Friday, August 19, 2011

Better butter Part III

The Recipes
For testing purposes, we used the simple recipes below. All butters performed remarkably well in both applications, so be sure to experiment freely with your own favorite recipes.

Nutty Banana Smoothie
Makes one small glass.
1/2 banana
2 tablespoons nut butter
1/2 cup milk
In blender, combine banana, nut butter, and milk. Puree until smooth.

Nut Butter Cookies
Makes about 2 dozen.
(adapted from Simply Recipes Chewy Peanut Butter Cookies,
1 3/4 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 egg
1/2 cup nut/seed butter
Sugar, if needed, for coating fork
1. In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.
2. In a large mixing bowl, combine butter and sugars. With a stand mixer with a blade attachment or an electric handmixer, beat together on medium for four minutes. Add nut butter and egg, and beat two minutes.
3. Add flour mixture to bowl and mix on low until well-blended.
4. Form dough into a ball and wrap tightly. Refrigerate for two hours or up to two days.
5. Set oven at 300 degrees. Line sheet pans with parchment paper.
6. Roll dough into balls 1 1/2 inch across, and arrange on sheet pans. With a fork or potato masher, press the balls flat, dipping utensil in sugar between cookies if necessary to keep from sticking.
7. Bake for 16-17 minutes or until just barely colored at the edges. Remove from cookie sheet immediately.

Better butter Part II

The Way the Cookie Crumbles (How do they bake up?)

Nature’s Promise Organic Almond Butter
Delicate, thin and crisp, with a slightly soft center, these would be best nibbled with tea. Make sure they have enough room to spread in the oven.

Organic Once Again Sunflower Seed Nut Butter
These keep their shape and have both depth and sweetness: a perfect choice for grade-schoolers who want something that looks – and tastes – surprisingly like the real McCoy.

Nature’s Promise Natural Cashew Butter
Dense and mild, these call out for dark chocolate chips and a tall glass of milk

Artisana Organic Raw Pecan Butter
Toasted aroma is reminiscent of Mexican wedding cakes, but the pale, flecked cookies are appealingly chewy. Excellent with a cup of coffee, the test batch disappeared quickly.

I M Healthy SoyNut Butter
Sandy texture and flat flavor somewhat like a sugar cookie – the  store-bought kind. Not terrible, but not recommended.

Superior Sippers (And how about smoothies?)

Nature’s Promise Organic Almond Butter
The winner, smooth enough to deserve the name and well-balanced with the sweetness of the banana.

Organic Once Again Sunflower Seed Nut Butter
The savory sunflower notes overpower the fruit, but reducing the seed butter by half would make for a robustly satisfying sipper.

Nature’s Promise Natural Cashew Butter
An unbelievably rich and frothy treat, but banana overshadows the cashew.

Artisana Organic Raw Pecan Butter
A pallid blend that isn’t worth wasting an expensive ingredient.

I M Healthy SoyNut Butter
Mild at first swallow, but progresses quickly into objectionable.

Better butter Part I

Poor peanut butter. Once found in lunch boxes everywhere, increases in food allergies and concerns about fat have made this childhood favorite practically taboo.  But there’s a silver lining to our old friend’s fall from grace. Grocery stores have started stocking a plethora of goober surrogates.  Whether you’re hunting for a nut-free substitute for your favorite cookie recipe or just a new twist on your midnight snack, there’s a spread out there.  To help navigate the plethora of choices, we put these alternative treats through the paces, testing them in cookies and smoothies, pairing them with preserves, and, of course, tasting them straight off the spoon. The results might just inspire you to find a new companion for jelly and bread.

