Thursday, August 6, 2009

Lollipops and Beer

While you may hear about how hard it is for small businesses to survive, there is one small business that is never going away: the local liquor store. Why?


Yea, you read that right. Lollipops.

Those of you without kids have probably never noticed the small bucket of DumDums next to the cash register (at every liquor store in Boulder, is it just a Boulder thing?). Even if you have, it probably didn't occur to you that it is a brilliant marketing strategy.

My son was about one when they started asking casually, "Does he want a lollipop? Still a bit young? Maybe next time."

I resisted for a long time. After all, I didn't want him eating candy/corn syrup/anything before dinner. Or worse ... would he know what to do with it? What if he bit the candy off the stick (choking paranoia scene plays in my head).

Around his 2nd birthday, I caved. "He's been so sweet today. Everyone likes a lollipop now and then, it can't hurt anything." Little did I realize how amazing is the memory of a two year old for the taste of lollipops, the word lollipop, the word beer and the direction of the liquor store down the street.

Life has changed a little since then. The first words out of his mouth in the morning are, "Lollipops and beer?" When I pick him up at day care, he doesn't say, "Go home, see daddy?" anymore, but rather "Lollipops and beer?" If we go for a walk, he pulls and pulls on my hand to head towards, you guessed it, Lollipops and Beer.

It's hard enough to resist having a beer on a Tuesday night. It's even harder when your kid has a vested interest in you buying beer. Like I said, brilliant.

It wouldn't be so bad if he didn't say it in public. It's incredibly embarrassing, especially in Boulder. I mean, what kind of parents are we, giving our kid lollipops on a Tuesday night?

Monday, July 27, 2009

I Can't Make Marshmellows

The July Daring Bakers' challenge was hosted by Nicole at Sweet Tooth. She chose Chocolate Covered Marshmallow Cookies and Milan Cookies from pastry chef Gale Gand of the Food Network.

After that intro, you may be wondering why I don't have a mouth-watering picture of chocolate-dipped marshmallow cookies. Or perhaps you were expecting crispy delicate Milanos. The answer is quite simple ... there aren't any.

How exactly did this experiment go down? I decided to go for the harder, more interesting, cookie: the mallows.

I knew things were going awry when I couldn't roll the dough to 1/8 inch. It was warm here, and the dough started to melt. I did improvise my way out of the mess by rolling the sticky dough into logs, freezing and then cutting off thin slices. I have to admit that I was a little puzzled as to how a recipe for approximately two dozen cookies yielded over 100, but I decided to push onward.

The marshmallows. Geez, from reviewing the posted pictures, I must be the only Daring Baker that can't make marshmallows, but there is absolutely no doubt that mine were a failure. When I attempted to mix the hot sugar syrup with softly whipped egg whites, the whole thing immediately deflated, leaving me with a sticky, sugary, egg white mess. This went the only place it could, down the drain.

I debated dipping my tiny, naked cookies in chocolate, but at this point I was batting so low, I thought I probably shouldn't waste the chocolate.

Not every daring challenge can be a success. Maybe next time!

Friday, July 24, 2009

Easy Summer Salad - Peaches, Almonds and Brown Rice

Inspired by the recent Mark Bittman article 101 Simple Salads for the Season, today I invented a summer salad of my own. While I can't remember every combination in Bittman's long list, I'm pretty sure that this combination is original.

Like most experimental successes, this one sprang from a combination of desperation and what meager ingredients I had in the fridge.

Desperation: What to give a two year old for lunch? I know it is a healthy meal, but as a responsible parent, I don't think I should give my son whole wheat penne mixed with chopped tomato and drizzled with olive oil for the 100th time in a row. I'll do rice instead. Now I just need to add something fresh.

What's in the fridge? Peaches from the farmer's market. Hmmm, peaches and rice sound a little weird, but here we go!

By the way, this salad is so easy to make, that I'd recommend waiting to prep the fruit and vegetables until after the rice has cooked. From that point, it should take about 10 minutes.

Peach, Almond and Brown Basmati Rice Salad

  • 1 c. brown basmati rice
  • 2 c. + 2 Tbs. water
  • handful beet greens or other dark greens, washed and thinly sliced
  • 2 spring onions or scallions, washed and thinly sliced
  • handful almonds, toasted in a pan on low heat for a few minutes, then coarsely chopped
  • 2 peaches, diced
  • salt, pepper, white wine vinegar and olive oil, to taste
Bring water to a boil in a small saucepan, add the rice, then cover and reduce the heat to low. Cook for 45 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the rice stand, covered, while you prepare the fruit and vegetables.

Put the sliced greens and onions into the rice pan and re-cover for a few minutes so they wilt.

Add the peaches and almonds to the rice. Drizzle with vinegar and olive oil to taste, then check for salt and pepper.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Daring Bakewell Tart with Fresh Colorado Cherries

The June Daring Bakers' challenge was hosted by Jasmine of Confessions of a Cardamom Addict and Annemarie of Ambrosia and Nectar. They chose a Traditional (UK) Bakewell Tart... er... pudding that was inspired by a rich baking history dating back to the 1800's in England.

Anyone reading this may have noticed that I've been slacking lately. Yes, it's true. Not for lack of wanting to write - I just have other things going on right now, so my cherished blog has taken a back ... burner, you might say. But I am going to try to keep up with one thing - the Daring Cook and Baker challenges. I am always in the kitchen anyway, so I may as well take some input, inspiration and ideas from others instead of always sticking with the usual suspects.

So, I apologize ahead of time if this entry seems like I phoned it in. (Actually my husband took the camera out of town, so I did actually phone it in). Some people might think that shorter entries are better...what do they know.

What was I talking about? That's right, Bakewell Tart. This tart consists of a slightly sweet, shortcrust pastry, spread with a thin layer of jam and topped with a golden puffy layer of frangipane. Check out the hosts' blogs for an interesting history of this dish.

As cherries are in season in Colorado, and delicious right now, I decided to attempt homemade cherry jam. I was a little worried that I didn't have fruit pectin* on hand, a common ingredient in many jams (I read a lot of labels). I decided to risk it and followed a pectin-free recipe on Jasmine's blog for a simple blackberry jam, subbing cherries for the blackberries. Although delicious, the jam unfortunately never set. It would have made a delicious sauce for something else (a frangipane tart, perhaps?)

The frangipane (a sort of dense custard of eggs, powdered sugar, butter and ground almonds) was easy to make and delicious.

The verdict on the crust? Hmm. I must have missed something in the instructions, or my jam (sauce) was simply too wet for the crust, because the cooked tart had a soggy and almost completely uncooked crust, while the frangipane on top was close to overcooked. I think a simple fix for this would be to blind bake the crust before filling and baking again.

But a soggy crust can be ignored - I have suffered through many a mediocre crust before... All in all, I enjoyed this challenge, especially getting to use the seasonal fruit. The almond taste definitely brought out the cherries and vice versa. I will make this again with the blind bake modification. Thanks to Jasmine and Annemarie for a very original suggestion.

* Pectin is a gelling agent that occurs naturally in many fruits (apparently not cherries) and is sold in various extracted forms, usually having been obtained from apples and/or citrus peel.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Vegan Spring Veggie Potstickers

This month's Daring Cooks' challenge was from Jen of use real butter to make Chinese Dumplings from scratch.

I won't go into the ins and outs of how to make the dough, as there is a great blog post here, and it was pretty straightforward. Just mix flour and water, rest, knead, press into balls, and then roll into thin circles. Fill, press edges together, fry in a pan to make potstickers or boil in water. That's it! And it all worked seamlessly. Actually, quite an easy recipe.

So where was the challenge? Well, the recipe allowed you to get quite creative with the filling. The two provided filling recipes were for pork and shrimp filling. Given that I have recently been trying out not eating meat (I haven't had meat in over a month now), I realized that I needed to get a little creative with the filling.

Jen suggested that a good vegetarian filling would be easy to make but gave no recipe, just saying that the veggies would need to be of uniform shape and stick together.

