Thursday, November 30, 2006

A Dilly of a Dilemma

After months of waiting to get my hands on it, plus a couple of weeks to work my way slowly and thoughtfully through its pages, I've finally finished reading The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan and can highly recommend it.

Like a number of other recent books, Pollan puts on his investigative journalist's hat and tracks back along the food chain to find out where our food really originates. The striking thing about Pollan's effort is that not only does he explore three different ways of bringing food to the table (industrial agriculture, local and sustainable agriculture, and hunting and gathering), he actually gets his hands dirty along the way.

In his overview of industrial agriculture, Pollan tracks his meal from an Iowa cornfield to a McDonald's takeout bag. While he covers points others have made -– such as the enormous amounts of chemicals and other petroleum products used to sustain the industry, the dangers of monoculture, the appalling conditions of factory farms, and the health consequences of eating a highly processed diet dependent on these points –- he goes into more depth and ties it all together, showing what this demand for and reliance on cheap food has gotten us:

One reason that obesity and diabetes become more prevalent the further down the socioeconomic scale you look is that the industrial food chain has made energy-dense foods the cheapest foods in the market, when measured in terms of cost per calorie. (p.107) who get the message that consumers care only about price will themselves care only about yield. This is how a cheap food economy reinforces itself. (p.136)

For those of us who would prefer to see this industrial food system diminish through greatly decreased subsidies and provide fewer of our dining options, Pollan indicates that it's not so easy to break away from this unsustainable form of agriculture:

In an industrial economy, the growing of grain supports the larger economy: the chemical and biotech industries, the oil industry, Detroit, pharmaceuticals (without which they couldn't keep animals healthy in CAFOs), agribusiness, and the balance of trade. Growing corn helps drive the very industrial complex that drives it. No wonder the government subsidizes it so lavishly. (p.201)

So even though the McDonald's meal for Pollan, his wife, and his son came to only $14 overall, he notes that the true cost of a fast food meal will be paid in taxes to support environmental cleanup, subsidies, legislation; rising health care costs; and greater reliance on all the products that sustain industrial agriculture.

After exploring this track, he turns his attention to the local and organic and sustainable agriculture movements, noting the overlap and the conflicts between all of them. He spent a week working at Polyface Farm, getting his hands dirty both in the soil and the slaughterhouse and coming to understand the appeal of local agriculture:

...a successful local food economy implies not only a new kind of food producer, but a new kind of eater as well, one who regards finding, preparing, and preserving food as one of the pleasures of life rather than a chore. (p.259)

As part of this research, Pollan chose to become a vegetarian for a temporary period, trying to understand how meat-eating contributes to environmental and health problems, but also learning how conscientious meat-eating can support good agricultural practices. This section of the book was especially eye-opening for me, even though I've never been a dogmatic vegetarian, because he made some compelling points that have caused me to examine my own choices more deeply:

What troubles me most about my vegetarianism is the subtle way it alienates me from other people and, odd as this might sound, from a whole dimension of human experience. (pp 313-314)

The notion of granting rights to animals may lift us up from the brutal, amoral world of eater and eaten –- of predation –- but along the way it will entail the sacrifice, or sublimation, of part of our identity –- of our own animality. (pp 314-315) is doubtful you can build a genuinely sustainable agriculture without animals to cycle nutrients and support local food production. If our concern is for the health of nature –- rather than, say, the internal consistency of our moral code or the condition of our souls –- then eating animals may sometimes be the most ethical thing to do. (pp 326-327)

Finally, the author decides to learn how to hunt and forage in order to provide a meal for which all the "karmic" cost is paid up front, connecting him as intimately as possible with the organisms he intends to eat. While he admits that for most of us, such a meal is rarely possible and such a way of eating is not sustainable on a global scale, he makes a compelling argument for learning how to gather wild foods and understanding "the true costs of the things we take for granted" (p.409).

Is any one way of food production the only true way? Pollan thinks not, and his even-handed research makes it hard to argue with his conclusion. Still, we can all benefit from knowing more about where our food comes from: "To eat with a fuller consciousness of all that is at stake might sound like a burden, but in practice few things in life can afford quite as much satisfaction" (p.11).

