Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Media flotsam and jetsam

There's a nice article in today's Globe about local eating. Good to see so much attention given to movement.

I know everyone's already seen this story about CBS advertising its new shows on egg shells, but I just wanted to express my general disgust. There's this weird tendency in the mainstream food world to make food something other than food. Have you seen the Cheerios games on the back of the boxes? The whole business is creepy, particularly for those of us who try to avoid advertising as best we can.

According to the All Things Maine blog, this farm is the only place in New England growing hops commercially, which is interesting, because, as I understand it, hops will pretty much grow like gangbusters here. Good news for local brewers, which J. is supposed to start becoming as soon as the hot weather is over.

Finally, I'm thinking about writing an article about Boston food bloggers, with an emphasis on those who are interested in seasonal eating. Probably won't get started on this for a few weeks, because I have a lot going on just at the moment. But if you're a Boston-area blogger who might want to talk about blogging. let me know.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Week Three Summary

(Something went wrong with the photo this time - apologies.)

I was better this week about sticking to the system, only breaking once* for dinner out with the two friends I have from work (one of whom has left us, damn her, and the other is leaving in a few weeks. Sigh.) Lunches remained some variant on salad and potatoes or eggs or cheese, and breakfasts were mostly yogurt and fruit. I haven't felt much like eating dinner in the heat, but one day I was very clever and used the crock pot to cook a fine dish overnight. The farmers' market finally had some peppers, so I bought jalapenos, Italian sweet and green bell, sautéed them with some onions, browned some stew beef, and let the whole thing cook on low for about nine hours. If I had use of my usual ingredients, I probably would have thrown a little beer in there or crushed tomatoes, but I think it turned out better with the only liquid being the juices from the meat and peppers. The flavor was richly meaty and the different peppers gave a complexity I wouldn't have expected. Score one for limitations.

The meal in the picture was Saturday night dinner. Scallops and haddock ("local catch" at Whole Foods), pan-fried in butter, with tomatoes and fennel and parsley, green beans and potatoes in Parmesanless pesto, and clam-mussel chowder. The chowder was another case of broken habits leading to something good. Usually, I start chowders with bacon. (Actually, I start a lot of things with bacon. It is, as my friend M. used to say, the food of joy.) But, although I can find local bacons, they are all made with decidedly non-local sugar, so that was out. This chowder was based on a broth made from simmering corn cobs, to which I added the liquid from the canned mussels. Yep, I used canned mussels from Maine, which I had picked up at the end of June to have around for a quick local meal. Surprisingly, they were really good - not quite the same as fresh, of course, but more delicate and tender than one would expect from a can. Not a bad thing to have on hand. Anyway, to this base I added potatoes, then corn and the mussels, cream and a little salt, paprika and pepper and that was that. And again, really good. The mingled sweetness of the corn and the mussels was more prominent than it would have been if it had to compete with the smokiness of bacon.

This is my last week. The ingredients I have been missing most? White flour, lemons, Parmesan and wine. And chocolate, coffee and sugar, of course, but those haven't put any sort of cramp in my cooking, just in my habits.

*At least as far as meals go. I've also indulged in one or two iced coffees while out and about, and had a little chocolate a co-worker had brought back from a trip, because it would have been rude to refuse. Shut up, it would have! Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Breakfast: It's what's for dinner

I generally make a nice meal on Saturday and Sunday, but during the week I eat simply - salad, a fried egg, some potatoes, yogurt and fruit. It just doesn't seem quite worth it to make a full meal just for myself. But of course before the Eat Local project, I would sometimes get a hot meal at work or pick up sushi on the way home. So I've been feeling the need for real meal. Of course, my favorite real meal is breakfast, so that's what I made for dinner.

I thought I might be able to convert cheese blintzes to my whole wheat-honey ingredient list. I used 1/3 cup water, 1/3 cup apple cider, 2/3 cup milk, and 1 cup whole wheat flour from Maine, plus a pinch of salt. These proportions are from Julia Child, but I replaced some of her water with cider, because I thought the acidity might help keep the crepes tender. So many whole wheat things are rubbery. I let the batter sit for two hours; a good idea with any crepe batter, but essential here, because whole wheat takes longer to absorb moisture than white flour does. When I returned to my batter, it was far too thick, and I had to add another 1/4 cup of water. That made it thin enough, but note! if you try this, stir the batter before pouring each crepe. The batter tend to separate just a little. But the crepes came out fine, very tasty even on their own.

