Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Busted at the Bistro

I had a book signing here in Bellingham a few weeks ago, and a couple days after that, as I was polishing off dinner at the Fountain Bistro near my house and trying not to get salad dressing on the papers I was correcting, my neighbors Bob and Selma stopped by my table. They told me they were shocked, shocked after hearing my talk to see me eating restaurant food instead of staying home to scrub the topsoil off my rutabagas. 

Lucky for me that my profile is low enough so that a bit of teasing from the nice folks two houses down is the extent of my exposure to public expectations. I would hate to be, say, Barbara Kingsolver or Michael Pollen and have every my every public mouthful scrutinized.
Christmas Eve vegetable plates, in lurid, blurry living color
But speaking of Michael Pollen, one treat of my vacation is to read through 
months-old copies of magazines that I don’t get to during the work weeks. This week I browsed a six-month-old copy of the New York Review of Books, where Michael Pollen has a roundup essay on modern food movements. His thesis is that unlike many movements—say feminism, or Protestantism--which tend to fragment into ever more specialized concerns as time goes on, food campaigners may be finding more mutual connections. I don’t know if he’s right about this, but the essay, which discusses books on hunger in America, vegetarian activists, locavores, government food policy, sustainable farming, and critiques of bureaucracy (and more!), did help me put some ideas together. 

One of them is the economic relationship between American food prices and our health and family life. Pollan writes that on average, we spend less than 10 percent of our incomes on food and only half an hour a day preparing it (including cleanup). Those are the lowest numbers in the industrialized world, and they imply enviable quantities of disposable income and time to create great things outside the kitchen. But here’s the web in which those figures are tangled. That cheap food is the stuff that’s made directly or indirectly from heavily subsidized corn and soy—pop, McBurgers, chicken nuggets, milkshakes, processed cheese etc. (Fresh vegetable and fruit prices have not stayed proportionally low) And we all know the health consequences of that diet. The money we save on groceries gets spent instead on the medical consequences of our obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and diet-related cancers. Big Agriculture and Big Pharma get bigger yet, while we go broke paying medical bills. 

The French and the Italians--to pick two famous foodie cultures--pay a higher percentage of their incomes on food, spend a lot more time preparing and eating it (though less than they used to), spend a lower percentage of their income on health care, and live longer on average than we do.

But what about the time saved? Convenient food was supposed to liberate women, especially, from drudgery and resentment in the kitchen, and there is a case to be made there. Not every household contains someone who enjoys cooking, and though I love to cook I’m not in the mood three times a day every day. But it’s also true that it takes about as much time to go through the drive-through window as to throw a salad together. If you have the money, you can get food that is both nutritious and convenient. The people who make their livings at the fast-food windows, or processing the chickens that make the McNuggets, or stocking the Quick Mart shelves with Top Ramen, are the ones who can’t afford to buy nutritious quick food and often lack the time and training to cook more economical healthy meals from scratch. This plays into the familiar critique of mainstream feminism, that it is a creation of and for comfortable middle class women. 

And that brings to mind an old poem by Marge Piercy

What's that smell in the kitchen?
All over America women are burning dinners.
It's lambchops in Peoria: it's haddock
in Providence; it's steak in Chicago:
tofu delight in Big Sur; red rice and beans in Dallas.
All over America women are burning food they're supposed to bring with calico smile on
platters glittering like wax.
Anger sputters in her brainpan, confined but spewing out missiles of hot fat.
Carbonized despair presses like a clinker
from a barbecue against the back of her eyes.
If she wants to grill anything, it's
her husband spitted over a slow fire.
If she wants to serve him anything it's a dead rat with a bomb in its belly ticking like the
heart of an insomniac.
Her life is cooked and digested,
nothing but leftovers in Tupperware.
Look, she says, once I was roast duck
on your platter with parsley but now I am Spam.
Burning dinner is not incompetence but war.

