OPB’s “Superabundant” explores the stories behind the foods of the Pacific Northwest with videos, articles and this weekly newsletter. To keep you sated between episodes, we’ve brought on food writer Heather Arndt Anderson, a Portland-based culinary historian and ecologist, to highlight different aspects of the region’s food ecosystem. This week she is delighted to share a brand new episode of Superabundant — Soil — and a recipe for miso-roasted root vegetables.
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When we think about the food we eat, we often think about flavors and aromas, or maybe the pleasure of being served in a fine dining restaurant. What we don’t usually think about is the soil — but we at Superabundant aim to change that. In what is undeniably the most bizarre episode of Superabundant to date (in the best way possible!), we explore the reasons why Oregon is home to some of the planet’s richest soil and highest soil diversity. Can you dig it?
Small Bites: We’ve got the dirt on what happens in healthy soil.
Freshly picked morsels from the Pacific Northwest food universe:
There’s a vole lot to learn about soil mammals.
New studies show that voles can form meaningful bonds with their babies and mates even without the love hormone oxytocin; they can also console each other through stressful events, giving us insight into how human empathy develops. But what do we really know about the lives of these tiny mammals? In OPB’s Oregon Field Guide coverage of the critters, we learn that although they can be seen as a pest to farmers, voles and their holes play ecological roles — in both bioturbation (the turning of soil) and, less ideally for the voles, supporting raptor populations.
Oregon’s climate strategists fight dirty.
With the introduction of Senate Bill 530, or the Natural Climate Solutions Act, Oregon lawmakers could become among the first in the nation to formally incentivize practices that sequester carbon in the soil, the Statesman Journal reported recently. When farmers, timber companies and land managers voluntarily take action to help their soil store carbon — practices like altering logging rotations, planting cover crops and urban trees — they could reap financial rewards; a previous version of the bill (SB 1534) created the voluntary program without the incentives. The bill also requires the state to identify the capacity and opportunities for carbon sequestration on natural and working lands — an important tool in combating climate change.
Some soil microbes prefer their meal with a bit of char.
New research published by University of California Riverside reveals yet another reason why fungi and bacteria are so important to soil health: some microbes can thrive in soils in wildfire dead zones. Similarly to ecological succession in the above-ground plant community, where early pioneer (R-selected) species like fireweed and bracken fern quickly colonize a disturbed area before slower-growing climax (K-selected) species like Douglas fir and western hemlock can begin growing, these fire-loving microbes give way to a community of less disturbance-tolerant species composition over time, helping the soil recover. No word yet on whether or not the microbes like their barbecue with or without hot sauce.
How Oregon became an epicenter of soil diversity
From the lava plains of the Alvord Desert to the fertile alluvium of the Willamette Valley, Oregon’s secret wealth is lying all around us. It’s an ingredient forged from stars, fire and ice and, though often overlooked, is key to the state’s food systems. It’s soil — and it’s the focus of the latest episode of Superabundant.
How did Oregon come into such an embarrassment of soil riches — and why are the Northwest’s soils so diverse? We dig deep into Oregon’s geologic history to find out.
Recipe: Miso-roasted root vegetables
There might not be a better way to fully taste the richness of the earth than by eating root vegetables. We humans have historically stored our food in the earth for safekeeping, and plants are no different. During the growing season, plants store sugars in their thick taproots (like carrots), swollen corms (like taro) and starchy tubers (like potatoes; not to be confused with tuberous roots, like sweet potatoes) for safekeeping, ready to power new growth once the winter chill softens and the soil warms. This is why root vegetables taste so sweet in the winter, and why it’s the best time to eat them. Here we’ve tossed them in a simple savory-salty-sweet miso sauce with two other subterranean vegetables: garlic (a bulb) and ginger (a rhizome). Use any root vegetables you like; parsnips, beets, carrots and rutabaga are always solid choices (as are skin-on baby potatoes), but if you’re feeling wild, maybe try celeriac. It’s no ordinary root vegetable — it’s a bulbous hypocotyl. Makes 6-8 servings.
2 ½ lbs mixed root vegetables (such as parsnip, turnip, beet, rutabaga or sweet potato), peeled and cut into bite-sized pieces
1 tbsp neutral oil such as canola or vegetable oil
3 tbsp miso (red is used here, white is also great)
1 tbsp honey or brown rice syrup
1 tbsp sake (optional)1 tsp sesame oil1 tbsp minced ginger
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tbsp sesame seeds, lightly crushed in a suribachi or mortar and pestle
Few pinches salt and pepper
- Preheat the oven to 375º and line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment or foil (this will be very helpful for cleanup, but it’s not absolutely necessary). Drizzle the tablespoon of oil on the parchment.
- In a large bowl, wish together the remaining ingredients, adding a splash of warm water as needed to help the miso dissolve. Toss the vegetables in the sauce until evenly coated, then spread them out onto the prepared baking sheet.
- Roast until the vegetables are tender and caramelized on the edges, about 40-45 minutes, turning the vegetables halfway through roasting.
- If the roasted vegetables taste too savory or salty to you, sprinkle on a teaspoon or so of your favorite vinegar — fig or persimmon are wonderful here, but rice vinegar is also great.
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