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11 Jan 2011

In Praise of Braises

Posted by annmcolford. No Comments

What a busy week it’s been—the first of the year has brought some extra work in the ol’ accounting realm, leaving me little time to work on my, um, income-free projects. But at least I’ve had time to cook. The post-rent cash is rather scarce this week, so I’ve drawn from my freezer inventory. With a little invention, lots of delicious things landed on my plate, including a couple of braises and a new way to prepare butternut squash.

But first, the most recent dish: grilled salmon with cilantro-lime sauce, following the recipe from The Fishes & Dishes Cookbook, published this summer by Epicenter Press. (The authors, women who own and operate a fishing boat out of Alaska, also have a blog, available here. They visited Spokane over Labor Day weekend 2010, and I was lucky enough to attend a backyard dinner party for them, where they prepared this recipe.)

I had purchased a vacuum-sealed frozen fillet of wild Alaskan Sockeye salmon (just shy of two pounds) a while back and was waiting for an opportunity to share it with friends. So I took it out of the freezer a couple of days ahead to defrost slowly in the fridge then put the call out to a couple of friends for dinner. Sadly, they didn’t respond. That happens sometimes. But I had a thawed salmon, so I poured myself a wee glass of pinot noir and went ahead with my plans.

Grilled salmon with cilatro-lime sauce

First I prepped the sauce. The cookbook’s directions call for using a food processor, but since I don’t have one I chopped, minced and stirred everything by hand instead of relying on technology. Here’s the deal: Mince four cloves of garlic, then mince the leaves from a bunch of cilantro. Add olive oil (2 to 4 tablespoons), the juice of one lime, and sea salt to taste. Stir it all up and let everything mingle nicely while you grill up the salmon according to your preferred method. (My preferred method is in a ridged grill pan on top of the stove, because that’s what I have.) Cook the salmon about 4 minutes per side (starting flesh side down) on a well-oiled grill or grill pan; top each cooked salmon portion with a generous dollop of the cilantro-lime sauce. Make mildly provocative noises of delight as you eat. (This won’t be difficult.)

This dish was also popular with the feline members of the household—other than during those few scary moments when I set off the smoke alarm while preheating the grill pan. In fact, Henry attempted Grand Theft Salmon while I was preoccupied with the aforementioned noises of pleasure. Luckily, he (and one chunk of salmon) landed on the floor with a thud, thus alerting the Authority (a.k.a., me). I rescued the salmon (mostly unharmed), invoking the famous (and sensible) five-second rule, and Henry ended up with a Kitty Time-Out as punishment.

Earlier in the week I had a chance to practice my braising skills, first with beef (a pound or so of round steak) and then with lamb (about a half-pound cut). Braising is one technique that I’ve seldom attempted, and I confessed my insecurity to a couple of chef friends last year. They both assured me that braising was simple but then rattled off several steps of instructions that left me dubious.

Perhaps it’s a coincidence, but within a few weeks each one offered a cooking class demonstrating several recipes—including a braise. I was thrilled and signed up for both classes. Once I actually witnessed the process, I realized that, yes, braising really is easy. It’s kind of like a cross between a browned stew (with less water) and a pot roast. I came away from those cooking classes last spring with copies of all the recipes demonstrated, so I decided to revisit two of them with some minor variations.

For the round steak, I modeled my dish on Chef Anna Vogel’s oxtail stew recipe—same seasonings, less water. And, of course, using my round steak instead of oxtails. (Not that I’m opposed to oxtails; I just had round steak in the freezer.) First, I sprinkled salt and pepper over my round steak and seared it in olive oil over medium-high heat in a deep skillet. When it was browned on both sides, I removed the beef from the pan and tossed in a handful each of chopped onion, celery and carrot, stirring everything around and cooking it until the onions became translucent. After returning the seared beef to the pan, I poured in some turkey stock (just because that’s what I had handy; you could use any meat or veggie stock, or even water) and red wine. Total liquid measured about 1 cup and did NOT cover the meat. I also added a clove of garlic, chopped, plus a bay leaf and a tiny pinch of thyme. After bringing the liquid to a simmer, I reduced the heat, covered the skillet and let it all cook together for an hour or so, until the meat was fall-apart tender.

Chef Anna’s stew recipe actually has several more steps—that’s what separates chef-artists from us mere mortals in the kitchen; well, that, plus way flashier knife skills—but at this point the beef and veggies were ready, by my reckoning. I served it with brown rice that night and had leftovers for two or three more meals (meaning that about a pound of beef would easily serve four, if that’s closer to your family size).

The next night, I took a smaller chunk of lamb (just a bit more than a half-pound) and set myself to braising again. This time I followed instructions from Chef Nicholas St. Clair, formerly of Café Marron and now in Atlanta. His recipe called for braising three lamb shanks, so I had to size things down considerably, but, again, I basically just took the recipe as a guidance plan and adapted accordingly.

