Thursday, October 20, 2011

I have Nothing For You but a Reminder

It's been about six weeks since I last wrote and though time generally flies, this time has not. I had a busy week or two at the end of August after my mother fell during a blackout caused by Hurricane Irene. She is OK now and comfortably resettled in a new place with many more eyes on her, hands able to help her and activities that she both enjoys and that stimulate her.

It's the period after that that really rankles. I feel like I fell into a haze of dizziness, medication and headaches that has lasted for over a month now. What began as a viral inner ear condition causing dizziness, turned into weeks of headaches which are only now starting to be under control. At least I can drive some, and sit at the computer without seeing cross eyed. I still feel like there's an alien living in my head some of the day (and night) and by 9 pm I'm exhausted.

I think I've turned a corner, because after weeks of just-get-it-on-the-table dinners, I made a favorite from food52 last night, alongside some roasted local rockfish and some pasta for my non-fish eating daughter. This morning I slow roasted some tomatoes to freeze for the winter and roasted a piece of salmon to use tomorrow in some easy salmon cakes. To top it all off, I even broke out the wok and used up some vegetable odds and ends and some leftover rice and actually made myself some fried rice for lunch!

So, instead of further whining and complaining that I have no new recipe for you yet (I hope to get to that point soon:)), I'd like to remind you of a terrific recipe I linked to last year at this time. These are great cookies, easy to make and not too terrible on the health scale for a cookie that is truly a treat. Head over to Coconut and Lime to check out these pumpkin oat chocolate chip cookies! You can also read my post from last year on these cookies here. Just a thought - I use white whole wheat flour to great effect in these.

Happy Halloween!

Monday, August 22, 2011

Chiles and More Chiles

We just returned from a trip to New Mexico where we ate chiles everyday, often at every meal. Green chiles, red chiles and sometimes, a ladle of the sauce of each, side by side, which is known there as "Christmas." We enjoyed a string of casual, local meals including huevos rancheros, enchiladas, chile rellenos, and burritos, punctuated by sides including posole, polenta, and blue corn muffins. We feasted on carne adovada, blue corn and pinon pancakes, migas, and blue corn muffins.

In Chimayo, a town along the High Road to Taos, we bought some local chile powder after visiting the Santuario. I'd been to Chimayo 21 years ago, and though there are many more people coming through now, Vigil store is still there selling chiles. I bought some ground, sun dried red chile powder and some ground green chiles as well. We were days too early for the fresh New Mexico chiles, though they seem to be becoming available as I'm writing. They also sell local pinons, but there were also none to be had yet, as harvest is still a couple of months away, and there were virtually none last year.

It's funny, I took the same picture of Vigil Store 21 years ago!


Many thanks to Maddy for her lovely photos!

I used some of my red chile powder to make this chorizo. Don't get scared off - this is no more complicated than making meatballs! No need to stuff the meat into a sausage casing as Mexican (or New Mexican, in this case) is often used outside of the casing anyway. This style of chorizo is not cured and dried like the Spanish type of chorizo. It's left raw until cooked for your recipe.

I used most of this batch in this delicious recipe of Pati Jinich's, and then used the rest for a New Mexico style breakfast of scrambled eggs with green chiles and chorizo.

I'm also thinking that this would be great using ground chicken if you don't eat pork. I will try it soon and report back. I use pork from locally raised, grass fed pigs so I'm not sure there's much fat differential between the two meats.

Also, please notice that there is virtually no salt in this recipe and you will not miss it!

New Mexican Style Chorizo

(with thanks to Mrs. Wheelbarrow, and several New Mexican cookbooks)

1.5 pounds pork shoulder, coarsely ground (you can ask your butcher to do this for you - Whole Foods' in-house ground pork is shoulder meat - or you can grind it yourself if you are so inclined. If you'd like to grind the pork shoulder yourself, I recommend checking out Mrs. Wheelbarrow's advice)

1 small white onion, minced

1 fat garlic clove, minced

2 Tablespoons New Mexico ground red chile (I know that most of you do not have this, so sub 1 Tablespoon sweet smoked paprika and 1 Tablespoon hot smoked paprika. Do not use commercial chili powder!)

3/4 teaspoon cumin seed (or sub 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin)

1 Mexican cinnamon stick (or sub 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

3 whole cloves ( or sub two pinches of ground clove)

10 whole black peppercorns (or sub a few grinds of fresh black pepper)

pinch or two of salt

1/2 teaspoon Mexican oregano

1/4 cup red wine vinegar

2 - 4 Tablespoons water, as needed

1. If you are using the whole spices, not ground, toast the cinnamon stick, cumin seed, cloves and peppercorns in a dry pan over medium heat. Shake the pan frequently until you can smell the spices, about 2 or 3 minutes. Don't walk away - you don't want them to burn!

2. If using the whole spices, grind the spices in a spice grinder or clean coffee grinder or with a mortar and pestle.

3. In a bowl mix the spices with the meat and add a pinch of salt, the oregano and the vinegar. Mix using a large spoon or your hands until everything is well combined. If it feels very dry, add the water a little at a time.

4. Heat up a skillet and make a tiny little meatball out of your mix. Cook it until cooked through so that you can taste for spice. If it is not as spicy as you like, add a pinch or two of cayenne or some more hot paprika.

5. Keep refrigerated for one day for flavors to build, but use within the next day or so. You can freeze the chorizo for a month or so as well.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Loss and Cooking and Peanut Butter Pie

I don't really know Jennifer Perillo, though I met her briefly during Eat, Write Retreat, and there heard her speak from the heart about blogging. But, I feel I know her much more intimately than that limited contact, as I've read her blog for years and she's a person who shares herself on her blog, much more than I tend to do. I've made her recipes (she cooks everything from scratch) and I've read her posts about her family: her challenging relationship with her now deceased father, her two sweet little girls, and her husband, Mikey, and how his love has helped heal her childhood wounds.

I feel all the more involved in her life since Monday morning when I learned via Twitter, that her husband had died the night before, of a sudden heart attack. It was, as she put it on Twitter, a "sucker punch." I felt for her, for the loss of the man who helped her so, whom she loved so deeply and with whom she had every expectation of spending the next 30 or 40 years.

I haven't inserted my story into any notes that I've sent her or posted on food52 or Twitter as this is her pain and it's not about me. I don't presume to know how she feels as everyone's grief is different and every unique person handles grief differently. And I haven't lost a husband, in my thirties, with two little girls who've lost their very special dad. What I do know is the kick-in-the-gut shock of an unexpected loss that changes your life. Sitting on a kitchen stool eating lunch on a sunny afternoon, still in the no longer sweaty exercise clothes from earlier in the morning, when a phone call comes and it's like the Towers fell right in your house. Worrying how other loved ones will react, cope, worrying how your children will react.

And Jennie's loss brought me right back there, to a place I remember with a physicality that surprised me. The teary eyes, the constant weight on the chest, the effort it requires to take each breath. And yet, amid her grief, Jennie paused to write on her blog, a tribute to her husband and a regret that she had not yet had time to make his favorite, peanut butter cream pie. She asked that others make this pie today, Friday, the day of his memorial service, in support of her and her girls, and as a symbolic gesture of carpe diem love and appreciation for loved ones.

Though I didn't make that pie, I did cook for my family, as I do each day, with the same love and as mindfully as I ever have. Hundreds of other bloggers made, photographed and blogged about that pie. There are links to posts on CNN, food52, Food Network and all over Twitter and Facebook. Jennie's post was a reminder to show our love and live fully every day, the blogging community has shown that it heard her and that for most of us, we show our love through sharing our food.

How Jennie was able to write, let alone think up such a lovely tribute to her husband and a reflection of her love is astonishing and a testament to her strength. I can only thank her for her most meaningful message and hope that this community outpouring helps buoy her through this time.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Summery Salads

I thought I'd take this opportunity to link to some cool, summer salads appropriate for a lighter dinner. One of my all time favorites is Salade Nicoise. There is a little stove top simmering involved, but no need to heat up the oven. Just make sure to buy a jar of really top quality tuna in oil - this is not the place for Bumble Bee solid in water. Really.

