Monday, November 2, 2015

The bitter truth

A few weekends ago, I signed up for my first medicinal herb class. Well, sort of. I mean, it did involve quite a lot of information about medicinal tinctures, but it also involved cocktails. One of my favorite people -- my yoga teacher, Tricia, who turns out to be an amazing herbalist -- was offering a class on making bitters at a nearby urban farm. It would be a chance to learn about the basic components, philosophy, and healing properties of bitters. Best of all, participants would have a chance to make our own batch of bitters to take home and age for a couple of weeks.

I learned, for example, that the whole point of bitters, medicinally speaking, is to aid with digestion. Not that I ever need an appetite stimulant -- for heaven's sake, a grumbling tummy is what gets me out of bed in the morning -- but if I did ever feel blase about food, I learned I'd just need to put a drop or two of bitters on my tongue and I'd be ready to eat. Or of course, I could mix it up in an aperetif, or a digestif. (And here I thought the French were just looking for ways to booze it up before and after dîner.)

I learned that there are three main categories of bitters: pure bitters (that are particularly good for digestive help, and are considered to have "cooling" properties), aromatic bitters (more gentle bitters associated with "warming"), and caminatives (the mildest category of the three, and the one that modern cocktail aficionados seem to gravitate towards). I love learning.

We learned about teas (boiling water + bittering agents) vs. tinctures (alcohol + bittering agents), and their approximate concentrations. We also got a primer on the most bitter of the bitters, made from something called gentian root -- which I thought sounded vaguely south Asian, but actually this root that takes around 7 years of growth before harvesting comes from the highlands of central Europe. We had a chance to taste sips of each different type of bitters, from dandelion root and orange peel teas to orange peel, gentian, and calamus tinctures. Wooh! I am disinclined to touch straight gentian tincture to my tongue again, though it would be good for April Fool's Day pranks or a double dog dare some day. Finally, we made our gentian tincture, which I later found out is the main ingredient in angostura bitters...which is conveniently a key ingredient in a rather famous cocktail. Maybe you've heard of an Old Fashioned?

After our discussion and tincture-making session at Common Good City Farm, it was time to walk to nearby El Camino, where Mick let us get up close and personal with many of the locally made bitters he uses in his expertly crafted cocktails. We sniffed lavender bitters, orange bitters, cardamom bitters, and more. Needless to say, 3 cocktails later, I was hooked. (I was also ready for a nap. I'm getting too old for day drinking....)

Though I am hardly an accomplished mixologist, I do like to add my own twist to things, including classic concoctions. In this case, it was actually my mom who suggested the modification to the classic Old Fashioned, as I mixed up a set of trial cocktails for her and dad and I when they came over for dinner last night. Here, I offer you one of my new favorite cocktails:

The New Fashioned


  • 1 sugar cube
  • 3-4 drops homemade gentian root tincture*
  • 1 tsp water
  • ice cubes
  • 1 shot bourbon
  • 2 shots chilled tonic water
  • 1 maraschino cherry, plus a splash of its juice -- optional


Put a sugar cube in a sturdy tumbler, then squirt a few drops of your fancy homemade gentian root tincture onto it.

Sprinkle water over the cube, then use a spoon or pestle to muddle the cube at the bottom of the glass.

Toss in a handful of ice cubes, then add the remaining ingredients. Stir well. Enjoy!

*To make your own gentian tincture: Combine 1 part dried gentian root to 4 parts Everclear, age it for at least 2 weeks, then strain it. Kept sealed in a cool, dark place, your tincture will last for years. And trust me, you don't need to make much. I think the 25g gentian root + 100mL grain alcohol will last me a long, long time. Even with regular consumption of New Fashioneds.