Once again, I salted and peppered the meat, then seared it in olive oil. I pulled the meat from the pan then sautéed some diced onion; I added a clove of garlic, minced, and about a teaspoon of grated fresh ginger root. Next came some wine, less than a ¼ cup (I used red; Chef Nick called for white), 3 or 4 saffron threads, about a teaspoon of honey, part of a bay leaf, part of a cinnamon stick and maybe a tablespoon of raisins (the recipe called for dates, but I didn’t have any), all brought to a simmer. I returned the meat to the pan, making sure that the liquid didn’t cover it, then put a couple of sprigs of cilantro on top. At this point, Chef Nick’s recipe called for five hours, covered, in a 250-degree oven (which makes for incredibly tender and lip-smackin’-good lamb shanks), then reducing the sauce and finishing it with butter. But I wanted dinner sooner than that, so I chose to just cover the pan, turn the heat to low and let it simmer until tender, about 45 minutes. At that point, I took the cover off the pan and turned the heat up a notch, to reduce the liquid ever so slightly before serving. (Sorry, no photos of the braises–next time.)

The wonderful thing about braising, whether done in the oven or on top of the stove, is that you can turn an inexpensive cut of meat into a meal that’s full of flavor and richness. The characteristics that make a cut less desirable—bones, fat, connective tissues—become assets in the low moist heat of braising. There’s a lesson here, I think, about recognizing and developing the gifts that are presented to us—whether we’re talking about a cut of meat, or ourselves. If you take a round steak (or a blade steak or a chuck roast) and try to turn it into a rib-eye, you’ll be disappointed. But if you work with it, appreciate it for what it is, and cook it in a way that enhances its qualities, then you turn it into the best-possible round steak that it can be.

Using cuts of meat that some may consider substandard is also a way to eat sustainably. After all, I’ve never met a cow that’s all prime rib and tenderloin; somebody’s gotta eat the tougher, bony bits, and if I can braise ’em into tenderness while saving some money, I’ll gladly do it.

Braising takes time, plus knowledge that’s been lost (or at least misplaced) in the decades since our grandmothers’ time. And yet the rewards are great. Perhaps we need a renaissance of braising—along with canning and stewing and all those other lost food arts—not just as an exercise in artisanal foodways, but as a way to really make a difference in the lives of our neighbors who struggle to eat healthfully within ever-tightening budgets.

3 Jan 2011

Hey, Baby, I’m Trendy

Posted by annmcolford. 3 Comments

According to a report on NPR this weekend, one of the “it” foods this year is kale, the lovely and sturdy green that’s so readily available around here in winter. After stating that “vegetables are the new meat,” the report continues: “One of the most glam vegetables will be kale. Look for the frilly bouquet of slightly bitter, dark greens both cooked and raw in a salad.”

“Glam” as a modifier for “vegetable”: Now there’s a word combo I never thought I’d see.

If you’ve been following along here, then you know that I mention kale often. Kale was a regular part of my CSA box during the summer (along with chard, spinach and beet greens), and it’s easy to find at Huckleberry’s, the Main Market and the Rocket Market when the weather turns cold. I have sautéed kale nearly every morning as the base for my morning egg, and I add it to soups and stews regularly. On Sunday, I even tried something new—lightly sautéed kale dressed with diced apple (Fuji) and chopped almonds, sort of halfway between a warm dish and a salad. (I was inspired by a recipe in the New York Times for a salad made with thinly sliced kale, plus apples, almonds and chunks of cheddar, in a lemony vinaigrette—thus proving that kale is indeed being seen in all the hip places.)

There’s a bag of kale in my fridge even as we speak. Guess I’m a kale rock star. I am the queen of this year’s glam vegetable.

I’ve never really been one of the cutting-edge cool people before, so I’m not entirely sure how I should act.

Cut the kale into thin strips...

I think I’ll ignore my newfound coolness for now and just talk about the kale-and-apple dish for one. (If you’re more than one, multiply accordingly.) First, I cut the kale (a leaf or two, depending on size) into thin strips, removing the tough center rib first, while the sauté pan is heating. Then I put a combo of olive oil and butter (for extra richness and flavor) in the pan. When it’s hot, I add the sliced kale, sprinkle on a tiny dash of salt and pepper, and throw in some onion (dehydrated ones today, to save time, but often I use chopped fresh onion), then stir it all around until everything’s coated. Cook, stirring, over medium heat for a minute or two, until the kale turns bright green and begins to soften. Add a splash (a tablespoon or less) of water (or green tea) and cover, reducing heat. While the kale is steaming, chop up a quarter of a Fuji apple (skin on, for color contrast) and about a dozen almonds. When the kale is tender (but still bright green; less than five minutes), arrange the cooked kale on a pretty plate and top with the chopped apple and almonds.

... and top sauteed kale with chopped apples and almonds.

The entire preparation of this dish took maybe ten minutes, but it’s ten minutes that fewer and fewer Americans are taking these days. As food writer Mark Bittman noted on New Year’s Eve in the New York Times, Americans are cooking less even as we spend 35 hours each week watching television (and several of those hours involve watching other people cook). Bittman contends that with a repertoire of three dishes people can learn to cook for themselves, without relying on takeout, processed or convenience foods (other than frozen vegetables). His three dishes are a stir fry, a rice-and-lentils dish, and a chopped salad—all veggie-heavy meals that can be made either with meat or without, with plenty of variations.

And I think he’s onto something. With a stir fry, the nascent cook learns the art of the sauté; rice and lentils get cooked in water on the stovetop. The salad requires no cooking at all, only chopping—thus developing good knife skills. You wouldn’t even need an oven to turn out these healthful meals.

