Friday, December 30, 2005

The best banana bread. Really.

I hate to talk trash, but my banana bread is the best in the world. Really. Now, you may be thinking, "Hey, MY banana bread is pretty damned good!" And I'm sure it is. It may be an excellent banana bread, but since mine is, objectively speaking, the best possible banana bread, it only stands to reason that all other banana breads are, tragically, inferior.

But have no fear! In the spirit of holiday generosity, I am willing to share my banana bread recipe with you, and then you too can brag safe in the knowledge that your claims are backed up with absolute, verifiable truth.

(This recipe is adapted from that at the joy of baking website.)

Banana Bread
1 3/4 cups all purpose flour
1/2 cup white sugar
1/4 cup dark brown sugar (I'm sure you could substitute wildly here, whatever combination of brown and white you've got. But this is what I use.)
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cinnamon
2 eggs lightly beaten
1 stick melted butter (cooled)
Between 1 1/2-1 3/4 cup ripe banana (Use as much as you've got. The riper the better. Rotten even. Wait until the flies circle.)
1 tsp vanilla extract

Optional items (Without them, I fear you might only end up with the second-best banana bread in the world. But if allergies or weird food prejudices prevent these additions, you can omit them. But you should really try the full monty.)
1/4 cup wheat germ
2/3 cup chopped dates
1 cup chopped and toasted walnuts or pecans
1/2 tsp Frontier natural walnut flavoring*

Mix together butter, banana, eggs, and extracts. (Do yourself a favor and just mix them in the saucepan you used to melt the butter.) Sift together the dry ingredients in a large bowl, then fold the wet ingredients in. Do not overmix. Add the dates and nuts when you can still see big streaks of flour, to avoid overmixing. Bake in a buttered loaf pan in a 350 degree oven until done, about an hour.

*I have no idea how "natural" Frontier Natural Walnut Flavoring is. It's probably walnut shells infused in petroleum, with maybe some ground walrus tusks. I don't know. I don't care. I love this stuff. It gives a subtle nutty flavoring throughout a bread or muffin or cookie. I add it to anything baked that includes nuts. If the company ever goes out of business, I will buy up a case. Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

More local food

I decided to look around my local supermarket to see what I could find that was New England grown. Even in the dead of winter, I was able to find a few things: Wyman frozen wild blueberries, radish sprouts grown in Vermont, Stonyfield Farms yogurt, local applesauce, and even some butternut squash. I also could have bought local butter and milk, mushrooms grown in Connecticut, lots of local cheese, maple syrup and honey. I also know some supermarkets, though not this one, carry A-1 dried beans "State of Maine" label, which are Maine-grown. Not exactly enough to live on, but more than I expected. Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

I'm back

Hello, everyone. I'm back.

Where have I been? You might well ask; I haven't posted in almost two weeks. Unfortunately, I haven't been, say, on a trip to Paris. I've just been here, nursing a serious case of the holiday blues.

So the post of all the baking I did over Christmas? There won't be one. Because I didn't. For the first year in recent memory, I didn't bake cookies for my co-workers; I didn't make marmalade or jam for gift baskets; I didn't get together with my best friend to make candies; I didn't make a Yule log. I bowed out of Christmas this year. Partly because I have a touch of SAD. Partly because I'm starting school in a month and I'm nervous about it. Partly because I wasn't looking forward to this Christmas.

(Warning: what follows is deeply self-indulgent, rambling, disorganized, and probably dead-boring to anyone but me. Proceed at your own risk.)

My whole family got together for Thanksgiving: my sister from Albany with her husband and three kids, my brother from Montreal with his best buddy from college, my other single sister who lives near here, and my parents. There were two types of stuffing, the turkey of course, a multitude of vegetables, and a full dessert table. With the whole family there, it seemed worthwhile to spend days ahead prepping for the big event.

But my brother wasn't coming for Christmas, nor my married sister and her family. Christmas this year was my parents, my sister and me. My mom and her two spinster daughters. God help us all.

It was a small Christmas. But it wasn't just that that kept me from having the Christmas spirit.

I love my parents. But I don't exactly get along with them very well. We don't fight, but we aren't close either. So holidays that consist of just them and me and sis; well, they're not fun. We spend a lot of time skirting nervously any topics on which our differences of opinion might become obvious - politics, religion, culture, television, and, yes, since this is a food blog, I might as well talk about it: food.

Food is a much more loaded topic than we usually consider it to be. I mean, if you're stuck with a group of people you don't know, talking about food seems a pretty safe bet. You can talk to almost anyone about which are the best ice cream parlors in your city, or where to find great pizza, or what your family always has for Christmas Eve dinner.

But we define ourselves by what we eat, and we read meaning into other people's choices as well. When I bring my grass-fed organic beef to my parent's house to roast for Christmas dinner, I am bringing my own associations - connections to local farmers, traditional British Christmas feasts of roast and Yorkshire pudding, festive holiday indulgence in fine food. But I also carry associations I don't intend: snobbery, rejection of the turkey dinners of my childhood, prodigal extravagance. And when my mother puts her grocery-store whoopie pies on the dessert table, she intends to show indulgence, a bit of holiday frivolity, and what do I see? Transfats, preservatives, and a greasy mouthfeel.

We're not terrible people. We take each other's offering in the spirit in which it is intended: my mother praises the roast, I eat a Whoopie pie and reminisce about my brother's fondness for them when he was a child. But we notice the gap between us, the lack of connection where it seems like connection should be easiest, the effort we are each making shows, and it seems to sadden us both.

Simple matters of taste resound with significance, even when they shouldn't. If you don't believe, try a simple experiment. Ask someone what sort of person they would imagine would order the following flavors of ice cream: vanilla, dark chocolate, hazelnut, chai, Grapenuts. I'm guessing the answers will go something like this, depending on the respondents' own preferences : dependable (boring), sensual (dramatic, self-indulgent), sophisticated (pretentious), edgy (ostentatious), old-fashioned (old).

Now, these sort of judgments are the type of thing maturity should get us beyond. I can't tell anything about the sort of person you are from whether you prefer venison or chicken, and I'm not going to start ordering chai ice cream when I really want chocolate chip just so I won't feel boring. These differences are shallow, and food-lovers are the worst offenders when it comes to putting too much weight on them. Taste-preferences are meaningless.

But taste isn't the only way we define ourselves by food. There are also ethnic connections, restaurant vs. homecooked, fancy bakery versus supermarket, and so on. Most of these are as frivolous as ice-cream choices - people who love Italian food are not more in touch with their feelings than people who would rather corned beef and potatoes. But some differences do have more significance.

Organic food matters to me because I believe we are poisoning our planet with pesticides. Sustainable food matters to me because I believe that organic isn't enough to ensure a healthy environmental future. Local food matters to me because I believe it helps to support community, the environment and the local economy. Pastured meat matters to me because I believe it is morally wrong to confine animals for the whole of their lives and because I believe that grass-fed meat feeds our bodies better than grain-fed meat. These are moral beliefs, things that get to the core of what I care about: finding a healing way to live in a society that is, in my mind, very ill.

This point of view is so far from my parent's as to be completely alien.

I am not judging them in this. Their generation (they turn 70 this year) was not raised to think about consumer choices as moral choices. There is only one virtue they understand in regards to purchases, and that is frugality. Morality, to them, is primarily a question of being honest, being chaste if unmarried, and having faith. My parents are very good people - they give to the poor, my mother visits shut-ins, my father volunteers his services at a nursing home. I am in no way as generous with my time as they are. They do service work that I admire greatly. They would consider the idea of doing good by spending money on oneself to be absurdly frivolous.

And they would be right. I make no sacrifice in buying fantastic beef. I get enormous pleasure out of going to farmers' markets. I don't want to be the holier-than-thou Whole Foods customer: given the price of much organic food, being able to buy it is a sign of a financial security many can only dream of having.

And yet, and yet....I still believe that Big Agriculture, factory farms, and junk food harm not just the bodies, but the soul of my country. I have stopped trying to communicate this idea to my family; they can't help but understand my interest in these foods in terms they can understand, and unfortunately in those terms local, sustainably-grown food is simply overpriced, a personal indulgence that hints at fiscal irresponsibility (a sin mostly ignored in our credit-card-mad days, but one that is nonetheless at the heart of much misery in this world).

If this attitude were a personal quirk of my parents, this blog entry would simply be its own display of personal indulgence, just me trying to work out the issues between myself and my family in a public forum. And, um, well, it probably is just that. And I should probably be embarrassed. But I know that my parents are more like most Americans than I am. In many ways, this is the defining problem of the sustainable food movement: how do we convince people that sustainable agriculture is a necessity, not a luxury? I don't really know how.
Okay, I've come a long way from my Christmas blues. I don't want to leave anyone with the impression that my views on sustainable farming ruined my Christmas, because that would be completely skewed. But you start thinking about one thing, and it leads to another...As for the other issues...well, let's just say the War on Christmas found its way to our festivities this year, and there were representatives of both armies. Sigh.

