Tuesday, December 13, 2011

My mother's gingerbread cookies

Like many moms and daughters, my mother and I sometimes have a strained relationship. Although it's far better now than when I was a teen and screaming matches were the norm, the distance between us (about 4,144 miles; she lives just outside Stockholm, Sweden) helps to keep the peace.

And yet, I miss her at times. And I miss the Christmas traditions I grew up with, which I try to re-create but don't always attain. (Of course some of those traditions I don't mind failing to re-create: I can't stand pickled herring, and I dislike lutefisk--I must be a bad Scandinavian.)

One of the traditions I do like is making gingerbread cookies. For years, I tried different recipes, but none of them were "right," and then a couple of years ago, my mother sent me a handwritten note with a recipe and some old cookie cutters.

This most valuable of all gifts held the recipe to my mother's gingerbread cookies, which was also my Finnish grandmother's favorite recipe and came from a 1940's cookbook called Hemhushållningens Grunder (which means the foundations of household care) by Rima Melander. And now I am going to share it with you.

Before you get started, you should be prepared for a few things. First, you will start the dough at least one day before you get to baking so that the flavors have time to mellow and blend and so that the dough has plenty of time to relax. Second, this recipe requires a bit of muscle in the stirring and mixing phase. Third, this recipe makes an enormous batch of cookies as a photo from a few years ago shows. It will take several hours to bake them all. If you don't want to make them all at once, you can cut the dough in half and refrigerate the unused portion for up to a week.

OK, now that caveats are out of the way, let's get to work. You will need:

  • 1 Tbsp orange zest (no white part), very finely chopped
  • 2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 2 tsp ground dried ginger
  • 2 tsp cloves
  • 200 grams syrup (I use Lyle's Golden Syrup, which is made from cane sugar, but you can use corn syrup; for extra flavor, feel free to replace some of the syrup with molasses)
  • 400 grams white sugar
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 300 grams butter
  • 3 large eggs
  • 800 grams all purpose flour

And here's how to put it all together. Mix sugar, syrup, and spices in a pot with a thick bottom:

Over medium heat, bring the sugar and spice (and everything nice) mixture to a gentle simmer:

Here's where it gets exciting. Take the pot off the heat, add the baking soda to the mix, and stir intensely until the mix cools off a bit. It will froth up quite a lot.

When the mix has cooled a bit, stir in the butter (this may take a little while) and then stir in the eggs. Finally, add the flour to the mix in the pot, a few tablespoons at a time. When the mix in the pot gets too stiff to continue stirring, make a mount of the remaining flour on a bread board; make a hole in the middle of the mound of flour; pour in the sugar, spice, and butter mixture; and start mixing it all together. It will make a big mess, but eventually you will be able to combine the flour with the sugar and spices. When you have a nice smooth dough, sprinkle flour in a bowl, place the dough in the bowl, and then sprinkle some flour over the top of the dough. Put it in the refrigerator to rest at least 24 hours.

On the day when you plan to bake the cookies, get the dough out of the refrigerator and let it warm up for at least an hour (or rolling out the dough will just be too difficult). Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.

On a floured board, cut the dough into manageable pieces. Watch out for small thieving hands!

Roll out the dough to about a quarter inch thickness and cut shapes with cookie cutters. (Or you can go freehand if you like.) The moose, the squirrel, and the hedgehog are new additions to my cookie cutter collection. I found them at IKEA.


Bake them for 5-6 minutes and let them cool on a baking rack (they will be pliable when they first come out of the oven, but will crisp up as they cool). Enjoy!


Sunday, November 13, 2011

A simple breakfast: Sausage-gravy and biscuits

Sometimes you don't think to write about the simple things. The food you can cook (almost literally) in your sleep. The stuff that's as simple as making lemonade or, well, boiling water.

Sausage-gravy and biscuits is one of those things. A simple Saturday or Sunday breakfast dish that's so easy it feels goofy to write about it. But maybe you don't know it. I didn't when I first moved in with my husband Mike 20 years ago. He introduced to me to this classic Southern breakfast back then. At first I didn't know what to think of it, but then I fell for its simple, warm savoriness. It's a great way to start a weekend.

OK, so the biscuits I make are a variation on a scones recipe from Bonniers Stora Kokbok, my trusty Swedish cookbook that is falling into pieces (that cross-country motorcycle trip in the rain about 10 years ago did the book no favors, but that's another story). The thing to know about biscuits (and most quick breads) is that you don't want to work the dough much, because the final product will get tough. Just barely mix the dough together, shape it, and pop it in the oven.

Pre-heat the oven to 485 degrees Fahrenheit.

You'll need

  • 50 grams unsalted butter
  • 450 ml flour (I use a mix of AP and whole wheat)
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 200 ml buttermilk (if you don't have any, never fear, you can use milk or cream or half and half instead)
Mix your dry ingredients together in a bowl (flour, baking powder, and salt). Add the butter. With your hands (or you could use a fork, but I like getting my hands in there), start breaking the butter up into the flour mixture. Keep working the butter and flour with your fingers until the mixture feels like sand.

Add the buttermilk (or whatever liquid you end up using) and just mix it into the flour-butter mixture. Don't worry about it being a little crumbly.

Split the dough into two halves. Roll each half into a ball and then flatten it out into a disk on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. The disk should be about six inches in diameter. With a butter knife, score each disk into four quarters (don't cut all the way through). Then poke the disks all over with a fork and slide the baking sheet into the oven. Bake for about 11 minutes or until the tops are golden brown. Eat them hot with sausage-gravy, or with butter, or with jam.

Because the taste of the gravy almost exclusively comes from the sausage, make sure that you use good-quality sausage. We get our wonderful sausage from Haskins Family Farm. I am especially fond of using their sage sausage for this recipe. Note that I use loose sausage, instead of links or patties. I just prefer the way it breaks up in the gravy. You can use links or patties, but the flavor just doesn't distribute throughout the gravy as evenly. (Also, use pork sausage. Chicken or turkey sausage won't have enough fat to make the gravy thicken.)

  • 1 lb pork sausage (preferably loose, or you can remove the casings)
  • 2 Tbsp all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 cups milk
  • salt and pepper
  • thyme
Add the sausage to a cold pan and bring up the temperature slowly to render out as much of the pork fat as possible. Continue cooking the sausage until it browns nicely all over and is cooked through.

Add the flour to the pan and stir it in. Let the flour cook a bit with the sausage. Let the flour darken as much as you have patience for (the darker, the more flavorful), but don't let it burn.

Add the milk to the pan. Scrape the browned bits off the bottom of the pan. Stir the gravy regularly until it thickens. Add salt and pepper to taste (remember there's salt in the sausage, so start with a pinch and work your way up). Add half a teaspoon of dried thyme (or use any other spice or herb that you like; this gravy is easy to make your own).

Serve the gravy over the biscuits. Enjoy. Then feel sleepy, have another cup of coffee, and read the Sunday paper.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Chicken braised in sherry and red wine vinegars

One of our best friends, Dave, came over for dinner last night. We ate chicken braised with sherry and red wine vinegars over mashed potatoes (homemade, of course) and a side salad. I'd never made it before. I was riffing off the idea of a coq au vin, but I didn't have any wine on hand, so I replaced the wine with vinegars, stock, and a little cider syrup for sweetness.

I was very happy with the results: tender, fall-off-the-bone chicken with a dark, rich sauce. The tanginess from the vinegar set off the richness of the mashed potatoes to perfection. It was one of those warm, hearty meals that you love to eat on a cold fall day.