Last night I served two salads alongside each other and they really complemented each other well. The first, a Spanish flavored chicken salad, is one that I've made numerous times since Amanda first posted it on food52. The mix of artichoke hearts and peppadew peppers with the almonds is irresistible. Last night, I improvised a little, adding the kernels of a leftover ear of corn, as well as some sliced heart of palm for some of the artichoke after I ran out. If it's hot and you don't want to roast a chicken, just use a store-bought rotisserie chicken. Some stores sell "naked" or seasoning free roasted chickens, which are preferable here.

The second was something really different. I pulled it out of the New York Times the day I made a dish requiring the tops of the broccoli. I eagerly cut out this recipe using the broccoli stalks in a lemony salad with creamy avocado. Together, this and the chicken salad made a delicious summer meal with a piece of garlicky bruschetta and a glass of vinho verde.

Enjoy and stay cool!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

What to Do With Those Preserved Lemons

I was recently speaking to a fellow food blogger about preserved lemons. Not usually a topic of conversation with friends, but it seemed perfectly normal with a foodie friend. We discovered that we had both made 2 quarts over the winter and neither of us had used them yet. Preserved lemons are a specialty item that most of you will never desire and never miss, but if you ever have a good one quietly mixed into a dish, you'll notice a more concentrated essence of lemony flavor than even fresh zest can provide.

I had also preserved two quarts last year, but had to throw them out after we had an extended power outage. Although the lemons are preserved in a ton of salt, the recipe I used specified to keep them refrigerated, and I just wasn't sure they were still OK after a being unrefrigerated for so long in the summer heat. This year, I vowed not to waste these golden orbs a second time. Like last year, I used Meyer lemons from California, which are a little sweeter than the usual lemon we get around here. They are actually a hybrid between a lemon and an orange or tangerine.

I hadn't had home preserved lemons before, just packaged ones from the specialty store, so I wasn't completely sure how they would taste. Some of the jarred ones I'd had before were rather bitter and not particularly appealing.

I am happy to report that mine are delicious and I can now imagine a myriad of uses for them.

The first taste test occured when I made this recipe using a really fresh piece of wild Alaskan halibut that I lucked in to at Costco, of all places. I adapted what Goin calls the "salsa," really more of a vinaigrette, and got creative with the leftover vinaigrette the next day. I had a couple of cups of cannellini beans I'd cooked from dried a few days earlier, and some beautiful French green beans or haricots verts from the farm market. I also added some yellow grape tomatoes and some thinly sliced, red cippolini onion. I didn't add any other herbs as I wanted to be able to really taste the lemon vinaigrette.

So while I realize that many of you will never make this recipe, I'm posting it for those of you still hoarding quarts of preserved lemons in your fridge. I'm talking to you, Kim! Even if beans are not your thing, if you've got the lemons, try this on fish, pork, beef, chicken, or even vegetables such as spinach and peas.

Bean Salad in Preserved Lemon Vinaigrette

vinaigrette adapted from Suzanne Goin

(serves 4)

For the vinaigrette:

1 Tablespoon finely chopped shallot
1 Tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 preserved lemon, lightly rinsed and flesh discarded, rind thinly sliced
1/2 teaspoon agave nectar
1/3 cup olive oil
freshly ground pepper

For the salad:
2 cups cannellini beans, either cooked from dried or from one can of no sodium added beans
1 dry pint French green beans (haricots verts), stem ends trimmed and cut in two
a handful or two of yellow or red cherry or grape tomatoes, halved lengthwise
3 Tablespoons thinly sliced red onion

1. To prepare the vinaigrette, place the shallot and vinegar in a bowl and let sit for about 5 minutes. Whisk in the agave nectar, and then the oil. Add in the preserved lemon rind and a couple of grinds of pepper. Set aside

2. Combine the two kinds of beans, the tomatoes and onions in a serving bowl. Spoon about half the dressing over top and mix gently to combine. Add more Tablespoon by Tablespoon until you achieve a balance you like. You might not use it all and can save the rest in a tightly sealed container in the refrigerator for a couple of days.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Time Well Spent

Sometimes you do things you don't expect to find yourself doing, and which virtually nothing in your life suggests you'll either be good at or even enjoy, just to spend time with your teenager. I'm not talking about skydiving here, just making a cooking video, but still.

Making the video was my son, Ted's, idea. He is a musician (and college student), who not only writes his own music, but performs it, records it, mixes many tracks of himself playing multiple instruments, films video, and puts the finished products up on his You Tube channel. Working with a bare bones set-up in our house, and sometimes with a band he put together this summer, he has created a body of steadily improving works. While he is a great guitarist, singing is only a relative strength (think Bob Dylan or Neil Young) of his. Yet, he continues to record, finding songs that he can cover in his range and writing others that play to his strengths. He's always improving and just doesn't let his singing hold him back.

His idea was to film me cooking and put it up on You Tube and then here, on my blog. He suggested that this would be a good tie-in with my recipes and blog and make me more marketable. Since I'm a little camera shy, I was hesitant about a video. I worried that I'd be nervous, speak too fast and look completely ridiculous. I finally went ahead with the idea not because I think my future is in tv cooking, but because it was a great opportunity to work on a creative project with my son as his peer, rather than as his parent.

Our first attempt was not quite a polished Food Network product, but not completely horrible either. My eyes darted frantically from side to side as I improvised the opening lines and then there was the nervous shoulder-shake and hair flip, which we have, thankfully, removed. On Ted's end, he found that filming a subject not anchored in front of a mike was somewhat more challenging than filming himself sitting on a stool in front of a strategically placed camera tripod. We've decided to make another video together before he goes back to school, to work out some of the kinks in the first, sort of practice video.

So, while he works on camera angles, moving with me, close-ups that don't make me look ten years older and ten pounds fatter, and smooth transitions, I'll be learning to keeping my eyes steady and not smack the cutting board with a knife while I'm talking, and not to care that I look my age and not 25. Most importantly, I'll be appreciating what I can learn something from my amazing, creative son.

So, here is the result of our collaboration. I hope you'll take it for what it is and know that we spent some quality time together filming it.

You can find the recipe on which I based this summery pasta with fresh tomatoes here. Just add the kernels of two ears of corn if you like.

Also, since the margins on blogspot seem to cut off the right side of the video, just double click on the video to watch it in full screen.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

It's Cooler!

Not until I was leaving the house this morning full of energy with three errands to accomplish before my exercise class, did I realize how completely lethargic I've been for the last week. I really didn't even want to cook, grill, drive, it was so hot. So, though I made it to the farmstand on Sunday morning before the heat was too oppressive, by the time I got home I was didn't even have the motiviation to admire my market finds. Whatever had I been thinking as I bought a couple of pounds of Persian cucumbers? I could barely make dinner that night, let alone make pickles.

It took until today, a beautiful sunny, humidity-free day, for me to finally get out the Ball jars. Last year, I made some unbelievable tangy, sweet and sour pickles that crunched when you bit in even months after I made them. But those take 8 days to make, not even counting sitting time, and although I've regained some of my heat-suppressed energy, I haven't regained some of my much needed ability to focus on something for longer than a couple of minutes. So lacto-fermentation it was, with food52 to the rescue with the perfect recipe. Lacto-fermentation sounds scary - it conjures up pictures of bulbous, cartoon like, blue-green-purple bacteria (and what's with the "lacto"? Milky?), but it seems to mean that I just put the cucumbers in a jar with some garlic, dill and salt water and let them sit for three days. At the end of three days, I am supposed to check the jars and make sure the water seems fizzy, which will indicate that lacto-fermentation is successfully underway and that I can refrigerate my pickles for later use. Piece of cake on an 85 degree day!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Summer Fancy Food Show 2011

I spent the better part of three days last week at the Summer Fancy Food Show at the Washington Convention Center, tasting olive oils, sampling cheeses (I will mention one, a thistle rennet ewe's milk cheese from Casa Lusa of Portugal) and seeking out healthier foods that might be headed our way. The summer show is usually in New York but was in DC this year and will be again next summer while the Javits Center in New York is under reconstruction.

I saw many familiar, healthier brands: Cucina Antica tomato sauces, Lotus and Lundberg whose whole grain rices I love, my favorite special olive oil from Robbins Family Farm in California, organic acacia honey from Italy, Larabars and Kind bars.