But without an oven, you’d miss out on the joys of freshly baked bread, or cookies that are still warm—like the newest variation on my basic wheat-free cookie recipe: Mexican chocolate cookies, inspired by a recipe posted by Celeste Shaw on the Chaps Coffee Co. Facebook page.

Warm, fragrant, spicy, chocolate...

I followed my recipe for Chocolate-Ginger Cookies (see Recipes tab), substituting chili powder for the ginger in the dough, and then rolling the dough in a blend of sugar, cinnamon and cayenne. Oh-so-very tasty, especially fresh from the oven.

Next time, I’ll tell you all about my adventures in braising. But for now, it’s quiet time, as I bask in the glory of my new trendiness—because I know it won’t last long.

30 Dec 2010

Post-holiday Mellow

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As promised, I cooked over the holiday weekend—but I found a nice balance of both giving and receiving hospitality. After grabbing a quick snack here, my Christmas day began with a lovely walk across town—through the quiet canyons of downtown, past the falls, along the river and through the campus of Gonzaga University—to the home of friends Linda and Dan. Their daughter Emily joined us, along with Cate and Ann, and we shared a lovely Christmas brunch. Everyone else had French toast and grilled ham, but Linda made a batch of pancakes using buckwheat and a gluten-free baking mix, especially for me (although Cate decided that they were really tasty, and I had to elbow her out of the way to get the last bite). We visited, shared stories, added Bailey’s to our coffee, and generally had a wonderful time.

Wheat-free chocolate-ginger cookies... yum.

Back at home, I whipped up a batch of wheat-free chocolate-ginger cookies, adapting a recipe for soft sugar cookies that I adore. (That was after taking the traditional Christmas afternoon nap, of course.) Then I threw together a rice pilaf (sautéed shallot, red pepper and celery, combined with a blend of three different brown rices) and brought the pilaf, the cookies and half a bottle of wine over to Cate and Ann’s for dinner. Ann had prepared a pot roast, following her mother’s recipe, and that was one delicious pot roast. By the time dinner was done, we were all pooped (especially Cate, who tootled off to bed about 8 pm, after yawning and drooping for a half-hour at the table). So I came back home, tidied the kitchen, and spent some quiet time writing and reading in the company of kitties.

On Sunday, I tried out bread-making with emmer flour, following the recipe I used to make my spelt bread a couple of weeks ago. Emmer is another cousin to our modern wheat; actually, it’s an ancestor of Durum wheat varieties, as I understand. (You can read all about both emmer and spelt on the Lentz Farms website; I used Lentz’s emmer flour for my bread this week.) Much like the spelt bread, the emmer dough felt more delicate than a wheat dough and didn’t rise very high. Yet it still baked up tender on the inside and crusty brown on the outside.

Later in the day, I revisited the Mexican-influenced chicken soup recipe, using some of the leftover meat and broth from my Thanksgiving turkey. (It’s been in the freezer since last month.) I had no cilantro, and I had leftover cooked barley rather than rice; plus, the only peppers I had were a jalapeno and a sweet red Bell, rather than the Anaheim pepper from the first round. But I forged ahead, referring to my notes from the first batch, back in my post from December 14. Turkey tends to be heartier and heavier than chicken, and the turkey stock followed suit. Barley is more substantial than rice, as well, so this edition of the soup just felt denser and heavier—more like stew than soup.

Linda and Dan came over for soup (and fresh-baked emmer bread) on Sunday evening, then I served the rest on Tuesday to three other friends when we gathered for a haircut night (soup and wine and treats in exchange for haircutting services). The very last scoop of soup ended up as a variation for my morning egg yesterday—I cooked it down until the liquid was nearly evaporated, then dropped a single egg in the center for a quick poaching. Yum.

Now my leftovers are gone. I need to come up with inspiration for meals leading into the next holiday weekend. (I don’t generally get up to a lot of mischief over New Year’s; it’s a more meditative kind of holiday for me, kind of like the end of the solstice period.) I picked up some veggies yesterday, and I have a few meat choices in the freezer. It’s supposed to be frigidly cold over the next few days, so some kind of comfort food is in order, I think. For now, I am enjoying the sunshine, after yesterday’s snowfall, while finishing my morning coffee.

24 Dec 2010

Silent Night, Liminal Night

Posted by annmcolford. 1 Comment

Winter stillness

I’ve been pondering the concept of liminality this week, as we marked the winter solstice. (“Liminal,” from the Latin limen, meaning “threshold,” is really nothing more than a high-falutin’ way of saying “neither here or there,” despite lots of heavy academic debate over its usage.)

The solstice is clearly a threshold, a moment in between the time of decreasing sun and the time when the daylight increases each day. But the curious thing is that the amount of daylight doesn’t simply decrease-decrease-decrease and then suddenly switch and increase-increase-increase. It’s more subtle than that.

Think of a car, traveling forward; in order to go backward, the car has to slow, stop, and then begin to go backward. That’s basically what happens with our hours of daylight. After steadily losing daylight all through October and November, the rate of change slows during December. For a three-week period from December 11 through January 1, the number of daylight hours here at latitude 47.6 degrees north hovers between 8 hours 33 minutes and 8 hours 25 minutes (according to the online almanac at StarDate).

The other curiosity is that our earliest sunset actually happened on December 11 (3:57 pm PST), while our latest sunrise doesn’t come until December 31 and January 1 (7:38 am). Any astrophysicists or meteorologists out there care to explain that phenomenon succinctly?

