Monday, March 30, 2009

Why Pay for Muesli

I'm a sucker for grains, any kind - fresh baked bread, whole wheat pasta, sprouted wheat bagels, oatmeal cookies... and one of the foods I particularly love is muesli. I never miss breakfast, and nothing starts the day better than a nice mix of rolled oats, wheat germ and some dried fruits, drenched in thirst quenching whole milk. A bowl of muesli can't be beat for good taste and filling you up.

But there are a few things that bug me about buying pre-made muesli: it always seems overpriced, it never has exactly what I want, and it's usually too sweet.

Overpriced - $5-$6 per pound (approximately) seems like too much to pay for the amount that I go through. I know it has dried fruit in it, which is expensive, but it's mostly just rolled oats, which aren't expensive.

What do I want? - Not sunflower seeds. Blech. There aren't too many foods I dislike, but that is one of them. Ideally, I'd like a muesli with lots of fruit and a mixture of grains and seeds to make it more interesting and nutritionally diverse than just rolled oats and raisins.

Given these complaints, I decided I should just make my own. After all, it's just mixed up dried ingredients. What could go wrong? Well, for once, nothing actually. It had exactly what I wanted, and I mixed it up in about 2 minutes. As a bonus, my son liked it too, expanding his repertoire of wheetabix, yogurt and berries to include one more item.

I didn't include a picture here because it looks exactly as it sounds - like a bowl of rolled oats, dried fruit and a few other extras. My photography isn't good enough to make that look any better than a pile of stuff. But it did taste pretty good, so you might want to give it a try.

What was in the cupboard Muesli

  • 1 c. rolled oats
  • 1/2 c. rolled rye flakes
  • 1/4 c. wheat germ
  • 2 Tbs. wheat bran
  • 1 Tbs. brown sugar
  • 1/4 c. raisins, roughly chopped (if I don't chop them, my son picks them out and eats nothing else)
  • 10 dried apricots, sliced thin, then chopped (see raisins)
  • 1/4 c. pecans, roughly chopped
  • 2 Tbs. unsweetened coconut flakes
  • 1 Tbs. flax seeds

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Raw Milk - Will it really make me sick?

I know that I've been slacking the last few weeks. When I began this blog, I swore up and down that I'd post every two nights, but I got to feeling like that was too frequent. I was wearing out my four readers with the overload of fascinating information I was pulling together. So I decided to go down to three. That worked for a few weeks... But, you see, I have a lot going on right now, and this week I actually went four days without posting (gasp!) SO... hoping to recapture my lost reader, I'm going for the gusto, I'm finally going to resume discussing my agonizing dilemma over whether or not to get a raw milk share (see Where to Start Looking for Raw Milk).

Why, you might ask, did I wait so long? I do have a good excuse. There is so much information out there on this topic, that I couldn't figure out how to assemble it. I've read presentations, infectious disease articles, FDA warnings, watched California senate debates, and after all of this, I still can't make my mind up.

But I do feel that I've boiled it down to a few key questions...

Does raw milk carry more dangerous pathogens than pasteurized milk?

How this question has been answered is actually quite interesting in itself. The pro-raw milk articles I've read point out that in the numerous tests that have been done comparing pathogen levels of raw and pasteurized milk, the milk is usually compared from the same source.

In fact, in one study, the cows' udders were injected with bacteria to see if the bacteria was passed into the milk, which it was (shoot, sorry, I can't find my reference on this - but I know I read it somewhere). This sounds like a logical test, except that it only tells us one thing - milk with a high pathogen level will have a reduced pathogen level after pasteurization.

What if the pathogen level of the milk isn't high to begin with? What I'm getting at is, have any studies been done examining the pathogen levels of milk from pastured, grass fed cows? None that I could find, unfortunately. I am trying to be unbiased here, but I do strongly believe that cows raised on grass and fresh air are going to be infinitely healthier than industrial dairy cows crammed together in a building eating corn meal and antibiotics. Healthier cows probably produce cleaner milk. For instance, "Vitamin E and selenium improve immune cell function and allow proper closing of the streak canal after milking, the canal through which pathogens generally infect the mammary gland ... Vitamin E intakes of lactating cows on pasture can be four to five times higher than the average intake in the United States"^

If the cow tested in the previously mentioned study is a healthy pastured cow that does indeed deliver infected milk after her udder is injected with bacteria, but is otherwise uninfected, what does the study prove?

A more relevant study would probably be to test the infection rates of raw milk in pastured cows.

A follow-up question I have is how clean does pasteurized milk stay after pasteurization? I'm curious as to whether killing off all bacteria in milk is really a good thing - couldn't we be creating the perfect environment in which bacteria that survives pasteurization or finds its way into the milk could thrive, similar to the Superbug effect that the overuse of antibiotics has caused in humans? Statistics on rates of disease caused by pasteurized versus raw milk would probably help answer this question. So...

Is the risk of getting sick higher with raw or pasteurized milk?

Here are some interesting statistics from the Weston A. Price article, RESPONSE TO ANTI-RAW MILK ARTICLE Published in Clinical Infectious Diseases, January 2009

Statistics from the FDA attribute a 25 fold decrease in the % of foodborne illnesses due to milk since 1938 to pasteurization, but the source of the improvement cannot be isolated as states adopted many other cleanliness standards at the same time as they adopted the pasteurization standard.

"Although there were fewer outbreaks attributed to pasteurized milk than to raw milk between 1980 and 2005 (the years for which the CDC has data available in both categories), those outbreaks attributed to pasteurized milk were larger, and there were therefore nearly eleven times as many illnesses attributed to pasteurized milk as there were to raw milk."

