Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

(NOTE: This is the first "review" of Diet for a Dead Planet, and it's long. All page citations come from this book. A review on another topic will follow later in the week.)

Some time back, the lovely Phoenix asked me which would be better: to buy food that is certified as organic but comes from far across the country, or to buy a similar item that is locally grown or produced but not organic.

It struck me as something of a dilemma at the time, and I wasn't quite sure of the answer myself. But after reading Diet for a Dead Planet and a couple of online articles, I think I have a better idea.

We've known for decades, even before the publication of Silent Spring, that the pesticides (and herbicides) sprayed on our crops were poisonous. Well, of course! -- that's how you kill the bugs and the weeds, right? It just took a while for people to realize, "oh, those chemicals might be bad for us, too." But even after such chemicals as DDT and chlordane were banned in the U. S., those chemicals still appear in our water, and they are now joined by a host of others because pesticide use has increased (up to 985 million pounds in 1997). (p.163)

Given that a variety of health problems and environmental hazards can be traced to the wanton use of pesticides and herbicides, it therefore makes more sense to buy organic foods exclusively, right?

Hold on. It's not as simple as that.

First, organically grown and produced food, though becoming more popular, still represents a very small percentage of the American food market, and its high cost (in the markets; it's still pretty reasonable when you buy directly from the farmers) means that for the most part, only middle- and upper-class citizens truly have access to it. (Grist recently had a good article, "Cost in Translation," on the topic of why organic food hasn't gotten cheaper; don't forget to read the comments.)

Second, more corporations and agribusinesses are hearing the increased demand for organic food, and they've jumped on the bandwagon. (For example, General Mills now owns Cascadian Farms.) And if you think that most corporations will approach organic farms any differently than conventional farms, you're as naive as I was when I picked up this book. The author puts it bluntly:

Large-scale monocrop organic farming is the most applicable model for corporations seeking volume and market share. Although this would be an improvement over conventional farming because it is less toxic, it still fails to sustain soils the way diversified agriculture does. (p.250)

Added into the idea of "more is better" promoted by agribusinesses is the fact that these large-scale organic farms can still be heavily dependent on migrant workers (thus raising questions of social justice -- are these workers treated fairly?) and long-distance transportation to markets (thus keeping the farming operations heavily dependent on fossil fuels and creating almost as harsh an impact on the environment).

So now you're thinking, so locally grown/produced food would be best? What if it's not organic?

And again, it's not simple, but there's an excellent (and brief) article from Natural Life magazine that goes into the question in some detail: "Eating Sustainably -- Which Is Best: Local or Imported Organic?"

Obviously, pesticides are still harmful, and if they're used on farms near your community, you have the option of talking with the farmers to see if they would consider reducing or eliminating their use of pesticides. They may not, depending on the type of farm they have, because they may be caught in an economic bind. On the other hand, if they are long-time farmers and long-standing members of the community, chances are they don't want to have to use the chemicals and might already be trying to get away from using them. (Maybe they're in the long process of converting to organic agriculture!)

Local farms top imported organic foods because the cost and energy expenditure of transportation is considerably lower. And supporting local, family-owned farms that practice diversification is the best way to ensure local food security. (You can find out more about the concept of food security from the Community Food Security Coalition.)

In an ideal world, we would have far fewer corporate monoculture farms concentrated in a few states -- and we would have far more local farms that choose

to "maintain strong organic standards and to promote agriculture that is local, small-scale, and family operated, biologically diverse, humane, and socially just." (p. 253)

I know I'm very lucky to live in a rich agricultural area that supports two local organic farms (and more in surrounding counties) -- and in a town with a thriving farmers' market where five months out of the year I can buy lots of locally-grown organic produce and freeze, can, or otherwise preserve the local bounty.

I shouldn't be "lucky." We should all have access to this kind of food security.

Ultimately... we need to make a fundamental shift in our priorities. We must put healthy, accessible, sustainably produced food at the forefront of our society's political and economic agenda. What could be more important for sustaining both present and future generations than providing good food in a manner that sustains not only its consumers and its producers but also the planet itself? (p.258)

And now I can put the pieces together from this book and from the novels of Daniel Quinn (Ishmael, The Story of B, and My Ishmael -- all worth reading): This "totalitarian agriculture" model of large-scale, corporate, monoculture farming that emphasizes profits over people does not sustain life.

It's time for a new vision, my friends.

Who will join me?

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

The Pumpkin That Turned Into a Cake

A little over a week ago, I picked up two small organic pumpkins at the farmers' market with the intention of working out the latest brilliant idea I had for a sweet treat: a pumpkin walnut cake.

The more I've thought about it, the more divided I am on how I want the cake to turn out. Do I want a moist, spicy cake? Or do I want a cake that is a little lighter on the pumpkin and the spice, and a little bit drier, more like the walnut torte at the Hungarian pastry shop?

Tough choice.

Since the Hungarian-style torte will require more thought and work, I decided to set aside that recipe for this weekend, and last night I made instead a simple pumpkin-walnut cake along the lines of a moist carrot cake.

One of the baby pumpkins was starting to show a bit of damage on the rind, so I decided that particular pumpkin would get used first. I halved and seeded the pumpkin, cutting out the sore spot, and placed the halves cut side down in a baking pan with about 1/2" of water in the bottom, then baked for nearly an hour to get the pumpkin flesh all nice and mushy.

