Garden Time: Getting your hands dirty

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by Kimi Ceridon

Soil, not to be confused with dirt, is the life blood of a garden.  Dirt is dead and lifeless, but within soil, it is a complex, living ecosystem that keeps plants healthy.  Nutrition for vegetables comes from the soil.  Having healthy soil is important to an edible garden, but, if you are container gardening, it is difficult to maintain a healthy, thriving ecosystem from year to year.

The roots of plants absorb food, water, nutrients and minerals from soil.  They spread into the soil in search of nutrition, forming a plant’s communication web and supply network.  The plant above ground tells the root system what it needs and the roots below ground absorb it from the soil.  All of the details of soil composition are far too complex to detail here, but there are important elements gardeners should understand.  

IMG_20140420_105539Organic matter is the most important component in soil. Unfortunately, plants cannot digest organic material like food scraps and leaves without help from bacterial and fungal microorganisms.  These organisms decompose or compost simple organic matter into readily available plant nutrition.  They also aerate the soil, allowing roots to expand and water and oxygen to penetrate down to the roots.  Together, organic matter and microorganisms are the heart of the nutrition in soil, providing not only the nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium critical to plant health, but also other trace elements such as magnesium, calcium and iron.  

Fertilizers are useful during the growing season and provide basic nutritional needs to a plant, but are not a complete replacement for healthy soil.  Soluble nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium (the numbers on fertilizer bags indicating the percentage available for plant absorption) are only the foundation of plant nutrition.  Vitamins and minerals are an important component of soil composition and contribute to the nutrition of fruits and vegetables. 

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A container garden has little access to the outside world.  As such, it is impossible to maintain container garden soil health indefinitely without adding nutrition.  During the growing season, side dressings of compost and fertilizers help supplement plant nutrition.  However, when starting fresh plants and seedlings in the spring, it is a great opportunity to replenish soil.

With new containers, it is easy to get plants off to a good start.  Potting soil is available by the bag at garden stores, but rather than simply using a potting soil alone, mix one part compost to every four parts soil.  Soil and compost are less expensive in bulk and indoor gardeners can save money by sharing the cost with neighbors and friends.  It may also be less expensive to make a soil mix from scratch, such as the one recommended in All New Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew.  For best results, an edible plant garden should get organic soil. Annually refresh containers full of soil from previous years by removing the old soil and blending it with compost.  For containers with living plants, top off with a compost-soil mix or gently remove the plant from the container, loosen the roots and add a compost-soil mix to the bottom.

IMG_20140420_115025Once the soil is ready to go into containers, it can provide plants with a healthy base of nutrition that smells fresh and earthy. Do not overfill containers or pack the soil as roots need space to expand and support larger, bushier plants.  Seedlings should have their first two real leaves before transplanting.  Place filled containers in a sunny spot and keep the soil slightly moist.

As a complex ecosystem, understanding the many benefits of healthy, thriving soils is not only for gardeners and farmers. Soil nutrition is relevant for all types of food professionals.  To learn about the wonderful ecosystem of soil, I recommend the following two books by Jeff Lowenfels:

  • Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web
  • Teaming with Nutrients: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to Optimizing Nutrition

IMG_20140420_111212After 15 years in sustainable product design, Kimi Ceridon shifted focus from consumer products to food systems. She is active with NOFA/Mass Boston Ferments, Waltham Fields Community Farms and has led workshops on chicken keeping, backyard homesteading, fermentation, and brewing.  Follow her at noreturnticket.kceridon.com.

Garden Time: It’s Spring!

IMG_81143551818378by Kimi Ceridon

Just when it seemed winter wasn’t going to give up without a fight, the thermometer finally bounced above the freezing mark.  After a few false starts, it looks like it is going to finally stay there too.  The days are getting longer and the sun is reaching higher in the sky.  As if I needed another sign that spring has arrived, my yard is finally littered with white, purple and yellow crocuses. That means it is time to start thinking about the garden.  Actually, I started thinking about starting my garden since ordering my seeds back in January, but it’s time to put those seeds to use.

