Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Spring, is it really you?

Readers, I'll admit that the delayed onset of spring has made me a little grumpy lately. (Okay, since we're coming to the end of lent, aka Confession Season, I confess that cold weather generally makes me a less pleasant person, so there's been a lot of grump in my general vicinity over the past 6 months.) My god, it feels like I have been huddled up just waiting for the sun to come out and the soil to warm up for ages! Did I start the sweet potato slips on my windowsill too early this year? Have I set up the milkweed in the GrowLab at school for failure starting seeds in early March? Did my first ever asparagus bed bite it during the subarctic winter? These are the things that keep me up at night. (I know, I know: first world problems.)

Thanks to a motherlode of straw mulch, one lonely, 2-inch tall celery made it through the endless winter, along with a handful of strawberry plants and about a dozen leafy greens (kale, chard, collards, and what I just discovered is a tiny broccoli plant and not a cabbage after all). And the frost-burned garlic plants that didn't get pulled up by curious preschoolers are holding on. But it's looking kind of sad out there in the school garden.

We've had a few 60 degree days in recent weeks, at which point students and I would sprint out to the garden to plant. I suspect that the first few batches of seeds germinated and then froze to death during this past Saturday's freak snow flurry and below freezing daytime temperatures. (When I'm feeling more hopeful, I convince myself that there's a chance things never got warm enough for them to get going in the first place and they'll poke little green leaves above the surface soon. But did I mention how cold weather makes me less optimistic?)

Meanwhile, I planted yet another batch of seeds with kiddos this week: snap peas and onions, potatoes and larkspur all went into the ground. Arugula, spinach, lettuce, and radishes coming soon.... Go on Mother Nature, you keep teasing us with warm days, I'll keep planting more seeds. You may have wind and rain in your arsenal, but I've got the boundless optimism of kids on my side. We'll see who wins.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

True Grits

So about a month ago, I was at a fantastic talk on craft distilling at the American History Museum. While there, I met Sam and Steve, who work at the gristmill and distillery at historic Mount Vernon. We got to talking about whiskey and cornmeal, and I told them about the 5th grade FoodPrints lesson I recently taught about food and the early American colonists. (Okay, so my 5th grade classes did NOT include a whiskey discussion, but we did grind our own flour for making waffles, and did shake cream into homemade butter. I kept hoping that nobody would ask what settlers used all of those inedible apples for....)

About a cocktail and a half into our museum chat, I found myself kindly invited out to see the mill and distillery in action. So last weekend, I went. My fellow Slow Food DC board members oohed and ahhed, as I did, at local grain being ground by a giant water wheel contraption and our first president's whiskey recipe being made at the (ahem, only legal) woodfire-powered distillery. We even got to sample some of the rare rye whiskey. (Don't worry, I wasn't driving.)

I was beside myself when Sam handed me a bag of the pancake mix (that Steve had raved about), a bag of cornmeal (also roundly praised), and, my favorite, a bag of stone ground grits. I used the cornmeal to make a batch of cornbread with 5th graders this past Friday, and then whipped up another batch of cornbread for our Slow Food DC annual potluck yesterday -- both were delightedly devoured, and the slow foodies remarked on the lovely flavor and texture. But let me tell you what I've been daydreaming about for the past 36 hours: the DELICIOUS shrimp and grits I made for a dinner party with my friends Sheffy, Aimee, and Griffin on Friday night. Oh, lord, it was a good meal. For your mouth-watering pleasure, I offer you this recipe, adapted from Saveur....

Irresistible Shrimp and Grits


  • 1 cup George Washington's Gristmill grits (seriously, they're the best!)
  • 4½ cups chicken broth
  • Olive oil
  • 2 slices thick-cut bacon, chopped
  • 1 lb. medium shrimp (about 30), peeled and deveined
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 TBSP butter
  • 1-2 handfuls shiitake mushrooms, washed, patted dry, then thinly sliced (I like the ones from North Cove Mushrooms, at the Dupont farmers' market)
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • ¾ cup grated cheddar
  • ¼ cup freshly shaved parmesan
  • 4 scallions, thinly sliced


In a medium cast iron pot, bring 4 cups chicken stock to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to low and whisk in grits. Cook, whisking frequently, until grits are tender and creamy, 30–40 minutes. Open the wine....