In stopping at booths of other brands I recognized, I came across some new products that I'm looking forward to seeing in the stores. Lifeway Kefir has a new frozen kefir that tastes like froyo and will soon be available in stores. I sampled this product at Eat, Write Retreat (EWR) and trust me when I say that it is a winner. I tried the original flavor both times and it is just a little sweet, plenty tangy, totally delicious and low calorie and natural to boot. I also really like another item I had at EWR which is made on a Native American Indian reservation - a dried snack bar of buffalo meat and dried cranberries made by Tanka. Oddly delicious. Late July, whose cheese crackers I used to buy, is coming out with a multigrain snack chip that is as satisfying as a regular tortilla chip yet has some fiber and protein and is also low in sodium and gluten free.

Another brand of rice, Village Harvest, was featuring cooked and frozen whole grains and rices such as a quinoa and brown rice mix, farro and red rice, wheatberry and barley and a mix of brown, red and wild rices. I was particularly pleased to see these, as I have been boycotting Trader Joe's, my usual source of frozen cooked brown rice. Maya Kaimal, maker of delicious Indian simmer sauces that I do not use any longer as they are pretty high in fat and sodium, has a new spicy ketchup that I loved. It would be unbelievable as a dip for baked sweet potato fries, as a topping on sandwiches, or as the base for a sauce. I also noted that another jarred Italian tomato sauce brand, La Famiglia Del Grosso has revised its recipes to make them lower in sodium. Pearl River Bridge, a Chinese company whose dark soy sauce and dark vinegar I've used, is now offering a low sodium soy sauce and told me they will have a gluten free version soon, too. Pereg, a kosher brand, now has a quinoa and mushroom boxed mix with very little added sodium.

I spent quite a bit of time at the booth of Isela Hernandez of Hernan Mexican Chocolate. The Mexican chocolate she sells is far better than the brands I've used before when making mole. She also sells prep ware such as wooden molinillos for frothing Mexican hot chocolate (one of Maddy's favorites!), as well as a type of ceramic pot called "ollo de barro" which she used for making hot chocolate. I'm looking forward to making some of Isela's hot chocolate for Maddy when it cools off.

I was really impressed with one of the many teas I saw and tasted at the show. I have been very loyal to Taylor's of Harrogate Afternoon Darjeeling and Scottish breakfast teas, and have never before given any thought to using organic tea. However, after speaking with the representative of the family run, organic Teatulia, I plan to investigate further. After all, I buy many organic fruits and vegetables, I'm not sure I'm happy about pesticides sprayed on my tea leaves. Teatulia's teas are fresh and clean tasting and are strong without being bitter. I was able to use one of the Earl of Bengal (their Earl Grey) tea bags to make not just one, but a second perfectly well brewed cup of tea. I also tasted the lemongrass herbal tea, which Teatulia suggests you can also use to infuse a pot of rice. The best part about this tea is the company's mission to help raise up the area in which the tea is grown in Bangaladesh.

I also tried out some items I've never seen before such as popped sorghum which looks just like tiny popcorn and tastes just like popcorn but as it's a grain has no kernel to get stuck in your teeth. This was pretty tasty, but I found the tiny, bead-like size a little awkward for eating. I also came across an umami paste made from a tomato base with just about every umami rich food thrown in: mushrooms, anchovies, parmigiano, olives and balsamic vinegar. It was a little fishy when I sampled it plain, but I think it will have a myriad of uses in cooking whenever a dash of fish sauce would come in handy. I added it to a ragu last week to great effect. It's called Taste 5 Umami Paste and is made in Italy for a British food personality, Laura Santtini.

There was a pop-up restaurant powered by Korean chefs at which I received a sample of dried kim chi which can either be reconstituted or crumbled as is. I'm curious to see how it matches up to fresh. Olivia's croutons, which are the house croutons at Fresh Market, which is soon coming to Rockville, were tasty and consist only of the ingredients I use when I make my own. They are made in the barn of a family farm in Vermont. Himalasalt, from Great Barrington, MA, had some beautiful and useful products made from Himalayan Pink Salt.

Some of the foods I liked were international and not yet distributed in the DC area. A company from Italy, called Pedon, is trying to get more distribution in the US for its sodium free, grain, rice and legume mixes. Although I did not have a chance to taste the end product, the packages included quick cooking farro, 5 grain mix and barley with pulses (lentils). I also tasted some delicious soft cheese from Serbia that ranged in creaminess from yogurt-like to fromage blanc to creme fraiche. I tasted an interesting oil, Sacha Vida, from the Sacha Inchi seed from Peru. Supposedly, this oil is as high in Omega-3 as fish oil. Fillette bottled water from Italy tasted much like Pellegrino, but with no sodium. I really liked a new soy and potato pop style chip from France called Too Good! Very lo cal, but I couldn't tell what the sodium content was as it was a French label. I liked both the tomato and herb flavor as well as the bacon flavor. I was surprised at how much I liked a mead (wine made from fermenting honey) from Poland after being very underwhelmed by mead when I tried it in Chinon, France many years ago.

A few very small, new companies had some interesting products to share. A product I really liked was an Ethiopian simmer sauce from Satisfy Your Soul out of Burlington, North Carolina. It had a complex spice without overwhelming with heat. One of my show favorites was Sallie's Greatest Jams from South Carolina. In a hall filled with hundreds of jam purveyors, Sallie's flavor combinations stayed with me. Her use of herbs with each fruit is what I would do if I was more motivated and are just what I like to eat. I particularly liked her strawberry basil which I tasted with some goat cheese. Another new product, Bagel Spice, is basically selling the toppings of an everything bagel in a shaker jar. Very creative and clever, but I'm not sure how much I'd use such a product without an accompanying bagel.

I mostly avoided sweets but the Tate's Bake Shop booth drew me in with its signs advertising its Whole Wheat Dark Chocolate Chip cookie. I've had great success making Kim Boyce's version so I was very interested to try this one. This is not health food by any stretch with its buttery crisp bite, but it is made with the healthier whole wheat and dark chocolate and worth an occasional splurge. Tate's is a shop in Southampton, NY which also sells by mail order.

And, on the completely non-healthy side of things, falling within the category of a deliciousness that should be experienced but a little goes a long way, are 1) Skillet's Bacon Jam bacon spread which was amazing on a cracker with a little Brie and arugula and would be even more amazing on a burger; and 2) Fermin's Jamon Iberico de Belotta which comes from acorn fed black footed pigs from Spain. If you ever have the opportunity, especially for free, just try it!

Amidst all the food there were also a few booths of non-food, but food related products. Paper Chef makes unbleached, compostable parchment paper baking products such as cupcake cups, parchment paper, and pre-made parchment bags, which avoid the need to crimp and twist when cooking in parchment. Toastabag, a completely ingenious product if it works, is a sleeve in which you can make grilled cheese or pizza in a regular slice toaster. Since I just retired my old toaster oven in favor of a slice toaster, I'm very curious to see how these work. Supposedly, each bag can be used up to 50 times and can even be washed in the dishwasher. I'll keep you posted on these as I try them.

As I had other commitments the morning of the last day of the show, I ended up arriving in the afternoon and so, was just leaving as the show ended. I was warmed to see that within minutes of the announcement that the show was officially over, black and white tee shirt clad volunteers from the DC Central Kitchen fanned out through the rows of booths, to collect leftover food. I have since read that they gleaned over 100,000 pounds of usable food that will either be donated to other needy groups or turned into meals for the homeless of DC!

A final note about the above opinions - these are just things that struck my fancy as I wandered through the show. Other than the samples at the show which were available to all attendees, I've received no compensation to provide these opinions. Just my two cents, and mine alone, for anyone who cares to read such a long post!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Gardening and Squash Blossoms

With gardening, as with many things, my reach often exceeds my grasp. I envision a lush, loosely landscaped edible garden just outside my back door, yet the measly effort I end up expending generally leaves me with a half-assed, scraggly imposter. I don't have a brown thumb, exactly, more a lazy thumb with high hopes. I start out with the best of intentions, and I'm great at the obsessive reading and purchasing part of the garden. But once the miasma of humidity and mosquitoes descends on DC like a dust storm in Phoenix it's all I can do to provide a little water first thing in the morning.

I should mention that I do very well with hardy herbs that require little or no human intervention to thrive. I love a plant that demands little of me yet yields great rewards. I've found that sage, thyme, parsley, mint, oregano, marjoram, tarragon and parsley fit the bill in my garden boxes and pots. Most of them survive the winter here quite nicely, sprouting forth again in spring. I added a few new herbs this year, lemon verbena and sorrel, as well as cilantro, epazote and shiso which I'm growing from seed. I'll see if these are as easy to grow as the rest.

