Saturday, June 30, 2007

Death of a Mussel

Today's brainteaser is to guess which of the bowls on the left contains the live mussels that we purchased for dinner last night and which bowl contains the dead mussels.

If you are thinking this must be a trick question because there couldn't possibly be that many dead mussels in the four bags we took home from Whole Foods...well, then, you lose. Because in fact fully half of the mussels we bought last night at our neighborhood Whole Foods were DOA.

This is a bit disconcerting when you have guests over for dinner and all has been wagered on the mussels being pulled from the fridge at the last minute, given a quick wash with the intent of plunging them into the cook pot.

This is doubly concerting when you are trying to do a good turn to the rapidly depleting fish in the oceans by eating shellfish instead.

But no, as my wife stood at the sink giving the mussels the usual dead-or-alive test (she likes to run the mussels under cold water and give the open ones a squeeze to see if they react) all we could hear was her muttering, "dead...dead...dead," and the clink of the shell as she dropped the dead soldier into our stainless steel sink.

Needless to say, the "dead...dead...dead" kept repeating what seemed endlessly, until the muttering stopped and she blurted out, "You know, most of these mussels are dead!"

Well, maybe not quite "most," but at least half. Maybe a bit more than half.

Is that unusual? Is it typical to take home two bags full of mussels and find that half of them have expired? I think so. Pretty unusual.

So while the guests were sipping their wine and munching on some steamed artichoke, I zipped back down to our friendly Whole Foods to replace our mussels. Customer Service sent me directly back to the seafood counter, where I tried to insist that the clerk not only replace at least one of the two bags I'd purchased earlier, but open the bag and check to make sure the mussels were actually alive and edible.

"I can't open any bags," he said.

"You can't?"

"No, I can't open any bags."

He disappeared in the back for a few minutes. I'd brought him the evidence of our dead mussels and he'd spread them out in some sort of tray. I could see him walking back and forth with it behind a glass window.

When the clerk emerged again, he said, "So, you want two more bags? Is that what you want?"

I said that would be fine and left with two completely different bags of mussels, in addition to the ones we'd kept from the earlier two bags.

On the drive home, I stuck my nose into the shopping bags containing the replacement mussels and detected the tell-tale aroma of dead seafood. Not a good sign. I wonder if the clerks behind the seafood counter at Whole Foods ever think to sniff the product they sell before passing it off to the customers...

Once home, the dead-or-alive sifting began again. "Dead...dead...dead," I heard my wife muttering. Again, the clinking of the shells. Again, at least half the mussels were dead. So if you guessed the top picture as the one showing the live mussels, you would be correct. The lower picture shows the dead mussels, all piled in a large colander.

Frankly, I've never seen this kind of a mussel slaughter before the cooking even begins. So I located the original label that had come with the bags of mussels and called the company in Maine whose number was on the label and left a message about what had happened on the voice mail of a woman named Madge.

It was a polite message, a professional courtesy indicating that somewhere along the line--somewhere between being caught and being stored and sold at our local Whole Foods--these mussels had met an untimely demise.

Well, on to the meal. In addition to the steamed artichoke, I deep-fried two pounds of squid, dusting them in corn starch seasoned with salt and garlic salt. The mussels--the live ones--went into a pot where I'd sauteed about three large shallots, diced small, with a stick of butter. For the cooking liquid I had intended to use some Pinot Grigio, but when I got back from Whole Foods I found the guests had drunk the Pinot Grigio, so I cracked open a bottle of Sam Adams Summer Ale instead.

The cooked mussels were distributed in large, shallow bistro bowls with linguine, topped with chopped parsley and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. With a salad from the garden on the side, a loaf of French bread to soak up the juices and a cold bottle of Austrian Gruener Veltliner, this was a meal...
And my wife's sour cherry pie for dessert.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Summer's First Squash

Last night I was determined to eat from the garden and one of our squash plants obliged with a magnificent specimen.

You hear so many jokes about gardeners being inundated with zucchini that I wasn't quite sure what to expect when I planted my squashes last year. But this has turned out to be one of my favorite plants in the garden.

Similar to the zucchini, ours is an Italian variety called "Striata de Italia," owing to the light green stripes that run the length of the mildly ribbed fruit. It is a striking vegetable and the foliage is also lush and magnificent. The stems and giant leaves grow boldly upright, looking like a giant rhubarb plant.

At some point in the season, the leaves also will take on the same variegated stripes. Or at least they did last year.

We made the mistake last year of going on vacation just as the fruits were beginning to ripen. I must have forgotten to tell our friend Helen, who was watering for us while we were gone, to by all means harvest and eat anything that looked ready, because when we got back the squashes were huge.

I don't mean just big. These things were Chernobyl humongous, as big as your arm. I wasn't even sure they were edible. I lugged them down to the small produce stand I was operating on Saturdays in front of my daughter's charter school thinking they might attract some attention. Just as a curiosity, mind you. But I wound up selling them to some squash lovers who reported that they were not only edible, but delicious. They made several meals, I'm sure.

So this year I'm keeping a very close eye on these squashes, as they seem to grow by leaps and bounds overnight. The one we ate last night doubled in size in just a few days, and this morning I noticed one growing on another plant that is almost equally as large.

Each plant has numerous blossoms, but not all turn into viable squashes. The plant I picked from last night had two squashes that seemed to be doing fine a week ago, but then began to brown and shrink, no doubt because of some sucking insect that was making a meal of them. I left them on the plant as sacrificials.

Sometime in the dead of summer, when everything is sweltering here in the District of Columbia, the squashes will be overcome with powdery mildew. The nation's capitol seems to be a perfect environment for powdery mildew. All of my squashes got it last year. The garden looked like a field of fresh snow. Then the foliage collapses and there's nothing to do but pull it out.

As for eating these squashes, I typically cut them into thin slices (along with beautiful yellow squash that Mike brought to our Urban Gardeners brunch last Sunday). I slide the slices into a heavy skillet with extra-virgin olive oil heated to almost smoking.

Cook the squash hard to brown them, adjusting the temperature so they don't burn. Wait till the end to season with salt and pepper, as they brown better before the salt begins to draw out the moisture.

To finish the squash, season with finely chopped thyme and fresh marjoram if you have any. Distribute onto plates and give them a dusting of Parmesan cheese.

