Friday, January 29, 2010

Eat Well. Do Good. Have Fun.

If you're looking for a little foodie fun to warm your belly and your heart this weekend, head to Enterprise Farm for their Locally Grown Pancake Breakfast. The breakfast, which takes place tomorrow from 9:00 a.m. to noon, will feature pancakes made with locally grown and milled whole wheat flour from Four Star Farms in Northfield, Mass. And there will be plenty of locally made accopmaniments, including maple syrup from Bree-Z-Knoll Farm and bacon from Austin Brothers Valley Farm.

Although the farm's location in Whately is a bit of a drive for us Bostonians, it's a worthwhile trip this time of year. When you just can't manage another bite of pancake, you can peruse the local, organic produce on offer at The Food Shed and stock up on wintry veggies for the next few weeks, including my favorite: celery root!

All proceeds from the event will benefit the Northampton Survival Center, which provides food to low-income individuals and families in the area, an important community resource especially in this difficult economy. So, grab a few friends and make a day of it. Your farmers, your community, and your belly will thank you!

Click here for directions.

Photo by Presta, via Flickr Creative Commons

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Goodbye Forever, Mickey D's

I am, and forever will be, a great lover of the French fry. A lot of people say this, I know, but in my case the love runs deep. So deep, in fact, that when I appeared on a radio show during my senior year of college, I responded "the French fry" when asked to name the greatest invention of all time. (Not my brightest moment, but I was desperate not to name a domestic appliance as had the three women who answered before me, and fries were all that came to my terribly nervous mind.)

In any case, fries are one of my greatest culinary loves, and up until today this has included the very occasional excursion to McDonald's. There's just something incomparable about those long, thing, crispy fries, so reliable golden and salty no matter which franchise you choose. No, I do not feel good about these indulgences when I succumb to the urge (most often on a road trip), and I certainly feel no better after the fact. I have pretty much broken with all other McDonald's products, and have often wished to able to break the chains of the French fry bond. Today, I got my wish.

This morning, on WBUR's On Point, Michael Pollan discussed his most recent book, Food Rules, in which he attempts to present a simple set of guidelines to help consumers navigate their way toward whole, healthful food each day. It was an interesting discussion as always, but one that by now I'm fairly familiar with. Until they got to the subject of McDonald's French fries and their remarkably consistent perfection. As it turns out, those remarkably unblemished fries are made spot free at a cost that is, to me, unacceptable. McDonald's will not take potatoes that have the usual harmless brown spots, so farmers are forced to use an incredibly potent pesticide, one that happens to also be an incredibly potent neurotoxin. According to Pollan, farmers cannot go back into the field for five days after spraying for fear of brain damage. Even if something goes wrong with an irrigation line during that period, they'll let the fields go dry before setting foot into what has become a powerfully toxic zone. The possibility that a farmer (or a farmer's spouse, or children, or neighbors) could stumble into a field where food is being raised for me to eat and incur irrevocable brain damage is not one that I can ignore, particularly when I can get delicious, non-toxic, whole potato fries at any number of local restaurants, or make them myself at home.

One of the hardest arguments to overcome when trying to convince someone to avoid a processed food or product is also one of the simplest: "but it tastes good." It's the reason why people continue to eat hamburger full of ammonia, chickens that have never seen the light of day, and apples from New Zealand instead of next door. So, when I come across a piece of information like this I do my best to spread the word. It can take a lot for people to overcome the call of their own taste buds, myself included, but putting other people's lives at risk for a prettier french fry seems like a place where we should all resolve to draw the line.

Click here to listen to the full show.

Photo by Kevin Steele, via Flickr Creative Commons.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Thank You, Flavor Bible

On a recent afternoon, I was perusing my new and already beloved Flavor Bible, looking for a new way to spice up some sweet potatoes. I considered the many tantalizing flavor companions offered by advising chefs, including bourbon, coriander, nutmeg, and orange zest. Sadly, though, nothing was really tickling my creative fancy.

