Friday, December 30, 2011

Looking back at the solstice

Well, this week's Dark Days Challenge was a wash. Between visiting friends and rushing around and eating out, I didn't do very much cooking. With my favorite farmers' market closed for the holidays (two Sundays in a row!), I have gone out of my way to visit other markets, but even then, there were less vendors and therefore less variety. So for the fifth installment, I'm looking back at last week, to the meal I made to celebrate Yule, also known as the winter solstice.

There are eight neo-pagan festival days, called sabbats, which happen throughout the year. I especially love celebrating these days because they mark the changing of the seasons, which allows me to truly appreciate what is happening right now (in nature, with the weather, and with local produce) and gets me excited about what's soon to come. When I cook on these days, I typically turn to a cookbook called Cooking by Moonlight (out of print, unfortunately). Because neo-paganism emphasizes seasonality and taking cues from our natural surroundings, this book really speaks to the way that I like to cook, using seasonal, organic ingredients and putting together ingredients in a mindful way. For the solstice, I decided to make Orange-Marinated Rockfish over Warmed Spinach with Walnuts with Thyme Smashed Potatoes.

The original recipe called for salmon, but H&H Fish at the market was selling Monterey Bay-caught (60 mi) rockfish, also known as rock cod, at a reasonable price. I brought the ziptop bag home and marinated the fish in a mixture of juice from oranges from Rojas Family Farms (190 mi, just outside my foodshed — d'oh!), Meyer lemon juice from a friend's tree (11 mi), and a little sage honey from the Golden Comb (110 mi). Then I baked it in the oven and served it on top of some sauteed spinach from Tomatero Farms (40 mi) with walnuts from a vendor whose name I forget (so I can't look them up right now), with a little more of the citrus sauce drizzled on top. On the side, I made smashed Yukon Gold potatoes from Happy Boy Farm (40 mi), seasoned with Strauss (90 mi) milk and butter and thyme from my garden. The original recipe called for dill, but I don't grow that particular herb and didn't have any locally-grown on hand.

The meal was a really nice way to celebrate the return of the sun and to welcome the longer days ahead. The full recipes are after the jump.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

It's a monochromatic German Christmas!

Inspired by a German Christmas Menu on Saveur's site, I had planned to make this meal for Christmas Eve dinner, but it turns out we'll be going to my mom's for dinner tonight. Instead, I made this for Christmas Eve Eve dinner. It also happens to be my fourth installment of the Dark Days Challenge, since it was made entirely of locally-sourced, organic, ethically-grown, and seasonal ingredients.

Saveur's Turkey with Sauerkraut, Riesling, and Pork Sausage became a one-pot dish of sauerkraut, bockwurst, and boiled potatoes. I started by slicing some onions from Borba Farms (40 mi) and sauteing them briefly before adding chopped pasture-raised bacon from Range Brothers Buckin' Pork (120 mi). After a quick stir, I added fermented, organic sauerkraut from Farmhouse Culture Kraut (30 mi) and diced Pink Lady apples from Prevedelli Farms (40 mi). I made a little cheesecloth bag and filled it with thyme from my garden, parsley from Happy Boy Farms (40 mi), and a bay leaf from a house in Portola Valley (26 mi), then added that to the pot. I poured over a little water and left the pot to cook for a while. After about five minutes, I added several small, unpeeled German Butterball potatoes from Happy Boy Farms, rotating them in the sauerkraut mixture occasionally until they were soft, which took about twenty minutes. Then I added two bockwurst sausages from Range Brothers, which were fully cooked and just needed to be reheated. The result was delicious, though lacking in color.

To remedy that, on the side I served a dandelion greens salad with hot bacon dressing. Saveur calls for a spinach salad, but they included a note that "[d]uring the 19th century (and perhaps before), German-Americans used the flavorful dressing to coat dandelion greens." So I picked up some dandelion from Tomatero Farms (40 mi) and coated them with a dressing made from crisped bacon from Range Brothers and sauteed shallots from Borba Farms, mixed with sherry vinegar, dijion mustard, and sugar (none of which were local — because, again, I wasn't thinking). The greens weren't as bitter as I was expecting them to be, which is good because bitter is not my favorite flavor, but the dressing was way too tart next too the tang of the sauerkraut. Next time I'll reduce the amount of vinegar.

Savuer's menu called for mulled wine to drink with the meal. Instead, we had a delicious Mourvedre from Bonny Doon Vineyards, made with grapes from Contra Costa County (60 mi). This was paired with Christmas cookies made by families in my classroom (which, while probably not made with local ingredients, were cooked locally and made with love).

