Tuesday, January 31, 2012

I must be losing my touch

I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised to come home tonight to find Ollie with a flat rear tire. It's been awhile. (If you've been following this blog for any length of time, you are no doubt familiar with my propensity for relating each flat tire incident in excruciating detail, and you will concede that I have not thrown Ollie wheels up in some time.)

After I hit some miscellaneous piece of road shrapnel in the bike lane three days ago, I'd been noticing a drop in rear tire pressure following every couple of rides around town. So the next day, Sunday, I took out the damaged tube and did the usual tire and tube check. For the life of me, I couldn't find the hole. I inflated the tube...no detectable leak. I deflated it and *really* inflated it a second time. Again, nada. It wasn't a faulty stem -- I'd know, I've had those, too -- and I couldn't see or hear an air leak anywhere. So what was I supposed to do, toss an inexplicably leaky tube? No. (This is as much due to stubbornness as frugality or eco-friendliness, mind you.) Maybe it was all in my head. I decided I would reinflate it and just keep an eye on things, so I put that same tube back in... which was more challenging than usual since I seem, owing to recent disuse, to have misplaced my single remaining tire iron. Flat-head screwdrivers aren't as apt a substitute as you might think.

Everything seemed fine -- with the noticeable exception of my gut, which kept telling me the ghost leak would manifest itself again. Sure enough, I came home from my inaugural Master Gardening class tonight to find Ollie markedly deflated. Gah! Alright, that's it: I pulled out the tube (now a third time), inflated it, and... Oh, heck, no luck. I finally caved and did the tried and true water test in my bathroom sink. Aha! There it was, clear as day! How did I not see or hear that giant, fingernail-shaped gash in the tube before it was submerged?? Guess I'm losing my touch.

Let the record show that once the hole was found, I checked the tire for lingering pointy things (there were none) and installed a new tube in under 10 minutes. Yes, sans tire iron. Maybe I'm not losing my touch after all....though I do plan to pick up a couple of tire irons and some of that super degreaser for my hands next time I'm near a bike shop.

Monday, January 30, 2012

The Physical Club

I learn something every day. Or a few things. Like today.

This afternoon marked my second session back with the middle schoolers at Drew Freeman since the holiday break. The garden club project originally started with me being hired this past fall to teach a series of 12 after school lessons on sustainable living. I found myself falling in love with the students and the possibilities at this most unusual public middle school in Prince George's County right around the time I was asked to continue leading (and expanding) the club. How could I resist such a bevy of kale munching, beet craving, plant loving pre-teens? I can't. And once we take a final vote on our club's name, you'll fall in love with them, too, I bet, when you read all about our adventures in planting and cooking on the blog we'll be setting up. But I'm getting ahead of myself. First we need a name.

The motley crew of 7th and 8th graders have over the course of the past 4 months been alternately referred to as The SMILE Club, The Urban Farming Club, and the Garden Club, and gosh darn it, I'd been thinking lately, it's about time we chose our own name. Something that really solidifies for us -- and for the increasing number of interested folks dropping by to see what we're up to -- what it is we are all about. (Beet Freaks? They do love beets more than anyone ever could have anticipated. The Drew Garden Crew? Wooh, good thing I'm not the one doing the naming here....) The whole process of students brainstorming names for themselves was very telling. I tried not to smile too maniacally as I scrawled possible names they'd generated in their journals onto the chalkboard and asked them to explain their ideas: The Green Group ("because we're doing stuff to help the planet"), Going Green ("because we recycle and stuff"), The Cooking and Planting Club ("because that's what we do"), The Green Squad ("um, well, you know, we care about green things and we work together"), E.F.G. (The Eco-Friendly Group), and, admittedly my favorite, The Physical Club.

"Why did you suggest The Physical Club?" I inquired of the mild-mannered student who'd volunteered it.

"Well, Ms. Vincent," James smiled as he straightened his glasses, "it's because we do stuff here. We're not just home sitting on the couch." Yep, sometimes we do some pretty physical stuff in this program. Remember hauling the dirt for the raised beds in early November? I definitely broke a sweat.

Of course. They get it. This club is about doing things. Building things. Growing things. Recycling things. Reusing things. Cooking things. And making our world a little nicer. And, yes, some days are quite physical. Like today, as we collected, arranged, and zip-tied a 2-stage compost bin for our garden. Let me tell you, those pallets were heavy. (Don't be fooled by Nigel's smile, he was really working here.)

It took a bit longer than I'd anticipated as students and teachers measured and troubleshot -- what, it's a word (or should be, if it's not) -- and rearranged the wooden sides again and again until things lined up, and after zip-tying the whole shebang together and starting off the base layer with the remnants of our sprouted seed trays from the classroom, we at last headed back indoors to clean up and warm up and do a little cooking.

