Friday, November 27, 2009

"Back to the Land": Some Beautiful Food for Thought

While you are hopefully still full up with the holiday bounty of food, friends, and family, I invite you to enjoy this lovely photo essay from Maira Kalman. Full of personal, artistic musings on food, democracy, and how we take care of ourselves and each other. Perfect fodder for some quiet, post-Thanksgiving contemplation.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

A Labor of Love

To me, boiled onions are my mother's signature holiday dish. They compliment all of the many fabulous flavors, from stuffing to potatoes to turkey, and no Thanksgiving would be complete without them. This year, I'll have to wait until Christmas to share this treat with my mom, but today I peeled a few dozen onions for dinner at my in-laws. Many tears were shed in spite of the candle, but every one was worth it to get that priceless taste of home.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 23, 2009

A chat and talk and cook kind of thing.

"A chat and talk and cook kind of thing." This is how Ranveer Brar, corporate chef for One World Cuisine, introduced the Tuesday night cooking class at Mantra's Naan Bar. I had arrived excited for the class but flustered after a long day at work, and his relaxed description sounded like exactly what the doctor ordered. What could be better than that, after all?

The class, which Mantra runs every Tuesday from 5:30-6:30, is designed to "demystify the tandoor," says Chef Brar. Indeed, within minutes of arriving, I had learned that the cylindrical tandoor oven, which originated in Turkey, is fired at the bottom and is most often made of clay bound around coils of rope. In India, where bread is also sometimes grill-baked at home, there are often community tandoors, used jointly by a group of families. And, if you have neither a private nor a community tandoor, as is true for most of us in the States, Brar recommends using any piece of non-glazed cookware for baking, such as a terra cotta dish or a pizza stone. Heat the oven to 450 for breads and 400 for meats, and you'll have at least some approximation of the tandoor.

The first lesson of the day was how to make naan dough. Here in the U.S., where the flour is harder and has more gluten than in India, the ideal dough is made with 30% milk. For our batch, Brar used 1 egg, 2 pounds of self-rising flour, milk, and a pinch each of salt and sugar. He also added just a teaspoon of oil toward the end. He cautioned against over-kneading and then put the dough away to rest for 2 hours, swapping it out for an already rested batch.

The dough, once shaped into naan-sized portions, is cooked on the side of the ovens, where it connects with a slap. Once ready, it's removed with two metal skewers and set aside for serving. While Brar used plain dough for our naans, it's also common to add mint or toasted caraway to the dough itself--yum.

Our naan samples were served with three chutneys: mint & cashew, tamarind, and tomato and onion seed. All three were delicious, but the mint & cashew seemed to be the crowd favorite. In addition to the basic naan, we were treated to tastings of a green chili and mozzarella stuffed naan, as well as one stuffed with date and coconut. Both combinations were surprising to me (I usually just go straight for the garlic naan) and both were delicious. Dates, Chef Brar told us, were historically used in royal bread, and it wasn't hard to see why. Their sweet flavor and rich texture made for a unique and decadent dish.

Next it was onto the meats, which came with a brief lesson in spices. The Ayurvedic style used in India is a holistic approach devoted to achieving harmony in the body. "Your body type dictates what you're going to eat," Chef Brar explained. The tandoor spices that he used for our kebabs included ground red chili, celery seed, cilantro, toasted coriander, fried onion, and garam masala. There are 12 altogether, six heating and six cooling for balance. Given this holistic philosophy, I was happy to hear that Chef Brar and One World Cuisine are also working to balance their menu from a sustainability perspective by purchasing produce from local markets in the summer and fall, as well asVermont chevre.

