Thursday, November 17, 2011

Pomegrantes, Chickpeas, and Fairy Dust

The first time I ate a pomegranate seed I was on a school bus, on the rural back roads of North-Central Nebraska, and Lindsay Wagner was showing off. She was a harmless elementary school social climber because as a fifth grader, she was a year younger than me, she was in the remedial reading class, and she was ridiculous. Her best friend, Sundae, also rode our bus, and they were always bringing toys on the bus and playing elaborate games. One week they brought Barbies even though they were much too old for them, and even more confusingly, the next week, they showed up with a box of Troll dolls, which they used to act out scenarios in different voices. As a sixth grader, I was obviously too mature for that. They annoyed me, and who wouldn’t be annoyed by such desperate arm-flailing, look-at-me stunts? I liked the peace and quiet of the bus ride, but my daydreaming was routinely shattered by shrieking, giggling, and the occasional air-borne Troll doll, with its neon polyester shock of hair.

But one day, Lindsay’s shenanigans did get my attention. She was eating something I had never seen before. On the outside, it looked like a dark red grapefruit, but inside, there were the small tear-drop shaped seeds. The seeds glowed garnet, the juice from them interiors translucent and ready to burst.

“This is a pomegranate,” Lindsay announced. Other bus riders had gathered around her seat. Some turned around to see better.

“You eat it like this.” She plucked a seed from the rind and sucked the juicy pulp, then she spit out the woody, white center of the seed in a paper towel.

“You can try it if you want," Lindsay said as she slowly picked out one pomegranate seed at a time with the edges of her nails, which were polished in baby blue sparkles. As if she were bestowing communion wafers, we waited with palms outstretched.

“You don’t want to eat the seed,” she said. In unison we sucked off the jeweled flesh, and spit out the woody centers, and placed them in Lindsay’s paper towel.

It wasn't until years later I realized Lindsay had it all wrong. Eating the whole pomegranate seed is a delightful study in contrasts. Sure there's the burst of tart juice, but I like it better when it's tempered by the delightful crunch of the white hull. I also think that pomegrante seeds work best with savory dishes, as a garnish on top of a wheel of brie served with ligonberry jam, for instance, or my new favorite lunch dish.

Fairy Dust aka Homemade Chili Pepper Flakes

Pomegranate and Chickpea Salad with Fairy Dust
serves 2 - 3

Fairy dust is simply homemade chili powder. A gracious, gardening friend gave me an entire grocery bag heaping with jalapenos. I put them in food dehydrator, and then when they were dry ground them to a chunky powder. The green, herbaceous notes of the jalapeno carried through the drying, and I'm using this "Fairy Dust" on anything and everything that needs a little heat. You can substitute ground cayenne pepper for the Fairy Dust in this recipe.

1 - 15 oz can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 seeds of one large pomegranate
1 small clove of garlic
2 teaspoons olive oil
juice of half a lemon
1/8 teaspoon fairy dust, or to taste (a little goes a long way)
1/4 cup finely grated Asiago cheese

Combine chickpeas and pomegranate seeds in a small mixing bowl. Mash clove of garlic with a pinch of salt, using either a mortar and pestle or the flat side of chef knife. Whisk garlic paste with olive oil and lemon juice. Pour over chickpeas and pomegranate seeds. Add remaining ingredients and toss gentle to combine.

Friday, September 9, 2011


It's hard to believe that summer is over.  Pumpkins and butternut squash are ripening in the garden, and will soon be roasting in my oven.  Still, I think fondly, with a wisp of nostalgia at how I spent this summer.
Here's the data.  This summer I:

read 29 books.
taught 90 summer reading classes.
canned 14 quarts of tomatoes.
drank 7 mojitos.
swam at the Quarry 1 time.
butchered 3 chickens.
ate 9 ears of corn on the cob.
co-starred in 3 episodes of Spatula, a new online cooking show.
On the set of "Spatula"

Please click over to Connotation Press to see the Spatula Cooking Show Teaser. Here you will find also find essays by myself and co-star Amanda explaining how we came to be friends, and how we were inspired to do a cooking show.  I am so grateful for the wonderful, creative foodie friends in my life, which is what Spatula is all about.  I hope you enjoy!

Monday, August 8, 2011

A New Way of Looking at Zucchini

I hate August.  Summer is dying, and the garden is exploding with so much produce that I can't see straight over the steamy fog spewing from the pressure canner in hissing spurts.  August is one giant pressure canner in my head (as I prepare for the new teaching term), and even in the atmosphere  (as we've had daily thunderstorms all this week and when I step out my front door its like the steamy inside of a pressure canner.)

The only thing that's  made me feel better in the kitchen is eating raw zucchini ribbons.  It is cliche to discuss the abundance of zucchini right now.  Case in point, last weekend I was a speaker on a local food panel at the Lake Erie Yearly Meeting of Quakers, and EVERY single one of us panelists made a joke about zucchini overload.  Even so, I'm going to discuss zucchini anyway.  This tired, old, boring problem of what to do with summer squash has a simple solution.

Sometimes you only need to change the shape of something to utterly transform it.  My f(F)riends, J (author of this awesome spiritual blog) and his fiance, K  invited me over for dinner last Sunday night.  They served me a raw zucchini salad that was quite like the "salad of raw zucchini, lemon, and toasted Parmesan" that Nigel Slater discusses in Tender I had been reading about one a few days before.  Slater writes, the raw zucchini "had the quality of freshly picked wet walnuts." 

