Saturday, August 14, 2010

Extreme Heat

“Sure is hot this week.” That’s what we heard from almost everyone who came to get their CSA share Tuesday evening. And it was. And is.

Monday evening I was up late and tracked the temperature: 90 degrees at 11pm, 84 at 11:30, and finally, as an electrical storm came in from the southwest, 79 at midnight. That was when I went outside and watched the strobe of 3 or 4 lightning flashes each second turn my arms into stop action photos as I raised them up above my head to stretch.

The humidity goes up to 100% each night, making the heat index stay around 90, so there is no respite – even when I put on a wet T-shirt and turn the fan on. I honestly do not know how Henry and the kids and the farmhands and interns keep going all day long.

It makes me wonder, when people comment about the heat, whether they know real heat -- not heat as in a number read by a newscaster, but as in the mind-numbing, body-draining, soul-scorching heat of hour upon hour of physical labor under a brutal sun. Slaves died in this kind of heat. And farm laborers here in the U.S. still do. A couple young men just died up in Michigan cleaning out a silo at a big dairy operation.

Don’t worry, we are not dying down here on Henry’s Farm. But being outside working in these conditions, you do realize how easily that can happen.

All things considered, we’re lucky here though. (Or, as Henry is fond of saying, “It could be a lot worse.”) Unlike the fields most farm workers labor in, we have shade nearby, and we take breaks, and drink plenty of water, and do not suffer from pesticide exposure or disrespectful treatment.

A week like this one does make you consider more deeply, though, all of the food that begins in hot fields and ends in cool refrigerators. Whether one’s quest is for fast and cheap or slow and sustainable, all that food came from some-where and some-one and was picked under some weather, often cruelly hot.

So, next time you buy an apple, a melon, a tomato, or a bunch of kale, take a moment to think about the person who planted the seed, weeded the row, mulched and tended the plant, and finally harvested its fruits for you.

A Lovely Weed: Purslane

My favorite purslane reference is from Henry David Thoreau, who wrote:

"I have made a satisfactory dinner off a dish of purslane which I gathered and boiled. Yet men have come to such a pass that they frequently starve, not from want of necessaries, but for want of luxuries."

I recently discovered that Thoreau also wrote about aronia during his stay at Walden Pond. He didn’t like the tannic berries, but they led him to philosophize that everything in nature was not made for humans’ pleasure. (Too bad he didn’t know about my sister Teresa's aronia jam and smoothies!)

But he did know about the goodness of purslane, as many of our Mexican, Indian, and Greek customers also do. They always snap it up, even as others do a double-take, and ask, “Isn’t that a weed??”

Strange how something so nutritious and delicious, a staple of so many cuisines, could come to be known as a weed. Purslane originated in India, and is reputed to have been Gandhi's favorite food. Now it is “cosmopolitan,” meaning it grows all around the world, including at Henry’s Farm. Part of the reason for its evolutionary success is that a single plant can produce up to 52,300 seeds. What's more, purslane seeds can survive for up to 30 years in undisturbed soil, guaranteeing us good nutritious food long after peak-oil causes industrial agriculture as we know it to fade and die.

Purslane may be common, but it is uncommonly good for you. It tops the list of plants high in vitamin E and an essential omega-3 fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Artemis Simopoulos, co-author of The Omega Diet, says purslane is the richest known plant source of ALA. In addition, purslane provides six times more vitamin E than spinach and seven times more beta carotene than carrots. It’s also rich in vitamin C, magnesium, riboflavin, potassium and phosphorus.

If purslane is a weed, then it is, as Henry says, “a lovely weed.” Unlike foxtail and other grassy weeds, it grows low to the ground, does not compete with the vegetables for sunlight, and makes a gorgeous carpet underneath the heads of lettuce and other crops, keeping the ground cool. This week we’ll not only have purslane in the salad mix, but in big bunches as well. You can use it raw in salads or sauteed as a side dish. In addition to the crispy texture you would expect from a succulent, purslane also has a slightly lemony and peppery flavor.

Purslane Salad

2 or more bunches purslane, washed
Yogurt -- enough to cover purslane leaves
Garlic – as much as you want, minced
salt and crushed red pepper flakes, to taste
a few drops of olive oil
Mix the yogurt, salt, pepper, olive oil and garlic in a bowl. Add the purslane. Stir lightly and serve.

Cucumber-Purslane Yogurt Salad

  • 5 large Cucumbers, peeled, seeded and cut into quarter-round slices
  • 1/4 pound Purslane (1 or 2 bunches), washed and drained well
  • 2 tablespoons or more each: fresh chopped mint, cilantro and red or green shiso
  • 4 cups Whole milk yogurt
  • 1/4 cup Virgin olive oil
  • 3 cloves Garlic, puréed with the blade of a knife
  • 2 teaspoon ground Coriander
  • kosher Salt and ground Black Pepper

Place the cucumber, purslane and herbs into a large bowl. In another bowl, stir together the yogurt, olive oil and garlic, coriander and season to taste with salt. Add the yogurt mixture to the vegetables and mix well. Add a pinch of ground black pepper. Taste the dressed cucumber-purslane salad for seasoning, adding a little more salt if needed. Serve chilled.