Meanwhile, heat oil in a medium/large skillet over medium heat. Add bacon and cook, stirring occasionally, until crisp, about 10 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer bacon to a paper towel–lined plate; set aside. Reserve cooking fat in skillet.

Season shrimp with salt and pepper. Over medium-high heat, add shrimp to skillet and cook, turning once, until bright pink, about 2 minutes. Transfer shrimp with a slotted spoon to a dish that you can keep warm in a 200F oven. It's probably time to get another glass of wine....

Lower burner heat to medium, then add mushrooms to skillet and cook, stirring occasionally, until tender (about 5 minutes), then add garlic and cook until fragrant (about 1 minute).

Raise heat to high, add remaining 1/2 cup of chicken broth, and scrape bottom of skillet with a wooden spoon. Cook until broth reduces by half (about 3 minutes).

Return shrimp to skillet along with remaining butter and cook, stirring frequently, until sauce thickens, (about 1 minute).

Stir 1 TBSP butter into grits, along with parmesan. Sprinkle cheddar on top, then use a blowtorch (if you're Griffin) or a creme brulee torch (if you're fainthearted like me) to melt the cheese. Have a fire extinguisher nearby. And make sure at least one person is sober enough to use it.

Divide grits between 4 bowls; top each with shrimp and sauce. Garnish each bowl with bacon and scallions. You can also have lemon wedges and hot sauce for garnishes, but I forgot those. (I blame the delicious wine Sheffy and his wife brought.)

I've yet to try out the pancake mix -- haven't had an overnight guest in a number of months, and haven't had a pancake-worthy one in longer than that -- but maybe I'll bring some with me when I head to Charlottesville to visit friends and family in a few weeks. Seriously, who wouldn't love a guest who brings her own pancake mix?

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Judith and Julia

Last night, I went to a another delightfully entertaining panel at the American History Museum -- part of their Food-focused After Hours series. This installment featured food history writers Alex Prud'homme and Sara Franklin as they discussed the renewal of American regional food culture after Julia Child's debut as The French Chef.

A self-identified foodie, I hadn't realized until this talk how little I knew about Julia Child, and I was surprised to recognize myself among the younger generation of folks who had come to learn about the joyful and daring food celebrity primarily through the book (and later movie) Julia and Julia. Okay, admittedly I cannot resist Meryl Streep in anything, so of course I would love her take on Julia, but I wondered: how accurate was her portrayal? Pretty accurate, it turns out. Julia was enamored with all things food, I knew, but until last night I had no idea that this ranged from a broad range of foreign delicacies to American regional specialties to the latest kitchen gadgets. What J&J didn't show was Julia's -- and Judith's -- interest in regional home cooking and the stories behind the food. Did you know that Julia had worked on a TV series about food prepared in the original American colonies? The series never aired, but I can only imagine the history, and no doubt the hilarity, that might have come about had Thirteen Feasts for Thirteen Colonies ever transpired. (And, professionally speaking, I would have loved to use some of the recipes in my FoodPrints lessons on colonial food traditions. Alas.)

Starting in the late 1960s, it seems, food luminaries including Julia Child and her editor Judith Jones, along with James Beard and others, began to look away from Europe and toward their own country for inspiration, exploring the rich heritage of American regional cooking with a new sense of appreciation and curiosity. It was the birth of the Farm to Table movement. Who knew? Judith especially was captivated by the DIY cooking (and everything else) culture, was intrigued by regional food cultures across the U.S., and was a vehement opponent of processed foods. Sounds like my kind of lady.

After the talk itself, we were free to wander through the museum's recreation of Julia's kitchen, which was fascinating, and nibble on a variety of tasty vittles based on recipes from famous cookbooks including the oft-cited Mastering the Art of French Cooking. What a lovely -- and informative -- evening! I came away with a few additions to my goodreads list, including the Taste of Country Cookbook, which was edited by Judith Jones, and My Life in France, co-written by Alex P-H and Julia about her self-described period of the "awakening of the senses" in the early 60s. Looks like I have my summer reading list started...if summer ever gets here!