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Archive for May, 2010

Oh, the confusion.  Turns out that next week’s happy hour IS at Zentan after all.  And so, alas, it won’t be on the rooftop bar.  But I got to taste some Zentan delicacies yesterday at Capital Cooking’s book launch, and I think we’ll be quite happy.  See you all next Wednesday!

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Speaking of food prices… The Kitchn just linked to a very interesting graphic on Bundle.com depicting the average per-household spending on food & drink, by city, for the year 2009.  Arlington was #2 and DC was #6 on the list, with annual averages of $11,598 and $10,064, respectively.  Zowie.

The graphic also shows the breakdown of money spent on groceries vs. money spent on going out to eat/drink.  We buy a lot of expensive food both ways, though the tip is toward dining out.  Oddly enough, some of the nearby metropolises (Baltimore, Philadelphia) are near the bottom of the list.  I can think of some obvious factors that would affect the disparate rankings (median income, general cost of living), but I wonder what other factors are at play.  How do Philadelphians spend less than half of what we do on food?

Not that our rank is necessarily a bad thing.  In an article about how DC was ranked the fittest city in the country, it was mentioned that the DC area “has an above average number of people who eat the recommended serving of fruits and vegetables.”  Fruits and veggies aren’t as cheap as a lot of unhealthy foods, so sometimes it’s good to be spending more.  But still, that isn’t the whole story.  $10-11K per year is a lot!  Hmmm.

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Brush up on your econ, kids.  Let’s talk garden economics.

Last year, seed sales went up as the economy worsened, spawning many a trend piece about people trying to save money through home gardening.  Yet, there are a lot of hidden costs to starting and maintaining a productive vegetable garden.  I imagine many first-time home gardeners ended up disappointed when they tallied up the expenses in comparison to the veggie poundage produced.

Last year I basically stopped keeping track of how much I spent, since gardening as much a hobby for me as it is a source of food.   Plus, there are a lot of start-up costs in the first year (my grow light set me back $70, for instance), and I didn’t want to dissuade myself from the venture by looking at the totals.  But this year I decided I’d keep track of my costs, and then also figure out how much value I was getting out of the garden.  Would I at least be able to break even?

I’ll admit that I gave myself a leg up by not amortizing the costs of things like the grow light, garden tools, etc.  I’m considering those sunk costs.  I’m also not factoring in the cost of my own labor (that’s the hobby part).  Still, this year alone I’ve spent in excess of $200 on seeds, plants, soil, peat pots, stakes, garden membership fee, a new pair of gardening gloves, etc.  (Before I scare off anyone from gardening, I should note that both The Dirty Radish‘s and  Bucolic Bushwick‘s currently posted totals are much lower than mine).  But with the exception of needing more garden twine, I’m mostly done with expenses for the year.  Now the question is whether I can get $200 worth of produce from my 14×14 foot plot.

Of course, to answer that question I first have to figure out how to put a value on my harvests.  One obvious method would be to weigh each harvest of each veggie, find out the price per pound for that veggie, and then calculate the price of the harvest.  But this method is not without flaws.  Do I use the price-per-pound at the grocery store?  At the farmers market?  What if the quoted price is something I’d never actually pay?  For instance, I think $9-10 per pound is too much for plain old salad greens, but that’s the price at the Dupont Circle farmers market.  Or for a really extreme example, I found out that pepquiños (aka Mexican Sour Gherkins) can cost $70-120 per pound; by that count, I probably grew at least $500 in pepquiños last summer.  But since I would never in a million years pay anything close to that, it wouldn’t be fair to pad out my numbers that way.  It’s also not quite fair to think that my produce will be the same quality as what you’d find in a grocery store or market.  Frequently my veggies will be smaller and scrubbier and less attractive, but often they will be fresher, or tastier, or a rare heirloom variety not available elsewhere.

So I think I’m going a different route than relying on general market prices.  Instead, I will be getting seriously micro with the economics and consulting a market of exactly one person: me.  What amount of money, on that given day, would I be willing to pay for that exact amount and quality of harvested produce?  In other words, if Farmer Amelia walks up to Consumer Amelia and says “I grew this handful of delicious salad greens in an organic garden, and they’re tender and fresh and picked this very moment, how much money will you give me for them?” the price that Farmer Amelia and Consumer Amelia agree upon is the price I record.  If Consumer Amelia is unwilling to pay $70 per pound for some little novelty cucumbers, Farmer Amelia is going to have to lower her price down to something reasonable.  Like $5 per pound.  That’s about as much as I would pay for the little runts.

