Sunday, January 31, 2010

Recipe: Straw Potato Cake

photo of a straw potato cakeWhile planning a somewhat elaborate breakfast on a recent visit to my parents' house, I remembered a once-favorite potato dish, the “straw potato cake.” The cake, which has few ingredients but requires care in preparation, gets its name from the similarity between the potato pieces and straw, and offers crispiness and softness in a golden disc.

Although it is somewhat like a big hash brown, Paul Bertolli takes great pains in Chez Panisse Cooking to explain how to make it. There’s the issue of the potatoes: Bertolli recommends using large Russet potatoes because of their high starch content. Then there is issue of cutting: he says they should be cut using a mandoline into 1/8" julienne, or by hand. A grater is no good, he argues, because then cake will be too compact (my results with a grater, however, have been pretty good, so you might give the grater a try if you don’t have a mandoline). And it is important to rinse the cut potatoes thoroughly to remove surface starch – which would cause the cake to be gummy – and then dry them completely in a salad spinner or with towels. Finally, Bertolli recommends using a 10 inch or smaller pan because larger pans are hard to heat evenly on stoves at home. It’s also important to cook this in a non-stick pan, like a well-seasoned cast iron skillet or coated pan, so the potato cake can keep its form.

Serve on its own as a side dish or topped with grated cheese, sauteed mushrooms, or anything else that goes with potato.

Straw Potato Cake

Adapted from Chez Panisse Cooking by Paul Bertolli

20 ounces russet potatoes (567 grams)
3 1/2 T. butter or oil (52 mL) *
Salt and pepper

Prepare the potatoes by peeling, then cutting into 1/8" julienne on a mandoline or by hand (or, less preferably, with a box grater). Rinse the cut potatoes in several changes of water, then drain and dry with a towel of in a salad spinner.

Preheat the skillet over low heat for several minutes, then add 2 1/2 T. of the butter or oil and increase the heat to medium. Place one-half of the potato into the hot oil, sprinkle in some salt and pepper, then add the rest of the potato. Use a wooden spoon or mini-spatula to shape the potatoes into a cake, trying to leave some space around the edge of the pan. Press down gently to help the cake form and to create even contact with the pan.

Let it cook, shaking the pan now and then to prevent sticking, until underside is golden brown (about 10 minutes). Slide onto a plate. Add the remaining tablespoon of butter or oil to the pan, and then return the potato cake to the pan, uncooked side down. Cook for a few minutes more until second side is golden, again shaking the pan periodically.

When the second side is golden brown, slide onto a plate and serve.

Variations: Add some chopped herbs (rosemary, thyme, etc.), cooked bacon, or spices (Indian spices might be interesting, served with a yogurt sauce) to the raw potato.

* Bertolli’s recipe calls for clarified butter because of its higher smoke point and excellent flavor. I’ve had good luck with regular butter and cooking oil.

Saturday, January 16, 2010


In mid-January, PBS's Nature series had a remarkable program about my favorite animal, the hummingbird. The lives of these incredible birds is explored in several "chapters," each one punctuated by outstanding footage and insightful commentary.

Among the many interesting parts are segments on why the black-chinned hummingbird builds their nests close to the nests of Cooper's hawks, how the male Anna's hummingbird makes the "chirp" during its dramatic dive (which I covered here in late 2008), and how the birds are changing their migration habits to spend more time on the Gulf Coast, and much more. Nature's web site has the entire episode on-line for viewing, along with many web-only extras and a link to a collection of hummingbird photos by viewers. (During the week after the January 10, 2010 premiere, the program will be repeated in HD or standard definition on PBS stations. Check Nature's schedule page for your local listings.)

Hummingbirds are found only in the Americas, with the most extravagant hummingbirds residing in Central and South America. This limited range is unfortunately not explored by the Nature program. Was it something about the Americas that led to their evolution, or something else? Every other continent has flowers that need pollination and times of day when insects aren’t active, so why don’t they have hummingbirds?

Most of North America has just a few species – the eastern part of the continent has only the ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris), California is dominated by the Anna's (Calypte anna), with appearances by the rufous, Allen's, and a few others. Southeast Arizona, however, is a North American treasury for the winged jewels.

In March 2004, I made a trip to see the hummingbirds and other bird life of Southeast Arizona, flying to Tucson, Arizona and then spending time in Sierra Vista (to hike along the San Pedro River, an oasis in the desert), Patagonia (home to a Nature Conservancy preserve), around Tucson’s various parks, and the Whitewater Draw (a small lake about 60 miles east of Tucson). With my limited birding skills, I ended up seeing almost 100 different species during the trip, including six different species of hummingbird*. Four of the species I hadn't seen before (and probably would never see in California). My guide to finding the birds was "Finding Birds in Southeast Arizona," a publication of the Tucson Audubon Society, which I picked up at the chapter's store in central Tucson.

* I saw these six species: Anna's (Calypte anna), Rufous (Selasphorus rufus), Broad-billed (Cynanthus latirostris), Black Chinned (Archilochus alexandri), Violet-crowned (Amazilia violiceps), and Costa's (Calypte costae). A chart in the hummingbird section of the book shows that 13 species of hummers can be seen in the region, with a few of them being rare, seasonal or accidental, so I did OK by spotting six.