In any case, while December 21 is the shortest day of the year (and the longest night), there’s very little change in the amount of daylight throughout December. The Earth rests. This year, in particular, I’m feeling a deep need to connect with that sense of stillness, a time of quiet waiting and awareness.

I’m reminded of a time several years ago when I lived in Portland, Maine, and I was walking with a friend on the trail around Back Cove, a shallow inlet protected from the openness of Casco Bay by the peninsula on which downtown Portland sits. (The Portland Trails site has some nice photos.) The tide was ebbing as we walked along the water’s edge, revealing more and more of the mudflats beneath. We paused and sat for a time on a concrete barrier directly across the cove from downtown. Caught up in conversation, I wasn’t paying much attention to the movement of the water—until I became aware of a deep quiet that had settled around us. The tide had drawn down to its lowest point, and the water simply stopped moving. Shore birds—gulls, cormorants, and lots of little ones—converged on the mudflats and feasted on the bugs and other critters in the tide pools. The stillness of the slack water held for maybe 15 or 20 minutes. Then slowly, slowly, the sea began to trickle back. Tide pools and rivulets filled and joined. The birds moved with the water’s edge. The normal sounds of flowing water returned. We stood up and walked back toward home.

In many ways, liminality is a perfect description of the present moment. All that came before us is past, and the future rolls on unknown, but we sit now at the moment between those two vast swaths of time, balanced smartly on the threshold in the middle. Neither here nor there, but simply now. As Buddhist wisdom says, the only place we get to live is in the present moment, so we need to be open and aware as we rest in this liminal space of today.

That’s my meditation for this Silent Night. Tomorrow, I will cook. For tonight, I am sitting in the stillness.

19 Dec 2010

Currying Kindness

Posted by annmcolford. 3 Comments

I began my morning yesterday with curried rice and turkey with vegetables, left over from Thursday. Since I’m trying to eat some kind of animal-based protein at every meal (see my post from November 11), this dish has become a favorite fallback breakfast when I don’t feel like having my usual egg. It’s a good way to use up leftover cooked rice, and just about any meat would work.

Rice-turkey-vegetable curry

For this batch, I sautéed sliced onions, chopped garlic, a diced carrot, and some chopped kale and beet greens in a little bit of olive oil. Okay, maybe more than a little bit. I added a cup or more of leftover cooked brown rice plus about 4 ounces of cooked turkey, chopped into bite-sized pieces. (When I cooked my big turkey at Thanksgiving, I froze the remaining breast meat in serving-sized chunks, so I can retrieve one easily whenever I need it.) Then I sprinkled on about ½ tsp. of ground turmeric plus close to 1 tsp. of good Madras curry powder and added salt and pepper to taste. I stirred it all together, let it brown lightly, then added a couple of tablespoons of liquid (in this case, hot green tea) and let it all schmooze together. I served it in a bowl, topped with a generous handful of cilantro leaves and accompanied by a healthy dollop of chutney.

After fortifying myself so thoroughly, I ended up staying inside all day long, puttering and reading (and napping, if full disclosure is required) as a light snow fell outside. I’ve done a fair amount of entertaining and socializing in the last week, and I did more today—my building had a progressive holiday hors d’oeuvres party, and since I’m on the first floor, it all started with me. As a result, I slipped into recluse mode for most of the weekend—recuperating from all of the gaiety, as it were, and building my social energy for the next round. I am absolutely an introvert in the Myers-Briggs definition of the word, meaning that, although I can socialize with the best of them, I always need some recovery time afterward.

So, I spent a fair amount of time this weekend catching up on my online reading, especially a couple of food-related articles that I’d set aside earlier in the week. Over on the Grist website (Grist.org), food editor Tom Philpott takes the food industry to task for touting the benefits of the relatively low food prices in the United States in his article, “Mythbusting: Cheap food does not equal higher quality of life”. While Americans do indeed spend a lower portion of our incomes on food (a trend begun by Earl Butz during the Nixon administration, as documented by writers Michael Pollan and Greg Critser, and the filmmakers behind King Corn), we also have higher rates of chronic diet-related medical conditions—adult-onset diabetes, obesity, heart disease—than other wealthy, industrialized nations, as Philpott charts in his article. This isn’t news to anyone who follows trends in both food and health. But Philpott also brings income disparity into his analysis, quoting from The Spirit Level, a recent book that examines income distribution. I’ve been following an online discussion of the relationship between inequality and public health, led by University of Washington faculty member Stephen Bezruchka, but it’s wonderful now to see someone linking up those ideas with the conversation that’s been happening in the food world around health issues related to diet and lifestyle. As Philpott points out, “correlation does not prove causation.” But it’s worth more thought and study.

Despite our relatively low food prices, an increasing number of our fellow Americans need help buying groceries. Nutrition professor Marion Nestle points out in a recent Atlantic food blog post that the number of food-stamp recipients has grown from 28.2 million in 2008 to 40.3 million in 2010, or roughly one-eighth of the nation’s population. While economists tell us that the Great Recession is over, life at the lower end of the socio-economic continuum remains a struggle.

So, what do you do if you’re living on a tiny budget, but you recognize the connection between food and health? Being a smart shopper and a creative cook are helpful steps, but both of those roles require time, energy, and information, all resources that may be lacking if you have to work endless hours (both paid and unpaid) to support a family.