Maybe that's not such a dilemma after all.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Bake and Break

Since I'm home for the long holiday weekend, I've begun preparing for Christmas. My little Charlie Brownesque tree is now decked out in shiny ornaments, the Christmas music fills my loft day and night, and I've got the oven revved up for a burst of baking.

I started the day with a batch of date-nut cookies, a special request from a friend. A simple recipe, not unlike a basic chocolate chip cookie, this new treat turned out to have a satisfying texture, though a slightly bland flavor –- good, but worthy of another effort later on.

After lunch, I made another batch of ginger-molasses cookies. I think these get better and easier each time I make them!

But for a day filled with holiday delights, there's one thing you might not expect: the weather is astoundingly glorious for late November! The sun has been shining all day, and the temperatures are easily into the 60s.

What, then, was I supposed to do but to take a break from my baking, head down to street level, and visit the Hungarian pastry shop for a slice or two of nut roll and a cup of rose hip tea? And can I help it if the sidewalk tables and chairs beckoned so invitingly?

How strange it seems to enjoy an afternoon tea break outside, comfortable in the pale sunlight (without a jacket), a mere two days after Thanksgiving. This is northern Ohio, after all, and Thanksgiving often heralds our first real snow of the season. But I'm not complaining! The cold weather will return soon enough, and I'm sure the snow will come soon to decorate the strands of lights strung around the town square.

And I'll warm my home with yet more baking. Stay tuned!

Thursday, November 23, 2006

I Filo Like Giving Thanks

It's been a long time since I cooked a turkey for Thanksgiving, and come this time of year, a number of people wonder what a vegetarian like me will have on the holiday menu.

You'll forgive me if I laugh. Granted, the turkey has become a traditional fixture on the Thanksgiving table, but since the holiday itself originated as a harvest festival, it makes perfect sense to me to fill the menu with all sorts of good vegetable dishes that celebrate our agricultural bounty.

In planning the holiday feast with my friend the Southern Belle (otherwise known as Beaker and Scooter's Mommy), we decided that though there would be a turkey breast for the omnivores, the rest of the dishes would include some of our favorite harvest vegetables: the Southern Belle's praline-topped sweet potato soufflé, a broccoli gratin, and one of my favorite festive vegetarian dishes, a vegetable filo roll.

As you know, I'm not afraid to work with filo dough, and this dish makes it even easier. Instead of layering the dough in a pan, the layers are stacked on a greased baking sheet and then rolled up. In between the layers of dough and olive oil, bread crumbs and cheese add texture and height, and sautéed vegetables plump up the middle.

The original recipe, found in the Moosewood Low-Fat Favorites cookbook, calls for carrots, red peppers, zucchini, and mushrooms, but I've found that the vegetable mixture can easily be adapted to what is available and in season. Today, broccoli added the vivid color to the mix, as well as a locally grown red onion and some fresh basil from my herb "garden." (I'd have added some shredded butternut squash, too, but I had plenty of filling.)

With such an abundance of vegetables, I had to take great care in rolling up the dough:

I ended up with a beautiful roll, though, brushed with olive oil, topped with the rest of the bread crumb mixture, and browned to perfection.

Come dinner time, my vegetable roll took a proud place on the table alongside the turkey and stuffing, and I'm pleased to tell you that we all had seconds, even with everything else we put away in our very full stomachs.

So if you're still wondering what a vegetarian might eat on America's Turkey Day, I can tell you: there's nothing quite so wonderful as lots of good, well-cooked vegetables.

And I'm thankful!

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

'Tis the Season

You know Thanksgiving is around the corner if the Christmas lights are up around town! (I know, I know, it's backwards. What can I say?)

I'll be doing a fair bit of holiday cooking tomorrow as I plan to share the holiday meal with friends in town (and enjoy a bit of play time with my adorable "nephews" Beaker and Scooter), and I'm sure I'll have more to say about that later.

In the meantime, here are some good thoughts on the meaning of the Thanksgiving meal from favorite columnist Tom Philpott: "Reclaiming Thanksgiving." It's a meal that is meant to be shared in company, so enjoy!

And as Christmas draws near, I'll be wondering what's under that tree for me... a walnut torte? A box of kiflis?

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone, and may your feasts, friends, and families be blessed!

