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Increase your food security, plant a fruit tree now!

I was struck the other day, when hearing about the world-wide soaring cost of foods, that we are incredibly lucky to live in California where food is so readily available to us. I was listening to this news on the radio as I was returning from my weekly trek to the grocery store and farmers market loaded with wonderful local whole fruits and vegetables of really high quality. I felt so fortunate and thankful at that moment that I could buy everything I wanted or pick what I wanted from my winter garden or my fruit laden citrus trees. 

You can increase your own food security by planting food in your own garden . . . and you can start by planting a fruit tree now. February is the time that you can plant what are known as “bare-root” fruit trees, grapevines and berries. Fruit trees are now widely available at local nurseries or through mail order websites and catalogs.

Pick a tree fruit variety that you really love and something that you can’t purchase easily from the market. For me, this would be some of the more fragile freestone peaches such as Rio Oso Gem, or JH Hale. Or, you might pick a space saving self-pollenating variety of cherry such as Stella.

I always think great apricots are difficult to purchase in the markets so planting an apricot makes sense . . . they are relatively pest free, mostly self-fruitful and make beautiful landscape trees. My favorite apricot varieties include Patterson, Tilton and Harcot. 

Just a note though, not all fruit varieties will grow in all climate zones. If you live in the San Joaquin or Sacramento valleys, then you are in luck because these are the primary stone fruit growing zones of California. If you live in the inland valleys of the coastal range, or in the foothill regions of the Sierras, you can grow most fruit varieties as well. If you are, however, on the coast or in Southern California, you may want to pick varieties that are "low chill."  For information on the best varieties for your climate zone go UC's California Backyard Orchard website.

If space is an issue, consider growing genetic dwarf fruit trees in containers or purchase semi-dwarf or standard varieties that can be kept small using the "fruit bush" method of training. By using the fruit bush system, you have more varieties of fruit to choose from. The fruit bush is a growing system that is perfect for backyards. You basically do most of your pruning in the summer. You keep the tree small by shearing it back two times during the growing season. You never allow it to grow any taller than your head height. 

By keeping the fruit tree short, it is easier to harvest, deal with pest issues and cover with nets if you have a squirrel problem. For more information on how to prune a fruit bush or other fruit tree training systems, the UC Cooperative Extension Office in Sacramento County has an excellent horticulture note.

If you are unsure of how to choose, plant or care for your fruit trees, grapevines or berry bushes, there is a UC Master Gardener nearby who can answer your questions. Click here to find your local Master Gardener program.

Posted on Tuesday, February 8, 2011 at 8:05 AM

Last call for olio nuovo

I’m slow on the artisan EVOO wave. In December, after proofreading the new issue of California Agriculture - Growing Bigger, Better: Artisan Olive Oil Comes of Age, I purchased a bottle for my partner and the next day heard a TV comedian joke about people buying $60 bottles of olive oil for holidays gifts. (Then I felt cheap — I hadn’t spent that much!)

But the tall thin black bottle of December’s New Oil from Katz and Company, near Napa, was so fabulous I decided to start learning the extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) lexicon. Did I know for sure whether it was grassy, buttery, peppery or pungent? It certainly was green. Albert Katz this week told me why: “That’s the chlorophyll in the oil; it’s at its height in olio nuovo,” he said.

When the earliest still-green olives are crushed in November, a strong odor of fresh green fills the mill, he explained. The crush smells like fresh artichoke, even parsley, but most predominantly like grass. Katz has been in the business so long that when he catches a whiff of mown grass he looks around to see whether someone is crushing olives nearby.

Darn it, though, Katz sells their olio nuovo only in December, so it’s over. The limited production and short window of sales for olio nuovo, celebrating the first crush, is a tradition in all the major olive-growing regions of the world, including northern Italy, where the name originates. The oil is always unfiltered, cloudy, and as bold as it’s ever going to be. Katz calls it “the pungency of youth.”

This week sees the very end of the season. McEvoy Ranch has bottles of their olio nuovo for sale at their San Francisco Ferry Building store and online through this weekend (February 6). The McEvoy olio nuovo is green, robust, and peppery — peppery means it has a little burn in the throat, which is a desirable quality. (Bitter is a different matter; it’s tasted on the tongue.) Like all olio nuovo, the McEvoy new oil has sediment in the bottom of the bottle, and it has an unctuous quality, a little pleasantly thick and earthy in the mouth.