I don’t have answers to these perplexing systemic and economic issues; I don’t think anybody does, although I’m guessing that continuing to slash at our social safety net even as we dangle from it is probably not a smart long-term solution. And higher food prices will only hurt the most vulnerable among us, at least in the short run.

At this point—and especially at this time of year—I think the best we can do is to be kind to one another. The person standing in the grocery checkout line ahead of you may be doing some serious household calculus in her head, just to figure out if she can afford both the milk and the cereal for the kids’ breakfast while still paying the utility bill. The guy idling in the car next to yours at the light may be rushing home to get dinner started for the family. He could be just a self-important dweeb who thinks he’s the center of the universe, but I say let’s give him the benefit of the doubt (at least until he cuts you off at the next intersection).

As my friend Linda says, when times get hard, we need our relationships more than ever, just to get through each day. The milk of human kindness is still free, last time I checked. Let’s all make sure we’re well stocked.

14 Dec 2010

Soup and Bread. Again.

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When last we met, I was heading to kitchen to make soup. Well, that soup turned out delicious, and it was the start of a soup-making frenzy over the past month, just in time for the onset of winter weather.

Inspired by a recipe for Mexican Turkey Stew that I saw on the Hispanic Food Network site (http://www.hfntv.com/), I first made a sort of Mexican-influenced chicken soup. Salsa and a hot pepper added a touch of warmth, but the rice and the broth kept things from getting too heavy.

Here’s the lowdown: Sauté chopped onion, garlic and hot wax pepper in olive oil. Add ½ cup white wine, plus a dash of oregano and chili powder. Next, add about 1 quart-plus of chicken stock, plus cut-up leftover chicken. Stir in ¼ cup of mild salsa, and 1 large carrot (or 2 small ones), grated. Pull the leaves off several stems of cilantro until you have about ½ cup of leaves; chop the stems and add them to the soup now; set aside the leaves. Add a sploosh of cider vinegar. Let simmer for 1 to 2 hours. About 20 minutes before serving, add 1 to 2 cups leftover cooked brown rice. Just before serving, stir in the cilantro leaves.

The end result? Seriously yummy.

That soup was so popular that I made a second batch the following week. (And it disappeared just as fast as the first one.) Then, on the day before Thanksgiving, I bought myself a rather large fresh free-range turkey from Huckleberry’s. (They had them on sale for $1.99 a pound.) I knew I was going to be a guest on Thanksgiving and thus would have no leftovers. I did a basic roasted turkey, with gravy, Delicata squash, sweet potatoes and improvised cranberry chutney. My friend Craig joined me for that meal, then I made a big pot of turkey stock on Saturday, as the snow fell all day. I froze most of the stock and much of the meat but made a batch of turkey mole soup on Sunday, to share with friends. It, too, was kind of an improvisation, and I had a few nervous moments before all the spices mellowed out, but it worked out pretty well. I don’t think it was quite as successful as the first Mexican-inspired chicken soup—it’ll take some tweaking if I decide to make it again—but it was definitely hot and hearty.

Last week, I switched over to beef and resurrected a beef stew recipe from my well-used (vintage 1983) copy of The Loaf and Ladle Cookbook. (I used to hang out at the Loaf and Ladle restaurant and bar in Exeter, New Hampshire, back in the late 1980s, when I lived staggering distance away.) I had fond memories of this stew recipe, but it turned out to be too sweet for my taste now. Still, there was much to love about it. I love that it is rather brothy, because it’s not thickened other than by the starch from the potatoes. (I used sweet potatoes, which delivered less starch, I think, along with some extra sweetness. I also added a parsnip, adding even more spicy sweetness.) Next time, I’ll cut back on the added sugar, and chances are good that won’t have a parsnip that needs to be used, either.

No soup so far this week, although I did just make a batch of meatballs (a 50/50 mix of ground beef and turkey) and sauce for a potluck that I’m hosting on Wednesday. Maybe soup on Friday. We’ll see.

Yesterday, I finally climbed back aboard the bread-baking wagon, after October’s no-wheat edict knocked the wind from my sails. (How’s that for mixing metaphors?) After a chance conversation with Rene Featherstone of Lentz Spelt Farms the other day—he was in town delivering products to Petunias Marketplace while I was briefly holding down the fort there—I felt more confident about working with spelt dough. I tracked down a couple of recipes online for spelt bread, chose one, and off I went. The gluten that forms with spelt is not nearly as hardy as wheat gluten, as Rene had warned me; it won’t hold up to much kneading, and the dough is almost more like batter than bread dough. And even though the second rise brought the dough beyond the height of the loaf pan, it deflated slightly with the jostling of getting the pan into the oven. The top ended up flat and even with the sides of the pan. Despite that, though, the texture and taste were lovely. (And I don’t think it was just because I’ve gone two months without eating any bread.) The crust browned nicely, and the interior crumb was fairly light and not at all coarse. I splurged on a couple of big, thick pieces while it was still slightly warm—with butter on top, of course—and it was a wonderful treat. I’m thinking there will be more experimentation in my future.

No deep thoughts for today. Just cooking.