Look at the contentment on our faces. That's one good lookin' compost bin.

Next we'll be shredding up the cardboard boxes I've been stockpiling in the classroom to start mixing in with the food scraps we sort after snack time each week. But you'll have to read about that in our club blog... name TBD.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Date night

Good old reliable Ollie -- my steady partner who doesn't cancel date night to stay at work until 10pm.

You know, it's not so bad, this relationship that we've developed over the past... wow, almost three years. We spend time together nearly every day. We support each other. We listen to each other (me usually cursing under my breath at traffic, lately with teeth chattering in the chilly night rides back to the apartment; Ollie squeaking to let me know that her chain needs oil or rattling a bit to remind me to tighten a few of those bolts).

I've been feeling a bit guilty that in the midst of all of the writing and teaching and traveling and volunteering and even going on a few dates (never with other bicycles, though), I've neglected my side of the arrangement, my Sunday bike maintenance ritual. It's been many weeks. I've been distracted. (Are human partners inherently unreliable? Maybe.) Ollie's not really one for flowers or jewelry -- part of why we get along, though I do like flowers -- and I've been wondering about how to make up for my recent weeks of taking my steady, steely partner for granted.

When my erstwhile human companion canceled tonight's date night, I decided it was a good time to give Ollie a little bit of much-needed TLC. With a glass of wine (for each of us) in my system, I took on the challenging task of installing a new pair of fenders I'd ordered from REI -- courtesy of a little holiday cash from Uncle Teddy, a fellow bike enthusiast. Things went much better than last time -- my attempt to install them this weekend ended in much muttering, no fenders being affixed, and the emergency watching of an action film on Netflix to distract myself -- I scrapped the directions and used just about every tool I could find to successfully get those water-repelling suckers on. Along with my newly re-waterproofed rain jacket, the new fenders will hopefully mean I will be significantly less wet while biking around town this season. (What? No, it's not all about me. I am only human, though.)

After a break to watch the State of the Union address with my upstairs neighbors, I continued the makeover, cleaning Ollie's chain, inflating her tires, and patching up some of the chipped paint on her racks. She's looking pretty good, eh? I think I'll keep her around for awhile longer. Yep, most definitely.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Not exactly walking on eggshells

I’ve gotten quite a food education talking with my main egg supplier, Tom Hubric, over the course of the past few years. He’s shared some pretty thoughtful ideas on things like egg regulations. It’s actually kind of fascinating. And a bit scary. For instance, lthough one cannot legally sell anything less than “grade A” eggs – those less than 40 days old – in Maryland or DC farmers’ markets, there is a bit of a habit of egg farmers from West Virginia, Virginia, Delaware, and Pennsylvania selling mixed sizes of eggs as “unclassified” (no date stamped on the package) and “ungraded” (no uniform size requirement) in DC.

And that’s just at farmers’ markets. I was startled when I learned of the common practice of supermarkets to denote “fresh eggs” as those that had been on the shelf for up to nine months! NINE MONTHS?? Even before becoming a devoted local foodie that shelf life would’ve scandalized me.

In fact, it is standard practice in large-scale operations – aka egg factories – to remove the thin protective coating on the egg (known as the “cuticle” or “bloom”) using a power washer before spraying each egg with a light coating of vegetable oil to seal the egg’s shell. In grocery stores, such eggs usually stay on the shelf from 6 weeks to 2 months before they’re sold… but they can still be sold as “Grade A Fresh” for up to nine months. (Sorry for the repetition here, but I am still flabbergasted.) Tom, in contrast, cleans but doesn’t “wash” his eggs, and because the shells are not made porous by removing the protective cuticle, they could theoretically keep for longer. However, my egg farmer’s wares are consistently grade AA (less than 21 days old, according to Maryland grading standards), and labeled accordingly.

You can read more about Tom (and his mentee farmers, Ned and Eileen – my other favorite local egg farmers) in the February issue of Acres, USA. Yup, next month marks my fourth article for Acres. Guess that makes me officially a food writer. Or something. (Dang, did I not even mention the article on gourmet garlic that I wrote for the January issue? Guess it's tough for us food writers to keep track of all of our writings.)

Should you want to meet these local celebrity farmers and understand what the hullabaloo surrounding farm-fresh, pastured eggs is all about, you can pick up a dozen eggs of your very own, even during the winter months, from Ned in front of Meridian Pint (Feb 4 & 18 from 11am-1pm) or from Tom at the Dupont Circle farmers' market (any Sunday from 10am-1pm). Maybe I’ll see you there. I’ll be the short person bundled up against the winter chill and invariably talking about recipes... including the one for a familiar and much-beloved flourless chocolate torte (using 5 pastured chicken eggs) in the upcoming Acres article....

