Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Hey Kid! What's That You're Eating?


I know I'm a little late posting on this topic, but last Friday was the series premier of "Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution" on ABC. And for the sake of those of you who saw it and don't need a recap, as well as those who didn't see it yet and don't care for spoilers, I'll make this post brief and to my own point. 

While Oliver's overall goal is to correct the eating habits of the entire city of Huntington, West Virginia, he starts in the schools, with the school lunch program. And most of the two hours of this premier was dedicated to his experiences there. He struggled with the stubborn lunch ladies and was baffled by the children's lack of food intelligence, or even their access to real utensils, leaving them to a menu of frozen, highly processed, handheld foods on a daily basis. 
The whole time I was watching this, I was thinking of how I ate as a child. During most of elementary and middle school, I brought my own lunch. It wasn't until high school that I started eating school lunch. And that was because of the bounty of junk foods available in our cafeteria. Aside from the school's pre-planned menu, we were sold a slew of a la carte foods. And that was where you went for the good stuff. Mornings before school brought monster sized chocolate chip cookies and Rice Krispy treats to the cafeteria. An enterprising a la carte stand in the lunchroom sold corndogs, mini-pizzas, chips, candy, etc. I believe that their excuse for selling us junk is that by high school age, one should be able to discern what is good for his or her body. That's just my assumption, though.

I really began to wonder, after watching that show and recalling my personal school lunch missteps, exactly who is responsible for the healthy eating habits of kids. Is it the parents? The school? A celebrity chef with his own reality show? At what age does the child become responsible for his or her diet?

For more school lunch insight (and great photos of school lunches), check out the blog Fed Up With Lunch, in which a school teacher has vowed to eat school lunch for the entire year of 2010 and documents the experience. You'll see some of the same issues as presented in "Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution," such as everything being prepackaged and frozen, minimal utensils being handed out to kids, and the disgusting interpretations of what passes for fruits and vegetables.

Monday, March 29, 2010

My Dinner with Sallie: Part 2

You’re looking at the last bottles of salad dressing I’ll ever keep in my refrigerator.

As I had hoped, during my dinner with Sallie I learned the principles of making homemade salad dressings. She didn’t teach me to simply follow a recipe, but rather to understand the basic formula so I can improvise depending on the flavors I want to create. Essentially, Sallie taught me to make dressing by “feel.”

The Basic Formula
1. Juice a lemon. Measure juice to establish “one part.”

2. Mix one part lemon juice to two parts olive oil; Sallie suggests splashing in a bit more oil because she likes her dressing more olive-y and less lemon-y. So she also notes “the better the olive oil, the better the flavor of the dressing.” (p.s.- the general rule for all dressings is one part acidic, such as citrus juice or vinegar, to two parts olive oil)

3. Measure a “pile” of salt (as taught to her by a man from Mexico whom she met in El Paso) in your cupped hand (approx. a ½ teaspoon, but it’s sooooo much cooler to cup your hand and make a little pile of salt). Toss your pile in with the juice-oil mixture.

NOTE: Sallie uses kosher salt. If you’re using a finer-grain salt, such as sea salt or table salt, use less.

4. Grind in fresh pepper to taste.

5. Whisk with a fork. Dressing will last about a week when kept in an air-tight container and refrigerated. According to Sallie, Smucker's peanut butter jars make the best salad dressing cruets.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

My Dinner With Sallie: Part 1

"Dinner is not what you do in the evening before something else.
Dinner is the evening."
~Art Buchwald 

I can recall—back when we actually had hot weather in St. Louis—spending a sticky summer evening on a restaurant patio, sipping cocktails and being devoured by mosquitos, with my good friend Sallie. The conversation eventually turned, as it always does, to food and cooking, and Sallie mentioned that she puts a ridiculous amount of effort into what is one of the simplest and quickest meals you can make for yourself: a salad. She insists on using fresh ingredients prepared specifically for balanced flavors, nuts toasted or candied minutes earlier in her kitchen, and homemade dressing. She has sworn off the bottle (of pre-made dressing, that is). And ever since that night, the idea of kicking my dependence on store-bought dressings in lieu of making simple, fresh, tasty homemade dressings has been lingering in the back of my mind.