With the end of the olio nuovo season comes the release of the oils that have been stored for two months; they are already changing — more mellow, more golden — and the sediment will stay in the storage tanks. As they age through spring and summer, they’ll taste more buttery.

Climate affects the taste of oil. “Terroir” is what the environmental factors are called, explain Paul Vossen and Alexandra Kicenik Devarenne in the California Agriculture article on sensory qualities of olive oils.  Katz tastes some roundness and softness in his oil this year, from the cool summer and late harvest.

Different varieties of olive trees produce markedly different aroma compounds. Tuscan varieties, grown by both Katz and McEvoy Ranch, have robust aroma profiles (full-bodied, pungent, complex). A few stores down from McEvoy at the San Francisco Ferry Building, Stonehouse sells its milder EVOO, pressed from Spanish olive oil varieties Mission, Manzanillo, Sevillano, Ascolano and Arbequina. The Stonehouse oil isn’t spicy; it doesn’t burn the throat.

Last week, Katz released its main oils for 2011: Chef’s Pick Organic Extra Virgin and Rock Hill Ranch Extra Virgin. Rock Hill doesn’t taste like the olio nuovo, because a significant proportion of the olives in it are Taggiasca, and they weren’t harvested until after the olio nuovo was made. Chef’s Pick, though, has the same profile, Katz says. Now I know a little of the language, I think I’m going to investigate further and buy a bottle before it sells out. If I wait until summer, I’m told the green will be gone and the grassiness turned more herbal.

For more information on tasting olive oils, check out the UC Davis Olive Center; in August, they have introductory and advanced seminars on sensory evaluation of olive oil.

Paul Vossen is a UC Cooperative Extension farm advisor and expert on olive oil processing tasting; watch his video on tasting here.

Alexandra Kicenik Devarenne showed Sacramento Bee reporter Gina Kim in this video how to taste oil and recognize fustiness.

The California Olive Oil Council website lists farm tours and tasting rooms.

The Olive Oil Times has an archive of articles on tasting, including one on recognizing rancidity.

Posted on Thursday, February 3, 2011 at 8:24 AM

New citrus hybrid 'Valentine' is all heart

A new UC Riverside citrus hybrid - combining the best traits of pummelo, mandarin and blood orange - could eventually become an ideal and healthful Valentine's Day present.

Valentine pummelo hybrid merges the large size and low acidity of Siamese Sweet pummelo, complex floral taste from Dancy mandarin and juicy red pulp from Ruby blood orange.

The fact that the fruit matures in mid-February, near Valentine's Day, isn't the only reason it was given the nickname 'Valentine.' Cutting the fruit lengthwise and turning it upside-down reveals flesh that looks a little like a vibrant red heart.

The new Valentine hybrid is also an excellent eating fruit.

"It has a complex flavor that is different from the most common pummelo, Chandler," said Tracy Kahn, senior museum scientist with the UC Riverside Citrus Variety Collection. "It is sweeter and floral and the bright red streaking pigmentation adds to the experience."

The fruit is unique in being grapefruit sized and containing anthocyanin pigmentation. Anthocyanin, an antioxident that gives the fruit its deep red color, may diminish the risk of heart disease, some types of cancer and LDL cholesterol accumulation.

Budwood for the new hybrid was released by UC Riverside to nurseries in 2009. A few retail nurseries will have a small quantity of Valentine trees this year; more are coming in the future.

"Valentine will be a specialty crop, for sure, and will probably be sold for restaurants, in farmers markets and specialty grocery stories once a year, at the peak of its season, around Valentine's Day," Kahn said.

How to eat this new fruit cocktail? Kahn suggests cutting off the top and bottom of the fruit, sliding off the rind, peeling off the pith and cutting out the sections inside the membranes with a knife.

Valentine on the tree.
Valentine on the tree.

