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.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Working my way back to inspiration

I started sliding weeks ago, before our dog got sick and we had to put her to sleep. Losing her made me let go. No, losing her made me tell myself it was OK to let go and slide some more. To sink into a wallow of not trying, not being passionate, not caring much, and just getting by--not really a pit of despair so much as a comfy couch of meh. I lose focus and energy sometimes. This is especially true when I've worked hard for a time toward making significant changes in my life and behavior, when I have consistently toughed something out for a few months, but that first, fat rush of progress slows down. When the realization sinks in that change will no longer have dramatic effects, but is now the standard. When the work (easier now, granted) remains, but the heroics of fighting up that hill aren't there anymore. I just don't seem to have the hang of just living. I am either sinking deeper and deeper into my worst habits, with attendant ill effects on mental and physical health, or I am struggling mightily to get back up again. It's a tedious, frustrating cycle. A cycle I want to break.

Knowing that inspiration doesn't strike magically and mysteriously from the universe, but must be sought for, I tried to get out of the funk and find inspiration again. I flipped through books, started looking over my long-neglected Google Reader with its array of blogs and learned about a food blogger named Jennifer Perillo who lost her husband suddenly. A community of bloggers and readers poured out care, love, and concern. I felt deep sadness for Jennifer's loss, but couldn't help but ask myself why. Why did I feel so much for someone I did not know? I hadn't even read her blog before. Then, a few days ago, I learned through Facebook that a former colleague had died. A man I had liked very much, but not known well because we had little cause to spend much time together. I felt hideously voyeuristic when I went to his Facebook page and read the loving comments from close friends and family. Once again, I felt genuine grief and loss for someone I knew so little. One of the saddest things is to like someone but not have a chance to know them better because there isn't enough time.

I feel their loss because I can imagine what it would do to my life if I lost Mike or someone else close to me. It would leave a black hole that would distort all life around it--a void that would be almost unbearable. But like most people, I would force myself to keep going, to figure out a way to live with the void, and even eventually to learn to be happy again, even though early days would see me preferring to creep under the blankets and sleep my way to oblivion.

So what is this possibly morbid mulling over death about? Well, there's just plain sadness and grieving, but there's also the recognition that to overcome any emotional pain, whether it be the loss of a loved one or loss of passion and focus takes work. It takes going through the motions of doing what some part of you knows matters to you. It takes forcing yourself to think about what you care about and why. It takes remembering what you value.

And so, I am trying to remember what matters to me and why. Why do I care about food? Why do I care about art and literature and music? They connect me to humanity and life as little else can do. These are the things I return to again and again after losing my footing. (That's at least one definite good thing about me: I don't give up. I may fail a lot, but I always try again.) Sure food is good, and restaurants can be fun, glamorous, tantalizing. I enjoy watching great chefs do masterful things with ingredients and make edible works of art. But my care for these things is more fundamental than that. It's about connecting. It's bringing family and friends around a table to share in something together. It's passing along history and culture from past generations to future ones. It's linking your body and existence in a tangible way with the earth and the people who bring food into being. After weeks of slipping up and eating too many soulless meals in chain restaurants, I have to remind myself how much justice matters to me. How much it cuts me to the core when I eat foods that are produced by slaves, that are grown by poisoning the earth and abusing animals. Good arguments may be made for producing food in sustainable ways, but for me the reasons are all emotional. I love getting my food from the people who grew it. The large, heavyset farmer who handles his peaches like fragile kittens. The father that bickers in a comfortable, loving way with his son who can't seem to add up the total correctly. The pretty woman with brown hair and freckles who says eggs are her favorite food and sells me beautiful, tender greens. The cute young guy with a nose like a chisel and dirt under his nails who sells me flats of berries. These are the individuals who worked miracles, turning dirt into food and then worked more and slept less to get it to me.

Making food is a form of creativity--like all arts, it's an expression of the individual and the cultural context of that person. Ultimately, it's a way to communicate. That's why I love food and art and music and literature, because these are ways out of the isolation within our skin and minds, ways to cross the boundaries between us.

It's now 2:30 in the morning, I am tired and foggy. But I know what I have to do tomorrow: I have to think about what matters to me. I have to start work on a new painting. And I have to make food for my family that says that I love them.        


Thursday, August 11, 2011

Goodbye to a sweet old dog

Be forewarned that this is a long, rambling post about my dog. There's no talk about food. There's no art. Just some memories of Cleo.

