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Mountain food

Every August, I pack up my saddle, cowboy bedroll, chef’s knife and my vacation hours and head to a pack station high in the eastern Sierra Nevada between Mammoth and Bishop. A couple days later I’m out on trail, usually riding somewhere in the national parks of Kings Canyon, Sequoia or Mt. Whitney, with strings of pack mules in front of me.


The author heading to work

The packers—cowboys who load and manage the mules—and I take paying guests, their gear and our supplies into the back country for days, even weeks at a time. The guests hike or ride with us to each camp, where the packers unload the patient mules and I set up my kitchen. That’s when my real work begins.

Pack mules headed up a steep trail

The food for each trip is kept in large, lockable, bear-proof boxes with heavy leather straps that hook onto the pack saddles. Perishables are kept in soft coolers in the bear boxes; cans and bottles are padded with other items in cardboard so they don’t break or rattle together and worry the mules. At night I cover the bear boxes with a tarp, then a bear-alarm system of stacked pans.

During the day, when we’re in camp, the bear boxes are kept covered in the shade of pine trees or granite boulders. Our cowboy menus are practical and reflect what food must be eaten soonest: the first dinner is always burgers, the second, chicken. I remove produce from plastic bags, which hasten spoilage, and keep it in brown bags or wrapped in clean dish towels.


A tidy kitchen at midday. The bear box in the sun holds garbage, the wooden box holds cooking utensils.

After 6 years, I have discovered some secrets of back country cooking: people are always very, very hungry from exercising in the high elevations, which are often above 10,000 feet. But even hungry they still appreciate good, well-prepared and well-seasoned food. The difference between a packaged, instant pudding and a slowly steamed, stovetop apple crisp are obvious. Pancakes cooked with thin layers of ripe peaches are tastier than plain ones. And under no circumstances do you overcook the steaks, even when you’re negotiating damp and uncooperative firewood.

The pack station outfitter supplies delicious meat; the thick bacon alone is worth the trip. I grill chops, simmer stews and roast thick cuts of meat that have been deep frozen for days. The hearty meat dishes are not just for tradition; the packers rise well before first light to wrangle the grazing animals, and protein fuels their long days. But our guests are health conscious and like produce as well.

The lettuce that best survives the days of jostling in the bear-proof boxes is iceberg, but salads of iceberg, tomatoes and cucumbers with packaged dressing get downright dull. Instead we serve a popular broccoli salad or my improvised cole slaw, which varies with every trip depending on what I have in my bear boxes. If there is any left over, I put it out when guests are making their sandwiches for lunch the next morning. Although coleslaw in a sandwich is a mess to eat—believe me, I have done so, leaning over my horse’s mane—its crunch and flavors makes the sandwiches zing.


Guests from Japan helping themselves to grilled lamb served with cole slaw.

Broccoli Salad
Serves 6-8

1 head broccoli
1 small red onion
½ cup dry roasted sunflower seeds
Dressing: mayonnaise, apple cider vinegar, dry thyme, salt and pepper

Trim the broccoli into very small florets. Put dressing ingredients in bowl and whisk. The dressing should be thin enough to coat broccoli nicely but not so it puddles in bottom of bowl. Toss dressing over salad. Sprinkle sunflower seeds generously over the top.

Cole Slaw
Serves 8-10 as a side dish; exact amounts are not critical

green cabbage
red cabbage, if available
2 zucchini, green skins primarily
3 carrots
slivered or sliced toasted almonds
dried cranberries
green or red pepper
red onion
Optional: a can sliced water chestnuts or crushed pineapple
Dressing: Mayonnaise, apple cider vinegar and white wine vinegar (I use both), celery seed (important), salt and pepper to taste. Add mayo and vinegar so dressing is creamy, not gloppy.

With a sharp chef’s knife, thinly slice the cabbage. Pick through and remove any thick white ribs, then dice cabbage as finely as you have patience to do. Grate carrots and zucchini skins (I feed the soft zucchini centers to the mules). Finely dice green pepper and red onion. Toss vegetables together and add cranberries and nearly all the almonds. Look at the balance of the salad: you want a cranberry and a few almonds in nearly every bite. Whisk dressing together and pour over slaw, tossing to coat. Set aside in a cool place and just before serving, sprinkle with remaining almonds.