 Rather than cubing it or chunking the zucchini, J and K finely sliced the zucchini.  Wispy threads of noodle-like zucchini flesh are surprisingly juicy, succulent and slightly nutty.  They drizzled the zucchini with olive oil and lemon juice and a heavy grating of Parmesan cheese.  A simple and delightfully refreshing salad that I can't seem to get enough of (though, in my version, I added a sprinkling of  pine nuts and used a vegetable peeler--rather than a mandoline--to get the thinnest slices possible.)

When two similar ideas show up in my life from seperate sources, well, rather than coincidence, I believe that some greater good, some divine force, is working, asking me to stop and pay attention.  Even to something as simple and mundane as zucchini.

 Suddenly, I am MINDFUL of the zucchini now that it has taken on this new shape, taste, and texture.  The dish is light and delicate, and I find that I have to quiet myself to really taken in the understated glory of the subtle, shifting flavors.  I like everything about this dish.  The monochromatic, pale colors are beautiful, the textures, the ease of preparing it.  And then there's the fact that I can eat an entire zucchini like this all by myself.  Then I don't feel so desperate when there are 10 very large zucchinis, sitting in wait on the bottom shelf of my fridge.

Monday, July 18, 2011

A New Way of Looking at Cucumbers

She remembers a phrase from the movie Julie and Julia, that movie about that woman that cooked through Julia Child's entire Mastering the Art of French Cooking: "Baked cucumbers are a revelation."  She holds this thought in her mind, and like Mark Doty suggests in Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, the mind becomes a Magic 8 Ball.  That plastic toy with the floating marble inside of it that gives answers "yes" or "no" or "ask again later."  Doty says,

"Now I think there is a space in me that is like the dark inside that hollow sphere, and things float up into view, images that are vessels of meaning, the flotsam and detail of any particular moment.  Vanished things.” 

In the heat of July, with a pile of cucumbers, things float into her brain.  "How can I ever possibly eat this many cucumbers?"  The dark solution in her brain sloshes.  "Baked cucumbers are a revelation."  She decides--even though it is 95 degrees outside--to stoke the oven.  The oven, dependable and stubborn, turns the kitchen into an inferno, a wall of heat that can be walked into.  She doesn't mind.  She crams the oven with a roasting chicken, long-skinny Japanese egg-plant, chunks of beets, and after drying them off with wads of paper towels, the cucumbers.

This dinner, it can't exist on any other day, or any other time.  When six pounds of cucumbers arrived in the weekly vegetable box, when the eggplants in the garden reached the heavy purple enamel sheen of ripeness, when the beets heaved their round shoulders out of the soil.  While the chicken and vegetables roast, she makes mayonaise.  Whisking egg yolk and oil, to a thick creamy dollop, studded with shallots and flecks of dark yellow lemon zest.

She thinks, in her lifetime, she's eaten dozens of cucumbers.  But never baked. Never warm.  Dispatching the pile of cucumbers, makes her feel effiecent.  As if she has somehow arrested decay and age, stopped time for these cucumbers in the oven.

Now they are something else.  When they emerge from the oven they are firm, but yielding.  Sweet, but slightly bitter.  Richly coated with butter.  They are not a revelation, exactly.  They are more than the sum of their parts, and startling in how the ordinary has been rendered unfamiliar and strange.

She drags a forkful of chicken across a slick of mayonnaise, chews.  She takes a bite of cucumber, and she wonders about all these things as the roasted beets bleed across the plate, and the eggplants wait patiently in the kitchen to be turned into baba ganoush.  She wonders about the ordinary turning unfamiliar.

** Julia Child's recipe for Baked Cucumbers has been reprinted here.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

It Really Gets to the Marrow of Things

When I go to Bellville Brothers Butcher Shop and ask for marrow bones, the butcher looks at me strangely.  
 “You mean dog bones?” he asks.  “I’ve got those.”
“No,” I say, “not for the dog.  I’m going to eat them.”  
 He shrugs.  “Here, I’ll show you what I got.”  He walks me away from the glass class of expensive T-bones and filet mignon, so bright red that they look plastic, to the freezer case at the back of the store.  “These?”  He holds up a 10 inch long bone wrapped in plastic.  Then he says, “My dog loves these bones.  He’ll work on one for hours.” 
I wish that he would get off the dog kick, so I try to get him back on my needs as a customer.  “Those bones are too big.  Can you cut them?”  Then, we have a discussion about how to cut them. I want them cut lengthwise to better scoop out the marrow from the center.  He says that he can’t do that.  The bones are more fragile than they look.  They will splinter too much. So he cuts them crosswise in three-inch long increments.  The bones look like a human femur.  The marrow is pink and thick.  It is at the core, at the very center, of this desire I have.  For something rich, nourishing, and out of the ordinary.  I take the bones over to my friend Amanda’s house.  Whenever I get a craving for foods that push the bounds of cultural conventions, Amanda is my accomplice.  I’ve fed her bull testicles and chicken feet, tongue and liver.  When I get to Amanda’s, we stand the bones up on end in a cast iron pan, and slide them into the oven.  They roast until the marrow has turned a translucent whitish color, with the palest hint of yellow and gray. 

