Sunday, April 29, 2007

Weekend Update

Yes, I know it's Monday. But I want to start working a food news roundup feature into the weekly routine and I'm a day behind. In the future, I hope to have this on Sunday when everyone can sit down with a cup of their favorite java and catch up on The Slow Cook.

If you are a regular reader of The Washington Post, my former employer, and if you ever make it over to the Business section, you might have seen a piece on April 24 about Greenpeace and McDonald's teaming up to try and slow deforestation of the Amazon rain forest in Brazil.

You might be asking yourself what in the world Greenpeace, McDonald's and Brazil have in common and the answer would be soy. Some farmers see all that rain forest as a waste and have been systematically chopping it down to grow commodity crops such as soy beans. The soy beans are then gobbled up by huge international food companies such as Cargill, which then sell them to huge food processors such as McDonald's as chicken feed. You know, for the McNuggets.

Originally, Greenpeace, which is trying to stop the chopping down of the rain forest, accused McDonalds of being complicit in the clearing of environmentally sensitive lands to farm soy beans. But as of January, the fast-food purveyor and the environmentalists were jointly pressuring Brazil's largest soy bean traders to place a two-year moratorium on purchasing any soy products from newly deforested areas.

Wait, it gets even better. This all started orginally with--can you guess?--genetically modified crops. Americans are using GMOs (as the genetically modified varieties are known) while Europeans are saying No Thank You. So some Brazilian farmers, with help from Cargill, started converting interior parts of the rain forest to soy production aimed at the European market for unadulterated soy.

The huge scale of the operation started to reveal itself on satellite images, spurring Greenpeace to act. Greenpeace combed records to see which companies were involved in the new soy production and who was buying it. McDonald's name came up as a buyer for its European operations.

Then Greenpeace fingered Cargill, which had built a special port in Brazil for shipping the soy but claimed it was only giving a leg up to impoverished farmers.

But then there was a meeting of the minds, with McDonald's and Cargill agreeing to cooperate with Greenpeace.

"We didn't start out with the idea of focusing on McDonald's or parnering with them, and someday we may well go after them again on other issues," the Post quoted one Greenpeace official as saying. "But on this one, they played a highly positive role."

Which just tells me that all you vegans out there need to be asking where your tofu comes from before you start your next stir fry.

You can read the full Washington Post report here.

Meanwhile, Michael Pollan, author of the wildly popular Omnivore's Dilemma, scored again with his piece in the Sunday New York Times Magazine April 22.

Pollan has an uncanny knack for finding great stories hiding in plain site. This one is about the Farm Bill and how our U.S. Congress and the corporate agriculture lobby each year conspire to spend billions of our tax dollars on subsidies that help keep down the cost of processed foods that make our citizenry and our kids fatter and fatter.

The sad facts fall hardest on the poor. Among the crops our government deems most worthy of subsidizing are corn, soy and wheat, which are easily manipulated into processed and junk food. Thus, cheap food is actually more calory dense. Notice, no one is subsidizing good, healthy produce. That might explain why the biggest section of the supermarket is that part in the middle, between the dairy and the produce, where aisle after aisle are devoted to chips, frozen dinners, sugar-coated cereals, high fructose corn syrup-infused soft drinks, etc.

As a result of government policy, the real price of fresh produce has increased 40 percent in recent years, while the price of soft drinks has actually declined by 23 percent.

Pollan also touches on the crisis our cheap corn has wrought on Mexico, where corn farmers have been forced off their land as a result of the NAFTA free trade agreement and where the country to our south is wrestling with a population that can no longer afford its tortillas.

And need we mention that the subsidies have helped spawn a monocropping agriculture that relies on fossil-fuel derived fertilizers and pesticides that pollute our waters, a culture that destroys the soil and drives diverse family farms out of business?

Is this really what our government is about, making corporate food processors rich and the poor fat? Looks that way....

Speaking of fat, you just knew this was coming. ConocoPhillips, the nation's third-largest oil company, and Tyson's, the world's largest chicken and meat processor, have announced that they will be partnering to turn animal fat into biofuel you can put in your car.

Since we've already started turning our corn crop over to automobiles, why not the byproduct from the meat locker, no?

The companies claim that in time, the project could produce 175 million gallons of biodiesel annually.

Finally, we have Oregon's Democratic Gov. Ted Kulongoski announcing that he and his wife would spend the week eating only what they can purchase on a food stamp budget.
That amounts to about $3 a day apiece, or $42 all told. Can you remember the last time you spent only $42 for a week's worth of groceries? What do you suppose a person eats on $3 a day?
Kulongoski made the announcement to coincide with "hunger awareness" week in Oregon. The governor is protesting the Bush administration's planned cuts in the food stamp program.

I'm trying to think where the fat is in a $3-per-day food budget...

Wild Pesto That Saved the Day

The chickweed pesto was a sensation at yesterday's schoolyard greening lunch.

So imagine my chagrin when, after getting up at the crack of dawn to make a last-minute vinaigrette for one of my pasta salads, and after pulling platters to display the lunch on, and after hauling all this equipment plus a cooler full of food to the National Arboretum ( to say nothing of getting my wife out of bed so she could drive me there so she could have the car for the day)--imagine my dismay when I finally arrived at the Washington Youth Garden at 8:30 in the AM to find that I had forgotten to pack the ckickweed pesto.

I just stared into that cooler. And stared. And stared...

It was one of those Can-We-Just-Have-One-Do-Over moments...

Jenny, the garden manager, soon to be moving to Brooklyn to manage a garden there, was particularly distraught. She had been so looking forward to that pesto. I thought she was going to make me run home--literally, on foot-- and fetch it. Then one of our organizers volunteered to drive the several miles back to my house in the District of Columbia to collect the AWOL container of pesto.

Yet, when I called home to alert my wife to all this, she saved the day by agreeing to deliver the pesto after dropping our daughter off at ballet, which happens to be not so far from the arboretum.


As I mentioned in an earlier post, this was Day 2 of the annual Schoolyard Greening teacher's clinic wherein we subject the teachers to approximately four hours of hands-on instruction in seed planting and transplanting, cultivating and educating with herbs, composting and vermiculture and--for my part--maintaining the garden (e.g. preventing or getting rid of weeds in an organic fashion).

This being my first year as an instructor, I was relying on the kindness of these teachers to tolerate my fumblings and just let me get through it.

I did think it was highly appropriate (brilliant, even) that our pesto featured chickweed, otherwise a noxious garden intruder. To illustrate the point, I found plenty of chickweed frolicking over the Youth Garden grounds while I was giving my little clinic in weed maintenance. There were a few gasps when I demonstrated that there are more than one way to deal with weeds, and plucked a few of the more succulent chickweed stems and ate them au naturel.

Otherwise, there were cheers all around for the food. The curry-roasted cauliflower and the collard-goat cheese frittata were completely devoured. Many came back for seconds on the "Caesar" salad with fresh garden lettuce and homemade croutons. I simply made too much of the pasta salad duo: penne with grilled chicken, artichoke and chickweed pesto, whole wheat rotini with spring vegetables and lemon vinaigrette.

In fact, there were several requests for the chickweed pesto recipe. We'll just have to do this again next year. Maybe we can even work a few more weeds into the menu.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Triumph of the Chickweed

Chickweed, or stellaria media, normally is the bane of the vegetable garden. It grows in great creeping matts, insinuating itself into the beds, twining itself around the plants we are trying to grow for food.

This time of year, chickweed is just beginning to bloom and form seeds here in the District of Columbia. So by all means, get rid of it wherever you find it, right?

Well, not so fast. Yes, we are pulling it up everywhere we see it, or cutting it down with the mower. We definitely do not want it going to seed. But did you know that chickweed is edible?

Chickweed is high in vitamin C, also in magnesium, potassium and calcium. It's sold in tablet form as an herbal supplement. But that is hardly my point. What I'm trying to get at is, although I would not go around harvesting chickweed to serve for dinner, I am using great gobs of it for the lunch I am preparing for approximately 30 people attending Day 2 of our D.C. Schoolyard Greening teacher's clinic, taking place today at the Washington Youth Garden.

That's right, I am serving a weed for lunch.

I recently acquired a copy of The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved, by Sandor Ellix Katz. He's the fellow that wrote the book about wild fermentation that I am so often quoting when making sauerkraut. The more recent volume is about various food movements, such as the raw milk movement, community supported agriculture, seed saving, to name a few.

Around page 34, Katz pauses to compose an ode to chickweed, which he apparently devours by the fistful when he's out in the garden. Sounds a bit primitive, I agree. But he also gives a perfectly reasonable recipe for turning said weed into a pesto.

