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31 Aug 2010

A Brief Commercial Message

Posted by annmcolford. 1 Comment

I awoke to a touch of fall in air today, and so for breakfast I prepared a hearty bowl of oatmeal—first one since back in early June. I followed the recipe from The Red Lion Inn Cookbook, then topped it with about a half teaspoon of butter, perhaps a teaspoon of brown sugar, and a generous sprinkle of chopped almonds (or pecans or walnuts, whatever’s handy). It really hit the spot with a cup of Roast House coffee.*

* Shameless Plug That Serves My Self-Interest: Roast House coffee features shade-grown fair trade organic coffees, roasted in small batches, and artfully blended to bring out the best of the beans. Partners Deborah Di Bernardo and Dave Rier are active in the community, pitching in to support bike events and local, artisan food producers. They are friends of mine. And since December, I’ve been working with them a few hours a week, helping to set up and maintain their accounting records. The money that I get is part of my multi-source income stream—and it’s part of what allows me to spend time thinking and writing about food here, with no immediate financial reward.

Their coffee is really good. (I am especially fond of the Guatemalan and the 423 Blend.) Locally, it’s available through Main Market, Huckleberry’s, Cassano’s, Gourmet Way North and soon in selected Yokes locations. The more Roast House coffee you buy, the more accounting work I’ll have to do. You’ll be helping small family coffee farms across the globe, and a single self-employed writer right here at home.

Now back to our regular programming.

23 Aug 2010

Zucchini Onslaught

Posted by annmcolford. No Comments

One more way to use up zucchini

The volume of the weekly CSA box is reaching its seasonal peak, bringing me several pounds of fresh, local, organically grown vegetables every Saturday. Last Sunday, I spent the cooler hours of the day in the kitchen chopping, stirring, sautéing and baking, in order to turn the bags of veggies into ready-to-eat meals. The weather got much warmer again for a few days, so I wanted to be prepared for the too-hot-to-cook blues. And I even had enough to stick a couple of meals in the freezer.

I consider a packed freezer to be akin to a savings account: It represents an accumulation of time and money (in the form of food) that I’ve set aside for later consumption when I’m short of one or both of those resources.

First, I set some beets to boil. I love roasting beets, but I didn’t want to keep the oven on for that long, so I cooked them on the stovetop. After snipping off the root tips and the tops, I just plopped them (whole, not peeled) into boiling salted water and let them simmer on low heat for about 45 minutes. I had two golden beets and two red ones, and I cooked them separately to maintain their vibrant colors. On Monday, I slipped the skins off, sliced them up, and dressed them with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, plus some chopped fresh basil and a little bit of sweet onion.

After taking a few minutes to sauté some chard and onions to go with my morning egg, I moved on to red lentils and zucchini, one of my favorite dishes. Like so many of the recipes from the Extending the Table cookbook, it combines an inexpensive source of protein with seasonal vegetables to create a satisfying and nutritious meal. As a bonus, it gives me an outlet for the growing inventory of zucchini.

Next, I made a casserole with a couple of zapalito squashes — another recipe from Extending the Table. Zapalitos are relatively small (4 to 5 inches) round deep-green summer squashes. On the outside they look like plump, squat zucchinis, but the flesh inside is a creamy yellow or pale orange. It turned out a bit more watery than I recall from previous efforts, so I’ll see about adjusting the quantities next time. I froze about half of the casserole and split up the rest into multiple side-dish servings during the week.

My final dish was a Mexican-influenced cabbage slaw—kind of the love child of salsa and cole slaw. I had half a head of green cabbage, half a jalapeño, plenty of sweet onion (a giant Notta Walla: a sweet onion similar to the famous Walla Walla sweets; but not), and a single red tomato. Working from a recipe for cabbage salsa, I adjusted the proportions to what I had on hand. It must have worked, because it was a big hit at a casual dinner later in the evening with friends Linda G, Ann W and Cate. Linda grilled up a flank steak and made some black beans and rice; Cate and Ann brought the chips and salsa; and we had a feast, accompanied by hand-mixed margaritas.