The cake itself included some Sucanat, whole wheat flour, an organic egg, and a little more in terms of spice than I really wanted (though it was still a good blend of spices: cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, nutmeg, and cloves). The moist pumpkin I scooped from the shell (and drained a little bit) ended up adding the perfect amount of tender moistness for this particular cake, and 3/4 c of chopped walnuts added a good contrasting texture.

On the whole, the cake is a very pleasing combination of spice and sweet and nut, and I would certainly bake it again. But I definitely want to try modifying the torte recipe to see if that cake would hold up better with a stiff frosting (I'm thinking of an orange-infused buttercream).

Can you tell I enjoy getting these tasty ideas... and then testing them over and over?

Cindrella I'm not... but I do have a ball when I bake.

Monday, August 29, 2005

To-may-to, To-mah-to

Boy, oh boy, have I got an abundance of tomatoes at my house! Well, rather, I did until I got busy this weekend and did something about it...

My own heirloom tomatoes have been ripening rapidly lately, and I finally had enough Costoluto Genovese to can. Granted, I only got 1 1/2 pints of crushed tomatoes canned, but hey, it's a start, right?

The three quarts of cherry tomatoes that I picked up at the farmers' market Saturday morning all ended up spending lots of time in the oven Saturday and Sunday (two batches) as I slow-roasted them until they were starting to crisp. I then packed my oven-dried tomatoes into small jars (probably close to 2 pints' worth) and covered them with organic extra-virgin olive oil. I've gotten completely hooked on making my own dried tomatoes because they taste so wonderful tossed with pesto pasta or thrown into other dishes. And when they're so easy to make... why not?

Since I still had several tomatoes left to use, thanks to my garden and the bounty of my colleague's garden, I decided it was definitely time to make an heirloom tomato tart with some fresh mozzarella picked up at Mustard Seed Market Friday evening and some of this year's homemade pesto. Though my tart did not turn out quite as fully loaded as the one Epicurious displays, it was equally colorful because I used one Goose Creek, one Green Zebra, one Pink Brandywine, two small yellow pear and one Black Cherry for a gorgeous array of tomatoes.

I'll have to get back out to pick some more since I gave the last of my ripe Black Cherry tomatoes to the Archivist this morning, and perhaps I'll be able to can a jar of Goose Creek paste tomatoes soon, too... or make some sauce.

No matter what I end up doing, those tomatoes will be good, now and later!

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Have You Hugged a Farmer Today?

Well, all right, I haven't either, and I probably haven't done so in years. (Not sure if my farming cousins are still in the business or if they're all retired by now... probably the latter. But I digress.)

But really, once again it's Saturday, and you've just gotta give it up for the local farmers' market. Despite the early morning rain, the farmers had their tables and canopies set up on time and were still setting out their produce by the time I arrived (just before 8 AM). And the rain certainly didn't keep them from having some really beautiful and tasty produce available!

First stop, as in past weeks, was to visit with the fellow with the ponytail and to pick up a bunch of organic kale as well as three quarts of organic cherry tomatoes. Perhaps you are wondering, as he did, why I needed so many cherry tomatoes when I have plenty of tomatoes growing at home? Ah, you'll have to tune in again later to find out!

On to the other organic farm stand, and I chatted briefly with the cheerful lady as I selected two small zucchini, a medium-sized butternut squash for a whopping 75 cents, a baby butternut squash for only 50 cents, and an acorn squash for 50 cents. I'm not kidding! Beautiful organic squash, dirt cheap. Honestly, she could have charged a fair bit more and I'd still have bought it.

I also picked up some adorable thumb-sized striped eggplant and a small bunch of cilantro from a gentleman farmer at the other end of the market... not sure yet what I'll make from the eggplant, but I suspect something with Indian spices may be in order.

None of you have ever asked what I typically spend on my market outings, though I certainly wouldn't hesitate to tell you that it's generally under $20 (unless I buy something like the local maple syrup or honey) to fill my backpack with lots of good produce for eating, canning, or freezing. (And yes, some of that food won't be seen again until winter, thus lowering grocery bills later on.)

Do you think that's a lot for fresh produce? I hope not! Because let's face it, when a lot of that produce is organic (thus saving the hidden cost of pesticides), ALL of it is locally grown (thus reducing considerably the hidden cost of transportation and energy), and I stretch that produce out over a week or more and tuck some away for winter, I personally think it's a huge bargain.

And the best part? Because these farmers bring their own produce to the market, with as little packaging as possible (they love it when I come with my own bags!), most if not all of what they charge for all that good food goes right back to them. No middlemen, no corporations taking their cut off the top... it all goes back to the farmers and to continuing their farm operations.

I've been reading Diet for a Dead Planet lately, and the situation for small-scale agriculture is dire. It's not easy to make a farm profitable if you have to rely on corporations to get your produce to market, and I'm sure it's also tight for those who rely solely on local markets, be they CSA programs, farmers' markets, or local restaurants.

So I feel very fortunate, indeed, to have this excellent market nearby with such a good variety of farms and produce represented. And while I may not show my affection for the folks there by randomly hugging the farmers each week (they think I'm a little eccentric anyway, but still...), they do have my lasting respect and appreciation.

And I'm happy to give them my money for all those good veggies!

Friday, August 26, 2005

Family Heirlooms

I've raved before about the wonderful heirloom tomatoes that are now ripening in my garden, but yesterday I received an extra bonus of more heirloom tomatoes shared by The Archivist, a colleague whose culinary leanings echo my own.