We ate this with a buccatini pasta tossed with a pesto from last year that has kept ever so well in the refrigerator all these months...

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Focus on Tomatoes

That unsightly mess on the kitchen table would be me re-potting several dozen small tomato plants that have been waiting on our front porch for some attention. I planted a vast number of tomatoes (mainly Brandywine, Purple Cherokee and a yellow cherry variety) in hopes of selling them to benefit the seed fund for the garden at my daughter's charter school here in the District of Columbia.

It looks like I have a good thing going with friends at the 7th Street Garden. Last week they sold my salad mix at one of the local farmer's markets. This week they've invited me back--and I can bring some of my tomato plants as well.

I don't know any vegetable that is more talked about or speculated over than the tomato. I suppose it's the most popular vegetable of all. But people are all over the map when it comes to how to grow tomatoes. Some people like to grow their tomatoes in containers. Others like to buy little cages for their tomatoes. Some gardeners plant a stake in the ground and tie the tomato to that, or they just let it run wild and sprawl all over the garden.

Some tomato growers are very fussy. They prune their tomato plants drastically until all you see is a single stem with big fruits hanging from it.

Everyone seems to succeed or suffer their tomato plants' fortunes together. For instance, last year was almost universally a miserable year for tomatoes in this part of the country. Even people who normally grow great tomato crops had all sorts of problems. It's generally agreed that torrential rains in June doomed last year's tomatoes.

This year I am going to be daring and follow the advice of Charles H. Wilber, who set the Guinness record for tomato growing. In fact, Wilber wrote a book called How to Grow World Record Tomatoes, in which he reveals some of his methods for cultivating tomato plants that grow up to 30 feet high and produce, on average, 342 pounds of fruit

Now, I don't plan to grow tomatoes so tall that you need a 40-foot ladder or a scaffolding system to pick the fruit. But I do intend to take a giant leap forward and make cages for my plants. In the past, I've erected trellises out of PVC plumbing and trained the tomato vines up strings attached vertically. This gives the tomatoes a chance to grow without overwhelming the whole garden. But large, sturdy cages built out of concrete reinforcing mesh give the plants three dimensions to stretch out in.

Wilbur stacks the cages on top of each other as the plants grow, explaining why his plants become skyscrapers. More importantly, he spaces his plants at least five feet apart for good air circulation and to reduce competition among the roots. If anything, I think most gardeners tend to pack tomato plants much too closely together and have little conception of how large a plant a tomato can become if properly tended.

The biggest surprise for me was finding that Wilber grows all his tomatoes naturally. No artificial fertilizers. No pesticides. In fact, he spends quite a bit of ink describing his preferred methods for making and storing compost. Good man.

Well, there I go again, sounding like an expert and I certainly am not where tomatoes are concerned. I have always had a problem with wilt in the past, though last year the plants I let grow wild on the ground seemed to do just fine, as opposed to the ones I trained up the trellises and mulched so carefully with straw.

I'm feeling a bit intimidated by the prospect of dealing with a big roll of concrete reinforcing mesh--or even how to transport it to my garden. But that will have to be part of this year's adventure...

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Turning Roux into Gumbo

By the time you've finished reading the last two posts, you should be fully equipped to rush out and buy enough seafood to make your own New Orleans-style gumbo.

At least, that is my hope. But first, to finish this business of roux.

I was intrigued to read Paul Prudhomme's comment that dark and even "black" roux are "best to use in gumbos because the darkest roux result in the thinnest, best-tasting gumbos of all."

Everyone is familiar with roux as a thickener in the French bechamel sauce: First create a roux by cooking equal amounts of flour and oil (possibly butter) until the flour loses its raw flavor. Then add milk. Creole and Cajun cooking take roux to a whole other level, toasting the flour to various shades of brown or almost black to impart flavor and color, along with thickening the sauce or stew.

What puzzled me was Prudhomme's observation that the darkest roux are not only the best-tasting, but also the thinnest. Being enormous of girth, Prudhomme may have a special affinity for thin roux just on general principles. But there's more to it than that. My own experiences with gumbo correspond to Prudhomme's: No matter how much flour and oil I mix, the darker I cook it, the thinner my gumbo gets.

What's that about?

I thought this question merited a scientific explanation. So I cracked open my copy of Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen (completely revised and updated version). Under "roux," McGee not only observes that darker roux impart a toasty flavor, he goes on to explain why the darkest roux make the thinnest gumbos.

Heating for long periods, McGee says, causes some of the starch chains in the flour to split, then form new bonds with each other. "This generally means that long chains and branches are broken down into smaller pieces that then form short branches on other molecules. The short, branched molecules are less efficient at thickening liquids than the long chains..."

McGee continues, "The darker the roux, the more starch chains are modified in this way, and so the more roux is required to create a given thickness. It takes more of a dark brown roux than a light one to thicken a given amount of liquid."

Hence, rule #1 for gumbo: Make a dark roux for seafood, but don't expect it to be particularly thick. The darker you make it, the more flour and oil you'll need to thicken it.

Having read virtually all of the gumbo recipes in my library, I have the sense that thickness is a matter of personal preference where gumbo is concerned. To make a gumbo for 10 persons, I've seen recipes that call for as little as a few tablespoons of roux, as in original Creole versions, to two cups of roux (meaning one cup oil, one cup flour) or more in various Cajun versions.

I think Prudhomme's recipe is close to optimal. In his version of a seafood gumbo with Andouille sausage he calls for 1 1/2 cups dark roux (3/4 cup oil, 3/4 cup flour) to feed 10 persons. I would procede as follows:

In a heavy stew pot or Dutch oven, bring 3/4-cup canola oil to almost smoking over moderately high heat. Reduce heat to moderately low and slowly stir in 3/4-cup all-purpose flour and cook, stirring frequently until the roux is a dark brown. This could take an hour, so:

While keeping one eye on the roux, shell and devein 1 pound medium U.S. shrimp, either wild-caught or farmed, reserving the shells. Refrigerate the shrimp. Place the shells and 5 cups water in a pot. Bring to a boil and cook, partially covered, for about 20 minutes.

While the shrimp stock is cooking, cut into small dice one large yellow onion, three stalks celery and two green bell peppers. Peel and finely chop 5 garlic cloves. Set aside.

