Thursday, September 29, 2005

The Rest o' the Pesto

Fall is here, and nights are growing progressively more chilly. Before the first frost decides to sneak in here and decimate the remains of the garden, I thought I'd better pick the last of the basil last night to make a third and final batch of pesto.

It took me years to discover pesto, but once I did, I was hooked. What's not to love about mounds of fresh basil, fresh garlic cloves, rich pine nuts, freshly grated Parmesan cheese, and delicious golden extra-virgin olive oil?

Absolutely nothing, I say.

And with my small chopping/food processing attachment for my hand mixer, whipping up a batch of pesto presto! is unbelievably easy.

So I took some time after work yesterday to strip the last leaves from the basil plants, blend the pesto, and spoon it into an ice cube tray (which makes cubes of just the right size of one serving each) before shoving it into the freezer.

For dinner, I saved a small amount of the pesto and tossed it with whole wheat macaroni, steamed broccoli, oven roasted tomatoes, roasted red peppers, and a few more pine nuts and Parmesan to make another almost entirely organic meal (save for the Parmesan!). Heaven!

I'd give you the recipe for pesto... honest I would... but I always just sort of wing it, throwing things together and adjusting as needed, so you're probably better off finding a recipe somewhere else. But once you try it, you'll know there's no comparison between homemade and store-bought pesto, and you, too, will be hooked.

As for me, I have enough now to get me through the winter!

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Grape Expectations

So what did I do with the quart of Concord grapes I found at the farmers' market yesterday?

The rich, full, sweet fragrance of these grapes took me back to my childhood and the one summer that my parents and I did a driving vacation through New York's Finger Lakes region and stopped at a couple of different wineries along the way. Though of course I was far too young even to be interested in the wines, I drank sample after sample of the dark purple juice with the deep pink froth (and probably had a juice mustache to show for it, too).

Because when you get right down to it, other grapes are wonderful for eating, but Concords just beg to be sniffed, squeezed, and quaffed from a crystal-clear glass.

And so, since I haven't the equipment, the patience, or the inclination to make jelly, I plopped those grapes in a glass saucepan, added a little water, and let them simmer away. When done, I strained them through several layers of thin muslin, letting the juice pour and drip into a quart jar. (I also got a lovely dyed purple stretch of fabric out of it!)

It'll have to sit another day or so before I strain the juice again, simmer it (with honey, if needed), and can it. But the sweet intensity of the grapes' perfume smelled like heaven to me as the juice finished cooking, and I know I'm going to enjoy reaching for a glass of it come winter time.

And who knows? If the folks with the grapes show up with more at the market this coming weekend, I might just have to buy more.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Dollars and Scents

It's Saturday, and you know what that means... time for the market report.

Just because it's the end of September, don't think that the market has shifted over completely to squash and potatoes. Oh no! Some old favorites from earlier in the year showed up for a second round, prettier than ever, as well as the bountiful cornucopia of fruits and vegetables making their first appearance.

I strolled down the lot, past all the stalls, just to get a good look at what everyone was offering today. I picked up a big bag of Kennebec potatoes and some small broccoli heads from the Amish folks, then headed down to the other end to start my way back up.

The gentleman farmer and his son had so much gorgeous produce laying out that I was tempted over and over. First I picked up a sweet pepper for a pot of chili, then a quart of fresh tomatoes (since my plants are no longer ripening), and a bag of mixed greens for a big salad. But the most irresistible item at their stand were the brilliant red raspberries, fresh from a bumper fall crop.

I stopped short at a small table held by a sweet elderly couple, caught in the snare of the wonderful fragrance of fresh Concord grapes. After some slight wavering, I decided that yes, I did need a quart, and perhaps I would have to learn how to make grape juice, thank you very much!

My visit with the cheerful lady and her lively teenage daughter extended longer than usual, because after I selected some small heads of garlic (I feel another round of pesto coming on) and a bundle of radishes, as well as a small loaf of their spicy carrot bread, I fell into conversation with them about the difficulties local small farmers and organic farmers are facing these days. I was very pleased to discover that my reading of late was right on target, hearing some of the same frustrations and dreams from someone who works a farm for a living.

And, well, I was also very pleased to be able to express my appreciation to a couple of the organic farmers and to celebrate National Organic Harvest Month by sharing some thin slices of my pumpkin-walnut torte with them. After all, I really enjoy all the good food they bring, and I want to support them in any way I can.

That's the true value of what they do.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Torte Reform

Last month I came up with an idea for a lavish, luscious pumpkin cake that rocked my socks off. My first round of efforts resulted in a moist, spice and nut-laden dark cake that was very satisfying, but not quite as elegant as I wanted.

So, I searched on Epicurious for something similar to the walnut torte I love so well at the local Hungarian pastry shop, finally finding a Hungarian hazelnut torte recipe that looked tempting.

I pondered and I pondered, and last weekend I finally headed into the kitchen to test my planned modifications: replacing some of the eggs with cooked pumpkin, changing the hazelnuts to walnuts, and adding a bit of fresh orange peel to the frosting.

The cake itself turned out soft and light, though rich, even with using whole wheat pastry flour and unrefined sweeteners. And though it wasn't quite as dry as the traditional torte (and this is one time when a dry cake is not a bad thing!), it retained the good flavor and understated sweetness.

Thr frosting, however, was far too buttery and rich for my tastes, and I had added just a little too much orange (and it was only about 1/2 tsp!). So I turned to my faithful old Big Red (Betty Crocker) for a more basic buttercream recipe that used half the butter and offered an alternate version using maple syrup. (Part of the problem also lies in the fact that my electric mixer is having problems, and I can't use it to beat the frosting into a creamy mixture without having gobs of flavored butter spattered around the room.)