Burning dinner may be war, but having the dinner to burn is good fortune. That’s why it’s so important that we link up the issues of food equity and food quality. It’s not enough to have cheap food, if the real costs are our health and environment. It’s not enough to have sources of nutritious and delicious food if only the comfortable can afford it. 

Here's a link to a Bellingham Herald story about increasing access to real food:

If Pollan is right, and I hope he is, we’ll see more Food Bank Farms, more farmers markets taking food stamps and WIC, more community gardens, more gleaning, and more opportunities for people to make a decent living providing good food to their neighbors. 
And speaking of that, I hope Geoff and Anna at Osprey Hill are making a decent living, because they certainly are providing good food. Our Christmas Eve dinner relied heavily on their produce from my CSA box—delicata squash, carrots, and onions in the risotto; onions and garlic stuffed in the pork roast, with parsnips and potatoes cooked alongside; applesauce for those who like it with pork; mixed braised greens. It was all great.

After writing this ramble, and thinking about how I am one of the fortunate few who not only has the resources to grow and buy good food, but also gets to make a little money while promoting it, I decided to make my donation to the food bank automatic and monthly instead of by whim. Join me?

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A community of vegetables

Check out the latest issue of the estimable Foothills Gazette for two stories on local food initiatives dear to my heart.

One is a profile of Nooksack Valley High School's use of local produce in its foods classes. (James Ortiz, who is pictured giving his usual intense scrutiny to a tray of potatoes, is one of my students this year.)

The other story talks about community gardens in rural Whatcom County. While at first thought it might seem redundant to have neighborhood garden plots out in the county, when I thought about it I realized that of course not everyone in farm country has ground to plant. Even house renters may not have permission to dig up the back yard for a garden plot, and some yards are too shady to grow vegetables. Many county residents live in apartments, including recent arrivals to this country who have both the skills and the need to grow their own produce.

I had a chance to talk briefly with Gretchen Hoyt of Alm Hill Gardens and Growing Washington when she was at the high school last week. She brought me up to date on Everson's Community Garden, which is thriving in its spot behind the library, producing vegetables for the Food Bank as well as for home tables. I'll go into more detail here when time permits.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Winter Harvest Cookbook Corrections and Comments #1

Here's where I note corrections, comments and updates for Winter Harvest. The plan is to repost the list, with additions, every week or two. 

Sunday Brunch Frittata (page 125)
It should say : 3 tablespoons light oil
Never mind the "cup."

Winter Fruit Bars (page 256)
The bars hold together better if you use quick rolled oats rather than the thicker steel-cut types.
Also, Carolyn--the recipe's creator--says that when she is using fresh fruits such as pears along with dried fruits, she doesn't reconstitute the dried fruit. The liquid from the pears is enough to do the job. And we both agree that these reach are even better the next day, when the layers have had a chance to consolidate. 

And while I'm thinking of Carolyn and her household, the author's photo credit was omitted. It should have gone to her husband, Tim Pilgrim. 

Stirring the Pot

This is my season of book promotion, especially since the winter produce topic and the Christmas shopping season coincide. Thankfully I am still teaching, so I can’t go overboard with time spent smiling and signing and passing out samples. It’s fun in small doses.   

At the Community Farm Store in Duncan
Last week’s dose was on Vancouver Island, where my friend Gale organized events in Ladysmith and Duncan, hunted up the ingredients, turned over her kitchen to our sample making, and drove us through the snow to get to the dates. She also unearthed the batiked banner I had made for a natural foods deli we ran together in Mountain View, California, 38 eventful years ago.

Using the book and talking about it with people also means that the inevitable glitches and errors of any project come to light. Someone in Ladysmith pointed out a typo and Gale and I realized that the winter fruit bars, though variable by nature, could still use some more explicit instructions for accommodating different combinations of fresh and dried fruit. 

At The Worldly Gourmet in Ladysmith. I found the fancy stove intimidating, but the audience was great.

So I am going to start posting Corrections and Comments pages on this blog periodically, and I invite your participation. If you see a typo or an omission, or if something isn’t clear, or if you have created a variation you’d be willing to share, let me know.  The book is selling well and a second printing is not a complete pipe dream, so improvements could be included then. Meantime, I can at least make them available to blog readers. 