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The spice of life

This would've come in handy on my bike trip, eh? A little more compact than my own selection of 25-or-so critical spices in jars and ziploc bags, yes (nevermind the full-size wooden pepper grinder). Thanks, mom.

Not sure I'd've used up the included BBQ spice blend or the Jamaican Jerk mix on the road, but to be fair I've never actually *tried* them with lentils (my travel food staple). The result can't possibly be worse than the peanut butter and avocado sandwich debacle.

Anyhow, for those of you thinking of taking a cross-country bike trip sometime soon, maybe get yourself one of these. Me, I may just tuck it into my little messenger bag the next time I head to a friend's place to make dinner. Never know when I might need some emergency sweet paprika powder or Chinese 5-spice blend. Though I may need to include a supplementary kit with lavender, cumin, coriander seed, turmeric, saffron....

Friday, January 20, 2012

Ollie's favorite hot toddy

Okay, folks, sorry for the lack of blogposts of late. I blame the stuffy head and tiredness. I've been fighting off a cold for well over a week now and I've about had it.

I've tried resting. I've tried exercising. Made many cups of ginger tea. Cold Season tea. Sleepytime tea. Spicy lentil soup. Curried pumpkin soup. Tom Ka Jae. Chicken soup (from scratch, made with the remainder of the delicious White House Meats heritage Cornish-Rock bird I roasted for dinner with friends and family earlier this week -- hey, I may be sick, but that doesn't kill my appetite or keep me from hosting dinner parties... it just keeps me from blogging, apparently). I've used the neti pot religiously. Doped myself up with CVS brand decongestant. Bought a new filter for the humidifier that's been running 24/7. Nothing's worked to kick this thing out of my system. So tonight I am testing out a popular theory of germ killing using a remedy almost as old as Civilization itself. I'm talking about alcohol.

In Mexico, my friends swore by tequila as the cure-all. Same thing with Japanese friends and sake or Irish friends and whiskey. (I have not had the good fortune to get myself to Japan or Ireland yet, but I hope to some day, and not just to research cold remedies.) Tonight, rifling through a rather lacking liquor collection, I decided to try making my first hot toddy. Because I had just a bit of brandy on hand and, really, what the heck else am I supposed to do on a Friday night with sniffles yet again?

Let me tell you: it's delicious. And as usual, made with what I had around the kitchen, because though I did a few online searches to get the basic gist of toddies, it is me we're talking about here ("recipe, schmecipe") and I certainly wasn't about to head BACK out into the chilly weather to pick anything up. I mean, my weather man has been talking about imminent sleet and I don't want this cold to get worse.

So tonight is officially hot toddy and movie night. Yep, just me, Ollie, a hot toddy, and, if it arrived in today's Netflix installment, Rise of the Planet of the Apes. (What, you think I only watch food policy documentaries or something?) I might make a toddy for Ollie as well. Because as a general rule I don't drink alone.

Boy, it's good. Should you want to recreate this delicious cold remedy -- frankly, I might use up my modest stash of cherry-infused brandy (made by my friend Cristina and her husband this summer with boozy, local cherries) before I have you over for dinner -- here's how to make your own:

Ollie's favorite hot toddy

Get yourself a nice big mug and drop in:
- 1 TBSP local honey
- 2-3 TBSP brandy/bourbon/whiskey
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 3 whole cloves
Fill the mug with boiling water and stir. Wait a few minutes for the spices to infuse everything (and also to let the water cool down so you don't burn off your tastebuds... not that I am implying my readers are necessarily impatient or anything....)

So there you have it. We'll see how I feel tomorrow. I'd better be less sickly, as I have big plans for dinner making and dancing....

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The one-armed cook

Some people think it's impressive that an 80s hair band can have a one-armed drummer. But I wonder: can he make a gourmet dinner?

Okay, well, Meghan does put Wes in his chair when she's chopping, but being a good cook and having a four-month-old is quite a challenge. He's often seen peeking over her shoulder as she stirs things like the amazingly delicious (and, I discovered, super simple) beet and mustard green risotto she made for my final dinner in Houston. Boy was it delicious. And much simpler than the flambed and constantly stirred version I usually make. (It is good, though. Ryan, back me up here.)

I begged Meghan for the recipe, which it turns out was based on a 2007 issue of Bon Apetit. Here, for your gustatory pleasure, is yet another scrumptious recipe with my favorite root vegetable (and one which makes spicy mustard greens surprisingly palatable). I've adjusted it to reflect a batch that feeds 3-4 people as a main course.