Dave was also happy with the results. After a second helping, he announced he envied our future selves because they would get to eat this chicken again. So why not make others envy you and try making this dish?

You will need about half an hour to prep ingredients and then an hour to let it simmer.


  • 4-5 lbs of chicken pieces (bone-in breasts, legs, thighs, wings; if you don't have these, you can cut up a whole chicken into eight pieces)
  • all-purpose flour (about a cup)
  • 2 Tbsp butter
  • 3-4 large shallots, minced
  • 2 Tbsp sherry wine vinegar
  • 1/2 cup red wine vinegar
  • 2 Tbsp tomato paste
  • 2 Tbsp apple cider syrup (if you don't have this, use some maple syrup instead)
  • 1 1/2 cups stock (I used a beef stock, but chicken will be good too)
  • smoked paprika
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 tsp dried thyme

  1. Rinse the chicken pieces well with cold water and pat them dry with paper towels. 
  2. Sprinkle both sides of the chicken pieces with salt and lots of smoked paprika.
  3. Dredge the seasoned chicken in AP flour. Shake off the excess and set the chicken aside for now.
  4. Melt the butter in a large, deep skillet over medium heat. 
  5. When the butter starts bubbling, add the minced shallots. Cook for four to five minutes until they soften. 
  6. Add the chicken pieces to the pan with the shallots and let the flour on the chicken cook to a nice, dark (but not burnt) crust on all sides (start with the largest pieces so they have a little more time to cook). (You are basically building a roux here.)
  7. Mix the vinegars, stock, tomato paste, apple cider or maple syrup and pour the mixture over the chicken. Scrape the browned bits from the bottom of the pan up into the braising liquid. Stir in the thyme. 
  8. Bring the heat down to low, cover the pan, and let the chicken simmer for an hour. Stir from time to time. 
  9. After an hour, season with salt and pepper to taste and serve over mashed potatoes. Enjoy. And then maybe sneak some seconds a little later. 


Saturday, November 5, 2011

Local food is elitist? Part II

So I knew I had more to say in response to Mark Bittman's article, "Local Food: No Elitist Plot," which I blogged about a few days ago, but it took a Saturday afternoon at the playground to work through some ideas and thoughts regarding the absurdity of calling local food elitist.

(Here's a total side note: A friend of mine asked today if "eating local" included squirrel. I'd say yes, probably; not much meat on 'em though. Maybe a stew? But I digress....)

So this idea that eating local is trendy or elitist stirred up such an angry ant's nest in my mind. But why? Why did it make me so mad?

Let me step back a little. Throughout our existence as human beings (and probably before that), most food was local. Furthermore, seasons, geography, and weather restricted the availability of ingredients. However, these limitations unleashed human creativity (if for no other reason than to stave off the boredom of eating the same dish for the sixth week in a row because that's all that's left after a long winter or dry season). All across the globe, cooks got imaginative, developing techniques to bring out new flavors in foods, tweaking textures and forms, trying new things they found in their environment--continually innovating, refining, experimenting to make the most of what they had.

Local cuisines and flavor profiles arose around the world based in large part on what foodstuffs were available. And with the Columbian Exchange new ingredients spread throughout the world--peppers bringing their heat to the far east and wheat and apples coming to the new world, redefining what local food was, yet maintaining an essential uniqueness, localness, and authenticity.

Here's the contrast: Industrial food--whether you are talking about fast food restaurants, meals in a box, frozen dinners, snacks, sodas, franchise restaurants of any stripe--promotes sameness. National and international brands of industrial foods value consistency almost above all. As a consumer, the idea is that the soda you find in Waukegan, Illinois, will taste the same as the one you find in Oahu, Hawaii.

So, is consistency bad? Well, no. I am an editor, for pete's sake, I crave consistency. But not in food. In food, it gets boring and generic.

More than boring though, consistency trains the public palate; consistency trains people to expect specific kinds of flavors and textures--most of which are nothing like the tastes and textures of home-cooked food made from seasonal ingredients. It takes away people's freedom to develop their own palates, to make their own judgments about how they think a food tastes. If the standard in taste is a fatty, salty snack with a vaguely chicken-y or cheesy flavor or a sugary, squishy-soft thing with a vaguely chocolate-y flavor, how are beets and turnips and quinoa supposed to hold their own? In other words, if a person were raised with a concept of bread as a ghastly white supersoft substance with a slightly chalky taste, how long would it take for him or her to cease to regard a loaf of home-baked, whole-wheat bread as kind of foreign?

And so millions of industrially trained palates continue to crave the same tastes and textures, with a slight tweak from time to time to keep things "interesting," themselves end up being the product of industrial food.

And it bothers me, because it comes back to this idea that people are incapable of taking care of themselves, of making things for themselves, of making decisions for themselves. We are continually sold the idea that this company can make that easier for you, can take away your concerns about this or that. We are continually trained to lack faith in ourselves. It comes back to this idea that people are just too dumb to take care of themselves. (Michael Ruhlman rails against the idea that Americans are too stupid to cook in this blog post.)

But, hey, maybe it's true. News used to be mostly facts, leaving the work of forming an opinion up to the news consumer. Now people are served prefab opinions. People used to (grow and) cook their own food. Now it's served up in boxes, cans, and freezer bags--all prefab because people can't do it for themselves. Most people used to make their own clothes and furniture--now most people are too scared to even try.

But I don't really believe people are incapable of doing and thinking for themselves. Well, to be completely honest, I don't want to believe they are incapable. I want to believe that ordinary people are capable of making their own meals; adapting to local conditions, flavors, and ingredients; developing their own palates and judgments based on real, natural, whole foods. If that belief is elitist, then I'm an elitist. Then local food is elitist.

But you know it's not. Believing people can do, make, and think for themselves is the antithesis of elitism; what it is is faith in everyperson.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Local food is elitist? Part I

I am fan of Mark Bittman. I don't always agree with him, but I do more often than not. His recent post, "Local Food: No Elitist Plot," really pissed me off. Not because I disagree with Bittman, but because of this notion that eating local food in season is in some way elitist and snobby. Really? The method of sourcing food that we've used to get our food for about 250,000 years is elitist? Wow. The fundamental reason for the planet's many and distinctive food cultures is snobby? What a thoroughly ridiculous, absurd idea.

So what's perceived as elitist about it? For one thing, local food is nearly always placed in direct opposition to fast food, junk food, convenience foods of any kind--sort of the local, liberal, environmentally friendly yin to the industrial yang of cheap food. (Don't get me wrong: I know several local farmers, and their political leanings run the gamut.) Fast food is cheap and noncomplex and requires no work to prepare and eat; thus it appeals to many fundamental American values. By providing a lot of food for what seems like little money (here's another Bittman piece about the supposed cheapness of fast food), it wraps itself in a robe of thriftiness, of good old American hard-workingness. By dimming our senses with blasts of salt and sugar, it ensures we are incapable of experiencing the subtler pleasures of real food. And finally, by being so easy to get, it suggests respect for the value of our time. It seems to say, "I understand you don't have time for this fancy food nonsense; here's something that'll get the eating job done so that you can get on with the hard work of your day."