11 Nov 2010

Relating to Food

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The grey fog and low clouds of winter enveloped Spokane on Monday, after Sunday’s rainy overcast. But before that we enjoyed four gorgeous late-fall days in a row, with plenty of sunshine and temps near 60, so I really can’t complain. Still, the cooler weather has put me in the mood for basic comfort foods—like Sunday’s roast chicken.

It was a simple preparation. I bought the chicken (a whole fryer from Mary’s Chicken, via Huckleberry’s) on Saturday and roasted it on Sunday, after slipping a few slices of shallot under the skin and giving it a rubdown with canola oil. I baked a small Red Kuri squash at the same time and prepared a red quinoa salad to pull the meal together. When the chicken was done, I made gravy with the pan drippings (because nothing says “comfort food” like warm gravy). Thanks to plenty of leftovers, I haven’t had to do much cooking for the week.

The quinoa salad was a new dish for me. I got the recipe from gal-pal Angela after she brought the salad to a potluck birthday gathering earlier this year, but I hadn’t tried it until now. (Details are on the Recipes page.) She ends the recipe with this saucy line: “Serve with a smile, and some clothes on, unless, well, you know, naked is convenient.”

My menu planning has shifted over the past month, partly because of the end of CSA season and partly because of a change in my diet following a consultation with a naturopath. My respiratory allergies acted up late this summer, more so than usual, and I spent a couple of months just generally feeling blah. My lack of health insurance coverage means that I pay full price wherever I go for medical services, but it also means that I have the freedom to choose my provider without any insurance-carrier limitations. And so, I chose to consult with a naturopath (Dr. Joanne Hillary, here in Spokane). After a basic exam and a long conversation about all facets of my lifestyle, she suggested that I stay away from certain foods (dairy, wheat, corn, potatoes) while being sure to include a portion of lean meat or fish at every meal, along with plenty of vegetables.

Other than bypassing wheat and dairy, this isn’t all that big a change for me, in the long-term view of my diet. But for the last several months I have been cutting back on my meat consumption, for both budgetary and environmental reasons. I’ve slipped back into the habit of eating more cheese (cheese-and-crackers is a favorite snack), and this summer I ate more potatoes and corn than I have in years past. And then there’s been the bread baking—whole-grain bread, mind you, but made primarily with wheat.

So now, for the last four weeks, I’ve been diligently cooking up grass-fed ground beef, free-range chicken, pasture-raised lamb and cold-water seafood. (The only meal I didn’t have to tweak much was my breakfast egg and veggies.) I’ve had rice and barley and quinoa, plus rye crackers and Ezekiel bread (somehow sprouted wheat is OK; not yet sure why, but I’ll be researching that), and even one plate of spelt pasta (with ground beef, onions and tomatoes, but no cheese). Thanks to the proliferation of gluten-free products, I have plenty of choices, because gluten-free means wheat-free. I can even still have cheese, if it’s made from goat or sheep’s milk. I can still drink wine, along with coffee and tea, and I even allow myself a daily dose of half-and-half in my coffee. My meals at home have required a shift in my thinking (and an increased share of my budget), but it’s been a rather fun challenge.

The biggest issue is potlucks and other shared meals, which are a regular and beloved part of my life. On the first weekend, I went to a casual party with former colleagues (several of whom are vegetarian), and the only thing I could munch from was the veggie tray. At a recent brunch, every dish was off-limits (quiche, coffee cake, potatoes, corn muffins) except the one I brought (gluten-free carrot cake). Luckily, I’d guessed there might be a problem, so I actually ate breakfast at home first.

Everyone has been very understanding, but I really don’t like making a public fuss about what I can and can’t eat. I love all kinds of foods, and I love to try the dishes that people bring to share. I’m hoping that once my system is reliably balanced again I will be able to sample some of my restricted items occasionally without serious consequences. In the meantime, I’ll be seeking out recipes (especially for bread and baked goods) that can be made without wheat and dairy.

While I’ve been distracted with my own shopping list, local blogger Craig Goodwin (of the Year of Plenty blog) has been tackling some big topics, including digging behind the story of the recent New York Times article (“While Warning About Fat, U.S. Pushes Cheese Sales”) on the relationship between the USDA and an industry group called Dairy Management. In his most recent post, he restates his conviction that relationships are the key to sustainability: “The core crisis in the food system is a break-down in the relationships between people involved with bringing food to market and those sticking the food in their mouths.”

I’ve written plenty before about my belief in the importance of relationships—in the world of food, of course, but extending beyond that, into the worlds of commerce and public discourse. Unless I have absolutely no choice, I refuse to do business with any place that treats me like a number instead of a person. I want to feel welcomed, not just for the meager dollars that I bring in the door, but for the smiles and warmth and stories that I can share. When relationships are not valued, it’s easy to base decisions purely on dollars-and-cents terms. From anonymity, it’s a short step to rudeness and incivility, and our world devolves. If I want the world to be a kinder place, a more civil place, then I need to put kindness and civility out into the world. I need to risk being in relationship.

Now I’m going to go make some chicken soup from my leftovers. Some friends are stopping by tonight for a quick soup supper after work. We’ll share a simple meal, a glass or two of wine, and a few laughs. Or maybe tears. Or maybe both. Because that’s what relationships are all about.

8 Oct 2010

Sustaining Through September

Posted by annmcolford. 1 Comment

Last night I made a favorite recipe from years past: Broccoli and Tofu in Peanut Sauce, from The Enchanted Broccoli Forest cookbook (Mollie Katzen’s sequel to the original Moosewood Cookbook). The broccoli came from my last CSA box of the season, picked up on Saturday; the tofu came from Small Planet, the formerly local and now regional producer.