"According to certified information the CDC has provided to us, between 1980 and 2005 there were 41 documented outbreaks attributing 19,531 illnesses to the consumption of pasteurized milk and milk products."

These numbers bring up a strong point in favor of eating local milk, pasteurized or not. Listening to the news the last few years, I can think of so many stories related to massive disease outbreaks attributed to one initial source: spinach, tomatoes, peanuts. These infections were probably not widespread to start with, but there seems to be so much consolidation in the food industry that a small outbreak can reach many, many people. This phenomenon would explain why even if pasteurized milk is safer than raw milk, the fact that it is usually produced on a large scale by industrial dairies means that it has the potential to infect many, many more people. A local dairy has a much smaller sphere of influence.

I felt that The Infectious Diseases article being rebuked by the stats just above, Unpasteurized Milk: A Continued Public Health Threat, did not seem very objective. It seemed to me to throw out common raw milk scare tactics, salmonella, E. Coli, Listeria, without discussing them in very scientific terms. Here is an example of one study:

"An overwhelming majority of dairy producers feel responsible for the safety and wholesomeness of the food products that leave their farms. Good animal health and hygienic conditions on the farm are important for the welfare of the animals and the profitability of the producers, as well as for the quality and wholesomeness of the raw food products leaving the farms for human consumption. Nevertheless, many dairy producers are unaware of the zoonotic potential of the most common bacterial contaminants in milk. In a recent mail‐based survey of 461 Ohio dairy farm respondants, 36% did not think Salmonella species caused disease in humans. Likewise, 81%, 88%, and 91% of farmers indicated that Listeria, Cryptosporidium, and Campylobacter species, respectively, were not associated with disease in humans (J.T.L., unpublished data)."

I'm sorry, but I do not find that to be a particularly compelling statistic. I can see why we would like a dairy farmer to understand the link between food poisoning and the hygiene standards he or she follows, but I'd bet there are plenty of passionate, humane, clean dairy farmers that don't.

I have primarily referenced two articles above, but I did read a few more, and felt that the two sides of the argument were roughly the same.

To me the core of the debate seems to be this
  • Pasteurized milk probably does kill some dangerous bacteria. Does this benefit last until the milk reaches your table, or is there potential for subsequent infection due to the now nearly sterile environment created by pasteurization?
  • Has pasteurization actually made milk safer, or is it just part of a general improvement in industrial dairy cleanliness standards?
  • Is milk from cows raised on pasture safer than milk from industrial cows, regardless of pasteurization?
  • If raw milk has a higher potential for infection, but pasteurized milk infections reach more people, from a statistical point of view, which one is really safer?
Given the one-sidedness of the articles I read, I don't feel like any of these questions were truly addressed. I've come away from this feeling like it's a complex question that every person has the right to answer for themselves.

For my part, I've made up my mind that if I am to drink raw milk, it will have to come from cows that are 100% grass fed and free range. I believe this gives me the best chance of avoiding the higher infection risk of raw milk, if indeed there is one. This means that I'll probably need to check it out myself to be sure.

Next question,

Is raw milk more nutritionally complete than pasteurized milk?

Phew, more on this another time.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Endless Value of Vermouth

In the midst of making potato leek soup for tonight's dinner, I tried to get a little clever and do the dishes before instead of after dinner. Silly me... I lost track of time and realized a little too late that the heat under my gently sweating diced potatoes, leeks and onions was set too high.

There was a slightly burnt layer on the bottom of the pan. It didn't smell bad yet, but I knew that if I didn't get it off it would become charcoal because the soup had some time left to cook. I tried scraping them off but no dice. Stuck.

That's when I turned to my trusty friend dry white vermouth. As I poured in a 1/4 cup or so (maybe a little more), I realized that this incredibly useful trick might be worth sharing...

Deglazing is a common technique - splash a small amount of cold liquid into a hot, caramelized saute pan. I don't understand the chemistry, but this causes the crust on the pan to temporarily soften so that you can rub it with a wooden spoon causing it to dissolve into the liquid. Any cold liquid can be used to deglaze, but I've found that alcohol works best. Let most of this liquid burn off, then add the main liquid for whatever you're making.

Dissolving the caramelized meat, veggies or spices that were cooking in the pan adds a tremendous rich flavor to your dish that you just won't get if you add all the liquid to the pan at once. As a nice bonus, the reduced alcohol adds complexity to the dish as well.

After practicing this technique in a few recipes, I've gone crazy and started using it every time I saute or roast something in the oven, whether the recipe calls for it or not, and always with good results.

A few general guidelines. Try using it in soups, stews, sauces, gravies or stir fries. Vermouth works well in poultry, or seafood, as well as white sauce based dishes. For heavier dishes, specifically ones containing red meat or tomatoes, red wine or sherry works well.

What's even better about this trick is that vermouth and sherry are quite cheap, and because they don't taste good on their own, they're easy to keep stocked - there is absolutely no temptation to sneak some as an aperitif.

So next time you're in danger of burning up your dinner, give it a try!

Here's a much more eloquent explanation of deglazing and making a pan sauce from the Los Angeles Times.

Exploring the Term Organic

Just wanted to point out an interesting article in today's New York Times by Mark Bittman. In it he discusses the difference between eating certified organic and eating "real" food and why being organic doesn't necessarily equate to being healthy or environmentally friendly. He does a nice job in a short space of summarizing a few of the issues that are causing people to rethink industrially produced food, organic or not, although as he points out, unfortunately not enough people are rethinking it yet.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Getting My Hands Dirty

Today I am going to digress slightly from the food topic to discuss my CSA in more detail. As I've discussed before, I'm a member of Abbondanza CSA here in the Boulder, Colorado area. Last year we got a fall share, which was great, and for this summer, we have signed up for a summer share. I can't wait... the first pickup is May 13th.

