Rotten Tomatoes

Tomato rotting on vine
End of Season by TimLewisNM (2010) CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr

One the downsides of an abundant tomato crop is that the tomatoes ripen faster than humans can organize to pick them. This is especially true of a volunteer-run community garden project. Sunday morning, I agreed to come to help harvest ripe vegetables and to arrange logistics of delivery to food pantries. I hadn’t been to the Mitzvah Garden, a project growing food for local pantries, all summer. I discovered that after working all week at the Children’s garden, I couldn’t force myself to get up early on Sunday morning to … work in another garden. Only a special request from our usual organizer (who would be out of town) got me into my garden clothes for a 6th day of the week.

When I arrived Sunday morning, it was great to catch up with other volunteers whom I hadn’t seen all summer. However, it was finally time to get to work. Other headed for the bell peppers and the cucumbers. I grabbed a “slush bucket” and “good tomato bucket” and headed for the tomato forest. We were both blessed and cursed with a bountiful harvest of tomatoes. The tomato plants burgeoned with ripe fruit, but the humans weren’t fast enough to get them before overripe tomatoes became food for various invertebrates and microorganisms.

As the only tomato harvesting volunteer at first, I realized I need to move methodically down the rows, putting mushy tomatoes in the compost bucket, while keeping the solid citizens in a separate container. Then, I would transfer the good tomatoes to the flats I put strategically at the end of each row. Physically, it was pretty challenging, squatting or kneeling between the rows to reach low-hanging tomatoes.

However, I hadn’t taken into account the sheer … gloppiness of the endeavor. As I reached for tomatoes on the plants, it wasn’t always clear which ones were good tomatoes and which ones were rotten. Putting my hand around rotten tomato often resulted in its explosion, coating my gloves and clothing with stinking, rotten tomato juice. I tried to keep the stinky slush off the good tomatoes (which occasional got splattered) by wiping them off on my pants. Soon, I was completely marinated in a coating of fermented, rotten tomato slime, sweat and dirt.

Eventually, other volunteers joined us to help harvest tomatoes (and then some of them snuck away to do other activities.) I let other people deal with the good tomatoes and focused on the slushy ones. I made 4 separate trips to the compost pile to re-empty my bucket of rotten tomato paste. I also hadn’t counted on the sheer volume of tomatoes I was dealing with: Even with perhaps a 3 to 1 ratio of mushy tomatoes to good tomatoes, we still ended up with 8 flats of tomatoes for delivery! Though there was a silver lining to our adventure, I was too miserable and smelly by the end of the harvest to appreciate the mitzvah.

As I walked in to the house, I stripped off my filthy shoes, hat and clothing. Then I made a beeline for the shower. Maybe scientists will some day discover that rotten tomatoes are actually an excellent skin tonic. However, now I think I know why bad comedians are pelted with them: Soaking someone in rotten tomato slime clearly indicates the depth of one’s displeasure with the object. That is all.

A post about pickles

Pickles in jars
Pickles!! by M Prince Photography (2014) CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0 via Flickr.

For a blog that calls itself “Protopian Pickle Jar,” it occurs to me that I rarely post about fermented vegetables.

However, last week, I got a real hankering for pickles. Not just any pickles from the grocery store, mind you, but an authentic deli-style, non-vinegar based lacto-fermented pickles. Like the kind that used to come from a pickle barrel on the Lower East Side. Or that we would make in the Picklearium (aka Center for Cultural Proliferation) at Isabella Freedman and devour off the IF salad bar. Surprisingly, these are kind of hard to find. They do sell them in the “refrigerated kosher section” at the grocery store. I bought 2 jars and started eating them almost immediately upon returning home.

Maybe it was all the salt-loss from our 105 deg F heat index weather. Maybe my gut microbes were calling out for replenishment. Maybe, as my grandma would said, I was in search of a “cheap drunk,” that the biting taste of fermented pickles provides.

Internet-provided potential pickle-hankering insights:

In her Tablet Magazine article, “A Barrel Full of Jewish Flavor,” Marjorie Ingall provides some context for the yearnings of her pickle-fiend children.