Monday, October 26, 2015

The shank of the evening

Yesterday morning, Farmer Bev handed me a couple of packages of pork shanks, sliced osso bucco style. I meandered through the rest of the market, picking up various odds and ends that might go well with them -- carrots and celery and fennel at New Morning Farm, onions at Twin Springs, leeks at Spring Valley -- and finally wobbled home on a very loaded Ollie. For this first installment of Ibti's Offal Adventures, I offer a recipe I adapted from Epicurious, enjoyed just this evening by my fellow Slow Foodies at our monthly board meeting:

Braised Pork Shank with White Wine and Veggies

  • 1 handful dried mushrooms
  • 1 cup boiling water
  • 2 fresh pork shanks, cut into thirds, skins removed
    (No, I didn't waste the skins, thank you very much, I saved them for my landlady's 3 dogs.)
  • 3 TBSP olive oil + a bit more for the final meat searing
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 1 handful diced carrots
  • 1 leek, chopped
  • 1 handful diced celery
  • 1 fennel bulb, diced
  • 6 garlic cloves, peeled and coarsely chopped
  • 1 cup dry white wine (I had a semi decent pinot grigio on hand)
  • 1 cup broth (Thank you, GrowingSOUL, for my quart of Putting Stock in Your Community artisanal chicken stock!)
  • 2 TBSP chopped fresh sage (from one of the school gardens I manage)
  • 2 TBSP chopped fresh rosemary (from my front steps -- doesn't get more local than that)
  • 1 handful chopped fresh parsley (also from my school garden)
Preheat oven to 325F. Open the wine and pour yourself a glass. I mean, you've got to be sure it will go well with braised pork.

Pour 1 cup boiling water over the mushrooms and let stand until mushrooms soften. Drain and chop mushrooms, reserving the delicious soaking liquid.

Meanwhile, sprinkle the pork with salt and pepper. Heat olive oil in a large, heavy cast iron pan or dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add pork, in batches if necessary, and brown on all sides, about 15 minutes total. Transfer the browned pork to a rimmed baking sheet or lasagne pan.

Reduce heat to medium. Add onion, carrots, leek, celery, and fennel. Cook until vegetables are soft and beginning to color, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes.

Stir in garlic and chopped mushrooms. Add wine and bring to boil, scraping up any browned bits. Add broth, reserved mushroom soaking liquid, and 1 TBSP each of sage, rosemary, and parsley. It's probably time for another glass of wine as you marvel at how amazing your kitchen is starting to smell.

Return pork and any accumulated juices to pot, arranging in single layer. Place pot in oven and cover with a lid or foil or, if you're a foil conserving loony like me, an inverted stainless steel bowl. Braise pork until very tender, turning over every 30 minutes, for about 90 minutes total. I put the baking sheet on the bottom rack of the oven just in case my deep skillet spilled over. (Apparently, this part of the recipe can be made up to 2 days ahead. Simply cook things to this point, then cool slightly, refrigerate uncovered until cold, then cover and keep refrigerated. Simmer until just warm before continuing.)

Heat oven to 425F. Transfer pork to rimmed baking sheet. Brush with olive oil; sprinkle with remaining sage and rosemary, and a few grinds of black pepper. Roast pork until browned, about 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, tilt the pan and spoon any fat from surface of sauce. Scoop out the veggies and keep them warm in another pan.Boil your original pot/pan until the sauce lightly coats the back of a wooden spoon, about 7 minutes. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Divide veggies among serving bowls, top with pork and sauce, and sprinkle with another handful of chopped parsley. If any of that wine remains, go ahead and offer some to your guests. (But if not it's okay, we don't judge here. Just open another bottle.) Enjoy!

I'm thinking some kind of Mexican-inspired chocolate mole sauce for the other shanks I'll be testing out with mom and dad next weekend. But if you have suggestions, readers, please send 'em along!

Thursday, October 22, 2015

A modest proposal

A few weeks ago at the Dupont farmers' market, I got to talking with my friend Bev about how much I'd enjoyed the lamb with which he'd supplied me for the Irish stew dinner. At one point, I suggested that more folks would be chasing him down for lamb necks if only they knew what to do with the inexpensive, meaty cuts. I also pointed out that though his meats are consistently stellar, his website was a little lean on content. (Hah. You must've seen that one coming.) Not a lot of recipes or recent blog posts, anyway.

