Tuesday, March 27, 2007

There's No Accounting for Taste

Okay, now that I've gotten that venting out of my system, it's time for the mood here to improve drastically. A friend posted a challenge to "get happy!" on his LiveJournal, so I'm going to step right up and accept that challenge, thank you very much!

Here's what's making me happy right now:

1. Coming home in the afternoons and flinging open my high windows to get that luscious warm breeze drifting through the loft... and then sitting on the windowseat to read and relax and just be.

2. The sudden emergence of sprouting vegetables in a pot I just seeded this weekend with mustard seeds and dinosaur kale seeds!

3. Having a little visit with easily the cheeriest coffee lady I know at the newest cafe on campus this morning.

4. Watching a number of seniors complete their theses by yesterday's deadline... and seeing the relief flood their faces. (I finally got around to making their cookies tonight... you know, the shortbread cookies that spell out their I.S. numbers.)

(This number is for you, Mr. Nice Guy, and I would have given it to you had you stuck around long enough to collect it.)

5. Knowing that the Chef Mother is feeling considerably better and should be able to leave the hospital soon (this is a different hospital stay than the one mentioned previously) to start her rehab.

6. Having friends support me in unexpected and greatly appreciated ways over the past week. Special thanks go to:
--the Innkeeper, for feeding me such a wonderful lunch last week;
--Mr. Nice Guy, for super sushi and peanut noodles;
--My Fabulous Aunt, for the usual packet of comics and much love and support;
--the Gentleman, for wickedly funny conversation;
--the Archivist, for her understanding ear;
--and especially to Andy, one of the classic Tech Gods, for helping me remember to count my blessings this week and to realize how many people (including those not listed here) have a positive impact on my life.

It's time to get happy, people! What are you thankful for and happy about?

Pet Peeves

I try really, really hard not to let this blog become my personal venting ground. Yes, I bring up a lot of issues, but I try to examine them rationally, to develop arguments, and to use this forum as a way of educating myself and growing. I try not to let my political opinions or the ups and downs in my personal life to color what I share with you. (Well, maybe the ups...)

But there has been way too much bad news from the realm of industrial food production lately for me not to blow off a little steam. After numerous product recalls, starting with E. coli tainted spinach last summer/fall and going through a handful of processed food items recalled this winter, you'd think the industry would clean up its act, right?

Oh, silly, silly me. Now there are hundreds of cases of pets suffering from kidney failure due to pet food contaminated with a rat poison banned in this country (follow stories at the Ethicurean if you're not up to speed). How is this possible? Why do I even bother asking that? Given agribusiness's history of using scrap pieces of meat to make pet food and fodder for farm animals, sometimes even turning those animals into cannibals (remember how mad cow disease got started with scrap parts from diseased cows being included in the feed given to... cows???), why should we be surprised when toxic chemicals are found in the food we and our pets eat?

Lest you think I'm getting worked up all out of proportion to this latest case affecting "just" animals, let me state here and now that I do not now have, nor have ever had, a pet, and while I abhor cruelty to animals, I am not an animal rights activist of any sort. I'm not in any ways saying that animals are more important and more deserving of outrage than people. But I'm also not going to say that they are any less important, because they have their place in creation, and their lives are so intimately connected with ours that we should be concerned with their well-being as much as with our own. Our health depends on their health, and so we should be concerned with what we feed our pets or with what food farm animals get.

So why not feel outraged at how cavalierly these big food producers and processors seem to approach our general health and well-being? Sure, they'll make some effort to make "healthy" food, but I don't see how you can fully succeed in that goal when you produce food on such an enormous scale for the sake of efficiency and profit.