Monday, November 20, 2006

Slow as Molasses

Slowly but surely, I'm making headway on my holiday baking plans. I'm going to try to bake a batch of cookies each night this week, but we'll see how that goes with last-minute plans.

(I hear you now: why am I starting my holiday baking frenzy so soon? The answer is quite simple: I deliver or send most of my baked goodies well before mid-December due to the semester schedule and the need to ship Christmas boxes early... and often, some might add.)

Tonight's selection is one of my favorite cold-weather treats: ginger-molasses cookies. Without the crispness of gingersnaps but with all the spicy sweet flavor, these cookies make a dream pairing with a cup of spiced tea or hot cider.

They're easy to make, too, with good local unsalted butter creamed with sugar, molasses, a dash of local maple syrup (courtesy of the fair Titania), and a local free-range egg, then mixed with local whole wheat flour, baking soda, salt, and lots of good spices. You roll the dough into balls and coat them with granulated sugar (or in this case, organic cane juice crystals) and set them on a cookie sheet to bake.

Despite my inclination to curl up into a similar ball and rest last evening, I had to keep that cookie assembly line going for three trays' worth of succulent ginger goodness. Was it worth the effort?

I know you can't smell or taste these beauties, but I can assure you, they're good. They're REAL good. Even after cooling off, they still melt in the mouth and deliver a warm, dark, spicy burst of happiness.

The only trouble is... I'm definitely going to have to bake another batch, because 4 and a half dozen cookies isn't going to go very far, given my list of lucky cookie recipients (which is now up to at least a dozen students, a dozen or so local folks, and 10-12 boxes to be sent to faraway friends), not to mention the cookies I'm sure I'll nibble on until the boxes are packed.

Slowly but surely... I'll make my way back into the kitchen for more!

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Let the Holiday Baking Commence!

Due to the flurry of activity surrounding my move this fall, I didn't get my usual jump start on holiday baking. So as Thanksgiving draws closer, it's time for me to haul out the recipes, the pans and parchment paper, and all manner of cookie ingredients.

I like to start off the baking with biscotti thanks to its marvelous keeping quality. (You know, they're supposed to be stale! Well, maybe not quite stale, but certainly harder than the average cookie.) I have a handful of worthy biscotti recipes, but for the past couple of years, I've stuck to two favorites.

The first of these, ginger-pecan biscotti, became today's culinary mission. Full of bright ginger flavor from ground ginger and bits of the crystallized version, chock full of pecans and butter, these small morsels tend to be less tooth-breakingly hard than other biscotti, making them my favorite. So after breakfast, I mixed the dough and shaped it into two logs, placing them onto a parchment-covered cookie sheet.

After the first baking, I let the logs cool for about 15 minutes before I sliced them and laid the slices on the same baking sheet for another round in the oven.

I always have problems with the edges or other crumbs falling off the biscotti as I slice them, but that usually gives me plenty of morsels to nosh on while the biscotti go through the second baking. And for that reason, I can reassure you that though small, these goodies are up to their usual high standard of excellent flavor.

I'll have to start pulling out tins and boxes one of these days so that I can start assembling Christmas packages. I've got plenty more cookies and biscotti and baklava to bake over the coming weeks.

But for today, this biscotti makes a great start.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Oh, For the Love of Food!

I'm still cleaning out the party leftovers from the fridge, so I don't have any new cooking to share with you. But since I'm in a cleaning-out mode, I'll clean out my Firefox bookmarks and share with you some new links I've come across recently.

First up, here's yet another delicious article by my favorite Grist writer, Tom Philpott: "Snob Appeal: Why everyone should be allowed to love food with unrestrained glee." I try not to be obsessed by food in a damaging, self-indulgent sort of way, but doggone it, if I need food for nourishment, I want it to be good, I want it to be locally produced as much as possible, and I want to savor it.

This new blog, A Vegan Ice Cream Paradise, recently was one of Blogger's top picks, and I have to say, it makes me pretty hungry to read it. While I'm not and may never be vegan, I applaud Agnes's efforts to keep everyone aware of the joys of soy!

For those of us who like to know more about the whys and wherefores of the foods we eat, food science writer Harold McGee now has a blog called News for Curious Cooks. So far he hasn't posted much, but I'm eager to learn more.