About an hour later, as we sat yapping on the back of the Eco-Friendly Foods truck, a plan had formed: every few weeks, Bev would supply me with some of the less common cuts of meat and I would take them home and fiddle with a few different recipes. If things turned out well, I'd write things up and send along the recipe. If my experiment happened to go horribly amiss, at least then I could offer ways NOT to prepare certain cuts. Either way, it would mean more opportunities to hang out with my carnivorous dad (and mom, who is a good sport), along with some other adventurous cooking friends.

If you've been following this blog for any length of time, you know that I have been pretty adamant in recent years about not being wasteful, but until recently I've been focused on things like saving veggie scraps to make stock and composting. I have grappled a few different times during my life with the complicated idea of eating meat and how it fits with my beliefs. During high school and college I was a vegetarian. Many years later on the bikeable feast cross-country trip, as a means of really understanding what gets meat to my plate I participated in the butchering of chickens. I have finally settled on eating very little meat, and when I do eat it, sourcing responsibly raised meat from local farmers and chefs I know and trust. I believe in using the whole animal if it's going to give its life to feed us. And yet, outside of tasting some chili and lime fried pig ear that the chef sent to my table at Barcelona about a year and a half ago I have not really participated in the whole "nose to tail" movement.

Now, in an interesting turn of events, it's looking like coming months may feature pigs feet, jowl, face bacon, and some of the organ meats. (No liver, though -- I can't handle the smell of it, never mind the texture or the fact that it is the organ that absorbs all of the body's poisons. I can't get past that, sorry. I will leave others to enjoy pâté and liverwurst.) From the get go, Bev tried to talk me into making haggis, which I had managed to avoid on my travels through Scotland. If I can cobble together a version without liver I may try that in a few months, but I'm going to need to work up to it. My dad, upon hearing this latest culinary development, was especially excited about the prospect of making traditional Iraqi dishes with harder to find animal parts, and I had to talk him out of the stuffed lamb stomach for Round 1 -- I'm going to need to work up to that one, too. Mom will likely be sending some traditional, meaty Polish recipes my way soon. My friend Kathryn is already talking about smoked pigs feet for Round 2. (Meanwhile, I think I'm starting to fall for a cute vegan. It's going to be an interesting few months coming up....)

Bev's hinting about bringing me some pork shanks next weekend. Stay tuned!

Monday, October 19, 2015

I need some space

Oh, 35 pounds of tomatoes, the problem isn't you, it's me. (Well, actually, it's my limited burner surface area.)

Usually I can manage a rather high level of culinary gymnastics during a big curry night or a personal cheffing session by getting creative: starting some things in the stove and then moving them to the oven, say, or using the plug-in rice cooker for grains. But tonight I found myself with a bit of a math problem: 4 burners, and at least 7 pots that need them. (Where is my favorite math teacher when I need him?)

So riddle me this, culinary mathemagicians: How would you account for

  • 1 burner: pot of applesauce that needs to be kept hot for canning
  • 1 burner: tureen of vegan pho broth that still needs simmering for another 3 hours
  • 1 burner: a large pot of boiling water for scalding tomatoes
  • 1 burner: medium pot of simmering water to keep jar lids sterile
  • 2 burners: the giant canning pot
  • 1 burner: the tamale I was going to warm up for dinner...?

My solution: Work in waves. (This is the kind of problem solving that got me into advanced math classes back in 7th grade, thank you very much.)

