Tuesday, March 15, 2011

It's been a long time

The only way to try to come back, is to just come back.

I've got to pump oil in the joints like a group of travelers did with the Tin Man once upon a time. But I'm going to do it. Today. Now.

So many things have gotten in the way. My computer got busted - the LCD panel cracked making only 40 percent of the monitor viewable. Then I took on a new role at my current job that meant the time I used to spend jotting down clever turns of phrase to dazzle you my blog readers with had to be spent on memorizing information about the natural world to dazzle my supervisor with. Maybe I could finally afford to replace my busted computer.

But then my heart got busted. And I wasn't good for much after that.

Through the winter, my porch still saw bi-monthly deliveries of local produce with some occaisional brocoli or an artichoke from California thrown in. Potatoes, onions, turnips, beets, kale and chard have been the norm. Last winter I found celeraic, sunchokes and radishes (of all varieties).

Nevertheless I have been cooking. I started a lasagna filled with ground turkey, cremini mushrooms, beet greens, carrots and red pepper. But I pilfered it into my stomach before I could make the requisite noodle layers.

After the big blizzard, I battled cabin fever by venturing to the grocery store for baking supplies - baking powder, flour - to make a sweetened parsnip and walnut bread that I had always been curious about.

And of course I ate my staple dishes: variations on spaghetti, dirty rice and chick peas and couscous sauteed with whatever greens I had on hand.

It feels a little like cheating to start blogging again after the most challenging season for fresh, local produce is ending. But it is what it is. I can only go forward. And that means moving into spring.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Article --- Eat Shoots and Leaves

My name is Ashleigh and I admit to once being the sort of person who lobbed off the tops of mushrooms and tossed the stems into the trash.

These days I try to incorporate as much of the whole vegetable as I can stomach - including the fragrant but tough tops of carrots into my cooking with inconsistent success. When eating leafy collards, turnip greens or kale, I chop the stems into tiny pieces and throw them into the pot with their leafy sisters. Intellectually, I know consuming every scrap would eliminate waste, but I can't bring myself to eat the tops of turnips or tomatoes. I can be counted on to give my full throated support to eating the skin of any potato. However the waxy skins from apples were peeled so I could bake the apples, were later banished.

I wish the author of this article talked more about eating skins, stems and more undesirable parts than eating the greens that sprout from one's beets or turnips. Isn't that Whole Hog 101? What do I do with apple cores or squash skin or the stems of a tomato which smell like heaven but taste bitter? Does any one out there have any thoughts? What are your techniques for reducing kitchen waste?

Eat Shoots and Leaves: A Case for the Whole Vegetable

Carol Ann Sayle - Carol Ann Sayle is co-founder and co-owner of Boggy Creek Farm, a five-acre urban, organic farm in Austin, Texas.

Risking sounding like "a broken record"—and I do remember the click click click of a 1950s phonograph needle repeatedly hitting the inevitable scratch mark on a well-loved record—I find myself suggesting to just about anyone who buys a vegetable that is connected to its greens to eat the leaves. Please.

That is my mantra, along with "eat the skins, the roots, and the stems," as I converse with customers in our farm stand. Generally most folks respond with disbelief. "You mean these are edible?"

Yes, and typically, they are just as, or more, nutritious as the vegetable they grew. Throwing the "extras" away, or even composting them, is a waste of potential health and money. Of course, if they are being shared with backyard hens, then that's okay ... But I want the customers to get the most nutrition and value from their purchases, and if they discard the stems and greens they won't. ... Keep reading here.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Failing ... to eat at home

Tonight I ate a sandwich from Potbelly for dinner. It was the big chicken salad on wheat with everything - no mayonnaise, no lettuce, extra peppers. I asked the sandwich maker to cut my big chicken salad into three pieces instead of two. They always forget. I ask for it knowing that by cutting time, they will have forgotten.

Ten minutes earlier I left Target with tomato sauce, manicotti shells, ricotta, three granny smith apples and a plan to make dinner. (As I write this those items sit on my bedroom floor buried beneath my coat and the clothes I wore today.) Manicotti was to be stuffed with spinach and cremini mushrooms and the aforementioned ricotta. Maybe sausage and purple kale too, I had not decided. Parsnips, mashed with butter and soy milk would make a respectable, simple side dish. Ridiculously easy tartlets could be made with the apples for dessert.

At 4:34 pm something happened. I won’t go in to it. Same Old Shit, actually. Nothing that hasn’t happened at least 147 other times, yet each and every time I am caught off guard, like opening a dirty lunch container that’s been sitting with food in it for three weeks and feeling tremors of shock and disgust when the remnants of coconut chicken soup have green and white spores spreading on all six sides of your bootleg tupperware. What should you expect.

