Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Respect my authoritah!

(Hmmm, I have a feeling there are a lot of misdirected South Park fans suddenly finding themselves reading a sustainable food blog....)

This Sunday's New York Times
featured an op-ed that defended the apparently quite contentious Food Safety Modernization Bill. (What's that? Yes, though I spent Thanksgiving weekend in New York City, where the paper is available on every street corner, I didn't have a chance to read the article until today.) It was a hotly debated piece of legislation ostensibly because of criteria that some argued would unfairly penalize some small-scale producers. What? No! We need to help small, local producers who are doing things responsibly, who focus on quality over quantity! They're not the ones behind the giant food recalls in recent decades! Most of them only sell within a few hundred miles and any questionable items can be easily traced back to the source.

The anti-small-farm bias of the bill had been played up in recent weeks and I was a little uncertain about how I felt -- not that food safety was unimportant, but I had been concerned about how small farms would be able to make the necessary modifications in their systems and not lose the farm, so to speak, in the process of complying with more stringent standards. (I feared something akin to the passing of USDA organic certification standards a few years ago whose cost and inspection regimens have, at least according to a number of farmers I spoke and worked with around the country, been a major barrier to more widespread organically-certified produce.) What I hadn't known before co-authors Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan brought it up is that concerns about the small farmers affected by prohibitive costs and regulations had already been addressed by an amendment that allowed for state and local government control of these matters. The bill passed yesterday, and it's a good thing, too: it finally gives the US Food and Drug Administration the funding and authority to keep our food safe.

Admittedly my understanding of who does what in the USDA vs. the FDA is a little fuzzy. But then, my friends who work at both organizations are also a little fuzzy on who is responsible for what (and why). Food safety? Well, that's the FDA's role... usually. (The best explanation I have yet to hear about the two organizations is actually here.) As far as I can piece together, the USDA is much larger and handles all things food except nutritional labeling and food safety -- these fall under the purview of the FDA. Why, then, has this very important enforcement agency been given so little power to enforce food safety violations? I'd gotten the impression when reading Schlosser's (in)famous Fast Food Nation a few years ago that food safety was a major concern in our country. I just kind of figured that someone with political clout and a conscience had read the book, too. I was mortified to learn in this recent op-ed that only with the passing of this new food safety legislation do the USDA (for meat, poultry, and eggs) and the FDA (for all other food products) finally have the power to enforce recalls for contaminated food. Yes, folks, prior to this, the majority of recalls were not mandatory but simply requested. (WHAT?? Yes, requested.) A voluntary recall. "Please, can you recall those half a billion contaminated eggs from grocery stores around the country? No? Pretty please?"

Now let's look at who is against effective food safety enforcement: large-scale producers, who also happen to be the ones behind repeated food safety violations. (And, of course, the politicians who are financed by them.) Hmmm, how interesting. Yes, and they also argue that these new requirements are too... costly. Please. If you want to talk about unreasonable requirements and atrocious spending, try going through one of the new fancy(under)pants scanning booths at the airport. And at $150,000 per unit, I wonder how the budget for the high-tech groin inspection devices compares to that for improved food safety. (Sorry, I guess I'm still grumpy after being manhandled during my travel back from Vegas a few weeks ago where I was helping my brother launch his small business.)

For the record, I do think that safety -- in airports, in our food system, on bicycles (ahem, wear a helmet) -- is important and needs to be handled appropriately by the government to protect its citizens. The prevention-vs-treatment costs cited in the NY Times article are pretty compelling: $300 million for improved food-borne illness prevention as compared with $152 billion spent for treatment. Per year. Seems like a no brainer to me. But who knows, maybe the bill's opponents are using some kind of new math (similar to the calculations that suggest tax cuts for the wealthy will stimulate the economy).

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The girl with the pearl barley

If you've been following the blog for awhile, you may have the impression that I have somewhat unethical views on what can (or even should) be combined in terms of ingredients. And I'm always fiddling. I like the challenge of adapting recipes, pulling a general flavor profile from one or two or five recipes, seeing what I have on hand, and going from there. There are occasional culinary casualties, but in general things turn out well enough....