Next event: Wednesday, Dec. 8, 7 p.m.  at Village Books in Bellingham. Samples provided by the great young cooks and their teacher Lois Rienstra at Nooksack Valley High School's Pioneer Catering.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Colcannon in color

Colcannon with  real and fake squash, plus a pear.
It was a stormy Friday night, snowing and blowing so that the evening dog walk was severely truncated. It was fun to walk (or in Parker's case gallop in excited circles) with my back to the wind as the snow zipped by and whirled around in the street, but facing into it was another matter. I needed full Sumas Northeaster gear instead of the girly little scarf and hat I'd grabbed on the way out the door. It was hard to breathe, and the sleety flakes stung.

So we came back early and I made some colcannon, the Irish potato/cabbage combo that got many a poor family through winters like these, until the potato famine wiped out even this basic fare. Colcannon is mashed potatoes, boiled cabbage, butter and salt, and maybe some scallions. Winter Harvest has a recipe, but you don't really need one.

There's a nostalgic song about colcannon, which the Kulshan Chorus will be singing at our concert this December 11. One verse goes:

Well did you ever make colcannon,
Made with lovely pickled cream
With the greens and scallions mingled
Like a picture in a dream
Did you ever make a hole on top
To hold the meltin' flake
Of the creamy flavoured butter
That our mothers used to make...

Well, I like colcannon well enough, and I like the song, but I don't seem to be true enough to my Celtic roots to dream about it. It's not exactly exciting stuff. And that got me thinking....what if it were more colorful, literally?  So I whipped some up with the purple potatoes and red cabbage from my Osprey Farms CSA, with results seen above. Whether this is a picture from a sweet dream or a nightmare depends on how you feel about purple food, I guess. My housemate says it would look better on a hotrod. The bread is celeriac bread (also in Winter Harvest), which is basically Irish soda bread, with celeriac. It's tasty.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Costco here I come

One of the great things about my Bellingham neighborhood is that I can walk or bike to the grocery store, or make a quick stop on the way to somewhere else. So I haven't set foot in a Costco for years, probably since the girls moved out on their own.  But I'll make a day of it Saturday for Winter Harvest book signings: Burlington from 1 p.m. (ish) until 5 and Marysville from 7 to 9. Greg Atkinson--a James Beard Award winner and nice guy--will be there too, promoting his latest cookbook, Northwest Essentials.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

My winter CSA, weeks 1 and 2

What I’ve gotten so far
Week One --Nov 4-10
Onions, garlic, red cabbage, parsnips, pea vines (with November flowers!), rainbow chard, baby beets with greens, purple potatoes, pickled garlic scapes.
Week Two  -- Nov. 11-17
Shallots, garlic, fennel, fingerling potatoes, romanesco, kale, canned heritage tomatoes, specialty carrots—Purple Haze and a pale, pale yellow variety, rosemary

What I’ve made so far
Mashed potatoes and parsnips with chopped garlic scapes and a splash of Worcestershire

Beet greens and chard braised with garlic, garlic scapes, and kalamata olives

Stir-fried pea vines: Ehhh. This is the first time I've cooked pea vines and I was underwhelmed. I'll try a different approach before I give up on them.

Lentils with garlic, roasted sweet potato and roasted purple potato; this was good, and was further improved by the addition of caramelized onions.

Risotto with pureed fennel and romanesco. Nice, but the kind of risotto that is clearly meant to accompany a meat course. I like my risotto as the main event.

Kale and carrots braised with shallots, a few olives, and a smidgeon of bacon. I added a few tiny boiled potatoes in there too. 

I think the next project is going to be a Day-glo Colcannon, with purple potatoes and red cabbage. 