Had enough of my personal issues? Good, me too.

The rib roast was fantastic, particularly the gravy, which I made from red wine, pan drippings, onions and roux. The Yorkshire pudding puffed less than usual (pan not hot enough?), but was still crisp on the outside and soft on the inside. I did make two batches of cookies: chewy walnut for my nut-loving mother, and snickerdoodles for my sister. The food was good. Even the Whoopie pies.

And now I'm home. I've got beef stock simmering on the stove, which soothes me to no end. Tomorrow, my boyfriend will get home form his mother's. We'll eat soup and salad and a pasta with nice ragu sauce. And I'll have lived through another Christmas. God bless us every one.

(I'll make yet another confession - I've gone back and forth on posting this for hours. I've got too much Anglo/Celtic blood to feel comfortable talking about personal things without the benefit of a few glasses of whiskey. But I'm trying to overcome my reticence. After all, how many entries about last night's dinner are you poor people supposed to take?)

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Tongue Sandwich

Cooking the tongue was easy; so was peeling it. The outer skin came off in a stiff thick sheet, like pulling the wax off a wheel of cheddar. Inside, the tongue looked pink and vulnerable and, frankly, just as disturbing as it did when it was blue and bumpy.

My boyfriend and I tried it while it was still warm, and you can see that today I've got a tongue sandwich for lunch. The overall verdict was that it was pretty good. The texture is a bit tougher than I would like, ideally, but the flavor is good, like a cross between corned beef and liver. I can't imagine making a special search for it or anything, but it made a nice sandwich today, and I'm going to try making some hash with it tonight.


In response to some of the comments about local eating: I know that most people in the lcaol eating movement define "local"
as within 100 miles of your home, but I'm a bit more generous. I would say within about 300 miles. That's an easy day's drive, and in my case happens to roughly outline New England (with the exception of Northern Maine), so there are cultural reasons to define local that way as well. Like so many things, "local" and "non-local" are not two distinct categories, but a range. It's only sensible to choose truly local produce - no need to go more than a few towns over for me to get greens, strawberries, and tomatoes. But apples and cider, seafood and meat might require a bit longer drive, and grains might reasonably be considered "local" if they are grown in Northern Vermont rather than in the Midwest.

Considering that most food in the U.S. travels 1,500 miles before it hits the plate, 300 miles is pretty good.

Also, if I ever really were to do the local eating experiment, I would allow myself one exemption: a box of spices. I figure that given the relatively low weight/volume of a year's worth of spices and the enormous culinary advantages of the same, along with the fact that it would be impossible to grow vanilla, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg or black pepper in my area, spices are a reasonable exception to the local-eating rule. I would give myself no exemption for herbs, because those are easily available locally. And no exemption for chocolate, coffee, citrus, or liquor, tragically. All of which may keep me from ever actually taking on such a crazy project. But if you would like to read about some people who did, click here. Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Yeah, it's kind of gross

That, my friends, is the tongue of a cow. It's in my refrigerator at this moment, where it has been for the past week, bathing in a brine of salt water, sugar and spices. Tonight, I will simmer it for 3 hours on the stovetop in water with onions and carrots and bay, and when it is cooked, I will skin it. And maybe then it won't look so goddamned nasty.

I've never cooked tongue before. Heck, I've never eaten tongue before (it's impossible to write about this without sounding obscene.) My boyfriend, who has, claims it taste a bit like ham, with the density of liver. We'll see. In the meantime, I'm amazed by how very creepy I find it.

Generally, I don't get bothered by foods. I can throw a calf-hoof into the braising liquid of my French-style pot roast without a qualm. Lobsters I murder without a twinge of conscience. I love slurping oysters. I yearn for a source for organic chicken feet to improve my stock.

But the tongue is different. First off, it looks so very much like our own tongues. So very like, but yet different - enormous, for one thing, and also a disconcerting dark gray/blue color, a color that would signal some sort of horrible illness if it were to appear in my tongue, or the dainty pink tongue of my cats. And there's so much of the base of the tongue to it, the clear severed connections where this tongue was removed from its mouth. (That reminds one of something most of us would rather not think about, that throughout history, cutting out the tongue has been a not-unheard-of torture, inflicted as punishment for heresy, among other things.)

I'm sure it will look better once it's cooked. It had better taste good. Posted by Picasa

Friday, December 09, 2005

Eating locally - some musings

It's officially winter now. The first real snow is coming down outside, and all I can think about is farm-fresh vegetables.

It's hard to eat locally in New England in December.

Hard, but not impossible. I've been thinking more and more about what it would take to eat completely locally for, say, one year. Various people in the eat-local movement have done this. Many of them are, admittedly, located in much warmer and more hospitable places, but some are not.

I don't think I can engage in this experiment quite yet, though I think I might at some points. I think anyone attempting this in New England would need the following things:

A deep freeze
A dehydrator
A "cool, dry place," aka, a root cellar
A car, for taking trips to farms

I have the first and could easily manage the second, but I don't have the third or fourth and likely won't for another two years or so. But with all four, I think it would be possible.

In the summer, of course, there would be no problem with vegetables and fruits. In the winter, I could still have root-cellared potatoes, sweet potatoes, parsnips, beets, carrot, cabbage, winter squash, celery, collards, apples and pears; frozen green beans, peas, corn, broccoli, blueberries and peaches; various pickles and relishes; and dried and canned tomatoes, assuming I start in the summer and plan ahead.

Local meat is easy to come by, of course, and local dairy is available at the regular grocery store. There are quite a few local producers of cider, which I prefer to beer, so that's no sacrifice. There are some local wines, though the quality of most is questionable. There are some providers of local mushrooms, or I could grow my own. There's even local sea salt.

Sugar would be a problem. I am sure it would be good for my health to replace all the white sugar in my diet with local honey and maple syrup, but it wouldn't be easy. I have been able to find no commerical growers of nuts in New England, so I couldn't even make maple walnut ice cream.

I haven't been able to hunt down many producers of local grains. Gray's Grist Mill grows and grinds Rhode Island flint corn, the proper basis for jonnycakes. Littleton Grist Mill stone-grinds organic grain, some of which comes from Vermont, but the rest supplied from South Dakota. There is a farmer in Aroostock County who is growing grain for a Maine bakery (interesting article here) who could perhaps be persuaded to sell some grain to an idealistic blogger, although Northern Maine is pushing the outer boundaries of "local."

Anyway, it would be an interesting project, but not really possible for me at the moment. Until it is, however, I intend to try to deepen my commitment to local food. Rather than just eating the food I normally would, but trying to find local versions, I want to make an effort to choose local foods whenever possible and plan my meals accordingly. So instead of picking up wine for dinner, I'll buy cider and enjoy what was once the most popular drink in New England. I'll try to use more maple syrup and honey and less white sugar. I'll buy smoked seafood as a treat, rather than pate. I'll order some of that cornmeal and eat more cornbread and less rolls.

Maybe I should make this an early New Year's resolution.


Oh, and there are new links up for local farmers' markets, maple syrup, honey, and specialty food providers. I'm working on lists of farms and CSA programs, but obviously that's a much bigger project and is going to take a while.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

More links

I'm going to be adding a whole bunch of new links to the sidebar. I've started today with the "Big Local Links," the most basically useful websites for finding local food sources. All are national, except for the Federation of Massachusetts Farmers' Markets. Next I hope to pull together a list of New England food providers, then a list of blogs on sustainable agriculture and the local food movement. If anyone can suggest any additions, let me know. Trying to achieve a diet of primarily locally and sustainably grown food is difficult; I believe we need all the resources we can get.

At some point I promise I will actually cook something interesting again and post about it. Really.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Christmas shopping

I am, thank goodness, all done with my shopping, but I've been researching local food providers for a post I'm intending to do in the next week or two, so I thought I would pass on some of the things I've found. I can't vouch for all of these producers from personal experience, but they look worthy of investigation:
Shaker dried herbs and rose water
Rhode-Island-grown flint corn meal for jonnycakes
Real Maine sea salt: plain, smoked and herb
Wild mushrooms from Maine
More Maine mushrooms
Maine Sea Vegetables
Smoked salmon
Hard cider - I've had some of this company's cider, and there are some good ones. Others I haven't liked as much. Depends on how sweet and how bubbly you like your cider.
Blueberry wine – don’t knock it 'til you try it. I've had the oak dry, and it's really very good.
More hard cider
Smoked Maine seafood (I can personally recommend this company)
A listing of Vermont cheesemakers
A listing of New England cheesemakers

Local honey and maple syrup are widely available.

All of the above are New-England-made and New-England-grown. There are also lots of New-England-made food products created from ingredients that are grown elsewhere (like sugar).

You might also consider buying gifts that allow people to grow or make their own food. I've bought one friend a mushroom-growing kit from Fungi Perfecti, and my boyfriend will be getting a kit for making beer at home.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Indian pudding

This week I've had a rather nasty sore throat. I've been craving hot oatmeal, scrambled eggs, herb teas - anything hot that will slide on down soothingly. So, for the first time ever, I bought a can of Indian pudding.