As I tried to unwind from an afternoon of waiting in various lines -- first at the pharmacy, then the grocery store (for ONE ingredient, and let me tell you those folks in the 12-items-or-less line were certainly 12-degrees-less-than-cheerful) -- and clear out a few things that would not be coming with me to Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow, I had risotto on the brain. Part of this was due to some recipes I'd been perusing in the post-errand-running late afternoon, including a lovely sounding butternut squash risotto recipe with mascarpone and roasted sage. But I had no arborio rice. Or mascarpone. Or enough sage. Or any chicken stock in the freezer. Or white wine. And I would be darned if I was going to face those lines at Giant again. Oh, but I was seriously craving risotto. I started rummaging around the cupboards and refrigerator to see what I had to work with. Some fresh parsley. Okay, that's something. Dried mushrooms, shallots, garlic. A bunch of beets. Some -- wooh! -- fermenting apple cider. A bit of parmesan in the fridge, some beet stock in the freezer. Okay. This could be something, but I still had my heart set on risotto. Just then I noticed a bag of pearled barley stuffed on the top shelf in the back of the pantry.... Hmmm....

I'd tried a version of risotto using something other than arborio rice once before. It was a recipe using brown jasmine rice and some Louisiana shrimp on my way through New Orleans last May. Delicious, but not really risotto. My friend Nathan suggested I call it a pilaf, but it wasn't really. An etouffee? No, not quite right either. Pseudotto? Anyway. Tonight beet and barley pseudo-risotto made it onto my dinner plate. And you know what, it was pretty tasty. In fact, bowl number 2 is steaming right next to me as I type. If only I had a nice, chilled glass of Pinot Grigio to wash it down. And a dinner companion. (Everyone's already left town. Except for the 17 people in front of me in line and the dozens of others mobbing the registers at the grocery store earlier today, obviously.)

The Girl with the Pearl Barley Risotto

Heat 1T olive oil + 2 T butter in a medium pot.

Add in 3 diced shallots + 3 cloves of minced garlic and sauté until soft.

Add ½ t sea salt + 1 cup pearled barley and stir until barley is coated.

Stir in ½ cup fermented apple cider and simmer until most liquid has been absorbed.

In ½-cup increments, add 3 cups of stock (I used 1 ½ cups mushroom stock + 1 ½ cups vegetable stock), letting the barley absorb most of the liquid before adding the next dose, but stirring frequently – just like regular risotto – so the grains don’t stick to the bottom of the pot. It should be done in 30-40 minutes.

At the end I added in some chopped dried mushrooms (well, they weren’t dry any more: I’d soaked a handful in 1 ½ cups of boiling water to make stock) + 2T or so of whole milk + about 2T grated parmesan.

Scoop risotto onto plates (2 large or 4 small portions) and garnish with a handful of chopped fresh parsley and a sprinkle of parmesan.

I topped my barley risotto with beets -- partly because I had some around, partly because I am determined to introduce more people to beets through flavorful and not overly complicated recipes. (Me, I make borscht from scratch for fun, but I know it's not for everyone.)

If you want to replicate the dish with beets, first remove greens (for use another time) and scrub 2-3 beets in cool water. Chop into bite-sized pieces and sauté in a small saucepan with a bit of olive oil and butter for a few minutes. Add a pinch of salt, freshly ground black pepper, a splash of balsamic vinegar, and 1 or 2 T of vegetable stock. Simmer on low until tender -- about 20 minutes. (It worked out that they finished just as the risotto was ready. How nice.)

I suspect this recipe would also work well with butternut squash. I really must try that other, real risotto recipe when I get my hands on some arborio....

My second favorite holiday

Not surprisingly, Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. Food, family, friends, more food... what's not to like?

My favorite Thanksgiving celebration ever was six years ago. At the time, I was living in the most beautiful house I will probably ever inhabit, up in a tiny mountain village in central Mexico. My boss, Jenny, and I were two of only about five Americans working with the crop research program, and we thought it only proper that we introduce our international circle of friends to a true American tradition. No, not the holiday celebrating imperialism, the subjugation of native people, and the spread of disease and violence -- that's Columbus Day. No, I mean the one about sharing good food and spreading goodwill among different cultures. You know, the holiday with the pilgrims and cranberry sauce?

