Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Instant Seder for Two

On the first night of Passover, Elise and I found ourselves wanting to celebrate but stuck without anywhere to go. Guess our se-dar was broken.

So we hastily constructed our own Passover meal and it ended up being my favorite ever. Quick update for those who don't know: Passover is the holiday commemorating the Jews' exodus from Egypt and it's celebrated by holding a ritual meal called a seder.

On Passover we celebrate our freedom and we remember our time in bondage. This theme is driven home by the fact that the lengthy seder often feels like bondage and the meal that follows seems like sweet, sweet freedom in comparison.

So Elise ran out to buy those foods that best embody the taste of liberty: liver and ground fish.

It wasn't long after the inspiration for our spontaneous seder struck that we were seated at our candle-lit kitchen table with a thematically appropriate feast at hand. The menu included chopped liver, gefilte fish, matzoh, charoses, salad, a dry, minerally French white, chrain (horseradish and beets) for the fish plus the other items on the seder plate (with fresh, local oysters standing in for the salt water - controversial but delicious). For charoses we just minced the last of the apples from our wedding and soaked them in rosé.

Jews of my generation think that most of these foods can only be found in family legend or in jars in that one, sad section of the grocery store so dominated by the color orange. But it was all surprisingly easy to make and turned out perfectly well even without following recipes (my grandmother never used one, so why should I when replicating her cooking?). We watched MB's chicken liver pate video for inspiration and I thought back to my article on fried gefilte fish from last year.

Remember, these things are not hard to make. This is the cuisine of destitute Eastern Europeans, not timpani.

For the spiritual element we passed a library copy of an Elie Wiesel haggadah back and forth, glossing over the parts that don't do much for us and expanding upon those themes we so love. It was a deeply satisfying experience but unfortunately at the end of the meal the tone suddenly changed for the worse. The empty bottle of wine brought us the terrible news that a beloved muppet had gone mad, killing a vendor of alcoholic drinks.

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Friday, March 26, 2010

Agriculture 2.0

See this piece from Grist about the intersection of sustainable agriculture and venture capitalists, which I think is a good thing? (Notice the question mark.)

It was inevitable that big investors would realize that sustainable food is, for some, a hot commodity that can be packaged and sold as easily as an ipod. Will the products they invest in be compromised by their interaction with it? Probably.

Do we want people who don't walk the walk able to influence sustainable food producers to cut costs and thereby become less sustainable? No. But what really interests me about this union is the potential to get the message out and to tap into the undeniable creativity of companies who have already mastered the art of taking down the establishment.

From the Grist article:

"Think of the companies that have remade commerce -- and made many billions of dollars -- over the past 15 years: Amazon, eBay, Google. They all exploited networks and data mining to upend conventional competitors."

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Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Blurring of Food and Medicine

The observant reader will recognize the substance pictured on my wife's finger as cayenne pepper. What you might not realize is that it's packed into a wound, being used to stop the bleeding.

Yes, you can use cayenne pepper instead of a Band-Aid. Just sprinkle it on and watch as it soaks up the blood and helps create a clot. You'd think it would sting, wouldn't you? It doesn't.

Cayenne is also said to have certain antiseptic properties, which is perhaps another reason why it's used on both food and fingers. Which is to say that this isn't my discovery: people have been using cayenne medicinally since well before the first CVS appeared (I read about it in the Debra's Natural Gourmet newsletter).

In fact, like pretty much everything we ate until this past century (sorry, gummy Coke bottles), cayenne and other chiles have been around forever and once played a more vital role in human existence than being just another ingredient in Krazy Jane's Mixed Up Pepper. Food and medicine were once viewed as not entirely separate realms, which makes the notion of "health food" seem even more goofy.

Precisely what the scope of cayenne's medicinal powers are I leave to someone better qualified (or with more time to generate free information), but a quick google search suggests that it's good for everything from dyspepsia to stopping heart attacks.

I can't vouch for that, but I do know this: if you cut your finger, you can reach for the spice rack instead of the medicine cabinet. One is plastic, made who knows where out of who knows what and will probably never decompose. The other is a pepper.

Now there's a health care overhaul I hope we can all agree on.

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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Pork Butt Pancakes

Last weekend my good friend Ian hosted a Tarantino marathon in the home theater he built in his basement. With so much blood and guts in our immediate future thanks to films like Kill Bill and Deathproof, we had a hankering for flesh, and so we braised a pork butt as the films rolled.

A movie marathon is a perfect opportunity for the lengthy braising of a large piece of meat: you have time and you have mouths. Ours started at 10am, at which point Ian made pancakes and we started the butt in the crockpot with just itself, the spices below, salt, and a splash of cider vinegar. By dinner time the meat was tender and juicy and fragrant with cumin, pimenton, coriander, chiles and cinnamon (and some palm sugar to help bring it all out).

Between films we peered through the fat dappled glass lid of the crockpot to watch the bone rise up from the meat, which slid into the hot bath that awaited it at the bottom of the pot. The garlic cloves we'd stuffed into little slits popped out like eyeballs wrenched from their sockets by an angry Beatrix Kiddo, and the scent of the simmering meat was as sweet as the taste of revenge. Unlike revenge, the dish was best served warm.

