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Volunteering at an Urban Farm

7 Dec
by Deanne

Edging near the top of my bucket list, was an adventure that is completely out of my comfort zone.  I wanted to volunteer at Growing Power, Will Allen’s urban farm in Milwaukee. 

(Photos included in this post are selected from Growing Power’s photobucket.)

 photo 017.jpgYou ask, why did I have such an obscure adventure on my bucket list?  I first heard about Allen’s quest for doing something to improve the access to food in his city when I attended the Sustainable Agriculture Working Group Conference (SAWG) in 2012.  Since then I have wanted to see a slice of his work first hand.  He sums up what Growing Power is all about with this quote from the organization’s the website:

If people can grow safe, healthy, affordable food, if they have access to land and clean water, this is transformative on every level in a community.  I believe we cannot have healthy communities without a healthy food system.

Twenty years ago, Mr. Allen took an old run down nursery with a few greenhouses in a neighborhood that didn’t have access to fresh food and started growing things.  More than growing food, he has allowed people who visit, volunteer, purchase food, and work there to experience a food system that has been slowly slipping away from our way of life.

 photo 006.jpg

Last Saturday, we (Steve and Deanne) showed up at 10 AM for their weekly free volunteer tour.  The tour lasts thirty minutes and covers the greenhouse operations, soil making operations, and a visit to other areas outside the greenhouses.  Rather than tell you about the tour, I recommend you visit for yourself.  If you are closer to Chicago, Growing Power now has operations there also.  If can’t visit, check out his book The Good Food Revolution. Photo of Good Food Revolution Book Cover

Volunteering at a farm is out of my comfort zone because electronic gadgets are about the only tools I utilize.  After the tour we asked for our assignments and the tour guide suggested we work in one of the greenhouses and empty pots of soil and gravel.  Wheelbarrows and hand shovels showed up just like magic so we could empty pots from one greenhouse by separating the soil into one of the wheelbarrows and the gravel into buckets.  When we finished that chore, we scrubbed the pots clean so they would be ready to use again. 

A sign of strong leadership is when things get done when the leader isn’t around.  The leader attracts people with their strong sense of possibility or vision and then discovers the passion in the people that show up.  Finally the leader, with the help of a team, sets up systems and gets mostly out of the way so the people can shine.  We didn’t see Mr. Allen, but his team had a sense of purpose in their work.

We wished we could have eaten at Growing Power’s MLK Cafe which is in another location.  I see from the website that DeShawn Parker is the chef.  His inspirational life story is told in the book.   It would be my guess that having a cafe in a neighborhood that needs access to food with a chef who grew up in the Growing Power community is an example of the organization’s simple goal playing out: to grow food, to grow minds, and to grow community. 

Have any non-farmers like me ever volunteered at a farm?  If so, it would be great to hear about your experience. 

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Honest Abe’s: Lincoln, NE

18 Nov
by Deanne

Honest Abe’s:  Lincoln, NE

Yet another restaurant review!  The third one in a row.  First was Omaha, then Minneapolis, and now Lincoln.  The drill is the same, I look online for restaurants that would be worth reviewing when I am traveling.  

Driving through Lincoln the other day, I found Honest Abe’s which is part of the Ground Up Restaurant group.  I selected Honest Abe’s because on their website they described it using words like “good food” and “roots.” I interpreted that to mean locally sourced food.

Photo of Honest AbesReview: (Real Local Cooking’s criteria)

Localness: 2

As far as I could tell from visiting, the food was honestly good tasting,  but perhaps not honestly sourced from people who are working outside the conventional food service sources. When I looked again,  I could not find any mention on the website or in the restaurant of a specific farm or of grass-fed beef.  This is not really a rant but a statement of reality .  The purpose of our restaurant reviews is to call attention to trendy local lingo and see what is really going on at various restaurant we seek out because of their language.

Flavour: 4

We ordered two fairly plain burgers with fries.  There are a lot of options and a flavor of the week.  We were a bit boring in our choice of the Greatest Burger Ever  (a bacon cheese burger) and The United States of America burger  (a traditional burger ).  Both burgers had high quality ingredients like red onions and applewood smoked bacon, and fresh romaine lettuce.   The fries were too salty but we ate them up like this was the last time we’d ever eat fries or burgers.  Photo of Honest Abe burger

Pleasant Surprise: Yes

The place was busy at 5:10 on a Wednesday evening.  We had to wait a bit for a table and then eventually shared a long table with another group of six people. That is a nice surprise because when I visit a busy place, I build anticipation that the food will be good once it arrives.

