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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Ode to the Tomato

After last year's dismal tomato harvest, I went all out this year to ensure that we would have lots of tomatoes and I'm so pleased to find my efforts paying off now. I started plants from seed indoors late last winter, growing them up under lights in our basement. In April, I moved them outside, snugged up next to the house under an eave to harden off. By the time I planted them into the garden under hoop houses in mid-May, they were robust, thick-stemmed beauties. My son discovered our first ripe tomato on July 9th--a full month earlier than we've had ripe tomatoes here in previous years. And now?

August 18th tomato harvest...more to come.

That's about 30 pounds I picked Tuesday morning. The yellow ones are my favorite slicing tomato, Persimmon, which I've grown for nine years. They will be part of my entry into Michael Ruhlman's BLT From Scratch Challenge, but they're so good I am perfectly happy with plain tomato sandwiches for lunch most days. The small round ones are Stupice, an early variety that I haven't grow for a while because they don't have tremendous flavor. I found though, that they're great for drying and roasting, both techniques that intensify flavor. The elongated tomatoes are San Marzano, the classic Neopolitan plum tomato, a meaty, nearly seedless variety, with a fantastically pure tomato flavor, sweet yet astringent. Summer on the tongue. Those will go into sauce I'll be making in small batches in my slow cooker, following my friend Melisa's lead, and on top of a margherita pizza or two. This is my first year growing them and I'm amazed with their productivity, their vines covered with these heavy gems.

My obsession with growing tomatoes is thanks to the special relationship and role they've played in my development as a lover of real food. As a girl, I watched my parents grow seedlings in our suburban greenhouse, which I helped them market at the garden club sale every spring. Later in the summer, my brother and I would pull a wagon full of tomatoes and cucumbers around the neighborhood, knocking on doors offering them for sale for ten cents a piece. What we didn't sell, my mom turned into sauce, which would bubble and sputter on the stove for days before she canned enough jars to provide us with spaghetti sauce for a year. I can remember waking up many a morning during tomato season to the appetite-stimulating aroma of tomatoes, garlic, and onions that had been simmering away all night on the stove and making myself a slice of bread with tomato sauce for breakfast.

At the same time, sliced tomatoes made a daily appearance on the dinner table, sprinkled with a pinch of salt and pepper. This was long before I'd ever heard of a caprese salad and I was then and am now perfectly content to eat fresh tomatoes this way. They were one of the few vegetables I really liked growing up and one winter, when I was about seven or eight years old, I spied some "fresh" tomatoes at the grocery store and asked my mom to buy some. I thought she would be pleased that I was asking her to buy a vegetable, but she said no, explaining that the only fresh tomatoes worth eating are the ones we grew ourselves or bought at a farm stand, that tomatoes from the grocery store taste like "soggy pink cardboard" because they are bred to withstand being trucked long distances, not for flavor. That was an important early lesson in real food, which gave me an appreciation for how fortunate I was to have a family that knew how to grow and find things like good tomatoes. I also learned how deceiving looks can be in the grocery store and was inspired to learn more about the differences between foods bred and grown for flavor and food grown for other reasons.

When I was in my 20s, my father began canning tomato juice, and I spent many hours helping run tomatoes through his hand-cranked juicer. The mindless repetitive nature of the work made for the perfect backdrop to lengthy conversations on all manner of topics. For me, juicing tomatoes with my dad as a college student was a time of reconnecting with the man I'd lost touch with as a teen.

With so many fond memories associated with this jewel of the home garden, it perhaps should come as no surprise that later in life, a flat of tomato seedlings would bring me back from the brink during a bout of severe depression and help me resurrect my true self, that had been buried underneath years of unbearable sadness.

Today, growing and canning tomatoes still gives me an excuse to call my mom and dad with questions and reminds me of spending cold spring mornings in the warmth of our tomato-scented greenhouse and hot summer afternoons harvesting tomatoes with my brother. Tomatoes have given me so much over the years, I am grateful for this wonderful plant, with its unmistakable scent that sticks to my fingers whenever I prune or harvest, and its marvelously versatile, delicious fruit. So, I hope you'll forgive me for bragging about my tomato harvest and understand that for me, that overflowing basket represents far more than a few jars of sauce.