Yesterday, we had to put our dog Cleo to sleep. Some sort of internal growth (probably cancerous) ruptured inside her; the internal bleeding weakened her to such a degree she became paralyzed and disoriented. Because further exploration and surgery would only cause significant pain for little purpose, we decided to let her go. I was with her, petting her nose and ears as she went away. She slid away so quietly and gently it was hard to tell when she left. It was good to see her calm and resting after a day of distress.

We knew we would lose her sometime soon. She was 14 years old, a ripe old age, especially for the big dog she was. She had slowed down over the last few years, but she seemed generally healthy for such an old lady that we hoped to get another year or two. Despite the shock of losing her so suddenly, it was probably best this way: A long healthy life, and then one precipitous event to bring it a swift and relatively painless close. Better than a long-suffering grind anyway.

But I don't really want to rehash the pain of yesterday or define the hole she leaves today and tomorrow because the hole is what it is. Instead, I want to try and capture some memories and get a sense of her life before time fades it away too much.

We got her about a year after we were married, in late 1997, from some friends whose dogs had had a pretty large litter (eight, I think?). When we went to visit the puppies, we didn't have any plan to get a dog (we were living with Mike's dad at the time). We just went to see the puppies. Of course, we fell for them. Especially one of a pair of black woolly bears whose name was Cleopatra, which seemed particularly auspicious to me because when I had been a baby in Africa, my family had had a dog named Cleopatra who guarded over me. When we got her, she was a tiny thing that Mike could hold in one hand. For the drive home, I stashed her under my coat to keep her warm and make her feel safe.

One of the funniest memories we have from when she was a pup was when she got her head stuck in Mike's boot. Mike was working at Cox Farms at the time and typically wore big old overalls and steel-toed boots. At the end of the day, he'd come home, pull them off, and drop them on the floor, and we'd hang out with Mike's dad in the kitchen. One day, Cleo got curious about what was inside those boots, went over to one of them, started sniffing around, and shoved her head into it. Her head promptly got stuck in there, and she lurched around the kitchen, banging into the furniture like some strange four-footed boot-headed creature. We tried to get it off but we were laughing so hard, we could barely move. (I also tried to get a pic, but once again, laughing too hard to focus.) When we finally got it off, she gave us a rather reproachful look like, "Hey guys, where were you!?" She had an incredibly expressive face. See?

As a puppy, she was a complete terror with my shoes. I didn't have many at the time. We had very little money (we were, as I mentioned, living with Mike's dad), and I had not yet developed that strange addiction to shoes so many women have, so I had maybe three pairs in total, including a snappy pair of strappy white satin heels I had worn to my wedding. Cleo destroyed them all, including the wedding shoes. The others didn't bother me so much, the wedding shoes were a disappointment. Still, she didn't eat the dress or the rabbit, so I suppose we lucked out in the end.

She grew up to be a beautiful sleek shiny dog with a slightly curved tail with a curtain of hair. Every time we took her for a walk, we would get compliments on how beautiful she was. People would also always ask about her breed, and we'd tell them with great pride she was a mutt (just like us). Her mom was a full-blood black German shepherd and her dad was half Husky, half Doberman. Here she is, just grown up, on Halloween in 1998 (I am dressed up as Pippi Longstocking to work at the Cox Farms festival--later that day, I drove a tractor for the first and only time in my life).

Having a large dog had its ups and downs. Clearly the multiple daily walks were both a blessing and a curse. Dragging my butt out on late-fall mornings when rain came down in vast sheets--not so much fun. But on some nights when it was crystal cold, I would stare up at the dark heavens and grow to love Orion. The loud barking that got us complaints from apartment complexes--not so much fun. Feeling safe while out walking felt good. Being met at the door every day with absolute unconditional love was wonderful. Of course, then you'd take off your shoes, and she'd run off with one of them to deposit in a "safe" location. We would spend several minutes of every day just looking for misplaced shoes. More downs? Extra costs when renting places, never being able to travel without her, the regular destruction of pillows and blankets (especially when younger)--all kind of sucked. But she was worth it. We loved her, and she loved us. She was our family. When our son was born, she was definitely annoyed about the noise and the reduced attention, but she accepted him as the puppy of the family. You can almost see the sigh, the annoyed but resigned, "Fine, I will take care of my little brother" in these pictures:

She was so good with Sebastian, so patient, so tolerant. I don't think she really liked him all that much at first, but as he grew older, she definitely grew more affectionate with him. She was really good with most kids, actually. When our niece Emily was about four years old, she spread a blanket on the dog and then laid down on top of her like a pillow. Once again, she calmly accepted it. I think she had a great tolerance for discomfort if it was part of an expression of love. Like a mother who patiently lets her child pull her hair, she was gentle with little ones.