So I thought, why not?

I gathered up a bag full of chickweed from the garden, making my vegetable beds very happy. I washed it a couple of times, picking out stray bits of this and that. I then committed a horrible sin: I ran several cups full of chickweed through the food processor.

Sorry, but I was in a hurry. I violated all my personal rules about making sauces and pestos in an actual mortar and pesto. So sue me.

I removed the chickweed and dropped about five cloves of garlic into the processor. Then perhaps 1 1/2 cups of walnuts. Then back in went the chickweed and maybe 1/2 cup of extra-virgin olive oil drizzled in while the machine was running. Then I added, oh, about 1 cup of grated Parmesan cheese and whipped that in. And maybe 1/2 teaspoon of salt.

So it has all the look and feel of a real pesto, this chickweed concoction. My wife wasn't so very enthusiastic about it. But for me it truely is a revelation.

But wait--we're not done. I had a container of Latin crema, or sour cream, in the fridge, so I added that, maybe 1/2 cup. Now the pesto rose to glorious heights. I will be mixing it with a pasta salad of penne, grilled chicken, red onion, artichoke hearts and capers.

Sounds pretty delicious and springlike, no?

The rest of the menu cosists of:

A whole wheat fussili pasta salad primavera with asparagus, carrots, peas and baby lettuces out of our garden.

A "Caesar" salad of lettuces that overwintered in the garden, with homemade croutons.

Frittata with collards and kale harvested from the garden, along with goat cheese and garlic chives.

We had originally hoped to make this meal around locally grown produce. Then we decided it was too early in the year to find local produce. But lookey here: Half of this meal is made with ingredients out of my own garden.

Who knew?

Friday, April 27, 2007

Check out Edible Nation

Remember, oh, it seems like another lifetime ago--our matanza adventure slaughtering pigs and making sausages with our farmer friends Brett Grohsgal and Christine Bergmak.

Subsequently, my story about the matanza appeared in Edible Chesapeake magazine. Today, it is the lead story in Edible Nation, the national blog for all of the various "Edible" magazines around the country.

You can find it here.

The Daily Grind

I went off to make sausages with the kids in my "food appreciation" classes yesterday and forgot not only a vital part to my new sausage press but also my camera.

You will just have to make due with this pathetic picture of the electric meat grinder that my wife inherited from her grandmother. It's called--ready for this?--the Rival "Grind-O-Matic." And not just a meat grinder, but a "Combination Grinder/Salad Maker."

Yes, it sounds like a send-up for a ridiculous pitch on Saturday Night Live. But I swear it's true. I just wonder who the genius designer was who thought people needed a machine that made sausages and coleslaw. It even comes with an owner's manual equipped with recipes for "Colorful Vegetable Salad Mold" and "Pineapple-Confetti Salad."

There's also a "One-Dish Meals" section with preparations for something called "Salamagundi" and "Tamale Pie."

And just in case you actually want to make sausages, there's a very brief recipe for pork sausage.

There's no date on the paperwork. I've found similar models on e-Bay describing it as "vintage." So I have to assume this machine harks back to the days of avocado-colored kitchens and those Formica countertops that had the wierd, multi-colored, boomerang protozoa swimming around on them.

But apparently Rival is still in business, making crock pots, mixers, fondue sets and whatnot.

Most importantly, this little multi-tasker still works, as demonstrated by the kids in my classes. As it turns out, we really didn't have time to stuff the sausages. It was all we could do to grind 2 1/2 pounds of pork shoulder and 3/4 pounds of fat, then mix in the spices for Kielbasa sausage and run the mix through the grinder a second time.

We did that twice, in two different classes.

Kids don't care how fancy your equipment is. They had never seen sausage made before. Up to this point, their sausage universe was described by Oscar Mayer hot dogs and Jimmy Dean breakfast patties. So they were thrilled to be able to squish the meat between their fingers and push it down into the grinder.

It's a great way to introduce the younger generation to old fashioned, hand-made food. Next week, I'll make sure the sausage stuffer is in working condition and I will bring my camera. The Spring parents dinner, where we will be serving our Kielbasa, is scheduled for next Friday. So we need to have game faces on.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

How Much Do We Like Parsnips?

I was doing a little maintenance in the garden yesterday and came upon this vigorous bush of green shading my new strawberry plants. I had a suspicion it belonged to a parsnip I planted last fall.

I bent down and pulled on the green leafy part.

I pulled...

And I pulled....

And I PULLED....

Finally I had to get my forked spade to loosen the soil. And this is what came out.

Just proves you can grow some mighty big parsnips right here in the District of Columbia.

Actually, there were two parsnips. The other was just a wee bit smaller, but the tap root was nearly two feet long. I brought them into the kitchen and cleaned them. "Won't they be tough and woody?" my wife asked. I cut off the tip of the bigger parsnip and tasted. It seemed alright to me.

So I cut both roots into pieces and tossed them with some extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper and scattered them on a baking sheet. I set the oven at 250 degrees so as not to scorch the parsnips. I went back out to garden and forgot all about them. About an hour later, my wife pulled them out of the oven. They were a bit overcooked and just a wee bit chewy by that point, but otherwise edible.

I have to admit, the cultivation of parsnips is still a mystery to me. I just haven't focused on them, preferring to scatter a few seeds and see what happens. Well, now I know what happens, so I can plant more and watch them a little more closely and have a better idea when to pull them out of the ground.

Mostly we roast parsnips. Our favorite treatment is to roast them in a heavy casserole with carrots, rutabaga and a little thyme. A very simple yet satisfying side dish for a roast. We like parsnips a lot.

Secret Revealed

For years our friend Larry has been serving us these sweet onion tea sandwiches that we always assumed could not possibly be as simple as they turn out to be.

Yesterday I was tasked with making "snacks" for about 20 people so I decided to put these sneaky little delectables on the menu.

I felt truly devious, because I knew exactly what the guests were in for. Originally we were planning on 18 persons for the event. Nearly 30 showed up. Predictably, the sandwiches were devoured in short order. And now I am going to reveal to the rest of the world what Larry has been keeping such a well-guarded (maybe not) secret.

Start with a loaf of thinly sliced brioche. You could also use a hallah bread for this. The point is to make the sandwiches out of a rich, eggy bread, however you chose to do so. But I suppose even a garden variety white bread would do in a pinch.

I got my brioche at Whole Foods by ordering it the day before. There was a brief moment of panic. I went in to retrieve the brioche at the appointed hour yesterday and an unwitting clerk had placed it on the shelf for sale to the general public. I began to imagine the disaster that would ensue without our brioche. Fortunately it was still on the shelf.

We were saved.

Now take one Vidalia onion, peel it and slice it thinly as well.

Make as many sandwiches as the number of brioche slices with allow, laying a thin smear of mayonnaise on two pieces of bread, placing some onion slices on one piece, then covering with the second slice of bread. Using a 2-inch round cookie cutter, cut as many rounds from your assembled sandwiches as you can, avoiding the crust as much as possible.

To finish the sandwiches, finely chop a fistful of flat-leaf parsley. Spread some mayonnaise around the outside edges of the sandwich rounds and roll them in the parsley.

When the onion sandwiches are complete, stack them proudly on a pedestal platter and serve for hors d'oeuvres. They would be delicious with a voluptuous Vouvray wine.

But whatever you do, don't give away the secret.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Spring Bites for a Small Crowd

My assignment for today is to prepare "snacks" for at least 18 people.

The event is Day One of a two-day clinic for teachers who either preside over a school garden or would like to start one. Since building a large container garden at my daughter's charter school last year I've been roped into a leadership spot in an organization called D.C. Schoolyard Greening. There I mingle with several environmental activist types who mull ways to increase the number of gardens in D.C. schools.

And since I cook, I was nominated to put food on the table for the Powerpoint fest and tour of the U.S. Botanical Gardens scheduled for this evening.

I am impressed with the "Penny-wise Eat Local" challenge currently underway. And if I had any ready sources of local spring vegetables close at hand I would leap at the chance to put them into play. Absent the local stuff, I'm thinking seasonal. And since this is a gardening crowd, I will be leaning hard on the vegetable side.

Are you thinking of your own menu? The one that's coming into view for me starts with some poached asparagus and possibly blanched baby carrots. I would serve these with a green aioli spiked with garlic, mint, tarragon and dill. (I also make this with anise hyssop, but later in the season).

Secondly, I like the idea of artichokes, probably marinated artichoke hearts beaten into a spread with sauteed leeks, garlic chives from the garden and feta cheese. I would serve these with some kind of artisenal cracker.

