Monday, June 30, 2008

Onigiri On Cherries

See here for the incredibly endearing musings of a Taiwanese grad student on cherries and the differences between the US and Taiwan.

Here's an excerpt:

"Everything in US is big, so do cherries after cherry blossom! In Japan, they are birds' dessert; in US, they are squirrels' dessert."

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33 More Reasons to Drink Tea

Thanks to the good people of NursingDegree.Net for sending T&F a link to their latest article, the title of which is also the title of this post.

I appreciate the science behind why tea is good for us, but I advise that people first come to such conclusions on their own. For the thousands of years that we've existed as a species, we've been able to look at forests and savannas and figure out what we like to eat pretty well, and all without the help of the men in white coats. I'm sure you can manage to do the same at your local supermarket.

I also distrust such studies because they usually highlight only one of many reasons why a certain food is healthful. You'd have to live under a rock to not know that pomegranates are high in antioxidants, but that's not the only reason we chose to domesticate them back in the Fertile Crescent. Besides, you're probably not eating more pomegranates as a whole. If anything, you're buying things with pomegranate juice, or pomegranate derived antioxidants, and that means you're missing out on the whole package. Or worse, you're buying one of the many products made from pomegranates that are not even edible, like shampoo, or something called "body mist."

Another clue to the dubious quality of such claims is their short life. For instance, green tea was the pomegranate of 2000, and while it's still readily available in many forms, it's clearly been upstaged by the eerily omnipresent POM machine. But if you simply drink green tea, or many kinds of tea for that matter, you will no doubt notice the positive effect it has on your body. Thanks to the nurses for outlining the science behind this phenomenon, though you'll also find proof in observing your own body's reaction. And I'm not talking about a caffeine buzz -- there's something else going on here.

I first noticed the feeling some years ago while in the company of fellow T&F contributor Dave. I was then drinking green tea twice a day on the suggestion of my then "doctor," who was in fact a holistic practitioner who referred to himself as a biochemist. On this regiment, I came to realize that every time I drank green tea I would start smiling. Days after voicing my observation to Dave, we walked past a newspaper with a headline that said something like "Study Shows Green Tea Makes People Happy." Of course the market was immediately flooded not only with green tea but also with green tea face soaps and so forth.

The lesson I'd like you to take from this is threefold.

1. You have the power to tell when things are good for you. Scientists don't hold all the cards. Consult the scientific data, but only after you've looked to your own powers of perception.

2. When you do find a food that does something good for you, don't mist your body with it. Eat it.

3. Go right now and make yourself a cup of good quality green tea. Don't use boiling water or you'll burn the leaves and it will taste bitter. Take a sip. Look inward. Notice that you feel better. Then, and only then, click on this link and read about why it's so good for you:

My favorite reason? Number 17: "Tea Protects Your Smile."

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Sunday, June 29, 2008

Scapes and Eggs

I also call this shot "The Picture of a Weekend." Some people choose where to live based on criteria like the quality of the local school system. I recently moved in large part so that I could be closer to good things to eat. So far, so good.

Increasingly our weekends here in Maynard, MA consist of acquiring some local bounty, eating it, and as little else as possible. On Saturday we went to the first town far-mar of the season as well as my newest crush, Codman Farms. Between the two we scored some excellent eggs and scapes.

There's a lot of buzz of late about the many uses of scapes, but simply cooking them in an omelette or even a scramble is perhaps their best treatment. Keep them a little firm and they'll pop in a nice contrast to the eggs.

A word on scapes. If you want to put them in hummus, like I did last weekend, it's a good idea to warm them up in the olive oil you also intend to use. Like so.

It's a great idea to then snip them into small segments, lest they wind around the base of your blender blade, choking it and filling the kitchen with the smell of angry plastic. Learned that the hard way.

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Friday, June 27, 2008

In Further Praise of Rhubard

Like Brendan and TheJewAndTheCarrot, I too cannot get enough of "the pie plant," aka rhubarb.

While rhubarb is perhaps best known in combination with strawberry, the season in which that blessed union is possible is surprisingly brief. When rhubarb first pops up, sometimes out of the snow, strawberries might be months away. When strawberries are finally plump and red, many rhubarb plants have already turned into Godzilla and gone to seed. So if you're eating strawberry rhubarb pie in Massachusetts in May, you're also eating strawberries from Mexico.

