I want to work

I have alternately been heartened, dispirited, and then sometimes excited during the course of the “Arab Spring.” As a devotee of democracy who was bred in the world of hard American legislative politics, I would like to be part of the democraticization of the Middle East.  I went to Iraq in the fall of 2008 to build democratic institutions but my time there was short. I  am now enrolled as a student in the international conflict management graduate program at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.  School is great, but I would rather be where people struggle for, rather than study, democracy.

The world is always in transition, but perhaps never more than now in the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region. We sometimes get a single pass at influencing the world. I want to influence that world. I know my influence can only be small, that we build democracy brick upon brick, but I would rather be the bricklayer than the guy who is watching.

Last week I submitted my job applications for Yemen, Libya and Jordan.

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Protecting and restoring the world’s forests: Is REDD enough?

The Earth is being deforested by human activity. We cut and burn forests to clear land for agriculture to feed our triple–F needs: food, fuel and fiber. Then we introduce non-native species into environments where they overtake the natives, and to top it off, some of our economic activities encourage large but unintended forest fires. These activities all release greenhouse gasses (GHGs), principally carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere and contribute to global climate change.

The United Nations Collaborative Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (REDD), was initiated in September 2008 to address the role of deforestation as a contributor to global climate change. REDD is the primary international response to deforestation. Is it sufficient to deal with the problem of deforestation? Should it address development issues beyond its initial mandate, issues like water quality and the rights of indigenous people? Or is it another UN program to which parties attach ever increasing goals that may or may not be achievable?

 The “reducing emissions” problem simply stated:

Deforestation contributes the same amount of greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere as all forms of transportation worldwide, approximately 17% of all anthropogenic sources, according to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Deforestation is the world’s second largest source of GHGs, after the energy sector.

 What is REDD?

REDD was initiated as a means to reduce GHG emissions from deforestation. It is now frequently seen as a way to address not just climate change, but many other issues including the transfer of payments from the developed world to the developing world for environmental services, preserving biodiversity, and safe-guarding indigenous populations. Is the REDD agreement flexible enough, does it have the capacity to grow and meet those ambitions?

The Bali Action Plan of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC Conference of the Parties, COP 13, December 2007) obligates its member nations to negotiate an instrument that includes financial incentives for forest-based climate change mitigation actions in developing countries. COP 13 also adopted a decision on “reducing emissions from deforestation in developing countries: approaches to stimulate action” with fairly standard language on capacity building, technical assistance and technology transfer. It lays out a process under the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Affairs (SBSTA) to address the methodological issues related to REDD emissions reporting. The transfer of satellite technology from the developed world to the developing world will facilitate forest monitoring, if it is done in a way the developing world can afford, but technology won’t stop forest clear-cutting. As every carpenter will tell you, “measure twice, cut once, not the other way.” The same holds true in forest preservation. Measure everything, but measuring is a means to an end, not an end goal. Unfortunately, short-term profit usually trumps long-term preservation. The world’s forests may succumb to the “tragedy of the commons.”

REDD currently has 36 partner countries in Africa, Asia, the Pacific Islands and Latin America. Thirteen of those countries receive financial support for afforestation programs: Bolivia, Cambodia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Ecuador, Indonesia, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, the Philippines, Solomon Islands, Tanzania, Viet Nam and Zambia. The UN-REDD Programme’s Policy Board has approved a total of US$55.4 million, a pittance, for its nine initial pilot countries and four new countries. 

We are not the first generation to cut our forests, and won’t be the last.

European and North American people cut virtually all of our forests between the 16th and the 18th century for fuel that fed the Industrial Revolution. The forests of the industrialized nations of the north are now recovering from our earlier depredation but only by harvesting the forests of less developed nations. After three centuries of deforestation that fed the world economy, the pace of deforestation is slowing but it continues. 