This is my Real Food Wednesday post. Be sure to find out what other Real Food bloggers are saying today.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Cheese Should Not Be Licensed

I just returned from hearing Joel Salatin speak here in Portland about how food safety regulations burden small farmers and producers to the detriment of local food systems and the consumers who would be healthier and happier eating real food produced by people they know. I was prepared for Salatin's firebrand speaking style, overloaded with lengthy descriptions, such as "a disconnected, Greco-Roman, Western, egocentric, compartmentalized, reductionist, fragmented, linear thought process," "irradiated, amalgamated, prostituted, reconstituted, adulterated, modified, and artificially-flavored, extruded, bar-coded, un-pronounceable things," and "mob-stocking hervbivorous solar conversion lignified carbon sequestration fertilization." I didn't expect to hear him speak about food safety, though I know that railing against those who proclaim to keep our food "safe" is a favorite topic of his. After the way my week started, getting the chance to hear this vocal advocate of local food systems speak and to talk briefly with him while he signed my copy of his book Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal, connected my problems, as a home cooking instructor wanting to introduce people to the tastes and textures of real food and a home food producer wishing I could sell what I make to my friends and neighbors, to the catastrophe that is our modern food system.

A couple months ago, the manager of my favorite farmers market asked me if I would do a cooking demonstration at the market. Delighted and honored, I happily agreed to do several demonstration over the coming months. The manager mentioned that many people she talks with at the market don't even know how to make salad dressings, so for my first demo, I showed market visitors not only how to make salad dressings at home, but mayonnaise and ketchup as well and discussed how to use those as foundations for other condiments, like tartar sauce, barbeque sauce, and sweet and sour sauce. People sampled my creations and told me how inspired they were by the demonstration and to see how simple it can be to make these tasty accompaniments at home. Pat myself on the back for a job well done--inspiring and empowering people to cook at home is what this is all about for me.

For my second demonstration, I decided to show folks how to make soft dairy products at home, like yogurt, ricotta, chevre, buttermilk, sour cream, and creme fraiche. These are all dead-easy to make and they taste so much better than what's available in plastic tubs at the grocery store. While they are easy to make, culturing dairy does take time. Yogurt takes eight or more hours to set up once it's been cultured. Chevre must be cultured for several hours, then drained for a couple more. Sour cream and creme fraiche can take up to 24 hours to achieve their proper consistency. Since I know that tasting the real deal is a big part of convincing people that making these foods is worth the little bit of effort, I made batches of everything ahead of time so that I could offer samples. As I set up in the demonstration booth, a certain busybody market vendor, who shall remain anonymous, came up and told me that Oregon Department of Agriculture regulations prohibit anyone from offering samples of food prepared in a non-licensed kitchen. "As a market member, I'm concerned about the market's liability," she said. In preparation for starting up my business teaching cooking classes, I had looked into the state regulations and from my research, my understanding was that as long as I was just giving away samples, I didn't have to prepare them in a licensed kitchen. The busybody insisted that I was incorrect, adding, "Cheese should be licensed." Seriously. Those are the words that came out of her mouth. Cheese should be licensed. Had I not been so upset by the situation, I would have laughed at the absurdity of her statement. Then she mentioned that what I was doing, teaching people to make dairy products at home, was in competition with her own business. Ah-ha, now we get to the heart of the matter. Empowering people to prepare food with their own hands might get in the way of commerce.