Cut 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs (prefereably pasture-raised) into bite-sized pieces. Refrigerate.

Cut 1 pound Andouille sausage or Kielbasa into bite-sized pieces. Set aside.

When the roux has reached the desired color, the onion, celery, green bell pepper and garlic normally would be added and cooked in the roux until tender. I'm not sure if the roux picks up added flavor this way, or if this method simply avoids messing another pot. I favor cooking the vegetables in a separate pan with a splash of canola oil and some salt, then adding the cooked vegetables to the roux.

While the roux and vegetable mixture is hot, pour the finished shrimp stock into the pot through a strainer and stir to blend. Add the sausage, the chicken, 2 bay leaves, 1/2 cup chopped parsley and 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme at this point. Season with salt (about 1 teaspoon) and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Cook for about 30 minutes, or until quite flavorful. If more liquid is needed, add chicken stock or seafood stock.

The gumbo can be made to this point and refrigerated a day or two ahead. (If you find a layer of oil at the top of the mix, skim it off.) Just before serving, heat the gumbo until it begins to bubble, then add the peeled shrimp and 1 pound of crab backfin meat. Cook another minute or two, or until the shrimp are cooked through.

To serve, distribute cooked brown basmati rice in shallow bowls and ladle generous portions of gumbo over the rice. Hearty greens, well cooked and seasoned with red wine vinegar, can be spooned into the bowl as a side.

Serve with French bread and a nice Beaujolais wine.

How Do You Make Your Roux?

I've been making lots of gumbo lately. But not being from the State of Louisiana, I hesitate to post my gumbo recipe because I have some questions of my own.

For instance, why is such a big deal made of browning the roux that thickens the gumbo?

Is that a Creole thing, or a Cajun thing?

And while we're at it, what's the difference between Creole and Cajun?

A recent work assignment took me to the Caribbean island of Anguilla. I brought along three different Jessica Harris cookbooks, thinking I would be cooking island food. Even though I didn't cook a lot of island food in the end, I spent some time re-acquainting myself with Harris' take on Creole cuisine.

Harris has made a life's work of tracing and recording the confluence of African and European cooking in the Americas. Gumbo, for instance, derives from an African word for okra. Hence, okra is a star vegetable in the gumbo lexicon. (And, no, okra doesn't have to be slimy--it can just be good.)

The term "creole" was adopted by descendants of Europeans who were born in the New World, especially in the Caribbean and in New Orleans, but also farther South into parts of South America and even Mexico.

"The people of this Creole world have a common history and many similarities in taste, but each has brought something different to Creole cuisines," writes Harris in Beyond Gumbo: Creole Fusion Food from the Atlantic Rim. "Influences from France, Spain, Holland, Denmark, Portugal, and England mingled with those of the Yoruba in Brazil; the Ashanti, Fanti, and Denkiera in Jamaic; the Wolof in New Orleans; the Toucouleur, Igbo, Ewe, Fon, Kru, Hausa, Kalabari, Songye and more. The native ingredients of the American cross-pollinated, literally and figuratively, with those brought to the Americas from Europe, Asia and Africa and went into the dutchies, iron pots, coui, and canaris of the New World."

"Cajun," meanwhile, refers to French Acadians who had settled parts of Nova Scotia, but were forced into exile in the 18th Century after France ceded the territory to Great Britain. Being mostly Catholic, the Acadians were not embraced on the East Coast, and sought out kindred spirits in Louisiana.

There is so much overlap between Creole and Cajun cooking it's easy to confuse the two, although Creole is viewed as the more metropolitan, Cajun more country kitchen.

French being equivalent to haute cuisine, the roux as a sauce base was bound to play a role in Creole and Cajun. But that still doesn't explain the peculiar habit of roasting the flour in the oil until it turns various shades of brown, to almost black.

My own feeling, reinforced by a reading of numerous texts, including The Picayune's Creole Cook Book, is that roux was used sparingly as a thickener in Creole dishes, but came to play a much more prominent role in the countrified dishes of the Cajuns.

"The cooking of flour and fat together to make a roux is a process that seems to go back as far as my ancestors of four hundred years ago," writes Paul Prudhomme in Chef Paul Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen. "Traditionally, the fat used was animal fat, though today various oils are used, and the roux was, and often still is, made by very slow cooking. For example, when I was a boy, my mother used to start with a paste of animal fat and flour and cook it for several hours."

A roux cooked to a dark brown imparts the same kind of flavor as, say, a baked bread. That flavor, sought after by chefs and the prepared food industry, owes to the so-called Maillard reaction, in which carbohydrates and amino acids form strange, flavorful compounds when exposed to heat.

"The basic reason for making a roux," says Prudhomme, "is for the distinctive taste and texture it lends to food. This roux taste and texture is characteristic of many dishes that Louisiana Cajuns make."

It was not uncommon for cooks to make batches of roux and store it for use as needed. But not all roux are created equal. Some are darker than others, depending on the dish being prepared.

"In general, light and medium-brown roux are used in sauces or gravies for dark, heavy meats such as beef, with game such as elk and venison, and with dark-meat fowl such as duck, geese and blackbirds," Prudhomme writes. "They give a wonderful, toasted nutty flavor--just the right enhancement to these sauces and gravies. Dark red-brown and black roux are used in sauces and gravies for sweet, light, white meats such as pork, rabbit, veal, and all kinds of freshwater and saltwater fish and shellfish..."

Prudhomme says that "black roux are best to use in gumbos because the darkest roux result in the thinnest, best-tasting gumbos of all," but he warns that "it takes practice to make black roux without burning them, and dark red-brown roux are certainly acceptable for any gumbo."

These darker roux are what Emerill would refer to as the two-beer or three-beer roux--meaning, your left hand is hardly idle while the right hand is stirring the roux. Prudhomme, being a restaurant cook and having no time for leisurely ale swilling, found a way to make a dark roux without burning it in 500-degree oil

We will take the more leisurely approach when we make our roux and assemble our gumbo tomorrow. Stay tuned....

Monday, June 25, 2007

A Buffet for Hungry Gardeners

Beginning last September, I've been involved with a small group of avid gardeners and volunteers forming a group called D.C. Urban Gardeners. It was pretty much a club of six, until I went online one day recently and advertised for new members on just about every listserv I could find here in the District of Columbia.