Posted on Tuesday, February 1, 2011 at 8:02 AM

Produce handling in developing economies

There is a wide schism between the sleek mechanical harvesting machines that briskly traverse California’s fertile croplands versus the field worker with a machete and head-basket, or possibly a donkey laden with woven baskets, that is still most commonly found in many nations.

Produce loss continues to be a significant problem. Worldwide, it is estimated that as much as one-third of the produce grown is never consumed by humans (Kader, 2005). Many logistical challenges contribute to this loss, including: ineffective or absent cooling systems, slow and rough transportation, physical damage from rough handling, and poor sanitation conditions.

In 2010, one of the most popular free titles available on the Postharvest Technology Center’s website was “Small-Scale Postharvest Handling Practices: A Manual for Horticultural Crops.” Written by Lisa Kitinoja and Adel Kader, and currently translated into 10 languages, this title was downloaded by over 22,000 readers last year. While this useful resource is very popular in the United States among small-scale farmers, over 8,000 readers benefitted from the useful content translated into Indonesian, 4,000 from the Vietnamese translation, and over 3,000 from the Arabic translation. Readers learned information about the curing of tuber crops, designing picking poles and catching sacks to gently harvest fruit, and efficient designs for packinghouse layout.  (Link to all ten translations are found under the section “Small-Scale Postharvest Practices” at:

“Many simple practices have successfully been used to reduce losses and maintain produce quality of horticultural crops in various parts of the world for many years,” asserted Lisa Kitinoja of Extension Systems International. “You don’t necessarily need costly handling machinery and high-tech postharvest treatments to be able to deliver quality produce to the marketplace. However, effective management during the postharvest period is key to reaching the desired objective.”

While most California produce shoppers are grateful for the quality and variety available in our markets, it’s nice to know that an effort is being made to improve the produce available to others not quite as fortunate as we.

Photo: Kumasi retail produce market, courtesy of Adel Kader.

Posted on Thursday, January 27, 2011 at 8:11 AM

Chili Five-O

So you're seeking a panel of judges for your chili contest.

It's a good idea to find a firefighter and a detective – a firefighter to extinguish any four-alarm fires, and a detective to scrutinize the ingredients.

And, of course, someone who absolutely loves those exquisitely hot – did I say hot? HOT! – jalapeno peppers.

That's exactly what happened at the 2011 Solano County 4-H Chili Cookoff, held Saturday, Jan. 22, at the Riverview School, Rio Vista. Toni Tucker of the Rio Vista 4-H Club pulled it all together.

The judges: Detective Vicki Rister of the Rio Vista Police Department, Assistant Fire Chief Dan Schindler of the Montezuma Fire Protection District in Rio Vista, and Chef Riccardo Bahena Antunez of the Taqueria Mexico Restaurant in Rio Vista.

They all know their way around a kitchen. They do, indeed. For instance, Detective Rister began preparing meals for her family when she was only 7. She  worked her way through college (criminal justice, Sacramento State University) by waitressing and cooking.

The judges scored 10 dishes prepared by 4-H'ers in Dixon, Vacaville, Suisun, Rio Vista and Vallejo. This was not for the weak-hearted; the teams sported such monikers as "The Red Hot Chili Peppers," "Howlin' Hot Chilimakers," "Chili Banditos," "Super Awesome Chili" and "Cool Beans" (so hot the 4-H'ers had to cool down by wearing sunglasses).

The judges easily detected the subtle flavors: coffee here,  cocoa there, and oh, yes, isn't that a touch of semi-sweet dark chocolate?

Less than an hour later, a winner. The Chili Five-O team from the newly formed Wolfskill 4-H Club in Dixon.

Five-Oh? Because they've been dreaming of vacationing in Hawaii.

“We can't afford to go to Hawaii, and besides, we don't have time – we’re too busy with 4-H projects,” said team member Hannah Crawford-Stewart. “So we thought, why not make a chili based on food from the tropics?”

They did. They created a chili chunked with pineapple and laced with coconut milk and named it “Chili Five-O.”

Hannah, 13,  and her fellow cooks Kaylee Lindgren, 13, Madison Pitto, 9 and Spencer Currey, 15, wowed the judges with their tasty chili studded with ham, sausage, fried and diced pork, and two kinds of beans, kidney and pinto.  "We tested it about 10 times before the contest." Hannah said.

