Tuesday, December 15, 2009

easy charcuterie: dry-cured duck breast

Do you like cured hams? I like cured hams. Prosciutto, Serrano, Bayonne. Salty, sweet, funky hams. Unfortunately for the home charcutier, a good aged ham requires about a 20 pound hog leg and at least six months of time - not to mention a climate controlled drying chamber. However, one can apply the same concept to a simple boneless duck breast, either wild or farm raised. Duck meat, especially the breast, has an exquisite earthy sweetness that shines after a good curing.

Several years ago I stumbled across a very simple cured duck breast recipe in Mario Batali's Babbo cookbook. Just pat it dry, roll it in salt and spices, and hang for about 10 days. I've been waiting for a surplus of duck to use for this recipe, but I only hunt waterfowl a few days per season, so I've never had more than one or two birds to eat. This year the waterfowl hunting gods blessed me with a very fast morning, so it seemed like a good time to cure some duck. The results were quite tasty.

I'm guessing wild goose would work equally well, perhaps even better given its larger size and thickness. In fact, Hank Shaw has a tantalizing recipe for this on his fantastic wild cookery blog.


Recipe: Dry-Cured Wild Duck Breast

Ingredients

  • 2 split wild duck breast (4 pieces)
  • 4 tablespoons kosher salt
  • 3 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 tablespoon hot red pepper flakes (use less if you can't handle heat)
  • 1 tablespoon chopped thyme leaves
Technique
  1. In a small bowl, combie the salt, pepper, sugar, red pepper flakes, and thyme. Coat the duck breast with this mixture, wrap it loosely in wax paper and refrigerate for 2-3 days.
  2. Unwrap, wipe off most of the seasoning. Punch a small hole on one end of the breast and tie a length of twine long enough to hang from your cool basement ceiling or refrigerator shelf.
  3. Hang the breast in a cool, dark, semi-humid place (an unfinished basement in winter works well) for 1-2 weeks, or until the breast shrinks to nearly half its original size and feels quite firm to the touch. When sliced, the breast should be wine colored and have a nice, hammy chew.
Serve the duck sliced very thin with cocktails on a salumi plate or as part of a creative first course - Mario Batali likes it with white beans.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

woodcock: the other red meat.

Minnesota is a blessed place for a number of reasons, including an abundance of native wildfowl. Most people have heard of ruffed grouse, but what about Scolopax Minor, the noble woodcock? I recently heard a wonderful NPR interview with Clotilde Dusoulier, a young Parisian food blogger who translated Je Sais Cuisiner, an epic French cookbook, into English. I don't yet have this book but it has since risen to the top of my personal Christmas gift list. During the interview Clotilde describes how the book was intended to help a new bride cook simple, traditional French food for her new family. Among other interesting bits, she mentions that the author included recipes for some obscure dishes, some of which include wild game, because the polite cook must know what to do with a delicious wild boar or woodcock if an uncle happens to leave one at the house. You should be so lucky.

Woodcock is perhaps the most fleeting of Midwestern delicacies. Each fall, the mysterious upland birds migrate from the Northern US (mainly the Upper Midwest and New England) and Canada to the Southern states for the winter. Native Minnesota birds can be found throughout October, but large concentrations of migratory birds are only in the state for 2-3 weeks, depending on the weather, which adds to their allure as game. Their bodies are about the same size as a quail but they have a long neck, large black eyes, and a long pointed beak designed to dig in the soil for earthworms. With a taste that loosely resembles wild duck, Woodcock are truly glorious if roasted simply in a hot oven. To fully appreciate the mystique and obsession surrounding la bécasse, particularly in Europe, I recommend reading this web page. Not surprisingly, the French are the most rabid fan club, but Woodcock also are held in high esteem in the UK.

There are a few classic preparations for woodcock, most of which are mentioned in the Larousse Gastronomique. This is a variation on one of the most typical techniques.

Ingredients

  • 1 whole woodcock, plucked
  • 4 tablespoons of delicious butter, softened
  • coarse sea salt (French grey is very good for this)
  • coarsely ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/2 cup of equally scarce red wine
  • 6-8 baguette slices
Technique
  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Smear the inside and outside of the bird with 2 tablespoons of the butter, making sure the breasts are well coated. Sprinkle generously with salt and pepper, again, inside and out.
  2. Heat the oil in a small heavy-bottomed sauce pot over medium heat. When it begins to smoke, add the bird and brown on all sides (about 5 minutes total).
  3. Transfer the pot to the oven and roast 10-15 minutes, or until the bird is golden brown, and the inside is hot to the touch. Important: Like duck, woodcock must be served rare or medium rare to retain its wonderful texture and flavor. The breast should be blood red when you slice it, but not cold (it's not sashimi).
  4. Put the bird on a cutting board to rest. Pour out all but one tablespoon of the fat in the pot and heat the pot over medium flame. Deglaze the pot with the wine, making sure to scrape everything tasty off the bottom. Let the wine reduce to a light, syrupy sauce. Then remove from heat, whisk in the butter, and check the seasoning.
  5. Pull the legs off of the bird and eat them while you finish the dish (with a fat glass of wine).
  6. Remove the breasts from the carcass and slice them thinly. Top the baguette slices with the sliced meat, drizzle with sauce, and sprinkle with a pinch of sea salt.
*This makes 6-8 canapés to share, or a small meal for one.

A dish this special deserves an equally special wine. The French recommend a big, bold, dry red wine. I don't argue with them. There is even a French vineyard, Domaine de la Mordorée (Chateauneuf-du-Pape), that celebrates the elusive woodcock on its bottle labels. I drank this with a woodcock I ate last year and I won't ever be the same.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

grocery wars

I'd prefer to write about this epic struggle, but one can only dwell in fantasy for so long. The top business story in Sunday's St. Paul Pioneer Press, "Food Fight," details the present landscape of mainstream grocery stores in our oft named battleground state. Well written and detailed, the piece describes how grocery market share in MN has changed over the past few years, particularly in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area.

The overarching trend discussed in the article is clear: huge, extreme discount stores - mainly Walmart and Target - are attracting more and more shoppers away from Minnesota-based or regional chain stores, such as Kowalski's, Cub Foods, and Rainbow Foods. Many key issues are addressed, including unionization, loss-leaders, and extreme discounting (Walmart vs. Cub). Aside from the fact that co-ops and co-op-like stores aren't mentioned in the article, the most interesting part (for me) is the perspective offered by and about smaller grocery retailers, such as Kowalski's. Here's an excerpt:

The nine-store Kowalski's strategy is to hunker down, focus on quality and see when the economy improves, said Jim Kowalski. "We're not doing any growth right now," he said. "We don't pretend to compete in the price wars that seem to be going on."


Let's face it. There are at least as many types of grocery shoppers as there are brands of frozen pizza at Cub Foods (which was 27 last time I checked). Some people are loyal to one store, at which they buy everything. Others play hopscotch with several retailers, buying different items across multiple stores. Still others are perhaps a bit more schizophrenic, shopping at a different store depending on immediate geographic location (work, school, neighborhood) or emotional state (indulgent, frugal, or green). Such is the state of our food culture.

I am not a grocery store business expert or analyst, but I do buy a lot of food and attempt to follow these trends closely. To date, I have spent money at nearly every grocery retailer mentioned in the article, the exceptions being Aldi's/Trader Joe's and Walmart/Sam's Club. However, for the past 5 years or so, I've chosen to abandon corporate grocery stores in favor of co-ops, of which there aren't nearly enough. That's a different blog post altogether.

What if the challenge Kowalski's faces is an opportunity? A crowded market is dangerous for business as usual, so perhaps the time is right for some lasting innovation among smaller grocers. Jim Kowalski's quote acknowledges that his stores, despite their focus on "quality" (whatever that means), cedes a defeatist outlook by using expressions like "hunker down" and a lack of "growth." He claims to not "pretend to compete in the price wars," but his market share has decreased as a result of shoppers migrating to newer, bigger stores. He doesn't compete because he can't, at least not solely on the price of Brazilian orange juice concentrate, yet he would like to open additional stores.

Fundamentalist discount shoppers seek the lowest prices on food products, without much (or any) regard for the costs associated with producing, distributing, or selling those products, such as the energy (e.g. gasoline), environment (e.g. chemical pesticides), and community (e.g. wages). Smaller grocers should forget about these people. They live on a different planet or will have to soon.