And finally, I stumbled across Bake or Break while doing a Google search for a certain kind of cookies, and this also looks like a tasty blog to watch, especially with holiday baking right around the corner.

Now, if that doesn't hold you until I get back in the kitchen...!!

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

As the Worm Turns

Though I love my new apartment, with less space to clean and a great location close to almost all of my favorite shops and local restaurants, I admit that there are things I miss about my little house.

I miss the way the sunshine filtered into the kitchen on a Saturday morning, inviting me to bake and cook for a few hours. I miss the cool turquoise blue and white of the bathroom I redecorated. I miss the herb garden just outside the back door.

But what I think I miss the most, surprisingly enough, is the pair of compost bins that held my kitchen scraps and turned them into rich, dark compost.

And so as I moved into a place with no outdoor space for a garden or compost bin, I decided to conduct an experiment: Could I still garden and compost on a smaller scale?

The answer thus far is a resounding yes. My wide window seat holds a variety of herbs dug up and potted from my old garden, and so far they are thriving reasonably well (though the mint is wont to die back a bit).

As far as compost is concerned, I set up a small plastic bin under the kitchen sink, bedded with shredded paper and cardboard, and bought a small bunch of redworms to nibble and gnaw away at my kitchen scraps, turning them into nutrient-rich worm castings that can be mixed into the soil just like compost.

I read several helpful guides about worm bins for compost, and frankly, I'm probably doing all the wrong things. I wasn't able to drill aeration holes in the bin, I probably don't have the right mixture for bedding, and I regularly throw in garlic and onion skins, though the instructions usually say not to do so.

And yet, the worms appear to be thriving.

I dump in kitchen scraps about twice a week, and slowly, SLOWLY, the worms break down the food into dark garden gold. They seem to be doing just fine, despite my random efforts.

I'm sure that such an effort will cause many people (perhaps even some of my Dear Readers) to turn up their noses. Doesn't it stink? you may ask. Isn't that a little creepy?

Yes, there is a definite smell to the compost, but it's an earthy smell, not a stench of rotting food, and it's kept under control with an ever-handy box of baking soda right next to the bin. And though I did get a minor case of the heebie-jeebies when the worms arrived in a soft pouch and I had to open up the bag and dump them in the bin, we seem to be cohabitating rather nicely at this point, thank you.

In a few months, I'll be able to dig out lots of worm castings to mix into potting soil for my herbs or to share with friends to use on their gardens. I can't compost all my food scraps (I think big pieces of thick-skinned squash and stems might not do well), but it's much more than nothing. I hate to waste food, and I hate to waste the opportunity to return nutrient-rich goodness to the soil.

It makes a worm of difference.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Getting Into the Holiday Spirits

Before Mr. Nice Guy leaves town and heads back north to rejoin the lovely Phoenix, we have some serious eating to do.

This evening we piled into his car and headed east to visit some of our favorite local treasures: a wonderful winery, a fabulous gourmet market, and an Indian restaurant that always has good food.

Naturally, we had a mission in mind at each of these stops. Having been thoroughly pleased with the wines I'd bought at the Winery at Wolf Creek earlier in the year, I was eager to review their list and stock up on more. Of course, at this point in the year their list of wines is on the slim side, since last year's vintage is mostly gone and they're only beginning to create this year's wines. Still, I found a few palate-pleasers: the Vignoles, one of their classic sweet white wines; Blind Faith, a dry but fruity white; and a small bottle of Redemption, the semi-sweet red that had so pleased me earlier in the year.

We moved on to West Point Market, where I bought the usual suspects: a collection of favorite teas by Taylor's of Harrogate (Scottish breakfast and Spiced Christmas teas) and a pair of cheeses (the luscious Prima Donna and a pear and apple Stilton). I also indulged in a recent discovery: the spice-laden Christmas Ale by our own Cleveland-based Great Lakes Brewing Company.

After having been encouraged by the Gentleman to sample this brew at a local pub, I decided to find a six-pack for myself (which speaks volumes because I almost never buy beer) as well as for the Gentleman's next visit (whenever that may be).