Since the first version of this torte lacked a definite pumpkin flavor, I knew I needed to enhance that, too, by adding just a smidgen of spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves) to the cake batter and by using more cooked pumpkin (and a hint of cinnamon) in the frosting.

And if those changes weren't enough, I decided that I wanted to make a four-layer torte the second time around.

Last night I finally had an evening free in which to test out all these changes, and though I'm still not entirely satisfied (the buttercream still isn't quite right, and I'm wondering if a variation on the apricot preserve filling from the original recipe might not be a bad idea... say, a thin spread of spiced pumpkin butter between layers?), overall I'm very pleased with how the torte turned out. The cake is still on the moist side, but retains that traditional torte flavor along with a deeper spiced pumpkin note that doesn't overpower you, and the combination of flavors and textures makes for a sumptuous dessert that will have you sinking back into the sofa in blissful delight.

(And four layers of it! I have to say, I am really impressed with myself for doing that... it's so cool!)

I've really been thrilled to see so many of my recipe ideas come to flavorful fruition this year.

But this one... dare I say it?... takes the cake.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Don't Gnocchi It If You Haven't Tried It

A few months ago, a conversation with the incomparably sassy Spicyflower led to a discussion of different ways of serving a new recipe I'd found for butternut squash gnocchi.

Seeing as how I'd picked up a large butternut squash at last weekend's farmers' market, and seeing as how the lovely Phoenix had time to learn something new, last night we tested the recipe.

And the votes are in: All thumbs UP for this one!

Though I baked the squash and started one sauce before Phoenix and Mr. Nice Guy arrived, Phoenix had the thrill of pureeing the squash through my old-fashioned cone sieve. We mixed up the dough and boiled the freeform dumplings while I finished one sauce and heated another. Finally, when all the gnocchi were cooked, we quickly steamed kale from my garden and spinach from the market to go with our homemade pasta.

So picture this: a bed of fresh steamed greens, a handful of creamy peach-colored butternut squash gnocchi, and then your choice of two sauces -- the first sauce, a lovely soy bechamel, contained carmelized onions and garlic and a hint of rosemary, while the second sauce took spaghetti sauce (a basic marinara) and added cinnamon and nutmeg for a more exotic flavor.

Both sauces worked well with the gnocchi, which were a little on the bland side, though the squash flavor came through reasonably well. But I think my happy taste testers preferred the onion bechamel... as did I.

In keeping with the theme of National Organic Harvest Month, here's the tally on this dinner:

For the gnocchi: the squash was organic AND locally grown, the eggs were locally-produced (free-range, not certified organic but probably close), the flour was organic, the spices... who knows?

For the sauce: the marinara was store-bought organic; the onions and garlic in the bechamel were organic and locally grown, the flour and olive oil and soy milk were organic.

And the greens were both organic and locally grown. So... another good meal for the month!

We saved just a corner of space in our full bellies for slices of homemade pumpkin-walnut torte (more on that once I work out the final version of the recipe), chock full of walnuts and weighted down with a too-buttery frosting. (Flavor was good... but the frosting is a bit overpowering.)

Phoenix and Mr. Nice Guy stayed to do the dishes for me (hooray!) while I kicked back a little bit...

And contemplated what I'll do with the remaining gnocchi.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Eat Locally... Globally!

Just found this wonderful article from FoodFirst.org that ties into other posts I've written about local food economies:

"Going Local on a Global Scale"

The article gives further details on the environmental impacts of shipping food cross-country as well as more information on the impacts of food trade.

Worth a read!

Saturday, September 17, 2005

S'chee Whiz!

Though technically it's still summer, it feels very fall-like today with cooler temperatures, a lingering dampness in the air after a misty rain, and dreary skies.

Good thing I made a pot of vegetable stock this morning, because I suddenly got a craving for soup for dinner.

But what kind of soup? Looking over my vegetable selection, I chose the tomatoes from my garden, the potatoes and cabbage from last week's market, and the carrots from this morning because I decided to make s'chee, a classic Russian cabbage soup.

Now, the recipe I have for this soup calls for beef broth, and that's something I don't keep around my vegetarian kitchen. So I looked up my trusty vegetarian French onion soup recipe and followed it to add a couple of extra herbs and spice to the sauteeing onions, as well as some tamari to the vegetable stock.

After the soup had simmered nearly an hour, my mouth began to water at the savory fragrance escaping the kitchen. I ladled some s'chee into one of my pottery bowls, added a dollop of drained nonfat yogurt on top, and tucked in.

And before you could say "Nikolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky is his name," my bowl was empty. The broth was so satisfyingly rich and hearty, and the vegetables were so flavorful and tender, that I couldn't help but slurp it all down.

Cabbage soup never had great appeal for me before. But this -- this I could eat night after night, I think. At least for a few nights.

Lucky for me, I've got two more quarts in the refrigerator.

Lucky for you, I'm sharing the recipe.

S'chee (Russian Cabbage Soup)

The original recipe, from Betty Crocker's International Cookbook, is decidedly not vegetarian. This makes a very satisfying replacement.

1 onion, chopped
2 T olive oil or butter
1/4 tsp ground dry mustard
1/4 tsp dried thyme
1 qt vegetable stock
1/4 c tamari
2 very small cabbages, shredded (about 3-4 c.)
2 carrots, sliced
2 medium potatoes, cubed
1 stalk celery, sliced
2 tomatoes, chopped
salt and pepper to taste

Saute onions in oil in Dutch oven until tender. Add mustard and thyme, stirring until browned.

Add stock, tamari, cabbage, carrots, potatoes, and celery. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer. Cover pot and simmer until vegetables are tender, about 30 minutes.

Stir in tomatoes. Add salt and pepper to taste. Simmer uncovered for 10 minutes.