BURNERS 1 & 2: giant canning pot to sterilize jars, then process filled jars
BURNER 3: applesauce cooking, then tomato scalding
BURNER 4: 1 pot of simmering water to keep jar lids sterile

As for the pho broth: I boiled and then removed it from the stove and covered it to keep warm, then returned it to BURNER 3 when tomatoes were processing. Oh, and dinner: a tamale steamed in a strainer precariously balanced over the canning pot, along with a spinach salad and a limoncello tonic. (What, BURNER 4 was busy warming some tea to make a batch of kombucha!) Next time when I really get cooking I could also break out the portable propane burner, and maybe even the beercan stove -- how did I only think of those now? And maybe I can rig some kind of solar cooker in my sunny front room....

Friday, October 9, 2015


Have you ever smelled the distinct aroma of propolis -- that sticky stuff that bees make to seal gaps in the hive? It's quite intoxicating: earthy, and a bit sweet. And yesterday, I smelled it for the first time. Ahhhh.

For two months last winter, with Ollie creaking beneath the weight of a pile of textbooks, I biked uphill through the frigid darkness to attend my urban beekeeping class at UDC. After full days of teaching, for two evenings a week I immersed myself in learning about all things apis: types of native honeybees, bee life cycles and behavior, components of home hives, safety equipment, considerations for hive placement, pernicious pests and diseases that commonly attack hives, the mysterious hive collapse phenomenon (I didn't sleep much after class that week), and all kinds of other technical information. By the end of the course, I had a basic academic understanding of how to keep bees. Soon afterwards, in the early spring, I bought a veil and a smoker, a hive tool and gloves. I was ready. Well, sort of. I'd had a chance, at one point during the class, to hold an empty frame; what I hadn't had was any hands-on experience working with an actual bee hive.

That all changed yesterday. Decked out in pants and a long-sleeve shirt on a sunny afternoon, I showed up at the community garden abutting one of my schools to find Kevin -- an experienced beekeeper to whom I have recently apprenticed myself -- waiting for me with a loaner veil and hive tools. As he got into his gear, I was tasked with getting the smoker going. (I think he was rather impressed at my fire-starting skills. I stuffed newspaper, twigs, sticks, and finally dried pine needles into the lit smoker to get it really billowing.) After donning some gloves and checking our equipment, it was time to calmly make our way to check and feed the three hives. Kevin talked me through how best to approach the hives, and warned against making loud noises or unnecessary vibrations. They also don't like being checked on too often. Or quick movements. Many sentences ended with, "They hate that, and you're more likely to get stung." Noted.

After examining a couple of them jointly, I used my hive tool to remove the lids and then a couple of frames all by myself, with my mentor patiently talking me through each step. Bees were humming and crawling all over the place, including me, and particularly near my inadvertently exposed wrists, but they seemed mellow enough after a couple puffs from the smoker. I was mesmerized. Slowly, slowly, I pried the first frame loose from the clots of propolis, lifted it straight up, then tilted it first on one side and then the other to check for nectar/honey development. Everything looked the way it should, in terms of store laying, it seemed. We squished a few hive beetles, then tucked in the supplemental feeding bags: gallon ziplocs half filled with a 2:1 sugar water solution. (This helps to make sure the bees stockpile enough honey to get them through the long winter.)

Calmly and slowly -- but not too slowly lest the bees get annoyed -- I replaced each frame, tapped it back in place, and then returned the inner and outer lids before Kevin secured everything with cement blocks to keep the wind from blowing the tops off. (I doubt with that much putty-like propolis that those lids were going anywhere, but I trust my mentor implicitly on these sorts of things.) I can't wait to help winterize the hives in a few weeks!

Saturday, October 3, 2015


My dad loves to recount our days of living in Saudi Arabia, when he would come pick me up from preschool during drizzly lunch breaks, swerving the car all over the road to hit maximum puddles on our ride home, smiling as I squealed with joy when we drove through a particularly splashy one.

(I don't want you to get the wrong idea about my dad: he's actually a very good driver. It's just that 4-year-old-daughter delighting trumped road rules sometimes. And who are we kidding here, there were not "rules" so much as "guidelines" where automobiles are involved in that part of the world. In Kuwait, just a few years later, I saw my first sedan in a tree near a highway exit ramp. Kinda puts drivers in our nation's capital into perspective.)