Rather than use the same vocabulary and approach to growth (i.e. increasing profits, number of stores, and market share), smaller grocers should be and celebrate what the super stores are not: progressive, community-building organizations that sell healthy, fairly priced products (a lot of which are local) and create sustainable, livable jobs. If the tremendous growth of farmers' markets is any indication, there is an increasingly vocal segment of the grocery-buying public that seeks a different choice. Find them and sell them what they want. Co-ops have figured this out, so why can't the local supermarket? Such an outlook may squash a regional executive's dream of creating the next national chain store, but within a different framework, that executive no longer will be needed, and neither will the additional 5 stores he or she hoped to open. A small, efficient neighborhood store can hold a reasonable monopoly. Why must we always need more?

Here's an idea. Maybe the Kowalski's in Stillwater could sell meat, dairy, and produce from the St. Croix river valley, and the Grand Avenue store could sell products from Gardens of Eagan. Add a kick-ass bulk section and show people how to use it. If you can't compete on the price of Tyson chicken fries, then sell real chickens from Callister Farm. Think differently. Yes, these products cost more, but an educated customer understands and appreciates the quality of such products. If I want to find the lowest price on crap I will travel to the cheapest crap heap, of which there are many.

Perhaps a plant analogy is appropriate: grow and manicure a small but healthy bonsai that lives for 200 years, rather than 10,000 acres of wood-pulp aspens to be harvested en masse, or consumed by fire, in a few short decades.

Friday, September 11, 2009

reicpe: french tomato salad

During the juicy splendor of late summer/early fall, insalata caprese is often the default mode of consumption for fresh slicing tomatoes. It is a truly wonderful salad. However, to add some variety to your repertoire, culturally and technique-wise, try this minimalist French version, which is more or less the same recipe that appears in Anthony Bourdain's Les Halles cookbook.

recipe: french tomato salad (salade des tomates)
*Serves 4 as a first course salad, or 6 as a side.

ingredients:

  • 2 lbs perfectly ripened heirloom tomatoes (don't mess around)
  • 2 shallots or one very small onion, sliced paper-thin
  • handful of basil or parsley leaves, cut into chiffonade
  • 1 garlic clove, slightly smashed
  • very coarse sea salt (fleur de sel would shine here)
  • coarsely ground black pepper
  • strong tasting olive oil (my new favorite is Napa Valley Naturals)
technique:
  1. Using a very sharp chef's or tomato knife (I'm not a fan of specialty knives, but this is a useful one), cut the tomatoes in half, remove the cores, and slice the halves into wedges.
  2. Place tomatoes in a large colander (positioned over a bowl or the sink) and sprinkle with a good amount of salt (a word of caution: salt preferences vary, and you will brush some of it off later, but don't go overboard the first time you make it. You can always add more salt before serving). Let them sit at room temperature for 10-20 minutes. Water and seeds will begin to drain through the colander.
  3. Put the sliced shallots or onions in a small bowl and sprinkle with salt. Let them sit with the tomatoes.
  4. Remove tomato wedges from the colander, scraping any loose seeds out with your fingers, and put them in a wide, shallow serving bowl or dish. You also can brush off any large granules of salt.
  5. Add sliced onion/shallot to the bowl, brushing off any excess salt.
  6. Add the basil and drizzle everything with a generous amount of olive oil. Then drizzle with a smaller amount of vinegar. The key here is to minimize the amount of liquid in the salad, as you want the flavors to be intense. The tomatoes should absorb most of the oil and vinegar, and release a minimal amount of juice into the bowl.
  7. Toss lightly with a spoon, top with black pepper, check seasonings, and serve.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

reinvent your appetite: the relative value of local food

Last week, the Minneapolis Star Tribune contained a short article about the cost of eating as a locavore - "Making the local food movement accessible." Written by Hayley Tsukayama, a grad student, the piece describes how the author seeks to eat more local foods but also maintain a trim grocery budget. Here's an excerpt:

"I was so excited that I forgot a key fact: I'm a single, omnivorous graduate student who normally buys groceries at Wal-Mart. And while the local produce at most farmers' markets is the same price or cheaper than at supermarkets, the meat is far more expensive. I believe that good food is worth the higher prices, but after rent and student loans it's hard to finance a foodie habit."

I'll start by saying that I'm not a big fan of the word "foodie." In a creepy way, it reminds me of the Crucible-era word "goody." Besides, it's too cute, and helps stoke the fire that enjoying high quality food is somehow elitist. By our pitiful standards of nutrition, anyone living in rural France or Italy would be a foodie - "those people make their own pesto!" As an unhealthy society, we should shun these words in favor of "healthy," "high quality," or "whole" foods, prepared from scratch (either at home or at a restaurant). Perhaps the verb "to cook" could see a renaissance.

Enough semantics. What I find interesting about this article is the frequent supposition that "going local" is simply a matter of plugging local products into the American discount "menu" and Walmart "more for less" value equation. Quite literally, we're looking at apples and oranges; or rather, locally-grown Minnesota apples (eaten in season) and dry, industrial orange-like organisms.

Eating healthy, delicious, simple food is possible at any budget. Rural, agrarian communities around the globe have demonstrated this for hundreds of years. In my opinion, one of the biggest issues is that many Americans are reluctant to adopt a healthier, more sustainable diet because it requires eating different foods and much less of certain things, such as meat.

For example, Americans eat a lot of bacon and pork chops. When you make the decision to eat local, pasture-raised pigs that are humanely treated and minimally processed (with care), it will cost more than buying a frozen mass of industrial chops from a huge company. Get over it. What this means is that you may only be able to eat pork chops once a month rather than every Wednesday. The same is true for bacon. At $1.99/pound for industrial bacon, the average person could eat bacon every morning and not go broke. Spend more on some high quality bacon and eat just a few slices on the weekend with pancakes or dice and toss it with pasta. It is time for Americans to revere high quality meat as a precious, scarce delicacy.

The same is true for other parts of the American meal. Bulk, organic oatmeal is very affordable. So is polenta. Dried pasta and rice have kept people satisfied and proud of their food culture for centuries. Remember your grandma's beef stew recipe or your aunt's green curry recipe? Perhaps it is time to rediscover these simple foods as the basics, and combine them with small amounts of more costly ingredients, such as meat, cheese, butter, milk, and olive oil. Throw some seasonal vegetables in a salad or on the side and you will enjoy a trim grocery budget, better tasting meals, and a higher quality of life. I promise.

In the author's defense, the people she interviewed suggested some novel, paradigm-shifting habits, such as eating less meat, so the article does offer some thoughtful perspective from different people who do know something about this. It also generated a number of comments - take a look.

Friday, August 21, 2009

anti-recipe: f'in simple avocado hors d'oeuvre

Rule #1: Don't freak out about hosting friends or family for dinner. Your boss, priest, or Secretary of Defense? Sure. Your best friends? Non.

Rule #2: Cooking and eating are fun, so enjoy the process as well as the results.

Rule #3: Make something that is easy. This will give you more time to clean your bathroom and have an apéritif prior to your guests' arrival. Both of those things are important. This avocado dish is good practice.

I first tasted this exquisitely simple creation as a student in southern France. I know, it sounds pretentious, but as a French major it was necessary to learn grammar in person and increase my vocabulary of regional foods and drink. This included, among other adventures, spending a couple weekends at a French friend's parents' home in Landes. Seeing that I am quite a large individual, my friend's mother immediately implied that the size of my appetite must surely equal or exceed that of my physical stature. She was not mistaken.

As part of a massive late spring meal, she served avocados, halved lengthwise on small plates. She put a small amount of hot Dijon mustard in the center of each, then drizzled some balsamic vinegar and olive oil, and sprinkled some coarse sea salt and black pepper. Just looking at these made me excited. As a Minnesotan, I was not accustomed to eating many avocados, and surely not as an elegant hors d'oeuvre. Eat them with a small spoon and watch your guests drool.

What is this preparation called, you might ask? I do not know. She may have referred to them as "avocats" (avocados), because French people eat stuff like this every day. Let's give it a sophisticated name, to score you points. How about "avocados balsamiques?"

