Archive for April, 2008

April’s Fools

Green Tomatoes“The Indians scalped me at Chukchansi,” the bald guy said.

“Try your luck at Table Mountain,” said the other fellow.

We were in line at Coastal Tractor in Gilroy. The clerk was searching in back for a set of spider gears for my cultivating rig. The two men turned to me.

“I don’t gamble in casinos,” I said. “I plant tomatoes in the second week of April.”

It wasn’t a very good joke, but they got it. Farmers in our area that planted tomatoes in the first week of April this year lost them to a hard freeze. Along the Central Coast we figure April 15th marks the frost-free date, and we expect mild temperatures from then on. Of course, the frost free date is not a natural law, like gravity. I’ve planted tomatoes on April 15th and lost them to an “unseasonable” cold snap on the 17th. Plant tomatoes early and there’s a chance your early harvest will fetch higher prices. But if unsettled weather slaps you down and kills your plants, you’re one of April’s fools.

When I worked at Star Route Farm, in Bolinas, in the early eighties, we used to find arrowheads in the fields left behind by the Miwok. Once I found a round piece of clam shell when I was picking lettuce. A visiting archeologist from U.C. Berkeley showed me how the edges of the shell had been filed smooth, and he speculated that the piece was a gambling token, like a poker chip. I don’t like to gamble, but Indian gaming has been going on in California for a long time.

Farming can be risky, but the fun of casino gambling comes from the perceived potential of  “winning big.” When I sold my produce in farmers’ markets I learned how many consumers want things early. The first warm day of spring provokes a mass appetite for Caprese salad, and the public swarms the markets looking for tomatoes and basil. But betting the ranch on early tomatoes to satisfy shoppers seems stupid to me now. I’ve tried.

I used to set my plants out in mid March, and cloak the rows with plastic sheeting stretched over hoops of pipe. It was an expensive procedure, and a lot of work. I fretted that my plants would freeze through the plastic. I lost sleep worrying that wind would knock down my hoop houses. I feared the rain because excessive moisture stimulates fungus. And even though the hoops and plastic allowed me to harvest on the early side, I still had to compete for the early sales with tomato growers that farmed in heated green houses or came from Southern California. The risk I ran of losing my early crop wasn’t worth the payback, and I felt lousy about creating a lot of plastic garbage.

Before that, when I was a partner in Happy Boy Farms, we grew winter tomatoes in a heated greenhouse. Our tomatoes were certified organic, and we pioneered the culture of hothouse tomatoes using only organic fertilizers and beneficial insects, instead of the typical conventional greenhouse regimen of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and fungicides. We planted the seeds in August, turned on the heaters when the nights cold in the fall, and by April we were picking. I was satisfied, even surprised, by the quality of the fruit we grew, and the greenhouse allowed us to keep our crew working throughout the winter. But even then, over ten years ago, energy was expensive. We didn’t make much money. I was unhappy about it at the time, so I quit, but now I’m glad I got out of hothouse tomatoes when I did. Not only is it be hard to pay for fuel now, it’s also difficult to justify the use of so much heating oil to feed the public’s impatience, when tomatoes can be grown outside in the summer using only the sun if we wait.

The cheapest out of season tomatoes usually come from fields in the south, where it’s warm. Right now, most of the early spring fresh tomatoes in our markets come from Mexico. I’ve grown tomatoes in Mexico, too. Before I farmed at Happy Boy Farms, I helped my friend, Greg, set up a tomato farm near Todos Santos on the Pacific Coast in the Mexican state of Baja California Sur. My role in the farm was minimal, but I learned a lot.

It was early winter, 1994, when Greg and I drove south. We didn’t plan on stopping until we saw people picking red ripe fruit. Then we’d looked for a farm he could buy. Going over Pacheco Pass the hills were green and we had the wind shield wipers on. The rain beat down. On I-5, down near Huron, the rain stopped, but the fields were empty and muddy. Outside of San Diego the soil was dry, but the tractors were only just starting to work up beds for tomatoes to be transplanted into. We crossed the line at Tijuana.

