Monday, January 30, 2006

Nice butt.

Helen over at Beyond Salmon made herself some pork butt recently, and seeing her picture made me start obsessing about pork. You see,
I had used up the last of my Tamworth about two months ago. What to do? First, I called my favorite pig farmer, Jeffrey from Mamashoe World Headquarters. God bless him, he was willing not only to sell me a whole bunch of pig at the "whole pig" price, but he was willing to drop it off in the city. Now I only had to wait a few days for my pork.

So of course I broke down and went to Whole Foods. How could I wait a few days?

The pork above is organic, but not pastured. There's definitely a difference. This pork was good, but the fat was not edible on its own. I can't even tell you how good the pastured Tamworth pig fat is. I probably shouldn't be confessing publicly that I eat the fatty bits all by themselves, but if you only knew how good they were, you would understand. Still, this pork was pretty good, mostly because it's hard to go wrong with a Boston Butt.

My favorite cut of pork is probably the shoulder, which has the deep flavor of the butt, but without quite the fat. The butt's pretty good, though a bit fatty if you can't cook it slow and low over an open flame. The loin is useless, at least if you're buying at the grocery store.

At the end of my college-vegetarian period, I started cooking meat for the first time, and I was confused about pork roasts. I kept going to the store and asking for the best pork roast. Of course, I was given the loin, and I could never understand why it didn't taste like the roasts my grandmother used to make. Turns out that the "best" in American standards means the blandest meat, like the breasts of turkey and chicken. Once I figured out shoulders, butts and fresh hams, I was in business.

I cooked the butt above using a variation of a recipe from Please to the Table. Of course, the original recipe is for goose, and the "stuffing" it is roasted on includes green cabbage and apple cider. I used pork, no cabbage, and beer, but I retained the paprika/caraway rub and the mix of sauerkraut, prunes, and apples. This is peasant food, anyway - it will hold up to endless variation. Which is good, because soon I'll have a couple shoulders and a couple butts to play with... Posted by Picasa


Lately it seems like I've been having conversations with everyone I know about NAIS, the crazy-stupid animal tracking system the USDA is planning to make mandatory, at the expense of small farmers and the people who love them. Now Walter Jeffries has written to let me know that he has started a blog exclusively devoted to following the NAIS debate: (Guess you know where Walter stands on the issue, huh?

Sorry to be so long away from posting. I have a few posts-in-progress, so I won't be quiet for long.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Alarming statistics. And leftovers.

I read a rather alarming statistic yesterday that the average American throws out 25% of the food s/he purchases. I find that deeply upsetting. I hate to waste food. But I'm wondering exactly what people are throwing away. I've placed a moratorium on the purchase of bean sprouts, because I never eat them before the rot. I also throw out herbs a lot (the last third of a bunch of parsley), single lemons or limes, bread ends that mold before I get a chance to turn them into crumbs, and milk and cream.
That's about it. I eat my leftovers, and usually manage to use up vegetables in time.

But I do know people who can't stand the thought of leftovers and never manage to eat them. I also know people who decide they are going to save money by cooking, buy a bunch of food, get overwhelmed, then toss it all. But 25% still seems high, particularly given our pre-packaged, single-portion-sized world.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Guide to shopping for organics

Consumer Reports has published a very useful little guide to buying organic. Realistically, very few people can afford to buy organic food all the time. So it makes sense to get the most out of your organic dollars. My rule has always been to prioritize meat and dairy, as the concentration of pesticides in animal food is greater than that in vegetable foods, and hormones and antibiotics are a concern as well. After shelling out the money for the milk and the meat and the eggs, I look for organic strawberries, bananas, apples, and peppers, as these crops tend to be heavily pesticide-laden when grown conventionally.*

Consumer Reports seems to have reached the same conclusion. The only point on which we disagree is corn. Consumer Reports is only concerned with the health consequences for the, well, consumer, not for the environment. Corn may not hold its pesticides, but those perfect ears were sprayed to within an inch of their lives. If you are concerned about the environment, buy organic corn.

I was particularly impressed to see a big mainstream publication like Consumer Reports recommend farms shares, farmers' markets, and farm-direct mail-order. A good sign, I think.

To read the guide, click here.

*I hate the term "conventionally-grown." "Conventional" manages to imply that growth hormones and pesticides are in some way more normal, more "traditional" than those crazy, wacky organic farming methods - you know, the ones that have been around since man developed agricultural? I want to see a new name, like "Chemically-dependent."

