When my sister gave me a copy of Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle for my birthday last May, my initial reaction was mixed. I did enjoy her novel The Poisonwood Bible, though not enough to go out and buy every other book she wrote. And I fancied myself a reasonably informed Locavore, and not in need of a sermon on the benefits of eating locally. Didn't I already participate (however feebly) in an Eat Local Challenge in 2006? (Was it really that long ago? Gulp.) Wasn't I already fairly vigilant about buying food in season and at the very least grown in France? I kept bananas and exotic foods to a minimum and gardened as best I could on my terrace. I was pretty smug actually. But the description of the book intrigued me nevertheless: Kingsolver and her family moved from Tucson Arizona where "Virtually every unit of food consumed moves into town in a refrigerated module from somewhere far away. Every ounce of the city's drinking, washing and goldfish-bowl-filling water is pumped from a non-renewable source..." to the Appalachian mountains, where rain falls and plants grow. Her voice pulled me into the narrative in spite of myself and I was hooked. On page 11, I put down the book and went to my computer to send a message to my big sister to thank her for giving it to me, even taking the time to type out a quote. I put my big brother on copy too and told him he should get a copy. On page 12, I decided that Barbara of Tigers and Strawberries had too much in common with Kingsolver not to be aware of the book, so I wrote her too. The convert had turned to proselytizer.
The thing is, Kingsolver's arguments made so much sense. And she put them so beautifully. What's more by the time I finished the book, I was armed to do more than I thought possible to minimize our family's impact on the environment and improve our diets. I'd love everyone who reads this blog to go out and buy a copy, but for those who don't have the time, here is a breakdown of some of her points:
Buying your food locally is good for...
- the environment, because a minimum of fossil fuel is needed to transport it
- your tastebuds, because freshly picked seasonal produce has more flavor
- your local economy and the small business person
- your budget, contrary to what you might think.
Growing your own food is good for those reasons (well, perhaps aside from the local economy) as well as...
- your mental health
- your physical well-being
- the world, especially if you avoid genetically modified seeds and favor heirloom varieties
But the part that was a real revelation for me was the idea that anyone who has access to locally grown fruit (and providing you don't live in Tucson, it probably includes you) can cheaply put aside vegetables and fruit for the long winter months when they are no longer in season. For some reason, perhaps too much Little House on the Prairie when I was younger (yeah, I blame a lot on those books), I have always had it in my head that when you preserve it should always be your own produce and in large quantities. But what is more logical than to buy vegetables locally in season when they are dirt cheap and can them? You know the end product has no preservatives, you know it hasn't travelled thousands of miles to get to you and - what's more - you know it's good. Because you made it. So in addition to the £13 box of organic vegetables that I order each week for our family's consumption from a local organic farm, I also have topped up each week with a request for tomatoes and apples. I've been making small batches and we now have 20 jars of tomatoes and tomato sauce and a dozen applesauce jars. I also foraged enough blackberries from the local hedges for five jars of jam. In addition, I've preserved fruit and vegetables from our usual orders that I wasn't going to be able to use before they went bad: a bag of frozen broad beans and a beautiful jar of preserved plums. I am channelling Laura Ingalls Wilder.
I'm almost too embarrassed to post any of the recipes for these forays into food preservation because they really are basic. However, I am sure there are people out there who think that it's too complicated, too time consuming and just not worth the effort. So I'll start with the easiest recipe in the world: applesauce.
I am in love all over again with my KitchenAid. When the Critic splashed out on that extravagant gift, he not only bought the machine itself but also all kinds of gadgets go to with it, including the one that makes purées. It claims to make baby food a breeze and I'm sure it does - if you are making a gallon of baby food. But I make mine in small batches with my stick blender and so I've never had reason to test it. But applesauce, oh my. If you have food grinder and vegetable strainer attachment for your KitchenAid (or an old-fashioned Foley Food Mill) it is easier than apple pie - though even if you don't it's not that difficult.
With a food mill: take a kilo of apples, wash them and cut in pieces somewhere between the size of a hazelnut and the size of a walnut. Put a few tablespoons of water in a large saucepan and add the apples. Cook over a low heat until they collapse. Taste for sugar. Pass the apple pieces through the food mill and stir in a knob of butter if you like it nice and rich. You can also add cinnamon or vanilla, according to taste.
Without a foodmill: do exactly the same as the above, but peel and core the apples first.
It's that simple. The food grinding element/mill means you don't even have to core and peel the apples, which are really the only onerous bits of the task. Putting the apples through the mill makes my heart sing, though that might be, in part, because I have a fascinated, delighted three year old at my side. He loves his applesauce, and he also loves making it.