Cooking represents a sense of optimism and control over my life. A pot of acorn squash, cilantro and chicken stew means that the future has something worthwhile in it - even if it’s just bright orange-gold and wild green in my bowl. Moreover, it’s a small bundle of wonderful that I conceived. Cooking connects me to qualities I’m not completely sure I have, but like to think I possess: independence, intelligence, creativity. When I open my homemade lunch, even if it’s a simple spaghetti, or a modest couscous with canned beans and wilted greens on top that I threw together in the morning, fifteen minutes before heading to work, I pride surges inside of me like a tidal wave the moment before it breaks.
You made that? I made this.
These are the reasons I cook.

But there are days when I don’t know whose life I’m living, but it cannot possibly be mine. Today I wondered - not for the first time - if God really exists because He could never make anyone as stupid as me. No matter how many moves ahead I try to plan, everything ends the same way. It’s as though I took a turn into a labyrinth and every door I enter just takes me back to where I was or somewhere else equally pointless.

In this dank, dark place sometimes kale goes brittle, radishes develop a slick white coat and parsnips shrivel and harden. I don’t want to be self-reliant. I don’t want to do for myself; I crave being done for. I don’t want to be creative or puzzle out the best ratios of water to quinoa or tofu to ground pork or lemon zest to butter. I want the structure that comes from a place that replicates hundreds of the same meal every day. Devolve into a passive ball of emotions and instincts. Take this useless brain and insulate it with inexpensive quickly prepared food. Instead of Trying to Eat At Home, I willfully eat out.

Or rather carryout, since dragging food back to my cave is far preferable than the ritual of civilized public eating.

When it's not Potbelly, it might be Sbarro's, with their Bedrock sized pizza slices and individually constructed al dente purses stuffed with meat, tomato and cheese, also known as lasagna. When eating it, sometimes I slip back to my childhood and Saturday excursions to the mall with my mother. I remember dazzling her with witticisms I had acquired during life in the single digits such as: Mommy, I think ricotta cheese has a chemical in it that makes us sleepy." Sometimes I feel a mild jolt that comes from that moment after you've bought (or have had bought for you) new clothes or shoes and the moment before you actually get to wear them.

Or I might stop by the jerk chicken place at the end of my block for a smokey, spicy sweet dinner with callaloo or cabbage on the side and that sauce that has an ingredient that's so familiar yet so unidentifiable my brain itches whenever I taste it.

But most of the time it's the fried chicken meal from the grocery store Jewel. Their wedges of steamy, creamy potatoes - with the unfortunate moniker Tater Babies - are the star of the show, with the two pieces of chicken playing a supporting role. (By the way, why don't places that sell fried chicken, team up with these places that sell skinless chicken breasts, take the discarded chicken skin and sell the fried chicken skin by itself. Everyone knows that's the best part, right?)

Whatever I choose to bring home often results in a mild food coma from which I awake in the middle of the night thirstier than I have ever been. Perhaps thousands of milligrams salt and adult beverages don't mix. But some how things seem a little better, even if it's just from being washed over by the solitude of night.

Someone in my life who is becoming a good friend said to me that we eat an elephant one bite at a time and we change the direction of our lives one thought at a time. My thoughts are such a leaderless swarm, how can they rally in a coherent, linear direction.

There are many more nights of carryout in my future. But if anyone is looking for me tonight. I'll be stuffing manicotti ... hopefully.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Maybe I shoudn't 'like' cooking so much

I found a website that generates 'clouds' from frequently used words in a block of text. I created one from this blog. Check it out.

Try to eat at home - Wordle

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Grilled Vegetable Salad

A Chicagoan I know calls California Pizza Kitchen‘yuppie pizza.’ Hailing from the land of deep dish makes one finicky, I suppose. Of course this same Chicagoan seems to find Dominoes incredibly satisfying (which I stipulate it is every one and a while). But given a choice, I would prefer California Pizza Kitchen. But this post is not about pizza. It’s about salad!

The one thing I must eat whenever I visit the California is their grilled vegetable salad.

Grilled asparagus, Japanese eggplant, zucchini, green onions, roasted corn, avocado, sun dried tomatoes - all separated into colorful quadrants over a bed of lettuce. It’s such an ideal combination of flavors and textures - even sun dried tomatoes cannot ruin this dish. (Yeah, I said it. Just because we can make raisins with grapes does not mean we should do the same thing with tomatoes. No. No. No.)