Merry Christmas, everyone, and happy eating!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Tapping my German roots

For the third installment of the Dark Days Challenge, I figured it was time to get serious and take the time to plan and make a full SOLE (seasonal, organic, local, ethical) meal. Inspired while looking at some other blogs, I decided to try my hand at German food. My father's maternal grandparents were from Germany, and I liked the idea of getting in touch with my German roots. The meal ended up being of German-Jewish origin (and we're Catholic), but I imagine my forebears ate foods that were similar — I mean, doesn't everyone in Germany eat cabbage and potatoes?

Dinner was spinach latkes with applesauce and cabbage stuffed with mushrooms. I bought nearly all the ingredients at the farmers' market: Bloomsdale spinach and savoy cabbage from Tomatero Farms (40 mi), Yukon Gold potatoes and parsley from Happy Boy Farms (45 mi), shallots and tomatoes from Borba Farms (40 mi), and mushrooms from J&M Ibarra Farms (167 mi — I didn't realize they were outside my foodshed and will avoid using them for a Dark Days Challenge in the future!). The apples for the applesauce came from my aunt's backyard (30 mi), Meyer lemon juice was from a friend's yard (11 mi), and thyme came from my container garden.

Doing this challenge has made me think about the sources of my food even more so than before. Eating locally has always seemed like a breeze, because I do go to the farmers' market every weekend and buy many of my groceries there. Still, there are so many ingredients I use that I knowingly can't get locally but that I don't think twice about buying: spices, oils, and grains, for example. Xan of Not Dabbling in Normal wrote a post about eating locally, in which she points out that the Dark Days Challenge is meant to be an intellectual challenge, not a practical one. That is, it is supposed to make us stop and think when it comes to things like salt, cinnamon, and bananas. It does seem a little silly (though you can try if you like) to give up all non-local foods forever, because we happen to live in a world where goods from other parts of the state, country, and world are available at our very fingertips without a moment's notice — so if you want a fair-trade, organic bar of chocolate, why not? If I love ginger and put it in everything during the wintertime, from soups to stir-fries to cookies, why give it up just because it's imported (even though that's the only way I'll get it)? For the challenges, I know why we have to do that: to get us to understand how to get by with what we have within our foodshed. It brings both an appreciation for the local food we have, as well as foods that we must get from further away.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Not my grandmother's tuna casserole

I'm definitely a fan of tuna casserole. I had it for the first time in college, using a recipe from Clueless in the Kitchen. (Which happens to be one of my all-time favorite cookbooks. It's meant to be for the young, novice cook, which I was when I got it oh-so many years ago, and it's got some classic, reliable recipes that I continue to turn to even now.) I know it's a cliche, but there is something truly comforting about pasta smothered in warm, creamy mushroom sauce with crunchy potato chips on top.

In the years since I've become more particular about where my food comes from, I've tried to find ways to make tuna casserole a local, sustainable, and organic meal. I switched from crushed Ruffles potato chips to whole wheat breadcrumbs made from stale Beckmann's bread and from Campbell's condensed cream of mushroom soup to Annie's Organic cream of mushroom. The problem with the Annie's soup, though, is that it's too watery, being that it's not condensed. This all but eliminated the creamy sauce that makes a really great tuna casserole. But recently, I figured out how to solve that problem, thanks to your good friend and mine, Alton Brown.

Mr. Brown has a recipe for a green bean casserole, which he calls Not Your Mama's Green Bean Casserole. My friend Jessica brought it to Thanksgiving dinner, and I loved the mushroom sauce that enveloped the green beans. So I used that sauce in my tuna casserole — and you know what? It was the perfect sauce for that casserole, too.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The bumpy road to local

With all the gloating I do about being so lucky to be living in California, it was only a matter of time before I was forced to admit that it's not always easy to come up with entirely SOLE (seasonal, organic, local, and ethical) meals. While I do get nearly all my produce and eggs from the farmers market, there are many other foods that I don't go the full nine yards to make sure they're local. Organic, yes, Sustainable... as much as possible. Local? Well, I try. My second entry into the Dark Days Challenge is a cream of greens soup. It was inspired by Tyler Florence's corn chowder recipe, which I use all the time during the summer, and the cream of spinach soup from Simply Recipes. It also has no cream to speak of — because I had no local cream in my fridge.

I typically buy my milk, butter, and cream from Strauss, which is carried by Whole Foods. They are about 100 miles away, so they fall within my local foodshed. But sometimes Strauss cream and butter, while delicious, are too expensive. In which case, I buy Clover, which is also located about 100 miles away, and I don't always get the organic cream and butter. Sometimes I'll get the Trader Joe's brand of organic cream or butter, and who knows where that comes from? Either way, though, I feel like I'm cheating when I buy from the grocery store, instead of from the vendor directly, like I do at the farmers' market. I don't necessarily feel like I'm buying locally when I go through the middle man that is a non-local chain grocery store. The market I go to does have a raw milk vendor, but it is far too out of my price range to buy on a regular basis. In fact, I've never purchased raw milk simply because it's too expensive. I could get four times as much Strauss whole milk for the price of a quart of locally-produced (at 146 miles, it's just inside my foodshed) Organic Pastures raw milk.

