Friday, February 27, 2009

My Dog Makes Orange Juice

Oli, my adopted Puerto Rican mutt, sometimes gets excited when he sees tropical fruit. Perhaps it reminds him of his days rummaging through the streets of San Juan.

The first time he saw me peel a banana he begged as though it were steak. Yesterday I gave him a clementine that was past its prime, and this is what happened.

Eventually, he did eat it.

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Thursday, February 26, 2009

Miso in the Morning

Continuing on the theme of savory breakfasts, this dish fits into my miso+1 theory. The variable in this instance was millet.

I very nearly OD'd on millet a few years back while suffering through a highly constrictive diet for health reasons. The way I ate in those days is why the thought of slightly steamed kale still makes me shudder, and the only way I can choke it down is cooked to death in soups with lots of sausage. But I just couldn't stay angry at millet. After all, there's nothing to be angry about.

Millet is a plain, inoffensive grain. There aren't many reasons to eat it, but there are even fewer not to. If nothing else, it will help you escape from the rice-is-the-only-grain-on-earth paradigm.

The first time I had millet was probably when I was kid, sampling birdseed. But now I like to pair it with miso for a breakfast that somehow feels both light and substantial. Simply boil millet as you would any grain, add a little miso slurry (this time I used red), and slurp. Millet can be nice and fluffy, but for some reason I'm liking it best when soupy.

Why? Why not?

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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Food for Breakfast

Mark Bittman's post on savory breakfasts seems to have struck a chord with many of us. For some, it might be novel: having food for breakfast instead of breakfast food.

A longtime proponent of starting the day with salt, this morning I made a variation on the ever present theme of savory oats, with eggs, garlic, collard greens and plenty of whisk-crushed black pepper.

If you prefer things like pop-tarts, saying "I could eat you for breakfast" simply becomes an empty threat. But if you eat breakfast like I eat breakfast, the phrase is nothing short of menacing. All the more true if you're talking to a vampire (garlic).

In all seriousness, eating real food first thing in the morning makes me feel invincible. Like I can slug my way through the day's tasks undaunted, my stomach full of power. I've been around a lot of sick folks lately, and I can't help but feel that my healthful savory breakfasts have helped me escape the wrath of their pathogens.

This has been a cold, snowy, flu-inducing winter, and in response I've upped my intake of the hot stuff (black and chili pepper, ginger, and garlic). Their bracing, medicinal qualities have gone a long way, and they rival coffee as an eye-opener.

I feel as healthy as a horse. And what do horses eat for breakfast? Savory oats.

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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Eating the Sun

As I poured eggs over some repurposed truffle salt French fries from the Franklin in Gloucester, this minuscule splash reared up, freezing mid-leap from the radiant heat of the skillet.

It's just a little drip, yet it conjures images of the most spectacular celestial activities, like comet trails and solar flares, giving new meaning to the phrase "sunny side up."

And why shouldn't it? As Pollan reminds us, we are essentially sunshine eaters. The chicken that laid the egg ate the grain, which had in turn consumed the sun. It's all very chad gadyah.

It also brings to mind the words of John (Fire) Lame Deer, a Lakota medicine man who has had a tremendous impact on my thinking about most things, food included.

He said:

What do you see here, my friend? Just an ordinary old cooking pot, black with soot and full of dents.

It is standing on the fire on top of that old wood stove, and the water bubbles and moves the lid as the white steam rises to the ceiling. Inside the pot is boiling water, chunks of meat with bone and fat, plenty of potatoes.

It doesn't seem to have a message, that old pot, and I guess you don't give it a thought. Except the soup smells good and reminds you that you are hungry. Maybe you are worried that this is dog stew. Well, don't worry. It's just beef -- no fat puppy for a special ceremony. It's just an ordinary, everyday meal.

But I'm an Indian. I think about ordinary, common things like a pot. The bubbling water comes from the rain cloud. It represents the sky. The fire comes from the sun which warms us all -- men, animals, trees. The meat stands for the four-legged creatures, our animal brothers, who gave of themselves so that we should live. The steam is living breath. It was water; now it goes up to the sky, becomes a cloud again. These things are sacred. Looking at that pot full of good soup, I am thinking how, in this simple manner, Wakan Tanka takes care of me. We Sioux spend a lot of time thinking about everyday things, which in our mind are mixed up with the spiritual. We see in the world around us many symbols that teach us the meaning of life. We have a saying that the white man sees so little, he must see with only one eye. We see a lot that you no longer notice. You could notice if you wanted to, but you are usually too busy.

