Thursday, August 30, 2007

A Plum Deal

After making the plum upside-down cake last week, I was eager to cook with those golden little fruits again, and I had my eyes fixed on a recipe for a spiced plum crisp.

Of course, canning and preserving come first, so my baking plans kept getting pushed back day by day. And the pile of plums started to dwindle as I developed the habit of tucking one into my lunch each day.

By this evening, though, I couldn't wait any longer.

After making the pear-cardamom chutney and downing an almost completely local dinner of peach salsa with local tortilla chips, followed by a satisfying panzanella using the last hard slices of the neighborhood bakery's house bread, I returned to the cutting board to halve and pit the rest of the plums.

While the plums bobbed in a spiced wine mixture, I worked butter into the oats and spices for the topping. I ended up with just the right amount of plum halves to line a pie plate and more than enough oat topping to cover them all.

Half an hour or so in the oven was all it took to produce a beautiful dish:

I truly regretted not having some vanilla ice cream from the local dairy on hand as that would have been the perfect accompaniment. Instead, I drizzled a little whole milk on top, just to add a touch of creaminess. It wasn't nearly as satisfying as ice cream, but what can you do?

Still, knowing that the plums, the grains, the butter, and the wine were all locally grown or produced gave me plenty of satisfaction, as well as a happy mouth and stomach.

And that's a pretty good deal to me.

Spiced Plum Crisp

Mr. Clean sent me this recipe on a whim a couple of years ago, and I have no idea of the original source. (Care to chime in, sir?) It sounded awfully tempting, but until this year, I hadn't been able to find plums at the farmers' market. As you might guess, I modified the recipe, changing the spices to please my palate, using the white wine I had open instead of port, and substituting oats for flour in the topping. I can't complain! But do make sure you have good vanilla ice cream on hand... my only regret is that I didn't do that.

2 pounds fresh plums, pitted and halved (quartered if larger)
2 T maple sugar
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground cardamom
1 T flour (I used spelt)
1/3 c port or sweet white wine
1 1/2 c rolled oats
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp baking powder
1/2 c maple sugar
1/2 tsp ground cardamom
8 T unsalted butter

Preheat oven to 350 F. Butter a baking pan (original recipe calls for 9" x 12" pan; I used a round pie plate but used fewer plums).

Toss plums in a medium-size bowl with the sugar, spices, flour, and wine. Layer plum halves, cut side up, in the prepared pan.

Mix together oats, salt, baking powder, sugar, and cardamom in a medium bowl. Cut butter into the oats (or work it in with your fingers) until mixture is crumbly. Sprinkle topping over the plums and bake for 30-40 minutes, until plums are bubbling and topping is golden brown.

Spoon into serving bowls and serve warm with vanilla ice cream.

Serves 8

Pearing Sweet and Sour

When I picked up a few pounds of Bartlett pears at the farmers' market last Saturday, I didn't have a clear idea what I might do with them.

There weren't really enough of them to warrant canning them in halves with a light syrup poured over the top. I had thought that it might be nice to try a pear jam again, or perhaps a pear butter, but neither idea proclaimed itself to be IT.

But as I plowed through this very busy week, addressing the need to handle the tomatoes first, and then the peppers, the pears got pushed to the side, and with their usual stealth, they proceeded to ripen a little more just by sitting on the plate.

When I picked one up last evening, I knew I'd better do something with the pears right away, so when I came home from work today, I stepped into the kitchen and started making pear-cardamom chutney.

Years ago, when I visited the charming Pixie in Ann Arbor, we made the requisite pilgrimage to Zingerman's. Though my chief objective in going there was to sample and buy a number of exquisite cheeses, I also browsed the shelves of specialty items. I came across a jar of pear-cardamom chutney, and, being intrigued by the combination, I bought it and took it home to enjoy.

It was marvelous! The sweetness, the spice, and the tang all worked together to please the palate, and it went beautifully with every Indian dish I knew how to cook. All too soon, the jar emptied, and I knew I had to come up with something else.

I tried my own version, then, based on a recipe using a completely different fruit. And while it was good, it just wasn't quite what I wanted. I ate it, of course, but it has taken me far longer to devour my own chutney than the original jar. (I think there's still a jar of my first attempt in the fridge -- still sealed.)

But the idea has lingered in my mind to try, try again, and when one Ethicurean reader asked after my peach post if I had tried peach chutney, the idea came to mind again. I pulled a couple of recipes from a quick Google search and took them home, resolved to try one or the other this evening.

As I talked with the Gentleman on the phone (I do love when my friends keep me company while I cook!), I peeled and cored the pears, chopping them and setting them on the stove over low heat to simmer until tender. Then I combined the vinegar and a myriad of spices to mix with the pears and a honey-sweetened syrup, allowing it all to bubble and boil until it reached the desired thickness.

When I thought it was done, I ladled the rich brown chutney, studded with cloves and cardamom pods and golden raisins, into a pair of sterilized jars and sealed them. The recipe didn't suggest running them through a hot water bath, presumably because of the acidity of the vinegar, but I do think that, to be on the safe side, I will use the one jar soon and set the other in the freezer for later.

When I finally get back around to making an Indian dinner with the makhani sauce I made the other evening, I think I will enjoy having a dollop of this chutney on the side, adding a bit of sweet and sour to the meal.

And if I'm tempted again by pears at the market, I'll just have to think of something else to cook!

Pear-Cardamom Chutney

I based this recipe on the Golden Pear Chutney adapted from Lowcountry Cooking by John Martin Taylor (and found on Public Radio's Splendid Table web site). Most of the recipes for pear chutney that I found contained a combination of cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and nutmeg, but since I wanted cardamom to predominate, I rearranged the flavors accordingly. Enjoy this with any Indian meal, especially the creamy dishes or as a nice little snack on toast.

1 pound underripe pears, peeled, cored, chopped
1/2 c honey
1 c apple cider vinegar
1/2 tsp mustard seeds
1/4 c chopped crystallized ginger
1 tsp cardamom pods
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp whole cloves
dash of black pepper
1/4 c golden raisins
1/4 c thinly sliced or minced onion
1 small hot pepper, seeded and minced (optional)

In nonreactive saucepan, cook pears in water until they are just tender. Strain over a bowl, return the cooking liquid to the saucepan, add the honey, and boil until you have a thickened syrup, about 10 minutes.

Mix all other ingredients with the cooked pears. When syrup is done, add pear mixture and cook until volume is reduced by a third to a half. Pour into sterilized jars and seal. Refrigerate or freeze (when fully cooled).

Makes 1 1/2 pints


Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Peaching to the Choir

As August draws to a close, the air shifts subtly, allowing cool breezes to slip in between torrid, humid days. Schools fling open their doors once more, and students of all ages pick up their books and return to the confines of the classroom.

Late August also heralds a slight change in my workflow, both at the office and at home, and this year I welcome it with open arms. After everything that has happened this summer, good and bad, and all the activity that has filled my life, I'm ready for a new routine.

Now, as I've largely finished putting up tomatoes for the season (I think), I'm keeping my eyes open for fall produce, knowing that I'll have less work to do and less need for the canner. What a relief!