So when I asked Sallie if I could cook with her, I intended for her to teach me the basic principles of hand-made salad dressings and share some secret recipes, perhaps. But as it turns out, that wasn't what this evening was about.

Sallie wanted to make a dinner out of it, to make it more than just preparing and sampling salad dressings. And what made this dinner different than most occasions on which you get together for food with friends, is that Sallie let me help. As it turns out, the simple act of participation turns "dinner with friends" into "an evening with friends." In addition to teaching me how to make salad dressings (more on that in Part 2 of my dinner with Sallie), she shared her whole kitchen and her love of cooking with me. Which—not that I didn't already have the bug—is highly contagious. Instead of a quick and dirty recipe lesson, I got to spend an entire evening talking about food, hearing her stories about where she learned certain techniques or bought quirky gadgets, sharing tips and tricks with each other. It was about so much more than learning to be a Good cook; it was about the power of food to create bonding memories.

We spent three and a half hours that night (with the help of my boyfriend) preparing a beautiful three-course meal, drinking wine, and forgetting that anything existed outside of Sallie's kitchen.

Recipes from my dinner with Sallie:

Course 1: Baked Brie with Roasted Garlic on French Bread

Roasted Garlic:
Leave paper on bulb
Rub with olive oil
275° for 40-45 minutes
Let cool slightly
Pop roasted garlic cloves out of their skin

Baked Brie:
Place wedge of Brie in pie pan.
Bake at 275° for 7-8 minutes or until melted

Cut baguette into ½ inch thick slices. Guests spread roasted garlic on bread, top with melted brie. Sprinkle with salt to taste.

Course 2: Salad with Homemade Dressing

Toss field greens with paper-thin onions (to better control the strength of the onion’s balance with the other flavors), parsley, and grated fresh parmesan.

Add your toppings of choice. We added avocado and homemade whole wheat croutons with chilled asparagus on the side for nibbling.

You'll have to wait for my next blog post to get this recipe!

Course 3: Cheese and Almond Stuffed Zucchini

3 med. Zucchini
2 T. olive oil or butter
1 cup finely chopped onion
1 t. salt
6 oz. chevre, cut into small cubes
1 ½ c. finely chopped almonds (toasted if you like*)
½ c. whole grain bread crumbs
2 c. grated parrano or smoked gouda
½ t. nutmeg
¼ t. all spice

Cut zucchini in half lengthwise and, using a soup spoon, scoop out the insides of the zucchini to leave a fillable outer shell. Save the inner pulp and chop it.

Sauté the onions in the oil until translucent. Add the salt and chopped zucchini pulp and continue to cook on medium heat until the zucchini is soft. Remove from heat, stir in chevre cubes and cover for several minutes. Meanwhile, in a large bowl, mix together the almonds, bread crumbs, grated cheese, nutmeg and all spice. When the chevre has softened, thoroughly combine all ingredients.

Fill the zucchini shells and place them in an oiled 9x14 inch baking pan. Add ¼ inch of water. Tightly cover the pan so the zucchini shells will steam. Bake covered at 350° for 30 minutes. Uncover and bake for 5 to 10 minutes longer, until the filling has browned a little.

*To toast almonds, spread on baking sheet. Cook at 250° and watch them until they’re light brown.

Wine: There were many bottles, but the favorite of the night was Straccali 2007 Chianti.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Roots, Untangled

You need a stethoscope and a good good rake
some beer for snails and a rope for snakes
a flowerbed to fall in as the moonlight breaks
when you're the family gardener
~lyrics from "Family Gardener" by Minus Five

The seeds we planted three weeks ago for the Cherokee Real Community Garden have sprouted! We met Tuesday night to transplant the crowded sprouts into bigger cups and give them room to grow even more before they are planted in the garden this spring.

I was surprised at the pride I felt in seeing how quickly they had grown into delicate and brightly colored mini-plants. I mean, mostly they looked like weeds, but I could see their potential.

As I pulled apart the sprouts growing too closely together, it seemed as though they didn't want to be separated. Their leaves stuck together slightly as if having become accustomed to touching and desiring to stay that way. When I held the delicate little sprout clumps in my hand and broke apart the soil surrounding their roots with my finger, I saw that the wispy, hair-like roots had grown in spirals around each other, tying the group of sprouts together inches below the soil, where nothing and no one could see their connection.