My sole experience with Indian pudding came when i was around nine or ten. My family had gone to Durgin Park for dinner, so it must have been some sort of important occasion. Not that Durgin Park is particularly fancy, just that there were four children in my family, so restaurants with non-plastic utensils were reserved for events.

For those of you who don't know, Durgin Park is an old New England institution, renowned for its rude waitresses and its Yankee specialities like clam chowder and Indian pudding.

I was the sort of child who considered everything old-fashioned to be vaguely romantic, so I ordered Indian pudding for dessert. My mother warned me that I might not like it, but I was convinced it had to be good - how bad could dessert be? And it was some sort of pudding, for Pete's sake! Oh, how wrong I was.

Indian pudding is cornmeal mush flavored with molasses and gingerbread spices. I had basically ordered polenta for dessert, and my young suburban tastebuds were in no way prepared for that concept. I was horrified and barely touched my pudding.

I figured enough years had passed that I might have come around on the Indian pudding thing, and I was right. I can't imagine eating it cold, but warmed up, with a little cold cream poured over, it was a nice treat. It was also locally-made, though I doubt that any of the ingredients were locally-grown. All of the ingredients were also recognizable as food - essentially cornmeal, molasses, spices, milk - which is always a plus. Posted by Picasa

Posted by Picasa

Monday, November 28, 2005


Chocolate cake with coffee buttercream and marzipan leaves - one of the Thanksgiving dishes that actually came out just fine.

Should I talk about the ones that didn't? Let's face it: the failures are more amusing than the successes. This year, I had a little of both. My little onions, braised in butter and homemade chicken stock, were great. The carrots were cooked to perfections and nicely glazed with brown sugar and butter. No complaints about the roasted sweet potatoes with fresh rosemary. Leaf-shaped butter cookies, flavored with a little orange and coated in cinnamon sugar, were a success. My brother-in-law rated my pear crumble pie a 9, maybe a 10. And the chocolate cake was good, if a little denser than usual. (I make this cake, the epicurious Chocolate Stout Cake recipe, often.)

But I also made a few missteps. The cornbread stuffing was drier than it should have been. Some of the vegetables were a bit cold on serving (I don't know how to handle this without breaking down and buying a food warmer tray). My sweet potato/pecan pie bubbled up and over and made a mess of the floor of the oven, as well as dripping all sorts of stickiness under the crust, making for very messy serving. And then there was the pumpkin cheesecake.

I've made quite a few pumpkin cheesecakes and never had a problem. I made this one last weekend, and it looked just fine. I froze it, then thawed it on Thanksgiving day. And in the thawing lay the problem.

My cheesecake started to give off water.

It was all unmolded on a nice glass cake plate with a lipped edge, and thank goodness for that lip, because otherwise there would have been dripping onto the tablecloth and I had already gotten in trouble by getting chocolate on my mother's tablecloth. I used a paper towel to sop up the liquid, assumed it was just some condensation of some kind, and went about my business.

A half-hour later, there had to have been 1/4 cup of liquid around the base of that cake, making my nice gingersnap crust a soggy mess.

I couldn't understand it, but I had a theory, a theory I hate to admit on a blog devoted to organic, local ingredients. I hadn't used the hallowed One-Pie can of pumpkin. Instead, I had used an organic canned pumpkin. (I knew better than to use real pumpkin, which even when roasted and drained is too watery for most baking). I had noticed upon taking the pumpking frmo the can that it seemed a little lighter in texture and color than I was used to. This morning, I confirmed with a co-worker, whose wife had had the same problem with organic pumpkin in a pie. I am left in the unfortunate position of having to make a recommendation to AVOID organic pumpkin, at least for custards.

What a world. Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Thanksgiving prep

(Note the newly broken whip? Just in time for the holidays. Grr.)

Last night I hauled home piles of groceries from the store, baked cornbread and tore up white bread for stuffing, made cranberry sauce, cooked sweet potatoes for pie, gathered my recipes, and made buttercream for a chocolate cake.

I have vague ideas about a book I would like to write one day called "French Pastries in Ten Recipes." Basically, there aren't that many things you need to know how to do to make most traditional pastries. You just have to learn the basic recipes and then combine and flavor them in different ways. And one of the basics is buttercream.

A lot of people are intimidated by buttercream, and I'm not sure why. There's a common idea that it is fussy and requires a candy thermometer and an advanced degree and possible a sacrifice to St. Honore or something. Not true. Not true at all.

At the bakery where I once worked, we made buttercream by putting all the ingredients in the big mixer, lighting a few Sternos under the bowl to warm it all up, and letting 'er rip. It always came out just fine.

Here's my buttercream recipe:
4 large egg whites (if you use extra large, you might need a touch more butter)
1 cup sugar
3.5 sticks unsalted butter, room temp
Put the egg whites and sugar in a bowl over some simmering water. Whisk until the mixture is warm and the sugar is dissolved. Remove from the heat, and whip (preferably with a machine of some kind) until cool. Add in the butter in chunks, and whip until thoroughly combined. If it seems a little stiff, warm it a bit and whip some more. Medium on a stand mixer is best; high will give you some big air bubbles, which only matters if you're doing smallish piping. If it seems a little melty, put it in the fridge, let it cool a bit, then whip again. Buttercream will always come together eventually, it just has to be the right temperature (just a bit higher that room temp is good.) If you make ahead, you will need to warm it a bit and rewhip for the best texture.

You can flavor this basic buttercream any which way. I'm planning on adding melted bittersweet chocolate and a little instant coffee dissolved in a tablespoon of Kalhua to this batch. (If I were making this for adults only, I would use bitter chocolate, but bittersweet will yield a more child-friendly result.) As long as you stay under two tablespoons of liquid, you're fine. Extracts, purees, concentrates, liqueurs - add what you like. One of my best buttercreams included nearly a cup of dried apricots, made soft with a soak in rum and simple syrup, then pureed.

Tonight I'll make the cake. Posted by Picasa

Monday, November 21, 2005

The Things I Carry

Cooking at someone else's house is a royal pain in the neck. There are always things you assume everyone has, but you're wrong. Like a whisk. Or Saran Wrap. How can a regular suburban American family not have plastic wrap in the house? It seems impossible, but last Thanksgiving, my parents didn't have plastic wrap OR aluminum foil.

So I'm busy making my list of stuff to bring with me to my parents' house for Thanksgiving. Mom and Dad will do most of the shopping, and I'll do most of the cooking there, though I'll bring some things with me on Wednesday. In addition to the finished items I'll drag out there (pumpkin cheesecake, already made and in the freezer, cranberry sauce, two pies, cookies, a chocolate cake and cornbread stuffing), I will bring with me:

  • Butter
  • Lemons
  • A pastry bag fitted with a large star tip, for whipped cream
  • My good chef's knife, even if I do need to get it sharpened
  • A pepper grinder filled to the top with Penzey's Tellicherry peppercorns
  • Good olive oil
  • Garlic
Since it's almost impossible to make even the most basic items with the above, I pretty much always bring them with me anywhere I'm expecting to cook: other people's houses, vacations, etc. (Okay, the pastry bag isn't strictly necessary, but for Thanksgiving it is.) I'm curious as to what other people consider necessities. I wonder how one starts a meme? Can I tag mzn of Haverchuk and Helen of Beyond Salmon? Would that start an internet phenomenon? Or would it simply fizzle sadly in a wave of indifference? We'll see: here goes.....

Leftovers lunch - spicy beef stew

Mzn told me to post pictures of leftovers, so here's today's lunch. I made Paul Prudhomme's spicy beef stew this weekend. Only half the cayenne he calls for, but still nicely hot. The unusual thing about this recipe is that there are no onions. Whoever heard of a beef stew without onions? It works, though. As usual with Prudhomme recipes, there are lots of spices. The big double recipe I made used a whole bowlful of spices: ground mustard, cayenne, white and black peppers, caraway, paprika, onion and garlic powders (kept in the house only for Prudhomme recipes) and so on. As is not usual with Prudhomme recipes, there are actually quite a lot of vegetables, though it doesn't look that way in the picture. Half of the vegetables were pureed to thicken the broth. That is a technique that can sometimes result in a vegetal flavor, and I was a bit worried about the effect of the green pepper, but the spices were strong enough to cover any problems. Recommended. (Recipe from Fiery Foods That I Love.) Posted by Picasa

Friday, November 18, 2005

Coriander vodka, getting ready for its close-up

Posted by Picasa
I actually had one more picture. That's it.

Dinner Party Post-Mortem

Okay, take two.

The overall dinner party situation:
Myself, my boyfriend, two of my co-workers and respective significant other/spouse, a high-school friend of mine, a grade school friend of my boyfriend, two Siamese cats and not nearly enough chairs. The kitchen table smooshed up against my painting table, both of which had been dragged into the center of the living room, which had been emptied of whatever furniture I could push into the alcove. I dream of a dining room like some people dream of yachts. I’ve even picked out the paint and had prints framed for this non-existent dining room. I’m not kidding.