Next up: Debating local

4 Aug 2010

Greens and Plins

Posted by annmcolford. 2 Comments

The dog days of summer are truly here, making me grateful to be inside my relatively cool home on this brilliantly sunny afternoon. The west-facing windows are closed and shaded, and the fans keep the air circulating, so every room except the kitchen stays reasonably comfortable.

Each year, the summer heat and the seasonal veggie harvest (as reflected by my CSA box’s contents) crescendo at the same time. I’m not the kind of person who loves the heat, so my desire to cook plummets as temperatures rise. This year, I’ve been taking advantage of my more flexible schedule by trying to cook on those days that are not quite so hot—or cooking in the morning, before the heat of the day builds. I haven’t had the energy to try “putting food by” (i.e., canning or freezing in quantity), but I have been able to keep up with the harvest—which is progress over prior years.

Greens are always abundant, so I’m learning to be the Queen of Greens. Swiss chard, two types of kale, spinach (back when it was cool), beet greens and turnip greens have graced my table, and I’m expecting mustard greens any day now. I’ve continued to have my breakfast egg on sautéed greens (see my post from March 17, 2010) several mornings a week, and I’ve played with different preparations of greens for both solo meals and potluck adventures. Twice I threw together a quick peanut sauce and tossed it with sautéed greens and pasta; another fave (especially now that new potatoes are coming in) is a recipe for Verdura Trovata, or “found vegetables,” from a fun old cookbook of Italian family favorites (Italian Family Cooking by Edward Giobbi, from 1971). Making a big batch uses up lots of greens, and it goes well as a side dish with just about anything savory. In my last batch, I used a couple of carrots, a few green onions, a red potato, some peas (snap, snow and shelled) and a mix of greens (mostly beet, with some kale and chard)—plus garlic, of course, and a few fresh herbs (oregano, flat parsley, chives).

My culinary challenge of the week was fennel. We’ve received a beautiful fennel bulb, complete with flowing fronds, in each of the last three boxes. Jean decided she couldn’t handle any more this week, so I had two halves and a whole bulb to get creative with.

Fennel with Raisins and Saffron

Luckily, the Tolstoy Farms CSA newsletter had a recipe for fennel (sautéed with garlic and blended with almonds, raisins, orange juice, coriander and saffron), so I cooked it up on Sunday night. Cooking the fennel diminishes its heavy anise/licorice punch (an advantage in my book), and the raisins and almonds added good contrasting flavors and textures. I’m still undecided on the orange juice and the coriander, though: The dish seemed overly busy—too many different things competing for attention—and I’m thinking that either orange or coriander would be fine, but not both.

I also splurged on a couple of meals out last week, thanks to the quiet opening of Italia Trattoria in Spokane’s Browne’s Addition neighborhood (just a hop, skip and a jump away). Chef Anna Vogel and GM Bethe Bowman, fresh from Luna (and Tom Douglas restaurants before that), bought the former Café Marron from their former employers and transformed it into a home for artful Italian comfort food. I’ve never been to Italy, so I’m going to bypass any debate over “authenticity,” but I will declare it delicious.

Piedmont agnolotti dal plin at Italia Trattoria

Anna makes some of the pastas from scratch at a tiny counter tucked in a back corner, and I couldn’t resist trying them—fresh pappardelle with lamb ragu on the first night, and plin (full name is Piedmont agnolotti dal plin, and they’re like tiny raviolis with a braised pork filling) the second. My companions on both nights let me sample from their plates as well, and I have to say that the lamb dish was my favorite so far—although the plin and a dish of braised pork cheeks are tied for a close second. Oh, and desserts: tiramisu, affogato (vanilla Brain Freeze ice cream topped with Roast House espresso), panna cotta, cornmeal cake with fresh fruit… oh, my. Price points for both food and wine are eminently reasonable ($13-$20 for pastas and entrées, and we landed a bottle of pinot noir for $20), meaning I can support my friends’ new business venture without too much fiscal heartburn—just one more reason to feel gratitude.