Comfort+Coziness = The C factor: 4

The person at the counter was friendly and helpful, the decor is cozy and fun. I liked the black chalkboard walls, mixed with white walls and the hint of Lincoln logs in the rough wooded accents. For the most part I enjoy small spaces and this place was small. One drawback, I didn’t see any rest rooms.

Overall Rating: 10+

I do recommend Honest Abe’s as a destination if you are veering off the road of the standard chain road food. For those that are choosing to eat vegetarian, according to the menu they do let you to “sub a vegan patty for free.”    Located in a strip mall about 10 miles from Interstate 80 it is a worthy side trip for those driving through or those visiting Lincoln. In the parking lot is a cute little hut that sells baked items from the same restaurant group.  It is playfully called Sasquatch.  We didn’t try any of their items but I liked the fact that one item comes in its own little jar.   It is called “cake in jar” and comes in “vampire velvet” or “blackout” flavors.

Honest Abe's on Urbanspoon

Verdant Tea: Minneapolis, MN

14 Nov
by Deanne

Verdant Tea: Minneapolis Tasting RoomPhoto of Verdant Tea

The last time I wrote the word verdant I was speaking of my garden and all the possibilities when it grows with abandon in midsummer.  This time, I am referring to a place I heard on MPR about the growth of the Seward neighborhood for good food. We had a quick trip planned to Minneapolis so I looked up Verdant Tea. Intrigued by the elegant selection of offerings, we arrived for breakfast last Saturday morning.

Review: (Real Local Cooking’s criteria)
Localness: 3

Verdant Tea does serve local food.  They have partnered with Birchwood Cafe which many readers will recognize from our past reviews.  Verdant’s focus is on tea.  They source their teas from small farmers in China.  The business began as on online tea business and has now expanded to include the tasting room.

Flavour: 5

We ordered chai tea and another kind of tea that we didn’t quite catch when it was given. Both were good, but the food was what we enjoyed most.  I ordered the sweet Congee, Steve had the Soba Noodles, and Luke ordered the Birchwood Granola with Fruit and Yogurt. Photo of Rice PorridgeCongee is a porridge and the sweet version had wild rice, brown rice, quinoa, burdock root, gogi berries, walnuts, and a coconut ginger sauce.   I was able to sneak a taste of the two other options and was equally impressed with both.  The yogurt was excellent.  It appeared to be the kind of yogurt one makes at home on the counter rather than the kind one dumps from a plastic container.

Photo of Hot Soba Noodle

Pleasant Surprise: Yes

The food was surprisingly good.  Since it is a tea room that has food we were not really sure what to expect.  We went hoping the food would be decent.  It was stellar!  We talked about it for days afterward and discussed how to recreate it at home.

Comfort+Coziness = The C factor: 4.5

When we walked through the doors we were greeted immediately.  The environment is serene and makes for a peaceful calm retreat or gathering place for quiet conversation.  The staff was friendly but a bit more explanation about the options would have been helpful. They explained that they didn’t have tea flights at that time and they were in the process of changing their menu.  Having owned a restaurant, I have sympathy toward the situation they are currently finding themselves but others might be more put off by that kind of response.

Photo of Birchwood Granola

Overall Rating: 12.5+

I strongly recommend visiting Verdant Tea.  I look forward to returning and learning more about tea next time I visit.  In addition to partnering with Birchwood Cafe, they also sell Sweet Science Ice Cream.  We heard about them last year at an event for new food producers.  I look forward to trying some interesting flavors like salted caramel or toasted coconut.

Verdant Tea on Urbanspoon

Kitchen Table: Omaha, NE

8 Nov
by Deanne

Kitchen Table: Omaha, NE

logo for kitchen table

When I hear about the possibility of a road trip, I start searching for a restaurant worth reviewing.  Eating at a restaurant that serves real food, added with the bonus finding a place that sources local food, is my kind of fun.  A few clicks of the computer produced a few possibilities but I was drawn to Kitchen Table because I liked their font.  Yes, a font is a small thing, but that is how advertising works. I also found a favorable review from the Omaha World Herald.