Last weekend, they needed volunteers to help with some labor in the field, so I decided to join them. The whole experience was quite interesting, so I'd like to share...

For some reason, I thought that we would show up, they'd all give us jobs to do and away we'd go. Not quite. It seemed like they asked us out to educate us about the CSA as much as to do some work.

The first thing we discussed was the origin of the CSA. The field in which we were standing is a 10 acre plot of open space (Thomas Open Space) next to a housing subdivision. In 2005, the subdivision residents convinced the city of Lafayette that rather than let another subdivision be built, they should buy the adjacent land and create an organic farm. A ballot measure was passed and the land was purchased. The city irrigated it, ran electricity, added a parking area, created rows and roads up and down the ends.

Abbondanza started originally as a farm for organic seeds on 40 acres about 8 miles north of where we were. Two years ago, they leased the open space from the city and added it to their farm. In 2008, the farm gained official organic status.

From looking at the project description on the city website, the farm is still funded annually by the city to the tune of $100k in 2008. I'm curious why, given that Abbo is paying a lease, and I've sent an email to the project city manager... I'll post a follow up if he replies.

It is starting to become apparent to me that creating a local food supply must be a truly community effort. You can't just pay your share and pick up your veggies. If that is all anyone does, this idea will never fully take root :) It seems to require a combination of impassioned farmers, volunteers, committed communities and some subsidies. Some might say that this not very free market, but is supermarket food any more free market? I doubt it - the subsidies are just harder for the average consumer to identify. Hmmm, that sounds like another interesting blog topic.

Moving on, we next discussed our job for the day, which was to pull carrots. Carrots? Isn't the season over? Not completely.

These carrots are being grown for seed. They were planted last August and have been hibernating underground all winter, protected by a few layers of plastic. Because they weren't harvested, they'll now start to grow prolific greens and eventually go to seed, all of which will be collected and sold. We needed to pull up the carrots for transplanting at the other farm (the original 40 acres). Why, you might ask?

That's an interesting question, and one about which all of us were confused. It was explained to us many times...

Abbondanza sells hand selected, open-pollinated seeds. This means, "a seed which produces offspring just like the parent plants. Open-pollinated seed allows growers to harvest and save seed for the following year".1

The alternative is hybrid seeds, in which the seeds are harvested from a plant pollinated by a plant of a different species. "The one big negative is that hybrid seeds do not produce true reproductions of the mother plants. This makes buying new seed every year a necessary, expensive, and for someone who wants to become self-reliant, a dangerous practice."2

This is great for seed sellers that want to resell their seeds year after year. Abbondanza is more interested in creating self sustaining gardeners in its community and preserving high quality local species than in generating large profits. Hence their open-pollinated philosophy.

Why were we pulling the carrots again? Because they planted two varieties of carrots in the field over the winter. In order to keep the varieties from crossing with each other, they have to separate them. So in a few weeks, they'll put the carrots we pulled into the other farm and later in the summer, they'll harvest their seeds.

So no carrots for us, or so we thought... In one row, about 90% of carrots had their tops eaten off by geese from a nearby pond. Without tops, carrots can't go to seed. But they're still edible! As we searched for the few remaining intact carrots, each of us hoarded as many half eaten carrots as we could hold.

I've been making carrot cake, carrot salad, and anything else carrot I can think of ever since. There is something really cool about being able to eat for a week from 1) food that I shared with a goose and 2) food that was going to be left in the ground to rot. As you might guess, I'm no gardener or this wouldn't be such a novelty.

All in all, it was a fun day. I met some interesting people, learned a lot about my CSA, carrots and seeds. And went home with not just carrots... we were all allowed to raid the stash of root vegetables that weren't fit for sale last fall. So now I have a whole new load of potatoes. Just when I was starting to crave them again.

And in an interesting twist, the walk-in cooler at the farm is a weekly pick up site for Windsor Dairy, the raw milk dairy I've been interested in. I love seeing how all of these things are connected. It almost makes me feel like I live in a ... what's the word... community.


Monday, March 16, 2009

St. Paddy's Stripy Cat

As a little preview for St. Patrick's day and for my first time participating in Bread Baking Day, I've decided to make a sweet variation of Irish soda bread. Thanks to Mansi of the Fun and Food Blog for hosting this most appropriate event of making quick breads in the month of St. Patrick's Day!

The recipe comes from Darina Allen's Ballymaloe Cookery Course. Darina Allen runs a cookery school in Ireland. She is a leader in the movement towards eating local, organic cuisine and has been for a lot longer than it has been in fashion.

Simply put, I cannot say enough good things about this cookbook. It seems to be on the shelf in every house I visit in Ireland (about 6), but I have never considered buying it. I have a lot of cookbooks and having skimmed through it, I decided that it was too similar to the Joy of Cooking in its encyclopedic coverage of every topic under the sun. Having lugged home too many cookbooks in my suitcase, I was also put off by its massive bulk. But it couldn't be avoided - we were given it as a gift this last Christmas.

And boy am I glad - in a few short months it has become one of two (Alice Water's The Art of Simple Food is the other) that I turn to almost daily. What's so great about it?

Ms. Allen is a passionate advocate for eating locally and seasonally, which is reflected in most of the recipes. The recipes generally group foods from the same season, which means that I can easily find a recipe to match whatever happens to be in my cupboard.