This year, my desire for vegetables that I can't easily acquire in a local store or farm stand led me to go beyond the herbs. I bought organic seeds from Baker Creek Heirloom and Johnny's and started them on my kitchen window seat in cow pots. I then bought Smart Pots and a raised bed planter to keep the plants up off the ground.

And so I find myself the caregiver of a tomatillo plant as well as four varieties of tomato. Only time will tell whether these plants are hardy enough to withstand the DC heat and my erratic attention. I suspect I will do a much better job with the fall plants that I've not yet had a chance to traumatize, such as Chinese broccoli, kale and lettuce.

My father-in-law's garden in Western Massachusetts, on the other hand, benefits from the heroic efforts he and his friend, Susan, have been lavishing on the terraced, hillside beds running up to the woods behind the house. When we visited last weekend, we dined on squash, zucchini and lettuce from the garden thanks to their efforts. They also gave us some lettuce and squash and squash blossoms to take home with us.

Squash blossoms are just the sort of thing that brought me to gardening. If you try to buy them in a farm market the price is ridiculous. Yet, if you have just a few backyard plants, or your father-in-law does, you have more than you know what to do with. They are irresistible with their saffron hued, trumpet like flare and subtle, yet delicious flavor.

Yesterday, I spent a chunk of the afternoon thinking about what I'd make with the squash blossoms, never considering that I could have spent some of that time taking care of my lagging San Marzano tomatoes. One of the most popular preparations is to stuff them with a mixture of ricotta cheese and herbs, then bread and deep fry the blossoms. While I love them this way, I don't deep fry. Sara Jenkins has a recipe in her Olives and Oranges in which the stuffed blossoms are simmered in tomato sauce, and though this sounds delicious, it just didn't speak to me yesterday. Plus, I had no ricotta cheese. And, as we'd had eggs a couple of nights earlier, I also crossed a frittata off my mental list.

Finally, I decided on risotto to accompany the rockfish I'd bought earlier in the day, but rather than use rice, I thought farro would make a hearty complement to the squash and fish. As I had a load of blossoms and only a few little sprouts of baby squash, I added some shelled peas to the mix. I used a basic risotto style to cook the dish, though I have found with farro that it is better to add most of the stock at once rather than in the cupfuls as you would with a regular risotto.

Farro and Squash Blossom Risotto (or Farrotto)

(serves 3 - 4 as a side dish)

1 - 2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 fat shallot or 2 smaller ones, minced
1 nice sized clove of garlic, minced (I had some green garlic so used that this time)
1 small zucchini or yellow summer squash, diced small (or two if you'd rather omit the peas)
1 cup semi-pearled, or perlato, farro
1/3 cup dry white wine
3 cups homemade or no or low sodium chicken stock or broth
1/2 cup shelled peas, from about a quarter of a pound fresh peas in the shell
1 Tablespoon unsalted butter
about 2 ounces of squash blossoms, cut in a chiffonade, reserve a pinch or two for garnish
1/4 cup basil cut in a chiffonade, reserve a pinch or two for garnish
1/2 cup shredded or shaved Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, reserve a pinch or two for garnish
salt and pepper to taste

1. In a sauce pan, bring stock to a simmer.

2. Heat a small Dutch oven or high sided skillet (not non-stick!) over medium heat and add the oil.

3. Cook the shallot for a couple of minutes over medium heat until it starts to soften and become translucent. Add a pinch of salt and a grind or two of black pepper and mix. Add the garlic and zucchini or squash and cook another minute or two, stirring often.

4. Add the farro and stir to let all the farro get a little coated with the oil.

5. Add the wine and raise heat so that the wine simmers in the pan. Mix.

6. When the wine has cooked off, add 1 cup of the stock to the farro pan. Add another pinch of salt and grind of pepper. Make sure the stock comes to a high simmer - not quite a boil, but a good bit of bubbling. Stir often until the stock cooks down and the pan is almost dry. Then add the rest of the stock and let it bubble, stirring often, until about two thirds of the liquid cooks down. At this point, add the peas and stir again. This step should take about 20 minutes.

7. When the liquid is just a think coating on the pan, lower the heat to low, and swirl in the butter.

8. When the butter is fully incorporated, add the squash blossoms and basil and mix gently.

9. Add the cheese and continue to mix gently. Taste and add more salt and pepper to taste, if you like.

10. Arrange in serving bowl with the remainder of the squash blossoms, basil and cheese on top.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Strawberry Rhubarb Refrigerator Jam

I'm typing fast here as I can feel the rhubarb and strawberries slipping away. There are thousands of strawberry rhubarb jams out there and I never thought I'd be one to add to the morass, but this is so easy to make and the taste rewards are manifold.

I'm getting braver, really I am. Thanks to Mrs. Wheelbarrow, the queen of canning, and her calm guidance at canning events, I know I could have processed this jam and had strawberry rhubarb jam year round. But it was such a small batch that I knew we'd go through it quickly enough that I could just put it in the refrigerator. So I did. And so you can too! This type of jam, especially on this small scale need not intimidate. In fact, it's so easy that it's a shame not to do it when the fruit is at its peak.

I saw some rhubarb and strawberries at the farm stand on Saturday and quickly decided to go for one last batch. I'd canned several different combinations of rhubarb products at a DC food52 rhubarb canning event hosted by Cathy Barrow, aka Mrs. Wheelbarrow, a couple of weeks ago (pickle, chutney, preserves) so I guess I was feeling bold. But the recipe I located called for 2 pounds of strawberries and I was just shy of one. When I couldn't find any more on Sunday morning, I adapted the recipe to fit what I had - an almost even amount of rhubarb and strawberries.

This smaller batch size was actually perfect for refrigerator jam, as it yielded about 2 pints which I put into 1 pint jar and 2 half pint jars. The jars you use do not need to be canning jars, as you won't be processing them. However, you'll want them really clean so run them through the dishwasher and turn them upside down on a clean paper towel or dish towel to drain. Then dry them thoroughly with a clean towel.

I added a little sprig of the lemon verbena I have growing in my garden which I've seen Cathy do to add a little different type of lemony flavor. And, I added crystallized ginger, in part because I love the zingy taste of ginger, and in part, because I thought that the little extra sweetener on the ginger would be fine in this not-too-sweet recipe.

This is a lovely jam, not too tart, and not too sweet. I have had it on toast and plan to serve it with some brioche French toast tomorrow morning. I'm also looking forward to trying a couple of spoonfuls into my morning yogurt as well.

If you move quickly, you might still find some rhubarb and berries around. You don't need much!

Rhubarb Strawberry Jam

(adapted from

makes approximately two pints

1 pound rhubarb, washed, ends trimmed and cut into about 1/2 inch slices. With really fat stalks, halve lengthwise, then make your horizontal cuts.

2/3 cup water

1 pound strawberries, washed, hulled, and cut into half or quarters depending on size. I keep the really tiny ones whole. These are really nice to find in your jam

1 1/3 cups sugar (I generally use natural cane sugar, but white is perfectly fine)

juice and zest of one lemon

pinch salt

1 sprig lemon verbena, about 6 inches long (if you have one growing - otherwise omit! I admit to growing this just for this jam!)

1/4 cup crystallized ginger bits, cut if they are not the pellet type

1. Place rhubarb pieces and water in a soup pot and bring to a boil. Once boiling, stir and reduce to a simmer. Let the rhubarb simmer for about 15 minutes until it softens. Mix occasionally.

2. Add the strawberries, lemon juice and zest, sugar, salt, and lemon verbena and bring it back to a boil, and lower to medium heat to let it bubble lightly for about 5 minutes then add the ginger.

3. Let it bubble about another 15 minutes, mixing occasionally, or until the jam thickens enough that when you drag your spoon through the mix, you can see the bottom of the pot, briefly, as the spoon pulls through.

4. When thick enough, turn off the heat under the pan and skim off any foam on top and remove the lemon verbena.

5. Let the jam cool for about five minutes in the pot, then fill your cleaned jars. Wipe the outside of the jars with a clean, damp cloth to remove drips. Let cool for an hour or so and refrigerate.