Maybe not so much with the cat, though. Yep. We've got a rascal of a cat named Winslow (actually, he's Sergeant Winslow of the RAF, we named him after Winslow Homer--don't ask). We got Winslow because we were having to leave Cleo alone for long periods of time, so we thought she could use some company. We went around to a few pet stores and in one of them, this scrawny little punk of a kitten sauntered right up to Cleo as if to say, "What are you doing on my turf!?" (We brought Cleo with us so that the kitten and the dog could choose each other.) We decided having no fear of the dog was a good sign so we got the cat. (Turned out the poor thing was in dreadful shape: he had some kind of lung disease, was failing to thrive, had ear mites and fleas--we were told we could return the cat if the vet found problems with it, but really? Return the poor animal to a store that had treated it so well? No, I don't think so. With much effort, we turned that cat's life around.)

Bringing the cat home bore mixed results. Cleo was less lonely and bored, but the cat terrorized her. Winslow would do things like hide in a hallway when the dog ran by and try to grab onto her tail, which was hilarious but annoyed the dog. Still, they eventually formed a sort of friendship and trust. They would sleep together, and the cat would clearly miss her when she went away with us for a weekend.

There's so much more to tell about Cleo. We had her for 14 years, almost all of our married lives together. She was often too sweet for her own good. But she could be a sneaky little devil too, stealing food (like the time she tried to grab the Thanksgiving turkey off the table or the time she swiped Mike's first grilled chicken) or shoes, hiding them in the garden or in one of her special places. She loved having her chest rubbed and her ears fondled. She was dutiful, protecting her pack from strangers by barking at anyone who came to the door.

She was a lovely dog whose presence had become a constant in my life. I will miss her.


Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Jam update: How I went wrong and a recipe for peach-plum jam

A while back I wrote about making blueberry jam with maple syrup and lemon zest, but I have learned much about jam-making since then and I must confess that I was wrong. The basic recipe is just fine, but it turns out my technique could use a lot of improvement.

Now, you ask me, "Tora, how did you find out you were wrong? What should we be doing differently?"

Well, about two weeks ago (I think it was two weeks ago), Mike, Sebastian, and I decided we would go to Borders and see if we could find anything good at the going-out-of-business sale. We don't usually pick over scraps of dying stores like vultures, but it's a book store. If there was a 10-step program for book addiction, we might be candidates for it.

As we looked around, Mike found a book that he thought I might like: The Blue Chair Jam Cookbook by Rachel Saunders. This charming, lovely book is probably all you will ever need to become a master jam/jelly/marmalade maker. It has gorgeous photos, lots of great information about techniques, and recipes that range from the utterly simply and sublime to the complex and sophisticated. And within about 10 minutes of sitting down to read, I discovered that I have been doing it wrong. So, let me explain my mistakes and pass on some of my new-found knowledge to you.