In the past two decades, more acres of trees were cut than were planted on a net worldwide basis. Thirteen million acres of forest were lost in 2010, compared to sixteen million acres lost in 1990, a slower rate of deforestation but deforestation nevertheless. The bulk of the loss in forests is happening in the humid forests of the tropics and sub-tropics, particularly in the Amazon basin and sub–Saharan Africa for pasture, and in Indonesia for timber and palm oil plantations. Australia has lost significant amounts of its forests due to drought and fires which may be tied to climate change.

Simultaneously, forests in North America, Europe and Central Asia have grown by 60 million acres, net, over the past two decades according to the FAO’s Global Forest Resources Assessment 2010, although the western portions of the US have experienced heavy forest losses in the past three years due to invasive insect species predation and subsequent fires.

We are killing forests and releasing GHGs faster than any previous generation.

The global climate impact of changing forest patterns is significant. Between 2005 and 2010, the world annually lost to the atmosphere one-half of a gigaton (Gt) of carbon that had been sequestered in its forests.

We are reducing biodiversity across the world, even where forests are re-growing.

Biodiversity in the world’s humid forests far exceeds that of the world’s temperate forests. Tropical forests host two-thirds of all of the planet’s species yet less than ten percent of those forests are in legally protected areas. In the rare places where trees are being re-planted in the tropics and sub-tropics, they tend to be in monocultural plantation settings, especially palm oil plantations in Indonesia, Central America, South American and Africa. Non-native plants rarely sustain the mammal, avian, and insect species of their setting.

I will be writing a much longer article and try to examine the following questions in my paper:

  • Does REDD have the potential to transfer sufficient resources to the developing world to protect and restore biodiverse forests? The developed world has turned the tide in protecting its own forests by exploiting the forests of the developing world along with copious amounts of fossil fuels. Can we now protect the forests of the developing world?
  • Is the REDD mechanism, an FAO, UNDP and UNEP triumvirate, the best way to manage a new regime?
  • Are there better means for the developed world to pay the developing world for the environmental services, including breathable oxygen, undisturbed rainfall patterns, biodiversity, fresh water, and avoided siltration of coastal ocean areas, that we derive from their places?
  • How can we incorporate into REDD the other benefits associated with protecting forests? The whole world benefits from bio-diversity, but the developed world is less interested in the localized benefits of silt-free rivers in Guatemala, the Congo Basin and the Hindu-Kush. Widespread deforestation in the Amazon basin shows that the change in the albedo, the index that measures the solar reflection of the planet, has enormous impacts on rainfall in areas larger than the deforested spaces. Should the localized benefits and the less obvious global benefits be a primary or secondary aspect of REDD agreements?
  • Can an international agreement place a more accurate market value on the environmental services produced by forests of the developing world?
  • Does the Clean Development Mechanism/Joint Implementation (CDM/JI) regime mark a better path? Or do the European Union’s emission trading system (EU ETS) and the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) of the northeastern US states create an alternative for afforestation and carbon offsets?
  • Maybe we need a whole new system, perhaps a worldwide carbon tax or a Tobin tax on financial transactions, to fund the preservation of the world’s forests and carbon sinks. Again, this may be a topic too big to consider in the limited scope of the next paper, but the question needs to be asked and at least quickly addressed.
  • What role should the indigenous people of the developing world’s forests play in forest preservation? How does national sovereignty mesh with the rights of indigenous people living in the forests?
  • How should we assess forest preservation with both technology and global accounting mechanisms? Voluntary reporting mechanisms seem puny. How big must we go?

 REDD is a relatively young agreement. Most information about it is available only on-line. Deforestation is a much better studied subject, but as our class is about international organizations and not a broad survey of international environmental problems, my reference points will largely be web-based to capture a slowly evolving mechanism.

 Annotated bibliography 

The Food and Agriculture Organization’s Global Forest Resources Assessment 2010 http://www.fao.org/docrep/013/i1757e/i1757e.pdf is the definitive statement on the current health of the world’s forests. The GFRA reports, issued every five years, involve hundreds of scientists from virtually every country on the world with 233 individual country and territory reports in the latest edition. Clear graphics and prose make it in comprehensible to inexpert readers. Rich data backed by a large bibliography allow the specialist to dig deeply.  You want the fine granular level of detail? It is here. For example, you can see the number of PhDs in public forest research institutions plotted per million hectares of forest in every country on Earth (p. 161).