Braised pork cheeks with beans and chard, at Italia Trattoria

20 Jul 2010

Radishes and Cows

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I’ve been busy for the past six weeks, delving back into Spokane’s restaurant world long enough to pull together much of the content for the food section of the Inlander’s glossy Annual Manual, which hits the streets around Labor Day. Added to my ongoing little bookkeeping tasks, it was just enough to curtail my semi-deep thinking about my own food—and any updates here.

Not that I haven’t been cooking and eating, of course. I’ve even remained relatively mindful of my actions. I just haven’t put any words to the experience. Until now.

My CSA program (with Tolstoy Farms) started up for the season back in early June, reminding me again that I need to learn more about how to use radishes. These crisp and often pungent little roots are a regular part of the weekly box—especially when the weather stays cool, as it did for much of June here. I’ve sliced them up and sprinkled them into my salads, of course, but that seems like such a cliché. (And not every salad needs or wants a radish.) I found recipes for sautéed radishes, but I haven’t sampled them yet. I did add a few leaves from the radish tops to a sauté of greens last week, and they blended in with the rest of the greens just fine. A couple of weeks ago, a friend served chunks of raw radish on a platter with smoked salmon (wild Alaskan sockeye, I think), and it was both surprising and delicious—the cool, crunchy zip of the radish made a great foil for the slightly salty and oily fish.

June radishes

This week’s challenge? Turnips. Got two fist-sized turnips this week, one pink, one white, along with the greens. I think I’ll just cook up the greens in the classic Southern style, but I’m not sure about the turnips. When I got baby turnips a couple of weeks ago, I just ate them raw—like the radishes. These specimens are good and fresh, but they’re bigger, and I’m thinking they might be better cooked. I sense research in my future.

Yesterday I visited Spokane Family Farm, the area’s only small-production dairy, with Deb Di Bernardo of Roast House Coffee. Deb talked with dairy co-owner Trish Vieira about ways that their two businesses—both built at the intersection of sustainability and food—might be able to work together. I mainly nodded and smiled and took pictures. Listening to Trish describe what they’re trying to do is like being on the receiving end of an informational fire hose, so I was glad to not be taking notes. A lot of facts washed right past me, but I came away impressed with the operation and with the care that Trish and her husband are putting into the product. And those Holstein babies are just so dang cute!

The dairy sells whole, non-homogenized milk, by the gallon or half-gallon. Because it’s not homogenized, the cream will separate and rise to the top, so it’s possible to skim off the cream and end up with something close to a two percent product (and some tasty cream for coffee). The milk is super fresh and tastes that way—tastes the way I remember milk tasting back when I was kid, when the milkman delivered fresh, local non-homogenized milk to our door multiple times a week. The milk has a shorter shelf life than standard ultra-pasteurized supermarket brands, but if I can get my cream out of the deal, the more frequent purchases may be worth it.

Got local milk?

As Trish poured forth information about standard industrial milk production, the difficulties faced by small producers, the evils of homogenization, the limitations of organic certification, the health benefits of minimally processed milk, and so on, I realized just how little I know about dairy and dairy production. If I’m going to make good, mindful decisions about my consumption of milk, butter and cheese, then I have a lot to learn. In the meantime, I’ll choose this small local producer as my default.

30 May 2010


Posted by annmcolford. No Comments

I heard a report yesterday on NPR saying that 32 million Americans will hit the road over this Memorial Day weekend, according to the AAA. Some will take to the air, but most (about 85 percent) will be driving. That’s a 5 percent increase over last year, the report said, proving that at least some Americans (1.6 million, one presumes) are feeling more optimistic about their economic condition (and more willing to spend money on higher-priced gasoline).

Being the contrarian that I am, I’ve decided to avoid driving my car at all this weekend. So far I’ve made it two full days out of three. (I didn’t drive on Friday, either; so since the holiday weekend officially began at 6 pm on Friday—I’m not sure who decides such things—I’m already at 48 hours and counting, with 30 more hours to go.)

Lack of driving hasn’t curtailed my social activities, however. Yesterday morning, I met four women friends for coffee at the Rocket Bakery in Carnegie Square, downtown Spokane. We know each other from St. Ann’s Catholic Church, and we each have a long connection with the parish. Our faith journeys have taken us in some divergent directions, however, and we no longer see each other as regularly, so this visit was a chance to catch up.