Finally, I'm going to make our friend Larry's famous sweet onion sandwich rounds on brioche. I do believe Larry stole the recipe from James Beard. They are terribly decadent, these little tea sandwiches, with a dollop of mayonnaise inside, then rolled in finely chopped parsley. They are addictive and disappear like popcorn.

I inquired about brioche at Whole Foods yesterday and thought the clerk in the bakery section was going to take me home with him. He was so happy to talk about his brioche and how much he'd enjoy making a loaf for me. So I placed an order for one loaf (who knew you could order bread at Whole Foods!) and am scheduled to pick it up today at 10 am.

My wife, the baker, has offered to make heart-shaped brownies for this event, which will no doubt be the most popular item of all. Now we have to decide how we will be transporting this food to the Botanical Gardens, which of our glass and ceramic platters we might use to display our "snacks" and how to ensure everything makes it back home in good working order.

Catering still make me nervous. I don't care how many times you have done this, whether dinner for two or hors d'oeuvres for 1,000, feeding strangers is always like jumping into the abyss. There are so many things that can go wrong. They usually don't. Usually, you find a way to make everything turn out fine in the end. Still, there's always this anticipatory panic leading up to the event. I think most caterers, like busy restaurant chefs, relish the adrenalin rush. I don't. I am only a reluctant caterer. I would much rather have friends come to my house to eat so I can relax.

I will let you know how this turns out and tomorrow we can take a closer look at these onion sandwiches. If they turn out anything like the ones Larry makes, you will want to make these soon.

Monday, April 23, 2007

There You Go Again...

Well, I've done it again. For the second time in a about a week, I raised the hackles of a fellow food blogger over what kind of fish we should or should not be serving.

I feel a bit like a skunk at the party, telling another blogger that the fish he's chosen for a featured recipe has issues. These little incursions spark all kinds of defensive behavior, flurries of testy e-mails, hasty disclaimers.

Perhaps I should explain where I'm coming from.

I recently "took the pledge" with the Monterey Bay Aquarium's "Seafood Watch" program. This makes me a kind of vigilante where fish and shellfish are concerned, meaning I am on the lookout for endangered or environmentally unsound seafood being sold at stores or served in restaurants.

By swearing on the life of my first-born to uphold the "Seafood Watch" credo, I received a package in the mail from the aquarium. Inside are postcards and business cards that I am to leave at establishments here in the District of Columbia either praising or reprimanding proprietors for the seafood they are selling.

For instance, the "Become Aware" cards state: Dear Management, I noticed that some of the seafood you sell comes from sources that are harmful to our oceans. As a customer, it is important to me that you offer environmentally responsible seafood. This decision is good for oceans and for business as it meets the growing demand for ocean friendly seafood.

The "Thank You" card reads: Dear Management, Thank you for offering environmentally responsible seafood. When purchasing seafood, I also try to make ocean friendly choices. I look forward to recommending your business to my friends.

Also in the kit is a stack of identification cards with pictures and explanatory text describing the various fish species on the aquarium's "avoid" list. To wit:

Atlantic cod, Bluefin tuna, Chilean seabass, farmed salmon, flounders and soles, groupers, king crab, orange roughy, red snapper, rockfish, sea scallops, shark, foreign shrimp and swordfish.

One quickly discovers that the seafood watchdog business is a minefield. There are so many different varieties of fish, and so many different reasons why we as consumers either should or should not be buying them. There are many different ways to fish destructively. There are very few fisheries that are operated on a sustainable basis. There is also so much corruption and skulduggery in the seafood business it's often hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys.

There are also fish that may be thriving, but are not healthy choices because they contain mercury or other toxins.

Long story short, I don't claim to be an expert at this. But I do believe that we as food bloggers have a responsibility in this rapidly shrinking world of ours to inform readers as best we can about good and bad seafood choices. At a minimum, we should not be touting fish species that have been targeted by health and environmental groups.

We should be linking readers as often as possible to groups such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium "Seafood Watch" and the Environmental Defense Network's Ocean's Alive. Both organizations provide search features and lists of dozens of sea creatures with reasons to use or not.

For health issues, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration makes specific recommendations about seafood species that cause concern. The FDA recommends, for instance, that women and children not consume several fish varieties because of elevated levels of mercury, including swordfish, shark, king mackerel and tilefish. Men are advised to limit their consumption to once a month.

The blogger whose use of swordfish I took some issue with gave a host of reasons for not writing about these matters. There is not enough of a consensus on the hazards, he said. He did not want to "insult my readers' intelligence." He did not feel qualified. He did not have enough time.

We sympathize. We feel your pain. Still, I say this kind of thinking is no longer adequate for the times we live in. I say we can do more to inform ourselves and our readers.

We can, can't we?

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Salmon with Spring Vegetables

Here's an excuse to use just about every Spring vegetable you can think of. Leeks, fennel, asparagus, artichoke, carrots--quite a crew.

The vegetables constitute a kind of hash upon which the salmon can be proudly displayed and served.

As for the salmon, I chose a wild-caught coho salmon from the certified-sustainable Alaskan fishery.

The coho salmon is not quite as thick and meaty as the Atlantic salmon. But these day I'm following the advice of the Seafood Watch program at the Monterey Bay Aquarium which has Atlantic salmon on its "avoid" list. Most Atlantic salmon are now farm raised. There are concerns about PCBs and other toxins in farm-raised salmon. Environmentalists worry that salmon farms pollute the surrounding oceans. And raising salmon actually consumes more fish than it produces.

(As if that weren't enough, farm-raised salmon typically have color added to make them pink.)

To make this dish for four persons, cut into medium dice or 1/2-inch pieces the following:

2 medium carrots
1 small turnip
1/2 cup peas or edamame
4 asparagus spears
4 cooked artichoke bottoms (I used canned)

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook, separately, the carrots, turnip, peas (or edamame) and asparagus. As the vegetables reach doneness (just cooked through, no more), scoop them out of the water with a spider-type ladle or slotted spoon and immerse in a bowl of cold water. Then strain the vegetables and pat dry with paper towels.

Meanwhile, slice a small leek thinly and dice one small fennel bulb. Coat the bottom of a heavy skillet with extra-virgin olive oil over moderately low heat. Add the fennel and leek, season with salt to draw out the moisture and cook slowly with the skillet covered. (A lid on the skillet will speed the cooking. You don't want to brown the vegetables). When the vegetables are tender, set aside to cool. Now toss the cooked fennel and leek with the other cooked vegetables, the artichoke bottoms and some chopped fennel fronds. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

For the salmon, use four 6-ounce filets, skin removed. Rub the filets with extra-virgin olive oil and season with salt and pepper, perhaps some ground fennel seed or your favorite spice mix. Heat a heavy skillet over a moderately high heat and coat the bottom with extra-virgin olive oil. Brown the salmon filets on both sides, in batches if necessary. Reduce the heat to low and cover the skillet until the salmon are cooked through (probably no more than seven or eight minutes total cooking time).

Serve the salmon warm atop the vegetables. Garnish with lemon slices and fennel fronds.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Nerve to Cook

It was time to make meals for one of my personal chef clients and this week I would do something I had never attempted before. I just didn't have time to sit down at the computer and design menus for two dinners.

What the heck? I thought. I've been doing this long enough. I'll just walk into the grocery and see what looks good.

Really? A tiny voice said. You think you're up to this? You think you have the nerve?

Shut up! I replied. This is no time to go weak in the knees. We've got a client to feed here.

So I walked into the produce department at Whole Foods with a sense of mission and a lazer-like focus. I began scanning the bins for fruits and vegetables. I placed one condition on myself: whatever I purchased must be seasonal. No tomatoes this time of year, no peppers, no eggplants or corn on the cob.

That would be just one of the complications. Something you need to know about this client is his diet. He's determined to lose weight. Everything I cook for him is geared toward reducing calories and cholesterol. But he won't eat beets or cucumbers or melons of any kind. He doesn't like spicy, and not too much seafood--no scallops. And his partner prefers salad over leafy greens. Oh, and ixnay on the chicken thighs, only breasts.

I dropped some bright red radishes in my cart along with red-tipped lettuce and purple endive, thinking of a salad. Then leeks, broccoli and fennel. Mushrooms would be easy, I thought. The creminis were MIA, so I chose shitakes. It had been ages since I'd cooked sunchokes, so I grabbed some of those as well.

On to the seafood counter. I had made a seared halibut the week before. I needed something different, but not too complicated. The jumbo shrimp looked good, so I took a pound of those. Strolling the Asian aisle, the soba noodles caught my eye, and suddenly I saw them mingling with the shrimp. So it was back to produce for some snow peas, carrots and fresh ginger to round out the dish that was beginning to take shape in my head.