Slow food fast is how they described themselves on their website.  Once we arrived in Omaha, I took a quick drive by and yes, the place looked worth visiting. They have nice windows in the front of the restaurant and the building looked interesting. Photo of Kitchen Table's thoughts on food

Everything was in place for me to love this restaurant.   However,  I have been disappointed before so you never really know till you walk through the doors and finally taste the food.

Review: (Real Local Cooking’s criteria)
Localness: 4

Kitchen Table does support local, sustainable and organic businesses to procure their food. It is cool to discover new farms such as:

Big Muddy Urban Farm, Blooms Organics, Blue Valley Aquaculture, Branched Oak Farm, Burbach’s Dairy, Camp Creek Acres, GreenLeaf Farms, Myo Lean Piedmontese – Moenning Family Farm, Plum Creek Farm, Soup-N-More, Squeaky Green Organics, Truebridge Foods, Turner Acres.

As I look through these different companies I think about how a small restaurant has the potential to introduce people to many individual family owned business.  Each business is unique and worth checking out.

Flavour: 5

The dinner special was a choice of regular grass fed beef or a vegetarian burger. We ordered the vegetarian burger. We have been ordering vegetarian more and more because we find that vegetarian chefs create flavors that are more inventive and interesting.   I guess when you take away the fat and salt with many meat-y meals you have to add some seasonings and use great cooking techniques.  We also had  a sweet potato jam sandwich which came with popcorn. It was served on a excellent whole grain bread that might have even been sourdough.  A kale salad with a lemon dressing was good because of the flavor and the way the kale was cut.  The food was GOOD!  If there were any improvements to be made, it would be in the choice of bun for the burger.  It was a little crusty which works perfect for a juicy burger, but not so good for a vegetarian burger that falls apart on first bite.  It is a complaint I have explained before.  I left feeling full, satisfied and wanting to go back the next day.

Pleasant Surprise: Yes

The flavor of the popcorn was a pleasant surprise.  I noticed a bit of a licorice-y flavor which made me think:  Fennel.  When Steve stopped by to talk with the chef about the carrot “bacon” he mentioned the seasoning for the popcorn being the same as the seasoning he used to make the bacon.  “Bacon” made from a thinly sliced carrot and baked with spices and added to the burger.  See what I mean about vegetarian chefs being inventive.

Comfort+Coziness = The C factor: 5

When we walked through the doors we were greeted immediately and directed to the menu on the wall.  The two specials were described in fine detail.  The restaurant is in a long narrow space with exposed brick on one side, concrete floors, and wood covered walls and a bit of green from the plant display.  The kitchen is open and one could easily see what is happening. When our food arrived the whole staff delivered it to our table so as to make sure it arrived as quickly as possible.  They did live up to their pledge of serving slow food fast.

While ordering I noticed a business card for a company that takes down old barns for no charge.  Later I discovered that this company made all their lovely wood tables.  It all made sense, the name:  Kitchen Table.  They serve real food on real plates, and we sat at real wood tables.

Overall Rating: 14+

One thing that made me sad about my visit to Kitchen Table was that there were very few diners enjoying the place.  Perhaps they are busier at lunch time since it is located in the Old Market District at 1415 Farnam Street.

Kitchen Table on Urbanspoon

Moose & Sadies: Minneapolis, MN

31 Jul
by Deanne

Moose & Sadies: Minneapolis, MN

Another Monday off from our running our cafe, led Steve and I to Minneapolis/St. Paul to pick up Joia Soda Pop and to visit United Noodle (that fun Asian grocery store that Francine introduced us to after she returned from living in China.)  We also had time to visit a new-to-us cafe. We selected Moose & Sadies because it was located near one of our stops and the online menu looked interesting.