In contrast, local food does not seem cheap, especially if you are used to getting groceries from discount chains. If you typically buy a dozen eggs for 99 cents, $5 for a dozen will sting. However, you pay for that cheap-looking 99 cents in a lot of other ways both financial and, well, moral: taxes that pay for industrial farm subsidies, farmworker abuse, environmental costs, mass food poisoning events, other health costs, and so forth. (I would love to see a study that calculates the real cost of a dozen eggs. If anyone has ever seen one, please let me know.) When you  realize that the farmer at the farmer's market is demanding prices that cover his or her real costs and that you already paid extra for the cheap food at the grocery store, those high prices seem a lot less unreasonable and elitist(1). (Also, you start to ask yourself, who asked my permission to spend my money on appeasing on giant, industrial corn producers?)

Another problem with the seeming cheapness of industrial food is that when you make something seem cheap, people will start to treat it that way. In other words, it loses its value. This may not seem like that big a deal; why would it matter that people think food is cheap? Well, for one thing, cheapening food devalues the very hard labor that people put into growing it (and if you are a meat eater like me, minimizes the life of the animal). And that just kind of sticks in my craw a bit.

But devaluing food also has implications for human culture and health. Sharing food, eating together, teaching one another to cook--all these food-related activities and more comprise some of the most important ways that people create and transmit culture as well as form bonds with one another. When the food you eat loses value, you are less likely to engage in those kinds of behaviors. When you pick up that  super-extra-duper-value meal at the drive-through window and eat it in the car on the way home, you lose opportunities to communicate with other people, to learn something, to teach something, or even to just relax and enjoy your food--to enrich your life. So the food and the eating experience don't satisfy. You end up wanting more (whether food or human interaction is another question). Food loses it specialness; it becomes something to engage in any time, any place. So you eat more. And more. And then the portion sizes seem off if they aren't huge. And the taste seems bland if the food isn't drenched in salt or sugar. And suddenly you find yourself weighing more, struggling with hypertension and/or diabetes, wondering how the heck it happened.

Speaking of wondering what happened, I seem to have gotten off track of my original topic, which was the absurdity of the elitism charge on local food, so I will get back to that in a future blog post. (I've also got some nice recipes for cream of tomato soup and finally made some great red beans and rice.)

(1) Of course, not everyone can afford food from the local farmer's market, but that has a lot to do with the way the current system is set up. If more farm subsidies were shifted from producing mass quantities of cheap commodity grain to local fruit and vegetable farms, it seems fairly certain that local farmers could and would lower their prices. That's more of a political issue, not just a change your personal habits and the market will come kind of issue.

[This was also published (with a prettier picture) at Pick-a-Pepper, a great website devoted to connecting local farmers, food artisans, and producers with local consumers, restaurants, and institutions. Check it out!]

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Apple-cider braised pork with mustard

Any of you who follow my blog regularly probably know this already, but I love pork. Especially the pork the Haskins family raises locally. Fall is the perfect time of year for pork (although I won't argue with grilled spare ribs on a hot summer evening; heck I won't argue with pork anytime really--just gimme).

Fall fruits and vegetables like apples, pears, squash, and cabbages go beautifully with pork: a little sweet-sour sets off rich fattiness so well (or maybe that's fatty richness?).

Anyway, I was wrestling (as usual) with what to make for dinner tonight earlier today, and I remembered I had a nice piece of pork shoulder (also known as pork butt) left from a recent CSA-share pickup. The idea of a little pork with some apple cider syrup and mustard in a low-slow braise started simmering. One thought led to another, and I threw together a quick braising liquid and let the pork cook over low heat all day long, which was especially nice as the rain came in with colder air. Is fall finally really here? It doesn't seem to want to make up its mind.

Although it takes hours to make, this dish is one of the easiest things you can imagine. Just combine the ingredients in a Dutch oven, set it on the stove, and leave it alone. All day. If you are so inclined, you could flip the meat over at some point, maybe pour some of the liquid over the top of it a few times. You know, just to stir things up a bit. Or maybe to grab a quick taste of the braising liquid, make sure you added enough salt. That kind of thing.   

Here's the recipe:

  • 1 4-5 lb piece of pork shoulder
  • 4 Tbsp apple cider syrup (if you don't have this, replace the syrup and the water with 1 cup of fresh apple cider)
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 onion, halved and sliced
  • 4-5 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 2 Tbsp Dijon mustard 
  • 2 Tbsp soy sauce
  • 2 Tbsp apple cider vinegar
  • salt
  • pepper
  • smoked paprika (optional, but it's good)
  1. Place pork shoulder in the Dutch oven, season (very liberally) with salt, pepper, and paprika
  2. Place onion slices and garlic cloves around the pork
  3. Mix apple cider syrup, water, mustard, soy sauce, and apple cider vinegar in a bowl and put it in the Dutch oven with the meat, onions, and garlic cloves
  4. Bring the liquid up to a boil on high heat, then cover the Dutch oven and lower the temperature to the lowest setting on your stove
  5. Let it cook over slow heat for 4-5 hours; check on it from time to time (mostly to waft lovely smells into your kitchen). When the meat starts sliding off the bone, it's done.
I served the braised pork (which came out tender and rich) with some red cabbage sauteed with apples and apple cider vinegar. The contrast of salty and fatty with the sharpness of the vinegar was lovely. I think I might use some of the leftover meat to make quesadillas tomorrow.... Or, maybe I could heat up some leftover meat and braising liquid and serve it over some homemade mashed potatoes. Mmm. Now that sounds good. Heck, you could drizzle the braising liquid over some toast and call it a day.  


Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Perfect fall rainy-day comfort food: Lobster mac and cheese

The tree across the street lights up like a red flame every time I open the door--especially on dark, gray, and gloomy days like today. The temperature has a bit of an edge, but the cold hasn't really set in yet. Still, it was a nice day for some rich ooey gooey comfort food like lobster mac and cheese. Of course, lobster is a luxury ingredient, but every once in a while, it's nice to splurge. This mac and cheese is almost as comforting without the lobster, or you can add some cooked, crumbled bacon and peas to replace it. (I confess I belong to that tribe of people who nearly worship bacon.)

Baked mac and cheese comprises three main parts: the pasta, the cheese sauce, and the crumbly topping. The pasta is easy enough--just read the package instructions. The cheese sauce is basically a Mornay sauce (or a Bechamel sauce with cheese in it), and the crumbly topping is a crispy mix of fresh bread crumbs, garlic, and parsley. Diving into this dish is something like opening a surprise gift: First there is the crispy golden-brown crust. Break through that, and you find a warm, silky, cheesy pasta center. Yum.

So, here's how to make it. 

Start by preheating the oven to 350 degrees.

Part 1: The Pasta and the Lobster
  • Cook 1 lb of macaroni (any shape you like, but small, chunky shapes seem to work best) according to package instructions. Drain and set it aside. 
  • Pick over 1 lb of thawed lobster (or fresh if you have it) to remove any pieces of shell. Chop the meat into bite size pieces.    