I was the last one to arrive, and I had to wait in a fairly long line before placing my order (double Americano; espresso-hazelnut scone to share). When I sat down, one friend passed me a plate holding about half of a peanut butter cookie. “Here,” she said with a smile, “take some. This is our Eucharist.”

Eucharist is another name for the Catholic Mass and specifically refers to the part that re-enacts the Last Supper of Jesus—communion, or the breaking of bread among friends. Canon law defines exactly what can constitute “bread” for liturgical purposes, but I’m thinking that Jesus probably would have enjoyed a good peanut butter cookie, had such a recipe been available 2,000 years ago in Palestine.

Much of our conversation involved news of friends and family, but at one point we delved into a discussion of Eucharist, and what it means for us now. One friend said that she no longer takes communion on the increasingly rare occasions when she goes to church. “Not everyone is equally welcome at the table,” she explained, “so I choose to not take part.”

Since she’s not participating in Eucharist at church, she says she’s finding ways to bring Eucharist into her life in other places—really working at developing the relationships around food. More broadly, she has been thinking critically about her food: where it comes from, who grows it, how it’s grown, and how the money flows. “Cheap food isn’t really cheap,” she says. “It may be cheap to me, but there are hidden costs. And if somebody else is bearing the cost of my cheap food, then I’m not living according to my values.”

Some of those costs are environmental; some relate to health—either mine, or the health of those who grow, raise or manufacture the food. Sometimes it’s an issue of fair and just compensation. And sometimes it comes down to wanting a human connection, a relationship with the face behind the food.

I walked back home after the visit and spent some time puttering around the apartment before assembling a Caesar salad to share with another group of women friends and acquaintances at dinner. Then I walked up the hill to the late-afternoon gathering at a friend’s home, sharing munchies, wine, martinis and a lovely meal—followed by an extended game of Balderdash. (That’s the one where you’re presented with a word, and everyone has to make up a definition; then everyone votes for the definition they like, with points awarded accordingly. All of our definitions were devastatingly witty and clever. Why, yes, the wine flowed freely. Why do you ask?)

Today, as it turns out, I haven’t left the house, save for a quick walk around the ’hood—and that was partly by design, because I decided to bake a batch of “Country Bread,” the 12-hour (at least) recipe. I mixed up the sponge late last night, before bed, so it sat for nearly 12 hours before I even did the rest of the assembly and kneading. Then came a two-hour rise, then a one-hour rise (which was more like 90 minutes), then shaping into loaves, followed by another two-hour rise and, finally, close to an hour of baking. And an excruciating hour of letting the bread cool before tearing into it. (Just had the first piece, the heel, still slightly warm, with unsalted butter. Mmmm.)

It’s been awhile since I made this recipe last, and I was struck by how silky smooth the dough felt as I was kneading. This dough has a lovely, easy-to-handle texture that’s quite a contrast from the cracked-wheat bread and milk bread that I’ve been making of late.

Whole-wheat Country Bread

I’m not enough of a bread expert to understand why that is, but I’m guessing it has to do with the length of time the yeast works in the sponge. (And, perhaps, a different blend of flours.) The loaves cook up tender inside, with a fine crumb, and nicely crusty (but not crusty enough to wreak havoc with one’s mouth).

I was surprised to learn from Webster’s that the word “Eucharist” means “gratitude” in the original Greek. I’ve always thought of Eucharist as the original model for relationship food—gathering with others to share a humble meal and a common experience. Gratitude has been part of the meaning for me, I guess, but I’ve not placed gratefulness at the root of the experience before. Doing so broadens the definition for me.

Tonight, then, I had a simple dinner of leftover soup (thanks, Linda) and fresh-baked bread (with gratitude to the farmers, millers, truckers and retail workers who brought the ingredients to my neighborhood, and gratitude for the health and stamina to mix and knead the bread—and for the electricity to fire the oven). Although I ate the meal alone, everyone who contributed to it was on my mind and, in one way or another, gathered around my table.

