Monday, February 26, 2018

De la chacra a la mesa

Many thanks to my oldest and dearest friend, Becky, for setting up one of the most memorable days we had during our trip to Cuba. After pulling myself out of bed before the crack of 7am on a drizzly Wednesday morning -- hey, this is vacation, and that's earlier than I get up for work! -- we packed a jumble of breakfast foods into tupperware containers, grabbed bottles of water, and stumbled out to our waiting taxi that promptly whisked us off to Caimito, where we would be volunteering on an organic farm for the day. (Interestingly, our friendly cab driver was the ONLY person in the entire island nation who, rather than being multiple hours late, was actually a half hour early.) As we zoomed through the rainy morning, the day became sunnier and the air clearer. I hadn't noticed how thoroughly diesel fumes had infused my time in Cuba until they were almost gone in the rural quiet of the countryside....

Upon arrival, Farmer Annabelle welcomed us with coffee, juice, and some delicious yogurt made by her neighbor. Then we pulled on some rainboots, squished out to the field, and started transplanting tomatoes and onion starts. The sun came fully out, and both Becky and I marveled at how lucky we were to be in this beautiful place with our hands in the earth, helping good people do good work. We chatted as we tucked the seedlings into their new homes, following behind the quiet older Cuban farmhand who marked out holes for us to dig and plant into. After some water and a bathroom break, we were tasked with adding soil and seeds to rows of starter trays in the open-sided nursery. Meanwhile, divine smells began to emanate from the kitchen....

Over a fabulous, lingering lunch, we learned that Farmer Annabelle, a Nicaraguan transplant, had studied and worked in a number of fancy Parisian restaurants. She had learned a lot about the need for quality ingredients during her time in France, and had developed a passion for the delights of food's seasonality. Upon reflection, she and her husband Alfredo decided that what they really wanted to be doing wasn't cooking in fancy restaurants (or working in IT, as he was doing) but helping to grow food and teach others how to improve the land through sustainable farming. They just needed some land... and to learn how to farm.

After visiting Alfredo's parents in Cuba, they decided to put down roots there. With help from family and the government, they took over an old house and began to fix it up while they cleared space to grow food. The plan was to start with planting trees and row crops, and eventually expand to more growing space and adding in livestock. Rather than burning down the existing foliage, as their neighbors had done for generations, they researched ways to more sustainably prepare the land and build up the soil's resilience and nutrient content. They composted on site, collected local seeds and introduced little known crops (like broccoli and leeks) to their planting plans, and shared with others as they learned. Now, four years later, they've built a community of sustainable farmers who share knowledge and seeds... and, in the case of the day we were visiting, a friendly meal around the farm table.

I'm still trying to decide which was the best meal of the trip: this unconventional one that featured white bean hummus and a veggie and free-range pork stirfry, or the traditional Cuban lunch from our cooking class. I daydream about both of them still. If you go to Cuba, dear reader, you might have to try both!

[Here's Annabelle harvesting a broccoli that she sent us back into town with that afternoon. Boy did we scarf up that hard to find vegetable with our dinner that night!]

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Comida Cubana

Cuban food gets a bad rap in the States, at least from most Cuban Americans I know, who complain about a lack of seasoning, ingredient choices, and creativity. Rice and beans, rice and beans, more rice and beans maybe with a little pork.  Yet I have to say that while moros y cristianos features prominently in most meals on the average Cuban table -- not surprisingly, given the monthly allotment of rice and dry beans given by the government to each Cuban citizen, and the average person's inability to afford much more -- I've enjoyed some deliciously diverse dishes while bouncing around Havana.

Perhaps the best experience I had during my 10 days in Cuba was a cooking class, hosted by the lovely Malinelli and her charming husband Hector at their home. My best friend Becky and I started our culinary adventure at the open-air agromercado, tagging along as our cooking instructors bought fresh ingredients from local, organic farmers....