The market manager saw us talking and approached to find out what was going on. Not knowing herself whether offering homemade samples was in compliance with ODA regulations or not, she quickly convened the market's board and it was decided that no, I could not allow anyone to taste the food that I had made in my unlicensed home kitchen. I fully understand their decision and the last thing I would want to do is create a situation that would harm the market, so I agreed to go ahead with the demo, but not offer samples of my homemade delectables. Fortunately, the demo went well and afterward a number of people told me they felt inspired to start making their own cheese and such at home. Mission accomplished. Nevertheless situation pained me because it seemed to call into question of my integrity and my ability to produce safe, wholesome food. This food I made at home, that I feed to my own children, was apparently unfit for public consumption, according to the ODA and others who feel that "cheese should be licensed."

In his talk, Salatin mentioned that during a recent conversation with Michaal Pollan, they discussed how it would be possible to find a compromise between what Salatin described as liberal democrats, who feel that food safety regulations are necessary, and libertarians, who find such regulations an infringement upon their freedom. They came up with a scale, with a McDonald's meal at one end, and a meal consisting of of backyard-raised chicken and homegrown veggies at the other. Which meal should receive the most regulatory scrutiny, he asked. I hope, Dear Reader, that you would agree with Joel, Michael, and me, that the McDonald's meal, which travels across hundreds of miles and though dozens of hands, requires the greatest level of regulatory scrutiny, while regulators would leave dinner from "Aunt Mabel's backyard," as Salatin put it, alone. And while you may agree that a system that doesn't burden small producers, who are directly accountable to their customers, with costly regulations that stymy innovation and local food systems, surprisingly, many people in power feel that the opposite is true. Salatin said that he recently asked Virginia Senator Jim Webb what he thought about whether the McDonald's or Aunt Mabel's meal should be more regulated, and Webb responded that the backyard producer should undergo greater scrutiny.

And the sad fact is, there may be some of you out there reading this who are still convinced that the edible foodlike substances that the industrial food system belches out are somehow safer, thanks to USDA regulations and the like, than food grown and prepared by your neighbor. Many have become so fearful of food, real food, that is, that we ignore all the warnings about what's wrong with the system. Swine flu, BCE, salmonella, algal bloom, diabetes, obesity, heart disease...the list of signs that all is not well with our industrial food system goes on and on. Yet, we fear that canning our own food at home will put us at risk for botulism, when in fact, since the 1970s, there have been on average only about 24 cases of foodborne botulism per year and a large percentage of those cases involve food prepared in factories and restaurants. Thanks to a time in US history when urban dairy cows being fed an unhealthy diet of distillery waste produced milk that was unfit for human consumption in its raw state, many people, disconnected from farms producing clean, wholesome milk from pastured cows, came to accept that the only safe milk is pasteurized milk. Yet people have consumed raw milk and made all sorts of products from milk at home for thousands of years. How did we, in a historical blink of an eye, forget that? How have we come to the point at which someone could say with a straight face that cheese should be licensed?

I could just go on and on (obviously), but it's time I get to bed so I can get up early and can some food in my unlicensed kitchen. Don't worry, I won't sell any to my neighbors. I just have one last thing to say: Cheese should not be licensed. Make it yourselves. If not cheese, try canning, drying, freezing, or fermenting some of the summer's bounty. In his talk tonight, Salatin challenged us to develop the skills we need to fill our pantries with more food without barcodes than with them. What a great notion.

This is my first Fight Back Friday post. Be sure to check out what other Real Food bloggers have to say today. Thank you Kristin for hosting and for your terrific post about how rampant imitation foods are in our culture.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Best Mayonnaise...

I've been making mayonnaise at home for a while now. Twenty years ago, when I first began exploring French cuisine, trying recipe after recipe in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking a decade before Julie Powell began her own quest, I made mayonnaise for the first time while working my way through Chapter Two: Sauces.

In my first attempt, I nervously whisked store-bought eggs by hand, wondering if it was worth the effort and risks, and what in the world I would do with a cup-and-a-half of mayonnaise in the couple days before it would spoil. Except for special occasions when I knew I would use it all quickly, I found homemade mayonnaise not worthwhile. Years later, I hit the trifecta when I discovered how easy it is to make mayo with a food processor, learned the technique of fermenting mayonnaise that keeps it from spoiling for several weeks, and had a lovely friend willing to share eggs from her backyard chickens. I've been making homemade mayo ever since. For the last year or so, I've been using my own chicken's eggs and making mayonnaise every couple weeks during the summer high-season of mayo use, when cold foods seem to just call out for this luscious, simple sauce.