So... I modified the pork recipe by trying to roughly substitute the same amount of stir-fryable vegetables.

Hang on - last minute edit... I got spanked for not giving a shout out to the peeps that consulted, tasted, rolled filled, and ate - Ciaran the Rhymenocerous and Jen the Hiphopopotamus.

Vegan Spring Veggie Potsticker Filling

  • 3 carrots, grated
  • 3 medium turnips, grated
  • 1/4 c. ginger, minced
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 2 spring onions, minced
  • 6 leaves mustard greens, other strong green, or cabbage, minced
  • large handful cilantro, minced
  • 3 Tbs. soy sauce
  • 2 Tbs. sesame oil
  • 1 Tbs. wine rice vinegar
  • 2 Tbs. all-purpose flour
Create dumpling dough according to the following recipe, let rest. Create the filling by mixing together all ingredients listed above. When making the dumplings, use a spoon to scoop filling, pressing filling against side of bowl to drain excess liquid. After filling all the dumplings, you'll have a lot of extra liquid. Use this to create a dipping sauce by adding a few drops of mustard and a little chili paste or cayenne pepper.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

How Many Cookbooks is Too Many?

I believe there comes a time in life when every adult begins to question how much stuff is really necessary for leading a happy life. Obviously you need basic food and shelter, and I'm fortunate enough to have that. I remember a time when that was all I thought I needed. Then you graduate college, get a job, start getting paychecks, and start buying stuff. Car, nicer clothes, house, Kichen Aide mixer (ahhh!). And that's great. But then you hit a point in your life when you start to think about the bigger picture (college education for your son, retirement, paying off your house, traveling, starting your fantasy bakery/vegetarian catering business), and all of the material things seem, well, immaterial. And that's where my family is.

Which is great. Life seems simpler. We're saving money, thinking about the future. And I don't miss the things that used to seem so essential.

Except for one thing - cookbooks. I did pretty well for a while. I think I went almost a year without buying a new one. But recently I'm having a bit of a relapse. For Mother's Day, my husband bought me one I'd been resisting for months (Alice Water's Chez Panisse Vegetables). I figured I probably deserved a little Mother's Day present to myself, so I also bought Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian the same day (awesome). I thought that had done it.

Every time I think I've got enough books, the worst happens, I go to someones house and just happen to see a great looking book lying around in their kitchen. This book is just a little different, has something I haven't quite seen before, and fills me with a yearning that I thought I was over.

How bad is the problem? I've got 39 cookbooks total.

  • Purchased: 18. Ok, maybe 7 of these don't count. They are 7 of a 12 volume Woman's Day series published in 1966 (missing volumes 1, 6, 7, 10, and 11).
  • Gifts: 15. My family is well aware of, and exploits, my addiction.
  • Borrowed: 2
  • Hand me Downs: 2
  • No Idea: 1
  • Loaned out: 1 (I never forget)

Which are my favorites? These are books that make me well up with emotion. If I could only take you by the shoulders, look you in the eye, and passionately tell you about the change in my life brought about by these books. Ahhh, but instead, a list will have to do, in chronological order of impact on my life (anyone seen High Fidelity? )

Am I done? I should be. But there are just a few more. I'm sure that once I get these six, I'll definitely, absolutely, certainly be done.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Crispy, Delicate Apple Strudel

The May Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Linda of make life sweeter! and Courtney of Coco Cooks. They chose Apple Strudel from the recipe book Kaffeehaus: Exquisite Desserts from the Classic Caf├ęs of Vienna, Budapest and Prague by Rick Rodgers.

When I first read the challenge, I couldn't actually remember what a strudel was. Apparently, it consists of a gently spiced apple and raisin filling, rolled in a crispy, flaky dough. As I read further, I thought, "this really IS daring." Instructions like "gently stretch and pull the dough", it "will become too large to hold", and "stretch and pull the dough until it's about 2 feet wide and 3 feet long, it will be tissue thin by this time" were beginning to worry me. Anyone that remembers my many unsuccessful attempts at pie crust probably knows why - a Daring Baker I may be, but a gentle, delicate baker, I am not.

Well, I guess this must have been beginner's luck ... I found the instructions and tips provided by the hosts to be spot on. I had no trouble stretching the dough, and the final product was so thin you could see through it.

This dough seems completely foolproof. It was malleable, elastic and smooth. I can't remember exactly how I did it, and hey, anyone up for some fun should try it out for themselves anyway. All I can say was that it was incredible to work with. I stretched it over my arms, over a counter, moved it around on the sheet I used to cover the counter, lifted, pulled, dangled, swung, and coaxed this dough. It was tactile, experimental but ultimately easy and successful. Like play-dough for food snobs!

And the result was delicious. I simply can't believe such a flaky, buttery dough can be made by hand. Oh yea, the apples inside were pretty good too. For the full recipe, check out either Linda or Courtney's blog above.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Who the heck is Sandra Lee?

So I know it's been a while since I've posted. I've been having writer's block and ok, I guess I have no other excuse. I'm on a short trip to New York with my family for the holiday weekend. JetBlue actually isn't too bad: free DirectTV, most of which I watched without headphones. One Hit Wonders of the 80's on VH1 Classic, that takes me back. Ok, I'll confess that for most of that one, my husband loaned me his headphones. But before that I watched a show, soundless, on the Food Network, that I've never had the privilege of seeing before. I hope that it was the lack of sound, but I fear not. This may be the most revolting show I've ever seen:

Semi-Homemade Cooking with Sandra Lee

At first I didn't notice the "Semi" in front of the name, but as I watched her roll up slices of bologne and shove them into a pile of pre-washed, pre-cut iceburg lettuce, it began to dawn on me. The premise of the show seems to be to buy some packaged stuff at the supermarket, slightly rearrange it on a pretty mint colored platter (hopefully it matches your sweater as hers did) and serve it to your helpless guests. I looked for a link online to this innovative presentation of antipasti. Although, I couldn't find a link to the video, I did find the recipe, and on the way I found another masterpiece...

A summary... Buy chocolate frosting in a can, mix in some powdered sugar, dump spoonfuls of it on a plate, stick it in the fridge and serve this as, you guessed it, chocolate truffles. I'll bet you've never had truffles quite like these.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Fresh Ricotta Gnocchi with Arugula, Pine Nuts and Basil

Am I both a daring baker and a daring cook? A few week's ago, I participated in my first Daring Bakers challenge by making Almond Biscotti and Hazelnut Cheesecake. This month was the inaugural challenge for the new group Daring Cooks. Hosted by Lis and Ivonne, the challenge was to make Ricotta Gnocchi as described in The Zuni Cafe Cookbook.

A quick digression - some of you may be wondering why I do posts on baking and cooking challenges and what these are. They are typically kicked off with a challenge set by a host. The participants then virtually cook (or bake) together by trying the challenge in their own kitchens, spread all over the world, and then blogging about it, although you don't have to be a blogger to take part. At the end of the challenge period, the host will usually post a round up of pictures and links to all of the completed dishes. So why have I been doing these? To meet people by joining in the world community of home cooks, to learn by trying dishes I wouldn't usually make, and to spread the word about my blog, which I hope provides interesting information to people wishing to cook and eat simply, nutritiously and sustainably (just in case you forgot)!

Ok, so back to it. What the heck is ricotta gnocchi? I was sceptical when I initially read the recipe as it sounded like nothing more than shaped and boiled ricotta cheese. Bland tasting at best, completely disastrous at worst. I've had a cheese gnocchi disaster before. We ended up eating a pile of cheese for dinner. Or at least, two bites of one.

Even worse, I was having friends over for dinner on the only night I could make it. I decided to go for it anyway and serve it as a starter - who really cares about starters anyway?

Well, I was pleasantly surprised by both the process and the outcome.