 Then, we scrape the marrow out of the interior of each bone with silver steak knives and slather the marrow on slices of toasted baguette.  The marrow is unctuous. Rich.  We sprinkle chopped capers and shallots and parsley over the thick smear of bone marrow. 

 Amanda’s black lab, Bleu, is jealous.  He sits on the floor next to the table, looking expectantly at the stack of bones on the table.  Maybe the butcher was right.  Still, I am surprised that more people don’t realize that something this tasty, this succulent, this filling could be had for just a couple of dollars.  I am satiated in way that most people only associate with those bright red, bloody steaks.  Later, after Amanda has used the leftover marrow to roast potatoes, I still can’t stop thinking about marrow.  But, now it’s more of an idea hanging in the air.  Perhaps it is because the smell lingers.  Even after scrubbing my hands with lavender soap my fingers still smell of beef tallow.  Like the smell of grease clinging skin, my brain clings to the symbol of marrow.  I mull over marrow.  It is mysterious in ways that I can’t quite grasp.  I look up the word marrow in the OED.  Aside from the literal biological definition of marrow, the word can also mean the innermost part of a person’s being.  Another less common usage for marrow is as a companion or even an accomplice.  If used as an adjective it can denote a resemblance to something of the same kind, and I think of how Amanda and I are the knit from the same foodie cloth.  When marrow is a verb, it means to join, and I think of the way the marrow fuses itself to the interior of the bone the same way that a meal brings people together.   In the mid 1600s there was also a trend to use the word marrow in titles of books.  That way the author could claim that his tome got at the very heart of the subject—that it dug into the deepest part of the issue.   Most of these were religious titles like The Marrow of the Oracles of God or The Marrow of Sacred Divinity.  In the end, I want to devour meaning just like the marrow.  I want to consume it, so somehow, it gets to my essence.  When eating marrow, there’s no forgetting that this animal I’m eating is like me with muscles and tendons and bones.  Perhaps I eat things that make me think about death because, then maybe, I can understand being alive.

*Note:  The recipe photographed and written about here is "Roast Bone Marrow and Parsley Salad" from Fergus Henderson's The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating.
This recipe has also been reprinted all over the web and you can find it here, here, here, and here.  There is also a great Mark Bittman video clip with Henderson here.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Infamous Ex-Wife Potatoes

Exes are strange.  They have a way of leaving behind unexpected, haunting memories, or of popping up without warning on Facebook.  Many people associate food with seasons or with certain time periods in their life, or with people.  Food is a re-creatable autobiography.  For my dad, these amazing potatoes will always be connected to his ex-wife, who he married when he was only 20 years old and had two sons with.

When I was out on my own for the first time in college, my half-brother, Andy, (who up to that point I had only seen sporadically at family weddings and funerals) and I started to hang out a lot.  I had picked a college that coincidentally was only 15 minutes away from Andy's house.  We waited tables together at Chili's and then most afternoons after the lunch shift, stopped by the local watering hole for happy hour with my dad's ex-wife, Debbie.  She was gracious, and told me early on that "whatever happened between your father and I is water under the bridge." 

I had trouble believing that this woman--who was unlike my mother in every way--had ever been married to my father.  Of course strange, unimaginable, things always happen before you're born.  She and I had a friendly relationship as drinking buddies.  She offered a unique perspective as a psedeo-mother figure at a time when I was testing all the limits of my newly acquired freedom from parental surveillance.  The thing that we never talked about though, not my dad, not my dad's ex-wife, not even my mom, was the past.  It remained locked up tight.

The only small glimmer of my dad's past romantic life came from these potatoes.  When I was little, these potatoes--split in half length-wise and then baked face down in some form of fat until the cut side is golden and crunchy, and the insides fluffy --were always called dad's potatoes.  A couple of years ago, I wanted to know the history of these potatoes because they were quite famous in family lore for being the only thing my dad ever taught my mother to cook. 

Photo credit: AMR

 "Where did you learn how to make the potatoes like that?" I asked him.

"Well," he said, rather bashfully.  "Don't ever tell your mother this, but those are Debbie's potatoes.  She used to make them all the time when we were first married."  I don't know if he was abashed because he had been taking credit for Debbie's potatoes all those years, or if he feared my mother would be jealous, or if he felt guilty that he had clung fiercely to these delicious potatoes even though they reminded him of a disastrous, messy romantic relationship.  Really, I don't want to know.  I like the mystery of it.

And I like the idea that a damn good recipe will stick around even longer than a lover, and once you try these potatoes, you will want to swear undying love and commitment to them "until death do you part."

Ex-Wife Potatoes

I like to make these potatoes when something else is in the oven--say a roast chicken--as a easy side dish.  You want to use a good baking potato here, like a Russet, to get a fluffy texture.  Avoid waxy potatoes like Yukons.  Also, try to find long narrow potatoes, rather than fat round ones.  Thin potatoes create a better crispy surface area to fluffy inside, than fat ones do.  Also, be sure to make a wide grid of score marks on the cut surface of the potato (see photo).  If the scoring hatches are too close together, the crispy bits will stick to the pan.  If you use butter, the potatoes will brown more quickly.  If you use duck fat, the potatoes will take more time, but ultimately get crispier than in butter.