Better Butter? (Overall results)
Nature’s Promise Organic Almond Butter (16 oz, $5.99, Stop & Shop)
Long the favorite of dieters, this may be the best overall contender, with a sophisticated, truly nutty flavor. With just over half the saturated fat and twice the fiber of natural peanut butter, this is the nutritionists’ darling. Extra points for the good dose of magnesium. (180 calories, 1.5 grams of saturated fat, 4 grams fiber, 10% DV magnesium)

Organic Once Again Sunflower Seed Nut Butter (16 oz., $5.99, Whole Foods)
The sleeper of the bunch; earthy, rich flavor and texture is the closest match to natural PB. Loaded with magnesium and folate.  (180 calories, 2 grams saturated fat, 0 grams fiber, 30% DV magnesium, 20% DV folate)

Nature’s Promise Natural Cashew Butter (16 oz, $9.99, Stop & Shop)
Extremely creamy, but with very mild flavor that might disappoint cashew fans.  A whopping 14 grams of saturated fat explains the unctuous mouth-feel.  At least it’s a good source of zinc and magnesium.  (188 calories, 14 grams saturated fat, <1 gram fiber, 21% DV magnesium, 11% DV zinc)

Artisana Organic Raw Pecan Butter ( 8 oz.,$11.99, Whole Foods)
Gritty and thick, pecan paste is blended with cashew to make it spreadable, but the final product still has a home-ground texture. Unlike other butters, this one tastes strongly of its raw material. While others are widely available in supermarkets, finding this pricey specialty item might require a trip to a natural foods store. The highest calorie choice, pecans are also the nut that provides the highest level of antioxidants. (213 calories, 2 grams saturated fat, 3 grams fiber)

I M Healthy SoyNut Butter (15 oz, $5.29, Stop & Shop)
Has the whipped, plaster-of-Paris texture of highly processed brands of peanut butter. Certainly a welcome product for parents of kids with allergies, other will likely find its blandness and unpleasant aftertaste off-putting. Only slighter lower than PB in saturated fat, but three times the fiber. Contains added sugar.
(190 calories, 2 grams saturated fat, 6 grams fiber)

PB&J Redux (How well do they play with preserves and bread?)

Nature’s Promise Organic Almond Butter
Take a page from the traditional pastry chef playbook and pair with “fruits of the woods” - raspberry or blueberry preserves make an elegant match.

Organic Once Again Sunflower Seed Nut Butter
True to its hippie roots, this spread is best graced with a drizzle of pure honey. Or, go full-Berkeley and partner it with avocado and sprouts.

Nature’s Promise Natural Cashew Butter
Its lushness serves as the ideal foil for the bitter edge of orange marmalade – or the spicy ginger version, for a more exotic combination.

Artisana Organic Raw Pecan Butter
Try with sweet, chunky apricot jam or crack open a jar of maple cream
I M Healthy SoyNut Butter
Stick with the old stand-by, Concord grape jelly, which is strong enough to carry the sandwich.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Can Boston Be a Soul Food Town?

(I must admit, I really hoped to get this one published somewhere, but I've had no bites. Mostly, I wanted to offer the publicity to the Webster family, who are lovely people with a great business. Thanks to them for talking to me.) 

