Asako: My response to that question may be a bit different from what people expects… I am not an environmentalist, a climate change activist, a food fighter, and/or a nutrition specialist. Perhaps the best way to describe me is that I am a bit of a nerd, and I sometimes go overboard when I am hooked on something.
Certainly, I always loved nature and good food. In fact, my favorite childhood memories are going fishing or foraging with my father into nature and cook our harvest of the day with my mother at that evening. I have always been a huge fan of the world flavors, and one my life-long hobby is to visit different supermarkets when I travel. Until I started working at 21 Acres, I had never thought about or realized the relationship between environmental problems, climate change and food.
Farming practices are another huge issue. Each spring, farmers use an immense amount of fertilizers on their land preparing for a new season, and the surface runoff washes the applied fertilizers into streams and rivers. This creates "dead zones"in water bodies where excess nutrients from fertilizers stimulate growth of algae. The overgrown algae will eventually decompose in the water, consuming oxygen and depleting oxygen necessary for healthy marine life. One of the largest dead zones forms in the Gulf of Mexico as a result of fertilizer use in American mid-West; the major states growing products such as grains, oil seeds, and livestock feed for meat and dairy production.
Now as graduates of 21 Acres kitchen, we apply almost the same rules as when we cooked at 21 Acres kitchen. With our new project, The Sustainable Collective and our original brand Local Food Works, we want to position ourselves as "kitchen assistants for farmers and families in our community", and we want to become the bridge between farmers and consumers. Some people have expressed to me that they don’t always know how to cook produce farmers offer at farmer’s market. Some say it takes a long time to prepare food from raw ingredients. We want to inspire people and show them how they can cook tasty meals easily with local ingredients, but not everyone can come up with their own ideas. We want to show people good examples of what we can create, so everyone can cook sustainably perhaps once in a while. It may be small changes for the environment, but it will definitely create some changes.
Moreover, some farmers expressed to us that they need to create value added products for winter-time revenue, but they do not have time to develop and cook products during busy farming season. We want to create solutions for them and assist them to deliver the products year-around for consumers. From that point of view, we source the cleanest additional ingredients which will most enhances the value of farmers' crop. Our products will always be made from local farm-grown produce, clean with no additives, and always small-batch handmade from scratch.
Asako: My personal favorite right now is gooseberries. We have been using that in the place of lime and lemons. In the 21 Acres kitchen, lemons and limes are one of the most significant types of produce we avoided using in the kitchen as citrus fruits are not commonly grown in Pacific Northwest. Now with our new project, we may use lemon/lime when it makes the most senses for the local crop we are promoting, but we will try to avoid when possible. Local small farmers are growing vast amount of cilantro, but they have such a short harvest timing that we wanted to create something people could eat in more volume than as garnish in salsa or sandwich. We created cilantro chutney with gooseberries which is awesome to be eaten as spread. Other one may be sumac. Some co-workers at 21 Acres had sumac trees in their yard, and we learned to use it in the place of lemon too. We mix it with other herbs and seasoning, and we make our original sumac seasoning blend as well as rub for poultry. Just to be clear, there are poisonous varieties of sumac tree. We talked to some people with knowledge and did extensive research before using it, so please be careful if you are trying this at home. Moreover, this is not an ingredient, but I am a big fan of utilizing scrap vegetables such as herb stems, asparagus stem bottoms and others. I have been cooking Dolmas, stuffed grape leaves from my garden at home for research purposes, and I use a lot of herb stems for this recipe. From stock, soup, cooking grains and legumes, to many other applications, scrap vegetables add extra layer of flavors to your cooking. Organic vegetables are expensive. We need to stretch our bucks by using every bit of ingredients.
Asako: My journey for fermentation started because I wanted to add one more layer of flavor to our cooking. For being born and raised in Japan by a Japanese mom, Miso, Soy Sauce, Mirin, Sake, and all of those Japanese ingredients are very critical for my cooking. I do not necessary use them for every cuisine, but I knew fermented ingredients add Umami. The word "Umami" literally means “tasty flavor" in Japanese language, and a professor from Tokyo University discovered Glutamic acid (a type of amino acid) in 1908 from kelp stock. Now they commercially process Monosodium glutamate (MSG) and sell it as a food additive, but Umami is naturally contained in many natural ingredients such as animal and poultry bones, fish, kelp, vegetables such as onion, carrot, celery, tomatoes, cheese, and many other food which we sense "tasty". The probiotics that activate fermentation process, in many cases, generates enzymes to break down proteins to amino acid, which is Umami.
I also wanted to learn traditional preservation methods passed down as a farming practice. I want to learn from Russia, Germany and other countries with in-depth fermenting traditions near future, but Japan, naturally, was the easiest point of access for me. Now I better understand the mechanisms and health benefits of fermentation better, and we are utilizing the knowledge for our product development. Fermentation process increases not only Umami, but also preservation properties and vitamins, digestive enzymes, and minerals. In the US, one of the most popular fermented or soured vegetables is sauerkraut, but you can sour any kind of vegetable. Instead of chasing cabbage crop south as season progress and temperature begin to drop, we can sour vegetables which are available from local farms. We may not have cabbage available at this moment in this area, but we have curry flavored cauliflower. Cucumbers are starting to come up, so it is almost time for dill cucumber pickles. We have created Moroccan spice flavored soured carrots, celery root and apple slaw, and other wild-fermented pickles. Currently we are in contact with the State authorities and hoping we can start marketing Miso near future too. With Japanese fermentation techniques, we can create sugar-free, Umami rich, nutritious condiments that even offer protein tenderizing properties. It is extremely interesting, and I cannot wait to introduce the products when they are licensed.