She brought in a big bag of tomatoes from her own garden, including the usual Roma and small yellow pear tomatoes as well as her heirloom Green Zebra, Pink Brandywine, and Sun Gold. (I think I got those names right; if not, the faulty memory is mine alone.) She opened up the bag and said, "Take what you want!"

And so, despite an abundance from my own garden (I had to pick more Black Cherry tomatoes and a couple more Costoluto Genovese along with the first Goose Creek last evening), I took a few of her gorgeous fruits.

This is another one of those times when I wish I had a digital camera so that I could show you the beautiful array of shapes, sizes, and colors in that grouping of tomatoes. Suffice it to say that I have never had such a glorious variety pass through my kitchen... ever!

I steamed some green beans last night and tossed them with three kinds of tomatoes (Costoluto Genovese, Black Cherry, Yellow Pear), feta cheese, a balsamic vinaigrette, and a chiffonade of fresh basil for a salad for today's lunch. But I still have plenty of tomatoes left over, so I might consider pulling out my recipe for an Heirloom Tomato Tart (which includes fresh mozzarella and pesto in a buttery peppercorn crust) and making that this weekend, too.

Yes, I'm still planning to can tomatoes, but for right now, this cornucopia of heirloom varieties begs to be used in different ways.

Guess I know what I'm eating this weekend!

Green Bean and Heirloom Tomato Salad

1/2 lb fresh green beans, trimmed
1/2 c or so (as much as you like, really) heirloom tomatoes, halved or chopped
1/4 c feta cheese
1 tsp extra virgin olive oil
1-2 tsp balsamic vinegar
salt and pepper to taste
about 10 small to medium basil leaves

Steam the green beans until tender. Drain and turn into a bowl. Add tomatoes and feta cheese. Drizzle with olive oil and balsamic vinegar and toss to combine. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Stack and roll the basil leaves, then cut thin strips (chiffonade) and sprinkle over the salad for garnish (or mix them in).

Chill and serve.

Serves 1 to 2 persons, depending on whether you serve this as a salad or a main course

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Nuts to You

Things have been pretty busy around here, and I'm wiped out. I haven't done much cooking, so I don't have many interesting stories or recipes to share with you. (Though I have been reading Diet for a Dead Planet, which, though I've come across some of this information before, is still a downer.)

But I did make cookies the other night because, well, you can always use the comfort of cookies, right? I made my peanut butter-chocolate chip cookies, but I went the healthy route this time: I used natural peanut butter, whole wheat flour, Sucanat, 1 egg white instead of 1 whole egg, and organic soy milk in the dough. (Alas, I didn't have grain-sweetened chocolate chips.)

And do you know, those cookies turned out even more tender and flavorful than usual. I mean, melt-in-the-mouth good.

So I've been eating them morning, noon, and night, and I've only shared a few with my Opera-Loving Friends since they invited me to dinner last evening.

Sorry, folks, it's not that I don't love you. I just don't want to share my cookies this week.

Maybe next week.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Purple Veggie Eater

I've been debating for the past couple of days what to do with those beautiful small eggplants with their glossy deep purple skins that I picked up at the market this past weekend.

Should I make a Roasted Eggplant and Chickpea Stew? Feta, Chickpea, and Eggplant Pitas? Eggplant Parmigiana?

What I ended up making last night (after a restful sprawl in the long grass of the back yard) was the roasted eggplant and pine nut puree from Local Flavors. I substituted walnuts for the pine nuts, and though I didn't have the baguette for making crostini as called for in the recipe, I did have pita bread and could toast that for dipping.

The recipe is fairly simple, though it takes a little time to broil or bake the eggplant slices so that they're mushy enough to puree. But the combination of toasted walnuts, fresh garlic, creamy eggplant, lemon juice, and fresh herbs (basil, parsley, and mint, all from my garden) was well worth the wait. A bowl of that and some pita chips, and I was set for dinner.

And lunch today... and tomorrow...

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Market Delights

I was a little late in getting to the market today (arrived around 9:30 instead of my usual 8 AM), and as I moved toward the first stand of organic produce, the fellow with the ponytail greeted me with a smile and immediately said, "I've got one bag of broccoli left, and I've been saving it for you!"

How wonderful it feels to have the farmers recognize me and remember what foods I love the most!

Though I had intended to wander around the whole market first, I knew I needed to start my purchases right away to claim that last bag of broccoli florets as well as a couple of small glossy eggplants and yet another quart of okra.

After that, I did manage to make it all the way around the rest of the market before deciding what else I wanted:

--small sweet red peppers and two baby pumpkins from the cheerful lady who runs the other organic produce stand

--green beans from the Asian lady who always has such interesting vegetables (and this week she also had free kittens!)

--locally ground corn meal and a buckwheat pancake mix for my Wonderful Parents

No, I didn't get quite as much this week as I wasn't sure how much I'd be up for cooking once my houseguests left... and I still need to can peaches and possibly tomatoes.

But that's enough to make me happy to live and eat here!

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Birthday Baking

My Fabulous Aunt celebrated her birthday yesterday, and as she and my uncle will be here for a visit this weekend, of course I must bake!

And I must bake something grand, because My Fabulous Aunt is the other baker in the family... and she's very fond of sweet things (like homemade caramels and buckeyes), especially chocolate. So for her birthday, I decided it was time to go all out and make my Dark Chocolate Seduction Torte (formerly known as "wicked" or "extreme" brownies) once again.

(I also need to write down the recipe so I'm not fumbling each time, trying to remember how much cinnamon and chili powder I used!)