First, I made my own ricotta the night before, which was fun and interesting. In a nutshell, (ok, actually in a pan, not a nutshell) you bring a mixture of whole milk, cream and salt to a simmer. Then add in lemon juice. Briefly stir, let simmer a minute, stir again, let sit a minute, stir again, and then strain through cheesecloth for an hour at room temperature. The result was beautiful. This cheese looked delicate, soft and fresh: much different than the mushy, wet look of store bought ricotta.

Having been forewarned that the ricotta for the gnocchi must be completely drained for about a day, I was careful to give the cheese plenty of room to drain. Rather than using a colander, I spread the cheese in a thin layer over cheesecloth (an old t-shirt actually), put this over a flat splatter guard, and set this over a plate. I folded the t-shirt up over the cheese to protect it from completely drying out. I let the cheese drain over the plate in the fridge overnight. the next day I had my results - the ricotta was dry, but not dried out, and very easy to shape.

To dress and serve it, I thought the cheese flavor and texture would be nicely offset by fresh, crisp flavors. In keeping with my spring mood, I decided to use lemon zest as the primary flavor in the gnocchi and then complimented this with flavors traditionally used with lemon zest: arugula, pine nuts and basil. Kind of a deconstructed pesto.

The result was fabulous. The gnocchi was completely different than anything I've had before. It was like an ultralight, fluffy, fragrant omelet or souffle, with just a hint of lemon. Serving it on a bed of greens provided a textural contrast that prevented the flavor from becoming repetitive. The nuts, basil and a drizzle of olive oil rounded out the flavors.

This is a dish I will make again, especially for a dinner party. With a bit of planning, the whole dish can be prepared ahead of time up to the last cooking step, which only takes a few minutes. It is a substantial and delicious starter, with a uniqueness that makes for interesting conversation.

Fresh Ricotta Gnocchi with Arugula, Pine Nuts and Basil

Makes 40 gnocchi, serves 4-6 entrees or 8 generous starter portions

Fresh Ricotta

  • 2 qt. (1/2 gallon, 1.9 l) whole milk
  • 1 c. (237 ml) whole cream
  • 1/2 tsp. sea salt
  • 3 Tbs. fresh squeezed lemon juice

  • 1 lb (2 cups, 454 grams) ricotta
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 Tbs (1/2 oz) butter
  • 1/2 tsp fine lemon zest
  • 1/2 oz (1/4 c lightly packed) grated Parmigiano Reggiano
  • 1/4 tsp sea salt
  • all-purpose flour for shaping
Final Touches
  • arugula, 1 handful per person (approx. 1/4 lb)
  • 1/2 tsp fine lemon zest
  • 1/4 c pine nuts
  • 2 Tbs basil, finely sliced
  • lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper to taste
  1. The night before, if making fresh ricotta follow instructions on Eggs on Sunday blog. Whether store-bought or fresh, drain the ricotta as described above.
  2. Prep your equipment. Spread a plate with half an inch of all-purpose flour. Put a small pan of salted water on to boil to test the first gnocchi. Sprinkle a baking sheet lightly with flour.
  3. Push the ricotta through a splatter guard or large mesh colander with a wooden spoon (or use a food mill if you have one) to break up any large curds and to lighten the texture of the ricotta.
  4. Using a spatula, thoroughly mix in the eggs, followed by the lemon zest, salt and Parmesan cheese. The mixture should be light, fluffy and completely uniform.
  5. Use two tablespoons (the eating kind, not the measuring kind) to shape the gnocchi. Scoop about a tablespoon of the mixture into one spoon, then remove the excess by scraping the spoon face-down against the edge of the bowl. Using the other spoon, push the dough from the spoon onto the bed of flour. Sprinkle the gnocchi lightly with flour. To perform the final shaping, pick it up with lightly dusted fingers then roll it a little in your palm very gently to close up cracks and smooth edges. This video shows how the originals do it at Zuni Cafe.
  6. To test the first piece, drop it in gently boiling water. From the time it bobs to the surface, cook it for about 4 minutes. It will dramatically puff when it is close to done. Using a slotted spoon, gently lift the gnocchi out of the pan. It's done when it holds it's shape. I was worried about overcooking the gnocchi, thinking that like ravioli it would fall apart if cooked for more than a minute or two. This worked in quite the opposite way, the longer it cooked, the more the egg set the shape. I've read that if the gnocchi still won't hold it's shape, at this point you can add a teaspoon of egg white to the mixture to firm it up.
  7. Once you've verified that the mixture is correct, shape the rest of the gnocchi. You can add more than one piece to the flour at a time, but be sure not to allow them to touch. After shaping each piece, place on the floured baking sheet.
  8. Put the baking sheet in the fridge to rest for at least an hour. I rested mine for about 5 hours with no problem. I covered them in plastic wrap for most of this so that they wouldn't get dried and rubbery, removing the covering an hour before cooking so that any condensation could evaporate. Allow the gnocchi to come back to room temperature before cooking.
  9. Before cooking, prep the rest of the dish. Wash and dry the arugula thoroughly, then dress it in a 1:3 mixture of lemon juice and olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Pile the arugula on individual serving plates. Lightly toast the pine nuts in a small pan on medium low heat for 5 minutes, tossing occasionally to prevent burning.
  10. Just before serving, cook the gnocchi as described in step 6 in a large pot of boiling, salted water. Cook in batches with only enough gnocchi to cover the surface of the water in a single layer.
  11. Drain three or four gnocchi at a time with a slotted spoon, let dry a moment in the spoon and then place gently on the arugula, serving about 5 per person.
  12. Sprinkle with the lemon zest, pine nuts and basil. Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Serve and sit down to enjoy!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Updating Risotto with Whole Grains and Spring Veggies

In my last post, I decided that I was definitely going to branch out from my usual Italian and Irish fare into more diverse, particularly vegetarian, cuisines. Tonight I got the vegetarian part right, not so much the branching out part.

After going to the Farmer's Market last weekend, my fridge is filled with spring onions, garlic, leafy greens and beautiful purple and green asparagus. Whenever asparagus comes in season, I'm inspired to make risotto, that oozing, creamy, silky rice dish that lends itself so well to delicate spring vegetables.

One thing I don't like about risotto, and the main reason I get sick of it as soon as asparagus goes out of season, is that it consists mainly of starchy white rice which leaves me with a heavy, sluggish feeling.

So today, I thought I'd go crazy and try a healthier version using brown rice and pack it with spring veggies. I found myself remembering my brown rice pudding experiment and thinking that this will be a waste of perfectly good vegetables, but I was not to be deterred. We could always order pizza.

The challenge, of course, would be the texture. Risotto is made with very specific types of rice (I usually use arborio) which have a short, plump shape and high starch content. The starch is what creates the oozing texture. The rice is briefly sauteed in a base of fragrant vegetables and olive oil, then cooked slowly by stirring in spoonful after spoonful of stock or water. You're never simmering the rice, but rather stirring the liquid into it, over and over and over. This repeated motion is what draws the starch out of the rice. By the time the rice is cooked through, half of it has dissolved and mixed with the stock to create a thick, flavorful sauce.

The problem with brown rice is twofold. First, the cooking time: risotto takes about 40 minutes, which is about 4 times as long as the same rice would take to cook simmering on the stove. Given that brown rice takes about 45 minutes to cook (at Boulder altitude), this projects to a cooking time of 3 hours, stirring all the while. Hmmm. No wonder I've never seen a recipe for brown rice risotto.

The second problem is the rice bran. I assume that this coating, which gets polished off to create white rice, will probably be a nice layer of protection for the very starches which I want to release.

I decided to ignore the second problem, figuring that if I can at least get the rice to cook, then I'd be left with a soupy stew, which might not taste like risotto, but would be edible.

Back to the first problem. I didn't want to parboil the rice, as I was worried that it would get fluffy before it's time, and therefore I'd miss my starch release window. But I couldn't possibly stir it for three hours. Instead I did a combination stir/simmer method. After sauteing the rice and deglazing the pan, I went about making the risotto as usual, adding a spoonful of stock, stirring it in, adding, stirring, and so on. I did this for about 20 minutes. Next I added a few extra spoonfuls of liquid, stuck the lid on and let it simmer for about 10 minutes. Then I removed the lid and went back to the risotto stirring method for a few minutes. I repeated this process for about an hour.