It was in this act—the separating—that I felt the beginnings of my imposition on these plants. Sure, I placed them in the soil as seeds, but the water and light they needed to grow took over from there. It wasn't until I plucked them from their beds, untangled their roots, and transplanted them into different soil so far from each other, that I made an impact on their growth. It was the first symbiotic act in our relationship.

P.S.—Look how pretty and red those beet sprouts are!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

One Recipe, Two Results

Shortly after making pancakes from scratch for the first time, I followed a recipe to make homemade corn meal muffins, as well. I was surprised (showing my lack of baking knowledge) that the recipe for pancakes and the recipe for corn meal muffins are very similar. With the exception of the addition of corn meal to the muffin mix, and the slight variation in measurements. See for yourself:

Recipe for Pancakes

1 ½ c. flour
2 T. sugar
2 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. baking soda
touch of salt
1 ½ c. buttermilk
1 beaten egg
1 T. olive oil

Recipe for Corn Meal Muffins

1 ½ c. yellow corn meal
1 c. flour
¼ c. sugar
1 ½ tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. salt
1 c. buttermilk
1 egg
¼ c. oil

It makes me wonder if I could make corn meal pancakes by creatively merging the two recipes. But do I have the guts to cook something new without following a recipe?

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Basic Training #2: Pancakes (Or, Flipping Off Breakfast Foods)

"He who goes to bed hungry dreams of pancakes."

Hungry or not, my boyfriend wakes up every Saturday morning, rubs his eyes, and instinctively says, "Want some pancakes?" I like pancakes, but I'm not as crazy about them as he is. So he is usually the one to hop out of bed and heat up the frying pan. Meaning I have never learned to make them for myself. And what's more, any time anyone has made me pancakes, they have been from a box or bag of pancake mix. 

Being a breakfast staple, I 100% consider being able to make pancakes a basic of being a Good cook. Heck, it's a basic of being an ok cook. So I decided it was time I learned to make them myself. From scratch, of course. But, in order to make them more interesting, I wanted to fancy up the recipe. I hoped if I made it more challenging, the results would be more impressive.

So I started with a recipe that I got from a cooking show called "Made in Spain." The host, José Andrés, makes an olive oil pancake with chopped chocolate, drizzled with honey. I drooled when I watched this episode, so I decided this would be my first (and perhaps ultimate) pancake recipe.

1 ½ c. flour
2 T. sugar
2 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. baking soda
touch of salt
1 ½ c. buttermilk
1 beaten egg
1 T. olive oil

Combine all ingredients in a bowl and whisk from the center, just until mixed. Don’t over-mix.

Spoon in preferred amount of chopped chocolate.

Pour olive oil on skillet. Ladle mix onto skillet.

Drizzle with honey. Garnish with mint.

Now, I've seen pancakes made plenty of times. So I know that you barely mix the ingredients and then plop the batter onto a hot surface. But I have also seen this simple process go awry. Burnt pancakes, soggy pancakes, ones that look as though they narrowly escaped a Dali painting. There is a subtle balance between heat, amount of batter, and of course, the elusive flipping technique.

Working in batches of three, my first batch was not pretty. Too much batter on too-high heat (medium) being flipped by a rookie resulted in crispy outsides, gooey insides, and wonky shapes.

The chocolate in the batter muddied the process, making the edges look darker than they were, which led to premature flipping, which led to leaving the second side to cook too long, and so on and so forth. (Not that I'm making excuses.) I wiped the pan off with a paper towel between batches to remove the melted chocolate, drizzled a bit more olive oil on the pan, and turned the heat down to medium-low. Round 2 turned out slightly better, but being an electric stove, the burner hadn't really cooled down enough, and I suspect I had used too much olive oil in the pan, causing more of a frying effect than an even cook. And even though I used less batter, it was thick and didn't spread at. all. in the pan, also hindering the pancake from cooking properly all the way through.

Tweaking all the factors—lowering the heat, using less olive oil in the pan, perfecting a plop-and-spread technique with the ladle, and looking for the little bubbles on the edge of the pancake indicating it's ready to be flipped—during the next few batches, my pancakes were finally starting to turn out golden brown and cooked throughout. 