First up was a seekh kebab--seekh is the word for skewer--which is typically made with beef or lamb depending on the religion on the region in India. This recipe was a mixture of ground lamb, ginger, and garlic, molded in a careful cylinder around the skewer before going into the oven. According to Chef Brar, the ideal kebab should consist of 10% flavoring and spices, 90% meat. Next, we enjoyed a Roti kebab, which held larger chunks of meat, more similar to the "kebabs" I make at home on the grill. This style of kebab is marinated in yogurt, which acts as a great tenderizer for the meat. Chef Brar's recipe includes 1 pound yogurt, 2 ounces each of ginger and garlic paste, 2 ounces of chick pea flour, and salt and pepper. We also got to try a chipotle chicken tikka, which was tender and packed with flavor.

In addition to the cooking classes, the Naan Bar has a separate menu full of delicious-sounding taste treats. There are appetizers like Mustard-Seed Lamb Chops and Chili Mussels, as well as endless varieties of naan, ranging from smoked salmon to PB&J! For just $12 you can choose your three favorite and make it a trio. While our group was fairly full after so many generous samples, we agreed that we would come back another night to enjoy the many delights on offer.

All told, the cooking class is a lovely way to unwind after a long day at work. For just $20, you get a wealth of information, all those yummy samples, and a cocktail to boot. To reserve your spot, visit Mantra's website or give them a call at (617) 542-8111. Happy eating!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Time for Lunch: Put a Pen (or Crayon) to Paper!

Following a successful round of Labor Day "Eat-Ins," Slow Food USA is moving forward with their Time for Lunch campaign to get fresh, nutritious food into school lunches. They are asking supporters to spread the word to friends, sign the petition (if you haven't already), and write letters to your legislators over the course of the next few months. Slow Food is also encouraging kids to get involved in this last step--after all, they are the ones most impacted by the decisions made in Washington. The bill won't be addressed by Congress until next spring, so there's lots of time left to make an impact!

Click here for more information on how you can get involved. You'll find everything you need, including letter templates and links to find your local legislator's address. Let's fill their mailboxes to overflowing, in hopes that they'll fill children's lunch trays with whole, unprocessed foods.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Chicken Soup With Rice: Some Global Variations on a Classic

Earlier today, I found myself contemplating a Twitter distress call to my fellow foodies: Still sick! In need of home remedies! Send recipes! Over the past few days I've had many suggestions for boozy cures, but while a little hot toddy never hurt anyone, what I really wanted was someone's best recipe for chicken soup, or an equally healing concoction.

Before I could issue my call for help, I received an e-mail from a friend who, having no idea I've been under the weather, sent me this fabulous link to chicken soup recipes from around the world. She is a mind reader!

I'm not sure what to make first...the Chicken Soup with Provencal Herbs or Korean Chicken many yummy remedies to try!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Season of the Sprout

As a child, Brussels sprouts and I did not get along. I wasn't a particularly picky eater, but just the smell of those little green spheres provoked a rather powerful reaction in me. "I can't!" I remember telling my mother, as I tried to swallow through my gag reflex. My mother, not the vegetable tyrant type, would only ask me to have two or three bites, but nothing had ever been so difficult. Those sprouts might as well have been poison, for the way my body reacted.

So, it is no great surprise that, even through 15 years of vegetarianism, I've gone most of my adult life without touching a Brussels sprout. I'm just not into self-torture. But then, one night a couple of years ago, a friend prepared them for dinner, sauteed with a little butter and olive oil and a touch of salt and pepper. What a revelation it was! I could not believe what I'd been missing. I began eating Brussels sprouts whenever I could get them--at restaurants mostly--but I was still too scared to prepare them on my own, worried that some magic touch was required to make those little cabbages taste so sweet.

Enter the farm share, which last week included a gorgeous stalk full of beautiful little sprouts. As I marveled at their rather Seussian appearance, I found myself slightly panic-stricken, wanting to pick up the phone and call the friend who had first cooked them for me. How did you do it?? Instead, I took a deep breath and the same approach that I've taken with all of my farm share firsts. I did a little research on my own, looking for the simplest, easiest method of preparation--I figured that would minimize my chances of screwing things up. Thanks to Ina Garten, of Barefoot Contessa fame, I found a recipe that's as basic as it gets:

*Preheat the oven to 400 degrees
*After cutting off any tough ends and removing any wilted leaves, toss the Brussels sprouts with olive oil, salt, and pepper.
*Roast for 35 to 40 minutes, until crisp on the outside and tender on the inside.