The resulting texture was not quite as silky as white rice risotto, but it was definitely pleasant and unmistakably risotto. In fact, there was one improvement. Risotto is supposed to be cooked just until the rice has a bit of bite left in it, rather than until mushy. The chewiness of the brown rice enhanced the characteristic contrast between the soft texture of the sauce and the al dente bite of the rice.

One final tip - because this risotto takes much longer to cook than white rice risotto, don't add all of the veggies to the pot at the beginning, or it will end up bland and colorless. Reserve half to add at, or close to, the end. And go crazy with the veggies. I've put the ones that I used here for reference, but this is very specific to produce available in May in Colorado!

Here is my heavily modified recipe, adapted from The Naked Chef, by (my hero, sigh) Jamie Oliver.

Springtime Brown Rice Risotto with Asparagus Serves 4

  • 1 Tbs. olive oil
  • 1 red onion, diced
  • 5 Egyptian bunching onions (or spring onions)
  • 4 stalks celery, finely chopped
  • 1 stalk Elephant garlic (or 2 cloves garlic, minced)
  • 1/2 lb. asparagus
  • 1 1/2 c. short grain brown rice
  • 1/2 c. dry white vermouth
  • 1 quart low (or no) sodium stock (chicken or vegetable) plus extra water
  • 4 Tbs. butter, cut into large chunks
  • 1 large handful grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1 small handful mint, roughly chopped
  • sea salt and fresh ground black pepper

Cut the elephant garlic into thirds crosswise. Save the end third for making stock another time. Finely slice the remaining green and white parts separately. Repeat with the spring onions.

Remove the tough ends from the asparagus by holding both ends and bending until the stalk snaps. Cut the tips from the asparagus. Finely slice the stalks. Blanch the tips for about 30 seconds in rapidly boiling water, then plunge them into ice water to keep them from cooking further. Remove and drain.

Ok, prep time is to cook the risotto!

Heat the olive oil to medium/medium low in a large pan. Add the red onion, white part of the spring onions, the celery, and a large pinch of salt. Sweat them without coloring for about 5 minutes until soft. Add the white part of the garlic and cook for another two minutes.

Turn the heat up a bit, then add the rice. Stir it continuously, so as not to color. After a few minutes, it will look translucent. In a dramatic splash, add the vermouth (see my previous post on how much fun this is), stirring to dissolve all of the delicious vegetable residue from the bottom of the pan.

Once the vermouth is cooked into the rice, add the first spoonful of stock, the sliced asparagus stalks and a pinch of salt. Continue to cook for about an hour using the stir/simmer technique described above. Also, check for seasoning periodically, adding salt and pepper to taste.

When the rice is soft with a slight bite remaining, remove the pan from the heat. Stir in the butter, cheese, green ends of the onions and garlic, the asparagus tips and the mint. Be conservative with the mint - you want just a hint. Leave covered to rest for about five minutes.

Finally, check the texture, adding a little more liquid if necessary, and seasoning. Serve garnished with grated Parmesan and a little more mint. Goes well with a crisp green salad.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Eating Well (and Vegetarian?) in India (Part II)

As promised in my last post, I'd like to do a roundup of my favorite dishes from my recent trip to Pune, in Maharashtra, India.

First and foremost, the sheer selection of vegetarian dishes was incredible. As I've said before, I've struggled with the question of whether to go veg for quite a while, and I pretty much don't eat meat in public anymore unless I know exactly how it was raised. But it is not very easy to eat well and avoid meat here. In recent years, I had thought that eating vegetarian had become easy, especially in Boulder, until I started actually trying to do it. Unless you have an infinite tolerance for cheese quesadillas and iceberg lettuce salads, there isn't much to offer in restaurants. And eating in my house isn't any better. I run out of ideas after about 2 meat free meals per week.

In Pune, it seemed to me that you could eat vegetarian every day for a year and try a different vegetable based dish every day. You definitely don't feel like you're missing out.

A few of my favorites (please forgive my lack of proper names) -

Dal - a soup of yellow lentils that seems to be eaten with most meals. It is significantly better than dal that you get in restaurants here. I am on record as hating lentil soup, and I really liked this.

Okra - a dish of sliced okra, rubbed in some spice and either sauteed or deep fried (I couldn't tell) was juicy, crispy, spicy, sweet and pungent all at once.

Paneer - I tried lots of different curries with paneer (a dry, pressed cottage cheese that has a similar texture to firm tofu). My absolute favorite was one made with coconut milk, spices and almonds. I've never had almonds in a curry before, and now I'm wondering why.

A few observations about grains... given my love of whole wheat bread, I was pleasantly surprised to find that whole wheat flat breads (called roti, I think) were served with all the meals I had. My hotel served breakfast of a flat whole wheat bread, almost like a thicker tortilla, stuffed with a filling which changed each day, from spinach to potato to cauliflower. Tasty, healthy and filling ... this is how I like to start my day.

Not so with the rice though. I didn't come across any brown rice, although white rice was served with every meal.

Finally, after my (attempt at humorous) rant last time about there being no desserts in India, I'll take that back and say that I did have some great desserts, although I was sorely missing a good flaky pastry.

Those doughy balls swimming in sugar syrup that you get in every Indian lunch buffet here? I definitely did not expect to ever like these. They actually have a name (Galub Jamun) and they are actually really, really good. Kind of like a denser, more fragrant version of tiramisu without the marscapone or alcohol.

And my favorite dessert was homemade - a cross between rice pudding, with some spices and grated carrot mixed in. It was delicate and refreshing.

I came away feeling inspired to stray from my typical European cooking style (Italian in summer, Irish in winter!) to experiment with more vegetable-centric cuisines. Any cookbook recommendations out there??

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Eating Well in India

I'm back - just returned from a work trip to Pune, India. I'm still completely exhausted with jet lag but wanted to update before my memory fades. I had absolutely no idea what to expect from this trip. I've heard from my co-workers and other friends who've been there about the infamous heat, traffic, water induced sickness, and culture shock upon seeing some of the poorer areas, so I was prepared to be overwhelmed.

I will admit that I was too busy to get out and see much, so I won't pretend to be an expert on life in Pune. But what I did see I found completely alive and invigorating, especially in comparison to my scenic, but almost sleepy, home in Boulder.

Like many cities, Pune seems like a big jumbled up mess of contrasts. The outskirts are comprised of a giant, very modern, hi-tech park which houses a large percentage of India's IT sector, military bases, mixed in with small, rural villages that have been absorbed into the growing city. I saw a few different areas in the center of the city - one part still had that village feeling but there were high-rise apartment buildings right smack in the middle of it, and pigs, yes pigs, walking down the street. Another downtown sector located near a number of universities seemed cosmopolitan and modern, more similar to a South American city than to it's own outskirts.

Wait, wait, wait ... is this a travel blog or a food blog? That's right, it's food. So what about the food? In my next post, I'll talk about my favorite specific dishes ... before that I'd like to discuss a few interesting things I noticed about eating customs.

This may be a reflection of the fact that I mostly ate out, but I noticed that meals consist of small portions of three or four different dishes rather than one large entree. For instance, at one meal, about eight of us ordered four different dishes. The waiter served each of us a bit of each, occasionally refilling empty portions. I found this nice for two reasons. First, it was more social for everybody to taste and discuss the food together. Second, it was a nice way of eating just the right amount. In American restaurants, I usually find the portions to be just a little too big, so I overeat because I do not like to leave uneaten food on my plate.

I will mention one definite downside - people don't seem to eat much dessert, and what they do eat seems almost healthy, like rice pudding. No chocolate, no cake, no pastries. Geez, the only reason I eat out is so that I can get through dinner to try some new exotic dessert that I don't know how to make at home. In fact, people there tend to avoid many vices common to the American diet, specifically meat, alcohol, and obviously dessert. Perhaps I can understand the avoidance of meat, I struggle with this question myself. Avoiding alcohol I understand less. But dessert? This is a serious cultural shortcoming... life without the occasional well-made pain au chocolate is like life without, umm, life. Although I have noticed that people tend to be a little thinner there. Hmmm....

