Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Que Rico!

Last Sunday, I led yet another bilingual cooking demo, this time at the Bloomingdale Farmers Market – one of my other favorite markets around town. And this time, it was an interactive cooking demonstration. It was all part of the group visit with some of the families involved with the exciting Fruit and Vegetable Prescription pilot program. Well, I hadn't intended for it to be quite as interactive as it was, but when the opportunity presented itself, I went with it. I am a go-with-the-flow kind of girl.

As the moms shopped, and after I picked up ingredients from Truck Patch and Mountain View Farm, I found myself entertaining the kiddos while I set up to make cold zucchini noodles, chatting and joking with them in Spanish and English. First one precocious young man asked if he could help. Then another. Then suddenly there were five of them. "Okay, okay," I conceded, "but everyone who is going to touch food here has to wash their hands. Ah! And with soap!" I shouted as they scampered into Big Bear Cafe one after the other, coming back with reports of each other's hygienic diligence. "Todos listos? Okay, let's get started...."

With assistants to peel the squash and zucchini, juice the lemons, measure out the olive oil (oh, if only they knew how I generally neglect measuring, they'd maybe reconsider their precision), remove the basil and parsley leaves from the stems, we made the first batch of Fideos de Calabacin in less than 15 minutes.

 fvrx kiddos at bfm - 26 aug 2012

“Que rico!” I heard from the mothers who stopped by to taste the fruit of our collaborative labors. “Vamos a cocinar esto a casa?” was answered with nodded assent from the 7- to 10-year-olds. I also heard a number of mothers chat about a return trip to this pleasant, friendly Sunday market, where nutrition assistance benefits are not only accepted but matched up to $10 each weekend. Healthy food, happy families. Sweet.

What's that? Oh. You want to know how to make this most simple and delicious of cold zucchini dishes... possibly with your kiddo(s)? Here's how:

Zucchini Noodles (aka Fideos de Calabacin)
Using a vegetable peeler, carefully slice the zucchini lengthwise, starting at one end and ending on the other end. As you peel closer to the center of the zucchini, turn the zucchini over and start peeling again from the opposite side. You can use a sharp knife to cut slices into thinner strips if you like, though a julienne peeler makes for the most consistent, skinny strips. These “noodles” are great COLD as a salad or HOT as a low-calorie substitute for pasta.

Make a dressing of juice from 1 lemon (about 3 Tablespoons), 4 Tablespoons olive oil, and 1/2 cup sliced or chopped fresh herbs (basil, mint, and/or parsley). Toss raw “noodles” with dressing and let marinate for 15-30 minutes. Variations: toss with 3-4 handfuls of lettuce or arugula. Sprinkle on 1/4 cup crumbled feta.


Heat a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add zucchini/squash “noodles” to the boiling water and cook very quickly, just 1-2 minutes until tender, but not mushy. Drain then toss with a little butter or olive oil, fresh herbs, and fresh peas or cherry tomatoes. You can also simply top with your favorite pasta sauce (or make some fresh pasta sauce with fresh tomatoes, the chopped up remains of your zucchini, herbs, and lots of garlic).

[Photo courtesy of Kealy Rudersdorf]

Thursday, August 23, 2012

It's not how many you pick, but how many you eat while picking

Not many people can play hooky on a weekday afternoon to go blackberry picking.

I realize that I am lucky enough to have more flexibility in my schedule than most. This is more often a blessing than a curse, and let me assure you that I work hard. In addition to being expected to be "in" during normal work hours during the week, I often work Saturdays and some Sunday mornings. And 10pm work calls have been known to happen with some frequency. (So have occasional 7am calls. Grrr.) And I am often up writing til well past 1 in the morning. It's not like I am slacking all the time. No, I just have an odd schedule. And take an occasional mid-afternoon nap. And any opportunity to share a picnic with friends.

When Todd invited me to head out to a local farm with his two young daughters on Wednesday, I couldn't resist. All he had to do was say the words "local berries" and "picnic" and I was in. Plus I needed to bulk up on my shrub-making supplies....

Soon after our arrival, I somehow let the 7- and 8-year-old talk me into being the one who held back the thorny blackberry and raspberry branches so they could pluck berries, unscathed. Sure, some may say that I was being bossed around by a second-grader, but tell me honestly, could you resist if someone this cute asked you to do the same?

Besides, the bramble cuts will heal eventually.

It is true that Shoshana and Claudia out-picked me in terms of what we hauled home, but I definitely out-ate them in the field. (I also out-spilled them in the car on the ride home -- doh!) It's not about who picked more berries, I assured them, but about enjoying the experience. Of course, that's what someone bringing home fewer berries would say....

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Tasty tomato? Save some seeds!