The UN REDD agreement http://www.un-redd.org/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=gDmNyDdmEI0%3d&tabid=587&language=en-US provides everything expected of a negotiated statement: what is wrong in the world, good science to back it up, what we should do to combat the problem, the financial incentives needed to change behavior, and lots of aspirational words. But no party is held to account for their misdeeds because no nation would sign an agreement if it hints at culpability.

Submission by the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity to the Secretariat of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change http://www.cbd.int/forest/doc/2011-09-26-cbd-submission-unfccc-reddplus-en.pdf The UN Convetion on Biological Diversity Secretariat wants REDD to address biodiversity and submitted this document to make sure REDD is not solely a forest carbon agreement.

 “Prospects for tropical forest biodiversity in a human-modified world” http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1461-0248.2009.01294.x/full takes the science of forest biodiversity to a higher level, plotting both geographically and temporally the human impact on tropical forests. Science in three dimensions, including the time spectrum, tells us the future we will give to our children and our grand-children. Birds are generally better studied than trees or vascular plants but this report makes it clear that the decline in all is precipitous. This article is the pure science version of the proverb that is attributed to many indigenous peoples, “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.”

 Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Diamond, Jared (2005). Print.Jared Diamond’s analysis and then his polemic on the resource consumption choices made by people across the past two millennia shows those choices are rarely made with a view to the future and are frequently disastrous. He does not try to explain all of human social development as a nearly seamless web, as he did in his Pulitzer Prize winning Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies (1997), but instead focuses on smaller separate societies and finds that deforestation can quickly kill sizeable parts of the human, plant and animal world. He writes lucidly, and with his primary training as a Harvard PhD. physiologist and his later careers as an anthropologist, ornithologist, environmental historian and linguist, he is at times spell-binding and has a scope of knowledge that is breathtaking. His explanation of the collapse of the Maya civilization due in part to deforestation in the years 800AD to 1000AD is masterful. Alas, he misses the connection between the protection and near veneration of native forests instilled in Japanese culture by the 16th and 17th century Tokegawa, and contemporary Japanese exploitive behavior in the forests of Southeast Asia, Indonesia and the Amazon basin. Diamond nevertheless offers us lessons for our future.

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The debt crisis, and how the media has blown the story

One of my favorite blogs is written by former IMF chief economist Simon Johnson (now teaching at MIT) and his co-conspirator James Kwak. They are nothing short of brilliant and Kwak’s post from this week about our nation’s long term debt is clear and more informative than anything else I have recently seen. The prospect is not good in the long run but it is nowhere near as bad as the media-hype around it and it can be fixed. Just not with the policies pushed by the GOP leadership and Blue Dog Democrats. Smart economists who can write in normal English are rare. Read this post, please:

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The quickest way to make my heart jump a beat is to tell me that you like my cooking or my garden. Flattery is very flattering. A little cricket pushed one of those buttons, the food button, as I shopped on Sunday. I like reading about your food, she said. What are you cooking now?

I told her a pork loin was in the smoker, cooking low and slow, as we spoke. A spicy fruit salad was waiting in the fridge. You’ve never heard of a spicy fruit salad, I asked? Imagine one of those fruit spikes that are ubiquitous in Mexican and southeast Asian cities, pineapple and green papaya and mango and cucumber on a skewer, with a sprinkle of spices. Now deconstruct it, as the Food Network folks might tell you.  Douse all of those beautiful fruits in lime, vinegar, ginger, crushed peanuts, tamarind and chili powder. Make sure you get some umami flavor in yours. Nam pla, Thai fish sauce, is my favorite source of the glutamic acid that epitomizes umami, but Ponzu and even soy sauce will do in a pinch. Let it sit for an hour or two and serve with well deserved anticipation. Let it sit for a day and laugh wildly over the rich flavor. It pairs well with grilled food.

