Friday, January 29, 2010

Leeks + Stock = Soup

When I was an adolescent on a trip to Israel, I asked my rabbi for his opinion about the validity of other faiths. "There are many paths up the mountain," he added, sagely. "But we think ours is the fastest."

I feel the same way about making soup by simmering leeks in stock. There are many other wonderful ways to make soup, but this one most efficiently cuts to the essence of soup (and unlike religion, it doesn't require you to sometimes wear nice shoes). I could stop this post right there, but I continue.

A steamy bowl of leeks swimming like slim green eels in a cloudy broth of chicken stock is somehow strangely comforting. There's just something so soothing about a leek. Maybe it's their cool, blue-gray hue, or their steadfast, vertical growth pattern. Maybe it's that I primarily associate them with spring and fall, those gentler seasons in which they flourish.

For stock, I save my chicken bones for a couple of months in the freezer and then roast them. While those simmer in water for a few hours I add whatever aromatic veggie scraps I might have around. A limp carrot here, some sage stems there. Once I froze a somewhat deflated celeriac whole and when it was stock time (or stock o' clock), in it went. I love making stock: it ties up all those little loose ends.

I'd write up a recipe for this soup but there's really nothing to say besides this: slice leeks vertically into thin strips, wash them well, simmer until just tender in stock and add salt and pepper to taste.

It may not sound like much, but there's really something to it.

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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Appearance v. Reality

As you can see, my dog Oli loves the woods behind our house. But a few months back he chased a cat into those same woods only to return with blood spurting from his paw. It turned out that he had cut an artery, and I'm grateful that we live so close to the vet as a thirty pound dog only has so much blood to lose.

At the vet, they put a tourniquet on his leg and knocked him out so that they could tie off the artery and stitch him up. When they removed the sutures a few weeks later, the wound re-opened and we had to return to have it stapled shut. As you can imagine, none of this was much fun for me, my dog or the vet, despite the vast sums of money they earned in the process.

The cut appeared to have been caused by a piece of broken glass. Oli and I traipse through those woods almost every day, and since he was only injured once, I decided it was a fluke. We now stay away from the vicinity of where he was hurt, and I thought that meant we'd be safe. Until yesterday, when virtually the same thing happened in an entirely different part of the woods. He didn't get the artery this time, but it was a terrible cut nonetheless and certainly worse than any I've ever had. If you don't believe me, there are plenty of bloody paw prints still in the snow.

There was another rush to the vet, and now he's lying beside me with a bright blue splint on his left hind leg. As my friend and fellow cook Chris said, "If he's going to be running up bills like that, he'd better get himself a job."

If you're wondering why I'm writing about this on a food (and tea) blog, here's the tie-in. Whoever threw that bottle into the woods may have thought that their action had no recourse, but years later it would cause great suffering and financial loss. Hmm, what other aspect of our lives does that sound like? How about.... food! Our effect on the world based on the kind of food we eat is just as direct a relationship as bottle-tosser to pup.

The woods behind my house are gorgeous, but if you look hard enough you'll find that they're in fact full of broken glass and rusty metal from years of irresponsible dumping. Same with that gorgeous steak on your dinner plate. It might appear perfect in every way, with a rich marbling, juicy pink center and salty crust. But unless that steak was sustainably raised (pastured, local, humanely slaughtered, etc.), you have to learn to associate it with the pesticide, synthetic fertilizer, petroleum, antibiotics, and cruelty that went into it. Even if it looks fine.

Do the woods in the photo above look dangerous? Perhaps a little foreboding in a Hansel and Gretel kind of way, but dangerous, no. Yet they are, as is that steak (or tofu, for that matter, depending on how and where it was created). Instead of not seeing the forest for the trees, I've been not seeing the broken glass for the forest. But we're not going back there anymore, unless I get Oli some Muttlucks.

Just like Oli's accidents, that beautiful looking, planet destroying steak is another reminder of the lesson our high school English teachers tried so hard to drill into our Stone Temple Pilots-addled brains: appearance versus reality.

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Friday, January 22, 2010

Nostalgia-Inducing Sesame Street Food Videos

Do you remember those Sesame Street videos that revealed the origins of common items like crayons or peanut butter? I do. They were seared into my brain by repeat viewings during formative years.

Of course now they're easy to revisit thanks to youtube, and I've made it one step easier by including a couple in this post. These two were some of my favorites, probably because they focused on food. Inspired by the one about making cheese, my sister and I used to swirl the water in the swimming pool pretending it was separating into curds and whey.