Sometimes it takes a moment to realize that something is better than you are anticipating. Much better. The first thing you notice when you open the Styrofoam container is that the food is hot, like it came straight from the pot and not off a delivery truck. You bite into a chicken leg – the fried skin is crisp and crackling, the meat pulls free of the bone and coats your fingers in juices.  You turn your attention to the black-eyed peas, which are tender but not mushy, and rich with smoked turkey. It’s when you first taste the candied sweet potatoes, not just coated in brown sugar, but imbued with its flavor of molasses, that you find yourself thinking, wait, am I still in Boston?
The man who just exploded your expectations is Gary Webster, owner of Down Home Delivery & Catering, Dorchester’s newest purveyor of soul food.  In their spacious, open kitchen in Four Corners, Webster’s brother Willie and Tennessee-born son-in-law, Darren Payne, whip up collard greens, ribs, meat loaf, and potato salad using family recipes.  The homespun meals and the friendly greeting at the take-out window might give the impression that this is a great neighborhood eatery. But Webster has set his sights a bit higher. This entrepreneur believes he can make Southern cuisine – his family's version – a  cornerstone of the Boston culinary scene.
“We did not come into this to be a soul food place on the corner,“ asserts the Georgia native, who moved to this city when he was just six years old.  Playing what he calls “old-timer basketball” keeps him looking younger than his fifty-two years, an impression reinforced by the track suit he wears and the energy he exudes. He leans forward in his chair, eyes glittering, and chooses his words with deliberation as he describes how the business came into being. His brother Willie had been laid off, and the job market was bad.  Webster himself was working in neighborhood services for the mayor’s office, his most recent position in twenty-five years for the city. He wanted something more.
“I said I can stay in the job where I am the next fifteen years, twenty years –geez,  I couldn’t see sixty-five down the road.” He shakes his head and smiles.
Webster knew his family had some serious culinary chops: they have long done all the cooking and baking for the clan's massive get-togethers, including an annual Labor Day reunion that draws over a hundred people and lasts all weekend. That’s a lot of corn bread. 
“We do things that people always enjoyed the food from – even after the events were over, people would come to us and say, who made the macaroni and cheese?” Webster brags.
His brother has large-scale production experience from jobs as a cook at Pine Manor and Boston College. Webster’s  own background – a degree in business administration from Newbury College in addition to his long tenure in city administration – provides a business-savvy he believes will set his family’s company apart from the small chicken and rib joints that remain unknown outside their particular corners of Roxbury or Dorchester.
“I just want us to be able to take it to the next level beyond that, because we have the capacity to market a product, a food, to an audience that may not traditionally reach out to it and get it.  We do a lot of business in West Roxbury, Jamaica Plain, Roslindale.  We’re now going to branch into South Boston,” the self-starter declares. In a city of culinary diversity, he wants Southern cuisine to become a staple for weeknight takeout. “We want to be able to compete on that end with the Italian foods that are available – the Italian foods, the Greek foods, the Indian foods.”
This businessman has his work cut out for him; Boston has not been kind to purveyors of Southern home-style cooking.  Legendary spots Bob’s Southern Bistro, Chef Lee’s, and Poppa B’s are all gone. The J’Way Cafe in Jamaica Plain disappeared almost as soon as it arrived, while tiny Mrs. Jones restaurant in the quiet neighborhood of Lower Mills is not well-known outside of walking distance. The community of black displaced Southerners in Boston is small, so instead of soul food restaurants, the city has a thriving barbecue scene, one dominated by white owners and cooks, with restaurants located in predominantly white neighborhoods and suburbs.
Jessica Harris, author of several major books on African-American cuisine including the recent High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America, describes the success of barbecue restaurants as grounded in discomfort over issues of race, “No one is comfortable with that on the plate. BBQ restaurants neutralize that, and that’s part of their popularity.” 
On the other hand, Cherelle Webster-Payne, Gary Webster’s daughter and catering manager, just sees barbecue as soul food’s little brother – one with a lot to learn.
“There’s a big difference, I think, between Southern soul food, traditional Southern favorites, and barbecue. People think of them together, but they are two different things,” she insists. “Barbecue also too is easier than soul food.  Anybody can barbecue, go out there and barbecue some meat, put some nice sauce on it, but when it comes to soul food, there is a difference. There are intricate recipes, a slow process of doing things.”
One distinction lies in the value placed on side dishes in soul cooking, Webster-Payne says. “Each piece is the star dish, so it’s like the macaroni has to be just as good as the fried chicken.”
“People will judge you on your mac and cheese,” she adds emphatically.
Down Home also offers Sunday dinner favorites rarely seen in barbecue outfits, like roast chicken and pot roast.
To introduce the largest possible audience to the joy of perfect collards, tender meat loaf and rich bread pudding, Webster began strategically in 2010 with a catering and delivery operation out of a rental kitchen in Jamaica Plain. Soon the surrounding neighborhoods were crisscrossed by vans bearing the jaunty Down Home logo - a black chef holding a covered dish out the window of a speeding red truck. The company also pursued and won contracts for catered events with government agencies, where its certification as a Minority Business Enterprise is an asset.
Harris describes catering, a relatively low-capital start-up, as a “classic African-American business model“ that has historically allowed blacks entry into a competitive market. There used to be a saying in the community: “if you're in catering, you're in the swim; if not, you're in the soup”. Of Webster, who started this venture with his own savings, she says, “Obviously, what he is doing is taking a traditional business plan and modernizing it.”
The foundation laid, Webster moved the business into its permanent home in Four Corners, where a take-out window was added. But this go-getter wants to ensure that growth won't affect quality. He insists on testing and retesting Down Home's recipes – and tasting his competition's. Every new customer is asked for feedback; comparisons with Grandma are invited. Webster also monitors the online buzz, reveling in the accolades building up about the red velvet cake, pork chops, and especially that fried chicken on Yelp and other sites where the meal-obsessed go to share their latest finds.  Ultimately, he believes the key to success lies in the excellence of his product and, just as importantly, the strength of his tight family bonds.
“At the end of every day, we come together as a family, pray as a family, and just be thankful for what we’ve been able to accomplish for the day,” says Webster, who wears a tiny gold cross on a chain around his neck. In addition to his brother, son-in-law, and daughter, the businessman employs his sisters, nieces and nephews. Working together has not always been easy, particularly in the first months, when no one made a penny. Arguments can break out, too, particularly over important issues like whether Tennessee or Georgia-style banana pudding is better. But this close-knit family shares a vision, led by a man who knows all too well the story of those who have come before him, but is determined to beat the odds - and more.
The dynamo spills over with ideas for potential new projects, including a sit-down restaurant and a website to sell their sweet-potato cheesecake nationally. Franchises someday, perhaps? Webster’s ambitions, for his food, his family, and his company, are summed up in his favorite dictum, which he repeats often: “We’re not just looking to survive in this business, we’re looking to strive.” If he prospers, Boston baked beans may just have to move over and make room for some black-eyed peas.

