Work, life, and the whole shebang have finally started to slow down around here, so I can catch up with my blog-reading and the like. And since I've been enjoying homemade pancakes (with local flours, egg, and milk) this week for my breakfasts, I might as well offer a serving of links to those of you who prefer something substantial on the side. Enjoy!
--I've been enjoying a couple of new blogs lately, including Organic To Be, a group effort from a number of writers, including Ohio writer and farmer Gene Logsdon. While I feel like the local foods movement has gotten me to think "beyond organic," it's still good to keep up with the news and trends on organic foods. ("Organic" is still a useful label, despite some of the controversy of government regulations, and it's especially good for those items you can't source locally.)
--My recent visit to the Children's Studio School garden in DC (written up over at The Ethicurean) has me itching to dig my fingers into the dirt again. Don't know if that will happen soon, but further inspiration pops up in my browser in the form of a series of online videos on composting by the Slow Cook AND the new Fedco Seeds catalog. I've got to find a little patch of earth to scratch next year... and I may even need to visit the Original Organic Farmer on her farm again before winter arrives.
--Upon my return at work last week, I was asked to serve on the campus Environmental Task Force, specifically the Local Foods Committee. And while I do feel like the work is up to my eyeballs these days, how could I pass up the chance to put my passion to work? Our first meeting this week brought up a number of issues -- composting, biofuels from recycled vegetable oil from the dining halls, seasonal menus in the dining halls, compostable carry-out containers, and so on -- so I'm very excited about the possibilities. Perhaps, after all my small and gradually more confident steps, the time has come to make a difference!
--And thinking of small personal choices building into bigger ones where local foods are concerned, Barbara at Tigers and Strawberries has written an eloquent post about Alice Waters, the well-loved and oft-derided founder of Chez Panisse and The Edible Schoolyard project. While some of her recent ventures have been questionable at best, a recent Salon.com article takes her and other locavores to task for their "elitist" attitudes. Barbara wonders how making sure everyone has access to fresh, nutritious, and tasty food is elitist, and a number of the folks adding their comments to the post have equally thoughtful and thought-provoking ideas to consider.
--(ADDED 11/2) Just because the bulk of my food preservation season is over doesn't mean I'm not still thinking about it. And so are others: The Ethicurean points today to an article in the Toronto Star called "Preserves become ideology in a jar." There are oh! so many things right about this article and why folks like me are so keen on preserving food for the winter, right down to that long-felt impulse to feel most at home in the kitchen, be it my own, my grandmother's, or someone else's. (Pass the dishtowel or the knife and chopping board, please!) And to top that off, Expat Chef has a similarly inspiring article over at Eat Local Challenge that delves into those reasons, too.
Now if you'll excuse me, I think I might go read some more...
When I returned home from my business trip/vacation, I couldn't believe how quickly, it seemed, the trees had shed their lush green hues and replaced them with luminous golds and reds.
Autumn had definitely slipped in while I was away, and it greeted this wayward traveler with brisk winds and bone-chilling mornings that make me reach for my woollies.
But that's OK, because I'm Ohio-born and -bred, and I'm tough enough to withstand this change in the weather. (At least that's what I tell myself.) The key to warming up outside is to warm up inside, and I've been enjoying lots of comforting pasta and all the hearty fall vegetables I can take. And once the Chef Mother made it home from another stay in the hospital, I wanted to share the same sort of comfort food with her.
Since My Wonderful Parents had so enjoyed the lasagna I'd made upon their return, I decided to pull out the trusty pasta dough recipe once again and make ravioli. While I made the same homemade cheese for the filling, I also sauteed some garlic and threw in a bag of spinach from the Madcap Farmer, cooking it down and then pureeing it with the cheese for a brilliant green stuffing.
Instead of opting for a traditional marinara sauce, though, I decided to carmelize thin slices of red onion before adding garlic, rosemary, nutmeg, salt, and pepper to the mix. Then I tossed in small slices of steamed butternut squash, letting it cook with a splash of homemade black raspberry vinegar until the whole mixture smelled heavenly and hit the right balance between firm and mushy.
The Chef Mother found the entire combination thoroughly impressive -- she is feeling better! -- and she appreciated the simple lettuce salad with cherry tomatoes on the side, along with tender green beans dressed simply with olive oil, salt, and pepper. I shared a bottle of White Menagerie wine from the local vineyard, and its crisp notes of fresh apples and peaches highlighted the rich flavors on the plate to perfection.
She was also impressed to know that almost the entire meal was local: all the vegetables came from the farmers' market; the cheese was made from local milk; the pasta used local whole wheat and spelt flours plus a local egg; and the wine was made just down the road. In fact, the only items not locally sourced were the olive oil, salt, pepper, and nutmeg.
With a small dish of apple crisp made by My Dear Papa to round out the meal, we enjoyed a delicious dinner, made even more delightful by watching the Chef Mother's renewed interest and appetite.
They graciously ceded the leftovers to me so that I can enjoy them another night, especially as the temperatures are expected to dip again soon and I'll be wanting more comfort food. And as the leaves continue to drift earthward with each passing frosty night, I'm sure I'll revisit this sort of dish again to keep my cozy on a cold evening.
In making the rounds at the farmers' market today, I was glad to find some vegetables that I don't usually come across there... and that I need for making soup stock.
Strangely, I've discovered that very few farmers at the market bring carrots to the market, and even fewer offer celery. But best of all, the Amish folks had parsnips, something I love to throw into soups and stews or occasionally showcase on its own. The parsnips had abundant greens still attached, and I knew that those would be useful in stock as well.
I pulled out my trusty stock pot after breakfast and started peeling and chopping a colorful array of local vegetables and mostly local herbs to start a large pot of vegetable stock.
While the stock simmered, I contemplated the remaining leaves from the first bunch of parsnips along with the remaining celery. Since I'm low on space in the refrigerator after all my purchases this morning, I decided to wash and chop the rest of both those items, and I packed them into three plastic bags to throw into the freezer.
It only made sense: in the past I've chopped fresh parsley and carrot greens, tucked them into ice cube trays and covered them with water, ending up with small frozen cubes of flavor to add to a pot of simmering stock. There's no point in cooking these items and losing the flavor before they go into the stock, and the freezing process won't affect the produce since I'll throw the vegetables directly into the stock pot without thawing. And if it means I won't lose perfectly good produce in the refrigerator... well, why not?