A September evening in New England, sunny and warm, is a perfect time for putting meat over a fire. I love both types of “barbecue,” both high temperature grilling and the Southern low temp, slow style. I grew up with high heat grilling but ten years ago I ventured into the realm of low and slow. Much of this summer has been about low and slow barbecue cooked on my new toy.

I bought another slow smoker, my fourth, at the beginning of the summer. The remarkably inexpensive Brinkman rectangle stands just under four feet tall, with two wire cooking racks, a water pan and a charcoal pan, with two front opening doors, one for food and one for fuel (very important!!!). I can fill the charcoal pan and keep the cooking temperature at 200 degrees for three hours. Adding charcoal along the way let’s me bump the cooking time out another six hours, long enough for smoking anything smaller than commercial quantities of meat. Forty-five minutes produces a perfect rare piece of smoked salmon with a dry spice rub. Four hours gives up a pork roast redolent with smoke, moist and tender enough to cut with the side of a fork. Six hours turns a pork shoulder into honeyed meat. Ask me about my quickly-smoked gazpacho. Ooooh. 

I always brine my pork roasts, the cut of meat that I cook most often. Brining is a must for the pork sold in the US, which our food scientists ruined as they engineered “the other white meat” (do you remember that ad campaign?), stripped of its moisturizing marbled fat. Our meat deserves a  little marbling to keep it tasty. Don’t get me started on the way they turned the tenderloin into a soft flavorless cut of meat. The food scientists wrongly took away the marbled fat but I don’t really want the outer fat cap, so I trim most, not all of it. A twenty-four hour brining moistens a roast and lets its flavor show through. I boil a quart of water with a half cup of salt, a quarter cup of brown sugar and a mix of whole peppercorns, chilis, allspice, cinnamon sticks, anything that piques my mind, let it all cool, and give the roast a day long bath in a ziplock baggie in the fridge. 

<Geek alert> Brining dissolves parts of the protein contracting filaments in muscle. It also increases the moisture holding capacity in muscle cells. Moisture from the brine moves into the meat and carries the spices and herbs into the meat. If you don’t care about the science, just note that it cuts in half the drying effect of cooking, which is especially important when smoking a cut of meat that lacks marbled fat. Even a short brining, an hour, will protect the outer parts of pork and chicken that are the first to dry when cooking. Brine all pork and chicken before you cook it, whether it is grilling, smoking or oven roasting. 

After the brining, drain, rinse and dry the roast.  Cover it with a mix of spices: brown sugar, salt, black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, chili powder, star anise, anything. Curry powder. Old Bay. It is all good. Sear the surface and roast it in the oven, sitting on a bed of carrots, celery, onions, whatever, and it will taste very, very good. But it is summer and this is where my new smoker enters. 

Cooking meat at a low temperature for a long time breaks down tough connective tissues in meat. It makes it tender. Doing it over a smoky fire adds deep flavor but it dries food out so I always use water in my smoking. A quart of water in the pan that sits nine inches above the charcoal pan moderates the temperature in a smoker and as the water slowly boils away it keeps the inside of the smoker box a bit moist. This year I determined to find a way to amplify that moisture. 

My brined pork roast, blotted dry and covered in spices, is briefly seared on all sides in a shallow pan on the kitchen stove. Dry the roast before seasoning and searing it so the surface instantly reaches a high enough temperature to generate the Maillard reactions that generate the nice brown  bits that taste so good. Water on the meat surface drops the temperature when it hits the pan, and steams it rather than sears it.

The roast-in-a-pan then moves to the smoker and an inch of broth or stock goes into the pan. The liquid drops the temperature of the pan surface so the meat can slowly cook for four hours at 200 degrees over the smoky fire. Every thirty to forty-five minutes the meat is turned in the pan. The “fond,” the lovely brown bits from the searing, and the flavor of the broth flow through the meat as it cooks. The smoke permeates the meat and is absorbed by the broth. It is like braising meat in a smoky fire, how we cooked in Italy, France, even colonial Massachusetts three hundred years ago. You could cook the pork forever as long as it is kept moist and it would become increasingly soft, but four hours is more than enough to fully cook and give it all sorts of smoky goodness. 