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Obsessed with agricultural issues

You know you're getting obsessed with agricultural issues when you're watching the early part of Brokeback Mountain and thinking: "Now, that's how sheep should be raised! On open pasture!"

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Unphotogenic soups.

I have actually been cooking quite a bit lately, though I've only been posting about things peripherally related to cooking. I realized why, just last night. I make unphotogenic soups. I don't know why, but the photos look terrible, even though the soups look fine. I don't want to post the pictures, so I don't post about soup. And soup is pretty much what I've been making this winter.

When I was in college, I made "kitchen sink" soup all the time - vegetarian broth, a can of tomatoes, and the odds and ends in the fridge, usually beans, pasta and bits of vegetables. These soups were frugal, nutritious, and ultimately a relief to stop making. Through my post-college years, I made soup less and less, until just a few soups formed my repertoire. I made carrot-ginger, minted pea, and lentil soups, corn chowder, and that was all. Even giving up vegetarianism didn't expand my interest in soups. I just added some sausage to my lentil soup, some bacon to my corn chowder and called it a day.

I had not yet discovered the secret of stock.

I had been a vegetarian for quite a long time, you see, and I still thought that the chicken broth from the supermarket was the same thing as chicken stock. So, when I would occasionally make a soup, the results were fine, but not exciting. In order to make a soup that really tasted like something, I need cream to round out the mouthfeel. Of course, what I really needed was gelatin; I just didn't know it.

There was no eureka moment. I don't remember the first stock I made. I'm sure it happened after I started dating my boyfriend, who loves roast chicken, something I never really made before. Roast chicken leaves carcasses, and I hate to waste. At some point, I started to look for organic chicken backs on sale at Whole Foods, so that I could keep up with my stock consumption without having to roast a chicken every week. Vegetable scraps gained a special spot in the freezer. And of course, when I started buying beef directly from the farmer, I received free boxes of bones, and I became accustomed to have rich beef stock in my freezer.

Now I make soup almost every week, and I wonder how I spent all those years without it. I had somehow forgotten how much I like comfortable, homey feeling of soup on the stove. In the past month or so, I've made Julia Child's French onion soup, potato-cheddar soup, garlic/lemon soup with poached eggs, and a kale-tortellini soup. Since every one was begun with a stock of bones and scraps, these soups, in addition to being flavorful and nutritious, have given me that virtuous sense of having made something from nothing, a rare and satisfying feeling indeed.

I just wish I could photograph them.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Stupidest product ever.

Yes, those are pre-measured little packages of spices. For $5.50, which is outrageous. But what makes this product particularly bizarre is the recipe on the back which you are supposed to use the spices to make. It's pretty complicated. You need garlic, onions, chiles, fresh ginger, chicken, and so on. So this product is design for whom, exactly? People who like to cook, but are afraid of measuring spices? People who are fairly comfortable in the kitchen, but only intend to cook once this year and so don't want to bother having a jar of cumin around? Clearly people with lots of money to throw around, and who are willing to buy into the message that home cooking is really hard....

The Kitchen Guru spice pack is in the running for the "Frozen Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwiches Memorial Useless Product Award of 2006." Posted by Picasa

Monday, January 16, 2006

I love Julia

This is a piece of kitsch for my kitchen, the first in what I plan will be a series of icons I'm calling "The Culinary Communion of Saints." (Pardon me, dear, your upbringing is showing...) Julia, of course, has to come first.

Almost no one has anything bad to say about Julia Child. (Except the Curmudgeon, and his argument is based on the law of intended consequences, not really on any failing of Julia personally.) Some argue that she is given perhaps a bit more credit than she is due, given that other chefs and writers had promoted French cooking before her. But generally the others wrote for serious home cooks and restaurant chefs. Only Julia reached young girls growing up in suburbia.

I watched Julia on rainy or cold Saturday afternoons, when television choices were limited to golf, the Creature Double Feature, and PBS cooking and woodworking shows. Julia was always my favorite; she was always everyone's favorite. After her death, the tributes spoke of her casual style, the famous mistakes, her charming willingness to try anything, her excitement in learning. She was a great cook and an even greater teacher. Many American cooks point to her as the major culinary influence in their lives, the person who open their horizons, told them that more was possible in home cooking than they had ever dreamed.

I certainly absorbed a lot of culinary information from watching her shows, and her can-do attitude was infectious. But as a ten-year-old girl in the suburbs, I wasn't attempting French cooking. Julia was very forgiving about ingredients, but the margarine and Wonder bread I had access to wouldn't suffice. When I cooked, I used the Fannie Farmer cookbook and made simple cakes and quick breads.