On the way to the meat counter I snagged a can of artichoke bottoms thinking I would finally make that artichoke, fava bean and pea stew I'd been mulling since last year. I had been ogling the veal chops the week before, so I picked up a pair, very thick and pink and fresh looking.

I arrived home with three bags of groceries and the outlines of a plan. Another condition of my personal catering is the limited time I have to work with. Not only do the meals need to be fresh, seasonal, varied, portable and re-heatable, I can't spend too much time over them. I charge by the hour.

Perhaps you've already formed a vision for these two meals. What I came up with was this.

Dinner #1:
Jumbo shrimp with soba noodles, steamed vegetables and a soy-sesame-ginger dressing
Salad of julienned radishes and carrots
Lemon-scented broccoli

Dinner #2:
Grilled veal chops with rosemary-garlic rub and sauteed shitakes
Leeks braised with white wine
Sauteed fennel and carrots with grated Parmesan

I cooked the sunchokes and tossed them with garlic chives from the garden, intending to send them as the third item in the shrimp dinner. But I just couldn't reconcile the artichoke flavor with the Japanese theme. So the chokes ended up as a third side-dish with the veal chops.

I ended up with an unused can of artichoke bottoms that I'll turn into that spring stew next week. Meanwhile, the lettuce, endive and some of the radishes wound up as a salad in one of the lunches I prepared for this client the following day.

So I guess I passed my personal Iron Chef test. And isn't this the way we're supposed to cook, scouring the market for the best possible ingredients? If I were really organized, I would start doing my shopping at the local farmer's market. Too bad it falls the day after I usually make this client's meals.

Still, old habits die hard. I've gotten very comfortable designing menus on the computer, then buying ingredients to fit. It seems our whole culture is geared toward making lists, then going food shopping as if our food were on the same level as toothpaste and toilet paper. Like everyone else, I've been trained and conditioned to think in those terms.
I don't know if I have the nerve to improvise on a weekly basis.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Lean Times

We are seeing signs of spring everywhere. Nature is taking its course. But this is still a transitional time of year for food. The larder is confused: it's telling us we're in winter.

You would hardly know it from the huge displays of fresh produce at the grocery where every possible variety is on display. But if you are eating locally, the pickings may be limited to what overwintered in the garden and what you can scrounge from your pantry.

Here in the District of Columbia, the lettuces are only and inch or two out of the ground. The mustard greens and radishes are coming along, and we are seeing the beginnings of carrots and chard.

Meanwhile, our farmer friend Brett was hit hard by this year's fluky weather. Brett's strawberries bloomed first in January when it was so mild, then again in March. Then all the blooms were killed off by April freezes. Ditto for his early plantings of sweet corn and green beans. Then migrating starlings swooped down and gobbled up his English peas and sugar snap peas.

Elsewhere in this part of the world, many farmers saw their peaches, their blueberries and other fruit crops devastated.

In other words, in the real world of the outdoors where most of our food grows, it's still a struggle.

So I'm not going to pretend it's spring. Instead, we're going to meditate on the change of seasons with a simple soup. Time to dig into the pantry again. I have a big chunk of rustic bread sitting on top of my refrigerator. So I think I'll turn that into a bread and garlic soup. This is a simple yet satisfying meal, a reminder that food doesn't have to be complicated--or bright green--to be good.

Garlic and Bread Soup

Serves Six Persons

This is a primitive and aromatic soup. Nothing could be simpler, the ingredients consisting of a basic stock, sliced garlic cloves and bread. The bread seems to melt like cheese into the broth and despite its rudimentary qualities, the soup has great depth of flavor and makes a meal all by itself. If you like, crack some eggs into the hot broth to poach just before serving.

Note: This soup should be eaten immediately after it has been made. It does not keep well, as the starch in the bread tends to make a pudding-like consistency over time.

½ cup extra virgin olive oil

6 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

generous pinch crushed red pepper flakes

1 teaspoon mild paprika

½ loaf country bread (about 8 ounces) cut into ½-inch slices and torn into bite-size pieces

7 cups chicken stock (preferably homemade brown chicken stock)

1 teaspoon salt or to taste

chopped parsely and grated cheese for garnish (a hard Spanish cheese would be good with this. Otherwise, use a Parmesan or Pecorino.)

In a heavy pot or Dutch over, heat the olive oil and saute the garlic until it softens and just begins to brown. Stir in the pepper flakes and paprika. Then add the bread, stirring to coat with the other ingredients and soak up the olive oil. Pour in the stock and raise the heat. Season with salt and serve hot, garnished with parsley and grated cheese.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Machine

The moment has arrived.

Armed with my new sausage press, I am on my way to school to make Kielbasa--aka Polish sausage--with the kids in my elementary school "food appreciation" classes. The plan is to make about 100 links for the parents dinner that is just a few weeks away.

I bought this beauty from The Sausage Maker in Buffalo, New York. It's all stainless and built in the shape of an elbow macaroni. There's a long handle attached to a plunger, which pushes the meat out through this long tube. The hog casings fit over the tube. It's just a matter of getting a second pair of hands to guide the filled casings to a soft landing, then pinching and twisting the finished product into links.

We have an old, electric grinder--a Rival "Grind-O-Matic"--left to us by my wife's grandmother. It also has stuffing capabilities, but I thought it better to go with something manual that will give us more control. I like the idea of being able to feel the stuffing process through my hand and arm, and it will be easier and more instructive for the kids as well.

Onward, Kielbasa!

I will definitely keep you posted on this.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

What's in Your Stomach?

On the more profound side, a post at the Off the Bone blog puts food in proper perspective as the author shares thoughts and impressions at the conclusion of a three-day fast.

It's a good reminder of what we don't share with so much of the rest of the world--hunger.

We have entirely too much food and spend entirely too much time diddling with it.

Read the post here.

Cars vs. Food: The Corn Wars Chapter II

It's official: the demand for ethanol to power automobiles is jacking up the cost of our food.

The Wall Street Journal this week details how a doubling in the price of corn largely attributable to a diversion of the grain into a growing ethanol stream is boosting the prices of meat, poultry and cereals in the grocery aisles.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that food prices will climb up to 3.5 percent this year. But other analysts think the spike could be more like 4.5 percent. And, unlike storms, droughts and other kinds of crop-damaging events, the pressure from ethanol on the corn supply is not a temporary event. Some economists think the government's push for ethanol production to reduce our dependence on a precarious supply line of foreign oil could stress food prices for the next 10 years at least.

The price of corn is now $4 a bushel, the highest it's been in a decade. Some food manufacturers may just be taking advantage of the higher cost of corn to boost prices and increase profits. But there is already evidence that meat packers are paying more for beef and that ranchers are sending their steers to market earlier than usual to avoid higher feed costs.

The CEO of Tyson Foods, the largest U.S. chicken producer, told his shareholders in February: "We have no choice but to pass along the higher costs to our customers who then pass along their higher costs to consumers."

The USDA estimates that U.S. farmers, lured by the gold in corn, this year will plant 91 million acres of corn, the most since 1944. But that means they will be planting less wheat and soybeans, which will drive up food costs elsewhere.

Corn is practically ubiquitous in our country's food chain, appearing in everything from cattle and chicken feed to corn flakes and the high fructose corn syrup in soft drinks. The move to ethanol has also led to a tortilla crisis in Mexico, as discussed in an earlier post.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration in the six years it's been in office has been loathe to do anything to increase fuel efficiency standards. Somehow, America just has to maintain its happy motoring uptopia, even if it means paying more for food.

Is there something wrong with this picture?

To read the full text of the Wall Street Journal report go here.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

A Sad Day

No food blogging today in memory of the victims at Virginia Tech.

Support gun control.

Especially in Virginia.

Contact the Brady Campaign

Monday, April 16, 2007

Ramps are Here!

It's almost an annual tradition now. Our friends around the corner, Helen and Jeff, hail from West Virginia. Each spring they make a weekend trip back to their state of origin and casually announce that they will probably be hunting for ramps.

For the unitiated, ramps (Allium tricoccum) are a kind of leek that grows wild in damp, woodsy environments. It has a similar flavor to leeks, perhaps a bit more garlicky, only the green leafy parts are edible as well as the white stems.

Being one of the first edible plants to emerge in spring, ramps in the Appalachians have long been viewed as a tonic from a long winter without fresh vegetables. Many mountain communities hold ramp festivals in the Spring, celebrating their wild leeks with bluegrass music, clogging and line dancing.