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Monday, February 23, 2009

The Tale of Niman Ranch

Brendan here, with a word about meat. If you're familiar with Niman Ranch meats, you probably know that it was recently taken over by Natural Food Holdings, a bigger company not founded by hippies (probably). Bill Niman isn't impressed by what they've done with the place, and won't eat the meat that still bears his name. On the other hand, the company is now showing a profit, for the first time ever. A synopsis of Niman Ranch's founding, rise and buy-out can be found here.

I think people should raise animals the way Bill Niman does. But if you can't show a profit that way, forget about the business. Raise the animals, eat them, barter with them, and find another way to pay the bills.

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Sichuan Gourmet in Framingham

Anyone who has meticulously scoured Chowhound for the best Chinese restaurants in Boston (guilty!) has surely heard of Sichuan Gourmet in Framingham. Anyone who hasn't just did, and everyone should go there.

Pictured above is what I couldn't finish from my leftover smoky hot shredded chicken with cayenne. I loved it, but no one who grew up on "barbarian pepper" could ever eat (or digest, I should say) equal parts chili and chicken, which is how the dish is served at S.G.

Zoe's in Somerville is still my top pick for one stop shopping Chinese food (range, price, location, jellyfish), but at Sichuan Gourmet I tasted the single best Chinese dish I've ever had within 416 miles of Boston (the distance to Grace Garden, the best Chinese food within 7,000 miles, the distance to China). That dish was Dan Dan noodles.

The chef had expertly combined sesame, garlic, and chili, all present, none overpowering. The noodles were dressed with the perfect amount of sauce then topped with crispy ground pork, and for the first time I understood why Fuchsia Dunlop is so crazy about them.

While I haven't made a completely exhaustive search of Chinatown, so far I generally agree with the notion that the best Chinese food in Boston lies in the burbs. But if you're like me and Ezra Klein (favorite political blogger!), and you really like Sichuan cooking, go to Framingham.

If you can't make it there, the stuff in Chengdu is probably good too.

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Friday, February 20, 2009

Happy (Tree) New Year!

I just wrote an article about Tu B'Shevat, a holiday which is known as the Jewish Arbor Day and the new year for trees. The date coincides with the blossoming of the first fruit trees in Israel, a fact which is hard to register given how numb my hands are as I type due to the eleven degree windchill that I just walked the dog in.

My Tu B'Shevat menu synthesized Middle Eastern fare, Israeli tree crops, and local, seasonal New England foods. Every dish contained at least one ingredient from a tree, even if it was just cinnamon. For instance, sweet potatoes glazed with palm sugar, naan with carmelized onions, goat cheese and dates, and banana cream pie.

For those of you who object because the banana is not a true tree, don't worry, the pie also had lemon curd. We washed it all down with hard cider and pine tea, both tree products and both locally made/foraged, even now in the dead of winter.

While it might seem strange to celebrate spring in winter, there is a convenient connection for those who wish to find a relevant, tree themed event currently happening in the U.S. Here, Tu B'Shevat also marks the start of maple syrup season.

Coincidence? Yes. See here for the article.

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Thursday, February 19, 2009

My Other Pepper Mill is a Whisk

One of the reasons my kitchen implements are so crude is that I believe that much can be done with very little. Another reason is that, like Konstantin Dmitrich Levin and ice skating, "I wanted to achieve perfection."

I won't buy a good knife until I decide which knife is the right knife, and in the meantime I'm still using an un-honed garage sale find with the sharpness of a spoon. By holding out for something better, I'm sticking with something bad. That same stubborn hesitation has left me without a peppermill for years.

For a while I used my (awful) knife to crush peppercorns as one reader suggested. When I first heard of cracking pepper with a knife, I didn't believe it could be worth the effort. In the hierarchy of pepper, I thought that anything that didn't come pre-ground was tops, and that a knife could not improve on a peppermill. Otherwise, waiters at fancy restaurants would walk around with kitchen knives instead of grinders.

Little did I realize that freshly milled pepper and freshly bashed pepper are almost as different as freshly milled pepper and the limp, pre-ground pepper languishing on supermarket shelves around the world. If milled pepper is dust, then cracked pepper is... never mind, milled pepper is just dust.