Part 2: The Cheese Sauce
  • 4 cups of shredded cheese (a blend of Gruyere and Cheddar is nice)
  • 4 Tbsp butter
  • 4 Tbsp AP flour
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled, smashed
  • 2 cups whole milk
  • salt (to taste)
  • 1/8 teaspoon white pepper
  • dash grated nutmeg
  1. Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium-low heat. (Don't burn or brown the butter.)
  2. Whisk the flour into the butter. Let the butter-flour mix simmer gently for a few minutes (don't let it brown). By the way, this is called a roux.
  3. Vigorously whisk the butter-flour mix, while adding the milk slowly. Add the garlic pieces. Stirring steadily, let the sauce simmer and thicken for five to 10 minutes. 
  4. Remove the garlic pieces and discard them. Add the cheese to the sauce one small handful at a time. (If you dump it all in at once, a big ole glob of cheese will sink to the bottom of your milk sauce, kerthud, and you won't be able to fix it, so take your time).
  5. When all the cheese has melted evenly into the sauce, add salt (taste it, the levels of salt in cheese can vary a lot) starting with half a teaspoon at a time, white pepper, and nutmeg. Leave the sauce over low heat while you prepare the rest of the dish. 
Part 3: The Crumbly Topping
  • 2 slices of bread, torn into pieces
  • 1 small garlic clove
  • 1 Tbsp dried parsley (fresh would be better, but you have to make do sometimes)
Whir the ingredients in a food processor or blender until you get an even, fresh breadcrumb mix.

Now, here's how to put it all together:
  1. Butter a baking dish. Add the pasta to the baking dish. 
  2. Add the sauce to the pasta and stir.
  3. Add the lobster pieces (and any juices). 
  4. Mix all the stuff together in the baking dish; make sure the sauce, the lobster, and the pasta are evenly distributed.
  5. Sprinkle the crumb topping over the mix. 
  6. Slide the baking dish into a 350-degree oven and let it cook for 50 minutes until you have a golden-brown dish of deliciousness. As for me, I think it may just be time for seconds...


Thursday, October 6, 2011

Reductivist thinking: How to get into a world of trouble

"Yet it is precisely this kind of thinking--the belief that productivity can and should be measured in units of time and output--that led us to the current state of affairs that produces food for the masses in the most productive, inexpensive manner possible. When we set aside as unimportant a concern for quality, for relationships, for 'meaning' in our daily food and daily activities--values considered by some to be ridiculously silly and romantic--then there is no argument. Yes, when we set those values aside, there would be little reason to ever grow our own food. Let others do it faster, cheaper, and more efficiently."

--Tanya Denckla Cobb, Reclaiming Our Food: How the Grassroots Food Movement Is Changing the Way We Eat (Storey, 2011, p. 12)

I received my copy of Tanya Denckla Cobb's new book last night, and already this quote has been jittering around in my head, bumping up against other ideas that have taken root over several years, making connections.... I have no doubt that I will have lots more to say about this book, but I want to get a few ideas down and perhaps bring them together into a stew. A delicious, nutritious stew. Heh.

If the concepts of productivity and efficiency are the only values we espouse, what does that make us as people? Well, boring. But more than that, reductivist thinking like this robs us of the values that make life interesting, satisfying, meaningful, and worth getting up for. Even those with very little infuse their lives and days with the tiniest things and moments to create meaning beyond mere survival.

In a society that talks about numbers and efficiency as much as ours seems to, losing sight of ourselves as human beings with all our bumpy, inconvenient, irregular peculiarities is pretty easy to do. If you look at, for example, the business pages, you might imagine that our world were populated with digital symbol readers that only see value in the size of a number.

Mike (my husband, for those of you who don't know that already) and I have talked about this idea that many people have lost sight of the fact that money is a representation of something, a symbol, a cipher. It’s not value itself. It’s a symbol of work, of things that have value like food and clothing and art and medical instruments and so on. The intrinsic value of money is the value of the paper it’s printed on, no more than that (ok, so maybe some ink and labor costs rolled in there too). But that representation has in some monstrous way taken over many people's minds. Some talk incessantly about return on investment, not in terms of the actual value you got out of the investment, but in terms of numbers, of symbols. Replace the numbers with ampersands and hash marks and tildes, and you start to recognize the absurdity of what's going on.

When you become blind to the value that underlies money, all kinds of decisions that (I hope) go against the grain of our humanity suddenly make more sense. Snip the tails off pigs so they don’t get infections because they are in excessively crowded conditions and start biting each other? Sure! Let’s do it, we can reduce deadloss and maximize space by squeezing in more pigs. More pigs=more pork=more sales. (Oh, we'd better figure out a way to make people buy more pork. Let's get someone smart in marketing on that. Oh I know, how about a triple pork burger with bacon?) Poison field workers with toxins while we sterilize the soil and grow hard, insipid tomatoes? Well, let’s consider the gains: More efficiency? Check. Less spoilage? Check. What about damages to the workers? Oh well, they are migrants and illegals, they don’t have the money or the wherewithal to sue us, the cost of that is negligible. What about taste? Seriously? Who cares? Especially in the middle of winter; everyone expects to have all kinds of foods all the time now.

Reductivist thinking. It gets us into a lot of pickles. (Not literally, of course, who wants to be swimming with the pickles? Where did that phrase come from anyway?) Sorry, got off track there. I was talking about reductivist thinking. Reductivist thinking detaches the symbol of meaning from actual meaning, leaving a strange, hollow, and mutilated thing. If we see only the broken representation as reality (hey, anyone else getting shades of Plato's cave here?), value becomes increasingly hard to recognize without a dollar sign on it. It's sad, and I think it stunts us all (some more than others).

Reductivist thinking does other nasty things too. Like the persistent belief that factories can manufacture food better than the earth can. Really? Plants have been around, evolving, for about 450 million years, give or take a few years. And we think we can think replicate or even do better than something that's worked that long at making itself better? We think we can turn our food intake into a mathematical equation (x protein + y carbohydrate + z micronutrients = health), sure that more vitamin C or protein or selenium will solve our health problems. But what we need is balance. Balance is one of the hardest things to achieve in living. Going extreme is just another form of reductivism. An example of reductivist thinking is glaringly obvious in American politics. One side says, "Conservatives good!" and bangs their chests, and the other side says, "Liberals good!" and puts on a riproaring display of monkey power. Woo hoo. But they don't see each other. We don't see each other. (Believe me, I can be as ornery about my views as the next person.) We don't see all the stuff we share, all the values we have in common, because all we see are the symbols that we have clothed ourselves in. How did this state of affairs come to be? How did we lose sight of value and meaning and stop caring about these things? How did we forget to value what is real, and worship only the symbols? And above all, how do you change it? You have to learn to see past the symbol and re-learn how to recognize value.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Friday link roundup and a recipe for a savory version of French toast

A fair amount of cooking went on this week even though it didn't seem as though it was going to work out that way. You see, I neglected to go to the farmer's market last Saturday. I was too lazy to go. My son had his little Happy Feet Soccer class in the morning, and I didn't want to miss it again. As a result, I didn't have a whole lot of fresh ingredients to work with. But somehow I managed to pull out a great meat sauce on Monday, come up with a savory version of French toast and serve it with caramelized onions and bacon, and make red beans and rice last night. Tonight's Friday treat? This fondue minus the brandy. With some ice cream for dessert.

I'd love to share the red beans and rice recipe, but it's not there yet. I added too much tomato to the mix, making it too acidic. It was definitely edible, but it just wasn't up to the level of wow-I've-died-and-gone-to-food-heaven I was aiming for. Especially given the amount of time that went into it. And the fact that I used up all the rest of the delicious pickled pork Mike made a few weeks ago. Oh well.

Another disappointment this week was the photos of the savory French toast. Not pretty. Not appetizing. It's getting darker in the evening, so the natural light that makes photos gorgeous is fading, and I don't yet know how to compensate (if anyone has some tips, please share). So I deleted all my toast photos. Here are some photos of a stunning sunset we had a few days ago instead. Some of these look unreal.