Professional chefs have caught on. Now demand for ramps is so great that officials at Smoky Mountain National Park banned the harvesting of ramps in 2002. Overharvesting can set the plant back years. With native ramp supplies dwindling, horticulturists are now working on methods of cultivating ramps in man-made environments.

Typically Jeff will drop a bag of ramps at our door with an admonition that they haven't been cleaned or trimmed or anything. That's alright with us. You can't buy these at any store in the District of Columbia that I know of. (Or maybe you can and I just haven't heard of it. Readers, please correct me if I'm wrong.)

I don't need to say too much more about ramps because there's already been a fine posting over at the Bacon Press blog, with directions for sauteeing the ramps with a heap of bacon. I make them a little differently. I blanch them in salted boiling water first, then throw them into a skillet with sizzling extra-virgin olive oil.

The ramp delivery worked perfectly this year because we had already arranged a casual lunch with our friend Eric and at the last minute my sister Linda decided to join us. So we had a salad of greens with poached asparagus, sectioned oranges and an orange-mustard vinaigrette, garnished with tat soi blossoms, along with a frittata of ramps, baby potatoes, herbed goat cheese and garlic chives from the garden.

Very Spring-like and a fine way to enjoy ramps.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

A Humble Lunch

I've been dreading the top shelf of my refrigerator. It's been haunting me like a creature out of an Edgar Allen Poe story.

Bags and bags of greens: the budding tops of tat soi, arugula blossoms, kale, collards, napini, cress--basically, all the stuff from our weekly farm subscription that's been piling up in there.

I didn't want to face it. I averted my eyes. I shirked the job I knew would have to be mine sooner or later. But today I decided to bite the bullet, pull all those Ziploc bags out of there and see if anything was still salvageable.

Well, it was. Pretty much. I hate to waste food. So I put a pot of water to boil on the stove and looked back in the fridge to congratulate myself on finally confronting my fears. With the extra bit of daylight, certain objects in the refrigerator now poked into view. A container of mashed turnips and potatoes, some seared Brussels sprouts. Another container of well-congealed cooking juices from braised lamb shanks.

It dawned on me that I was looking at the leftovers from Easter dinner that my wife had packed away and that had gone untouched in the intervening week. It was noon. I was hungry. Here, I thought with a bit of gladness, was my lunch.

I scooped the mashed turnips and potatoes into a bowl, made a depression in the middle, and plopped some of the jellied braising juices into the crater. The bowl went into the microwave. Three minutes later, voila! A piping bowl of taters with the world's richest gravy.

This humble meal needed just one more touch. So I grated some Parmesan cheese over the whole thing. I dipped the spoon, brought it to my lips, and suddenly I was reliving the whole Easter dinner experience. Visions of a melt-in-your mouth lamb shank danced in my head. All I needed was a glass of that fabulous Margaux wine...

I don't know what happened to the tradition of leftovers. Everyone is so busy trying to make up something new, something exotic (an asparagus chowder, perhaps?), when some of the best food is sitting right under our noses--or behind a bag of arugula.

My father used to designate Saturdays as leftover days. He'd haul everything out of the fridge, spread it out on the kitchen counter, then make great, groaning platefuls of food that brought back to mind every meal we'd had that week. The spaghetti, the fried pork chop, the mashed potatoes, the green beans...

Does mealtime always have to be an adventure? Do we really have to engage in an act of creation every time we put food in our mouths?

Sometimes I think simplicity is a surer path to sustenance. Maybe we should stop trying so hard to make things different and just eat leftovers.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Chowder Dustup: Raging Bull

Those of you who read yesterday's post may have noticed that I did not name the author of the chowder article on the National Public Radio website that prompted me to rise so vigorously in defense of traditional New England chowder.

Well, the author has unmasked himself. He is Kevin Weeks, a chef in Knoxville, Tennessee, who also writes a weekly column for the Spot-On website as well as maintaining his own highly literate food blog, Seriously Good. As if that didn't keep him busy enough, he is also one of the triumvirate writing a very thoughtful and worthy blog detailing the craft of bread making, A Year in Bread.

Clearly, a food writer to be reckoned with.

Kevin must be commended for his gracious response to my review of his NPR take on chowder, in which he asserted that just about anything with chunky bits of food in it qualifies as a chowder. He even said that he has "had many of the same thoughts" as those I propounded here yesterday--saying to Kevin, in essence, that his premise just don't hold water.

I did get a bit of a spanking from some of Kevin's fans, one of whom suggested I am at times "brusque." Well, read the mission statement, folks. I didn't sign up for a popularity contest. I've already spent a career in the traditional media, having my thoughts trimmed and colorized by editors and corporate owners. I've staked out a small territory here in the non-profit blogosphere, and I plan to defend it. Fellow bloggers may wander into my sights. I intend to show neither fear nor favor. I do pledge never to write with malice, and will try to maintain a sense of humor.

In his post last night--titled Ed, You Ignorant Slut--Kevin conceded a little in the debate over what constitutes a true chowder. But he also mounted a robust defense of his own. He referenced definitions of chowder from several well-respected sources: Food Lover's Companion, The Food Encyclopedia, and The Joy of Cooking.

I think it only fair that I should come clean with the sources for my own adherence to a more Luddite view of chowder. Besides the more or less annual summer vacations and personal chowder making in Maine over the last dozen years, these would include Good Maine Food, by Marjorie Mosser; Mainstays of Maine, by Robert P. Tristam Coffin; Downeast Chowder in Serious Pig, by John Thorne; and 50 Chowders, by Jasper White.

Perhaps at a later point readers will allow me to describe my own favorite method for making a chowder. For now, I will leave the subject with thanks to Kevin Weeks for being such a good sport. I don't think there's anything wrong with fellow bloggers duking it out occasionally over subjects they feel passionately about. I also give you this portrait of a chowder by Robert P. Tristam Coffin in Mainstays of Main:

"Cod's-head chowder: The first ingredient is the outdoors. And a blazing blue, hot Maine Summer's day. And the place should be an island. And you should catch the cod yourself and cook them, with the sea still kicking in them, before they are done flapping, in an old-fashioned iron kettle. But failing the outdoors, an island off the Maine coast, and fish you have just caught yourself, you can do a lot by bringing an iron kettle, a hot fire, and some very fresh young codfish together. You begin with salt pork, as usual. You fry it out in the kettle till it is dark brown, then throw in onions and fry them till they squirm brown. Then douse in water and bring it to a boil. Throw in sliced or diced potatoes and get them boiling. In with your fish then, heads and all, with only the eyes extracted. Cook till the fish begin to flake apart. Now put the kettle on the back of the stove, and add milk--as much as you think is right--which has already been scalded, to prevent its curdling. Pour it in slow, flavor to spread. Then put in Boston crackers--the round, tough crackers made without shortening--to float and soak up the flavor, and salt and pepper to taste. And there you are. If you don't think the world is a fine place to be in, in spite of wars and taxes, after that, then you are a person who has a soul that could be put in a peanut shell, and you are beyond redemption. If you could wait two days to eat the chowder, you would be even happier."

In my world, Mr. Coffin says it all. A true chowder is infused with meaning, with associations of time and place that are immutable and form our collective food memory. The other stuff--the asparagus, the squash, the mushrooms, the tomatoes--are merely evidence of a food apparatus that marches to no particular drummer, the transitory figments of a chef's longing to create something memorable out of thin air.

And Kevin, the bowl of potato soup you couldn't resist posting on your blog last night looks very tasty. It might even qualify as a chowder.

(To read Kevin's full reply, go here.)

Friday, April 13, 2007

Chowder: The Great Identity Theft

We here at The Slow Cook have pledged to stamp out creeping food fad-ism wherever it raises its ugly head. So today we are mounting a defense of traditional chowder, which has been so badly maligned in a "Kitchen Window" column dated April 11 on the National Public Radio website.

"Chowder? In the spring?" the author asks, as if anyone other than the editors at NPR were looking for a spring chowder.

He then goes on to assert:

"But there is no real reason chowders should be limited to a particular season."


"The word, actually, can be applied to any thick, rich soup containing chunks of food."

It can?

To which we must reply: DON'T YOU BELIEVE IT!

Any soup with chunks of food in it? Was anyone awake at NPR when this piece of foolery floated over the transom? Does the editor have a clue what chowder is?

The reader is then subjected to three new takes on "chowder," one of them based on asparagus, another on Cajun shrimp (I swear, I am not making this up), and a third on potatoes.

None of which, I would like to point out, bear any spiritual kinship whatsoever with actual chowder.

Chowder dates most likely to the 18th century and in its original form consisted of the most basic fisherman's provisions: salt pork, onions, hardtack (later to become Pilot Bread), fish and water. It was with these simple ingredients that men hard at work foraging food from the cold waters of the North Atlantic sustained themselves aboard their wooden vessels.

