Friday, May 30, 2014

Congress on the verge of doing something smart! You can help!

It's almost unbelievable when one hears so much about gridlock and increasing partisanship in the US Congress, but from time to time they get together and actually do something bipartisan and good for the country (two things which do not always correlate).   A couple years back they passed some really good bipartisan reforms to patent law, for example.  More is needed but they did it. 

Last night the House of Representatives approved an amendment to a bill the effect of which would prohibit the federal government from interfering with states' administration of medical marijuana laws.  Democrats overwhelming supported the bill; Republicans were mostly against but a quarter of them got on board, which was enough to put the amendment over the top.

The Senate version of the funding bill at issue does not currently have this provision, so either it would have to be added by amendment or at some point the two houses will hash (hah!) it out in a conference committee. 

The truth is I could don't care about marijuana, medical or otherwise.  But I do believe in federalism and even more I believe in allowing people to make their own choices.  This amendment is a step on both of those directions.

If you have a Republican Senator in your state, email him or her and state that you support this amendment (if you do, of course) and that you expect him or her, as a defender of states' rights, to support the initiative whatever he or she feels about marijuana personally.  If you have a Democratic Senator, email him or her too.

Also, drop an email to your Representative thanking or criticizing him or her for the prior vote on the amendment and asking him or her to stay or get on the right side of history if the funding bill goes to a conference committee.  Here is the tally of votes so you can see how your Representative voted.  Don't know who your Rep is?  Here is where you can find out. That last link will also take you straight to your Representative's page where you can find the appropriate email address.

Monday, May 12, 2014

So why *are* ramps such a big deal?

In my last post I wrote a little bit about ramps, the wild leek which is among the first edibles of spring and is very much the "in" thing among foodies. 

Why are they such a big deal?  They taste good but they're not transformative like saffron or a really good truffle.  If they were on grocery store shelves year-round they'd be just another allium to choose or substitute at will.  Someone could certainly be forgiven for thinking that ramp enthusiasm is just another passing fad, that people like them because a few influential other people like them or, even worse, because so many other people don't know about them.  There's doubtless at least some truth to this school of thought but I think it's also somewhat unfair.

Ramps are popular because they're ephemeral.  Because they have a season. Ramps are here, and then they're gone until next year.  If you were industrious you might have some pickled ramps to last you until the following year but there is no source of fresh ramps once they're gone in June. 

I grew up in Maryland in the 1970's.  This was after canned and frozen fruits and vegetables became ubiquitous but before great fleets of ships and trucks brought fresh produce from all over the world to even low-end grocery stores.  And back then, there was enthusiasm for lots of crops.  In Maryland it was strawberries in the spring and Silver Queen corn in the summer.  

Freshly picked strawberries are as different from that giant plastic red thing as fresh tomatoes are from their grocery store equivalents.   This is not a result of some conspiracy by large growers and packers but rather an artifact of biology.  Strawberries are among those fruits which cease creating sugar as soon as they are picked.  They will "ripen" in the sense that their colors will change, long-chain sugars might break down into shorter ones and the fruit will soften but there's no new sugar.   Combine that with the fact that with the cultivars available back then Maryland strawberries were too soft to ship very far in any event  and the result was a few weeks of the sweetest strawberries imaginable for a tiny price.  You waited all winter for spring strawberries, they came, and then they were gone.  They didn't have an internet back then to make things go "viral," but they did have strawberry festivals, strawberry queens, and all the local chefs had their special strawberry dishes. 

Silver Queen corn was a similar story.  There have been pretty drastic advances in the production of corn cultivars recently so just about everyone has access to fresh sweet corn for most of the second half of the summer.   Not so in the '70s.  Sweet corn would lose as much as half its sugar in just 48 hours after picking.  That meant that there was no such thing as high quality sweet corn from Illinois or California or Mexico; by the time it got to Maryland it wouldn't be sweet any more.  Same with Maryland corn -- you couldn't ship it to Massachusetts or Florida because it wouldn't be special by the time it got there.  So again, for a few precious weeks at the end of the summer Maryland would be flooded with some of the best sweet corn in the world and then it would be gone.

I'm not going to to minimize the undeniable and large benefits of a growing and shipping regime which has made fresh fruit and vegetables available year-round at reasonable prices,  but I think something has been lost when we lost seasons for a lot of foods.  Having a mediocre version available all the time is good nutrition but not necessarily for the soul.  Some of the appreciation we had for the fruit of the land has been lost.  

Sunday, May 11, 2014

An important website for you.

I'm not normally one to pass along every good website I run into; in fact those websites that are AMAZING because fact number 23 will BLOW YOUR MIND are pretty annoying, in my opinion.   So I guess that means in the modern web environment I'm doomed to a low Klout score.  Oh well.