In retrospect, I am thinking I should have maybe saved some seeds from this weekend's Tastiest Tomato contest instead of scarfing my samples quite so quickly. Those yellow ones were especially delicious, but by now the seeds are somewhere in my lower intestine. Alas.


In truth, saving seeds for replanting is not that difficult, especially for things like pumpkins or melons or peppers. Or, of course, tomatoes. I'd gone to a workshop on seed saving a couple of years ago, and have dabbled in saving my own ever since. (Incidentally, I've got a stockpile of dried fenugreek pods in case anyone wants to try growing it next year. I use it in Indian food, though apparently it is also a natural supplement for increasing breast milk. Seems like a disproportionate number of friends have kids they're nursing these days, so I could suddenly become the recently neglected friend they start calling again for an herbal supplement. Anyway....) After mom asked me a few months ago, and then a series of friends have inquired about how to save seeds in recent weeks, it occurred to me that perhaps some of my fellow food lovers might appreciate some basic instructions for capturing some of their favorite nightshade seeds for replanting.

I recall one older farmer I'd met along my cross-country research telling me that the way she'd always done it was if someone in the house bit into a tomato and it was especially delicious, they would scoop out the seeds, smear them on a piece of paper, and save them for planting the next year. I suppose one's method could be a little more refined and scientific than that -- recording which variety one is eating, for instance, so you'll know what you're planting -- but the steps would be pretty much the same.

Simple Tomato Seed Saving
  1. Cut or bite into a tomato.
  2. If it's delicious, scoop out some of the seeds.
  3. Plunk them into a small jar with some clean water, seal with a lid, and shake well.
  4. Let the tomato seed mush jar ferment for a few days on the counter -- this will separate the seeds from the gelatinous stuff.
  5. Rinse off the tomato seeds.
  6. Smear the clean seeds across an unused paper coffee filter (or other clean and sturdy paper)
  7. Air dry seeds on the filter/paper for a few days.
  8. Seal your dried seeds in an airtight container and keep somewhere cool and dark til you're ready to plant.
That's it, you're done. No need to buy tomato seeds next year! A single, scrumptious tomato yields hundreds of seeds, so you might even think about saving some for a seed swap this fall....

Friday, August 17, 2012

Just peachy

Yesterday, I had the good fortune to spend a few hours at the Crossroads farmers' market playing with fresh, local kale and peaches in a variation on my favorite massaged kale salad -- this time with a lovely honey vinaigrette. A steady stream of folks from eight-year-olds to eighty-year-olds scarfed samples as quickly as I could set them out. I love kids who love kale, even if none of us could definitively determine the Spanish word for my most favorite leafy green....

When I wasn't mangling the Spanish language during the cooking demonstration itself -- actually, we collectively decided on col rizada ("curly member of the cabbage family") for kale, and I only mixed up pepino (cucumber) and pimiento (pepper) a few times -- I had a great time listening to families, kids, and seniors happily chat with me about their favorite things to buy at the market and what they liked to cook at home. It made my heart smile. I've never seen such a successful connection of families in need with local farmers as I have at this market.

Crossroads is perhaps one of my favorite markets in the greater DC area, and it's really a pity that I don't make it out to this Wednesday afternoon gathering more often. It's especially great when Michelle and Michele -- Takoma Park's dynamic duo -- are in attendance, as they were yesterday. No, I promise it's not just because the women making pupusas are always trying to feed me and get me to drink their hibiscus tea. I always learn so much while I'm there about what a real community is all about, as well as important policy goings-on. (And, okay, fine, I may once again have left with a pannierful of beautiful, seasonal produce.)

During a brief lull in the bustling activity, Michelle clued me in on a very serious matter of food access currently on the government's chopping block: a pending $16.5 billion cut to SNAP -- the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (aka food stamps) -- was recently proposed in the House Agriculture Committee’s Farm Bill. Mind you, SNAP enrollment has gone up 70% since 2007, with roughly 1 in 8 Marylanders benefitting from the program, and a comparable number in DC. At a time when SNAP participation is at an all-time high, and the public health community is growing hoarse from shouting about the obesity epidemic and the need for more widespread healthy food choices, the House version of the Farm Bill up for debate would remove 2-3 million people from the program nationally and nearly 300,000 schoolchildren would lose their free meals. Because poor kids must learn better on an empty stomach? That will surely help break the cycle of poverty. Yes, this is just peachy....

Ugh! Who makes these decisions??