Of course, having excellent eggs helps this mayo tremendously. My truly free-ranging hens live on a diet of worms, grubs, and backyard vegetation, plus a homemade supplemental mix of whole grains, fish meal, flax seeds, and kelp, sunflower seeds from our garden, and kitchen scraps. They lay eggs with bright, orange-yellow yolks and egg-errific flavor. Since you are not only using raw eggs for this recipe, but leaving the finished product out at room temperature for several hours to ferment, it's essential to use the highest quality eggs you can find. Seek out a backyard chicken keeper (check craigslist) whose chickens spend at least part of their day outdoors, with access to green plants and bugs. Chickens raised in confinement are understandably stressed and crowded conditions are ideal for spreading disease. Free-range chickens have stronger immune systems and are therefore less likely to be overwhelmed with salmonnella bacteria. Plus, their eggs will be higher in omega-3 fatty acids, as well as vitamins A and D.

The real beauty of this mayo, however, is not its health benefits, but its flavor and how it contributes marvelously to just about anything it accompanies. Perfect all-American coleslaw, lip-smacking tartar sauce (culinary surprise of the year for me was discovering how much I like tartar sauce when I make it myself with my mayo), Green Goddess dressing, Thousand Island dressing, dips galore, amazing egg salad, tuna salad, chicken salad, deviled eggs...

Besides good eggs, you need good oil, and unless you want a mayonnaise that has a strong taste of olive oil, use mostly a neutral flavored oil, sunflower and safflower being the best in terms of nutritional profiles amongst the neutral oils. Use more assertively flavored oils sparingly. There is nothing to hide any off-notes, so use the very best you can find and afford.

If you don't make cheese at home and need a bit of whey for making this fermented mayo, buy a high quality plain, whole milk yogurt with live cultures (Nancy's is a great local brand here in Oregon), scoop out a bit of the yogurt, then wait a few hours or overnight. The liquid that pools in the spot where you scooped is whey, which you can use for this recipe.

Cuisinart owners: Examine the pusher for your machine, that plastic cup-like do-dad that helps you push food down the tube. Notice the little hole in the bottom? The folks at Cuisinart put that there to help you slowly drizzle oil for mayonnaise. Wasn't that thoughtful of them? You can literally pour all the oil in there, turn on the machine, and walk away while it makes mayo for you.

Lost Arts Kitchen Mayonnaise
Makes about 1 pint

3 egg yolks
1-2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1-2 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon whey
1/2 teaspoon salt
pinch of freshly ground white pepper (black is fine, too, but the mayo will have black flecks in it)
1-1/4 cups sunflower oil, safflower or other neutral oil
1/2 cup olive oil, or if you prefer a different flavor, try walnut, hazelnut, or sesame oil

Start with all ingredients at room temperature...or at least the eggs and oil. Process the eggs yolks in a food processor for 30 seconds, then add the mustard, lemon juice, whey, salt, and pepper and process again for another minute or two, until slightly thickened.* With the processor running, slowly add oil in a very thin stream--practically drop-by-drop at first. You can begin pouring the oil a little more quickly after adding about half of it, though I just add all the oil via the pusher. Once you have added all the oil, taste the mayonnaise, you may want to add a little more lemon, mustard, or salt. Let sit out at room temperature for 7-8 hours, then refrigerate. Keeps for about four weeks.

* You can of course do this by hand, using a whisk, or, if you have a helpful assistant, an egg beater. It's a good shoulder work out, if you're into that sort of thing.

