WASHINGTON, D.C. — "Do not swat the bees," Bill Yosses said calmly to the guests who nervously eyed the flying insects. "They won't sting. They're just curious, and you're wearing the right colors."
We were standing in the direct path between the beehive and the White House Kitchen Garden. The Washington Monument stood guard to the south, the big white house anchored the north; to the west, a garden still operated in full harvest mode.
Pumpkins and melons spilled out onto the paths. Chile peppers filled the bushes. Tiny yellow tomatoes beckoned, "Pick me, pick me." So we did, with the blessing of our guide, the White House's executive pastry chef.
Serves 4 to 6.
Note: This is an adaptable recipe; if you don't like chiles, don't use them. The recipe is from White House chef Sam Kass in "American Grown," by Michelle Obama.
2 sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into bite-size pieces
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
½ Granny Smith or other firm apple, such as Honeycrisp, peeled, cored and chopped small
1 ½ tsp. lemon juice
1 tbsp. unsalted butter, optional
1 small fresh red chile, stemmed, seeded and chopped, or ½ tsp. dried chile flakes (see Note)
A pinch of ground cinnamon
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Place sweet potatoes in bowl and toss with 2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil; season with salt and pepper. Put sweet potatoes in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet and cover with foil. Bake until soft, about 25 minutes.
Drizzle enough olive oil to lightly coat bottom of large nonstick frying pan. Place over medium heat. Once pan is warm, add sweet potatoes. Be careful not to have the pan too hot; potatoes can easily burn.
Gently turn potatoes with a rubber spatula, until they begin to brown. Add apple, lemon juice, butter (if using), fresh chile and cinnamon. Cook until potatoes are golden brown, continuing to turn the potatoes. (If you're using dried chile flakes instead of fresh chile, add them here.) Serve immediately.
Nutrition information per serving of 6:
Calories: 105; Fat: 7 g; Sodium: 25 mg; Carbohydrates: 12 g; Saturated fat: 2 g; Calcium: 16 mg
Protein: 1 g; Cholesterol: 5 mg; Dietary fiber: 2 g
Diabetic exchanges per serving: 1 other carb, 1½ fat.
Note: This is served as a starter at White House lunches and larger receptions because it doesn't wilt or lose its texture while waiting to be eaten. You don't need to wait until winter to serve it! To toast walnuts, place on a rimmed baking sheet in a 350-degree oven for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until fragrant. This recipe is from White House executive chef Cris Comerford, in "American Grown," by Michelle Obama.
1 fennel bulb, washed and trimmed
1 ripe pear
Juice of ½ lemon (about 1 tablespoon)
1 tbsp. apple cider vinegar
½ shallot, minced
1 ½ tsp. honey
4 ½ tsp. extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 ½ tsp. freshly chopped flat-leaf parsley
2 oz. Parmesan cheese, shaved
½ c. toasted walnuts (see Note)
Cut fennel bulb in half, slice it crosswise into thinnest possible slices, and set aside.
Halve, stem and core pear. Slice to same thickness as fennel, then cut the slices into ¼-inch strips. Place in a medium glass or stainless-steel mixing bowl and sprinkle with the lemon juice to prevent discoloration. Add the sliced fennel.
In a small mixing bowl, add vinegar, shallot and honey. Whisk in olive oil and season with salt and pepper.
Add vinaigrette and parsley to fennel and pear mixture. Toss gently. Place on platter and garnish with shaved Parmesan and toasted walnuts.
Nutrition information per serving:
Calories: 240; Fat: 17 g; Sodium: 260 mg; Carbohydrates: 16 g; Saturated fat: 4 g; Calcium: 215 mg; Protein: 8 g; Cholesterol: 10 mg; Dietary fiber: 4 g
Diabetic exchanges per serving: ½ fruit, ½ bread/starch, 1 high-fat meat, 2 fat.
"American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America"
By Michelle Obama (Crown Publishers, 271 pages, $30)
First Lady Michelle Obama tells the story of White House vegetable gardens, past and present, with historical photos and drawings of those plots. Her tale is one of what are essentially oversized home gardens, with eggplant and Brussels sprouts, collards and squash, the stuff that makes up family meals, from the days of John Adams in 1801 to the present. She also chronicles a year in the life of her White House garden, with plenty of photos of both her garden and those who help maintain it, including schoolchildren, White House staff and chefs, and the National Park Service. In addition, the book looks at farmers markets and community gardens nationwide, highlighting some key figures along the way, such as Will Allen of Growing Power in Milwaukee. There's also a sampling of simple recipes from the White House chefs, but this is less a cookbook than a celebration of the movement to focus on healthful local food.