Finally, my traveling companion and I were treated with incredible generosity, especially with respect to meals. We were invited out for wonderful dinners, including one where we sampled local wine from India's budding wine industry, invited to one family's home for a delicious homemade dinner, and one gentleman even changed important family plans to include us and everyone from the office in these plans. Again, perhaps this was just my specific experience and not an actual cultural difference, but I do have a feeling that Americans are not quite as sociable as some other nationalities. If I compare how we were hosted by our co-workers in India to how we host them when they come to visit, we homebody Americans may suffer in the comparison.

Ok, so you might be getting the feeling that I liked it there. I did. Despite the traffic, which is quite entertaining to the visitor, probably not so entertaining to the daily commuter. It wasn't that hot while I was there. I managed to avoid the water (lips pressed tightly shut in the shower), so I didn't get sick. And I didn't venture far, so wouldn't say I saw a wide cross section of people. Given all of these caveats, I definitely enjoyed the trip.

Check in a few days to see some pictures and descriptions of interesting dishes I tried...

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Check Back Soon

I'm going on hiatus for a week. I'll try to post while I'm away, but if not, please check back in a week for a first-hand report on food in INDIA!!!!

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Henpecked? Ouch (Windsor Dairy Pt. 2)

Last weekend I mentioned that we went to check out the raw milk Windsor Dairy. I didn't go into much depth because there was so much to talk about, I had to control myself and ration it out. This installment? CHICKENS!!!

Why am I devoting yet another blog post to chickens? (see my previous series on free range chickens) I'll just come out and say it ... because they are really weird.

Ok, as I've confessed, I'm a hard-core offspring of suburbia. I have seen maybe a handful of chickens in my life. I've eaten a lot but haven't actually seen them in their feathers.

Windsor Dairy has a few thousand chickens, most of which are wandering around. Around the parking lot, around the road, around my car, chasing my baby, chasing the dog, being chased by the dog. You get the idea, they were everywhere.

The dairy only just started raising chickens recently. They were setting themselves up for raising a much smaller number of two breeds, one egg-laying hen breed and one breed of roasters, when another organic farm turned down an order of 1600 hen chicks. They decided to accept the chicks, leaving them with a serious housing problem.

Ultimately, all of the chickens will be not just free-range but pastured. They will live in portable chicken coops, currently being built, which will be rotated onto pastures recently grazed by cows so that they can clean the field of bugs (attracted by the cow manure) and fertilize the field by scratching the cow and their own manure into the ground. Some time later, the fertilized soil will be covered in new grass, ready for more hungry cows.

Not only will the chickens be providing free labor in the fields, but their eggs and meat will be rich and delicious because their current diet of organic feed will be supplemented heavily by grass and live bugs.

But the chickens aren't quite on the road yet because they need some free-range education.

Apparently, chickens don't automatically know that they need to go back into their coops at night (and if they don't, they're chances of survival are not good). Even chickens in pens have trouble finding their way back at first.

So how are they trained? Initially, they are raised to a certain size in a closed, heated coop. After a little while, they're released into a pen. Later they're released into a larger enclosure, and finally released out onto the farm. The dairy hasn't tried actually moving the coops from field to field yet, but I have a feeling the chickens might be running around like chickens with their heads ... well, you know.

When we saw them, the chickens were in various stages of training, some still inside, some in pens, and many more than I can count living out of a trailer and having the run of the whole farm. Not a bad life.

All of this doesn't explain why I think they're weird. First, there are just so many of them, everywhere, crowding, strutting, squeezing into small spaces. Check out the picture up top of them pushing each other in and out of the trailer. These were the completely free chickens ... they were doing this by choice!

And the way they carry themselves. They're cocky (!), completely oblivious to the much larger size of the people, goats, and cows that they seem to love to annoy.

And finally... I had no idea what the term henpecked meant. According to Webster, it means "to subject (one's husband) to persistent nagging and domination," but I have now seen with my own eyes that it literally means getting pecked by a hen. I would have thought that the life of a rooster in a hen house would be great, but not so. A rooster gets pecked and pecked and pecked, not just by one hen, but by as many as can crowd in close to him. Perhaps the attention is nice, but is it worth the pain?

Monday, April 27, 2009

Almond Biscotti and Hazelnut Cheesecake

The April 2009 challenge is hosted by Jenny from Jenny Bakes. She has chosen Abbey's Infamous Cheesecake as the challenge.

So this month was my first month of joining The Daring Bakers for a worldwide baking experiment. What am I talking about? Each month, a group of daring bakers all cook the same recipe, pre-chosen by one host, on the same day and then write about it. This month's challenge, as I said, was to make cheesecake with your own personal twist ... any variation you could devise.

I struggled with this one for a few weeks. I wanted to do something besides the obvious chocolate or berry accompaniments, especially since berries are out of season. I finally settled on a mixed nuts theme.

I skipped the graham crackers in the crust (in keeping with my avoidance of processed foods, I can't bring myself to buy one baked good to make another), and instead decided to search for a dry, crispy cookie with a similar texture to a cracker. Turning to one of my favorite cookbooks, I found Anise-Almond Biscotti from Alice Water's The Art of Simple Food.

Other than the nutty modifications listed below, I followed the recipe exactly.

I used a 9" springform pan, and heeding the warnings about leakage from the water bath, I layered the inside of the pan with about 4 layers of aluminum foil.

The verdict? The cake was definitely as good as or better than restaurant cheesecake - smooth, creamy and fresh instead of the usual soggy and grainy texture common in so many. The mixed nuts worked well together, and the unsweetened hazelnut topping provided a pleasant contrast to the sweetness of the filling. In the end, it may be a little rich for my tastes, but if it's cheesecake you're after, Abbey's recipe is more fabulous than infamous.

The full cheesecake recipe is on JennyBakes blog.

My modifications

  1. Amaretto is the optional liqueur in the filling.
  2. Substitute crumbs of Anise-Almond Biscotti for the graham crackers in the filling.
  3. Top with 1 cup of toasted, coarsely chopped hazelnuts. Spread the hazelnuts on a baking sheet and bake for 6 minutes in a 3500F oven. Let nuts cool. Rub between two rough towels to remove as much skin as possible (you'll never get it all). Crush the nuts in a large mortar and pestle, chop or pulse in a food processor to get a coarse, irregular mix. Press the nuts into the top of the chilled cheesecake.
Anise-Almond Biscotti (from Alice Water's The Art of Simple Food)

*(about 40 cookies - I don't recommend it, but you can halve the recipe if you only want enough for the cheesecake)
  • 1 1/2 c. whole almonds
  • 2 1/4 c unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 3/4 tsp aniseed
  • 3 eggs, room temperature
  • 1 c sugar
  • 1/4 tsp lemon zest
Preheat the oven to 3500F.

On a baking sheet, toast the almonds in the oven for 5 minutes, let cool and then coarsely chop.

Combine in a bowl the flour, baking powder and aniseed.

In a separate bowl, combine the eggs, sugar and lemon zest. Beat until themixture forms a ribbon. Stir in the flour until just incorporated and then gently fold in the almonds.

On a parchment-paper-lined baking sheet, form the dough into two 3-inch wide loaves, 3 inches apart. Smooth the loaves with damp hands. Bake for 25 minutes, or until lightly golden. Remove from the oven and let cool for about 10 minutes. Lower oven temp to 3000F. Cut the loaves into 1/2 inch thick cookies and place cut side down on 2 baking sheets. Cook for 10 minutes on each side, or until golden brown.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Open Access at Windsor Dairy

In a recent post exploring raw milk, I concluded that because the alleged benefits and safety of raw milk are directly dependent on the living and cleanliness standards of each dairy, one could not safely drink raw milk without seeing first hand the dairy from which the milk is purchased.