Until, that is, I noticed a little section at the end of the entry labeled Flavor Affinities. At first I was confused by said section, as the entire list that comes before could be labeled as such. But, what appears to set this section apart is that it presents combinations of three flavors or more. Sweet potatoes + apples + sage (= yum.) Sweet potatoes + bacon + onions + rosemary (= yum.) And near the end of the list: sweet potatoes + kale + prosciutto (= so very yum and a perfect way to utilize a fresh bunch of kale in the fridge.) After noting that both kale and sweet potatoes pair well with thyme, I gathered my ingredients and went to work. Here's what I came up with, along with a few ideas for modifications the next time around.

Savory Kale & Sweet Potato Pasta (Gnocchi, if you've got 'em!)

Here, I stuck with a slightly modified version of my still favorite sweet potato preparation. Preheat the oven to 400. Mince 3-4 large garlic cloves and combine in a large bowl with 1/3 c fresh thyme leaves and 1/2 t red pepper flakes. Add in 3 medium sweet potatoes, chopped into comfortably bite-sized pieces. Toss with enough olive oil to coat (about 3 T), add a pinch of salt and pepper, and distribute onto a foil-lined baking sheet in an even layer. Bake for around 40 minutes, till potatoes are tender.


Slice 4-5 pieces of prosciutto into 1/4 inch strips. Separate and sautee until crisp, adding a drizzle of olive oil to the pan if needed. (Do not use a non-stick pan for this--you want all of the brown deliciousness for later.) When prosciutto is crisp, remove from pan and spread on a paper towel-lined plate, leaving any remaining fat in the pan.

In the same pan, sautee one medium yellow onion, sliced thin. Add about 1.5 c of chicken stock to deglaze the pan. Add the kale (chopped), another generous helping of fresh thyme, salt and pepper, and cover. Simmer for 30-40 minutes. If needed, add more stock as it cooks--you want some liquid in the pan in the end to toss together with the pasta.

What I wanted to have with this dish were gnocchi, those pillowy little bundles of delight. But, as I didn't have access to good pre-made ones and was scared away from attempting some from scratch by a doomsaying husband, I ended up with whole wheat spaghetti. This was all right, but both the shape and the flavor seemed out of balance with the star ingredients--a bite with just kale, sweet potato, and prosciutto was divine, and the pasta seemed to get in the way of that rather than enhance it. Although I haven't tried it, I imagine that gnocchi would be a much better companion. I have also since learned that gnocchi can indeed be made at home without inviting certain disaster, and that The Silver Spoon cookbook has a lovely recipe. Next time around I'd like to attempt said recipe. At the very least, I would use a shorter pasta, probably penne.

The Final Product:
When your pasta, potatoes, and kale are done, toss the pasta and kale (with remaining broth) together in a large bowl. Fold in sweet potatoes. Serve and top with a generous sprinkle of prosciutto. As often as possible, combine all three of the delightfully affinitied flavors in one bite. Enjoy!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A Berry of a Different Sort

One of the exciting things about our new winter farm share with Enterprise Farm has been that, in addition to the lovely fruits and veggies each week, we've also received the occasional bag of wheat berries. These lovely little berries come to us via Four Star Farms in Northfield, MA, and are particularly exciting to me as I have yet to find many options for truly local grains. They are also exciting because I have never in my life cooked with a wheat berry! Word on the street is they add a bit of crunchy texture for a hearty whole grain bread (here's hoping my husband will break out his KitchenAid sometime soon) and recipes for wheat berry salad abound (throw in your favorite mix of cukes, feta, olives, etc.). But, when I finally had some time to get inventive the other night, I opted for my usual winter standby: soup. The wheat berries add a wonderful texture with their springy bite, and combined with beans you've got a complete protein. Here's what I put together--it's a simple, easy recipe that can be adapted to suit whatever your pantry has on offer.

Wheat Berry and Winter Vegetable Soup

12 c low-sodium vegetable or chicken stock*
4 cloves garlic, diced
1 t dried thyme
1 t red pepper flakes
2 bay leaves
2-3 good splashes of olive oil
1 c wheat berries
1 helping heaping of whatever winter veggies you have on hand--I used parsnip, carrot, kale, squash, and onion
1 can kidney beans, rinsed (someday, I will learn to cook with dried)
1 can canellini beans, rinsed

In a large stock pot, bring the stock, garlic, thyme, red pepper flakes, bay leaves, and olive oil to a boil. Add the wheat berries and reduce to a simmer. Cook for 1 hour.