6 Russet potatoes, well-scrubbed
6 Tablespoons butter, or enough duck fat for a very thick layer to coat the pan.

Cut each potato in 1/2 length-wise.  Score the cut surface with a paring knife.  Sprinkle each cut side lightly with salt, and place a 1/2 T. butter on each cut potatoes' cut side, and press cut side down onto a rimmed cookie sheet. (Or coat rimmed baking sheet with 6 T. duck fat).  Bake at 350 degrees until cut side is golden brown and crispy, and potato is tender when pierced with a knife.  Begin checking for doneness after 20 minutes.  Buttered potatoes will take about 30 minutes, duck fatted potatoes will take about 40 to 45 minutes.


Monday, June 6, 2011

Let's Be Frank...

Let's be frank, when I'm traveling I seek restaurants with local color.  I want to dine somewhere I won't find anywhere else.  Luckily, when Kent and I were in Pittsburgh last month for a quick over night trip on our way to D.C., we has found great food, and a surprisingly European vibe to the downtown scene.  Given a tip from our intrepid food writer and friend, Amanda, we were told to go to Franktuary.  Happily, it was within walking distance from our hotel.  But, tucked away on a narrow side street, we could have easily missed it.

Franktuary is a hot dog restaurant in a church.  It's a bizarre, little gourmet hotdog joint, with black and white tile on the floors, a cooler full of Bolyan’s soda, and red plastic trays.  There was a basket of books, including the titles Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog and Horsemen of the Esophagus (which although it was about competitive eaters, had a cover covered in photos of hotdogs.)   

I ordered the locavore, which was made from locally sourced grass-fed beef.  After choosing the type of hotdog (they also had conventional and vegetarian), I then had my choice of toppings.  I chose the Mexican—cheddar cheese, mango salsa, and guacamole.  The combination was delicious, the raw red onion in the salsa set off the mango, and the guac gave the whole combination a creamy richness. I decided that the combo really needed the spicy brown mustard and ketchup at the condiment station.  The real star of the show, though, was the frank itself.  If I can be frank, it was one of the best hotdogs I have ever had.  It had that wonderful toothiness, and when I bit into it, the center was gushing with juicy, smoky hotdoginess. 

 I liked that this hotdog joint was eclectic.  We showed up right before closing time, and there was a hipster on his laptop (they offer free wi-fi), a single elderly woman, and a typical nuclear family with teenage kids.  The staff was brisk, but friendly at the same time, and clad in a MegaDeath T-shirts. This was the perfect travel eatery because it was the sort of place that you would find nowhere else.  We do not have access to a restaurant even remotely resembling this little hole in the wall that we almost missed.  So, it had all the wonder of a serendipitous find. 

Monday, May 30, 2011

Summer Road Food: Thrown Together, Not Fussy.

Everyone should have a throw together meal.  You know, the type of meal that doesn't even need a recipe, that comes together in a matter of minutes, and is flexible enough to use up whatever odds or ends there are in the fridge.  If I was more of a fashionista, I'd make some dazzling simile, explaining to you that having a throw together meal is like having a throw together outfit.  That one skirt in your closet that makes you look thin, makes your legs look long, and goes with practically everything else in your closet.  It's the outfit that you always pack on trips.  I don't know about having a throw on and go outfit, but I do have a perfect throw together meal: Stir-fried Cabbage.  And, it seems to go with me on road trips quite frequently, too.

This meal is so easy, in fact, I whipped it up the night before we left for Virginia, and it made a light, healthy, and quick road lunch.  Traveling with food is not as difficult as most people think, and it really saves me from eating gas station junk food.  I've written about the merits of road-tripping with a cooler stashed in the backseat before, so I'll spare you my diatribe.  And, it's not as weird as you think to bring food along with you when you know you can't get good food where you're going.  My friend and fellow food writer Amanda, does the same thing.  Read about her food-smuggling adventures here.  Also, I can't claim complete credit for stir-fried cabbage, as I have adapted a technique that Molly Wizenberg of Orangette wrote about a couple of years ago.  At its simplest, Stir-Fried Cabbage is thin slivers of green cabbage, stir-fried in a wok at very high heat until it starts to caramelize a bit around the edges--imparting a lovely sweetness to the dish.  Then, it's finished off with a squirt of fiery Siracha and a glug of soy sauce.  You can leave it at that, but I rarely do.

For the dish pictured above, I added leftover chunks of roast chicken, some carrots, fresh snipped chives from the garden, and some toasted sesame seeds.  A drizzle of sesame oil never hurts either.

The spiciness of the Siracha plays well with the cooling/sweet properties of the cabbage.  The sesame seeds/sesame oil imparts a deep roasted, nutty flavor, and the chives brighten the whole thing up. Also, this is the type of dish that is great served at any temperature: hot from the wok, straight out of the icy cooler, or anywhere in between.

I think that this dish's utter unfussiness makes it a perfect summer dish, especially when I'd rather be lazing about in the sun with a guilty pleasure paperback than slaving over a stove. 

Stir-Fry Cabbage 

This is an infinitely flexible dish.  You can add whatever stray veggies you have on hand.  I like broccoli or bell peppers in this dish, also, for example.  Just remember to add the slower cooking veggies to the wok a minute or two before you add the cabbage so everything will be cooked through at the same time.  However, slightly undercooked veggies that have a bit of toothiness to them also taste delicious, so don't freak out about under cooking.  Sesame seeds or toasted almond slivers add a nice crunch, but they need to be kept separate until serving or they'll get soggy. 

