REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION OF ORGANIC AUTHORITY (www.organicauthority.com)
Earth Day Profile: Chef Ernest Miller on a Different Kind of Soul Food
Written by Lacy Boggs Renner
(image: The Farmer's Kitchen)
In the heart of the bustling Hollywood Farmers Market sits The Farmer's Kitchen: a farm-to-table cafe as well as a commercial teaching, processing and retail kitchen offering affordable, healthy foods for patrons at all income levels. We chatted with chef Ernest Miller about the concept of The Farmer's Kitchen, the importance of eating "food in context" and the selfish reasons why Americans should be getting to know their farmers.
Organic Authority: What is the mission of the Farmer's Kitchen?
Ernest Miller: The Farmer's Kitchen is a non-profit community-oriented kitchen. We are a project of Sustainable Economic Enterprises of Los Angeles (SEE-LA), the non-profit that runs eight farmers markets in the Los Angeles area, including the largest, the Sunday Hollywood Farmers Market, which celebrates its 21st anniversary this year.
The Farmer's Kitchen supports the mission of SEE-LA in many ways: we serve a farm fresh, from scratch lunch to 280 elementary students at a local charter school (Larchmont Charter School West Hollywood) that is part of Alice Waters' Edible Schoolyard Project; we operate as a farm-to-table cafe, serving breakfast and lunch; we provide job and career training to culinary students, high school students and members of the general public who want to learn what it is like to work in a professional restaurant; we provide classes to low resource families (diet, nutrition, cooking, exercise) and classes for the general public; we also make many preserved foods and value-added products with farmers market produce.
(image: The Farmer's Kitchen)
OA: How are you actively involved in the local community?
EM: We are major supporters of the Master Food Preservers of the University of California Cooperative Extension, Los Angeles County, hosting some of their classes in the kitchen. We've also supported the Orange County Master Food Preserver program. We provide technical assistance to the Hollywood Orchard Project, helping them preserve the fruit from their neighborhood.
OA: What drives your menu creation?
EM: The fresh, seasonal produce of the Hollywood Farmers Market, as well as the many different preserved foods we also create.
OA: How do you work with local farmers?
EM: We work very closely with our local farmers, speaking to them on a weekly basis to learn what will be coming in soon, or leaving soon. We make suggestions on what they might want to grow and encourage and consult with them on making value-added products.
OA: Why is it important to you to support local sustainable farmers?
EM: If it isn't sustainable then, by definition, it cannot continue indefinitely. Our industrialized food system has been a boon in many ways, but is not ultimately sustainable. We believe that sustainability is going to have to start with local farmers and teaching people how to eat with the seasons. Local food also tastes better, when it is grown and harvested for flavor, not for shipping well. We believe in "food in context" — that when food is seasonal and expresses the history and culture of a place, it tastes best.
OA: What does sustainability mean to you?
EM: Sustainability means a practice of agriculture, cooking and eating that can go on indefinitely without destroying the health of our environment or ourselves. It is not just the farmers that need to be sustainable, but those who cook and eat the food as well.
OA: Why is it important for Americans to get to know where their food comes from, how it was raised and their farmers?
EM: Self-interest. Food tastes better when it is harvested locally and in season. It is generally less expensive, and is certainly less expensive when you take into account fair labor practices, environmental harms and all the other hidden costs of our industrialized food system.
Ultimately, we need to pay more attention to how and what we eat. We need to eat in context, knowing the place, history and culture of what we eat. When we eat, we feed not only our body, but mind and soul as well. If you don't know where your food comes from, how it was raised and who raised it, you may be feeding your body, but you are starving your mind and soul.
OA: How can America help revive the regional local farmer infrastructure that disappeared over 50 years ago?
EM: Support your local farmers, visit their farms, encourage and support programs that introduce children to what farming is all about (farm-to-school, 4-H).
OA: What cooking tips do you have to inspire home chef to cook more seasonally?
EM: Don't use recipes. Learn techniques, shop the farmers markets for fresh, delicious produce, and cook it simply.
OA: What is your must have, go-to home cooking tool?
EM: A 10-inch Chef's knife.
OA: What are your favorite must-have home pantry staples?
OA: What shopping tips do you have for the home chef?
EM: Shop at a farmers market and see, feel, smell and taste the produce. Talk to the farmers, and don't be afraid to try something you've never had before.
Organic Authority would like to thank Ernest Miller and all of the sustainable, organic farmers and chefs whose work is providing healthy food for us all to eat. We honor you as being conscious stewards of our planet. And, we are thrilled to have you participating in our Earth Day event!
Crowds of people, young and old, were waiting eagerly at the entry gate well before the start time of 10 a.m. Teamed with our fellow UCCE/Los Angeles County Master Gardeners—and located between the booths of Engineers Without Borders, OrangUtan Republik Foundation, and across from Friends of the Los Angeles River, we shared a table and white canopied booth and stayed busy, non-stop till 2pm, talking to people about their gardens and the art of food preservation. In all nearly 2200 people came through the Earth Day Festival and at least 500 of them stopped at our booth.