Last time I checked, or membership had passed the 120 mark. To get a little better acquainted, I threw a brunch over the weekend and about a dozen people responded. (Don't know what the other 100 folks were doing that day, or how anybody passes up free food. But a dozen is manageable for a buffet.)

The trick is not to get terribly stressed out over these things because after you've calculated the food, you still have to figure on beverages and setting up drinking glasses, perhaps making coffee, pulling plates and silver, cleaning the house, sprucing up the garden, tidying up the deck. And then there's the cleanup afterward...

In other words, the food is just the half of it.

The salad was a cinch. I have 15 varieties of lettuce growing in the front yard and they're all ready to bolt. I gathered up and cleaned a tub full of lettuce and it occurred to me that figs had made their appearance at the local Whole Foods. So it became a salad of greens with figs, shaved fennel and feta cheese, dressed with a vinaigrette from that chive vinegar I'd put up so many weeks ago (remember?) and juice squeezed from a leftover half an orange.

I had a big jar of quinoa staring at me from the pantry, so I cooked some of that and blanched some carrots and peas and tossed in some thinly sliced red onion, lemon juice and extra-virgin olive oil for a simple pilaf.

Gotta have eggs with brunch, right? Some parsley and mint from the garden, a little crumbled goat cheese and--voila--an easy, delicious frittata (no comments, please).

And for something with just a bit of sweetness to it, our famous creamy scones with raisins, dried blueberries and dried cranberries.

The best part, most of this was made the day before, so I could save part of my morning for the usual weekend running around, such as responding to a phone call from one of my daughter's teachers, who was unexpectedly stranded with a cooler full of food she was supposed to deliver to the National Mall, where my daughter was performing in a children's festival, and was there any possible way I could pick her and the cooler and an armful of beverages up and deliver them to where they needed to be....

I should also not forget to mention that this Sunday marked the first time our salad greens appeared in an official farmer's market. Up to now, I've been hauling our produce down the hill to our daughter's charter school and setting up a small, one-man vegetable stand to raise money for seeds. But a new farmer's market started recently near my sister's house in the Bloomingdale neighborhood here in the District of Columbia and our friends at the 7th Street Garden agreed to sell my bags of salad mix.

(I wonder how they did?)

But, back to the gardeners brunch. This being the first time we'd met, I wasn't sure quite where we were headed with this. But I detected quite a lot of interest in agitating on behalf of environmentally friendly gardening, greener development practices and such. One attendee was a bit disappointed. All she wanted was some advice on how to build a garden in her front yard. But not to worry, we can do that, too.

By popular demand, we then took a quick tour of the "farm" out front, where the cucumbers and pole beans are beginning to climb my improvised trellises and the Italian squashes are stretching out quite impressively. We stopped for a long while over the compost heap and the local gardening magazine editor revealed that the funny plant with the orange trumpet flowers climbing all over the neighbor's fence is the same cross-vine--bignonia--that I'd ordered all the way from someplace in Ohio for the garden at my daughter's charter school.

Turns out bignonia runs rampant right in my own yard--I attack it regularly with the lawn mower--and plants from cuttings quite easily.

I knew there was a reason we were having this brunch...
Photos by Robin Buck

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Cooking in the Garden

Yesterday was my debut as chef-in-residence at the Washington Youth Garden, National Arboretum. The mission: conduct a cooking demonstration for the parents and children who come out to the garden on Saturday mornings to tend their plots.

Not knowing exactly what to expect in terms of kitchen accommodations, I chose something easy to go with the season: a 12-egg frittata with spring herbs and goat cheese.

I know, you're probably tired of hearing about my frittatas. But in fact, frittata makes great theater. Around 11:30 the families began to assemble around the picnic tables parked under a large shade tree at the edge of the garden. My "stove" was a pair of propane burners. I'd brought my own cutting board and tools.

My daughter and a couple of kids accompanied me to the herb garden where we gathered what seemed to taste right in my mind. There was plenty of mint, some dill, a variety of thyme and bunches of parsley. We also cut some of the scapes from a row of onion plants to give our egg dish a little zip.

While I was chopping herbs and making small talk with the crowd--feeling very much like Emerill on my little soap box--one of the parents gathered a group of kids to crack and beat the eggs.

I heated my 11-inch, non-stick skillet over one of the burners, laid on a thick drizzle of olive oil in my most theatrical manner. Then we poured in the eggs.

A non-stick skillet is essential. And I use a heat-proof spatula as well. As the eggs began to bubble and set up on the bottom, I showed my audience how to lift the edges, tilt the skillet and run the egg underneath so there are always new layers forming.

In went the herbs, "Bam!" Just like Emeril. Salt, "Bam!" Pepper, "Bam!"

When the eggs were almost cooked through, I crumbled goat cheese over the top. Now for the hard part, the big flourish. Would this baby flip? I wasn't sure.

The first frittata flipped, but only half-way. Now we had what looked like a giant conventional omelet. Not so bad. On the second try, everyone held there breath. Up into the air went a 12-egg pie. It flipped. It landed perfectly upside-down.

See how nicely browned that is? I said, pointing to the lovely, crinkly, brown underside that was now facing up.

Normally I cook the top side under the broiler. No chance of frittata paving the kitchen floor, and it browns much more nicely. But nobody was complaining.

Each pie got a nice drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil (I explained what that meant), then a dusting of Parmesan cheese. Then people lined up with their plates. I was told to expect up to 50. We might have seen 30. Nearly everyone took seconds, just small slices so everyone could have a taste.

Then a group of gardeners whisked my tools off to the water source in the garden and scrubbed them down. Heck, are we done already?

That was fun...

Photos by Tom Janota

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Organic Food Miles

Now that big corporations have become hip to the allure of "organic" food, it's not good enough to just pick "organic" at the store.

Some companies want the government to approve a list of non-organic ingredients they can use in their products and still maintain the "organic" label. Other countries are cashing in as well, meaning that "organic" mango you bought at the supermarket yesterday might have flown thousands of miles to reach you.

So now in addition to choosing between growing methods (organic vs. non-organic), consumers who care about the environmental impact of their eating habits will need to examine how far their "organic" groceries traveled. And knowing the country of origin may not be good enough. You'll need to know whether the products you buy were trucked overland, or shipped on a boat or by rail or flown air freight.

