Sunday, December 27, 2009

"To Save the Planet, Save the Seas"

From this morning's New York Times: more reason to carefully consider and fully understand your seafood choices. Click here to read the full article.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Holiday Bounty

This year, like many people, my husband and I decided to scale back our gift-giving budget in accordance with tough economic times. As a result we had to get a little creative, and said husband put together a brilliant gift that I will be able to enjoy for many years to come.

First, a mortar and pestle, something I've desperately wanted since savoring the sauces my roommates would whip up with one in Spain. Second, an incredible array of spices and flavorings from Christina's Spice & Specialty Foods in Inman Square, including everything from dill seed, to star anise, to sumac. (What is sumac? Neither of us have any idea, which is part of the fun!) The final piece of this gift puzzle is perhaps the most brilliant of all: The Flavor Bible. The book, which bills itself as "The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity, Based on the Wisdom of America's Most Imaginative Chefs," is an incredible kitchen reference, perfect for those who love to cook (and eat) but don't have the patience for long, elaborate recipes and perfect measurements (that would be me). Essentially, its a giant index where you can look up whatever ingredient you have on hand, from cheeses, to vegetables, to salts. Under each entry, you can learn a little bit about your ingredient, as well as peruse an extensive list of complimentary ingredients, compiled according to chefs' recommendations. So, next time I'm looking to try something new with my winter parsnips or a precious celeriac (or my new spice collection!) I have a wealth of improvisational possibilities right there at my fingertips, drawing from a deep well of culinary experience.

I have yet to sit down and absorb the full wonder of this book--I had to run off to New Jersey just hours after receiving it--but I cannot wait to peruse it when I get back home. The second introductory chapter, in particular, holds great promise: "Great cooking = Maximizing Flavor + Pleasure by Tapping Body + Heart + Mind + Spirit: Communicating via the Language of Food." This, after all, is what truly great cooking is all about. It is also a wonderful reminder of the greatest treasure of the holidays: gathering around the table with friends and family to share a meal that's been cooked together.

Wishing you all a wonderful holiday season, and a happy and lucky New Year!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

A Farm Share and a Food Shed

For us New Englanders, along with many residents of other cold climates, the winter months can present some serious challenges when it comes to eating local. More winter farm shares and farmers markets have begun cropping up in recent years, which is wonderful, but many are new and tentative ventures without much volume. And, while we all have the option of preserving the harvest at home or creating our own root cellar, most of us urban dwellers have neither the space nor the time to set aside a winter's worth of food, much as we might like to.

This year, as the end of our incredible farm share with Red Fire Farm drew closer, my husband and I found ourselves chanting the same refrain over our veggie-filled dinners: how will we survive long months without this bounty of fresh, local, organic produce? After just one season of the CSA, the thought of limp, supermarket zucchini shipped in from Mexico was too depressing to contemplate. But, we also didn't want to spend the next five months without putting a single green item on our plate.

Serendipitously, I got to talking with a friend about her farm share with Enterprise Farm in Whately, Massachusetts, which goes year round and allows a buy in for just the winter/spring share. Unlike most CSAs, which come from one nearby farm, Enterprise is part of a co-op of organic, sustainable farms that operate under the umbrella of an East Coast "Food Shed." So, while it's not as local as an all-Massachusetts share, participation still supports small farmers and preserves farmland, within a distribution system that is much more sustainable than most of the options available at the supermarket. The shares are as local as possible (last week's box was about 50% Massachusetts grown), and there is a sense of reason and moderation in what's included. Four organic, Florida-grown Clementines feels like a wonderful winter treat, and one that leaves a much smaller carbon footprint than an entire crate shipped across the Atlantic from Spain.

I will admit that I still feel some uneasiness at this approach. There's something disconcerting about opening up your December farm share box to find a pint of perfectly ripe grape tomatoes. But, I also believe that the idea of a larger food shed is important for a host of reasons, including food security, conservation, and, quite simply, quality of life. Winter in New England is hard enough without having to make the choice between no fresh veggies or produce whose provenance is as unfamiliar as it is distant. Instead, thanks to Enterprise, we can support family farms up and down the East Coast, all while preserving safe, sustainable, nourishing agricultural practices along the way.