So crepes were done, and then I needed a filling. I mixed cottage cheese with honey in the blender, since I had it out to mix the crepe batter anyway. This was a mistake, but not a big one. The batter became too thin, and filling the crepes was a bitch. They didn't come out pretty and plump, but somewhat flattened. Didn't matter, though; they were delicious. I drizzled some maple syrup, topped with blueberries, and enjoyed my dinner thoroughly. Posted by Picasa

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Week Two Summary

So I was much less strict on week two, mostly for reasons beyond my control, as I've mentioned. The two staff lunches, the trip to New York, and an outing yesterday to pick up a half-cow's worth of beef in Groton meant quite a few meals were not local. But overall, I stuck to the program. And it's getting easier, partly because I'm getting into the habit of bringing enough food to work, partly because the farmers' markets have exploded with produce. We seemed to have crossed rather suddenly into summer. At the beginning of July, summer may have technically begun, but the markets were still full of peas, baby greens, radishes and strawberries, the same foods Gourmet will feature in its Easter issue. But this week we have corn, tomatoes, basil and, thank ye gods, tiny "spring" potatoes.

The salad above utilizes all the new bounty: tomatoes, zucchini, corn, mozzarella (from Maplebrook Farms in Vermont), and a dressing of basil, Maine sea salt and olive oil. Last night's dinner was a summertime classic - tomato, mozzarella and basil salad, followed by New York strip steak (from River Rock Farm in Westport), with corn on the cob and potatoes in Kate's butter (Maine) and parsley. I've noticed that small changes in preparation of what are essentially the same ingredients provides enough variety to keep eating interesting when the ingredients themselves are top-notch. Greens sautéed and served with a fried egg on top one day is sufficiently different from a ramekin of greens baked in a custard with cheese the next. I don't need the level of variety I tend to think I do.

Walter Jeffries mentioned in the comments that he would like to know what I'm paying for my ingredients. So would I, for that matter. I'm terrible about tracking my spending, but I'll try to pay closer attention this week. I can say that Walter's pork is cheaper than what I get: I spend $5.50/lb for pretty much all my meat, lamb, pork and beef. Both the pork and beef farmers tend to be generous with the extras, though - fatback, trotters, hocks, beef soup bones, and so forth are thrown in for free. And we really made out this weekend; the woman at the slaughterhouse told us that the people who had picked up their cows before us hadn't wanted the offal, so we reaped the bounty of their unwanted heart, tongue, and liver.

River Rock Farm is using a new slaughterhouse, Blood Farm in Groton. Blood Farm processes its own meat, as well as the meat of other farms, and they have a small retail shop with freezers of rabbit, turkey, chicken, veal, pork and beef. I got another lesson in buyer beware, though. The chickens they sell are not only not their own, but not locally produced. They get their chicken from a distributor. The woman who was helping us explained that the USDA doesn't allow poultry to be slaughtered at the same facility that processes beef. Just another example of how the government seems hellbent on putting small producers out of business. Posted by Picasa

Thursday, July 13, 2006

New York has changed (or, when I fall off the wagon, I really fall off the wagon)

This was my week for breaking the eat local rules. Monday and Wednesday I had staff lunches to attend, but ate local breakfasts and dinners. But Tuesday - well, Tuesday I hauled down from Boston to New York for a job interview, and as far as I was concerned, all bets were off.

What's ironic about that is that the job was a position at an (unnamed) organization devoted to the promotion of sustainable agriculture. So I was taking a break from my commitment to sustainable agriculture to try to get a job in the field. Of course.

