Thursday, September 20, 2007

Harvest time!

September is well on its way and my garden is still giving forth tomatoes every day. I've also got eggplants, fennel, cabbage, squash (summer and winter this year! A banner year!), potatoes, carrots, chard, kale, and broccoli. Today I made a cold tomato soup--kind of a gazpacho with lime, cumin, and cinnamon. Tomorrow: what to do with the lovely tiny eggplants that squirrels keep taking little nips out of?

Above is a salad grown entirely from my garden this spring.

I don't believe that I can ever become self-sufficient. Unlike some writers who have argued for the locavore movement lately (I'm still really wanting to read Barbara Ehrenreich's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle; and there was a really funny feature in New York Magazine by Manny Howard detailing his many failures trying to live off what his yard produced in Brooklyn), I don't think we will solve our many environmental problems by hunkering down by the campfire eating moldy but homegrown turnips through the long Northeastern winters. Every place has its own local food culture, and trading to mutual benefit is never a problem. It's not the 'where' as much as the 'what' and the 'how.' Do I really need to buy apples from Washington when I can get them from New York? No, but if I want pineapple, bananas, or green peppers in the winter, I'm going to have to get them from afar. Is this reasonable? Yes, but it's also reasonable to ask that these things be sustainably farmed and shipped with respect to the environment.

We are social creatures, and we need each other to survive. There is no such thing as truly self-sufficient. Still, my vegetable garden has become central to my life these past few years, changing the way I think about food, and I've gotten better at growing stuff. Mostly, I'm more organized than I was (my first year I had a tomato forest and total chaos! But it was beautiful) and better at spacing plants. I just never believe that such tiny seedlings will grow up into edible veggies. But look, a casserole of roasted garden veggies:

As a result of growing my own vegetables for a small portion of the year, I've come to realize how much sweat labor food takes. (Answer: lots.) From digging and composting to planting, weeding constantly, watering, and harvesting, it's pretty much non-stop work. It's one of the most pleasurable forms of work I know, however, and oh do those tomatoes taste sweet! Even at the farmer's market there aren't such juicy, flavorful tomatoes as I grow. My fav. varieties: Lillian's Yellow heirloom tomatoes, which really don't become ripe until September 1 or so, and Cherokee tomatoes, a dark winey tomato with dark green shoulders. Here is my little plot of earth.

The reason I called this blog "Dish and Dirt" is because I believe that what we 'dish' ultimately relies on the condition of our dirt. In plain terms, what we eat grows on this earth, and its quality depends on the soil. Despite a certain degree of cantankerousness (and the desire to keep eating imported chocolate), I do believe that we could all do a lot more local eating. I try to resist processed foods, foods that have traveled too far to get to me (except for chocolate), and especially foods that have been slapped together and shipped with no thought to quality, care, or health. So let's all get out and enjoy those farmer's markets, apple picking farms, and local honey while it's harvest season.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

River Street Café

My husband and I went out to eat at the River Street Café to celebrate our anniversary recently, and it was passably good. I had the cod with an avocado cilantro preparation, my husband had the pasta dish--noodles with vegetables--but I left feeling as I often feel at restaurants: my culinary life has just been made unecessarily complicated.

Simplicity is hard to come by. People think that once they've hit on a good thing, we all want more of it. Restraint is the natural companion of quality, but they are both so often missing in life. The stomach doesn't have to be overwhelmed with quantity nor the taste buds drowned in excess.

The River Street Café is located on 429 River Street, right next to the big parking lot where the summer Troy Farmer's Market takes place. Their telephone is 518-273-2740, and their hours are Tues-Sat. 5:30 until closing, but it's a good idea to call. There were several months this year when it seemed that the restaurant was just closed; perhaps the proprietor was on vacation.

I like the relaxed atmosphere at the River Street Café and its romantic candlelit tables with views of the Hudson River. It's a trustworthy spot, one that many RPI students and professors frequent and take parents and relatives to. Still, I see some room for improvement.

To begin with, there is my fish predicament, which isn't really a criticism of the River Street Café alone, but keeps coming up. Since I'm a vegetarian who eats fish, all the many meat dishes there (the duck, the lamb, the beef) were not options for me. I didn't feel like eating pasta, since I can easily make that at home. That left salmon, Chatham cod, or swordfish, and swordfish I know has high levels of mercury, so that's automatically out. Salmon is everyone's favorite 'safe' fish choice, but unless it's wild Atlantic salmon, chances are you are ingesting PCBs (farmed salmon are fed some fairly vile things, and according to this web site, can be toxic). That left the Chatham cod, and, well, it sounds safe and New England-ey, but it's not much better than salmon. The Oceans Alive guide to fish claims Atlantic Cod is not such a great choice, although this isn't as much because of high chemical levels as because it is not sustainably fished. When I asked the waitress what "Chatham cod" meant, she just said it meant it was from Chatham. Hmmm. Well, it's what I got, but I didn't feel that great about it. These days, restaurateurs need to reassure their patrons about fish. We need all the information we can get.

The food we got was good-- it began with a huge plate of tangy tomato noodles that I remember from other times at the River Street Café (but it was a huge plate, too much really). The cilantro-avocado preparation on my fish was wonderful, and the butter homefried potatoes that came with our main course were divine. But it was *WAY* too much food, which made me feel uncomfortable: after an appetizer (a pita pizza with tomato sauce, cheese, and mushroom), a salad that comes with the meal (delicious 'mock' Ceasar), main dishes, and dessert (a triple layered chocolate and coffee-buttercream confection that was also a bit overpowering), I actually felt kind of disgusted with myself, and with American restaurants.