I can never think of anything inspiring to do with the salad greens I get, but I decided to try an recreate some version of this salad. I had mixed salad greens, zucchini, garlic, avocado ... and bacon (left over from my Great Beet Experiment). I quickly abandoned the fantasy that my vegetables would bear the marks of a professional kitchen - straight, black grill marks - and sauteed the garlic, zucchini, and bacon on the stove top. After It was done I tossed with the salad greens and topped it with a few chunks of avocado. Poured on top, the balsamic vinegar was supposed to trickle over the greens and unify the flavors. Unfortunately when I tasted it, the vinegar pushed away all the other flavors like a child demanding its parents attention.

The next day I tried again with Caesar dressing. Just right. It didn’t really taste like the food doppelganger I initially tried to create, but it was definitely something I would like to make again.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Beet Your Meat

I asked my mother once why she did not cook Brussels sprouts and Lima Beans, the foods that children were supposed to hate. Feeling deprived of some childhood rite of passage may have prompted the question. Her response was simple: she had never liked any of those things growing up, she figured I wouldn't either. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I was not one of those children who only ate peanut butter and jelly, chicken nuggets, or my generation's answer to spaghetti tacos.

In my mother's house I could not have dessert unless I ate my entire dinner. On occasion, a guilt trip may have arrived in the form of: starving children in Ethiopia (each generation has their guilt trip country, what is it now? Iraq? Afghanistan? Iceland?

More old-fashioned parents insist their children remain at the dinner table until everything is gone. A particularly twisted version of this method is pretending to allow the child allow choice in what she eats for dinner. When the child doesn't choose a helping of something she knows her mind enough to know she dislikes, force a gargantuan helping of the food she did not want in the first place on to her plate. THEN refuse to let her leave the table until she crams it all down her throat. [Dear former step-mother: Don't believe what you have heard, this is the real reason my father divorced you. No love, Ashleigh]

This brings us to beets. Earthy. Metallic. Sweet-ish. Not exactly the most child-appropriate food [I wonder if Russian children like beets growing up]. But after outings into Detroit's suburbs, my mother and I would occasionally stop at The Sign of the Beef Carver for a home style meal on our way home. I think this might be a metro-Detroit thing but does any one know this place? I found an old commercial for it here. For some reason these meals always involved beets. Maybe there were a side item my mother chose. While I cannot say for sure that the shimmering fuchsia convinced me to try a few bites, I cannot say it hurt. It was never a favorite food, but when ever I would see them, I would try a little, hoping either they tasted different or my tastebuds had finally matured.

Last year when I first received a delivery of fresh beets, I roasted them in the oven with sweet potatoes. Now that I have them again, and you readers looking over my shoulder, I have decided to try stepping it up a bit. Read a few recipes and came up with this variation.

Here's what I used:

1 small onion
4 or 5 slices of bacon, chopped
4 beets; 3 sweet potatoes, roasted in the oven, and chopped. (Try to do a better job skinning than I did)
2 cups of Merlot, divided (only put one cup in the dish, drink the other)
About 5 tablespoons of ricotta cheese that I had left over from making lasagna
The greens from your beets - rinsed very (very) thoroughly and chopped.
Salt and Pepper, to taste

I put a few table spoons of oil in the pot and added the onions once the stove got hot. (Do I have to mention I turned on the stove?)
Then I added all the bacon, once it was mostly cooked I added the beets and sweet potatoes, then I added about half of the one cup of wine as the pot got dry, then added the cheese and a few minutes later the second cup of wine. I added the beet greens at the end, and left everything cooking until the greens wilted.

Overall, I was fairly satisfied with the dish. In the future I might add one or two extra slices of bacon and make sure I skin the beets and sweet potatoes properly.

What foods challenged you growing up that you like (or at least respect) now? Is there any thing you hated that you still hate?

Monday, October 18, 2010

Korea's Kimchi Crisis

For those of us who have lived in certain Asian cities, the image of cabbages lining the sidewalks, window sills and other flat surfaces serve as a reminder that colder weather is approaching. So it's hard to imagine that an actual cabbage shortage could strike a country like Korea and that a shortage could threaten their national dish, kimchi, which is essentially fermented cabbage with red pepper, radish and garlic. But apparently overly rainy weather has made it so.

Reading the article made me a little sad, not just that fewer people will get to enjoy proper kimchi, but more for the tiny fissure this leaves in Korean culture: the cabbages missing from household sinks that won't be washed, soaked and brined, the mothers, daughters, aunts, grannies and neighbors who won't mark their fall by gathering to make kimchi together, the women (and men) who will start buying it from the store instead of making it themselves. Perhaps I'm yielding to the drama of the article, but it reminds me of the how aspects of culture or even language are slowly lost.

I enjoy the spicy, sour flavor of kimchi every once in a while, but I'm not sure I'm brave enough to try making my own kimchi, although I might be tempted to give it a try the next time I get a batch of radishes and cabbage. Here's a recipe in case you ever want to make your own ... or prop me up while I make my own.