Monday, June 06, 2011

A Tough Nut to Crack – But an Easy One to Like

It hits you the moment you open the bag: a sweet, toasty aroma like the hot caramelized nuts sold by street vendors. The little treasures inside look like pygmy pecans, but they’re nothing so tame. These are wild hickory nuts, one of America’s most distinctive and delicious foods – and one that is in danger of being lost forever.

Such an idea would have been unimaginable a century ago, when Americans knew well the fragrance and rich flavor of these sweet beauties, which have been called “a walnut in a tornado.” In those days, cracking the smooth, hard shells and carefully extracting the small, toothsome meats was a job given to children armed with hammers and patience. Their reward came in the form of delicious cakes, fudge, and pies. The nuts were a central flavor in the young country’s developing palate: Thoreau gathered them at Walden, and hickory cake was famously President James Polk’s favorite treat.

Today, a group of Slow Food activists and innovative chefs have taken on the job of reintroducing hickories to the table. Unlike their Southern brother the pecan, the smaller, rougher-looking wild hickories have never made the transition from foraged food to crop. The tree’s slow growth habit is one deterrent, but the bigger problem is the nut’s unyielding, half-inch thick shell, which defies industrial processing equipment.  These tasty nuggets can only be cracked by hand, one by one.

The nut’s fate has consequently been left in the hands of a few dedicated gatherers and hand-crackers who sell at farmers’ markets, through craigslist or in classified ads. But their numbers are dwindling. Among those who remain is Ray Pamperin of Wisconsin, a retired dairy farmer who offered hickories at farmers’ markets for 25 years. Now he sells exclusively online at, mostly to older people like himself who are nostalgic for a taste of their childhood.  He gathers some of the nuts himself from his own land or, with permission, from the trees left standing on other people's properties. Some he buys from those willing to forage, but not crack. Linda Schaalma, Ray’s daughter and manager of his business, sees her father as one of the last protectors of an American treasure.