But since it is, in fact, still summer for a while longer, the abundance of August's harvest still beckons. With any luck, I'll head out this weekend with My Dear Papa for a last summer getaway to find fresh peaches up along Lake Erie. And while I don't expect to bring any home to can, I'm more than ready for the traditional end-of-summer adventure.

I've spun a tale about that tradition, along with a couple of my recent peach-based experiments, in my latest post at The Ethicurean. Faithful Dear Readers will not find my jam variation surprising, given my well-publicized love of lavender, but I hope you will find the new salsa recipe intriguing.

All in all, it's another story of the local foods in my life and how much I enjoy cooking with them, preserving them, and eating them.

But then, that's something you know all about, too.


Tuesday, August 28, 2007

I Don't Stand a Roast of a Chance

I've been so focused on tomatoes lately that I've all but forgotten about all the other vegetables languishing in the refrigerator. After all, when the crisper drawer is closed, I can't really see all the work I have to do, and I can lull myself into a state of blithe neglect.

But when I opened that drawer yesterday, I realized I still had loads of red peppers on my hands, waiting to be roasted.

There are a number of ways to preserve peppers, of course. Last year I tried drying strips of red pepper, and that worked very well for flavoring soups. I could also chop the peppers and freeze the bits in clumps, ready for sauteing. I just have a fondness for roasted red peppers, and though they require more work than the other options, they are definitely worth it in the long run.

So what could I do but decide that tonight was pepper night?

Before I started dinner, I halved the peppers and scraped out the seeds, placing them on a greased baking sheet cut side down. I gave them 20 to 30 minutes at 400 F, though it would have taken less time had I reset the rack and used the broiler.

Once they came out of the oven, I pried them off the pan with tongs and tossed them into a plastic bag to "sweat," loosening the skins.

Had I broiled the peppers as I ought, the skins would have blistered and blackened, and they would have been much easier to peel. The results still weren't bad, though, and even with more time and work needed, I still managed to get through all the peppers without screaming with frustration at the little bits of skin sticking to the vegetables.

When I've roasted peppers before, I've usually packed them in oil with garlic and some spices. I read some time ago, though, that it was possible to freeze roasted peppers by layering them with wax paper in a sealed container. So that's what I did this evening, filling a large plastic container and squeezing it into one of the few remaining empty spaces in the icebox.

Along with the peppers, I managed to roast the Fairy Tale eggplant also tucked in the crisper, and I made a sumptuously spicy makhani sauce with the crushed Sun Gold tomatoes sitting n the fridge. Both items combined with whole wheat pita for a satisfying dinner, and I hope to feature the sauce in something else later this week so you can get a look at it. And between these two little projects, I managed to clear more space in the refrigerator, using up more produce before I lost any more.

But I doubt I'll stand a chance of getting any more preserving done until the weekend!

Monday, August 27, 2007

Loco for Local

It's exciting to see how many more people are coming to appreciate not only the freshness of local food but also the worthwhile efforts to preserve that food for later in the year, when fresh food is harder to find.

Conversations with the Archivist the past few weeks have inevitably turned to what we've been canning in the evenings, and if you think I've been putting up a lot of tomatoes, you ain't seen nothin'. The Archivist reports that she and her husband regularly can in multiple-quart quantities, and her list currently includes tomatoes, tomato sauce, spaghetti sauce, salsa, pickles, and I have no idea what all else. Quarts! I'm telling you, I'm out of my league next to them.

Phone chats with the fair Titania also revolve around food, though often her reports focus on her farmers' market finds (tomatillos this week) and what exciting ways she chooses to preserve them. Having recently acquired a stand-alone freezer, she's been filling it to the brim with bags of vegetables and jars of preserves and tomatoes. And just last evening, we had a lively discussion about cold storage and ways that she could stockpile squash and potatoes for the winter (hint: wooden boxes or plastic or metal buckets packed with straw). We both agreed that we sounded like homesteaders in our enthusiasm for putting up food for the winter... and that that was a very good thing.

Even a visit to my hairdresser on Saturday revealed an astonishing side to this young woman as she talked about making tomato soup from scratch with some of her homegrown tomatoes. Cool!

So with all this food frenzy going on around me, I think it's only fitting to share the reminder that the folks at Eat Local Challenge have set September as their Challenge Month this year. Visit their site for guidelines... and yes, you can determine some exceptions in advance (like spices, oils, coffee, tea, chocolate, etc.). Aside from that, the goal is to enjoy local foods as much as possible throughout September.

I'm really excited about this, even if I don't have any local whole wheat flour right now (my biggest gap, which I hope to fill soon). With all the wonderful food coming into the farmers' market these days, I think it would be hard not to eat local!

I'd like to encourage all my Dear Readers to accept the challenge this year. It's coming at the perfect time, and you'll still have time after September to put some more food away for winter if you so desire. If you don't think you can make everything or every meal local, it's okay. Do what you can, but try to challenge yourself a little.

Can you take a favorite recipe -- just one -- and make it all local? The dish above is my all-time favorite comfort food, broccoli-walnut pasta, and in this version, the pasta, broccoli, garlic, and oven-dried tomatoes were all local. Can you find a new source of local ingredients that you haven't considered before? If you need other ideas, feel free to check out any of my Eat Like You Live Here pages (on the right sidebar). I think you'll find it easier than you expect!

If you plan to take the challenge, the Eat Local Challenge web site has a logo you can download and add to your blog so that you can show everyone (and remind yourself!) that you're choosing to eat locally in September... and maybe longer. And if any of you are willing to share a link to your site so that we can all enjoy eating locally with each other (albeit virtually), let me know and I will set up a list on the side of my page.

(On that note, are there any NE and Central Ohio food bloggers who might be up for a get-together one of these days? Just a thought!)

While you're thinking of eating locally, don't forget to visit some of the local festivals and county fairs around the state in the coming month. Ohio has a grand tradition of celebrating agricultural products, so go and enjoy one of these fairs or festivals, too!

And if you've got time, tuck a little local food away for winter. You won't regret it!

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Welcome Home Cooking

After altered travel plans, the delay of their furniture, brief health scares, and a visit from My Fabulous Aunt and Uncle, My Wonderful Parents have finally settled into their new home, conveniently located once again in my town.

In order to celebrate this fact and to kick off their new life here in style, I planned a special meal for them, featuring all local foods and some newly gained skills.

I spent the morning making a pan of vegetable lasagna for dinner. While you might not think it would take that long to make lasagna, consider this: I had decided to make the pasta, the cheese filling, and the sauce all from scratch. I know that's pushing dangerously close to Martha Territory, but it's just another one of those little challenges that I wanted to see if I could meet.

The sauce, thank heaven, was already sitting in the refrigerator, made in advance for this very purpose. The cheese, however, gave me fits from the start. I attempted to make it with the remains of the half-gallon of milk I had on hand, and though the expiration date was listed as tomorrow, it curdled in the pan and then failed to give me a substantial amount of curds. What a waste!

After I finished canning tomato sauce, I headed up to the grocery store and bought fresh (local) milk and (non-local) yogurt, and I returned home to try again. This time I was successful, and I set aside the pan of curds for later.