It wasn't until the 19th Century that a recipe for chowder actually appeared in an American cookbook, and not until mid-century that ingredients such as potatoes and milk began to gain acceptance. At this point, chowder entered the popular lexicon. Families took to "chowdering" on the weekends, which meant loading a boat with a big pot and utensils, sailing off to an island and cooking a batch of chowder on the beach, as depicted in the drawing above.

Later, Midwestern famers would appropriate the technique for making a chowder of corn.

Fast-forward 150 years and we have a complete perversion of the chowder tradition. It seems that if you simply twist the definition of a chowder a little--easy to do on a computer keyboard--anything that swims in a bowl can be called a chowder.

"Given such a simple definition, chowders can take advantage of whatever the season offers," the author of the NPR piece avers. (Or is this just a simple-minded editor talking?) Thus, we now have chowders with cheese, chowders with squash, chowders with mushrooms. Any backwater chef trying to goose his menu a little can call his tomato soup a "summer chowder."

Then there is this pretzel-shaped piece of logic: "In spring, beets make a delicious, colorful chowder usually called borscht."

Exactly! Soup made out of beets already has a name. It's called "borscht." Why in the world do we need to change it to chowder?

I believe this is a problem of too many food writers with too much time on their hands. A 24-hour news cycle facilitated by the internet now requires more copy than we can actually provide. Thus, we are now about re-categorizing and re-naming all of our foods to keep the writers and the editors busy.

This would not be such a problem except that mongrelizing a traditional food such as chowder simply sucks all the meaning out of the dish. We who care about how America eats often rue the fact that there is no "national" cuisine in the way of, say, the French or the Italians, that our food heritage always seems to be borrowed from somewhere else. We cling to those traditions that we do have: The Cajun tradition, the Southern tradition, the barbeque tradition and, yes, the New England chowder tradition.

The last thing we need are food writers misappropriating our regional traditions simply to satisfy some venal craving for new and different foods. If you are so bored with the foods we already have, if you are so badly in need of something new and different, I say make something up, but don't call it a chowder. Better yet, keep it to yourself.

Note to NPR: The Cajun already have a shrimp gumbo. They don't need a shrimp chowder.

And if you think I'm making this up, you can read the actual NPR article at

Oh, and this would be a perfect time for a nice bowl of asparagus soup.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Is it Asparagus Yet?

I admit, I am not always the best prepared when it comes to putting lesson plans together. Today I realized I had classes to teach, but pressures on the rest of my schedule had prevented me from doing the usual due diligence.

I looked around the produce section for inspiration and what did I see? Asparagus, of course. It's just barely in season in this part of the world. In fact, I paid a visit to the Washington Youth Garden at the National Arboretum this morning and was handed a fresh spear snapped right out of the ground. I bit into it and immediately tasted that grassy, pea-like flavor that is so much more subtle, greener, more garden-like, than the flavor of cooked asparagus. Also much fresher and crisper than store-bought asparagus that has typically been a week or more on the road before you buy it. (The produce man will continually snip off the browned ends to make the asparagus appear fresher.)

I don't mean to rant about asparagus, only to remind people that it is, after all, a vegetable that comes out of the ground. In fact, it is a wonderful vegetable if only in the sense that it is a perennial, meaning it comes back year after year-- often for 10 to 20 years, as asparagus is a long-lived plant. You simple bury a "crown" in light, well-drained soil with plenty of sun. Don't harvest at all the first year and only a little the second year. By the third year you can pick as much as you want.

Asparagus is the first spring vegetable ready for harvest. At peak season, it will be growing like mad. You may be picking it every day just to keep up. At the tip of the stem--or "spear"--is a bud that will blossom into a willowy display of lacelike foliage that seems to be in a state of absolute riot. Otherwise we eat as much as we can, usually poached or steamed, although some cooks have taken to broiling or grilling asparagus. I don't see much sense in cooking asparagus to death or burning it over hot coals. The flavor is so ephemeral, so singular and elusive, it should be allowed to speak for itself, without so much interference, I think.

Anyway, I spotted the asparagus display at the local Whole Foods and that became my lesson plan. The asparagus and some eggs to make a quick frittata, the Italian idea of an open-faced omelet.

This is such an easy dish, I'm almost ashamed to admit I constructed a whole class around it. But the kids were ecstatic. They were begging for more.

First, poach a bunch of asparagus in salted water until they are just tender. I know some chefs like to tie the asparagus in bundles and cook it in a stock pot. But I've been most successful cooking asparagus in shallow water, say a skillet of water brought to boil. The spears are not agitated so much this way and I can hover over them, picking them out of the water with a pair of tongs at the very moment they are cooked through.

Plunge the cooked spears into a bowl of cold water to stop the cooking. Drain and blot the asparagus dry on paper towels. Do the same thing with some baby potatoes cut into quarters.

Cut the asparagus into 1/2-inch pieces. Over moderately-high heat, heat a large non-stick skillet and coat the bottom with extra-virgin olive oil. Place the cooked potatoes in the bottom of the skillet. After they begin to sizzle, toss once or twice. Add the aspargus. Then pour in 12 beaten eggs seasoned with salt and pepper.

(You can use regular, store-bought eggs for this. But try pasture-raised eggs sometime from a local farmer or farmer's market. The yolks have a much deeper, saffron color to them that infuses the whole dish. Only chickens that forage on greens in the pasture, ingesting all that beta-carotene, lay eggs like this. We get them with our farm subscription.)

Use a heat-proof spatula to work around the edges of the egg as it begins to cook, lifting the edge here and there and tilting the skillet so the uncooked egg runs underneath. When nearly all of the egg is cooked through, crumble goat cheese and then chopped chives over the whole thing, then place under the broiler for a few minutes, or until the frittata has puffed up and is well-browned around the edges. (Another method is to flip the frittata in the pan like a pancake. But I don't recommend this for beginners unless you like to eat your eggs off the floor.) Keep an eye on it so it doesn't burn. It will make a mighty impressive sight.

Remove the frittata from the oven. Use the spatula to loosen the edges of the frittata and slide the whole thing--tipping the skillet until the pie begins to slide away--onto a large cutting board. Slice into 10 or 12 good wedges and serve either warm as is, with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil, or room temperature with a fresh, green salad.

I'm not making this up: The kids were begging for seconds. "It looks just like pizza!" they screamed when I brought the frittata to the table.

If you don't have asparagus, you can make a frittata like this with almost anything. This time of year, I also like to make a frittata with canned roasted red peppers and sauteed red onion and marinated artichokes dusted with pecorino cheese. It's delicious with a glass of nicely chilled Chablis. .

Monday, April 9, 2007

Is This Fish Really for You?

When I was in the catering business, the Patagonian toothfish, otherwise known as the Chilean sea bass, was a favorite entree for weddings and other large seated dinners. You could leave that fish in a heated proofing box endlessly, it seemed, and it would never go bad. The toasts could go on and on. The groom could have his cold feet. The bride's mother could faint away. All that, and the Chilean sea bass would still perform like a champ, arriving on the plate as fresh as a daisy. What professional cook wouldn't love a fish like that?

In 2001, Bon Appetit magazine named Chilean sea bass "dish of the year."

In fact, the Patagonian toothfish is neither from Chile nor a bass.

Chefs started clueing in to the concerns of environmentalists and conservationists that this fish--never popular, really, until about 20 years ago, when other fish stocks began to wane--was being exploited almost to extinction. Scientists from the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) in 2002 warned that current levels of trawling could lead to a total collapse of the toothfish population within 10 years.

Chefs took up the enviro banner. They organized. No more Chilean sea bass, they said. They called their mini-movement "Take a Pass on Chilean sea bass."

You didn't see much Chilean sea bass after that. So I was surprised a few months ago when I noticed the toothfish re-appear as regular fare at the seafood counter at my local Whole Foods. And only $22.99 a pound!

Now you are starting to see Chilean sea bass on menus again. But hold on a minute--what has changed so much in the last few years to make the toothfish a good choice again? Has there been a sudden rebound in the toothfish population?

The Patagonian toothfish and its cousin to the south, the Antarctic toothfish, are both slow-growing, low fertility species that can live several decades. Their preferred habitat is in the greater depths of the frigid southern oceans. They are a mildly tasty sea creature, with thick, snow-white flesh that is hard to overcook and loves a nice sauce or spice rub. And of course they have long, sharp teeth.