I finished that little project and had a while to rest and read before the stock needed to be strained (just before lunch -- talk about timing!).
(Once again, that canning funnel comes in handy!)
So here I am, with three quarts of fresh vegetable stock cooling on the counter and the start of three more large pots in the freezer. What a way to start soup season!
It's the perfect way to greet cold weather: a warm kitchen full of savory smells and the promise of more cooking to come.
Ever since I came across the recipe for a Basic Vegetable Stock in the Moosewood Restaurant Low-Fat Favorites cookbook, I've been using it faithfully, with occasional variations based on available vegetables and herbs or on the intended use. I never need to refer to the recipe any more; I just grab vegetables and enjoy a leisurely half-hour (or less) in careful and loving preparation. Between this and starting a batch of homemade bread, I can't think of a better way to start a Saturday morning in the fall or winter... the fragrance is unbeatable. And if you have a compost pile, take the steaming scraps left after you strain the stock and add them to the icy pile to keep everything going during the winter months.
NOTE: You'll notice that on most of the vegetables, I don't recommend peeling. Just scrub them well and keep the vitamins and minerals in your stock!
2 medium onions, peeled and coarsely chopped
3-6 garlic cloves
2 celery stalks, coarsely chopped
2 carrots, scrubbed and coarsely chopped
2 large potatoes, scrubbed and coarsely chopped
2 sweet potatoes, scrubbed and coarsely chopped
2 fresh parsley sprigs, chopped
greens from celery, carrots, parsnips, washed and chopped (if you've got them)
1 bay leaf
4 allspice berries
water to cover
Combine all ingredients in a large soup pot. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat, cover, and simmer for an hour. Strain the stock through a colander or strainer, pressing out as much liquid as possible. Compost the solids.
You can add other herbs or vegetables except: tomatoes, eggplants, bell peppers, asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower. Fresh stock can be kept in the refrigerator for about a week; otherwise, don't fill jars quite to the top, refrigerate for a full 24 hours, and then move to the freezer.
Makes 2 to 3 quarts
Three Bags Full
The wind whipped up overnight and brought chilly breezes into town, dusting yellowed leaves off the trees lining city streets. (When did the colors change? How did I miss that?) And this morning I woke up to the melancholy heart of autumn... a perfect morning for the last farmers' market of the year.
Only about ten hardy souls had their tables and tents set up with the last produce of the year, but it's no exaggeration to say that their tables were still loaded with plenty of excellent food. I took my time making my rounds, wanting to enjoy that last conversation with some of my favorite people until next spring.
The Amish farmers had big, lush bundles of parsnips, one of my favorite fall vegetables, so I bought two along with a bundle of long and lean celery and a bunch of carrots.
I visited at length with the Cheerful Lady and Handyman Joe, all the while letting my eyes wander over all their vegetables. As she told me how the deer had been "pruning" her spinach crop regularly, I pointed out that the spinach leaves she had brought (one bag full) were the perfect size for a dinner I'm planning to make for My Wonderful Parents, so she set it aside for me along with a mixed bag of broccoli and cauliflower. I added two more heads of cauliflower, a butternut squash, a small bag of basil, and two small heads of Chinese cabbage to my bags, asking them to give me a call if they had any more good produce next week.
The Madcap Farmer greeted me with his usual warm smile, and he had more of the same offerings as last week, so I bought another bag of spinach, a pint of raspberries, and a small bag of those tasty sweet potato chips.
The Spelt Baker and the Sheep Lady, sharing a table once more, were happy to stand and chat with me while sipping coffee in the chilly morning air. I bought more spelt flour, spelt berries, spelt pasta squares, a chocolate chip-spelt cookie, rosemary, and rose hip jelly, wishing I could have stocked up on even more pasta. (At least I have the Baker's phone number now for when I run out of spelt berries... maybe we can work something out for winter!) And the Baker tucked an osage orange into my bag; even though it's inedible, she said, it's good for insect control.
Finally, I visited the Gentleman Farmer and his Wife and finished filling my backpack, basket, and a couple more bags with lettuce, green tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, green beans, sweet onions, eggplant (purple and white), an orange sweet pepper, and a handful of jalapeno peppers. She threw a few extra bulbs of garlic into my bag, and we exchanged phone numbers so that I can invite her over when I'm ready to make baklava for the holidays.
This might be the end of the harvest season, but like any good fireworks display, the best was saved for the last! I don't expect to have lots of cooking time this week, but as I hope to make two meals for other people, I know I'll use a lot of that produce very quickly.
Once I had finished unpacking my bags and putting food away, I settled back in my cozy chair with a cup of tea, gathering strength for what cooking I have yet to do today. How odd it seems to know that next Saturday, I will have a leisurely start to the morning (unless, of course, I get called in to work at the Inn) and will have plenty of time to shift into fall baking and soup-making. I'm looking forward to the change away from food preservation, as much as I enjoyed that, but there are still so many exciting things to do in the kitchen in the colder months. (Maybe I'll even start a new round of herbs and vegetables on my windowsill.)
And then, someday, I can also start counting the weeks until next year's farmers' market begins!
Slow Me the Way
Whenever I travel, I generally have at least one book in hand. If, despite all inclination otherwise, I have to fly, I usually have two books packed, one of which is often a book on food. (You can take the cook out of the kitchen, but...)
As I wrapped up my journey last week, I hauled out book number two to start reading on the flight home: Slow Food Nation: Why Our Food Should Be Good, Clean, and Fair by the founder of Slow Food, Carlo Petrini.
I confess to being of two minds as I picked up the book at the library. On the one hand, I appreciate what Slow Food has done to make people more aware of culinary traditions, to preserve biodiversity, and to encourage the rejection of a frenzied pace of life that does little to strengthen our health, both individually and as a community. The Slow Food Movement has spun off other related groups, all falling under the broader rubric of Slow Living -- and that's something that has had great appeal for me in the past few years as I've made conscious decisions to step back from "having it all" in order to appreciate the smaller and slower aspects of life.