This method means, incidentally, that prices will change throughout the season.  For instance, I priced the very first radish out of my garden at 25 cents, because, hey, it’s bright new radish and I wanted to eat it immediately – I’d definitely give someone a quarter for it.  But then I priced the next harvest of six radishes at 50 cents for the whole lot, because I was no longer as enamored of radishes.  But my recent discovery made the price go up again.  And when I, Consumer Amelia, am hot and sweaty out in my garden next week and I see the first red strawberries looking ready and ripe and delicious, you can bet that Farmer Amelia will get a good price.  But then later, after the law of diminishing returns kicks in, I’ll probably assign the strawberries a lower value in my ledger.

Right now I estimate that I’ve gotten about $16 in value from my garden this season.  So I’ve still got a long ways to go before making up the $207 I’ve spent.  But I think it’ll happen – almost all of the growing season is still to come.  Plenty of time for Farmer Amelia to get a good return on her investment.

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I believe this will be our first rooftop happy hour!  Wednesday, June 2, Zentan ADC (1155 14th St. NW).  Come join us if you are a blogger, reader, or wannabe sake aficionado member of the glitterati.  Your hostesses this month are Girl Meets Food and Johnna Knows Food, but do RSVP on the DC Food Bloggers Facebook events page.  See you in two weeks!  (Update: apparently the rooftop of the hotel that houses Zentan is known as ADC; Zentan is the downstairs version).

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When I received an invitation to join other food bloggers in testing out the Silver Diner’s new “Fresh and Local” menu, I figured the word ‘diner’ was probably an ironic usage.  Like a typical DC food snob, I’d never been to the Clarendon restaurant before (likewise, I didn’t know it was part of a Virginia/Maryland chain).  And the idea of a sustainable, locavore-friendly menu at an actual diner simply did not compute.  So I assumed the diner thing was some kind of gimmick masking a more earthy-crunchy kind of place.  But no, as I walked up to the event I realized that it’s seriously a diner, right down to the chrome plating and display case of home-made pies.  And they really are instituting a surprisingly large slate of fresh, local, and healthy menu items – the usual suspects of the season (asparagus, strawberries, greens, local eggs and cheese, etc.) were all there in spades.  Color me impressed.

Full disclosure, they treated us well, with generous tastings of a great many of these menu items as well as their featured local beers.  I also won a pie.  (The contest was to correctly guess the weight of the massive apple pie, and my four and a half pound guess was closest).

But what impressed me about the event was the sheer novelty of seeing the owner and chef of a chain of diners speak about local, healthy food with such genuine commitment.   Despite some survey research showing that people claim they would pay more for things like local ingredients and hormone-free meat and gluten-free pasta, it can’t have been easy to make the leap.  Some other attendees raised valid points about various aspects of the menu remaining not-quite-Pollanesque (corn syrup in the desserts, for instance), I think the chain should be applauded for going as far as it did.  Changing the food system is an incremental process.

The food itself was, for the most part, well-executed and light while still hewing to general principles of comfort food.  I particularly liked the gluten-free pasta with goat cheese and asparagus.  Ironically, I was less of a fan of the apple pie I won, but then I’ve never been much of an apple pie person (my friends, however, devoured the pie and declared it fabulous).  I hope the chain continues to institute more  local, seasonal, and sustainable ingredients in its everyday menu.  Definitely a step in the right direction.

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I’m a big fan of LOST, though I must admit I’m really looking forward to the series being over so I can stop being frustrated and confused every week.  I mean, come on, there are only a couple episodes left and we still don’t know the answers to any of the most important mysteries!!  How many supposedly-game-changing-yet-totally-not-helpful reveals must we endure??!   OMGWTFBBQ!

In less frustrating LOST-related news, Jorge Garcia (Hurley) posted an an off-camera revelation that is truly a game-changer.  The cupcake sandwich.  Seriously, why has this not been common practice since the dawn of time? As Jorge instructs on his blog:

You start with the cup cake.
First you peel away the paper. (Trust me it gets better.)
Then tear off the bottom portion of the cupcake.
Place the torn-off portion on top where the frosting is.
Give it a little squeeze.

Simple, yet profound.  I tried this method today (see right), using the You Tart! cupcake from Hello Cupcake.  It helps solve the cake/frosting problem, so that every bite can have the right ratio.  Mmm, so delicious.

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Round-the-Calendar Salad

I’ve got lots of salad greens coming out of my garden now.  In fact, last week’s heat made the arugula bolt, although I think I was able to pinch enough off to keep some plants going.  But the rest of the lettuce is doing fine, so I’m enjoying some nice salads these days.

Just to have a poetic celebration of the changing of the seasons, I paired the fresh salad greens of spring with pickled beets from last fall.  Add in some chive blossoms, goat cheese, and orange champagne vinegar, plus a radish ‘n’ butter sandwich on the side, and it’s a light meal for all seasons.

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