This month, I had the treat of talking to five of my coworkers about their veggie-related tricks and talents. I hope you enjoy learning more about the fine folks that fill your baskets each week!
Leah, our curly-headed, globe-trotting fruit stocker joined the produce team five months ago fresh from an around-the-world trip that she won on a travel blog! Her adventurous spirit extends into the kitchen as well, where she can always be found with a cookbook and a new recipe. Her latest obsession: homemade ice cream. She got an ice cream-maker for Christmas this winter, and it’s gotten a lot of mileage already!
She finds her inspiration in the Produce department, choosing from seasonal fruits, vegetables and fresh herbs. She’s made a tangerine sorbet, a carrot cake ice cream (with cream cheese and sour cream in the batter—yum!), and a blood orange-satsuma sherbet, but her favorite concoction so far was the simple but stunning swirled ginger ice cream. What’s next? “I’d like to recreate this lemon-sage gelato I had in Florence, Italy. It was the best gelato I’ve ever tasted,” says Leah. Other ingredients she hopes to work with are figs, rhubarb, sweet corn and lemongrass.
PS: Not only is Leah a master ice cream-mixer, she is also an avid photographer! If you haven’t yet, take a peek in the Willy East Community Room to see her travel-based photography exhibit.
Sadie, a textile artist from Oakland, California, thinks about color constantly. She moved to Madison two and a half years ago, and, while working at the Willy Street Co-op, began experimenting with natural plant and vegetable dyes. “The colors you can get from vegetables are so amazing” she gushes, “and it’s so easy!”
To create your own dye, simply chop the vegetable of your choice and boil it in water for 30 minutes to an hour, or even longer to deepen the intensity of the color. Red cabbage yields a blue/purple hue when boiled, but altering the pH of the solution changes its color dramatically. Adding an acid, like lemon juice, creates a beautiful bright red, while adding a base such as baking soda turns the dye green! Similarly, when boiled alone, turmeric root produces a bright orange hue, but combined with lemon it turns yellow, and with baking soda you get a rich brick red. Berries will produce purple, dandelion leaves are good for green, and yellow onion skins will elicit a deep orangey-yellow color. Sadie loves to color her own fabrics using a Japanese tie-dye technique called shibori, but these dyes can also be used for watercolor painting, silkscreen printing, or dyeing yarn, t-shirts, and Easter eggs!
Nel is our resident smoothie savant. After starting out with an expensive juicer a number of years ago, she realized that the juices were giving her an unpleasant sugar rush while stripping out the important fiber in the fruits and vegetables she was using. More recently she discovered the joy and practicality of making smoothies, and it’s changed everything about the way she eats. “It’s so much easier just to make a smoothie to bring to work,” she says, “and it feels lighter in my stomach when I’m on my feet all day.”
The ingredients change according to what is in her fridge at any given time, but she generally sticks to a ratio of 50% greens, 40% fruit, and 10% protein. “You can get creative,” Nel says.
For example, she often uses items she finds in the discount bin and she sometimes blends leftover soups into her liquid meal. Within smoothies you can mask flavors you don’t like, such as green tea or spirulina, while still reaping their health benefits. Nel even blends in unusual ingredients like kimchi and sauerkraut, which add salt and beneficial enzymes. The Juice Bar ought to sample her sweet-potato-romaine-orange-cinnamon-walnut blend, or perhaps the avocado-arugula-sunflower-sprout-miso-jalapeño shake!
You’ll find many experienced gardeners amongst the Produce staff, but few are as diligent about record-keeping as Gavin. Last summer, he harvested 182.5 pounds of tomatoes, 24 pounds of garlic, 300 garlic scapes, 15 pounds of peppers, and 50 pounds of potatoes, all from a 20’ by 20’ plot on the south side of Madison! He calculates that the organic produce he grew for himself was easily worth five to six hundred dollars. “Of course,” he notes, “that’s not counting the cost of my labor.”
Despite his commitment to quantifying the bounty, Gavin says that the most lasting results of personal food production are not easily measured. The feeling of being connected to others, for instance, is a big part of what attracts Gavin. Not only does his community garden connect him with gardeners from diverse backgrounds here in Madison, Gavin says he feels a sense of solidarity with growers around the world when he gardens, as there are so many people for whom subsistence farming is still a way of life. In his life, the garden is a place where he can exercise intuition, ingenuity, experimentation and faith, with the added bonus of a tasty tomato on the other side!
While working full-time as a receiver and buyer in the Produce department, Andy earned a Master’s degree in Horticulture from UW-Madison. “It was a great complement to my day job,” he says of the coursework he completed and his research on the heritability of capsaicin, the molecule that gives peppers their heat.
In his research he measured the concentration of the molecule within habañero peppers, which can be up to ten times spicier than jalapeños! Luckily he’s into spicy food, because part of the job was judging the heat of the peppers subjectively. In fact, he still has some of the hybrid plants from his research; he keeps them in a warm, sunny spot in the house where they can produce perennially. His favorite use for his habañeros is in a delicious sweet-and-spicy sauce containing papaya, tomato, onion, garlic, lime juice, turmeric and cider vinegar. “Use with caution,” he says.