And just like that, I had a plate full of delicious, golden brown sprouts, crispy and tender as promised. Fast, easy, and the perfect way to showcase the beautiful flavors of sprouts fresh off the stalk.

Of course, if you're looking for something a little richer, a little heartier on a chilly November evening, I recommend this recipe from the folks at America's Test Kitchen. My husband has made it a couple of times, and it us fabulously, decadently yum. Enjoy!

Skillet-Braised Brussels Sprouts with Bacon and Shallots

4 oz. bacon (4 slices), chopped fine
2 shallots, sliced thin
1 lb. Brussels sprouts, stem ends trimmed, discolored leaves removed, and halved through the stem
1/2 c water
1 t unsalted butter
1 T red wine vinegar
salt and pepper

Cook the bacon and shallots together in a 12-inch skillet over medium heat until the bacon is crisp and the shallots are browned, about ten minutes. Transfer the mixture to a paper-towel-lined plate to drain.

Add the Brussels sprouts, water, and 1/2 teaspoon salt to the skillet and increase the heat to medium-high. Cover and simmer until the Brussels sprouts are bright green, about 9 minutes. Uncover the pan and cook until the liquid has evaporated and the sprouts are tender, about 5 minutes longer.

Off the heat, stir in the bacon mixture, butter*, and vinegar. Season with salt and pepper to taste before serving.

*to me the butter is optional...Paula Deen would definitely do it, but it's a bit too rich for me!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

An Ecofoodie Honeymoon

Ecofoodie is home sick today. And although the electric blanket, a junky movie, and a coke float (I'm allowed--I'm sick!) have provided some comfort on this dreary Boston day, I find myself longing for lazy, sun-soaked, feta-filled days in the Aegean. So, here you have it: a little taste of Greece...enjoy!

We began our first meal in Athens with a Greek salad, some savory leek fritters, and a little house white wine. The best thing about Greek salads in Greece is that there's very little lettuce, if any--instead you get a plate full of just the goodies. This was particularly exciting for my husband because the tomatoes in Greece are incredible. Mostly I stuck to the cucumbers, but I allowed myself a tomato or two when they looked particularly red and juicy.

The husband's preferred Greek beer? Alpha. Sadly, once we got to Santorini it was very hard to find. "Mythos, only Mythos," was the all too common refrain from the waiters when he tried to order this new favorite.

The start of lunch in Athens. Tzatziki, olives, and some fresh calamari...triple yum.

My sampler plate: more tzatziki, spanakopita, stuffed grape leaves, feta, grilled veggies, and some giant white beans that were delicious. This was heaven on a platter for a mostly vegetarian like myself. We need more variety plate entrees like this in the states!

My first "cold coffee." Made from instant Nescafe and whipped into an unreasonably creamy, refreshing concoction. Not exactly fresh, but definitely a local specialty. People drink these constantly in Greece, and I was no exception.

Our second night in Athens we ate at this interesting, out-of-the-way spot where they brought you a giant platter with 17 dishes, and you picked the five you wanted...right of the tray...just like that. A little high pressure but very fun!

Our picks: house made sausage, spinach, eggplant, tzatziki, and stuffed grape leaves. And some house made wine of course.

After a couple days in Athens, Santorini made for a very welcome change. And also some welcome champagne on our patio, thanks to our lovely hosts at the Mill Houses Hotel, also known as heaven on Earth.

Each night we got to choose what we wanted for breakfast the next morning. Most days it looked like this, with the giant bowls of Greek yogurt and honey being the stars of the show.

A snack after the 3 mile hike to Ia. This Greek salad had some extra flair in the form of capers. A fabulous idea.