For crying out loud, where will this pursuit of the Almighty Profit end? What won't Big Ag do to rake in the bucks? We already know what they will do:

--treat workers poorly through low wages, no benefits, and harassment;
--consume ever more land, water, and chemicals to support industrial monoculture;
--alter the genetic code of plants and thus throw the entire life cycle out of balance;
--deplete the land of rich topsoil and vast amounts of water;
--undercut the farmers who do the work to produce the food;
--avoid inspections whenever possible;
--add more and more junk to create greater varieties of processed foods;
--spend wicked amounts of money marketing the latest convenience foods to an astonishingly gullible public (and yes, I include myself in that);
--ignore the health consequences of their decisions;
--and use their influence and big bucks to influence the government to do their bidding.

Did I forget anything? Oh yes, let's not forget the livelihoods destroyed as small farms are bought out and taken over by agribusiness. It happened all over America without much effective resistance over the past few decades, turning many farming communities into ghost towns, and it continues to happen in other places around the world. (This recent post on Grist reveals the fight of Indian farmers against the government's seizure of their lands to make room for big industry, including agribiz.)

Thank goodness the movement for local, organic, sustainable agriculture is gaining strength and media currency... but will it be enough? The agribusinesses have a lot of money behind them, not to mention spin doctors and influence in the halls of power.

If you value good-tasting, fresh food... if you value your health and the well-being of the Earth... please find a way to incorporate more local, organic, sustainable whole foods into your diet. I know it's not easy -- certainly it's not often "convenient" -- and maybe it's not even cheap for some of you. But the cost of the alternative will be higher in the long run. And if Big Ag no longer finds it so profitable to continue business as usual, maybe they'll change.

Maybe. Maybe not. But we won't get anywhere if we don't try.

(Tip of the hat to Mr. Clean for bringing this story more fully to my attention.)

UPDATE 4/4/07: Here's an excellent follow-up on the ongoing situation from the Huffington Post: "Does FDA Spell FEMA?" This could get even bigger, and yes, what animals eat should concern us very much indeed.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Hugs and Biscuits

We all need a little comfort now and then, and that comfort can come in many forms: a talk with a friend, a warm hug, a walk in the sunshine. For many people, comfort also comes in the form of food: fresh bread, macaroni and cheese, cookies, you name it.

I've had a bit of a stressful week, so when I got up this morning, I decided to perk myself up with one of my favorite brunches: fresh orange juice, coffee, cheese grits, and homemade biscuits.

Sounds like it would take a lot of time to pull that all together, no? But not really... from start to finish, it took no more than half an hour. I must be getting better at whipping up fresh biscuits, as well as at multitasking in the kitchen!

You can't get much simpler than biscuits: flour, baking powder, salt, butter, milk, and sometimes even eggs. And I even cut corners a little bit this time around, working the dough together with my hands and patting it out before cutting the biscuits, instead of kneading the dough for a little longer and then using a rolling pin.

Granted, that meant that my biscuits ended up looking a little more like scones than your typical biscuits:

And while my scones have been known to be tender, these biscuits easily surpassed them. I split open two, slathered them with fresh country butter from the local dairy, and fairly floated away with the lightness of that crumb filling my belly.

After a hearty brunch, a good talk with a friend, and plenty of hugs, I started to feel more like myself again and almost ready to face another week.

Next time you're feeling blue, you might want fresh biscuits, too.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Some Day My 'Prints Will Come

Now that spring is here, bringing with it those invigorating warm winds -- okay, those rain-filled gusts -- I'm feeling the urge to do a little spring cleaning.

So I woke up early this morning and launched myself into a frenzy of cleaning, right down to scrubbing the hardwood floors. It felt so much better to have the place looking and smelling cleaning and feeling a little more airy that I decided to extend my spring cleaning to the kitchen, using up a few items from the pantry.

I've had in my mind for a couple of weeks now the idea of turning regular thumbprint cookies into a kid-friendly peanut butter and jelly version. I don't have a cozy relationship with thumbprint cookies, though: the first time I ever made them (when I was seven or eight), I had not yet learned that you always have to be aware of what you're doing in the kitchen, and I let the cookies burn. Not pretty.

Over the years, though, both my patience and my baking skills have improved, so I felt confident that I could not only alter a thumbprint cookie recipe successfully but also keep myself from allowing an unattended oven to scorch all my hard work.