We were planning on having the butt on buns, but Ian had extra pancake batter and so he prepared another batch. It turns out that pulled pork on a pancake is one of life's finest offerings.

The fluffy pancakes and the succulent pork made for as delightful and unexpected a pairing as a kung fu fight scene with a Sergio Leone soundtrack. And yet there was something familiar about the combo. Was it a previous association from pancakes and bacon? Or the semblance of a hand held pancake full of pork to a taco?

I don't know, but I do know one thing: I wish every day was filled with pork, pancakes and pictures.

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Thursday, March 18, 2010

So Long, Root Cellar

Whether you like it or not (I don't) and whether or not the calendar agrees (it doesn't), with 70 degree days upon us here in New England, it suddenly feels more like summer than the end of winter. Thanks, global warming.

Gone are the dark, short days devoted entirely to keeping one's feet from coming in direct contact with the frigid linoleum of the kitchen floor. Gone are the mugs of tea as big as the one in that creepy Alice in Wonderland Tom Petty video. Gone are the excruciatingly hot baths that left my skin the color of a red velvet cake. In other words, red.

Also gone is knowing that I can use my hallway as a perfectly chilled food storage chamber. All winter that's where we've kept bottles of wine, large pots of ambitious stews too clumsy to fit in the fridge, and of course the two hundred dollars worth of root veggies we bought from the Shared Harvest winter CSA.

I've wanted to preserve food with nothing but air ever since visiting Yugoslavia at the age of 10. Our family friends there had an enclosed porch that was stocked from floor to ceiling with naturally chilled brands of soda that I didn't recognize. All one needed to do for an icy Cockta was to open the door to the porch, and as a season-deprived Florida boy, I literally thought that it was so cool.

It gives me a certain satisfaction to think outside the icebox. In winter it drives me nuts that we so inefficiently heat our homes and then keep one little box within that heated space the same temperature that it is outside. If I had the guts, I'd unplug the fridge for the whole winter and just use the hallway.

But that's all over now. With the recent warm days the last of the apples are turning to mush and the remaining turnips are desperately sprouting. It's a reminder of just how fragile our food supply is: unplug the fridge and everything will try to turn back into dirt as quickly as possible.

I know I'm mostly alone on this, and maybe it's the seasonal deprivation from my early years, but I hate to see the winter go so soon. I thought I had a few more snowshoe trips in my future, a few more heaping bowls of well salted roasted root veggies.

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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Best Thing I Ate Today

The new tongue burrito at Anna's in Davis Sq. Though I'm sure it would have been good as is, mine was made even better when the top came off of the hot sauce while the burrista was making it.

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Monday, March 15, 2010

Onion on Mustard

Thanks to Lee for sending me this all too close to home parody of food, new media, and obsession:

Man On Internet Almost Falls Into World Of DIY Mustard Enthusiasts

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Thursday, March 11, 2010

My Surrogate Romanian Grandmother

My downstairs neighbors, who you may recall from tales of hot buttered rum and celebratory cakes, have been hosting their Romanian grandmother for the past few months. Which means the hallway between our apartments has been filled with incredible cooking smells, and I'm often handed a steaming plate of whatever just came out of the oven.

In this case it was... well, I don't really know what it was. I rarely do, and that's why I so relish these exchanges. How often do you get to eat something having no idea what it is?

The dish pictured above was some sort of rustic apple cake, a not too sweet hybrid between an apple pie and bread pudding. There was a bit of a crunch to the crust but the rest was moist, dense, studded with fruit and somewhat chewy. In other words, delicious and novel.

Remember your first taste of Thai food? I do. At the time I'd never had anything like it, which is of course why I remember it so well. Same goes for sushi, goulash and several other firsts. What's so wonderful about them is the surprise factor, an ambush on your senses.

As a kid my palate was trained to sandwiches and my mom's cooking, so when I had my first sip of tom kha gai, my culinary consciousness was so expanded that the mushrooms floating in the fragrant broth might as well have well been psilocybin.

That sense of discovery rarely happens as an adult because I've eaten many kinds of food but also because I have the sense memory and deductive reasoning necessary to imagine the things I haven't eaten. I've never had the Icelandic thunder bread that is traditionally steamed in a geothermal spring, but I can imagine it. (I'm thinking of B&M's bread in a can, only somehow better.)

And isn't that what restaurants are always trying to do: trick us into thinking we're eating something that we've never had before? Sure you've had chicken, but have you ever had it.... TOPPED WITH A FOAM!?!

Soon my surrogate Romanian grandmother will be heading back to her homeland, and I'm going to miss the little gastronomic ambushes I've gotten used to (though if I've gotten used to them, I guess they're not ambushes). I'll also miss our system: she takes from our (diminishing) root cellar and gives us some of whatever she makes from it.

I particularly liked the butternut squash... thing.

