October 2008 Archives

 

Let me start with an overview of my performance on the Eat Local Challenge: for the first half of October, I was eating entirely local at home and eating out about 20% of the time. I started out feeling like I was cheating every time I ate something outside the home, but as I realized that my life always involves regularly dining outside the home, I started to feel better about being able to maintain local eating the 80% of the time that I cooked my own meals.

The second half of the month saw a rather dramatic increase in the demands on my time, and a fair amount of traveling, so I was eating closer to 60% of my meals out of the home. At home, things were still local, but I think a couple times I forgot what home looked like! Then, in the past few days, I was served a cold with a side of sinus infection, and as I've said, when I am sick I develop carb cravings that cornmeal just won't satisfy. You can imagine what happened chez Potato, and local didn't really figure into the resulting three-day flour-fest.

Eating locally for a month, or at least attempting it, was incredibly thought-provoking. I kept thinking back to the people who lived on this land before industrialized agriculture and globalization brought such variety and constancy to our food supply. Not just because I was eating a few of the same foods, but because finding, processing and cooking that food moved to the forefront of my mind. I imagined— what if I didn't just have to travel to a distant specialty store to find my locally produced grains (ah, irony), but if I had to grow, harvest, and grind them? Or if those damn squirrels that ate all the corn I was growing this summer really meant I would have no corn all season? I thought about colonists missing the luxuries of their hometowns, and about people who had lived their whole lives with no wheat flour or oranges. At the same time, the cornmeal I was eating every day kept getting more and more delicious— an element of deprivation, something that goes hand in hand with local eating in Massachusetts, is truly the best seasoning. I really came to appreciate the things that added crunch and variety to the diet, and my willingness to work for them grew. Take the squash seeds shown above: while I might occasionally roast pumpkin seeds, they most often end up in the compost because of the effort required to de-slime them, but this month every last one was cleaned, toasted and savored!

Ultimately, I think what I learned was that I was already eating as local as is really feasible for me. I estimate that we usually eat about 50% local, with 30% of our diet being grains and processed ingredients that are not produced locally, and 20% of meals eaten out of the home. We get our meat, dairy, eggs, and produce locally already, and living with corn as our only grain, while technically doable, is pretty miserable. Ditto forgoing the small variety of imported ingredients I use for ethnic cooking and the fresh fruit I crave in the dead of winter. Not only that, but giving up those non-local things does nothing to support local or sustainable agriculture, it only makes me grumpy! Not having the options of the modern market is interesting to contemplate, but voluntarily giving up something as wonderful as wheat flour... well, it is untenable. So, I give myself a C+ for October, but I think I'm doing alright overall.

 

Challenge mash-up time! Today is posting day for the October Daring Bakers Challenge AND my Eat Local Challenge update. As I feared, I spent a lot of the past week traveling and eating at friends houses and parties, but I did alright on eating locally at home. To top off the week, I used all-local ingredients to make my Daring Bakers October Challenge. Well, except the four. And being a baking challenge and all, there's a lot of flour. And the sugar isn't local either. There's not much of that, though. And the olive oil, that's an exception. So, ok, it's probably a 40% local pizza.



This week's challenge is hosted by Rosa's Yummy Yums, and you can find the recipe for the pizza dough there. It makes an incredibly smooth, silky and elastic dough. I ate a mouthful of the raw dough and it slurped and stretched between my teeth and lips like a slab of mochi pulled out of hot soup. The challenge calls for tossing the dough in the traditional manner, which was surprisingly successful in two out of three tries. On my second ball of dough, I caught the toss off-center, sending it crumpling in on itself and rendering it too tough to reshape— it made fine breadsticks, though.

I topped the pizza with a simple fresh garlic and olive oil sauce, pre-cooked sliced sweet potatoes, onions, some of my homemade guanciale, and some grated homemade gouda. While the pizza spent its eight minutes in the oven, I sauteed some shredded Brussels sprouts in the grease from the guanciale... mmm, the perfect side dish.

 

Ok, I know plenty of Boston-area markets run through November. But the last appearance of my beloved local market is still a bittersweet moment along our passage into winter. Bitter for the dwindling stocks in the stalls and the growing chill in the air, but sweet for the coming season of holidays, family, and sitting snuggled in blankets.

This surprisingly balmy October morning marked the last leisurely Saturday stroll to the Square to fill our tote bags with produce. Over the summer, we've brought home everything from fresh raspberries and juicy peaches to wild woodsy mushrooms and knobby heirloom tomatoes. This week our bags held only apples, enough to last us through November. Next Saturday, when I look at that giant stockpile of apples, I wonder if I will think wistfully of peaches, or joyfully of tarte tatin?