Although things didn't work out perfectly on the cooking front this week, I am proud to say we didn't have to resort to picking up dinner from Chipotle (our go-to fast food restaurant because of their efforts to use ingredients that are as sustainable and local as possible). Don't get me wrong, I love their bowls, but it feels good to be the one who creates the food that goes on the table, you know?

I also came across several good articles to share:

  • I read this article about boiled cider from The Washington Post a couple of weeks ago and tried the accompanying recipe. It took all day to reduce the cider, but it was so worth it. I have this delicious syrup that I have been using to sweeten our morning oatmeal, and I also added some to the red beans and rice. It's so sweet and intense; it's like a sunrise explosion of sweet apple in your mouth. I am almost out and plan to make more this weekend. Another plus is that making it gives the house that fall smell of warm cider.
  • Here's a story about a family from Arizona that pledged to buy 100 percent local for an entire year. I come across stories like this from time to time where someone forgoes something entirely for a year or however long, and I have to admit I couldn't do that. I don't want to. I prefer to take a more evolutionary approach path to locavorism and sustainability by replacing, eliminating, or changing one thing at a time. It's what I can do. Still, these stories provide inspiration as well as ideas for what I could do better. 
  • Came across this story about a man who created his own bread starter, from which all his loaves of bread derive. I have tried making sourdough once--it was not a success--but I look forward to trying again some day.
  • On the farming and sustainability front, the Agronomy Journal published results from the first long-term, large-scale study of the economic feasibility of organic farming versus industrial farming. As it happens, organic farming is profitable in the long term. These kinds of results are really starting to break down old arguments that industrial methods are the only economically viable methods. Think about these results in combination with the United Nations' study's findings Civil Eats reports that indicate organic farming is a viable method for feeding everyone on the planet, and toxic status-quo industrial methods start to look increasingly out of touch.
  • Having grown up in Sweden where the potato is nearly as fundamental to the diet as rice is in China, this report from Marcus Samuelsson's website that the USDA plans to take potatoes off the menu just  pissed me off. Writer Dylan Rodgers was none too pleased either and explains the importance of the potato throughout history. 
  • In contrast, this story about the pawpaw from NPR made me very happy. The pawpaw is a native fruit. Mike and I hunted for them last year to try them, but we were too late. We found a location with a whole bunch of pawpaw trees, but most were down by the time we saw them. I am just excited that someone is paying attention to a homegrown fruit. Wonder if a wander in the woods is in the cards for me? 
So that's the article round-up for this week. And here's that recipe for a savory version of French toast I promised:
  • 8 slices bread
  • 1 cup half and half or cream 
  • 4 eggs
  • 1/2 cup grated cheese (Cheddar or Parmigiano Reggiano)
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/8 tsp ground pepper
  • 1/4 tsp smoked paprika
  • 1/2 tsp dried thyme
  • butter (for the skillet)
  1. Place bread slices in a glass baking pan
  2. Whisk together half and half, eggs, cheese, salt, pepper, paprika, and thyme. Pour the mixture over the bread in the pan. Let it sit for at least 10 minutes, but you can also start it the night before. (Flip the bread slices at least once to make sure both sides get a good soaking.) 
  3. When ready to cook, take the bread slices out of the baking pan and let them dry off for a few minutes on a baking rack while you melt some butter in a skillet over medium heat. 
  4. When the butter starts to sizzle and brown a little, place two slices in the pan. Let each side cook until golden brown (about 2-3 minutes) and remove from the heat (keep them warm in an oven heated to 275 degrees Fahrenheit while you do the next batches). Start each batch with a new pat of butter or else they will stick to the pan a lot. 
  5. Serve with caramelized onions and bacon (if you like). You can also add a tiny drizzle of the apple syrup I talked about up above. It's mighty good and makes a nice, simple breakfast for dinner.   


Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A simple meat sauce with a tiny twist

I swear the pork I am getting from "my" farmer is getting tastier. I don't know what the Haskins family is doing, but lately whenever I make anything with any of their pork products, I am taken aback by how delicious and distinct the meat is. In The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan describes his experience of the chicken from Polyface Farm, Joel Salatin's grass-based farm in Staunton, Virginia, as being "chickenier" than any other chicken he had eaten before. That's the experience I have with the Haskins's pork: It's porkier than any other pork I have ever eaten before. And it's utterly wonderful and amazing. It forces you to pull back and think about the food--not take it for granted as some vague substance that will make your stomach feel less empty.

A simple meat sauce is one of the best ways to showcase flavorful meat, and it's also an easy way to get a home-cooked meal on the table. And even though you may not be able to get the scrumptious ground pork I am lucky enough to get, I suggest finding your own farmer who raises animals in humane, ethical ways by letting them live their lives grazing on grass or rooting around in forests. To find grass-fed meats near you, check out eatwild.com or localharvest.com.

Oh yeah, this sauce does have a bit of twist to it: cinnamon. Sounds weird, huh? But it's really quite fantastic. Your sauce will not come out tasting like some Frankensteinian hybrid of a meat sauce and a cinnamon bun. Instead, the small addition of cinnamon adds just a bit of complexity to the sauce that will leave everyone wondering what that amazing flavor is. Trust me on this. But be careful with it, add just a small amount.

Meat sauce served with pasta, but you could also top bread with it and make sloppy joes, fill bread dough and bake to make pierogies, stuff peppers with it, stuff and bake squash--try something crazy or keep it simple!
A simple meat sauce

  • 1 lb ground pork (or beef or lamb)
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced (or pressed through a garlic press)
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 16-ounce can of tomatoes (organic is good, homemade is even better!), slightly buzzed in a food processor to get a chunky puree
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon sugar (brown sugar is always nice)
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground pepper
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground dried mustard
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
  1. Heat the oil in a deep saute pan over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Add the onions and let them get soft and a bit brown. Stir from time to time so they don't stick or burn. 
  2. Add the ground pork (or whatever meat you are using). Cook until the meat is nicely browned, and you see no more pink.
  3. Add the minced garlic and stir quickly for a few seconds (just enough to get the smell to rise, but not long enough to in any way burn the garlic; burnt garlic is the kiss of death for a dish). Then add the tomatoes, salt, sugar, and spices plus about a cup of water.
  4. Let the sauce simmer over medium-low heat for at least 30 minutes and up to an hour to meld the flavors and get a nice consistency. Add more water if the sauce starts to stick to the bottom of the pan before your time is up.  
  5. Done. Serve it any way you like. This sauce also doubles and freezes well, so you could have home-cooked food even on nights when you get home late from work and are too tired to cook. And doesn't that sound nice?
Some interesting links

When I am not cooking, writing about food, or working, I am usually scoping out food blogs and reading food-related articles. I thought I would share some interesting stuff that I recently came across.
  • Tanya Denckla Cobb, a professor at the University of Virginia, recently published an article in the Virginia News Letter that highlights Virginia's role in the local food movement. This well-researched article describes the motivation behind and benefits of the movement.
  • In last Sunday's New York Times, Mark Bittman discusses the so-called cheapness of junk food. He dismisses the notion that junk food really is cheaper than real, homemade food. Even though I feel as though he's a bit too dismissive of buying organic and farmer's market foods (calling them "trendy"), he raises a lot of good points about the reasons that people tend to buy junk food in favor of homecooked meals, such as the fact that most people are simply too tired to cook at the end of a long day.
  • An exciting scientific discovery reported in The Scientist: Magazine of the Life Sciences suggests that what we eat may have more of an impact on our bodies than we ever imagined. Not only do we process food as nutrients, but food may also have an effect on how our DNA is regulated. 
  • Takepart.com reported on a study that revealed family dinners are not just good for your physical health, but can also help keep teens from partaking in risky behaviors like drugs and alcohol and generally lead healthier, happier lives.      