I used to wait until the May rush and buy all my seedlings from the garden store. However, I’ve been seduced by the January seed catalogs into starting my own plants from seeds.  They offer not only an irresistible tug of springtime hope in the middle of winter, but also so many more varieties of plants.  Just try to find 71 varieties of tomatoes or 22 varieties of pumpkins or multiple varieties of most crops in your local garden store or home improvement mega box.  You can’t, it isn’t cost effective to carry more than a few ‘favorite’ varieties.  IMG_81260204578379

I start my garden from seeds in soil blocks using full spectrum lightbulbs in my basement.  To take advantage of the short growing season here in New England, now is the time to get started.  Don’t let my set up intimidate you, it has evolved over several years of trial and error.  All you need is a sunny window, a few small pots, some soilless seed starting mix and a few choice seeds.  All of which can be had at your neighborhood hardware and garden store.  Some grocery stores even care basic supplies.  

904229_10200868736497540_324741037_oStarting plants from seed can seem kind of intimidating.  Admittedly, it doesn’t always go well.  Sometimes you forget to water them and they dry out.  Sometimes they don’t get a good start and end up spindly and weak.  Yet, sometimes they work wonderfully and produce beautiful robust plants.  This is part of the fun of planting a garden.  It is also why so many gardeners exhibit calmness and patience; two traits I am personally trying to cultivate from my garden.  For many years, I would start a few of the more interesting crops from seed with plans to purchase some plants from the garden store.  This way, if things didn’t work out with my seeds, I had a backup plan.  Besides, if you start early enough, you will know what is going well and what is not before the garden stores start stocking vegetable plants.  

IMG_81156379977378As I know many of you don’t have a lot of space, I also want to dispel the myth that you need a big backyard to get started.  A sunny balcony, stoop, windowsill or countertop is enough for growing a few container plants to bring a few fresh vegetables or herbs into your kitchen.  It is also a great opportunity to learn without a big investment.  For example, loose leaf salad greens are easy to grow from seed, easy to care for and will make it to a dinner plate in just a few weeks.  Fresh potted herbs are also the gift that keeps on giving.  If you keep a few shallow pots of salad greens in rotation, you can keep yourself in weekly greens throughout the year.

IMG_81104059567378There is such an amazing world of flavor hidden in a seed catalog, I suggest trying something new, something you won’t find in the grocery store or even in your farmer’s market. Without starting from seeds, I would have never tasted the meaty and creamy Good Mother Stallard dried beans or the sweet and tangy Lemon Cucumber or the sweetly tart Black Krim Tomato.  Sure, it may not feel like spring quite outside yet, but you can start getting into a springtime mood by getting your hands into some dirt.  My seeds have just started breaking ground.  

After 15 years in sustainable product design, Kimi Ceridon shifted focus from consumer products to food systems. Food is the most tangible, accessible way for individuals to reduce their impact on the planet and make a statement against an unsustainable industrial food system. She is active with NOFA/Mass Boston Ferments, Waltham Fields Community Farms and has led workshops on chicken keeping, backyard homesteading, fermentation, and brewing.  Follow her at noreturnticket.kceridon.com.

Student Spotlight: Lucy Valena – Inspired. Totally Wired.

Ever wonder what being a Gastronomy student is like? Unfortunately there is no easy answer, we all approach it a little differently. Some of us are full time students, but most are part time; some work as interns, while others maintain full time careers; many students are from far away, but some are Massachusetts natives – simply, our backgrounds are as diverse as the foods we study. In an on going mini-series, we will hopefully give you an idea of who some of our students are and just how unique this program is to bring us all together.

DSCF9170-2by Sarah McKeen

Lucy Valena is the lucky first Gastronomy Student Spotlight. Most know her as the owner of Voltage Coffee & Art in Kendall Square, but this first semester Gastronomy student is much more than simply a coffee connoisseur with a penchant for great art.