Serve in earthy pottery bowls, top each serving with a dollop of sour cream or drained nonfat yogurt, and listen to some Russian music. It's good for your soul.

Serves 6 to 8

Packing It In

I just can't help myself.

When Saturday morning and the farmers' market roll around, I simply cannot stop myself from loading my backpack to its limits with all that good, fresh produce and the wholesome baked goods. Even if I stop at the grocery store on the way, even if I have a list, it doesn't matter. By the time I'm headed back up the hill, my pack is bursting at the seams with plenty of fruits and vegetables for the week and beyond.

This week was no exception. In fact, my bag was so full this morning that I would probably be utterly astonished if someone weighed it and told me how much I had carried. (It was almost more than I could handle.) Add the contents of the small net bag I had also filled, and you can imagine that I got quite a workout from my shopping trip.

So what was in the bags? Aside from my store-bought groceries (including half a gallon of soy milk, a small bunch of celery, and aluminum foil), I visited several farmers and picked up:

--fresh cilantro and one slender eggplant from the gentleman farmer's son (a very polite boy of 9 or 10)

--a bag of Early Mac apples from the orchardist

--a large butternut squash from the older ladies

--organic spinach from the cheerful lady (who, alas, is out of squash and baby pie pumpkins)

--carrots from the wool lady, plus her daughter's prize-winning Asian pears from the county fair (she very proudly showed me the ribbons!)

--two small pie pumpkins from the Amish farm stand

--a loaf of focaccia from the bakery stand

You'll note how many hefty items there were in my pack, and you'll understand why I opted not to purchase more of the Kennebec potatoes (which are very tasty!) I had found last week.

It looks like I'll be busy cooking all weekend.

After I get a break!

Friday, September 16, 2005

An Organic Experience

To celebrate National Organic Harvest Month (as if I haven't been celebrating it all summer!), I made a conscious effort to make tonight's dinner as close to 100% organic as I could. And I'm thrilled to say that I came pretty darn close!

I decided to try the squash bread pudding recipe from Simply in Season, using organic butternut squash, onions, garlic, olive oil, eggs, and soy milk. (The spices and the Parmesan cheese, a very minor part of the dish, were not organic.) For the bread, I used the remains of my rosemary-walnut cider bread, which used organic apple juice, wheat germ, whole wheat flour, rosemary, and walnuts (but conventional yeast, salt, and nonfat dry milk).

As a side dish, I picked fresh kale from my (largely) organic garden (the compost wouldn't be 100% certified, I'm afraid, but it's good enough for me), steamed it, and tossed it with salt and a thin slice of organic butter. Yum!

And for dessert, I decided to live it up and have a homemade "mocha" made with delicious dark organic fair trade coffee, organic cocoa mix, and organic cane sugar.

It took a little more thinking to come up with a meal that was mostly organic (and at least partially locally grown, too!), but it was also good to approach my food more mindfully, both in the cooking and the eating. On a cool, damp evening, it made the perfect fall meal -- warm and hearty and comforting.

I think that my efforts to celebrate National Organic Harvest Month over the next two weeks will help me appreciate how much organic food is available locally as well as open my eyes to what items in my cupboard are not organic -- so that I can consider whether switching to organic would be possible for those items, or whether choosing local over organic would be better.

So much to consider... but oh! so much to savor!

End-of-Season Berry

I've just stumbled across this wonderfully thoughtful and thought-provoking article by one of my favorite writers: "Renewing Husbandry" by Wendell Berry, found in Orion Magazine.

The article is long for an online article, but it's worth your while if you have been at all interested in my previous posts about local food and agriculture. Berry's writing always resonates with his love of the land and his passion for renewing local and household economy in the truest sense, and the more I read of his works, the more I'm convinced that the vision he articulates is one we should all consider.

I particularly appreciate how, in this article, he talks about how, as humans, we regularly face limits that are "not only inescapable but indispensable." We can't have everything in this world, be it consumer goods or control over all of nature. Thank goodness! Some of you know from my own choices of the past year that I've discovered that sometimes having limits can, paradoxically, result in more freedom... freedom to live more fully and more honestly... and I think that Berry's point echoes that realization.

(On a related note, I've been meaning to post the link to Grist's interview with Louella Hill, a "local-foods ambassador" in Rhode Island. Inspiring!)

Just a little something for you to read this weekend while you're waiting for more adventures from my kitchen...

Thursday, September 15, 2005

National Organic Harvest Month

Hey, did you know that September is National Organic Harvest Month?

The Organic Trade Association has some ideas for ways to celebrate, as well as a listing of events planned to celebrate National Organic Harvest Month.

I'm not close enough to any of the planned events, so I might just have to have an organic dinner party at my place. After all, there's still a few more weeks left to pick up fresh organic produce at the farmers' market. Anyone interested? (Sorry, anyone in the area interested?)

Time to celebrate!

In Season

I like to keep my eyes open for books on food -- be they cookbooks, non-fiction explorations of food and culture, or simply novels. Sometimes I like to expand my knowledge or awareness with such books, and sometimes I'm just looking to add some tasty new recipes to my repertoire.

Earlier this year I found a review for a new book called Simply in Season. Published by the Mennonite Central Committee, the same folks who brought us the More-with-Less Cookbook, this book sounded like it would be another good, straightforward cookbook, but with an emphasis on using foods in season, as they're harvested, or preserving the harvest for later. So I knew I had to get a hold of this book and look it over.