Our shopping complete, Mr. Nice Guy and I headed for the Indian restaurant and kicked back to enjoy spinach ghota for an appetizer, aloo gobi and paneer Akbari for entrees, some very garlicky naan, and an intensely flavored pistachio kulfi for dessert. Happiness!

Once Mr. Nice Guy leaves, I'll have to find some new people who'll be up for dining out with me at such wonderful places. I'm sure I won't have to look far. Once you visit one of these places, you definitely want to return again and again.

And what a spirited way to start the holiday season!

Sunday, November 12, 2006

The Life of the Party

Ahhh... a quiet Sunday evening when I can put up my slippered feet and enjoy my solitude. You wouldn't even know that not four hours ago, this loft was filled with good company, good food, and general merriment.

Having kept you up to date over the past week with my party preparations, I'll simply show you the buffet table and list what all appeared there:

--A cheese plate including an Irish cheddar, a smoked Gouda, and my old favorite Gruyère, with grapes on the side
--Plenty of dips: haydari, guacamole, spinach-artichoke dip, and muhammara
--Homemade flax seed crackers, homemade pumpernickel bread, store-bought wheat crackers and baked blue corn tortilla chips
--Savory apple bruschette

--Lavash crackers
--Asiago-artichoke bruschette
--Polenta cups with sautéed squash and garlic-shallot jam

--Vegetable samosas with three kinds of homemade chutney: green tomato, blueberry-ginger, and mint-tomato
--Cucumber slices and carrots
--Chai spice shortbread, oatmeal date cookies, and chocolate charms

Not to mention the rosemary walnuts and Indian spiced pecans found on the coffee table and the hot mulled cider still simmering in the crockpot!

Though not all of the invited guests were able to attend, those who did show up loved the atmosphere of my new home and raved about the fantastic food. (I pointed out that the food had better be good, because I would probably be eating the leftovers for the rest of the week!) A couple of recipes were requested by satisfied guests, which is always a good sign, and I was able to persuade a few people to take home extra food for spouses who weren't able to attend.

And though I had requested that people not bring gifts, several guests blithely ignored me and took down my guard by bringing me the one kind of gift I can never refuse: local food.

That's right... after all my happy babblings about good local food from the farmers' market or farms or my own garden and kitchen, my friends treated me to some of their own local finds: a bottle of Amish country wine from She Who Brings Fresh Donuts, a trio of homemade preserves (spicy green beans, sweet green tomato relish, and grape jelly) from the Archivist, and dried cherries and blueberries from Mr. Nice Guy and his parents (straight from Michigan!). Happy times!

Once everyone had departed, I cleaned up and put away most of the leftovers, while noshing on those items that wouldn't last (like guacamole and the last bruschette) for dinner. I'll be able to revisit memories from the party with meals throughout the week, and I might not even have to cook again until next weekend (when I hope to start the holiday baking)!

Yes, it's a lot of work to prepare for and to host a party, especially when I tend to go all out with the cooking.

But it's so worth it to share it all with friends.

Putting It All Together

The last couple of hours before a party are always the busiest: not only do I have to set the table for guests, but it's time to assemble the last items for the party buffet, timing everything properly so that my guests enjoy the food at its peak.

The last few items on my list for today included making a pan of spanokopita, loaded with spinach and feta cheese goodness, and then cutting it into small squares that would fit the "finger food" theme I had set for myself.

After that, I assembled bruschette, starting with the savory apple topped with cheddar. While those baked, I spread the remaining pumpernickel slices with Asiago-artichoke spread and topped them with a sprig of fresh basil and an oven-dried tomato.

Finally, I pulled out the empty polenta cups I had made last weekend...

...and filled them with the sautéed shredded squash (similar to the filling used in somsas) I had made yesterday. I popped those into the oven (along with the samosas) to reheat for about 12 minutes, and then I added a little garlic-shallot jam on top for a tangy contrast.

In between all those trays going in and out of the oven, I laid out the buffet table, made a batch of guacamole, and mulled a pot of cider.

Are you ready yet? I am!

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Do You Want Samosa?

The countdown now stands at just over 24 hours until my open house, and the refrigerator is filling up quickly. I picked up the last cheese from the deli this morning and whipped up a big batch of haydari (oh so tasty!) before turning my attention to the first big appetizer: samosas.