I spent last evening working madly on the torte, assembling all seven layers as quickly as I could, and I ended up being disappointed that I had forgotten the one basic fact about this torte: it has to be refrigerated overnight before you can cut into it because the sauce needs time to set.

(Do you know how hard it is to smell all that fantastic dark chocolate and to know that you can't have any until the morrow???)

Happily, I was able to sample a bit for breakfast this morning and found that aside from one minor problem, I had worked out the recipe pretty well. And though I ended up packing up two-thirds of the torte squares to ship to friends (and Sojourner, Mitch Heat, Spicyflower, my Granola Girl, and The Gentleman have all been informed that such chocolate bliss is headed their way) or to give to grateful folks here at work (such as Phoenix and Mr. Nice Guy), I still have plenty left over to share with family this weekend.

Tomorrow, since I have a long-desired vacation day, I may even bake a pan of the scrumptious peach butter streusel bars that made my Fabulous Aunt speechless when I described them over the phone the other night. (And this is my chatty auntie!)

Because you know what? When it's your birthday, you deserve to be treated like a queen and fed excellent desserts.

I should know... my turn's coming.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

A Midsummer Night's Feast

I know, it's just past midsummer. From my point of view, though, summer is almost over (thanks to a life lived by the academic calendar), and this is almost the last hurrah.

But there's still plenty of excellent summertime produce to be eaten, and so last evening I invited the lovely Phoenix and Mr. Nice Guy over for a summer feast of midsummer risotto.

I generally only make this risotto once a year. It's not difficult, it's just that the timing has to be right to have perfectly fresh tomatoes and corn and zucchini and basil all together on the same plate. And I'm thrilled to say that last night's dish not only tasted even more fabulous than usual and looked good to boot (thanks to Mr. Nice Guy's careful and artful stirring), it was almost 100% organic and locally grown (aside from the arborio rice and Parmesan cheese). Almost all of the vegetables came from the organic farmers at the market, aside from the one tomato and the basil leaves from my own garden.

Along with the risotto, we had a big bowl full of fried okra, which Phoenix discovered was ridiculously easy to make and wonderfully tempting to eat. (After using an entire quart of okra, two skillets full, we had none left. Yep, it's that good.)

Dessert was equally simple and satisfying. I had picked up some Red Haven peaches from Bauman Orchards at the local grocery store over my lunch hour yesterday, and though these peaches aren't as fully ripe as the Red Globes I had a couple of weeks ago, with a little Moroccan mint sugar they turned out to be just the right softness and sweetness. And since I still had plenty of the Haut Sauternes in the refrigerator, of course I had to share that for the full blissful experience.

Soon, I'll be wanting lots of kale and squash and apples and cider and all sorts of comforting fall foods. The cool nights tell me that that time isn't too far off, and I'm starting to eye my jeans and sweaters with a longing for a cozy warmth.

But while summer's still here and fresh summer produce is still to be found (or picked), I'll make the most of it.

And I'll savor every bite.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

That's One Cute Tomato!

Look out, boys! There's a bunch of cute tomatoes hangin' around my place, and they're definitely worth a look...

That's right, my heirloom tomato plants are producing lots and lots of fruit, and they are just now starting to ripen. They're real beauties, all right (these aren't my photos, but they'll give you the idea):

Black Cherry ripens to a dusky rose with a glimmering of silvery purple. It's astonishingly gorgeous, but the best part comes when you bite into a ripe one and have that succulent sweetness fill your mouth. Hubba hubba!

Costoluto Genovese, a large, hefty paste tomato, has a beautiful curving shape (soft ridges between sections) and ripens from yellow to orange to a luscious red. The first one is sitting on my kitchen counter, waiting to become part of tonight's dinner!

Goose Creek, the lingerer of the group, is now beginning to blush as red as the Costoluto Genovese. Another paste tomato (good for canning), this one has a smooth surface and a solid heft that bodes well for making some excellent homemade spaghetti sauce.

In short, tomato season has officially opened, and I'm ready. I've got quart jars lined up and ready to roll for canning whole tomatoes and sauce, and I'm itching to cook with these beauties...

Starting tonight (ooh la la!).

Monday, August 15, 2005

Oh, Fudge!

What can make any Monday a good day?

Chocolate, of course!

And thanks to Mr. Nice Guy, newly returned from vacation, I'm the happy possessor of a small block of turtle fudge... a mini brick of soft, dense milk chocolate with dots of gooey caramel and a sprinkling of nuts.

Guess what I'm having for dessert?

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Ideas That Grow on You

I've read two books lately that, while not directly related to food, have been stunningly eye-opening in terms of environmental thought... which, if you've been reading carefully, is part of my motivation for touting the benefits of eating well and supporting farmers' markets.

The first book, the novel Ishmael by Daniel Quinn, provides an earth-shaking look at our current environmental crisis and shatters the unquestioned human assumptions that have led us to this point. Although as I read through it, I thought the author was making a hard case against agriculture in general, I was pleased to see an acknowledgement of that impression further in the book as well as the response that given the structure of our society now, some agriculture is to be expected and cultivated... though preferably on a smaller scale and done in such a way as to support biodiversity. (Local organic farms, anyone?)

I'm still trying to wrap my head around some of the implications of the book, some of which are deeply depressing and some of which are awe-inspiring. Will this motivate me to do something more? I hope so... I'm just not sure yet. And my discussion of the book with my Granola Girl was equally inspiring... would that she and I could start an organic farm or an organic cafe (like Benevolence) somewhere!

