Who Grows Our Food is an occasional Meatless Monday series taking a close look at some of the people, so often unsung, who give us the food on our plates.
Along the grey knot of expressway engirding Miami International Airport, you'll find row upon row of warehouses, industrial sites ... and small spot of green. It's Miami GROW (Green Railroad Organic Workshop), a three-acre urban farm producing vegetables, herbs and micro greens.
Miami GROW got its start in 2008 when Thi (pronounced TEE) Squire wanted to change her life. "I wanted to be involved in a greener lifestyle -- literally," she says. "I have kids. I started reading more about food production and chemicals. My children's school friends were overweight, and I was thinking, how can I make an impact, make a change in my community?"
The farm, then an abandoned, debris-littered site, wasn't the most obvious solution. It's dwarfed by warehouses, abuts a major expressway and is in a less than lovely part of town. It would send most people driving away in a screech of tires and a spray of gravel. "It's such a bizarre thing to want to do," Squire admits. "People said, 'You can't grow food here.' We said, 'What do you mean? That's just silly.'" Growing food in limited space is one of the great challenges of our day, and Miami GROW takes it on.
First, though, the farm had to confront zoning and environmental issues. Miami GROW is certified organic. Traditional planting would be impossible, with industrial chemicals from surrounding warehouses compromising the soil. What others might see as limiting, GROW embraces as liberating. The staff of ten grows food in pots and flats. If a crop isn't flourishing, they shift it elsewhere on the property, offering it more shade or more light. This is much harder to do when your plants are in the ground.
Miami GROW supplies Rock Garden, a national fresh herb distributor, which has a facility conveniently next door. They're not just neighbors, they're partners committed to "sustainability, community outreach and urban agriculture," says Squire. "Rock Garden is the primary sponsor of GROW. They get kudos. No other produce company is doing this."
The farm focused solely on herbs at first, from basil "the #1 seller of all time" to interesting lesser-knowns, such as chervil and chocolate mint. Recently, though, Miami GROW acquired ten organic acres of farmland outside the city in rural Homestead. More space lets the farm try growing more and different crops.
"I started experimenting with vegetables," says Squire. "We've had great success with lettuce." Lettuce has always done well in Florida, but in recent years, California has taken over the commercial market. Very nice, but not so local if you live on the east coast. Miami GROW is bringing back some of Florida's lettuce luster, and is also growing micro greens, nutrient-intense and eater-friendly greens and herbs harvested when they're just a week or two old.
In addition to growing food, the farm grows community. Its outreach program GROW Your Lunch invites students to be part of a whole educational, edible experience. "They come for a field trip, help us harvest, and we make lunch here. We show them how." Squire provides a few kitchen basics, and taking the freshly picked produce and herbs, the class makes lunch for 40. "It's fresh, not processed, and they had a hand in it," says Squire. "It's a really great experience, not just for the kids but for the adults who come with them."
The class takes home a simple recipe for fresh salsa or salad dressing. They also take away a simple recipe for the greener life Miami GROW has helped create -- "Buy local. Learn basic cooking skills. Eat well."
Viet Noodles With Fresh Herbs or a Sort of Bun
This is a riff on bun, the vivid Viet rice noodle salad. It's wildly versatile, relying on fresh vegetables and fresh herbs by the handful. Nuac cham, the traditional sauce, features fish sauce. I've substituted vegetarian mushroom oyster sauce. You can also use easier to find soy sauce. Switch out the red cabbage, red pepper and carrots used here for any shredded or finely chopped vegetables you like. I used what I had in my CSA box and they're pretty.
1/4 cup fresh lime juice -- about 3 juicy limes
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoons sambal oelek*
1-1/2 teaspoons vegetarian mushroom oyster sauce **
4 teaspoons peanut, grape seed or other neutral oil
4 ounces firm tofu, pressed, blotted dry and cut into bite-sized cubes
1/2 head red cabbage, shredded
2 carrots, shredded or chopped into matchsticks
1 red pepper, shredded or chopped into matchsticks
4 ounces rice noodles or whole wheat angel hair pasta
1 handful fresh mint leaves
1 handful fresh cilantro
1 handful fresh Thai basil or other basil, chopped
1 handful fresh parsley, chopped
for optional garnish:
1 handful scallions, chopped
1/3 cup roasted cashews, chopped
Make the nuac cham. Whisk lime juice, garlic, sugar, sambal oelek, vegetarian mushroom oyster sauce or soy sauce and 2 teaspoons of oil together in a small bowl, just until sugar dissolves. Set aside.
In a large pot of boiling water, cook noodles according to package directions. Give rice noodles a stir to prevent clumping, and take care not to overcook. You want them al dente, not mushy. Drain noodles and set aside.
In a wok or large skillet, heat remaining 2 teaspoons of oil over medium-high heat. Add tofu cubes and cook about 3 to 5 minutes, until the tofu turns golden and slightly crusty. Very nice. Add the shredded cabbage, carrots and red pepper and cook another minute or two, just until vegetables soften.
Add the noodles and pour nuac cham over all. Combine gently with a large spoon. Scatter the mint, cilantro, basil and cilantro on top and dance this mess around.
Garnish with chopped cashews and scallions, if desired.