The sheer number of recipes at first seems like overkill, and I thought it would be hard to choose between recipes. For a reasons I can't understand, the number of recipes seems exactly right - for example, there are 13 recipes for preparing cauliflower, one to fit every mood.

So enough about my cookbook - what is Stripy Cat? It's a variation of Spotted Dog, which is a variation of Irish Soda Bread. Soda bread is a traditional Irish white flour bread, leavened with baking soda and buttermilk. It's a crunchy, rustic, tender, flavorful loaf, a little lighter than the delicious Irish Brown Bread, about which you already know I have passionate feelings.

Spotted Dog is a slightly sweeter version of soda bread, containing an egg, a little sugar and raisins, mmm. Good, but I was looking for something a little richer, and apparently so were they....

Stripy Cat is Spotted Dog but with dark chocolate chunks instead of raisins - even better!

We've made it before, but it wasn't quite what we were looking for ... today we added about 50% more chocolate, a handful of nuts, and a few more teaspoons of sugar. It turned out exactly as we hoped. Rich, crunchy, moist, chocolaty, but not too sweet.

Here is the recipe, with my variations.

In a few of my past bread posts, I've discussed the necessity to reduce flour if you're in Colorado. I do not find that to be the case with soda leavened breads. A friend of mine in New York who experimented with Brown Bread after my first post found that she had to reduce the liquid in order to get the same texture. The takeaway from this is that you should cut in the liquid slowly and stop when the dough seems only just moistened but picks up all the flour.

Stripy Cat

  • 450 g (1 lb) plain (or all-purpose) unbleached flour
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 Tbs sugar
  • 120g (4 1/2 oz) best quality, bittersweet dark chocolate, chopped roughly
  • 1 handful walnuts, chopped
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten
  • 350ml (12 fl oz) buttermilk
Preheat the oven to 4250, with a baking stone if you have one.

Mix the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Mix well by lifting everything with your hands repeatedly to aerate the flour.

Mix the egg and buttermilk in a small bowl. Pour half of them over the dry ingredients and use a spatula to gently cut them in. Pour the rest of the milk mixture over the dough bit by bit, cutting it in - be sure not to overmix or add to much liquid.

The dough will be very thick and sticky and have lumps of unincorporated flour. Pat the dough into a rough ball and then drop it on a cookie sheet or pizza paddle. Flatten the ball a little into a loaf, and then cut in a deep X.

Cook on the sheet or stone at 4250 for 10 minutes, then lower the heat to 4000 and cook for 35 minutes more. The finished bread will look golden and sound hollow when tapped on the bottom.

This recipe is a basic summary of instructions - my older post on Irish Brown Bread gives helpful tips which I didn't want to repeat here. Also, if you haven't tried this bread - you're missing out. But that's not the topic for today...

This rich, buttery, crunchy bread is a nice contemporary twist on a great traditional Irish bread. Happy St. Patrick's Day!!

Friday, March 13, 2009

Where to Start Looking for Real Milk?

The next step in my quest for eating real food will be the exploration of milk. As I've mentioned before, my son isn't drinking a whole lot of milk, but he does drink some, and he eats quite a bit of homemade yogurt. Because this is an important part of his diet, I'd like to give it a little more thought than I have in the past.

Based on my prior research, I know that I'd like to find milk from cows that are pastured, or 100% grass fed. A cow is a ruminant; grass is the food source to which they are adapted, and I subscribe to the belief that milk and meat from cows/cattle that have eaten their natural diet is far more nutritious than that from cows that are fed otherwise. Also, cows that are pastured live in their natural habitat, which is the least we can do in exchange for what they're doing for us.

So what are my choices?

My investigations in this area so far have led to more questions than answers - specifically one major question, why is milk pasteurized and is it safe to drink raw (or unpasteurized) milk?

Why do I ask this, you might wonder? Because raw milk shares (I'll explain this later) are becoming increasingly common in my area, and in my search for pastured milk, raw milk dairies seem to follow pasturing practices more strictly. So the question of whether or not to drink raw milk has been on my mind for quite some time.

When my son was younger, I simply wasn't comfortable experimenting with this topic. I'll confess that I didn't research it much. While I do believe that it is important not to over-sterilize a baby's environment because they need to build their immune system, I was reluctant to go against a century of common acceptance of the pasteurization process and potentially introduce a foodborne illness to my son.

So until now, we've been getting milk delivered from an all natural, but non-organic, local dairy. I decided that a compromise of getting fresh milk from a local, all natural source, with zero waste due to the use of glass bottles, was preferable to buying organic milk from a large company at the local health food store.

Now that my son is almost two, it's time to reconsider this decision. But first I need to answer the question of whether or not I'm comfortable giving him raw milk.

I found a few commonly cited sources in favor of drinking raw milk:

  • William Campbell Douglass II, MD. wrote a well known book called The Milk Book: The Milk of Human Kindness is Not Pasteurized. After quite a bit of surfing, I've noticed a few things - first, this book is commonly cited as the sole source of evidence in favor of drinking raw milk. Second - Dr. Douglass has written a lot of literature, including a book touting the health benefits of tobacco. Hmmm, I'm open minded, but perhaps not that open minded. Maybe I'll keep looking for sources.
  • The Weston A. Price Foundation runs an interesting website devoted to raw milk. "The Foundation is dedicated to restoring nutrient-dense foods to the human diet through education, research and activism. It supports a number of movements that contribute to this objective including accurate nutrition instruction, organic and biodynamic farming, pasture-feeding of livestock, community-supported farms, honest and informative labeling, prepared parenting and nurturing therapies." This mission describes a number of my beliefs and passions perfectly. Their website contains a number of interesting articles challenging FDA publications promoting pasteurized milk. They also publish their board of directors, which looks like a reasonably qualified group. So... this looks like a good place to start reading.
Against drinking raw milk, I found quite a bit of information on the FDA website, for instance Got Milk? Make Sure It's Pasteurized.

