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The best of the best: salted caramel butter bars

A view from the top. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
What does it take to win the best-of-show award for baked goods at a county fair?

Well, if you're Angelina Gonzalez, an alumnus of the Sherwood Forest 4-H Club, Vallejo, and now the Solano County's 4-H SET (Science, Engineering and Technology) Program representative, sometimes practice makes perfect, and sometimes perfect doesn't need practice.

Gonzalez's salted caramel butter bars swept all five awards in the adult baked goods section of the 2014 Solano County Fair. Judges first awarded the bars a blue ribbon, and then best-of-division, followed by the sweepstakes award and the coveted best-of-show.

"I've been entering cookies in the adult baked foods department for the past few years and have done well in the past," Gonzalez said. "I love baking and cookies are my specialty. This year, I attempted a recipe that I had never made before. It was a bit of a risk, but I wanted to try something new rather than another cookie recipe. I'm glad I did."

Its origin? Gonzalez selected the recipe on the Internet. (Shelly, the person who posted it several years ago, describes herself as "an addict of the buttercream sort.")

Judges pronounced these delicious! (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Gonzalez acknowledged it is not "the healthiest recipe out there (with a pound of butter and 50 caramel candies)," but the judges pronounced it absolutely delicious, the kind of bar cookie that folks would go back for seconds or thirds. 

"Although I never took a 4-H food project, I am thankful to 4-H for everything that I have learned through it," Gonzalez said. "I started 4-H when I was nine years old and quickly learned that I loved it. The following years, I became an active member our Sherwood Forest 4-H Club as historian, treasurer, vice president, and president."

She enrolled in many different projects, including arts and crafts, ceramics, rabbits, dogs, dairy goats, horses, and leadership, receiving multiple awards at fairs. Among them: first place in novice and senior showmanship and various best-of-show awards and outstanding 4-H exhibitor awards.

"I would definitely say that 4-H gave me confidence and life skills for the future," said Gonzalez, who holds a master's degree in sociology from Sacramento State University. "After aging out of the program and a year off, I came back to 4-H (Sherwood Forest 4-H Club) as an arts and crafts project leader."

She just completed her seventh year as a project leader. Her work is much appreciated; she recently received the Solano County 4-H Alumni Award.  "I love 4-H and look forward to where it takes me next," she said.

4-H'ers celebrate National 4-H Week every October.  Youths and adult volunteers who want to sign up for the youth development program should contact their county 4-H program or the statewide office for more information.

Here's the prize-winning recipe, not only perfect for the holidays but for any occasion.

Salted Caramel Butter Bars

Ingredients

For the Crust:

  • 1 lb. salted butter, room temperature
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1-1/2 cups powdered sugar
  • 2 tablespoons vanilla (or use Princess Cake Emulsion)
  • 4 cups all purpose flour
For the Filling:
  • 1 bag (14 oz.) caramel candies (about 50 individual caramels), unwrapped
  • 1/3 cup milk or cream
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1  tablespoon coarse sea salt (optional) (*see No. 7 below)

Instructions:

  1. Preheat oven to 325°
  2. In a large bowl, combine the butter and sugars. Using mixer on medium speed, beat together until creamy. Add the vanilla and beat until combined. Sift the flour into the butter mixture and beat on low speed until a smooth soft dough forms.
  3. Spray a 9x13 inch baking pan lightly with non-stick cooking spray. Press one-third of the dough evenly into the pan to form a bottom crust. Wrap remaining dough in plastic wrap and chill in refrigerator.
  4. Bake crust until firm and the edges are a pale golden brown approximately 20 minutes. Transfer pan to a wire rack and let cool about 15 minutes.
  5. While the bottom crust is baking and the remaining dough is chilling, make the caramel filling. Place the unwrapped caramels in a microwave-safe bowl. Add the cream. Microwave on high for 1 minute. Remove from the microwave and stir until smooth. If caramels are not completely melted, microwave on high for 30-second intervals, stirring after each interval, until smooth.
  6. Once the caramel is melted, add in your 1/2 teaspoon vanilla and stir until combined.
  7. Pour the caramel filling over the crust. If you are going to salt the caramel, sprinkle it on caramel layer now.
  8. Remove the remaining chilled dough from the refrigerator and crumble it evenly over the caramel.
  9. Return the pan to the oven and bake until the filling is bubbly and the crumbled shortbread topping is firm and lightly golden, about 25 to 30 minutes.
  10. Let cool before cutting into squares.