At this stand, Mali showed us how to pick out good malanga -- a local tuber used to make fritters and other starchy delights:

I was dubious about these unassuming, dirt encrusted root veggies until Hector showed us about an hour later how to scrub, prepare, and perfectly fry them. I don't normally seek out fried food -- to be honest, eating it usually leaves me feeling a bit ill -- but I could've devoured these garlic and herb loaded malanga fritters for days, with or without local honey to dip them in. And now Becky and I know how to make them, thanks to the hands-on practice and follow-up recipes sent to us by our kind cooking instructors.

Here we are with our delightful hostess, Mali, and a friendly English couple who also joined our cooking class, sitting down to our homemade Cuban feast:

After a hearty late afternoon meal of fried plantains, a simple salad, pork with sour orange and garlic (my new favorite dish), a new twist on the traditional black beans and rice, the famous malanga fritters, and capped off with great conversations about Cuban history, economics, and culture over coffees and cheese with guava jam for dessert, we were ready to face the rest of the day with contented bellies. It's a good thing, too, since our evening led us first to live music and dancing at the Casa de Musica in nearby Miramar and then a jaunt around the hip Fabrica de Arte Cubano on the later side. I was still so contented from lunch that after our late night cab right back to the Airbnb, all I had room for was a bit of leftover fruit before crawling into bed. Well, maybe I could have nibbled on a malanga fritter or two....

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Duck Duck Soup

Nothing warms the soul quite like hot soup on a cold day. And while yesterday was rather temperate for late November, we've definitely had some soup weather in DC in recent weeks. So when dad sent me home with some leftover duck meat the day after Thanksgiving, and with our country's leader currently making a mess of things, duck soup sounded just about right.

What's that? Oh, yeah, since there were only four of us at this year's annual poultry extravaganza, and since mom and I are partial to duck, we opted for a turkey-less thanksgiving. Before you sputter something about how skipping turkey on Thanksgiving is unAmerican, let me direct your attention to the delicious concoction I just ate for dinner:

Duck Avgolemono Soup

  • 1 TBSP butter
  • a few glugs of olive oil
  • 1 carrots, diced
  • 2-3 celery stalks, diced
  • 1/2 red onion + 3 small leeks, diced
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 4 cups good vegetable broth
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1/4 cup brown rice, uncooked
  • 3 lemons worth of freshly-squeezed lemon juice
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 large handful leftover duck meat, chopped into small (1/2") chunks
  • 2 large handfuls fresh spinach, finely chopped
  • Salt and pepper

Warm butter and olive oil in a medium pot. Stir in carrot, celery, and onion -- you've now got a fragrant mirepoix. (Go on and use that fancy culinary French vocab, aspiring cooks!) Stir in garlic, then broth.

Bring pot to a boil, stir in rice, and then turn the head down and let things simmer for about 30 minutes, until the rice is tender.

In a small bowl or measuring cup, whisk together lemon juice and eggs. Then, slowly and carefully -- SLOWLY, I mean it! -- whisk about a half cup of warm broth in a thin stream into the lemon egg mixture. Now your lemon egg mixture is tempered, which will keep it from curdling. (You're welcome for that other fancy cooking vocab word.)

Slowly, whisk your tempered lemon egg mixture into the main soup pot, stir in duck and spinach, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Once the duck is warmed through, which should only take about a minute or two, dish it out into bowls and enjoy. This recipe makes enough for two large bowls of soup. And I'm ready for my second bowl....

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Mead Day!

It is a bit of a meadstravaganza around my apartment these days:

By now you must sense that I love any reason to celebrate food and drink. In fact, I was just talking with some neighbors this weekend about our need to celebrate International Crepe Day. The group agreed that it's too many months away, as is Nutella Day, though felicitously the two are a mere three days apart, so we agreed we needed to make some practice batches between now and then. For research.

While sipping on a little snifter of mead after dinner tonight, I realized that many of you might not know there is a National Mead Day. It was on August 5th this year, and I was fortunate to have my mead making mentor, Tysen (yes, I have a mead mentor!), and my boyfriend  Matt, (yes, I have a boyfriend!) over to celebrate. After a lovely brunch, we got to tasting five different varieties.