The second book, Finding God in the Singing River by Mark I. Wallace, brings the whole question of spirituality into deep ecology and environmental consciousness. I know I'm offering a very simple summary of his thought, but I think it boils down to this: In the Christian tradition of the Trinity (God, Jesus, Holy Spirit), the Holy Spirit is God incarnate in the earth on a continual basis (as Jesus was God incarnate as mortal man)... and the wounds we inflict on the earth also wound the earthen God, so that God continues to suffer with us on a daily basis as the earth suffers.

Again, this doesn't seem to have a direct connection to food, but if we learn to approach food production and consumption through this viewpoint, it seems to me that we will find an even greater need to support smaller farms and local producers who use sustainable and organic methods and work with the earth and the natural cycle of life instead of fighting it with pesticides and unwise stewardship.

Like I said, there's a lot to consider in these two books, and I hope I've at least piqued your interest enough to have you read them yourself. (Check your local library!)

In the meantime, I'm going to do my part, however I can.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Eat Like You Live Here

Ah, Saturday... time for my weekly trek to the farmers' market downtown!

Today's finds:

--green beans and a pint of locally-produced honey from a sweet older couple

--more of that yummy red popcorn from the local corn farm... two more bags for me and one for my Granola Girl

--organic okra, broccoli, and sweet corn from the man in the ponytail

--organic garlic and homemade soaps (rose and spice) from the cheerful lady

I was also tempted by some dried runner beans from the older lady who told me it was an old-fashioned way of preserving beans from the hills of West Virginia and Kentucky... maybe this coming Saturday I'll pick up some (and I'll consider growing some heirloom beans to dry next year!)... but I didn't have quite enough money this time around.

I've been reading Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating From America's Farmers' Markets by Deborah Madison of late, and the gorgeous photographs of fresh heirloom vegetables and recipes for using the local bounty have sent me into raptures of good eating. I'll share a couple of good quotes from the book:

When food is cheap, we tend to treat it carelessly and wastefully. But when it's dear, when it costs what it's actually worth, we tend to pay closer attention to it. In this sense, good food can sharply focus our world. (p.xviii)

And while thoughts like that are inspiring (see also the latest in the Hundred-Mile Diet, "Why We Pay Too Little for Well Travelled Food"), Madison also points out the down side and the real risk of local agriculture and challenges us to do our part to save it:

Although for most Americans where food comes from is a vague concept that's not geographically set in the mind, food doesn't come from "somewhere else"; it comes from someplace. When a farm is "developed," we town and city dwellers, as well as the farmers, lose the tie to the land that nourishes us. We also lose the security that comes from knowing that we can eat from our landscape and not have to depend on large and ultimately unsustainable food systems...

We need to use our markets deeply if farmers are to continue to farm and we are to continue to eat well in the deepest sense, being nourished by our immediate landscape and community. How fortunate that meeting this need is one of the most pleasurable obligations we can assign ourselves. (p.395)

If you've been following my tales of the farmers' market this summer, you can probably guess what joy it gives me to walk down there every week and see and buy such a wonderful variety of fresh, seasonal, often organic produce. You've guessed how much I enjoy talking to the people who bring their crops and products to market with such enthusiasm. And you know how much I love to cook with good food.

So if you haven't been to a farmers' market yet this summer, please... GO. Some of you Dear Readers have shared with me your own tales of market visits and your excitement about finding new markets nearby. But if you haven't yet been, please go and support your local growers, your local producers, and your local ecosystem. And remember the motto of my local farmers' market:

"Eat Like You Live Here."

Friday, August 12, 2005

Soup and Salad

On hot days, I find I don't usually want much to eat and often choose a salad over something heavier. And strangely enough, sometimes I choose to enjoy just a little soup along with that salad, just to make sure I don't get hungry again half an hour later.

Thus it happened today that I had two soup and salad meals.

I went to lunch at a pub with my colleagues after our meeting, and I had a simple tossed salad with blue cheese dressing on the side along with a cup of roasted garlic and onion soup. Reasonably satisfying, though nothing grand to write home about.

For dinner, however, the Art Lady and I decided to have an early supper at a place near North Market called Benevolence. And what a difference!

My Fabulous Aunt and I had stumbled across Benevolence a number of years ago on our of our missions to North Market, and while I was happy to find a vegetarian (vegan in some items) restaurant with lots of wholesome foods, I was even more thrilled that one of my family (raised on meat and potatoes to a certain extent) was just as happy with the meal.

Benevolence serves mostly soups, salads, and baked goods (with occasional additions to the menu), and they use organic and whole grain ingredients as much as possible. The result is very earthy food with lots of flavor and substance that satisfies body and soul.

For tonight's dinner, I opted for the East Indian vegetable stew, a curry-coconut broth loaded with potatoes and green beans and mushrooms and assorted other veggies, with a very fresh side salad and chunks of the fresh whole grain flatbread topped with marinara, roasted vegetables, and tofu. Add a Mason jar of iced sassafras tea to that, and you have a meal worth driving an hour and a half for!

I really admire that the mission of Benevolence, as well as providing wholesome food based on locally-grown or -produced ingredients as much as possible, includes supporting a nature sanctuary in order to promote biodiversity and environmental awareness. What they preach and what they practice harmonize more than I've seen in most businesses, and they serve as a shining example of what locally-owned businesses can do for their communities.

Two meals similar in form, yet very different in substance.