So that is what I did on Sunday afternoon, when I realized I had a whole wire shelf in the smoker with nothing cooking on it. Not an efficient use of all that smoke, no, no, no.  A ten minute trip to the local supermarket while the pork roast slowly cooked gave me a basket of goodies to fill that second shelf. And it brought me into contact with my food friend, the aforementioned Cricket in my ear. 

I returned home and quickly broke down a rack of pork ribs, covered them in a wet rub heavy with mustard, chili and cumin, and put them on the second rack of the smoker. The ribs did not have the benefit of the braising liquid so I periodically opened the upper door of the smoker and spritzed them with a mix of beer and vinegar that I keep in a spray bottle in the fridge. Four hours was enough to cook them to that perfect state where your teeth leave a distinct mark on the meat but you don’t have to tear it from the bone – I want my ribs cooked but don’t want them the consistency of pudding.  A head of garlic, rubbed with canola oil, only needed one hour on the rack, and two oiled onions got two hours each to turn them into smoky sweetness. Smoked garlic and smoked onions keep forever in the fridge and let you drop instant flavor into anything you cook. 

And then there is the smoking water. The broth that the pork roast sat in while smoking starts as a tasty juice. Flavor from the pork and the spices add to the flavor. Smoke piles into it. When I take the roasting pan out of the smoker, I save the “smokin’ water.” It adds incredible depth to other dishes that call for water or broth. One cup of my smokin’ water in a big pot of red beans brings a simple dish to a level that ragin-Cajuns would enjoy. Look at my previous blog post about making bacon jam to see another use. The stuff just slays. I should bottle and sell it. Instead, I pour it into four ounce containers and put it with the other broths and stocks that fill my freezer. Like I said, this one slays.

There is a three pound pork roast brining in my fridge as I write these words. I will take it to my sister CoCo’s house tomorrow, season and sear it, and throw it in a smoker I gave her earlier this summer. This time the braising liquid will be beer and tomato puree (tomatoes are loaded with my friend, glutamic acid) instead of stock.  It is another experiment. Ignore my mother, I tell people often. Play with your food. The roast will be ready when I have killed off the hosta invasion that CoCo’s home builder put in her back yard.

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We mean you no harm but we may exterminate you. Sorry.

The chilly mountains of Michoacan, Mexico welcome two types of visitors. I am one of them, a tourist who went to see you, the other, the Monarch butterfly. I am a human of the variety known in many nations as “the ugly American.” You are the first butterfly I ever met, a black and orange beauty with a complex biology that our science barely understands. We mean you no harm but we may exterminate you, collateral damage in three assaults we inflict on nature. We really are sorry but I understand why you might think that we don’t care about you.

  •  We humans are killing you in your Mexican winter home as we cut down your forest.
  • We are killing you along your migratory flyway by eradicating the only plant you can lay eggs upon.
  • And in a passive assault, we brought an invasive species to this land that will steal the food of your young.

Good luck in surviving, but you are pretty much on your own. Again, sorry.

I am an unapologetic lover of the natural world, including the rugged El Rosario Reserve in Mexico, an Oyamel fir and pine tree forest. It is the biggest of the winter homes for the Monarch butterflies (danaus plexippus) that visit the US states east of the Rocky Mountains. Two hundred million Monarchs live in the area around the Reserve, a billion in a slightly larger area. In the cold night, they line tree branches like file cards in a drawer, wings neatly tucked upright, perched together to preserve and share their body heat. In some parts of the Reserve ten million butterflies live in a single acre, making tree branches sag under their weight.

As the morning sun warms them, they awaken, flutter off and enough sleepy-heads fall to the ground that they make a carpet of butterflies. But their winter roosts are shrinking as poor Mexicans harvest trees for fuel in this tiny forest, exposing the Monarchs to killing cold winds. Our tolerance of poverty in the developing world shrinks the Monarch population, and likewise, human and other life elsewhere on Earth.