27 May 2010

Organic Whole-Wheat Turkey

Posted by annmcolford. 1 Comment

After flirting with summer-like warmth and sunshine, our weather has returned to the cool and damp in recent days. In fact, today is an honest-to-God rainy day—steady showers, some heavier than others, all day long so far. That’s a rarity here in the interior Northwest (even in spring), and I’m kinda liking it. Especially since I’ve been puttering around inside all day. Gotta head out soon to buy cat food (and take care of other essential duties), but for now I’m happy to sit inside and listen to the raindrops.

Knowing that the heat of summer will be here soon (despite recent evidence), I’ve been visiting my freezer and planning meals that sound mighty appealing on a cool, blustery day but wouldn’t tempt me at all when it’s hot. For instance, I finally thawed and roasted my thoroughly pampered free-range heritage turkey a couple of weeks ago, and it turned out to be one of the most delicious birds I’ve ever had. Unlike the standard supermarket turkey, these turkeys look like… turkeys. When I unwrapped it, I could envision the strutting, preening, pecking bird that it had been in life. If you’re not comfortable with the idea that the meat you’re eating was once alive, then this might be disturbing, but I drew comfort from knowing that my turkey had actually walked around the barnyard and hadn’t been shot full of broth and flavorings and God-knows-what.

After letting the bird thaw in the fridge for about a day and a half, I did very little preparation—some butter under the skin, a few garlic cloves in the cavity, vegetable oil and coarse salt on the outside—before roasting it in a slow oven (325, then down to 300 F), breast-side down until the final hour. I judged doneness more by internal temperature than time, but it took about five hours. (It was a 14-pound bird.) When I turned the bird over for its final hour of cooking, I wanted to baste it so it wouldn’t dry out. I rubbed a bit more butter over the outside, then searched the fridge for some leftover wine or something equivalent for basting. I had no open wine, however, so I settled on some long-opened sake, about a half-cup, I’d say.

Friends Ann W. and Cate joined me and brought along some honey-glazed carrots and a couple of bottles of wine. I sautéed some potatoes and onions in olive oil, and then I made gravy with the pan drippings. Even with the low oven temperature, the pan drippings were dark and heavily caramelized. The gravy turned out to be a rich, chestnut brown, nearly the color of dark chocolate (think mole sauce). I worried that it would tasted burned, but the sweetness reigned, and it was delicious.

(Even before wine, Cate took to calling it “soul gravy,” after first pronouncing it “heavenly.” She said, “It’s like all the souls in heaven, all mixed together, and turned into gravy.” To which Ann W. and I said, “Eww.” But Cate insisted that her description was a compliment. We remained dubious, but the name “soul gravy” stuck.)

After we finished the dinner, I thought back on all the steps that had made this meal possible and realized that we had achieved a perfect definition of “relationship food.” The turkey was raised by Cate and Ann W.’s friends Ed and Mary Katherine, who farm wheat, primarily, on the Waterville plateau in Central Washington. I purchased it directly from Ed, thanks to their connection. Because I don’t have a large freezer, Cate and Ann W. allowed me to store my bird in their freezer throughout the winter. Then we pitched in together to make and share a meal. The creation of this meal depended on the relationships involved.

Soul Gravy Soup, near the end

And it goes further. A couple of days later, I disassembled the rest of the bird and made stock. Using some of the stock, and much of the leftover gravy, I made Soul Gravy Soup (TM)—turkey meat, the leftover potatoes-onions mixture and the leftover carrots, along with a couple of additional carrots, a yam, and a handful of green beans.

Cracked-wheat bread

I baked a loaf of cracked-wheat bread, and our friends Doug and Missy came over, along with Cate and Ann W. again, for another feast. I froze the rest of the stock, gravy and turkey meat, and made another smaller batch of soup just a few days ago, sharing it with friends Dan and Linda. The web of relationships goes on.

17 Mar 2010

Eatin' of the Greens

Posted by annmcolford. 3 Comments

Breakfast egg and toast

Forgot it was St. Paddy’s Day until I typed the date. Whaddaya know. Guess I’d better go pull out the green turtleneck.