And I know which I'd choose again... in a heartbeat.

Getting Into Truffle

I escaped the confines of the office today for a meeting in our state capital city, and after the meeting, I ran off with an Appreciative Colleague to meet another friend, the Art Lady, at a local landmark, the North Market.

Ever since I was introduced to this place by my Fabulous Aunt nearly a decade ago, I've been hooked, even though I usually only get there about once a year. It has a wide variety of vendors selling produce, breads, cheeses, meats, fish, flowers, bulk coffee and tea and spices, chocolates, and a tempting selection of ethnic foods, both packaged and ready made. (I usually stop by the Indian place and get my meal there... a vegetarian platter, often with chana masala and palak paneer.)

So many things called my name today, but since I had not had the foresight to take a cooler with me, it seemed pretty pointless to stock up on good cheeses and such.

I did, however, try something new. Usually I pass by the chocolate display, terribly tempted but not having enough money or stomach space left to indulge. Today, though, I did.

I spoke with the nice young man at the counter and decided on four deliciously dark and rich truffles. And since it was an awfully hot day, and I knew there was no way the chocolates would make it home unmelted, I sampled them right away:

lavender: a dark chocolate shell containing a creamy white filling infused lightly with lavender; very lush and delicate

cinnamon: freshly made and combining milk and dark chocolates; alas, this disappointed me as the cinnamon flavor was closer to that of red-hot candies instead of ground cinnamon

espresso: dark chocolate shell with a rich, smooth, creamy mocha filling; bliss!

Theobroma: translating as "food of the gods," this truffle was inspired by the movie "Chocolat" and combined dark chocolate with nutmeg, cloves, and cayenne pepper; the pepper, not noticeable at first, gradually filled my mouth until my lips began to tingle and the sweat beaded on my forehead... but it worked well with the other spices and the dark, dark chocolate!

Ah yes... wonderful chocolate. It was, perhaps, more of an indulgence than I needed on a hot day, but so worth it for the sake of trying something new!

(And at least I was able to fill my own birthday request!)

Tofu Heaven

I've been craving Chinese food for a couple of weeks, so last night I succumbed and visited my favorite local place on its vegetarian buffet night.

Tofu!!!

What they do with tofu at this place is nothing short of spectacular. Be it pressed and cut into cubes or triangles, flattened out into strips, or tossed fresh into tofu sea vegetable soup with big chunks of nori, it always turns out perfectly.

Of course, I also had to indulge in my favorite veggie potstickers and dipping sauce, but I did save some room for Szechuan tofu and vegetables, a couple pieces of curry tofu, kung bow tofu, and Malaysian noodles. It's funny, though... I just can't tuck away as much of that good food as I used to be able to do! (I think that's a good thing, though my taste buds might protest.)

It was also a nice treat to go out to dinner by myself. Nothing at all against sharing a meal with the lovely Phoenix and Mr. Nice Guy, of course, but sometimes it's good just to enjoy good food all to yourself.

And that will tide me over until the next craving comes along.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Chocoholics Unite!

Last night I finished reading the lusciously tempting book Chocolate: A Bittersweet Saga of Dark and Light by Mort Rosenblum... yes, a non-fiction book that had me drooling!

Of course, when the author writes with loving lavishness about the finest chocolates in the world, how can I not be entranced?

Suffice it to say that after reading about how cacao trees and pods grow, how chocolate is processed, and how the finest fondeurs make their exquisite chocolate creations, I have two things on my mind:

1. I need to stock up on some very dark Scharffen Berger chocolate, and the sooner, the better.

2. My urge to make more of the wicked brownies, now hereby named either Dark Chocolate Seduction Torte or the Spice Mistress Chocolate Torte (take your pick), is growing stronger by the day... so I need to buy more cocoa powder and unsweetened chocolate squares.

I'd also like to put in a request for espresso truffles for my birthday.

(Please?)

Monday, August 08, 2005

Baker Madness

With all the baking I've been doing lately, you wouldn't believe it's summer, would you? I don't even have an air-conditioned house to make turning on a hot oven a non-issue.

It's Baker Madness, folks... and I'm just that mad.

Saturday morning I tried out the scone recipe and variation I'd had in my mind. I had come across Orangette's entry on triple chocolate scones and knew I needed to try them, but I added my own little twist of freshly grated orange peel and a hint of Fiori di Sicilia to brighten the dark intensity of the chocolate. (I also left off the chocolate ganache; I have my limits.)

Chocolate as a flavor harmonizes so beautifully with so many other flavors, but one of my favorite combinations has to be dark chocolate with orange. The scones turned out satisfyingly tender and flavorful, although next time I really do want to use candied orange peel (of which I have a serious shortage) or even orangettes, chocolate-covered orange peel, for a more powerful hit of orange and a nice contrast in texture.

Next time!

On Sunday evening, I decided I needed to have a little something on hand for desserts throughout the week, and since I had not processed the half-pint jar of spiced peach butter with the other jars and needed to use it quickly, I decided to make a new variation on the blueberry-date bars I made a couple of weeks ago.

Since the peach butter was a thinner filling than the dates and berries, I decided to bake the base a little bit first, and that ended up making the shortbread base (loaded with pecans, cinnamon, and cardamom) an almost praline confection that made the perfect accompaniment to the juicy peach filling. I'm not sure I could do it again that perfectly if I tried!

Aside from the sweet treats, I also made a half batch of lavash crackers, for which I'm sure Phoenix will berate me soundly when she returns as there won't be any left for her. Ooops.