But I'm also keenly aware of some of the criticism leveled both at Slow Food and at Petrini. Some critics point to the high cost of Slow Food convivia membership or dinners and declare the movement to be an elitist one, despite the original purpose of the organization to make good food available to everyone. (Tom Philpott at Grist outlines both.) Valid arguments also exist to show that while eating Slow may be a good idea, it requires a great deal of work, and that can't always be balanced with the rest of our frenetic lives. And Petrini himself has drawn heat for observations made in this book (pages 130-131) about the legendary Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market in San Francisco, calling it a "boutique" frequented by "actresses" and supplied by farmers who charge exorbitant prices in order to limit their appearances at the market and to save time for their personal leisure (charges that were aptly refuted by some of the farmers in question).
Still, in the interest of fairness, I read on. And, to sum it up -- well, if I wanted to persuade someone to incorporate more local foods into his or her way of life, this isn't the book I'd recommend.
Don't get me wrong. Petrini knows a great deal (after 20 years of Slow Food, he'd better) and has traveled to experience firsthand some of the problems with agriculture as well as some of the solutions. His message is pretty basic: the food that we (meaning all of humanity) should eat should be good, clean, and fair. A brief elaboration of those three criteria would be:
--good means quality of taste, nutrition, environmental impact, and work behind the production of the food
--clean means that, as far as possible, food should be grown or raised with no or extremely little chemical input (pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics, etc.) and with as low an environmental impact as possible
--fair means that the food is produced in a way that offers a decent living to those who work to produce the food... as well as that the food is affordable to all
A better summary of these points, based on a talk Petrini gave in San Francisco, is available at The Ethicurean, but you get the idea: good, clean, and fair are all intertwined, and to neglect any one of the three is to lessen the probability that the others will be of high quality.
But I have to simplify these points because Petrini takes over 200 pages to elaborate those three points in both exquisite and excruciating detail, often in elaborately crafted and lofty sentences that smack of a dry academic tome and rarely backed up with references. I'm not looking for bland sound bites here, just a clear logical outline that doesn't keep looping back over itself in ornately tangled patterns of ponderous prose. (I can do that myself!)
Sometimes Petrini's writing is lyrical, almost poetic, as he gives rein to his passion for good food and its role in our lives, and he reveals connections that might otherwise slip by unnoticed:
Like language, cooking contains and expresses the culture of the person who does it; it is the repository of the traditions and identity of a group. It self-represents and communicates even more strongly than language, because food is directly assimilable by our organism: eating someone else's food is easier and more immediate than speaking their language (p.77).
No one has the right to judge someone else's food on the basis of their own "cultural" taste: if we accept the description of food as a language, it becomes a means of communication, and in order to judge it we must learn to recognize the categories of the good which have codified it, as a language, in that particular culture. We must learn other culinary languages (p.108).
You can see, though, that even at the best of times, it takes a while for Petrini to get around to clarifying his main point. I'm not sure whether some of my difficulties with the style are due to his original text or to an unwieldy translation, but his arguments often become repetitive, parenthetical, or just plain burdensome. And while I have no doubt that there exists plenty of room for academic volumes on the subject of food, I find the formal, almost pompous tone of much of the book to belie the author's undeniably heartfelt opinion that good food and eating should involve all people of every socioeconomic and educational stratum. (Who will read this book other than "elitists" and "critics"?)
Petrini does shine when he makes the connection between eating good, clean, and fair food and making sustainability a larger part of our lives overall -- a connection I love to see:
For many people, cooking -- and the kitchen as the place where the activity takes place -- is becoming an antidote to the lifestyles imposed by the dominant social model, a form of gastronomic resistance and protection of diversity (p.79).
Well, yes! In addition, while he recognizes that not all of us can be farmers, he pleads for the idea of self-sufficiency and the right for everyone to secure their own food supplies by producing what they can by themselves (p.137). Whether that's in maintaining a small garden plot of your own or by making your own preserves based on what you find from local farmers is up to you and your individual circumstances.
As always, Petrini upholds the pleasure principle: if food doesn't taste good, why do we bother? And why don't we seek out food that does taste good? Nutrition may be taught in schools, but from a very young age, he declares, we should be teaching how to taste food and to enjoy how it fits into our culture. He applauds the growth of school gardens and sees them as one major step in getting us back to a food network that actually works, that connects us back to the land and the source of our well-being.
There's a good deal of useful information in this book, and if you're looking for a text in "modern gastronomy," which is part of Petrini's purpose in writing, then by all means, read this book. But for those who are already supporting local foods and looking for ways to expand their knowledge and activity -- or for those who are looking for a way in -- this isn't the best book to get you going. I came across relatively little that I hadn't already read elsewhere, and the writing style and roundabout arguments made me set down the book periodically so that I could uncross my eyes. (Sorry, Carlo. You're just not my cup of espresso.)
There are good points in this book. But why make it difficult to draw more people in to support those points? Petrini points out in one of his most beautifully succinct sentences, "The small farmer can save the world from the abyss: let us give him the chance to do so" (p.136).
To which I would say, so can the "small eater." So close the book already and let us eat!
How to Sweeten Up a Grump
When I'm tired, I get grumpy.
Maybe you feel that way, too. But when I'm really tired -- and I am really tired -- I get so grumpy that I'm truly anti-social. Hermits look like incurable gossips in comparison.
Don't get me wrong, I had a great time away from home visiting with friends and all, but it was a wearing week, and yes, I am well worn. From what others around me have been saying, the past week hasn't been all beer and skittles for them, either.
So what can you do? Me, I usually hole up in my cave (er, loft) and snooze or otherwise relax until I feel somewhat human again. When that happens, I start feeling hungry.
And when I get hungry, I usually want comfort food. Today, that meant lots of good vegetables, but it also meant that it was time for me to bake.
While visiting the fair Titania last weekend and indulging in out-of-this-world chocolate, we discussed a possible variation on a chocolate-hazelnut cookie recipe that I like, substituting spiced pecans for the hazelnuts and lacing the dark chocolate with cinnamon and chili powder. So I pulled out the recipe today, mixed together the ingredients, and started rolling... well, in the dough.
About half of the lumps of dough got rolled in a mixture of regular and black cocoas, giving the dough a truffle-like appearance.
And for the first sheet of cookies, I added a tiny sprinkling of sea salt to the top, just as an experiment, inspired by one of the truffles I sampled last week.
As the cookies baked, they spread and made the cocoa dusting crackle, creating a light crust. Inside, the finely ground nuts added just the right texture to a soft, slightly underbaked center. The chili powder cut the sweetness of the cookie, and the straight cocoa coating gave just a touch of bitterness to balance the rich texture.