This gives me a good reason for a field trip. Bonus - my son is currently going through the obligatory animal obsession phase, so he will probably enjoy it too.

Windsor Dairy is the best known dairy in this area offering raw milk shares*, and conveniently, they also feel pretty strongly that consumers should check out their cows. They require every prospective milk share purchaser to tour the dairy on one of their two weekly tours. So we went, the whole family in tow.

I had no idea what to expect. Having spent my whole life in the suburbs, I'm not even sure that milk comes from cows; I've never seen a live chicken, and I've certainly never seen a baby goat lying asleep with his head nuzzled in the crook of his front leg.

I think I was expecting a big field filled with cows next to an industrial-style milking building, but what I saw was completely surprising.

The farm was like a cross between a petting zoo and a bustling animal city: a city with a downtown (the farmhouse, the shop, the milking building, the chicken coops, the "maternity ward" for young cows and goats and their mothers), a diverse population (cows, chickens, goats, a dog, a horse and a few sheep), rush hour (free range chickens EVERYWHERE), and the burbs (200 acres of pasture just starting to green up).

I was stunned at the perfect balance of manic activity with the easy, timeless pace of nature. The frantic pace of the chickens. (they are so weird that they deserve a post of their own). The heart wrenching cuteness of the kids bumping into each other for access to the trough of hay. The black lab chasing terrified chickens. And all the while, the cows just hanging out watching everything, lazily chewing, chewing, chewing their cud.

In the coming weeks, I'll do a few more posts, one on chickens, just because they're so fun, and the other on the point of my visit - the cows. But before getting into detail, I'll say that the whole place was wonderful, interesting, natural, clean and totally open. It was much more than I'd been hoping to see.

One final note - one of the chicken coops has apparently been taken over by a very exclusive club. See the rules below...

*Colorado is one of many states that prohibits the sale of raw milk. To get around this, raw milk dairies sell shares of cows ... you buy part of a cow for a one-time fee, and then pay a monthly boarding and milking fee to get your milk.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

What is the Food Safety Modernization Act (HR 875)?

A few weeks ago, I got a newsletter from my CSA, Abbondanza. As I scanned my way through it (easter egg hunt, hmm, that might be too advanced for a 2 year old, book club, bummer can't go but that book Slow Money looks interesting, CSA pickups start in May, yay!), I noticed a quick footnote at the bottom, "HR875 and S425 are not bad ... do not be afraid to speak up and make these bills take shape to support your community."

Interesting ... a potential blog topic for a rainy day.

Tonight, I finally took the time to find out what this meant. I'll specifically discuss HR875 - the Food Safety Modernization Act.

Where did I start? The first place Google directed me was the horses mouth, congress's website. It had a summary, the full text and the current status of the bill. So, so, so dry. I could hardly get through the summary. As far as I could tell, it creates one agency to manage food safety and by the way, we need some food safety regulation.

I should probably try to find the Cliff notes.

The next references I found were to numerous blogs and websites claiming that this bill will mean the end of small farming, it's sponsored by evil GMO giants Monsanto, and that you'll be thrown in jail for growing basil in your kitchen window. Hmmm, this doesn't sound good. The government and their agro-business lobbyists are out to get us again.

Ok, so after about two more hours of research, I think I found a few voices of reason. In particular, I found a thoughtful analysis from Tom Philpott of Grist. He explains it a little better in a podcast on Good Food on KCRW.

He says the main intention of the bill is to create one agency (there are currently 15) that ensures the safety of food sold in supermarkets.

Is the bill a good bill? Not necessarily. It doesn't account for the difference in scale between mass produced food and food from artisinal producers. For instance he points out that inspections are a good thing, but if small producers with low profit margins have to pay for them, this will make their business less viable.

Is the bill a bad thing? Not necessarily. First, it hasn't progressed very far, so it still has the potential to change. Second, it is not as potentially destructive to small farmers as other bills which are currently further along (HR 1332 and HR 759).

His main takeaway, and that of a few other seemingly rational voices I found out there, is that this bill has the potential to be good and it is still in a stage where citizens can have an influence, so they should. Small growers do need safety regulation, ones that do not harm their business, and they should work to create these. For example, see what some farmers in Maine are up to. This link also contains a brief summary of the other bills mentioned above.

One final thought/side rant. I found it interesting that many of the rumours about this bill surround its status. It is either: already passed, will be passed in a week, or will be passed tomorrow if this blog post is not emailed to 30 of your closest friends in the next 30 minutes.

In my search "house bill hr 875", the first link returned was to the government website with a status showing that it is in committee. That wasn't too hard.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Step Away from the Banana

I haven't been blogging as much as I'd like to lately. It's not because I'm not thinking about it or because I have run out of topics ... actually it's the opposite. As I do more and more research, I get sucked into the wealth of interesting information out there. I want to draw it all together somehow, introduce you to a few interesting articles you may not have found, and then point out interesting conclusions or questions that were left out.

But there is too much. So instead, I just keep reading and thinking...

This week's fascinating topic? The economics of locavorism.

After reading the New York Times' column by James McWilliams on the topic of not-so-free range pigs, about which I wrote last week, I found more interesting columns from him and also from the Freakonomics blog in The New York Times.

The theme - eating local is not a panacea to all of our environmental and economic woes. A few of the major points:

  • Food miles travelled is not necessarily an indicator of the carbon footprint of a food. For example, lamb raised in New Zealand on their abundant source of clover and then shipped to Britain, requires about 1/4 of the energy of lamb raised in Britain which must be supplemented with feed. Therefore, while the distance a food has traveled is a nice metric to follow, the environmentally minded consumer must actually think about the entire life cycle of the item to determine the least impactful choice.1
  • Most places are not suited to growing a diverse, healthy diet year round. 2 Therefore, the amount of fossil fuel and water that must be devoted to producing such a diet locally is offset by any reduction in fossil fuel spent on transporting it from a more suitable climate. 3 Actually, I guess this a slightly different statement of the previous point. Oh well, I like it. Maybe I should edit more, but tonight I'm not going to ;)
  • What about economics of scale? Large scale farming of only tomatoes is efficient in a way that cannot be reproduced by small farmers or home-gardeners, regardless of whether the climate is suited to growing tomatoes.
  • Consumers would have to adopt a radically different diet if they were to avoid, for instance, bananas, which can't even grow in this country.
  • How local is local enough? If everyone agreed to eat food grown within a 100 mile radius, it wouldn't be possible to feed all of New York City. Does this mean that everyone should leave?

While all of these are certainly interesting points, I'm left, as usual, with more questions than answers.

How sustainable long-term is large scale farming? How much soil is depleted and resources are required by repeatedly farming the same tomato crop on the same plot of soil?

What about the non-economic value of a fresh, varied diet? While variety can certainly be added to a diet by importing tropical fruits from abroad, it can also be added by redeveloping countless heirloom plant varieties not sold in supermarkets. Fruit and veg (and meat) sold in supermarkets is bred for two things, consistency and yield. Whether grown locally or not, a diet consisting year round of the same single variety each of strawberries, carrots, potatoes, spinach, apples and bananas may be efficient but I doubt if it provides us with the complex set of nutrients you can get from experimenting with regional varieties. Local farmers aren't in it for the efficiency, that's true. They're in it for exactly this inefficient diversity, among other things. And I like that.

Ok, ok, each of these columns raises some interesting points, and while I don't wholeheartedly agree, I definitely have some things to think about.

But geez, who are these extremists to which these columns refer? Yes, Barbara Kingsolver managed to do it, and write about it (is her book published on locally sourced paper?), but what about the rest of us? According to those close to me, I am BY FAR the most extreme local eater of anyone I know. And yes, I do eat bananas. And I only feel a little guilty about it. Ok, maybe a lot. But I still do it.