In the Valle de San Quintin, south of Ensenada, we saw farm workers staking young tomato plants with crooked sticks cut from the thorny brush in the surrounding desert mountains. South of Molino Viejo Highway One turns away from the coast and we entered the open desert. We didn’t see anything but rocks, brush, and cacti for hundreds of miles. By the time we reached an agricultural zone near Ciudad Constitucion, near Magdalena Bay in the State of Southern Baja, we were so far south there were green tomatoes hanging from bushy vines. But it wasn’t until we got to San Jose Del Cabo at the tip of California, below the Tropic of Cancer, and over a thousand miles south of Watsonville, that we saw red, ripe tomatoes hanging on the vine.

What surprised me most about farming in Mexico was the labor situation. Greg and I thought there would be plenty of locals looking for work. Wrong. There were lots of people working in the tomato fields, but by and large they’d come north from Southern Mexico, from the States of Oaxaca and Puebla, where wages are low. At that time, field workers in Southern Mexico earned the equivalent of five dollars a day. Field hands in the north earned closer to seven dollars for the same day’s work.

I met with Government officials in La Paz to learn the rules of doing business in Mexico. Their employment codes dated from the Revolution and dignified labor by granting to every Mexican worker a fraction of the profits of the business they worked for, above and beyond mere wages. Naturally, the workers’ cut of  yearly profits was to be pro-rated, and an employee who’d spent the whole year working for the company was due a larger piece of the profit they’ve helped create than did a newly hired worker. I expressed my amazement about the progressive spirit of this law.

“I’ve just come from a shantytown in a cactus patch where Oaxacan tomato pickers live in shacks made of garbage and share the rusty water that drips from one leaky spigot,” I said. “I don’t see them sharing in the profits of the grower/shippers they work for”

“Of course, some American businessmen may desire the services of a competent lawyer to help them understand our labor code,” said the bureaucrat, and he handed me a business card from a little stack he kept in the top drawer of his desk.

“Off the record,” said the lawyer, “well-intentioned foreign employers that upset the natural equilibrium of life in Mexico by over-paying for labor may find their generosity is misplaced and leads to regrettable consequences.”

I know people make an honorable, honest, and sustainable business out of growing organic tomatoes in Mexico and shipping them north. My friends at Jacobs Farm of Pescadero/ Los Ejidos Del Cabo come to mind. More than anyone, they’re responsible for making organic Sungold cherry tomatoes ubiquitous in upscale U.S. markets throughout the winter months. But growing off-season tomatoes for the U.S. market isn’t for me. Frankly, the way airlines are having problems these days, flying cargoes of tomatoes across the northern hemisphere seems too much of a gamble, anyway. I’m happiest planting tomatoes when the risk of frost is low. I know that if I wait until the soil is warm to plant my tomatoes the sun will probably smile on me, and sometime around the end of June, Mother Nature willing— “ka-ching!”—  the tomato patch will come up cherries.

copyright 2008 Andy Griffin

The Chukchansi Tribal Site 

The Proof is in the Gratin

cardoon stems“The old gray donkey, Eeyore, stood by himself in a thistly corner of the forest, his front feet well apart, his head on one side, and thought about things. Sometimes he thought sadly to himself, “Why?” and sometimes he thought, “Wherefore?” and sometimes he thought, “Inasmuch as which?”


On September 19th, 1832, biologist Charles Darwin passed through the remote Argentine settlement of Guardia del Monte, and noted that the village marked the southernmost limit of the cardoon infestation on the pampas. Cardoon, or Cynara cardunculus, is a big thistle. Darwin had passed by weed patches where cardoons stood as high as a horse’s back in thickets that covered hundreds of square miles. This week we harvested close to a ton of cardoon on my farm for our CSA subscribers. “Why,” you may ask, “are you growing a plant that one of the brightest stars in the history of science described as a pernicious and invasive weed?” I’ll tell you, but words only go so far, so I’m including a recipe at the end of this history. Cardoons are good food, and the proof is in the gratin.