The Crossroads team was not about to take this blow to local food security sitting down. For the three hours I was at the market, I noticed many families bringing red construction paper cutouts of apples to the information table. Turns out they're part of a campaign to save critical food assistance, visuals that regular market patrons were filling out to illustrate the vast number of families that food stamps support with fresh fruits and vegetables. The "Paper Apple Campaign" asks Marylanders to draw or write their solution to hunger in Maryland. According to Maryland Hunger Solutions, "since launching in December 2011, more than 800 apples have been collected, coming from every county. In the past month alone, hundreds of apples with the message of “SNAP Works” have been collected. Apples are pouring in from senior citizens, service providers, kids, the faith community, advocates, and parents who have turned to SNAP to help feed their families." The apples collected at yesterday's Crossroads market were to be delivered to some key officials today, namely the district offices of Representatives Steny Hoyer and Chris Van Hollen.

Is this something we could replicate in other states (and non-states like DC)? I sure hope so....

Saturday, August 11, 2012

A cure for what ales you

(Before you say it, relax: it's a pun, not a typo.)

This is Bubbles:

He'd been living under my back deck for about a year, woefully unemployed until just yesterday when he began a two-week gig. He's now babysitting over a million yeast cells eating and pooping away in five gallons of pumpkin ale in the corner of my kitchen:

Last night, my friends Kate, Carmen, Amanda, Carina, and Aaron -- all novice brewers like me -- found themselves up to their elbows in beermaking tasks. (Is it my teaching background, or a latent proclivity for management, I wonder.) We all had our assignments. Amanda led the instruction following, timing, and drink opening:

Kate was the measurement maven (and, later, the biscuit making queen):
Carmen took the lead on making the spent grain veggie burgers:
Oh, wait, the burgers came after the beer making proper. Hang on. Let's see, where was I?

Ah, yes. There was pumpkin roasting and malt pouring. Then an hour of boiling. Drinking and nibbling and checking the timer. Some spicing and straining:

As we slid our tureen of wort off of the hot burners, things got a little more technical and I started harassing... I mean reminding... everyone to keep things sterile: anything that would be touching  our cooling beer, including fingers and thermometers, must get dunked in the sanitizing solution first. We had to cool the beer FAST so no weird other things would land in the optimal growing medium and start reproducing. Carina showed up just in time to help with her instant-read thermometer:

We had some technical difficulties at this point, as after things dropped to about 85 degrees -- still 5 degrees too hot for yeast to survive, according to the instructions -- the temperature started to rise again. We had to take emergency measures to cool down the wort quickly! Carina rummaged through my freezer while channeling Macguyver's hipster doppelganger to save the day:

Don't worry, I sterilized the frozen waterbottle and bag of frozen edamame with sanitizing solution first. Hmm, that does look kind of unappealing, doesn't it? Well, it worked.

Then there was the ongoing debate about whether the pre-inflated yeast packet would work. After a poll among the six of us, we decided we'd try it. (Also, there was no alternative.) So, it was on to scampering outside to battle mosquitoes and get 5 gallons of wort from the giant brewpot into the (sterilized) carboy using a little (sterilized) funnel.

The directions insisted that we vigorously stir the beer to aerate it. Well, I'm pretty sure we aerated our pumpkin ale enough merely with the vigorous pouring process. I mean, look at that foam:
Finally, after adding the yeast, sealing the top with a (sterilized) airlock, and installing Bubbles back inside my apartment, it was at last time to devour a feast of spent grain veggie burgers with homemade lemon caper aioli on baked-from-scratch biscuits, massaged kale and peach salad, loads of fresh fruit, and more wine and beer. (Lord, I love spent grain burgers.) Not a bad way to spend a Friday night. Now if only I can cajole them back in two weeks to bottle our pumpkin ale....

Sunday, August 5, 2012

The taming of the shrub

Have you ever heard of a shrub, as in the kind you can drink? (Oh, if only the knights who say Ni had only known to ask for a shrub rather than a shrubbery, things might've turned out differently.)

My first encounter with these tart and delicious libations was at the Slow Food DC table at the Farm-to-Street Party a few weeks ago, when my friend and fellow boardmember, Rich, poured one for me. I believe the one I had was a cherry balsamic with seltzer. And there may or may not have been gin in it. As I sipped, Rich began to tell me a bit about the drink's history, and how shrubs were actually included in Slow Food International's "Ark of Taste." Hey now, I am all for preserving food (and drink) traditions, and this one was so tart and refreshing. I began to stockpile fruit....

Last weekend, my friend Carina and I got together and pooled our shrub making resources: various fruits, a medley of vinegars, and a few kinds of sugar. We decided to make the cold processed shrubs which, according to The Internet, retain more layers of the fruits' subtle flavors than hot processed shrubs, which are quicker to make. (See? I can be patient.)