The menu:
Caraway and coriander-flavored vodkas (homemade)
Purchased pate and salmon spread, with crackers
Marinated mushrooms

Meatballs in pomegranate sauce

Green salad with mustard vinaigrette

2 roasted chickens rubbed with smoked paprika and caraway seeds
Sauerkraut/cabbage/prune dressing
Roasted potatoes
Red peppers paprikash
Cranberry-horseradish relish

Cheese/sour cherry strudel
Nuts, cheese, pomegranates

The planning:
Vodkas, mushrooms, relish made early in the week. Here’s a picture of the coriander vodka, doing its thing:

The meatballs were mixed and rolled but not cooked the day before. (And a good thing, too – the leftovers were good, but s little squishy.) The dressing was made the day before and just needed cooking off. The red peppers were made the day before and just required heating up. The potatoes were boiled the day before and roasted that day. The strudel was baked the afternoon of the party. The chicken was roasted just before dinner.

The results:
The big winners were the mushrooms, the meatballs and the strudel.

The chickens were good, but I think could have been a bit better. I brined the birds on Thursday, and I think the brining did help keep the flesh moist and flavorful. But I think some of the salt wasn’t properly dissolved, because the tips of the breasts, which were sitting at the bottom of the brining bowl, were too salty. They must have sat in a pool of salt. The rest of the meat was fine, so no worries, just need to make sure all the salt is dissolved next time.

After 24 hours in the salt brine, I rinse and towel-dried the birds, and then I did something I had never done before: I air-dried them. Just put them on a rack in the fridge for 36, bare naked. This was supposed to give a particularly crisp skin, and the skin was very good, but when it came time to rub the chickens with the spices, the spices wouldn’t stick to the dry skin. Which is perfectly logical and follows the basic rules of nature, but never occurred to me. Do people spice first? Or do they just do what I did and cheat with a little oil? At any rate, I got the spices on there: 1 teaspoon of smoked Spanish paprika from Penzey’s, 1 teaspoon of Hungarian sweet paprika, and 1 teaspoon of caraway seeds per bird. The spice coating didn’t look as uniform as it normally would on a moist-skinned chicken. But I was serving the birds carved, so that wasn’t much of an issue. I roasted at 425. I would love to roast at 475 or 500 like all the in-crowd cooks do these days, but that would require a better oven, an exhaust fan that worked, and/or a smoke alarm that didn’t go off even when the air is not smoky. 425 did the job. Overall, I would say that the meat was very good, but I would have liked a touch more heat in the spice rub. Maybe hot paprika instead of sweet.

The red peppers paprikash were solidly good and a nice color. This is an easy recipe that really doesn’t require a recipe – just cook some onions until translucent, add paprika, add red peppers in strips, cook a little more, then add some chicken stock and chopped tomato, maybe a little tomato paste, and cook until tender. Very nice.

The dressing is one that I love. People weren’t talking about it, but there wasn’t much left, so that’s good. Essentially, you cook shredded cabbage and onions in a bit of oil, add sauerkraut, chopped prunes, chopped apples, a bit of chicken stock, and you’re good. Bake in the bird or out.

Oh, I actually have a picture of the dressing cooking:

Posted by Picasa

I frankly forgot all about picture-taking in the fun and the talk and the wine. This is a general problem between me and the camera.

Okay, the roasted potatoes. I’ve never managed to get my potatoes the way I want them. One pan came out nice and dark on the bottom, but even though they cooked just as long after I turned them, they never browned the same way on the other side. The other pan never really browned properly at all. What am I doing wrong? The outsides were fairly crispy, the interiors were nice, and the flavor was good (I used beef fat), but why can’t I get them to brown? Do I need that exhaust fan?

Finally, the strudel, which I really liked. What’s not to like? Essentially, we’re talking about a cheesecake wrapped in phyllo. Plus sour cherries that I had soaked in Amaretto. (Amaretto also found its way into my after-dinner coffee.)

I think only one or two people actually ate the cranberry relish. It was okay, but just got lost on the table. I suppose I could use the leftovers at Thanksgiving, except that I’m pretty sure no one in my family would eat horseradish.

Oh, and no one ate the afterdinner nuts or pomegranate or cheese or candied ginger. I guess there are people out there who actually stop eating when they get full, which seems mighty strange to me.

Fortunately, the nuts came in handy for tomfoolery.

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Thursday, November 17, 2005

Really annoying

I had almost completed a very long post on my dinner party, and now it's gone. Grr....

Tuesday, November 15, 2005


Walter Jeffries of Sugar Mountain Farm left an important comment on my last post about NAIS. Basically, the government is trying to implement a mandatory animal identification and tracking system, on the argument that they need to be able to track outbreaks among animals. Which sounds reasonable enough. But the system, as currently proposed, is quite simply insane. Everyone who keeps even a single livestock animal - just one chicken or pig - would be required to register the animal with the government, The animal would then be assigned an ID number and possibly a tracking microchip. All movements of the animal off of the farm would be required to be reported. Veterinarians would be required to report unregistered animals. And it goes on and on.

How is this evil? Let me count the ways. Food prices in general would rise. Small farmers would be put out of business. It would become even more difficult for people to raise their own food. The winners would be the people who have caused a lot of the problems with safety in the food supply to begin with: Big Agriculture and their factory farms.

You really have to read the proposed plan to believe it, because NAIS sounds for all the world like something made up on the internet. So, while I'm getting together my thoughts on my dinner party for posting later, go here:
and be amazed.
(If you would prefer a good review, there's one here:

There has been almost no media attention to NAIS, which is a good thing for the USDA. This plan has something to offend everyone. Small government conservatives don't like the interference of government in personal property. Nutty-crunchy foodie types don't like the attack on local organic farms. Some religious groups don't like the use of identification numbers or certain technologies. Of course, small farmers have everything to lose. And there's plenty to offend animal-rights activists, libertarians, chefs, 4H Club members, anyone concerned with the future of rural and small town America, and Martha-Stewart readers who want their own blue-egg-laying chickens. A powerful coalition could be developed here, if people get the word out. Do your part.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Off until Monday

I'm taking a little vacation. It will include a dinner party, though, so Monday I should have some good pictures to post. Have a good week, everyone.

The mushroom recipe

This recipe is from Please to the Table, with some adjustments. I use it all the time, because the mushrooms are very good and can be made a couple weeks ahead of time, if need be. I love food that can be made ahead. (And I *heart* my deep-freeze, too, but that's another post).

Okay. Anya calls for 1 1/2 pounds of white button mushrooms. I always use crimini (or baby bellas, which I believe are just a silly marketing-department-invented name for the same thing). They have a deeper mushroom flavor. I'm sure you could do this with all sort of exotic mushrooms, if you have access to them. Because more often than not I can only get mushrooms in 10 oz packages, I just use two packages.

Trim the stem ends to get rid of the tough bit at the very tip, then wash the mushrooms. Usually, the rule is that you have to wipe each mushroom individually with a damp towel, so that the mushrooms don't absorb excess water. But these mushrooms are going into a pot of water anyway, so don't worry about it. Just wash them. Halve any that are huge. Now put them in a pot and squeeze the juice of one fresh lemon all over them, then let them sit for about 5 minutes while you putter around. Here's the water part: Anya calls for 3/4 cup or enough water to cover. I don't know what type of mushroom she was sampling when she decided 3/4 cup would cover 1 1/2 pounds of mushrooms, but it doesn't work. You can't "cover" mushrooms with water anyway, because they float. But I usually use about 2 cups so that every mushroom is at least somewhat immersed.

Anya leaves you on your own when it comes to adding the salt. I would say I use about two teaspoons. And here's my personal recipe addition: I throw in 1/2 cup dried mushrooms, quickly rinsed, at this point.

Bring the mushrooms to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for ten minutes uncovered. Then take out the mushrooms. Because I use at least twice the water Anya does, I let the mushroom water keep simmering for a couple minutes here to concentrate it a bit. When you decide you've had enough of that, measure out 1 cup of the mushroom-water. Don't discard the rest; throw it into chicken stock. Return the water to the pot along with 1 cup of tarragon vinegar (Anya says 3/4 cup of each, but she's being stingy.) Add a teaspoon of sugar, about a dozen peppercorns, and three bay leaves. If you wanted these hot, this would be a good place to add some red pepper flakes. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce heat, and simmer five minutes. Take off the heat and allow to cool. I've forgotten to let it cool a bunch of times; the mushrooms come out just fine anyway.

Now, pull out a nice glass jar and layer your mushrooms alternately with roughly chopped dill (Anya says 12 sprigs, I just use a goodly amount) and about 5 or 6 garlic cloves, sliced. Pour the vinegar mixture over the mushrooms, and then pour in enough olive oil to cover. Refrigerate.