They thought of every detail. They wore Hawaiian attire. They decorated their table in an island motif. They greeted the judges with “aloha!"

The crushed macadamia nut topping was optional. The smiles were not.

“The chili was awesome,” said Rister. “They tested it, tried it and came up with something different. It’s a great recipe.”

Schindler and Antunez agreed.

The judges praised the  “nice kick” and  “good finish” of the chili and the friendliness, enthusiasm and knowledge of the “aloha” team.

Here's the wining recipe:

Chili Five-O
By Hannah Crawford-Stewart, Kaylee Lindgren, Madison Pitto and Spencer Currey of Wolfskill 4-H Club, Dixon

2 cups ham, fried and diced
1 pound sausage, cooked
1 pound pork, fried and diced
2 cups diced onions, cooked to translucent
13.5 ounces coconut milk
15 ounces carrot juice
16 ounces crushed pineapple and juice
5 cups carrots, diced
1 cup celery, diced
5 cups dried pineapple, diced (small)
Two 16-ounce cans kidney beans
One 16-ounce can pinto beans
5 teaspoons white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons flour
1/2 teaspoon celery salt
1/2 teaspoon oregano
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon powdered ginger
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon chili powder
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1 tablespoon Worcester sauce
1 tablespoon garlic, minced

Cook meat and onions. Combine with liquids and mix well.  Add spices, carrots, celery, pineapple and beans. Cook over medium heat to soft boil (5 minutes). Reduce heat and simmer for two hours, stirring occasionally. Serves 12. Optional topping: crushed macadamia nuts.

* * *  *

You won't forget to eat your vegetables in this dish.

Eat-Your-Vegetables Chili
By “Howlin’ Hot Chilimakers” Kiara Madden, Riley Currey and Daniela Setka of the Wolfskill 4-H Club, Dixon

3 cups French onion soup
1-1/2 cups northern white beans
1-1/2 cups kidney beans
1 cup chickpeas
1 cup lentils
1 cup red, green and yellow bell pepper
1/2 cup carrots
2 cups summer squash (zucchini and crookneck squash)
1-1/2 cups eggplant
1/2 cup portabella mushrooms
1/2 cup onion
2 cans of diced tomatoes
1-1/2 tablespoons coriander
2-1/2 tablespoons cumin
2 tablespoons minced garlic
2 tablespoons chili powder
1 teaspoon paprika
6 ounces root beer
1/2 teaspoon garam masala
3 tablespoons cocoa powder
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 cup masa flour
5 strips of bacon, crisp

Broil eggplant and mushrooms. Dice all vegetables. Cook beans and lentils in French onion soup. Add all ingredients except bacon and cook for 45 minutes on high or crock pot for 4 hours. Crisp bacon and chop. Mix in right before serving. Serves 15.

Don't be surprised if Super Bowl Sunday turns into a "Souper Bowl of Chili."

Chili Five-O
Chili Five-O

Championship Chili Five-O Team answers questions from chili judge, Detective Vicki Rister of the Rio Vista Police Department. The team (from left) Kaylee Lindgren, Madison Pitto, Hannah Crawford Stewart, and Spencer Currey, all members of the Wolfskill 4-H Club, Dixon. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Howlin' Hot Chilimakers
Howlin' Hot Chilimakers

THIS TEAM, the Howlin' Hot Chilimakers from the Wolfskill 4-H Club, Dixon, impressed the judges with their "Eat-Your-Vegetables Chili." From left are Kiara Madden, Riley Currey and Daniela Setka. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Winners and the Judges
Winners and the Judges

WINNING CHILI TEAM poses for a photo with the judges. In front (from left) are Hannah Crawford-Stewart, Madison Pitto, Spencer Currey and Kaylee Lindgren. In back (from left) are Assistant Fire Chief Dan Schindler of the Montezuma Fire Protection District, Rio Vista, and his assistant, son Mason Schindler, 8; chef Riccardo Bahena Antunez whose family owns the Taqueria Mexico Restaurant, Rio Vista; and Detective Vicki Rister of the Rio Vista Police Department. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Posted on Tuesday, January 25, 2011 at 8:10 AM

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