Saturday, August 15, 2009

recipe: rustic tomato sauce and sausages

Walking through the White Bear Avenue farmer's market last Wednesday, we found a pile of roma tomatoes for just a few dollars. The heirloom slicing tomatoes in our garden are finally starting to ripen, so it seemed appropriate to use the romas for something cooked. We don't plan meals for the week as well as we should, but in the summer it's usually easy to slap something together with whatever we buy at the market. The following day I remembered reading an easy tomato sauce recipe in Mario Batali's Molto Italiano cookbook (a favorite). This, served with some wild rice pork sausages from Pastures a Plenty and a baguette, turned out to be a great weeknight dinner that also tasted great the following day.

Mario's original sauce recipe is intended for more traditional pasta applications, and calls for canned or skinned/seeded tomatoes, so I cut a few corners to make a more rustic version with chopped whole tomatoes. It's perfect for weeknights or lazy weekends.

rustic tomato sauce and sausages
*serves 4 as a main course or 6-8 as antipasto

ingredients

  • about 2 pounds fresh, locally grown (important!) tomatoes, roughly chopped - if good tomatoes are not available, a high quality canned variety will work
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 1 cup diced carrots (1-2 large, or 4-6 small carrots)
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 cups fresh basil leaves, chopped fine
  • 2-4 tablespoons of other fresh herbs (thyme, rosemary, oregano, parsley, etc.)
  • olive oil
  • hot red pepper flakes (optional)
  • 4 large uncooked pork sausages, dried with a towel, then dredged in flour
technique
  1. over high flame, heat about 1/4 cup of olive oil in a wide skillet until just smoking
  2. sauté onions, garlic, and carrots until soft and translucent (8-10 minutes)
  3. while vegetables are cooking, heat another skillet over high heat with 1 tbsp of olive oil and sear sausages on all sides until deep golden brown (8-10 minutes)
  4. lower heat to medium, add tomatoes and cook until tomatoes are very soft and everything resembles a very chunky sauce (probably 10-20 minutes)
  5. gently lay sausages in the sauce and simmer over low heat for another 10 minutes, until sausages are cooked
  6. after removing sausages from skillet, stir the herbs into sauce (off heat)
  7. plate the sausages, pour some sauce on the side, and drizzle with some oil
  8. serve with bread and a spicy dry red wine



Saturday, July 25, 2009

the organic salon: a review (and $20 coupon giveaway!)

I'll begin by confiding that I'm a Horst Rechelbacher admirer. As a Minnesotan, I derive a great sense of pride from knowing how fortunate we are to have such a visionary in our midst (technically, Horst lives across the St. Croix river, in Osceola, WI, but his businesses are located in MN). Furthermore, Aveda Corporate headquarters is located in Circle Pines, the suburb of my youth. If you're not too familiar with Horst or his endeavors, I recommend reading his Wikipedia entry. After selling Aveda to Estee Lauder in 1997 for an estimated $300 million, Horst focused more intensely on the fledgling Intelligent Nutrients (IN) brand, through which Horst has developed a complete line of organic health and beauty products, and more recently, a full service salon run out of the IN flagship store on Hennepin Avenue in NE Minneapolis.

Intelligent Nutrients products are truly awesome. If you like the Aveda line, but are seeking products that contain only natural plant/mineral ingredients (akin to Dr. Haushka), you will love IN (Aveda products do contain a number of harmful compounds, despite the earthy ethos of the their brand). But enough about the products, as this post is dedicated to the new salon, dubbed Intelligent Hair and Skin, which Horst claims is "the first ever USDA certified organic salon."

At this point you might ask: "So why should I care about an organic salon? I'm not going to eat the pomade." It is precisely that attitude which Horst hopes to transform. His new mantra: “What we put on our bodies should be as safe and nutritious as what goes into our bodies,” is not necessarily a new concept, but in true form, he is pushing it further into the mainstream.

If you signed up for IN email promotions earlier this year, you would have received a coupon for 30% off all of services (color, highlights, hair treatments and facial waxing) and a 20% discount on all salon products. A men's haircut starts at about $35, which is only a five dollars more than I currently pay, so this discount was clearly a deal for me.

Overall, the experience was great, easily worth more than the $35 sticker price. Upon being greeted at the door, I was offered a small glass of orange juice mixed with IN's Intellimune Oil - quite refreshing and exotic. My stylist, Catherine, appeared soon thereafter, and she led me into the small salon space, which is in the same room as the store. I'll admit, I've never had a facial treatment before (nor have I sought one), but a "mini" facial/massage is included with a haircut. Over the course of at least 15 minutes, the stylist massaged my head, and used several aromatic products to endow my mug with a "soft glow." Never again will I poke fun at such activities.

The massage/facial really was enjoyable, and left me feeling slightly euphoric upon sitting down for the haircut portion of the experience. Catherine proved adept at cutting hair quickly and stylishly. I didn't schedule the appointment with the intention of adopting a radically new style, the visit was more of a trim, but it was a great cut nonetheless. No gimmicks or overly earnest suggestions, just a quiet, relaxing haircut.

In writing this, I'm not trying to tell you that IN is the only place to get a great haircut - there are quite a few places where one can do that - rather, it is an experience that recognizes the many facets of wellness and well-being, such as the products with which one chooses to slather their hair or skin. These things do matter, and IN is a wonderful, locally-grown place to learn more about them.

And the giveaway? If you get a haircut at the salon, they'll give you several $20-off coupons to pass along to people you know. I have three of them left, which I'll mail to the first three readers who write a thoughtful comment below. The only requirement is that you live in MN/WI, or plan to visit Minneapolis sometime soon.

Friday, July 24, 2009

1 chicken = 4 meals - part 3

By now the vivid memories of grilling your chicken have faded. Your kids loved the chicken salad sandwiches, and you enjoyed a cool, simple green salad with chicken. Yet your work with this chicken is not quite complete. More flavor awaits in the picked over carcass that is chillaxin' in your freezer.

Homemade chicken stock is a lot less work than most people think. The ingredients are pantry staples and during summer months, the only challenge is keeping your house from heating up like a kiln. My home has very poor air conditioning, so I tend to make huge batches of stock in fall/winter/spring and freeze it for use throughout the year. If that's your preference, keep a large ziplock bag your freezer to collect chicken carcasses over several months.

As with the other posts in this series, the goal is to create something delicious out of very few ingredients. In this case, squeezing several meals out of one chicken. Rather than give you a soup recipe, I'm posting my favorite risotto recipe, which is truly memorable with the addition of homemade chicken stock.

Homemade Chicken Stock
This recipe appears, almost verbatim, in Mario Batali's Molto Italiano cookbook (the best Italian cookbook I've encountered). It yields approximately 8 cups of stock.

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • bones, wings, and scraps from 2-3 whole chickens (you could cut this recipe in half if you only have parts from one chicken)
  • 3 carrots, coarsely chopped
  • 2 onions, coarsely chopped
  • 4 ribs celery
  • 4 quarts water
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1 tablespoon black peppercorns
  • 1 bunch parsley stems
Technique
  1. In a large heavy-bottomed pot, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat until smoking. Add the chicken parts and brown all over, turning frequently. Transfer the chicken parts to a platter and reserve.
  2. Add the carrots, onions, and celery and cook until softened and browned, about 10 minutes. Return the chicken to the pot and add the water, tomato paste, peppercorns, and parsley, and stir to dislodge the browned bits from the bottom of the pot. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and cook at a low simmer for 2 hours, or until reduced by half, occasionally skimming the fat.
  3. Remove from the heat and strain into a large bowl, pressing on the solids with the bottom of a ladle to extract all the liquid. Let cool, stirring occasionally. Cover and refrigerate. For longer term storage, pour cooled stock into 1 quart freezer bags. Layer the bags on a cookie sheet and place in the freezer.

Classic Risotto
This recipe is also the work of Mario Batali. There are thousands of risotto recipes you could try, but why waste your time - this one is the best. Serve it with a salad for a light meal, as a smaller first course, or as a creamy bed of starchiness for a fine cut of meat. By the way, this recipe concludes our epic journey into the frugality and allure of whole-chicken cookery. I hope you enjoyed it. And if you've made any of these dishes, please post a comment!