You have to wait at least two days before these are ready to eat, and a week is better. Serve within a month. I like to dig out the dill, which won't look very nice, but leave the garlic cloves, which taste pretty good.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Pickled mushrooms, pickling

I'll post the recipe tomorrow. Posted by Picasa

Friday, November 04, 2005

Odds, ends

I corned my own brisket for the first time last weekend and I would give it an A-. I'll reserve the A+ for a slightly more tender result, maybe fom longer brining or lower heat. But, as usual, the grass-fed beef meant a deep, meaty flavor, and home-brining gave me a less salty corned beef than the store-bought version. I'm pretty salt-sensitive, so that was good by me. And it took all of five minutes to mix the brine and throw the brisket in, so there really wasn't much extra work involved. Given how hard it is to find organic corned beef outside of the St. Patrick sale at Whole Foods, I think I'll be doing this in the future.

I also finished the last of the excellent pork chops by browning them in a skillet, then baking them on a bed of sauerkraut mixed with raisins and apple cider, which was great. How did I reach my thirties without knowing how good sauerkraut is? It was just never eaten in my house growing up, and I don't encounter it in restaurants. Maybe if I had liked hotdogs, I would have known, but I didn't.

I also made a very nice roasted pumpkin soup with one of the sugar pumpkins from my farm share. Nothing exotic, just pumpkin, chicken stock, roasted garlic, some spices, onion, and a bit of cream, pureed until smooth. But good, especially with some tart plain yogurt swirled into the center of the bowl for a bit of contrast.

I forgot to take pictures of these things. I never remember to take pictures of dinner at dinnertime, because I'm hungry. Then I have the question: do I take a picture of the leftovers, looking less-than-beautiful despite being tasty, or do I just forget about it? Usually I opt for the latter.

I finally broke down and bought Fergus Henderson's The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating, and was thrilled to find several recipes for pork belly. I have a nice package of pork belly in my freezer that I had no idea how to approach. Of course, I will have to get over my psychological resistance to the idea of sitting down to a dish which is at least as much fat as meat, but I think I can manage it. Mmmm...fat....

I've also been spending a lot of time fantasizing about my place in the country that I am going to buy someday soon,* and the chickens I intend to keep when I get there. I go here:
and I spend time choosing breeds, which is a little insane for someone whose apartment doesn't even have a fire escape, but that's okay. It's a difficult choice, after all, because you have to balance the desire for good quality meat or egg production with the yearning for exotic, handsome birds. I find the Golden Polish particularly appealing, but there is something to be said for the charm of the traditional Rhode Island Red. Sigh...

* By "soon", I mean "as soon as I can convince a bank to give me a mortage for the entire cost of a home based on my charm and wit.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Blackberry/Wine Sorbet

It's not the greatest picture, but it is a delicious and very quick dessert.

I've been intending to post this for a while. I was going to make this for the wine-pressing night, since it was appropriate and quick and I didn't have much time to cook. But the day got moved up, so I didn't have any time to cook at all. That was okay; I used a little of the bottle of 2003 homemade I received for services rendered (heave-hoing on the press) to make this for myself over the weekend.

I'm not usually crazy about sorbet. It's nice and all, but really I would rather have ice cream. Sorbet is having your dessert and your diet, too. Sorbet is about appreciating the purity of fruit, and appreciation is all very well as it goes, but when was the last time you rolled your eyes in pleasure while appreciating the purity of fruit? I thought not.

But this sorbet, I like. When I was a kid, I assumed wine would taste like blackberry juice, dark and elegant and sweet. Of course, it didn't, though there are blackberry notes in some wines. But it seemed natural to me to pair the two, wine and blackberries, in a sorbet. I went online to see if there were any recipes, and I managed to track down just a few, which I then merged to come up with this:

1 10 oz bag IQF organic blackberries
1/3 cup sugar
2/3 cup fruity wine
1 squeeze lemon juice
Puree fruit. Put 1/3 cup pureed blackberries into a saucepan with 1/3 cup sugar and heat while stirring until sugar is dissolved. Allow to cool, then mix with remaining puree and lemon juice. (If you hate seeds more than you hate cleaning sieves, put through a sieve now). Freeze in ice cream freezer.

The flavor is powerful enough to give this sorbet an oomph most sorbets lack. It tastes like its color, dark and a bit mysterious and seductive. The only negative thing I have to say about it is that it doesn't scoop very smoothly. I think the alcohol content makes for a more sudden melting point, so the sorbet can quickly go from a little too hard to melted. A minor point, probably easily fixed by putting the sorbet in the fridge to thaw gently. I'm never patient enough for that business. The mouthfeel is fine, though, not icy in the least.

I later found out that Trader Joe's sells a Blackberry Merlot sorbet. Very disappointing. Nothing new under the sun and all that... Posted by Picasa

Friday, October 28, 2005

Not really thinking...

about food today. Just going to news sites and clicking refresh. To distract other nervous wonky types today, I have decided to go with a tradition (started, I believe, by Kevin Drum at The Washington Monthly) of Friday catblogging:

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Thursday, October 27, 2005

Cookbooks for a desert island, or at least a cottage on the Maine coast

Like many people who have been working pretty much constantly from college graduation until, say, their 34th birthday, I think a lot about taking time off from work. A few months off would do a world of good. Since deciding to go back to school this coming January, I've been facing the prospect of two years of full-time work plus part-time school by retreating into these fantasies with ever greater frequency and fervor. Three to six months on the coast of Maine, far up north by the Canadian border, sounds about right. I can picture the cottage, the fires in the fireplace, the walks by the cliffs, the lobsters from the boats. I picture stuffing my car with the necessities - my howling Siamese cats, a few heavy sweaters, my painting supplies, some good novels, and every piece of cooking equipment in my kitchen. Because, damnit, if I ever get several months off in a row, I'm going to do some serious cooking.

Now, here's the question. What cookbooks do I bring?

I wouldn't have much space in that car, so I'm giving myself the traditional ten book limit. My list gets changed with regularity, but at the moment, these are my choices:

1) Mastering the Art of French Cooking, VI+II
Because if I could only bring one book, this would be my choice.

2) Fancy Pantry
A fantastic book on how to make jams, chutneys, pickles, vinegar, cordials and other good things. Almost everything I've ever made from this book - Rum/Brown Sugar/Peach Jam, Apricot Jam, Welsh Rabbit Spread, Dried Cherry Cordial, Blueberry Relish and many, many more - has been great, with one exception. The Tarragon-Pickled Flame Grapes were disgusting. I don't know why I thought they would be better than they sounded, but they weren't. But if I had the leisure, I would jelly and pickle my way straight through the year.

3) Jame's Peterson's Seafood
Because my cottage will be in Maine, and nobody covers the ins and outs of scary seafood like Peterson

4) Please to the Table: The Russian Cookbook
I love this cookbook with a deep and abiding passion. The subtitle is misleading. Really, it should be called The Russian and Former Soviet Cookbook. The range is wide, but this is the sort of cooking that shows that the cold countries have something going on culinarily, too. Sauerkraut, horseradish, pomegranates, walnut sauces, wild mushrooms, game and sour cream all play big roles, and that's good by me.

5) Lettuce in Your Kitchen
Because after all the French and Russian food, I'm going to need some salad, and this book (by local wonder-boy Chris Schlesinger) makes salad interesting.

6) The Splendid Table
The recipes in this cookbook are long and involved and I rarely have time for them. But when I have my several-months-off-in-a-row, I'll have the time to spend three or four days just preparing the filling for ravioli.

7) The Bread Baker's Apprentice
I don't actually own this book, but I'll buy it for my fantasy-time-off. I've done some sourdough baking, but I've never really mastered it. This is supposed to be the book-of-books for sourdough.

8)How to Bake
As a reference for basic stuff. Nick's recipes are solid.

9) Louisiana Kitchen
I couldn't go three months without a good jambalaya.

10) Something old, as yet undetermined
I have a lot of cookbooks from the early 1900s. I've cooked a few things from them, but generally I just peruse them for pleasure. I love to see the way that everyday cooking has changed. These cookbooks will have 200 recipes for main-dish egg dishes and only two that call for chicken breasts, which seems much more sensible than the standard current ratio. The pickling and preserving sections are generally quite large, while today's cookbooks rarely include anything on the subject. There are also all sort of strange and intriguing recipes, like the Chocolate-Dipped Potato Candies (made from mashed potato and powdered sugar) that seemed to have been the rage for a few years. I would love to bring one of these cookbooks with me and actually try out the recipes.

Now I just need to figure out how to get a few months off...

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Making wine spo-dee-o-dee

I've been intending to post about my evening pressing grapes, but honestly I've had a hard time figuring out what to say. I don't know much about the wine-making process. Probably anyone who stayed even a little sober through a vineyard tour would know far more than I do, even though I asked all sorts of questions at my grape-pressing evening. Perhaps if I hadn't been doing so much tasting - of the newly fermented juice or of last year's grappa - I would remember some of the answers better. But I'll try to list my somewhat incoherent impressions.