Jenny and I manhandled a rather large frozen turkey for much of Thanksgiving morning and tried desperately to quickly defrost it in a bath of cold water, finally marinating it and cramming it into my rather small oven for about half a day. (It wasn't technically a holiday, but if my boss is in the kitchen with me, it's not really playing hooky, right?) Everyone else brought food from their country: Maru cooked up some Mexican tlacoyos (little masa canoes filled with cheese and beans and topped with sauteed cactus), Eric and Christelle supplied some French salt cake (by special request -- I am hooked on that stuff), Guy and Gianina arrived with a bevy of pecan pies (which are neither English nor Peruvian pastries, but they were delicious), Kaitlin brought a broccoli and cheese casserole (thus identifying herself as one of the other Americans in the crowd), Nick supplied the homebrew, Alessandra arrived with a pan of fresh focaccia, bottles of wine and tequila seemed to materialize out of thin air.... It was lovely. I have vague memories of sacking out sometime around 11pm, well before Nick ushered the remainder of guests out of the house. (Falling asleep at my own party? Who am I, my mother?) Well, I had been cooking all day.

The runner up for the Favorite Thanksgiving Award was in 2003, which I celebrated with my family and the Zeiglers at my Aunt Martha's home in Queens. That was the year of pumpkin homebrew, wild mushroom soup, and the first time I'd ever had a bacon-wrapped turkey. Looks like mom, dad, my brother, and I are trucking back up to Queens for the holiday this year. Bummer there's no pumpkin ale this year, but I'm looking forward to trying out a new recipe for roasted chestnut soup.

Anyhow, as we all gear up for the culinary extravaganza that is Thanksgiving, I just wanted to take a moment to say thanks. Thank you to friends and family and even the total strangers (now friends) who have helped me along this journey toward a life devoted to food. Thank you for the continuing hugs, advice, job leads, recipe ideas, fodder for my compost bins, and general encouragement. (Don't think this means I'm sharing my tamales, though....)

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Tamale fever

I've been missing Mexico quite a bit these days. One of the things I miss most about my time living there was the ritual of gorging myself on fresh tamales every Friday. (Another was hitting the dancefloor at my favorite salsa club in San Angel.) The only somewhat self-respecting tamale I have identified in the past five years living in DC has been at Trader Joe's. I know. I've spent the better part of the past three and a half years intensively scouring Columbia Heights and Adams Morgan -- DC's Little Mexico -- and alas, I have yet to find a decent tamale (and only one semi-decent salsa club). But last night during another volunteer shift at CulinAerie, under the capable guidance of Chef Eliza Gonzales, I made my first successful corn and pepper tamale. Delicious. And as we had some leftover ingredients from this last class before Thanksgiving break, Eliza sent me home with a large sack of tamale dough and some queso blanco so that I could practice at home. (She was also good enough to pose with the tamales before we scarfed them, along with the chili rubbed beef fillets and a to-die-for warm pumpkin salad.)

So what do you think I did this morning? I biked on over to a latino grocery store I'd seen on 11th Street and bought myself some poblano peppers and frozen banana leaves and got cracking. Sure, not all local ingredients, and some were most likely not sustainably produced -- I mean, come on, some baby seals must've been clubbed somewhere along the line in order for me to be able to buy banana leaves shipped from the Philippines for $1.49 a package -- but as I've mentioned, I'm not a purist. For the record, I would've paid extra for fair trade certified, organic banana leaves. (You know, a brand with the seal of approval. Har, har.)

To the beat of my most beloved salsa tunes pulsing from the speakers, and with the aroma of sweet banana and savory roasting peppers wafting through the air, I found myself quite literally dancing around the kitchen. In line with the Mexican sensibility of improvisation, and in light of my rather sparse food funds these days, I fiddled with Eliza's recipe a little bit, sauteing some shallots and sweet potatoes I had around with strips of the roasted poblanos for the filling.

Toss in a little crumbled cheese...

roll 'em up... stuff 'em in a pot of steaming water... cover it with some kitchen towels... and an hour later: viola!

Dad and Uncle Teddy and I had some this afternoon -- how convenient that they happened to stop by around lunchtime -- and Dad gave them the thumbs up. I've just wrapped the remaining tamales in banana leaves and stuffed them into a ziploc bag in the freezer. The dozen or so remaining should keep me satisfied for at least... a week.