1 cup diced carrots (or other veg) {optional}
1/2 head green cabbage, thinly sliced
1 T. cooking oil (choose one with a high smoke point, like peanut or canola--not olive)
1 cup diced, cooked chicken
dash of Siracha to taste
dash of soy sauce to taste
dash of toasted sesame oil to taste {optional}
small bunch of chives, snipped into 1 inch pieces{optional}
handful of toasted almonds or toasted sesame seeds {optional}

Heat oil in wok over high heat until very hot.  Add carrots and other vegetables if using.  Stir-fry for a couple of minutes.  Add green cabbage and cook over high heat until the edges begin to brown and it's wilted through.  Turn heat down and stir in chicken, siracha, and soy sauce, tasting to adjust seasoning.  Finish dish with sesame oil, chives, and nuts/seeds. 

 Either eat immediately, or stash in the cooler.  Serves two very generous servings.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Cloudy Days, Cooking with a Friend, and Panna Cotta

It's been a strange spring this year.  I've felt out of sorts ever since we got back from Virginia on Sunday, and I blame the weather.  Until this afternoon, there has not been any sunshine all week.  We've had thick, dark, gray clouds that make it dark enough to need a reading lamp at noon.  It's also been cold and wet.  With the regularity of a lush at 5 o'clock cocktail hour, the clouds dump their burden of rain drops every afternoon.  Until today.

This week too, I've been caught in ritual.  Every morning, I've spend with a cat on my lap, a good book in hand, and a cup of strong yerba mate tea close by.  Every evening, I've been working on sewing projects.

  The garden has been languishing, under so much rain, under so little sun.  The desire to dig in the dirt, plant and weed, has been choked off by the weather.  I've spent a lot of me week inside, looking out windows, but not venturing out. 

Although, today began like every other day this week with a thick blanket of clouds, it felt different.  My foodie friend Amanda came over in the morning to break me out of my routine and to make rabbit sausage.  It was a wonderful cooking project, and as we have the tendency to do, we talk more than we cook.  We flow effortlessly into each stage of cooking without any sense of urgency.  It is incredibly relaxing cooking with Amanda, yet I love how we still take the food very seriously and the timing always works out, slowly and steadily, like a dance we haven't even learned the steps to.  The sausages were delicious, but I don't want to talk about them.  Instead, I want to talk about panna cotta.

After fiddling with the sausage recipe for awhile, tweaking seasonings, adjusting texture, we realized that we had an abundance of cream leftover from the sausage experiment.  (I will go so far as to say that if you want to make a really decadent rabbit sausage, add some breadcrumbs soaked in heavy cream, a good bit of pancetta, and a drizzle of truffle oil.  Yum.)

I had been telling Amanda about the amazing dinner we had in Pittsburgh last week at The Salt of the Earth, a hip, innovative farm to table restaurant.  They served a white chocolate lavender-scented panna cotta that was so good, after Kent and I ate it, we ordered a second.  We could not get enough.  I was still thinking about it today, and immediately, I knew that I could whip up a panna cotta.  Our afternoons in the kitchen are like this, we can change directions, add ideas, and it's an effortless collaboration.  When we were finished with our cooking, and the last dish was washed, the sun came out.  Finally.  I spent the rest of the afternoon in the garden, where the chives are blossoming and the dandelions are globes of fluff.


Panna cotta is an Italian dessert made of cream, milk, and sugar mixed heated together and then mixed with gelatin and chilled until set.  It's sort of like a cream jello, though I hesitant to call it that because it's so much better than it sounds.  I happened to have unflavored gelatin on hand, leftover from making homemade marshmallows.  I didn't have any milk, so I diluted some of the cream with water.  Resulting a bit heavier, but still delightful dessert.  The panna cotta, though, really is just a vessel for the lavender.

As you may know, I love the flavor of lavender.  When lavender melds with the rich creaminess of the panna cotta, it reminds me of the purple-y color you sometimes see at dusk.  Lavender actually tastes purple to me and like sunshine on wildflowers.  But, you can't have a heavy hand with lavender or it will taste more like you're eating the freshly line-dried laundry.

Lavender-Scented Panna Cotta

Our panna cotta didn't stick around long enough for garnishes.  But this would be excellent served with lemon curd, raspberry coulis, or rhubarb compote.  Or, for an even easier topping, just use fresh berries.  I used a tea ball to infuse the lavender, but there are other options.  You could use a bit of fine cheesecloth instead of a tea ball--or in a pinch--you could add the lavender straight into the cream mixture, but strain it carefully before adding the gelatin.  For serving options, I used wide-mouthed appertif glasses. But, martini glasses would work well, as would simple ramekins.  This should make about 6 portions, but this varies dramatically depending on the size of glass or ramekin you use.

1 envelope unflavored gelatin
2 cups heavy cream
1 cup of milk, half and half, (or like I did, a mixture of cream and water)
1/3 cup sugar
2 tsp. dried lavender
2 tsp. vanilla extract

In a small sauce pan, sprinkle the gelatin over the 2 tablespoons of water.  Heat gently, until the gelatin dissolves, stirring constantly.  Remove from heat and set aside.

In a medium sauce pan, combine the cream, milk, sugar.  Add the tea ball filled with lavender and heat over medium heat until it just begins to boil.  Remove from heat.  Taste.  If the lavender flavor is not pronounced enough (and it most likely will not be at this point, so let the lavender steep for 10 minutes.)  Taste.  Once the lavender is the desired potency.  Remove the tea ball of lavender, and bring the mixture back up to boil.  Remove from heat as soon as it boils.  Stir in the gelatin and the vanilla.  Mix well and pour into serving cups.  Let chill for 2 hours or longer or until set.