Of these, air freight is by far the most damaging to Planet Earth. But it may also be that produce traveling by ship from the other side of the globe has less of a carbon footprint than trucking that head of lettuce from the other side of the country.

Of course, you can eliminate all these complicated calculations and just buy food produced by one of your local farmers, perhaps sold at a local farmer's market. Or can you?

The Sustainable Table blog recently carried links in all of these areas. For instance, a recent Canadian study found that organic produce increasingly is being brought to market by truck, rather than more efficient rail or water transport. Organic mangoes were being shipped from Ecuador and Peru, rather than Mexico for conventional mangoes. Organic peppers tended to come from Mexico rather than the U.S. or Canada.

The study concluded that all of the shipping involved in bringing organic produce to shoppers cancelled out the environmental benefits of growing the food according to organic principles.

Meanwhile, the British are considering adding miles traveled to organic food labels. But just to show how complicated things can get, a recent report there concludes that tomatoes imported into Britain from Spain are still more environmentally friendly that those grown locally in hot houses heated with fossil fuels. (How about waiting for tomato season, when they can be grown outdoors?)

The rapid consolidation of businesses in Big Food continues to add miles to our victuals in general. Fewer local growers and processors means that raw ingredients and livestock are traveling farther to get to processing plants and distribution centers. Cheap labor in far-flung countries means it is less expensive to grow food there and ship it here. Corporate food processors now scour the globe for cheap ingredients of all kinds.

I know plenty of liberal-minded folk who think nothing of traveling miles in their Jeep Cherokee to pick up a few organic groceries, and don't even bother to recycle all the plastic bottles from which they suck their "healthy" spring water.

Can the day be too far off when we have "Energy Star" food, wherein our cantaloupes and broccoli will carry the same sort of carbon footprint labeling as our refrigerator and washing machine?

The sometimes counter-intuitive nature of "local" versus "non-local" has stirred a lively debate lately in the food blogosphere. But there are so many benefits to supporting the local farm community--to knowing exactly where your food icomes from and who is accountable for its quality--it's hard to think why anyone would argue otherwise.

Or, just turn off the television and grow your own...

Friday, June 22, 2007

Pierogies, Gumbo and Sour Cherry Pie

Doesn't this look like a festive scene?

Our friend Lavinia (middle) is in town from Salvador, where she's working with a disaster relief agency and it was her birthday. In addition, or friend Tom Janota, the guy with the big smile, is here from Mexico City.

Can you say, Fiesta!

Even better, Lavinia brought her mom along with several bags of fresh pierogies from the West Side Market in Cleveland, where they'd been visiting friends. (Pierogies, for the unintiated, are Polish dumplings filled with almost anything, but in this case potato, sauerkraut, and potato-bacon.)

Isn't it great when someone calls and says, "We're in Cleveland. Can we bring anything for dinner?"

Of course we requested the pierogies.

For the occasion, I put together a batch of gumbo with shrimp (U.S. wild-caught), chicken (thighs only) and Kielbasa sausage. I know, I was already on a gumbo jag in Anguilla. But how often does it happen, you re-discover a food you really love and you can't stop making it? I may even make some more gumbo for a client dinner on Monday. Can't get enough of a good thing.

Meanwhile, while I was in Anguilla, my wife and daughter visited one of the local orchards with our friends Keith and Janice and picked 50 pounds of sour cherries.

You heard correctly: 50 (that's fifty) pounds. They split the load, so my wife has spent part of the last several days pitting bucket after bucket of cherries. (Not to worry: There was plenty of work for me to catch up on in the garden. More about that later...)

So in addition to this being a pierogi-gumbo-birthday night, it was also an evening to celebrate sour cherries. That's my wife's twist on a a sour cherry smash you see in the martini glass. And for dessert, she baked a sour cherry pie.

We sat around the kitchen island eating pierogies and home-made sauerkraut and drinking sour cherry smash (or beer, or wine), then retired to the deck for a salad of fresh greens from the garden, followed by the gumbo served over rice my sister had brought back from a trip to South Carolina. Then a smashing good sour cherry pie with vanilla ice cream.

Lavinia's mother, originally from Romania, regaled us with stories of picking her own fruits and turning them into "tutti frutti," which in Romanian apparently translates into plopping a bunch of cherries and other things into a canning jar and covering it with grain alcohol. (She worked in a lab, she explained, where the alcohol was uncommonly pure.)

One piece of sour cherry pie came out of the kitchen with a candle in it and we broke into a rousing "Happy Birthday!" for Lavinia.

"This is the best pie I've ever eaten!" gushed brother-in-law Tom.

I think he was right....

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Price of Corn: Who's Crying Now?

You didn't exactly see Americans rise up when we learned that diverting corn into ethanol production was literally taking the tortillas out of the mouths of hungry Mexicans.

But look who's crying the blues now over the price of corn!

Coca Cola has joined Pepsi, Kellogg's and all manner of pork and beef producers to protest an energy bill pending in the U.S. Senate that would require massive new production of ethanol from corn and other sources.

The Senate bill, aimed at maintaining our happy motoring lifestyle by substituting for foreign oil, would require the usage of 36 billion gallons of biofuels by 2022. Current law requires motorists to use 7.5 billion gallons of biofuels by 2012, a target that will be surpassed in coming months as dozens of new ethanol plants come on line, according to a a report in the Des Moines Register.

The rapid push to make ethanol from corn has resulted in a doubling of the price of corn. That concerns food giants such as Coke and Pepsi, who sweeten their beverages with high fructose corn syrup (linked to childhood obesity, by the way). Cattlemen and pork producers are also feeling the pinch, of course, because corn (the production of which is subsidized by the federal government using our tax dollars) is a primary feed for cattle and pigs.

Businesses that supply corn-based feed to pig farmers in Iowa are concerned that the spike in corn prices could put some of their customers out of business.

The coalition of food businesses has written the Senate warning that the new ethanol mandate could increase “soil erosion, water pollution and habitat destruction.”

The Washington Post reports that food prices are indeed rising. Cattle prices have risen from about $82.50 per 100 pounds a year ago to $91.15 today. The cost of rounded cubed steak at local Harris Teeters is up from $4.59 last year to $5.29 this year, according to, which tracks prices. The Palm restaurant chain recently raised prices as much as $2 for a New York strip. And so on.