He and Cris Comerford, executive chef for the White House, led the way for this gaggle of food writers in town for a conference of the Association of Food Journalists.
"There is no tweeting from the White House," Yosses had told us at the guard station. "No social media, at all." So we grabbed our notebooks and did the tour the old-fashioned way, with pen, paper and cameras.
Yosses walked past the scarlet runner beans and pointed out the sea kale from seeds Thomas Jefferson brought to America. He stepped around the Texas chile peppers and when he reached the lemon verbena, plucked a few leaves. "We love to use this in the kitchen."
The White House Kitchen Garden, planted in the spring of 2009, was initiated by First Lady Michelle Obama, who wanted fresh vegetables for her family meals — and something more.
"I hoped this garden would help begin a conversation about this issue (children's obesity and health) — a conversation about the food we eat, the lives we lead, and how all of that affects our children," she writes in "American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America" (Crown Publishers, 271 pages, $30).
Throughout the decades, gardens had been tucked into a variety of spots at the White House, though not since Eleanor Roosevelt created her Victory Garden had a garden of this size been planned (1,100 square feet). Choosing a spot for it wasn't a quick decision. "We weren't sure we could even add a garden at first," said Yosses.
"There were lots of competing concerns. Where the garden is now has visibility from the gate (the southern boundary of the property) and great drainage. It's away from where the Easter egg roll is and where the Marine One (presidential helicopter) landing is," said Yosses. "And until 5 p.m., this area has great sunlight."
An enthusiastic crew of volunteers maintains the garden: chefs and staff, as well as schoolchildren, all overseen by the National Park Service horticulturist.
"The White House garden is not a symbol, it's a working garden," Comerford told us as we traipsed among the cornstalks and blueberry bushes. "It helps chefs remember that we need to be more seasonal. Maybe a chef wants to cook fennel and we don't have any ripe in the garden. That means we should wait."
How much honey does the hive produce?
"This year we had 175 pounds of honey from the one hive. We build it up to seven boxes (the box has "layers"; at present the hive has four). We use it to make beer (honey brown, ale and porter), use it in cooking and package it in gift jars to give away," said Yosses.
How many vegetables are grown?
More than 3,000 pounds of vegetables have been served since 2009 at Obama family meals, state dinners and formal lunches. About a third of the garden's produce is donated to a local organization that feeds homeless people.
Are there heirloom vegetables?
Two of the 30-plus beds in the garden use seeds from Thomas Jefferson's original garden at Monticello, his home in Virginia. These are descendants of his plants from 200 years ago, including a small fig tree.
Is there a kitchen garden on the roof?
The National Park Service, which maintains the White House grounds, uses the roof for its own purposes.
Do you have a compost system?
Chef Dan Barber of Blue Hill restaurants in New York helped set up the three-bin compost system. Leaves, grass cuttings and plants from the garden are combined in the bins, with some leftovers added from the kitchen. Meat, fat or daily products are not part of the mix, as they could attract rodents.
Will you add hens?
"Not a chance," said Yosses. "There is so much scrutiny to what we do. The garden needs to be noncontroversial." Consider the potential for headlines, giggled the journalists: "laying another egg," "pecking order" and "hanging out with the chicks."
Are you organic?
"We are not certified organic. We cannot call it organic. But we're using organic methods. We do not use pesticides. We keep records and send them to the Ag Department. But the point of the garden isn't to be organic. The garden is about eating more vegetables and getting kids to eat vegetables," said Yosses.
What do you do with leftover produce?
"Just like any garden, at times there's too much at one time. We're getting lots of peppers lately so we're pickling them. And we give vegetables away. The last thing we want to do is waste the food," said Comerford. As for leftover vegetables at the dinner table? "The First Family eats leftovers just like any family," said Comerford.
How do you choose the vegetables to plant?
"It's Mrs. Obama's garden. She chooses. We offer a proposal of plants based on her interests and what grows in the area. She picks. If she didn't like what we offer, we change it," said Yosses.
Is there any vegetable you don't include in the garden?
"Mrs. Obama believes people have a beet gene, or not. And she does not," said Yosses.