‘Tis the season for the harvest bounty at Windy City Harvest! Our staff and program participants are busy harvesting our final summer crops: peppers, tomatoes, and eggplant; and early fall crops: kale, carrots, and cabbage.
This harvest season we are excited to unveil our new cookbook, Cooking in Season with Windy City Harvest. This cookbook is a collection of our favorite seasonal recipes and features the fresh produce grown and harvested at our farms transformed into healthy dishes by our program participants, staff, and local chefs.
Our program has been lucky to develop wonderful partnerships with local chefs and restaurants. Many of these chefs, including Cleetus Friedman, executive chef and creative chef for Caffé Baci; and John des Rosiers, chef/proprietor of Inovasi, Wisma, and The Otherdoor, have generously shared seasonal recipes that feature Windy City Harvest produce.
Just like planting seeds and harvesting the bounty, cooking is an essential component of the Windy City Harvest program. Program participants learn how to cook with produce grown on the farms, sometimes using fruits and vegetables that may be unfamiliar to them. The participants then share their newfound culinary skills with their communities, whether trading recipes with market customers, providing cooking demonstrations at local WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) clinics, preparing multicourse lunches for their peers, or showcasing their dishes at our annual Open House celebrations.
One of our favorite fall recipes is a grilled kale salad.
Grilled Kale Salad Preparation: 15 to 30 minutes. Serves: 6 to 8
3 pounds (about 4 bunches) toscano kale, washed and dried
½ cup vegetable oil, divided
½ teaspoon salt, plus more for bread
2 garlic cloves, cut in half
½ loaf of sourdough bread (cut into ¾-inch thick slices)
3 large garlic cloves, minced
½ cup lemon juice
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup feta cheese, crumbled
Preheat the grill to high. Stack the kale and cut off the thick end of the stems about 3 inches from the end of the leaf. Compost the stems. In a large bowl or large plastic bag, toss the kale with ⅓ cup of the vegetable oil and salt, until the leaves are evenly coated with oil.
Rub each slice of bread with a garlic clove half. Drizzle the remaining oil on the bread. Grill the bread slices until golden brown with nice grill marks on each side. Set aside. Grill the kale leaves until crispy and cooked—about 30 seconds to 1 minute per side. Dice the grilled bread into croutons, and julienne the kale into bite-size pieces. Place the mixture in a large bowl.
To make the dressing, combine the minced garlic with the lemon juice, olive oil, and salt in a Mason jar. Tighten the lid and shake the jar vigorously to combine the ingredients. Pour the dressing over the kale and bread, and toss the mixture to coat. Add the feta and toss again. Transfer the salad to a serving platter or bowl.
The Garden’s head of urban agriculture took a trip to Cuba and reminded me of my culture’s resiliency and connection to gardening.
How do you farm when you have little to no resources? Cubans “inventan del aire.”
Literally meaning “inventing from air,” this is the philosophy that is required to get by in Cuba.
Angela Mason, the Garden’s associate vice president for urban agriculture and Windy City Harvest, traveled to Cuba to see firsthand how the farmers there create and maintain collective farms. These farms provide much-needed produce for a population that lives without what we’d consider the basics in the United States. The average hourly wage in the Chicago area is around $24.48. That’s more than the average monthly wage in Cuba.
“Before going, I didn’t understand why people would risk their lives getting on a raft and floating 90 miles,” she said. “But when you see the degree of poverty that some of the people are living in, it’s heartbreaking.”
Angie recounted to me the details of her trip; the people she met, all of whom were welcoming and warm, and the places she saw. She visited several farms just outside of Havana and another in Viñales, in the western part of the country.
Poverty in Cuba means the farmers there grow without supplies and tools that are standard here. But they are still able to create beautiful and sustainable harvests through ingenuity. For example, Angie asked one of the farmers she met what he used to start seeds. He showed her dozens of aluminum soda cans that he’d cut in half. One farmer dug a well by hand. He then used the rocks he dug out to build a terraced garden.
I asked Angie many questions about her trip and what she saw, because I relish every detail I can learn about Cuba, the country where both of my parents were born.
The reasons for Angie’s trip felt especially close to my own family’s heritage, because I come from a long line of farmers on both sides. My mother’s family had a farm in the province of Matanzas. My father’s side did as well, in the more rural province of Las Villas. Both properties have since been seized by the Cuban government, as was all private property after the revolution in 1959. Neither one of my parents has been back to visit since they moved to the United States as children (my father was just a few years old and my mother was 11) so the stories they can share are scarce. The only tangible evidence of childhoods spent in the Cuban countryside are a handful of faded photographs: my mom riding a horse when she was in kindergarten; my father in diapers and running around with farm dogs. And as each year passes, the memories of Cuba are farther and farther in past.
Two of my grandparents, both now deceased, had many stories to share with me as well. My maternal grandfather and my paternal grandmother were fixtures in my life and both often shared stories of their lives before the United States and growing plants and food in the fertile Cuban soil. It’s a talent that apparently never leaves a person, even if they change their country of residence, because both had beautiful backyard gardens at their homes in Miami.