And that sea salt? Oh, yeah... salty and sweet, smooth and crusty, all those marvelous opposites came together in a satisfying treat.
Being in a contrary mood, I decided that the recipe deserved a contrary name that reflected the crusty nature of the cookie, the salty-tongued morsel that is just a little bit nutty. And so I give you the curmudgeon cookie, destined to bring a smile to even the grumpiest of faces.
I should know... I'm not grumpy any more.
Curmudgeon Chocolate Cookies
Derived from a recipe for "Chocolate-Hazelnut Zebras" from Vegetarian Times, this cookie contains an inordinate amount of spicy crunch for as light as it turns out. The secret is to remove them from the oven when they're still soft in the middle (soft-hearted?) so that they remain tender and melt in your mouth once they cool, despite the crusty exterior.
1 c pecan halves
1 T pure maple syrup
1 T maple sugar (or Sucanat or brown sugar)
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp chili powder
Preheat oven to 350 F. In small bowl, toss pecans with remaining ingredients. Spread on a parchment-covered baking sheet. Bake for 15 minutes, tossing the nuts every 5 minutes to keep from sticking and to distribute the sugar. Remove from the oven and cool. Chop finely. Set aside.
1/2 c unsalted butter
4 oz unsweetened chocolate
2 oz bittersweet chocolate
1 1/2 c sugar
4 large eggs
2 tsp vanilla extract
2 c whole wheat flour (or half unbleached, half whole wheat)
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp chili powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp cloves
cocoa for coating (I like a 1:1 mixture of regular and black cocoas)
sea salt (optional)
In top of double boiler over barely simmering water, melt butter and chocolates, stirring until smooth. Remove top pan from water and allow to cool.
In large bowl, beat sugar and eggs until light and fluffy. Beat in vanilla and cooled chocolate mixture. Stir in reserved spiced nuts.
In medium bowl, mix flour, baking powder, spices, and salt. Add to batter, about half at a time, beating well after each addition (dough will be very soft). Cover and refrigerate for at least 6 hours or overnight.
Preheat oven to 325 F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Pinch off pieces of dough and roll into 1" balls. Roll in cocoa, coating well, then place on prepared baking sheets, spacing about 2" apart. If desired, press slight indentation in top of cookie and add a tiny amount of sea salt.
Bake until puffy and cookies seem underdone when poked, about 13 minutes. Transfer baking sheets to wire racks and cool 10 minutes, then remove cookies to rack and cool completely.
Makes 4 dozen or so
Time to Veg Out
Since I returned home, I've been keeping a low profile, staying home aside from quick little walks to the shops to restock my pantry, and I've been trying to get plenty of rest before heading back to work.
That's easier said than done, though: I tend to go through life with a lengthy To-Do list in my firm clutch, and even when I'm desperately behind on sleep, I feel the need to keep going. But I made a conscious effort to slow down this weekend, sleeping in and taking a nap and doing just the basic things needed to start my week.
Fortunately, the most basic task of all -- feeding myself -- is also one that tends to relax me, as long as I have an open schedule and plenty of good ingredients. And today I tapped the supplies of fresh produce bought at yesterday's farmers' market, and I decided to veg out completely:
For breakfast, I cubed the last of the bread I had tucked into the fridge before my trip. I layered the cubes in a baking pan with torn fresh spinach and snipped chives (from my windowsill), and then I whisked together local eggs and milk and poured the mixture over the top. With a little butter and Parmesan cheese and half an hour in the oven, it all came together for a hearty and wholesome breakfast casserole that was almost entirely local. And with a bit of pumpkin preserves and garlic-shallot jam on the side, it turned out rather elegant and tasty, too.
For lunch, I pulled out my old standby of broccoli-walnut pasta, using broccoli and garlic from the market, white spelt noodles made in nearby Amish country, and some of my oven-dried tomatoes.
And for dinner, I threw together cauliflower, zucchini, and sweet potato along with cumin, chili powder, salt, pepper, and olive oil, and I roasted it all for about 45 minutes until the vegetables were perfectly tender. I mixed yogurt with chopped cucumber and garam masala for a makeshift raita to serve with the vegetables, and I added a dollop of cantaloupe chutney on the side for an extra kick.
After a week of eating out, I can't tell you how good it feels to eat so many good vegetables... as well as to cook with them. About halfway through the week, I started craving my own home-cooking, and by today, getting into the kitchen felt more restful than anything else, if you can believe that.
I can't find a better way to veg out!
The Ins and Outs of Eating Out and In
All right, I admit it. Not only did I take a vacation from the blog (mostly), but I also got away physically for the week, visiting the fair Titania in Philadelphia, attending a work-related conference in DC, and then visiting with more friends. It's wasn't all fun and games, but it felt good to get a complete change of scenery, even with my current deep inclination to remain a homebody.
Despite traveling to two culturally rich and architecturally inviting cities that I enjoy very much, I spent my time focused not on what but rather on who I could see. It's an excellent way to travel, especially when some of those friends appreciate good local food as much as I do. But instead of giving you all the details of all my culinary outings over the past week, I'll just hit the highlights:
--a tour of the Philadelphia local-foods scene with the fair Titania;
--breakfasts from the Chestnut Hill farmers' market throughout the conference;
--good ethnic food (Lebanese, Ethiopian, Spanish tapas; none local, alas) with congenial colleagues during the conference;
--tipping pints with the Gentleman and the Film Fanatic, always a raucously amusing adventure;
--getting an inspiring school garden tour from The Slow Cook;
--tipping another pint with the lively and lovely Jasmine; and
--a home-cooked Bulgarian meal prepared by none other than Mitch Heat and his beautiful fiancee: tomato and cucumber salad with fresh creamy Bulgarian feta, steamed asparagus, and plump and savory feta-filled potato pancakes, all chased won with a sip of homemade "firewater" (the Bulgarian name eludes me).
On top of that, my Opera-Loving Friends picked me up at the airport on my return home and whisked me off to a local South Indian vegetarian restaurant for a feast of dosai, bonda, avial, and other wonderful dishes. We even stopped in the grocery next door, and I went completely bonkers over all the spices and staples that I can't find anywhere else locally. I stocked up in a big way, and I hope to do more serious Indian cooking soon.