Monday, May 16, 2011

How this Blog Began...

I'm terribly behind with posting.  I know.  So until I get more content up, check out this recent article, "Cure for a Bereft Foodie," I had published in Connotation Press.  This essay is the story of why I began Prose and Potatoes in the first place.  (I suppose it would be cooler if I was a comic book character.  Then I'd get bitten by some strange creature or have some radioactive chemical spilled on me, which of course would result in super powers beyond my ability to make homemade mayonnaise without it breaking.)  I hope you enjoy!

Friday, April 22, 2011

Earthworms, Rouge Carrots, and May Sarton

As a bibliophile, I've picked up the habit of reading several books at once.  Usually, this creates interesting juxtapositions and I naturally synthesize the ideas I'm reading into my life, into my writing.  This week I finished two books: May Sarton's memoir Plant Dreaming Deep and Amy Stewart's The Earth Moved.

In The Earth Moved, Stewart discusses how earthworms intersect with humanity, in nearly always a positive way.  She also imbues them with human-like characteristics when she writes:

“Worms are ruminators; they sift through whatever surround them, turn it over, explore it, move through it.  They are deliberate creatures, in no great hurry, but always in motion, twisting and burrowing, shrinking and contracting, and eating.  They spend their lives in a kind of active meditation, working through the detritus in which they live, the bits of leaves and grass and particles of soil.”

What strikes me most about this image is that worms work incrementally, slowly, getting a little bit done at a time.  Working with what they have--the messy detritus of a life.  As finals and the semester is crashing down around me, I can't get out in the garden for a long day of work. I can't even make my kitchen cupboards as tidy as I like. We suffered a grain moth invasion, when an unopened package of dried figs in the pantry proved to be a nesting ground, which was just another stressful thing to add to my list.  When the pressure of schoolwork builds up at the end of the semester, it feels like everything starts to fray around the edges.  At times like this, I must remind myself to have the patience of an earthworm.

It's been a rough spring so far.  As typical of Northwest Ohio, spring is fickle.  It's cold and wet and gray and it just won't cooperate with our wishes for warm, sunny weather.  4 of the last 5 days have been rainy. The thermometer stalls out at 50 degrees, never higher.  Yet, thinking of moving in small increments like the earthworm, I managed to get sugar snap peas, two kinds of radishes, bok choi, dill, and an assortment of lettuces and spinach in the ground.  Yesterday, after spending the whole afternoon grading research essays, I know that if I could just a small incremental little bit of gardening done, I would feel better.  It made all the difference in the world. 

Rouge Carrots (notice the naughty kitten paw in the upper left-hand corner.)
Because gardening is now deep in my bones like writing and reading, I can relate when Sarton writes in Plant Dreaming Deep, “Making a garden is not a gentle hobby for the elderly, to be picked up and laid down like a game of solitaire.  It is a grand passion.  It seizes a person whole, and once it has done so he will have to accept that his life is going to be radically changed."  Gardening has seized me.  Now that I've gotten my fix--during the one dry day this week--I can stop trembling with anxiety.  I am hooked on vegetable gardening because I never quite know the joys or sorrows I will discover each time I step foot outside.  The garden is a constantly evolving, shape-shifting creature all its own.  

 Yesterday, when I was planting peas, I found these rogue carrots that had escaped harvest last fall.  To my surprise, they were still perfectly fine.  And, just to make sure, our new black and white kitten, Tessie made sure to do a thorough inspection while I shot photos.  Although, she did a better job of playing with the carrot top fronds.

I chopped the carrots, and ate them for dinner in a lovely chicken curry that surprisingly, has pureed pumpkin (made with frozen puree from last year's pie pumpkin harvest!) as a secret ingredient to give the sauce body, richness, and a wonderful mild sweetness.  I found the recipe at Eat the Cookie, a great gluten-free food blog, also based in Northwest Ohio.

So, I will continue to grade essays, read books, and work in the garden as I manage the detritus of my life.  And, hopefully like the earthworm, I can manage it with infinite patience so I can be open to the surprise of carrots in April!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Meet your Meat

Put a face to your food.  It’s important to know where your food comes from.  If Food Inc, taught me anything, it was that the industrial agricultural system cannot be trusted.  Sure, they’re fine if you want hormone and antibiotic laden meat that endangers the well-being of the animal before it was slaughtered, endangers the land and watershed where the animal lived, endangers the workers that took care of it and butchered it, and endangers the person that finally eats it. The only thing that meat like this has going for it is that it is cheap.  But even this cheapness is a lie.  Industrial meat only appears to be cheap because the true price of a pound of ground beef or of a pork chop is hidden from the consumer.  Tax dollars pay for the corn subsidies that allow the beef to get fat quickly and as cheaply as possible on grain, even though cows are ruminants and are not anatomically designed to eat anything but grass.  Also, factory farmers receive numerous tax cuts and other government help to increase their profits and to keep food prices artificially low.

