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 localkitchenblog.com)

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 Zesterdaily.com 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 msnbc.com. 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.