First-Hand Look at the First Garden

It’s larger than five combined so-called ‘micro’ apartment units in San Francisco. Yet, its importance is much more far-reaching, from the nation’s capital to your dining table.

The 1,100 square foot White House Kitchen Garden contains chili peppers, raspberries, corn, tomatoes, watermelons, cucumbers, squash – even a lone papaya tree – which I almost accidentally ran into. Hey, in my defense it popped out of nowhere!

I was fortunate enough to see the garden in person recently during a conference trip for food journalists. Its strategic South Lawn location faces the Washington Monument.

“[The garden] is away from where the Congressional Picnic, the Easter egg roll is and where the Marine One landing is,” said White House Executive Pastry Chef Bill Yosses. “Until about 5pm, you get really great sunlight.”

Besides the noticeable humidity, the other thing that caught my eye was the vivid colors: red, green, brighter green, redder red… and orange. Yosses informed the 30 or so of us that several pumpkins even awaited picking.

Along with Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford, the duo appeared relaxed, despite their seemingly almost never-ending schedules.

“The garden isn’t just for show,” says Comerford.

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Meals are centered on what’s ripe and ready to go.

The current concept was spurred, rather, first planted in March 2009 when First Lady Michelle Obama realized her two daughters, Sasha and Malia, were not getting enough daily nutrients. It’s since then started conversations nationwide about healthier eating at home – and in schools. She mentions it in her new book, ‘American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America’ (Crown Publishers, 271 pages. $30). She says she hoped the garden would start a “conversation about the food we eat, the lives we lead, and how all of that affects our children.”

It may seem hard to believe now, but at first, Mrs. Obama and staff didn’t even know if it was possible to create a working garden. But, by the end of the year, the garden flourished – and actually yielded over 1,000 pounds of produce – with more than 3,000 pounds of vegetables served at family meals, state dinners, picnics and lunches.

The Saturday morning I visited, we inspected, photographed and even tasted tested various fruits and vegetables. With permission, I tasted small orangish-tomatoes, and then even tasted raspberries. My own failed gardens never tasted this good! They must be organic.

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“We are not certified organic,” Yosses said. “We cannot call it organic, but we are using organic methods. We don’t use pesticides. We keep records and send them to the Agriculture Department. The point of the garden isn’t to be organic. It’s about eating more vegetables and getting kids to eat vegetables.”

Volunteer chefs and area schoolchildren maintain the garden all year long – yes, it’s a four-season garden. One bed, named for Thomas Jefferson, includes seeds passed down from the third president, donated by the head gardener at Monticello.

Leftover produce is divided up among food kitchens and charities; nothing goes to waste, despite a sometimes overabundance of veggies like chili peppers, which were also flavor packed, shhhh! Between the sweet, hot and bell, “you can only eat so many peppers,” says Comerford.

Honey from a nearby, and somewhat hidden, beehive is even used to brew White House Honey Ale and Honey Porter.

“As far as we know, the White House Brown Ale is the first alcohol brewed or distilled on the White House grounds,” says assistant Chef Sam Kass on the White House website. “George Washington brewed beer and distilled whiskey at Mount Vernon and Thomas Jefferson made wine but there’s no evidence that any beer has been brewed in the White House.”

The recipes, released by the White House, can be found here. A perfect holiday gift for the home-brewed beer obsessed fan in your family!

And yes, those bees are busy. Just the one hive alone produced more than 175 pounds of honey last year! That’s a lot of jar gifts!

(I later also learned one of the journalists was stung by a bee. While I didn’t see it actually happen, I’m happy it wasn’t me – I would have screamed like a little girl!)

But the best, and probably funniest, moment came when one woman asked about the birdhouse located near a row of trees. Without a beat, Yosses informed us it’s a camera to which then about ten of us simultaneously tilted our heads like a confused dog! “Ar?!” I would have loved to see that security tape!

Garden tours are offered in the fall and spring on a limited basis. Fall tour times have stopped, but you can always the 24-hour information line at 202-456-7041 for the latest information.

To see a ‘spring’ layout of the garden, go to http://www.whitehouse.gov/assets/documents/garden_layout.pdf

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Whiskey – or Whisky?

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Since St. Patrick’s Day is this weekend – why not focus on something even more pressing than how to cook corned beef – whiskey – or whisky?

Both spellings are actually correct, and yet it still gets me all riled up when I enter Total Wine & More!

I always seem to forget.

So here’s a simple explanation: AmErican and IrEland prefer whiskEy – and Canada and Scotland prefer no E – whisky.