In the meantime, sterilize your jars - either in boiling water (completely covered) for 10-15 minutes, or better still in a 200 degree oven. Also sterilize the tops, and be sure not to re-use the discs if you use Bell jars with the separate rings and discs: always buy new ones. Fill the jars with the hot applesauce, leaving a half inch gap before the top of the jar, close them firmly but not too tightly. Cover them with boiling water to an inch over the lids in a large kettle and process on a low boil for 35 minutes. Remove them carefully from the water, check that the rings are closed properly and leave them on the counter. Before putting them in the cupboard, verify that all the seals have popped and become concave; if any haven't, put the jars in the refrigerator and use them within a week because they haven't sealed.
With the food mill, prep time is about ten minutes max, cooking time is about 25 minutes, during which you'll have to stir from time to time, grinding takes just minutes and filling the jars takes about fifteen minutes. So the actual time you spend working on the canning is around an hour - not long for a store of delicious applesauce!
You can choose your apples based on the ones you like best - tart Grannies or soft Golden Delicious. At the moment we are going through a Braeburn phrase, wonderful for eating or cooking. And if you have small children who consume applesauce daily, you can stop feeling bad about all those little plastic cups you are tossing in landfills. (Neither France nor the UK recycle them, sadly.) You will also know exactly how much sugar you are giving them and what kind.
And your three year old will know where another food he loves comes from.
P.S. Vote Democrat in this election and if you can't vote Dem, don't vote at all. If you vote Palin, I may have to send a gun-toting moose around to sort you out. (More preaching to the converted, I hope...)
There is nothing I like better than a good caprese salad with fresh mozzarella and heirloom tomatoes. I make it all summer long, or whenever I can get good quality tomatoes. I've made it straight up when we visited friends in Chicago a couple weeks ago (as seen here) with some farmer's market heirlooms and tomatoes straight from our friends' garden.
This last week, at the mini-farmer's market outside my office (at Tide Point - Hull Street at Key Highway, 4-7pm, Thursday afternoons), I bought some basil, some very fresh mozzarella (the vendor claimed it had been made just three hours prior to my purchasing it) and some delicious Irish sandwich bread (not soda bread - the name was something like "Cuane" or "Culane' - I'll write it down next week).
We had heirlooms unused from the Sunday Baltimore Farmer's Market under Interstate 83 at home. It occurred to me that one ought to be able to put together a pretty delicious sandwich with good ingredients like the ones I had. So.. I did.
If you make this sandwich, have napkins ready and expect the oil to migrate through the bread. Also expect to want more of everything when you're done - even if you're stuffed to the gills.
This is a very simple sandwich and it depends entirely on the quality of the ingredients. If you use hothouse tomatoes, low moisture part skim mass-produced mozzarella and Wonder bread, you WILL be disappointed. The olive oil will be swallowed up in the bread's flavor so if you need to skimp somewhere, that's the place.
Heirloom Tomato Caprese Sandwich
heirloom tomatoes - at least two varieties, one sweeter, one more acidic
fresh mozzarella - this would be the type typically packed in water, not the pizza cheese low moisture part skim type you find in the supermarket next to the cheese sticks
basil leaves - about four per sandwich
good sandwich bread - should have a nice chewy crumb
salt, pepper to taste
Slice the tomatoes however you can to get nice large slices about 1/4"-1/2" thick. Do the same to the mozarella - you want about one tennis ball sized ball for every two sandwiches. Slice thinner if you want to make the mozzarella go further.
Cut the basil into a chiffonade - roll up the leaves and cut thin strips so you end up with "basil confetti".
Toast two slices of bread and lightly (very lightly) drizzle olive oil on both slices of bread. Add one type of tomato slice, then the mozzarella. Salt and pepper to taste, add the basil chiffonade, then add the second sort of tomato on top, finishing with th elast slice of bread, olive oil side down.
Get a plate, a napkin and dig in.
Mmm... kale. What? You don't get that immediate association?
Kale has an image problem. It's dark green like spinach, it's tough like the bushes in your front yard (and might be a decorative plant if your landscaper has a penchant for frilly greens), and it takes a mess of it to make a full meal. Yet, kale in all it forms is a wonderfully tasty way to get iron and calcium, and with a little oil, a little garlic, some eggs and cheese - you can make anything outstanding.
I came to fritattas late. Like two years ago late. For some reason, when I was making fast dinners for myself and later for myself and Rebecca, the idea of putting an egg dish into the oven to finish just never occurred to me.
Well, it occurs to me now, and kale is probably the vegetable I make fritattas with the most. But what I make is an EXTREME fritatta. What? The whole extreme fad is over? Oh.