Now, it was time to address the flip factor. Basically, I spent the next three batches practicing, and ended up with this:

After six batches, my pancakes eventually got rounder and flatter and a little better looking. But I realized that to consistently make a good-looking pancake, I will need a lot more practice. 

In the end, I was left with a mound of sloppy pancakes.

So I made four stacks of four pancakes each, and drizzled them with honey. Luckily, I have a boyfriend who loves pancakes!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Cheap Cheep!

“Every week, millions of chickens leaking yellow pus, stained by green feces, contaminated by harmful bacteria, or marred by lung and heart infections, cancerous tumors, or skin conditions are shipped for sale to consumers."
~Scott Bronstein, “A Journal-Constitution Special Report—Chicken: How Safe? First of Two Parts,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, May 26, 1991.

Learning where my food comes from is a big part of my mission to find the good in food. However, it isn't always fun—especially when it comes to meat. Lately, I've been learning a lot about factory farm meat (conventional) vs. family farm meat (sustainable). And I often debate how to present this information on my blog. On the one hand, to me, it is a very important part of this project. On the other hand, I understand that not everyone is ready to know these things. And the last thing I want is for my blog to be preach-y or to gross people out.

Having said that, I will try to focus on my personal thoughts and reactions to what I learn, and skip all the truly gory details. If you want to read more about something, I'll give you the resource so you can learn for yourself. Deal?

...and moving on.

As an omnivore, learning the truth behind the burgers and bacon you so dearly love can be hard to swallow. Mostly because choosing the greater good over a great steak is a personal challenge that is harder for some people than others.

The first time I questioned my meat-eating ethics (which were not actually ethics-based, but taste-based) was, surprisingly enough, last November when I saw an episode of the Fox TV series “Bones” in which they investigate a death at a chicken factory and, in the process, discuss some rather unsavory common practices. This was the first time I heard the term “de-beaking.” And it really freaked me out. So much so that I vowed only to eat free-range chicken and eggs from that point forward.

But my love for spicy chicken wings and diner eggs was stronger than my love for the chickens I had never met. And about a month later, I was enjoying some amazing "family recipe" wings at my writing group’s holiday party.

Then, in early January, I watched the documentary “Food Inc.” I cried for the chickens being carelessly mass-produced in the factories, and I had to look away when it showed pigs being shocked to death in a slaughterhouse. However, later that month, I couldn't bring myself to pay $16 for a very small pastured chicken at a local foods market, so I found one of unknown origin for $2/lb elsewhere.

But eventually the facts started to outweigh my desire for cheap meat. The clincher was Jonathan Safran Foer's book, "Eating Animals." The information was so powerful that it ruined my appetite for days. Now, don't get me wrong, I haven't gone vegetarian. But I can't continue eating the way I have in the past, either. So for now, I'm on the path to being what Michael Pollan calls a "selective omnivore." It's not easy. Sustainable meat is in some cases very expensive, and in others inconvenient. And telling myself I won't ever eat a Big Mac again makes the memory of their taste even more tempting.

But I'm doing it. It's the very beginning of establishing food beliefs for myself. And it's a gradual process. I started by identifying the meats/foods that are easiest to substitute with family farm sources. Pastured (or free-range...but ideally, pastured) eggs, cheese and milk simply require a few dollars more than what I'm used to spending. Giving up factory chicken essentially means giving up my favorite cheap meals, since I most often ate chicken in ethnic restaurant dishes (Indian, Mexican, Chinese). This method falls in line with an article I read a few weeks ago by David Kirby called "6 Baby Steps Toward a More Sustainable Animal Diet." It's a really helpful set of guidelines for beginners. It lacks the hard-nosed facts that I've found most convincing in my own research, but it also lacks the guilt that comes along with those facts. So we'll call it a gateway article. It's worth checking out if caring about your meat is something that's been on your mind lately. 