Beet Risotto with Mustard Greens and Goat Cheese

1/3 cup butter
1 1/2 cups fresh beets, peeled and cubed
2 cups chopped white onion
1 1/2 cups arborio rice
4 1/2 cups low-salt vegetable stock
1 1/2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 cups mustard greens, finely chopped
6 oz. soft fresh goat cheese, crumbled

Melt butter in heavy large saucepan over medium heat. Add beets and onion, then cover and cook until onion is soft (about 8 minutes). Stir in rice. Add broth and vinegar, then bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, until rice and beets are just tender and risotto is creamy, stirring occasionally (about 15 minutes). Season with salt and pepper. Spoon into shallow bowls and sprinkle with greens and cheese. Devour.

Yes, you don't even cook the greens! They wilt when you stir them in with the risotto and with the goat cheese getting all melty, the result is divine.

Never let it be said that I am incapable of making a simple meal. (Okay, well, I haven't made it myself yet, but I suspect the next time I have my gentleman friend over for dinner I will have some beets and mustard greens on hand....)

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

A delicata situation

My best friend Meghan is one of the most consistently excellent cooks I know. I have yet to experience a remotely mediocre meal during my various trips to see her in Houston over the years. We've logged quite a few hours in the kitchen together, yet though we share an almost clinical obsession with local, seasonal ingredients -- I swear she can identify a perfectly ripe heirloom tomato at 100 yards -- our cooking approaches differ quite drastically. You see, Meghan is meticulous in her technique, precise in her acquisition and measurement of time and ingredients. Me, well...

I substitute ingredients in recipes quite often. In fact, I substitute directions in recipes quite often, too. This is not because I am incapable of following directions, but rather because I find that I'd prefer to use ingredients I have on hand as much as possible. And, okay, fine, in many cases I believe I have a better sense of what would really improve the dish, never mind whatever some Post Food Section columnist or cookbook author directs. I cook it for... awhile until it tastes... done. (I can't imagine why mom thinks I'm stubborn.) I can estimate this stuff when giving other people recipes, but in truth "precise" is not a word I would use to describe my culinary practice.

This year for my birthday, I decided that for perhaps only the second time in my life I would actually follow a recipe as written. I selected a savory Autumn Stroganoff from the Cafe Flora cookbook. In spite of dad's clamoring for a more meaty meal, I insisted that *I* should choose the recipes for *my* birthday meal and that my family would have a vegetarian feast. After all, the Portabella Wellingtons from the very same cookbook that rang in my 33rd year were well worth the effort. (Dad remains in disbelief that these were also sans meat. I think I heard him mumbling something about "stubbornness" between mouthfuls during his second helping that night, but it was hard to discern over the sounds of scarfing.) I'd given my parents the list of ingredients the week before and mom had picked up the sherry and tamari and mushrooms and pasta and... what was that, a butternut squash? No, no, the recipe called for delicata. No, the oblong yellow, stripey squash, you know? There were none to be found. Ah, the best laid plans of mice and ibtis.... I'd make do.

Not an hour after I started making the vegetable stock at my parents' house, my cousin Sonia called to ask me what she might do with the two delicata squash she'd impulsively picked up at the farmers' market. "What??" I about fell over and very nearly dropped the phone. "You can give them to me!" Dad was promptly dispatched on a squash reconnaissance mission and returned home an hour later with... two buttercup squashes. Agh. See? The universe doesn't *want* me to follow recipes. I cooked down the mushroom essence a bit more, poured in some more sherry (and another glass of wine for myself), and set to chopping and oven roasting the buttercup squash and baby bella mushrooms. Ah, might as well double the garlic while I'm at it. And that sauce needed more thickening... Recipe, schmecipe.

The end result was rich and delicious, especially dear because it continued the tradition of just the four of us cooking together. Still, I couldn't help teasing cousin Sonia about her misidentification when she came by later for dessert, since after Meghan and I my closest cousin is usually the most likely to correctly identify obscure vegetables. "No, no, it was in a basket labeled 'delicata,' I swear!" (Just like the basket in the picture here, except that this one, taken at a co-op on my way to Burlington last week, actually contained delicata. Ahem.) But all was forgiven over champagne and a made-from-scratch chocolate cheesecake that my little brother and I had concocted (following a recipe... mostly.)

Oops, enough teasing: looks like they're about to start boarding my flight to Houston! After waking up to zero-degree temperatures in Montreal at Becky's house this morning, I'm looking forward to cooking with Meticulous Meghan in Warmer Climes for the next week. The Tour de Friends (and Food) continues....