For the pasta dough, I used local spelt flour and egg yolks as well as some non-local salt and olive oil, and after chilling the dough for a couple of hours, I rolled it out and cut it into broad strips. (Sorry I didn't take pictures... it was so easy that it went quickly, and I didn't think to grab the camera!)

I mixed the curds with the egg whites left over from the pasta dough, some chopped fresh local parsley, a smidgen of salt and pepper, and some local shredded mozzarella cheese. I spooned dollops of this over the layers of pasta before smearing it all with the pasta sauce.

After the final layer, I spread the last of the sauce and sprinkled the last of the mozzarella on top, covered the pan with foil, and slid it back into the refrigerator until it was time to leave.

My Dear Papa's sister, My Tattooed Aunt, showed up on my doorstep before she visited my
folks, so I showed her around the apartment, enjoyed a good chat with her while I packed my bags full of food and ingredients, and handed her the lasagna while I carried a box of home-canned pickles and jam along with the pot of basil I had put together for My Wonderful Parents' homecoming.

When we arrived at my folks' apartment, we immediately set to work: My Tattooed Aunt helped My Dear Papa put away clothes and such while I cleared off counters in the kitchen and rearranged a few things for easier use. (I also whipped up a small batch of fried okra to share with Dear Papa since he enjoys it as much as I do.)

Come late afternoon, I preheated the oven, slid in the lasagna, and let it bake nearly an hour at 375 F, waiting for the cheese on top to bubble and brown.

I also heated slices of the house bread from the new local bakery, and I threw together a salad with lettuces and cucumber slices from the Gentleman Farmer's Wife. I had intended to make a plum crisp, too, but that never happened. Still, we at least opened up the bottle of Redemption (red wine) I bought from The Winery at Wolf Creek.

(No, the salad dressing wasn't local. I thought I'd let everyone choose for themselves from my folks' collection. Almost perfect, though!)

I'm pleased as all get out to report that the lasagna was a big success, tender and flavorful despite the sauce and the cheese being a little watery, and everything else met with approval as well. I don't think I would make lasagna completely from scratch every time I make it, but it's definitely worth doing again sometime... when I have plenty of time.

So here's to My Wonderful Parents and their safe return home (to where I can keep an eye on them)! It's good to have them in the area again.

And maybe I'll spoil them with a little home cooking now and then.

This Job Will Not Be Outsauced

Tomatoes, tomatoes, and more tomatoes -- are you as sick and tired of hearing about them as I am of telling you about them?

I know I've gotten a little repetitive of late, buried as I've been under loads of lycopene-laden fruit. And yes, I admit that there's no point in my complaining about it (not that I really do) because I continue to add to the piles of my own free will.

But since I want those tomatoes come winter, I'm going to do whatever work it takes to enjoy them later.

Having brought home several quarts of paste tomatoes from the farmers' market yesterday, I wanted to get started on them right away. Instead, I headed off on a grand adventure and returned to the tomatoes in the evening.

I'm glad I discovered that I can tuck the simmered sauce into the fridge overnight and finish off the canning work the next day -- that makes the prospect of making sauce slightly less daunting. So I skinned and strained and simmered the tomatoes last evening before heating them up once more while the hot water in the canner came to a boil this morning.

I'll also add that I had a "why didn't I think of this before?" moment while straining the tomatoes. As I was about to dump some of the strained tomato pulp into the bowl with the skins for composting, I realized that I should save the pulp and add it to the tomatoes that I will can in a couple of days. Why not? It might just thicken that juicy mess once I get around to it.

This morning, while I started working on today's cooking project (more on that later), six pints of pure tomato sauce went through the hot water bath and came out sealed and ready to reside in my pantry. (Actually, now that I have 11 pints, I can fill a box that originally held the clean jars and slide it under my bed in order to save space in the pantry.)

Only one more round of tomato-canning is coming up, I believe, so you shouldn't have to hear or read much more of this. (If you really do, the folks at Culinate have a new article about the joys of canning, aptly called "Message in a bottle." It's worth a read!)

Of course, after the tomatoes, you'll probably get to hear about applesauce and Concord grape juice and who knows what else. I will be ready to put away the canner once the harvest is over, believe me.

But until then, it's work I'm not willing to give to anyone else.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Farm Out!

As much as I love my farmers' market, I realize that I don't have a complete appreciation for all that the local farmers do. Without a car, I haven't been able to visit any of their farms (though I hope to remedy that soon) and see how they raise their produce and get it ready for market.

I know I could easily remain city-bound and not venture out, but that's not my style. I grew up with a family-wide appreciation for the countryside and the roadside farm stands that made our weekend outings more interesting, and I still want to head out from time to time on the country highways, driving over the rolling hills, with fields and farmhouses lining the road.

Recent posts over at the Ethicurean have reminded me of that deep longing, and an email this week from the American Farmland Trust provided a link to a report on the loss of farmland due to development, making me even more eager to get out of town and get back to my roots.

Happily, I had the perfect opportunity today as local farms hosted the Annual Mohican Valley Farm Festival -- and I persuaded Persephone (and a friend of hers) to join me for the outing.

We headed out of town, reveling in the beauty of the day, the lush greenness of the fields of corn and soybeans, and the abundance of farmhouse gardens along the road. We stopped first at Mohican Gardens to pick up some fresh Amish-grown produce, to browse the greenhouse, and to enjoy the lovely setting.

After that, we wound our way down country roads to Tea Hill Organic Farm, where we had a
quick tour of the poultry processing plant. I had read about how chickens are harvested -- graphic details and all -- in The Omnivore's Dilemma, and though I'm a vegetarian, I didn't find it disgusting because the process described took place on a small farm.

The operation at Tea Hill is presumably larger, as it has been certified organic and processes a respectable number of chickens and turkeys each year, but it's certainly not in the big leagues. It looked and smelled clean, and it was evident from the young woman's description that they run a tight operation with great care. Persephone picked up a couple of chicken breasts for her dinner, and I bought a dozen eggs, knowing that we had actually seen and approved of where the chickens lived (and died).

While there, we also walked across the road to visit the turkey flock, made up of the traditional Fresh White turkeys and some robust-looking Bronze Heirlooms, all of whom proved to be very friendly and interested in company:

Our final stop was the local vineyard, a place I have long wanted to visit. The owner and vineyard manager himself gave us a tour of the winery, explaining the equipment and process he used for the different kinds of wine as well as some of what he's learned about the terroir and the grapes over the years. (Something I didn't know: the press used for the white and red wines uses a gentle 4 lbs pressure and manages to squeeze the skins dry and produces a large quantity of juice, while the special press for the ice wine uses many tons of pressure since it's pressing ice-bound grapes and releasing only a small amount of liquid.)

After the tour, we headed out to visit the animals (goats, a donkey, potbellied pigs) on the way out to the vineyard. Some sections have been stripped bare as the manager noted that some varieties have not fared well in this area and need to be replaced with those that do. But the vines we saw were amply loaded with small grapes in large clusters (concentrating the sugars and the flavors), a promise of a good harvest to come.

We returned to the tasting room for samples of some of the wines, and I ended up buying five different wines so that I can restock my "cellar": the White Menagerie, the cherry wine, the Farmers White and Red wines, and my big splurge, the Chambourcin ice wine.