When at last I picked it up from the library last week, I took it home and went straight through it in the course of a day, bookmarking recipes all through the book (arranged by seasons) and picking out good quotes and facts for use here. For example, in one side note, farmer Dan Guenthner meditates on the diversity of creation and its impact on how he sees his work:

After 15 years of farming, I feel as though I know so little. Oh, I know a few of the nearly 300 beetle species here. I know most of the common weeds and the birds that nest on these acres. I know the toads, the salamanders and the fireflies that land in our children's hands. But what about the rest? How small would this farm have to be in order to know all of the life forms that share it? How can I learn to let go of my own narrow design for this landscape? (p.67)

And author Mary Beth Lind offers her thoughts on taking the time to appreciate the seasons, whether in the garden or the kitchen:

Time is health. Unfortunately I've been brainwashed into thinking that time is money. I'm trying to re-program myself to think of time as health. I know that slow foods such as whole grains, dried beans, and vegetables are better for me than fast foods. Wellness programs suggest 30 minutes of exercise daily. My spiritual director recommends 30 minutes of meditation and prayer daily. I guess, for my health, I'll keep spending time in my garden; it provides for both. (p.181)

As I explored the book and mentally dipped my finger into several recipes, I noticed something unusual: I regularly caught myself smiling broadly as I read. Was it the thought of all that fresh, organic, locally-grown produce going into delectable dishes? Was it the delight of reading how others approach their food with the same awareness of its connection to our environment? Was it the joy of the spirit in giving food its proper respect and place in creation, as well as in sharing it to nurture family and friends?

Yes, yes, and yes.

These recipes come from all over the United States and Canada (as well as a few international mission outposts), giving it a true community cookbook feeling. Maybe that's what made me so happy: the realization that there are many more folks out there who share my views on sustainable agriculture and good food.

Before I return the book to the library, there are a few fall recipes I'd like to try, such as the Savory Squash Bread Pudding, the Vegetarian Groundnut Stew, an Apple Cake, Carrot Cookies, and one or two granola recipes. I'll have to thumb through the book to come up with my list for the farmers' market this week so that I can cook while these foods are still in season.

There are many other recipes calling my name, though, and I may find that I just have to get my own copy. (That's saying something, because I don't buy cookbooks very often -- I prefer to borrow them and copy a few recipes before giving the books back.)

And until I can test more recipes and let you know how they turned out, I'll leave you with a recipe that helped me use up the last of my organic okra for the year:

Okra Curry

If you like fried okra or Indian food, this is worth a try. Be sure to cook the okra until tender and soft so that its flavor and texture mingles better with the tomatoes and spices.

1/2 c onion, sliced
1/4 tsp garlic, minced
1/4 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp ground turmeric
1/4 tsp chili powder
1 lb okra, cleaned, trimmed, and sliced
1/2 tsp salt
1 c tomatoes, chopped

Saute onion in 2 T oil until golden. Add garlic and spices and saute for a few minutes. Add okra and salt and cook a few minutes. Add tomatoes and cook a few more minutes until the liquids evaporate.

Sevres 6

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Letting Things Simmer

It's a quiet week in the kitchen, due to a calendar filled with appointments and campus lectures, as well as to an aching back. I've got plenty of fresh produce I want to cook with, but I just haven't yet had the time or energy to do so, and may not until tomorrow or Friday.

(I also have a fitness evaluation this afternoon, and in the time-honored human tradition, I'm trying to be "good" and not eat too many "bad" things before I step on the scales. No, I don't have anything to worry about... but I do it anyway, just to make sure I go in there in the best possible condition. Then I'll probably go home and have a hearty dinner... or at least some steamed green beans with a dish of spicy peanut sauce, ooooooh.)

But the roasted veg stew reheats well and is fun to eat with my fingers and pieces of that yummy whole wheat pita bread... the broccoli and zucchini and roasted red peppers I've had in the fridge have made excellent quick and tasty pasta dishes... the Mollie apples are a good addition to my lunches... and a pan of apple-date bars has keep my sweet tooth satisfied in a low-key way.

And my reading pile has a couple of ethnic-food-related novels and a nonfiction book on local foods clamoring for their turn to be read... while Simply in Season patiently waits for me to try a few recipes as well as to write up a review for my Dear Readers (because it's a good one!).

I promise, I will be returning soon with more tales of culinary adventures and new recipes.

As the old saying goes, a watched pot never boils.

(But when the cooking's done... then you get to savor it!)

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Roast and Two Veg Sunday

Let me begin by saying that this title does not mean that I have reverted to my long-long-ago omnivorous ways. No, the roast in question refers to the roasted eggplant (and more than two veg) in the stew recipe I tested this evening.

I've mentioned before what delight I took in reading Local Flavors. Between the rapturous descriptions of farmers' markets, tempting recipes, and gorgeous photos, how could I not be completely enthralled? And how could I pass up sampling some of those dishes?

Since I had eggplant leftover from last week's market, roasted red peppers in the fridge, and the remaining vegetables from this week's market (as well as a tomato and some basil from my own garden), I was at last ready to make the Roasted Eggplant and Chickpea Stew.

The vegetables in this dish are all cut into large slices and chunks, so the prep time is negligible (unless you're roasting peppers on the spot instead of making them ahead of time). Even the herb puree that gets tossed with the veggies takes almost no time to mix.

But don't think that this is a dish you can throw together at the last minute for unexpected company. Once everything is combined in the casserole dish, you add a little water, cover it, and let it braise in the oven for a full hour and a half.

That's right -- no fast food here. This dish takes its sweet ol' time to simmer and soften and smell divine. Take this hour and a half to weed the garden, take a long bath, write a novel.

Then be prepared for a rich, fragrant stew of tender, mellow vegetables. I had a big salad beforehand (my stomach started grumbling about half an hour into the cooking time... what else was I to do?) and then slipped a little reheated brown rice under the stew, making it the perfect meal to herald the coming autumn...

And the perfect meal to round out an active weekend.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Rosemary Me!