And this is a problem. It should not cost so much to get good, honest milk and dairy products — or any food that is produced locally, organically, and sustainably. It's not right that only the well-off can eat ethical, organic meat and dairy. Someday, I will have a goat, and then my milk (as well as my eggs, fruits, and veggies) will only come as far as my back yard. In the meantime, though, I would like to be able to eat a "normal" American diet from SOLE ingredients that don't break the bank. I want to be able to show non-believers that it is possible to eat delicious whole foods and not have to give up your whole paycheck. I struggle with this, though, because sometimes it's not possible to avoid the cost. This doesn't mean I'll go back to conventional foods, because I'm enough of a snob about it now that it seems gross to purchase and eat cheaply-grown, cheaply-made foodstuffs. I do give up eating meat if it's too expensive. How do I convince others to do this, too?

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Another pot of jook

I have to get up really early in the morning during the week. Ridiculously early. My cats haven't even woken up when my alarm goes off at 5:45AM. And my stomach sure isn't interested in food at that time of day.

I've gone through phases when it comes to breakfast. In college, I would have a banana and frozen blueberry smoothie with a piece of toast and peanut butter. I ate this for weeks before I switched to a bowl of rice with a fried egg on top, drizzled with oyster sauce. I've had oatmeal phases, scrambled eggs with baked beans and toast phases, and BLT phases. Over the years, I've come to two conclusions: 1) I'm not really a breakfast person, and I don't really like traditional breakfast foods first thing in the morning; and 2) I'd rather eat savory foods for breakfast.

An epiphany came when I was reading an article in Cooking Light, which featured some recipes for twists on breakfast foods. There was a sidebar about breakfast foods in other countries, which noted that in countries like China, jook is a common breakfast food. A light bulb went off for me at that moment. Jook sounded like the perfect breakfast food for me. When I was small, my mom would make lugaw, the Filipino version of jook, when I had the stomach flu. Jook/lugaw is a rice porridge cooked with chicken. It's plain and comforting and filling, perfect for a sensitive stomach in the wee hours of the morning. Since my taste buds work fine, even before the sun rises, I like to season my jook with salt, pepper, chopped lettuce, and cilantro.

Jook is easy as all get out to make. In a large pot, put one whole chicken leg or one chicken carcass (you know, from a roast chicken after you've eaten most of it), and pour over about 6 cups of water. Bring to a simmer, and cook 30 minutes for raw chicken and 15 minutes for cooked. Remove the chicken to a plate, and add one cup of brown rice to the water. Boil for two hours, stirring occasionally so that the rice doesn't stick to the bottom. Meanwhile, when the chicken is cool enough to handle, remove the meat from the bones and return the bones to the pot. Do this as soon as you can while the rice is cooking. Shred the meat and set aside. When the jook has reached the consistency of rice pudding, put the meat back into the pot and remove the bones. Season with salt and pepper, and cook for five more minutes. Serve with shredded lettuce, cilantro, and/or sliced ginger. Watch out for small bones or bits of gristle which may have detached during cooking.

One pot of this simple rice dish lasts me an entire work week. It's easy on my stomach, and I don't set off on my hour-and-a-half commute with the beginnings of hunger pangs.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Moving slowly away from the light

My first entry into the Dark Days Challenge is my locally-inspired take on pinakbet. It's a Filipino vegetable stew that has been compared to ratatouille (which I think is an erroneous comparison — because they're nothing alike, apart from being a mix of several vegetables). Typically, it contains winter squash, bitter melon, long beans, okra, eggplant, and onions, as well as some pork or shrimp. I based mine entirely on the local produce I had available in my kitchen this past weekend: tomatoes, onions, Fairy Tale eggplant, and chayote.

As I noted in a previous post, I'm pretty lucky to be living in California, where there are still tomatoes and eggplants being sold at the farmers' market. So to be honest, I'm not feeling the "dark days" quite yet. I probably won't really feel it until January, when it's just citrus and apples, root veggies and greens at the market. Meanwhile, I'm taking advantage of the dwindling supply of summer's bounty. The eggplant came from Route 1 Farms (45 mi), the tomatoes and onions from Happy Boy Farms (45 mi), and the chayote from the garden of my mother's neighbor (30 mi).

For the actual dish itself, I drew from a recipe in the December 2008 issue of Saveur (which soothed my homesickness when I visited the Anthropologist during his field work in New Delhi), as well as from a post by the blogger Burnt Lumpia. Pinakbet calls for bagoong, a fermented fish paste, which I don't keep in stock (and wouldn't use for a Dark Days meal anyhow). In keeping with the "authentic" flavor of this dish, though, I did use patis, or fish sauce, which I considered to be a kind of salt — one of my non-local exceptions. Okay, fine, I cheated a little. But I didn't think plain salt would do the trick.