While the wheat berries cook, chop veggies. Add them to the soup when the hour is up and simmer for another 20-30 minutes, until veggies are tender.

Add the beans and simmer for another 5 minutes.


*you may notice that many soup recipes call for 10 cups of stock--I like to use 12, as this often results in a big bowl's worth of leftover broth, perfect for freezing. When you have the sniffles, or just the winter blahs, nothing beats a rich, hot broth with a piece of crusty bread!

Warm, steamy, yummy.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Restaurant Week, Dorchester Style

For all you Bostonians who are eagerly awaiting the arrival of Restaurant Week in the spring, I have happy news--you don't have to wait until March! For the first time this year, eight restaurants in Dorchester and Milton will be participating in a neighborhood Restaurant Week, with each location offering a special three-course dinner for $30.10 in addition to their regular fare. The event, which runs from January 17th through the 31st (excluding Fri/Sat nights) is a great way to do some local eating. Not only will you be supporting small businesses in your area, but many of them--including Chris Douglass' Ashmont Grill and Tavolo--make an effort to buy produce and specialty items from local farms and producers. In other words, it's a win-win-win.

For those of you who don't often venture out in the Dorchester area, this is a perfect opportunity to check out a growing neighborhood--all of these restaurants offer free parking, and most are a stone's throw away from the Red Line. Click on the restaurants below to see their full menus and contact information--reservations recommended!

Photo courtesy of Adam Pieniazek on Flickr Creative Commons.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

A Wintertime Treat: Growing in the Concrete Jungle

As we Bostonians brace ourselves for the longest, coldest months of the year, Slow Food Boston is offering a welcome bright spot with the beginning of their Winter Film Series next Sunday: a screening of HomeGrown, the story of a family who managed to grow 6,000 pounds of produce on less than 1/4 acre of land in downtown Pasadena. As always, the movie will be followed by a panel discussion to expand on the ideas presented in the film, including Lisa Gross, founder of the Urban Homesteaders' League, and Jess Liborio of The Food Project. For just a $5 donation to Slow Food you can reserve your spot, which I would say is quite the bargain--after all, when was the last time you got to see a movie for less than $10? Much less donate your money to a great organization and participate in a stimulating conversation? Click here to reserve your tickets for the 3:30 showing. Hope to see you there!

Other upcoming film topics include the complexities of seafood consumption and the fight for healthy school lunches. Click here to see the full series schedule.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

On Wearing Perfume at the Table

We have all been there. Enjoying a tasty meal and soaking up the atmosphere at our favorite restaurant, when in walks a veritable explosion of perfume. (Or sometimes cologne, but I have found that women tend to be the more common offenders in this department.) Suddenly, rather than tasting your remarkably delightful chick pea fries, you are tasting Chanel. Instead of the fine cocktail of Campari and gin you've been sipping, you're sipping on every sense of the word.

This was precisely what happened to a friend and I who were dining at the lovely Garden at the Cellar in Cambridge last night. Just as our food arrived, so did a large party of people, at least one of whom was responsible for contaminating the entire air space of the restaurant. As always, these odiferous diners struck me as an unwelcome and unfair offense--why should I have to smell the people next to me when I'm trying to enjoy a bowl of Pumpkin soup with crispy pork rillette and spiced yogurt (divine, in spite of the smelly distraction)? It will fade into the background, my friend and I told ourselves, hoping that after a time we would cease to notice the cloud of overpowering and acrid aromas. But it never did. My garlic spinach--adorably presented in a squat little canning jar--and my Negroni were tainted by the stench until the very last mouthful.