I also need to do something with the beets and remaining parsnips, pronto. I'll feel lousy if I let this beautiful produce go to waste.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Squashed, but not complaining

I am proud of this recipe (which I recently invented myself, so any duplicates are due to independent inspiration). The name comes both from the mystery ingredient and the fact that the first time I made it I inadvisedly used a tube pan and then turned it upside-down to cool like an angel food cake.  So instead of a nice round creation with a tidy hole in the middle I ended up with a pile of moist and tasty chunks. I put it in a casserole for transport to school, where it passed the teenage test and was quickly polished off. Even when I told them it contained baked squash, they still came back for more. That’s because it was moist (the squash), but not leaden (the egg whites), and just flavorful enough (the spices) to be interesting without getting in the way of the chocolate. 

If you’re not wedded to pumpkin pie, this could be a good addition to the Thanksgiving table.

Squashed Cake
1¾ cups flour
1½ teaspoons baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
1¼ cups sugar
3-4 tablespoons cocoa powder
½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon ginger
2/3 cup vegetable oil
1 cup baked, pureed pumpkin or winter squash (I used a small kabocha)
½ teaspoon vanilla
3 egg whites

Preheat oven to 350 F.
Mix together the flour, baking soda, salt, sugar, cocoa powder, and spices.
In a separate bowl, beat the oil, squash, and vanilla. Add the oil and squash mixture to the dry ingredients and stir or beat to form a stiff batter.
Whip the eggs into stiff peaks and fold into the batter.
Spoon into a lightly greased Bundt pan or a rectangular cake pan and bake until the cake springs back when pressed in the center. Baking time will vary with the pan and moisture content of the squash. Start checking at 25-30 minutes. 

A well flavored squash keeps more familiar company here in this simple dish from the  Winter Harvest Cookbook, which, I am happy to say, is starting to hit the stores.

 Coming up on November 26 is International Onion Day, which is the kind of holiday I can get behind. It’s also my son-in-law Ronny’s birthday, another big day around here. I’m very fond of both—Ronny and onions. This Greek recipe reminds me of good diner food—maybe those sweet potato fries that even the healthiest eater can’t resist every now and then.

2/3 cup flour
salt and pepper
2 cups cubed winter squash
3 cups diced yellow onions
1 teaspoon dried thyme
olive oil

Put the flour, salt and pepper in a large mixing bowl (or you can do what my mom did when flouring stew meat and put it in a paper bag). Add the squash and onions and coat evenly, by tossing the veggies in the bowl or shaking the bag.

Heat ½ inch of olive oil in a large, heavy skillet. Watch it carefully and don’t let it smoke. Olive oil has a lower smoking point than many frying oils, but you want it for the flavor. Use a slotted spoon (to remove extra flour) to add the vegetables in two or three batches, depending on the size of the pan. They need enough room to fry rather than steam from the moisture in the onions.

Fry until browned on one side and then turn over and brown the other side, maybe 4 minutes per side. Remove from heat and drain. Repeat with the remaining squash and onions.

Sprinkle with thyme, check for more salt and pepper if needed, and serve hot.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Coolness of Cauliflower, the Charm of Chard

photos are from Growing Whatcom's winter produce list

When my mom took Home Ec in the Great Depression, Lincoln High School couldn’t afford much in the way of ingredients for cooking classes. She remembered making shirred eggs, over and over.  A little margarine to line the custard cup, an egg, a splash of milk, salt and pepper---bake and done. However she learned to be a cook legendary among our friends, that wasn’t it. 

Thinking back to my own Home Ec classes in the 1960s, it’s probably telling that I cannot recall a single thing we cooked, although I’m pretty sure Jello was involved. I can remember meals going back to early childhood, but that class at Sumner High with Mrs. Boushay, who was very nice, is a culinary blank spot. (Recalling the madras miniskirt suit I made in the sewing unit is another matter. I was not born to match seams in plaid.)

I’m pretty sure that the students taking Lois Rienstra’s cooking classes at the high school where I teach will remember what they ate. The other day Bobbi Sue came to my English class bubbling about the dish she and her cooking partner had made that was “pure awesomeness.”  When I asked her about it, she zipped back down the hall and brought me some, and she was right. Bobbi Sue is not one of your teenage vegan greenie types, nor does she think a whole lot of things in life are awesome, but the recipe that made us both happy featured cauliflower, chard and potatoes, fresh from the Growing Whatcom CSA. 