The funny thing about these videos (besides how all of the cheese makers have huge beards and how the narrator is that 80's kind of androgynous) is that they show where food comes from, but in both cases the answer is "a factory."

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Monday, January 18, 2010

Meals from Meals

A recent lunch consisted of black sushi rice with avocado and pickled ginger, a hunk of raw cabbage with lemon juice and a sprinkling of salt, shredded, poached chicken with Sichuan peppercorn, and just a touch of goat stew. In case you can't tell, all leftovers.

That's often how lunch goes when I'm working from home. Though I'd rather slave over a hot stove than a slightly warm laptop, I have a rule against doing any real cooking during the work day and so lunch is usually a melange of remnants of previous meals. While I wouldn't have made the above menu as a first run, I enjoyed it nonetheless. These comestible synecdoches always bring back fond memories of the larger meals they represent.

The rice reminded me of dinner a few nights back, when we attempted to make sushi before realizing we didn't have any nori. Raw cabbage always brings to mind another strange lunch: Michael Ruhlman's cabbage and peanut butter sandwich. The shredded chicken brought back memories of poaching my last bird. We both simmered at the same time, I in the bathtub and it in an anise and ginger broth. The stew was made with goat from Codman Farm and root veggies from our winter CSA, proof that you can go local year round.

I enjoy these kaleidescopic lunches. I'm sure there are people that throw away most of their leftovers, and I certainly have to relegate some stuff to dog or compost, but a well managed rotation of meal remainders can itself give birth to other, equally satisfying if less coherent dining experiences.

Lunch is rarely as relaxed or as elaborate as dinner, but eating something the next day allows me to relive the magic of the night before, when I was drinking wine with my wife and not thinking about work. Kind of like those bittersweet moments when you recall vacations by seeing far off purchases on a bank statement weeks later.

And if leftovers sounds too blah, call it small plates.

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Quote of the Day

"Best to try this healthy, vegetable-packed cake today before your mouth blisters into a cyst-riddled pus hole. "

From the very strange and very enjoyable blog Apocalypse Cakes.

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Friday, January 15, 2010

Photo of the Day: Adult Cupcake

Aka defrosting chicken jus. (Ironic that one would defrost a cupcake.)

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Thursday, January 14, 2010

Chateau de la Chesnaie Muscadet Sevre et Maine Sur Lie, 2008

Ever since reading Asimov's post on chablis, I've been hankerin' for dry, mineral heavy whites. Assuming one can in fact "hanker" for fine wine.

Wine consumes a relatively small proportion of my food consciousness compared to gourmands of ages past. With food lovers of my generation (I'm avoiding having to say "foodie" -- shudder), wine is much less cool than Belgian beer or artisanal hard cider. However, wines such as Chablis and the Muscadet pictured above have excited me more than any others. Ever. I want them all the time.

Perhaps that's because this kind of wine -- dry, chalky, citric -- was previously so unfamiliar to me. Who ever took a sip from their parent's glass and tasted limestone? ( My all time favorite wine guy, Chris at West Concord Liquors, described the taste of a particular rosé as being like sucking on a lime - mmm!) I just wasn't ever exposed to anything like this.

I've had plenty of Merlots and Cabernet Sauvignons that have been equally good at being Merlots and Cabernet Sauvignons as the whites that I've been drinking, but they could never be as interesting. A good peanut just isn't as good as good olive.

I know what you're thinking: "I should check my e-mail." But here's what would be a convenient thing for you think at this point in the post: "Sure these wines sound great, but what about the price?" Well I'm glad you asked.

Notice the above photo. See the cute little chateau, the confusing array of French words (which is the vineyard, which is the region, which is the year?). Now notice the price tag. That bottle costs thirteen bucks and is as good as anyone needs wine to be, yet it's about a Brazilian times better than so many other boring bottles you're apt to get for the same price. And it was way better than Avatar, which set me back about the same amount.

I've been told (by people and by the backs of bottles) that Muscadet is "the" wine to drink with oysters, but the hype didn't prepare me for just how symbiotic the paring would be. The highly mineral wine already has notes that taste like oysters, or oyster shells to be more precise, plus citrus. Kind of like an alcoholic oyster with a squeeze of lemon. The oyster of course brings zinc and salty sea breeze. My mouth puckers and waters just thinking about it. Why did steak and lobster get to be called "surf and turf?"

This wine also wins the "most improved by swirling" award. I was absentmindedly rolling my wrist with glass in hand while thinking about something else in the same way I might play with a paperclip, but when I tasted the wine again it had undergone a complete transformation. (Paperclips taste the same no matter how much you play with them.)