Lucy grew up on an old farm in Durham, NH with her folk artist father, museum curator mother, and little sister. The natural progression from this upbringing was a life of art, which she pursued through a BA in Studio Art from Hampshire College in Western Massachusetts. After graduation and a brief stint in Seattle, Lucy made the trek back to Boston with a renewed appreciation for high-quality coffee. With a lot of hard work, plenty of caffeine, talented friends, and some self-admitted luck, Lucy opened Voltage Coffee in 2008. It first started out as an espresso catering service in Jamaica Plain, which eventually evolved into a full-blown cafe, Voltage Coffee & Art, by 2010. As the owner, barista, and dishwasher, Lucy has created a haven for the caffeine-deprived artist in all of us. One can find her between Monday and Saturday behind the bar, in the vibrantly-painted kitchen, or holed away in her closet-sized office. 082

This past January, Lucy decided to up her culinary prowess by joining the Gastronomy Master’s program at BU where she is focusing on history and culture. Finding time to devote herself to academics while owning and operating a cafe is sometimes challenging, but Lucy maintains that the part-time, night classes of the program make it manageable. 

While every day is different, a typical day in the life of the student, cafe owner, and Jamaica Plain resident is as follows:

6am:
Wake up.

7am to 3pm:
Work behind the counter at Voltage (make coffee, wash dishes, take orders, and have silly conversations with the staff).

3 to 5pm:
Either in her tiny office doing bookkeeping stuff or at a meeting.

6 to 8pm:
Homework time! If her brain is too overloaded from the day, she tries to work on some art instead.

8pm:
Boyfriend, John, and Lucy start shaking cocktails and cooking dinner. While cooking, they typically blast the B52’s and play with their kitten, Tiny Henry. They either eat by candlelight (how romantic!) or watch something on their projector. This winter they have been especially into the X-Files, but they also have an ongoing goal to watch the entire AFI 100 list… Someday!

IMG_1535As the first Student Spotlight, Lucy shows that with a bit of caffeine and a lot of passion, one can find a balance between a career and graduate school. Next time you find yourself in Kendall Square, make sure to check out Voltage Coffee & Art and say hello to the owner/student behind the bar.

Sarah McKeen is a Boston native who has studied Gastronomy at BU since 2014. Her focus is on entrepreneurship, technology, and culinary tourism.

Outside of the Classroom: The Shortest Distance Between Two People

Gastronomy students are always busy, both inside the classroom and out. On the rare occasion that school is not in session, students take advantage of the chance to get away and explore life outside of the program. In this mini series, students will recount their 2014 Spring Break to provide insight into gastronomy life outside of school.

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by Briana Witt

On October 26th of last year, I received an unusual envelope in my mailbox. It was not addressed.  It was not postmarked.  The only thing written on it was my name.  Inside the envelope was this card: Screen shot 2014-03-26 at 1.43.34 PM  

"Pack your suitcases, it's time to visit a friend!"
“Pack your suitcases, it’s time to visit a friend!”

Along with the card came money enough for a plane ticket.  It took me a while to work through my confusion, but I finally realized that an anonymous person was sending me on a trip to Italy to visit my best friend, Brie, who had moved there for graduate school.

Brie and I have been friends since we were eight.  We lived near (and sometimes with) each other from elementary school through college. When we reached the age of twenty-seven, we both decided to attend graduate school. For the first time our interests took us in very different directions.  I moved to Boston to attend the Gastronomy program, and she moved to Italy to study International Relations.

Brie and I
Brie and I

Brie was just as excited as I was about the mysterious gift, and it wasn’t long before I booked a flight to Italy for Spring Break.  The trip began at her home-base in Bologna.  Bologna is commonly referred to as La Grassa, or The Fat.  My first meal in Italy was a sandwich featuring one of Bologna’s most famous food items – mortadella.   Meat is a big deal in Bologna.  Some of the markets and butcher shops that we walked past had meat hanging in layers so thick that we couldn’t see the walls.

Bologna, Italy
Bologna, Italy

While in Bologna, there was a short period of time when Brie had to attend class.   I used the opportunity to hang out at a local bookstore and learn about Italian writers.  As a lover of books, I like to link authors with places that I visit.  I found out that Italy has what is known as the Tre Corone, or Three Crowns of Italian literature.  These authors are Boccaccio, Petrarch, and Dante.  I had yet to read anything by Dante, and since I usually don’t leave a bookstore without making a purchase, I bought The Divine Comedy.  Reading was a great way to pass time on the train rides to Rome, Venice, and Florence.