Monarchs survive a seven month winter period where they do not breed, a diapause. As spring arrives they begin their northward migration. It takes another three generations during the course of a calendar year to complete the full 2500 mile trip into the US and Canada. The fourth generation hatches in September or October and reverses the migratory direction, going south to make the long trip home.

Once they leave Mexico, each of the first three generations make progress in the trip north, breeding and dying, leaving it up to the following generations to finish the trip. Each Monarch lives between three and eight weeks, eating, flying north and breeding before they die. The butterflies feed on nectar and lay their eggs exclusively on milkweeds (aesclepias). In a marvel of evolution, Monarch caterpillars have developed the ability to eat foliage that contains glycosides, chemicals that are toxic for most other insects and birds. The caterpillar incorporates the toxins into its body and both the caterpillar and the mature butterfly are largely avoided by predators.

The second assault on the Monarch comes from North American factory-farm monoculture during the Monarch’s voyage. Milkweeds were once common across the continent, but no more. Monsanto invented a powerful general herbicide called Roundup, the number one selling herbicide worldwide since 1980. By 1996 Monsanto began marketing its first batch of genetically modified crops (GMOs) that are immune to Roundup, including soybeans, corn and grains. Before the GMOs were developed, the farming industry exercised a small measure of caution to protect their own crops. With the development of “Roundup Ready” crops, farmers now repeatedly broadcast the killer chemical across thousands of square miles of Roundup Ready fields. In doing so, they have eradicated the milkweeds and other plants that once grew amongst and along the edges of small farms that previously were unable to handle heavy doses of Roundup applied indiscriminately. Pre-Roundup levels of bio-diversity supported the four generations that Monarchs need to make the full migration north and back home in one year.

Monarchs don’t have it easy once they arrive in the northeast. Nectar is available but nectar only supports adult Monarchs. They need more milkweed foliage for egg laying. Northern gardeners, farmers and large land managers are doing more than our share of eradicating milkweed and now there is a new threat, black swallow-wort (cynanchum louiseae). This insidious invasive species has its origins in southern Europe. It is in the same broad family as milkweed (asclepiadaceae) and it deceives Monarchs into laying their eggs on its leaves. The newly hatched Monarch caterpillars cannot eat the toxic swallow-wort foliage and they die before they pupate and emerge as butterflies.

The fourth and final generation of Monarchs, hatched in September and October, does not breed and die as quickly as the previous three generations. It makes the long trip home to Mexico and becomes the long-lived diapause generation that winters in El Rosario and similar forests. The mass migration is all the more amazing as each generation uses a photoreceptor protein in their antennae to orient itself to the magnetic poles of the Earth to guide it on the journey. They follow a route that is genetically hardwired into them, moving without guidance or instruction from any other Monarch.

This year I rarely saw Monarchs in my garden, despite twenty previous years of abundance. I have spent two decades turning my 8000 square foot yard into an environmental haven, with three different species of native milkweeds (asclepia tuberosa, incarnata and syriaca) and hundreds of other native plants rich in nectar. I built a garden around the plants that are the food and shelter for native birds, animals and insects. Monarchs were ubiquitous, but last year there were many fewer and this year almost none at all. Isolated islands like mine, rich in native species of plants and fauna and free of chemicals, can preserve some species but they cannot save migratory ones threatened elsewhere in their life cycles.

I will maintain my milkweeds because they are beautiful and continue to fill an important role in providing nectar to many other insects. I give milkweed to other gardeners, private and public. I will cut off and send to the incinerator the seed pods of the black swallow-wort where I see them in public, and kill the plant where I have permission to do so http://www.nps.gov/plants/alien/fact/cylo1.htm. I will avoid Roundup Ready farm-factory foods. I will talk and write about our reckless behavior that imperils so many species on this planet. Yet it is not enough.

We mean you no harm but we may exterminate you. Sorry.