This knowledge, combined with my statement in the first sentence, has led me to consume many pure rhubarb-on-rhubarb pastries, such as the one in the photo above. It's a turnover, which in my kitchen is bake-speak for having had extra dough after making a pie.

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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Remembering Spring, Pt. 2

Superman had kryptonite, and I have rhubarb--my great weakness. In the presence of rhubarb I lose all sense of modesty and proportion. I just harvest and/or buy it until there isn't any left. Last year I trundled across town in an April snowstorm to follow up rumors of the season's first stalks. One day I will look back on my family's rhubarb patch as a formative experience.

I've cut rhubarb through July, and maybe later, but in the markets it's an early season item--probably because people inevitably associate it with strawberries. Fanatics like myself stock up, and freeze.

Last week I laid in my annual supply of strawberry rhubarb jam and hardly made a dent in the rhubarb. Next up was rhubarb ginger, a genius concept I first tasted in Killarney. Liberal amounts of diced ginger lend a warm spice to the jam without detracting from the rhubarb's killer tartness. I started with a double batch, in case the proportions weren't right, but they were spot on--the jam is neither gelatinous nor mushy. For better or worse, I've run out of jars, so the rest gets frozen. In October, when I find that I've somehow eaten all my jam, I'll thaw it out for a rhubarb crisp. Ladies, gentlemen: to rhubarb.

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Remembering Spring pt. 1

The reason there's so much melancholy poetry is that when people are having fun, they don't bother to stop and write about it. Likewise, when food finally began to shoulder up out of winter's grasp in New England, I was too busy finding and cooking it to chronicle it. Which is a shame, because fiddleheads merit discussion. When I was a kid my mom's agrarian spidey-sense would go off at a certain point in the springtime. For the next two weeks we'd collect these nasty-looking baby fern things from the roadside. Childhood revulsion grew into respect and eventually anticipation, and this year I didn't have to buy them from Whole Foods. Fiddlehead season found me back in Maine, and Mom and I put our heads together to track down a local supply. I ended up pulling the car into a gravel swath where a pickup was parked with a cardboard sign: "Fiddleheads 3.00/lb". Two guys, two five-gallon buckets, lots of fiddleheads. Conversation was discouraged, but then they probably noticed my out-of-state plates.

Fiddleheads' character doesn't lend itself to mingling with other flavors, and their limited availability makes me want to enjoy them straight-up while I can. These were lightly sauteed with a bit of garlic and red onion. The idea is to get them just soft enough to eat without reducing them to a spinachy mess. These were fantastic. A little grassy, kind of an asparagus character, and a strong pond flavor that reminds me of watercress. We had plans to freeze them for later in the year, but we went through two pounds in a few days, and that was that.

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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Codman Farms

I recently moved out of Boston and into greener pastures, but it wasn't until I saw these signs that I really grasped the fact that I no longer live in the city. They were posted on the on-your-honor fridge at Codman Farms in Lincoln, one of the many idyllic places around here to buy no-logo food. We were so excited by our purchase of some incredible looking (and ethically raised) bacon and eggs that we just went and had breakfast for dinner.

But what can I do with duck eggs? Any suggestions?

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Tea With A Heart, Part 2

In the rat race to coin the hottest new food descriptor, terms of substance are quickly eroded by the corner cutting of corporations quick to jump on the bandwagon. Take the kind of "free range" chickens that have a door to the outside but whose legs are too weak to carry their enormous, genetically modified breasts. Among these organic snake oil salesman, Tetulia Teas stands out as different and refreshing as a breath of fresh air or nice cup of green.

Tetulia has chosen to label their tea "garden direct sustainable," but that's just the beginning. They're also a co-op whose membership benefits include getting a cow. This cow is paid for not with money, but in milk and dung (for fertilizer), and any offspring may be kept by the owner. The co-op also includes health programs and education both for young people and for area farmers interested in growing organically. The one room schoolhouse in which these classes take place, plus the playground equipment, are all built from bamboo donated by the community. Unlike a quasi-liberated chicken, this company's ideals can stand on their own two feet.

