeding. I didn't realize just how much I was going to enjoy reaping the benefits of her (and a bit of my own) hard labor.

Our own garden started slowly, but has suddenly sprung into production, catching us a bit unawares and not quite ready with a plan for the bounty. A few weeks ago we dug our first potatoes and a seed plot of tiny reds yielded us between 50-60# of beautiful firm red first crop
potatoes; small, medium and large. Last week we dug up the smaller harvest of yukon golds, getting another 30#s or so out of the rich (20 years of horseshit, Kathy tells me) soil and another 10# of delicious red fingerlings. The medium sized potatoes are wonderful roasted simply in a bit of olive oil, sea salt and fresh cracked pepper. I've also been making a French-style potato salad with plenty of Dijon mustard and red vinegar that has all who have tasted it saying, "the best I ever had". I'd like to take credit, but it's all in the potatoes.

We pulled up all the fragrant members of the lily family this past weekend and now have bags of onions, shallots and long stems of garlic hanging in the shed for winter use. The garlic in particular is strong, odiferous and such a pleasure to use so very fresh. We got a major haul of green beans and although as I mentioned, I delight in cooking them to al dente 1o minutes out of the garden in butter and shallots, this past weekend we had a gathering of Kathy's family and by request I did them the way her mom and my mom used to, slow cooked, with bacon and onions. What a world of difference in flavors, though; tender, delicious, and consumed, every last one!

We've eaten all the peas, they were fabulous, sweet and crunchy, but lots of ground work and shelling for such a small yield. This is a big broccoli producing area and we had a small harvest of our own. When we cut the florets, they were so damn fresh they were almost a glowing blue-green color. And the flavor was otherworldly as well. We've had a bit of a blight on the summer squash, a root fungus or something, but there are still enough (and thank God, not too many) zucchini and crooknecks to saute a night or two a week or to offer themselves up to my own version of ratatouille (one in which I cook each of the ingredients separately and then mix them).

We're still looking forward to another harvest of lettuce, one more of peas and the remainder of the beans and squashes. And oh, yes, the corn, the tomatoes and the celebration of the season at the Harvest Fest in Mt. Angel. There are pears and apples still to come; carrots and peppers and pumpkins, and did I mention the corn? So yes, fresh from our garden and fresh from this valley have been revelations to me in this, my first Oregon summer.

Wednesday May 13, 2009 La Cusinga and Me

This words below are from our website describing La Cusinga.  The story, however is much deeper and much richer than these introductory words can describe.  La Cusinga represents a noble and successful effort to preserve this section of unspoiled coast and to keep it alive as a model of what true ecology can accomplish.  The dreams and visions of John Tresemer, the owner of La Cusinga and the Finca Tres Hermanas that surrounds it, have been realized here in what is a true example for all who would preserve and protect what remains of this, or any natural wonder. 

La Cusinga 
La Cusinga Lodge is a coastal rainforest eco lodge dedicated to marine and terrestrial conservation and environmental education. Its location on the southern Pacific coast provides guests with sweeping ocean views and a relaxing beach vacation. In addition La Cusinga is part of a private nature reserve that supplies the visitor with an unparalleled look at Costa Rican wildlife and rainforest. The reserve consists primarily of 250 hectares of virgin rainforest that borders thousands of more acres of privately protected forest. On Costa Rica’s still wild south-western Pacific coast, La Cusinga Lodge borders Ballena Marine National Park which was developed to protect the humpback whales that frequent the coast. La Cusinga Lodge was established in order to share the unique site with Costa Ricans as well as international visitors. Besides getting exposure to rural Costa Rican culture and beautiful vistas, visitors have access to highly prolific areas of primary tropical rainforest and unspoiled coast, all conveniently accessible. 

i returned to La Cusinga this past January, 2009, with a dream in mind.  I wanted to create a cuisine for our guests that would bridge the gap between what La Cusinga offered physically and spiritually, and what they were putting in their bodies when they ate here.  I knew from having previously lived in Costa Rica for over two years that there were organic farmers and that sustainable agriculture was being practiced, but at that time it had been limited in its scope as well as its distribution.  

My first steps upon returning were toward the local Feria to seek out and communicate my ideas with the growers and vendors who could provide me with a local, organic and sustainable product.  The fertile valleys of San Isidro that lie over the coastal mountains and to the Northeast of our Pacific location are rich and productive but are only now exploring the potential that they hold.  

I had in mind a vision that would support local farmers, fishermen and food artisans and one that would recreate (or perhaps, create) a new cuisine of Coastal Costa Rica.  I visit the markets each week to talk with growers and to develop the  relationships that I believe will be mutually beneficial as Costa Rica experiences its rapid growth on an international level
Organic farming is a new and not heavily supported concept in our part of Costa Rica.  It is a brave step for farmers to make, as local communities of both growers and consumers have never placed, or not known to place, an importance on farming organically and sustainably.  I feel a responsibility as a Chef here to be at the forefront of those encouraging and supporting these pioneers  

I came to La Cusinga almost three years ago not knowing what to expect.  My first time through here was characterized by a lack of understanding and appreciation on my part as well as an inability to recognize or connect with the local "flavor" that would make for a coherent package for out guests.  I now feel as if I have made a "connect" with the property and the vision.  I am not completely satisfied and hopefully, never will be, until we are able to produce, right here at La Cusinga, the greater share of the produce we serve.  However, the groundwork has been laid with local farmers and the availability and quality of organic produce is impressive.

Now at La Cusinga I serve a variety of organic lettuces and braising greens.  My salads include wedges or slices of rich red tomatoes as well as sweet !00 and yellow pear cherry tomatoes.  I roast organic beets and marinate them in balsamic vinegar to be served alongside the lettuces and topped with a locally made organic goat cheese.

My soups are made from roasted and steamed local organic vegetables and tiny organic yellow creamer potatoes have found their way onto my plates, nestled against filets of locally caught fish.
I am now using a local organic cocoa powder that still contains the nuggets of cocoa butter unlike the fined cocoa powder in the markets.

And better still, I am able to use palmito (hearts of palm), ginger, cilantro and its sawtooth leafed cousin culantro coyote, mangoes, hot and sweet chiles, mandarina limes and yucca root from our own Finca Tres Hermanas to serve in my dining room at La Cusinga.   The connection from jungle and farm to table is evolving.  May it continue to grow.