Using the side of the knife to bludgeon peppercorns was an improvement on using a mill, but it still wasn't jumping off the ice from the steps. So I cast about my kitchen for the right implement, and somehow I landed on the whisk. I can't remember how I made the connection, but the butt end of the whisk is the PERFECT tool for crushing a peppercorn, and I'll never use anything else.

It has the right weight, the indentation is the perfect depth to contain and smash the pepper, and the little bit of lip on the bottom ensures that nary a piece of pepper escapes your wrath. The fallout from the impact also tends to make a perfect circle, looking like a tiny, spicy galaxy.

Heck, maybe god wanted to make our universe out of something better, but you've got to use what you have.

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Un-American Cheese

See here for Adam's latest rant, including some mind-boggling government literature defining nacho "cheese."

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You're Welcome, Mark Bittman

After months of posting about the wonders of savory breakfasts, especially oatmeal, my contributions to the culinary world have finally been recognized by none other that Mark Bittman. In his latest Minimalist column, Bittman publicly thanks me in no uncertain terms. I quote:

"Here are a few more fast ideas for savory, mostly whole-grain breakfasts some of which come from readers of my blog, Bitten — for these I say a general “thanks”.

You're welcome, Mark.

True to form, today began with savory oats. Salt, barely cracked pepper -- more like quartered peppercorns -- and a seriously fried egg on top. In fact I don't think I've ever fried an egg as hard as I (accidentally) did this morning, yet the yolk remained soft to the point of spilling out over the oats. It was quite possibly the best oat and egg combo I've tried yet, and on the complete opposite end of the spectrum from whipping them together as I usually do.

Why don't I make oats and eggs like that every time? Because I'm stupid. Nothing else could explain it.

Let me know if you need any more pointers, Bitty.

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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Finally, Something That Does Grow on Trees

As I pulled into the driveway last night, I caught two interesting objects in my headlights. One was my dog Oli, chewing a stick twice his size while on a walk with Elise. The other was a plastic gallon jug that clung to the trunk of our neighbor's maple. If you're from New England, you probably know what that means: syrup season.

Turns out that our neighbor, a retired engineer, started tapping all the sugar maples on the block about two years ago. When I inquired about the presence of the many floating milk jugs, he gave me a tour of the trees and explained the process, which he kept describing as "really easy" and "so simple!"

Though legally blind, he can still make out the sugar maples by their bark. He drills two to three inches into them, inserts a short metal tube, and sticks a milk jug on it. The sap flows when you've got freezing nights and warm days, and on a good day he might get a gallon of sap from a single tree. Of course this has be cooked down to about one fortieth its volume, but the (clean) plastic trash can in which he stores the sap already has about 30 gallons in it, and the season has just begun.

When I came home last night, I was hot, tired and cranky after an eight hour cooking shift. I parked the car, saw the jug on the tree, and didn't think twice. I walked over to the maple, lifted the jug off the tap, and took a swig. The tree filtered sap tasted like the cleanest water I'd ever had, with an unmistakable maple flavor. It was ice cold, it was delicious, and it was straight out of the tree.

Of course that's one-fortieth of a mouthful of syrup we won't get, but it was worth it.

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Friday, February 13, 2009

I Made Corn Stock. Now What?

All summer and fall, Elise and I added our corn cobs to a bag in the freezer with the hopes of making a stock come winter. (Okay, we both added the cobs, but only I had the hopes.) But now that I've done so, I don't know what to do with it. Suggestions?
For months the cobs lay dormant beside goat kidneys, the tougher bits of chicken of the woods mushrooms, and other such ingredients I had not yet figured out what to do with. Yesterday, while working from home, I finally freed the cobs from their icy slumber and filled up the stock pot I had originally found on the curb in Somerville.

I let it simmer with nothing else but a fat pinch of salt for a few hours until the amount of liquid had reduced by half, the other half now clinging to the insides of the windows as condensation (corndensation?).

The stock was thick, rich and golden in color, and it tasted as sweet and grassy as you'd hope it would. But such a summer flavor now seems out of place, and I can't quite think of what to pair it with.