Tetulia is also the first and only organic tea garden in Bangladesh. While that's a far cry from being "local" for U.S. residents, tea is exactly the kind of provision worth using some fossil fuels to import, because you can't really get it here. The only commercial tea garden on the entire continent is in Charleston, is owned by Bigelow, and grows hundreds of varieties of tea only to sell them in one blend. It's a simple black tea that ices well, and the garden is an extremely pleasant place to visit, but it's also proof that you can't always get precisely what you want in your own backyard.

Despite the carbon footprint incurred in shipping, there's a case for using our first world purchasing power to make change in less developed countries. See Michael Pollan on buying asparagus from Argentina:

"You can make a good argument that my purchase generates foreign exchange for a country desperately in need of it, and supports a level of care for that country's land -- farming without pesticides or chemical fertilizer -- it might not otherwise receive."

(Though he adds that it tasted "like damp cardboard.")

Tetulia offers standard black, green and white as well as herbal blends featuring "ayurvedics." These are harvested from the very trees used to shade the tea plants and are used in such exotic flavor combinations as the Tulsi Infusion, with holy basil, and Vaska Laka, with malobar nut and ginger. Then there's Neem Nectar, which their website describes as "a purifying drinking experience from the magical Neem tree or Azadirachta Indica."

The tea bags and containers? Biodegradable and compostable, respectively. Tetulia is no pipe dream either, as it's been around since 2000 and the co-op has over 1,000 members, a figure they plan to quadruple within the next few years. As if it's near angelic qualities weren't convincing enough, they're also offering a 10% discount through the website. Now you really have no excuse.

For every time you walk into Whole Foods and get overwhelmed by the half truths of their many seemingly progressive labels, remember that there are companies like Tetulia out there who are only full of shit in the sense that their members pay their dues in dung.

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Monday, June 23, 2008

Tea With a Heart, Part 1

Once upon a time, I thought the kosher laws represented the pinnacle of all things edible. As a young adult, "organic" became my new guiding light as it did for others who had previously thought "gourmet" was tops. In the new post-organic era, producers and consumers alike continue the struggle for that golden fleece, the latest and most potent food related buzz word catch phrase.

When I got hip to the shortcomings of Big Organic (see The Omnivore's Dilemma, especially the part about weeding with blowtorches), I was once again left searching. Fortunately, "local" then made it's debut, or rather the term was newly popularized for what is actually the oldest form of procuring food besides hunter-gathering. To this day it quite literally remains my bread and butter.

But sometimes I want a banana, and that's when I look to "fair trade," having finally realized that the lives of the people who grow my food are at least as important as that of the fruit. Now there's a sign up at the Diesel Cafe that says in big letters (and I paraphrase) "The Coffee You're Drinking Is Not Fair Trade... ...It's Direct Trade!"

As labor practices now enter our criteria for selecting food, the art of labeling marches forward, lead by people with good hearts and even better marketing directors. I'm normally deeply suspicious of marketing, but here I see its power to do good, as it takes a lot to make people forget all the other marketing that they've been pumped with over the past half century. Fortunately, many of us are now swayed by images of genuinely ethnic, smiling women over their cartoon predecessor, Miss Chiquita Banana.

Enter Tetulia, a Bengladeshi tea garden on the very cutting edge of how righteous something edible can be.

(photo courtesy of

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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Baked Potato Salad (a.k.a. "More Fun With Mayo")

In the form it usually takes, potato salad is one of the most disgusting foods I can think of. Done well, it's fantastic.

Real potato salad first appeared on my radar in reading Hemingway's (posthumous) memoir A Movable Feast. It contains one of my favorite of his many sensual descriptions of food and drink, one which pre-dates Bittman but exemplifies a thoroughly minimalist love of pure, simple ingredients:

"The beer was very cold and wonderful to drink. The pommes a l'huile were firm and marinated and the olive oil delicious. I ground black pepper over the potatoes and moistened the bread in the olive oil."

I ground black pepper over mine too, but instead of olive oil, it was the remainder of my homemade mayonnaise that imparted moisture and flavor to the potatoes. The potatoes themselves were baked and left with the skins on, which gave them much more substance than those ragged, boiled lumps you usually get. These were the potatoes mentioned in ETBTH 1, and I used a trick on them which I often employ for baking root veggies. When they're about 80% done, turn off the oven and leave them in there until cool. Something wonderful happens.