So much friendship, so much laughter, so much good food and drink! I had my misgivings about traveling far from home for so long when all I've wanted lately is to sleep for days on end, but I can't deny the restorative power of genuine communion and companionship and all the culinary connotations those two words hold.
Now that I'm home, though, I have to confess: I am really tired of eating out so much. Cooking at home can take a lot of my time, but it is so much more relaxing to me than heading out to a new place (or even to repeated favorites) for every meal. Trying new dishes and ethnic cuisines is fantastic, but for the most part, I want simpler meals made with the fresh produce and quality ingredients I keep at home. The only trouble is, after clearing out the refrigerator in preparation for my trip, I have to fill it up again!
Even after a short night, then, I was up at 7 this morning and heading down to the farmers' market shortly thereafter, and I piled lots and lots of goodies in my bag:
--two cucumbers, a quart of small sweet potatoes, and a bunch of carrots from the Amish farmstand;
--fresh parsley and thyme, broccoli, cauliflower, two big cookies, and a jar of Dutch apple jam from Handyman Joe;
--broccoli (yes, more!), Niagara grape jelly, and leeks from the Sheep Lady;
--two bags of spinach, two small bags of homemade sweet potato chips, apple-pear fruit leather, and half a pint of red raspberries from the Madcap Farmer;
--Honeycrisp apples and cider from the local orchard; and
--tomatoes, potatoes, onions, a red bell pepper, lettuce, bok choy, dried cayenne peppers, and zucchini from the Gentleman Farmer's Son.
A visit to the local natural foods store later in the morning found me buying local milk, eggs, and pasta along with butter and oil for baking and a hefty stash of black tea, so I'm pretty well set now to bake, cook, and eat many wonderful things of my own making. (Maybe after a nap!)
Now that the surfeit of restaurant food is behind me, I hope to have more home-cooking adventures to share with you soon!
The Right to Bare Chocolate
While away on my little vacation (with a work conference thrown in for kicks), I may not have kept up with the blog -- know how hard it is to find free wi-fi in some places??? -- but I've certainly kept up with good food.
I started my getaway with a visit to the fair Titania in Philadelphia, and she prepared me for the festive atmosphere of my visit by sending me a copy of the local-foods directory for the metropolitan area. Wow! I had no idea that so many restaurants and cafes in the City of Brotherly Love focused on fresh, seasonal, local produce, but I was thrilled. How could we possible cover enough of them in one short weekend to satisfy me?
Well, I'll save the details of that for a post at the Ethicurean (soon to come), but one particular place, though not featuring local foods, merited a separate special mention for all my fellow chocolate-lovers.
For my first night in town, my dear friend had purchased tickets to the Kimmel Center to hear Ben Heppner, dramatic tenor, sing with the La Scala Orchestra. (She knows well how much I love classical music and opera.) We dined a few blocks from the Center at a lovely Middle Eastern restaurant, but when we discovered that the restaurant was out of baklava (of all things! didn't they hear I was coming??), we decided to backtrack to a small artisan chocolate shop called Naked Chocolate.
If your idea of gourmet chocolate is Godiva or some similar boutique chain, it's time for you to book a plane or train to Philadelphia and raise your standards. This charming cafe and chocolaterie has a somewhat European feel in the elegance of its surroundings, but it's also a favorite with a young, hip crowd that gives it a happy energy.
Naked Chocolate makes all its chocolates, from the traditional nut clusters and luscious truffles to intriguing chocolate beads shaped like M&Ms but infused with flavors ranging from sea salt to rose. Their pastry case contains cupcakes, tortes and tarts, and other tempting desserts for those who wish to sit and indulge in fine desserts.
Or, if you're like the fair Titania and myself and prefer your chocolate in liquid form, you can order a cup of thick hot chocolate, either made in the usual way or as "sipping" chocolate, which thickens like a pudding the longer you savor it. She ordered the dark sipping chocolate, as creamy and dark as a pot de crème, and I sampled a petit Aztec hot chocolate (the largest size is "We'll Never Tell") laced with cinnamon, cardamom, clove, and nutmeg. Needless to say, we both enjoyed our indulgences very much!
Along with dessert, we each purchased various chocolates to take with us. While Titania selected a quartet of truffles and a canister each of two kinds of dark chocolate beads, I picked up a canister of chocolate-covered espresso beans for friends I will see later in my vacation as well as half a dozen dark chocolates and truffles, including a solid dark chocolate blossom topped with Hawaiian lava salt, an espresso truffle, a truffle with lime and ginger, and a pyramid of solid 72% dark chocolate.
Since I've increased my commitment to local foods, I've actually tried to reduce the amount of chocolate I use in baking and eat. On top of that, I've tried to use higher-quality chocolate (organic and fair-trade where possible) when I do use it. It's more expensive, yes, but if it helps me be more mindful about enjoying it, I think that's a worthwhile trade.
So when I get the chance to experience such delicious chocolate in delightfully creative forms, I'm definitely going to make the most of it.
And if you're headed to Philadelphia any time soon, you should make the most of it, too!
It's mid-October, and not only is the farmers' market winding down, but so am I. I've been quite the busy little squirrel this summer and fall, buying lots of good produce at the market and then bringing it home to freeze, can, dry, pickle, and otherwise stash it all away.
You've heard plenty about my activities, I'm sure, so I'll let the pictures speak (almost) for themselves as a round-up of the preservation season.
The pile of jars in my bedroom: grape juice, tomatoes, tomato sauce, salsa, pizza sauce, jam, and pickles. Yes, those are bottles of wine sticking out from under my dresser... it's the best place for a wine "cellar" in a small loft!
More jars: pickles, jams, honey and maple syrup from the farmers' market, chutney, more salsa, and who know what else? Whew!
Longer-term storage in the pantry closet: garlic, onions, potatoes, squash.
No more room in the freezer!: spaghetti sauce, juice, frozen vegetables, croissant dough, salsa, breaded eggplant...
...and jam, more frozen vegetables and fruits, pesto, local butter for holiday baking, and more!
Though that all looks like a lot, it's small potatoes compared to what some people do. I know the Archivist has talked a lot lately about major projects: quarts and quarts of tomatoes, tomato sauce, grape juice, pickles, relishes, and more canned goods than I can fathom. (She and her husband have a five-acre "farm" that produces a lot of food!)