Want to learn to make your own tamales? Swing by my place in a couple of weeks with some fillings and we'll get cooking. Or better yet, sign up for a class with Eliza (who teaches around town at both CulinAerie and Sur la Table). She even has an adaptation to accommodate vegetarians (or those otherwise opposed to the flagrant but delicious use of lard and chicken broth the more traditional recipe entails).

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

No, no, thank YOU

So yesterday evening Ollie and I made our way to Cleveland Park for a little get together, a happy hour of sorts coordinated by the lovely crew over at the Capital Area Food Bank to thank all of the folks who volunteered their time and energy (and in some cases, their much-sought-after apple slicing skills) during DC Farm to School Week last month. I should say that generally just a verbal "thank you" suffices when I volunteer somewhere -- I mean, I'm not doing it to get something but because I believe in the work. However, I am certainly not one to turn down an opportunity to celebrate, especially with such a friendly, thoughtful crowd... and especially when the food and wine are stellar, as they were at Ripple. (I think perhaps this wine bar/foodie haven will become my new favorite spot. With a creative menu, exceptional cheese selection, affordable and unusual wine list, and friendly staff, really, what's not to like? Also, it's a scenic, fun ride when the H3 bus isn't trying to run me over. Buddy, I have the right of way here in the bike lane.)

Where was I?

Oh, yes: Ripple. Love that place. Incidentally, it was the first time I had ever worn a nametag that had "food educator" under my name. (Well, actually, Marjorie abbreviated it to "food educ" but we all know what it means. Yes, it means that I am now officially a food educator. It says so right there on my badge.) It was also the first time I filled out a survey form as Chris P. Carrot (har, har). Oops, now my secret identity is out. Darn it.

Anyway, I just wanted to thank the DC Farm to School ladies over at the CAFB. Seriously, I love the work you all are doing, so thanks for letting me be a part of it. And of course plying me with good cheese and wine and conversation will keep me coming back for more. Ah, who am I kidding, I'd come back anyway to volunteer. Which reminds me: I should get some rest. Tomorrow is my second shift with the food bank's Kids Cook after school program and I need to be well rested. Those kids have a lot of energy....

Saturday, November 13, 2010

And now...?

(Well, I'd need a good whisk, a pepper grinder, and a pair of tongs, too, but you get the idea....)

I've been having a lot of Bridget Jones moments lately. Not in the drinking a bottle of wine and singing sad songs at the top of my lungs and smoking a pack of cigarettes in my pajamas (or, alas, making out with the smolderingly handsome Colin Firth) kind of way, but more in the reflecting on where is my life going kind of way. I have to admit, I'm having a hard time settling into normal -- or if not normal, at least more sedentary and gainfully employed -- life.

I mean, what does one do after more than a year on the road, with its constant biking and exploring and learning and writing and farming and cooking and problem solving and meeting a ridiculous number of amazing, inspiring people -- in short, immersing oneself completely in the things that one loves most? It's a tough act to follow.

In the four months since my return, I've continued volunteering with community garden and sustainable food groups, writing, talking with people, and getting the lay of the land. Just last Wednesday I volunteered at an after school cooking class at a nearby elementary school (and am looking forward to my next three shifts with the group of hilarious, even-more-hyper-than-me kiddos). I've started doing a little paid editing work, which is nice in that it helps pay for some of the things I can't barter for (you know, like rent and school loans and health insurance). I think I'm pretty decent at it, but it's not what I want to do for a career. Plus, it's hard for me to sit still for days at a time in front of a computer. I make up all kinds of errands to run around town so that Ollie and I get at least a handful of miles in each day. Like yesterday -- so gorgeous and sunny and in the upper 60s -- after some morning editing work we rode an easy 8 miles out to Pentagon City to peruse the cooking and travel sections at Borders for a couple of hours before making it over to my cousin Sonia's place for a multi-hour cooking extravaganza.