Friday, March 5, 2010

Basic Training #1: Poached Eggs (or, Breaking Up is Not So Hard to Do)

"Poached eggs...are to my mind the purest and loveliest of ways to cook eggs." ~The late, great Julia Child

For years, I've been tempted to get a pair of these:

Despite their appearance, these have nothing to do with breast enhancement or birth control; they are called "poach pods" and they are a specialty gadget for cooking poached eggs. These silicone cups float in a pot of boiling water with the egg safely contained inside, where it can cook without separating. While I'm constantly tempted by them each time I enter a kitchen supply store, I could never bring myself to buy them. Because, well, they're soooooo cheating. And while this blog is new, my desire to be a good cook has been around for quite awhile.

To me, a good cook with a capital G understands and has mastered the basic preparation techniques of common foods like eggs, meats, vegetables, sauces, baked goods, soups, etc. He or she can sauté, roast, blanch, steam...and definitely poach...without having to read instructions every time he or she cooks. I consider these to be part of the "cooking basics." And if I want to be a Good cook, I've got to start learning. 

I decided to start basic training with poached eggs. Partly b/c I really really like them, and partly because I read Julie & Julia and strongly identified with Julie Powell's fear of the poaching process. So this challenge was the first to come to mind. And, as with all of life's challenges, if you want to get it right the first time, you consult the master. In this case, Julia Child and her bible, Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

The instructions are very simple: 1 T. of white vinegar to every quart of water, bring 2 inches of water to a low simmer in a frying pan, crack egg directly into the water (or crack it into a shallow bowl first and slide it into the simmering water), use a small spoon to quickly spoon the egg whites back over the yolk as they desperately try to run as far away as they can, cook for 4 minutes maintaining the low simmer, and finally transfer the now-poached egg into a bowl of cold water to stop the cooking process and wash off the vinegar. Note: The reason MtAoFC is the ultimate cooking bible is because Julia and her co-authors are so brilliantly clear on every step of the process for every recipe in the book. For the same reason, it can be hell to try to cook from it sometimes. Because if you read over one sentence, or misinterpret one direction, your dish is toast.

So before I even started, I called in reinforcements: my friend Sallie, someone I very much consider to be a Good cook (you'll see more of her in the future). I consulted her, and she gave me some good tips. First, to definitely use the shallow bowl to slide the egg into the water. And second, to use a paper towel to dry off the egg after it comes out of the cold water bath, otherwise you'll end up with watery eggs. With good guidance handy, I set about poaching my very first egg.


Because I understand the importance of following Julia's (if I may) instructions to the tee, I heeded her warning to only use the freshest eggs in order to avoid the yolk separating from the white (which, let's be honest, is the singular fear about poaching eggs). So on a cold Saturday morning in March, I hit up an indoor farmers' market and bought a dozen eggs from a nearby farm called Whetstone Farms.

After mixing the vinegar and water, and waiting 15 years for it to come to a low simmer, I slid my egg into the water with my heart beating out of my chest. This is the exact moment of intimidation when it comes to poaching eggs: the drop. I tenderly spooned some egg-white wisps back over the yolk, then watched. For four minutes. As nothing at all scary happened. The egg cooked. Nicely, I might add.


It's almost heart-shaped (more human-heart-shaped than the iconic symbol, really), which is appropriate considering how much care I took to make my very first poached egg. And it was so not-scary that I did it a second time. And that one turned out nicely, as well. To my utter shock and delight, I found I'm good at making poached eggs. And they tasted great, too!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010


"One of the most important resources that a garden makes available for use is the gardener's own body. A garden gives the body the dignity of working in its own support."
~Wendell Berry

Growing up on a modest 8 acres in rural Kansas, I have very fond memories of rising early in the morning to the smells of fresh-mowed grass and budding lilacs wafting through my open window. I would lie in bed, barely awake, enjoying the odorous splendors of spring, when a parent would throw open the door and bark, "It's after 10, put on some clothes and come help!"

That much land takes work. So Saturday mornings meant mowing, weeding, watering, whacking, what have you. I would sit cross-legged on the edge of our driveway, yawning, and delicately pull weeds from the flower beds. With three fingers pinched and two extended, I plucked each weed in the same manner one might use to lift their cup during high tea. My mother would laugh as she walked passed and call me "dainty," a word I still take offense to. At the time, I would have much rather been doing other things, anything really, than working in my mother's garden. But now, it's something I look back on as time I spent connecting with the earth and getting my hands a little (very little, actually) dirty.