But this is too good not to pass on.  The lesson imparted by a long, fun slog through this website is among the most important a person can learn, whether one is deciding what to eat, which scientists to believe, what political stance makes the most sense, how to save and invest your money, or anything else.

Sourced from but not endorsed by pursuant to a Creative Commons license.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Ramps! Ramps for spring! Ramp recipes!

Following a long winter in the northeast which delayed almost all early-spring growth, it is finally the time when ramps appear in farmers markets in the NYC area. 

If you found this post you probably know what ramps are -- you probably searched for something like "ramps recipes," "ramps NYC," "ramps cultivate," or similar.  In case you don't know, ramps are basically wild leeks.  They like to grow in the shade, so they're mostly grown naturally in the woods as opposed to being planted in nice rows on a farm, though there are doubtless exceptions.   Now that they're the "in" vegetable again, this makes them pretty expensive for what is basically a weed.(1)  In North America, they're most prevalent along the Appalachian mountains. 

They have a short season, shedding their fragrant, tasty leaves and growing flowers by the time June rolls around.  Because they were generally among the first edible plants to appear in the spring ramps were considered a welcome harbinger of the food to come both by the early European settlers and the Native Americans who preceded them.  Chicago is named for a Native word for ramps -- the area was crawling with the things when La Salle showed up. 

Ramps have a small scallion-like bulb at the root end, a short thin stalk which can turn purple or burgundy and broad leaves which appear large relative to the size of the plant.  They are extremely pungent and both smell and taste like a happy combination of yellow onions, scallions and garlic. 

As part of the overall movement to better food, people are rediscovering local foods which for one reason or another have not been cultivated by the huge farms and even more huge food companies.  Ramps fit squarely into this trend. So all up and down the northeast you see ramps in farmers markets, on the menu of local restaurants and endless celebrations of them in the press, both dead-tree and internet-based.

How do you use ramps?  Basically as a substitute for any allium.  You can get  a nice taste of spring and a fun different taste in almost any recipe which uses garlic, onions, leeks, scallions or chives.   You have to earn them, though.  Ramps are dirty like leeks.  The way to clean them is to cut off the root and then wash them one or two at a time under running water, pulling off a thin membrane which covers the stalk and bulb.

They roast very nicely, getting a good char on the leaves just as the bulbs become tender when sauteed in your choice of fat.  To get the full spectrum of ramps' flavors, simply heat up a thin layer extra virgin olive oil or butter, throw a few ramps in and cook without turning until the leaves start to get a char on them.  Alternatively, brush the oil on them and toss them right on the grill, which you've doubtless been waiting to fire up all winter.  Serve them alone as a side dish or ramp (hah!) them up by putting them on a bruschetta with some buffalo mozzarella - Mario Batali's version was terrific, but I'd skip the tomato part and just let the ramps and toast stand with the mozz.  Tonight I made a ramp risotto based on a recipe from my favorite chef-scientist, J. Kenji L√≥pez-Alt at  They're also apparently outstanding with eggs; I'll probably pick up another couple of bunches this weekend and try them in and on an omelet.  Heck, throw them in a glass of Gin for a ramp Gibson!  Really, though, just think of whatever onion or garlic-heavy dish you enjoy most and swap in some ramps.  Like to cook Italian-American food?  Use the ramp bulbs to make ramp bread instead of garlic bread, toss the leaves into a green salad, and chop the stems like scallions and sprinkle them on the pasta sauce.  Prefer Indian?  How about a garlic curry but with ramps?

As it happens, I didn't set out to make this entire entry about ramps.  I intended to write about strawberries.  But this is getting to be a lengthy piece by blog standards.  So my next entry will address ramps, what makes them "in" right now, why you read way too much about them given that they're basically a weedy onion, and strawberries.  

(1): Morel mushrooms are apparently impossible to cultivate, much like truffles.  That accounts for the expense. 

(2): Today I learned why people prefer their vegetable stock to be on the clear side.  I took a picture of my ramp risotto, which was delicious, but it looked like something Linda Blair spit up. 

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Review: Holey Donuts

Holey Donuts
101 7th Ave South
New York, NY 10014

 I have no idea what company they may be trying
to get you to think about with this color scheme.


Around the corner from us in a location that is kind of star-crossed, an online donut company is trying to make its transition to the physical world. I wasn't previously aware that there was such a thing as an online donut company but Holey Donuts has apparently made a splash with low-fat (by donut standards) donuts. I guess that success, combined with the buzz created by Dominque Ansel's Cronuts, led to this store.

I signed up for their pre-opening, where they were trying to create a buzz by giving away free stuff.  New Yorkers will stand in line for anything, and will do anything for free stuff, so of course the gambit worked.  Today was the first day of a multi-day opening event and I went by and got a tote bag, a $15 gift certificate -- more about that later -- some kind of veggie-fruit drink and four of their donuts to sample.

One doesn't want to be uncharitable to someone who just gave you free stuff, but Holey Donuts are not very good.