After that, we headed home, content with our outing and our finds, and more than eager to head out again sometime. (I discovered at the market this morning that the Herb Lady is hosting a Harvest Festival in a few weeks, so we'll see if we can make that!)

When knowing where your food comes from gives you so much pleasure, why wouldn't you want to spend a day at the farm?

Making the Rounds

Every week I try to fill you in on the details of the farmers' market and the produce I bring home. But I'm never quite sure if I can adequately capture the true sense of being there -- getting to talk with the farmers, savoring all the sights and smells and tastes, listening to good music, and meeting friends old and new.

No matter what my week has been like -- busy, stressful, aggravating, exhausting -- as soon as I set foot in the market and see faces light up when I approach to inspect the week's produce, I feel like I've come home. People here care -- about the work they do, about the food, about each other, about the the customers they've come to think of as friends.

So I took my sweet time wandering around this morning, talking with people about my family, my birthday dinner, heirloom tomatoes, canning, an imminent birth (the Bistro Chef and his lovely wife are expecting), the onset of the school year... everything. And while we talked, I figured out what I wanted to take home for the week's meals and for preserving.

And believe me, there was a lot to want!

--red peppers and fresh parsley from the Fiddlin' Farmer;
--more paste tomatoes, red peppers, and garlic from the Cheerful Lady and Handyman Joe;
--an espresso brownie and a lemon-almond muffin from a new personal chef business (run by a very personable couple);
--herb pasta, dried thyme, and a few heirloom tomatoes from the Herb Lady;
--an adorable pie pumpkin from the Potato Lady;
--okra, paste tomatoes, canning tomatoes, lettuce, and cucumbers from the Gentleman Farmer's Wife (and yes, I've got to come up with a better nickname for her!); and
--Bartlett pears from the Madcap Farmer, a new farmer who I actually knew as a student at the college and whose brother owns the local Bistro.

Yes, as you might have guessed, most of what I hauled home (at least weight wise) is for preserving. I decided to do another round of tomato sauce and canned tomatoes, just to give me a nice cushion for the winter, and later in the week I may well make pear jam or some such delicacy with those beauties.

(I may also have to check out the personal chef business further and treat my Wonderful Parents to a home-delivered dinner one of these days!)

But the best thing that came home from the market with me is the thing that I always get and never have to pay for: happiness.

And when my Saturday starts off on such a good note, there's no telling what I might do with the rest of the weekend!

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Plum Crazy

I don't know much about plums. I'll just make that clear right now.

Of course, I know they're stone fruit, related to peaches, and they come into season roughly around the same time. But I've never quite developed a taste for plums like I have for peaches, partly because I haven't been exposed to them all that much.

That's not to say that I haven't wanted to try. The few bites of plum I've had over the years have been... adequate and not terribly inspiring, but I've thought over the past couple of years that perhaps under the right conditions, plums might just win me over.

Call me a romantic, if you will, but I had hope for plums. And for the past few years, I've had to swallow a bit of disappointment come fall when I realized that I simply would not find plums at the local farmers' market... and I would not get that second chance.

But on Saturday, that all changed.

The dear, sweet older folks who don't appear at the market often were back for a second week in a row. I had hoped to find more of their juicy Red Haven peaches, but they were all out. Instead, they had quart baskets of small, rosy, light purple plums, the name of which they didn't know as this variety was a volunteer in their garden. (Does anyone recognize what kind of plums these are? Let me know!) When she offered me a sample, I decided to accept, and I sank my teeth into a dark golden flesh that oozed a sumptuous sweetness.

With a broad smile on my face, I begged them to hold back two quarts for me as I continued to make my market rounds, and as I walked on, I polished off the rest of the plum, slurping the last bits off the pit before wiping my hands and mouth with blissful glee. And when I brought the plums home at last, I immediately rifled through my dessert notebook to find two recipes I knew I had tucked away for the very occasion.

While I've been clinging to a recipe for a Spiced Plum Crisp (courtesy of Mr. Clean) for a couple of years, I decided to start with a cake recipe I found last year in The Cake Book for a Jasmine and Ginger Plum Upside-Down Cake. Knowing my love of ginger and my fondness for jasmine tea, this seemed to be a no-brainer for me and an ideal dessert to share with friends.

After work today, I came home and immediately got to work, halving and pitting the plums and making the local-honey-laced jasmine tea for soaking the fruit.

While they marinated, I started the sweet gingery topping for the cake and whisked together the cake batter, using some organic local spelt flour, local eggs, and local milk.

Once everything was ready to assemble, I layered the plums in the cake pan and sprinkled them with candied ginger.

I poured and smoothed the cake batter over the top and slid the pan into the oven, daring to raise the temperature in the loft even on such a hot and muggy day just for the delight of what was to come.

The cake came out looking brown and angelic, seeming to hover over the plums below, and when I flipped it onto a serving plate, I knew right away I had a winner.

But I don't expect you to take my word for it. I had invited Persephone for dessert, and she found the cake as tender and as invitingly plummy as I had. Since I modified the recipe somewhat, I doubt it was quite as sweet as the original, and that suited us both just fine.

I think I may have a slice of cake for breakfast, and then I plan to give away several slices to a few friends so that I can move on to the next plum recipe sometime this weekend.

As for me, I think it's now safe to say that I'm crazy about plums, and I hope it's a love that will last a long while.

Jasmine Ginger Plum Upside-Down Cake

The original recipe from The Cake Book has been modified slightly to accommodate my preference for whole grains and less refined sweeteners as well as to showcase some local foods. Instead of using large black plums, I used these smaller ones and halved them instead of slicing them. I also replaced granulated sugar with honey, brown sugar with maple sugar, and all-purpose flour with a 2:1 blend of spelt and unbleached flours. Some of the tea used to soak the plums ended up in the batter: I was down to the bottom of the honey jar, so I rinsed it out with the warm tea and dumped the mix into the batter. While the obvious beverage of choice with this cake would be jasmine tea (hot or cold), you might also find that a sweet white wine or a splash of dandelion wine would do very nicely, too.

12 or so small plums
1 c boiling water
2 tsp loose jasmine tea
2 T honey
4 T unsalted butter
1/4 c maple sugar
2 T mini diced crystallized ginger
1 c spelt flour
1/2 c unbleached flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp salt
8 T (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1/4 c maple sugar
1/4 c honey
2 large eggs
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 c milk (or 3/4 c milk and 1/4 c tea from soaking)

Cut each plum in half, removing the pit. Place halves in a medium bowl.

Pour boiling water over the jasmine tea and allow to steep for 10 minutes. Strain into a mug or small pitcher and sweeten with 2 T honey. Pour warm tea over the plums and let them stand for 20 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350 F. Put 4 T butter in a 9" round cake pan and set the pan over low heat. When butter has melted, stir in 1/4 c maple sugar until mostly blended. Remove the pan from the heat and set aside to cool for 5 minutes.

Arrange plum halves in concentric circles in the pan, cut side down. Sprinkle crystallized ginger on top of plums.

In medium bowl, sift together flours, baking powder, ginger, and salt, whisking until combined. Set aside.

In large bowl, cream butter. Gradually add maple sugar and honey, beating until light and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, then beat in vanilla. Add the flour mixture in three additions, alternating with the milk. Mix until just blended.

