Thursday, September 27, 2012

Eat Local Challenge 2012

I've gloated about this many times, but just for the record (in case you're keeping one): I'm lucky enough to live in Santa Barbara, where it is particularly easy to eat locally grown and produced foods. It's the reason an otherwise lazy person like me can dedicate an entire blog to my adventures eating local foods and reviewing restaurants and other establishments that use local ingredients.

But sometimes it's just easier to heat up a can of soup or pick up a packaged meal at an inexpensive market. I've been in the process of moving into a new place over the past couple of weeks, so the time I can dedicate to planning local shopping trips and preparing meals using local ingredients has been more limited than usual.

Recently, I read about a project that is just the inspiration I need to get back on the proverbial track. Edible Santa Barbara, my favorite publication ever in the history of time, is sponsoring its 4th annual Eat Local Challenge in conjunction with the Community Environmental Council and the Santa Barbara Farmers Market.

Santa Barbarians (who are generally not as barbaric as they sound) are encouraged to pledge to eat only locally grown and produced food for the month of October. They can set their own limits: "local" can refer to only Santa Barbara proper, or the tri-county area, or all of the state of California. Exceptions can be made for coffee, tea, and other addictions products that are not grown locally.

Although I already make a point of eating a local diet, there are certain products I consume on a near-daily basis that originated in the far-flung corners of the world. Here are a few of those products and how I plan to address them this month:

Coffee: Ugh. No, really, "ugh" is all I can physically bring myself to say on days when I haven't had my coffee. Teaching can be awkward, as can responding to sensitive questions like, "What do you think of my new outfit?" Ugh. Since coffee isn't grown in California, and since giving it up would mean wearing a month-long scowl and alienating my friends and colleagues with glares and half-articulated grunts, I thought I'd have to make an exception. But I recently learned that Goodland Organics is experimenting with growing coffee right in Goleta, California, and selling it at the Tuesday farmers market! I can't wait to pick some up.

Milk: There is no dairy in Santa Barbara county, but Lazy Acres carries milk from dairies in the nearby area. I am also a fan of Organic Pastures raw milk, which is sold at the Saturday farmers market. Don't cry over raw milk, that's what I always say.

Bread: I love the artisan rolls from Solvang Pie Company, and as it turns out, they're made from wheat grown in the Santa Ynez valley. Perfect.

Quinoa: This part breaks my quinoa-lovin' heart. Quinoa won't grow in California, since the climate won't support it. That means I'll just have to eat a lot more legumes. I'm going to try supplementing my veggies with pasta made from locally grown wheat from Solvang Pie Company.

So there you have it: my eating local plan for the month of October. Make your own plan and share it! You can join the Facebook group and RSVP to the Facebook event for moral support. The Google group is also a great resource for ideas about where to find local versions of your favorite foods. Check out this Source Guide for a list of establishments that are on-board the local train.

If, like me, you derive your self-worth some occasional pleasure from tweeting, use #EatLocalSB, @EdibleSB and @CECSB as you track your progress.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Dream the Hydroponic Scene: Beylik Family Farms in Fillmore, CA

Until a few days ago, the only people I’d heard use the word “hydroponics” were saying it while rolling a joint. They were probably listening to 311 and wearing flip-flops held together with duct-tape, too - I can’t remember.

But at the Saturday farmers market, I heard the word “hydroponics” come out of the mouth of a clean-cut, probably-not-stoned young girl working at the Beylik Family Farms stand. She was selling me Japanese tomatoes (which are particularly sweet and low in acidity) for $3.50/pound and explaining to me why the word “organic” didn’t appear on the stand’s signage.

She told me that Beylik Family Farms near Fillmore, California (distance from me: 62 miles) has been growing mostly tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers hydroponically since 1971. “Hydroponic” plants are grown indoors without soil, using only a nutrient solution.

I recently spoke with Laura Beylik, who lives and work on the farm with her husband, Scott. Laura sells their products at markets with a team of six, while her husband avoids the market “like the plague,” preferring to stay on the farm where he works with eight employees. Scott inherited the farm from his father, who retired about five years ago, and his grandfather, who passed away about ten years ago. It comprises two properties: Scott and Laura live on close to 15 acres, while his parents live right across the street on 6.5 acres.

Laura explained that the farm is semi-hydroponic, since their greenhouses use natural light and true hydroponic farms use only artificial light. The Beyliks also use coconut husks and Grodan Rockwool as a “medium” to support the plants’ root systems and hold moisture.

Contrary to my first assumption, “Rockwool” is not the fluffy result of shearing your pet rock. Rather, it’s a man-made mineral fiber made by melting basaltic rock and then spinning it into a fibrous material. The highest quality Rockwool is produced from diabase (pure basaltic rock) and has a mineral balance completely inert and nonreactive with nutrient solutions.
Hydroponic tomatoes on the vine at Beylik Family Farms (photo:

Apparently, the hydroponic and organic growing communities have been embroiled in a bit of a feud for the past fifty years or so. Organic growers care about improving the biological health of the soil by minimizing degradation and erosion, while hydroponic growers cut the soil out of the process all together.

For many of us, the word “organic” has become kind of a synonym for “good for the environment.” And organically grown food certainly is better for the environment than conventionally grown food, despite recent research on its arguable health benefits.