Ideally I would use it with actual corn to accentuate the flavor, but I didn't save the corn, just the cobs. I like wringing flavor and nutrition from something I've already finished, and would just as soon make stock out of something I could eat as I would support growing edible crops for biodiesel. In other words, I wouldn't.

Egg drop soup? Grain-on-grain risotto? Take a corn stock bath? Your thoughts are most appreciated.

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Thursday, February 12, 2009

Accidental, Occidental Fried Rice

For most of us, fried rice means Chinese style fried rice. I used to love the stuff as a kid (and before my 14 years of not eating un-kosher animals), and would pick out the red bits of pork and eat them first, just as I did the chips in mint-chip ice cream. But now the only time I have fried rice is when I ask for brown rice and mistakenly get it instead (though technically it is both brown and rice).

If you've ever had risotto cakes, you know that, unlike a restaurant that only serves penises, the concept of taking rice and frying it is not exclusively owned by the Chinese. (If you didn't click that link, know that it won't disappoint you.)

I recently did so with leftover, cooked Carolina Gold rice that I bought in the Lowcountry. I fried it up into little rice cakes that turned out about a million times better than the airy health food snack that bears the same name. But when I took my first bite, I realized that I had accidentally added seafood stock instead of chicken. As a result it tasted like a shortcut to using a full blown seafood risotto. In other words, the happy kind of accident.

Depending on the texture of your rice, you might be able to fry it as is. I added a dash of spelt flour and the aforementioned stock, plus plenty of black pepper. The cakes were crispy on the outside and as moist and lush as a Lowcountry summer on the inside. But best of all, they weren't a penis.


Recipe: Fried Leftover Rice

Note: Depending on the consistency of your rice, you might need to add more or less liquid or flour, or nothing at all.

1 cup cooked rice (any kind)
1/4 cup stock (or water)
2 tbsp flour
black pepper
canola oil

Mix the rice, stock, flour and pepper.

Coat a skillet with sufficient oil for frying and set the burner to high.

When the oil is hot, drop in small handfuls of the rice batter. Once the crust begins to creep up the edges of the cakes, press gently to flatten, then flip and repeat on the B-side.

Serve hot and eat plain or with warm red sauce, which provides a welcome acidity.

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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Sustainable Shrimp

See here for my latest post over at the Chefs Collaborative blog. I recently attended their "Shrimp and Sazeracs" meet and greet with the folks behind Four Winds Seafood, a sustainable supplier from outside of New Orleans.

If nothing else it whetted my appetite to return for a full meal at Hungry Mother, a Cambridge restaurant that serves Southern food better than most of the food in the South.

My apologies for the poorly exposed photo - it was after a few Tabasco martinis.

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Friday, February 6, 2009

Clean Your Plate, And Your Leftovers

For the second time in my life, I recently had take-out food so bad that I actually washed it off to make it better.

The offending dish came from a local Chinese restaurant that, despite its horrific, gaudy exterior, I desperately hoped would be good. I hadn't even thought to eat there until examining the dinner menu while having a (flaming) drink at the bar with some friends from out of town. When I saw the Yu Shiang section, my spirits lifted, or perhaps I was being lifted by the spirits shooting up the long straw from the scorpion bowl. In either case, I decided to go back for dinner, and I'm sorry I did.

I ate as much as I could while at the restaurant, choking down rubbery pieces of meat, the omnipresent (in bad Chinese restaurants) bell peppers, and a thick, cloying brown sauce that seemed composed of equal parts sugar and corn starch. I know that would just be powder, but that's how it tasted.

To make matters worse, while eating I was reading Fuchsia Dunlop's Shark's Fin and Sichuan Peppercorns: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China. The contrast between the dishes in her pages and the one before me was depressing beyond the help of any cocktail, no matter how on fire it was. I took most of it home.

There I dumped the slop into a strainer and ran it under water until the sauce broke free and it once again resembled food. I dressed it with nothing but the contents of the two bottles in the photo at top, soy sauce and toasted sesame oil, and the improvement was shocking. The food now tasted more like food and less like the food version of the restaurant's facade.

Still, I'll be going back for cocktails.


Recipe: Washed Yu Hsiang Pork

1 takeout container of bad yu hsiang pork
1 tbsp sesame oil
1 tbsp soy sauce
running water

Dump the "food" into a strainer and hold under running water until the sauce has been rinsed away. Spit down the drain in contempt.

Shake the food until relatively dry.