The dish (like so many of mine) was actually a riff on the original, keeping the spirit of the dish while lightening the sauce and crisping up the tofu. I deep-fried the chunks of tofu in canola oil, then sautéed the broccoli (in olive oil) with onion, garlic and ginger, tossing in some peanuts and splashing it with some tamari. Instead of the heavy, sweetened peanut sauce from the recipe’s 1970s glory days, I used a lighter, more vinegary recipe from another source. I reheated some leftover brown rice, put the sautéed broccoli over it, spooned on the peanut sauce/dressing, and garnished with the golden chunks of tofu, for a highly satisfying meal that’s sustainable in many ways.

Sustainability has been a major theme over the past month, as Spokane has celebrated “Sustainable September” with events both large and small, many of them focused on food. I got into the spirit of it by attending a couple of events, but I found that the pace just wasn’t… well… sustainable. At least not for me.

Part of the problem is that I’ve been fighting off the respiratory crud that’s been circulating here since late August (whine, whine), but part of it is that sustainability has become the central factor of my life. All of my actions and choices have to be sustainable for me, personally, as well as for the community and for the planet. “Sustainable for me” means within my (meager) financial budget and within the limits of my physical, mental and emotional stamina.

I have chosen a lifestyle of limited material consumption but one that’s (ideally) rich in time. I no longer devote 50 to 60 hours each week to employment; I no longer feel compelled to take part in as many social or civic events. When I choose to spend my time connecting with friends, I want to be fully present to the experience. If instead I am thinking about how many errands I have to squeeze in on the way home, or what I have to get done before bedtime, I am not honoring my friends. And when I choose to be at home, I want to be fully present there, too, whether I am cooking, reading, or cleaning the litter box.

Back when I was employed, I often found myself apologizing to friends and acquaintances (and colleagues) for taking so long to return phone calls, e-mails, and so on. Few people seemed offended by my conduct, however; they were all “crazy busy” as well, and they understood the fine art of prioritizing when the volume of tasks becomes overwhelming. Now that I’m out of that lifestyle, though, “crazy busy” just looks like “crazy.”

(I need to give a quick shout-out here to my friend Bike-to-Work Barb, who reflected on this in a Facebook post a while back and got me thinking about it again. And I have to note one other curious thing: People who weren’t offended by my unavailability when work was my excuse sometimes take offense when I’m unavailable in order to take time for myself. Attaching that magic word “work” to potentially offensive behavior somehow grants absolution.)

Because my schedule is not “crazy,” I have the time to make choices that are more sustainable for the larger community as well. I can choose to walk or take the bus, rather than driving; I can cook dinner from scratch, using locally sourced ingredients, rather than relying on takeout or convenience foods; I can host a potluck meal with friends rather than dining out all the time. (Dining out remains a favorite way to connect, but it’s far more of a rare and special treat than it used to be.)

So I’ve come to a newly articulated mantra for my life: living within my means, while living in accordance with my principles.

Doesn’t mean I always achieve the ideal. I am human, and therefore weak in the face of temptation (like chocolate, say, or that lamb ragu at Italia Trattoria). But at least now I have words to guide me. As a writer, that comforts me—if I can say it, maybe I can live it.

15 Sep 2010

Soup and Bread

Posted by annmcolford. 4 Comments

Labor Day has come and gone, and so, it seems, has summer. Our weather turned cool again over the long weekend, prompting me to spend Monday making minestrone soup (to use up some of those great farmers market veggies in my fridge) and testing out a new bread recipe. I set a half-cup of dried navy beans (grown near Quincy, purchased at the White Trail farm stand there) in water to soak overnight before going to bed on Sunday and then assembled the rest of the soup early Monday afternoon. I checked out minestrone recipes from a handful of sources before settling on one from The Best of Food & Wine, a hardcover compilation from that magazine’s pages, published in 1993. (I think I found the cookbook on the closeout table at WaldenBooks back around 1994, during my brief career as a bookstore clerk.)

Like most soups, this one was something of an improvisation—sort of a variation on a theme. That’s part of what I love about soup. Soup does not follow rules; a soup recipe is more a suggestion than an inviolable formula. Soup adapts readily to seasonal availability. Soup making is more art than science, and it’s a satisfying activity for those of us who enjoy process as much as completion.

Online sources tell me that “minestrone” translates from the Italian as “big soup,” meaning a substantial and hearty soup or stew, but I find it interesting that the word shares the same Latin root as “minister,” with its sense of humble service. A big pot of steaming minestrone may seem humble when compared to flashier culinary creations, but it does yeoman service when it comes to linking people together over a meal.

Friends Cate and Ann came over and shared a soup supper on Monday evening, and then on Wednesday I brought the leftovers to my friend Stacy’s new food shop (Petunia’s Marketplace) when I went in to help out with a few tasks. She had just made a batch of lemon pesto, so we put a dollop of it on top of each bowl of soup, adding a lively citrus tang.

I’ve been playing with new bread recipes, as I mentioned, thanks to Rose Levy Beranbaum’s book, The Bread Bible. (Her Pie and Pastry Bible came highly recommended by local pastry chef Gina Garcia of Cake.) I borrowed it from the library to see if I want to spend the money for my own copy, and so far I’m thinking that’s a thumbs up.