Well, it's a fritatta with a ton of kale and garlic in it - one pound before cleaning, to be exact. and I do take the time to clean it up. Those stems can be OK if you cook them forever, but by that time you've lost a lot of the subtleties of the leaf's flavor. Better to just chuck the refuse and stick with the good stuff.
There are lots of different types of kale. I used baby Red Russian kale for this dish because that's what was on at the farmers' market in Baltimore Sunday. It's relatively tender (as kale goes), but even tender kale needs a lot of heat to break down the structure. If I'd used green kale or adult Red Russian kale, I'd have boiled the leaves in heavily salted water before sauteing with oil and garlic. Adjust the recipe accordingly.
one pound kale, picked over, stems and big ribs removed
three cloves garlic, smashed, minced roughly
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
10 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup shredded cheese (mozarella, chihuahua, gruyere, you name it - I used chihuahua since we had some that needed using)
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
salt and pepper to taste
If you're using green kale or a tougher variety, boil the kale in a big pot of salty water for five minutes to tenderize it. If you're using baby kale (I used baby Red Russian, myself), you can skip this step.
Preheat the oven to 425 F.
In a large regular non-nonstick skillet, heat the oil, butter and garlic together over medium heat. The idea is to infuse the fats with garlic flavor.
After a few minutes (4-5), add kale and sautee until tender. You may need to add the kale in batches, turning with tongs to coat with oil/butter and wilting the kale until it collapses and you can fit it all into the pan. Mix in the nutmeg and salt and pepper to taste.
Spread the cheese over the kale, and pour the eggs over the wilted kale. You may need to use a spoon or fork to ensure the eggs make their way under some of the kale.
Cook over medium heat for five minutes until the eggs start to set. Remove from burner, and place skillet in oven. Bake in oven until the eggs are completely set and the top is lightly brown - this could be anything from 5 to 12 minutes.
If you're impatient, once the eggs are set, you can brown the top by turning on the broiler and watching it closely until the top is golden brown and delicious looking.
Cut into quarters and serve with a salsa of your choosing. If you can prevent your self from finishing the fritatta, it's much better the next day. A quarter heated for 90 seconds on high in the microwave is the best lunch.
At the farmer's market in Baltimore, this last Sunday, we finally hit the bean stand at the right time to get a bunch of fresh beans without having to wait in line for an hour. Usually, the line for the bean stand is the longest one - longer even than the one for the freshly made doughnuts or than the line of semi conscious drones shuffling toward the coffee stand.
We didn't waste the opportunity. I would have liked to pick up some lima beans, but the Redhead finds them slightly less appealing than whale snot, so we ended up with a pound of butter beans that I made a too-sweet baked bean casserole out of and four pounds of delicious, fresh black beans.
I don't know about you, but if I'd never seen black beans fresh before. I've used them from cans and from packs of dried beans, but to see them as they come from the field was something special. Of course, they tasted NOTHING like I was used to - fresher, crisper, a little less flavorful, and a bit... uncooked.
So I hit the web and the books and found practically nothing about how to use fresh black beans. No one's seen these things! We're so far removed from the production process that people only ever reference dried or canned beans.
Well, here's you recipe for a simple fresh black bean salad. I kept the ingredients to a minimum (ha! - No really). You could add diced mango or papaya or tomato or avocado to this salad to give it a slightly fresher feel, but as it sits, this is a nice way to use black beans of any sort and to make a big mess of them with whole grains, vegetables, and a little fat that you can take as lunch for a week.
Black Bean, Quinoa, and Peppers salad
2 pounds black beans
2 dried pasilla peppers, seeds removed (can sub fresh jalapenos, if you prefer, jsut remove the seeds and cut into big pieces easy to retrieve)
1 pound corn kernels
3 roasted poblano peppers, seeds and skin removed
3 roasted red peppers, seeds and skin removed
3 small yellow onions or 2 large ones
1 cup cotija cheese (or other hard cheese, grated, or crumbled salty softer cheese like feta)
1/4 cup lime juice
1/2 cup olive oil
1 cup quinoa
3 cloves garlic
1/2 cup minced cilantro
1 teaspoon cumin
Wash and drain the beans and put them in a saucepan. Cut up the pasilla pepper (or jalapenos, if using them) and add to the pot. Make the pieces large so you can retrieve them later.
Cover the beans with water by 1" in a saucepan, bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook until tender, but not mushy, maybe 15-20 minutes. Drain and remove the peppers from the beans.
Dice the poblano, red peppers and onions all to about 1/2 inch pieces. Rinse the onion in a strainer under cold water to remove some of the sulfurous bite.