1) If you can marry your way into a nice Italian-American family, with a gentlemanly patriarch and three strapping sons who together make four barrels of wine each year in the garage and converted-basement-wine-cellar, do so. It's worked out very well for my friend. If you are unable to get married at the moment, get a friend make the match. You will get invited to press grapes, which will make you feel ubercool. And you will be given wine.

2) To make wine in New England, first you order grapes from California, though you can supplement with some local Concords. You break up the grapes a bit in a scary-looking machine that would surely take your fingers right off. That's called the crushing (not of your fingers, of the grapes). Then the grapes sit around in a barrel and ferment for a week or two before you press the grapes and put fermented juice in beautiful huge bottles called carboys with special seals on the top that let gas out. That's the pressing. And that's what I got to help with. And I don't know much about the process after that point, except that there's no filtering, but lots of decanting, and then some aging, and then presumably bottling, or maybe the bottling first, then the aging, and finally the drinking, at which point I'm on solid ground again.

3) Instead of rowing machines, there should be pressing machines. Same motion, more fun.

4) At the pressing stage, the wine is already, well, wine, of a sort. But the character of wine at this stage (I'm sure there's a real name for it; I'll just called it wine-in-process) is to finished wine what a jug of cider left to ferment on your porch is to an aged cider in a bottle. This stuff is fruity, a little fizzy, a little harsh, somewhere between fruit juice and wine. Which is what it is, of course. It's also pretty tasty, though my friend's three-year-old son, already a bit of a connoisseur, disagreed. He kept tasting and saying, "Not done yet!"

5) Pressing grapes will make you feel all connected to ancient rhythms of the seasons and all that good stuff EVEN if you're doing it in a garage.

Some pictures:

It's not easy to get the last grapes out from the bottom of the barrel. Posted by Picasa

The grapes waiting to be pressed. Posted by Picasa

The results of the pressing. Looks like melted black raspberry ice cream, doesn't it? Posted by Picasa

By the way, if this wine is as good as the stuff they made in 2003, it will be very good wine indeed. I am endlessly impressed.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Sugar Mountain Farm interview

We have a treat today. I had a chance to do an informal, email interview with Walter Jeffries of Sugar Mountain Farm in Orange, Vermont. He raises pigs organically, on pasture - no antibiotics, no pens, no hormones. He has a fascinating blog for people who are interested in sustainable farming methods or who just like to hear about life on a farm. (His website also has incredibly cute pictures of piglets and puppies. I'm just saying.)

Seasonal Cook: How did you get involved in organic

Sugar Mtn Farm: It is probably my father's influence that got me interested in organic gardening - certainly what got me interested in gardening. It started with helping him in his vegetable garden. We raised pigs with some cousins when I was a child and another cousin has Highland cattle on a mountain farm over in New Hampshire. I always loved visiting Stoddard and seeing the Highland cattle. I wanted to have a place like that eventually.

I figured out very early on that starting in farming did not look like a way to end up farming. To get started requires capital to buy land, livestock, etc. I read about, and saw, a lot of people who burned out that way. So instead I worked at earning the money that it would take to buy the land and get going. I invented some things in high tech, did programming and computer consulting early on, published a magazine in the computer industry, founded and ran a manufacturing company and then gradually backed my way into the farming.

All the while I kept at the organic gardening with the goal that
someday more of my time would be spent on the land. Not just for myself but for my children. Along the way I found a wonderful young lady named Holly who had similar dreams and together we've been making them happen.

SC: Do you come from a farming background?

SMF: Not really. I have one set of cousins who have a big
industrial style chicken farm. My understanding is that they are part
of a commercial breeding program that then produce the eggs for
producing the chickens for soup and such. Hundreds of thousands of
birds. Factory farming. Not my style and not the scale that I wanted to
do farming on.

On the other end of the spectrum is my father's cousin with the
Highland cattle farm and his brother with the pick your own blueberries
in New Hampshire. That is more towards the end I like. I love Highland
cattle but I'm not quite ready to get them, yet. In the mean time I
discovered I greatly enjoy raising pigs on pasture. Who would have

SC: Why organic?

SMF: Healthier, sustainability, healthier, less expensive
inputs, healthier, environmentally friendly, healthier, less dependence on the commercial industrial complex, healthier, better for the soil life, oh, and did I mention healthier? Seriously though, I strongly believe that organic methods are better for the health of the soil, the health of the plants, the health of the animals, the health of the farmer and the health of the consumer. What has become the "modern traditional farming", a.k.a. big farming, is unsustainable over the long haul, is dependent on non-renewable inputs, costs more in the long run and destroy the farm itself by destroying the soil and creating mountains of debt.

It is important to realize that one must go beyond organic farming to achieve sustainability. Merely being organic is not good enough. You can do organic farming, even "certified organic" but still be feeding your livestock corn and soy without giving them natural free access to pasture, without improving the conditions of the soil, without having a long-term sustainable operation. Merely organic is not good enough.

SC: Why pastured?

SMF: It's easy to do. Our location is ideally suited to pasturing animals. We do not have a lot of tillable soil here on the mountains. Around our house we have what used to be sheep pastures long ago. They were even hayed for nearly a century by the man from whom we bought our land. It is amazing because the hills are quite steep - we are on the side of a mountain.

Safety is an issue. Grazing animals on the pasture is safer than haying these fields - pigs and sheep don't tend to roll over and down the hill like a tractor. By pasturing the animals they are gradually reclearing the old fields. It is amazing to let them into an area of dense brush and then next year see that same space growing lush grasses, clovers and other pasture plants. The fields feed the livestock and the livestock feeds the fields. This also saves me from bush hogging or mowing - a noisy, smelly process I do not enjoy in the least.

Another reason is smell and health. Confinement farming, even just stalls in an open barn means both the animals and the farmer end up breathing a lot of noxious gases and fine particulate matter. That is not healthy. When the animals are free ranging on pasture they spread their manure and urine where it is needed. Pasturing saves me from from breathing this stuffy air in a confined space. My wife's aunt told us that the pigs would smell, that they always smell. However, out on pasture they are clean animals which don't smell. It is the same for
sheep, cattle, chickens, etc. Lock them up in stalls and they stink.
Put them out on pasture and they smell fine and are a lot healthier. The same would be for you or I. Pasturing is a lot more pleasant and healthier than indoor confinement or even pens.

SC: Can you describe your method of raising pigs and how it
differs from, not just factory farms, but larger, officially organic operations?

SMF: There are a number of other farms that raise their pigs out on pasture. Some use huts or stalls where the pigs are put in at night while others let the animals move about freely like we do. Most farms feed their pigs commercial grains and many people have the mistaken notion that pigs can't survive or thrive on pasture alone. Yes, they do grow a little slower (about 10%) but if you give them an extra few weeks they still get to the same size and the meat and fat is sweeter tasting and a lot healthier than the corn fed hogs since it has higher levels Omega-3 fatty acids. We actually did an experiment where we fed a group of pigs only pasture during the warm months and then only hay during the depth of winter. They thrived on it although they did not
grow quite as fast as pigs that are given supplemental feeds such as the milk and cheese we also feed our pigs. The pasture/hay pigs did get a very small amount of bread (about 0.5 to 1 lb) each day or two for training purposes but that was not a significant level for a several hundred pound animal.

SC: Training? You train your pigs?

SMF: Yes, definitely! We train all of our animals to come when
we call. It makes moving them much easier. It's a simple thing to
train. Call them and then when they come give them a treat. Any time you feed them, call them. They pickup on it pretty quickly. Even chickens can be trained. When it comes time to load the pigs to take them to market the simplest way to do it is to train them to load themselves. This is a lot less stressful for them, and us. Since they aren't stressed they don't release adrenaline and other chemicals in their bloodstream that would hurt the quality of the meat. This results in better pork.

SC: What is the limit to the number of pigs you can raise
this way?

SMF: We have enough pasture and woods to raise up for market
several thousand pigs a year. I don't anticipate doing that. It is more a matter of how much time we want to spend doing it. With a very large herd we would no longer know the individual animals. I know our boar, every one of our sows and most of the growers pigs individually. They all know us as well.

In addition to the pigs we also have sheep, chickens, ducks, guineas, livestock guardian dogs and children to raise. We also want time for gardens, construction projects and enjoying life. If we were to follow the "Get Big or Get Out" paradigm that seems so prevalent then we would lose ourselves. If I wanted to be stressed out I would still be managing employees and working at a desk.

To keep this familiarity and fun I don't expect to have more than 200 pigs on farm at any time, probably fewer. By far, the largest group will be piglets or weaners. The number of sows will likely be no more than 30, one or two boars and about 60 growers. This means an annual production of about 120 whole pigs plus about 450 piglets.

SC: Are you going to be able to handle wholesale markets like
restaurants with those numbers?