*One recipe will yield about 4 main course portions or 6 first course portions

Ingredients
  • 8 cups chicken stock, heated until hot
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, cut into 1/4-inch dice
  • 1 1/2 cups arborio rice
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine (something you would drink - pinot grigio works well)
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (or a high quality domestic equivalent, if you're a disciplined locavore)
  • optional: 1 teaspoon saffron threads (for authentic risotto milanese)
Technique
  1. If using saffron, add it to the hot stock and stir to infuse.
  2. In a 10- to 12-inch sauté pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat until almost smoking. Add the onion and cook until softened and translucent but not browned, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the rice and stir with a wooden spoon until toasted and opaque, 3 to 4 minutes.
  3. Add the wine, then add a large ladleful of the stock and cook, stirring, until the liquid is absorbed. Continue stirring and adding the stock a ladleful at a time, waiting until the liquid is absorbed each time before adding more, until the rice is tender and creamy yet still a little al dente, about 20 minutes (you may have a little stock left over).
  4. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the butter and Parmagiano until well mixed. Divide risotto among four warmed plates, and serve with additional Parmagiano.
Photo credit: JaseMan on flickr


Wednesday, July 22, 2009

1 chicken = 4 meals - part two

So let's say you've just finished eating a whole grilled chicken. Basking in the glow of your satiated friends, and a couple bottles of Portuguese Alentejo red, don't forget that your work with this chicken is not yet complete. Rather than throw that gnarly-looking carcass in the garbage, wrap it up and put it in the refrigerator for use in one of the following two recipes. Even though you've removed the breasts and legs, that carcass contains a lot of small, tasty morsels of chicken that work perfectly in other dishes. The wings work particularly well for this, if you didn't eat them when the chicken was grilled.

There are certainly more than two ways to incorporate leftover chicken into another meal, but these two recipes are my favorites, are very easy to make (they use kitchen staples), and really showcase the great flavor of grilled chicken.

It requires a bit of time and patience to scrape every bit of chicken from the bones, but it's well worth the effort. Using your perfectly clean hands, pull every visible piece of meat off of the carcass and wing bones. As you pick it clean, make sure you do not include any cartilage, bone fragments, or other tough bits, as they are quite offensive in the mouth. Reserve the stripped carcass and any loose bones. Meal #4 in this series is a risotto made with homemade chicken stock, so unless you're going to use them immediately, put the bones in a freezer bag and save for a rainy day.

Meal #2: Chicken Salad Sandwiches
The individual amounts of each ingredient varies widely, depending on how much chicken you have. Fortunately, it's easy to make these according to your tastes, so combine ingredients incrementally, to make sure it has the right flavors and consistency.

Ingredients

  • leftover grilled chicken, chopped into small pieces
  • high quality mayonnaise (if you don't make your own, try Mrs. Clarks, from Iowa)
  • minced onion or scallions
  • Dijon-style mustard
  • fresh herbs (basil, thyme, parsley, etc.)
  • anything else you like (walnuts, anchovies, olives, capers, cornichons, etc.)
  • salt and pepper
  • lettuce leaves
  • bread slices
Technique
Combine all ingredients in a bowl and mix lightly to combine. Be careful not to add too much mayo and mustard too soon, as it will overpower the chicken. The result should be lightly dressed, yet stick together in a spoon.


Meal #3: Green Salad with Chicken
This is a great all purpose salad recipe, that can serve as the basis for many composed dinner salads, including the reknowned salade nicoise.

Ingredients
  • leftover chicken, chopped into small pieces
  • fresh field greens or lettuces
  • parmesan shavings (use a vegetable peeler)
  • walnuts
  • olive oil
  • red wine vinegar
  • dijon mustard
  • 1 garlic clove
  • sea salt
  • pepper
Technique
  1. Make the vinegrette dressing. The exact proportion of vinegar to oil varies according to the type of vinegar used, and your own palate, but a general rule is 2 parts vinegar to 1 part oil. Smash the garlic clove with your hand or a chef's knife and place in a small cup/bowl. Add a small amount of red wine vinegar and set aside for 15-30 minutes. Then add 1 teaspoon mustard and whisk vigorously. Then slowly drizzle olive oil into vinegar (while whisking quickly) until desired consistence/taste is achieved. Set aside. (Note: you may need to increase the amounts if you're planning to server this salad to more than just a few people).
  2. Dress the salad. Tear greens into small pieces and place into a large salad bowl. Pour half of the dressing over the greens and toss with salad tongs. Taste some of salad to determine how much more dressing you'll need. An overdressed salad can be soggy and overly acidic, so it helps to add the dressing in two rounds.
  3. Pile the dressed greens on plates, and top with chicken, nuts, and parmesan shavings. Grind some pepper and sea salt over the finished salad. Serve with some big hunks of crusty bread for a filling weeknight meal or leisurely weekend lunch.
These recipes are a gateway to stress-free, simple meals that hardly require a recipe or a lot of time. Make them once and you can throw this blog post away forever (but forward it to a friend first). These meals emphasize my approach to cooking for a busy family (mine) - repurposing the leftovers from previous meals by simply adding a few quality ingredients found in most kitchens. The trick is to buy the best ingredients you can afford, as such simple meals will not hide the blandness of industrial chicken or junky vinegar.

Photo credit: protohiro on flickr


Tuesday, July 14, 2009

1 chicken = 4 meals - part one

For centuries, rural cooks have recognized the utility, versatility, and caloric value of eating the whole chicken. While it may seem convenient to buy packaged chicken parts (thighs, breasts, etc.) individually, purchasing a whole chicken is far more economical, and can save you valuable time by serving as the basis for several meals. The economics are quite simple: boneless, free range chicken breasts can run $7-$8 per pound at a co-op or grocery store, but a whole chicken may cost as little as $3 per pound from the same producer, and farmers' market vendors in your area may be selling chickens for even less. If you pay $12 for a 4 pound chicken, you get breasts, legs/thighs, wings, and a carcass for making stock (for only $4 more than just buying the breasts). As an added benefit, whole chickens are "handled" less by the processor, which likely means a lower risk of contamination, and you know all of the parts are from the same healthy-looking bird.

Separating a chicken at home is quite easy, and after you do it a few times it will be second nature. Many food writers have written about how to squeeze several meals out of one chicken, but given the number of tight pocketbooks out there, it seems appropriate to provide another variation on the theme. Here we go.

Meal #1: whole grilled chicken
July in Minnesota is hot, so in the summer I recommend grilling your whole chicken to capitalize on warm sunshine, and keep the heat out of your kitchen. My favorite grilled chicken recipe is "alla diavola," a simple Italian version with lots of garlic and red pepper flakes. I posted this recipe back in June of 2007, but I've pasted it below because I love it that much. Make it! During cooler seasons, meal #1 could be a simple roast chicken, or even a rotisserie chicken purchased from a quality take out place. The recipe below serves 4 people, but will leave little chicken leftover for meal #2. If you have a larger grill, it is possible to prepare 2 chickens, so that is a possibility if you have company or a larger family, and still want leftovers. After eating your grilled chicken, reserve the carcass and any remaining pieces to use in meal #2, which I'll write about in the next post.

*Note: this is an easy recipe to make, but since you have to brine the chicken, I recommend making it for an early weekend dinner. You could skip the brine with good results, but the brine adds another level of juiciness that is worth the extra step.


Chicken and Brine:

  • 2 medium garlic heads
  • 3 bay leaves, crumbled
  • 1/2 cup salt
  • 1 whole chicken (3-4 pounds), butterflied and pounded (see below)
Garlic-Pepper Oil
  • 4 medium garlic cloves, minced or pressed through a garlic press (about 4 teaspoons)
  • 2 teaspoons ground black pepper
  • 2 teaspoons red pepper flakes
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
Other
  • vegetable oil for grill grate
  • 1 lemon, cut into wedges, for garnish
1. TO BUTTERFLY CHICKEN
Use kitchen shears to cut through bones on either side of backbone (see picture in this sequence), then remove and discard backbone. Flip chicken over and use heel of your hand to flatten breastbone. Cover chicken with paper towels to protect skin, then pound flat using meat pounder or rubber mallet.

*Note: This may seem tedious the first time you do it, but you'll get much quicker after making this recipe a few times.