But Julia was still a role model for me. Not as a cook, but as a woman.

That may seem a strange thing to say, but it's true. You see, my Irish/Scottish, New-England-by-way-of-Canada, Catholic environment was a little, shall we say, repressive? Sensuality was frowned upon in almost all forms. I remember clearly the scorn with which my parents, and my mother in particular, held perfume, makeup, baths, incense, even things like brightly painted walls,
"fancy" food, the most innocent pleasures of the flesh. They had the Madonna/whore thing going in a big way. Good women were like my mother and her friends: overweight mothers, in printed loose dresses, who didn't dye their hair or wear makeup or drink. Almost all were nurses or teachers (a few had become real estate brokers), and almost all had stopped working permanently when their children were small. Their world was small, and they distrusted those whose worlds were not.

Like Hollywood women. I know it sound like a cliche, but cliches exist for a reason. I had an aunt who had committed two major sins: she had left New England to move to L.A., and she had had no children. My mother always talked disdainfully about my aunt's love of glamour, so I always assumed she was a great beauty, an Elizabeth Taylor or Rita Hayworth. I was stunned when I finally met her, a regular middle-aged woman, just in heels and lipstick.

So in my world, there were two ways to be a woman. You could be a mom, or you could be Elizabeth Taylor. The second was more appealing, but dangerous - you might risk your immortal soul. Also, it seemed to have some serious entrance requirements. Only the beautiful need apply, and even by the age of ten, a girl knows if she's likely to be beautiful. I was not.

But Julia! She fit no categories. She was no beauty, that was certain. She was big, not fat, but oversized, tall and broad. So where did she get that self-confidence? She had charm; she had wit. She had lived in France, which was of course the pinnacle of sophistication. She was married, to a photographer no less, one who worked with her on projects that were hers first. She wasn't a mother. She had a job, a really cool job. She wrote books and was on television.

And she was a sensualist.

It was obvious, the intense pleasure she took in food. She closed her eyes when she tasted a particularly delicious dish. She inhaled aromas. She drank wine. She patted chickens affectionately like she was patting her lover's bottom. She flirted with the camera. Once, when asked the secret of a long-lasting marriage, she replied coyly, "The three Fs: food and flattery." I hadn't heard that quote when I was ten, and I wouldn't have know what the heck she was talking about anyway, but it doesn't matter. What came through loud and clear was that this woman was utterly comfortable in her own skin.

I wanted to be just like her. I remember making a list around that time of the things I hoped to do in life. Living in France and attending the Cordon Bleu was one of the first things on the list. So far, I've only spent a few weeks in France, but I did go to culinary school. I live in the city, just a few minutes' walk from where Julia herself lived, and I take pleasure in good food and wine every day. I think Julia would approve. I will always be grateful to her.

Bon appetit. Posted by Picasa

Thursday, January 12, 2006

"Health" food

I love the voyeuristic pleasure of peeking at other's people's shopping carts in grocery stores: the families stocking up on Coke, potato chips and cold cuts on a big game day, the middle-aged men with frozen dinners and canned beans, the dieters with their Lean Cuisine frozen dinners and Dove bars. Groceries are revealing.

What they often reveal is a depressing lack of understanding of nutrition or of interest in health. Everyone's seen the carts filled to the overflowing with processed meats, soda, sugar cereals and cookies. But this weekend I saw something I found just as sad, but much weirder.

The couple behind me in line were in their late twenties, slim and presumably healthy. They had a very full cart, and as they laid out the items on the conveyor belt, I was amazed to see every single one was something highly processed being marketed as health food.

Low-fat, no-sugar yogurt in cheesecake flavor. Hi-fiber cereals with "crunchy yogurt coating." (How does yogurt get crunchy? Forget it; I don't want to know.) Protein bars. Vitamin water. Low-fat frozen dinners. An entire cart of this stuff, and not a single vegetable or piece of fruit or meat, no grains or dried beans, nothing readily identifiable as food.

I can't believe this crap could possibly be good for people to consume. Sure, it's probably better than Cheez-Wiz and Vienna Fingers, but egads. I wanted to lean over and say, "You know what's low in fat, high in vitamins and fiber, and tastes really good? A carrot. Give it a try."

It depresses me that people who are clearly interested in eating nutritious food are still trapped into eating such highly processed, artificial junk. Is it the inability to cook? I know that many people are highly intimidated by the idea of the most basic kinds of cooking. Or is it just cultural, the tendency to see bright packages and cellophane wrap as symbols of sanitation and prosperity? I don't know. A little of both, probably.