It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood this morning—sun, high thin clouds, mid-40s so far. Perhaps I’ll take a walk later today to de-stress from the rant I feel building.

The seed for my rant comes from an article in today’s New York Times about the latest in consumer gadgets for the kitchen—“small kitchen electrics,” as they’re called in industry jargon. Sales of these products actually increased between 2008 and 2009, according to the article, in contrast to the declining sales in most other categories including housewares. (Non-electric kitchen stuff like knives, pots and pans fall into this category.) Seems that as Americans cut back on meals eaten away from home, we are needing some assistance in the kitchen—like appliances that will cook our meals (frozen or other convenience foods) at the touch of a button. Reporting from the International Home and Housewares show in Chicago, the article’s writer, Kim Severson, does a fine job treading the line between straight reporting and snark: As she puts it, “We are a nation that cooks with an index finger.”

Now I’ll be the first to confess that I’ve sometimes employed a single finger in the kitchen—at moments of high frustration, in a performance-art kind of rhetorical flourish—but it’s never been the index finger. (Copping the style of my friend Jani Cabani, I’ll sometimes wave my pinkie in those moments when, as she says, “you don’t care to send the very best.”) I’m just not big on push-button meals.

The obvious problem is that such meals rely on highly processed foods filled with salt, preservatives and goodness knows what else. These foods are manufactured, not grown (or raised or baked). And while I’m happy to do my part to create jobs for hard-working Americans in the food sector, I’d rather not consume all of the additives that are necessary to make most processed foods palatable. Like writer Michael Pollan, I don’t want to eat “edible food-like substances”; I want to eat food. Good food. Healthy food. Food that nourishes me body and soul, rather than simply filling an empty space quickly.

But Americans are notoriously pressed for time (and in love with gadgets), thus creating the demand for items that can help get dinner on the table fast. And frozen pizza is such a fixture in the American home-dining landscape that many of the countertop ovens (microwave, toaster and convection varieties) now feature what’s called a “pizza bump.” That’s a little bulge, either in front or in back, that allows a 12-inch frozen pizza to fit inside without being squished. It occurs to me that perhaps food manufacturers should have offered rectangular pizzas, rather than requiring a whole new class of appliances, but that’s just me. It also occurs to me that many of us suffer from our own version of the pizza bump—God knows I’ve been trying to get rid of mine for years—and we don’t need appliances that make it easier for us to eat more the stuff that contributes to our own un-health. But then I’ve always been something of a heretic.

The coup de grace for me was the gleaming appliance featured in the accompanying photo: Quoting the caption, it’s “a toaster from West Bend that can make toast and an egg at the same time.” The photo shows a swooping, curving stainless-steel device, with two wide slots at the top for the toast and small round covered dish for egg poaching attached to the front. It’s an odd mating that brings to mind early sci-fi robots (or what would happen if an old-style domed breadbox crashed sideways into small saucepan). But at least it doesn’t rely on processed food.

Still, setting aside for a moment the limitations inherent in the design—What if I only want one piece of toast but two eggs? What if I’m cooking for more than just me?—I’m thinking that the cleanup on this puppy would erase any time savings from its push-button operation. Crumbs and egg bits? In something that’s big and not submersible?

Since I prepare some variation on the egg-and-toast theme for breakfast nearly every day, I’d like to go head to head with someone operating one of these machines and see who can crank out breakfast faster. My version generally has some veggies added in, too, so I’d get bonus points for vitamins and fiber (not to mention appearance).