Dress with sesame oil and soy sauce.

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Thursday, February 5, 2009

What My Dog Ate For Lunch Today

A raw goat kidney and kale.

But before you lump me together with people who buy clothes for their dogs, know this: the kidney was from a locally raised goat, it was cheap, I think it's healthy for dogs to eat raw organ meat, and I tried to eat one myself (cooked) but just didn't like it. Also, it was just the ends of the kale.

It seems to have given him the energy needed to chase the splash of light created by the sun reflecting off my laptop, which he is currently doing.

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No Cheese Pizza

A good relationship has countless advantages. Among them is pizza.

By now some of you know that Elise often delights me by whipping up several pizzas, of course from scratch. Last night's batch included a butternut and an anchovy-tapenade pie, both featured above. (Her halves also had cheese, a dab of which you can see on the slice above right, but more on that in a moment.)

She'll be working diligently from our home office and then suddenly peer over the screen of her laptop to declare "I'm going to make pizza tonight," as though possessed by some other power.

I'm an ardent feminist, but that doesn't stop me from observing that there's something about women and baking. Sure it might be the result of thousands of years of patriarchal oppression, with men demanding that women stick close to the oven for fear of them voting. On the other hand, maybe they just like it.

Among several modern, feminist-leaning, liberal couples that I know, the old gender divides often play out in the kitchen, if nowhere else. The men man the stove top (and of course the grill, fiery phallus that it is), the women the oven. Of course there are exceptions to the rule, but there does seem to be a trend.

Perhaps on some subconscious, symbolic level, women relate to the womb-like quality of the oven, a warm chamber from which life sustaining offspring are born. Then, like a male lion, the man eats those offspring.

Regardless, Elise likes to make pizza. And lately she's been indulging my shockingly effective sabbatical from dairy (so long, allergy induced asthma!) and making no cheese pizzas, aka tomato pies. While that might sound as unfulfilling as abstinence, I've actually come to prefer them over the standard, cow secretion covered alternative.

Sure I've had great pizza with cheese, but there's something clean and elemental in the simplicity of just crust and sauce. Without the rubbery, fatty cloak of cheese, it's just you, a little sauce, and the crust. There's nowhere to hide: the sauce has to be good, the crust has to be great.

Now if only a man could figure out how to do it.

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Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Homemade Tortillas

For no good reason, in all of my 28 years I've never made a tortilla. Pita, crepes, pancakes, yes. Tortilla, no. (That last sentence was in Spanish.)

And I still haven't, but last night Elise did, and the results were transformative. If only the standard, suburban "taco night" style dinner would replace packaged tortillas with the real deal, that horrible imitation of Mexican food would become less wooden puppet and more boy. If you then improved on ground beef with "taco seasoning" and shredded iceberg lettuce, so much the better.

But even if you're having DIY burritos or fajitas and you've assembled the world's finest fillings, relying on the contents of that telltale slim ziplock bag for your wrapper can still undo all of your efforts.

Last night I realized that there's nothing like holding a homemade tortilla in your hand. It's durable, yet pliant. Soft, yet firm. It's like holding the hand of a trusted friend, and then eating that hand.

We (Elise) also poached a couple of chicken legs and made a simple sauce with a can of diced tomatoes, dried poblanos, and a splash of the cooking liquid from the chicken. We rolled up the meat from the chicken with a hearty dose of the red sauce and a spear of romaine and were in heaven.


Recipe: Tortillas
From the More-With-Less-Cookbook
(makes 8-11 tortillas)

Combine in mixing bowl:

2 c. unsifted flour
1 t. salt

Cut in with pastry blender (or a fork or your hands):

1/4 c. lard or shortening (we used butter)

When particles are fine, add gradually:

1/2 c. lukewarm water

Toss with fork to make a stiff dough. Form into a ball and knead thoroughly on lightly floured board until smooth and flecked with air bubbles. To make dough easier to handle, grease surface, cover tightly, and refrigerate 4-24 hours before using. Let dough return to room temperature before rolling out.

Divide dough into 8 balls for large tortillas or 11 balls for common 8-inch size. Roll as thin as possible on a lightly floured board, or between sheets of waxed paper. Drop onto a very hot ungreased griddle. Bake until freckled on one side. (Takes only about 20 seconds.) Lift edge, turn, and bake on second side.

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