The short story on the job is that I don't think it's going to work out. The long story I'm not going to put online. Let's just make a suggestion to anyone doing hiring out there - if someone takes a day off from work at a busy time, lies to her trusting boss, and comes all the way from another state at great expense and inconvenience, it might be helpful if you've actually 1) looked at her resume or 2) bothered to free up the schedule of the person she needs to meet with so that the interview process can be more than ten minutes long. I'm just sayin'. Also, if you're the person who HAS the job your company is recruiting to fill because you're leaving? Don't use the words "burnt out" or "monotonous." Really not very appealing.

At the airport I had a bagel and blessed, blessed coffee. Blissful coffee. I arrived in the city a good three hours before I needed to be there, and so I walked. I walked for almost the whole three hours, with only a short break to eat a cinnamon-walnut swirl at the City Bakery. (Which was rather disappointing, by the way. I have Maury Rubin's tart book, and I worship him, but that was a pretty dull cinnamon swirl.) In some ways, New York has not changed. The smell of barely-burnt pretzel wafts from street corners. The bodegas still offer the most amazing selection of flowers. I was pretty high on being in New York for those first few hours, while I was imagining a life there, back in the big city, with a fabulous job doing something important for the world, attending conferences with intelligent, concerned people, eating amazing food.

But then I went to the interview. And when I came out, I was a bit, well, demoralized. And it was nearing one-hundred degrees. Didn't I mention that? So I walked some more, and went into Grand Central, which I hadn't seen since the ceiling had been cleaned, and I admired the market there (comparing a train station with its own Penzey's to the Dunkin Donut and McDonald's wasteland that is North Station in Boston), and then I decided that what I really needed was a drink. It was terribly, terribly hot, I was taking a day off of local eating, I was in the city, and I wanted a gin and tonic, damnit.

And this is why I say New York has changed.

I walked from Grand Central vaguely in the direction of the bus terminal, where I would be getting my luxury ride home. (Yup, plane down, bus back - because I'm half cosmopolitan, half poor.) I wandered a bit up and down the streets. I saw about five thousand places to get a cup of coffee, nearly as many places to buy freshly squeezed juice, and a few hundred sushi restaurants. What I did not see was a bar. Really, for blocks and blocks, just cafes and juice bars and pizza places and a few fancy restaurants that probably had bars, but were not open or were far too intimidating. I wanted a sandwich and a G&T. In the New York I remember from only a few years ago, that would not have been a problem. What had happened? I was outraged. Also, sweaty.

I finally found a terrible, overpriced, tourist-trap of a deli with a bar, and while waiting for my drink, I had to shoo a cockroach off the table. So maybe New York hasn't changed all that much after all.

New York has changed

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Eat Local Challenge: First Week in Review

The easiest and most exciting thing in the last week has been limiting my cooking to local foods. With a fridge full of local dairy, fruits and vegetables, and a freezerful of local meat, plus a handful of nice local specialty items (maple syrup, dried tomatoes), I've been able to put together some pretty damned fine meals. I've made a lovely whole-wheat (from Maine) crust pizza with pesto and the first available local (hothouse) tomatoes, plus mozzarella from Vermont (Maplebrook Farms, Bennington, VT, 145 miles). I've made Gray's Gristmill cornbread, a weird recipe that uses only beaten eggs for lift and makes a dense, moist bread that I disliked at first, but came to appreciate. I made crockpot pulled pork (I know, and yes, some bits can be a little mushy, but I have no grill) with Vermont apple cider. I ate a lot of simple salads of lettuce, radishes, scallions and sprouts. some enhanced with leftover slices of roast beef. Strawberries were consumed in every possible dairy product - with yogurt, with whipped cream, and in smoothies with milk. I've eaten more vegetables than usual, which is saying something. I've felt an altogether unlikely level of excitement about finding something new at the farmers' market - "hey, carrots! Wow! You have carrots! That's great!!!!" And, amazingly enough, I've spent less on food than usual, because I have not been buying two coffees each day, or an afternoon cookie, or breakfast out. This is all good, and I intend to keep it up.