Rosemary can be a difficult herb because the multitude of volatile oils in its slender leaves are so strong that combining it with anything else can cause flavors to clash horribly. Still, I love the fragrant piny smell and flavor, and I’ve found that it pairs well with crisp autumn apples as well as with whole grain bread.

So one day it finally occurred to me: why not make a yeasted whole grain bread using apple cider as the liquid and adding rosemary to deepen to flavor into something appropriate for fall and winter? And while I’m at it, why not add walnuts for texture and richness?

I adapted the pain aux noix recipe from The Breads of France (2nd edition) to fit this vision, and since I couldn’t wait long enough for this year’s fresh batch of cider, I used organic apple juice instead.

When I pulled the first loaf from the oven, the heavenly perfume of these perfectly mingled flavors nearly bowled me over – and only the steaming heat coming off the loaf kept me from diving in then and there. But once I was able to sample it, I discovered a moist, tender crumb as well as a slightly tangy bite (from using no sweetener other than the apple cider or juice) that added character to the rich flavor.

Though I originally intended this recipe to go with any number of vegetable soups, you’ll find that this bread, toasted (or French toasted!), makes an excellent addition to your breakfast plate as well.

Rosemary-Walnut Cider Bread

2 1/2 c apple cider or juice (boiled, then cooled to 105-115 F)
1 pkg (or 1 T) dry yeast
1/2 c nonfat dry milk
2 T butter, room temperature
2 tsp salt
1 tsp fresh minced rosemary
1 c wheat germ
4 1/2 c whole wheat flour, approximately
1 c English walnuts, crushed

Glaze: 1 egg + 1 T milk

Sprinkle the dry yeast in a large bowl and add warm cider. Stir in dry milk, butter, salt, and rosemary. Blend wheat germ into wet ingredients. Add whole wheat flour, 1/2 c at a time, until batter is thick and difficult to stir. Add the walnuts before the batter becomes too stiff. Let it rest 3-4 minutes while large flour particles absorb their fill of moisture.

Cautiously add additional flour to make a mass that can be lifted by hand from the bowl. (Don’t add too much flour; dough will stiffen up and you won’t be able to knead it!) Turn ball of dough onto work surface dusted with unbleached flour. Knead for about 6 minutes, banging the dough down hard on work surface occasionally to loosen up the dough. Cover dough with a clean linen towel and leave at room temperature until dough has doubled in bulk (a little over an hour).

Place dough on work surface and push it into a large flat oval. Divide dough into 2 equal parts (or the number of loaves desired). Let dough rest 5 minutes before shaping. Shape each piece into a ball, tucking the cut surfaces under the ball. Flatten the ball slightly with a gentle pat of the palm. Place on greased baking sheet and repeat with other pieces. Cover boules and leave them at room temperature to rise again for approximately another hour.

Preheat oven to 380 F 20 minutes before baking. Brush loaves with egg-milk glaze and slash the top of each with 3-4 shallow cuts with a razor blade or VERY sharp knife. Place baking sheet on middle shelf of the oven and bake for 35 minutes. Halfway through the bake period, turn baking sheet around to equalize oven temperature on the loaves. Loaves are done when dark brown and sound hollow when tapped (on bottom). Place loaves on metal rack to cool.

The Bounty Hunter

It's another quiet late summer morning, and hardly a soul was out as I walked down sun-sprinkled, tree-lined allets and avenues one my way to and from the farmers' market. The market, of course, buzzed with the pleasant conversation of farmers, merchants, and townspeople alike, but my solitary walk allowed me the chance to listen to the crickets and the birds instead.

This is such a lovely time of year, when the morning air holds a faint crisp note that pairs well with the multitude of apple varieties appearing at the market. And I find now that I can walk blithely by the baskets of tomatoes since I only have eyes for the earthy potatoes and firmly rounded squash.

You'll pardon me if I tend to wax rhapsodic about the local farmers' market, but as always, I managed to fill my backpack with produce and goods for what seems a mere pittance:

-late green beans and mixed greens from the gentleman farmer (and his two little boys)

-sweet, rosy red and pink Mollie apples from the orchardist who reminds me of an elderly cousin

-two tight, fist-sized cabbages and a pint of locally produced honey from a mother-son team (I have to stock up on honey for baklava, you know!)

-whole wheat pita breads from a gregarious woman who also sells homemade hummus and, yes, baklava

-two more baby pumpkins from the cheerful lady; I have yet to try to pumpkin cake recipe again, but she tells me she'd be happy to volunteer as a taste tester

-a large head of broccoli and a quart of Kennebec potatoes from the Amish farm stand

Add to that the last three cucumbers picked from my own garden, and you can see that today provided a bountiful harvest.

I've read that less than one percent of the entire population of the U. S. are full-time farmers, and "farmer" is no longer an occupation choice on the U. S. Census. In an area of rich soils and extensive farmlands, you'd think there would be more farmers at our local market. But those that do come in to town on Saturday mornings offer a wonderful change from the faceless, plastic-wrapped selections at local groceries.

So when you get right down to it, I know what I'd rather hunt for:

Farm produce with a friendly face.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Repeat Performance

You'd wouldn't think I'd be this worn out this early in the semester, but there you go.

I've been cleaning out the refrigerator the past couple of days and not cooking anything new, but last night I mustered the energy and excitement to repeat a couple of recent winning recipes.

First up, I made baingan bhartha again for dinner with some of those lovely little eggplants I found at the farmers' market last weekend. And since I had bought extra, I still have plenty left to try the roasted eggplant and chickpea stew recipe I recently found in Local Flavors.

Unfortunately, for whatever reason (the lack of cilantro? the waxing moon? the exhaustion?) it didn't turn out quite so perfectly this time. Lots of good flavor and the right amount of heat, but, well... it just wasn't as satisfying. Sigh.