Seventeen countries vie for the toothfish haul. But now just one small fishery, in the waters of South Georgia, a remote island off Argentina in the South Atalantic, has been certified as "sustainable" and it is this fishery that is supplying Whole Foods. But there's a twist: The certifying body, the British non-profit Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), only issued its seal of approval two years ago over the objections of several environmental groups, and after mandating several conditions on the toothfish industry.

According to Charles Clover in his book about the world's embattled fisheries, End of the Line, at least half of the toothfish harvest is illegal, and the figure may actually be more like 80 percent. Poaching is so rampant the fish population is considered endangered. But the rewards are tremendous. A captain can pay for his entire boat with one good haul.

Clover quotes one Australian fishing executive as saying that "the odds are better than people smuggling or drug running." Rules against overfishing are particularly difficult to enforce in the open sea and in the virtual no-man's land around Antartica where the toothfish are most at home.

The group responsible for protecting the toothfish in Antarctic waters, the CCAMLR, is a scientific body, not a police operation. Greenpeace claims that most of the pirating of toothfish is carried out by ships registered to nations belonging to CCAMLR.

Methods used to fish for Chilean sea bass also result in the deaths of other endangered species, such as the albatross. For these reasons, and because of the mercury content in some toothfish, the Monterey Bay Aquariam Seafood Watch Program continues to place Chilean sea bass on its list of fish to avoid.

Whole Foods stopped selling Patagonian toothfish in 1999 because the species "was being overfished at an alarming rate," according to the grocer's web site. Chilean sea bass has been reintroduced because of the Marine Stewardship Council's certification of the South Georgia fishery, and its vetting of the Whole Foods product.

Still, environmentalists fear that labeling the fish "sustainable" at Whole Foods sends a mixed message because the South Georgia product represents only 10 percent of the Chilean sea bass catch.

"We think it confuses the consumer," Mark Stevens, of the National Environmental Trust, was quoted as saying when the certification was granted. "There is still a major problem with overfishing and illegal fishing of Chilean sea bass. And as long as there is demand in the U.S., that fishing will continue."

The National Environmental Trust, a stakeholder in the Marine Stewardship Council, argues that the difficulty of verifying chain of custody of fish caught far out at sea is just one of many reasons the South Georgia certification should not have been issued.

"This fishery should never have even been considered for certification," said Gerald Leape, the trust's vice president for marine conservation. "Chain of custody alone is a potential Achilles heel preventing the consumer from ever really knowing if the MSC labeled fish is truly legally caught."

Those concerns are not enough to disuade Whole Food."While poaching remains a serious threat to Chilean sea bass in other areas, this remote fishery has proven itself to be a responsible one dedicated to sustainable practices as documented by the MSC," according to the Whole Foods website.

What's a shopper to do?

While I applaud the governement of South Georgia for taking tough measures against illegal fishing of the toothfish in its own waters, I think that's a pretty slender reed on which to hang the fate of a noble sea creature in danger of being wiped out.

I will continue to take a pass on Chilean sea bass. I hope you do, too.

Brussels Sprouts Are So Exciting

Some of you are dying to know how I prepared the sweet-and-sour Brussels sprouts mentioned in my earlier posts. I will use that as a roundabout way of introducing my latest most favorite book whose title I don't need to repeat because it is so vividly displayed in the photograph at left.

I heard the author, Jack Staub, on the Diane Rehm show and he sounded so Victorian, like such a throwback, and so passionate about his vegetables in a 19th Century sort of way, that I had to look up his book. I didn't need any convincing. I ordered a copy and boy, was I not disappointed. Even if you don't bother to actually plant any vegetables, if you just like eating them and knowing about them, this is a book worth owning and keeping close to you at all times. Who knows? You might run across some of these at a farmer's market and you will be so proud of yourself for knowing something about them when others are just ogling them.

"I concede immediately that, while I have attempted to make this volume unique in content and tone, I have, in truth, had a singularly superb model for it," Staub writes in his introduction. "In fact, I have been sorely tempted to entitle this work Eminent Vegetables, so highly do I esteem Lytton Strachy's brilliant Eminent Victorians, that early twentieth-century paragon of biographical brevity and wit."

Who says that vegetables cannot be literary?

With its etched lettering, the hardcover binding has the look of a first-edition copy of Gulliver's Travels or The Wizard of Oz. The book is small, novel size. The illustrations, one for each vegetable, are simple, painted drawings, almost like a botanist's handbook. And the descriptions of each vegetable follow in that Victorian manner with brevity and dry wit.

I was most pleased to note that I have owned and planted many of these vegetables already: the Australian Yellow Leaf Lettuce, the Chiogga Beet, Lollo Rossa Lettuce, Mizuna, Red Burgundy Okra. But now I am anxious to acquire Cardoon Gigante, Chinese Rat Tail Radish, Early Purple Vienna Kohlrabi.

It is so hard not to be excited about vegetables after reading about them in such devoted portraiture.

Which brings me to the Brussels sprouts. Staub rhapsodizes about Brussels Sprout 'Rubine.' I have grown a more pedestrian variety. Now, or couple of weeks ago, would have been the time to plant seedlings in the garden for an early summer harvest. Otherwise, they are a cool weather vegetable.

My method of cooking them sweet-and-sour style is as follows: For a pound or so of sprouts, cut off the tough root part and slice the sprout in half lengthwise. Discard any loose or damaged leaves. Drop the halved sprouts into a large pot of boiling, salted water and cook until just tender. Test for doneness by piercing a sprout with a metal trussing skewer. It should slide through the sprout without a terrible amount of effort.

Plunge the cooked sprouts immediately into a large bowl of cold water in the kitchen sink to stop the cooking process. Now spread the sprouts out on some paper towels and pat them dry. Meanwhile, coat the bottom of an iron skillet liberally with extra-virgin olive oil and heat over a moderately high flame until the oil just begins to smoke.

Fill the bottom of the skillet with sprout halves, cut side down, and sear until the sprouts are well browned, adding olive oil if the cooking sound is too tacky or dry. Toss and cook another minute. Now douse the sprouts liberally with red wine vinegar. There will be a great noise, with much hissing and steam. When this subsides, season with salt and pepper. Then dust the sprouts with granulate sugar. Toss them again, swishing everything around. Empty the sprouts onto a platter and continue the process until all of the sprouts are done. Serve warm.

Hammer & Chisel Soup

So often you see a recipe calling for chicken stock and the admonition "preferably homemade." I wonder how many home cooks actually take the time to make their own chicken stock. I try to imagine all those industrious souls who not only make their own stock, but make it in vast quantities and stash it away in their huge chest freezers.

Well, I'm not so very industrious and I don't have hardly any freezer space. But I do know the wonders of a homemade stock compared to the (mostly) tasteless commercial stuff you find at the supermarket. What I've found is that taking the extra step toward flavor by making your own stock is less a matter of motivation and more a matter of having the right tools.

Besides a good stock pot, which every serious cook should own, you need a means of cutting the chicken into pieces. And by that I don't mean just separating the joints from the carcass, but actually chopping the bird into pieces. For maximum flavor, it's important to crack the bones where all the flavorful collagen resides.

Cook a stock with cracked bones and nine times out of ten when you refrigerate that stock you will find that is has congealed almost into a Jello-like consistency. That's the effect of the collagen. You will hardly believe how much more flavor this chicken stock has compared to the stuff you normally buy at the store, especially if you use a quality bird, such as a pasture-raised chicken. You can buy these at Whole Foods, but they're even better if you know a local farmer or a supplier at the farmer's market.

I suppose you could do a good job of cracking the bones with a pair of poultry shears. I prefer to use a heavy butcher's cleaver, first separating the limbs from the carcass, then whacking away at all the pieces. If you don't have a butcher's cleaver or poultry shears, you could probably get the same result with a hammer and a heavy chisel. Cut the legs in two pieces, the wings in two, the thighs in two, the back in two, the breasts in several.

Into your stock pot put two stalks of celery cut into pieces, two medium carrots also cut into pieces (don't bother to peel it), one large yellow onion cut in half (also not peeled), a fistful of parsley with stems, a sprig or two of thyme and a half dozen pepper corns.

Pile the chicken pieces on top of the vegetables and cover with cold water to a depth of two or three inches. To keep the chicken completely submerged, I usually place on top of it a stainless device that's normally used for steaming vegetables. It opens like a fan and fits perfectly inside the stock pot. But you could also use a ceramic plate.

Bring the pot almost to a boil, then reduce the heat so it just simmers, with bubbles occasionally breaking the surface, for three or four hours. (Never boil chicken stock: It turns cloudy.) Use a spider-type ladle or a slotted spoon to remove all the big pieces from the stock. Then strain the liquid through a fine-meshed strainer. I usually strain it into a big bowl, clean out my stock pot, then pour the stock back into the stock pot. Then make a place in your refrigerator and chill the pot overnight.