Review: (Real Local Cooking’s criteria)
Localness: 3

Moose&Sadie’s supports local/sustainable/organic purveyors and on  their website they have a list with some links: 

Larry Schultz:  organic chicken and eggs
Tim Fischer:  hormone-free/humanely-raised pork
Riverbend Farm: organic produce

Flavour: 3

We ordered two items and were quite satisfied.  We had a Black Bean Burger with chipotle gouda, roasted green pepper-avocado spread, vidalia onions and alfalfa sprouts on a toasted bun and a salad called Greens Vinaigrette.  The burger did not have quite the right bun.  It had too hard of a bite for the squishy-ness of the black bean burger. Imagine this… pick up the burger, take a bite and black beans land on your new shirt.  You get the picture. The burger was good and flavorful and in my opinion needed a soft bun rather than a hard roll.  We solved that small challenge by eating the burger with a fork and noshing on toasted hard roll with our hands.  

m&S1

Even though I rate the flavour as a three, to match our criteria, I would come back again to try other items.

Pleasant Surprise: Yes

Our last trip to the Twin Cities got off to a bad start with a disappointing visit to a restaurant that was highly rated on some of the online communities. We were served greasy, sloppy food.  It wasn’t even worth mentioning or remembering.  This food was enjoyable and didn’t leave us feeling like we needed a shower to remove all the grease.  It made for a great start to our day off and our little adventure to the cities.

Comfort+Coziness = The C factor: 5

Photo of sunny patio at Moose and Sadies

Awesome is the best word to describe the service.   I say that because that word was used three to four times  by my order taker during the process of ordering. 

The decor of the place is a two tone, cool cucumber green with my all time favorite decor choice: painted brick.  The white brick with matching white painted exposed beams added comfort. 

We ate outside in the sun on a perfect summer day.  Not hot, not cold and no bugs.  What is more perfect than that? 

The server who delivered the food was not Ms. Awesome, but she was equally friendly and exuded her own form of awesomeness. 

Overall Rating: 11+

Moose & Sadies, in the warehouse district of Minneapolis is a place we look forward to stopping the next time we are in the neighborhood.

Moose & Sadie's on Urbanspoon

Bats, Berries, and Burdock Root

25 Feb
by Deanne

Yesterday I returned from my first MOSES Conference. While it might sound like a religious gathering, MOSES is a conference about organic farming. For the last 24 years this conference, held in February in La Crosse, Wisconsin has become an event that many organic farmers set aside as their time to learn and socialize. Francine and I first heard about the conference last year from some of our neighbors who are organic farmers.

mealsMoses

A reflection of what makes organic farming unique, the conference has two elements not easily found in other gatherings: real food and happy people. The food selections included wholesome organic yogurt, juice, fair-trade coffee and chocolate, veggies, meats, cheeses, fresh baked muffins, bars, and breads. I think the people are happy because they work toward a passionate cause:  contributing to a healthy planet.  Many come as families which is a refreshing change from most professional conferences I have attended in the past.  The meals are as enlightening as the workshops due to the conversations that take place.   I heard stories about health epiphanies that brought people to organics and met young people eager to get access to some land so they can farm.

As I buzzed through the trade show on Friday afternoon I encountered a lady wearing a black cape with a plastic bat glued to her cheek. At first I was confused because I thought bats were pests not something essential to a healthy sustainable watershed.Photo of Bat House

 Me: Do you capture bats? (Bats are bad, right?)

Bat Lady: (Pointing to a slim black rectangle) These are bat houses and I make them.

Me: (Catching on to the fact that she thinks bats are beneficial) So you attract bats?

Bat Lady: Bats are an essential part of a healthy environment. They can be an important part of insect-control strategies aimed at reducing pesticide use, thus reducing pesticide contamination of our watersheds. One little brown bat can catch 1,000 mosquito-size insects in an hour!

In a few short minutes I was impressed enough to check out her  website and there I learned more:

Unfortunately, many bat species are declining in numbers at an alarming rate. They are slow to reproduce; most bat species have only one “pup” per year. Bats suffer from habitat loss and human fear based on myths. I have three (3) bat house models, all of which are certified by Bat Conservation International (BCI) — meaning they have passed all the criteria years of research by BCI has determined goes into the success of a bat house.