For example, this morning, I put my small skillet on the stove to preheat while chopping up a giant leaf of Swiss chard. (I’ve also used kale or baby spinach to make this dish; cooking time varies, but otherwise there’s not much difference.) I put some olive oil in the skillet, added the chopped chard, sprinkled on some dehydrated onions (there’s a timesaver) and covered the pan. I let it cook down for a few minutes while I got the cat’s breakfast ready. Then I added just a splash of water (hot green tea, actually), stirred it all around, and dropped an egg in the center. I covered the pan again and turned the heat down a notch. Then I popped a piece of bread in the toaster oven (yes, I own a toaster oven, but it has no pizza bump; and I don’t own a toaster) and pressed a couple of buttons (with my index finger). The toasting cycle is four minutes long, so that’s how I time my egg. I cleared the counter, grabbed a plate, buttered the toast when it was done, then slid the egg-and-greens combo onto the plate. I splashed on a little bit of Frank’s Red Hot sauce (cuz I’m addicted to the stuff) and sat down to a deluxe breakfast. Total prep time from start to finish was maybe 12 minutes (and included feeding the cat). And cleanup from cooking was a breeze: I rinsed the skillet, swished some soapy warm water around in it, rinsed it again, and I was done.

(For those who want to know such details: My toast was a slice of my homemade whole-grain artisan bread; as a spread, I used real butter, unsalted, maybe a teaspoon-plus. This batch of chard came from the Main Market and was grown organically in California; the last batch came from C&S Hydro-Huts, a local hydroponic grower—I bought it at Rocket Market. The eggs are Huckleberry’s store brand organic free-range. My olive oil for cooking comes from Western Family, and the dried onions are Safeway’s store brand. Today’s tea is Numi’s Gen Mai Cha. The cat food is from Royal Canin, with a little grated organic carrot added for good measure.)

OK, today’s rant is complete. Now for that walk.

20 Feb 2010

Big Dinner

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It’s noon, and I’m taking a brief break in my 48-hour cooking frenzy. Tonight, 13 people will be coming over for dinner—and eight of them are paying guests. This is the payoff from my being sold at live auction in late October. As a benefit for the Parkinson’s Resource Center of Spokane, I donated dinner here at my home, with me—along with a handful of guests from the local food world—to a winning bidder. (I was convinced—arm-wrestled—to do so by my friend Cate, who is the program director/office manager there.) Initially, it was to be a dinner for two, plus my own invited guests. During the course of the auction, as the bidding got hot and heavy, it turned into dinner for four. And then into two dinners for four. For which each bidder paid an extraordinary sum of money. (Surprised the heck out of me that people would pay money to have dinner with me.) Luckily, the two winning bidders know each other, so we just combined the dinners into one big event.

And it’s tonight.

I began cooking on Wednesday, by baking bread. One loaf is still in the freezer. (I’ll take that out and pop it briefly in the oven just before people arrive.) I shopped on both Thursday and Friday to buy what I need. Yesterday, I made a double batch of seafood chowder, and did prep work on salad. I also thawed out some leftover ratatouille and mixed up a batch of eggplant tapanade, like I did back in December. This morning, so far, I’ve baked two dense chocolate cakes for dessert (one made with chili spice, and one with cherry-almond chocolate). I’m sitting here for the 20 minutes that it takes the second cake to bake. Next, I have to finish chopping some of the salad ingredients, then I’ll make the salad dressing. Then I’ll assemble the bobotie, the entrée course for the evening. That will go in the oven to bake just before people arrive at 6 pm this evening.

After that, I have to tidy up the dining and living rooms, empty the trash, iron a couple of tablecloths and count up plates, bowls, glasses, etc., to make sure I’ve got enough. (I’m thinking I may need to call out for more serving bowls and utensils. Just a thought.) Oh, and I have to get a shower in there somewhere, too.

It’s a beautiful sunny day outside, anyway, about 40 degrees at the moment. I’ll open up windows in a bit to let some of the fresh air in.

And there’s the bell for the cake. Gotta run.

10 Feb 2010

Ratatouille, the Sequel

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I reprised Julia Child’s ratatouille over the weekend—it took just as long to prepare as it did the last time—and invited friends Dan and Linda over to share. They brought a loaf of crusty bread and some good, sharp cheddar; I opened up a bottle of Townshend Cellar’s Vortex Red (a non-vintage Bordeaux-style blend, made locally with cab, merlot, and cab franc). We finished the meal with decaf coffee from Roast House and chocolate truffles from French Quarter. It was a fine feast, and we had a lovely time discussing things silly and sublime. (Like the Demotivators at Despair.com—simultaneously silly and sublime.)