Cardoon is a sister to the artichoke, but instead of eating the immature flower bud, we eat the petiole, or leaf stalk. Cardoons make flower buds that look like small, spiny artichokes, but you’d have to be hungry to make eating them worth the pain. A number of different cardoon varieties that have been developed by farmers, and most of them have been selected to have few, if any spines. The kind of cardoon I grow is an Italian breed called Gobbo di Nizza. Massed over hundreds of thousands of acres, the way that Darwin encountered them, I’d imagine that cardoons would be a dreary sight indeed, but in a garden setting the plants are beautiful and sculptural. I’ve found that cardoons offer excellent habitat for Ladybugs to breed and multiply in, so our cardoon patch not only serves as a food crop, it’s also an insectary that benefits the rest of our more common vegetable crops.

Cardoons evolved around the rim of the Mediterranean Sea, and people have eaten them for a long time, but Roman gardeners are thought to have been responsible for taming this thistle into a garden vegetable. It was a Roman custom to dip tender, young cardoon stems in a simple sauce of warm olive oil and butter and eat them raw. The bigger stems were typically baked, steamed, or fried. As the Roman Empire expanded, the practice of growing cardoons extended as far north as the weather permitted. The cardoon, like the artichoke, is frost tender, so it didn’t become established in colonies like Britannia or northern Gaul, but Roman cardoon recipes found favor in warmer regions. To this day, cardoons are much appreciated in Spain, southern France, and northern Italy. But cardoons haven’t only provided pleasure at the table— they’ve also provided fodder for a joke at the expense of the Swiss.

The word for thistle in Latin is cardo. The word for “big thistle” became cardone in Italian and chardon in French. In Mexico, big saguaro-like cacti are generically referred to as cardon. In alpine Switzerland, cooks wanted to emulate the magnificent cardoon recipes of their lowland relatives, but they couldn’t, because frosty alpine Switzerland doesn’t provide a good habitat for the temperate minded cardoon. Farmers improved the beet green, Beta vulgaris, so that a more cold tolerant plant could sport a fat, white, succulent and mild flavored stalk like chardon or cardone and could be cooked in the same way. “Chardon Suisse,” laughed metropolitan French chefs when they saw these odd new beet greens, “Swiss thistle!” The Erbette ‘chard’ is the descendent of the original thin-stemmed beet green that was improved into ‘Swiss thistle.’ We’ll grow ‘regular chard’ for you later this year, along with red, gold, and pink chards. Ironically, I’ve met Americans who strip the leafy green part of the chard leaf off the stem and cook it and throw the thick stalk away, thus entirely missing the point. I’ve even had customers at farmers’ market buy bunched beets and ask me to twist off the greens and toss them away, while at the same time they buy a bunch of chard from me. They’re not saving any money, but I remind myself that the customer is always right. Still, if we remember our history, we’re reminded that old fashioned recipes for Swiss chard ought to work well with cardoon.

When the Spanish conquistadores came to South America they brought their long horned cattle and their cardoons with them. A terrestrial age of Taurus dawned across the great southern plains. Cattle multiplied like fleas across the pampas. Their sharp hooves cut the turf and wore it away, providing a place for feral cardoon seed to germinate. Cattle dung fertilized the soil and gave it the flavor of home. Soon, isolated outcroppings of cardoons that had escaped from the garden metastasized into thorny jungles. The cardoons reacted to their new freedoms by shedding all vestiges of tender domesticity and reverting to their original vicious, spiny habits, just as the feral Spanish cattle learned to be wily and wicked again as they outwitted and outfought the native panthers. The Spaniards had come to America hoping to subdue and civilize a wild continent. But instead, long before Darwin showed up to observe nature, the cow and the cardoon had already gone “native” and reverted to their horny and thorny natures. When gauchos gave chase to descendants of the wild Iberian cattle, hoping to slaughter beef, the longhorns could disappear into oceans of thistles and thorns and be lost to the bolo, the riata, and the corral for good. The dance of progress had taken one step forward and two steps back, and that’s an interesting dialectical evolution to ponder.