 Next step? Enjoy! P.S.: There will be no leftovers.

4-H enthusiast Angelina Gonzalez with her best-of-show salted caramel bars, Solano County Fair. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
4-H enthusiast Angelina Gonzalez with her best-of-show salted caramel bars, Solano County Fair. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

4-H enthusiast Angelina Gonzalez with her best-of-show salted caramel bars, Solano County Fair. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Posted on Monday, September 22, 2014 at 4:37 PM

Balancing food safety and water quality not cheap or easy, but it can be done

Comanagement conference participants discuss farming and conservation efforts at a diversified organic operation.
Fresh produce growers are challenged to protect soil and water quality on their farms as well as support wildlife populations by preserving their habitat. At the same time, growers must protect their crops from contamination by pathogens that can cause foodborne illnesses. None of this is cheap or easy, but it can be done.

To help farmers and growers efficiently achieve the best results, the University of California Cooperative Extension, in collaboration with the Farm Food Safety and Conservation Network brought together 80 people on Aug. 20 for the seventh annual Food Safety and Water Quality Co-management Forum.

Participants represented food safety and conservation professionals, food safety auditors, academics, and government agency personnel. This cross-section of the fresh produce community provided diverse perspectives beneficial to discussions on balancing food safety and water quality objectives in agricultural production. As State Water Resources Control Board member Steve Moore noted, "Decisions based on collaborative efforts have the most durable solutions." 

Forum participants heard the latest information on drought effects to water resources and innovative strategies to provide water to agricultural operations, including existing recycled water projects. Panelists presented the latest information on existing and pending regulations that affect co-management, and fresh produce growers discussed practical strategies to manage agricultural production for food safety and sustainability outcomes.

“Research is continuing to support the decisions of fresh produce growers in balancing food safety and water quality on their farms” explained Mary Bianchi, UC Cooperative Extension advisor in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties. “The question now is how do we put that knowledge into action in the face of the current California drought and pending state and federal regulations of both water resources and food safety? Discussion among stakeholders, whether that be produce growers and buyers or conservation professionals and policymakers are a key component of the process of co-management.”

The forum concentrated on the types of practices and policy programs that may help, and discussed strategies, both field-based and policy-driven, that might support progress in addressing persistent resource concerns relevant to agricultural production.

“This forum always provides a great networking opportunity for any decisionmakers influencing policy or implementing environmental protection or on-farm food safety strategies,” said Kaley Grimland-Mendoza, small farmer enterprise development specialist for the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association.

The first panel of the day focused on the opportunities and challenges of co-managing water resources and food safety in California's current drought. The panel was moderated by Johnny Gonzales, water resource control engineer and Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program coordinator with the State Water Resources Control Board, and included Robert Johnson, assistant general manager and chief of water resources planning for the Monterey County Water Resources Agency; Robert Holden, principal engineer of the Monterey County Water Pollution Control Agency's Castroville Seawater Intrusion Project; Jeff Cattaneo, San Benito County Water District manager; Samir Assar, director of Produce Safety for the US Food and Drug Administration; and Moore.

A panel of local growers representing diverse commodities and operational sizes discussed their daily process of co-managing for food safety and water quality. The panel included Michael Brautovich, senior manager for Farm Quality, Food Safety and Organic Integrity at Earthbound Farm/Natural Selection Foods; Brendan Miele, director of Domestic Farm Relations for Jacobs Farms / Del Cabo Inc; Chris Drew, Sea Mist Farms production manager; and Rebecca Bozarth of Harvest Moon Agricultural Services.

Following the panel discussions, participants visited an organic vegetable farm near Salinas. The landowner, growers, conservation, and food safety professionals discussed food safety and water quality opportunities, challenges and possible alternatives with an emphasis on solutions that exemplify co-management. The discussion also included questions that arise in a decision-making process and where more information or research is needed.