And you know, I don't think this baking madness will pass anytime soon.

I have more ideas... stay tuned.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Oh, Oh, Okra!

As I've mentioned before, my five-year sojourn Down South left me with a hankering for a few select items of Southern cuisine: sweet tea, cheese grits, and fried okra.

Now, sweet tea I've never had a problem making... how hard can it be? And this year I've found a couple varieties of tea that help make that even more exciting.

Cheese grits... yes, I had to have a recipe for those, but now they're almost second nature for me on a weekend morning (though I do need to stock up on more grits).

But fried okra? Nope. Never tried that at home... couldn't find fresh okra, didn't want to mess with the frying.

Until today.

One of my favorite organic farmers had quart baskets of fresh okra at the market yesterday, and after a brief discussion with him about his recommendation for cooking it ("fry it," he replied with a smile) and my years Down South, I decided to try it.

In fact, I even pulled out a recipe for an Indian dish using okra and stuffing it with spices. But when this evening rolled around, and I found myself pretty well worn out from all the other cooking this weekend, I decided on something simpler. I pulled out my trusty old Betty Crocker cookbook, and sure enough, there was a recipe for fried okra that was so simple and straightforward that I couldn't not make it.

I only used a handful of okra pods for the first time through since I wasn't sure how it would turn out in my hands, and I was slightly concerned when, by the end of the trimming and slicing, my knife was slippery from the mucilage released by the pods. But a thorough dusting of cornmeal and a good frying later, I had a bowl full of tender fried okra, full of flavor and utterly irresistible.

Unfortunately, I didn't have any sweet tea made, else it would have been the perfect dinner. Instead, I finished up the meal with a blissful dessert of one single juicy peach, peeled and sliced and dusted lightly with Moroccan mint sugar (adding a faint aroma of Earl Grey tea to the fruity sweetness), and a glass of chilled Mon Ami Haut Sauternes wine.

I don't need the high heat and humidity of an Atlanta summer to remind me of times gone by...

Just give me that fried okra.

Fried Okra

Almost exactly as it appears in the Betty Crocker cookbook, although I didn't have any onion salt. Easy as all get out!

1 pound okra
1/2 c cornmeal
salt and pepper to taste
3 T canola oil

Prepare the okra by trimming off the cap and the tip, then slicing the pod into 1/2" thick slices.

Combine cornmeal, salt and pepper, and add the okra slices, coating them completely with the mixture.

Heat oil in a skillet and add breaded okra. Fry, turning as needed, until both sides are well-browned. Drain on a paper towel if you like.

Eat!

Serves 2 to 4, depending on how nostalgic for the South each person may be

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Pop Goes the Kernel

Another pleasant summer day, another fine trip to the market!

Among today's market finds:

--organic kohlrabi (again!), broccoli, and okra from the fellow with the ponytail

--organic basil (for pesto) and zucchini from the other organic farm stand

--red potatoes from a nice pair of older ladies

--locally produced maple syrup

--locally grown yellow popcorn and red popcorn from the folks who bring in the truckload of fabulous bicolor sweet corn every week

I've especially been looking forward to the appearance of the popcorn, even though I hadn't tried it last year, because in my efforts to eat more locally-grown and -produced foods, I remembered this earlier in the season and have been looking for it so that I can stock up for winter.

After a light dinner of steamed kale (still working through last week's market finds!) tonight, I pulled out the red popcorn to give it a try. When I asked the farmer what the difference was between the two kinds, she explained that the red popcorn had a smaller kernel, tasted somewhat nutty, and popped up "snowy white." Sold!

So I made just a small batch, probably about a cup of popcorn once it was popped. And oh my, it was so beautiful with the white fluff and the dark garnet red kernel on the inside. The taste was wonderful, too, and it made the perfect snack.

Next week, I believe I'll be buying more popcorn, because I tend to eat a lot of it during the winter as a comforting snack or a light meal on weekends.

And I'll try not to eat it all up before then!

We Can Can the Beans and the Fruit

(That's a line from a silly song I learned at 4-H camp years ago. Don't ask. It just seemed relevant.)

I spent a good part of today slaving over a hot stove. Yep, must be summertime if I've got the canner working at full blast!

First up, more hot dill pickles: My garden is kicking into gear where cucumbers are concerned, and though I only picked about eight or nine of them, most of them were big and fat and perfect for making straight, long pickle spears. Another 4 1/2 pints made (and the half pint has extra garlic... a special jar for a special guy, Mitch Heat).

And then I had to decide what to do with the remaining fresh Red Globe peaches... and I settled on making a batch of baked spiced peach butter (laced with cinnamon and cardamom, and sweetened with honey and maple syrup). I only got 2 1/2 pints out of that, but still, it was worth the effort.

I'm slowly working through my stash of pint canning jars, so once the tomatoes ripen, I'll probably be canning them in quart jars. Not a problem, as I have plenty of those to use, but that will mean planning meals carefully come winter when I need to open one jar!

(Any of you out there who live nearby and have empty jars from my previous gifts of pickles and jam? I'm happy to recycle!)

I expect there will be more of the same next week!

Thursday, August 04, 2005

The Thais that Bind

The summer is drawing to a close... well, at least here at work it is, since our view of the seasons is skewed by the academic calendar. Phoenix and Mr. Nice Guy are both off next week, back for one more, and then off another week before the semester starts at the end of the month.

And how best to say "thank you" to them for their hard work and their cheerful company this summer than to take them out to dinner?