Scrape batter over the plums, then smooth it into an even layer. Bake for 45 to 50 minutes, until cake is golden brown and springs back lightly when touched. Set the pan on a wire rack and cool for 10 minutes.

Run a knife around the edge of the pan. Carefully invert the cake onto a cake plate. Serve warm or at room temperature. Store in the refrigerator, loosely covered, for up to 3 days.

Serves 8-12

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Put Up and Shut Up

After making the tomato sauce over the weekend, I knew it was high time to deal with the rest of the tomatoes sitting around, so last night I skinned and canned 5 1/2 pints of crushed tomatoes.

Whew! Finally, the big platter of tomatoes was empty! And aside from the small tomatoes that will go into a batch of salsa later this week, I could take a breather until this weekend's farmers' market.

Or so I thought.

The stormy weather we've had here lately has pounded on local gardens, so this morning I headed into work only to be the stunned recipient of a lot more tomatoes, courtesy of the Archivist.

She brought Black Krims, Sun Golds, Romas, more pear tomatoes -- a bag full of ripe and almost overripe tomatoes, begging to be used.

Oh, my. As if I didn't have enough to cook this week, and with the weather heating up again, suddenly I had more work to do.

I know, I know. My Dear Readers will take this opportunity to point out that not so long ago, I declared "you can never have too many tomatoes." Go ahead, say it. No, really, go ahead. Heaven knows I heard them ringing in my ears as I gingerly accepted the bag.

As is so often the case, my words came back to bite me. And I knew that here was a classic case of "put up or shut up."

So I did. Both.

Having both dinner with my Wonderful Parents and my dance class on the schedule this evening, I knew there wasn't much I could do with the tomatoes tonight, but I could at least blanch and skin the Sun Golds and put up a jar of their crushed pulp in the refrigerator. (I'm thinking of making a curry sauce with them; we'll see.) I gave the Black Krim to My Dear Papa for eating straight up, and I set the smaller tomatoes aside for later use.

At least for now, the others will hold until I can do something more productive with them.

I suppose every now and then I need a lesson in being careful about what I say, lest I end up having to eat my words.

But at least in this case, my words will be tasty!

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Ready to Cake Things Up?

You might have noticed here and there that I have something of an oddball sense of humor. I know, it's hard to tell, but believe me, it's true.

But that's nothing. I come from a long line of jokers and pranksters, and I come by my love of bad puns and screwball comedies honestly.

So it really shouldn't surprise me that I ended up getting snowed for my birthday.

Due to My Wonderful Parents' move and the Chef Mother's lingering need for rest and recovery, My Fabulous Aunt was once again in charge of making my birthday cake for out weekend get-together, and she had promised to make the Chef Mother's legendary carrot cake.

Late last week, as I was confirming the weekend plans with her, she mentioned that she was just then in the process of making the cake, and she hoped I wouldn't mind that she was trying a new recipe: a chocolate cake topped with an orange frosting.

Well, I do like chocolate, and I like orange, and I think the two together make a very lovely couple. But I'd had a rather rough week, and I felt somewhat dismayed that I wouldn't get my traditional favorite. Still, I stiffened the old upper lip, tamped down my disappointment like a good girl, and expressed my appreciation and anticipation.

Come Saturday, My Fabulous Aunt and I headed out on our own to visit the farmers' market and to do some other birthday shopping. In between stops, we returned to the Inn (since my aunt and uncle were staying there thanks to the Innkeeper's gracious hospitality) to pick up a few things.

MFA decided that as the birthday girls (hers was the day before), we were entitled to have a piece of cake before everyone else... and before lunch. What could I say? I do like her style.

So I pulled the cake carrier out of the fridge, lifted the lid, and saw a dark cake peeking through a cream-colored frosting, with an extra layer of pale green frosting on top. Still missing my carrot cake, I put on a brave face and commented how the frosting was lovely and looked like it had just come out of the garden.

"That's because it did come from the garden," replied MFA with more than a hint of laughter in her voice.

In that split second, I realized that I'd been had. This was no chocolate-orange cake, this was the real deal, the moist and rich and spicy and altogether luxurious carrot cake I love so well.

And I got teary-eyed, for just when I felt the most need of something familiar and comforting, I had it right there in my hands.

We enjoyed a good laugh, swiftly followed by thin slices of that marvelous cake, and we even managed to save a little room for lunch.

Since MFA made a good-sized two-layer cake, I had plenty of cake left over, even with sharing it with the rest of the family gathered this weekend, and I've managed to stretch it out to my birthday proper.

So here's to another year of adventures... and to shaking things up once in a while!

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Going Back to the Sauce

As you may have guessed, I'm not nearly done with putting up tomatoes for winter, and they're not nearly done with me.

I may have enough salsa tucked away, and though I'd like to make another batch of pasta sauce, I'm ready to move on to nothing but tomatoes.

But before I can devote my time to canning crushed tomatoes, I need to do something else first. Those Amish Paste tomatoes I bought at the farmers' market yesterday couldn't wait, so in between activities with my family, I came home to skin and strain the entire lot into two large pots.

Late this morning, after helping with breakfast at the Inn, I came home to put both pots on the stove to simmer. I let them take their sweet time, getting down to almost half their original volume, before I poured the contents of one pot into the other and headed out for lunch.

After lunch, I fired up the canner, brought the sauce up to a simmer, and waited until I could fill pint jars with thick, deep red, pure tomato sauce.

I processed the jars (five and a half pints' worth) in the hot water bath for nearly 40 minutes, and I pulled them out just before heading down to the theater for a Harry Potter matinee. Good timing!

Part of me would like to make more tomato sauce to have on hand for winter, but I do think that even five pints will hold me for a while. But that's only if I get plenty of crushed tomatoes canned for soups, stews, and curries, so I'd better get busy on that soon.

And if you see me walking hunched over or clutching my back or moaning and mumbling, you'll know that tomatoes are definitely the sauce, er, source of my troubles right now.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Let's Celebrate and Have a Good Lime

I'm in a celebratory mood this weekend, and not just because my birthday is coming right up.

This week, My Wonderful Parents moved back to town, and though their furniture is lagging behind them, I'm glad to have them here, ready to settle down again. The Chef Mother has had a rough ride health-wise this year, and My Dear Papa (my hero!) has held up enormously well under all the stress, so I'm thankful to have them back where I can keep an eye on them.

My Fabulous Aunt and Uncle also arrived in town for the weekend, partly for the local antique car show but also to welcome back my folks and to lend their help where they could. After all, it's a good way for them to celebrate, too, since they both enjoy August birthdays and an anniversary.

And though it's still two months off, I thought it worthwhile to celebrate My Wonderful Parents' impending 40th wedding anniversary.

So how, you might ask, did we celebrate?

I made a dinner reservation for us at the local Bistro, of course! None of the others in my family have been there for a meal, and I thought that if we had so much to celebrate, we'd better do it right.

(I apologize for not having pictures of all the wonderful food; I simply can't bring myself to take my camera there. But I'll do my best to describe it.)

We arrived just as they opened, and we settled in at our table, with a good view of the kitchen. My favorite sunshiny server stepped right up to help us, and once we filled her in on all the occasions, she made every effort to create the perfect celebratory atmosphere with her flawless service and delightful good humor.

