I want to be Tamar Haspel when I grow up. A seasoned science and health reporter, she writes “Unearthed,” an award-winning column published each month in “The Washington Post.” In these articles, Haspel pushes constructive conversation about divisive food, agriculture and nutrition issues.

Over eight years of writing “Unearthed,” Haspel has tackled topics from how tying your diet to your identity (i.e. Strict Vegan or Committed Carnivore) is bad for your health to when deer hunting is truly sustainable, from why GMOs are not such a big problem to places where giving up meat actually helps the environment.

I’ve long admired “Unearthed” for the broad range of topics that Haspel covers. But what draws me in every month is the foolproof recipe she has developed for her column, which goes something like this:

Washington Post columnist and author Tamar Haspel.  Photo by Doug Levy

Thought-Provoking Food Column

Serves many

INGREDIENTS

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1 heavy news angle
5-6 sources, taken from both sides of the aisle
4 paragraphs solid science
2-3 pieces of practical advice
Humor, to taste
Sarcasm, for garnish

METHOD

Arrange news, sources, science and advice creatively on the page to make the point. Add humor to taste. Sprinkle with sarcasm and serve hot off the presses.

—–

Haspel’s columns are timely, smart and, very often, ROTFL funny. As is her new book “To Boldly Grow: Finding Joy, Adventure, and Dinner in Your Own Backyard.” I landed an advance copy from Penguin Random House, and I devoured it. My advice? Run to the independent bookstore down the street and get a copy when they go on sale on Tuesday and/or bug your local library to put a few in circulation – in perpetuity.

The news hook for “To Boldly Grow” is near and dear to my own heart – and this column. The book reflects the burgeoning interest in ways to eat more sustainably to help combat the environmental toll taken by an entrenched national food culture that, for example, routinely packages California lettuce in plastic clamshells, loads it on trucks and drives it some 3,000 miles to Maine. Haspel organizes the book around her own efforts to incorporate into her daily diet at least one “first-hand food,” an ingredient she (or her husband) has grown, gathered, hunted or fished.

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Her undertaking is both easier and harder than that of novelist Barbara Kingsolver, who back in the aughts tried to feed her family exclusively on local food. In “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle,” published in 2007, Kingsolver wrote about growing her own food in rural Appalachia, but her main point was getting readers to pay attention to food miles. Haspel’s objective is more personal. As she amasses some of her food each day, she gets her own hands dirty from gardening, wet from fishing and sore from shooting a rifle.

The humor in this book comes from Haspel’s admission that – until her husband decided to install a container garden on the roof of their apartment building in New York – she was never much of a “doer” when it came to producing her own food. The 2008 financial crisis pushed the couple out of the city to a tiny home on a pond on Cape Cod. It is there, grounded in Carver course sand not great for gardening, that the couple learns to give up on growing cabbage but embrace alliums; has success with raising chickens and ducks but fails at plucking turkeys using an old washing machine; buys a boat but prefers to ice fish from the comfort of their living room with the help of tip-up flags; eats way too many clams; develops a system for stuffing stinky lobster bait bags; and derives varying degrees of satisfaction from hunting.

Haspel’s command of the science behind both food production and nutrition are in this book in spades, as are her practical suggestions, which she pulls out into bullet points at the end of most chapters. What strikes me as the most useful takeaway, though, is the effort she takes to level set expectations on how satisfying the food can, or never will be given the blood, sweat, tears and money she pours into it.

Through her and her husband’s hilarious travails of sourcing their own food, I find my justification to grow what I can (herbs and cherry tomatoes), forage what I have a connection to (dandelions), raise livestock to suit my comfort level (bees), and be perfectly OK with leaving the rest of my food-rearing to the professionals, the farmers and fishermen who – to my great, good fortune – surround me in Maine. 

Christine Burns Rudalevige is a food writer, recipe developer, tester and cooking teacher in Brunswick, and the author of “Green Plate Special,” a cookbook from Islandport Press based on these columns. She can be contacted at: [email protected]

Start the recipe by roasting cherry tomatoes with garlic, chili, oregano and a lot of oil. Photo by Christine Burns Rudalevige

Crispy Caper and Slow-Roasted Tomato Pappardelle

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In one section of “To Boldly Grow,” under the heading “The Garden Math,” Haspel outlines the cost of gardening, which is almost never the cheapest way to supply yourself with produce. “But who gardens for the money anyway?” she writes. “If you’re at all tempted to give first-hand food a try, I think you should start with a tomato plant, because tomatoes are surprisingly powerful.” This recipe is adapted from British food writer Anna Jones’s “One Pot, Pan, Planet: A greener Way to Cook for You and Your Family.”

Serves 2

2 pounds mixed cherry tomatoes
6 peeled garlic cloves
1 Fresno chili pepper, sliced in half lengthways
10 sprigs of oregano, roughly chopped
3/4 cup olive oil
Salt and pepper
4 tablespoons drained capers
1/2 pound fresh pappardelle
1/4 cup ricotta cheese

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Arrange the tomatoes in a large, deep baking tray with the garlic, chili and chopped oregano. Pour the oil over the tomatoes and season well with salt and pepper. Stir to coat all of the ingredients well with oil.

Place the tray in the middle of the preheated oven and roast for 60 minutes, shaking the pan every 20 minutes to prevent the tomatoes burning. Remove from the oven.

Let the tomatoes cooled a little, then drain through a sieve suspended over a bowl to catch the oil. Pour the oil into a sterilized jar and set aside. Tip half of the tomatoes, all of the garlic and the chili pepper into a blender and blitz until smooth. Mix the blended tomatoes with the whole tomatoes in a very large, heatproof mixing bowl and keep warm.

Pour 6 tablespoons of the reserved tomato oil into a medium frying pan and warm over medium heat. Spread the capers on a piece of kitchen towel and pat dry, then tip into the hot tomato oil. Be careful, as the oil will spit initially. Using a slotted spoon, move the capers around the oil and fry until they have popped open and are crispy, 4-6 minutes. Transfer to a flattened paper bag to drain.

Fill a very large pan with water and place over a high heat. Season the water well with salt. When the water is boiling, add the pasta and cook for 2 minutes. When the pasta is cooked, but still al dente, lift it out of the pot with tongs and transfer it to the warm bowl with the tomatoes. Toss the pasta in the sauce, adding a little of the starchy pasta water to help the sauce and pasta bind.

Drizzle the pasta with some of the reserved tomato oil, scatter with the ricotta and sprinkle with the crispy capers, then serve immediately.


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