All in a day's work for the laying hens.
Last week, I had the pleasure of food transparency. I learned where my chicken and pork chops come from.  I took a tour of Graham Farms the home of Omega Meats just outside of Grand Rapids, Ohio.  Lindsay Graham is the best kind of farmer: small and sustainable.  His farming methods are good for the animal, good for the land, air, and water, good for the workers that produce it, and especially good for the people that eat his meat.  Think chicken without dangerous bacteria (something you can’t find at the local Kroger).  Think grass-fed beef with a correct and heart-healthy ratio of omega 3 and omega 6.  Think rich, golden-yolked free-range eggs that have more vitamin A than their factory farmed counterparts and are free from salmonella.  This would be reason enough to support Lindsay’s farm, but the thing is this meat (and eggs) actually tastes better too.   

Approximately 5 week old meat chickens

This year, Graham farms will have 25 acres in production.  On this amount of land, Graham can more than comfortably raises 400 Golden Comet hens as layers. (These are the same breed as my backyard hens!)  And, throughout the spring, summer, and fall, he raises batches of 300 meat chickens at a time, which are a Cornish Cross.  These chickens are allowed to express their chicken-ness.  When I was saw them, they scratched in the soil and preened.  They were able to roam outside for bugs—to get fresh air and sunshine. And because they are housed in movable pens that Lindsay rotates to fresh pasture frequently, there was fresh grass for them to eat, along with their organic grains. 
The coyote decoy in the background scares off chicken hawks.

The pigs too, looked happy and healthy.  They had their curly tails, which is something you’ll never see in a factory farm.  Industrial farmers cut off the pigs' tails because the pigs are under so much stress confined to a concrete crate that they become cannibalistic and would gnaw each other’s tails off.  Lindsay’s pigs were down right playful.  They oinked and snorted in curiosity as I approached, and one even let me scratch its back.   

The cows too, have a good life at Graham farms.  Since we’ve had such cold weather this spring, the cows aren’t yet on pasture—the grass isn’t ready for them to eat--so they were still eating organic dried hay.  Even though the 10 cows—a mix of Herfords and Angus—the blocky, body type that Lindsay told me produces best on a grass-fed diet--were confined to a large corral around the barn, unlike feed-lot cattle, they weren’t standing knee deep in their own excrement.  At this scale, their manure can be safely composted and not turned into a manure lagoon or nitrate laden run off that poisons drinking water.  

This is the face that I put to my food.  Lindsay is a farmer that I trust to raise food responsibly, ethically, and safely.  This is where I want to put my money. And seeing how much this is all worth in terms of my health and the health of everyone and everything on this food chain, I’m willing to pay more for Omega Meats than in the grocery store.  When people tell me they’d love to eat local and organic food, but that it’s too expensive, I just want to shrug and say, “It’s where your priorities lay.”  My husband is a full time student, and on my teacher’s salary we manage to afford it because we don’t shop at the mall recreationally, we don’t eat out that often, and we grow some of our own food.  We might not be able to afford quite as much meat as we would if we were only buying industrial meat from the local Kroger or Walmart, but I'm okay with that.  In this case, quality really does win over quantity.  Also, I don't feel like I can put a price on my health.  Eating meat that won't make me sick or lead to chronic disease, is worth every penny. 

Another criticism I hear about eating local is this: “I’d eat locally if it wasn’t so time consuming and inconvenient.”  It’s true that Lindsay doesn’t sell his meat 24hrs a day like Walmart, but I’m excited that he’s starting a Meat Buyers’ Club in Bowling Green.  For a fifteen dollar annual membership fee and a small delivery charge, members get twice monthly meat and egg delivery to their front door!  Orders can be placed quickly and easily online.  And, I can leave a cooler on my porch and don’t even have to worry about being home at delivery time.  So, if you live in Bowling Green, and you care about where your food comes from, support your local farmer and feel good about where your food comes from.  You can sign up here.  

Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Cupboard was Bare

I do not like when our house is jam-packed full of new groceries.  There is simply too much good food on hand, too many options.  When we consume some of it, I feel better, as if we’ve done a worthwhile, necessary thing.  The elimination feels satisfying, not so much in the pleasure of the eating, but in the minimization of what’s available.”--Amy Rosenthal Encyclopedia of an Ordniary Life.

Last week I read Amy Rosenthal's Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life.  The book is a memoir written in the format of an encyclopedia complete with cross-references.  Although some entries were the type of random musing that one might find scrawled on the back of a cocktail napkin--tainted with slightly drunken hubris--many entries rang with clarity and recognition.  For instance, I, too, feel like eating foods from the pantry is a worthwhile, necessary thing.   I also find that in the frantic mess of everyday life pulling my thoughts in every direction the "minimization of what's available" is a welcome form of simplicity.

Yet, paradoxically, there is great comfort in having a house full of food.  A feeling of security.  The comfortable notion that if there's a blizzard or if I get  sudden-onset agoraphobia then I can survive quite happily with a pantry full of sun-dried tomatoes, capers, olives, big bags of rice and beans, a gallon of good olive oil.  Must of my food buying habits have centered around this premise: You do NOT want to go without a good meal if you are trapped in the house for months at a time.  Perhaps part of this comes from my increasing hatred of grocery shopping.  Theoretically, if I'm that well stocked, then I shouldn't have to go to the grocery store Every. Single. Week.

