Saturday, December 28, 2013

Happy Anniversary

Happy Anniversary
Today is the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Endangered Species Act by President Richard Nixon, in 1973. Perhaps more than any other single piece of environmental legislation, this law has generated controversy almost from its inception.
Last August, also 40 years ago, marked the anniversary of the discovery of the snail darter in the Little Tennessee River, by Dr. David Etnier, now emeritus professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Tennessee. That event ultimately led to the first-ever test of the Endangered Species Act before the Supreme Court of the United States in 1978. In that case, known as “Hill v TVA,” the court ruled that the Tennessee Valley Authority (and by extension any government agency) was subject to the terms of the Act. This decision halted construction on the Tellico Dam, to prevent destruction of the darter’s critical habitat.

It is reasonable to ask how things have played out for the snail darter, and the rest of America’s biodiversity in the intervening 40 years.

Snail darter, photo by Conservation Fisheries
In the interest of full disclosure, I must mention that I have been good friends with Dr. Etnier for all of that 40 year period, and our acquaintance began even earlier, as he was the first biology professor whose class I took in 1968. My friendship with others who have been involved in the conservation of aquatic biodiversity in the Southeast goes back nearly as far. I have served on the board of Conservation Fisheries since its inception in the 1990s. Conservation Fisheries is a nonprofit organization founded by two of Dr. Etnier’s graduate students. It has accumulated an unsurpassed record of success in the captive propagation of endangered native fishes for restocking wild habitats. They have worked with over 25 listed species of fish. Much of this work was made possible by funding obtained under the Endangered Species Act, which requires that a recovery plan be developed for each and every listed species.

As an environmental issue, biodiversity preservation has been overshadowed by climate change in recent years. In one sense, this is appropriate, because the impact of climate change will be felt by all species on the planet. In another sense, however, it is unfortunate, because human activity continues to place animals and plants in peril.

The rivers and streams of the southern Appalachian region survive as treasure troves of biodiversity that is little known and vastly underappreciated. Tennessee and Georgia, for example, each have more than 300 species of native freshwater fish, a level of diversity that rivals some tropical habitats of similar size. The aquatic biodiversity of this region mirrors the diversity of our forests, which shelter thousands of plants, insects and fungi, many found nowhere else on the planet.


Today, therefore, let us take a moment to reflect on the remarkable ecological bounty harbored by our region, and renew a commitment to protect and preserve it for the benefit and enjoyment of future generations.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Welcome Winter!

Today is the Winter Solstice. Yesterday, we had a minute more sun than today's allotment, which is 10 hours, the least of any day of the year. Tomorrow, we get a minute more. It is no wonder the ancients celebrated this "return" of the sun, because it meant for them the promise of a new growing season ahead, which in turn translated into food on the table. It is also no accident that the most important Christian holiday falls close to the solstice each year.

Gardening at this time of year is largely confined to locations where the temperature can be kept a little higher than outside, such as a coldframe. Only the hardiest vegetables can withstand long periods of cold and short, gloomy days. Kale, green onions and spinach are still harvestable in our garden, but not much else is. Even the cold-tolerant greens in the coldframe look a bit bedraggled, probably owing to lack of sun.

Now is a great time to start planning next year's garden. I have already received by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange catlaog. You can browse it or request a paper copy at www.southernexposure.com .

Next season, we plan to focus more on warm weather crops, as part of the ongoing research for my upcoming book about Southern food and food gardening. While we won't ignore spring greens and such, we will be devoting more space to corn, okra, black-eyed peas, sweet potatoes and other veggies traditionally associated with Southern cooking. And tomatoes, of course.

My research on Southern food has turned up some fabulous traditional recipes that I plan to include in the book. Here's an example of a classic with my personal touches:

Hoppin’ John

2 cups cooked black-eyed peas (from 1 cup dried)
1 tablespoon lard
2 tablespoons country ham, chopped
¼ medium onion, chopped
¼ teaspoon dried oregano
¼ teaspoon garlic powder
1 cup water, or more if needed
2 cups cooked rice


Wash, sort and soak 1 cup black-eyed peas overnight in water to cover. This should yield 2 cups of peas. In a large, heavy pot over medium heat, cook the ham in the lard until most of the fat is rendered, then add the onion and cook until it is transparent. Add seasonings, water and soaked black-eyed peas. The water should barely cover the peas. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a bare simmer. Cover and cook about 30 minutes, or until peas are tender. Add a little hot water if the mixture begins to get too dry. Stir the hot cooked rice into the peas gently and serve steaming in bowls.

Leftovers keep well, or try this take on cabbage rolls. Stuff blanched collard leaves (stems removed) with hoppin' John. Roll up into packets and place in a greased baking dish. Cover with Creole sauce or Italian tomato sauce and bake until the sauce bubbles. You can substitute cabbage, if you prefer. Savoy cabbage is in season in winter, and makes excellent rolls. 

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Holiday Party Snacks

It started as an argument about, of all things, Chex™ Party Mix, AKA “Nuts ‘n’ Bolts,” “Scramble,” and “TV Mix.” A friend claimed to be using the “original recipe from the 1960s.” I found this claim to be suspect, since Betty Crocker first published a snack mix recipe in 1950, and the Chex™ Party Mix recipe first appeared on the boxes of Chex™ in 1952. In 1955, the wife of a Raulston Purina exec served the mix at a St. Louis holiday fete, and the popularity of the mix has grown ever since.
I asked my friend about the source of his party mix recipe. The recipe he uses appeared in a Better Homes and Gardens cookbook published in 1963, which my friend inherited from his mother. He was kind enough to lend me the book, and I have thoroughly enjoyed perusing the 50-year-old recipes for party snacks.