 
The Brave Potato is traveling on business today. See you on Monday!
 

The past week was the busiest I've had in a while. A confluence of meetings, social events and projects made for a series of late nights and early mornings— and even when I was thinking about food, cooking it became an afterthought. At home, and in my packed lunches, I managed to keep up with my local eating, but I had at least six events outside the home that involved meals. Meals that it would have been rude or severely inconvenient to pass up for a pyrex full of pre-cooked local kale and pork chop. Some of those non-local meals I ate unapologetically— the ones cooked by friends or family, or the well-deserved dinner out— while others, like the bland catered lunch meetings, I wish I could take back. This division really underscores my goals with the Eat Local Challenge: I never meant to make myself feel guilty for eating outside the home, but rather to make as many of my meal choices consciously as possible... and sometimes, schedules interfere with even that.

Unfortunately, this coming week looks just as busy as the last. I wish I could say that I was going to manage to carve out some time to make something really delectable, but I am seeing a lot of quick meals and eating out in my future, especially since I'll be traveling for a couple days this week. Still, when it comes to the food that comes into my house, I'll be keeping it local!

 

When I started making kefir about a month and a half ago, I used a liter container that produced too much of the tart, fizzy fermented milk. I had to change out the milk in the container nearly every day, or else keep the container in the fridge, where it languished and produced weak and mild kefir. Since then, I have found a nice rhythm. I switched to a pint Ball jar, which I keep filled with fermenting milk at room temperature, changing out approximately half the volume every other day. When I refresh the jar, I pour out some of the finished kefir, which goes in a container in the fridge, and top the jar off with milk. This method, which keeps some milk in the jar for longer fermentation, seems to make a thicker and more consistent kefir. I produce between a half-cup and a cup of kefir every other day, which just about perfectly keeps up with my consumption. I use about a half-tablespoon of grains in the pint jar— any more and the kefir ferments too quickly and separates.

The photo shows a very healthy clump of kefir grains— my original photo showed both the grains and some thickened lumps of kefir. When mixed, the kefir becomes liquid and smooth, while the grains remain separate, distinct and rubbery.

 

This week's recipe was an appropriately autumnal Afghani dish, kaddo bowrani, composed of tender sugared pumpkin and a rich meat sauce. Using local ingredients, I worked from two recipes, one on Chowhound and one from The SF Chronicle, both based, I believe, on the kaddo bowrani at Helmand.

I browned the sliced pumpkin, and then covered it with honey and baked it for about an hour. I am sure an even longer cooking time would have continued to improve the texture, but even an hour rendered it smooth and meltingly gell-like, and turned it a dark translucent orange. The meat sauce, while delicious, didn't match up with my (admittedly quite distant and hazy) memory of eating the dish at Helmand. It was still an absolutely perfect October meal, so sweet, spiced, and warming, and I can see making this pumpkin as a dessert treat after any meal.

 

UPDATE:

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I was actually so encouraged by the vision presented by Pollan's article that I had a vision of my own. Of a t-shirt. You can buy one on Zazzle.com. I wanted to give all of my royalties to a worthy cause, and I've picked The Food Project, so 10% of your purchase will go to teaching young people about sustainable agriculture.


If you read one article about food this week, this month, this year, make it this one. Pollan's letter to the President-elect is the most succinct and accurate description of what is wrong with our food system, why everyone should care, and what we should do about it. His solutions are incredibly well-reasoned, and with a few exceptions, imminently implementable. Every paragraph had me nodding in agreement, and by the end I was resonating with passionate patriotism. There is a long road between these suggestions and a healthy food system in America, but seeing this in print is a great sign.

The rest of the issue's not bad either.

 

It turns out the second verse is not quite like the first. Two weeks of eating local in wheat- and sugar-free MA is a lot harder than one. Around the end of the first week I realized I was missing a lot of things - the crunch of a good crust of bread, the intense sweetness of jam or chocolate, and the filling warmth of pasta. On Wednesday a blood-sugar crisis and a couple glasses of wine caused me to suffer a psychotic break and eat half a bag of Hershey's pumpkin spice kisses while hanging out at a friends place (verdict: surprisingly good, until about kiss number 10). I knew something had to be done if I was going to make it through the month. The first thing turned out to be taking a lot of borderline exceptions while being socially obligated to eat out all weekend, but the second was a true marriage of intention and desire: homemade corn tortillas.