But not everyone viewed pickles as a benign and tasty foodstuff. …WASPier Americans saw the pickle as morally suspect. [Jane Zigelman] quotes physician and author Dr. Susanna Way Dodds, who wrote in 1883: “The spices in it are bad, the vinegar is a seething mass of rottenness … and the poor little innocent cucumber … if it had very little ‘character’ in the beginning, must now fall into the ranks of the ‘totally depraved.’ ”

Jews did not get this memo. When Lower East Side public schools let children out at lunchtime, kids ran en masse to the nearest pushcarts. Social service workers were horrified. “Pickles were seen—by a nation on its way to Prohibition—as a compulsion for those too young to drink alcohol,” noted Ziegelman. They were often classified as a “stimulant,” along with coffee, tobacco, and whiskey. … The City’s Board of Education established school lunch in large part to wean immigrant children away from their degenerate pickle lust.

Mmmm, degenerate pickle lust.

But there may also be a serious psychological component to my yen for fermented veggies.

Peter Andrey Smith, in the New York Times Magazine, examines how bacteria in your gut can affect your mood. In the study of “psychobiotics,” scientists recognized that communities of microbes living in our not only do things like create vitamins, but they also secrete neurotransmitters that can affect our moods. Nurturing the bacteria that release these chemicals may help alleviate depression and anxiety in their human hosts.

In addition, researchers at William and Mary found an association between increased consumption of fermented foods and reduction of social anxiety in genetically-prone young adults.
While there is much research to be done in this intersection of psychology and delicious, delicious fermented foods, I can testify that I was a pretty happy human when consuming vast quantities of fermented vegetables from the Isabella Freedman salad bar. (I see a potential sociological/microbiological study to be conducted by generations of future Adamahniks…)

Finally, the New York Times Video profiles Sandorkraut: A Pickle Maker, a short documentary (~12 min) by Ann Husaini and Emily Lobsenz about legendary (in Adamahnik-circles) pickling enthusiast and writer Sandor Katz.
I first became aware of Katz’s work at Adamah (his book, “Wild Fermentation” is recommended reading for incoming cohorts.) The filmmakers explain, ” While empowering his followers to try their own hand at fermenting, he is not only reinvigorating an ancient cultural practice, but also reminding us what it means to be in a symbiotic relationship with microorganisms that have evolved alongside us throughout history.”

Kitchen Table Cloning

One of the benefits of working at a garden is that I have access to plant cuttings trimmed off during regular maintenance. Some plant cuttings, like coleus, root well in plain water.
I decided to put on my DIY mad scientist skills to work on potting some of these beauties for my kitchen window.

To propagate coleus cuttings:

Allow cuttings to develop roots by placing them in plain water for a few days.
rooting coleus

Locate some appropriate containers to place the cuttings into.
empty yogurt cups

Make sure there is adequate drainage. I punched a few holes in the bottom of each plastic cup with the pointy end of a bottle opener.
yogurt cup drainage

Fill cups with potting soil.
potting soil

Place seedlings in cups.
coleus plants in yogurt containers

I also did a similar experiment with Portulaca grandiflora (aka moss rose) cuttings.

I took a polystrene egg carton and cut the top and bottom halves apart.
egg carton

After poking holes in the bottom of the egg cups, I stacked the top half of the carton underneath the bottom half to catch drips.
stacked egg cartons

Then I filled the egg carton with perlite to promote drainage.

After wetting the perlite (per directions), I used a pencil to make holes in the wet medium. Then, I inserted the unrooted portulaca cuttings into the holes I had made.

plants in yogurt cups and egg carton
Coleus and Portulaca Plants, DIY Cloning by Protopian Pickle Jar (2015) CC BY SA 2.0

Kitchen table cloning! Mwahahahahaha!

Tangents for this post:

I am a huge fan of Chobani yogurt products, mostly because they are delicious, but also because the cups from their Greek Yogurt are incredible useful for many DIY tasks.
I found out that my Greek Yogurt habit may not be so environmentally friendly, because acid whey produced by the straining process can cause problems when released into natural bodies of water.

One alternative is to give the acid whey to farmers to feed to animals or apply to soil. Chobani has also developed a filtration system for acid whey that concentrates the solids, separating out clean water, which the company can recycle at their plant.