I also whipped up a quick batch of peanut butter-chocolate chip cookies because, well, the carrot cake is all gone, and because I had promised to make tech sacrifices for the Tech Gods this week. (Linux Man in particular has been looking forward to these as I think this recipe is his favorite.)

They turned out as soft and tender and melt-in-your-mouth as ever, even with going the wholesome route again, using whole wheat flour, Sucanat, grain-sweetened chocolate chips, natural peanut butter, and organic butter and eggs. My sampling of the cookies for dessert left me very relieved that I'd gotten one recipe right, at least!

Sometimes things don't work out as well the second time around.

But at least there are always some recipes I can count on.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

3, 2, 1, Let's Jam!

It's wonderful to have cooler weather these days, because it doesn't bother me in the least now to crank up the heat under my giant canner to make preserves.

Last night I took the remaining five Bartlett pears and a couple of Early Gold apples and peeled, cored, and chopped them up for jam. I've never made pear jam before, but I had copied a recipe from (I think) Christine Ferber's Mes Confitures that sounded appealing. (I did not, however, follow it exactly... don't take what follows as a recipe because I really winged it!)

I cooked the fruit with a couple splashes of the leftover unsweetened white grape juice and a couple spoonfuls of maple sugar (since I have no granulated sugar in the house right now), along with the juice of half a lemon and a dash of vanilla. Once it had boiled and simmered for a while, I used my immersion blender to puree the fruit a little bit... not entirely, as I still wanted a certain chunkiness to the jam.

Then, I added mini diced ginger, pine nuts, and walnuts, and stirred them all in before dividing the jam between two pint jars. Add lids and rings, and process in the old hot water bath for 15 minutes.

I haven't sampled the jam yet, though it did smell wonderfully fragrant and tasty. But it looks gorgeous in the jar, all golden and chunky and rich, so I'm sure one of these days I'll have to have it on my morning toast.

A perfect pear-ing!

Monday, September 05, 2005

Feeling Saucy

Peter may pick a peck of pickled peppers, but I'm particular enough to prefer a peck of pretty apples.

And what, pray tell, do you propose to do with a peck of pretty apples? you may ask.

Well, applesauce, of course!

It's been a few years since I made applesauce, but the basics came back to me fairly quickly (though I regret to say I added a bit too much water to the pot). I even became quite speedy at halving, coring, peeling, and slicing the apples -- after the first dozen, you get the knack, you know. I used only half the peck, though, as my pot got full after 20 or so apples.

It all went well, and the cooked apples came out of my old cone sieve as a silky, pale golden puree. Just beautiful!

And then -- disaster struck!

Well, to be fair, it was more of a silly mishap and was easily remedied. See, I assumed that applesauce needed the same amount of headspace in the jar that jams and fruits need. Alas, it needed more, as the applesauce was hot when I filled the jars, and it continued to boil inside them.

So when I took the jars out of the hot water bath, applesauce oozed from the lids and slowly poured down the sides in a pale froth.

I let the jars cool before I removed the rings and lids and spooned the excess sauce into an additional jar. Then I wiped everything down, added new lids and clean rings, and ran the jars through the hot water bath for another 20 minutes to seal them again.

At last, I ended up with 5 1/2 pints of unsweetened applesauce (leak-free) and a little peace of mind.

But the question remains:

What to do with the remaining half-peck of pretty apples?

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Eighteen-Carrot

Though my birthday is now well-past, the Chef Mother came through with an extended celebration of my day by baking my favorite birthday treat: her legendary carrot cake.

I will now pause briefly in rapturous contemplation of this fabulous dessert.

Sigh.

Those who have sampled the Chef Mother's carrot cake know that I do not exaggerate when I tell you I have sampled a great deal of carrot cake across this country, and none of it -- absolutely no other carrot cake -- stands up to hers.

She uses a full pound of carrots, plenty of spices, good Mexican vanilla, and lots of walnuts. But the crowning touch is a vanilla-laced cream cheese frosting piled half an inch thick on top, all around, and in between the layers of this moist, rich cake.

And so you can imagine my delight at being able to tuck that heavenly concoction into the refrigerator last night. You may also be astonished at the restraint I exercised in not sampling that cake for over 24 hours.

I invited my Opera-Loving Friends and their daughter over for dessert tonight so that I could have some help in eating the cake. (Let's face it -- I'm getting older and/or wiser, and I truly cannot eat a whole cake by myself, even over days. And my friends are much the happier for that fact.)

As my one friend noted, "Tell your mother she has come through again for another fine cake."

It's true. It's an absolutely unbeatable cake. It's a cake that tastes best when shared.

It's a cake worth getting older for.

A Pear of Projects

By the time I went to bed last night, my kitchen table was full of good produce from yesterday's trip to the market (and orchard). So I knew that this morning I'd have to start right away in dealing with it all.

(I think that's why I slept in until the indecently decadent hour of 9 AM.)

I started with the pears -- halved, peeled, cored, and packed into two quart jars and one pint, and covered with a light syrup of water and white grape juice. I decided to can only just over half the pears in the basket as I found a pear jam I'd like to try later in the week.

Next, I canned tomatoes: one full pint of Costoluto Genovese, and three pints combining Goose Creek and the tomatoes found at the market yesterday.

In an essay by Wendell Berry that I read while waiting for the tomatoes to process, I found a sadly true statement:

Though people have not progressed beyond the need to eat food and drink water and wear clothes and live in houses, most people have progressed beyond the domestic arts -- the husbandry and wifery of the world -- by which those needful things are produced and conserved. In fact, the comparative few who still practice that necessary husbandry and wifery often are inclined to apologize for doing so, having been carefully taught in our education system that those arts are degrading and unworthy of people's talents. ("In Distrust of Movements," In the Presence of Fear, p.39)

Like Berry, I am saddened that this state of things has come to be. I do not, however, apologize. I am grateful that I learned these (and other) domestic arts from the Chef Mother (as well as my grandmother and Fabulous Aunt), and I am delighted to be able to pass them on to the lovely Phoenix and to my Granola Girl.