We had originally planned on a longer field trip to the Big City for Moroccan food, but yesterday morning I discovered I was waaaaaaaaay too tired to be out late last night, and Phoenix didn't think her back was up to the longer drive, so we decided on our fallback position of dinner at our favorite Thai restaurant, located in a little village about 30-40 minutes away (taking country roads all the way there).

After a peaceful journey past fields of tasselled corn and bushy beans, we wet our whistles with tall glasses of Thai iced tea laced with cream (always a favorite) and appeased our hunger with a shared appetizer of fried tofu with a light sweet-hot dipping sauce.

For our main course, the lovely Phoenix chose a Thai stir-fry with tofu and lots of vegetables; Mr. Nice Guy opted for a plate piled high with pad thai; and, torn between two spicy options, I followed the waitress's suggestion of the Thai basil tofu. Mmmm... happy choice, indeed, with broccoli florets, strips of red and green peppers, and cubes of tofu, all in a light broth-like sauce loaded with fresh Thai basil and red pepper. By the end of the meal, my lips had only just started to tingle, a sign that the spicing was just right.

At this restaurant, dessert is (I think) a mandatory course, so my friends chose to share a Siam sundae... a large scoop of coconut ice cream surrounded by small pastry-wrapped and fried slices of banana, all drizzled with honey and chocolate sauce. In the interest of not overloading my stomach, I opted for coconut ice cream, plain and simple, and ended up having to share about half of the ice cream because I ended up with two huge scoops instead of one small one. Still, it was rich and creamy and loaded with fresh coconut, so how could I refuse to eat as much as possible?

We capped off the evening with much hilarity on the way home, and we returned by 8 PM with plenty of time to sit back and relax and enjoy the sunset.

I love being able to share adventures like this with good friends!

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

It's Official!

I am pleased as punch and proud as all get-out to announce that the incomparably sassy Spicyflower has been accepted to the pastry program at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts!

Spicyflower, you continue to be my inspiration, and though I know you've got a tough time ahead, juggling school and work and heaven only knows what else, you can do it because you are just that good. You rock!

I hope you'll have some useful tips and excellent recipes to share as you work your way toward your dream. And I will continue to look forward to bouncing ideas off you for your brilliant input!

(I'm still waiting for my triple-threat chocolate, though... ahem...)

Pining Away

I've had a small package of marzipan sitting in the cupboard for a while now, just waiting for me to make pignoli cookies again. And since I needed to pick up pine nuts last week for making pesto (which I haven't done yet... soon, though!), I thought I'd go ahead and make the cookies last night.

And what better reason for making them than to celebrate the Gentleman's impending birthday?

I had meant to make these cookies much sooner... as in, before he moved away. But, well, I didn't, so now I'm left with a really good excuse to send him a care package for his birthday.

These cookies are pretty simple to throw together, so in no time flat last evening I had the dough mixed up, the cookie dough rolled in the pine nuts, and the baking sheet in the oven. And not long after that, I packed the fresh cookies into tins and got a small box ready to send off to the DC area.

I know the Gentleman would be perfectly happy with any cookies I sent him as he's grown very fond of my baking over the past couple of years. (Well, wouldn't you?) But it's much too warm out to consider sending anything chocolate (like brownies, wicked or otherwise, or dark chocolate-double nut bars), much as he would like that, and a birthday calls for something a little out of the ordinary.

A few cookies passed a quality control check last evening, though I thought these were even richer than I had remembered them being, so I will probably share the rest. (Phoenix, take note!)

But the first and best of the batch will go out in a box today, headed toward the Gentleman. Here's wishing you a very happy birthday, my friend... we all miss you around here!

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Do You Know the Muffin (Wo)Man?

As I've mentioned before, I've been getting a lot of good, tasty ideas for recipe variations this summer.

The latest idea to pique my curiosity and to fire up my baking has been cinnamon nut crumble muffins. I envisioned a moist and tender spice-laden muffin with a spicy pecan streusel... something with a full flavor, a nice contrast in textures, and a satisfying sweetness and spiciness.

Muffins don't often make it into my baking schedule, though, because I have a hard time finding recipes I truly enjoy. And so when I started to work on this idea, it took a while to find the right base recipe. The first batch was too moist and dense, the second was too dry and crumbly.

I finally decided to go back to the lavender-blueberry streusel muffin recipe that always works so well for me. Change a few ingredients here, add a few ingredients there... and the result was almost exactly right, though still a little on the dry side.

Part of the difficulty, I admit, is that I've been trying to make this muffin recipe entirely (or almost) whole grain and without refined sugar, which makes things a little bit trickier, though not impossible.

So last night, after careful thought, I went back into the kitchen to try it again, making it only half whole-grain, finding the right mix of unrefined sweeteners (Sucanat, maple syrup, maple sugar) and the right balance of spices (cinnamon, cardamom, and nutmeg), and adding just a little more oil for extra moistness.

The streusel worked so well the last time that I simply increased the quantity slightly, and it still had that wonderful baked spiced nut flavor without all the rest of the work. I also layered it inside the muffin as well as on top for a nice surprise.

Of course, I ended up baking the muffins just a little too long, but aside from that, they turned out just right: moist and tender inside, a bit of crispness to the outside, and a sweetly spicy nut streusel for a satisfying crunch.

And yes, in the name of quality control, I had three for dessert.

I'm still not going to claim that muffins are my specialty or that I make truly outstanding ones.

But I'm getting better.