The menu at the Bistro is always so tempting, and it changes seasonally, so it took all of us several minutes to decide on a sampling of appetizers and entrees:

--The Chef Mother requested the vegetarian special: linguine with fresh zucchini, summer squash, basil, shaved Parmesan, pine nuts, and a basil-walnut pesto.
--My Dear Papa ordered the fish chowder, with tender vegetables and chunks of halibut, followed by the pan-seared scallops in bacon-cream sauce with radishes and spinach.
--My Fabulous Aunt enjoyed the cream of zucchini soup (or, as she dubbed it, the Queen of Zucchini soup) along with the same pan-seared scallops, while Uncle sampled the fish chowder followed by the special grilled ribeye steak and Yukon Gold mashed potatoes.
--I had the cream/Queen of zucchini soup, and then a small tomato and blue cheese tart with a plate of mixed greens tossed with the house vinaigrette.

As with every Bistro meal, most of the food was sourced locally (especially the produce; I saw another of the chefs shopping at the farmers' market this morning!), and it tasted as fresh as if the chefs had just gone out to the garden to pick it.

Everything, and I mean everything, was delectable and well-appreciated, so instead of giving you a blow-by-blow detail of each dish, I'll just report some of the comments and results:

--All four of us who enjoyed soup as a starter avowed that, were we not in public, we would have licked the bowls clean.
--After one bite of the scallops, My Dear Papa turned to My Fabulous Aunt and said she wouldn't like them and he'd better finish them for her (wink wink).
--Uncle spoke not one word through the main course, but when he had finished, he said, "That's the best steak I've had in my entire life... in all sixty years!"
--The Chef Mother, whose taste buds are still haywire from all the medications she's been on this year, devoured half her bowl of linguine (more than I've seen her eat in a long time) and raved about the freshness of the vegetables and the combination of flavors.

And me? Well, you know how much I love the Bistro, but hearing all the rave reviews from my family made everything taste that much better to me.

I checked with the Bistro Chef about the special desserts he'd be offering, and all of us sampled one or the other of the selections: the classic chocolate fondant with a molten center (and local vanilla ice cream on the side) or a lime tart in a tender short pastry crust. The Chef sent our desserts out to our table with a lit candle gracing the sweet treat on each plate, causing the eyes of many other guests to follow in wonder and envy. Again, the food met with high praise, and though My Fabulous Aunt was getting full, she refused to leave without cleaning her plate.

After the meal, the Chef came out to visit with us and to receive his justly-deserved compliments. And I was moved nearly to tears to hear the Chef Mother tell him that the food was "magnificent," the service was "superlative," and that after twenty-plus years of teaching cooking and restaurant management, she did not use those terms lightly. (It also made me very proud and privileged to be able to work with the Chef on rare occasion at the Inn!)

Each meal I've had at the Bistro, without fail, has been superb. But this one takes the cake (or, in my case, the lime tart!) all around.

I can't think of a better way to celebrate life and the people I love than with food I love!

The Market of Excellence

It's hard to believe that the farmers' market season is already half over, but the refreshing chill in the air this morning reminded me that autumn is creeping closer with each passing week.

Along with the cooler weather came a slight shift in the offerings at this morning's market. Though the usual August produce (tomatoes, peaches, corn) still loaded the tables, a few late summer crops are starting to appear: eggplant, kale, and even the first winter squash.

I made my rounds, inspecting the goods and talking with the farmers, and by the time I'd made it to the other end of the market, I was thankful I had brought my basket, my backpack, and two extra small bags. I heard a lot of produce begging me to take it home, and I was ready.

So I loaded up my bags with:

--kale and broccoli from the Fiddlin' Farmer;
--two huge baskets of Amish Paste tomatoes (mostly seconds, for making tomato sauce), garlic, and three small acorn squash from the Cheerful Lady and Handyman Joe;
--triple ginger cookies from the Granola Lady;
--more Pink Thai Egg tomatoes from the Sheep Lady and spelt focaccia from her table mate;

--whole wheat pita bread from the Pita Princess;
--a quart of Harmony peaches and a half-gallon jug of apple cider vinegar from the local orchard;
--more tomatoes for canning, okra, Fairy Tale eggplant, and red onions from the Gentleman Farmer's Wife; and
--two quarts of the sweetest, tastiest plums I have ever encountered in my life from the sweet older couple who brought the amazingly good Red Haven peaches last week.

On top of all that, when I lingered to talk with the Gentleman Farmer's Wife, I mentioned that my birthday was next week (it was not deliberate, I assure you), and she immediately gave me a jar of her fresh peach jam as a gift. (I think she's still "paying" me for helping her out a couple of weeks ago, but I never turn down food gifts.)

As you might guess, the onset of cooler mornings has me ramping up my food preservation, especially where the tomatoes are concerned, and I'm sure I will buy just as much next week in the hope of cramming good food into every last nook and cranny of my freezer and my pantry.

Because when the food is this good, I want to be able to enjoy it as long as possible!

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Too Many Tomatoes?

There's a saying that's been repeated over the years: You can never be too rich or too thin.

I beg to disagree with both, quite frankly, and offer my own version of the saying: You can never have too many tomatoes.

It is, after all, August, when the tomatoes bow down their sturdy green stalks in weighty abundance, when the tables at the farmers' market blush under the collective glow of Early Girls and Romas and Amish Pastes and a host of other varieties, and when desperate gardeners start off-loading their surplus fruit, finding it far more welcome on most doorsteps than their gigantic surplus zucchini.

And while I still have a platter full of tomatoes to process into pasta sauce (yet this evening, I hope), I gladly accepted a bag of heirloom varieties from the Archivist this morning to relieve her of some of the tomato glut swamping her garden.

Along with a handful of golden pear tomatoes, she gave me a huge Pink Cherokee, an equally oversized Cherokee (the knobbly yellow one), a plump Sun Gold, and a mysteriously dark Black Krim. I was particularly excited about the Black Krim as I had hoped to grow some myself two years ago but had no luck when the plant I had ordered arrived damaged.

What to do with this bounty? For these tomatoes, unlike the rest I've been collecting, are destined for eating soon, not for canning.

I decided to cut up the Pink Cherokee to add to a Greek-style salad for a picnic lunch tomorrow. I tossed it with steamed green beans, chopped cucumbers, feta cheese, a chiffonade of fresh basil, and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar.

As for the Black Krim, I sliced it open.

I arranged the slices on a plate, topped them with feta cheese and more basil, and drizzled more balsamic vinegar on top for a variant of insalata caprese.

Really, on a summer evening, it's hard to beat fresh tomatoes for dinner, especially when they're dressed up with good cheese and fresh herbs and just a hint of tang. It was all I needed, really, aside from a bit of peach sorbet bobbing in a glass of white wine.

Too many tomatoes? Oh, no. You just have to know what to do with them!

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Peach Offering

It's been a while since I baked dessert, I know. I can't even use the excuse that it's been too hot to cook because I know you'll point out that I've certainly kept the kitchen in working order with all the canning and preserving I've been doing.

So I beg your forgiveness, and I hope you'll be mollified by today's post.

