Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Season's Best at the Farmer's Market

Local, seasonal, organic. The struggle over which of these characteristics regarding food is the most beneficial to person and environment has been the topic of many discussions over the last five or so years. First the environmental authorities commanded us to eat organic and places like Whole Foods found their conception, offering high priced organic fruits and vegetables sold underneath posters of hard working farmers. Farmers that in fantasy land appeared local. But consumers soon found out that some of their virtuous organic produce could be traveling from all across the continent to land in their local grocery store. This did not seem right.

Eating seasonally and locally has environmental benefits as well as economic benefits. One of the best places to practice this habit is at your local farmer's market. My personal favorite happens to be the Columbia City Farmer's Market.

Founded in 1998, the market becomes the bustling epicenter of Columbia City every Wednesday from 3-7 pm. Sprawled out in a parking lot adjacent to the Columbia Park on Rainier Avenue South, it is the perfect location for an open air market. On a sunny afternoon, the park is full of families, singles, friends and the like, lounging on the green grass with their tote bags full of fresh produce from the market. It is a meeting space, a community event that happens weekly.

“It reminds me of my home country Vietnam, where people are everywhere and the food is fresh,” explained Columbia City resident Katie Ngo as she rounded up her rambunctious sons.

As I roam through the market, I pass a small tent where two women are singing folk songs to a small audience of adoring children. The market often has events for children, with their most famous being the Zucchini 500, where children build mini derby cars out of zucchinis and then race them. It's hilarious.

I stop at Alm Hill Farms booth, examining their produce. Bright orange carrots, fuchsia stained radishes, and sprightly greens proudly crowd the table.

“Every week we have more stuff coming out of the ground and we offer the only organic asparagus in Western Washington,” says Anne Smith, who is managing the booth.

Upon Smith's recommendation, I bought a bunch of spicy greens. I have no idea what I am going to do with the greens but that's half the fun. The farmer's market is a cornucopia of local and mysterious produce. For a cook, like myself, buying produce you have never heard of keeps the creative culinary juices alive and well. Local Sylvain Berthe laughs, and says that he buys whatever doesn't grow in his back yard.

If you're not into cooking, then you can sample! Most booths attempt to lure customers in with tidbits of what they're offering. I had small squares of creamy goat cheese, a hunk of baguette, and a piece of a cayenne chocolate truffle from Trevani Truffles.

“I've done the last two falls because the farmers leave and make room for me. It's a farmer's market so they have priority,” explains owner and truffle maker Anne Boyington as she rummages through her containers to find me a sample.

Thea Preuss of the Neighborhood Farmer's Market Alliance explains that “it's been shown that farmer's do better at food only farmer's markets,” and that's their priority.

Local chef, Julie Andres of La Medusa in Columbia City, takes advantage of the array of local produce by shopping for ingredients every Wednesday that inspire the restaurant's Market Menu. For $25 customers can enjoy local produce at its prime prepared with Sicilian influences.

For at least this season Columbia City Farmer's Market will remain in its current location but the property has been bought by a developer. They are currently in search of a new location in Columbia City and come Spring 2010, I'm sure that it won't be hard to find their new residence.

Here's what came of the contents of my tote bag:

Pan-Fried Sunchoke Salad with Parmesan and Spicy Greens
Adapted from Bon Appetit and Food and Wine

Sunchokes or Jerusalem artichokes, are the tuber of a sunflower. They are starchy like a potato and have hint of artichoke flavor. They're ugly but delicious!

3 tablespoons butter, divided
2 tablespoons olive oil for pan-frying Jerusalem artichokes
1 pound Jerusalem artichokes,* scrubbed, cut crosswise into 1/4-inch-thick rounds
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, plus extra for Jerusalem artichokes
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon minced shallot
1 bunch spicy greens
3/4 cup Parmesan shavings (2 ounces)
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Melt 1 tablespoon butter with olive oil in large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add Jerusalem artichokes and half of sage. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Sauté until brown and just beginning to soften, turning frequently, about 10 minutes. Using slotted spoon, transfer Jerusalem artichokes to shallow serving bowl. Squeeze lemon juice of half a lemon over cooked Jerusalem artichokes.

Combine remaining lemon juice, white wine vinegar, and shallot in a bowl. Whisk in remaining olive oil. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground pepper.

Toss pan-fried Jerusalem artichokes, spicy greens, and Parmesan shavings together and drizzle with lemon vinaigrette. Enjoy!

Friday, May 15, 2009

One Bike at a Time

Operating out of a vintage bright yellow house with a sign on the front in large black and red letters, it's hard to miss Bike Works when roaming around Columbia City. If you don't know about Bike Works, on the surface it can seem like they merely sell used and recycled bikes. Cool enough, right? But it's the profit they make from selling bikes to the public that funds the beating heart of Bike Works.

Founded in 1996, Bike Works is Seattle's only non for profit community bike shop, and they are primarily focused on supporting youth programs. Their most popular program is their 8-week Earn a Bike program where youths, ranging from ages 9-17, are given a used bike and told to strip it. “They get really excited about demolishing a bike,” says board president, Bill Lippe, who is a retired brain researcher. Every once and a while the door to the classroom opens and bursts of laughing and the sounds of clanking tools erupt from the room.

Over the 8 weeks, the students learn how to completely overhaul a bike and assemble it back together. In order to earn their re-assembled bike, along with a brand new helmet and lock, they must accumulate 18 hours of community repair time in the shop. “These are the tools to accomplish youth development and empowerment,” says Lippe as he shows me Polaroids of smiling kids who have graduated from the program. "This camp changed me by allowing me to know what is possible for me!" says Travis, 11, as quoted in Bike Works annual report.