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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Eat to Beat the Heat Part 4: A Cool Purée

If you want to get fancy you can use stock, finish with butter, roast and spice your veggies and so forth, but if you want simple, it's this easy: cook a vegetable however you like, then put it in the blender with water and salt.

We blanched asparagus and used some of the cooking water and a pinch of sea salt, whipped it into a fine, velvety liquid, and served at room temperature. Simple, cooling, and as good as you ever need it to be on a hot day. The better the ingredients, the better it will be, so let your farmer do all the work on this one.

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Monday, June 16, 2008

Eat to Beat the Heat Part 3: The Pleasures of Waspy Foods

While I'm much more excited by fermented millet mush, I must say that the genre of "waspy" foods can be remarkably pleasant in hot weather. If you find that term offensive, simply replace it with "mayonnaisey."

Here in Massachusetts cucumbers are not in season yet, but neither is 95 degree heat, so I went ahead and made a cold cucumber soup anyway. When I can't go local I get organic, because it's better than not and because doing so generates a pleasant placebo effect. Of course you could argue that eating whatever food we want whenever we want it is one of the practices that has led to higher temperatures, but you wouldn't really have to argue because it's just true.

Many recipes call for seeding the cucumber, but you don't have to. Just throw two peeled cukes into a blender with fresh dill, a splash of white vinegar, salt, pepper, a spoonful of honey and your choice of dairy or even fake dairy, as unsweetened soy milk works fine. One slurp and your internal temperature will plummet.

Served open face and in dappled sunlight, this was the best chicken salad I've ever had. Made from the bird I roasted in E.T.B.T.H. Part 1 and with homemade mayonnaise, this meal proved once again that simple done well can be mind blowing.

I generally despise and mistrust mayo, but making my own demystifies it and produces a much more edible product that the commercial alternatives. Throw a raw egg and canola oil in a blender plus a pinch of salt and lemon juice or vinegar, and - poof! - you've got springy, savory, mayonnaise. Now put on something pastel and enjoy it.

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Friday, June 13, 2008

Eat to Beat the Heat Part 2: Ferment and Sin No More

To beat the heat this time around, I decided to cut down the cooking time on some millet by giving it a preliminary soak. For those unfamiliar with this delicious and nutritious grain, you may know it as the little yellow balls in your birdseed.

As far as human consumption goes, it's an oldie and a goody, dating back to ancient China where it was prized for its ability to swell to five times its size once rehydrated. Having a warm bowl of it first thing in the morning makes you remember what "cereal" once meant.

But the heat had another plan for my millet. Thanks in part to the sultry temperature, the millet spontaneously fermented. When I checked to see if it had soaked through, I found it gently bubbling and issuing a pleasant, slightly sour smell. Once upon a time I would have thrown it out, but instead I reached for my copy of Wild Fermentation and quickly learned that a fermented millet porridge known as ogi (or ugi) is popular in various parts of Africa. Say no more.

Fermentation acts as a god given preservative, stretching the life of your food precisely when it needs help staying "fresh." It was hot, the heat sped up the fermentation process, and therefore the millet remained edible - and perhaps more healthful - for a longer period of time. Thanks, wild yeast colonies of Maynard, Massachusetts.

How was it? Great. Imagine the sauerkraut version of grain.

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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Eat to Beat the Heat Part 1: The Mochi Monster

In this installment of my latest series, I'll be posting about my efforts to cook despite the disconcerting temperature in which the East Coast has been baking.

Last night I decided to fight fire with fire and do some baking of my own. How could turning on the oven when it's 85 in the house help beat the heat? Well, I baked everything for the week in one fell swoop. Doing so not only consolidates your heat into one session, but it also uses less gas. And any time you cut down on your fossil fuel consumption, you help reduce your carbon footprint, thereby combating global warming and keeping such freakish weather at bay. (I hope.)

As a result of my efforts, the oven was stuffed with a carnivalesque array of foods. A half chicken marinated in soy sauce roasted next to slices of eggplant, which sat above a tray of pastries, which in turn were next to the baked (baking?) potatoes. Everything was going well until something went awry. Then everything starting going really well...

Examine the introductory photo. Besides the fact that a rhubarb turnover and mochi puffs make strange bedfellows on a single cookie sheet, nothing seems out of the ordinary. Unless you look at it from above.