You can too, if you're interested--the farm still has shares available, and they will prorate the price for any shares you've missed. Click here for more information. Click here to watch Dave Jackson talk about the philosophy and practice of operating a year-round CSA in New England.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

A Holiday Helper

We've all been there: you have a holiday party to go to in a few hours and, amid all the excitement, you suddenly realize you've failed to think of a festive treat to bring along. Sure, you can grab a bottle of wine on the way, but you'd also like to have a little homemade something that says thanks for the invite in a more personal fashion. Yesterday, craving a sweet snack on a chilly, quiet Saturday, I discovered the perfect solution in my ATK Family Cookbook: "Emergency Chocolate Cake." Named for the ease and speed with which it can be prepared, this cake seemed an ideal fit for my urgent but lazy need for sweet. The editors note that they tried dozens of recipes for a cake that would prove both fast and delicious, but were dissatisfied until one staffer brought in his grandmother's recipe, which proved to be simple, quick, and tasty. There is one catch, however...the secret ingredient? There's no way to sugarcoat it, so I'll just put it out there: mayonnaise. Yes, you can take a moment to make a terrible face. I am totally with you. It sounds gross. When I read it, I nearly closed the cookbook in consternation. But, my faith in the folks at ATK (and perhaps my desperation for cake in any form) propelled me forward.

I followed the instructions nearly to a T, swallowing my doubt as I blended the mayonnaise in with the short list of ingredients. A foodie friend who knew what I was up to expressed her concern on twitter: "mayo?? i am a little bit worried. but let me know how it goes." I was worried as well, but I threw it in the oven and headed back to the couch to wait.

Result? Perfection! It sounds impossible, I know but this cake is moist, rich, chocolatey, and fluffy--you would never guess how easy it is, or that it has a sandwich condiment as a main ingredient. As I sampled one tiny taste after another, I found myself thinking, "What is mayonnaise, after all, but eggs and oil? Essential ingredients in any good cake!" With each passing bite, the idea of mayo in a cake became a little less outrageous. And with a quick dusting of powdered sugar, you've got a gorgeous, festive party offering that can be whipped up in a pinch.

You may still be skeptical, which I completely understand. Try it out at home first, or make one to bring into the office. I guarantee you it will not last long!

Emergency Chocolate Cake, from America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook

2 c all-purpose flour
1 1/4 c sugar
3/4 t baking soda
3/4 c cocoa powder
1 1/4 c water
1 c mayonnaise
1 T vanilla extract (I used 1.5 T)
Confectioners' sugar for serving

Preheat oven to 350. Lightly coat an 8-inch square pan with butter. (I used an 8 inch round pan, the smaller area of which resulted in a cake that puffed up and got crusty like a brownie on the top--I highly recommend it.)

Whisk the flour, sugar, and baking soda together in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk the cocoa and water together until smooth. Whisk in the mayonnaise and vanilla. Stir the mayonnaise mixture into the flour mixture until combined.

Pour batter into the pan and smooth the top. Bake until a skewer inserted into the center of the cake comes out with a few crumbs attached, 35-40 minutes. (It took closer to an hour for me, probably because of the different pan.)

Let cool, turn out onto a serving plate, and dust with confectioners' sugar.

Unveil it to oohs and aahs at your next holiday party, and when they ask how you made it? Give a smile and a wink, and tell them that's your little secret.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Sweet Potatoes go Savory

For most of my life, I thought I didn't like sweet potatoes. The sugar, the marshmallow...none of it seemed right on a dinner plate, nor did it float my boat for dessert. Then, last year, my husband roasted a couple in the oven and we ate them plain and simple, with just a touch of butter. It was a revelation. We could not believe the rich, deep flavors, and the color was just as gorgeous. It felt like the discovery an entirely new species, something no one had seen before. Of course, I now know that there are plenty of people out there preparing sweet potatoes in plenty of delectable ways. To me, this veggie remains exciting and new, and at this time of year I thrill each week when they appear in my farm share, a very bright note in the sometimes dismal November Rain (cue dramatic piano music).

In hopes of sharing the joy, here is a savory recipe modified slightly from one I found on Epicurious. Simple, seasonal, and impossibly delicious. Bon appetit!

Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Garlic and Thyme

4 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1 inch rounds. (You can halve these for smaller pieces if you prefer--just lower the oven temp a touch.)
3 T olive oil
4 large garlic cloves, minced
1/3 c fresh thyme leaves, or a very generous sprinkling of dried
1/2 t kosher salt
1/4 t black pepper
1/2 t red pepper flakes

Preheat oven to 400. Toss all ingredients together in a large mixing bowl. Arrange the potato slices in a single layer on/in a baking sheet/dish. Place on top rack of oven and roast until tender and slightly browned, about 40 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature, or even cold on a fresh green salad. They are also delicious eaten one by one...throughout the day...from a pretty little dish in the refrigerator.