I'll be writing a full post on the mead making process and results -- Tysen will be editing the excerpts from our planning, brewing, and tasting sessions, and posting the finished podcast in coming months on his site -- but as I decompress from my amazing summer travels and dive back into teaching, I didn't want to miss the chance to share this most important day that you should mark on your calendar so you don't miss Mead Day next year: it's the first Saturday in August. You have almost a whole year to learn about and learn to love mead before then! Those who are around may be invited to taste the by then 18-month-aged varieties pictured here:

Which will you prefer, I wonder? The classic? The quince-infused? The tangerine and thyme variety? What I can say is that there will be no more of this smooth, barrel aged one, hand carried all the way from western Poland:

Take comfort, though, DC-area mead lovers (or those who are mead-curious): you can reference Tysen's awesome website to learn how easy it is to make your own mead. Or you can pick up some of Charm City's latest limited-release meads at many a local grocery. I have a can each of raspberry coconut and orange lavender in the fridge now. For research, you know. Cheers!

Saturday, August 26, 2017

This means war!!

It's not news to me that DC has a rat problem. It's also been known for some time that Ollie has been sharing a storage closet with rats. But until recently, the rodents kept to their corner, and we kept to ours.

Apparently these rodents have gotten a little big for their britches: the other day when I went to take Ollie for a ride I noticed some distinctive chew marks on her right handlebar. I brought my bike helmet inside. (Rat poop on my head? No thank you!) Then a few days later, some chomp evidence on her left handlebar. Then today, a brazenly large chunk was missing. Eating rubber? Really?? Apparently the mild winter meant that rat populations across the city have grown considerably larger than usual, and they're getting aggressive. I hate rats, yet I've generally maintained my distance. Love and let live, you know. But now?

NOBODY chews on my Ollie and gets away with it! This means war!! That exterminator better get here asap or I'm heading in there with the rat poison myself....

Friday, July 21, 2017

Mission: Plumpossible

What a treat it was to see my friend Jenn and spend a few days with her and her husband Eric in the south of France this week! Jenn, who I met a decade ago in French class back in DC, is my kind of crazy: loves good food and wine, has an insatiable interest in learning and exploring new places, and suffers from a similar hatred of wasting things. An avid recycler and compulsive composter, Jenn seemed at many points during this visit to be my long lost twin. (Mon dieu!) This feeling was confirmed when Jenn showed me their glut of fresh red plums on Tuesday, filling containers on every available scrap of kitchen table and counter space, with many more pounds of fruit still hanging from overloaded boughs in the garden, and asked if I could make something to salvage them. Preferably gluten-free.

Challenge accepted, obviously.

When Jenn and Eric set off to work yesterday, I put in a load of laundry, turned on some music, sat down at their kitchen table, and began to chop. An hour and twelve cups of chopped plums later, I assessed what other ingredients were on hand and got cooking: plum bars, plum shrub syrup, and, because I believe I mentioned how both Jenn and I loathe wasting anything, plum fruit leather made from the skins strained out of the shrub base. 

Oh, you have lots of plums, too? Well, I already have a  shrub recipe on the blog, so you don't need that. The fruit leather is still dehydrating in the sun, so I'll hold off on sharing that recipe til I get a positive review from Jenn. For now, here is how to make your own delicious -- and super easy -- tart plum bars. Perfect for a picnic in Paris, btw....

Gluten-free Summer Plum Bars
Adapted from the smittenkitchen website's strawberry rhubarb bar recipe.


1 cup rolled oats
¾ cup all-purpose gluten-free flour
½ cup + 1 Tablespoon sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
6 Tablespoons butter, 
2 heaping cups fresh plums, pitted and diced
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1 Tablespoon fresh lemon juice


Heat oven to 375°F. For easy removal, line bottom and sides  of an 8-by-8-inch square baking pan with parchment paper.