It's worthwhile and rewarding work. It's so satisfying to see the summer's harvest neatly tucked away in glass jars with gleaming metal lids -- to know that, come winter, I'll reach for a jar for my cooking, and I'll get to relive the tastes of summer.

It's work, yes... but it's work that I'm happy to do.

And I may have to get more jars!

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Harvest Boon

Here we are in September already, with the evening extinguishing the sun's light sooner and sooner each night, and the crickets reverberating with the reminder to play and enjoy the warmth while it lasts.

The return of September also indicates that the days of this year's farmers' market are numbered -- only six or seven more Saturdays left in the schedule -- and therefore it's time to gather in as much produce as possible for the last frenzied rounds of preserving as well as for fresh dinners.

On today's trip down to the market, I crammed my backpack so full of food that I had to carry an added bag along with it. (And I didn't even find any potatoes, as I had hoped!)

I revisited the gentleman farmer in the hopes of finding more of the tiny eggplant that had so enchanted me last week. Indeed, he did, and I walked away with two quarts of those little beauties in order to make more baingan bhartha -- or maybe a stew.

I stopped to see the wool lady, not out of desire for a fuzzy hat but because she had bags of small tender carrots. Some may end up in my lunches this next week -- and some might get canned or frozen.

From the cheerful lady with the organic farm, I bought more onions (a mixed bag of red and yellow ones of varying sizes) and garlic, and I also picked up a bag of basil for making more pesto.

From the other organic farm stand, I brought home a zucchini, more okra (they've gotten to know me well!), and some tomatoes. I know -- since I already have tomatoes of my own, why buy more? But mine aren't ripening fast enough for me to pick and can several at once, which I want to do this weekend, so I thought I'd get more. Besides, this farm family won't be at the market next week (off to an herb fair north of town), and they may be done with their crops by the following week, so I thought I should support them while I could.

Finally, I bought small bags of locally-ground and -milled whole wheat flour and oats since I know I'll need those in fall baking.

But that's not all! Later in the morning my Dear Papa drove me to a local orchard so that I could get a peck of Early Gold apples for making applesauce, as well as a small basket of Bartlett pears for canning and heaven knows what else.

I love harvest time -- there's so much good food!

And with a long weekend, I can do something about it.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Subsidize Me!

(NOTE: As promised, here's the second "review" of Diet for a Dead Planet. Again, all page citations come from this book. And yes, it's another long one. Fasten your safety belts.)

The vast majority of facts and ideas presented in Diet for a Dead Planet were familiar to me after reading books such as Fast Food Nation, Food Politics, So Shall We Reap, and Eat Here. All offer useful and often appalling information, of course, but after a certain point I read some of these things and think, "Yes, it's awful -- and why haven't things changed for the better?"

Then I read the chapter on farm subsidies, exports, and food aid.

Hey, wait a minute -- come back here! Look, I know the thought of dry economic and political talk is off-putting. Believe me, I thought I was going to yawn all the way through the chapter.

Instead, I ended up bookmarking nearly every page and taking copious notes because it was the most concise and cogent explanation of this area of public policy that I had ever read. I mean, I actually became so fascinated that I even wrote down some of the author's sources and hope to research additional Department of Agriculture documents to learn more. (Yes, I'm still a research geek at heart.)

And if you will indulge me, I'd like to try to distill this information so you can understand my excitement, because I think these policies are the key to why modern agriculture continues to head down a destructive path -- and how we can change that.

In theory, subsidies are monies allocated by the federal government in the annual budget to support farmers because in times of economic downturns, farmers must still receive a steady income in order to be able to produce the food that feeds the country. Sounds reasonable, right?

In reality, the economic effect of subsidies are not so reasonable. By setting price ceilings on crops, subsidies may guarantee a certain level of income for farmers, but they also ensure that food marketers and the processing industries have a ready supply of cheap food. These corporations then raise the prices of the end food products to cover the added inputs -- and they make the profits. When you pay more for your food at the supermarket, the bulk of your money is going to the corporations, and only a small percentage goes to the farmers.

And how many farmers actually see enough money from the government to help sustain their livelihoods? According to a June 2001 report from the then General Accounting Office, the wealthiest farmers take the lion's share of subsidies, while small farmers get a pittance:

The bottom 80 percent... took home a meager $1,680 each on average. At the pinnacle of farm subsidy privilege, the top 1 percent of all the nation's beneficiaries got payments averaging $175,651... (p.225)

Why does it work this way? It isn't a question of survival of the fittest -- it is built into the subsidy system.

Because farm payments are "generally based on volume of production," big growers rake in most of the cash -- money that enables them to buy up more land, purchase more equipment, and push smaller competitors out of business. (p.227)

So let's be absolutely clear here: subsidies are not about protecting all farmers equally. Subsidies protect the markets, which are dominated by the agribusinesses, and they specifically protect certain crop markets in order to maintain a constant surplus.

Well, what's wrong with that? you may ask. Isn't it a good thing to be prepared for times of emergency? After all, even the Baklava Queen has been stashing away the summer's surplus for the winter.

And to you I would say, preserving a surplus is a good idea -- but the agricultural surplus promoted by subsidies is not, by and large, intended for use here in our country. This surplus is produced specifically for export to foreign nations, especially the poor developing nations, flooding their markets with cheap grains (wheat and corn leading the way) in order to expand U. S. markets and, once again, enrich American corporations. The results?