SMF: Not in any large way. Our goal is to primarily sell
directly to consumers who want whole, half or quarter pigs. We also offer a subscription pig which is one quarter plus eggs every three months. Frankly, the wholesale market pays poorly. We make more money selling directly to the retail customers and our customers save more money buying directly from us - as well as getting superior pork.

Perhaps one of the important things about buying local and from the farm is eliminating the middle man and the expenses associated with that whole system.

SC: Your website indicates you raise Yorkshire White pigs?

SMF:Yes. Ours are the classic heritage Yorkshire Large White pig that originated in York, England around 1769. They are known for their large meaty frame, durability, mothering ability and doing well on pasture.

Ours are not registered purebreds. Based on the fact that we get the occasional spotted piglet I know there is a little something extra in their genetics, some other breed. This is good because a little cross-breeding makes for a healthier more robust animal, bigger weaned litters and faster growth naturally. From each generation we select the very best gilts to raise to become sows and the very best boars to become breeding boars that we trade out with other pig farmers. In this way we can continue to improve the herd over the years.

SC: You mention several different bits of terminology there:
boars, sows, gilts. I've heard of barrows and weaners too. What exactly are each of these?

SMF: Piglets are the young nursing pigs. When they are
weaned after three to four weeks they become weaners. At that
point they are already on a diet of solid foods. On pasture the piglets start munching the grass fairly quickly even though they are getting most of their nutrition from the sow. Weaners become growers, at exactly what age is a big vague but figure on two months or about 50 lbs. Gilts are the young females who have not yet farrowed a litter of piglets. Farrowing is the act of giving birth. A sow is what a gilt becomes after she has had her first litter - that is to say an adult female pig. Boars are intact male pig - that is to say they have not been castrated, or in less delicate terms, they've not had their balls cut off. Another word for castration is cutting. Barrows are castrated male pigs.

SC: Why do barrows get castrated?

SMF: There is the idea that a sexually active boar's meat will
have a bad smell to it, like urine, called "boar taint". There has been some very interesting research done on this down in Brazil. They identified the chemicals produced by the boar and when it became a problem. One issue seems to be that some boars produce more of the chemicals that make the bad smell in the meat. Another issue is that older boars produce more of it. Lastly, boars exposed to females male produce more of the chemicals. So an alternative to castration would be to slaughter the boars young enough and don't expose them to females. Also, this may be able to be resolved through selective breeding.

I've eaten young uncut boars and they tasted excellent. Archie, a
farmer we have borrowed boars from says the trick is to put the boar out by himself away from the females for a month and then the meat tastes fine. He has eaten boars that were several years old and over 1,000 lbs. I think Archie knows what he is talking about.

There is a good reason not to cut the boars. On average, boars grow about 20% faster than gilts and about 10% faster than barrows. The boars also put on more muscle and less fat making for a leaner meat. It is less expensive to raise the boars to market weight than it is to raise barrows or gilts.

Most people who buy male piglets for raising to butcher want them cut because of this fear of the meat tasting bad. I can understand the fear, it is a big investment and you don't know if it worked until the pork is in your mouth. Castrating the boars is a known way of making sure they don't have boar taint. I don't like doing the castrating but half the pigs are male and very few of them will ever become breeders so most of them end up getting cut. It will take a lot of testing and education to get people to want to leave the boars intact. I doubt that it is going to change any time soon.

SC: Why did you choose this breed?

SMF: There are a number of reasons why we have Yorkshire pigs.

In reverse order of importance:
6. Consumers favor a white pig. I'm not sure why. Cuteness?
5. These pigs have long hair and thrive in our harsh winters.
4. Yorkshires have large muscles and a lean body so they aren't fatty.
3. Yorkshires are good mothers which produce superior litters.
2. Yorkshires are known for pasturing well.

And the number one reason...
1. Yorkshires are readily available around our area.

Number one above might seem like a funny reason to use for basing herd genetics but there is a method to my madness. I did not want to bring another breed into our harsh climate who didn't have a many generational history of thriving in our climate. By selecting quality pigs from other farms in our area where the pigs are similarly kept for generations (e.g., not indoor confinement) I preselected our herd genetics to be able to handle the environment they would be in at our place. This gave us a head start on breeding. After that it was a matter of selecting good healthy well formed foundation animals - our
first four sows which we got as piglets from a farmstead just over the mountain from us. Add to that some good luck!

SC: How important do you think breed is to meat quality?

Somewhat, but it isn't so much a specific breed as specific genes. Lots of people will tell you what their favorite breed is. However there are several genetic traits that can compromise the quality of the pork. Farmers and researchers are working to identify these genes and breed them out of the herds. In this respect we appear to have gotten lucky since we don't have any of the problem. I didn't know about this when we started!

Interestingly, one of the important things that have come out of this type of research is that stress is a major trigger for the problem genetics which then causes the meat quality to deteriorate. Pigs raised on pasture, humanely managed have much less stress than those raised in confinement operations. Thus pasturing appears to provide better quality meat for one more reason by simply reducing the stress.

SC: Is it difficult to convince consumers that
sustainably-raised pork is worth the extra cost?

Many people are already sensitized to the quality issue - they are
looking for healthier meat that was raise humanely in a sustainable manner. They already know they don't like the confinement operations, the factory farms and the unsustainability of such operations. People also know about the higher quality and healthy food values of pasture raised meats which are high in Omega-3 fatty acids and have not been
fed hormones, antibiotics or exposed to pesticides and herbicides.
It is true that quality products cost more and pastured meats are no exception. But it is possible and even for someone to do it themselves. If someone doesn't have the space then perhaps they can do it with a friend. Keeping pigs is very easy. If you have a garden space you want to improve, put the pigs on it for a year and rotate them around the space using temporary fencing. In six months you'll have a vastly improved garden and hundreds of pounds of superior quality meat. It won't be pastured but it will be far better than the bland, white supermarket meat. We offer weaner piglets and free help for people who want to do it themselves through email, our web site and blog and there
are a lot of other great free resources on the web about raising small numbers of animals.

SC: How do you sell most of your pork - direct to the
consumer or through markets?

SMF: We sell almost entirely directly to the consumer. We earn
more that way and the consumer gets a better price by cutting out the middlemen and extra costs like transportation and storage that would be incurred with wholesale markets.

Our primary means of reaching new customers is our web site, being listed in directories, word of mouth and posters on community bulletin boards. We offer both piglets and full grown market pastured pigs as whole pigs, half pigs and quarter pigs delivered to the butcher. People who want to do it themselves can buy their piglets from us. Buying from us has the advantage of getting quality piglets rather than culls from the big breeding operations. We don't sell our culls since it is easy and inexpensive for us to raise them ourselves on our pastures and that way our piglet customers know they're getting good quality animals.

SC: What sort of future do you imagine for the small family
farmer in New England?

SMF: Hmm... I suspect the future will be a lot more like the
present in most ways than people tend to think. After all, if you look at the magazines from the 1950s, '60s, '70s and such they predicted we would all be zipping around in flying cars and traveling regularly to the moon. On the other hand they totally missed the power of the modern computers which brought us laptops, PDAs, cellphones, GPS, the Internet, etc. So I hesitate on making much in the way of predictions! I guess my best prediction is that tomorrow's weather will be likely to
be the same as todays with a chance of something different.

SC: Just your sense of what the future holds...

SMF: Okay, but realize this is from my rather limited world
view... In the future the population will continue to grow but the rate of growth will decline. More and more people are living in the urban areas, disconnected from the land but longing for a vision of a simpler time and place. This will make agri-tourism increasingly popular. People will visit farms, spend a week or two getting to walk in the fields & woods, breath clean air, helping with light chores and eating good food. They will take these bonds back to the city with them by joining Community Supported Agriculture programs so they can get good
food regularly. The continued globalization pressure will produce a bit of lash back in the form of strengthening the Buy Local movement which keeps resources and money in the local community. So... now come back in 20 years and we'll see if I was too far off in this limited prediction!

SC: I like your predictions: they're optimistic. Do you think enough people are becoming interested in organic and sustainably raised food to support a renaissance in New
England farming?

SMF: Definitely. Over the past four decades there has been a
growth in awareness of the issues related to sustainability and the movement is continuing to bloom. If anything it is accelerating. A lot of it is controlled by how much disposable income people have. Better quality things tend to cost more, especially when they are produced more locally in lower volumes. If people have the money they tend to be more willing to support organic and sustainable food production on a local level. If the economy tanks I would expect this market to suffer to a degree. It is critical for farmers to control their debt and expenses carefully so they can weather the dips in the economy. But, that is true for everyone.

SC: Are there particular difficulties involved in interesting
customers in organic, locally-grown meat, as compared to the roadside stand mainstays of apples, u-pick strawberries and corn?

SMF: I honestly don't know how to compare since I have never
done u-pick or a roadside stand. One hurdle that I can think of is
there is a time delay with the meat while a roadside stand can be more of an impulse buy.