"Anybody that knows anything about the marketing of corn knows that when you raise the price of corn you are going to create problems in all of the markets that use corn," said Ronald W. Cotterill, director of the Food Marketing Policy Center at the University of Connecticut, according to The Post.

Meanwhile, a panel of scientists convened by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has confirmed what we pretty much knew already: A huge dead zone of oxygen deprived waters in the Gulf of Mexico in caused by crop nutrients (e.g. fertilizers) being washed down the Mississippi River from the nation's farmlands.

The scientists warn that ethanol production promises to make the problem worse. The "extreme rapid growth of grain-based ethanol production has major water quality implications" for the Mississippi River basin and the country, the panel reported.

Meanwhile, writers partial to corn have jumped to the defense of corn-based ethanol production. But environmentalists are having none of that. For a comprehensive, point-by-point rebuke of the whole corn ethanol fiasco, read this piece in Gristmill. It's worth sending to friends and posting on the refrigerator door.

Now, can we talk about public transportation?

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The New Robber Barons

Just back from my work assignment on the island of Anguilla, I sought to catch up and turned first to Ethicurian.

For those of you unfamiliar, Ethicurian is the best source for news about our world-wide food system. And having come from a place dependent on processed, packaged and frozen foods, a couple of articles immediately drew my attention.

First was an item indicating that even the business-friendly folks at the U.S. Department of Agriculture are beginning to cast a wary eye on the rapid consolidation of corporate interests taking place in the food industry.

For instance, the four largest beer makers in the country now control 91 percent of the nation's brewing business. In breakfast cereals, the four largest companies have 78 percent control. For specialty canning, the figure is 71 percent.

Consolidation also means centralization, which means closing down local processing facilities, which means local producers losing control to distant corporations and facing higher transportation costs, meaning less profit for farmers.

In 1972, there were 2,507 milk processing plants across the U.S. By 2002, only 524 remained. That's an 80 percent drop in 30 years. Local dairy operations are literally drying up in favor of massive confinement-style dairy farming that forces cows to eat corn and injects them with hormones to promote milk production.

Consolidation in the meat processing industry just makes it tougher for local farmers to raise quality beef and pork for local markets. Nationwide, more than 20 percent of hog and beef-processing facilities were closed between 1994 and 2004, meaning farmers had to ship their animals increasingly long distances to have them butchered in approved facilities.

Meanwhile, the New York Times reports that food manufacturers are scouring the globe looking for the cheapest ingredients. These can be anything from flavorings and preservative to additives that just make food smoother or substitute for things like cheeses so that a pizza purchased in Beijing tastes just like the one in you buy in New York City.

The big boys-Kraft, General Mills, Sara Lee--search planet-wide for bargain ingredients essential to their processed products. Ingredients are streaming in from countries such as China, India, the Philippines and countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

The quality of those ingredients cannot always be guaranteed. Witness the recent scandal over melamine from China poisoning thousands of pets in this country, or the proliferation of toxic toothpaste, again from China.

Of course, the big U.S. food manufacturers assure us they are on the lookout for any potential problems with these products. The U.S. government finally woke up and appointed a "food safety czar." And the Chinese, for their part, have sentenced to death their former head of food quality on corruption charges.

But a second Times piece details how U.S. investigators trying to follow up on the deaths of 100 Haitian children from bogus Chinese glycerin a decade ago were completely thwarted by officials in China. The Chinese refused to cooperate with investigators from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Chinese business records were either destroyed or went missing. When U.S. investigators finally tracked down the plant where the phony glycerin originated, the factory had been shut down and Chinese companies refused to accept any responsibility for the poisonings.

What does it all add up to?

While some of us have adopted locally raised, organic food as an ethical imperative, the rest of the country is rapidly moving in the opposite direction. Those who either can't afford or aren't interested in locally and naturally raised foods have become the lab rats for a small number of corporations who continue to consolidate their grip on the nation's food supply.

We clearly benefit from vibrant local economies with local agriculture whose products we can trust. If you have any doubt, read this thoughtful post at the Chef Ann blog, actually a response to a New York Times blog suggesting that not eating local might be more efficient for everyone concerned.

The simple dollars and cents imperatives of our shareholder-driven, increasingly globalized food supply are sweeping us like a rip tide into an ocean of corporate food. The consequences are of concern to every man, woman and child in the country. But when was the last time you heard of the U.S. government bringing a trust-busting case in the food industry?

In fact, the multi-national agri-business and food processing complex has forged a cozy relationship with our federal government. Our own tax dollars, to the tune of billions of dollars, are used to subsidize commodity crops that form the basis of this unhealthful, destructive food system. Congress and powerful agencies such as the USDA make it their business to fashion laws and regulations that benefit Big Food Business and hurt small farmers and producers.

Sounds like a wakeup call to me...

Monday, June 18, 2007

Anguilla: The Epilogue

The kitchen in our villa at Blowing Point was equipped with a whole base cabinet full of some of the largest aluminum colanders I've ever seen. One might well ask, What do you strain with so many colanders?

I would gladly have traded most of those colanders for one really large, really heavy cook pot. The largest I had was not quite big enough to make a gumbo for 33 persons. And although there were numerous pots of various sizes, most of them were of such a light gauge metal that anything important burned at the bottom before it was completely cooked.

I had speculated what I would do without my spring-loaded tongs, perhaps the most important and most frequently used tool in my kitchen. I needn't have worried. There were more tongs in that kitchen in Anguilla than you could shake a, well, pair of tongs at.

It would have been nice to have a quality chef's knife on hand. But I made do. And a wire brush for cleaning that grill/griddle that I used so often rather than cooking outside on the charcoal grill.

But I have no complaints about the way my kitchen was equipped. And every morning like clockwork two housekeepers showed up to sweep and wipe down the whole place. They did a wonderful job, always putting things back in their place...

We never did find our lobsters. Over a two day period, I had been trying to track down local lobsters through Leslie, the manager at the local grocery store, Ashley & Sons. Twice I thought we had made good contacts. And at one point Leslie said he had spoken to one fisherman who lamented, "If only you had called me an hour earlier..."