It has been almost as much fun to see the illustrations of “hostess accessories” which are used to display the foods. Whether in "Danish modern" style or otherwise, all of them look charmingly dated.

Following World War II, the cocktail party became an increasingly popular way for Americans, many of whom were enjoying the middle class lifestyle during the prosperous postwar years. Even for folks who avoided alcohol, party snacks began to take on a flair not previously seen outside high society. This was, in a way, America’s first step toward our modern obsession with food, not merely as sustenance, but as the product of a craft to be mastered.

This week, therefore, I decided to shift gears a little and talk about food. It is one of my favorite topics, especially during the holiday season. Some of my fondest holiday memories are of family gatherings where the tablecloth was almost hidden under dishes of food. When a friend recently loaned me a cookbook published in 1963, I found recipes for several of my favorites from way back then. Just in time for your holiday entertaining, then, here are some holiday snack recipes from 50 years ago.

I have modified them slightly for modern tastes and reduced salt content.

Original Chex Snack Mix
From the back of the box comes this classic recipe.  Makes 12 cups.

3 cups EACH Corn, Wheat and Rice Chex cereals
1 cup mixed nuts
1 cup bite size pretzels
1 cup bagel chips, broken in 1-inch pieces
6 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons Worchestershire sauce
½ teaspoon seasoned salt
¾ teaspoon garlic powder
½ teaspoon onion powder
1/8 teaspoon celery seed


Preheat oven to 250 degrees. In a large roasting pan, melt the butter in the oven. Stir in the seasonings Gently stir in the other ingredients, stirring until well coated. Bake one hour, stirring every 15 minutes. Cool and store in an airtight container.

Company Clam Dip

1 can minced clams (6.5-7.5 oz.)
2 tablespoons minced onion
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon catsup
Few drops bottled hot pepper sauce
1 cup diced sharp American or Cheddar cheese
2 tablespoons chopped pitted ripe olives
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

Drain clams, reserving the liquid. In a chafing dish, electric skillet or fondue pot, sauté the onion in the butter until tender, but not browned. Add the clams, 1 tablespoon of the reserved liquid (freeze the rest to use later) and the remaining ingredients. Heat and stir gently until the cheese melts and the mixture is hot. Makes 1 ¼ cups.
Serve with crackers and potato chips. [Or other vegetable chips suitable for dipping.]

Olive Cheese Ball

8 oz. cream cheese, softened
8 oz. blue cheese, crumbled
¼ cup butter, softened
2/3 cup chopped pitted ripe olives (about 3 oz.)
1 tablespoon minced chives

Garnish:
1/3 cup chopped walnuts
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

Combine the cheeses and butter in a large bowl. Stir in the olives and chives until well combined. Chill for 20 minutes. Form into a dome-shape on a serving dish. Cover with plastic wrap. Chill thoroughly. Can be made several days ahead. To serve, sprinkle with nuts, pressing in gently. Garnish with parsley.
Serve with crackers. Makes 3 cups.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Windowsill Herbs

A listener to the radio show asked about growing herbs at the windowsill during the winter months. Not many of the popular herbs grow well during the short days and cold weather of December and January, but three that do reasonably well are parsley, chives, and chervil.

Chervil is the most shade tolerant of the three. The seeds can be started any time of year and need a week or more to germinate. Plant several in a small pot and keep well watered. When the first true leaves appear, use a pair of scissors to clip off all but one plant at the soil line. Feed lightly every couple of weeks and transplant to a larger container as needed. When the plant is 6 inches or more in diameter, you can harvest a few leaves, and continue to do so for the remainder of the season. In March, you can transplant the chervil outdoors, where it will continue to provide fresh leaves, and, eventually, a huge supply of seeds for next year and to share with friends. Chervil is milder than parsley and has a hint of tarragon flavor, so it goes well with many foods, especially fish, chicken and many vegetables.

Parsley grown indoors never gets as large as plants in the garden, but nevertheless it does adapt to the warm, dry air and low light indoors. If you have a sunny window, you can either dig up a plant from the garden, pot it up and bring it in, or start new plants from seed. Follow the directions given above for chervil plants. To speed germination, soak parsley seeds in water for four days, changing the water every day. You will see the seeds change from almost black to light brown, as the water removes germination inhibitors. Plant the seeds on the fourth day, and they should sprout in a week or less. Parsley needs nitrogen to keep it green and flavorful, so don't be stingy with the fertilizer.Well-established garden parsley usually overwinters in east Tennessee, and can be picked any time it is not frozen. It will bolt quickly, however, with the arrival of spring.

Chives are among the easiest of onions to grow. Just sprinkle seeds in a pot about 8 inches in diameter and wait for them to get as large as you like before harvesting. Clip the leaves with scissors and allow them to re-grow. You can transplant chives into the garden in spring, where they will remain for years without much attention other than weeding. Chive blooms are beautiful in bouquets and tasty, too.

Other herbs to try indoors in winter are mints and rosemary. The latter is available now as a topiary shaped like a little Christmas tree. It is a delicious seasoning for poultry and pork. Mints may be started from seed, but it is easier to root cuttings from the grocery store. Select healthy looking cuttings, remove the bottom two pairs of leaves (use them in cooking) and re-cut the stems with a sharp knife. Set the cuttings in a glass of water and change the water every few days. Soon, the cuttings will root and you can pot them up. Do not fertilize mint, but do keep it moist.

Having a few fresh herbs around is a wonderful way to perk up winter meals.