FDA's Samir Assar participated both as a panel member to answer questions about the proposed Produce Safety Rule and in small group discussions during the field exercise to explore co-management challenges and strategies at one local produce farm.

“The farm visits are essential for farmers to observe what food safety practices others are implementing to reduce risks and tailoring such practices to their farm operations while maintaining on-farm conservation value,” Grimland-Mendoza said. “It would be great to have representation and participation from large produce buyers, who have historically been the most skeptical of co-management strategies and have required the most stringent food safety practice requirements.”

Participants were surveyed before and after the forum. “After the forum, 96 percent of the participants felt they understood co-management principles, 31 percent higher than at the start of the day,' Bianchi said, “and 85 percent of the participants felt that they could incorporate what they learned into the decisions they make.”

For more information about co-management, visit http://cesanluisobispo.ucanr.edu/Co-management_of_Food_Safety_and_Sustainability or contact Mary Bianchi, UC Cooperation Extension farm advisor in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties, at (805) 781-5949 or mlbianchi@ucanr.edu.

Posted on Friday, September 19, 2014 at 3:52 PM

A disheartening new pest invades California vegetable gardens

Bagrada bugs feeding on a tomato. (Photo: Jennifer Evangelista, San Luis Obispo)
California gardeners harvesting their summer produce may encounter a new pest – the bagrada bug. The native of Africa made its first California appearance in Los Angeles County six years ago and has been moving eastward and northward ever since.

“Citizen scientists have been instrumental in reporting the occurrence of bagrada in various counties and are helping map its current distribution,” said Surendra Dara, UC Cooperative Extension advisor in San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties. “This is a very serious pest. It is wiping out gardens, and is of great concern for small-scale and organic growers.”

Bagrada bugs are major pests of cruciferous vegetables, such as cabbage, kale, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and broccoli, but they don't appear to be picky eaters. They have been known to feed on a wide variety of garden vegetables in California, including green beans, cantaloupe, corn, peppers, potatoes, tomatoes and sunflower. Even landscape plants are not immune. Bagrada bugs have been found feeding on ornamental plants in the mustard family, like sweet alyssum, stock and candytuft.

Bagrada bugs congregating on sunflowers. (Photo: Larry Adcock, Arroyo Grande)
The adult bagrada bugs are about the size of watermelon seeds and have shield-shaped black backs with white and orange markings. Young bagrada bugs – with their red, black and white markings – are sometimes mistaken for ladybugs. But bagrada bugs have piercing and sucking mouthparts which cause dead spots on plant leaves and stems when they feed, and result in stunted growth, plant deformities and plant death.

Dara said scientists had hoped cold winter temperatures in northern counties of California would limit the bagrada's northward march, but that hasn't been the case so far.

“Bagrada bugs can survive the winter or cold nights by entering the top layer of the soil around crops,” he said. "They start appearing again in early spring and move from weeds to young vegetables."

For more information on bagrada bugs, see the Pest Note produced by the UC Integrated Pest Management Program. In addition, Dara regularly posts bagrada bug updates on his blog, Strawberries and Vegetables.

Distribution of bagrada bug in California, September 2014.
Distribution of bagrada bug in California, September 2014.

Posted on Friday, September 19, 2014 at 8:53 AM
Tags: Bagrada bug (1), Surendra Dara (1)

Farmers market prices compare well with the supermarket produce aisle

Farmers market prices are competitive with supermarkets.
Many shoppers believe they can buy cheaper produce at supermarkets than at local farmers markets. A new UC Cooperative Extension study dispels that common misperception.

In Placer and Nevada counties, UCCE received a CDFA Specialty Block Grant to encourage consumers to eat more fruits and vegetables and support the local agricultural industry by buying the produce from them. The project led to the creation of the “Eat Local Placer Nevada” campaign.

“Buying locally grown products supports local farmers and ranchers and it keeps land in agriculture,” said Cindy Fake, UCCE farm advisor in Placer and Nevada counties. “Simply put, it's the right thing to do.”