Posted on Wednesday, September 8, 2010 at 7:27 AM

Apple time!

Remember that snow on the foothills back in May? That cold spell delayed the apple harvest in El Dorado County about 10 days, but the ranches of the Apple Hill Growers Association are now open for visitors. Gravensteins are already ripe and the first crisp and juicy Galas are ready to pick, with Jonagolds close behind. September is the perfect month to visit the ranches, pick your own apples and maybe stop for a glass of wine or a slice of fresh apple pie.

More than 50 Apple Hill Association member ranches welcome the public onto their small foothill farms every fall with fruit stands, U-pick opportunities, wineries, apple pressing, bake shops, and attractions including live music, old-time steam engines, craft fairs, apple-head carving classes and pie-eating contests. The association hosts a website to help visitors find farmstands, where to pick their own fruit or what events are scheduled.

Apple Hill was born of hard times. In the 1960s, pears were the chief source of income for the area. But a disease known as "pear decline" was ravishing the trees. A small group of local farmers met with the UC Cooperative Extension farm advisor and the county agricultural commissioner to discuss how to save the farms. Since most of the farms had a few apple trees on the land, they decided to try inviting people from the Sacramento Valley up the hill to buy some apples and a fresh-baked pie or two as a stop-gap measure until they could figure out a solution. The apple and pie event was instantly successful, the growers formed their association and planted more apple trees, and Sacramento Valley families have made a tradition of the short drive to Apple Hill every fall for the past 50 years.

All over California, apple growers are harvesting now. California is fifth in the United States in apple production, and many of California's growers have organized together to share their harvest season directly with visitors. In San Bernardino County, about 90 minutes from Los Angeles, The Oak Glen Apple Growers Association offers U-pick apples, U-press cider, hayrides, farm animals, tours and history. In Sonoma County, you can check the Sonoma County Farm Trails to find an apple ranch to visit. To find other apple ranches, check the California Apple Commission's site.

When you do pick your own apples at one of the many ranches open to the public, you may be pleasantly surprised to learn that you don't have to climb any ladders. In fact, due to liability concerns, most U-pick operations now make sure that you keep both feet firmly on the ground by planting dwarf varieties of fruit trees for visitors' picking.

Just picked, crisp sweet apples can't be beat for good eating. They are also good for you; an apple a day just might help keep the doctor away. apples are very low in saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium, and are a good source of dietary fiber and vitamin C.

Apples will keep for three or four months, or even longer if stored properly. When harvesting, do not remove the stems from apples that will be stored. Be sure to store only apples without bruises, insect or disease damage, cracks splits or mechanical injury. Store apples at around 40 degrees F for best results. You may also want to wrap each apple in newspaper to keep them from touching each other.

Apples are also great for cooking. Here's an apple crisp recipe from www.momswhothink.com:

Mama Shirley's Apple Crisp Recipe

Apple Crisp Ingredients :

12 medium Granny Smith & Macintosh apples (6 of each); peeled, cored and sliced
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups rolled oats
1 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 1/2 cups packed dark brown sugar
1 1/2 cups butter, softened

Apple crisp directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C).

  2. Place apples in a mixing bowl, sprinkle evenly with vanilla. Toss to combine.

  3. In a large bowl, combine the flour, oatmeal, cinnamon, nutmeg and brown sugar. Cut butter into mixture until crumbly.

  4. Evenly place coated apple slices into the bottom of a greased 9x13 inch baking dish. Cover apple slices with crumb mixture.

  5. Bake at 350 degrees F (175 degrees C) for 45 to 50 minutes or until apples are tender.
Posted on Tuesday, September 7, 2010 at 6:59 AM

Is gulf seafood safe to eat?

Fishing has resumed in the Gulf of Mexico, but the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill that began in April has dampened consumer appetites for seafood.  Consumers have concerns about the effect of the oil spill on gulf seafood, and some are eating less seafood now.

