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October 24, 2012

Celebrate Food Day with Zingy Squash Chili

Filed under: Cooking — Alison Aten @ 1:03 pm

Eat More VegetablesIn recognition of national Food Day, a movement for healthy, affordable, and sustainable food, today’s guest post is from Tricia Cornell, author of Eat More Vegetables: Making the Most of Your Seasonal Produce.

I recently had the pleasure of hearing Chris Blanchard speak about the challenges of organic farming. Chris is a farmer at Rock Spring Farm and a farming consultant.  He helps organic farmers get started or scale up.

He opened with an anecdote that seemed to sum up farming for me: “One of the biggest compliments you can give someone in my community is, ‘Boy, you work hard!’ They see the lights of your tractor out there at 9 p.m. and say, ‘You are such a hard worker!’” he said. “How come nobody ever says, ‘Wow. You work so efficiently!’?”

Then, for the audience, he mimed a new organic farmer trying to figure out how to make a living: Okay, if I want to make X thousand dollars a year — and here Chris named a figure that was just barely middle class — and I can get about X pounds of vegetables off an acre and sell them for X dollars a pound . . . then I need about 10 to 15 acres of vegetables under cultivation. Plus acreage for crop rotation.

(I left the numbers out because I wasn’t taking notes and don’t want to let my faulty memory make Chris’s math look bad. I’m sure his math is very good.)

And here is where these hypothetical farmers probably need to sit down for a minute to catch their breath, let their hearts stop racing, and think about how on earth a single farmer or a farming couple could possibly work 10 to 15 acres by themselves. Are there enough hours in the day? Is it physically possible? Never mind that cropland in parts of the Midwest is selling for the truly gobsmacking price of $10,000 an acre.

And yet, because it takes a special kind of person to be an organic farmer, and that kind of person isn’t going to be daunted by impossibilities, Chris has farming clients who want to make it work, and, more importantly, we have organic produce in our co-ops, farmers markets, CSA shares, and, increasingly, big-box food stores.

Organic food sales reached $26 billion in 2010.  That’s about 4 percent of total food sales. According to two separate studies, 26 percent of people say they regularly buy organic food, but nearly 60 percent say they would like to.

One organization trying to bridge that gap between the desire and the ability to buy organic is the Center for Science in the Public Interest. CSPI has declared October 24 Food Day and is organizing events around the country to celebrate and promote good, sustainable food.

In honor of Food Day, I’m looking forward to attending tonight’s screening of Food Fight at Open Arms.  I’ll be part of a panel discussion about our food system with Mike Venker, board member and Cargill division vice president; Lindsay Rebhan, urban farm consultant; Open Arms baker/farm liaison Rita Panton; and Farm Director Ben Penner.

My family has been getting fantastic organic produce from Hog’s Back Farm for nine years. Every Halloween I use the beautiful butternut squashes we get to make a big pot of squash chili and serve it at our block’s pre-trick-or-treating potluck.

Squash Chili

Squash skeptics often find that the mild-mannered cucurbit needs a little bit of kick. Or a lot. And this chili has a lot of kick. It’s bone warming and comforting and packed with nutritive goodness. The trick is to cut the squash nice and small so the texture is like chili and not like squash in sauce. Definitely use butternut squash for this recipe: it is easy to peel and cut and will hold its shape nicely.

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium onion, chopped

3 large cloves garlic

2 tablespoons chili powder

1 tablespoon ground cumin

1 tablespoon dried oregano

1 teaspoon ground allspice

2 dried red peppers, seeds and ribs removed, chopped

4 cups  chopped plum tomatoes in their own juices (2 15-ounce cans)

¼ cup dry red wine

4 pounds butternut squash, peeled and cut into half-inch cubes

salt and pepper to taste

small bunch cilantro, chopped

Place oil, onion, garlic, and spices (chili powder through red pepper) in a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-low heat. Stirring occasionally, cook until onion is soft and translucent, about 8–10 minutes. Stir in tomatoes, wine, and squash. Increase heat to medium-high and bring to a low simmer. Cook until squash is soft, about 20 minutes. Season to taste. Stir in cilantro.

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