After a few laps around the glass, the slight effervessence was gone but all of the sharpness and flavor remained. It was as though the wine had slipped off its glove and I could now feel the warmth of its hand. (I was going to write something much, much dirtier.)

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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Additional Thoughts

First, back to the subject of micronutrients. In thinking more about Kristof's piece in the Times, I realize that the foods he lists which contain micronutrients ("salt, sugar, flour or cooking oil") are all processed.

But surely micronutrients occur naturally, otherwise the human race would never had made it to modernity. I'm sure that infusing flour with folic acid is the shortest and most immediate step to upping the micronutrient intake for nutrionally deprived populations, but then what?

Here in the U.S. we're suffering the long term effects of what is now referred to (negatively) as the Western Diet: diabetes from sugar, hypertension from salt, and every bad thing you can imagine being linked to white flour. I know that any food is better than no food and that processed foods are the quickest fix to famine, but the last thing we want to do is to forever hook other populations on the stuff that is now doing us in.

My guess is that micronutrients naturally occur in the foods that everyone ate prior to industrialization, and in a perfect world we would enable populations to get back to eating their traditional diets, which nearly always consist of more real food such as fruits and veggies, rather than mixing vitamins in with their sugar.

Now to return to yesterday's post and my vision for a more sustainable winter food supply for New England. I left off a key component of eating locally grown produce in winter: extending the season. Greenhouses, hoophouses, cold frames and so forth. There are farms that harvest spinach in the winter in Maine. The technology is cheap, the environmental impact is far lesser, and the source is more reliable. What are we wating for?

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A Taste of the Suburbs

See here for my article in today's Globe about my new neighbor, a Pakistani exchange student who loves to share his own national cuisine and to eat ours. Of course his favorite Pakistani dishes are curries and his favorite American food is "junk."

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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Florida, Frost, Food and Pythons

The above photo was not taken in my home state of Florida, but it nearly could have been (it was snapped on Sunday during a snowshoe through the Sudbury Desert). As you've probably heard, temperatures in FL have plummeted to record lows, wreaking havoc on a state better known for being too hot all of the time.

Here in New England we're used to such temperatures, but we're also used to getting a lot of our food from Florida. This fact was driven home for me yesterday I swung by my neighborhood natural foods market. The produce shelves were nearly bare save for a note explaining that below freezing temperatures throughout the South were to blame.

Oh, right! I forgot that bananas, tomatoes and all of the other tropical flora we're used to devouring day in day out actually come from very far away, and that many have pointed out the tenuous nature of depending on such distant places for our food supply.

It's been said that, when it comes to food, the country can survive without the city but the city can't survive without the country, and now it seems that cold places can't survive without the (supposed to be) warm places. Of course the delicious irony is that the less sustainable our food supply, the more chaotic the weather is going to get and the more we'll see the system flounder. In other words, the more we ship produce from far away, the more carbon we pump into the atmosphere, the weirder the weather gets, and the more wrenches will get thrown into the plan.

What does a more sustainable New England food supply look like in winter? On a grassroots level, it means home cooks doing more freezing, canning, drying and storing locally grown produce that keeps well. For instance, the $200 worth of root veggies and apples my wife and I have chilling in our hallway. But what does it mean for people who aren't hippy hobbits?

On a larger scale, we need more local processing of local ingredients. That way those of us who don't have time to cook and jar applesauce (though in my utopia that's something we all make time for) can go buy locally grown, frozen, dried and stored stuff at your neighborhood market. As Grist reports, to truly go local, we need not more independently owned groceries.

The one good thing about a freezing Florida is that it may help inhibit the horrifying Burmese python problem. When they get cold, these exotic invasive monsters come out to bask in the sun, and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Coalition is reminding hunters that it's a good time to find one and blow it away. And that opens up a whole new food supply.

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Thursday, January 7, 2010

A (Delicious) Ghost from the Past

I recently received a slim box in the mail with the surname "Gannon" written on the return address. I knew that could mean only one thing: I was going to eat some of the best chocolate in the world.

For those who don't know, Brendan Gannon ran the artisanal chocolatier known as La Tene out of Cambridge, MA. He had sent me a precious box of his spectacular creations as a combined wedding present/holiday gift, and I was thrilled to savor his stuff once again. There was only one catch... Brendan Gannon had been dead for years.