Recently, I decided those were things I could use more of in my life. So I joined a community garden in South St. Louis City. It resides in an empty commercial lot in the Cherokee Street business district. The garden, called Cherokee Real, consists of raised beds that anyone can adopt and use to grow their own food. If I want to know my food, create a healthier relationship to it, growing it (and subsequently killing and devouring it) seems like a step in the right direction.

Last week everyone involved gathered at an arts center near the garden and planted seeds. I did not know this, but when you grow vegetables and flowers from seeds, you have to plant them in soil during the winter and keep them indoors to become sprouts before they go in the ground. I'm learning already.


We planted a huge amount of seeds that night for a number of plants: tomatoes, cauliflower, chili peppers, bell peppers, onions, carrots, melons, eggplant, lettuce and herbs, including lemongrass, basil, purslane, parsley, cilantro, chives, and much more. 


I'm very excited for our planting day later this month, as well as watching my food grow from seeds into plants. I know nothing substantial about gardening, so I've got a lot to learn. I can't wait to get my hands a lot dirtier this time around.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Bread Heads

"…thinking like a baker…means thinking formulaically and structurally and then baking by an elusive quality called feel, not just blindly following a recipe without knowing the reasons behind certain steps." 
~Peter Reinhart, “The Bread Baker’s Apprentice”

While visiting my parents for Christmas last year, my aunt taught me and my boyfriend how to make bread from scratch. Without a machine. We instantly fell in love with the process. The nerve-wracking delicateness of the yeast, the total upper body workout you get from kneading, and of course the way the whole house smells like fresh-baked, yeasty, grainy goodness for the whole day. We have been baking our own bread since.

We use organic flour, yeast and butter, and local honey from the farmers’ market to make the only recipe we know: honey whole-wheat sandwich loaves. Since we use premium ingredients, we don’t save much money per loaf. However, it tastes so much better than store bought bread, and most importantly to us, we know e.x.a.c.t.l.y. what’s in our bread. We get a little drunk on the power—controlling the ingredients and the quality of our food—but we are limited in our bread-baking abilities.

Fortunately, my friend Kristin, who makes the most amazing pizza crust I’ve ever tasted, agreed to share her ultimate bread recipe with me. Originally printed in the New York Times on November 8, 2006, journalist Mark Bittman revised the hit recipe to require less rising time by adding more yeast, and that is the version we made. Kristin uses it for everything from pizza to sandwich bread to a crusty round for tearing off and dipping in oil (or smearing with butter, if you want to be real about it).

We spent a cold-but-sunny Saturday afternoon in her kitchen, playing with dough. We made a batch for bread that I could take with me, and a batch she could use for pizza (she added cornmeal to make a deep-dish version). No matter its destined form, the recipe is the same, and surprisingly basic: flour, water, yeast, and salt. In her expertise, Kristin uses heaping amounts of each dry ingredient measurement, and adds ½ the water first, then only as much water from that point forward as it needs to make the dough come clean away from the side of the bowl—but not so much that it’s impossibly sticky.

Let it rise for up to 4 hours. We sat our bowls in the sun because the kitchen was a little chilly, and it rose an adequate amount in 3 hours’ time. The next part is where this recipe jumps the normal bread-baking tracks. You put a pot and the lid in the oven and preheat the whole shebang to 450°. Then you form the dough slightly, coat it with olive oil, and place it in the pot.

To back up for a moment, this whole hot-pot step is where you can decide which form you want this dough to take. For pizza, you would roll out the risen dough, let it rest on a bed of cornmeal, top it, and place it on a preheated pizza stone. For smaller loaves, you would form the dough and place it in a preheated, rectangular metal baking pan and perhaps use a cookie sheet for the lid. You can get creative and make this dough into any shape you need.

But back to my round loaf… After baking at 450° for 30 minutes, you remove the lid and let it bake another 15 minutes uncovered. And that’s it! Perfect white bread.

Lucky for me, I got to stick around for some free smells after my bread was done and Kristin made her amazing pizza sauce for her deep-dish cornmeal crust pizza. She even taught me how to make the sauce. But that recipe will have to wait for when I attempt to make pizza with my newfound dough skills.