They are simple, if not quick, to make, and the fresh-ground Gray's cornmeal creates the most intense corn flavor I've ever tasted in a tortilla. The hint of home-rendered lard in there doesn't hurt either! The variations in thickness and texture created by my uneven rolling and cooking make for a delightfully varied mouthfeel. And a second cooking in the oven, after a quick coating of oil and salt, produces the perfect snack food, rivaled in my current universe only by roasted squash seeds. They are excellent eaten plain, coated in honey or topped with melted cheese and egg. I just might make it through the next two weeks after all!

Erica's Local Tortillas

  • 1 1/2 cups Gray's cornmeal (or masa harina)
  • 2 tsp lard
  • 1 1/4 cups water
  • 1 tsp salt

Boil the water and lard together. Mix the cornmeal and salt together in a bowl and pour in the boiling water and lard. Mix with a spoon to incorporated the water, and then knead by hand for a few minutes, until the dough is smooth. The dough should be on the dry side, but hang together after kneading.

Pinch off pieces of dough and roll them out between sheets of parchment paper - it will stick! I prefer a ball about the size of a jawbreaker, which makes a pretty small tortilla, but anything between that and a ping-pong ball size will work fine. Roll them out to about an eighth of an inch. Try different sizes and thicknesses to find what kind of tortilla you prefer.

Fry the tortillas in a hot, dry iron skillet. They will flip easily when the first side is cooked. Again, you can choose how much to cook them: quickly for soft, flexible tortillas, a little longer for browned and crispy ones. Store in an airtight bag in the fridge.

For a crunchy treat, brush the tortillas with oil and sprinkle with salt, then bake in a 350 degree oven until golden brown.


 


In addition to the friendly rivalries of home arts and 4H, fairs are increasingly seen as a venue for a new kind of community competition: "what else can we fry?" They don't give a ribbon for it yet, but I've seen so many photos from friends and bloggers of deep-fried oreos, bananas, Snickers, and Twinkies, it seems like they should start. Now, I am all for this kind of important culinary experimentation, and I can tell you that I have yet to meet a breaded and fried food I didn't like, but it's a little sad to see all those other awesome aspects of the fair overshadowed by giant vats of oil. Even though the Topsfield Fair didn't go in for real frying exotica, it was more food booths than anything else, and it was hard to find the buildings between them— I never did find the canning section!


I'm not really complaining, of course— I spent most of my time there deciding how best to spend the space in my stomach, and I was happy to find a few really great local and regional foods. Tiny, clean-tasting kernels of strawberry popcorn are a high-contrast treat in bright white and glowing ruby red. And what could say New England autumn better than a perfectly crisp apple under a layer of rich creamy caramel?


Unless it is fried clams? I certainly never saw these at fairs in California!


Fried dough is another regional treat— I know that different kinds of fried dough are popular all over the world, but I never saw these plain slabs of dense but puffy dough until I moved out here. They can be served with sugar and cinnamon, syrup or jam, and, for an even more regional treat, tomato sauce: a topping apparently favored primarily by residents of Connecticut. Some stands around Boston keep the tomato sauce handy to appease any Connecticutians that may be traveling abroad.


 


Last year a friend gave us a jar of this amazing chutney, a chutney that I ate with yogurt, on bread, and by the spoonful. Sweet, with a spicy, gingery bite and a cloying undertone of onion and mustard, I simply couldn't stop eating it. This summer, I couldn't let plum season pass without making some for myself. Here it is in it's uncooked state; in the jar it's a gorgeous ruby. The recipe is from the excellent Herbfarm Cookbook.

 

So, ok, now that that's out of my system, back to the technicalities of the Eat Local Challenge. It's turned out that in order to make my diet 100% local, there were only a few eliminations, the big ones being refined sugar, flour, and most grains. Goodbye bread, pasta, and crackers. Goodbye also to the afternoon pick-me-up piece of candy. This means no granola for breakfast, no crackers with my lunch, and potatoes or polenta instead of bread or rice with dinner. It's slightly lower carb than our regular diet, but actually not as huge a change as it might sound. I eat granola most mornings, but eggs, polenta and yogurt with fruit were all in the rotation, so it is not that weird to skip the granola. I bring leftovers for my lunch, and like to have crackers with them a few times a week, and I am looking forward to their return. For dinners, the change is only noticeable in the reduced variety of the starch dishes. I have been eating more honey to make up for the sugar, so that's not that big of a deal either. I excepted olive oil and have homemade butter and lard, so I haven't had to alter my regular cooking methods to deal with any fat substitutions.