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Bacon jam, the weekend and hurricanes

Nature gives us changing circumstances but some lead me, almost inevitably, to cook. This weekend it was the arrival of hurricane Irene causing bacon jam. Hurricanes don’t literally create bacon jam, as it doesn’t fall from the sky, but hurricanes do focus the mind on indoor cooking opportunities and bacon was on my mind. Take liberties in following my recipe for making bacon jam.

In the summer, I go to the the Arlington Farmer’s Market on Wednesday and on Friday mornings to Russo’s in Watertown (www.russos.com). Russo’s is a favorite spot of mine for high quality produce and cheese. It has a variety that spans the continents. No doubt the broad food selection is inspired by its proximity to a mix of older Italian and newer Asian and Latino immigrants in the Watertown, Newton, and Waltham region. You will hear lots of folks speaking languages other than English standing next to fashionably dressed women from Newton. Russo’s is not the same as Wilson’s in Lexington with its nearly uniformly upscale clientele (no slur on Wilson’s as I like the place and especially its proximity to my home but the crowd is very different and the selection both smaller and more expensive than Russo’s).

Russo’s is also just around the corner from a BJ’s Club. Yes, I know it is terribly déclassé to shop at a big box store but I do it, especially when I am buying lots of paper goods like towels and t.p. So Friday I did a double hit and bought an especially large amount of provisions at both locations (reminder: don’t shop when you are hungry!), including a few pounds of bacon. I even bought the hardcover edition of Mark Bittman’s updated book How to Cook Everything, a seminal work in American food writing. His Sunday NYTimes magazine cooking column is always great but his new position on the op-ed page of the Times gives him the latitude to explore the food and agriculture industries brilliantly. The book is an extension of his clear and concise writing about great food made simply. It is inspiring.

Hurricane Irene arrived last night and her winds convinced me not to slow smoke the beef brisket that I had brined overnight. It will keep until tomorrow, but working in the garden is not possible, so my stove and the bacon called for my attention. I have frequently heard of bacon jam and as a confirmed fan of bacon, I knew I needed to try some. The folks at Skillet Street Food in Seattle make some popular jam that has a very good reputation http://skilletstreetfood.com/shop.php

but today was my day to take a stab at making it. A pan of it now sits on the stove in its final stage of cooking. I looked at NotQuiteNigella, an Australian food blogger I enjoy, for her recipe


and took it as a guide but as I tell everyone, play with your food.  My recipe is quite different from hers, more aromatic and less sweet I think.

Making jam is an indoor activity well suited to bad weather. Well suited, that is, unless you are hungry, in which case not all of the bacon makes it into the jam. Cooks always retain the right to eat food as it comes out of a pan and before it is plated.

This recipe is not a sweet bacon jam. Add more brown sugar or maple syrup if you want it sweeter. Add spicier pepper flavors like Tabasco if you want heat. You might want to try NQN’s version first, especially as mine has a few odd ingredients. As with all foods, taste it as you cook and add ingredients as your mouth instructs.

(Here is some technical stuff that matters only to the die-hard cook, a note on what I call “smoking water.” You need to add liquid to the bacon as it cooks during the second round. Water won’t add flavor but won’t hurt the flavor, just keep the jam moist. Any kind of unsalted stock, vegetable or meat, will be better.  I would be wary of red wine but beer might work. Cider or fruit juices will make the jam sweeter. The “smoking water” I used is a vegetable broth in which I smoke a pork roast for three hours and is intensely smoky. I love the flavor of smoke and save this broth from week-to-week because of the flavor it imparts to everything from beans to rice to meats. If you love smoke like I do, you might try Liquid Smoke, but I have never used it and cannot advise further.)

1 lb of bacon

½ lb of sweet onion (Vidalia-type)

¼ lb of fennel

8 ozs of “smoking water” (you can substitute anything from water to juice to stock)

2 ozs of malt vinegar

2 ozs of maple syrup

2 ozs of brown rum (Mt. Gay, Cruzan, or similar)

¼ cup of brown sugar

A few dashes of Worcestshire, PickAPepper, or other aromatic (I used Salsa Lizano from Costa Rica)

½ teaspoon of allspice

In a non-stick pan or cast iron skillet, cook, drain and dice the bacon. Save a little of the bacon fat and

Sautee the onion and fennel over low heat.