Margherita pizza made at home

First thing I tried was an artisanal pizza dough topped with a freshly made tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella and basil leaves—classic margherita. It was incredibly delicious and didn’t take as long as I thought it might. After that came a basic sandwich bread, then a batch of beautiful, flaky scones. Next up: rye crackers.

3 Sep 2010

Whither Local?

Posted by annmcolford. 2 Comments

The locasphere (i.e., the local-food blogosphere) has been abuzz recently thanks to an op-ed in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago entitled “Math Lessons For Locavores,” penned by historian and journalist Stephen Budiansky, who writes the entertaining and thought-provoking Liberal Curmudgeon blog. In it, he critiqued the idea of using food miles as the critical measure of sustainability in food.

It’s not a new critique, and neither is his characterization of local-food advocates as humorless scolds who are fundamentalists about food miles while misunderstanding the big picture of agricultural energy use. Certainly some locavores meet that definition, but most advocates of local food—at least those I’ve met—are not nearly as blindered and strident as the caricatures in Budiansky’s piece. In response, the environmental website Grist.org gathered a virtual roundtable of people who’ve written extensively about local food (including James McWilliams, one of the first to critique the reliance on food miles), and their essays are collected on the site under the tongue-in-cheek headline, “Food Fight.”

Budiansky’s main point—that sometimes food shipped from beyond the local “foodshed” can be considered sustainable—is one that I basically agree with. Humans have traveled and traded for foodstuffs throughout history. The concept of food miles is easy to grasp at an intuitive level (although the frequently quoted average food-mile figures are a bitch to confirm) but only measures a portion of the energy used to grow food and get it from the farm to my fork, as he rightly points out.

Most people who have thoughtfully considered the sustainability of their own food habits already know this. And there are more reasons to buy local food beyond a simple calculation of food miles.

I have been part of a community-supported agriculture program for ten years now; every Saturday, from June through September, either I or my friend Jean visit the Tolstoy Farm booth at the Spokane Farmers Market and pick up a box filled with produce. We pay for our share of the farm’s produce in the spring, when the farm needs the cash, and then we reap the benefit for about 17 weeks. If it’s cool early in the season, like this year was, then we have to wait awhile before we see warm-weather crops like cucumbers and peppers, but we end up with a great crop of lettuce and greens. We take a chance on the farm’s success, just like the farmers do.

I can’t speak for Jean, but I choose to do this mainly because the produce is delicious; it was grown using organic methods and picked just hours before I pick it up. I have a relationship with the people who grew my food. And the price is really pretty reasonable, considering the high quality.

But the other reason is because I want to live in a community where there are viable small farms nearby. I want to live in a city that supports the vibrant mini-community that the farmers market has become, and I have to support the farms and the markets if I want them to remain. I love that I can walk to the market, pile the week’s produce into my backpack and a couple of bags, greet and visit with vendors and other shoppers, and then walk back home again, feeling virtuous.

The farmers market haul, packed...

... and unpacked.

Now, Budiansky might suggest that my sense of virtue is misplaced. For as long as I store that food in my refrigerator or freezer, I’m consuming energy; and when I cook it, I’m using energy there, too. But considering the choices that are readily available to me at the moment—balancing my budgets of time, money and personal energy, and my inability to build a campfire—I feel like I’m making the best choice I can in favor of sustainability, justice and the good of the larger community. When I buy a locally grown product, I know who’s involved at each step along the way. My food system is a web of personal relationships.

During the other 35 weeks of the year, when I get no CSA box, my choices can be more challenging. I will occasionally splurge on fresh produce (generally organic) from warmer climes during the winter, but even as I do, I know it’s a luxury, and I recognize it as such. Living in the north as I do, I know that I should not consider fresh tomatoes or strawberries in January to be my birthright. Most of the time, I choose seasonally appropriate items—or I eat local veggies that I’ve stashed away in my freezer.

But at least I have choices, which is more than many people have. And that leads to the social justice dimension of food choices. As my wise friend Linda puts it, I have to ask what the hidden costs are—to the environment and to other people—when my food is cheap. Whose drinking water gets polluted by runoff from the many chemical inputs to large-scale monoculture farming? Who has to survive on a minimum-wage food-processing job? Who is harmed when grocery stores move out of the city’s downtown core? Who gets sick from salmonella-tainted eggs?

In other words, who is paying the price to keep my food costs at a historic low?

When I buy my produce (and meat and eggs and wheat flour) from local growers at the Spokane Farmers Market (or one of the other markets in the area), that purchase helps the growers stay in business. It also helps to support the market itself—and the market, in turn, then has the resources to accept public food assistance vouchers (from WIC and programs for needy seniors), thus making healthy local food available to people who might not otherwise have access to fresh produce. And I know that my money is not being used to enrich people like egg baron Jack DeCoster, whose corporate practices were making headlines in Maine back in the late 1990s when I lived there.

Although I frequently buy local food, I do not consider myself a locavore. Instead, I like to think of my food choices as mindful and considered, rather than espousing any particular doctrine. I know that my choices (even for my single-person household) have an impact, and I try to “vote with my fork” within the limits of my resources. How I balance those choices and resources on a daily basis is what this blog is all about.

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