I remember dashing outside with my mom in our bathing suits while traveling through Spain during fall break my junior year of college to take outdoor showers, giggling maniacally as we passed the soap and shampoo bottles back and forth as the pounding summer rain nearly blinded us. Even now, in my late 30s, I love splashing around in puddles during afternoon thunderstorms that often characterize our DC summer months -- umbrellas be damned. And so long as I'm not tent camping, I love falling asleep to the sound of rain.

Really, I like rain. I just don't enjoy *cold* rain, especially when biking is involved. I mean, seriously, I have decent waterproof gear, but how am I supposed to show up at the salsa clubs looking remotely cute when I look like a drowned cat shivering in rainpants and boots? Ollie's been squeaking her discontent all week as well. I'm ready for a break from this Seattle-like weather.

At least the celery and brassicas are enjoying it. So there's that....

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Our food rocks the palate

How do I keep getting talked into things that begin early on a Saturday, across town? (Because I'm a sucker? It's possible.) Yet once again I was glad I hauled myself out of bed at the crack of 7:30am yesterday to get myself to the WIC Get Fresh Festival, where I was competing on a team with my friend and fellow food educator, Vera, in a farmers' market cook-off.

(I see you looking at the computer screen, eyebrow raised. Fine, I didn't actually get myself to RFK Stadium until closer to 10am. But I did get up before 8. I just move more slowly on the weekends.)

As Ollie and I rolled up, my team was in the midst of shopping for our three dishes. I locked her up and we jumped right in. We had to come up with an appetizer, main dish, and dessert heavily sourced from the RFK Open Air Farmers' Market. We'd have 90 minutes to cook, then present our dishes to the 5 judges, a mix of local chefs and Dept of Health folks. Oh, and part of the challenge was that our only heat source was a grill. I love a challenge.

Laden with bowls and bags of fresh produce, we headed to our cooking station. First, we began chopping the ingredients for a spicy tomato and watermelon salad with jalapenos and fresh mint, inspired by my teammate Levita. Beautiful presentation, no?

The juice at the bottom, after we'd served the salad itself to judges and market shoppers, might have been my favorite part. (I think the spicy, minty watermelon juice would've been even better with a splash of tequila, but that was not entirely appropriate for a family-friendly, Department of Health-sponsored event, so I tucked away that little bit of knowledge for later.) Next, I joined the main course team, skewering our veggie and paneer kabobs. The Indian cheese chunks were marinated in a delectable marinade of yogurt, garlic, ginger, and garam masala, and the aromatic, grilled kabobs attracted eager tasters like nobody's business. Props to Niraj for the ingenious recipe.

I was actually fairly removed from our dessert offering -- a fresh fruit salad with yogurt and cinnamon -- though I did chop some market peaches for it at one point. To be honest, I was busy near the end, scarfing grilled paneer that had fallen off some of the skewers. (You know, quality control.) As 12:30 rolled around, we presented our offerings to the panel and waited...and waited... It turned out there was a tie between my team -- Our Food Rocks the Palate -- and a lovely group from a vegetarian catering company. The judges decided we'd have to answer a food trivia question to determine the winner of the competition. Apparently having two teams in first place was not an option.

The million dollar question was: In one minute, list as many foods as you can that came from the New World. (Turns out that what WE did not know previously was that the emcee was a food history buff. But what SHE did not know was that I teach a series of lessons on food origins to 5th graders. Heh.) We won.

In case you're wondering, no, there was no million dollar prize. In fact, the prize was a small box with plastic vegetables in it and a plaque mounted on the side proclaiming, "Get Fresh Festival -- Grill Chef Competition -- First Place," that will live at nearby J. O. Wilson High School, where a few of my teammates work. And a sense of pride, of course. Go team!!