A little beer to start the sunset. We poured into glasses. We felt fancy.

Dinner on our patio, courtesy of the local market. Black and green olives, white grapes, yellow peppers, and some local salami and cheeses. Oh so very yum. And yes, the sunset does make it taste better.

Wine tasting at Santo Wines. As we learned, Santorini is covered in vineyards and known for its white wines. The volcanic soil makes them crisp and bright, which is just what I like. It is also known for vin santo, a rich dessert wine that tastes wonderfully of honey without being overpoweringly sweet.

We didn't really want to leave the winery. Ever.

But thankfully we did, or we would never have enjoyed this fabulous grilled calamari in Kamari. Yes, that rhymes. Maybe one day we'll write a poem about it. Then again, I think the pictures speak for themselves.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

From the Combat Zone to the Farm

On today's Veteran's Day-themed episode of Here and Now on NPR, the last few minutes were devoted to a story from Matthew McCue, an Iraq veteran who returned home from combat and found himself drawn to farming. In Iraq, where he resigned himself to death as a way to get through the stress of combat, he noticed the importance of farmers markets during wartime--as he saw it, they were holding things together amidst the chaos of war, and in a way were "more powerful than any other piece of infrastructure," even the police. After returning home, with the help of the Farmer-Veteran Coalition he found his way to French Garden Farm in California, where he now helps to grow everything from potatoes to rainbow carrots, his favorite veggie. "Farming is everything," he says, noting that, like soldiering, it requires your attention 24 hours a day. Now, McCue wants to go back Iraq, but as a farmer rather than a soldier. "I can do the world a lot more good with a shovel than I can with an M-16," he says.

To hear McCue tell his story, visit the show's website. And to learn more about the Farmer-Veteran Coalition, which helps returning vets find training, employment, and places to heal, click here.

Thanks to all of the men and women who serve and have served in our armed forces, and to groups like FVC that help them to find the resources they need here at home. Here's hoping that one day we can all trade our M-16s for shovels.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Gone Country: A Night of Fresh Food and Fine Dining at the Herb Lyceum

Living in a city like Boston, opportunities for culinary adventure abound. These days, there are excellent chefs working their magic in just about every neighborhood of town, and representing just about every type of cuisine. Nonetheless, it's possible to sometimes find yourself in a bit of a restaurant rut. You've been to your favorite spot a few times too often, you don't feel like gambling on the fancy claims of the newest hot spot, you need a new spin on the flavors of the season...what's a foodie to do?

Head to the country, I say. More specifically, head to Groton, Massachusetts, where chef Paul Callahan (formerly of L'Espalier, Sel de la Terre, and The Butcher Shop) is working his own brand of magic at The Herb Lyceum at Gilson's. Chef Callahan, who has been at the restaurant for two months now, is clearly in his element, appearing after each course to explain the dish and chat with diners. "No one's a ticket any more," he said when asked what's different about working in this unusual setting. And, in addition to this new relationship with his guests, he also has a new relationship to the producers and vendors he works with. "I can't tell you the last time I called to place an order," he says. Instead, local farmers and vendors call him when they have a bumper supply of squash or short ribs, and he willingly takes it off their hands, working to design a menu around what's fresh, seasonal and local. Being slightly off the beaten path affords Callahan that luxury, and those who find their way to Groton are in for an inspired night of dining that is as sustainable as it is delicious.

The barn, built around 1900 and restored in the 1990s using original materials, provides a lovely setting for a dinner--as you enter through the door, warmly welcomed by David Gilson himself, you're transported to a place that seems much further than an hour from the city. The charming decor is filled with home grown plants and herbs, as well as old time tools like the mortar and pestle pictured here. And, the warm welcome continues inside with Kathy Gilson making sure everyone can get comfortable and get a glass of wine if they've brought it (the restaurant is BYOW). The combined effect is as though you've stepped into someone's old time dining room, one that's cozy, intimate, and inviting.