Other folks online have been talking about food preservation, too, and since I've been too busy to comment on them as they've come up, I've "preserved" them for this later date:
--Is tomato red or pickle green the new black? Who knew that canning was "cool"? According to the NY Daily News, it is... and who am I to argue?
--Sharon and Miranda, co-founders of the Riot for Austerity (a year-long plan to reduce personal carbon emissions an astounding 90%... impressive!), have posted a good bit about their own preservation efforts, including:
--One of the other methods for preserving fruit -- in alcohol -- is one I didn't do this year, though I have in the past. For more on that, read these pieces:
--And if you're thinking you might want to jump on the canning bandwagon next year and want to get further inspiration, Barbara at Tigers and Strawberries offers detailed procedures for pressure canning (most of which holds for water-bath canners, too), and Sam at Becks & Posh has a humorous take on what not to do.
As for me, I'm pretty much out of space for more canned and frozen goods, and it's about time, too. I am exhausted. Canning can be fun and enormously satisfying, but it is not for the faint of heart and limb. It takes time, and it takes energy, and it can really put a damper on the rest of your life's plans. I spent a lot of hours in the kitchen this summer and fall, and while I can wholeheartedly say it was worth it, right now I need some serious rest.
On top of that, life has been happening in a big way of late, and the added stress (much of it good, I must add) is wearing me down.
So I'm going to take a brief vacation from cooking and blogging about food... just a week or two, no more, I promise. I need a complete break for my own sanity before I leap into fall baking and soup-making, not to mention the steadily-approaching spected of Holiday Baking (which threatens to spiral out of control yet again this year, much to the delight of my friends).
Don't worry, though. I have plenty of food-related activities planned for the next week and a half, and I'll be back with tales of those adventures and (I hope!) new recipes. In the meantime, have a bit of a browse in the archives, stay up to date on food news at the Ethicurean, or treat yourself to some great local food at a nearby restaurant or your own kitchen.
And when next we meet, be sure you bring your apron or a napkin... there's serious cooking to be done!
In the Garden of Eatin'
"Pie, pie, me oh my..."
I feel like I've been singing that little ditty from the movie "Michael" for most of the week. It's not often I bake pie, so when I whip out three in one week, it's downright heavenly.
Never mind that I haven't kept any of the pies strictly for myself. That's not the point. Pie is most definitely for sharing. Breaking bread with friends and family is one thing, emblematic of the solidity of community and communion. Pie is for celebrations, be they large holiday get-togethers or enjoying the richness of everyday life.
Pie, my Dear Readers, is for a party.
How fortunate, then, that the need to use the last of my Northern Spy apples coincided with the last class in this session of my dance group!
Though I'd planned to make yet another straightforward and wholesome apple pie, somehow I got it in my head that since we were having a hafla with Middle Eastern foods, perhaps I could tweak my tarte tatin recipe to take on some Mediterranean or Near Eastern flavors.
And guess what? I most certainly could!
I didn't follow the recipe exactly, as you can see. I used the crust like a regular pie crust, sauteed the apples separately (with cardamom and rose petals) before pouring them into the crust, and whipped up a syrup made from pomegranate molasses, local honey, and more cardamom to drizzle over the top.
If apples were the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, then this tart would most certainly have tempted Eve. (Actually, it tempted Eve, Sarah, the other students in the class, and most of all, our teacher Lena.)
At our hafla, we noshed first, as is only right and proper, enjoying the apple tart after pleasant little smackerels of hummus, pita, and a fabulous flatbread known as za'atar manakish (for which I have got to get the recipe!). And after a bit of wine, we danced!
Best of all, we persuaded Lena to dance for us... and she was, as always, an inspiration. She didn't bring her snake along, but we were treated to a sinuous and superb dance nonetheless. (Sorry the photo is so dark... the lighting was low, and I still haven't figured out how to adjust the camera's settings for such things.)
In short, it was a great party and a great way to celebrate just being together and having a lot of fun with our dancing.
And it was the perfect pie to make our celebration complete!
Garden of Eden Apple Tart
3/4 c whole wheat flour
1/2 c unbleached flour
1/4 c sugar
1/2 c unsalted butter
Sift flours and sugar into mixing bowl. Make a well in the middle and break the egg into it. Cut butter into slices and arrange around the well. Cut through ingredients with a pastry blender until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Gather together and knead pastry with cool hands. Shape into flattened disk, wrap in parchment or wax paper, and refrigerate at least 30 minutes.
1 T honey
1 tsp pomegranate molasses
1/4 tsp ground cardamom
Whisk together ingredients in small bowl. Set aside.
1/4 c sugar
2 T unsalted butter
2-3 medium apples, peeled, cored, sliced
1/2 tsp ground cardamom
1/2 tsp dried organic rose petals (optional)
Preheat oven to 450 F. Set pie plate on baking sheet.
Roll out pastry large enough to line a pie plate. Line pie plate, trim edges so that dough just hangs over the rim of the plate. Set aside.
Melt sugar and butter in saucepan. Add apples, cardamom, and rose petals and stir to coat apples. Cook over medium heat about 5 minutes or until slightly softened.
Pour apple mixture into prepared crust. Drizzle with syrup. Fold edges of crust over the apples for a rustic appearance. Bake tart 25-30 minutes or until pastry is golden brown.
Cool in pan on wire rack until ready to serve.
When It Grains, It Pours
During last month's Eat Local Challenge, I had every intention of stocking up on locally milled grains for baking. Life, however, has a way of happening, no matter what, and by the time I finally got around to calling the good folks at the grist mill, the month was nearly at an end.
Still, knowing that I have a couple months' worth of holiday baking coming up, not to mention baking for my own satisfaction this winter, I called and placed a hefty order:
--four five-pound bags of whole wheat flour
--two five-pound bags of spelt flour
--two two-pound bags of corn grits
--one two-pound bag of graham flour
--one two-pound bag of buckwheat flour
--four one-and-a-half-pound bags of rolled oats
I had arranged to pick them up at Saturday's farmers' market, but plans don't always turn out the way you expect, and the Miller called me at work this morning to arrange the backup plan.
Sure enough, when I arrived home this afternoon, they were waiting for me with all my bags, and they even graciously offered to help carry it all up the stairs for me. (Bet they don't offer to do that when you buy groceries at the big chain stores!)