As I mentioned earlier, I found some juicy ripe Red Haven peaches at the farmers' market on Saturday, and having what my Opera-Loving Friends affectionately call Low Sales Resistance where food is concerned, I bought a quart to bring home, with no other thought than to enjoy fresh, sweet fruit for dessert on hot evenings.

And then -- lo and behold! -- the temperatures took a delightful dip, making it so much easier for me to contemplate turning on the oven.

I had toyed with the idea of baking something over the weekend, anyway, so that I could take something to work today to share with colleagues who were coming to a meeting. I don't bake for just any colleagues, nor for just any meeting, but in this instance, two of my colleagues have birthdays next week, neatly flanking my own.

As I pondered the possibilities, I decided to haul out my trusty and ever-so-versatile date bar recipe and to adapt it for fresh peaches. For those of you keeping track, here's what I changed from the linked recipe:

--switched from whole wheat flour to local spelt flour for the crust
--replaced the cardamom with half the amount of nutmeg in both crust and streusel
--used 2 c chopped peaches instead of dates and blueberries in the filling
--replaced the vanilla with almond extract in the filling

The spelt flour made the shortbread base considerably more tender, so it required more care to press it into the pan:

The peach filling, though it simmered in less water, needed about a tablespoon of flour to thicken it into a more spreadable consistency:

Once I had spread the peaches over the shortbread, I added a drizzle of homemade raspberry jam:

Once I had the streusel topping scattered on top, I slid the pan into the oven to bake for the usual time. And soon, I had a piping hot, fragrant, and utterly tempting dessert on hand:

Yes, I let it cool before I cut into it, and yes, I immediately filled a tin with enough peach bars needed to satisfy all my colleagues at the meeting. And even though I made the peach bars Sunday evening and didn't have the meeting until today, no, I didn't sneak any of the bars out for myself.

So when we all gathered this morning, I set out the tin, wished my colleagues a very happy birthday, and sat back while everyone had a peach bar for their mid-morning snack.

Across the board, the reviews for the peach bars were positive... and thankful. I do enjoy being able to make people happy with such a simple thing, and making a small celebration on an ordinary day and sharing good local food definitely makes people happy.

And with any luck, I'll have made a Dear Reader or two happy in the process.

So... truce?

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Seeing Red

There are tomatoes everywhere at home.

All right, that's a bit of a stretch. So far they remain confined to the bowl and platter you see above and have very kindly refrained from rolling off their respective piles onto the floor with a resounding splat.

The dish of cherry tomatoes has even dwindled after I dried another batch in the oven last night, making another pint or so of intensely-flavored morsels now bathed in olive oil.

But let's face it, the remaining tomatoes (easily six quarts' worth) are still sitting there, waiting for me to make up my mind as to what else I'm going to make. And today, I just can't find it in me to do much of anything with them.

Never fear, though. Those tomatoes inspire me nonetheless, and I'm tickled as pink as those lovely little pink Thai egg tomatoes shown in the right-hand pile above to tell you my good news: I'm starting my stint as a guest writer for the Ethicurean with an article about canning tomatoes and why I put myself through this grueling effort every summer.

I'm very excited about the opportunity to work with a group of bloggers I've come to admire over the past year or more as I've followed their pithy and punny takes on food politics and SOLE (sustainable, organic, local, and ethical) food, and I'm hoping that this writing venture will encourage me to explore some new avenues in my own foodshed. (There are some upcoming events around the area that I hope will inspire new posts.)

When I started this blogging journey nearly three years ago, I just wanted to cook and show off a little bit. Now, 600 posts later (this morning's grape juice rhapsody hit the magic number), I have learned so much more about cooking, food production, food politics, and the importance of all these things in my life. My writing has, I hope, improved a good deal, and I've recently found a part-time "job" that satisfies my desire to cook for others and to continue improving my skills. And I've found some wonderful, generous, like-minded and food-fascinated new friends.

So many thanks to all of you who have supported me along the way with your comments, your taste-testing, your ideas, and your enthusiasm. I'm looking forward to this new writing adventure, and I promise to keep my Dear Readers entertained with my usual posts here as well as with the links to my other pieces.

In the meantime, it's back to dealing with the DTs (Darn Tomatoes)!


Blushing for No Grape Reason

When I was much, much younger, my family took a summer vacation driving through the Finger Lakes region of New York. Among our stops were a number of wineries, and while I was well underage (I was 6 at the time), I enjoyed samples of grape juice while my parents tasted the local wines.

The grapes used in many of the famous Finger Lakes wines are not those usually referred to by wine lovers: Catawba doesn't often get a whole lot of the respect that Cabernet does, and who has ever heard of Niagara?

Turns out my local fruit farm has not only heard of Niagara grapes, the good folks there also grow them and bring them to the farmers' market.

One of the salespersons at the market stand allowed me to sample a grape before I bought, and the initial sweet, sugary taste had a follow-up kick that made me reach for my wallet. Though she said they'd also have Concord grapes later on, I knew I wanted to take a basket of these luscious beauties home and make juice.

So I did. I plucked the grapes from their stems before rinsing them and dumping them into my big pot with some water. As the water slowly came to a simmer, the grapes began to split and break down, shedding their skins and smelling so fragrant. And when at last it came time to strain the juice, I discovered that the remaining liquid had turned a vibrant pink, reminiscent of my lavender lemonade.

Because the sediment needs time to settle before another straining, I set the pan of juice into the refrigerator overnight and pulled it out this morning before my shower and breakfast. Then I strained it into a new pot and let it come up to a simmer before I added some local honey (not much, just enough to take the edge off that final sharp kick of flavor).

Two jars later, and there you have it: Niagara grape juice.

I set the jars in the refrigerator to cool today and overnight before I pop them in the freezer (if I can find room!), but already I'm looking forward to a winter morning when I enjoy a glass of that lovely juice.

The thought makes me blush already.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Deciding to Biscuit All

For my weekend, I had originally planned to show up both mornings at the Inn to cook breakfast for the guests, and on Sunday, I would be cooking solo for the remaining pair of visitors.

I had the whole thing planned: more fresh fruit from the stash the Innkeeper left for me, fresh homemade whole wheat biscuits, and a cheese grits soufflé with local basil, zucchini, and Monterey Jack cheese.

Alas, after breakfast this morning, said guests mentioned that they would be leaving by 4 AM, which meant I wouldn't be cooking after all.

Ah well! But while I can wait another week or so before presenting this menu to guests, I decided this evening that I really couldn't wait for some fresh biscuits. And not only did I want biscuits for breakfast, I wanted to use those biscuits for dinner.

See, I also had a craving for a pesto pizza, but honestly, I was too tired to make a big pizza. With the biscuits, though, I could just split a couple of biscuits, smear them with homemade pesto, top them with slices of fresh local tomato, and sprinkle a little local mozzarella on top before sliding them into the oven again.

So what would I call something like this? It isn't a pizza as we normally know it, though it does slide by under Wikipedia's definition, and it's not really a crostini. I suppose this is one of those cases where the name doesn't really matter, because the result tastes so good. And since I didn't use all the biscuits to make "pizza," I'll still enjoy other good flavors as I had planned.