To give consumers extra incentive to eat local, the group launched a seven-month study to compare prices at farmers markets and grocery stores. Volunteers and staff collected price data at four farmers markets and six grocery stores from January to July 2014. Specials and sale items were not part of the study. The data suggests that organic produce at farmers markets is priced about the same as organic produce at grocery stores.

In terms of conventional produce, grocery stores had cheaper prices on 6 out of 11 items; however, consumers would still save money picking up red apples, beets and chard at the farmers markets. The cost of conventional butternut squash and sweet potatoes was virtually equal at the two venues.

“Contrary to many consumers' perception, farmers market prices are competitive with regular supermarket prices,” Fake said. “Some prices are slightly higher, some slightly lower, but they are in the same range. “

However, there are other factors shoppers should keep in mind when deciding to buy supermarket produce or fruit and vegetables grown by their neighboring farmers.

“Produce at the farmers market is sold the same day or the day after it is harvested,” Fake said. “Because of that, its shelf life is two to three times longer than what is found in the supermarket. And because it is so fresh, you have a higher nutrient content and it will taste better.”

Fake said experts believe buying local also supports the local economy. She is collaborating on a project led by Shermain Hardesty, UCCE specialist in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at UC Davis, to document the economic impact of local food systems in Placer, El Dorado, Sacramento and Yolo counties. The researchers will gather data about farmers' purchases of inputs and local sales of produce.

“This project will provide science-based evidence to guide public policy and program design aimed at supporting local farmers and local food systems into the future,” Fake said.

The study – titled Measuring the Impact of Local Food Marketing on the Local Economy – is supported with a $226,048 grant from the UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Posted on Wednesday, September 17, 2014 at 8:21 AM

Saving the Mojave desert tortoise

Saving the declining populations of Mojave desert tortoise is a big challenge. But scientists think that raising newborn “hatchling” tortoises in a controlled environment in the Mojave National Preserve for a year, then releasing the juvenile tortoises into the wild, may help save this threatened species.

The protected tortoises — which live up to 80 years and can go without water for a year — have existed for eons, but are now being decimated by habitat loss and predation. Professor Brian Todd, in the Department of Wildlife, Fish and Conservation Biology at UC Davis, worries that the increasing use of Southern California deserts for solar and wind energy, will add to the loss of tortoise habitats, and add further pressure to regional wildlife habitats. While developing renewable energy to combat climate change is a good thing, in this case it impacts desert species and their habitats.

Professor Brian Todd, UC Davis, with a Mojave desert tortoise.
Stepping up to the plate to save the Mojave desert tortoises is a triad of academics, government agencies, and corporations, who recently created the Ivanpah Desert Tortoise Research Facility. The new facility, located in the Mojave National Preserve, was designed for scientists to conduct research on juvenile tortoise survival. It was constructed largely by Chevron and Molycorp, and is managed by the National Park Service. Scientists from the University of California, University of Georgia, and elsewhere, are conducting a 15-year study to see if hatchlings released into the wild and/or relocated elsewhere can survive and reverse the population decline.

We can all keep our fingers crossed that this research will preserve desert tortoise populations, and serve as a model for conserving biodiversity.

Additional information:

  • “Protecting the desert tortoise,” video of UC Davis researchers and desert tortoises.
  • “Habitat selection, space use, and factors affecting recruitment of desert tortoises in the Mojave National Preserve”; Brian Todd website, UC Davis
  • “Baby desert tortoises get a headstart in the Mojave,” by Andy Fell and Kat Kerlin, Egghead blog, UC Davis. With a video of tortoises and scientists.
    A hatchling Mojave desert tortoise.
  • “Tortoise territory,” by Robin DeRieux, CA&ES Outlook magazine (see pages 2 and 10), UC Davis, spring/summer 2012.
  • “Mojave National Preserve celebrates dedication of Ivanpah desert tortoise,” Mojave National Preserve website.

Desert tortoises are well camouflaged in the California desert.

Posted on Tuesday, September 16, 2014 at 9:44 AM

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