If it is dumped abroad, either as food aid or as bargain-basement-price exports, excess food no longer threatens U. S. markets, but instead penetrates and destabilizes agriculture markets in other countries. There is rampant evidence suggesting highly destructive economic and social effects wrought by the spread of cheap surplus food, predominantly from the United States and Europe into developing countries whose agricultural sectors are both vital and precarious. (p.237)

This shouldn't be surprising when we see a similar problem here in our own country, where local farmers are pushed out of business because cheaper produce from large corporate farms half a continent away gluts the market. After all, if you're on a tight budget, you're probably going to look for the bargain prices, right? Only in developing countries, far more people make their livelihood from working the land -- between 50 and 80 percent (p.238) -- so far more people may be shoved into unemployment, poverty, and hunger.

The question of food aid -- which I hadn't really examined before reading an insightful BBC article as well as this book -- is closely tied to these exports. While helping other countries in times of famine is a generous gesture, food aid can also hurt those countries more than it helps them because it opens up a market for U. S. agricultural surplus and keeps those developing countries dependent on food aid and exports. (There's also the question of whether that food gets to the people who truly need it -- as well as the question of food surpluses exacerbating the steady increase of global population -- but I'm sure I'm taxing your patience as it is with this lengthy essay.)

It's not that subsidies and exports are harmful in themselves. In a different system, both could be very beneficial tools:

There is no reason that we can't have an entirely different subsidy system that promotes diversified, small-scale organic farming and that expands food security to make healthy and sustainable food economically viable. The only obstacle to such policies is the opposition of deeply entrenched financial and political interests. (p.242)

Meaning, the corporations who benefit from the current system -- and the politicians they support through campaign contributions and lobbying (i.e., almost all of them) -- won't let these changes happen without a fight.

So what do we do? The author offers three major suggestions (p.257):

1. Push for changes in the annual farm bill that doles out subsidies. Demand that the money go to "small, diversified agriculture, organics, and community food security projects" in order to provide American families with food that is "more healthy, environmentally responsible, local, and economically sustaining."

2. Push the government to break up these corporate monopolies. Related to that, balance your consumer habits between not supporting these corporations with your purchases AND writing to the corporations to explain why you won't buy their products and what you'd like them to change. (Convince your favorite political action groups to lead the way; after all, they launched a huge campaign against Exxon... why not one against the big food conglomerates?)

3. Push for federal and local policies that support a more sustainable, locally-based agriculture that provides food security to communities. This might include encouraging the growth of farmers' markets, community gardens, farm-to-school projects, and other policies.

Your personal choices count. But we also need to make the effort to push for community-wide changes, because the system isn't going to change until the policy makers and the profit-takers hear that we're not going to support this unsustainable way of living any more. Start small, if you need to -- but start raising your voice and your concerns.

And I'm telling myself this as much as I'm telling you.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

My Bhartha is Smarter

So just what did I end up making with those adorably petite eggplants from the farmers' market?

At the same time that I roasted the red peppers last evening, I roasted the halved baby eggplants. While the peppers cooled, I scooped the eggplant mush from their skins and set them aside to add to the dish I had already started simmering: baingan bhartha.

I don't often get baingan bhartha at Indian restaurants because too often the eggplant gets too oily and has too strong a taste. Some places do it exceptionally well, however, which is why I still like the dish (if done well).

I'd been eyeing the recipe for "royal" baingan bhartha in my well-loved copy of The Indian Vegetarian for some time, but I never wanted to broil the eggplants and never convinced myself to try just roasting the vegetables. Until last night, when I arranged them on the roasting pan (with no extra oil) alongside the peppers.

The dish starts with sauteed garlic, ginger, and cumin seeds (though I had only powder left), then adds onions, tomatoes, and a host of spices. Once that simmers down to almost a paste, you add the eggplant, and after a bit, you add some cream for a lovely, silky texture when you eat this mushy dish.

Happily, though I fudged in a couple of ingredients, I got the spices exactly at the temperature I enjoy most (hot enough to cause your forehead to get a tad damp, but not break out in a sweat), and the conservative amount of oil I used in the pan simply enhanced the creaminess of the dish instead of overpowering it. And the overall flavors?

Divine.

So yes, there is a smarter way to make this dish at home and still have it taste incredible for a late summer dinner.

(Oh, and lunch the next day, too.)

Celebrity Roast

I've been trying to challenge myself culinarily this year, what with trying new recipes and making up new recipes and trying new techniques. So it was that last evening I tried my hand at roasting peppers for the first time.

I had picked up some lovely little dark red sweet peppers (organic!) at the farmers' market a week and a half ago, mainly for a recipe that I ended up not making (at least not exactly as written). But since there were so many of these sweet little things in a pint basket (the largest was perhaps 3" long), and I tend not to eat much sweet pepper since I'm not overly keen on it, I thought I would try roasting them (since I do like them roasted) and packing them into a jar.

So, after about 20 minutes in a 400 F oven, I took out the blistered peppers and tossed them into a plastic bag (as the recipe stated) so that they could "sweat" a bit before I peeled them. (I turned my attention to dinner prep while this occurred; more on that in a bit.)

It's a funny experience, peeling roasted peppers. The skin comes off like a thin sheet of plastic (just like I used to peel off notebook covers during my school days), leaving you with warm, succulently red and soft pepper flesh. While I tried to be as neat as possible at first, eventually I decided that my hands could get as messy as they liked because I just couldn't resist handling the peppers and appreciating their silky warmth.

Of course, since all the peppers were so small, I didn't fill a jar with them, but I did toss in a couple peeled cloves of garlic and two bay leaves before covering the lot with organic extra-virgin olive oil and putting the capped jar into the refrigerator.

I think it would not be immodest of me to say that it's really quite a gorgeous collection of colors and flavors sitting in that jar. And though I'm not sure yet how I'll use the peppers, I'm sure I'll come up with something.

And it will be stellar!