Once the youths have gone through the program they're welcome to come in any time during drop-in hours and work in the shop repairing their bikes or others. Lippe tells me that one kid built eight bikes for his friends and family just during drop-in hours. Last year 276 youth served in one of their many programs and nearly 2,400 hours of community service were logged by youth.

Stepping into Bike Works can be a little daunting. There are bikes everywhere in the tiny shop and house: on the ceiling, in the back of the house, stuffed in the attic and one cannot escape the strong odor of rubber in the air. Smells like work. As customers move in, we all shuffle around like clustering into an already brimming elevator. Space is not wasted here and neither are any components of a bike.

“Our goal is to keep as much as we can out of the landfills,” explains Lippe. Bicycles and parts may find new life in the store to be sold, donated to Seattle based Alchemy Goods, where they make messenger bags out of recycled rubber, or donated to Ghana to support the Village Bicycle Project. Last year over 1,400 bikes were sent to Ghana. I'm impressed. The last time I owned a bike it probably had a banana seat and pink streamers on the handle bars, yet I find myself falling in love with this little bike shop doing big things.

Courtesy of Bike Works

Stepping into the kitchen with Lippe, I meet Dara Ayers, the executive director of Bike Works. “I'm not normally in the kitchen cooking,” she jokes as she stirs pasta for the strategic meeting dinner later that night. Trying not to be distracted by the delicious smells of pesto, I ask them how Columbia City plays a part in their operation.

“What's happening, Columbia City's really grown, it's gentrified, property values are going up, it's going to be changing substantially in the future. That's why we're involved in the strategic planning given that these changes are going to be occurring—ya know what's our future? What do we have to do,” explains Lippe.

As the neighborhood changes so do its needs and Bikes Works is motivated to serve underprivileged youth. Lippe explains that families with little resources are moved south so they have had to expand their outreach programs and are even considering changing locations.

“The majority of youth come from this general south end Seattle and the focus of our outreach is in this area,” reiterates Ayers.

As I help them set up chairs and move tables for the strategic planning meeting, I wonder how this would impact Columbia City if this little organization with a big heart would leave the neighborhood. But for now, it's the place where many kids find themselves after school and why you might see some kids riding around Columbia City with pride on their faces and on bikes they built.

May is National Bike Month. Celebrate with these Upcoming Bike Events:

Urban Assault Ride May 17, 2009
- Bike Works

UW Hubbub May 28, 2009
- Cascade Bicycle Club

RAPsody, Ride Around Puget Sound August 22-23, 2009
- Bicycle Alliance of Washington

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Introductions are in Order

Many years ago my brother got a job cooking at a small French and Mexican fusion restaurant in a small up-and-coming neighborhood. The restaurant received rave reviews from the Seattle Times but eventually went out of business because apparently the neighborhood wasn't up-and-coming quite fast enough. This Seattle neighborhood was Columbia City.

The first time I drove to Columbia City, directions placed carefully in the passenger's seat, I kept getting the anxious feeling of “uh...am I going the right way?” Having heard rumblings about the Seattle neighborhood tucked away like a secret in the Rainier Valley, I wondered if the rumblings were true as I drove past run-down store fronts that peppered Rainier Avenue on my way to my desired destination. Stopping at the intersection of Rainier Avenue and Alaska Street I could see the surroundings gradually changing. To my right is the sprawling green grass of Columbia Park and adjacent is the historic Columbia branch of the Seattle Public Libraries built in 1909, standing alone like a beacon.

Driving through the downtown shopping area, as charming as it was, I was possessed to continue driving...I wanted to see more than the storefronts that could only share so much. I wanted to see the houses that were homes to Columbia City's residents.

Old craftsmen homes painted pumpkin orange, curry yellow, and oxblood red with carefully overgrown gardens; houses seeping into the plant life with moss growing on
roofs while beat up cars had lost life in their yards; sleek angular condos with
miniature chihuahuas nipping at the windows. My brow furrowed...you could actually see the phrase “up-and-coming neighborhood.”

Parking my car near the New School at Columbia and stepping out I immediately smelled barbecue, this was my kind of neighborhood! Recess in full swing, I walked past the chaotic school yard where I could see children of an array of ethnicities playing rambunctiously. I passed two suburban looking moms, strollers in tow, while two sketchy guys walked on the opposite side of the street.

Turning the corner onto Rainier Avenue I saw the sign for the Columbia City Bakery. Opened in 2005, I had never been to the actual bakery before but had shared a cheese plate at a pub with a friend and I remember a baguette we could not get enough of; “I'm sorry, but can we get more bread, it's delicious,” we pleaded to our server. We later discovered it was from this very bakery in this mysterious neighborhood.

While eating my chocolate chip cookie and sipping rubios tea, I noticed three women in the back baking, two clad in tattoos and bandannas, and the other wearing a hat. I think they were making rugelach. I watched grandmother's bring their grandchildren to get cupcakes and hot cocoa. They supervised, while the children bit into giant chocolate cupcakes topped with even larger strawberries, the kids licking their fingers in between bites. This seemed to be the after school hot spot for late afternoon treats.

I began talking to the woman next to me, Katrina Hess, a graphic designer who rides her bike all the way from Capitol Hill to hang out in the neighborhood and work. “It feels less pretentious, more multicultural,” she explains her reasoning for visiting the neighborhood often. But she worries about the neighborhood becoming gentrified
like the neighborhood she used to live in in L.A. where “poor artists and Mexican families” used to live before the condos took over. She's moving to Columbia City in June and I can understand her intrigue with this diverse neighborhood that manages to feel like a community despite its close proximity to downtown. I'm looking forward to exploring its nooks and crannies, as well as the people that give it its vibrancy.