The next day you can spoon off the fat that has settled on the surface of the stock. If you are a fan of cooking with chicken fat--or schmaltz--you'll want to save this for another time. In any case, you now have that "preferably homemade" chicken stock you've seen advocated in all those recipes.

A perfect use for your stock would be the saffron-scented broth I made for our family Easter dinner last night. Saffron is an etheral flavor unlike any other with a warm, orange color and intense perfume. It suits particularly well this transitional time of year between winter and spring when you want something sophisticated to acknowledge that you are tired of winter vegetables but the spring harvest is still barely in view.

All you need do is soak about 1 1/2 teaspoons of saffron threads in a small bowl of hot water for an hour. Then pour the saffron liquid into 2 quarts of chicken stock, simmer for about 10 minutes and season with salt and pepper to taste. You will need to strain the broth again to remove the saffron threads.

I like to serve this aromatic saffron-infused broth with croutons from a well-made, rustic bread. To make the croutons, cut the bread into large cubes. Toss the cubes in a good amount of extra-virgin olive oil, season with salt, and bake in a 350-degree oven until lightly browned.

Serve the broth hot, with about three croutons in each bowl.

Oh, and if any of you were wondering, last night's dinner was "exquisite," in the words of my brother-in-law, Tom. For hors d'oeuvres we served bruschetta with sauteed mushrooms, rosemary and pecorino cheese along with lemon-scented asparagus and a saffron aioli. The asparagus was garnished with tiny violets that are blooming wild in the front yard.

The meal began with the saffron broth and croutons described above, followed by a salad of the mache we recently rescued from the garden with orange sections and yellow blossoms from our bolting tat soi. The entree consisted of our favorite lamb shanks: they were melt-in-your-mouth delicious. I don't think a single bite went uneaten. We served those with mashed turnips and potatoes that took nicely to the lamb braising sauce, along with sweet and sour Brussels sprouts, very appropriate considering how cold it has been lately. For dessert, my wife made her famous strawberry shortcake. The crumbly, bisquit-style shortcakes are so easy yet so delicious next to the juicy strawberries and a big dollop of whipped cream.

To pair with the lamb, Tom brought an outstanding bottle of 1997 Margaux Chateau Palmer, as well as a 2005 Dead Letter Office Shiraz.

Family and friends all went home happy and full.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Easter Lamb Shanks

Sorry, buddy. You're cute. We love to hold you and pet you. And everyone wants your picture. But some of us also want to eat you this time of year.

My idea of a perfect lamb for Easter would be on a spit roasting over an open fire. But we have restrictions on open fires here on the District of Columbia, so I've adapted. And with this April cold snap, I'm passing along one of my all-time favorite lamb treatments, a braised lamb shank from The Union Sqaure Cafe Cookbook that I've cooked many times over the years with great success. I don't know anyone who's had it and didn't love it.

If you like melt-in-your-mouth, falling-off-the-bone lamb, this is the dish for you. It is intensely flavored with garlic, onions and a passel of herbs--rosemary, mint, thyme and parsley. The Union Square Cafe has been a leader back to hearty, full-flavored foods and this dish is a classic example. I'm making it for a family gathering of eight--or double the recipe--accompanied by mashed turnips and potatoes and sweet-and-sour Brussels sprouts. My brother-in-law has promised to bring a classy Bordeaux wine for the occasion.

Serves Four Persons

6 garlic cloves
4 lamb shanks
2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more for seasoning meat
1/2 teaspoon black pepper, plus more for seasoning meat
2 tablespoons flour
extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, cut into medium dice
2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary
3 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1 cup white wine
3 cups veal stock (or equal parts beef stock and chicken stock)

Pre-heat oven to 250 degrees

Crush one of the garlic cloves and rub it all over the lamb shanks. Season the shanks aggressively with salt and pepper. Dust shanks with flour. Meanwhile, cover the bottom of a heavy pot or Dutch oven with extra-virgin olive oil, about 3 tablespoons. Heat over moderately high heat until oil begins to smoke. Brown shanks all over, in batches if necessary.

Reduce heat. Throw onion and garlic into pot, season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until onion begins to soften, about 5 minutes. Add herbs and cook another 5 minutes. Add wine, increase heat to high and boil until liquid is reduced by half. Add stock and bring to boil. Add shanks, cover pot and place in oven.

Cook approximately 3 hours, or until meat is tender but not falling off the bone. Remover lid, increase temperature to 500 and bake another 20 minutes, basting meat thoroughly. Remove pot from oven.

I like to cook the shanks to this point a day or two ahead. I remove the shanks from the pot, seal them with plastic and store in the refrigerator. I strain the cooking liquid into a separate container and place it in the fridge as well. When I'm ready to serve the dish, I remove the meat from the fridge at least a couple of hours ahead to come up to room temperature. Now I can spoon the hardened fat off the chilled cooking liquid. The liquid then goes into a pot, is brought to a boil and reduced by half. Adjust seasoning as necessary.

About 45 minute prior to mealtime, I put the meat in a 200-degree oven to warm, then dress with the hot sauce.

If you can't wait a couple of days, follow the steps for making the dish in advance, then simply strain the cooking liquid and remove the fat with a grease separator or bulb baster as best you can.

I can't think of a simpler, more fool-proof way of serving flavorful lamb for Easter.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Tamales Finale: A Eureka! Moment

Midway into my tamales project I decided to follow my wife's advice and bone up a little more on how to make tamales.

Up to this point, I had made two critical errors. The first was assuming I could buy a book about tamales and rely on it exclusively. The recipe I chose turned out to be a disaster (see earlier post). The second mistake was assuming the Maseca corn mix that is ubiquitous in these parts was my only choice as main ingredient for my tamale dough.

I cruised through several volumes by Mexican cookbook diva Diana Kennedy and maestro Rick Bayless, along with my other Mexican cookbooks, and found no guidance on using Maseca, other than Kennedy's absolute abhorrence of the stuff.

The preferred dough for tamales is made from fresh masa. We have seen fresh masa on our travels through Mexico, usually in a refrigerator case at the local grocery or market stall.

Corn is the basis of Mexican cuisine going back thousands of years. The natives developed a method of soaking dried corn with lye or lime--gathered from the ashes of wood fires in the case of lye, or from crushed seashells or rocks in the case of lime. The alkali chemicals in lye and lime help soften and remove the outer skin or pericarp of the corn kernel. This process, called nixtamalization, has the added benefit of making niacin--or vitamin B3, a vital nutrient--available for human digestion. Europeans who later developed corn cultures but skipped the nixtamalization process risked pellagra, a deadly wasting disease.

After the corn is nixtamalized, it is ground into fresh masa. When dried, it can be further processed into products such as Maseca, which is sort of the Hispanic equivalent of Bisquick. It can be used in almost anything, from tortillas to tamales, papusas, etc. There being no source of fresh masa that I know of here in the District of Columbia, I had assumed my only option was to use Maseca. But following Diana Kennedy's tip, I went on-line and, Bingo! I found a cousin to Maseca made specifically for tamales.

This product is ground somewhat coarser than ordinary Maseca, giving it a more traditional texture and mouth feel. I was hoping there also would be a viable recipe for tamale dough on the package.

A couple of phone calls later I had my 4.4-pound bag of Maseca para Tamales from a local Latino grocery. Sure enough, there was a recipe for tamale dough on the package. It was radically different from the one I had tried earlier with such horrible results. Where the previous recipe had called for almost twice as much dry ingredient as wet, the new recipe specified equal amounts of dry to wet. I knew this would solve the problem of a dough that was more like modeling clay and give me the creamy dough my wife had been looking for.

So we made the dough with the new corn mix and it turned out exactly the way we had hoped. It smeared easily onto the corn husks and was only slightly more difficult to wrap, being somewhat squishy. We steamed some tamales for dinner that night, accompanying them with pork carnitas and a huitlacoche enchilada from one of our neighborhood takeouts.

The tamales were light and delicious, the slightly moist savoriness of the chicken filling pairing nicely with the sweetness of the raisins and piquancy of the salsa verde. I'm especially fond of the rustic texture of these tamales and the faintly acrid flavor of the nixtamalized masa that it so Mexican and so unlike any other corn product.

Sometimes cooking takes perseverance and friendly advice. I also credit the Ceres & Bacchus blog, which last month carried a detailed and inspiring account of making Columbian-style tamales wrapped in banana leaves. Do try making tamales sometime. You need to do a little planning and have your ingredients ready. But once you get the hang of it, tamales aren't difficult at all, even for a gringo like me.