copyright 2008 Andy Griffin

*Andy tweaked this piece just a little from the one we ran in our CSA newsletter last week.

photo of Red Swiss Chard, it sort of shows it’s thicker stalks

Photoessay of making cardoon gratin with Martin in our kitchen


Martin’s Cardoon Potato Gratin

8-10 stalks Cardoon
2-3 medium potatoes
8 oz grated parmesan cheese
1 pint half and half or cream
S & P to taste

Blanch the cardoon stalks in water that has a splash of vinegar or lemon juice until medium tender. You can peel them if you like. We don’t. Cut the cardoon stalks in 1/4 inch crescents, across the grain, like you would celery. Peel the potatoes. Cut the potatoes into batons, about like a french fry. Toss the cut, blanched cardoon stalks with the potatoes directly in a gratin dish. Reserve a handful of the cheese for the top and toss the rest of the cheese with the cardoon/potato mixture. Add the pint of half and half (or cream if using.) Season with salt and pepper.
Bake in a 425 oven 40 minutes or so: until golden brown and the potatoes are all the way through.

Andy and I had a great little cardoon dish a few years back at the upstairs Chez Panisse and loved it. Here’s Russ’ recipe:

Russell Moore’s Cardoon Recipe
Russ cooked upstairs at CP for 20 years, now he’s about to open Camino! we can’t wait.

Peel stalks of cardoons to get the bitter outer skin off. Boil in salted water until tender, that could be from 5-20 minutes. (I would cut the stalks in half so they’d fit my pans. -jw)

Slice cooked stalks on the diagonal (like you would celery) then dress with a vinaigrette. For this dish the vinaigrette has a bit of anchovy, garlic, lemon and a small splash of red wine vinegar, and olive oil too of course. (Julia’s hint: one basic formula for vinaigrette I’ve read includes 3 parts oil to 1 part acid: lemon juice or vinegar)

They serve the cardoons this way room temperature with some hardboiled egg: either chopped or in wedges. Russ said this dish benefits from a bit of fat served with it and he likes the hard cooked egg for that contrast.

Cardoon thoughts and a recipe from Chef Andrew Cohen:

Cardoon is a vegetable like artichoke in that it oxidises and discolors. Chefs will usually toss it into acidulated water (water with lemon juice) to keep it from discoloring.

When thinking of cardoon, keep the flavor of artichokes in your mind when planning the dish.

Chef Andrew’s simplest Cardoon-Pasta preparation:

Slice and blanch cardoon. Saute onions and garlic and toss with pasta. Grate some parmesan cheese. This could benefit from some green olives as well.

Here’s an idea I picked up from a book of Mid-east cookery. This is based on a lamb dish with cardoon. Cut cardoon into 2″ long pieces and blanch in salted water. Saute onions and garlic with turmeric, paprika, parsley, and coriander. Add in cardoon and a handful of cracked green olives or oil cured black olives. Give a toss, and add a couple chopped tomatoes and some water( a couple cups). If you have some mid-east style preserved lemons, cut one up into largish pieces(1″ or so) and toss that in as well. Cook for a 1/2 hour to soften vegetables and integrate flavors. This could take peppers(hot or sweet) or eggplant as well. Simmer cardoons cut into batons (3″x1/4″) until tender and layer into a gratin dish that has been rubbed with a garlic clove and lightly oiled. Layer with parmesan or gruyere, then pour in cream over all. Bake until golden and bubbly.

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