  1. I've been using the wrong kind of pot. Ideally, you should use a copper pan that's 11 inches at the base, 15 inches at the rim, and 5 inches high with a 11- to 12-quart capacity. Now, copper pans are not currently in my budget, as dearly as I would love to have one. What I gleaned from this information is that I need a lot more surface area. So I broke out my stock pot, which is definitely deep enough and has a 10-inch diameter. Not perfect, but I've already gotten better results. (If anyone feels especially generous, a copper pan would be a much appreciated Christmas gift.)
  2. I've been using the wrong application of heat. Instead of low and slow, I should be cooking this stuff hot and fast to keep as much of the fruit's flavor and texture intact. The correct way to do it is to heat the mixture of fruit and sugar slowly at first, just until it starts to bubble and release a lot of juice, and then crank up the heat to get it up to a pretty fierce boil. What you are trying to accomplish is a lot of evaporation (which explains why you need a lot of surface area in your pan). While it cooks, you need to keep stirring frequently, both to aid evaporation and to ensure that the jam doesn't stick to the bottom and burn. Note that this will be extremely messy.
  3. My testing for doneness has a lot to be desired. Rachel Saunders suggests doing this instead: Place a saucer with five metal spoons in the freezer. When you are ready to test your jam for doneness, take your pot off the heat, transfer a small amount of jam to one of the frozen spoons and return it to the freezer for a minute or two. When the bottom of the spoon feels neither hot nor cold, inspect the sample in the spoon. It shouldn't run but sort of clump up in a jelly-like blob on the spoon. If it doesn't, discard test spoon 1 and put the pot back on the heat for another five minutes or so and test again. The cooking process for jam (there are differences for jelly and marmalade, so be aware of that) will take about 15-30 minutes tops. 
  4. I like her method of preparing the jars for preservation, but I am still not completely sold on it. Usually, I would transfer jam to hot sterilized jars that I have boiled, place the lids on them, and boil them for another 15 minutes. She recommends sterilizing the washed jars in a 250-degree oven for at least 30 minutes, adding the jam, closing the jars, and placing them back in the oven for another 15 minutes. It's a lot easier method than boiling the jars, but so far, every batch I have made this way has had at least one jar that didn't seal. Of course, that means I get to try the jam right away, which is great, but it rankles a little bit. 
  5. The last clear technique difference is her method of flavoring the jam with herbs. I like to wrap up my herbs in a piece of cheesecloth and let it boil in the jam, whereas she prefers to add sprigs and let them steep in the hot jam for a few minutes after cooking and then fish them out. I haven't made up my mind on this one yet. I tried her method, adding some basil to a recent batch of plum-peach jam after it had cooked, but although the basil was extraordinarily fragrant (from my garden!), I can't taste it in the jam at all. So I will probably experiment a bit more before making my decision one way or another. 
I've applied these modifications to three recent batches of jamblackberry with lemon verbena, peach-plum with basil, and my blueberry with maple syrup and lemon—and I am definitely getting better results. The texture is better, the flavor is brighter, and the set is much better. I also love that I can get a jam in a lot less time. What's a bit of drag is that the yield seems to be a bit smaller, but I can live with that to get awesome jam. Here's a recipe for a jam experiment I tried with plums and peaches. The flavor is beautiful: bright, fruity, a little tangy, basically everything you get from a really good peach or plum eaten while dripping over a sink at the height of summer.  

Peach-plum jam with basil  
Yields about four eight-ounce jars 
  • 500 grams peaches, peeled, cut into 1-inch pieces (discard the stones)
  • 500 grams plums, cut into quarters (discard the stones) (any kind of plum will probably work for this, but I used red plums, which created a dark red jam; just be mindful that if you use, for example, greengages, the color may not be very pretty)
  • 6 deciliters sugar
  • juice from two lemons
  • 4-5 basil stems (optional, but nice)
  1. Background prep: Place a saucer with five metal spoons in the freezer, and sterilize your jars using whatever technique you prefer (keep them hot as you make the jam).
  2. Layer the fruit and sugar in your jam pot (starting and ending with a layer of sugar).
  3. Let the fruit-sugar mixture sit for at least an hour, up to overnight (refrigerate if you want to do this).
  4. Add the lemon juice.
  5. Heat the mixture slowly until the fruit produces a lot of juice, and it has started to bubble. 
  6. Bring the heat up to high and stir continually to keep the jam from burning. Expect copious amounts of steam and a lot of spatter. If you have an apron, this would be a good time to wear it. (I really need to get one of those.)
  7. Cook at high heat for about 15 minutes (skim off the foam).
  8. Test for doneness: Take the pot off the heat, get a sample of jam from the pot and transfer it to a frozen spoon. Place the sample in the freezer for a minute or two. Touch the bottom of the spoon, if it's neither hot nor cold, it's time to inspect the doneness of the jam. It should not run, but be gelatinous. If it runs, put the jam back on the heat for another five minutes and test again. Keep testing until you reach doneness.
  9. When the jam is done, take it off the heat and add your basil sprigs and let it sit for five to 10 minutes. Then remove the basil and pour the hot jam into your hot jars (be sure to leave at least an inch at the top) and sterilize them, using a hot water bath or oven as you prefer. 
  10. When you let the jars cool, you will hear little popping noises as they create a vacuum seal. If one of the jars doesn't seal (you can tell if you can depress the lid with your finger and it pops up again), just let it cool and enjoy it right away. The rest will be good for several months. 
A note on cooling: Don't move jam around a lot while it cools. One of the things it does as it cools is creates a sort of lattice structure. If you disturb that structure while it's forming, the jam won't set very well (or possibly at all).

Update: Check out the National Center for Home Food Preservation for more information about keeping your jams and jellies safe.