Well Brendan hadn't, but La Tene had. In a turn of events that still breaks my heart (or at least my taste buds), Brendan closed the doors to La Tene a couple of years back for no particularly shocking reason except that it can be really, really hard to run a small business. At the same time I was burying my own creative enterprise, the sketch comedy group my friends and I had started in college and that kept us touring around the U.S. for years afterward.

I was ready to let the comedy group go, but I was not ready to say goodbye to La Tene, and I told Brendan as much in no uncertain terms. His chocolates are simply the best. From the vegan peanut butter cups to the triple creme truffles (or the Sichuan peppercorn truffles, or the Guinness truffles...), this was a man who knew what he was doing. And what he was doing was making great chocolate.

I relished each and every one of my phantom La Tene chocolates as though enjoying one more night with a lost love. Actually, you can just change the "as though" in that last sentence to a comma.

I'm guessing that the box I received was part of a limited run that BG did for the holidays, because as far as I know it is simply no longer possible to experience La Tene. But if you really, really want to, I suppose you could beg Brendan or offer up vasts sums of money here.

But maybe that would be asking the beautiful and mysterious woman to take off her scarf.

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Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Fruit Loophole

The 36th rule in Michael Pollan's new book Food Rules is "Don't eat breakfast cereals that change the color of the milk."

But what if my breakfast cereal is loaded with turmeric?

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Circle of Life (and Compost)

Shortly before New Year's my compost bin reached capacity. Since I've never lived in any one place long enough to fill an entire Earth Machine, I wasn't exactly sure what to do.

My short term solution was this: empty the bin and cover the compost with a tarp until Spring. Would that be enough to keep out the foxes, raccoons and teenagers who hang out in the woods behind our house? Only time will tell.

Most of the compost was frozen solid, but the oldest stuff had stayed loose due to heat released by what Wikipedia so poetically calls "the microbial oxidation of carbon." As far as I'm concerned it was that or magic, since I have no way of proving either. But as a result I was left with the doughnut shaped ring of frozen compost pictured at top. What better embodiment of the notion of "closing the loop?"

A doughnut made out of decaying vegetable scraps and eggshells might not appeal to some, but I was intrigued. Here was a chance, on the eve of a new decade, to come face to face with the Ghost of Food Scraps Past. In an era when most of our garbage is whisked out of sight before we think twice about how much of it we produce or where on earth it goes, here was an opportunity to take a closer look at my personal consumption.

What I learned is that I eat a lot of eggs (the shells take a while to break down) and that things that say they're compostable, like potato starch forks or corn plastic bags, certainly don't seem to be.

In looking through the strata, I was able to recall some specific meals. There was a layer of corn cobs from a corn stock I made last winter, and the skin of a pumpkin that I'd peeled for a curry. When I had dug out the center but not yet lifted off the ring, the pile looked very much like a puehr cake.

And now that I think about it, there's plenty of puehr in there.

Absent from the compost pile was all of the junk that we couldn't turn back into dirt (besides the wine bottles I'm saving for another garden barrier, the egg cartons I keep forgetting to return to the farmer, and the bones that I bury in the woods). For instance, there were none of those eerily bandage-like spongy things that come under packaged meat.

Luckily, most waste can be composted or recycled and we don't produce very much trash. Or at least that's what I think. If there were a special cubby just for me at the garbage dump, and at the end of the year I could see all of the useless junk I sponsored, I'd probably be surprised.

But at least some of my waste will end up back in the garden, assuming those teenagers don't get to it first.

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Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Dirt on Gluten

See here for Dr. Mark Hyman's piece in the Huff Po' on why the f*ck everyone is suddenly gluten intolerant.

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Micronutrients, Big Change

If you think microgreens are the hottest edible thing that begins with the prefix micro, think again. See here for an op-ed by Nicholas Kristof of the NYT regarding the amazing health benefits of micronutrients such as folic acid and iodine.

Kristof lays out one of those familiar scenarios in which it is very, very easy to do good. The basic gist of it is this: micronutrients are extremely important in early development and are cheap to provide yet are lacking in the diets of many residents of impoverished countries. The obvious question then is how to make micronutrients a bigger component of foreign aid.

Here's an idea. If American restaurant goers simply used the money they spend on the pricey but superfluous garnish known as microgreens to instead donate micronutrients to developing nations (according to Kristof, a year's supply costs less than a hamburger), there would be fewer babies born with holes in their heads, and would anyone really miss microgreens?

Seems like a fair trade to me. If anyone out there wants to start an organization called Micronutrients not Microgreens, you have my full support.

And while I appreciate Kristof's effort to raise awareness about this issue, I do find his lede somewhat misleading. Are folic acid and iodine really "scrumptious?"

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