2. TO BRINE THE CHICKEN
Combine garlic heads, bay leaves, and salt in gallon-size zipper lock bag; press out air and seal bag. Using rubber mallet or meat pounder, pound mixture until garlic cloves are crushed; transfer mixture to large container or stockpot and stir in 2 quarts cold water until salt is dissolved. Immerse chicken in brine and refrigerate until fully seasoned, about 2 hours.

3. FOR THE GARLIC-PEPPER OIL
While chicken is brining, heat garlic, black pepper, pepper flakes, and oil in small saucepan over medium heat until garlic is fragrant and sizzling and mixture registers about 200 degrees on instant-read thermometer, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature, about 40 minutes. Measure 2 tablespoons garlic-pepper oil into 2 small bowls and set aside.

4. TO FLAVOR THE CHICKEN
Remove chicken from brine and thoroughly pat dry with paper towels. Loosen the skin around the breast and thighs. Apply two tablespoons of the pepper oil underneath the loosened skin.

5. TO GRILL THE CHICKEN
Ignite about 6 quarts (1 large chimney, or about 6 pounds) charcoal briquettes and burn until covered with thin coating of light gray ash, about 20 minutes. Empty coals into grill and bank half of coals on either side of grill, leaving midsection of grill free of coals. Position grill grate over coals, cover grill, and heat grate until hot, about 5 minutes; scrape grate clean with grill brush. Lightly dip small wad paper towels in vegetable oil; holding wad with tongs, wipe grill grate. Position chicken skin-side down on grill grate over area with no coals; cover grill and fully open lid vents.

6. TO SERVE
Cook until instant-read thermometer inserted into thickest part of thigh registers 170 to 175 degrees, 30 to 45 minutes. Transfer chicken to cutting board; let rest 10 minutes. Carve chicken into four pieces, drizzle with remaining pepper oil and garnish with lemon wedges.

*Serve with a bold, spicy red wine, such as those coming from Portugal at the moment (watch this for ideas).
*For a quick side, place some fresh vegetables over the coal banks on each side of the grill during last 10 minutes of cooking.

*This recipe appeared in its entirety in the July/August 2003 issue of Cooks Illustrated


Photo credit: Machine is Organic on flickr

Thursday, July 2, 2009

are you eating muesli, the ultimate summer breakfast?

My wife found a delicious recipe for meusli, a euro-type breakfast, in a cookbook you may not know about. Feeding the Whole Family: Cooking with Whole Foods, by Cynthia Lair, is a very accessible collection of recipes emphasizing simple meals with healthful, seasonal ingredients (parents may remember Cynthia as a food writer/editor for Mothering Magazine). Don't confuse muesli with Mueslix, the dorky brand of Kellogg's cereal from the 80s. Real muesli is a simple breakfast of rolled oats (or other grains) and any combination of nuts and dried/fresh fruit. It's basically granola that hasn't been toasted. There are two styles: dry and soaked. In the dry version, muesli is eaten as is, with milk or yogurt. In the soaked version, the muesli is first allowed to sit in hot water or juice for a few hours or even overnight. Both are delicious, but we were intrigued by the soaked version as it produces a filling breakfast that can stand in for oatmeal in the summer. Despite the use of boiling water in the recipe below, the texture of soaked muesli is not the same as oatmeal. Give it a try this summer. It will keep your mornings sane and your kitchen cool.

Orange Hazelnut Muesli

Prep time: 10 minutes (excluding overnight soaking)

Ingredients

  • 2 cups rolled oats or rolled barley (or some of both)
  • 1/3 cup hazelnuts, chopped
  • 1/3 cup raisins
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
  • 2 cups boiling water
  • 1 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
  • Optional toppings: sliced fruit, berries, raisins, plain yogurt w/ honey
Technique

Place oats, hazelnuts, raisins, cinnamon, and sea salt in mixing bowl. Pour boiling water over mixture and stir. Add orange juice to mixture and stir again. Cover bowl with plate or cloth and allow moisture to soften grains 6 to 8 hours or overnight. Top apple, pear, berries, and/or yogurt.

*Makes 4 servings


Wednesday, June 24, 2009

a few thoughts on the cookie dough recall

It is a national story, but I read about the recent Nestle cookie dough recall as a local article in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Six Minnesotans, between 2 and 18 years of age, became quite ill from eating raw dough. This is disturbing on many levels, and it seems food recalls are simply part of "what happens." Is anyone outraged? At some point people do eat at their own risk, but as a society we can surely do more to prevent the spread of tainted food. I imagine that warnings printed on labels often do little to prevent people from eating certain foods raw, and despite manufacturers' and public health officials' official concerns, people enjoy eating cookie dough. They also enjoy runny eggs, rare steaks, and bloody hamburgers. Even steak tartare has enjoyed a renaissance as of late. If sourced and handled appropriately, many allegedly dangerous foods can be safely enjoyed in a raw or lightly cooked state. Mass-produced, industrial tubs of dough do not belong on this list, but their existence influences how people, including public officials, view the honest, homemade variety.

It begs the question: how could there be such a huge market for manufactured cookie dough? Please tell me. The concept is absurd, but an insipidly clever marketing idea. Busy people, who apparently don't have enough time to measure more than four ingredients, can purchase this dough-like substance, press or cut it into shapes, and convince themselves that they are, in fact, baking. It's akin to serving microwave bacon. I have tears in my eyes.

Real cookie dough is a wonderful thing. The alchemical marriage of flour, butter, sugar, and chocolate chips is truly potent, an ethereal mix to be honored in its own right. Freshly baked chocolate chip cookies are wantonly desired by children and adults across this great country, and they are one of the few truly notable American foodstuffs. We don't have many. Must we desecrate them through food engineering and negligent mass production?

We have all heard the warnings. Do not eat raw eggs. Do not eat cookie dough, because it contains raw eggs. When was the last time you heard of someone dying from a raw egg that contained e. coli bacteria? I encourage you to read the Wikipedia entry for this bacterium, as it appears poop is the typical culprit. Yes, poop. Salmonella is most often the bacterium associated with raw eggs, so it is unclear how e. coli made its way into Nestle's cookie dough, but we could take a wild guess. Public health experts and Nestlé officials: please post a comment. I also recommend reading this article from the Today Show, which describes how e. coli is most often found in raw meat or unwashed fruits and vegetables.

What bothers me the most is the MN Dept of Public Health's first quote in the aforementioned article:

Health officials warned that eating any kind of raw dough creates potential for illness. "Cookie dough, whether purchased in a tub from the store or made at home from scratch, should not be eaten raw," said Carlota Medus, a foodborne-illness epidemiologist with the Minnesota Department of Health.


Rather than push Nestle to explain how such contaminants could enter their supply chain, our public servants simply cover Nestle's ass by implying that consumers may have brought this upon themselves by eating raw cookie dough. What a joke. If you care to make your own cookie dough, from the best ingredients you can find (organic butter, organic sugar, organic eggs, and chocolate chips), and store them properly, it seems the risk of contamination
is very low, perhaps even nonexistent. Maybe I'm missing something here, but my family regularly eats sunny-side-up eggs, and spoonfulls of raw cookie dough. We have never been ill. My pregnant wife eats these things.

The warnings exist to cover the lowest common denominator, the lowest quality (but cheapest!) ingredients one could possibly procure from a discount, big box grocer. But even then it's probably a low risk. Only when our dough is manufactured on a massive scale, by assembly line workers with bad habits, is there such a risk. If your grandma doesn't wash her hands, your family may get ill. If the "dough mixing technician" at the Nestle plant doesn't wash his hands, an entire city may puke its guts out, literally.

I'll leave you with the list of ingredients for one of the recalled products: "Ultimates Peanut Butter Cups, Chips & Chocolate Chunks bar." I've highlighted the nasty/processed/synthetic ingredients in red, if e. coli isn't enought to stop you. Bon appetit!