According to an article on Master of Malts, Irish distillers wanted to extinguish themselves from lower quality Scotch distillers so they added E to their spelling for America exportation.

Maker’s Mark, among others prefer their ancestral Scottish spelling.

(dramtherapy graphic)

What Hell’s Kitchen Has Taught Me

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I must be a glutton for punishment because I keep going back for more – each season. Now 11 in all.

I’ve watched Hell’s Kitchen since it first premiered on FOX since 2005. I got my mother hooked during the second season, then my dad, and around season 7 I got my longtime boyfriend hooked.

And why? It’s so great – and intense. How many times have you watched thinking to yourself ‘I’m so thankful I’m not there – or – one of those people.’

I’ve learned first and foremost – to present yourself in a (somewhat) professional level at all times. I may not win the job he’s offering, but there are others who are watching the contestants deciding if they want to hire them. And some of these people – I could easily pass on. I understand they think they’re doing battle for supremacy, but they still exude a certain personality to the rest of the audience – and world. I wouldn’t hire someone who yells all the time. Not only would my product and brand suffer, but so would the overall performance of my team.

Also, learn your craft. Boiled down (!) cooking can’t be that hard to do. Pay attention to the ingredients, temperatures and how long it takes. Outside pressure from Ramsay and fellow obnoxious team members don’t help, but if you really want to stand out – be on your best-est behavior in and outside of the kitchen.

If I ever auditioned for the show – I’d know how to cook beef Wellington, crab cakes, mushroom risotto and scallops for sure. I don’t even like risotto, but if I wanted to be a chef, by God I’d learn what it should taste like!

On that note, taste everything! I’ve lost count of how many times he’s said that in the last ten seasons! Taste it! So many mistakes could have been prevented if the contestants checked the food beforehand. And it still dumbfounds me when they don’t taste. I don’t get it – unless the stress is that bad….

Keep your eye on the prize – obviously for this it’s winning the show and getting the job. But for real life, it’s making sure you have a good enough product to attract returning customers.  Think of your journey as steps – and taking one at a time to get to the big prize.

MasterChef also provides great life examples. Don’t listen to gossip – stay the course and believe in yourself. Not even in cooking – if you think you are good at something, keep working at it, and learn about it. But don’t be obnoxious about your skills. And if you choose to be egotistic – make sure you can back it up. If not, people really will enjoy watching you fall. Don’t believe me? Watch the show. Even Ramsay told one contestant to calm down his ego – it’s about cooking, not you. It’s a great turnoff to others. You’re not there to make friends, but you’re also not there to make enemies. What happens if you need salt and there’s 20 seconds left? Looks like you’re on your own.

Lastly, business is also important. It helps to know budgets, outgoing/ingoing costs, menu and restaurant interior design, seasonal food costs, and ‘anger managment’ when employees start to resent each other. Cooking is not all about food anymore.

What do you think? Did I leave anything out?

Jolie-Pitt Wine Snapped Up Within 5 Hours

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Nine little letters on the back of the bottle set this rose wine apart from other fruits of the Provence grape harvest: Jolie-Pitt.

The Miraval Rose 2012 was produced at the southern French estate of Chateau Miraval — property of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.

It’s the first Miraval vintage stamped by the Hollywood couple, in a joint venture with established vintner Marc Perrin. The back label reads “bottled by Jolie-Pitt and Perrin.”

The Perrin family spokesman says the first 6,000 bottles put on sale online Thursday were bought within five hours. The wine sold for (euro) 105 ($139) for a 6-bottle case.

There was no immediate comment from publicists for Pitt and Jolie.

The wine, in a bottom-heavy, champagne-like bottle, goes on sale to restaurants and wholesalers later this month. (AP)

Top Bourbon Maker Beam Dips Into White Whiskey

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The world’s top bourbon producer is dipping into moonshining’s colorful past to create its own white whiskey.

Beam Inc.’s newest spirit is called Jacob’s Ghost in honor of Jacob Beam, founding distiller of its flagship Jim Beam brand. Jacob’s Ghost resembles the concoction that flowed from the pioneer’s still in the 1790s or from a moonshiner’s still today.

But this is no run-of-the-mill, backwoods hooch.

Jacob’s Ghost is an 80-proof whiskey aged at least one year in a charred, white oak barrel.

The aging adds flavors from the wood that’s missing in unaged whiskies and moonshines.

Beam, based in Deerfield, Ill., is tapping into a white whiskey category that amounts to a drop in the bucket compared to bourbon. But white whiskey is finding a niche, thanks to craft distillers. (AP)