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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

In Today's Globe

One day I noticed milk jugs hanging from some of the trees in my neighborhood. See here for my article in today's Globe for the explanation:

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Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Short Ribs Come Up Short

Meat has never been more popular and unpopular than at this point in time. Its aficionados are more rabid than ever -- from fat crazed foodies to members of developing nations who are upping their intake -- and the same fervor is found in those who abstain. Depending on who you talk to, eating meat is either the pinnacle of human existence or the rope we're hanging ourselves (and the rest of the planet) with.

I fall somewhere in between. I love eating meat, and I recognize how bad it can be in the amounts we eat it and in the way we produce it. When I do partake of the flesh, I mostly eat sustainably raised meat from nearby farms like Codman and Stillman and Verrill and rarely let it take center stage on the plate. That keeps me below the national average of a half a pound a day, which if you're going to eat meat is really the least you could do.

Of the popular cuts of meat with those for whom meat is popular, short ribs are currently tops. They meet all of the criteria for hip meat: they're fatty, popular in Asian cuisines, and most importantly not something most of us grew up eating. (And by "hip meat" I mean meat that people are into, not meat from the hip.)

I've been perfectly happy eating short ribs in the past, though I've never thought they were any better than any other fatty cut that's been braised forever in something delicious. But when I finally made my own short ribs (by which I mean short ribs that I cooked and not part of my body), I was a little let down.

Largely it was my fault. I went with a generic dark, Chinese-ish sweet soy braise, and I went overboard with cleaning out my cabinets to flavor it. Components included leftover coffee, Sichuan peppercorns, a star of star anise, cider, palm sugar, soy sauce, a cinnamon stick, carrots, onions, garlic, cumin, I think, as well as the belief that I had the power to haphazardly create the perfect braising liquid. That last ingredient was probably the one most responsible for the slightly bitter aftertaste.

Also, there was just too much fat. I'm not celluphobic, but I also will only eat so much beef fat in one sitting (by which I mean not a lot of beef fat rather than SO much [emphasis mine ((everything else mine too))]), and there just wasn't a ton of meat left after I'd separated it. But note the juice being absorbed by the board.

And just to make sure that the meat wasn't the main event, it was served with broccoli and some of the reduced liquid over quinoa-corn noodles.

Now I know what you vegetarians and vegans are thinking: why not just eat the noodles and broccoli? Well that wouldn't have made a very interesting blog post now would it?

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Thursday, March 4, 2010

Redbones Beef

Last night I spent ten bucks at Redbones and had as good of a gastronomic experience as can be had for that amount of money anywhere in the "first" world. More on that in a moment.

Dave and I split a pulled pork sandwich which we slathered with as much of their hotter bbq sauce as they would bring us, a mug of pot likker, hush puppies, and unfried hush puppies, also known as cornbread. To wash it down we ordered pints of the current cask-conditioned ale offering, which happened to be a porter from Opa-Opa (I think it was called Vanilla Oak, though thankfully it tasted like neither).

In that litany there was nothing not to like. The pork was smokey and juicy. The pot likker murky and faintly sweet (turnips?). The cornbread was thankfully devoid of sugar. My only complaint is that the hush-puppies weren't as crackly and fresh out of the oil as you want them to be.

The beer was just perfect, and perfect with that food. As I brought the glass to my mouth all of my senses told me that there was something very different about it, which is of course exactly what I want from something cask-conditioned: the head was more dense, the carbonation more silky, and I was more buzzed (either because of a higher alcohol content or because it was the first alcohol I've had since getting sick last week, or maybe just because I'm a nancy.)

The only thing I didn't like about Redbones is the same gripe I have with most restaurants in general. The menu in no way acknowledges the progress that has been made in understanding our bittersweet relationship to industrially produced food.

The latest estimate puts food-related illness costs at $152 billion, and I guarantee that most if not all of those costs come from the same industrial agricultural processes that we think are so cheap; that made my meal last night so intoxicatingly affordable.

So would it kill restaurants like Redbones to throw out even one sustainable option for those of us who want to have our meat and eat it too? River Rock ribs, perhaps?

All the nancies like me would gobble it up.

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Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Chunmee Green

For the first time in years my tea stash has diminished to the point that I can actually see all of the tea that I have. Which is why I finally unearthed the small tin of Organic Chunmee Green from Aura Teas that I was given probably over a year ago. And I'm glad that I did.

The Chunmee has turned out to be one of the best candidates I've come across for a perfect daily green: it's not so finicky to brew that you need to break your routine to make it, not so subtle that you need to slow down to appreciate it, yet it's flavorful and aromatic enough to want all the time.

One of the reasons that the Chunmee is so solid is its slight roast, which Aura describes as a "wild herb mixed fried rice aroma." This tea is a perfect (though not at all complex) blend of the brightness and freshness of green with the more rounded woodsy notes that come from its toasty quality. What more do you want? Organic and fair trade, which it also is.

I contrast, this morning I also drank a cup of Tea Forte's African Solstice, which cost roughly the same amount, tasted like perfume, came in an embarassing amount of packaging, and sounds like it was named by a stoner.

So there are a lot of things to like about this Chunmee. It's pretty user friendly, flavorful, good for the planet and the people who make it. But the best part is that the "mee" in "Chunmee" means eyebrow, refering to the tight curl of the leaf shape.

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