INGREDIENTS: BLEACHED ENRICHED FLOUR (WHEAT FLOUR, NIACIN, REDUCED IRON, THIAMIN MONONITRATE, RIBOFLAVIN, FOLIC ACID), SUGAR, MARGARINE (PALM OIL, WATER, SUNFLOWER OIL, HYDROGENATED COTTONSEED OIL, SALT, VEGETABLE MONO- AND DIGLYCERIDES, SOY LECITHIN, SODIUM BENZOATE, CITRIC ACID, NATURAL AND ARTIFICIAL FLAVOR, BETA CAROTENE COLOR, VITAMIN A PALMITATE ADDED), NESTLE SEMI-SWEET CHOCOLATE CHUNKS (SEMI-SWEET CHOCOLATE [SUGAR, CHOCOLATE, COCOA BUTTER, MILKFAT, SOY LECITHIN, VANILLIN - AN ARTIFICIAL FLAVOR, NATURAL FLAV0R]), PEANUT BUTTER FLAVORED MORSELS (SUGAR, PALM KERNEL OIL, PEANUTS, PEANUT FLOUR, LACTOSE, WHEY [FROM MILK], MILKFAT, NONFAT MILK, SODIUM CASEINATE [FROM MILK], BUTTERMILK, HYDROGENATED PALM OIL, SALT, SOY LECITHIN, ARTIFICIAL FLAVORS), PEANUT BUTTER CUPS (SUGAR, PALM KERNEL OIL, PEANUT FLOUR, NONFAT MILK, PEANUT BUTTER [PEANUTS, SALT, PARTIALLY HYDROGENATED PALM OIL], PARTIALLY HYDROGENATED PALM OIL, SALT, COCONUT OIL, COLOR ADDED [RED 40 LAKE, YELLOW 5 LAKE AND BLUE 2 LAKE], SOY LECITHIN, TBHQ, CITRIC ACID), WATER, CORN SYRUP SOLIDS, MOLASSES, EGGS, EGG YOLKS, BAKING SODA, SALT, SODIUM ALUMINUM PHOSPHATE, VANILLA EXTRACT, VANILLIN - AN ARTIFICIAL FLAVOR

P.S. The voluntary recall includes 43 varieties of cookie dough sold by Nestle. You can access nutritional information about each of them at Nestle's wonderful cookie dough site: http://www.verybestbaking.com/. Don't event get me started on the ridiculousness of that name. Very best indeed.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

the humble frittata

Peasant cooking at it's best, many cookbook authors and magazine writers have touted the simplicity of this Italian staple. Nearly identical to the Spanish tortilla, the frittata is the ideal vehicle to dispose of leftover vegetables and other items languishing in your fridge. It is also an ideal summer meal, as it requires just a few minutes in the broiler and tastes great the following day, even served cool or at room temperature. Many variations exist, but core elements include sauteed vegetables, cheese and/or cream, and at least six eggs. The recipe below is a hybrid of several recipes that is easy to prepare and works well for me. I've listed some suggested ingredients but this dish is so flexible that I strongly encourage using nearly any ingredient that would taste good with eggs. Bacon is quite tasty, as well as leftover roast turkey or chicken.

Ingredients

  • 6-8 eggs, depending on the size of your skillet and appetite
  • 1/2 cup milk or cream
  • 1/2 onion
  • 1/2 lb mushrooms, quartered (or other vegetables)
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh herbs (parsley, basil, or thyme)
  • 1 cup grated cheese (parmesan, mozzarella, or chevre work well)
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • kosher salt and coarsely ground pepper
Equipment
  • large, well seasoned cast iron or stainless steel skillet (you could use nonstick but I don't recommend it because of new research regarding toxins) - make sure the skillet has a metal handle, as it will go in the broiler
  • oven with a broiler
Technique
  1. Preheat your broiler. Heat two tablespoons of oil in the skillet over medium-high heat. When oil is nearly smoking, add the onions and mushrooms. Sauté them until the mushrooms have released their juices and the liquid has evaporated from the pan (10-15 minutes).
  2. In a large bowl, combine eggs, cream/milk, and herbs. Beat vigorously with a whisk or fork for several minutes (this will make the frittata fluffy).
  3. Lower the heat to low, stir in remaining olive oil, and pour the egg mixture in the skillet. Lightly stir eggs to incorporate sautéed vegetables.
  4. Once the eggs at the bottom have started to firm up, add the cheese and fold it into the egg mixture that is still liquid.
  5. Put the skillet in the broiler and cook for 3-6 minutes or until the top is lightly browned and the eggs are no longer runny (but do not overcook).
  6. Remove from broiler, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and slice into wedges.
  7. Drizzle with additional olive oil if desired.
*Serves 4 as a main event or 6 as a first course

Monday, June 15, 2009

another way to make potatoes on the grill

Fried potatoes are delicious and fast, but the thought of heating up the kitchen on a punishingly hot day makes me want to vomit, seriously. Some of you might remember that last summer I posted a recipe for roasted potatoes on the grill. While that version is delicious in its own right, the indirect grilling method requires at least 30 minutes to fully cook the potatoes. In an effort to create a more weeknight friendly version, I developed another recipe inspired by a recent Mark Bittman article about grilling over wood coals, in which he describes how one of his friends uses a cast iron griddle to sear foods over hot coals.

I applied this technique to quartered new potatoes, and the results exceeded my expectations. A screaming hot skillet, combined with the ambient heat from a covered grill, resulted in potatoes that were crispy on the outside, creamy within, and subtly infused with smoky goodness.

ingredients

  • 2.5 pounds small red new potatoes, quartered or cut into 1 inch pieces (I'm sure other small potatoes would work well)
  • 8 large garlic cloves
  • high quality olive oil (4 tbsp)
  • sea salt
  • black pepper
equipment
  • large cast iron skillet
  • a round metal tray, tin foil, or something that will loosely cover the skillet
  • charcoal grill
technique
  1. Ignite a full chimney of charcoal.
  2. While charcoal is heating, pour olive oil into cast iron skillet.
  3. Once coals are hot, pour them in a thick layer over 1/2 of the grill. Place the skillet on the grill grate, cover, and heat until oil is smoking.
  4. Add potatoes, loosely cover the skillet, and cover the grill.
  5. Cook for 10 minutes, then check potatoes for browning.
  6. If the bottom sides are golden brown, flip potatoes with a spatula to brown remaining sides, and add garlic cloves. Cook 10-15 minutes longer.
  7. Once potatoes are brown and crispy, remove from heat, toss w/ salt and pepper, and serve immediately.
*Serves 4 people.
*Cooking time is highly variable based on the amount of coals used, type of skillet, etc., but this is a good guide.

Friday, June 12, 2009

france post #3: blessed be the macro, and french flowers

As described in previous posts, we visited France in April, during a cool, wet part of the spring when many flowers begin to bloom. I combed through our photos and created this set of colorful snapshots, many of which were taken by my wife with our Canon Elph digital camera using the macro setting. We've found this setting to be quite powerful for taking cool close up shots of flowers, insects, food, basically anything you want to preserve with an extreme zoom.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

more great reading about milk

Via the Atlantic Food twitter stream, today I discovered the rowdy food activism blog "Food Renegade." Just this morning, the site featured an extremely informative post deconstructing the benefits and drawbacks of different types of milk, as well as tips for purchasing raw milk direct from farmers. A great read if you like the other articles I posted.

Friday, June 5, 2009

this year's garden

My tiny plot has come a long way. When we moved into our small city home in 2005, there was a small rectangular garden containing poor, sandy soil and not much else. The first year we planted some tomatoes and a few herbs - with very little compost - and it fared pretty well. After a couple of such low intensity efforts, I decided to expand the garden by widening and lengthening the rectangle, nearly doubling the available space. We also started composting religiously, and the ROI was immediate - we could now grow numerous tomato plants, hot and mild peppers, eggplant, herbs, lettuces, green beans, and even some green cabbages on the shady side of the plot. I've also learned to do a bit of planning in early spring, to map out when I'll put each plant type in the ground.

By most accounts, the average "frost-free" date in the St. Paul area is May 15th. Since there are many hearty vegetables that can withstand a frost or two, I decided to get a handful of plants in the ground during the first week in May. These include:

  • leeks (4)
  • swiss chard (4)
  • arugula (4)
  • red lettuce (4)
  • broccoli (4)
In addition to these seedlings, four heirloom green leaf lettuces sprouted in the garden during this same week - apparently from seeds that I planted last summer. Very cool.

During the third week of May I planted a host of warm weather veggies, including some heirloom tomatoes and peppers.