“As the older crackers give it up, one way or another, the supply will become even less.  Unless the younger generations see the time investment like the older generation does, it may become a lost food,” Schaalma says.

Pamperin gets more orders than he can fill, but others can’t find a significant market for their product. Patrick Kompf of Vermont’s Native Nuts sells just a few hundred pounds a year, primarily around Thanksgiving and Christmas and mostly to customers over age 50.  
“They’re probably one of the best tasting nuts out there, but people aren’t really aware of that,” Koomf says. “The typical customer is 50 or 60 years old.”

Despite the aging of hickory’s fans, the future for the species may not be so bleak. New technological innovations have led to effective processing equipment, removing the most significant barrier to larger-scale production. But unless there are enough customers, the financial return on foraging will not warrant an investment in machinery, let alone spur a movement to plant trees.

Gary Paul Nabhan hopes to create the necessary demand. Nabhan is the driving force behind Reviving America’s Food Traditions (RAFT), a project dedicated to the protection of heritage foodstuffs. RAFT includes the hickory on its endangered foods list, along with heirloom apples, tomatoes, and breeds of livestock popular over a century ago. The organization sponsors events that allow chefs and consumers to sample these goods, on the principle that tasting is believing. RAFT’s efforts have been successful in convincing growers to invest in over 150 of the foods they champion, a victory that Nabhan describes as “huge.” 

Nabhan is convinced that RAFT’s work holds hope for a hickory renaissance. And, indeed, adventurous chefs are beginning to showcase the rarities on their menus, exposing a new generation of eaters to their pleasures. At the West Town Tavern in Chicago, chef-owner Susan Goss creates elegant dishes that combine the nuts with other traditional American foods, like a salad with roasted hickories and maple vinaigrette, and pork shoulder with hickory-wild rice pilaf  and a blackberry barbecue sauce.

“I like to feature hickory nuts in salads or as a garnish on meats or fish,” she says. Despite the traditional association with sweet foods, Goss prefers savory uses. “I don’t cook the nuts into cakes and pies; the delicate crunch and flavor comes out best when simply prepared.”
Other chefs use the nuts for entrees  and desserts alike.

“Hickory nuts are worth searching for at the market because of their unique taste and aroma,” says Chef Tory Miller of Madison’s L’Etoile. He prepares these old-fashioned favorites for a wide range of uses by salting and toasting. “We always start by drizzling them with a tiny bit of vegetable oil and then a liberal dusting of kosher salt, then they go into the oven at 375 for about 6 minutes. Then they are free to be used in pies, crackers, as a topping for sundaes, in salads.”

Hickories are not an acquired taste – they share the sweetness of pecans, with a better crunch and a little more depth. They’re easy to like and easy to cook with, which bodes well for their advocates. If the RAFT activists and the committed foragers and chefs succeed in their mission, the nearly-forgotten nut might return to its place of honor on the American table. Search out these wildlings – in the fields on or the internet – and serve them with slices of heirloom apples and wedges of crumbly Vermont cheddar to experience a plate Thoreau might have eaten. Gustatory time-travel can be delicious.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Food Hacker