So I started with creaming together the last of the peanut butter with some good local butter, then adding local honey (the last of this jar), local maple syrup, and fragrant vanilla. I mixed in enough flour for the dough to hold together in soft but reasonably firm portions, rolled the dough into balls, and rolled them in a dish of finely chopped peanuts (the last in the tin).

Then I set the dough balls on the cookie sheets, pressed the appropriate indentations into them, and filled them with the last of the cherry jam and a good bit of the remaining blueberry-strawberry jam.

Though I was busy filling the second tray and washing dishes while the first pan full of cookies baked, I managed to get through the entire recipe's worth without burning a single cookie (even if a little bit of jam spilled over onto the pan and got a little crisp).

After a morning full of Cinderella-like toil, it was a treat to kick back in the evening with my 'prints for dessert.

A fairy tale ending? I'll say. And those cookies will last longer than happily ever after!

Peanut Butter and Jam Thumbprints

The basis for this recipe comes from the "Jammies" recipe from the Amazing Grains co-op in Lawrence, Kansas, found in Uprisings (one of my favorite baking books for its emphasis on whole grains). It's been a while since I've made thumbprints, but when you have more jam than you know what to do with, it seems like a sensible option for dessert. And of course, I always like peanut butter. If I have enough won't power (because I certainly "will" if given half a chance!), maybe I can save a few for my Adorable Nephews... but I would think that kids of all ages would enjoy these.

1/2 c butter, softened
1/2 c peanut butter
1/2 c honey
1/4 c maple syrup
1 tsp vanilla
1 c whole wheat flour
1 c unbleached flour
1/2 tsp salt
1 c peanuts, finely chopped
jelly or jam of your choice

Preheat oven to 350 F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside.

In large bowl, cream together butter and peanut butter. Add honey, maple syrup, and vanilla, and cream until well blended. Add flours and salt and mix until a soft dough is formed. If needed, add a little more flour for shaping.

Shape dough into 1" balls. Roll balls in a dish of the chopped peanuts. Set dough balls on baking sheets and press down with thumbs, leaving a well-defined indentation. Fill with small amounts of jam.

Bake for 15-18 minutes at 350 F. Remove to wire cooling racks to cool. Store in airtight container.

Makes 3 dozen

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Growing to Enjoy Spring

Miracle of miracles, spring's official first day is but one day away, and it looks as though our weather might actually match the calendar for once. Though it's still a little on the chilly side today, the sun is shining, and the temps are only going to go up later this week.

Is it any wonder, then, that I'm officially craving light, green vegetables and herbs?

I bought four little herb pots at the grocery store on Saturday and transferred them to somewhat larger pots for growing later that day. They now adorn my wide windowseat with their vivid greenery and fragrance, and I'm almost tempted to sing "Scarborough Fair" since the selection includes sage, rosemary, and thyme (though the parsley was replaced with oregano).

They greeted me upon my return home after work today and beckoned to me from their sunny perch. So I fixed a large salad of organic spring greens and herbs (not local, I confess, but I can't wait until my next visit to the Bistro for a salad!), dried cherries, walnuts, goat cheese, and a delicate borage-dill vinaigrette; whole grain bread with olive oil for dipping; and half a glass of semi-sweet Redemption wine from the Winery at Wolf Creek. Then I curled up on the window seat and enjoyed the view.

After dinner, I found I still had an abundance of energy -- one of the benefits of the time change, though I still think the early start to Daylight Savings Time is a mite ridiculous -- so I headed into the kitchen to use up a couple of ripe bananas. Though part of me leaned toward making the classic banana bread, I really wanted something I could share with my new friend, the Innkeeper, over lunch tomorrow. I also had fond memories of the scones I made on my snow day last month, so I decided to modify a banana bread recipe to include ginger, lime, and coconut, and then I spread the batter into a 9" x 12" baking pan for a shorter baking time.