Photo credit: Photo of a hovering Anna's Hummingbird (Calypte anna) from ingridtaylar's flickr collection, subject to a Creative Commons License.

Random link from the archive:Red Chile Enchiladas

Technorati tags: Nature : Hummingbirds : Arizona : Birds

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Can Motown become Growtown? Urban Farming in Detroit

A garden at a church in Detroit - from U of Michigan SNRE on Flickr

(Updated 10/30/16: fixed broken links, changed photos)

Over the last several years, the urban farming movement in Detroit has received coverage from a variety of publications, from large newspapers to niche publications.

Earlier in the week, the Los Angeles Times looked at Hantz Farms, which aims to use farming to bring Detroit back from the dead: "Farming is how Detroit started and farming is how Detroit can be saved," said Michael Score, president of Hantz Farms. While there are scores of abandoned lots in Detroit, the company has so far not been obtain large contiguous tracts of land, so they are starting with a “pod” approach, where smaller sections of land will grow crops appropriate for the area. The crop decision is informed by the type and condition of soil – soil with accumulated toxins might be appropriate for apples but not lettuce – and what buildings are on the land – instead of tearing down abandoned houses, they can be used as mushroom-growing buildings, suggests Score.

The city is approaching large-scale farming with care, as many issues need to be addressed, like city zoning laws, taxation of agricultural lands, and various infrastructure items. Detroit’s mayor, Dave Bing (a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame) said in a statement that "Urban farming will be part of Detroit's long-term redevelopment plan."

Assignment Detroit (at CNN Money) has profile of John Hantz, the successful money manager (net worth of more than $100 million) who is bankrolling the Hantz Farm project. The community gardeners and other non-profit agricultural activists are wary of the Hantz project, with concerns about “corporate takeovers” and the like. Based on the situation in Detroit – thousands of acres of vacant land, little hope of an industrial revival – these fears are probably misplaced, as it’s unlikely that the city will run out of land in the near future. However, it is conceivable that if Hantz Farms is successful, they could use their accumulated political muscle to rewrite city regulations such that small producers are cut out.
Surveying a garden in Detroit - from U of Michigan SNRE on Flickr
“Food Among the Ruins”
In “Food Among the Ruins” in Guernica Magazine, Mark Dowie makes a bold proposal: Detroit should face the facts and give up on its fantasy of becoming an industrial powerhouse again. It’s the best article I’ve seen about Detroit – the most comprehensive, the one with the deepest and widest view. Dowie writes about the visionaries of Detroit:
There are more visionaries in Detroit than in most Rust-Belt cities, and thus more visions of a community rising from the ashes of a moribund industry to become, if not an urban paradise, something close to it. The most intriguing visionaries in Detroit, at least the ones who drew me to the city, were those who imagine growing food among the ruins—chard and tomatoes on vacant lots (there are over 103,000 in the city, sixty thousand owned by the city), orchards on former school grounds, mushrooms in open basements, fish in abandoned factories, hydroponics in bankrupt department stores, livestock grazing on former golf courses, high-rise farms in old hotels, vermiculture, permaculture, hydroponics, aquaponics, waving wheat where cars were once test-driven, and winter greens sprouting inside the frames of single-story bungalows stripped of their skin and re-sided with Plexiglas—a homemade greenhouse. Those are just a few of the agricultural technologies envisioned for the urban prairie Detroit has become.
Some of this is already being done in other places – Will Allen’s Growing Power in Milwaukee, for example, has plants, fish, and animals growing on its grounds – and so Detroit will be able to build on other's experiences. With the vast amount of land available, Detroit could become an experimental hub, a place where urban agricultural thinkers can get land and resources to try new ideas that are too risky for their own small spaces and budgets, an analogue of sorts to the NIH and university research in the health care system.

At the end of his article, Dowie looks at Detroit’s past and potential future:
Contemporary Detroit gave new meaning to the word “wasteland.” It still stands as a monument to a form of land abuse that became endemic to industrial America—once-productive farmland, teaming with wildlife, was paved and poisoned for corporate imperatives. Now the city offers itself as an opportunity to restore some of its agrarian tradition, not fifty miles from downtown in the countryside where most of us believe that tradition was originally established, but a short bicycle ride away. American cities once grew much of their food within walking distance of most of their residents. In fact, in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, most early American cities, Detroit included, looked more like the English countryside, with a cluster of small villages interspersed with green open space. Eventually, farmers of the open space sold their land to developers and either retired or moved their farms out of cities, which were cut into grids and plastered with factories, shopping malls, and identical row houses.
Detroit now offers America a perfect place to redefine urban economics, moving away from the totally paved, heavy-industrial factory-town model to a resilient, holistic, economically diverse, self-sufficient, intensely green, rural/urban community—and in doing so become the first modern American city where agriculture, while perhaps not the largest, is the most vital industry.

Photo Credits
A local Catholic church displays a thriving urban garden and Photo of Jasmine Omeke and Mariel Borgman survey an urban garden located on an abandoned lot in Detroit from University of Michigan School of Natural Resources & Environment's Flickr collection, subject to a Creative Commons License

Random Link from the Archive:   Recipe: Smoky-Spicy Glaze