The fisherman I did finally speak with, a man named Mike, apologized for not being able to supply the lobsters we needed. "The lobsters are very hard to find," he said. "Would you be interested in some crayfish?"

Our inability to find local lobster, or put our hands on snapper large enough to fillet, tells me the waters around Anguilla have been fished to exhaustion. But how can I know for sure?

Judging from the aisles in the local supermarkets, many of the old food ways are falling by the wayside. Just as in the United States, grocery store shelves are stocked predominantly with packaged and processed foods. You have to look hard to find the remnants of the former food culture, although it's still there: assorted packages of salt cod and smoked herring, pig tails and snouts, frozen ox tails.

You do get a sense of island culture just driving around. Early in the morning, the kids in their sensible uniforms were arriving for school. They looked very smart and well groomed in their white shirts and skirts and pants in blue, sometimes green.

I had been driving to the other side of the island in the mornings to pay $5 and sit for a half-hour at a computer in the little store at Ku in Shoal Bay. Then it dawned on me to try the public library downtown, and the charge was less than half. The librarians were warm and helpful. One tourist had brought his laptop, as the library had wi-fi as well.

I was told that little if any food is grown on the island other than some backyard tomatoes. Yet everywhere you travel you see goats wandering the fields, or a burro or a cow tethered to some grassy area. Some mornings a rooster could be heard announcing the day. But mostly you hear the soft, low cooing of the mourning doves that perch everywhere in the clumps of flame trees and bougainvillea.

Each day on my foraging for the day's groceries I vowed to stop at one of the local eateries and taste some of the true island food, the food I had hoped to be cooking myself before I learned that my hosts were more inclined toward pasta and kabobs. Every day I passed the local joints with names like Big Jim's and E's Oven and Tasty's, and each day I found something more important to do than sit down to a simple island meal.

I think that is my biggest regret, that I didn't make more of an effort, or that I didn't have someone along with me who would have insisted we stop and eat together.

Right now, I have an awful hankering for some stewed goat...

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Caesar Salad Rescue

I could have sworn there was a full, unopened jar of Caesar salad dressing in the fridge when I left for the grocery store yesterday. Yet, there I was, staring at a huge bowl of Romaine lettuce, 33 hungry people taking their seats at the dinner table (yes, it's one long, long table) and come to find that my jar of dressing has not only been opened, it's darn near empty.

What to do?

The next best thing.

I didn't yelp. I didn't scream. I remembered a container of sour cream in the back of the fridge. The remnants, about a cup, plopped into a mixing bowl. I grabbed a jar of mayo and threw about a cup of that in with the sour cream. Next, a heaping tablespoon of Dijon mustard, a good drizzle of white vinegar. Then it occurred to me that a product one of the hosts had purchased, a Lee & Perrin's Worcestershire sauce for chicken (never seen that one before, and it's the same color as chicken drippings) might lend some anchovies. (Turns out it also has Sauternes wine in it. Who knew?)

In went a few squirts of that. Presto, chango--emergency Caesar dressing. Time elapsed: two minutes.

That salad accompanied 15 pounds of U12 shrimp (those are the big ones) that I'd defrosted, peeled, grilled off and strung on skewers earlier in the day. Also, three pounds of fettucine noodles had been cooked to al dente, oiled lightly and set aside. A sauce consisted of 1 pound of butter, two onions diced small, 1 head of garlic chopped fine, 1 jar of grated Parmesan cheese and 2 pounds of frozen peas, all cooked on the stove top.

The food was warming in the oven as dinner approached...

Now we are leaving the fair (and fairly hot) island of Anguilla. The surf is blowing into a spray against the rocks outside the dining room windows. The ancient peaks of St. Martin rise up in the morning haze like a grazing herd of camels. The setting is picturesque, idyllic--except for a certain stench in the air. That would be the smell of garbage burning.

There is no recycling on Anguilla. No landfill. Everything is burned--the empty plastic bottle from our drinking water, the paper packaging from the breakfast cereal, lunch meat wrappers, ice cream cartons, Doritos bags, shopping bags, garbage bags--just about everything plastic, and it all gets torched, rising into the atmosphere as a dense, black plume of putrescent smoke. On certain days, you can smell it almost everywhere on the island. We filled at least one large bag of garbage every day during our stay here and I can't help thinking how even on this rather remote island we--meaning mankind--find a way to foul the planet.

Amongst the reading materials on the coffee table here is last August's issue of National Geographic on the subject of killer hurricanes spawned by global warming. There's also a poignant essay--a plea, really--by Bill McKibben on the failure of the environmental movement to stop the biggest cataclysm of our lifetime--the warming of Planet Earth. In my free time, I've been reading The Empty Ocean, a catalogue of man's mindless plundering of the world's fishes and sea mammals.

Well, I've certainly done my part to make waste and pollute this week. But how can you not? Especially on an island paradise, where no food is grown locally, where shoppers are especially beholden to agribusiness and the giant food processors, we play right into the global warming juggernaut.

On that note, I leave for home a bit depressed. I will be flying by jet nearly six hours. As McKibben notes, every gallon of gasoline burned spews five pounds of carbon into the air. We must do more. As cooks and food writers, we should be agitating at all times for local foods, bulk foods, environmentally friendly packaging and appliances. The British are now talking about requiring miles traveled on organic foods. Better yet, why don't we require labeling that shows how much energy it takes to produce our food and bring it to market. Any guess how many pounds of seafood it takes to produce a pound of farm-raised salmon? Or how about the 36 calories it takes to get one calorie worth of California lettuce to the East Coast?

As McKibben says, the veil is finally lifting in a way everyone can see. The joy ride is over. Time to get busy...

Saturday, June 16, 2007

"Kabob" De-Constructed

Like the two-headed snake, the "kabob" as conceived in the American food lexicon is a freak of nature, serving no evolutionary purpose except, perhaps, to convey a false sense of festiveness and culinary pizazz.

Everyone knows the "kabob" I'm talking about--the one overladen with huge chnunks of beef and a green grocer's assortment of vegetables, everything from bell peppers in all their varied colors--red, green, yellow, purple--to onions yellow and red; big, plump cherry tomatoes; giant white mushrooms. Even certain fruits make an appearance, thick wedges of pineapple or even peaches, perish the thought.