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Braised pork belly with wine, soy, and plum jam

I am still reeling from dinner--a delicious, savory piece of pork side (or belly) that I braised in a combination of wine, soy sauce, and plum jam for about five hours. So what what was so good about it: The meat was falling-apart tender, dark with soy sauce and wine, crusted with sweetness that perfectly balanced salt and umami. Oh and then there was the tender, juicy fat that spread around the mouth like the smoothest silk, carrying all those flavors with it. Oh so good. Made me feel like a raving carnivore. Yum.

I've never made anything with side pork before, but a few weeks ago when I was picking up my CSA share from Haskins Family Farm, Robert Haskins suggested that I try some. Not wanting to appear less than adventurous and/or knowledgeable, I said sure.

But I've been a little worried about it. I don't want to waste food because I don't know how to cook it right and make something that no one likes and we kind of pick at until it goes away. But that didn't happen. This recipe and method have stolen my heart. Moreover, the house has smelled amazing all day, and it was super easy. I can't wait to try this again on a cold winter day to heat up the place and make everything all nice and cozy. I am also trying to come up with something to do with the (very few) leftovers. (Maybe shred it and serve it with some pasta? On a sandwich, with some of the extra fat heated and drizzled over the bread? Hm. Choices, choices. Of course, the way I keep picking at the leftovers, I may not have leftovers by morning.)  

Side pork is more or less equivalent to pork belly, which is the cut of the pig that bacon is made from. (And bacon is one of foods of the gods, I am sure.) It contains a lot of fat in layers, so I wanted to try to render out as much of that possible and more or less use it to self-baste the meat. I also wanted to collect the rendered fat to use for something else later. Here's how to do it.

  • 2 cups red wine (I used a nice Virginia Merlot)
  • 3/4 cup soy sauce
  • 2 lbs side pork
  • 3 tablespoons plum jam 
  • 5 cloves of garlic, peeled and smashed
  • 1 onion, peeled and quartered
  • salt
  • ground pepper
  • smoked paprika
  • 5 peppercorns
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Place your pork side in a oven-proof glass dish. Season the meat very liberally with salt, ground pepper, and smoked paprika. Mix wine, soy sauce, plum jam, garlic, onions, and peppercorns and pour the mix into the glass dish. Tightly cover the dish with tin foil and put it in the oven for about five hours. Baste once per hour. When you take it out, let the meat rest for about 10 minutes before serving. Cut it into slices to serve. 

You can serve it with roasted root vegetables like I did. I cut beets, carrots, celery root, potatoes, and some Cipollini onions into bite-size pieces; tossed them in olive oil; sprinkled dried rosemary over them; and placed them in a 435-degree oven for about 50 minutes. Salt the vegetables when they are done to avoid drawing the moisture out during roasting. 


Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Holy basil, Batman! What can you do with this herb?

This Friday, September 23, marks the autumn equinox and thus the end of summer, which means a whole new season of foods and feelings. Fall is my favorite time of year, with its cooler temperatures, gorgeous colors, and bounty of squashes, apples, sweet potatoes--nice roasty-toasty foods that like a long simmer in flavorful stock or slow roasting in the oven.

But I am not going to talk about that--not yet anyway. No, this is a last hurrah for a summer herb: basil. I am sure people use basil all times of year, but for me, it evokes summer. Its spicy intensity plays especially well with fresh, juicy fruits with a lot of acid: tomatoes, peaches, plums. It's also lovely with watermelon. (Here's a great salad: halved cherry tomatoes, cubed watermelon, torn basil with a dash of salt and a splash of vinegar.) For a truly exquisite drink, make lemonade and add some smashed strawberries and slivered basil. You will be amazed that something as simple and delicious as lemonade could reach such heights.

The most common form of basil in cooking (at least here in the West) is a variety called Genovese basil (that's the one with the big, shiny leaves you often find in pots in grocery stores). In Latin, this type of basil is called Ocimum basilicum--a name that suggests the herb's history. Supposedly basil was found growing near the tomb of Christ, so the herb was frequently used in Orthodox churches (or basilicas) (1). Other sources indicate that basil was once regarded with fear and associated with the basilisk--a nasty reptilian monster that could kill with a glance or a breath (2). The herb is native to Africa, Asia, and India and features frequently in foods from those parts of the world.

Basil is part of the mint family (or Lamiacaes), which are easy to tell because they typically have square stems. Different varieties of basil have various culinary and medicinal uses. Opal basil has dark purple leaves, lavender flowers, and a strong scent of cloves; it's a beautiful plant in the garden. Thai basil, a variety with purple stems and flowers, is sweeter than Genovese and is often used in (surprise!) Thai cooking. I don't use opal or Thai basil too much because they are just a bit too strong for my taste, but I suspect that you could do some very interesting things with them in baking or making ice cream, especially in anything you would create with cinnamon, cloves, anise, or other spices of that nature. Medicinally, basil has been used to soothe upset stomachs (in a tea) and to calm anxiety and aid sleeping. I won't vouch for its effectiveness, but it isn't harmful. (3)

I have grown about 10 varieties of basil, including opal, Thai, lemon, lime, holy, and so forth, but these days I mostly stick to Genovese. Here is the basil I harvested last week:

Yes, I got a pretty good harvest of the stuff and kept it in fairly good condition, despite the brutally hot summer topped with a week of some of the heaviest rains we've seen around here (some of my favorite roads are still impassible because flooding washed parts of them away). I grew it from seed, which is pretty easy to do. The main things to remember when caring for basil plants are that they grow best in warm soil, they don't like to dry out completely (but they don't like to have wet feet either, so good drainage is important), and they like lots of sun. Also, to make sure that you get the best flavor, always pinch off the tops, especially if you see any signs of flowers. Flowering signals the death of an annual plant like basil; its flavor changes in rather unpleasant ways.

Basil is best fresh, but if you want to preserve some for winter days when you long for a memory of summer, your best bet is to freeze it. Dried basil is inferior in flavor, because those lovely volatile oils escape with the moisture as it dries. For best results, blend basil leaves (washed and dried) with a good olive oil and freeze the mixture in ice trays so that you can use a cube as you need it.

You can also make a flavored vinegar by pouring warm vinegar over basil leaves and letting it steep for a day or two. Make sure to strain the basil out though, because otherwise it gets slimy (ick) and becomes a potential breeding ground for bacteria (ickier).

Or, you can try growing basil in a pot in a sunny window. It won't grow as fast as it will outside in summer, but you may have enough to add a few leaves to your food now and then. Same rules apply inside as outside: sun, good drainage, moist soil, warmth, pinch off the flowers.    

And of course, there's always pesto, which freezes well and is easy-peasy to make in a food processor or blender. You'll need

  • 2 cups washed and dried basil leaves
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese (4)
  • 1/4 cup pine nuts (feel free to substitute walnuts or hazelnuts)
  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • salt
  • fresh ground pepper
Put the garlic, cheese, and nuts in your food processor and blend until you get an even, crumbly mass. Then add the basil leaves and blend to a paste. 

Add olive oil to the paste in a steady stream.