When I began putting this post together, I planned on doing only a single entry on milk. But I've been doing research for two nights now and come up with a wealth of interesting information. So I had a think... if I was reading someone else's blog, would I want to read a list of sources followed by the writer's ultimate conclusion, or would I want to read a more detailed analysis of the two sides? Given that I couldn't find any blogs or articles that I felt compared both sides objectively, I'd like to do that here (I'll try to be objective!). Which means that one post isn't enough. (You might have guessed that after reading my egg posts.)

So stay tuned for the rest of my milk posts - in the next one, I'll try to outline the major arguments for and against raw milk, primarily using sources from the FDA and the Weston A. Price Foundation.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Homemade Butternut Squash Ravioli

Pleased by the positive results with my sourdough bread, tonight I thought I'd build on my knowledge of dealing with dry flour in Colorado and tackle something I've had a lot of trouble with of late - homemade pasta.

A little background info on tonight's meal: believe it or not, we still have winter squash left from our fall CSA. I can't bring myself to eat any more squash soup or roasted squash. I guess I need to put in a little more thought as to what to do with the last few. Then I remembered ... why hadn't I thought of this before? I LOVE butternut squash ravioli, and I've never tried to make it. The butternut squash are long gone, but acorn squash will probably taste almost as good.

I started looking for a recipe. NONE of my many cookbooks has a recipe for butternut squash ravioli, not even any of my five trusty Jamie Oliver books (Ok, I like him, but not that much - two of them were gifts). Next I looked online. Sure enough, I found a pretty good recipe on epicurious. If you haven't used epicurious before, I'd highly recommend it. I've had pretty good luck with most of the recipes I've tried.

So now I've got a plan for the filling, which brings us back to the problem of the pasta. I got a pasta maker about 6 years ago. For the first few years, I used it quite a bit, as you do, and I could do no wrong. It must have been beginner's luck. After a while, my pasta started getting worse and worse - tough, chewy (not in a pleasant way) and dry. I've tried a few different recipes, but always with the same result.

I've already learned some this weekend about holding back flour while paying attention to a recipe's instructions for how the dough should feel. I thought I'd try to apply this idea to pasta, going back to the first recipe I ever tried, from Jamie Oliver's The Naked Chef. I'll write more on him another time, as he deserves an entire entry. But here is the short version of the recipe.

  • 1 lb bread flour (3 1/2 to 4 c)
  • 5 fresh, large eggs (preferably organic)
  • semolina flour for dusting
Pile the flour on a smooth surface and make a well in it. Crack the eggs into the well. Use a fork to mix the eggs together, slowly drawing in more and more of the flour until it forms a dough. Once it is incorporated, knead until the dough is smooth and elastic.

Let dough rest in the fridge 1 hour.

Divide the dough into 4 balls, then use a pasta maker or rolling pin to roll each ball into a sheet. From there cut it or shape it as you want.

I decided to hold back about 25% of the flour. After that I paid close attention to adding only enough flour to keep the dough from getting sticky as I kneaded it.
Success! When I rolled it out in the pasta maker, the dough felt soft, tender and elastic, not tough as it has in my last attempts. In the end, I kept back about 1/3 of the suggested flour amount.

Here is a VERY important tip for those of you that are still with me... after rolling out each sheet, you need somewhere to put it. Jamie always shows beautiful sheets hanging on the backs of chairs in his books, but don't try this unless you want to eat one giant chair shaped noodle. It is way too dry in Colorado - the pasta dries in position almost immediately. Instead I lay the pasta flat in sheets covered in (very wrung out) damp dish towels. Here is the important part, dust flour very generously between each sheet, including under the bottom one. Otherwise, they stick together, which is a nightmare if you're trying to make ravioli, as you don't want any holes. Semolina is the best flour for dusting, by the way, as it is course, almost like sand, and doesn't get absorbed by the pasta.

Now on to the filling. I pretty much followed the filling part of the recipe exactly, except for using the acorn squash. I also followed a few of the review suggestions and subbed fresh sage and goat cheese, the delicious local Haystack Mountain Chevre.

I am really lazy when shaping the ravioli. I saw a Good Eats episode once where Alton measured each ravioli to perfection using a ruler. Where is the fun in that? Mine are much more "artistic."

Ok, instructions: lay out one sheet of pasta and then put scoops of ravioli down about 1 to 1 1/2 inches apart. How big should the scoops be? Use your best judgement. Put the line of scoops slightly off the center line. Flatten each scoop so that the top layer of pasta doesn't have to stretch far to touch the bottom layer. Then gently brush water on the pasta around each scoop.

Finally, fold the other half of the sheet over the tops of the scoops. You want to do this slowly, cupping your hand around the back of each scoop then rolling the cup of your hand over the scoop to the other side. You're trying to force out any air bubbles before making the final outer connection between the layers, as air will expand during cooking and possibly pop the pasta open. I wish I'd taken a picture of this step, but I was in a little bit of a panic due to the aforementioned sticky sheet hole problem. Cut between each covered scoop into individual raviolis.

Oh yea, put a big pot of water on to boil about ten minutes ago. Once boiling, lower the heat to a bare simmer.

To cook the pasta, gently place about 7 or 8 raviolis into the water at a time. Don't let the water come back to a boil or it will break up the raviolis. I cooked them until al dente, about 4 minutes. Drain the water from the raviolis gently, then immediately coat them in either olive oil or whatever sauce you're making.