Place oats, flour, 1 cup sugar, and salt in the bottom of your baking pan and mix. Pour melted butter over, and stir until clumps form. If the clumps feel soft or look overly damp, add up to 2 more Tablespoons of flour. Set aside ½ cup of the crumble mixture.

Press the rest of the crumb mixture evenly in the bottom of the pan. Spread half the diced plums over the crust, then sprinkle it evenly with cornstarch, then lemon juice, and 1/2 Tablespoon of granulated sugar. Spread the remaining plums over this, and top with second 1/2 Tablespoon sugar. Scatter reserved crumbs over fruit.

Bake bars for 30-40 minutes, until plums are bubbly and crumbly portion is golden and smells delicious. Let cool in pan, then put in the fridge to set. Cut into squares and sprinkle with powdered sugar or a dash of cinnamon sugar before serving. Store leftovers in fridge or freezer.

I think almond meal would be delicious in the crust/crumble part, too -- maybe swap it for 1/4 cup of the flour -- but since Jenn can't eat almonds, I didn't try it this time. Ooh, I can't wait to hear how the fruit leather comes out!

Friday, July 14, 2017

More than goat milk

Finally, in western Poland, I've found the vegetables! Each day this week, along with the ubiquitous meat and boiled potatoes, Jagoda (my relation -- a second cousin, I think?) has been feeding me luscious, from-scratch soups: mushroom, broccoli, zucchini, and, today, creamy tomato. Yummmm. And, with many thanks to her husband Krzysztof, I've also had a chance to work on a small farm in the region. I'm getting back to my roots in more ways than one.

Wednesday night after dinner, my relatives drove me to Kozka -- an organic farm that produces goat milk, cheese, and yogurt. After arriving, I chatted a bit with the farmers, Jolanta and Norbert, over herbal tea then beers, heading to bed around midnight. At the crack of 6:45, it was time to get up to help with morning milking....

I'm not going to be quitting my day job to become a goat milker any time soon, it appears. Norbert and his assistant, Danke, easily milked nearly seventy goats in the half hour it took me to get through two, never mind that about 25% of the milk that came out of my goats ended up on my pants. Luckily I was able to redeem myself with efficient garden tasks later in the morning -- so much so, in fact, that Norbert declared my thorough tomato pruning and pea crop clearing earned us all a two hour siesta after our fava bean and pork belly lunch. (Lord knows I needed the nap after the overzealous rooster outside my window had gotten going at 3am. Jerk.)

I learned so much from Jolanta during my time there, where she farms, makes yogurt and cheeses for sale, and practices acupuncture and Chinese medicine. She has lived in Lubowo since her father gave her a few hectares of land there as a wedding present in 1980. She and her carpenter husband were simply homesteading until about a dozen years after settling there she noticed their second son was allergic to cow's milk. So they got a couple of goats. Jolanta had studied agriculture in college, but she had focused on plants, so they decided to spend a bit of time in Switzerland learning how to care for livestock. They soon acquired a few more goats, and a nearby supermarket asked if they might sell some of their milk there. Then a few more goats joined the herd as demand grew... It turns out that organic agriculture is quite an anomaly in Poland, but there's been a recent uptick in consumers seeking out what is here called "biological" produce, dairy, and meat. There's still a long way to go, Jolanta assured me, but slowly the country is waking up to the ways conventional agriculture is damaging human health and the health of the environment.

As of 2012, the unique organic farm has been hosting field trips for groups of students from schools in nearby Poznan. Kids as young as kindergarteners come for 3 hours at a time to milk goats (and taste the milk), ride ponies, see a wide variety of fruits and veggies growing, and have a cookout. How cool! As far as I can tell, the farm is the only one in the country offering this amazing farm-to-school opportunity. I hope it's the start of a trend -- have I mentioned the general lack of veggie consumption in these parts? 

When Krzysztof came to pick me up from the farm last night, the couple sent me back with big hugs along with a hunk of their aged goat cheese and homemade black currant syrup. These are my people!