6. Keep refrigerated between uses!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

We Hardly Knew Ye, Trader Joe

Yesterday I retweeted an article written by Barry Estabrook called The Profound Impact of a Penny. I'm not so naive as to think it was a coincidence that the publication of this article on occurred on the official release date of Mr. Estabrook's book, Tomatoland, but it is persuasive and disturbing nonetheless. This is an issue that has been festering for years, and only upon reading this article yesterday did I realize how close to home it is hitting.

To backtrack a little, Barry Estabrook has written numerous articles (check out the one that ran in Gourmet before its demise) and devoted a large portion of his book (haven't read it yet, but have it on the list to read shortly) to exposing the abuses of farm workers working for commercial tomato farms in Immokalee, FL. This subject was front and center at the Washington Post's Future of Food conference in April. Eric Schlosser referenced the harm pesticides do to farm workers and the co-founders of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) sat on a panel about the impact of food and our current food system on ordinary people. Mark Bittman has also written about this issue in the New York Times.

It is well documented that in addition to the hard work, low wages, poor living conditions and potential for pesticide poisoning inherent in most commercial farm work, workers in Immokalee have suffered mightily: children and pregnant women working the pesticide sprayed fields, notoriously pitiful housing and instances of beatings and even slavery. The CIW seemed to have successfully achieved a penny per pound increase in the price paid for tomatoes when the twelve or so companies that grow almost all of Florida's tomatoes (nearly one-third of all tomatoes Americans eat) agreed to pay the penny increase. This amount would increase wages for individual workers from about $50 dollars per day to about $80. However, according to Estabrook, the companies imposed a condition - their customers, supermarkets, food service companies and fast food chains - had to agree to absorb the increase. There's the rub.

It's easy to agree to increase when you're not the one paying it, so the agreement by the tomato companies had no teeth until customers signed on. Apparently, Whole Foods was the lone supermarket assenter when it agreed to the increase. Fast food chains and food service companies supplying colleges, museums, etc. also signed on. But not Trader Joe's.

Burger King and McDonald's have agreed to pay an extra penny per pound of Florida tomatoes as well as only deal with growers complying with the Fair Food Code of Conduct which provides some basic provisions to protect workers . McDonald's! In 2007! And yet, Trader Joe's seems to be hiding behind legalese, suggesting that the agreement is "overreaching, ambiguous and improper."

Not one to take all journalism at face value, I headed over to the Trader Joe's website to read its corporate response for myself. I'm a licensed, though no longer practicing attorney and a reasonably well-educated person and I found its May 11, 2011 letter "To Our Valued Customers" difficult to decipher. What I could follow seemed unduly nitpicky and suggest that they want their wholesalers to absorb the cost and not have to think about it at all. the entire tenor of the letter smacks of a lawyer's keyboard. It is rife with language like "poorly conceived" and "improper on its face." It shouldn't be this complicated. If the company truly supported the rights and needs of these workers, its representatives could work out the issues on specific language of the agreement. Lawyers dealing with contracts do it all the time - I know, I was one. Why can't they get to yes?

Trader Joe's is not the only grocery store to fail to sign the agreement with the CIW. Most of the large chains have refrained as well. So why am I so distressed by Trader Giotto? Perhaps it's the friendly demeanor they cultivate in their staff. Or, maybe I've been suckered by the overall marketing scheme and feel betrayed. Or maybe, because I don't shop much at any other chain and I really like some of their products.

I shouldn't be completely surprised. In the early years of the trans fat revelations, I learned the hard way that just because Trader Joe's seems so homey and health conscious that it had not banned trans fat from it's shelves. I still had to read the individual labels to insure that there was no trans fat. Seeming health conscious, down home and friendly is a marketing ploy; there's a big difference between wood panelling and Hawaiian shirts and an actual commitment to bettering the world.

What to do about this stand-off? While I generally don't buy off season tomatoes and do most of my produce shopping at farm markets, I do buy some and I do spend a good portion of our food budget at Trader Joe's. Should I immediately stop shopping there? Should I send a letter to their management? Both? Neither?

I don't want to suggest to anyone else what to do either, as I'm still so confused. I'm allowing for the possibility that there is actually more to the story than the CIW says and that the Trader Joe's just didn't explain itself well enough. I want to do some more research and read some more about this issue. I hope you will, too, and let me know what you think. And I will write a letter to the management and see what the response is. And, I'll hope that Trader Joe's comes around.

Although I'm trying to take a little time and not rush to judgement here, I think I do know, deep down, what I have to do. The bottom line is that it is only one cent per pound. And McDonald's, McDonald's of the subliminal marketing to children and questionable meat-like substances, with customers who likely wouldn't care it they didn't come to terms with the CIW, has agreed to this.

Why oh why, Trader Joe's?

Monday, June 6, 2011

Thai Curry Noodles and the Body Odd

During my morning surf of the news last Friday, I came across a story on The Body Odd on A new study from Yale University shows that, with regard to weight loss, your state of mind about what you're eating can affect your hunger hormones. In short, the researchers gave two groups of participants the very same vanilla shake. They told one group that the shake was a special non-fat, low calorie diet shake and told the other group that they were receiving an indulgent, high fat treat. What they found was that the ghrelin, our body's hunger hormone, did not go down after the "diet" group finished their shakes, although the ghrelin of the "indulgent" group showed a "dramatically steep decline" after consumption. Since ghrelin is what tells us we're hungry and to eat more, we want it to go down after we eat.

The lead researcher, a clinical psychologist, recommended that "people should still work to eat healthy, but do so in a mindset of indulgence." YES! Scientific support is a beautiful thing.

This is the essence of healthier kitchen. So it's extra fitting that I'm renewing my efforts to provide lighter recipes that will trick us all (me) into feeling indulged. Today, I'm featuring a favorite recipe and lightening it up a little. This one is from food52, posted by thirschfeld, Tom, a prolific, versatile and creative chef, Dad and farmer in Indiana. He's given me permission to mess with his recipe a bit, and make my attempt to lighten it up, while staying true to the essence of his original. Check out his blog, Bona Fide Farm Food, here.

I had made this a couple of times as written, and we all loved it. In fact, Maddy deemed it "restaurant worthy." But (there's always a but), there is too much coconut milk in this recipe for me to make it routinely. My goal was to lighten it with a combination of light coconut milk and regular unsweetened in hopes that the sauce would retain the silkiness that is so appealing about this dish. I know from experience that light coconut milk alone would not be thick and creamy enough. I was also interested to see how much I could pull back on the fish sauce which provides a necessary counterpoint to the creaminess of the coconut milk, although it's high in sodium.

This recipe is everything you want in a home version of an ethnic dish you'd order out. It's slurp-worthy delicious, relatively easy to put together, and now, better for you than its restaurant counterpart. Could a curried noodle dish be even lighter? Yes. Would it still taste so good? In my opinion, probably not. And that matters to me. A lot. While I have to watch the fat and sodium, I've never wanted to reduce them to an amount that would turn our meals, and therefore, our dinner time, into a sepia toned and drab event. I want technicolor to fake out my ghrelin!

As you can see in the photos, I used mussels this time instead of shrimp, just for fun. It was delicious this way as well. In fact, once you've got this sauce down, you could really play with the protein. If you use a little cut up chicken breast instead of shrimp and put a few egg slices on top, it would taste an awful lot like a Burmese dish we devoured in San Francisco last summer. Tofu would work as well.

I also added in some baby Shanghai bok choy that called out to me in the Asian market. Each little cabbage is about three inches long and can remain whole for cooking after a trim of root end. You don't want to cut off much, just about the outer centimeter, as you want the head to stay intact while cooking. This addition turned the noodles into a one-dish meal which I was able to easily accomplish on a weeknight. Thirschfeld recommends a side dish of sauteed Asian greens so I stayed true to his vision. In the fall, I'll be growing some Chinese broccoli and kale as well as tat soi, so if I'm successful, I'll be able to use those when I make this. Pea shoots would also be wonderful! In fact, you could serve bok choy in the dish and sauteed greens or pea shoots alongside for an extra healthy, USDA "plate" acceptable meal.