Which brings us to the sauce. I was really lazy with the sauce... basically I threw a few tablespoons of butter in a saute pan on medium low heat with a handful each of walnuts and fresh sage leaves and a pinch of salt. I let it cook gently for about 5 minutes, tossing occasionally, until the butter, the nuts and the sage were all browned and toasty. Then pour over the ravioli.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Colorado Sourdough from Scratch

Today was attempt #2 at using my sourdough starter to actually make bread. As much as I love tending to it and seeing it grow, I'm not looking for a new pet - it's time to put it to use.

As I mentioned in my last post, I was trying that very day to make my first ever sourdough bread. Many, many hours later, my "boules" were about as risen and tender as slightly misshapen softballs. Yumm. I decided not to waste the electricity to bake them - there was no hope.

What went wrong?

The recipe I used was suggested as the easiest one to start with for new sourdough bakers in the King Arthur book -

Pain Au Levain with Whole Wheat.

  • 1 c. (9 oz) ripe whole wheat levain - yes, I have that finally!!
  • 1-2/3 c. (6-5/8 oz) whole wheat flour
  • 2-2/3 c. (11-1/4 oz) unbleached bread flour
  • 1-1/2 c. (12-oz) cool water
  • 1 Tbs honey
  • 2 tsp salt
I am not going to recount all of the steps in detail here as the recipe is actually FIVE pages long with a few extra sidebars on other pages. If anyone is interested, let me know, and I can provide more detail.

Actually the recipe wasn't hard - easy steps with short risings in between, followed by one long rising. So I was surprised that my dough was so leaden.

After thinking back on each step in the process, I had an idea for what the problem might be. This recipe is a little unlike other yeast recipes I've used in that it suggests that you add all of the flour and water to your rising agent in the first step, stir it slowly and then let it sit for 20 minutes. This step is called an autolyse and is apparently quite important.

Heartland Mill, supplier of organic grain products, says, "This pre-hydration allows for better links between gluten and starches and results in shorter mix times and improved dough extensibility. Loaves made with autolysed dough will be easier to shape and will have more volume and better crumb structure."

In other recipes I've used, which don't happen to have this step, when the flour is added to the liquid, you only start with about two thirds of it. The remaining flour is added during the kneading process so that you can judge whether or not it is necessary.

Well, being a bit baffled by the autolyse step, I thought I'd better just follow the instructions and added all of the flour.

And this, I think, was the problem. Colorado is extremely dry, which makes the flour here extremely dry. The drier your flour, the more liquid it will need. When making bread, your liquid amount is predetermined, so all you can do to get the right balance is use less flour. When I make yeast bread, I typically add about 1/2 to 1 c. less flour than suggested for a two loaf recipe.

Rather than pay attention to this previously observed pattern, I just dumped in all of the flour. As soon as I began the first kneading step, I sensed a problem.

Whole wheat bread dough is extremely wet and sticky to knead, which is quite different than white bread dough. After a good kneading period and the right amount of flour, a white bread dough will feel smooth, warm and elastic - maybe a little tacky, but definitely not sticky. Whole wheat dough will feel elastic, but it will be much more sticky. If you add enough flour to whole wheat dough to make it smooth, the dough will be so heavy that the yeast won't be strong enough to make it rise.

And that was my problem... my dough felt exactly like white bread dough.

So today I started over, which brings us to the present...

Man, this bread takes a long time to make. I am not kidding, here are (roughly) the steps:
  • Mix the starter, water and flour slowly.
  • Let rest for 20 minutes
  • Add salt and honey, knead for a few minutes
  • Let rise for 45 minutes
  • Put dough on floured surface, spread into a rectangle, fold up like a letter, twice, put back in bowl.
  • Let rise for 45 minutes
  • Repeat folding step
  • Rise for, surprise, surprise, 45 minutes
  • Turn onto surface, divide in two, draw up edges and pinch together
  • Let rest for 20 minutes
  • Shape into boules (long, long explanation here which I don't really understand, basically I ... shaped them into taught rounds)
  • Put into bowls or baskets lined with heavily (didn't do it heavily enough!) floured, smooth tea towels and cover
  • Let rise for 2 to 2-1/2 hours
  • During rise, preheat oven to 4500 for half hour with baking stone on middle rack and iron skillet on bottom rack
  • Bake loaves on stone for 10 minutes at 4500, then 20-30 minutes at 4250. When putting loaves in the oven, put 1/2 c. water into iron skillet to create steam, which makes the crust crispy.
The only modification I made was to hold back about 3 oz of the bread flour from the first step. As it turns out, I never needed to add it back. The dough seemed to fit the description pretty well from thereon out.

How did it turn out? ... It was everything I hoped for: chewy, tender, crusty, and with the extra flavor of a whole wheat loaf.

So ... living in a town with great artisan bread available, was it worth it all the effort? It tasted quite similar to expensive breads I've bought. The one extra characteristic I noticed was that it tasted fresher. I don't know why, given that any bakery bread I'd buy around here would have been baked that morning, but my husband and I both agreed that it definitely tasted fresher. And it's pretty cool that I made the whole thing using flour, water, honey and salt.

Notice that in the picture, the loaf is half eaten. That picture was taken about 3 minutes after we cut into the first loaf. That might give you an idea of how it tasted. So at this point, I'm thinking I'll keep my little pet around for awhile.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Yeast Gone WILD!!!!!

And now for my next baking adventure. I've introduced brown bread - a simple soda leavened bread. I've had a first attempt at using sprouted wheat (haven't tried sprouted wheat bagels yet, still on the list).