When it comes to this blog, I usually try to leave my cranky pants at home, but last night put me over the edge. Perfume has a place--even I have a couple that I like to spritz on (lightly) once in a while--but it most certainly does not belong in a restaurant. If you want to douse yourself before cooking for that special someone at home, go nuts. But when you're headed out to a public space where people have gathered for the specific purpose of enjoying yummy food, ditch the scintillating scents. And, if you are not a perfumer, encourage any offending friends to do the same. The food, the drink, and your fellow diners will all be better off!

Saturday, January 2, 2010

How Does Your Garden Grow?

"A garden is the most direct way to recapture the issue of health and to make it a private instead of a governmental responsibility." --Wendell Berry, "The Reactor and the Garden," The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural.

January is not a typical time of year for gardening. Not in Boston, certainly. Not in the sense that we typically think of: digging our fingers under the soil to plant, to weed, or to harvest. This time of year, we are buried in snow and the ground is frozen hard. But, this does not mean that the January gardner sits entirely idle. On the contrary, the deep winter season offers time for contemplation. What will be planted in the growing season to come? What lessons can be learned from the last? Even I, with only my tiny herb planter to ponder, find myself considering what new varieties I might try out next year, what more I would plant if I had the luxury of a yard to do it in.

January also brings in a new year, prompting many of us to reflect on how we'd like to make our lives better over the next twelve months, how to grow ourselves as individuals and work together to solve larger social problems. After a few long weeks of holiday overindulgences--thankfully tempered by the start of a new farm share--I find myself thinking a great deal about food and the myriad ways that our choices in that realm stand to effect not only our personal health, but that of the planet as a whole. Following Thursday's New York Times article about the ubiquitous presence of ammonia processed beef in this country's hamburger, and a recent re-viewing of the incredible documentary, Food Inc. (if you haven't seen it yet, you really must) Berry's words about recapturing the responsibility for our health hold particular resonance. The government agencies responsible for fostering and protecting our food system cannot currently be relied upon to do so given the revolving door between corporate agriculture and positions of power at the USDA and FDA. And, while this system needs to be held accountable and fighting to change it is an essential endeavor, it can feel like chipping away at an iceberg.

A garden, on the other hand, provides much speedier results, and a much more satisfying path to getting there. The means are as satisfying as the end, and the gardener has ownership in the entire process. Yes, there are the perils of pests and weather to contend with in order to achieve success, but these are much more pleasant adversaries to consider than profit-hungry CEOs whose power seems to have no end. As stated at the end of Food Inc., planting a garden, even a small one, is the most direct way to regain control of your food supply, and thereby your health, in a system that has gone so terribly awry. It is also far more delicious than letter writing.

So, for those of you inclined to spend these snowy days indoors, pondering your plantings for the first or the fortieth time, I offer a few reading suggestions to help you percolate on the possibilities until the spring thaw.

First, there's Karel Capek's The Gardener's Year, part of the Modern Library Gardening Series, edited by none other than Michael Pollan. Originally written in Czech in 1929, Capek's observations are whimsical and insightful, reminding us of the wonders of growing while poking light fun at the quirks and obsessions of the average gardener. The book's pages are also adorned by a charming collection line drawings created by Capek's brother. As Pollan writes in his series introduction, "there's plenty of how-to here, but the emphasis is more along the lines of how-to-think-about-it than how-to-do-it." Just right for the time of year when you're better off under a blanket than out in a field. The series has become home to many other forgotten books, including enticing titles such as In the Land of the Blue Poppies, Old Herbaceous, and The Gardener's Bed-Book: Short and Long Pieces to Be Read in Bed By Those Who Love Green Growing Things. You can peruse and purchase any of them here.

For a more contemporary but still varied list of gardening-related books, click here to see the year's 10 best gardening books, according to the Gardening blog.

To see you through until you get your hands on one of these, or until you can get your hands good and dirty, here are a few encouraging winter words by Capek, from a chapter entitled "The Gardener's February":

"But do you know what? The snowdrops are in flower; and hamamelis with yellow stars is in flower, and hellebore has fat buds; and when you look properly (but you must hold your breath) you will find buds and sprouts on almost everything; with a thousand tiny pulses life rises from the soil. Now we gardeners will stick to it; already we are rushing into sap."