1 Food That Travels Well, James McWilliams. The New York Times: August 6, 2007

2 Do We Really Need a Few Billion Locavores, Stephen J. Dubner. The New York Times: June 9, 2008.

3 Will the Anti-Locavorism Never End, Stephen J. Dubner and James McWilliams. The New York Times: August 26, 2008.

Friday, April 17, 2009

(Finally Enough) Chocolate Mousse Cake

I've been analyzing some pretty serious topics lately (free-range pigs, raw milk). Weighed down by the endless list of thought-provoking issues I'd like to discuss, I need a break. What better diversion than joining in the fun for Poornima's first event on the Tasty Treats blog TASTY TREATS....: Announcing... "For the Love of Chocolate!!"

Let's step back for a moment to discuss the topic of desserts, specifically chocolate ones. We have a love/hate relationship. I love to eat chocolate desserts, but I am always left feeling either unsatisfied or guilty. If I eat enough to satisfy my intense dark chocolate craving, I feel just a bit guilty. If I stop at what most might consider a reasonable quantity, well, that's just not chocolatey enough.

So for this dessert, I had one requirement, and one requirement only. Blow me away with the richest chocolate dessert I'd ever had. Well, I think this one comes pretty close ... Nothing fancy, just a LOT of rich, dark chocolate.

From one of my favorite cookbooks, Darina Allen's Ballymaloe Cookery Course, here it is. Two layers of light, airy chocolate, separated and covered by a thick coating of heavenly, dark, rich, smooth ganache. I'd say there is only one special technique to this recipe... buy good chocolate. I used Callebaut Bittersweet. At about $10/pound (and this recipe uses half a pound), it's not cheap, but really, is there any better use for five dollars than a killer chocolate cake? No contest.

Garden Cafe Chocolate Mousse Cake

  • 3 organic eggs
  • 250 g (8 oz) caster sugar
  • 6 Tbs water
  • 110 g (4 oz) white flour
  • 25 g (1 oz) unsweetened cocoa
  • 1 tsp baking powder

  • 300 ml (1/2 pt) heavy whipping cream
  • 225 (8 oz) really good dark chocolate, finely chopped
Preheat the oven to 1900C/3750F.

Line the bases of two 8 inch cake pans with parchment paper, then butter the bottom and sides and dust with cocoa.

Separate the eggs. Whisk the yolks and sugar for two minutes. Blend in the water. Whisk until firm and creamy, about 10 minutes. I strongly recommend using a mixer because this does take a while. Sift in the flour, cocoa and baking powder.

Beat the egg whites in a separate bowl to stiff peaks, then fold them very gently into the yolk mixture.

Divide the mixture between the two pans and bake for about 30 minutes. Cool on a rack.

Meanwhile make the ganache. Put the cream in a heavy, non-reactive saucepan and bring it almost to the boil. Remove from the heat and add the chopped chocolate. Stir or whisk until smooth. Allow to cool to room temperature. Transfer to a large bowl and whisk until just stiff enough to pipe. Do not over-whisk or it will curdle and separate.

Sandwich the cakes together with the ganache. Spread the rest over the tops and sides of the cake.

Sit back, admire your creation, and then dig in. I recommend two slices for the beginner.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Free Range Pork is Safer, Right?

The New York Times carried quite an interesting op-ed piece from James McWilliams this weekend disputing the safety of pork from free-range pigs. The article is interesting and short, so I won't analyze it in detail here, but I will summarize a few of his more interesting points:

  • A study was done last year to test the levels of dangerous pathogens in more than 600 anti-biotic free, free-range pigs. Levels of pathogens causing toxoplasmosis and salmonella were found to be substantially higher than in confined pigs, and 2 pigs were found to have the dangerous parasite trichina, which has been eradicated from confined pigs.
  • Free-range pigs can come into contact with dangerous contaminants from which confined pigs are protected, specifically rats, cats and contaminated soil.
  • Free-range does not mean wild. It is somewhere halfway between confined and wild. Since animal husbandry began, humans have been searching for ways to control meat production such that it is safe and consistent - this is not a new practice. Much of the process followed in industrial pork production is to protect against exactly the diseases identified in the study.
  • While free-range may make the pork taste better, and make us feel better because the pigs are supposedly leading a more natural lifestyle, ultimately it is another form of meat production, one which disregards the dangers against which the confinement of pigs is trying to protect and which isn't really close at all to pigs natural wild state.

I found this article interesting because it calls into question my assumption that free range is always the best choice for meat. I find especially intriguing the idea that any form of meat production, as opposed to hunting meat, is industrial, no matter how PC it seems. Here are a few of the questions I was left with:

  • What exactly does free-range mean for the pigs in the cited study? Like beef, I'd guess there are vastly differing environments for how free-range pigs are raised and fed. Is there a concept of pastured vs. free-range for pigs?
  • When compared with free-range pigs, what issues surround confined pork production? You may remember the recent Irish pork recall due to the contamination of a small amount of pig feed. (By the way, I hope I'm never forced to eat anything called "feed." I like my food to have names. Just a thought.)
  • Is any kind of pork consumption, short of meat from hunted pigs, safe to eat? Just why are there so many religious and social taboos against eating pork as opposed to other meats? Could this be an evolutionary safety mechanism?

These are interesting questions that I'd like to begin exploring. I've been steering clear of pork for a while, and until I better inform myself, I will probably continue to do so.

A few last points:

The La Vida Locavore blog carried an interesting response to this piece that claims the study referenced was funded by the National Pork Board (although I can't figure out how this was determined). The article and comments show that once again, this is a complex subject that requires detailed research on the part of any consumer striving for a complete understanding of what he or she is eating.

James McWilliams has a book coming out soon entitled Just Food: How Locavores Are Endangering the Future of Food and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly. I can't wait, but I really hope this doesn't mean that I have to reconsider some of my opinions ;)

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Nature's Perfect Power Bar - cashews, chocolate and apricots

I am what you might call a mildly enthusiastic runner and biker. A few years ago, I would have classified myself as very enthusiastic, and I was about as regimented as it gets. Part of my regimen naturally involved "power" food.

I was into it all - the gels, the bars, the energy drink. I timed workouts meticulously such that I consumed just the right number of calories at just the right intervals in just the right proportions.

You're probably thinking that this doesn't sound very consistent with my philosophies on eating local, natural food. Well, it isn't. And as the years have passed and I've become more interested in really understanding what I'm eating, I don't feel comfortable buying or consuming these little processed energy units.

So what's the alternative? Make my own of course!

My requirements - a combination of quick and slow burning carbohydrates, some salt, a little protein and fat all wrapped up in a neat package. I could carry a banana, a piece of whole wheat bread, some nuts and a few chocolate chips in the pocket of my cycling jersey, but that isn't quite the level of portability I'm hoping for.

Geez, I always do these long, long intros and then finally get around to the point. Basically, my husband and I have been trying to find the perfect natural power bar recipe.

I like the way oatmeal cookies go down - they seem to stay with you, without giving a sugar rush, and they carry other ingredients without breaking down. So this is where we started.

After experimenting with a few different recipes and even more variations, we've finally come pretty close.

As a coincidence, I just came across the following event on the Tasty Treats Blog:

Thanks for giving me the inspiration to write it down, Poornima!

So while we haven't finished our quest, and I will have to confess that none of these "power cookies" have actually made it onto a ride or a run, they have become a weekly feature in our house.

Here they are, modified from a recipe in King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking. A little sweet, a little salty, filling but not greasy or heavy, chewy but sturdy enough to hold together in a pocket (as previously mentioned, though, this theory is untested). Delicious AND healthy!!!
One final note/confession... my husband is actually the baker on these great cookies. I'm the happy consultant and consumer.

Nature's Perfect Power Cookie (modified from Nutty for Oats Cookies) makes 24 cookies

  • 1/3 c. smooth peanut butter, room temperature
  • 2 Tbs. unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 3/8 c. (2 3/4 oz) dark brown sugar
  • 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1/8 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 large egg, room temperature
  • 1/2 c. (1 3/4 oz) rolled oats, ground for 30 seconds in a food processor
  • 3/4 c. (2 5/8 oz) rolled oats
  • 3/4 c. chocolate chips
  • 1/2 c. roasted, salted cashews
  • 10 dried apricots
Preheat the oven to 3750F. Grease 2 baking sheets or line with parchment paper.