The most memorable food experience of the trip took place in Florence.  I read in a National Geographic travel book that trippa, or tripe, is a traditional street food in Florence.  It is usually served on a roll and topped with a green or red sauce.  For some reason, I assumed that tripe was a type of fish.  It didn’t even occur to me to look up a definition.  By the time I was a few bites into the sandwich, I realized that tripe didn’t smell, or look, like any fish I had ever eaten.  It turns out that it was actually the stomach of an animal.  What animal?  I will never know.

Florence, Italy
Florence, Italy

All in all, it was a great trip.  I recently found out that it was Brie’s boyfriend who left the anonymous envelope and funded the flight.  It was such a sweet, thoughtful, amazing gift.  After twenty years of friendship, Brie and I have a lot of memories but I never expected that one of them would be roaming together through the streets of Italy.  

Briana is a first year Gastronomy student interested in food writing and culinary studies.  She works as a cook for Whole Foods Market. 

Outside of the Classroom: Searching for the New Mofongo

Gastronomy students are always busy, both inside the classroom and out. On the rare occasion that school is not in session, students take advantage of the chance to get away and explore life outside of the program. In this mini series, students will recount their 2014 Spring Break to provide insight into gastronomy life outside of school.

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By Andrea Lubrano

As a Gastronomy enthusiast, learning the nuts and bolts of the field is an all time job for an MLA candidate in the program. In an effort to broaden my journalistic skills while complying with homework duties, I chose to focus my spring break, in Puerto Rico with my husband, on the culinary narrative of the island, specifically on the unofficial national plantain dish of Mofongo.

I quickly learned that this well liked meal is made from frying unripe plantains or plátano verde, then pasting them with a mortar and pestle while adding chicken stock, chicharrón (pork crakling), olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper. This mash is then molded with the mortar and given a concave shape to leave space for a stew filling of seafood, beef, or pork that accompanies the dish, along with an edible garnish of lettuce and tomatoes. This traditional way of preparing mofongo varies in size and style according to how many are being fed and in what setting the meal is being served.

Mofongo at Donde Olga Restaurant
Mofongo at Donde Olga Restaurant

In an effort to learn quickly about this local fare we ordered mofongo everywhere we went. It was not easy, especially with all the fresh fruits around, but my homework required I eat the grub until I knew it so well that I spoke of it like a native. We ate our way from colonial Old San Juan to the beaches of Piñones where families gather on Saturdays to bbq on portable grills while their children run up and down the boardwalk in a game only they understand. By the tail end of the trip I had more anecdotes and restaurant recommendations for the main island in my notepad then I had time to try them.

The journey continued onto the small island of Vieques where we promised ourselves a break from our smart phones and, therefore, missed on a thousand and one picture opportunities – imagine wild horses galloping around deserted white sand beaches, caves, sea turtles and the world’s best bioluminescent bay – that’s Vieques. This ex-U.S. army base is an enchanting addition to the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and therefore to the United States of America.

Mofongo at El Quenepo Restaurant
Mofongo at El Quenepo Restaurant

Here we ate more of the same, but quickly realized by chatting with local bartenders and chefs that modern Puerto Rican cuisine is changing. Although this region is Latin in temperament, due to an almost 400 year rule of the Spanish, its cultural exchanges with the U.S. are abundant. This mostly takes place through the education of Latin chefs in haute culinary practices, who return home to open more creative restaurants, as is the case of Chef José Enrique and his restaurants: José Enrique, Capital, Miel and El Blok, which is opening soon in Vieques. The opposite also takes place, Chefs like Scott Cole of Raleigh, NC, ventured south to apply his cooking techniques to Caribbean ingredients.

Throughout Puerto Rico different styles of mofongo are taking on the post of culinary ambassadors. From the unpretentious at Donde Olga Restaurant ($20) in Piñones, to the more exotic cooking of El Quenepo ($35) in Vieques. Mofongo and its mother the plantain are so significant to Puerto Rican identity that even those living their lives in prison have reported making the mash for mofongo out of bagged plantain chips, which is as close as they can get to the real deal.

Andrea is a last semester Gastronomy student interested in the intersection of food as medicine and food as art within cultures and societies. Follow her at: http://essenessenuniverse.tumblr.com/