This is my Real Food Wednesday post. Please have a look at what other Real Food bloggers have to say today.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Beat the Heat with Leg of Lamb

As much as I enjoy working in my kitchen, when the dog days of summer hit, I can't stand the heat and I become obsessed with avoiding it as much as possible. I'm also always looking for ways to get more than one meal out of anything I cook. I have never been keen on what most of us think of when we hear the word "leftovers," you know, the sad, soggy repeat of last night's supper, warmed over with the Reheat button on the microwave. Yuck. Then, a few years ago, as an exhausted, pregnant, soon-to-be mother of two, I began to develop a sort of mad genius for creating what I called "leftovers by design." These days, I almost never cook just for one meal. I'm always scheming for ways I can take a little extra leftover this or that and turn it into something new. Kinda like those crafty folks who turn old wool sweaters into felt handbags.

So, here's what heat intolerance and an obsession with leftovers look like at our house. When we fire up the grill, we cook enough meat and vegetables for that evening's dinner plus sandwiches and salads later in the week. Also, I can frequently be found in the cool of the morning cooking a big batch of potatoes, grains, or legumes to use as a base for salads that we'll dip into for several days. Because they generate heat and humidity, my crockpot, steamer, and dehydrator all go to work outside during the summer, on a table set up temporarily under the eaves behind our house. The food processor is one appliance that keeps its place indoors and I use it almost daily to julienne vegetables for salad, make up a batch of cold soup, or whip up mayonnaise that makes ordinary canned tuna, hard-boiled eggs, and garden tomatoes so finger-lickin' good.

Recently, Mike butterflied a leg of grassfed lamb (from our homesteading friend Mary), rubbed it with a mix of Indian-inspired spices, then marinated it in homemade yogurt over night. He grilled it, along with several zucchini, over a low fire until the meat was cooked rare, while a pot of basmati rice cooked in the steamer outside and I put together a quick raita with cucumbers and mint inside.

A couple mornings later, I prepared fava beans (making a couple extra pounds for a half-batch of Alice Waters' Fava Bean Puree) and stored them in the fridge until it dinner time. I sliced the leftover lamb into bite-size pieces, seeded and sliced a cucumber, and tossed the lamb, cucs, and favas with a couple shakes of curry powder, juice from half a lime, and enough yogurt to cover, and announced that dinner was ready. Fava beans are a bit of trouble to prepare, but I find their fresh pea flavor and creamy texture worth the effort. If you have young kids, get them into the act of popping the blanched beans out of their jackets. Just make sure you prepare some extra to make up for what your little laborers eat in the process!

The leftover zucchini made their way into my standby grain salad, the Lemon-Garlic Quinoa Salad from Cynthia Lair's Feeding the Whole Family or I could have easily tossed them into a Wheat Berry Salad or this lovely French Barley Salad. Grain salads are filling, pack easily, and keep well in the fridge for a couple days.

Mike's a great cook; he learned from his mom and French grandma what flavor combinations work, but he doesn't work from recipes--it's all improv--and with his ADD, there's no remembering just what he did. Drives me just a little nuts, but I'm used to it by now. I'm not so good at the keeping-track-of-what-I-done-in-the-kitchen thing either, so I really have no business complaining. Anyway. I have adapted a recipe I found online that looks like it will give your similar results.

Grilled Leg of Lamb Marinated in Yogurt with Indian Spices (adapted from Basic Recipes)

2 cups of plain yogurt
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons fresh ginger, minced
2 teaspoons of ground coriander
2 teaspoons of garam masala
1 teaspoon of ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon of ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon of ground cardamom
1/2 teaspoon of ground fenugreek
6 pounds leg of lamb, butterflied

Mix yogurt and spices. In a shallow glass baking dish pour yogurt marinade over lamb and turn several times to coat. Cover and refrigerate at least 6 hours and up to 48 hours. Light a charcoal grill or preheat a stovetop grill until very hot. Add lamb and grill, 25 to 30 minutes, or until an instant-reading thermometer registers 130 to 135ºF for rare meat, 140 to 145ºF for medium. Remove to a carving board, cover loosely with foil and let meat rest for 10 to 15 minutes. Slice thinly to serve.

This is my Real Food Wednesday post. Read what other real food bloggers have to say today!