Scrape down the sides and blend again.

Add some salt (about a quarter teaspoon) and some fresh pepper. Blend again. Hey presto, you've got pesto! (Did I really just say that?)

So what can you do with it? Well, there's the obvious one: Add it to fresh cooked pasta for a simple meal. You can also use it on bread as a sandwich spread (let's see, what do you think of a sandwich spread with some pesto and slices of chicken and tomatoes?), or mix it into some mayo. Use it to flavor soups and stews. Ooh, I know, drop a spoonful onto a bowl of fresh, homemade cream of tomato soup. Coat some chicken with it and bake it. Add a dollop to a mess of biscuits, that might be good. Use it instead of tomato sauce on a pizza. In other words, do whatever sounds good.   

(1) Bremness, Lesley. 1988. The Complete Book of Herbs: A Practical Guide to Growing and Using Herbs. New York: Penguin Studio. 

(2) Kowalchik, Claire, and William H. Hylton, eds. 1987. Rodale's Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press. 

(3) Ah, herbal medicine. It's a complicated topic. On the one side, you have airy-fairy "practices" like homeopathy using magical, mystical mumbo jumbo principles of "like curing like" (hm, where have I heard of that before, oh yeah, alchemy; I don't think we have a method for creating gold from lead yet or did I miss a front page?). On the other end, you have breast and lung cancer treatments that derive from varieties of yew trees (Taxus brevifolia and Taxus canadensis). Then there is a range between these extremes. One of the problems with using herbs is some of them really work, which means that they can be very toxic if you don't know how to use them properly. Most culinary herbs are not toxic (bay leaves being one exception), so the dangers of using herbs medicinally doesn't usually apply here, but I generally recommend against playing around with herbs as cures.   

(4) Parmigiano Reggiano is obviously not a local ingredient, but is one of those rare exceptions where you really can't substitute something else. The industrial powder that comes in a green can labeled parmesan is not the same species of creature, not the same family of creature--heck, not even the same kingdom! 

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Plum jam with rosemary

This post is for my friend Annette Stenbäck in Sweden who has a bumper crop of plums and needs to come up with some yummy things to do with it. I wish she could send me some plums, but I suspect that customs might have a problem with that. 

This jam turned out beautifully: Deep rich color and tangy, sweet, and deep flavor.

I used a combination of prune plums and red plums (about half each), but you can probably use any combination of plums that you have available. The rosemary is entirely optional, but makes a nice flavor addition.

Now, making this jam takes two days. The work is minimal on the first day, but you should know and plan accordingly.

This is the base recipe. You can make up to three times as much (which I did by accident), but note that cooking time will be longer for bigger batches. Just multiply the following recipe by two or three, and you are good to go. Three kilos of cleaned plums yielded 11 eight-ounce jars of jam.

Here's what you will need:

  • 1 kilo of quartered plums with the stones removed (in other words, you need a little more than a kilo of plums)
  • 700 ml of white granulated sugar (I prefer to use organic, which has just the slightest scent of raw cane--mm, lovely)
  • juice from one lemon, strained (if you don't have lemons, I suspect that about 100 ml of balsamic vinegar would yield an utterly amazing jam)
  • 2-3 sprigs of fresh rosemary
  • clean jars (sterilized if you are not planning to eat this right away, but more on that later)

Day 1
Prepare your plums. Cut them into quarters and remove the pits. You don't have to peel them; the peel is where the jam will get its pectin from. 

I love this color combination. 

When you have about 1 kilo of cut fruit, add the sugar in layers. Start and end with a layer of sugar so that the fruit is completely surrounded with the sugar. Also add the lemon juice. 

Then put your fruit-sugar-lemon juice combination into the refrigerator for one day. The reason for this is to draw the juice out of the plums and start to break down the cell walls. (You can let this sit for up to two days without any problems. Longer than that and your jam may start to get a little raisin-like.)  

Day 2
Today you will do most of the work. Start with washing your jars and lids and sterilizing them. You can do this in a water bath, but I like the oven technique that I learned from Rachel Saunders's book The Blue Chair Jam Cookbook, although I upped the heat a bit. 

To do this, place your washed jars and lids on a cookie sheet and place them in the oven. Turn on the oven (I prefer to place the jars into a cold oven so I don't risk cracking them with a big shock of heat) and let the temperature come up to 275 degrees Fahrenheit (that's 135 degrees Celsius for my international friends). When the oven is hot, the jars should remain in the oven for at least 30 minutes. Leave the jars in the oven until you need them. 

Next, put a plate with five metal spoons in the freezer. Now, pirouette and sing Oye Como Va. Ha ha! I just wanted to see if you were still paying attention. You don't have to sing and dance, but do put the spoons in the freezer, you will use them to test the doneness of your jam. 

When you made your preparations, you can start heating up your fruit mixture, which should be a lot more watery than it was when you first put it in the refrigerator. Start with medium-low heat and bring the temperature up slowly.

Once the mixture has started to simmer a bit, raise the heat to medium-high. Get a good boil going (the point is to let most of the water steam off and candy the sugar). Stir frequently (wear something to protect your hands; the jam will sputter a lot and it can burn you). When the mixture foams, skim off as much of the foam as possible. (Use a skimmer for this job; it really makes a difference. Also, keep your skimmer in a bowl of cold water, which will help the foam adhere to the skimmer.) You will skim very frequently for the first 5 to 10 minutes. 

Let it boil for about 20 minutes before you do your first doneness test (add about 10 minutes if you do a bigger batch). To do the test, remove a small representative sample from the pot (in other words, get both solids and liquid) and transfer it to one of the frozen spoons. Place the spoon back in the freezer for 3-4 minutes. Feel the bottom of the spoon, if it doesn't feel cold or hot, you can inspect the jam. The liquid part of the jam should move a little, but it should not run. If it runs, the jam is not ready yet. Keep cooking the jam for about 5-10 minutes and test again.

When the jam is done, take it off the heat and add your sprigs of rosemary (if you don't want to use rosemary, skip this step). Let them steep for about 5 minutes and then remove them. (You don't want slimy rosemary sprigs in your final product.)

Take your cookie sheet with jars out of the oven and fill the jars. Using a jam funnel is helpful for keeping things somewhat clean. Be very careful, the jam will be extremely hot.  

Don't completely fill the jars. Leave at least one quarter inch at the top. Clean the rims of the jars with a clean wet cloth (or paper towels, as long they aren't prone to tearing). Then place the lids on the jars and loosely screw on the rings. Put the jars back in the oven for 20 minutes. 

When you remove the jars from the oven, put them somewhere you will not disturb them for about a day. That will give the jam time to set and create the vacuum seal. Next day, check the seals. The bubble in the middle of the lid should be depressed. If it makes a popping sound when you press it with your finger, you didn't get a vacuum seal, which means you should use that jar right away. Just put it in the refrigerator and eat it within two weeks. The rest of the jars can go into a cool, dark place for enjoyment later in the winter. Yum!

If you want to learn more about jams and other preservation techniques, check out the National Center for Home Food Preservation.  


Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Thinking about the MAD Foodcamp in Denmark and wishing I could have gone

Rene Redzepi of restaurant Noma in Copenhagen is an inspiration for anyone who cares about food, art, life, and sustainability. I asked for and received his book Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine for Christmas last year, and perhaps a few photos of the book can suggest the wonder and beauty that Redzepi creates with his food and with his ideas about food.