SC: I'm envying you your Vermont farm this week particularly. You could miss fall altogether in Boston.

SMF: It turned out to be a surprisingly good foliage year. It
was very slow getting started and the colors were muted but then on Thursday of last week and Monday and Tuesday of this week we had some good weather and nice colors. Not as brilliant as two years ago but satisfying. The remarkable thing is we still have not gotten a frost. It is now a month and a half past when I expected to get the first frost and our cucumbers, beans, tomatoes and pumpkin's are still growing. Perhaps this is a side benefit of global warming?!?

SC: Well thank you Walter for talking with me here at the
Seasonal Cook. I hope that you have a great fall.

SMF: Thank you for having me. I've enjoyed this conversation.
Keep on cookin'!

Joint Copyleft 2005 Sugar Mountain Farm & Seasonal Cook

Monday, October 17, 2005

Rose Finn Potatoes

Looks like dinner to me. Posted by Picasa

There's been a lot of discussion over on chowhound lately about the cost of sustainably-grown, organic, local food. I thought I would share this picture from a few weeks ago, when some friends of mine took me for a much-needed day in the country. We stopped at a farm stand, and I bought these beautiful Rose Finn fingerling potatoes. They had a pretty pink blush when raw, which unfortunately went away with cooking. But they were delicious nonetheless - very tender and moist, with a delicate skin and a strong potato flavor. Most supermarket potatoes don't taste like anything at all.

I ate this bowl for dinner one night, because I've got Irish blood in me and I don't think there's anything strange about potatoes for dinner. Sure, potatoes alone might be a little, well, carb-o-rific, but it's a fallacy to believe every meal needs to be well-balanced. Your diet needs to be well-balanced, overall, but each individual meal need not be. I think that the well-balanced meal trap can be a cause of overeating among people who generally eat fairly healthfully. I can find myself cooking an orange vegetable for dinner even though I've already fixed a green vegetable, meat, starch and a mixed salad. Though an orange vegetable is generally a good thing in and of itself, in total I just end up with too much food.

So, back to the potatoes. Not well-balanced, admittedly. But full of vitamins and fiber, and - when touched with a little butter, a little milk and some black pepper - delicious. I consume potatoes like this by mashing each one with a fork just once, then taking a bite. Smush, eat, smush, eat. It's extremely comforting to eat like this, and the result is something somewhere between mashed potatoes and plain boiled.

Since this meal consists almost entirely of potatoes, they have to be top-notch. Mediocre spuds will leave me yearning for something more.

These top-notch potatoes cost $2.00/pound, which is a good bit more than double the supermarket price. Of course, I don't think I ate a whole pound for dinner. Maybe $1.25 worth? Add a few cents for butter and milk (organic, both) and a 75 cent organic apple for dessert and at the most my entirely pleasurable and nutritious weeknight dinner was $2.25. I wonder if the organic-and-local-costs-too-much crowd could say the same?

Another link

I should have put this one up in the first batch. My best friend/housemate from college is now chef-owner of a wonderful family restaurant in Brattleboro, VT. The menu is simple and all-American - hamburgers, fish and chips, chicken-under-a-brick, and the type of Italian dishes that have entered the American mainstream. What makes his restaurant exceptional is his commitment to local foods; on the Riverview Cafe site, you can see a listing of their local providers of produce, free-range chicken, maple syrup, smoked meats, and cheeses.

The quality of the ingredients makes the familiar food wonderful. I also like the transparency. Although it has become common to describe the origin of ingredients on high-end restaurant menus, it is still extremely rare for affordable family restaurants to do this.

Also, the Riverview looks out, as its name implies, over the Connecticut River across to lovely wooded hills. In the summer, you can sit outside on the roofdeck. I recommend highly that you do.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Fishy information

Another link added to the list, a new blog by a fellow Chowhounder and a great fish cook. Personally, I, like many people, am intimidated by fish. All those varieties! All those bones! And I have Catholic fish syndrome, which just means that I was fed overcooked baked scrod every Friday of my first eighteen years, or at least all those Fridays in which we didn't eat macaroni and cheese instead. No herbs, no lemon, just dry, nasty scrod. I've spent the last few years trying to eat moer fish, starting with seared tuna and beer-battered fish-n-chips, and now I have quite a list of fish I eat:

Tuna, raw, black-and-blue, or from a can
Smoked sardines, in potato salad
Fried catfish
Fish-n-chips, fried fish sandwich
Salmon, any old way

Fish I've tried, but not yet learned to like: trout, bluefish.

Of course, as a New Englander, I love shellfish. Mussels, oysters, crab, lobster, scallops: all good. So it's not usually the fishy flavor that's a problem; it's that fishy texture.

Anyway, her blog has a great breakdown on the different qualities of different types of fish and how to substitute one for another and all sorts of other good stuff. Personally, I think she really just needs to post a list of "icky-textured fish," but I suppose a reasonable person might argue that ickiness is personal.

Working with what you've got

Julie Powell, of the wonderful Julia/Julie blog, wrote an piece for the Times a while back essentially complaining that the organic/heirloom-obsessed foodies of today fetishize ingredients. Followers of Alice Waters, we place a premium on "simplicity," showcasing our fabulous tomatoes with just a sprinkle of overpriced sea salt, turning cooking into shopping. And, hell, she does have a point. I think it is important to remember that a bag of Goya lentils, 79 cents at any supermarket, will make a great meal, and paying $20 a pound for salt is ridiculous.

And there's nothing inherently superior about simple food compared to complex. The tendency to assume the simpler is better and purer comes from deep in the American Protestant psyche. Shaker barns are beautiful, but neither more beautiful nor more moral than a Gothic cathedral, and I would say the same applies to food. A simple poached pear is not better than a Napoleon, and a salad of mixed greens is not better than a curry. There are just different. And it is true that less-than-wonderful ingredients can be used more effectively in more complicated cooking, which means it's worth learning how to cook well if you want to eat delicious food without paying bundles.

But (and y'all knew that "but" was coming, didn't you?), the basic ingredients of an American supermarket are crap. Really. Particularly the meat and vegetables and dairy. (You can do okay on some staples like pasta and vinegar and so on.) And Julie's beloved Julia Child, who was no food snob, knew this. That's why you can watch her swoon in the markets of Provence in the old episodes of the French Chef that have just come out in DVD.

So here's my story about good ingredients, bad ingredients, and the ability of one to save the other.

Last Sunday was raining and dreary and miserable in Boston. I had spent the day before with my boyfriend at the Lowell Celebrates Kerouac festival, which involved a lot of walking from one place to another in the rain and getting drenched. So Sunday I just wanted to stay inside and warm, with something cooking slow and low. I decided that the ideal comfort food for the day would be pasta with a red sauce, but I was out of canned tomatoes. I couldn't bear the rainy trip to the supermarket, but there's a packie down the corner, and I ran down to buy a can of tomatoes.

I was pleased that there were two choices of crushed tomatoes available, Hunt's and another brand with an Italian-looking label. I bought the Italian-looking one. I didn't read the label.

Back home, I started my sauce by slowly cooking some onions. Then I cut the meat off the shank I had thawed and diced the pieces. Browned the meat, added the onions back to the pot, added the nice marrowy bone from the shank, and then opened the can of tomatoes.

It's hard to describe the texture of these tomatoes. They were more like some sort of thickened tomato juice than crushed tomatoes, but lacking all pulp. I would say they had an unnatural thickness. What the hell did I buy? This:

New World Style? Posted by Picasa

What does that mean?

Posted by Picasa

Oh. It means crappy.

Well, I was stuck. I poured in the tomato sauce, then added some beef stock. But I knew there was no way I was going to continue with my plan for the sauce, which was to just add a bit of cream after the long cooking. That would make the flavor far too dependent on the tomatoes, tomatoes that are probably usually used to make school lunch pizza.

So I started adding stuff. A bunch of fennel, chopped and quickly sauteed in another pan. A little carrot juice. A handful of wild dried mushrooms, re-hydrated and chopped. A bit of tomato paste. A goodly dose of good olive oil. Then I just let it cook for a long time.

The sauce cooks. Posted by Picasa

It was delicious. Really, very good. It was a great sauce, with low acidity, great depth and richness, meaty but with some high notes from the fennel.

Now, Julie would say that this proves her point, a good meal can be made from terrible tomatoes-from-concentrate. And she would be right. But I would also say that this proves that having on hand homemade beef stock, grass-fed organic beef, dried wild mushrooms, very fresh organic fennel and good quality tomato paste and olive oil will allow you to flub one ingredient - because the quality of the rest of the ingredients will raise the quality of the meal.

[Note: I love Julie; I just had issues with that particular article. But how could I not love her? In her blog, I read about someone who hates her job, loves Buffy, listens to the Magnetic Fields, drinks cocktails with abandon, and attempts absurdly complicated cooking tasks that end up being eaten around midnight. In other words, she's just like me. Except that she now has a gig at the New York Times and a newly published book. But otherwise, identical.]