I know I chose a combination of flavors and ingredients that were decidedly not local, and believe me, with all I know now about local foods, I do get a twinge of guilt using some of these foods. I don't use them as abundantly as I used to, however, and when I have some of the items sitting in my pantry for months, I do feel obliged to use them. (Don't worry, I'll slip on the hairshirt later. After I've eaten dessert.)

That said, I do appreciate the delicious fragrance filling my loft, and I am definitely enjoying something a little lighter for dessert tonight. I think the Innkeeper and her husband will approve as well, and I might even go so far as to share with a few other people.

As of this date, this year's farmers' market is just over two months away, and though I still have quite of bit of last year's produce to use up, I am definitely feeling the urge to eat some fresh green vegetables and lighter fare throughout the menu.

So welcome, dear Spring! It's good to see you again.

And I hope you bring plenty to eat for your stay this year.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

When Irish Eyes Are Smiling

Well, it's been a busy week here in Lake Wo...

Oops, sorry. Wrong script. Ahem.

Though I haven't done much cooking lately, I've been keeping my eye on this weekend and gathering my Irish recipes for a St. Patrick's Day celebration. Unlike last year, when all I could muster was a cup of tea, I decided to try a couple of classic recipes with new twists.

I started off the morning by making a variation on Irish soda bread. Normally, this bread is chock full of raisins and has a large X slashed into the top for a dramatic presentation. I cut the X into the dough, of course, but I ditched the raisins in favor of a more savory flavor, using shredded local organic cheddar cheese (yes! I've finally found some!) and a hefty dash of dried thyme. With half my flour being whole wheat and the sweetener being a bit of Sucanat, the loaf ended up a little more hearty and wholesome, bubbling with cheese:

Later in the day, I cooked a couple of potatoes in order to make a vegetable-laden version of colcannon. Normally colcannon only has potatoes and cabbage for the vegetables, so I threw in some dried cabbage to simmer with the spuds, but I also rehydrated a few strips of dried bell pepper with the leftover cooking water and tossed those into the finished mashed potatoes. Colorful!

Setting those aside, I pulled out another potato and a carrot to peel and shred and add to a cup of the colcannon (along with a few other ingredients) to make boxty. The Irish version of potato pancakes, boxty usually mixes mashed potatoes with grated ones, but again, I couldn't leave well enough alone and added more vegetables. I didn't think to thaw some shredded zucchini in time to make dinner, but I added some snipped chives in order to get a little green in with the orange for a little patriotic appeal.

Heating up the good ol' cast iron skillet, I added dollops of the batter and let them cook like my usual pancakes:

Though the batter was thick, the baking soda in it kept the boxty light and airy, even once I'd flipped them over to brown the other side. And once they hit the plate and I topped them with a sprinkling of dried parsley (from last year's farmers' market), I was definitely hungry and ready for dinner.

How could I resist those golden brown cakes full of local vegetables and herbs? Well, I couldn't. I downed the first four in no time flat and barely managed not to touch the rest, tucking them into the refrigerator for leftovers.

Though I'm not sure I'll get out this evening for a pint of Guinness, my Irish roots are more than happy right now with those good spuds in me.

Irish Cheddar Soda Bread

Though I usually prefer yeast breads, there's something so simple and satisfying about good soda bread. Based on the classic Irish soda bread recipe found in Betty Crocker's International Cookbook, I've changed it from sweet to savory with just a couple of substitutions. If you can find good Irish cheddar (Kerrygold is a favorite), use that; I was just so thrilled to find a locally produced organic cheddar that I stuck with that. Serve warm with creamy butter, and don't forget a pot of Irish breakfast tea.

1 1/2 c unbleached flour
1 c whole wheat flour
2 T Sucanat
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp dried thyme
1/2 tsp salt
3 T butter, softened
1/2 c shredded cheddar cheese
3/4 c buttermilk or regular milk with 1 tsp white vinegar added

Preheat oven to 375 F. Lightly grease a baking sheet and set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk together flours, Sucanat, baking soda, baking powder, thyme, and salt. Cut butter into the dry ingredients with a pastry cutter until mixture resembles fine crumbs. Stir in cheddar cheese and enough buttermilk to make a soft dough.