The main components of my local diet:
Milk and homemade yogurt, cheese, butter and kefir from Oake Knoll
Eggs
Honey
Meat from Houde Family Farm and Stillmans
Local fish from New Deal Fish Market
a TON of produce from our CSA and farmer's market
Cornmeal from Gray's Grist Mill

A typical day looks like:
Egg poached in milk
Fish stew with home-canned local tomatoes, garlic, kale, whiting and scup
Roasted eggplant and yogurt
Lamb steak with mashed celeriac potatoes, honeyed carrots and salad greens
Apple with honey and fresh cheese

The only exceptions I've taken so far were dinner date out on Saturday, and a late night snack of sausage and crackers on Sunday night at a friends house, when an evening project ran much later than planned and sustenance became necessary. So far, so good!

 

As much as I love talking publicly about food, I hate talking publicly about diets. And not just restrictive weight-loss diets, but any pattern or habit of eating. If you are happy with your diet, you sound self-satisfied and condescending. If you are unhappy with it, you sound powerless and weak-willed. Either way, the discussion betrays your closest-held beliefs about the value, importance and role of food. And it can be just as divisive as discussing religion, politics or child-rearing. Everyone has an idea of the right way to do things... and it probably isn't the same as yours. Are they judging you for your dietary beliefs? Do they feel judged?

As someone who has struggled with my weight, and gone through many diet revisions over the course of my life, I feel like I've experienced all sides of this interaction, from people looking at my body and my plate and making negative judgments, to people thinking that the time, effort and money I put into my diet is absurd and pretentious. My enthusiasm for food and my passion about its political aspects means that I have almost certainly made others feel awkward or annoyed in the face of my convictions.

And I also know, particularly in today's economic climate, proudly touting that you eat only unprocessed local foods— well, it's nothing short of bragging. Although I think that switching from a Whole Foods/Yuppie Chow diet to a mostly unprocessed local diet based on CSAs and farmers' markets, as we have over the past couple years, has actually saved us money, it can't be denied that it is still a privileged diet. But the more I learn about the state of food and agriculture, the more compelled I feel to vote with my wallet. And then there is the cost in my time— while most nights, we have a simple 20-minute dinner, it takes a lot of time to prepare a few of the foods we enjoy, and I just happen to be borderline obsessive enough to put in that time. So I am in a unique position when it comes to choosing and defining my diet.

When I sat down to write about the Eat Local Challenge, it was going to be a straightforward description of the changes I've made for the month of October, and how I've implemented them in the past week. But I found myself paralyzed. I've come to a strong belief in the value of eating unprocessed foods, naturally raised meats, and lots of produce, as well as the political need to patronize smaller farms. I am proud of the changes I've been making in my diet, and I want people to be more aware of the political issues that I've come to care so much about. I want people to be more informed about food safety and regulation, and about the problems with industrialized food systems, processed foods and corn subsidies. But I find it hard to write about these things for fear of sounding judgmental and preachy.

I'm not a locovore or any sort of -arian or -gan. I eat what I think is delicious and healthy and think you should too. This blog isn't meant to be about politics (there are other great blogs for that), but about the joy of food. I can't help a little politics seeping in here and there, but what I really want to share is that joy.

The joy of eating local is knowing your farms and farmers, and that means knowing your food. Farmers, rather than agribusinesses, know how to make a marbled steak, a rich bright egg yolk, and sweet flavorful milk. Farmers, not agribusinesses, care not just about the technical safety of their product, but about its quality. The range of flavors in local food is broader. I can taste the seasons in the meat and the milk and see them in the comings and goings of produce. Conventional meat, dairy and eggs taste flat in comparison. Having a relationship with my meat farmer, my fish broker, my dairy, and my produce farms has given me access to great advice, excellent recipes, special cuts of meat, cultures for fermented foods like kefir, bulk produce for canning, and introductions to new kinds of seafood.

On the other hand, local farms can't provide me with the grapefruits that I'll certainly become addicted to later in the year or the avocados I miss from my childhood. Local sources can't give me imported spices, refined baking products, most pre-made food, or any number of other delicacies that I plan to enjoy in abundance starting on November 1st. Because I love food, I'll spend November reveling in my flour and sugar and imported products. And because I love food, local meat, produce and dairy will remain the backbone of my diet.

 

Even though the crisp days of fall are well upon us, I have a couple summer projects that I haven't yet had a chance to post. One was delayed because of the vagaries of ordering supplies online, and another simply never made it on the posting schedule.


The latter is a neat BBQ tip that our friend Mike shared with us. Perfect BBQ firestarters, for use with chimneys or just charcoal alone, can be made using nothing more than a cardboard egg carton, some old candles or other wax, and dryer lint. I happened to have a couple ugly old purple candles hanging about, but if you're the type who doesn't keep a junk drawer full of cruft like that, you can also buy candle wax in craft stores.