Because the landlord at my new apartment has yet to install an oven dial with any numbers on it, the temp was running high, so the slightly eggy filling in the turnover seeped out before the pastry had cooked enough to retain it. Like a broken off piece of the bad Terminator from the second movie, it reached out for the nearest thing like it, grabbing hold of a helpless little Japanese rice cake. When I finally pulled out the tray, I couldn't tell mochi from turnover, and the result was delicious.

Many famous foods are said to have been created by accident. Among these are Wheaties and American Cheese, which I'm guessing came into being when a fifth grade class on a field trip to a cheese factory all accidentally dropped their retainers into a vat of cheddar at the same time, giving us that plasticky non-cheese we all know and do not love.

In this case, the strange, new thing that lay between the two baked goods was absolutely divine; fluffy yet crunchy, sweet yet still tasting of whole grains and rich egg. I'll do my darndest to play with it again some time soon and keep you posted, because I really think I'm onto something. Mocheggy, anyone?

Heat: 0, Aaron: 1.

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Monday, June 9, 2008

Drumlin Farm

I saw these brilliant lettuce seedlings soaking up the sun at Drumlin Farm in Lincoln, MA while on a local food scouting mission in my new neighborhood. There I also learned that it's okay to eat a little raw rhubarb, which is good because I do anyway.

Part farm, part wildlife sanctuary and Audubon Center, at Drumlin you can see such story book perfect farm animals such as these poofy sheep. Since it is working farm, you can also buy a skein of their wool and perhaps a chunk of their shoulder or butt.

My hunch is that the Audubon funding makes Drumlin a little bit more of a theme park than some of it's down and dirty independent, small scale organic neighbors. Still, it's a great place to pick up some New England agricultural history or fresh veggies. They also offer a winter CSA, which I might have to join so I can stop boring you all with how much sauerkraut and applesauce I eat.

Despite the fact that Drumlin champions old fashioned, local farming practices, the gift shop only sold Good Humor ice cream. How disappointing is that? Only slightly less than having me buy part of your butt.

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Friday, June 6, 2008

Shavuot Article

See here for my article and photos in "The Forward" on the many fascinating and cheesy foods for the Jewish holiday Shavuot:

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Sort-Of Local Fruit

Speaking of growing your own nosh, my mom just mailed me this home grown pineapple from her garden in Florida. That means it's local. Sort of.

On my travels I often have the pleasure of snatching up local goodies and then whisking them back to my home base, where they instantly become exotic and therefore taste better. In eating food bought locally but eaten globally, I can have my cake and eat it too, quite literally in the case of the nut cake from the Smokehouse Deli in Cleveland.

This pineapple was grown from the top of another pineapple, a neat trick if you live in a warm enough climate. It arrived just as I moved into a new apartment, and what could be better than being welcomed to a new home with the very symbol of hospitality?

Beer. Fortunately, we had a lot of that while we were moving, too. So much that I was surprised how steady my hands were for this long exposure, purely candlelit photo.

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Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The Return Of Local Fruit

Besides cellared apples and the ginger applesauce Elise and I canned in December, I haven't had a lick of locally grown fruit in months. That's because there hasn't been any. Until now.

When I checked my new strawberry vines this morning, I was shocked to find that not one but three berries had deeply blushed overnight.

I bought the plants a few weeks ago, not really sure what was going to happen with them. Would I find time to replant? Would they even grow? And if they fruited, would I be able to stop myself from eating them all in one sitting? Surprisingly, the answers to those questions turned out to be no, absolutely, and yep.

I was only able to transfer three of the plants to real containers, leaving the rest to languish in the tiny seed tray in which they were purchased. But they didn't seem to mind being left in just two inches of dirt, as those few plants are now heavy with over a hundred berries.

Every time I try to grow a little something to nosh on I find it's that easy. In the case of these strawberries, really all I did was buy them. And when I eat something that I've grown, I still feel as proud as the day when, at the age of five, I sprouted my first few leaves of lettuce. This despite the fact that I gobbled them immediately, thereby killing the plants. But remember that arugula I tried to start in my bedroom last March?

In finishing an article on Shavuot (more soon), I recently learned that this Jewish holiday is also known as the "Festival of First Fruits." Amazingly, the holiday falls less than a week from the day my berries ripened. Guess we are good with numbers.

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