In a dry skillet, roast the corn until it browns over high heat, stirring and tossing frequently, but don't burn it. Take the corn out when you have some nice brown spots on most kernels.
Mince the garlic and put it in the skillet with a teaspoon of olive oil for about two minutes over high heat - just enough to soften it up, not enough to burn it or caramelize.
In a small pot, combine one cup of quinoa with a cup and a half of water. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cook until all the water is absorbed - maybe 12 minutes.
Mix the corn, peppers, onions, quinoa, garlic, and beans together and toss well. Add the olive oil, cheese, lime juice, cumin, and cliantro. Salt and pepper to taste. Put in a refrigerator to cool for at least an hour before serving.
If you'd like, add diced avocado, tomato, mango, or papaya as mentioned earlier.
Eggplant is one of my favorite vegetables and I buy them with surprising regularity, given the fact that I am the only member of the family who actively likes them. The Critic will tolerate moussaka, as will Big Brother on a good day. Little Brother will sometimes eat my leftovers on the rare occasion there are any, but even I have to agree it rarely looks appetising when you whizz an eggplant dish into baby food. But I love picking out a firm, glossy, purple eggplant. I love the nuttiness of its flesh. And I love how soft and sweet it becomes when you cook it until it collapses in a delicate mound.
What I don't love is how hard it is to reach that perfectly cooked state. Cook it too little and it remains bitter, chewy and tough. Cook it too much and it becomes slimy. As a result, there only seem to be two practical ways to cook an eggplant: drown it in oil or bake it until it surrenders. The former has obvious drawbacks, both on a health front and from a textural standpoint as the eggplant easily gets slimy. And the latter leaves you with flesh that is really only fit for baby food or an eggplant caviar.
My solution? I like to brush slices of eggplant with a touch of olive oil and grill them - either on a barbecue or simply on a cast iron grill pan. If you get the temperature right the slices will be tenderly cooked through and you'll have beautiful charred lines across the flesh. If I want the eggplant to be especially tender, as in this recipe, I will also cover the pan for the first half of cooking to essentially steam the slices as they grill. (For a salad, I prefer my slices a bit "meatier" and don't bother.) So this is my secret for Eggplant Parmesan. It's my favorite vice, the dish I make at the end of the summer when I have a handful of tomatoes from the garden and the Critic is away for the evening doing his thing. The smell of cheese and tomato and eggplant (and garlic, always garlic) wafting from the oven is enough for me to move the children's bed time forward half an hour in the hope that I can enjoy it in peace and quiet with a good book, all alone with my beloved dinner.
I always think that I have made enough for dinner and lunch the next day. And yet somehow that pan is always empty when I go to bed at night.
Eggplant Parmesan (the slightly less unhealthy way)
1 medium eggplant
2-3 cloves of garlic (depending on how much you like garlic and how large they are)
10-15 cherry tomatoes or 1-2 large tomatoes
3-4 fresh basil leaves
200 g fresh mozzarella
50 g freshly grated Parmesan
a few tablespoons of olive oil
Heat your grill pan until it's almost too hot to hold your hand a few inches above the surface. In the meantime, slice the eggplant on a diagonal in pieces just under a centimeter thick. Brush them with the olive oil and lay them on the grill pan. Cover and leave for a good five minutes - until the slices pull away from the grill easily because the bars have charred the flesh completely in dark lines. Turn over and grill until the slices are cooked through and, again, pull away easily from the pan. Continue in batches until all the slices are grilled.
While you are grilling the eggplant, if you are good at multitasking, you can start the tomato sauce. Slice the garlic thinly and soften it in a tablespoon or two of olive oil over a medium heat. Roughly chop the tomatoes and add to the pan when the garlic smells lovely and nutty. Cook for a few minutes and then turn off the heat. Slice the basil and stir into the tomato sauce.
Preheat the oven to 190C.
To assemble, brush the inside of a small baking dish with olive oil and then make a layer of eggplant, overlapping a bit if necessary, in the bottom. Drizzle with the tomato sauce and lay thin slices of mozzarella over the top. Continue until you have used up all the sauce, eggplant and mozzarella - two or three levels depending on the size of your eggplant and your pan. Sprinkle the Parmesan over the top and bake for about 35 minutes, or until the top is browned and the entire house smells wonderfully garlicky and savory.
Allow the eggplant parmesan to rest for at least ten minutes before you slice into it, so that the cheese has time to set and the dish stays together. It will easily stay hot for 15-20 minutes in the pan. Then again, it's also lovely 45 minutes later when you come back for lukewarm seconds. I'm fairly sure it would even be tasty stone cold, but I have never made enough to find out.