We also showed off jars of waterbath processed jams and marmalades, and pressure canned chicken and squash, which gave us a chance to explain how many methods of food preservation are available to the home preserver, along with tips for food safety practices.
More than one person said "My mom or my grandma used to can everything but I never learned how to do it." We explained that our role as MFPs was to offer our services as volunteer instructors to teach them how to do it themselves. We asked them to bring word back to their organizations and let them know to call us if they wanted free lessons.
Attached to the veggie packets we stapled MFP cards so that people would connect the idea of growing, harvesting then preserving their veggies and herbs knowing they could contact us for the know-how.
Families were out in force and many of the little ones were carrying around small plant pots that they had decorated at a special booth. Each pot contained a seed...some were given watermelon seeds, some had sunflowers, and of course we reminded them that these plants would need a lot more room than the cute pots they carried and should be transplanted as soon as they’re big enough.
Different kinds of saplings were distributed by various agencies, and people were carrying them around the festival grounds, looking just a little bit like Johnny Appleseed carting his apple trees across the country.
By the time the day ended, our seed supply had nearly been cleaned out, we'd talked to many hundreds of people about food preservation, and we felt we’d had a very successful day.
The day dawned grey and drizzly but the intrepid UCCE/LA County Master Food Preservers were raring to go. The “concluding events” of City of LA Mayor's Day of Service – this year scheduled all across the city on Cesar Chavez Day (March 31) and dedicated to the theme of Good Food for All – took place in a lively corner of the urban jungle at the edge of Chinatown, at Metabolic Studios, an arts/eco experimental collective, which organized the “Cornfield” we’ve all heard so much about.
Next to the train tracks and under a concrete bridge, chairs, tables and canopies were set up for non-profit organizations involved in food issues to distribute materials and talk to interested members of the public about their missions.
And just below the neon sign on the wall that reads “Another City is Possible,” the Master Food Preservers (MFP) and Master Gardeners (MG) set up tables with volunteers, books, informational handouts and – in the case of the MFPs – demonstrations on how to make kimchi, preserved lemons and refrigerator pickles.
A handful of MFPs were preliminary judges of the “Cabbage Contest,” which is in season now. Beginning at 9 am, entries in three categories – fresh, cooked and fermented – were delivered by members of the general public – AND three of our Master Food Preservers, too!!
MFP/MG Susan Nickels submitted a slaw – and made it into the finals. As did MFP/MG Rachael Narins, whose Thomas Starr King Middle School students not only made but grew the ingredients for their kimchi submission.
Of course, those choices of finalists (REALLY!) had nothing to do with the MFPs – dishes were numbered and anonymous on the table and judged on the merits of taste, appearance and creativity.
The final six choices (two in each category) were delivered to the panel of celebrity judges, who sat at a table on a “stage” and made the final call. They included Eric Oberholtzer of Tender Greens, Josiah Citron of Melisse, Pulitzer Prize winning food writer Jonathan Gold, farmers Phil McGrath and James Birch and mayoral candidate Eric Garcetti.
Susan’s coleslaw (secret ingredient, Preserved Lemons), the one on top in the photo, sits at the final judging station alongside winner Jennifer Mandel’s cabbage, kale and carrot salad. In the case of Rachael’s students, it was literally a toss-up – there was equal praise for both final dishes, and a coin toss settled the winner. (Photo courtesy Susan).
The prize was likely not appropriate for the kids anyway: a dinner for two at Citron’s very posh Melisse restaurant in Santa Monica; but a consolation prize came with it. Once Eric Garcetti heard the story that the kids grew their own ingredients, he promised to come visit and congratulate the students in person at their Silverlake school, which is in his neighborhood.
But much attention was paid to the demos at the MFP table. Hae Jung Cho is a professional cook and an expert kimchi maker – she showed us her ingredients and techniques and proved how very easy it is to make kimchi, and how healthful its fermented properties are.
Then Amy Goldman and Roshni Divate demonstrated one of the key ingredients in Moroccan and Middle Eastern cooking – preserved lemons. There’s no surfeit of lemons in California, so get past the “when life hands you lemons, make lemonade” mantra and learn this simple salting, squeezing and spicing technique. Preserved lemons are a secret ingredient that chefs use for many different dishes, from pesto to salad dressings and more.
And finally MFP/MG Laurie Dill and Karen Hobert showed us how simple it is to create original, delicious refrigerator pickles, with a spiced brine and fresh cucumbers, which are showing up now at Farmers Markets. Grow your own, and “when life hands you extra cukes,” make pickles!
It may not be the sexiest vegetable, but cabbage had its day in the sun (well, not exactly sun -- it was a grey day!).
On Saturday, March 31, the UCCE/LA County MFPs participated in "Good Food Day LA," as judges for the "Mayor's Day of Service" Cabbage Contest, "From Kim Chee to Coleslaw." Pictured above is Paula Daniels, who heads the Los Angeles Food Policy Council, which had a big hand in organizing the day's activities -- and for getting the Mayor's Day of Service to focus on Good Food for All.