As I look around and contemplate what it is that I want to do next, how I can help make the world a better place, I find myself drawn back to the kitchen again and again, both literally and figuratively. All I want is a job in food -- cooking, writing, celebrating, teaching -- is that so difficult? We'll see.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The virtues that made Virginia: good food, drink, and people

Okay, it turns out that "Arcadia" is now not only my favorite Tom Stoppard play but also the most exciting new sustainable food project to hit the DC metro area since my return. And I'm not just saying that because of the outstanding local food, drinks, and hand-rolled cigars at last night's kickoff event (but they sure sweetened the deal). "The Vices that made Virginia" was the first major event to raise awareness and garner support for The Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food & Agriculture which will be breaking ground this March on the historic Woodlawn Plantation property (home to Frank Lloyd Wright's famous Pope Leighy house -- see, dad, I pay attention to architecture even when nursing a bourbon slush).

Proud to have been chosen by the farm's manager, Mo, to represent the group at the event's farm information table, I babbled with passersby about the vision for the 100-acre space, beginning with a 3-acre educational garden for school groups and community members to learn about different styles of gardens in all different sizes and shapes. The first order of business, I explained, was to kill the grass. Not using chemicals, but rather a combination of trampling (which is partly why the event was held in tents quite literally on top of the first field to be cultivated, so get dancing) and lasagne composting (which is slated to begin tomorrow and which I've been *dying* to see in practice for some time now... Mo may have been alarmed at how excitable I got talking about composting). We're also seeking used gardening tools and money to buy tools and seeds, I continued, so if you're looking to help out with a little seed money (har, har), a $25 contribution means you can sponsor a row of vegetables. ("The Ibti Memorial Rainbow Chard Garden"? Or, wait, "The J. Olympia Surly Rutabaga Row." Yes. Yes, I like that.) These were the sorts of conversations happening amid live bluegrass and in between mouthfuls of local oysters, sweet potatoes, duck, cornbread, and pints of beer.

Wait, did I mention the event featured chefs from the various Neighborhood Restaurant Group kitchens? Arcadia is actually the brainchild of NRG co-owner Michael Babin (who kindly gave a group of us, including me and Ollie, a lift to the metro afterwards) and former DC Central Kitchen farm coordinator Erin Littlestar. (What's that? Sure, I thought about biking the 24 miles back home, as it'd been a beautiful ride out during the brisk, sunny afternoon. But when things wrapped up around 9pm, it was cold. And dark. And I was underdressed. And maybe the local wines were a little stronger than I realized.)

Right. Back to Arcadia. The vision is to develop a 3-acre demonstration farm, young farmer incubation program, local food hub (where DC-area schools, restaurants, grocers, and other businesses can source local, responsibly grown produce), and, eventually, an on-site restaurant. I know things are still in the early stages, but I can hardly sit still from giddiness!

Here's a pic of Erin (Arcadia's executive director) and farm manager Mo (not in her usual farm gear) -- the dynamic duo who will be managing the exciting new project. (See what I mean about hand-rolled cigars? Don't worry, dad, I saved one for you.) Come join these inspiring ladies in early spring when we'll be building raised beds and planting. You can sign up to be on the mailing list at www.arcadiafood.org. We're going to need a lot of hands come spring. And there is always the possibility of good food showing up....

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Thursday, November 4, 2010

"There should be more school gardens than McDonalds franchises"

I thought only Oprah was outspoken enough of a public figure to malign a subgroup within the food industry and get away with it, but no: thus spoke Slow Food USA president Josh Viertel during the well-attended US-member meeting at Terra Madre last week. (Holy heck, was I in Italy just last week? Mama mia!) And what a meeting it was, also featuring Edible Schoolyard patroness Alice Waters, rockstar economist Raj Patel, feminist farmer and activist Denise O'Brien, and the man himself, Slow Food International founder Carlo Patrini. I left the meeting galvanized for action... slow but steady action. (Well, the Slow Food mascot *is* the snail, after all.)

"You can't just vote with your fork," Josh urged some 500+ Slow Foodies at the US community meeting, "you have to vote with your vote." Turns out it's no longer enough to support local producers at the market with your individual or family food dollars. (I still plan to continue that practice while getting involved with food advocacy work.) "You're not going to get into heaven based on the contents of your tote bag at the farmers' market... though it is a prerequisite," quipped Slow Food USA's dynamic new leader, "We need to band together to affect change at the policy level." He's right.