You could easily make this meal from items available at your regular grocery store or co-op. My local farm stand often has bok choy and sometimes even the miniature baby bok choy, in season. On the other hand, if you have the time and the desire for adventure, head over to your local Asian grocery and explore the produce aisle, pick up your fish sauce and Thai red curry paste and grab a package or two of fresh lo mein noodles from the refrigerator section. In the grocery store, look for Thai Kitchen brand (extra bonus - Eating Well this month reported that Thai Kitchen fish sauce is lower in sodium than some other brands) fish sauce and Thai red curry paste. At an Asian market, my favorite fish sauce is Golden Boy, though I also like Three Crabs.

Thai Curry Noodles with Shrimp

adapted from thirschfeld (Tom Hirschfeld)

(serves 5 or 6)

1 pound lo mein noodles or spaghetti (I use fresh lo mein noodles from the Asian market though you could use whole wheat spaghetti to make it even healthier- you might want to use 1.5 pounds if you use fresh noodles)
3 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
1 Tablespoon Thai red curry paste
1 Tablespoon Madras curry powder (use regular curry powder if you don't have Madras). This should be salt-free.
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon cumin
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
1-1/2 cups chicken stock or no salt added chicken broth
1 Tablespoon fish sauce, more to taste (I ended up using 2 Tablespoons total)
1 Tablespoon sugar
1 cup unsweetened coconut milk (make sure to shake this really, really well and use a spoon to scoop out into measuring cup)
1 - 14 ounce can light coconut milk
3/4 pound - 1 pound baby bok choy, ends trimmed
1-1/4 pounds shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 Tablespoon fresh lime juice, more to taste
1/3 cup sliced scallions or green onions
1 lime, quartered, for garnish
a few springs of cilantro, roughly chopped
little sprinkle fried shallots (optional - available at Asian markets)
2 Tablespoons roughly chopped Thai basil (optional - also available at Asian markets)

1. Cook noodles according to package directions. Drain and let cool.

2. In a small bowl, combine the garlic, Thai red curry paste, curry powder, turmeric and cumin.

3. Heat a large pot over medium high heat. Add 2 Tablespoons of oil to the pot. Add garlic and spice combination from the small bowl. Mix the spices around and let them cook just until fragrant, a couple of minutes.

4. Add the stock, fish sauce, sugar and coconut milks. Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer. Simmer for about 20 minutes to let flavors meld.

5. Add the bok choy and let cook for two to three minutes, then add the shrimp and let them cook until almost done, about 4 minutes.

6. Add the lime juice. Mix and bring the sauce back up to a boil and then turn back to simmer.

7. At this point, taste the sauce and if it seems a little flat or in need of salt, add another teaspoon or two (or three) of fish sauce and mix in.

8. Add noodles into pot to rewarm and mix well.

9. Serve topped with scallions/green onions, Thai basil, cilantro, and fried shallots if you like. Serve with lime wedges.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

In Case You Plan to Grill Out This Weekend

The weather forecast for the weekend here in DC includes thunderstorms almost every day. Last night, I used a grill pan for these turkey burgers to avoid getting caught out in the storm which started, no joke, as my husband ran into the house after returning from a business trip. The rain was, literally, "on his heels," chasing him into the house through the murky dusk.

I am hoping to use the grill at least once this weekend, though. We have a Weber kettle grill with a chimney starter so grilling is not something we do on a weeknight or on a whim. It requires some time and planning and half way decent weather. This weekend, I was planning to grill a flank steak, but after the ones at Whole Foods were not grass fed and were $14.99 per pound, I ended up buying a skirt steak. As I wanted meat from a locally raised, grass fed cow, my options were limited but if that's not your issue, they had flank, flap, and flatiron steaks that would all work well for this. Unfortunately, my busy schedule lately has caused me to miss many of my usual farm stand haunts so I'm scrambling a bit and using the grocery stores a little more than usual.

This is an easy marinade with a Latin American feel. I like to grill a larger steak than I need (or even two) so that I'll have leftovers for another day. By making it yourself, you can control the sodium, which can be very high in commercial brands. There's a little kick to the marinade thanks to the chipotle pepper, which you can play with to your taste. If you like less heat, choose a smaller pepper from the can or use half. If you like a lot of heat, use two! Save the rest of the can of chiles for the next time or for chili. They keep in a sealed container in the refrigerator for quite a long time and are easily available in most grocery stores.

If you want to emphasize the Latin flavors, serve with warmed tortillas, beans and rice, avocado slices, grilled onions and peppers, tomatoes and cheese for toppings. A green salad rounds out the meal. If it's for a party, you could even serve some spicy grilled shrimp as an appetizer. Here's a great recipe. Then, all you'll need is some chilled and slightly fizzy vinho verde, beer or sangria and your party will be complete!

The marinade is versatile enough, though, that you are not limited - try it with some potatoes, or other veggies on the side! I sometimes serve it with my olive oil potato salad and some mayo free slaw.

Mojo Criollo

(makes enough marinade for a steak for 4 people or about 1 smallish cut up chicken)

juice of 1/2 orange
juice of 1 lime (if the lime is particularly dry, use an extra half)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
1 canned chipotle chile in adobo sauce (just one chili, not one can), minced with a little of the sauce
1 tablespoon cilantro, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon cumin powder
pinch or two of salt

Mix all the ingredients together in a bowl and use to marinate a flank, flatiron, or hangar type steak or chicken. Marinate several hours and then grill. These thinner cuts grill quickly so keep an eye on it. On a charcoal grill, I might only grill for a few minutes on each side to sear and then move the steak to the other side of the grill and close the lid for another few minutes of indirect heat. I like to throw the meat into the marinade in the morning and then it's all ready to go at dinner time.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Why I Love Wednesdays

After hearing from many friends that they only read the newspaper online or on an ipad, I'm beginning to think my Wednesday morning ritual is not of this century. Most mornings I begin my day online with news, email, my blog roll, Food News Journal and now Twitter, as well. I then quickly review two daily newspapers and move on with my day. Not so on Wednesday, hump day. On Wednesdays I slow down a little to savor the food sections of the print versions of the NY Times and Washington Post.

While I can (and do) read much of my food news online, I love the ritual of sitting at the kitchen counter with the newspapers spread open in front of me, milky cup of Taylors of Harrogate Afternoon Darjeeling - yes, in the morning - in hand. I page through the News, Style, Arts, and then settle in for my reward, the food sections. It's a perfect opportunity to leave my oven on a very low heat to make some dehydrated style kale chips and to slow roast some off-season grape tomatoes for tonight's dinner.

It's late spring days like this that I miss having a screen porch, because that would only augment the experience. It's still cool enough in the morning to sit outside with a warm drink and not break a sweat, which anyone in DC can tell you will occur soon enough. There's still a sweet morning dewy smell to the air and you can feel the grit of fallen pollen on the soles of your bare feet. Later in the day, if it's anything like yesterday, the air will get heavy with the ever impending rainstorm and the outside get much less welcoming to a weather migraine sufferer like me.

Today's Post yielded stories about a barbecue sauce contest and a small review about a new Jamaican place in Silver Spring that Tom Sietsema says has the best jerk chicken in the area since Fish, Wings and Tings. Anyone remember that place in Adams Morgan? The New York Times' Sam Sifton took me to London's newest restaurants and even mentioned a gluten-free shop in NY.

Does anyone else still read the printed newspaper?

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Eat Write Retreat! and Where to Go From Here

Earlier this spring, I heard about a new food blogging conference right here in DC, called Eat Write Retreat! Note: the exclamation point is part of the name. I've got no recollection of where I first saw the link to their website, but I did, and the schedule of presenters and activities made it clear that it would be a great conference for me to attend.

But, as is typical for me, I spent weeks wavering over whether to enroll. The expense wasn't outrageous, but enough to make me really ponder whether this would be worth it for me. After all, I have a small blog, only a couple of dozen followers and another few dozen regular readers. I occasionally get comments, often via email or Facebook rather than on the blog itself, as most of my readers seem more comfortable navigating in those media. The ones I love are about the recipes - the ones that tell me that I am achieving my goal, in some small way, of helping people make it easier to cook at home. For me, it's always been about the recipes, the writing, and the hope that what I put out there helps someone. I'm working on the photos.