If you've been hanging around this blog for a while, you may have noticed that not only do I love Indian food, but I love cooking it at home. And when it comes to parties, homemade baked samosas often grace the buffet table.

Though I follow the basic samosas recipe from the New Moosewood Cookbook, I usually tweak the spices a little differently each time and never quite remember what I used the previous time. Today, I added the mustard seeds and coriander and cayenne called for in the recipe but also threw in cinnamon, chili powder, and a touch of turmeric.

By the way, if you're paying attention, yes, those are the edamame from the farmers' market instead of the usual peas. The potatoes, onion, and garlic all came from the farmers' market as well... yum!

I let the filling cool for a while before making the dough, a simple blend of unbleached and local whole wheat flour, salt, and organic nonfat yogurt. Then, while enjoying a good phone conversation with a friend, I rolled out pieces of the dough...

...filled them...

...and laid them on a greased baking sheet with a little extra oil brushed on top. (All right, two baking sheets... I made a lot!)

Soon enough, I had fragrant treats calling to me from the oven.

Now, just imagine those reheated tomorrow, with a goodly dollop of homemade chutney on the side. (Blueberry? Green tomato? Mint? You'll have your choice.)

Admit it. You know you want one.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Lavash Alone

Though for the past two evenings I've done nothing to prepare for Sunday's open house, I took a vacation day today to catch up and give it my full attention.

I started the day with a trip to the grocery store for produce and other items, followed by a visit to the local deli to pick up my order of cheeses, dips, and sundry goodies. (They do take care of me there!) Then I cranked up the oven and started baking.

First off, I made a batch of flavorful flax seed crackers. I had intended to make sesame crackers but realized at the last minute that I had no sesame seeds, so I simply substituted the flax (which I like just as well, if not more, for its nutty taste). I still used toasted sesame oil in the dough, so the crackers have a hearty edge to them that will stand up well to the cheeses I've selected.

After a hike, a swim, and a nourishing lunch, I got back to work and made dough for lavash crackers. The differences between lavash and regular crackers include the fact that lavash comes from a yeast dough (similar to pita) and that I usually break up lavash crackers into free-form shapes instead of cutting them out. Both are remarkably easy, however, and once the lavash dough has risen, you simply roll it out into thin sheets that you then stretch across a parchment-lined baking sheet.

Twenty minutes or so later, the dough sheet is brittle and easily broken into smaller, bite-size pieces or wedges perfect for dipping.

The lavash will take on any number of toppings, from salt and pepper to various herbs to a sprinkling of seeds, for this batch, I limited myself to a faint sprinkle of paprika or nothing at all, knowing that I wanted the dips I'd make to shine forth.

And what dips will be on the table come Sunday? I've picked up two favorites from the deli –- artichoke-Asiago and spinach –- and I intend to make a batch of muhammara this evening (using a few of the softer pieces of fresh lavash) and haydari on Saturday.

And that selection is all it's crackered up to be.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

This Is a Toast... This Is Only a Toast

Among the preparations for my upcoming pre-holiday open house is the rigorous testing of a couple of new appetizer ideas. Sure, I could stick with all old favorite recipes, with nothing new and exciting to make people sit up and take notice. But that's just not my style.

I haven't played much with bruschette as appetizers for past parties, simply because most generally require last minute preparation and I try to get almost everything made ahead of time. But this time around, I thought, why not?

Since I intend to showcase some local foods and fall flavors at the buffet table, I knew I needed a hearty bread as the base for the bruschette; hence, the pumpernickel bread I baked yesterday.

But what to serve on top?

One idea involves using a delicious dip purchased from the local deli along with one of my favorite preserves from the summer and a fresh herb. (I'll tell you more about that after the party. Yes, I know I'm a tease.)

The other, involving a little more effort on my part, takes its inspiration from one of my favorite weekend breakfast sautés, combining shallots with shredded apple, a bit of fresh sage, and some sharp cheddar cheese.

The topping goes together very quickly while the slices of bread toast in the oven, and a generous spoonful of sautéed apple, followed by the cheddar, makes its way onto the toasts before a second stint in the oven.

Sweet and savory, crunchy and melt-in-your-mouth tender, I think these bruschette end up combining the best of both worlds as well as featuring the goodness of local produce (and cheese!).

