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 or

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. 
  • 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.