Tomatoes:
  • "Northern Light" tomato (2): a fast growing, cold weather tomato that bears fruit in a mere 55 days (instead of 75-95 days for most types)
  • "Dad’s Sunset" tomato (2): a very large, meaty variety.
  • "Zapotec Pleated" tomato (1): a medium sized variety with irregularly shaped fruit.
  • "Marizol Purple" tomato (1): an old German heirloom that is well suited to cooler climates.
Peppers:
  • "Hungarian Paprika" pepper (2): the classic mild red pepper from central Europe.
  • "Georgia Flame" hot pepper (2): a small red face-melter.
  • "Purple Marconi" sweet pepper (2): a small Italian heirloom variety.
Others:
  • Japanese eggplant (2): the long, striped purple and white eggplant.
  • White cauliflower (2)
  • Sweet basil (2)
  • Rosemary (1)
  • Mother of Thyme (1): a broad leaf variety.
Wow. That's a total of 40 plants, and doesn't include my garden perennials: rhubarb, chives, and two clumps of asparagus (still too young). That's almost 300% more than the 15 plants I watered exactly two years ago. I think the only remaining plants to install are some green beans that I plan to string up along the back side of the garden.

Sadly, I still haven't been organized enough to grow all of my plants from seeds indoors, which is a huge goal of mine. Maybe next year... But I do plan to seed a midsummer round of lettuce and cabbages, which will serve as a late season harvest in September and October.

Monday, June 1, 2009

good enough for grandpa: the case for whole milk

I live in a dairy state. To exist in Minnesota without an ice-cold bottle of milk in the fridge is sacrilege. For reasons of both pride and locavoracity, I am saddened by the "big milk" industry's shift away from the Midwest to California, currently the largest milk producing state (with a marketing campaign to match). Our vineyards need some work, but can we at least buy milk from Minnesota or Wisconsin? There are many small, organic producers selling delicious whole milk in our fine communities - try Crystal Ball or Castle Rock.

Despite our milk maid roots, it is always a bummer to discover that most people in this green pasture of a state prefer skim or 1% milk. We should know better, and exhibit better taste. For years we have been led to believe, by this industry and our own federal government, that low fat milk is better for us. Our fat phobic culture has skimmed the flavor and nutrition from the milk we drink, in a misguided effort to be healthy. I mean, what the fuck is non-dairy creamer, really? The thought of this junk made me so mad I looked up the manufacturing process and found some info here. No sir, it is not soy milk.

Now the facts. In the words of Nina Planck, author of Real Food for Mother and Baby:

Whole milk is what is called a complete food, because each ingredient plays its part. Without the fat, you can't digest the protein or absorb the calcium.

The body needs saturated fat in particular (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat can't do the job) to take in the calcium that makes bones strong. Milk fat also contains glycosphingolipids, which are fats that encourage cell metabolism and growth and fight gastrointestinal infections.


The all-important vitamins A and D are found in the fat. Historically, whole milk and butter were the best sources of these vitamins in the American diet, which had up to 10 times more of both vitamins than modern industrial diets. In skim and low-fat milk, the vitamins are removed along with the fat, so dairies add synthetic A and D. But Vitamins A and D are fat-soluble; that means they cannot be absorbed into the body unless they're taken in with fat. Thus, even fortified skim and low-fat milk are not nearly as beneficial as the real thing.

To debunk your own low fat milk myths, I encourage you to read two excellent articles about the undisputed health benefits of whole milk, as well as the virtues of its raw, farm fresh form. Nature intended it this way.

Whole Milk is Best, by Nina Planck
This article, which appeared in the New York Times, offers a factual look at the benefits of unadulterated milk, and New York City's efforts to promoted low fat milk in low income communities.

I should note that I found a link to this article on the website for Kopplin's Coffee shop in St. Paul, MN. The owner of this fine shop believes in local, organic whole milk so much he refuses to serve low fat milk in any of this coffee drinks.

Should This Milk Be Legal?
Another NYT piece, this article discusses the growing trend of drinking raw cow's milk. Oh no!

photo: jenny downing on flickr


Saturday, May 30, 2009

MN first state to ban toxins in baby bottles and sippy cups

The June issue of the Minnesota Women's Press contains a news brief about a very progressive piece of legislation, the Toxic Free Kids Act, that was recently signed into law. From the article:

"After Jan. 1, 2011, parents will know that regardless of what store you are in, the baby bottles and 'sippy' cups will be BPA (bisphenol A)-Free," said Rep. Karen Clark (DFL Minneapolis), chief author of the House Bill. Sen. Sandy Rummel (DFL-White Bear Lake) was the chief author of the Senate version. More than 200 studies of BPA have found that low-dose exposure is linked to heart disease, caner, neurological impairments and reproductive problems.

To read a detailed news release about the legislation, visit Healthy Legacy, a MN-based public health coalition. You can also follow them on twitter.

Photo: Randy Son Of Robert on flickr

Thursday, May 21, 2009

La Vida Locavore: A must-read blog

Mark Bittman just tweeted a very provocative link from La Vida Locavore, a food politics blog, which yesterday featured a great post about what children in different countries eat through school lunch programs, and the USA's pitiful excuse for state-sanctioned nutrition.

I haven't read this blog before, but it appears to be one worth visiting.

From the site:
La Vida Locavore is the blog for anyone whose crazy life includes planting, growing, weeding, fertilizing, raising, picking, harvesting, processing, cooking, baking, making, serving, buying, selling, distributing, transporting, composting, organizing around, lobbying about, writing about, thinking about, talking about, playing with, and eating food!

Monday, May 11, 2009

france post #2: in search of "truite fario"

I don't think I've mentioned it before on this blog, but I am an avid angler, with a particularly fondness for fish that eat flies. The village of Plaisance, France, where we spent the first part of our recent vacation, is situated on a small, cold stream that cuts through the limestone laden valley (in the Haut Languedoc region of the country). It is called "Le Bouissou." My former coworker, Edie, who lent us her townhouse for the week, mentioned that there were trout in the river, so, prior to leaving for France, I eagerly packed my short 3 weight rod and a small box of dry flies.

The weekend we arrived it was cold and rainy, and several scouting trips to the stream yielded no more than a few minnow sightings. However, on day three the sun came out and I did manage to find a few small trout sipping tiny may flies near the main bridge in town. The sunny, warm weather held, so the following afternoon I headed upstream from Plaisance to a promising run near the village soccer field. It was a postcard perfect afternoon of angling. Big may flies started hatching as soon as I assembled my rod, so it took no more than three or four casts to land my first fish, a small rainbow - no doubt imported from American stocks (rainbows are not native to Europe, just as brown trout are not native to US waters). I later caught three chunky brown trout - truites farios in French - in the same run. I celebrated with an obligatory cold Leffe beer.
Before packing up for dinner, an old French fly fisherman started fishing the run below me, and once we made eye contact he walked up the bank to ask how the fishing was. Upon seeing the cold, whiteness of my Minnesota legs, and uninsulated Chaco sandals, he proceeded to ask me "Bonjour, mais où sont tes waders? (Hello. Where are you waders?)" I explained that I was traveling from abroad and didn't have the space in my luggage to bring more than a rod, reel, and some flies. He chuckled and wished me a "un après-midi chaud" (a warm afternoon).

France is full of fishermen, and the French fish with their stomaches, even though a hand may be holding the rod. This is commendable, as it appears more French anglers are looking to fool a few trout for dinner, rather than catch and release every fish in the river, so any fixation they have around "numbers" has not been apparent to me. Also, France has managed to preserve a large number of beautiful trout streams, most of which hold good populations of native brown trout. Many people in the US find hard to believe. It seems there is a common misconception that the French countryside is overly grazed and domesticated. While farms and herd animals are ubiquitous across the provinces, there are some expansive pockets of wilderness, a lot of which is located in or near the Pyrenees. In fact, a wild boar hunter was killed last year near Plaisance while tracking a large wounded male. It attacked him before he could drop it, and its teeth severed a femoral artery. The hunter bled out before officials could find him. A wild place indeed.

Check out this this photo set for more fishing pix from the trip.

P.S. I would have included a recipe for grilled trout had I kept one for the table. The fact of the matter is, I decided to fish sans permet, as the short-term, out-of-country licences were not available until May 1, and an annual non-resident licence costs about $90 - mon dieu! For that reason I decided to release the small number of trout I did hook. I'll be sure to post a trout recipe this summer, as I have big plans to catch dinner in Wisconsin in coming weeks.