But it’s not the only environmentally friendly way to grow food. Hydroponic plants have smaller root systems so they take up less room than soil-grown plants, and they’re not plagued by weeds or soil-borne diseases. Plants are able to access nutrients as they need them, and no water is lost in the process. I’m glad I learned a little more about hydroponic food so I can expand my local diet. 

And in my opinion, these Japanese tomatoes taste just as good as their organic counterparts. I have been eating one of them while I write this post, simultaneously blasting “Hydroponic” by 311 on loop, just to get in the mood. Don’t worry - I made sure to save one of the tomatoes to use in self-defense against my neighbors, who have got to be getting tired of this song.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Restaurant Review: Seagrass

Recently, my boyfriend David turned twenty-seven years old. I decided to give him exactly what I would have wanted if I were trying to celebrate a milestone on the road to becoming old and decrepit: a scavenger hunt! Nobody loves scavenger hunts more than I do… including David.

I should remind you that birthdays are kind of a big deal in my family. So you can imagine my horror when David told me that all he wanted for his birthday was to relax and play violent, war-themed video games in his boxer shorts. Obviously, this man had no idea what having a birthday even meant. Lucky for him, he’s dating someone who does.

So I went about crafting intricate clues to go along with little gifts for him to discover throughout the day, painstakingly handwriting each clue in impeccable calligraphy. As I worked long into the night, I thought about how lucky David was that I knew what a real birthday entailed. He was going to have such fun.

When the day arrived, I enlisted the help of his good friend and colleague to help distract David (who, hilariously, believed I had canceled our lunch date for no good reason) as I tiptoed around planting clues, feeling clever. The scavenger hunt went off without a hitch until the last clue, which I handed to him while we were having pre-dinner drinks at a bar downtown:
Dinner’s on me!
For the first time, let’s try
The ocean
Something you’d smoke to get high
The answer was, of course, Seagrass. This “sustainable, organic, and local” restaurant is owned by the Perez family, all of whom participate in its operation. Chef Robert Perez’s older son, Ruben Richard, is the wine director; Robert’s wife, Marianna, manages the aesthetics of the space; and their younger son Ruben’s life partner, Erin Gailsdaughter, also works at the restaurant.
The Perez-Gailsdaughter family; Richard not pictured
A member of the Ty Warner Sea Center’s Sustainable Seafood Program, Seagrass acquires all its local fish and shellfish from Kanaloa Seafood and Santa Barbara Fish Market. Most of their produce comes from bi-weekly shopping trips to the farmers market.

They had recently offered a Groupon deal for their dinner tasting menu, and of course I’d jumped on that deal quicker than you can say, “The ocean + Something you’d smoke to get high.” And that brings me back to the clue… which was going nowhere, slowly.

“Sea… weed?!” David guessed for the hundredth time, furrowing his brow. “Atlantic… crack? No. Pacific meth!” Our bartender chuckled and rolled her eyes. I didn’t know whether to chuckle or to be concerned that David had such an extensive mental list of things you could smoke to get high.

I guess nobody uses the word “grass” anymore. But after much coaxing, I finally got David to say the words, “Sea… grass?! Seagrass. Oh, Seagrass!” and we were on our way.

The first thing I noticed upon entering the restaurant was how dark it was inside; heavy maroon drapes kept out any of the night’s remaining natural light and the interior lighting was decidedly dim. The understated d├ęcor was punctuated by large seashell fixtures and little green specks of light projected onto the ceiling, perhaps meant to represent moonlight filtered through ocean water or the light at the end of a dock.

But if I stared at the green lights for too long, I found myself longing for dreams just beyond my grasp, all Gatsby-like, so I focused on the delicious food instead.

The tasting menu included two options for each course, so we tried both and shared them. The abyss of darkness in which we were dining made photographing the dishes in a flattering way quite impossible. Using the flash resulting in something horrible like this:
The lighting does not flatter this smoked salmon dish.
So you’ll just have to take my word for it that these dishes looked as good as they sound. To start, I got the little gem salad with blue cheese, bacon, and cherry tomatoes. “Little gem,” also called “sucrine,” tastes like a combination of Butter and Romaine lettuce. It is flavorful as far as lettuces go, which is admittedly not very far. David got the smoked Scottish salmon with greens, emulsified olive oil, and capers, pictured unflatteringly above.

For the main course, I got the pan-seared, oven-baked sea bass on roasted eggplant with a possibly magical veal reduction. David’s maple duck was also pan-seared and oven-baked, served with summer vegetables.

The tasting menu included dessert (phew!), and I gobbled up my chocolate mousse with salted caramel and Chantilly cream almost as fast as David devoured his toasted vanilla bean ice cream. Yes, toasted ice cream, the classy older cousin of the deep-fried ice cream you always see on menus at Japanese restaurants but are too afraid to order.

The whole meal was beyond satisfying. With every course, we had one of those moments in which you shove a forkful of your food at your dining partner, repeating over and over, “You just have to try this!” And try it we did.

I was happy to have demonstrated to David how joyful birthdays can be. David was happy to have made it to the end of his incredibly exhausting fun scavenger hunt. Seagrass was a huge success, and we’ll be back – during the day, though, so as not to be lured by those beckoning green lights.