What's this, Slow Food getting political? Yes. Finally. Under the banner of "the universal right to good, clean, and fair food," Slow Food, it seems, is in the process of transitioning from an elitist group of foodies into a community of activists. In a way, it is a return to the roots of the movement, which started as a response to the vagaries of Fast Food in Italy. Moving beyond the traditional fine dining events and artisanal food worship (though plenty of both remain for those on the lookout), Slow Foodies are building gardens, hosting Eat-Ins, and talking to politicians. Near the end of his Terra Madre talk, Josh encouraged members to learn about the Farm Bill coming up for review, legislation which has the potential to advance (or undo) the way food is produced, and the kind of farms and farmers we support across the country. The membership is substantial enough that we can, if we so mobilize, be heard. "Yes!" I thought, "We can save our food system yet! Put me to work!" I left the meeting downright giddy. (The four hours of sleep and two espressos may, admittedly, have been partly to blame for this, but it was an amazing meeting nonetheless.) A belated thank you to those who helped me attend the conference: Jim, Martha, Paul, Dad, and Uncle Sam.

Maybe you're wondering how you can get involved with Slow Food's important work. Well, you can attend an event in your area -- activities range from potlucks to film screenings to farm field trips. Some chapters have even sponsored (and built) gardens, like the SF Charlotte chapter I learned about during my time at Friendship Trays. You can join your local SF chapter. (Annual membership is a steep $60, but there are periodic reduced-rate opportunities, so keep your eyes peeled. Last autumn I joined my DC chapter during a $1 membership drive; this year I renewed for $25.) And if there isn't a chapter near you, start one.

More gardens, less McDonalds. Together we can make it happen.

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Tuesday, November 2, 2010

More pancakes, less hate

Today's post was inspired by my favorite sign at the weekend's Rally to Restore Sanity (and/or Fear). It was an amazing event and after seeing this sign I got to thinking, you know, when it comes down to it, more people sharing a few pancakes with each other can only help foster peace, love, and understanding. In his closing speech, Jon Stewart quipped about Muslims and Jews building on their shared rejection of pork products, but for my part I think an Israeli-Palestinian pancake breakfast might be just the ticket to peace in the Middle East. (I can see my dad shaking his head as he reads this....)

They may be the perfect comfort food: inexpensive, easy to make en masse, and inviting infinite possibilities for toppings and fillings.

Honestly, who can say no to pancakes?

I've dabbling a bit more in the breakfast arts lately, and with my recent discovery of the joys of fermented foods it's only natural that I should start tinkering with sourdough... especially since the acquisition of a sourdough starter a couple of months ago from my friend Katie, made from authentic, wild DC yeast caught on her windowsill. (How cool is that?) I've made sourdough pancakes a few times now and I must say they're as easy as they are tasty. And the toppings -- oh, the toppings! You can go the sweet route with maple syrup, cardamom fig jam, or peach preserves. Or you can take a more savory approach, topping each stack with mushrooms in a garlic bechamel sauce, asparagus with smoked salmon and goat cheese, or roasted vegetables.

Here's the basic recipe (a modification of one posted on the nourishing gourmet website):

Sourdough Pancakes

3 to 24 hours before you want to eat, combine in a large bowl:
1 cup of sourdough starter
2 cups of water
3 1/2 cups of whole grain flour
(This is approximate: how much flour you need will depend on how thick your starter is.)

Just before cooking (3-24 hours later), mix in:
3 large, farm fresh eggs
4 tablespoons of honey
1/4 cup of melted butter
1 teaspoon of baking soda
1 teaspoon of salt
(If you want thinner pancakes you can thin with water or milk.)

Drop 1/4 cup of batter at a time on a lightly oiled hot griddle on medium-high heat. Cook until the top begins to bubble. Flip the pancake and cook until lightly browned on the other side. Makes about 25-30 pancakes.

It's getting to be autumn in earnest now -- I know because of the frost warnings on the weather reports. This means that along with a wide variety of apples, all kinds of crazy fall vegetables are showing up at farmers' markets: celeriac, romanesco cauliflower, winter squashes. Go on, make a big batch of pancakes for your friends and family and experiment with some savory toppings...

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