Knead the dough in the bowl until smooth, 1 to 2 minutes. Shape into a round loaf and place on baking sheet. Cut an X about 1/4" into the loaf. Bake until golden brown, 35 to 45 minutes.

Makes one loaf

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Road Food

Ever since I made that Indian feast about a month ago (featuring homemade paneer), my trio of new taste-testers has been persistent in asking, "So when are you having another dinner party at your place? I'd be happy to help cook!"

Since I am, like most people, highly susceptible to flattery where one of my main vanities is concerned, I decided to plan another meal. And since they seemed to appreciate slightly exotic foods, I decided to make the theme for the meal a Silk Road feast.

The Silk Road, or, rather, Roads, connected various trade routes across southern and central Asia and linked Europe to the luxury goods of spices and silks in the East. Travelers crossed by sea and by land from ports like Rome through countries now known as Turkey, the Republic of Georgia, Iran, Afghanistan, India, and China (just to name a few).

Of course, in our multiethnic and food-obsessed country today, most people have more than a passing familiarity with Chinese food, and more and more people are enjoying Indian food, but these other cuisines seem to be little known outside their immigrant populations. And that's a shame, because the cuisines of these ancient lands are full of wonderful fruits and vegetables and bread and herbs and spices and nuts and combinations of them all.

You may have followed some of my previous forays into Georgian cooking, read about my adventures at a somewhat local Turkish restaurant, wondered about my interest in Persian cooking, or even sampled my own mix of some of these cuisines. But I don't think I've ever managed to pull them all together in quite so sumptuous an array as I did for tonight's dinner party:

lavash crackers and Persian spinach borani

Afghan squash casserole

Georgian bean salad

Persian polow (rice) with pistachios, dill, and rose petals

Turkish walnut cookies in syrup

My trio of willing tasters -- the new incarnation of the Dinner Club, it would seem -- thoroughly enjoyed all the dishes along with an Afghan chai (spice tea made with green tea and no milk) and a sweet red wine (from Amish country, of all places). One guest brought along her new copy of Kipling's Just-So Stories and read us a selection to add that final touch of faraway places.

I still have plenty of leftovers in the refrigerator because, as always, I tend to cook for a large crowd even when only a few are planning to show, but I don't mind. At least this week I'll get to travel far every day while eating at home.

And maybe I'll see you on the Road sometime soon.

Friday, March 02, 2007

A Short(cake) Vacation

If you've been wondering why it's been so quiet around here lately, it's because my attention was directed toward preparing for vacation... and then getting away. After all the cold, blustery winter weather we've had lately, it turned out to be a great relief to pack my bags and fly south.

A visit to my Wonderful Parents seemed long overdue, and since the Chef Mother has recovered enough from her recent illness to welcome visitors, I rearranged my plans and headed down for the better part of a week. Though I had hoped to spend some time cooking and freezing meals for the two of them, I ended up taking it just as easy as the Chef Mother, with occasional doses of sunshine and sand.

That's not to say that I didn't spend any time in the kitchen. I helped my Dear Papa whip up eggplant parmigiana when other family members came to visit, and while he sliced strawberries, I made the biscuits for strawberry shortcake.

And yes, those berries were local, since at this time of the year the strawberries you find in the grocery store tend to come from Plant City, Florida... not far from where my parents live. (Granted, they're not organic, but I'll take what I can get.)

Of course, vacation, like strawberry shortcake, disappears all too quickly. After a few days of 70-plus temperatures and glorious sunshine, I returned to the chilly grey skies of home and to work. I'm not entirely enthusiastic about dressing in sweaters, jeans, boots, and a heavy coat again after five days of shorts, light shirts, and bare feet, but such is life.

And I promise, you'll hear more about good cooking soon.