A plant in the wrong place

A Large Piece of Turf (1503) by Albrecht Durer via Wikimedia Commons,_1503_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg
A Large Piece of Turf (1503) by Albrecht Durer via Wikimedia Commons,_1503_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg

These days, in my work at the children’s garden, I spend a lot of time thinking about weeds. Weeds growing through cracks in the bricks, sprouting up around around the tomato plants, and snaking in between the raspberry canes. Weeds that are so hardy that we need to throw them in the trash (instead of the compost heap) to try and stem their spread. (I think of those as “biological toxic waste.” )

I tell my group visiting the garden that weeds are plants in the wrong place at the wrong time. (When plants reseed in the beds, they’re “volunteers.” When they escape the beds, they’re weeds.) It is partly an issue of fashion – that plant is lovable, but a weed isn’t. It’s partially an issue of control: a plant behaving itself under human (or other ecological) controls is okay. A plant growing wherever the heck it wants, not so much.

I just finished reading “Weeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants” by Richard Mabey. (The subtitle on the British edition is different, but also hilarious: How Vagabond Plants Gatecrashed Civilisation and Changed the Way We Think About Nature.) The author details the history and travels of many common weeds, especially those appearing in literature and art.

I’m pretty impressed with tenacity of weeds that are able to thrive in what amounts to a stripped wasteland – whether a stretch of cooled lava from a volcano or forest fire ashes or the pristine brickwork and pavement of human construction – building soil and retaining moisture, creating conditions to allow other plants to grow.

Cool things about weeds:

Green Deane’s Eat the Weeds site has a fascinating information about foraging for edible weeds.

Nancy Shute explainssalad foraging around NPR’s Washington DC office for edible plants.

The Brooklyn Botanical Garden demonstrates you can also make a delicious “roadside pesto” out of invasive garlic mustard.

From NPR’s The Salt blog: Eating purple nutsedge (now considered a weed) may have helped ancient people prevent cavities. Archaeologists studying a site in Sudan found traces of the plant in the dental plaque of skeletons buried there. Turns out, the nutsedge produces antibacterial chemicals that prevent the growth of Streptococcus mutans, an acid-producing bacterium that breaks down tooth enamel.

Earthly Delights Farm in Boise Idaho invented “Weed Dating” sessions, where participants can sign up to meet other singles and weed a patch of farm at the same time! Weeding with other people has been a very entertaining and satisfying activity, which I have experienced in my time with the children’s garden, and as an Adamahnik and Mitzvah Garden volunteer. I think this is a great idea for organizations looking to engage volunteers to do some weeding for them, as well as kindle new relationships!

We can have meditative brick weeding of the path at the children’s garden in partnership with a local meditation retreat center, giving participants a chance to mindfully weed a square foot patch of path.

Is a Tomato a Fruit or a Vegetable?

mini tomatoes on vine
Mini Tomato by Toru Wantanabe (2010) CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

Well, it depends on who you ask.

If you ask a botanist, a tomato is a fruit because it develops from the ovary of the flower and contains seeds of the plant.

If you ask a court, they might decide otherwise.
In 1893, the Supreme Court declared tomatoes to be vegetables. In Nix v. Hedden, a fruit importer challenged the Port of New York’s classification of tomatoes as vegetables, which unlike fruits, were subject to a 10% excise tax.

The court wrote,

“Botanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of a vine, just as are cucumbers, squashes, beans, and peas. But in the common language of the people, whether sellers or consumers of provisions, all these are vegetables which are grown in kitchen gardens, and which, whether eaten cooked or raw, are, like potatoes, carrots, parsnips, turnips, beets, cauliflower, cabbage, celery, and lettuce, usually served at dinner in, with, or after the soup, fish, or meats which constitute the principal part of the repast, and not, like fruits generally, as dessert. … As an article of food on our tables, whether baked or boiled, or forming the basis of soup, they are used as a vegetable, as well when ripe as when green. This is the principal use to which they are put. Beyond the common knowledge which we have on this subject, very little evidence is necessary, or can be produced.”

h/t to Nikki for this fun fact!