Although for most of the night it seemed wrong to disrupt the atmosphere with flash photography, I did manage to sneak one picture with a flash early on in the evening. You can see the lovely table settings here, as well as a couple bottles of wine brought by other diners. The communal tables are a key feature of the Herb Lyceum. As Chef Callahan said, "it's like going to a dinner party." It's a lovely sentiment, and we did enjoy the company of some very nice neighbors that night. However, we also had a couple of neighbors that were not so nice. In fact, they were very not nice, but I will leave the (overly drunken) details to your imagination--I like to think that they were far from the norm. Suffice it to say that if you are one who doesn't like to take a gamble on making new friends over dinner, you might consider bringing a big enough group to take up one of the smaller tables (6 being the smallest) or at least insulate yourself from the possibility of unpleasantness. That way you can put most of your attention exactly where it belongs: on the wonderful food.

Although my flashless food pictures were all sadly dark, I had to include at least one. This was our main course, an Herbs de Provence Braised Short Rib Wellington, with local, grass fed beef from Springdell Farm nearby. The beef, wrapped in homemade puff pastry, was tender and juicy, and very well accompanied by the spinach, mushrooms, and foie gras that were bundled up with it. Along side were a smoked potato fondue (brilliant!) and a sauce Perigueux, as well as a little tower of squashes, including Hubbard, Acorn, and Delicata. We also enjoyed an incredible Roasted Chestnut Bisque that evening, with a cranberry compote made with port wine and rosemary. The tart, woodsy flavor of the berries made an unexpectedly delicious pairing with the rich, creamy bisque. Indeed, this was the beauty of most of Callahan's creations that night--a wealth of bold ingredients that somehow came together as a marriage of clean, simple flavors. Even the dessert, a Grilled Upside Down Quince Cake with vanilla chantilly and bourbon caramel (yum), was topped with a few leaves of thyme, which somehow complimented the whole rather than distracting from it.

All in all, it was an evening of fabulous food, good wine, and (mostly) wonderful company. When the weather warms, I hope to return for another culinary adventure, one that includes a walk through the lovely grounds, which we missed in the November dark. I recommend you do the same!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Happy New (Garlic) Year

Recently, I had the pleasure of spending a cool, fall morning volunteering at Serving Ourselves Farm. Located on Long Island in Boston Harbor, the farm is a beautiful spot to enjoy these last autumn days when you can still feel the warmth of the sun on your face. Our task for the morning? Planting garlic for next year. Although the fields will lie mostly dormant until the first onion sets are put down next spring, this is the first official planting of the coming season. As winter approaches, it's a simple and wonderful comfort to think that, even as this year's harvests are winding down with the last few crops of hearty greens, next year's cycle is already beginning. As was proclaimed out in the fields that morning, Let the 2010 planting begin!

Cloves of various varieties, such as German Porcelain White, wait in the back of the truck to be taken to the larger field.

Before planting can begin, we rake for weeds, smooth the beds, and mark rows in our best approximation of straight lines.

Out in the field, the seed cloves whose duty has been reassigned from make yummy food to make more garlic!

Planting works best as a team effort. Garlic should be planted six inches apart, so one person uses a notched measuring stick to lay out the cloves with proper spacing. Two of us follow behind, tucking each clove just under the surface, "butt end down."

It's a little tough to tell from this picture, but this clove of garlic was positively gigantic! You can get some sense of scale from the other cloves around it, as well as the busy earthworm. In the upper right corner you can also see one of the cloves that has been tucked away for the winter, its upper tip just peeking out through the soil.

Last but not least, the beds are covered with six inches of straw to keep them warm(ish) and protected through the harsh Boston winter.

Come April there will be fresh garlic and yummy garlic scapes in abundance.
Already I cannot wait for spring.

For more information on the farm and its job training programs for Boston's homeless, click here to read my article from last summer's Edible Boston magazine.

For more information on how you can volunteer at the farm or at the shelter on Long Island, contact Mariann Bucina at