My grandmother had a knack for flowers. The bougainvillea in her yard was always resplendent. Hydrangeas were the centerpieces at my sister’s wedding shower; months later the plant repotted and cared for by my grandmother was the only one that thrived. My grandfather leaned more toward the edible. His yard was full of fruit trees. Whenever he’d visit, he usually brought something growing in the yard: fruta bomba (more commonly known as papaya), mamoncillos, or limon criollo (a type of small green lime).
Growing up, I always associated the cultivation of plants, whether flowers or fruit, as just a part of their personalities. Gardening was a hobby they enjoyed. While that was true, I realized later that it was also an activity that kept them connected to Cuba. As long as they could grow the plants they remembered from back home, that life was not completely gone.
My grandparents, as well as parents, cousins, aunts, uncles, and pretty much most people I’m related to, have all tapped into their resiliency to make it as immigrants in the United States and adapt to their changed lives. The same personality trait that allows a Cuban farmer to grow vegetables without any tools has gotten my family through decades of living outside of Cuba. No matter the situation, members of the Cuban diaspora “inventan del aire.” It’s how people survive in Cuba, but it’s also how Cubans outside of the country get through exile.
“Lights, camera…veggies!” In fall 2014, farmers at the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Windy City Harvest Youth Farm had an amazing opportunity.
Filmmakers from New York came to Washington Park to meet the teens and record their experiences on the farm for a new documentary that seeks to uncover how we as a nation can make an impact on childhood obesity through creative education and empowerment.
The resulting film, The Kids Menu, will be shown at 6:45 p.m. on March 8 at Century Centre Cinema, 2828 North Clark Street, Chicago. The showing will be followed by a question-and-answer session with filmmaker Joe Cross. Get your tickets here.
The Windy City Harvest teens worked side-by-side with the producer, director, and cameraman to capture moving footage of their work at the farm and how plants have positively impacted their lives. One teen wrote the following:
And tell about it they do in this film. The Windy City Harvest farmers tell just some of the inspirational stories about how kids are choosing a healthier path in The Kids Menu, which is from the same team behind Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead. You’ve heard what’s not working when it comes to nourishing a healthier, happier next generation—now, it’s time to find out what does work.
Something is growing in a food desert on Chicago’s West Side. A farm designed, built, and managed by Windy City Harvest for the PCC Austin Family Health Center began operation in the spring to help provide more of what the challenged Austin neighborhood lacks—ready access to produce that is fresh, affordable, and nearby—and enable the center’s patients to more easily fill the prescription for healthy living they receive in the examination room: eat more fresh vegetables. Spinach, lettuce, tomatoes, and other produce grown at the farm will be sold on-site.
The project finds Windy City Harvest, the Chicago Botanic Garden urban agriculture and jobs-training program, partnered with an urban health provider, PCC Community Wellness Center, in paired missions of feeding communities and improving the health of those living in them. The Austin location is one of the PCC system’s 11 Chicago-area centers.
“We needed to come out of the four walls of our medical center and look at ways to give back to the community, get the community involved, explore ways to change the environment, and let people learn about gardening,” said Bob Urso, PCC president and CEO, explaining the project’s genesis. Funding comes from a $350,000 Humana Communities Benefit grant awarded to PCC Wellness Community Center by the Humana Foundation.
The farm’s groundbreaking took place in October on a grassy vacant lot a few steps from PCC’s modern LEED Gold-certified building at Lake Street and Lotus Avenue. Called the PCC Austin Community Farm until neighborhood residents choose a permanent name, the 8,000-square-foot site comprises more than 20 raised beds that include plots where eight families each year can grow food for their own use, a hoophouse (similar to a greenhouse), and a small outdoor seating area surrounded by fruit trees for gatherings and relaxation. Housing flanks the 50-foot-wide, fenced-in farm on two sides, with a parking lot on the third and more homes across the street. Trains rumble by on the Chicago Transit Authority elevated tracks a half block away.
The farm’s seasonal coordinator is Windy City Harvest’s Brittany Calendo, whose role dovetails with her background in public health and social work. “It’s exciting to look at the farm as a away of promoting health and preventing disease rather than just treating symptoms,” she said. Plans include monthly workshops on nutrition and gardening for neighbors and patients led by Windy City Harvest and PCC. “Preventive medicine is some of the best medicine,” agreed Humana spokesperson Cathryn Donaldson. “We’re thrilled to be partnering with PCC on this important initiative.” Looking ahead, Urso said he will know the farm has achieved success when he meets patients who say they feel healthier and whose chronic conditions are under control after learning to eat better.
While it is among Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods, “Austin is beautiful,” Tyrise Brinson said of the people in the place where she grew up and lives now. Although no one believes the project can by itself meet the area’s produce needs or change lifelong eating habits overnight, “It breaks cycles within the community,” Brinson said. “It’s the beginning of a chain of beautiful events to come.”