On the positive side, I suppose I should look on these people as a potential market for real, fresh, healthful food. They are concerned about their food. Now we just have to convince them that fresh food, living food, with enzymes and vitamins and anti-oxidants and all intact, tastes better and provides better nutrition than all the crunchy yogurt cereals out there and isn't even that hard or time-consuming to prepare.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

CSA links added

As you can see, I've added a nice long list of farms that offer CSA programs to the sidebar links. There are also some links to listings from various groups like NOFA (the Northeast Organic Farming Association) and the USDA, which can be helpful because not all farms have websites. Of course, most of these farms also have farmstands or sell at farmers' markets.

If you know a farm you would like me to add to the list, let me know.

Friday, January 06, 2006

It's CSA time

If you've been considering joining a CSA, now is the time. Most CSAs in New England start to accept payment in January and February. If you're lucky, there may still be spaces in some CSAs as late as June. But the popular programs, particularly the ones that have city drop-offs, can fill up early.

Just to review, CSA is an acronym that stand for Community-Supported Agriculture, and it's a way for farmers to market their products directly to the consumer. By paying in advance for a whole season's worth of food, you give the farmer money when s/he needs it most. In return, you get a box of food each week that is as fresh as can be.

Different CSAs have different structures. Some require that, in addition to the money you pay for the food, you volunteer some amount of time at the farm. Others don't have any sort of requirement. Some ask you to come to the farm to pick up your food; others have drop-off locations one night a week. Some have only large shares available; others offer the option of full or half-shares to make the program more manageable for small families and couples. Some may include some items, like strawberries, on a pick-your-own basis.

Different CSAs offer different products as well. Almost all include the basic vegetables, starting with salad and cooking greens in the early summer, then offering tomatoes, corn, zucchini, peppers and summer squash in high season, and finishing up with winter squashes and pumpkins. But some also include unusual vegetables, seasonal fruit, meat, dairy, and even flowers.
Some are organic, some IPM, others conventional.

It's worth doing a bit of research on your farm share, because it will provide a large portion of your food for about half the year.
It's a big investment, and not for everyone. Some things to consider:

1) Can you commit to picking up your box every week? You don't want to spend a lot of money on food you never manage to get.

2) Are you flexible with your cooking? You have to be willing to experiment with new vegetables or find new things to do on the fourth week of kale.

3) Do you eat a lot of produce? Most CSAs give a generous box of vegetables every week. There is nothing more depressing than a fridge full of rotting vegetables.

I have been very pleased with my CSA the last two years. I like the rhythm of getting my vegetables one the same day each week, planning my cooking for the same day, and so on. I liked the challenge of not choosing my produce. I like how fresh everything was. And I liked the sense of community I got by getting in line with the other CSA members, talking about what we got last week and what we made with it.

Alas, this year I don't think I'm going to be able to join a CSA. I am starting school at night and I don't know what night my classes will meet in the summer or fall. With a varying schedule, farmer's markets seem like a better choice. Fortunately, there are quite a few markets that are convenient for me, so I won't have any problem getting local vegetables.

I'm putting together a listing of New England CSA resources that I hope to add to the sidebar links soon, in case anyone is looking for a farm share to join. I can also recommend Parker Farms, the IPM farm I received my share from the last two years. No website, but you can call Steve Parker at 781 209-8644. He's a nice fellow, and there are drop-offs in Cambridge and Somerville.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Brussels sprouts

I don't understand why Brussels sprouts get such a bad rap. I love 'em.

I came to Brussels sprouts late in life, after I had gone to college. They retain for me an association with asparagus and artichokes - all delicious vegetables, a little exotic and very European, that grow in funny, distinctive ways very different from beans or lettuce. So it was quite a shock to find out that, unlike asparagus and artichokes, most Americans hate Brussels sprouts.

I can't imagine why, unless there's some sort of unspeakable frozen or canned Brussels sprout product lurking in other people's childhoods. Properly made, Brussels sprouts are tender, delicate, mild and a bit nutty. I prefer them steamed and then turned in a bit of butter, though you can reverse the fat/liquid exposure and braise them with great success. The picture above shows one of my favorite Brussels sprout dishes. After the sprouts are lightly steamed, I throw them in a pan with a knob of butter and walnuts. I cook them a bit longer, until I can begin to smell the walnuts, then I add a little maple syrup and cook just a bit more, to meld the syrup and the butter. Sprinkle with a little salt, and you've got either a very nice side dish or, if you happen to be single and able to get away with such idiosyncratic meals, dinner. Posted by Picasa