Categories were FRESH, COOKED and FERMENTED cabbage, and the entries engendered comments from some of our team of MFP preliminary judges (they selected the finalists from which the celebrity panel would later choose the winners). There were entries from both the general public and three MFPs (one taking the class now, the other two grads of the Spring 2011 class).
Rachael Narins' (MFP spring 2011) students entered kimchi (left, finalist) made with ingredients they grew themselves in the school garden she also oversees as a Master Gardener at Thomas Starr King Middle School in LA's Silverlake area. They were finalists (but didn't win the coin toss--see end of post below for recipe!)
MFP Susan Nickels (right, finalist), who submitted cole slaw and therefore did not judge: "So much fun! I did a take on traditional coleslaw -- yogurt and rice vinegar, minced red jalapenos and secret ingredient -- preserved meyer lemons!" Hers is the dish on top of photo on the right.
MFP Hae Jung Cho, fall 2011 grad and a professional cook by day: "I judged the fresh category. There were nine entries which were almost all really tasty! I really liked one dish that was not showy; it just looked like a bowl of sauerkraut (although with a nicer color). It turned out to be a Haitian dish, spicy and crunchy and kind of sour like sauerkraut but only let to sit four hours. There were also a couple of interesting takes on coleslaw, especially one that incorporated preserved meyer lemon (editor's note: Susan's, and it was a finalist!) -- so aromatic and unexpected. But the salad that won this particular category was a colorful mixture of kale, orange, cabbage, almonds and other things with a dressing that used walnut oil. There were so many different flavor profiles - savory, sweet, spicy, crunchy and chewy."
MFP Laurie Dill (spring 2011): "The cooked cabbage category was not hard to judge. It seemed easy to distinguish whether the foods were attractive, tasty, and creative, and we three did our own tasting and evaluating, and then we compared notes and came up with a collective vote, which we all were pretty close on. There were 2-3 cooked cabbage dishes that were clearly atop of all the others and we were able to choose the top 2 in agreement. The cabbage contest was a great idea and I think, very well received!!"
Jenn Su (fall 2011): "Our category was fermented cabbage, and it was really interesting to think about the foods we tasted in terms of fermented flavors (and other flavors as a byproduct of food preservation). The wonderful kim-chi chips in our category were one of my favorites -- they were first fermented and then dehydrated. The flavor was great, but I think the fermented/pickle (acidic) flavor of the kimchi was really subtle (maybe too subtle?) after dehydration; and rather the spices in the recipe were really concentrated -- super spicy and salty. Either way, delicious and cool idea for a snack!"
The kids of the Thomas Starr King Middle School Garden Club (built and funded by EnrichLA and LACER), where I volunteer as a Master Gardener and Master Food Preserver, entered a fermented kimchi.
- Author: Rachael Narins
Students at Thomas Starr King Middle School in the Silverlake neighborhood of Los Angeles, finish classes at 1:45pm on Tuesday afternoons. Since that is earlier than every other day of the week, there are lots of interesting clubs set up for kids whose parents can't pick them up until later. About 30 to 40, sixth and seventh graders elect to participate in the L.A.C.E.R. sponsored Garden Club.
Thanks to the efforts of Enrich LA, the beautiful garden at the center of this Title One campus has an outdoor kitchen, (Pots and Pans! Tools! Burners! Running Water! You should come check it out sime time.) allowing the happy group of diverse kids a way to cook up some of the amazing produce they grow. It’s a great way to introduce them to new, healthy foods (you should see these children devour kale. It’s heart warming and life-affirming) and an exciting way to teach them about food preservation. This school year we have made jam, pickles, more pickles, kale chips, yogurt and more (pickles).
This month, using cabbage, chiles, onion, green onion, turnips and radishes grown right there in their own organic garden, we mixed up a HUGE batch of kimchi; a fermented cabbage dish from Korea. The mixture was set aside for a week to meld and become tangy. When it was bubbling and ready - and we had another garden club meeting - the kids combined that with MORE ingredients from the garden, including lots of lettuce, peeled carrots, garlic cloves, bright green snap peas, grassy garlic chives, more chiles, red and white onions and flowering cilantro. That was added to some chilled broth, topped with glass noodles and the result was an INCREDIBLE, nutritious and super delicious cold soup. Two gallons of it were slurped up in about 15 minutes on a beautiful, sun dappled afternoon. Nothing could have been nicer.
They also saved a bit of the kimchi to enter in to the Good Food Day L.A. Cabbage Cooking Contest taking place next weekend. Here’s hoping the judges like what they made! ***UPDATE*** The kids kimchi came in second in the contest!!!!! (After an initial tie.) SO PROUD.
As a Master Food Preserver, I could not be more thrilled about this project. Over the course of this school year, I have been (lucky and) able to work with a smart, enthusiastic, cheerful community to grow, preserve and ultimately enjoy healthy dishes featuring preserved food made by many helpful hands. This is what I believe the Master Food Preserver program is about and I am proud to be a part of it.