The photos in the book remind me of the spare cold light of Scandinavia, the briny taste of the air in Reykjavik, the chill of mist rising from a Swedish field in late August as the weather turns its steps toward fall, winter, and darkness. Beautiful, evocative images and memories that truly say something about time and place.

Sadly I can only imagine what his food tastes like, because most of the book's recipes use ingredients that are impossible to find here and cooking techniques that are far beyond what I have the equipment for or wherewithal to do. Also, the chances that I would ever get to eat at his restaurant are slim to none. But none of that matters. The difficulty of the food here is not really the point; the point is the inspiration, the ideas about food and the world we live in.

Carrying forth inspiration and ideas was also part of the point of the MAD Foodcamp that took place last weekend in Denmark. Unfortunately, I only learned of it a few days ago and wouldn't have been able to attend anyway, but I have been scouring Twitter (search #MADfoodcamp) and the Internet to learn more about what happened and to perhaps add some ideas to the conversation.

I found several reports from the event. Kalle Bergman, editor of Honest Cooking: The Food Magazine called this event "a nerdy Woodstockish foodie festival and conference." You can read more on the symposium cum food festival at Food RepublicClassic Copenhagen, and Katie Parla.

But the article that inspired most food for thought (pardon the pun) came from flavourcountryfeedlot, who talks about the disconnect between people like those who participated in the conference and have a driving passion for food and the "millions of people [who] don't think they have enough time to find or cook good, real food, or that good food is worth the effort."

I am afraid I don't have much sympathy for those who don't care about good food. Trying to convince someone who doesn't care about food to think it matters is akin to convincing a religious person to stop believing or an atheist to believe: It's not going to happen. You do, or you don't. What I do understand and sympathize with is the lack of time or energy to source good food, cook it well, and present it in inspired and inspiring ways. Most people have enormous and constant demands on their time; balancing competing priorities is the order of the day--every day.

So if you are not a chef or don't have the bankroll to eat in wildly creative restaurants most of the time, what are you supposed to do with these ideas? Because these are extraordinary ideas about recognizing the wider variety of edible foods that exist, about falling in love with the wonderful array of foods that your place and season have to offer, about creating layers of sense memories that connect you to the beauty and life of the world.  

Here are some thoughts about what you can do. Start with the recognition that food can express your life, your values--can express what inspires you and makes your life beautiful. Obviously, food is also a bare bones necessity: You don't eat, you starve. Why not make it matter? Why do so many other things take precedence? Do you really need a perfect lawn? Do you really need to watch that episode of whatever show? Does your kid really need to participate in every after-school activity that you can squeeze into the schedule, or could you spend that time with him or her creating memories together in the kitchen? Unfortunately, Redzepi's comment that "there is no short cut or easy answer to good food" contains some truth. Good food does take effort and time, but so does anything that's worthwhile.

A second thought is to not try to be perfect, and this is a thought I struggle with in many contexts (I am a recovering perfectionist). You can make a difference in small ways, in inconsistent ways. Trying to get it absolutely right all the time is a good recipe for giving up or losing heart. If all you can do is eat frozen dinners all week, but then cook an amazing Sunday meal to serve your family with beautiful, local ingredients, wouldn't that make a difference? In your life and in the life of your kids? Start small and see where that takes you.

Next, look around. What do you know about the place you live? Try the farmers' markets, talk to people. Maybe someone makes amazing cheese just 15 miles from your house, and you never even knew. Take a class in foraging--it'll be great, and you'll get outside for a while. Probably get some exercise too. If you know someone who is a great cook or knows a lot about local food, talk to him or her and get some ideas. Maybe even angle for an invitation to dinner. He or she will probably feel great that you asked.

Never be afraid to try something new. How do you think that anyone ever comes up with anything? By trying something. And often by failing at least the first time. Experimentation in the kitchen is usually fun, sometimes successful, and always informative. (Here's our dry-ice ice cream experiment.) See something at the farmer's market you've never tried before? Try it! Get some! Ask the farmer what to do with it. If he or she doesn't know, look around the Internet--at some point, someone somewhere probably cooked it successfully and has some good ideas for you.      

What I want to convey with these ideas and any others that I come up with going forward is that good, beautiful, and artful food doesn't have to be exclusive. I can't make a 50- to 60-ingredient dish--hell, I don't want to make a 50- to 60-ingredient dish--but I can be inspired by how it looks and the ideas behind it. I can start looking around on the ground to find edible plants among the weeds and try to learn to cook them well. I can experiment with new varieties in the garden and see what works. I can take this whole ethos of understanding your food through the lens of time and place and figure out how to make that work for me in a home cook's kitchen. And most of the time, what I will come up with is pretty good, sometimes it will be an unmitigated disaster, but it should always be interesting and inspiring.

Now, I have to go and make some plum jam.

Monday, August 29, 2011

My garden has run amuck

I am exhausted today after staying up late last night writing something that was perhaps overly emotional and embarrassing, but, hey, there it is, I did it, let it stand. I can't undo what I've done.

So I am moving on. Being in a wildly dreamy, exhausted state of mind, I have been catching up with lots of reading, especially some of the blogs I follow. I have enjoyed beautiful pics, friendly cooking advice, interesting facts and tidbits about the state of the food industry. (I especially like the link to "endangered foods" that I found at Civil Eats.) (Most of the blogs I follow are in the blog roll; I definitely recommend checking them out.)

As I was reading them, one reason I like them so much came to me. The photos--beautiful, composed, and professional though they may be--don't feel like catalog photos. They don't make you long for things you don't have. Or, to be more precise, they don't make you long for things to buy. They often make me long for things I can create, but that's an altogether different kind of longing. And I like that.

Another thing I like is that they show glimpses of real lives, of real pockets of beauty nestled within the everyday. In an everyday I can find if I only try and look for it.

In the spirit of finding my own pockets of beauty, I took my camera out back to the garden I have woefully neglected for the last month. Sadly I let lots of tomatoes die on the vine, but there's still a little beauty left back there. At least I think so.

Here is the lemon I thought a rascal of a squirrel had stolen when I couldn't find it the other day. But here it is, still attached to my little lemon tree.

Signs of new life on the lemon tree. I am thankful. Especially because it lost most of its leaves over the winter.

False indigo floating in a puddle left after Irene.

Winslow, my fat grumpy cat. He thinks he's a tiger. I hate to break it to him...

The basil still looks good. Soon, I will harvest it and make a batch of pesto to freeze for later.

An out-of-control stalk of grass, almost ready to reseed itself.

A cluster of cherry tomatoes left from a wilderness of vines that reached more than seven feet high at one point, which are now a brown and ugly mess. I'll leave these in the hope that I can make something of them.

A sprig of ivy, taking over the fence.

The bird feeder Mike's uncle Melvin made for us, chewed by squirrels.

A lovely fern, growing by the compost box.

Some of our harvest bounty--still not sure what to do with it all...

I also decided to start some plum jam. I bought a whole mess of plums at the farmer's market on Saturday morning, before the rain from Irene began to roll in. Most of them are prune plums, but I am afraid I can't remember what the bigger ones are. I like the red etchings on some of them. Looks like a galaxy of stars trapped within a thin skin.

I love the contrast of the purple skin with blue bloom against the strange green of the flesh. I wonder what color the jam will be? Of course, I won't know until tomorrow, because I ran out of sugar. No matter, I will let the plums macerate with the sugar I have and then we will see. It may be beautiful. It may be weird. That's part of the fun.