Do not adjust your set. This is only a toast.

But in case of an actual (appetizer) emergency, use the recipe below.

Savory Apple Bruschette

The idea for the apple sauté comes from a recipe I found in Vegetarian Times a year or two ago, but it is, of course, modified from the original to fit your bread. Homemade pumpernickel or rye bread is ideal, since you can shape the loaves to a smaller width for bite-size toasts, but you can cut slices of store-bought bread into smaller pieces for appetizers. The quantities here will make only four small toasts as seen above; multiply as needed for your guests.

4 slices of a small loaf of pumpernickel bread (or 2 slices of a large loaf, cut in half)
1 tsp extra virgin olive oil
1 shallot, peeled and sliced thinly
1 large apple, cored and shredded
2 leaves sage, finely minced OR 1/2 tsp dried (rosemary would also work)
salt and pepper to taste
1 T shredded cheddar cheese

Preheat oven to 350 F. Arrange slices of bread on cookie sheet and bake for 10-15 minutes, until toasty.

Heat olive oil in skillet over medium-low heat. Saute shallot slices until just beginning to brown. Add apple and sage, and continue to sauté until tender. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Once the toasts are out of the oven, spoon the apple mixture onto them, pressing mixture down with the back of the spoon to smooth it. Top with cheddar cheese. Bake again for 12-15 minutes, until cheese begins to brown. Serve warm.

Makes 4 small toasts

Bringing Home the Baking

Knowing how many of my friends wanted a chance to visit and view my new place, I planned a pre-holiday open house for next Sunday so that they'd have as good an excuse as any, with food and drink awaiting them.

(You'll note that I steadfastly refuse to call this a "housewarming" or "apartment-warming" party. I did that with the house, and most people took that as a hint to bring gifts. Having downsized my possessions considerably, that is the last thing I want to imply this time around! But I digress...)

As you might expect, it goes against my grain to announce a party and then serve from a platter of pre-made appetizers and snacks bought at the store. Oh, no. If I'm going to have guests over, you'd better believe I'm going to be cooking.

And for a delectable spread of appetizers, hors-d'oeuvres, and nibbles, I'm going to be baking and cooking from now until next Sunday. Can't help it. That's just the way I am.

I laid out the menu for myself a few weeks ago and spent a little time yesterday planning just when to make each item. Naturally, there are some things that have to wait for the last minute, but there are always items that can be done well in advance and tucked away until needed.

Yesterday I baked the pumpernickel bread that will show up as a base for two kinds of bruschette, and I also made polenta cups that will start off another recipe. Today, then, I turned to other baking: spiced nuts and cookies.

This morning, while enjoying a lengthy phone chat with the fair Titania (my constant companion in the kitchen, despite her residence one large state away), I mixed up and baked a tray full of Indian-spiced pecans (seasoned with cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, chili powder, and a touch of cayenne), followed by a batch of my favorite chai spice shortbread.

This afternoon I made my other favorite spiced nut recipe, rosemary walnuts, tossed in butter and oil and flavored with rosemary, sage, and paprika. Walnut bliss!

Then I whipped up a batch of tasty oatmeal cookies studded with chunks of dates and liberally spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg.

After allowing everything to cool, I stashed the spiced nuts in canning jars and the cookies in tins and set them aside for next weekend. (I'm hoping I can resist the temptation to sneak a bite here and there!)

I've still got plenty more food to bake this week, but at least I'm off to a strong start in the party preparations.

Now, to get that grocery list made...

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Mission Impastable

I've always loved a challenge, and where my cooking is concerned, I've found over the past few years that regular challenges help me improve my skills and result in some really fantastic dishes.

Sometimes, though, the challenge is just to look at an old favorite in a new way.

Take lasagna, for example. I don't make it often because I've rarely been satisfied with the results. Occasionally I'll try a different twist on the recipe that ends up pleasing me, but overall I find I'd rather eat someone else's lasagna than my own.

But a few weeks ago, a new friend asked if I made a good vegetable lasagna, and having to answer so indifferently kind of poked at my ego. Why haven't I ever tried to make a better lasagna?