But I'm lessening the restrictions somewhat. I've found that not allowing for some time spent sitting in cafes or bars is limiting my social life. I have to keep saying "no" in a way that I found frustrating - not just to myself, which is hard enough, but to my guy and my friends, which feels terrible. I remembered how liberating it was to stop being a vegetarian, to be able to go to any restaurant at all and have eating options, not to be such a drag, always fussing over what I couldn't eat. The one things I disliked this week was not having the freedom to go stop while out and about in the city to have a glass of wine or lemonade with J.

So, for the rest of the month, I am allowing for "off-site beverages." All food, all meals are still to be consumed at home (with my original "people over projects provision" - I'm going to eat at M.'s barbecue). But I can have a drink when I'm out if I want to.

It's strange how powerful the idea of purity is for me. I think it's the Catholic upbringing. It was hard for me to decide to relax my standards; it felt like quitting or cheating or something. Clearly, I'm not the only one; at the Eat Local Challenge site, several articles discuss the important questions like "are spices okay?" But this week I had an interesting talk on another topic that touched on this idea with my friend A., a lovely, wise Hungarian gentleman of my acquaintance who is in his seventies. We were discussing a friend who can be a bit of a perfectionist, and I was explaining that he wouldn't see himself as a perfectionist, but only as trying to be "good enough." To which A. replied, "Ah, what is good enough in this world? There's so many terrible things. Just to try is enough." A. has lived through more than I hope I will ever see of the horrors of the world. I think when he speaks, I should listen.

I'll have to be far from perfect this week anyway. I have two staff lunches at work I have to attend, and I have a surprise trip I have to take, for a special secret reason to be possibly revealed later, depending on outcome.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

What I've learned so far

What I've learned so far...

1) Starch makes you feel full. I don't know how the Atkins crowd can claim they are never hungry. I've been on a near-Atkins diet for four days, heavy on the meat, dairy and vegetables, and I'm pretty much always hungry. I would pay through the teeth for some local potatoes. Soon?

2) And, speaking of paying through the teeth, local fruit is expensive. Local vegetables are about the same as supermarket, my local meat is cheaper than comparable organic meat, but local fruit is really expensive. And, apparently, I can hoover up a quart of strawberries in no time. Which brings me to ....

3) I eat a lot. Really, I must eat all the time. Now I understand why I'm chubby, because I eat all day long. This is much harder to do when you can't just buy stuff. Planning out my eating ahead is making me painfully aware of how much I usually eat between meals. The meals are about the same, but the between-meal munching is much more problematic. Which reminds me..

4) Stopping to get a bite or a drink is a big part of my life. By far the hardest part of this experiment is not giving up my favorite foods or having to cook all my meals. It's not being able to stop while walking around in the city to sit and have a coffee or a drink. Urban folk buy the right to sit down in public with the purchase of food or drink. And restaurants do not have all-local options.

Actually, this is a pretty big problem. I don't drive, so summer in the city is hard enough as it is. No running off to the pond or the ocean for me. I don't even have a yard, so no barbecue or gardening. That pretty much leaves walking around, puttering in used book or cd shops, going to the marvelously empty museums, and, most of all, sitting in cafes or bars, watching the world walk by. I don't know if I'm going to be able to give that up for whole month. I don't know that I want to. But giving it up so far has shown me how much I take it for granted.

5) Jonnycakes are hard to make. Here's John Thorne on the subject:

Let's be honest: unless you come from Rhode Island, a true jonnycake isn't
worth make for anyone but yourself. They're tricky to make and no one will thank
you for the effort - at least until they've acquired the taste. Why make them?
Well, they taste like that crisp crust that forms of the bottom of the mush pot,
a mouthful of hot crunchy corn. If that and the pleasure of working a delicacy
out of unpromising and reluctant material is the sort of thing to appeal to you,
the effort pays for itself.

Well, maybe. But I wasn't able to achieve sufficient success to really speak to
jonnycakes with any authority. I will say that Gray's Grist Mill produces an
amazing cornmeal, full of bright flavor, a revelation of how good cornmeal can
be. But my jonnycakes were a disaster, the lovely crust coming away from the
cake every time, leaving a sticky footprint on my cast-iron skillet. I gave up
on cast iron and switched to my tiny, rarely-used Teflon pan. Two miniature
jonnycakes cooked slowly, slowly, and I was finally rewarded with the promised
flavor and crunch - two whole bites-worth. I gave up for the time being and
had a couple eggs instead. I think the secret might be a real griddle, not
a skillet, and a very thin spatula. I will try again, but in the meantime..