After preparing a few pints of cherry tomatoes for oven drying overnight, I'm spent. So I'm glad I decided to do the extra work tonight in order to make breakfast a whole lot easier tomorrow.

Life in the Feast Lane

Every Saturday during the summer, well into the fall, and throughout most of the year, my main focus for the day is usually food. Between visiting the farmers' market, cooking for the week, and, during the harvest season, preserving produce, I'm pretty single-minded for my Saturday activities.

But today, I think I even surpassed myself.

The Innkeeper decided to take a much-needed vacation this weekend as her summer frenzy winds down, so I agreed to help with breakfast for her nine guests, working for my first time beside the Bistro Chef. Since I didn't need to bake anything, I arrived early to set the table, prepare the fruit salads, and get things ready to set out just before breakfast time. And when the Chef arrived, I had everything under control so that I could stand ready to help him out as needed.

We laid out a lavish meal for the guests, starting with chocolate chip scones and the fruit salad, loaded with strawberries, red and green grapes, nectarines, and apples and drizzled with a orange-maple-cream syrup. The next course included a luscious nectarine clafouti made by the Innkeeper, sausage, and fresh whole wheat-blueberry pancakes with warm local maple syrup. During periodic visits to the dining room to refill the coffee pots, I collected the praises for the meal and relayed them to the Chef, who was more than happy to share the glory.

When we wrapped up our morning, having closed out guests' bills, set the dining room to rights, washed dishes, and packed away the leftovers, I made sure that the Chef took the remaining nectarine clafouti home with him. You see, when I visited the Innkeeper yesterday to get my orders for the weekend, she also sent me home with my own clafouti, filled with fresh blueberries and blackberries from her home garden:

Along with a pint of cherry tomatoes, a big bundle of fresh basil, a few sprigs of mint, and a handful of hot chili peppers, I considered this to be more than ample payment for my work!

Since we cleaned up earlier than expected from breakfast, I had plenty of time to wander down to the farmers' market and to fill my basket with more good food:

--tomatoes from the Cheerful Lady's daughter;
--more Ruby Red popcorn from the Corn Queen;
--mixed cherry and other small tomatoes, plus two large bulbs of garlic from the Sheep Lady;
--a bag of red potatoes from the Potato Lady;
--four quarts of tomatoes, two pints of okra, two pints of cherry tomatoes, a pint of poblano chiles, and a purple basil plant from the Gentleman Farmer's Wife;
--a quart of Red Haven peaches and a bag of elderberries from the sweet older couple, back for the first time this year;
--and a basket of Niagara grapes from the local orchard.

Yes, an abundance of tomatoes went home with me as I hope to do more preserving at some point this week (though perhaps not this weekend; we'll see), so you're likely to hear more about that later. The elderberries went into the freezer for my Dear Papa, and the Niagara grapes made a lovely pink juice (more on that when I finish the process).

So much food! So much good flavor and fresh produce!

So... anyone want to cook for me? I'm beat!

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Food Miles from Home

I hadn't planned to write a more thoughtful post as this sticky weather has me mostly operating at a very basic level. But here in the air-conditioned confines of My Favorite Coffee House, I've had the chance to catch up my other reading and have the time to comment on the latest news on local eating.

My lovely friend Phoenix sent me a link to a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times: "Food That Travels Well" by James E. McWilliams. In it, he points out that while paying attention to food miles is worthwhile, sometimes the life-cycle energy embedded in local food is actually greater than that in food shipped halfway around the globe. I agree that it's worthwhile to know more about the entire process of food production so that you understand what energy is used to feed you, and there's a lively discussion over at Gristmill that adds some intriguing thoughts to the whole debate.

But one phrase from the piece jumps out at me as highly debatable: "it is impossible for most of the world to feed itself a diverse and healthy diet through exclusively local food production."

Really? Having recently read Drinking the Rain by Alix Kates Shulman -- a book about a feminist finding joy and growth in solitude, it's not ostensibly a book about local food, but she waxes eloquent about foraging and learning to become much more self-sufficient where food is concerned -- not to mention some of the other books I've reviewed here, I don't think that's an accurate judgment. Instead, I think it offers us an opportunity to rethink what we eat based on what our various bioregions can offer.

Sharon over at Casaubon's Book has a detailed post on what she's learning about her own region: what "common" foods aren't so well suited for her area, what wild foods and lesser-known plants might be better to add to her local diet.
Even the Southwest has bounty to offer, according to Gary Paul Nabham.

Admittedly, this means taking the idea of "local eating" to another level, but it's one worth exploring. I've had the pleasure of learning more about local wild foods thanks to this year's farmers' market, and I'd encourage everyone to learn more about what wild edibles are native to their areas as an inexpensive and adventurous way to supplement their regular eating habits.

In addition,
Julie at Eat Local Challenge offers her take on the editorial and explains that yes, she does have a more complex set of criteria and reasons for eating locally (and she articulates them very well!), but sometimes it's easier to explain food miles to those unfamiliar with the concept. And Brian Halweil at the Worldwatch Institute gives simple guidelines to help you understand when to choose local and when long-distance food might be a better bet.

I've tried not to let the whole "100-Mile Diet" or "local food" theme become a hard and fast way of looking at my meals. Yes, I want to source as much of my food locally as I can, but I want to do it sensibly, understanding how the food is produced and how it fits into the rest of my diet. And I'm fully aware that there are some things I simply cannot find produced locally, but those are the items where I try to buy organic and fair-trade if I can, and from small locally-owned businesses if at all possible.

It takes more thought, yes, but I've found that I appreciate my food more if I understand all of these factors a little better.

UPDATE: A commenter over at The Ethicurean pointed out that McWilliams's original article offered a more thoughtful overview of the problems and promises of local food, and I think you may find that piece easier to digest. He still indicates that many regions of the U.S. and the world cannot provide a "diverse" local diet to all people, but the assertion doesn't slap me in the face as much since he does lead up to it with more about climate challenges. This article also reviews in more detail what he would prefer to see with "life cycle analysis," and I can't argue with that.

I'd still add, though, that many people who are looking to source their food locally are doing so more thoughtfully than simply basing their decisions on arbitrary boundaries. From the comments I've seen here, the discussions I've had with friends, and the articles I've seen elsewhere, I'd say the majority of local-foods advocates understand that it's not just distance that counts, but how the food is raised, how animals are fed and treated, and how the food producers fit into community.

McWilliams also argues that many of us idealize the agricultural past, claiming that everything was better before we headed down the road to industrial agriculture, and that even the farmers wanted to "do better" by their children than to keep them on the farm. While there's some truth to that, let me offer this view instead: Instead of either romanticizing or disparaging agriculture and farmers, shouldn't we instead place a more realistic and appreciative value on the work that goes into producing the food we need to survive? And maybe, just maybe, might we consider getting a little more acquainted with agriculture ourselves, whenever we can, to understand the hard work and the satisfying rewards found in raising our own food?

Would that really be so difficult?

(FINAL? UPDATE: The Ethicurean, staying on top of the story, offers a guest post by Michael Shuman in which he reveals that the New Zealand study upon which the Times op-ed is based is... are ewe ready?... "a lousy piece of analysis." Baaaaad, baaaaad researchers! His final take is that "
local food wins out environmentally over global food almost every time.")