Return the bacon to the pan.

Add all remaining ingredients.

Cook for an hour.

Put the bacon mix in a food processor and use the pulse button to reduce it to a consistency you like. Keep it coarse and serve it on toast, eggs, a steak, roast, or burger. It is great on a crisp slice of apple. Or puree it to the consistency of ketchup and splash it on anything.

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The flight of my hummingbird

Visitors to my house are sometimes greeted by a ruby-throated hummingbird while we sit on the back deck. In this densely populated suburb of Boston, every year we can count on a hummingbird making a nest in our yard. I suspect it is the same female or her offspring who return from a wintering site somewhere south of the border, as hummingbirds are known to return to their past homes if they are pleased by them. I do everything I can to encourage it by growing their favored plant foods.

Popular wisdom mistakenly says that hummingbirds only see the color red. Their eyes can see a broader range of colors than people, probably even into the infrared and ultraviolet spectrum. They are cable of seeing small items at great distances.  They are likely hatched with innate color preferences for their nectar sources but learn to associate other colors with food. Bright red is at the top of their list as it is often the sign of ripeness and sweetness of nectar but they do visit flowers of other colors. Red also contrasts strongly with green foliage, making it visible at a distance.

To attract hummingbirds, I strongly recommend the native honeysuckle, lonicera sempevirens. It is a three season hummingbird magnet. I like the variety Alabama Crimson but there are many named cultivars that are good garden plants. It is not fragrant to the human nose but it has the color, flower shape and nectar that hummingbirds love and is a beautiful easy vine. It likes partial to full sun and is not fussy about water or soil. It prefers a fence or trellis to climb on, although it will sprawl along the ground. Mine grow on a stair railing and along a chain link fence. Both, one in full sun and the other in partial sun, start blooming in early May and continue flowering through late November.

You might also try two other native vines, the trumpet vine (campsis radicans) and the cross vine (bignonia capreolata), but both need a strong and tall fence or trellis.  Red bee balm (monarda),  liatris, both of the native lobelias (l. Cardinalis and l. Siphilitca), and salvias of all sorts with the exception of the execrable annual red garden salvia, are also hummingbird favorites. The gorgeous salvias greggi and coccinea, native to the southwest and not hardy around here, bring hummingbirds in by the busload. Each of these plants has the long tubular flowers which  are accessible to the long tongue of the hummingbird. The small native red buckeye tree, aesculus pavia, is another fave. All of the aforementioned are beautiful garden plants and should be grown even if you don’t care about hummingbirds. And my non-native Mimosa tree, albizia julibrissin, is a big attraction to my ruby.

Nectar powers the rapid beating of hummingbird wings but they thrive on the protein of insects, just as sugar gives people a brief burst of energy but protein gives us strength and if consumed in sufficient quantity, a layer of fat. They need this strength to make the annual spring migration from their winter home in southern Mexico and Central America to North America, and the late summer return trip. They cross the Gulf of Mexico in a non-stop flight of five hundred miles that takes about 20 hours. Before the trip they double their weight by bulking up on insects and arrive in the north less than their 3 gram pre-bulking weight. Once a bird arrives at the Gulf coast it moves northwards at a rate of about 20 miles per day until it finds its home, where it was hatched.

Migration seems to be triggered by a combination of length of day and body weight, not cold temperatures. Males start their migrations in both directions before females. Leave your flowering plants up to feed the birds passing briefly through your area even after your local hummers have flown south.

Hummingbirds are very territorial. Once the female nests she will attack other hummingbirds and much larger birds who enter her area. I have seen my girl fight two blue-jays simultaneously and she won. You can actually hear the clash of the wings of dueling hummingbirds when they fight over feeding or nesting territory. If a hummingbird likes your yard, she will come back in future years. And it is not too hard to give them reason to like your yard.

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