And when they left, I surveyed my supplies:
Whew! That's a lot of flour power! And what's even more daunting is knowing that most of that won't last me very long, knowing how much I bake.
I've stashed bags in the pantry, in my bedroom, and in the refrigerator, and I still have a couple of strays. (The freezer is not an option since it's pretty well filled to the brim by now.)
I can't tell you what a relief it is to know that I'm set on local grains for now, after waiting so long to restock. I know I could have easily bought the same things at the local co-op (though undoubtedly not for so reasonable a price), but having gotten to know the Miller and his wife last year at the market, I wanted to be able to support their business instead. They're getting older, and I have no idea how much longer they'll be able to do this. (Besides, I missed seeing them!)
So bring on the baking! This Queen is ready to resume a long and productive grain in the kitchen.
An Apple Pie a Day
The Chef Mother is coming home tomorrow after yet another lengthy hospital stay, and let me tell you, there is much rejoicing.
Early in her post-operative recovery, when she was dragging a bit, I tried to motivate her by talking about what we'd do when she got out: local field trips, Thanksgiving dinner with friends, and enjoying some homemade apple pie.
Since I got the word on Friday about her release date, I made sure I found apples for baking at the farmers' market on Saturday, and I really got lucky. The older gentleman who comes to the market only in apple season had lots of Northern Spy apples (a variety my mother remembers fondly), and he willingly put half a dozen or so in a bag for me and charged me a very reasonable amount.
This afternoon, I made some time to pull together two whole wheat pie crusts, and after a brief interlude, I returned to the kitchen to peel and slice a few apples, toss them with a spiced sugar and flour mixture, and fill one pie crust.
I rolled out the second lump of pie crust dough and covered the pan before setting the pie in the oven to bake for about 45 minutes.
In trimming those crusts, though, I ended up with enough dough for another crust, albeit a smaller one. So I pulled out a small pottery dish, lined it with the rest of the dough, and made more apple pie filling to add to it. This pie, though, I topped with crumbs from flour, local maple sugar, local oats, spices, and local butter.
There are still a few Northern Spy apples left -- not to mention the last of the Freedom apples and half a dozen mixed varieties from last week's trip to the orchard -- so once I pick up more flour and sugar, I may well make another pie (or two) for friends.
Because if an apple a day keeps the doctor away, just think what a pie can do!
Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Market Bag, and Smile, Smile, Smile
It has been a long, exhausting, draining week. Almost every night has been full, and my head has been spinning with the continual activity. But bless their hearts, my dinner guests last evening graciously left early and allowed me to head to bed at a shockingly early hour so that I could get some much-needed rest.
When I woke up this morning, then, I felt more refreshed and ready to tackle... well, if not the world, then certainly the food corner of it. I whipped up a small cake and started a loaf of herb bread before heading down to the farmers' market.
And that, Dear Readers, is the best medicine ever: the Farmers' Market!
All that beautiful, delicious SOLE food (repeat after me: Sustainable, Organic, Local, Ethical!)... all the friendly faces... all the delightful conversations... there's just no better way to start the weekend!
My spirits lifted as I walked around and scouted out the week's harvest, and eventually I started filling my bags:
--butternut and delicata squash, zucchini, green beans, garlic, ground cherries, small red peppers, and thyme from the Cheerful Lady and her son;
--dried oyster mushrooms (for the fair Titania) from the local mushroom "farm";
--spelt flour, spelt pasta, and ginger cookies from the Spelt Baker;
--maple syrup from folks from a local church;
--a super-chocolate brownie from the local caterers;
--Northern Spy apples from an older fellow who's looking to give up his orchard;
--Himrod and Lakemont grapes (two "white" seedless varieties) from the local vineyard;
--Kennebec potatoes and tomatoes from the Gentleman Farmer's Wife; and
--bok choy and radishes from the Herb Farmer.
A few of those items -- the grapes, the thyme, the peppers -- are for drying so that I can cook with them later, and some things can go in longer-term storage (squash, potatoes, garlic). But I wanted to make sure that I didn't go overboard in buying fresh food for the week because I need to clean out the fridge soon!
Still, that's a great variety of produce for the coming week, a nice mix of late summer, early fall, and even early summer vegetables.
And that's more than enough to make me smile!
Not That Old Chestnut!
Long time ago -- has it really been almost twenty years? -- I spent a semester in Grenoble, France. When I arrived in August, the weather was almost unbearably hot, but as autumn drifted over the valley, sweeping leaves and bitter winds into my path, I settled into the routine and the fragrances of my temporary home.
Around Thanksgiving, as the weather grew colder, I could walk around the centre ville on a gray day and breathe in those unmistakable French perfumes: yeasty bread at the boulangerie, strong bracing coffee, decadent and creamy chocolates, and the occasional toasty aroma of chestnuts roasted by sidewalk vendors. With each sale, the vendor would hand over a paper bag laden with steaming nuts in exchange for a few francs, and the customer would walk away, clutching the warmth of the bag.
Such an old-fashioned, rustic tradition, I thought. How very European!
But Dear Readers, I must confess: I never bought a single chestnut.
At that younger age, I failed to seek out many new adventures, even of the culinary variety. I had my tastes, and even though I expanded my likes (and dislikes) at my host family's dinner table, I didn't change my ways easily.
And so I returned home, having never experienced a number of French dishes, the roasted chestnuts being at the top of the list.
During the fall, I will occasionally see chestnuts at the supermarket here, but I've never been tempted. I saw them once, two years back, at the farmers' market, and I missed my opportunity to try them then. But on Saturday's outing with the faithful Persephone, I spotted fresh local chestnuts at the local orchard, and I decided to splurge.
Since I had extra time this afternoon, and the weather obliged me by being suitably gray and damp, I pulled out the chestnuts and a sharp knife.
All my recipes for roasted chestnuts indicate that you should cut a deep X in the flat side of the nuts so that they won't explode in the oven. (It also helps with peeling the nuts once they're roasted.) That's easier said than done, though. I had to choose very carefully how I held each nut in order to slash the hull without slicing my own skin as well. And more than a few times, I lost my grip and the chestnut went skittering across the hardwood floor.
Eventually, I worked my way through all the chestnuts, and I spread them on a baking sheet to roast them (15 minutes at 425 F). When they came out, they were ready to peel.