To make this pinakbet, cut the vegetables into large chunks and place into a pot that is just large enough to hold everything. Add about a quarter cup of water and a tablespoon or two of patis. Simmer until the vegetables have gone soft, stirring occasionally and gently so as not to break down the veggies.

In the end, the pinakbet was just okay. It didn't have a lot of flavor — and I like things to really have a big punch of flavor. It was a quiet, mild vegetable stew, the sort of thing I could see myself eating if I were feeling flu-ish. I'd like to try this again and include long beans, okra, and kabocha squash, which should improve the flavor of the broth and which I can get from a vendor at the market that sells Asian vegetables.

A final note: The brown rice is another of my non-local exceptions (because I eat so much rice). I buy it from the bulk bins at Whole Foods, where it stocks rice from Lundberg Family Farms. This farm is located 195 miles from where I live, so it's definitely outside my locavore foodshed. Relatively speaking, though, it's not terribly far away. I mean, I could be living in Idaho and getting my rice trucked in from Louisiana, where it might not even be organically- or sustainably-grown. So my rice isn't perfect, but it's a pretty darn good choice for rice.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

For all the turkeys that came before

Thanksgiving is one of those days that is chock full of memories. Everyone has a story of foods they ate as a child, or the time some kitchen disaster befell the meal, or the legend of something a family member once did. Memories — from the nostalgic to the dysfunctional — haunt days like today.

To be honest, I don't really remember what I ate on Thanksgiving when I was growing up. Oh, sure, there was turkey, but I think that my mom was in charge of the meal — and being that she is a native of the Philippines, the traditional bird was accompanied by rice and Filipino dishes. I do remember that at some point in my early grade school career, we were served a Thanksgiving lunch in the cafeteria (which was a Big Deal since we all had to bring our own lunches every day). It featured more expected fare, like mashed potatoes and boiled carrots. After which, I returned home to ask why we didn't eat those things when we had Thanksgiving — and so they began to appear at our Thanksgiving meals. We never did eat green bean casserole or cranberry jelly or things like that. I often wonder if this was because my father, having been born and raised in the Midwest and having escaped to San Francisco as a young man, was trying to get as far as he could from the cuisine of Minnesota by pretending it didn't exist. (He is a gourmand of sorts, who likes to avoid the convenience foods of his upbringing and who, I think, inspires the way I cook today.) Anyway, my parents being who they are resulted in less than memorable Thanksgivings for me, to say the least.

Even now, I have to admit that I'm not that excited about my family's Thanksgiving meal. In recent years, the turkey has been featured with my mother's mashed potatoes, my aunt's molded iceberg salad, grocery store pies, rice (of course), and a variety of Filipino dishes. It's those other dishes, the ones my mom's side of the family are best at making, that demand my attention at Thanksgiving lunch. Bring on the palabok, I say! I love that so many people, no matter what country they might hail from, seem to enjoy celebrating Thanksgiving (well, how could you not want to celebrate an entire day dedicated to eating?) and that I hear so many cultural variations on the meal — which include lechon, hot pot, or Korean barbecue. But leave the turkey out then. "Tradition" isn't worth it if the meat's dried out.

For many years, I've made up for the lack of those American traditions I never had by making my own separate Thanksgiving meal. Sometimes it was just prepared for me and the Anthropologist, but more recently, I've been having friends over to share in potluck-style Thanksgiving gluttony. I make roast chicken and pie, while they bring sides dishes and more pie. We eat the foods we love now as adults and make new memories together. And isn't that what Thanksgiving is truly all about?

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Just in time for winter

Wow, it's dusty in here! I haven't posted in — what, almost a year? Which isn't to say I haven't been cooking. Quite the opposite, actually. In the spring, I cooked my way through The Sunset Cookbook. In the summer, I let the produce of the farmers' market be my guide. Lately, I've been cooking the featured recipes on Fine Cooking's Facebook page. Soon I want to start putting to use the fabulous Essential New York Times Cookbook (which is the kind of cookbook that demands a thorough read — so I'm not even halfway finished!). Also, I really got into canning, and it truly became an obsession. It was hard to look at fruits and veggies and not consider how I could can them! I made berry and stone fruit jams, different kinds of chutney, peach barbecue sauce, even watermelon rind pickles.

I've tried to do all sorts of things with this blog, all while writing about the food I'm eating. I've tried to find "challenges" and post about them. These never seemed to get further than one or two posts. I've tried to track how much my meals cost to make, in order to prove that one really can eat organic, local food and not spend buckets of money. This made writing about food less interesting. I think that in order to keep up this blog, I'm just going to go back to writing about what is exciting me in the kitchen these days — and hope that you find that exciting enough to read.