Soak the apricots in hot water for a few minutes, then drain and slice thinly.

Cream the peanut butter, butter and sugar in a medium bowl until lightened in color. Mix in the vanilla and egg. In a separate bowl, mix both types of oats and the baking soda, then mix this into the wet ingredients. Add the chocolate chips, cashews and apricots. Drop the dough by tablespoonfuls onto the baking sheets.

Bake until the cookies are just set and beginning to brown around the edges, about 13-15 minutes. Let the cookies cool completely on the pan.

Variations: Any combination of additions can be used as long as it adds up to about 1 and a half cups. We've used raisins, dried cranberries, coconut, and walnuts. They're all good, but the apricot, chocolate, cashew combination is definitely the best.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Snow Welcomes the Boulder Farmer's Market

Winter was unseasonably warm this year in Boulder. I can't say that I've complained - lots of pleasant, sunny runs and bike rides, made only slightly less pleasant by an eerie, nagging feeling that this was warning of an oh-so-hot Boulder summer. Not to worry, just as spring arrived on the calendar, winter arrived in force. We've had snow every other day, mixed with cloudy, brisk winds.

I was worried that Friday evening's snowfall would mean cancellation for the first farmer's market of the season, but my fears proved to be unfounded. By late morning, the snow had subsided and the temperature was in the low 40's. I decided to head downtown with my son to see what I could find.

Sure enough, the market was on. Admittedly, there weren't too many stalls or people. The hot food area only had a natural burger stand and one selling corn tamales, and the rest of the market was just as thinly populated. But there was enough - I got some good veggies and a few other luxuries to boot.

  • parsnips - just harvested from Cure Organic Farm. Unbelievably, they're small ones, which are not easy to find; these have a more delicate texture than the large ones typical in fall. Two pounds should be enough for two good meals.
  • salad mix - also from Cure.
  • sunchokes - at $5 for a bag of about 1.5 lb, this is an unusually low price. After eating carrots, potatoes, onions and winter squash for the last million weeks, I couldn't bring myself to ask if they were organic or why they were so cheap. Sunchokes, also known as Jerusalem artichokes, are a delicious root vegetable from the sunflower family and related to artichokes. They taste similar to artichokes but are less work to prepare and are delicious in soups and gratins. We had them last night in a pureed sunchoke and potato soup.
  • chocolate truffles - from Seth Ellis, a local organic chocolatier. I do wonder what "local" chocolate means, as chocolate is a tricky subject if you're interested in eating food with a small carbon footprint. Mr. Ellis's chocolate is from Peru, processed in Belgium and then shipped here via a few other places. This is probably a topic for another day, but I eat a LOT of dark chocolate, and the circuitous trail seems to be pretty similar for all brands, organic or not.
  • whole wheat bread from Udi's Bakery - I have such bread envy
  • Winechick White wine from Augustina's Winery just about a mile from our house. I'm not a great judge of wine, but I did enjoy this one, which was reasonably priced at $12.

All in all, it was worth the journey. I think I bought the only three types of vegetables for sale in the whole market, but they should be enough to create some much needed variety in our menu this week.

Viva la Farmer's Market!!!

Friday, April 3, 2009

Ode to Jamie

When I started this blog, I knew that one of the early things I wanted to do was pay tribute to my first cooking love and hero Jamie Oliver. I haven't done it yet because I have a (not so) secret hope of sending him a link to this and that he might actually be interested in reading it - but until I had more content, who would be interested in reading it. Well I have 30 entries now, all of them way too long, so I'll proceed...

First love? You're probably thinking, hmm, that's a bit celebrity-stalker-ish. I mean love strictly in the food sense. I'll start at the beginning.

Let's go back to the year 2000. My husband and I enjoyed a leisurely lifestyle of lazy lie-ins, all day bike rides, sunny afternoons on the West End rooftop patio drinking beer in the shadow of the flatirons (back before the view was blocked by hideous condos), eating out for pretty much every meal, and definitely not cooking. Sounds pretty good right? Actually it wasn't bad. Then he came along.

One night we were watching TV, eating sandwiches from Snarf's (really good sandwiches, actually), and this show came on called The Naked Chef. My husband says, "I've been meaning to tell you about this show. It's hilarious."

I'm sure by now, everyone has seen the reruns, but at the time, it was an all new concept. Like The Real World meets Emeril and goes to Britain with a cool DJ in the background. I was sucked in. For the food? Yea right. For the coolness/dorkiness. On the one hand, the funky kitchen, cool friends just "stopping by" and Jamie's crazy accent seemed so contrived. On the other hand, I wanted to have a funky kitchen, cool friends and a crazy accent.

As I sat back to enjoy my sandwich and laugh at the ridiculousness of such a trendy show, something caught my eye.

"Hey, do you see what he's making? That fish looks really good. And it actually looks kind of easy to make."

I was mesmerized. For the first time in my life, I was actually considering buying and cooking fish.

The blur of infatuation that followed is a little hazy for me to remember now... did I buy the first cookbook the next day, or did I watch a few episodes first? It all happened so fast.

The first cookbook, also called The Naked Chef, kept the promise that the show had made... and this is really what got me hooked. The beautiful, glossy pictures draw you in, but the freshness and ease of the recipes is what keeps you coming back for more.

Jamie doesn't advertise himself as a health food chef, but in my opinion, it doesn't get any healthier. From the beginning, he has been a strong advocate for eating wholesome, organic, natural food - lots of vegetables and herbs in place of pre-made sauces and canned ingredients. That is the origin of the nickname Naked Chef.

Yea, he is a bit of a commercial empire. He has a million cookbooks, I think Jamie Makes a Sandwich is the latest one, but he's done a lot more than get rich. He is one of the strongest voices in the western world to advocate for eating organic, local food, including leading an ongoing campaign to improve school lunches in Britain.

That influence has changed my life forever. From the first time I cooked Fish in a Bag, a whole new world opened for me. Since then I've moved on to other amazing chefs and cookbooks. I don't need the glossy pictures and cool TV shows anymore to get me interested in turning on the stove, but I will always have a special place in my heart for Jamie. There is only one celebrity I'd ever be interested in meeting. And if I did meet him, I would just say Thanks.

I probably shouldn't do this, but here is my favorite Jamie Oliver recipe. Simple and bursting with amazing flavors. From The Naked Chef - which I highly recommend...

Fish Baked in a Bag with Marinated Cherry Tomatoes, Black Olives and Basil

  • 4 fish fillets, about 6-8 oz each (I usually use wild salmon)
  • 1/4 c olive oil
  • 3/4 c dry white wine
  • 1 handful black olives, pitted
  • 1 clove garlic, peeled and finely chopped
  • 1/2 small dried red chili, crumbled
  • 1 handful fresh basil or marjoram, roughly chopped
  • 2-3 Tbs extra virgin olive oil
  • 20 cherry tomatoes, halved or quartered
  • juice of 1 lemon
  • salt and fresh ground pepper
Put the olives, garlic, chili, herbs, extra virgin olive oil and tomatoes into a bowl and toss. Leave for half an hour, then add the lemon juice and seasoning to taste.

Season the fish on both sides with salt and pepper. For each fillet, take a large piece of aluminum foil. Place 1/4 of the tomato mixture in the center of one half. Lay the fish on top of the tomatoes. Fold the foil over and seal two sides by folding over tightly. Add 1 Tbs olive oil and a quarter of the white wine, then seal the remaining side. Bake at 4750 for approximately 10 minutes. I'm not sure why, but this recipe tastes much better when cooked on the grill. Let the fish rest in the bag for 3-4 minutes before opening.

Serve each unopened bag on a plate, to enjoy the fish, tomatoes, juices and all.