Obviously, things are changing in high school kitchens. Lois has put a portion of her program’s buying power into local food this year, which is particularly appropriate at our rural school since many of the students are from farming and farm-working families. Some of her young cooks spend summers and vacations growing the very vegetables that they are learning to cook with imagination and respect. It’s good to see those transformations—fieldworkers into chefs, a kid’s response to Swiss chard going from “gross!” to “awesomeness!”   Lois’s catering class takes the local food message back out into the community by including CSA produce in their monthly Lions Club dinners and other commercial jobs. 

Growing Washington has recently added a Winter CSA, extending the season another 8 weeks into late December. This is good news for me, because the catering class has agreed to make food from Winter Harvest for our Literature Live night at Village Books, Dec. 8. I hope that any local readers will stop by to say hi, have a snack,  and see what good work they do. 

I am also excited to start getting my own winter CSA box from Osprey Hill Farm in Acme, starting next weekend.
Both programs have information online:

And here’s the recipe for Bobbi Sue’s “pure awesomeness,” courtesy of Growing Whatcom CSA:
Cauliflower, Chard and Leek Gratin
1 medium head of cauliflower, florets only
1 bunch of chard, cleaned, stem removed and chopped
1 leek, white and light green parts only, washed well and chopped
¼ cup chopped shallot
1 T olive oil
2T butter
2T flour
¼ cup cream
1¾ cup 2 percent milk
1 cup grated Grana Padano cheese (optional)
 ½ cup grated Parmesan
salt and pepper to taste

Steam the cauliflower until tender crisp, about 10 minutes. Set aside. Heat the olive oil in a large pan, sauté the leek and shallot for a few minutes until just starting to turn golden. Add the chard and sauté until just wilted. Mix with the cauliflower in a roasting pan.

Make the béchamel. Start by melting the butter in a sauce pan. Add the flour and whisk until it begins to turn golden and smells “nutty” and no longer like raw flour. Add the cream and milk slowly, whisking as you go to keep it smooth. Add the nutmeg. Whisk over low heat until it thickens. Add the Grana Padano cheese and whisk until melted and smooth. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Pour the sauce evenly over the cauliflower mixture. Sprinkle with the Parmesan cheese. Bake at 350 F for about 15-20 minutes until the top turns golden and is heated through.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Sweet Potato Report

Probably I couldn’t have picked a less promising summer for my first try at Pacific Northwest sweet potatoes.  

I bought five slips from Territorial Seeds, rooted them in water, waited in vain for that burst of June warm weather to get them started in dirt, and finally had to put them in their container ready or not, because I was about to leave for Romania. When I got back in mid-July, three of the babies had given up the ghost, presumably discouraged by the endless chilly rain. The last two hung on, and I wheeled them around the deck like invalids on a cruise ship, following the fickle sun. 

They sat, and sat, and sat, neither growing nor dying, until August when they finally perked up during our brief heat wave and put on a little growth. Then they sat some more. A week ago I upended the pot and harvest about a dozen hairy little roots. Little is the operative word. The entire “crop” probably came in at under a pound. 

I roasted them along with some romano beans that weren’t going to make it to the shell stage but were getting too stringy to sauté. The flavor was excellent, actually--not as sweet as the garnet yams I get at the Co-op, but rich and fresh. I realized I’ve never knowingly eaten fresh sweet potatoes. Unless our forecast is for another non-summer, I’ll try them again next year.

Another semi-casualty of a cool summer in my shady yard was my kabocha squash. It actually produced four fruits on the one vine, which impressed me, but each one was the size of a medium cantaloupe, about half the usual girth. 

Oh well.  In a couple of weeks my winter CSA will start from Osprey Hill Farm, and while I doubt it will include sweet potatoes, I’ll bet I will have all the squash I could want.