Jewish Soul Food: Kasha Varnishkes

triangular buckwheat seeds
pink and white buckwheat flower
Fagopyrum Bloom by Bernhard Friess (2014) CC BY-ND 2.0 via Flickr.

One of the cool things about working at an educational garden is that we have an amazing variety of edible plants, including all types of grains. While these grains are considered annuals and have to be reseeded each spring, some plants like the hardy amaranth and buckwheat return as indefatigable “volunteers” without any human assistance. When my supervisor pointed out the beautiful flowers of the buckwheat plants, I exclaimed, “I love buckwheat! Kasha Varnishkes are one of my favorite foods of all time.”

To which she responded, “Kasha what?”

“Kasha Varnishkes,” I replied. “You know, kasha with bowties? My grandma taught me to make it. It’s like Eastern European comfort food. I’ll make it and bring it in to work!”

(This office at the garden is inhabited by serious foodies who delight in cooking and sharing food with other people who work there, so this was a work-culturally appropriate offer.)

triangular buckwheat seeds
Buckwheat seeds by Ervins Strauhmanis (2010) CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

Kasha (or buckwheat groats) are made from ground and roasted buckwheat seeds, then prepared in a similar fashion to rice.
Instead of gathering, hulling, roasting and grinding the funky triangular seeds, I buy mine in a convenient box at the grocery store:

wolff's kasha

(There are even directions on the back of the box.) An important note: Kasha tastes much better if one coats the groats in egg and then toasts them briefly in the pan before adding boiling water. I’m not sure what chemical reaction is going on (browning?) but it definitely improves the flavor. Also, toasting kasha exudes a very slight, not-unpleasant aroma reminiscent of wet dog. (This odor seems to dissipate with the addition of sauteed onions and complete cooking of the kasha groats with water). Add cooked egg noodle bowties, salt and pepper to to taste and voila!

Pan of Kasha and bowtie noodles
Kasha Varnishes by Anne Feldman (2011) CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via Flickr

Kasha varnishkes is my go-to side dish, comfort food and potluck dinner contribution. It’s a recipe I’ve memorized, and could probably make in my sleep (though if you saute the onions instead of using onion soup mix flavor it, you get lot of pans dirty in the process.) I brought it to potluck dinners as a student at Biosphere 2 in Arizona (my fellow students thought it was pretty exotic!) and made it as a gluten free side-dish for the Isabella Freedman Thanksgiving Shabbat Dinner. It’s one of maybe 4 dishes I can make really well. It’s usually served hot, but I personally think Kasha varnishkes tastes better the next day after sitting in the fridge.

I brought my version of Kasha Varnishkes to the office for taste-and-tell. I even brought the box in (we can use it in the garden with our tours with kids) to show people what it was. It’s kind of fun being the one to bring in an “exotic” dish. It’s funny, because I would list Kasha as being the food I most closely link to my sense of home and my relationship with my grandmother. I was trying to explain this, but couldn’t quite capture it in words. One of my co-workers recognized the dish and she supplied the description: “It’s Jewish soul food.”

“Yes,” I said. “Exactly!”

Tangents for this post:

Wikipedia entry on buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum)
Mark Bittman’s Kasha Varnishkes Recipe


Hamantaschen on cookie sheet
Hamantaschen with prune and apricot filling. Made by me and mom (2015). Protopian Pickle Jar. CC BY-SA 4.0

Mom and I made hamantaschen, cookies associated with Jewish holiday of Purim, based on the classic New York times cookbook recipe. We only use prune and apricot filling, because that’s what we like. Poppy seed? Chocolate chip? Heresy!

See the empty spot on the far right of the cookie sheet? I ate that one out of the oven. It was amazing!

Food for thought:
Via Lilith Magazine (Susan Schnur, 1998):
“Can I prove that hamantaschen [lit. poppy-seed pockets] are contemporary sacred vulva cakes? No. But it certainly makes academic and gut sense to me: that parthenogenetic (self-fertilizing) hamantaschen—pubic triangles traditionally filled with black seeds—are pre-spring, full-moon fertility cookies, suggesting the potency of female generative power, and heralding women’s and the Earth’s seasonally awakening creativity.”

h/t to Aharon for the quote!