These aren't quite doing it for me... I really have a craving for a nice, chewy crusty loaf.

Through all the research and experimentation I've done (OK, I admit - not that much, but I have read my two baking cookbooks and I have really good reading comprehension) , I've come to realize that this is not such an easy thing to come by. Soft, tender, yeast leavened sandwich bread is pretty easy to make at home, and it generally only takes a few hours. But this wasn't what I wanted. The more recipes I read, the more I realized that the crusty, chewy texture of French, sourdough, and other types of artisan bread comes from growing a starter for a minimum of one night, and often more.

After browsing a few choices, I decided to attempt a sourdough starter completely from scratch - no yeast, nothing except water and whole wheat flour. I've heard that sourdough starters can be extremely finicky and difficult to make, but what's the worst that can happen... I'll throw a bunch of flour away? Thank goodness for Boulder's Curbside Compost Pickup - that helps alleviate the guilt!

I chose a method from King Arthur's Whole Grain Baking. The basic steps are as follows:

  • Combine 1 c. (4 oz) whole wheat flour and 1/2 c. (4 oz) cool water. Cover and leave at room temperature.
  • The next day and the day after, feed the mixture by discarding half of the mixture and mixing in the same amount of flour and water. Cover and let sit. By the third day, the mixture should show signs of expansion and smell fruity.
  • Every day thereafter, the mixture needs to be fed every 12 hours with the same amount of flour and water.
  • After the 5th day, the mixture can be used as a starter.
What does all of this mean? It sounds so mysterious. Why do I have to wait for 5 days if the mixture starts to expand after two? Well, I found lots of conflicting information, but the explanation that seems to make the most sense to me is a great explanation I found from Mike of Sourdough Home.

Basically, whole grain flour is loaded with lots of different yeast and bacteria. Through regular feedings, the two that you are interested in - yeast and lactobacillus bacteria will eventually thrive and kill of all of the rest. This takes about a week. If you aren't regular with your feedings, your starter will either stop growing or start growing other things you don't want, like mold. He recommends that you use a starter when it is at least a week old and doubling in size every 12 hours.

By the way, you discard half the mixture at every feeding unless you want an exponentially growing starter (doubling every 12 hours and doubling the amount of flour needed to keep it from starving). I like bread, but I'm not planning on making that much.

So how did mine go?

The initial mixture was a very thick, dry paste. I was skeptical. See picture on the right...

The next day, I didn't see any sign of activity, but it did smell distinctively yeasty. That seemed positive. I fed as instructed.

By the third day, it was growing like crazy. It looked bubbly and smelled fruity, just as described.

I faithfully fed it every 12 hours (or so!) and by the sixth day it was still going strong and I was dying to use it. To the right are pictures of my growing blob after this morning's feeding and this afternoon when I got home from work. You can see why I call it a blob - I could have nightmares about this.

So it seems that in Colorado it is not so hard to get a sourdough culture started... I would have liked to have said that my next post would be about the great bread I made with it, but I'm afraid this will take a little more practice. I attempted my first bread tonight and after about 2 hours of rising, the dough hasn't risen at all.

Well, I'll have another blob of excess starter ready in the morning for attempt #2. If it doesn't get me first ...

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Find a CSA near you

If you haven't heard the term CSA before, now is a good time to learn a little about it, because the summer sign-ups are starting.

If you have, then don't worry, I'll keep this short.

In my own words, a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) is a way that members of a community can join together to support a farm and its farmer(s) and reap its benefits. The farms draw members from a small local area. They usually ask for a lump sum payment from each member at the beginning of the season (and sometimes even a few days of labor) for the purpose of supporting the farm and its workers through that season, and in return, distribute their wares to each member in installments. When you buy a CSA share, that is really what you are buying ... a share, as opposed to a regular guaranteed delivery of vegetables. If the farm has a little trouble due to weather, you'll get less of a share; if the veggies are great that year, you'll get a little more.

Having said all that, there are thousands of CSAs in the US, operating on many different models and for many different types of farms, including everything from veggies, fruit, flowers to coffee, bread, milk and meat.

What is the motive behind all of this? To build a network of local, small scale, non-industrial farms in your area. These farms will supply you with healthier, often organic, food that is grown in your own backyard rather than being trucked in from thousands of miles away. Long term, you're guaranteeing that this supply will be around because by giving a guaranteed payment to a farm at the beginning of the season, they'll become more stable than if they were to strictly sell produce at farmer's markets, especially in a problematic season. And an additional bonus is that you're supporting your local economy.

Believe it or not, the USDA estimated based on data collected that in 2007 there were 12,459 farms in the US selling through a CSA arrangement1. This movement is growing. Maybe someday it will actually be more common to buy food locally than from the supermarket.

A few resources - The USDA has an interesting older article on the origin of CSAs as well as many up to date references and Local Harvest is a great website for finding a CSA near you.

So which CSA did we go with? If you've been reading this blog, you can guess that we are in awe of the veggies from Abbondanza. We did a fall CSA with them last year and had great luck - beautiful, delicious produce and a lot of it. It is $650 for 22 weeks.

But I don't think we can expect that this will always be the case. Our summer experience wasn't quite as good. We joined a different farm, that I'd prefer not to mention. Maybe we just weren't in the right mindset (which is why I'd rather withhold their name). It's hard not to look at the price you're paying per week, especially when you've just picked up chard and pea shoots for the 3rd week in a row and compare it to the price you'd pay at the supermarket for a week's worth of veg. It's hard to remind yourself that you're not in it for the deal - you're in it for building a long term, sustainable food supply. I guess what we objected to was the selection of produce grown - either Colorado produce takes some getting used to or they grew weird stuff.