I would not have even considered a larger conference but this one seemed warm and friendly and most of all, small. So why hesitate? I guess I waffled on the conference because I temporarily lost sight of my goals and my vision. I started to equate success of the blog with growth and popularity and worried that without a larger following, my little blog wasn't worthy of more public scrutiny. And maybe I still worry about that even after attending Eat Write Retreat! and hearing from other bloggers about klout scores and followers, discussing SEO (Search Engine Optimization), and even more shockingly, starting to Tweet. But mostly, I'm glad I attended because this conference has helped me to find my voice again.

When I say "voice" I don't mean it only in the writer's sense of the word. I truly mean my ability to articulate to people, verbally as well as in writing, why I do this, and what my blog is really about. Because at its essence, it's an exploration for me as well as a conduit to bring what I find to others and hopefully, help them as well. And most of all, it honors my sister who always supported my cooking and was all over social media before it was even a term. So, via this conference, I realized that I do this because I have to. Because some force impels me into new stores and markets, compels me to read yet another cookbook or food magazine, come up with some new ideas and takes my hand and causes me to write about it all probably more than anyone cares to read.

Now, sitting at home trying to digest all that I learned, felt, absorbed, thought this past weekend, a little distance allows me to appreciate why this conference was so helpful to me. Sure, there was some amount of adrenaline in the room coursing as a result of the sheer star power aligned with the event. But most importantly, the presenters shared their humanity with us. These are all food lovers who pursued a path they love, not to chase success, but to do what felt real for them. Yes, there was a session about the practicalities of blogging and PR, marketing and those sorts of business-side issues, all aspects of this world that still feel foreign to me. Regardless, I left with a strong sense of self and a new found focus to persist at this even if I only reach a few people. If friends continue to tell me that their kids love my muesli, or chicken, or were moved, even a little, by my passion about sustainability and healthy food then it doesn't matter that I am not a viral sensation and that I had to use Google to find out what a klout score is.

So, many thanks to all the presenters for sharing their expertise and perspectives with us and especially to the bloggers who shared so freely of themselves and their journeys. Casey and Robin, you put together such amazing panels, great sponsors and such a fabulous community of support - can't wait until next year!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Maddy's Morning Smoothie

Weekday mornings around here are a blur of activity and quick transitions in yellowy-lit rooms amid the darkened house. Maddy's bus pulls up a few houses down the street at precisely 6:35 a.m., so all is based on her getting down the hill on time.

Breakfast is from 6:18 until 6:25 for her, so we make it light, quick and healthy. Often, in warmer weather, I make her a smoothie so that she has a good hit of protein to start her day. These can be made a number of different ways, but this is our fall back, basic recipe. The first step is keeping a supply of frozen bananas. Whenever a banana is a little overripe and I don't have enough for banana bread, I peel and freeze it broken up into halves or thirds, depending on size. I keep a plastic zip top bag in the freezer with these bits, ready to use at 6:15 in the morning.

For the rest of the fruit, you can either freeze your own fruit or buy frozen fruit. We particularly like strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and mango. You can also omit the banana and double up on the other fruit. Using frozen fruit gives the smoothie its thick, satisfying consistency, while the yogurt and milk add protein. I like to use agave nectar as the liquid is easy to work with here.

Strawberry-Banana Smoothie

(serves 1 -2)

1 cup skim milk
1/3 cup nonfat Greek yogurt
approximately half a frozen banana
about 1/2 cup frozen strawberries (or you can use raspberries or blueberries)
1 - 2 tablespoons agave nectar (add one and then taste - fruit varies in sweetness. One tablespoon is often plenty)

Put all of the above ingredients into a blender and blend until smooth. This makes a little more than 2 cups of smoothie, which can either serve one in a really large glass, or two smaller glasses. Serve with a straw and a spoon.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Wheatberry Salad

At last week's Future of Food conference, one component of our delicious lunch was a wheatberry and apple salad. It reminded me quite a lot of a salad I had created for a food52 contest and was inspired by a sweet and salty tapa at Jose Andres' (last night's James Beard award winner!) Jaleo, which is simply matchsticks of green apple and manchego cheese in a vinaigrette.

This makes a hearty meatless lunch or dinner, and if you omit the cheese, could be a lovely salad alongside some chicken apple sausage or a bit of fish, pork or chicken.

Wheatberry Salad with Apples and Manchego

(Serves 4 - 6 as a side dish, 3 or 4 as a light lunch)

1 cup wheatberries
3 tablespoons sherry vinegar
1 1/2 teaspoon whole grain mustard
1 1/2 teaspoons honey
1/4 teaspoon Spanish smoked paprika (pimenton de la Vera)
couple of pinches salt, plus more to taste
couple of grinds black pepper, plus more to taste
1/4 cup olive oil
1/3 cup diced red onion
1 - 1 1/2 tart apples. Granny Smith are fine, but Suncrisp would be stellar
1/3 to 1/2 pound Manchego cheese
2 -3 ounces arugula
1/3 cup dried, tart cherries, roughly chopped if particularly large

1. Soak the wheatberries overnight in water to cover by a couple of inches. When you're ready to cook them, drain and place in a medium to large saucepan with three cups of water. Bring to a boil and then simmer for anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes. Begin checking them at 30 minutes - you want to see the endosperm appear at one end and they should be a little chewy but not tough. Drain the wheatberries and then immediately place back into the hot pan and cover and let steam off the heat for another ten minutes. Transfer cooked wheatberries into a medium sized bowl.

2. In a small bowl, add the ingredients from the vinegar through the salt and pepper and whisk to combine. Then stream in the olive oil while whisking

3. Add the red onion into the vinaigrette and stir a little so that the onions are submerged.

4. Peel, core and dice the apple and add to the wheatberries.

5. Dice up the Manchego cheese and add that to the bowl as well.

6. Pour the vinaigrette over the wheatberry/apple/Manchego mix in the bowl and stir to coat all the ingredients. Check for salt and pepper.

7. Either individually plate or serve over bed of arugula. Garnish with the dried cherries.

Prince Charles and Laurie David in One Room with an Array of Notable Food Experts

The past is a funny thing. I'm not a huge follower of the British royals, but I've definitely been aware of a few of their goings on over the years. Although I don't have any recollection of actually watching Diana and Charles' wedding in 1981, I do remember her dress, as well as media reports of the hollow nature of their marriage soon after. I guess watching William and Kate's wedding last week with my teenaged daughter reminded me of watching that earlier wedding as a teenager myself.

I certainly didn't expect my reaction when I heard that Prince Charles was going to be the keynote speaker at the Washington Post Live's Future of Food conference last week. My first thought had nothing to do with his commitment to sustainable agriculture, which is long-standing and seems heartfelt and sincere. I just couldn't get those images of Diana's sad face out of my mind.

Once he started his speech, though, his thoughtful words about the practicality and economics of sustainable agriculture and his engaging delivery made me forget about his personal life. He spoke for 40 minutes or so, giving a focused, well crafted and calmly passionate speech. You can see the transcript of his speech here if you're interested.

He wasn't alone. The lineup of speakers and panelists was thrilling: Eric Schlosser, Wendell Berry, Marion Nestle, Will Allen, Sam Kass, Dan Barber, Angela Glover Blackwell, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, as well as other CEOs, writers, activists, policy makers, policitians and thinkers. I had not heard of her before, but was just wowed by Debra Eschmeyer, a relatively young and totally impressive woman who founded FoodCorps and is the outreach director of the National Farm to School Network in addition to working her own organic farm. While there were representatives of food corporations, most that participated have already added healthier food initiatives into their structure. According to Eric Schlosser, most corporations declined to participate. Congratulations to Susan Crockett who gamely represented General Mills.

Two of the panelists were the founders of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which successfully achieved a one cent per pound increase in pay for migrant tomato pickers in that area of Florida. They had a lot to say about the poor working conditions for the agriculture workers and how that small increase in pay makes such a difference. We also heard from Eric Schlosser about the dangers of pesticides, not just to us as consumers, but to the farm workers on regular commercial farms who are in contact with contaminated soil every day. If you are interested in learning more about the tomato workers, the amazing Barry Estabrook (recent recipient of a James Beard award - too bad he wasn't speaking at the conference too!) has written a soon to be released book called Tomatoland on the subject. You can also see his articles on the subject here.