6) I can make a silk purse of a sow's ear. Or rather, I can make a very
nice dinner out of leftover jonnycake batter, which is essentially polenta. I
put it in the fridge until dinnertime, then dotted the top with butter and
broiled it to get that lovely crunchy crust. I then served it topped with
sauteed mushrooms, re-hydrated dried mushrooms and sun-dried tomatoes (Sangha
Farm, Ashfield, MA, 109 miles), fresh oregano, pepper and paprika, plus a
spoonful of smoked goat's cheese, and a side of beet greens and early garlic.

7) I've learned I could live happily on goat's cheese.

8) Oh, and about those mushrooms? I've learned to doublecheck labels. There's a mushroom grower in Connecticut that used to provide mushrooms for the Harvest Coop. The store carried two types of mushrooms, the ones from California and the ones from Connecticut, and I bought the Connecticut ones all winter. So yesterday I picked up the California mushrooms, read the label, put them down, picked up the other mushrooms, and bought them, only to notice while cleaning up AFTER dinner that they came from Pennsylvania. Not the same mushrooms. So I've fallen off the wagon, inadvertently. Bugger all.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Day Two

This was dinner: cold beef with Great Hill Blue (Marion, MA, 62 miles) over arugula with just a drizzle of olive oil; zuchinni sauteed in olive oil with fresh oregano (Coy Brook Farm, West Brookfield, MA, 68 miles); peas and scallions just turned in butter (Cabot's, from farms all over the state of Vermont, let's just say 200 miles) , and sparkling apple cider from West County Cider of Colrain, MA, 100 miles (a gift from my guy to start off the month). We had maple ice cream for dessert. I did NOT feel deprived, though I miss starch. The only non-local items were black and red peppers and olive oil. Posted by Picasa

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Eat Local Challenge: Day One

Saturday I experienced once again something I had not known since my days as a vegetarian: near-constant hunger. Clearly, I should have done some more prep, because a freezerful of local meat will not feed a person in its frozen state. Still, I managed to eat decently.

For breakfast, I had Butterworks Farms yogurt (223 miles) with a spoonful of raw honey from Reseska Apiaries in Holliston (25 miles) and farmers' market strawberries. By 10:30, I was ready to eat anything in sight (I'm a big breakfast person - yogurt is NOT going to cut it). J. and I had gone in town to walk around by the water, and I was very, very glad I had brought some cherries (42 miles) along with. I tried to use this experience as a chance to meditate on how much I take for granted the ability to just buy food whenever I want it, but my attempts to feel grateful failed in the face of my hunger. We went home.

I had a nice salad:

Lettuce (41 miles), radishes (left over from Monday's market - I have to check the name and location tomorrow), pepper goat cheese (59 miles), and California olive oil and vinegar. I followed this with frozen blueberries (293 miles) thrown in the blender with whole milk (Crescent Ridge in Sharon, 28 miles) to make a purple and lightly sweet milkshake. By dinner, the heat had taken the edge off my hunger, so I had scrambled eggs (47 miles) with cheddar cheese (same farm, 47 miles), followed by a big bowl of more strawberries and honey-sweetened whipped cream (Butterworks Farm, Vermont, 223 miles).

Today I got up early and put a top round roast in the oven in the cool of the morning. I started it off on 450 degrees to brown, then lowered the heat for 300. Once the heat was down, I baked off a couple ramekins of egg/cheese/sauteed swiss chard in a bain-marie. I also shelled some peas (which may be the most soothing activity on earth) as prep for dinner tonight, and made the custard for a maple ice cream (grade B dark amber maple syrup from Littleton, NH 151 miles). I had a swiss chard baked omelette for breakfast, along with some maple syrup-sweetened yogurt. I feel full and very pleased with the good food waiting in my kitchen, but I still need to hit the Harvard Square farmers' market for more strawberries. Posted by Picasa