Having said all that, I'm very excited for this year. Even if it turns out exactly the same as last year, I'll have a better idea of what to expect and what to do with the food. (Put the chard in the trade basket!)

In fact, this summer I plan to feature a vegetable of the week centered around what I got in my pickup. It'll all be very exciting!

So, in summary- join a CSA and do it now, they fill up fast

Ok, one more thing... what is the deal with snap peas? Every CSA around here features them prominently. Last summer there were basket loads at every stand at the Farmer's Market (31 days!). People seem to refer to them in reverential tones. WHY? They are not nice at all. To me, they taste like sugar water in a fibrous green shell. Whereas fresh English peas are simply divine, seem to be growable around here, and are quite hard to find! Ok, rant over. Goodnight.

1USDA website on Community Supported Agriculture

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Eggsaustive Eggspose - The Final Chapter

Here it is, the moment you've all been waiting for - the final installment of my series on finding and eating all natural eggs. This is where we put it all to the test - get the free range eggs, get the feel good factory eggs and compare how they cook and taste.

The contenders:

- Cyd's Nest Fresh Free Roaming Organic Brown: As discussed in the previous posts, this was the grocery store brand I chose based on a few factors. They're local, they use organic feed, the hens aren't caged, and while the chickens are pretty far from what many people would consider truly free range, at least they've gone to the effort to get certified by an independent organization as following humane practices.

- Jay Hill Farm's free range eggs: This nearby farm sells organic vegetables and free range eggs year round. I had a few email exchanges with Rowan of Jay Hill Farm regarding what free range actually means to them. Their chickens eat weeds and veggie scraps from their farm, commercial feed, non-organic due to affordability, but at least non-gmo, and whatever they can get outside. They roam around in a large enclosure from early in the morning until evening. She said that they tried letting them truly roam free in their fields, but there were too many predators around. I can believe that, as I live nearby and frequently have foxes in my backyard. So, while I was disappointed that their feed isn't organic, these chickens are probably leading contented lives and getting a substantial portion of greens and insects in their diet, which seems like a reasonable compromise.

The challenge:

  • Poached - this most difficult cooking method would be a good test for comparing the freshness and firmness of the the two varieties
  • Fried - this, the most delicious of all egg cooking methods, would allow me to taste both eggs at their best.
Quick diversion - frying an egg is easy right? That depends on who you ask. It seems easy, once you are practiced enough not to break the yolk, but achieving that elusive balance of crispiness and tenderness, softness of the yolk and firmness of the white is not easy. My husband pointed this out to me a few years ago. Pre-kid, we used to eat breakfast out every week or two. I liked to bounce around, trying different places, but he always wanted to go to this greasy place near our house called Marie's. It's been an establishment in Boulder since the 70s, I think. One day, I asked him what he saw in Marie, and he said, the fried eggs (always the same cook, not Marie) are better than anywhere else, in fact, they're always perfect. After a few years of paying more attention, I have to say I agree - Marie's makes perfect fried eggs.

You know who else does?

Not me. Mine aren't bad. They're passable to the untrained eater. But they don't have that je ne sais quoi thing going on.

It's my husband - the expert critic is also the expert chef. So I recruited him for the experiment. I poached, he fried.

Round 1 - Poaching:

I've decided to give my poaching method here because I've tried many different methods, only one of which works for me.

Bring 3 inches of water to a boil in a wide, deep saucier and then lower the temperature until the water is barely simmering. A saucepan will also work, but the flared edges of a saucier make getting the eggs in and out a little easier. A saute pan doesn't work because the eggs don't cook on top if the water isn't deep enough.

Add 1 Tbs. of white vinegar to the water.

Grease a ladle, then holding the ladle upright (I use my mouth to hold the ladle), crack the egg carefully into the ladle. Lower the ladle into the water, hold it without submerging for a few seconds until the egg white starts to color on the edges, then slip the egg gently into the water.

After about 4 minutes, remove the egg with a slotted spoon, tipping the spoon for a few seconds to drain off the water.

Season lightly with salt and pepper.

So how did it go? I don't know if there were about 10,000 stars aligned perfectly that night or what, but I made two perfect poached eggs, an unusual feat for me.

The whites of both held together tightly in the water, the yolks of both were incredibly rich in color. I did notice that the yolk of the free range egg was much bigger in proportion to the white than the other egg. When I first started cooking the Jay Hill egg, you can see that the white looked sloppier than the other egg, but it actually help together nicely.


Jay Hill

Round 2 - Frying:

So what is the secret method of my husband, egg snob and chef? I don't know exactly, as it's a tightly guarded secret. I have picked up a few clues though:

  • Equipment: small, non-stick pan. Wide, flexible, silicone spatula.
  • Olive oil for the fat.
  • Cook mostly on one side without touching before turning.
  • Low to medium low heat
As you can see from the pictures below, both eggs turned out nicely. By the second set of eggs, we knew we weren't imagining the larger yolk on the free range eggs - the difference is quite noticeable in these pictures.


Jay Hill

The decision:

Well, I am sad to say that after my exhaustive search for the perfect egg, and our carefully planned scientific experiment, I couldn't taste one bit of difference between the two eggs. In retrospect, I should have added a third contender - the cheapest factory eggs I could find - you know, 69 cents a dozen in a styrofoam container.

Ah well, they may taste the same, but I'm still going for the Jay Hill eggs for all of the other reasons I've discussed.

This may seem like an anti-climactic way to conclude my long, suspenseful series on finding the perfect egg in Boulder if it weren't for one thing... take a look at those pictures above. Those are some fine looking eggs, and we got to eat all of them for dinner.