Simply stuff a little dryer lint into each egg cup, and then melt the wax in a double boiler and pour it in to fill. When the wax has hardened, you can tear the cups off one at a time as needed. Simply light a corner and toss it in under your chimney or pyramid, and you've got a nice, guaranteed light. No need for spraying that lighter fluid all over! (Seriously, we used to look like something out of a comic strip when we lit our Webster— you could practically see the all-caps comic sans "FWOOMP!" as the pillar of flame spewed up past our eyebrows. Our eyebrows are pretty happy that we switched to these firestarters.)


My second summer leftover was a long time coming. I ordered a bottle of quinine powder about two and a half months ago, thinking that I would have my tonic water made in plenty of time to refresh us on those hot August evenings. When did the quinine arrive? About a week ago, after multiple unanswered customer service inquiries. I feel a little bad calling out a supplier, but I try to run honest blog here, so folks, while I highly recommend making your own tonic water, I cannot say the same for buying quinine from ZooScape.


Homemade tonic water actually takes the form of a syrup, which you add to carbonated water. This is great, because not only can you make a big batch of syrup all at once and not worry about it going flat, but you can also mix your tonic water to taste. When serving some gin and tonics with this stuff, I definitely noticed that people had different preferences. To make the syrup, water, sugar, quinine powder and seasonings are boiled together— I adapted a recipe from this Washington Post article by adding just a dash of Chinese five spice powder. Notice that homemade tonic water is not clear, but brownish, because the kind of quinine available to you and I actually comes undistilled, in the form of ground cinchona bark.


I loved the sweet and spicy flavor of my tonic, so much richer and deeper than a storebought tonic, and its many-faceted character, with the hint of five spice, had me thinking of not just cooling gin and tonics, but tempting champagne cocktails, warming spiced whiskeys, and a myriad of other cocktail possibilities. It also made me think of the wide variety of simple syrups that you can make using roughly the same technique. For example, last year I made a syrup of sugar with a spoonful of lavender that also made a delicious cocktail with gin. Quinine is what sets tonic apart, however, and as delicious as this tonic was, I found that the sweetness overwhelmed the bitter bite (of course, it could be that my quinine powder is a little wimpy). Next time I make this, I'll definitely dial up the quinine, and leave the simply sweet syrups for other cocktails.

 


Cold brewed coffee has been all over the place these days. To be honest, I am more of a tea person, reserving coffee for special occasions and real caffeine emergencies. But the idea of a milder, make-ahead brew intrigued me, and last year I gave it a try. Unfortunately, that attempt ended in tragedy (and a coffee-flavored roast chicken. I would rather not talk about it.) Having finally recovered from the post-traumatic stress that that attempt induced, I decided to try again last week. I combined coarsely ground coffee and water in a 1:4 ratio and let it sit about 24 hours, the second 12 hours in the fridge. Greg and I compared the results with a chilled version of our regular french press brew of the same beans. I found the cold-brewed coffee to be less acidic, and although Greg didn't notice that as much, we both agreed that it was much stronger and richer than the french-pressed coffee, with a greater depth of flavor. While the flavor was definitely preferable, what I really like about this method is the ability to have it ready ahead of time. I bet the next time I host a brunch I'll just make a huge batch of cold-brewed coffee rather than messing about with 14 rounds of the french press.


If I were a true coffee connoisseur, I would probably be more excited about cold-brewed coffee. But I have another, less refined, iced coffee passion: the Greek frappé. This is not that sugared sludge you get at Starbucks, but an airy refreshment, light in texture and flavor. Made by shaking or blending instant coffee and water, the Greek frappé naturally acquires a frothy, luscious head of foam without the addition of milk or other thickeners. The trick doesn't work with regular coffee (apparently because of the natural oils in the bean), so you're stuck buying Nescafé - don't worry, you can just hide it in the back of the cupboard and claim that glorious foam is produced using a "traditional Greek method."

While Nescafé might not be the ultimate in coffee flavor, the frappé is so fun and refreshing to drink— it takes me right back to the Greek island of Chios where I first tried this treat. Whole blocks along the seaside are devoted to open-fronted bars that double as daytime cafés, identical cavernous retreats full of crisply cushioned wicker chairs and wooden bars. Inside, avoiding the gentle but persistent heat, retirees and young, hip locals alike languidly play backgammon and down frappés for hours. With afternoons as idyllic as that, is it any surprise that the people we met there were so friendly?


To make the frappé, just mix 2 teaspoons of instant coffee with 3-4 tablespoons of water, and as much sugar as you like, then shake or blend until frothy. Then you can top off with milk, if desired, and pour over ice. Note that you don't need to add milk for a creamy texture— there's no milk in the frappé pictured, just millions of tiny bubbles!

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