Easy Cold Shrubs

Step 1: Prepare the fruit.
Wash and remove stems/pits from fruit, then put it into a large glass or porcelain bowl and crush until pulpy. If it’s a melon or papaya or something else with a thick rind, peel it. Otherwise, leave the skin on. (You may want to measure how much fruit you have. Not that we did.)

Step 2: Cover the fruit with sugar.
The main website I referenced suggested equal parts fruit, sugar, and vinegar, but Carina is as much of a meticulous measurer as I am (which is to say a graduate of the school of eyeballing things), and I think her teeth also hurt thinking about that much sugar, so we kind of guessed at the amount of fruit – “what would you say that looks like, a cup and a half of melon?” – and lowballed the sugar proportion.

Step 3: Let it sit.
Put your fruit/sugar mixture in the fridge for a few hours or overnight. We were a little antsy, so I think ours were in the fridge for 2-3 hours. The fruit-sugar mixture should create a kind of syrup around the fruit bits.

Step 4: Strain it.
Use a fine sieve to strain the solids out of the syrup and into another clean bowl. You’ll want to use a spoon to press the fruit solids against the inside of the sieve to get as much of the juice as you can. If any sugar is clinging to the bowl, scrape it into the syrup.

Step 5: Add the vinegar.
Again, our proportions were not what one would call precise, but for the roughly estimated cup and a half of melon that we had added a cup of sugar to, I think we added two-thirds of a cup of apple cider vinegar. Whisk until sugar dissolves.

Step 6: Pour your science experiment into a clean bottle.
Cap, shake well, and refrigerate for a few days. Here's Carina showing off our inaugural shrub attempt:

Step 7: Taste and enjoy!
Check the shrub periodically. This is not just my advice, really! According to the various shrub experts, the cocktail base mellows with time: “The tartness and sweetness both remain, but they start to harmonize after just a few weeks in the fridge. So what you have is a lightly sweet and tart syrup with a rich fruit flavor." Not sure how long these delicious syrups will last, but probably not the requisite few weeks....

Carina returned this past Friday evening for a pseudo-scientific taste testing session before we brought some along to our friend Kate's apartment. The verdict: delicious. (Carina's already been talking about making savory shrubs. My kind of foodie, this one.)

So what did we make? And what, after a week of fermenting in my fridge and then mixing into cocktails with champagne and seltzer, did we think?

Blackberries with cane sugar and fig balsamic -- quite tart
Blackberries with cane sugar and blueberry balsamic -- very jammy
Papaya with brown sugar and fig balsamic -- deep and dark
Shiro plum with cane sugar and apple cider vinegar -- light and floral
Cantaloupe with cane sugar and apple cider vinegar -- the crowd favorite: like summer in a glass!

I daresay these may become a staple in my kitchen.

*Thanks to my friend Jessica for inspiring the title for this post -- I know you had a different topic in mind when you suggested it, but I think the subject does it justice. ;)

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Oh right, like your kitchen never looks like a crime scene?

There is probably some reference that I could make to C.S.I. here, but unfortunately I don't watch it, so you'll have to make up your own inside joke. Let me just assure you that after the steady influx of beets from my friend Robert's farm lately, many, MANY batches of borscht have been made and shared with friends around town in recent weeks. Frankly I'm surprised this was the only casualty. (Those beet stains are serious. I think my kitchen sponge will be permanently easter egg colored.)

Since things have slowed down a bit teaching and lesson-planning-wise during these out-of-school summer months, there has been a lot more work with gardens and farmers markets, and thus a noticeable uptick in the sheer volume of produce finding its way into my kitchen. Hiding indoors during the most intense hours of midday heat, I've found myself doing a fair bit of culinary experimentation, including my first foray into making shrubs (the drinks, not the plants), but I'll get to writing about that after the fermented fruit concoctions have bubbled a few more days and I can get a second opinion on whether they are, in fact, drinkable. (Not bad so far. Certainly nothing a little champagne couldn't fix if things get a little... iffy.)

Some fermentation experiments have gone better than others. For instance, the kombucha: not my finest work. In fact, I think I had to make myself a cocktail afterwards to get rid of that taste. But I'm up for trying again if someone out there can offer advice on how to have it not taste like a scotch drinker sucked on a piece of charcoal and then burped in my mouth....

Sorry, was that too graphic?

Speaking of (hopefully less ill-fated) fermentation, the homebrewing supplies I ordered should be showing up any day now! (Dad, aren't you glad you stored those 5-gallon glass carboys under the porch for me for all those years?) I'm ready to make some roasted pumpkin ale for real:

A pumpkin summer ale? Is that even legal? "But it was August, Your Honor. How could I possibly have committed cucurbicide to make that? Everyone knows pumpkins aren't ready for harvest til autumn!" (I'd better make sure the DCPD doesn't follow my blog....)