Monday, May 4, 2009

france post #1: our daily bread

It seems appropriate for the first post of this series to detail a journey, and a small one at that. In all but the most cosmopolitan U.S. cities, American communities have rid themselves of neighborhood bakeries, at which families used to procure the fresh bread needed for the day, and possibly breakfast the following day. Sadly, the Wonder and Brownberry loaves that now grace American breadboxes travel many miles from their industrial ovens of origin to big box super markets, and as such, they must survive longer than pure, artisanal bread.

Truly fresh, wholesome bread (sans preservatives) has an extremely brief shelf life, perhaps 36 hours at most. As a rule, most French people see this as a right and privilege, rather than an inconvenience. Even in the smallest villages, such as Plaisance (population maybe 75), where we stayed during our recent vacation, residents have access to fresh bread and croissants. Rather than try to support a full time bakery in this small hamlet, the city has a delivery agreement with a bakery in a neighboring town. To buy bread each day, residents must place an order at the town foyer which is like a general store/cafe/bar that is open most days from 9 am until about 8 pm. If you place your order before the foyer closes, your bread will be available for pick up the following morning.

The small row house where we stayed is located up the hill from the main part of the village. While the house is accessible by car through a winding, switchback access road, the shortest route into town is a fantastical path that cuts between various houses and their ethereal backyard gardens. I recorded the following video to capture our daily ritual of hiking down the path each morning to pick up fresh baguettes, croissants, and the occasional pain au chocolat. Imagine walking this path with your toddler daughter, and her delight as you stroll past blooming flowers, local "doggies," to be greeted by the kind man at the foyer who insists on squeezing her cheeks and giving her a madeleine. I am not kidding. People live this way in Plaisance. What are we to do?

I have an idea: let's demand our daily bread by starting delivery programs in our neighborhoods. And in the American spirit of "low prices" we should learn from our French friends and ask for high quality bread at a fair price - most large baguettes in France cost about 75 cents. Again, daily bread is the hard earned right of civilized people, not the unique privilege of a few fancy-pants who enjoy "French bread."

If you'd like to see some pictures of the village, I created a photo set on flickr documenting our Easter weekend.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

there is du bon fromage in the U.S.

I have France on the brain. Today I outlined a series of blog posts to document our trip - vegetable markets, butcher shops, fishing, foie gras - but before writing those I must proclaim how satisfying it is to return home and find a truly delicious raw milk cheese fabricated à l'ancien, in Vermont.
What a specimen! It's a slice of Jasper Hill Farm's "Winnimere Mini," a raw cow's milk, soft rind cheese. You table's cheese course deserves nothing less. The taste is truly unique, of Vermont terroir, but if I had to, I would compare to a Saint Nectaire crossed with a French Munster.

By geographic principle, I am committed to buying artisanal cheeses made in the US; however, many of the better cheeses are typically much more expensive than the majority of French and Italian imports, and they often have less flavor and overall panache. This small slice of Winnimere set me back $4.50, which I feel is a very fair price given the exceptional quality of the cheese - in fact, many less deserving cheeses are sold for much more. Save some fuel costs and buy a big piece of this for your next dinner party.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

back home, with some tales to tell

Quel voyage. I am pleased to write that my wife, daughter, and I arrived safely home from France yesterday afternoon. After 10 days in a small village in Languedoc, and 7 days in Paris, it was an epic trip with an emphasis on exploring the local food culture, cooking, and eating. My jet-lagged daughter beckons at the moment, but I am planning to write a series of posts about the experience.

This is "Scuffy" the snail, saying hello to my daughter after visiting our kitchen window. Scuffy was not eaten.

Monday, April 6, 2009

slow and easy food: hot-smoked pork chops

In case you don't follow my dorky tweets about food, you should, because Saturday I posted my first ever live-tweeted recipe and cooking session (see chronology and photos): smoked pork chops! These are so easy, and the flavor will detonate your taste buds. Not surprisingly, it's quite difficult to capture ingredient lists and measurements in 140 characters, so I've posted the full recipe here.

ingredients:

  • 4 thick cut, free range, well marbled pork chops from a local farm (MN-folk should try Pastures a Plenty or Prairie Pride), about 8 oz per chop
  • 1/2 gallon cold tap water
  • 3/4 cup kosher salt
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 4 tsp pink curing salt (to buy)
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled and slightly smashed
  • 2 tbsp chili powder
  • 1 tbsp paprika
  • 1 tsp ground black pepper
  • wood smoking chips (apple wood, hickory, etc.), soaked in warm water
to brine chops:
  1. In a large, non-reactive bowl, place water and pork chops
  2. Run about 1-2 cups of very hot tap water into a smaller bowl
  3. Add kosher salt, sugar, curing salt, and garlic to hot water in small bowl. Stir with a fork until salt and sugar is dissolved.
  4. Pour this mixture into the large bowl and refrigerate for 4-12 hours.
  5. When ready to cook, remove chops from brine and pat dry.
to smoke chops:
  1. Mix remaining spices in a small bowl and apply to all sides of pork chops. Let chops sit on the counter for 30-60 minutes to come to room temperature.
  2. Light about 1/3 of a chimney starter loaded with charcoal briquettes (wood/lump charcoal burns too hot/fast for smoking).
  3. Bank coals on one side of your grill, put the wood chips on top (ideally in a smoker box or wrapped in a foil packet), and place a small pan on the bottom of the grill opposite the coals.
  4. Place pork chops on the grate opposite the coals. Cover and begin smoking.
  5. After about 1 hour, add 10 unlit charcoal bricks to the top of the pile. Cover and continue smoking.
  6. Chops will be ready approximately 1-2 hours later, depending on the temperature inside and outside of the grill. They should be a dark red-orange w/ and be very tender (slight charring on the edges is ok, too).
  7. Rest chops for 5 minutes before serving.
*Serves 4 people

These go really well with a strong beer, some fried or roasted potatoes, and a green salad. Sauerkraut is also an excellent choice, especially in winter.

Friday, April 3, 2009

bulldog update: still no word from the owner!

Nearly one month has passed since I emailed the Bulldog's owner regarding my inquiry, mainly why they were serving lower-quality meats, and a generally less-appetizing menu, in St. Paul. I guess they really don't care about what their patrons think. In fact, someone recently commented on my post that "Bad food is one thing, but a server who asks, 'What do you want me to do with it?' when you tell her your food is bad-- while standing with her hand on her hip as your dreck sits in front of you-- is icing on the cake."

Also, shortly after writing that post I realized that I forgot to mention the Bulldog Uptown and its menu. Sadly, it appears they're serving a similar menu to the Lowertown location. Patrons revolt!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

a bit of self promotion

Well, this is a blog about my own gastronomic travails, so perhaps self promotion is a moot point. Today I launched a small website to promote "holterhaus," my marketing business. Read the about page for more info, but basically I provide integrated communications services for businesses and other organizations large and small. I especially like to work with companies of the progressive/sustainable/green kind, so please let me know if I can be of assistance. It's probably obvious, but I am particularly adept at interactive-related marketing endeavors, including social media.
P.S. This is not an April Fool's joke. Seriously.

Monday, March 23, 2009

white house breaks ground on a kitchen garden!

This is exciting. In classic savvy PR fashion, the White House blog today featured a post (w/ pics) about a groundbreaking ceremony for the first family's new vegetable garden. This event is significant for obvious reasons related to the promotion of healthy, sustainable eating and living (as well as frugality and self reliance), but it also highlights the fact that this is likely the first such garden to exist on White House grounds, at least in recent times. Let's hope they don't use those heirloom tomatoes to top a dubya-style frozen hamburger.

From the post:

"This is a big day. We've been talking it since the day we moved in," said the First Lady as she and two dozen local students broke ground on the White House Kitchen Garden on the South Lawn of the White House. Those students will be involved in the garden as it develops and grows, producing delicious, healthy vegetables to be cooked in the White House Kitchen and given to Miriam's Kitchen, which serves the homeless in Washington, DC.


Fashion note: It was a bad decision for Mrs. Obama to wear patent leather boots in the garden. I think some wellies and trousers would have been more appropriate (and fashion-forward).