I can't tell you how much I was looking forward to sampling this treat at last! The aroma as they emerged from the oven was akin to a sweet and spicy nut bread, combining walnuts and pecans and a hint of hazelnuts... in short, tempting.
I'm afraid to report, though, that that was the high point of my adventure. From that point on, things went wrong:
--The flavor of the first one I tried failed to impress me. I could sense the richness of the nut, but the texture was grainy and the taste was one that didn't really please me. Still, I soldiered on, hoping to try a roasted chestnut soup recipe I'd found.
--Alas, well over half of the nutmeats were wormy or otherwise spoiled beyond use, so I ended up not having enough for a full recipe of soup.
--Of course, I didn't read the recipe all the way through before starting -- Lesson to All: Read the Recipe First! -- so I started the soup and had the onions, garlic, and carrots simmering nicely in homemade vegetable broth before I realized that the onions, garlic, carrots, and water were intended to make the broth for the chestnut soup. Instead, I turned that simmering mess into a different soup altogether and set aside the rest of the pre-made broth for the chestnut soup.
--The chestnuts were too grainy to puree into a smooth consistency, even with the broth and some white wine.
--When I strained the chestnut "puree" into a saucepan in order to heat the soup, I ended up with at least half of the puree strained out because the chestnuts did not grind up well.
--And when I finally managed to serve myself one small bowl of soup...
...the flavor and texture came as a serious disappointment after all the work I'd done.
That's one of the problems with trying to eat more mindfully, whether it's focusing on local foods or reducing waste or anything else: sometimes you find something that just doesn't work. I'm more willing to take chances on unknown foods now than I was in college, but sometimes I find that in the end, the money and time I spent on a long shot weren't really worth it after all, and I feel even worse for wasting the food. The vast majority of the time, things do work out, and I'm pleased to have learned something new. But once in a rare while, they don't, and... c'est la vie!
Fortunately, I had other things in the works for dinner, but that really was a depressing experiment, of a kind I'm glad I don't have often. I do have a few more chestnut meats left, but after that, I really have no idea how to use them.
So, Dear Readers, do you have any suggestions for "that old chestnut"?
Last evening, I sat down and reviewed both my list of what I had bought at Saturday's farmers' market and my calendar for the week. It's definitely going to be a "fasten your seatbelts" kind of week, and the best way to endure this bumpy ride will be to make sure I'm eating good food.
Since I knew that tonight was my only completely free night, I endured the workday thinking that I would head home to make either a stir-fry or roasted Brussels sprouts with some squash dish.
Silly me! When I got home and consulted the calendar, I discovered that I had planned to cook something Indian-style, using the paneer I had made yesterday along with a couple of sweet potatoes that were damaged.
That change in my presumed plan for dinner was fine by me, though, as the day had grown gloomy and I thought something a little spicy might be in order.
Fortunately, I was able to slip into "automatic" mode, gathering vegetables and cutting things in the order I expected to throw them into the pot, and before I knew it, it was simmering away.
I started with garlic and onions, sauteed in a mixture of canola oil and butter, and since I wanted to toss in a chile pepper, I decided to try one of the fiery Laotian chiles I've been drying. Since the farmer's admonition remained in my head, I opted not to cut up the pepper but to use a little trick I learned a few years back: I poked holes in the chile with a corn skewer and threw the chile into the pot whole, making it easier to pull it out intact later while keeping the heat at a tolerable level.
After the aromatics had browned a bit, I threw in cumin, coriander, fenugreek, and a pinch of cinnamon and fried the spices until fragrant. Then I added sliced sweet potatoes, some whey left over from the paneer, and a chopped tomato, and I let it all simmer down into a tender, creamy mix.
Once the sweet potatoes had cooked sufficiently, I added the crumbled paneer along with some plain yogurt. And because the dish had too much monotonous orange to satisfy me, I also added some fresh broccoli florets.
By the time it had all cooked and the flavors had permeated every corner of every vegetable, I had a gorgeously colored, perfectly spiced, and almost completely local meal.
The level of heat in the dish was just right: hot enough to open my sinuses, but not so hot that I broke a sweat. And I didn't end up biting into a way-too-hot pepper!
Now I have leftovers for two lunches this week, and I should be able to whip up simpler meals as the week continues. With any luck, this little slapdash cooking adventure will sustain me for a few more days in terms of nutrition and my cooking craving.
And I don't feel so chile any more.
I haven't dried much in the way of fruits or vegetables this year. Part of the reason for that lack is that I already have a decent stash of some dried berries and vegetables (like way too much cabbage) from last year, but part of the reason is because I've been so focused on canning that I just haven't done much with oven-drying.
This past week, though, I thought that with all the wonderful grape varieties coming into the farmers' market this year, I should surely be able to find some seedless grapes to dry, providing myself with a stash of raisins for baking this winter.
Wouldn't you know it? On Saturday I found two seedless varieties that seemed perfect for the job: Glenora and Red Reliance.
Since the weekend was so busy, I didn't get around to preparing the first batch for drying until last evening. It took me a good hour to halve the quart of Red Reliance grapes, partly because I discovered that they were not, in fact, seedless, and I needed to spend some extra time popping out the seeds. (Sigh.)
Still, once I had finished the intensive labor of preparing the fruit, I scattered them across a parchment-lined baking sheet, ready for the easy part of slow-drying overnight.
My oven only goes down to 170 F, but that seems to work well for drying fruit a little more quickly, as long as I pull the pan out every few hours to stir things up a bit. (Yes, that meant getting up around midnight for a quick stir before tumbling back into bed.)
When I got up this morning, the grapes were almost to the leathery stage, so I left the oven on while I enjoyed breakfast, and I shut it off just before I left for work, leaving the pan inside the warm oven to finish the job during the day.
By late afternoon, the raisins were done:
Some, of course, were a little crisp, while most were more pliable, but I think they will do nicely, even if they don't look quite as "perfect" as commercial raisins. It might be a day or two before I get around to the Glenora grapes, but I expect they should work just as well. (And the woman who brought the grapes mentioned that next Saturday she should have Lakemont grapes, a green seedless, which would make nice golden raisins.)
I'm looking forward to some homemade cinnamon-raisin bread or oatmeal-raisin cookies this winter, thanks to these homemade and local raisins, and I expect a few other people might benefit from the work, too.
Won't that be heavenly?