On Sunday, I decided to update my mother’s standard mac-and-cheese recipe, direct from the 1954 edition of the Betty Crocker Cookbook. I substituted olive oil for half the butter and lowfat buttermilk for the whole milk. I still used extra-sharp cheddar, just like Mom used to do, but I cut back slightly on the amount. And rather than standard white elbow macaroni, I used Barilla pasta (rotini, this time), made with whole-grain flour and lentils for extra fiber and protein. I topped it all with breadcrumbs made from my homemade* lowfat whole-wheat bread.

The end result was similar enough to the mac-and-cheese of my childhood to trigger a few memories. As a kid, I didn’t like the custardy texture of this dish—I much preferred a smoother, creamier, cheese sauce to the almost quiche-like binding of Mom’s version. But I’ve gained a new appreciation for the old-fashioned custard-style casserole. Especially when I can make it a relatively guilt-free version. That makes it taste extra delicious.

* The word “homemade” is one of my editorial bugaboos, as my Inlander colleagues will attest. I assign exclusive usage of “homemade” to mean “made in someone’s home.” Therefore, nothing in a restaurant can ever be “homemade,” because, by definition, it has to be made in a certified commercial kitchen to satisfy public health codes. It can be home-style, made in-house, like Mom used to make, or made from scratch from a family recipe—but it can’t be homemade. Restaurant food can taste like homemade, but it cannot be homemade. If it is, then the restaurant is violating the law. Just sayin’.

Beyond the world of food, however, there is more leeway. Crafts are frequently homemade. Quilts, paintings, furniture. Mix tapes. Poems. Virtually everything I create these days is homemade, because I make it at home. But if I took my bread recipe to a restaurant’s kitchen and prepared it just like I always do—it wouldn’t be homemade.

OK. Today’s rant complete.

21 Jan 2010

Winter Greens

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The march of winter-appropriate vegetables continues: curly kale, black kale, cauliflower, cabbage, delicata squash. I did splurge and buy a package of arugula yesterday because I found myself craving its spiciness and bite; I had ignored the craving for quite some time but finally decided that it’s not going to go away until I satisfy it. Haven’t done anything with the arugula yet, other than to munch on a few leaves while preparing lunch, but I’ll get there. I’m still thinking.

I’ve been keeping myself busy with a couple of temporary little accounting gigs, one with a small nonprofit and one with a small start-up company run by a friend. Delving back into accounting has been “a blast from the past,” as my friend Mary Ellen put it, but it has been kind of fun to resurrect and dust off that knowledge. The last time I did accounting for pay was about six years ago—so it’s not all that far in the past, but a lot of life has happened in the intervening time.

Coming back to accounting after focusing so much energy on writing and storytelling, I’ve been trying to reconcile—there’s an accounting term for you—these two disparate sides of my brain. And I’ve realized something interesting: Accounting is simply a system that allows one to tell a story with numbers. Really. That’s all it is.

Financial statements can reveal a lot about an organization. What activities did the organization pursue during the year? Who gave them money? What did they choose to spend their money on? Do they own more than they owe? The numbers on the financial statements can tell you what the organization’s priorities are and how successful they’ve been at following them.

Back on the food beat… An e-mail message just landed in my inbox from Main Market Co-op: It’s finally open, as of today. They’re still receiving products, and they’re opening very quietly so the staff can learn their roles (and their rolls, one assumes), but they’re open. Yay. Let’s hope that the Field of Dreams adage—“If you build it, they will come”—holds true.

On that subject, I read an interesting piece on Alternet (originally posted on the Blog for Rural America) last week about the necessity of community to support a local food system. The author says, “I used to think there were four distinct pieces to a local food system—production, processing, distribution, and retail. Now I realize there is a fifth—community. Without an involved community of customers who believe in what the local farmer, miller, distributor and grocer is doing, none of them will last very long.”

The lesson for us here in Spokane is clear: Now that we have a cooperatively owned grocer downtown, one that supports the values of sustainability in our food systems, we need to step up and support it. We need to put our hard-earned dollars where our complaining mouths have been for all these years.

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