In a June 2010 telephone survey of 1,076 consumers conducted by University of Minnesota’s Food Industry Center, Louisiana State University AgCenter and the National Center for Food Protection and Defense, 89 percent said they are concerned about the spill’s effects on gulf seafood, and 50 percent are “extremely concerned.” When asked about their own eating habits, 54 percent of respondents said the oil spill has affected their seafood consumption somewhat, 44 percent said they will not eat gulf seafood, and 31 percent said they will eat less seafood regardless of its origin.

The gulf produces blue crabs, crawfish, oysters, shrimp and about 86 species of fish including albacore, channel catfish, red snapper and tilapia. Consumers are worried about crude oil and dispersants contaminating the food, but experts say gulf seafood is safe to eat.

“There has been no evidence of tainted seafood entering the marketplace,” says Pamela Tom, California Sea Grant advisor. “Seafood from the gulf has never been as highly inspected as it has been now. Harvest waters are re-opened only after extensive government testing proves that the seafood has not been tainted by oil from the spill.”

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), National Oceanographic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the Gulf Coast states cooperate in unison on a protocol to determine when closed federal harvest waters can be re-opened.

Federal inspectors routinely do sensory evaluations or “sniff test,” a rapid method of testing seafood. Highly trained regulatory inspectors can detect oil taint within seconds.  More time-consuming, sophisticated chemical analyses of the seafood are also used. Recently, the California Animal Health and Food Safety Laboratory, operated by the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine for the State of California, was selected by the FDA to conduct chemical analyses in monitoring seafood from the Gulf of Mexico for toxins related to the oil spill.

To help prevent oil-tainted seafood from reaching consumers during the oil spill, Tom joined a national team to disseminate information on seafood safety steps and monitoring for contaminants in seafood shipments and harvests from unapproved waters. She worked with the FDA, the NOAA Seafood Inspection Program, Louisiana State University and the University of Florida to assemble an oil spill website with resources for gulf fish growers, harvesters, processors and seafood buyers.

So how can consumers tell if seafood is good to eat?

“Buy from reputable dealers,” Tom advises. “Smell it. If seafood smells a little fishy, it could be past its prime, but may still be safe to eat.”

At home, consumers also need to practice sanitation and proper temperature cooking and holding controls. Mixing raw seafood products with cooked product is a formula for disaster, she says. Cooked foods should be kept separate from raw foods, which may have natural bacteria present. Spoilage bacteria compete with pathogenic bacteria, but proper cooking of raw fish at 145 degrees F for 15 seconds destroys the bacteria.  If pathogens are re-introduced after the seafood is cooked, under the right conditions pathogenic bacteria can grow and may lead to foodborne illness.

“Some pathogens will grow in your body, while other pathogens may create toxins in food,” Tom says. “Some toxins are heat stable and some are not.  Food safety is a very complex situation and some consumers are more susceptible to foodborne illness than others.”

Safe cooking and holding practices at home include placing seafood on ice or in the refrigerator or freezer soon after buying it. The temperature holding range should be below 40 degrees F or above 140 degrees F.  Bacteria that can cause foodborne illness can grow quickly at warm temperatures between 40 degrees F and 140 degrees F.

Consumers can find more information about seafood safety and quality at UC's Seafood Network Information Center website.

Posted on Friday, September 3, 2010 at 6:48 AM

Make your vegetable garden gorgeous

Vegetable and fruit gardens are taking over American backyards and that is a really good thing. However, many gardeners are forgetting that their backyard should also be a place to enjoy in other ways and hence the food garden really should be a thing of beauty as well as productivity.

I was at a garden in downtown Oakland not too long ago and the garden, while productive for being on a vacant lot, still looked somewhat like a vacant lot. You could tell there were veggies growing, chickens ran around and there were also goats on the lot but it wasn’t really a place of beauty. It looked more like a weedy lot with intermittent plots of veggies.