Kent went to the grocery store with me the other day, and after I lost him in the produce aisle, I continued on with my shopping.  When he finally found me 23 minutes later, I had gathered a whole cart's full of groceries.  "You walk so fast.  I can't keep up.  This is not a sprint, Sarah," he said, angrily tossing the half a dozen cans of garbanzo and pinto beans I asked him to get--which he had lugged across the whole store trying to keep up with me.  I've taken to the position that the faster I get in and out of the grocery store the better.  Do not get in my way.  Last week I put off grocery shopping for almost as long as I could bear it.  Until my fridge looked like this:

A raw chicken defrosting for supper that night, a few eggs from the 'girls,' but that was about it.  Now the other benefit of letting food stuffs run so low, besides the mental clarity, is the fact that it imposed a forced creativity.  That day for lunch I made this rather odd meal:

Leftover roast, lettuces from the cold frame, and the last small bunch of asparagus.  I would have never purposely designed this meal unless there were no other options.  Yet, it was still good and satisfying in its own strange way.  It felt good to be so resourceful.  The thing that pulled these rag-tag ingredients together was my favorite and simplest homemade dressing: hazelnut-lemon vinaigrette.

I was turned onto hazelnut oil by Molly Wizenberg's recipe for Celery Root and Apple Salad with Hazelnut Vinaigrette. This salad is lovely in its own way, but the complicated vinaigrette with lemon, vinegar, Dijon mustard, and more, just isn't necessary.  I found that all the other ingredients muddied the wonderful (and expensive) flavor of the hazelnut oil.  So, I just started making a lemon juice and hazelnut oil dressing that is one of the easiest and flavor dressings I know of.  It is worth keeping a bottle of hazelnut oil in the back of your fridge for emergencies just like this.

Lemon-Hazelnut 'Vinaigrette'
Hazelnut oil can be hard to find.  Whole Foods seems to be the only place that I can locate it, but I'm also sure you can find it for sale online at Amazon.  I've been very happy with La Tourangelle brand roasted hazelnut oil.  They also make good truffle oils.  It's almost embarrassing writing out a recipe this simple, but here you go:

5 Tablespoons hazelnut oil
3 Tablespoons fresh squeezed lemon juice
pinch of sea salt

Whisk all ingredients together.  Taste and adjust for seasoning.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Don't Fear the Bagel Making

I adore Gretchin Rubin's book The Happiness Project.  It's not really a self-help book, instead it's like listening to a friend with wit and wisdom explain in the most down-to-earth way how they're trying to live as happy of a life as possible, and how to spend a year systematically conquering that goal.  Of course it doesn't hurt that Rubin writes beautifully or that she seamlessly ties in apt and thoughtful research every step of the way.  Really, you should read this book!  Rubin also blogs The Happiness Project here.

In one section of the book, titled "Vitality," Rubin makes a list of all the things that would give her more energy.  On that list are things like: exercise better; toss, restore, organize; go to sleep earlier; act more energetic; and tackle a nagging task. 

I am happy to report that I have "tackled a nagging task" and tackled it well.  And, Rubin is right, it did make me happy.  I was practically leaping around the kitchen in stocking feet--poppy seeds and sesame seeds scattering across the floor like confetti it was so darn exhilarating.  Yesterday morning, I made bagels from scratch.  That's right with my own two hands, a little yeast, a little flour, and a little water.  In my own kitchen!  Bagels like the ones you see artfully stacked in those cute little basket cubbyholes at Panera, except that I MADE THEM--so of course they were a million times better.  The outside crusts were the perfect level of bagel chewiness and the insides were light and soft.

I've been saying that I wanted to make bagels since my New Year's Food Resolutions from 2009.  That's two years of having this slightly uncomfortable feeling that I should be doing something with this unrequited bagel baking desire yet failing to act on it.  This of course has made me think about larger and more meaningful things that we may fail to act on and why that happens.  More than anything, the thing that holds us back is fear of failure and just sheer intimidation.  We tell ourselves that we don't have the means or the time or the skill set.  In my head I was already setting myself up for failure: "I don't have any special equipment, surely, no, no surely,  it's not possible for me to make bagels.  Don't you need a special oven for that?  Won't it take hours?  I heard something about having to boil the bagels before you can bake them.  Seriously?  Do I want to hassle with that?"

The thing is though, that I have a deep, deep appreciation for sesame seed bagels.  When I lived in Boise, I used to have one toasted to medium well--to the point that the sesame seeds turned a dark brown--and their flavor turned deep and nutty--slathered with cream cheese nearly everyday.  This habit started back in college as an undergrad, when that was about the only thing I'd eat for breakfast at the cafeteria.  I'd take my bagel, wrapped in a paper napkin, to my early morning classes to eat while only half paying attention to the lecture.  When we moved to Ohio, that habit stopped because I couldn't find a decent sesame bagel anywhere.  You see, I take my sesame seed bagels seriously.

I have to admit that it was finally The Wednesday Chef that got me off my procrastinating butt and inspired me.  Luisa's wonderful post about making bagels was just what it took to wipe away any trepidation.  Interestingly enough, Luisa had been going through the same fear/intimidation process.  Like me, she had been meaning to make bagels for a long time.  What I've learned here is that like most things, just a little bit of knowledge (reading a recipe), and simply taking the first scary steps of the project are all that I really needed to tackle a nagging task.  So, if bagels is one of your nagging tasks, click over to The Wednesday Chef's bagel making post (the recipe Luisa uses, adapted from Peter Reinhart, is foolproof).  You'll be happy you did.