Even the lunch made a statement. As we entered the room, somewhat reminiscent of the dining set up at Hogwarts with four long tables, we were asked by greeters to file in, remaining in the line we were in and seat ourselves along one side of the table in that order. This made for a pleasant way to avoid the awkward need to find a place to sit when attending a conference solo. The greeters and servers were a mix of volunteers and participants in DC Central Kitchen's restaurant training program. At my place setting was a napkin holder decorated by Raquel, a third grade student at one of the DC public schools participating in a healthy food and ecology curriculum being piloted by FarmtoDesk and funded by Kaiser Permanente.

The meal was composed entirely of local organic foods from farms and producers within 200 miles of DC. Everything was served family style, which was another nice way to meet the people seated nearby. We enjoyed two salads to start: a crab salad over greens and a wheatberry and apple salad over arugula. On the table was a cheese board with three cheeses, Damson plum jam and a local honey, along with some artisanal crackers. While we joked that a crisp white wine would be a perfect addition, we happily substituted strawberry agua fresca with mint. We were all a bit surprised when the next course arrived, as we thought the salads and cheeses were the lunch. We then had lamb kabobs with flat bread and tzatziki, cannellini beans with kale and hen of the woods mushrooms and asparagus with sorrel. Strawberry rhubarb cobbler with whipped cream followed for dessert. Did I mention this conference was free?

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack was the previously unannounced afternoon keynote speaker, cutting short a very interesting panel with Marion Nestle on Health and Nutrition. He was very generous with both his time and opinions, some of which were not terribly popular in this crowd. Although he's taken some positive steps in attempts to improve school lunches and get fresh fruits and vegetables to more people in areas that have been under supplied, his support of genetically modified alfalfa and grains and failure to eliminate hormones in livestock are opposed to the general opinions in the sustainable agriculture philosophy. Hollywood activist, Laurie David, questioned him from the audience on the issue of why we are still allowing healthy animals to be injected with antibiotics.

Marion Nestle later stated on her blog that the sustainable food movement is now mainstream. There certainly is momentum and energy fueled by these great thinkers and activists who've been writing and lobbying on these issues for years and given a hit of a double espresso by Michelle Obama's healthy food and living initiatives.

One major theme that I took away from this conference is the importance of cooking at home, and the need to bring healthy, clean foods as well as cooking knowledge to the poor and people of color.

I'm still trying to figure out my role in all this. I'd like to play a part somehow, but haven't yet found the right niche. For now, I'd be content to know that I helped one or two of you make the task of cooking a family meal a little bit easier.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Meatless Monday and Fewer Calories

I think you should make this soup. I really do. It's delicious, hearty, and healthy - perfect for a meatless Monday dinner. And now, thanks to the New York Times, we know that it helps reduce calories. Who knew that cayenne pepper could be an appetite suppressant. Read all about it here.

I checked back in the New York Times cookbook for the original recipe and found that I liked Louisa's changes quite alot. Call it a soup or call it a ragout, doesn't matter. Either way, it's spicy and terribly appealing. I cut back the cayenne a little, but after reading the Times, I'd keep it in if you can handle it!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

New Features!

Hold onto your hats, people! After two years of stasis, I've added some new features to the blog! You can now request an email notification of my new posts. If you click on the gadget to the right and enter your email address, after entering some gibberish to prove you are not a computer, you'll be set up to receive emails when I post. To quote Ina Garten "how great is that?"

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

When Is a Calorie Not a Calorie?

Here are a couple of shots of some of my seedlings! I am experimenting with a garden in a raised bed planter as well as some tomato grow bags and pots of herbs. I've had an herb garden for years, but gave up on growing tomatoes after a couple of unsuccessful attempts some years back.

This year, I'm newly motivated. I'm using raised beds to keep the rabbits out of the lettuce and herbs that they love. In a few weeks I'll try transplanting some of the tomato (and tomatillo!) seedlings outside in grow bags and add epazote, shiso, lemon balm and chervil to my already extensive herb garden. I've also got several types of lettuce going for the spring along with arugula and tatsoi. In

Just thought I'd share this tidbit from Cooking Light magazine: all calories are not equal. While cutting back on calories but eating only snack cakes will cause you to lose weight, as shown when a nutrition professor ate only snack cakes for two months and lost 27 pounds, new studies seem to show that the body burns calories from whole foods more efficiently than it does processed foods.

According to a study in Food & Nutrition Research, the rise in metabolism from the body digesting whole foods can account for 10% of the amount of calories burned a day by a typical person. Eating whole, unprocessed foods actually cause you to burn more energy - I love it!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Don't Fear the Sardine

I am here to tell you that you, too can eat these little fish so rich in Omega-3s! I have long known that sardines are wildly good for you and are neither high in mercury nor over fished, to boot. I've even eaten them in restaurants, in Spain and here in DC, at a Portuguese restaurant. Nonetheless, those little tins that I bought with the best of intentions have been lurking in the pantry simultaneously scaring the hell out of me and chastising me as I reach in for a can of tuna.

No more! Even after a recent winning recipe on Food52 featured a recipe for sardines and fennel with tomato, I was still skeptical about how such a recipe would be received by my family. Then I sampled a pasta with sardines in a tomato sauce at our local organic market, offered to entice shoppers to purchase Wild Planet sardines in olive oil for $2 and change per tin. One quick taste made me realize that this was much milder than I ever imagined. I bought two tins to add to my collection and grabbed a copy of the recipe the store was offering. I left the store unsure if or when I'd use them and wondered if those cans would turn in additional pantry hobgoblins.

Well, opportunity knocked that very night. The timing for driving Maddy home from a party, and our desire to watch our Netflix movie instead of letting it sit around for the usual month or two led us to decide that we should eat in. Pantry dinner to the rescue! I quickly came up with a recipe building on those Fortuna (please, please, let someone get this reference) had bestowed on me, but staying true to neither. Both Paul and I liked this one, really. It wasn't as fishy or as salty as he feared.

This is a sort of quickie version of a popular Sicilian dish. This time, due to the last minute nature of my decision to make this, the only fresh ingredients I added were some lemon, garlic and a little parsley for color. A glass of wine, some salad and this pasta was a perfect last minute dinner.

Sicilian Style Pasta con Sarde (serves 4 - 6)

1 pound fusilli or casarecce pasta (whole wheat would work well here)
2 tins sardines in olive oil (I actually used one oil packed and one tin of water packed which worked well and reduced the oil)
1 -2 tablespoons olive oil
3 - 4 fat cloves garlic, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried basil
1/4 teaspoon Aleppo pepper
2 cups no salt added, strained tomatoes (I use Pomi or bionaturae)
2 tablespoons sun dried tomatoes, diced ( I had some slow roasted cherry tomatoes I'd made for another dish which I used instead - if you'd like to make some, halve the cherry tomatoes and place on a baking sheet. Sprinkle a pinch of salt and pepper over all of the them and throw a couple of springs of fresh thyme over top. Roast at 225 degrees for about three hours. You want them somewhat dry but not completely desiccated)
juice of 1/2 medium to large lemon
salt, to taste
3 tablespoons breadcrumbs (I use whole wheat, usually homemade which I keep stored in a Ziploc in the freezer)
2 -3 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped

1. Put up water for the pasta and when boiling, prepare pasta according to package directions. When you drain the pasta, reserve about 1/2 cup to use in the sauce.
2. While pasta cooks, heat a high sided saute pan or Dutch oven large enough to hold all the ingredients, over medium heat. Add a tablespoon or two of the oil from one of the tins as well as 1 - 2 tablespoons olive oil. Add the garlic and let it soften but not brown.
3. Once the garlic has softened, about a minute or two, add the rest of the oil and sardines from first tin to pan. Drain the second tin and add that those sardines as well. Break up the sardines a bit.
4. Add the tomato paste and mix it in. Add the oregano, basil and Aleppo pepper as well, and let the mixture cook for another minute or two.
5. Add in the strained tomatoes, sun dried tomatoes and lemon juice and let mixture simmer for about 10 - 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Taste sauce for salt and add a couple of pinches, if needed.
6. In a small skillet, toast breadcrumbs in 1 tablespoon olive oil until lightly browned. mixing often. Set aside.
7. When pasta is cooked and drained (and you've reserved 1/2 cup of cooking water), add pasta to pan with sauce. Mix so that all the pasta is well coated. If it seems dry, add some of the cooking water, a little at a time until you like the consistency.
8. Off the heat, mix in the bread crumbs and parsley and serve with parmesan cheese.