A beautiful vegetable garden is not difficult but it does take some planning. First, it is important to think about design. Create a garden that is pleasing to the eye with garden beds that are appropriate size for the space, and are repeated in the garden. Include walkways and paths that are clear cut and wide enough for equipment that you will use. Add elements that excite the eye such as an interesting trellis for your peas or a small bird

bath or other elements that create interest.

Hide things that are not attractive with a trellis or with a screen of fruit trees. Everyone needs a place to stack up green garden refuse that needs to be chopped up for the compost pile.

Create space to sit and ponder your garden and rest in the shade. On a hot day out in the garden a little bench with some shade is a welcome respite.

Plan ahead so that you have open beds you can plant in August for your winter vegetables. So often we plant everything for summer and then August comes and we don’t have any room left for broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, onions and garlic.

Consider color as an added element to your garden. Flowers add not only blasts of color but they also enhance the beneficial insect population. Add color to your garden by painting raised beds with colorful designs.

Add something quirky to your garden. Do you have an antique or rusted metal object that can be planted with trailing herbs or strawberries? How about hanging an old stained glass window on a tree branch or a fence. Even colorful bottles hung around the garden add interest and sound.

The key is to make your garden pleasing to the eye as well as the palate.

Pipe trellis.
Pipe trellis.

Posted on Wednesday, September 1, 2010 at 7:11 AM

California's crop diversity is unmatched

On a recent trip to the East Coast, our first in almost 13 years, I reflected on our differing coastal experiences with agricultural diversity. Our travels took us through most of the mid-Atlantic farming region – Delaware, District of Columbia, North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania – where we lived for almost 35 years.

We saw the familiar vast fields of corn, soybeans and alfalfa throughout most of the region. There were occasional pockets of other crops: apples, pears and grapes in the more northern parts; sorghum, sweet potatoes, peanuts and tobacco in the more southern states. We also saw occasional plots of sweet corn, green beans, oats and barley. But mostly we saw corn, soybeans and alfalfa.

We stayed at our cousins’ farm in Warriors Mark, Penn. Guess what they were growing – corn, soybeans and alfalfa. However, this year they were also growing Timothy hay for the local “hobby” horse population, as cousin Hank likes to call his high-paying customers. Our cousins have a huge vegetable garden, but do not farm vegetables because, they say: ”We can’t make any money from vegetables, they are not as profitable as the common three field crops." This seems to be the reasoning behind the tri-crop standard.

When we moved from central Pennsylvania to central California 15 years ago, we were intrigued, but mostly mystified, by the crops growing in fields near our home. With the help of new friends and colleagues, we eventually learned to identify fields of sunflowers, tomatoes, walnuts and almonds. We were astonished by the diversity of crops in our new home state, and intrigued by our lack of knowledge about crops we saw by daily. As we traveled throughout the state, our ability to identify roadside field crops grew. We saw acres of artichokes, lettuce, pistachios, figs, olives, kiwi fruit, avocados, all new as field crops to us. Using guides and manuals we found in the ANR Catalog for vegetables, fruit and nut crops, and agricultural production as well as the Fruit & Nut Research and Information Center website photo albums, we were able to identify most of what we saw. We also identified quite a few acres planted in the familiar corn and alfalfa, but hardly any soybeans.

We discovered what was growing in a nearby field when our eyes began to water and our throats close as a field of garlic was harvested. We had the same reaction to rice straw as it burned and canola harvested in a cloud of dust. The first time we saw acres and acres of sunflowers and an almond orchard in full bloom, we couldn’t help but smile. Our sense of smell also assisted in our discovery of newly harvested fields of squash, olives and tomatoes.

You can find more than the acres of corn, soybeans and alfalfa growing along the East Coast, but exceptions are usually planted in a very few acres and in limited locales. However, California’s crop diversity is readily apparent along every highway and byway in every county. Thank goodness!

Equivalent areas covered: mid-Atlantic states = 107,942,470 acres, California = 99,689,515 acres

Alfalfa stretches to the horizon in the Eastern U.S. (USDA photo)
Alfalfa stretches to the horizon in the Eastern U.S. (USDA photo)

Posted on Monday, August 30, 2010 at 10:13 AM
  • Author: Judy Sams

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