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.