Would I buy a bat house and should everyone have a bat house? These are worthy questions to be pondered. However, at a conference, things happen fast and pondering comes later.honeyberry

Moving along, I stumbled upon a guy with an open jar of jam giving taste tests of honeyberry jam. He sells the plants and I wondered if growing some on the side of our lot might be possible. Again I was impressed enough to check out his website.  It seems that it is possible to grow these berries in our area.  Should we plant some?  Another point to ponder.

On Saturday, the last day of the conference, I must have been thinking about my self-imposed job of marketing and promoting our business venture. I stopped at Fairshare CSA Coalition’s booth and learned about how they collaboratively market community supported agriculture farms.   I am venturing into a similar project in our area soon. I bought their cookbook and turned to page 40 to find a description of an unusual vegetable called Burdock Root. The book explains:

Gobo (Burdock Root) has been an important vegetable in Japan, cultivated there since the tenth century. The Japanese believe gobo to be a strong blood purifier, a support to healthy liver function, a tonic after sickness, and an aid to arthritis and skin diseases.

It went on to explain that in our culture we see this plant as a weed because it creates those burrs that attach themselves like Velcro to our clothing and our pet’s fur.

FromAsparagustoZucchini

Burdock root stood out to me in much the same way the bat information stood out: We tend to dismiss things that might actually be beneficial and in this case, tasty. There are several recipes that I might need to try after a trip to an Asian market to pick up this interesting root.

How about you…Would you ever buy a bat house? Has anyone out there heard of honeyberries or burdock root?

The Fancy Food Show

15 Feb
by Deanne

SellSpecialtyFood_2Our foray into the world of specialty food manufacturing has been insightful. We learned a lot about cooking without the top eight allergens and discovered new-to-us ingredients like chia seeds.

We still dream about creating a product that is helpful to people who have food allergy and intolerance and yet tasty to the rest of the people in their family.

To fuel this aspiration Steve and I attended the 2013 Winter Fancy Food Show in San Francisco in mid January.  We signed up for two classes about getting started in specialty food manufacturing.  Sitting next to me in one class was the guy that instigated our visit to the show:  Stephen Hall.  He is the author of a very useful book for anyone who wants to break into the food business.

A short conversation with Stephen left us with the take-away message :  A person can make money in the specialty food business if they do not become too rigid.  Pondering this conversation more, Steve and I realize that flexibility seems to be key to success in business or life in general.

Specialty Food Show Image

My rigidity of thinking….the habit of seeing myself as not knowing enough was shaken when I read this article.  It highlights a product that we tried while we were at the Fancy Food Show.  Previously, when we were considering labeling for our products we met the article’s author, Carol Harvey from a company called Palate Works.  We found her to be very helpful and professional.  Our lesson from her article is:  People, even those who have a product called Holy Crap, don’t have their  #@$! together when it comes to labeling.  According to Harvey, they made health claims that would put the product in the category of a drug and therefore subject to different rules and testing.

I am sure they have the best intentions and it isn’t a competition, just a realization that there is a lot to learn when one ventures into new territory.

More insights from our one day at the show include:

The world has enough specialty cheese, olives, pasta sauces, candy and chocolate. Aisle after aisle of the show told us that.

The businesses using traditional foods from around the world which are naturally gluten and dairy free did not market their products in that way.

Photo of Joia We had a chance to taste Joia Soda, a product from Minnesota that we’d like to include in our new restaurant offerings this summer.

Soy wraps can be used to make walking salads…..instead of walking tacos. (Walking tacos are popular in our area…a bag of taco chips with hamburger and cheese added to the top.)

There is a really cool orange juicer from Vienna, Austria that is starting to be sold for US retailers. photo of orange juicer

We tasted honey vinegar and thought it could be a local thing and it was very good.

Coconut milk and water were very big at the show.  However, they tasted different each time we sampled them.

Grapefruit flavor is really nice.  We wondered if we could incorporate that into our foods.

We tasted a green tea frozen yogurt made from a mix. It convinced us that we don’t want to carry that product.

We saw Angie’s, another Minnesota business, this one from our neck of the woods: Mankato.  Her products were also in all the stores we shopped in California too.  Go Angie!

Photo of Angie's Boom Chick Pop

At the end of the day, Steve and I found a couch and took notes of all we learned.  Overall, it was an eye-opening experience to see so many people trying to make it in the world of specialty food manufacturing.