Below you can find another early piece from my food writing class, a profile of food writer Ike DeLorenzo. What I didn't say: I found Ike's lightning-fast move from "I think I want to try food writing" to "I'm a regular at the Globe and the Atlantic"  to be inspiring, intimidating and inducing of envy to the point of queasiness. In manner and looks, he reminded me of Rob Morrow, but I feared the instructor wouldn't know who Morrow was, so I didn't mention that. Also, Ike seemed really, really nice, like someone I would want to be friends with, except that he clearly had money. Quite a bit, I suspect. As I get older, I find it harder and harder to make friendships that bridge the ever-widening gap between income levels. With old friends, there can be enough history to fill the space. But new friendships just don't spring up between people who live in nice condos in the stylish part of town and people who live in rental apartments in the frumpy neighborhood. If the basis for the friendship would be a shared interest in food, the problem become even more complex. Food can be marvelously democratic - the best apples in the world can be purchased by all but the poorest - but five-star dining is simply not a possibility for most people. When your idea of an indulgent, celebratory restaurant meal is a $20 entree, how do you talk food to someone who considers that weeknight fare? It's a conundrum. Anyway, that's a huge topic I'm not going to delve into now, but do read about Ike. He's pretty cool.
The Food Hacker
Only three years ago, computer-geek-by-day, foodie-by-night Ike Delorenzo submitted his first story to the food pages of the Boston Globe. Today he is a regular contributor to the section, as well as to the online Atlantic Monthly Food Channel where he rubs virtual elbows with such culinary world luminaries as Corby Kummer and Marion Nestle.  His meteoric rise reveals readers’ continuing hunger for fresh and unique voices: in his case, a gastronomical sensibility that owes as much to Silicon Valley as Napa Valley.

Former Vice President for Product Design at and still employed as a consultant in the field, DeLorenzo  incorporates technology into each step of the writing process. He utilizes digital cameras, recording devices, organizational software, and an automated transcription service to write his stories, then tracks his success through Twitter and Facebook.  And when it comes to cooking, he continues to think like an software engineer.

“Food is the newest thing you can hack,” the writer declares. 

For one of his most popular stories, De Lorenzo bought every espresso machine offered for sale on Craigslist for under $100. He then tested them with a range of beans and came to a surprising conclusion: freshly ground beans from the local coffee shops were not as good as the pre-ground Italian brands, and technique mattered more than equipment. With the right grind and the right skills, cheapo espresso makers could make a cup to match any barista.

It was a typical techie’s approach to a problem: lay out the possible factors, test them one by one, and let the conclusions fall where they may.  The fact that the results were unexpected clearly delights DeLorenzo, who looks for the counter-intuitive when hunting down a story.  When his mother’s Wesson-oil-based piecrust recipe won out over traditional lard and butter crusts in a Globe writer contest, he scored another point for evidence-based cookery.

“I like to find out about new, crazy ways to do stuff,” DeLorenzo says.

He is hardly the first foodie to treat the kitchen like a laboratory. Alton Brown and Christopher Kimball have built careers on nebbishly fastidious application of the scientific method.  But this enthusiastic geek brings the methodical approach to culinary journalism, a field dominated by two poles: the warmly effusive and the comically wry.  In contrast, his anything-goes hacker enthusiasm is tempered with Gen X skepticism about the food establishment. On his personal blog, The Ideas Section, he eviscerates sacred cows of the restaurant world, describing the clientele at LA Burdick’s, the wildly popular Cambridge chocolate shop, as “Harvard hangers-on” and “windbags.”  He was unafraid to expose Yelp’s dubious practices around restaurant reviews and even challenged world-famous chef Marco Pierre White, taking him to task in the Atlantic for using his celebrity to hawk unhealthy and, worse, unappetizing  products, like Knorr’s  bouillon cubes.

“He would say things like ‘I always made bouillon with Knorr’s bouillon cubes. It’s easier and better than making homemade stock,’” DeLorenzo says with disgust. “Things that were manifestly false.”

DeLorenzo seems more offended by the offense to the public’s palate than to their blood pressure;  he mentions the high salt content, but his real outrage is reserved for the poor flavor. For all his attachment to technology, he remains at heart a man who loves food. Fortunately, he has found a way to indulge both his passions.

“A lot of my stories have a technology thing, because that’s what I’m natively interested in.  I think people bring their own native interests to food, because food is so big.”