Having thus spurred myself into that critical "I can do better!" attitude, I consulted with a couple of friends, figured out a plan of action, and set a date to invite the aforementioned friend over to sample what I hoped would be a new and improved version.

The other, unspoken part of this challenge, of course, was to make the lasagna as local as possible. So I started by sautéing a handful of local vegetables: garlic, eggplant, zucchini, broccoli, and (not local) carrots along with a small bunch of shredded fresh basil from my pot. And though the pasta wasn't locally produced, the sauce, the ricotta cheese, and the mozzarella were, and I added all of them in lavish quantities.

The initial results were encouraging: the layers were fully packed with cheese and vegetables and sauce, and the aroma coming from the oven as it baked was heavenly.

But did I meet or surpass the challenge?

When you consider that my friend, a die-hard meat eater, repeatedly oohed and ahhed over the rich flavor, velvety texture, and abundant fullness of the lasagna... and then had a second large piece in lieu of the salad greens also on the table... I think you could say that I more than met the challenge.

Mission accomplished!

Baking Love

It's Saturday morning, and I no longer have the farmers' market to catch first thing in the morning. So what, you may ask, will I do with myself now that that routine is over for the year?

Maybe I'm not stocking the pantry any more, but I'm still getting up at my usual (early!) hour so that I can spend Saturday mornings using what's in the pantry in my weekly baking.

Since the weather took a turn toward the chill and gloom of late fall some time back, I've been itching to start a day by making a pot of vegetable stock and a few loaves of bread. So that's how today began, with this week's bread selection being a robust pumpernickel laced with dill.

It's been a long time since I made pumpernickel bread, but since I wanted it for appetizers for next week's open house at my place, I thought I'd go ahead and make it now so that I can enjoy a little for myself before the crowd devours the rest.

And I'm so glad I did. The smell of yeast fermenting in the enticing dark richness of molasses filled the loft, and it took a great deal of will power on my part not to consume an entire loaf right out of the oven.

Once I started baking the bread, I decided to whip up a batch of cookies to take advantage of the oven's heat (and because I really, really like fresh cookies), and after a quick browse through my cookbook, I settled on the recipe for chocolate chip and hazelnut cookies laced with orange peel.

I don't often bake with hazelnuts since they're more expensive than my usual walnuts or pecans, but now and then they make a wonderful change of pace. And my goodness, they do dress up the average chocolate chip cookie!

By lunchtime, I had three loaves of pumpernickel bread cooling on the counter and over two dozen cookies nestling in a tin... and a very fragrant apartment.

Is it any wonder I love baking?

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Eat Like You Live Here: November

Past the tricks and treats of late October, the local farmers have been gathering in the last of this year's harvest and getting ready for a cold winter and dreams of next year's season. Some local farms continue to have their own markets open through the winter (for late, keeping produce like apples and for other locally produced goods like jams), but for the rest of us, the Earth has offered nearly its last fruits and vegetables for the year.

If you've been following this challenge in your own quiet and modest way, you may well be ready to head into the winter months with a stash of local foods tucked in your pantry or freezer, and perhaps you've already scouted out places nearby where you can keep getting local food throughout the winter.

Last month, though a bit of a whirlwind for me, offered an enjoyable variety of fruits and vegetables from local farms... from all the good food found at the farmers' market to my recent visit to the fruit farm, I found lots of goodies that I hope will grace my table this month and perhaps even into early spring. And some of those vegetables have already shown up in dishes I've shared with friends old and new.

If you're like me, after all this focus on shopping for superb produce at the farmers' market and preserving as much as possible for winter, you're ready to relax a bit and enjoy the fruits of your labor. So I'll make this month's challenge simple:

1. If you're reading this here in the U.S., make an effort to join in on the 100-Mile Thanksgiving, featuring as many local foods on your holiday table as possible. And if you're not here in the U.S., why not create a special harvest feast for your family and friends using some of the local foods you've found this year?

2. And for those bakers among you, keep the local foods challenge in your mind as you stock up for holiday baking. I know I'll be looking for more local butter to go with the local eggs, milk, and flours I already have.

In this brief respite between the harvest season and the holiday season, take a chance to catch your breath and enjoy all that you've found so far this year.

And when you reach for a snack, make it a local one, okay?