Asako: I have been thinking we, most of us as consumers, need to rethink our relationship with food. There was an article I saw when I first started my sustainable food journey on the New York Times called "Why Does a Salad Cost More Than a Big Mac?" The chart was put together by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, and the New York Times stated "Thanks to lobbying, Congress chooses to subsidize foods that we're supposed to eat less of."
When we choose food, we often consume mainly using price and convenience as decision making factors, but there are many hidden consequences when we are not well informed. Many of us now have questions about the food we buy, as there are too many “imitation foods” as author, Michael Pollan calls it, to choose from. Many of us are concerned about the safety of the food we purchase. Most of us do not know where our food is grown. Many processed foods and so-called healthy foods would not have been considered food by people a few generations ago. Among the many causes for these problems are industrialization, commodification, idealizing perfection in produce, and making food more convenient and longer lasting; these factors have changed every aspect of our food system. Our environment is polluted as a result of food production’s use of chemicals and industrialized farming.
There are many discussions on comparing nutrients in organic and conventionally grown produce, and many concludes there are not much difference. However, locally grown organic vegetables are less likely to be held and transported for a long period of time compared to conventional vegetables grown in large farms in California or Mexico. There is a study done by University of California that indicates “...that vegetables can lose 15 to 55 percent of vitamin C, for instance, within a week. Some spinach can lose 90 percent within the first 24 hours after harvest" I think it may be necessary for all of us to revisit our relationship with food and update our sense of fair prices for food.
For local small farms with not much resources such as machinery to reduce the need for physical labor, it is their actual cash revenue and compensation for the time they spent on farm away from their family and friends. Of course, we will ask the farmers to be reasonable, but I do not ask the farmers for a discount. Then what can we do? We try to think of how much value we can add to every produce that come into our kitchen. That is the reason why I try to utilize even scraps and something we could forage to add extra flavors. When I say scraps, I am not quite talking about something people hesitate to eat, just FYI. I mean green tops of leek, bottom of asparagus, green tops from radish and turnips… ingredients as such. I just refused to believe good clean scratch-made food is only for the people with resources. Believing that it was out of reach would have prevented me from feeding my family good food, so I, with the help of my trusting husband and cook of 35 years, wanted to create this project. Maybe we could prepare and share dishes, pantry items and other food which we already make for our family.
Marisa: What are you looking forward to? Are there particular projects that are really inspiring your right now?
Asako: We are in the process of starting a new service this fall. We are still noodling on the name and details of the project, but it will be something in between a CSA box and meal prep service. The box will consist of some ideas for breakfast, snack, and/or supper items enough for each person 2 or 3 days a week. A few ready-to-cook items such as frozen pastries, breakfast sandwiches, or ready-to-use batter for crepes or fermented flatbreads, dips, chutney, dressing, condiments, prepared meal such as soup, ready-to-bake casserole, fully cooked salmon or vegetable patties, dessert items such as pie dough, sponge cake for shortcake or some way that you can enjoy local fruits with a little amount of work. Since I am Japanese and the farmer we work closely is growing many Asian vegetables, we will include some Asian menus such as ramen, pot stickers with chili oil made with local ingredients as well as other international flavors. We have a staff member of Mexican heritage, and he is making mole sauce with local fruits, hazelnuts, pumpkin seeds and scrap chocolate that local chocolate artisans couldn’t use. Traditionally, mole contains tropical fruits such as bananas, but he uses apples, cranberries, and some other local dried fruits. We also make tamales with this mole. Everything will come with cooking instructions, and a little back story why we designed the recipe the way it is. We like to offer this somewhere in the vicinity of $15/person per day. I will make more in depth announcements with logistic information when we are ready; probably sometimes in July.
Everyone has their preferences, habits, and routines for eating. There are adventurous eaters, but they may not have time to cook everything from scratch or cooking skills. Not every family, especially my family, can switch and become vegetarian overnight to reduce our meat consumption. It is simply not a sustainable solution for us if we define sustainable lifestyle as something we can practice for a long period of time. If we can suggest a menu or create a dish that is tasty, satisfying, and sustainable, maybe that is a better and more sustainable way of eating; not only for the environment, but also for our body and mind. For instance, I have been teaching Pork Tonkotsu (pork bone) Ramen making class for the last several months. I am showing how to cook broth from pork bones which may not have been efficiently utilized in traditional American household. We make noodles with wheat flour grown in Skagit valley. We garnish the Ramen bowl with boiled and marinated free range chicken egg and about 2oz of pork slices, unlike conventional 7 or 8oz portion of pork steak. I consider that one more step closer to sustainable eating.
It is very difficult to communicate the work that goes into inventing and cooking our dishes, but when we place our products next to other products in grocery stores, it just doesn’t do justice for our products. We are a team of cooks, bakers, sustainable living advocates, home-cooking supporters, in-training herbalist and fermentation enthusiasts. We have been cooking this way for almost 6 year, and we’re ready to introduce our ideas to more people in the Seattle area, departing from our cozy environment at 21 Acres.
Currently our products are available at 21 Acres market in Woodinville. There is a small deli, and we offer sandwiches, soups, deli salads, and desserts from Wednesday to Saturday. 21 Acres is a great facility to visit if you are interested in living more sustainably. It offers ideas for sustainable lifestyles, from growing food, to living and eating. The building has LEED* Platinum certification, and it’s used as a laboratory for sustainability.
We are looking for small coffee shops, grocery stores, or retail outlet that are interested in carrying our products. We cannot make large quantities, so it may have to be small outlets, but I would like to create a small community of people who want to live and eat the way we do. Please send me an email if you are interested at info@thesustainablecollective We will send you more information about our products and service information as they become available.
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