As a street food in the Middle East, Turkey or Souttheast Asa, the skewer serves a useful purpose, fitting a meal-sized portion of beef, lamb, pork or chicken on one device that can be moved around the grill top, set aside, re-warmed, then conveniently handed off to a customer, who can eat the meat directly off the skewer if he so chooses.

The problem arises when this simple concept of simple food simply prepared falls under the singularly American mantra of more and bigger and vastly over-abundant. Thus the skewer becomes the vehicle for a cornucopea of items that utterly foils an otherwise straightforward technique.

Anyone who has eaten one of these gargantuan American "kabobs" knows exactly what I mean. The laws of physics still apply. Most of the various items on the skewer cook at different rates--some take vastly longer to reach a state of doneness, onions being a prime example. Thus, if the cook is paying any attention to the meat and removing it from the heat at its peak, the onion next to it on the skewer will arrive on the plate virtually raw. The bell peppers may fare a little better, but not much. The mushrooms, depending on size, are anyone's guess.

Haven't we all at one time or another smiled politely through just such a "kabob" fest, when most of the vegetables were virtually inedible?

For the chef, the "kabob" is a nightmare, a real torture. Most vegetables do not work well on a skewer. When it comes time to turn the meat, the vegetables just turn around like crazy whirligigs in a stiff breeze. Some simply fall apart.

Being forced to perform this sad comedy on his outdoor grill--society simply demands it--the chef in addition to his frustrations over the non-performance of his "kabobs" finds himself completely cut off from the familiar surroundings of his kitchen--his tools, his counter tops, the range and fridge. He is a forlorn figuire indeed, and all because these "kabobs" are such a royal pain in the ass.

So when my hosts here on the island of Anguilla insisted I make "kabobs" for last night's dinner, I was having nightmare visions. It was all I could do to conceal my dread. I felt a bit of sympathy for the host, that she had so easily fallen victim to the "kabob's" erzatz allure. But mostly what I was feeling was dread.

The host produced 34 steel skewers and a bag of smaller, wooden ones. Thankfully, the party then left for a long boat ride, leaving me to consider my options.

In a flash of insight, my catering experience provided a solution. Imagining how I would present perfectly cooked "kabobs" at exactly the right moment for dinner, I had the good sense to dispel entirely with the idea of cooking these on the grill outside the back door. Instead, I would cook each component part of the "kabob" separately and to the desired doneness, then assemble the "kabobs" at my leisure, to be re-heated just before dinner.

Fortnately, our villa came equipped with a heavy, iron griddle-grill that sort of straddles two burners on the gas range. So there I spent a good portion of the day, cooking off pieces of bell peppers, wedges of red onion (with the root end left intact, to the onion doesn't fall apart), large mushrooms and finally a whole 12-pound slab of of beef ribeye purchased from the local restaurant supply, Merchant's Market, and broken down into large chunks. I marinated the beef with a bottle of teryaki sauce. It grilled perfectly fine.

Then to constructing a sample "kabob" and copying it, assembly-line fashion, 33 times. There was indeed enough meat and vegetables left over to make several smaller "kabobs" on the wooden skewers for the kids.

In addition, we had a potato salad from eight pounds of white potatoes with a mayo dressing seasoned with a tarragon mustard and terragon vinegar. I also salted and squeezed the liquid from three heads of cabbage, then dressed it with the vinegar-mustard preparation for the Southern cole slaw advocated by Scott Peacock.

Again, the meal went out to the buffet exactly on cue, and I'm not sure anyone suspected that the "kabobs" had not been sweated over and labored over on the outdoor grill. I even had time to make pina coladas with fresh pineapple and some of the coconuts that fall off the palm trees in the back yard...

Friday, June 15, 2007

A Big Pot of Gumbo

Almost as important as what to serve a large group is getting the food on the table in a timely manner. Nothing makes 33 people more antsy than arriving at the dinner table then having to make small talk while the chef has a meltdown in the kitchen.

So everything around here is made ahead with just some last minute re-heating or finish cooking before the food goes out to the buffet. One of my other rules is, Never make anything for a crowd that you haven't made before. Of course I violated that rule on the very first night when I turned some pretty awful frozen chicken breasts into a gumbo I'd never seen before, to go along with a coconut rice and bean dish that I've never been completely successful at.

But I do know how to make a roux, and last night I found that it translates easily into a big pot dish. So into the pot went 2 1/2 cups of corn oil (along with a small jar of bacon drippings) and 2 1/2 cups of flour. This was definitely a two beer roux, and while it was browning, just so I wouldn't be standing around holding my bottle of beer, I cooked off eight yellow onions, diced small, and a bunch of celery, also diced small, and a whole head of garlic, chopped fine, and several fist-fulls of chopped parsley.

I was using one of Jessica Harris' books as a reference with this particular dish, which called for all kinds of seafood, including crabs or crab meat, I think. I had bought 12 pounds of frozen shrimp from the Merchant's Market, or restaurant supply here on the island. They still had the shells on, but the shells were split down the back and the veins removed. So my next step simply entailed removing the shells from those 12 pounds of shrimp--you can see my shell removal station in the photo above. The shells were then were cooked in water for about 30 minutes yeilding a fine stock for the gumbo.

When the roux was a lovely chestnut brown, in went the onions, celery and garlic and parsley as well as the stock from the shrimp shells. The result was a large pot of fairly thick gumbo that only required the addition of the shrimp, just before folks sat down for dinner.

While the gumbo sat on the stove doing its thing, I baked 34 classic biscuits for strawberry shortcake. I'd been planning to use the frozen strawberries that proliferate on the island (along with all the other frozen foods) but stumbled upon many 16-ounce boxes of fresh strawberries at Proctor's market, which is the spitting image of an American supermarket here on Anguilla. (I still think Albert's has a wider selection of goods, though.)

In between mixing biscuit batter and baking them off, I trimmed and macerated the strawberries with plenty of granulated sugar. Those went into the fridge to wait for their moment of glory.

To accompany the gumbo, I cooked 2 1/2 pounds of long-grain white rice with diced onion and green bell pepper and seasoned it the way the islanders do--from a bottle of chicken flavor crystals.

It was a fine buffet. The shrimp went into the pot (or rather two pots at this point) and cooked perfectly. They were presented in the gumbo in a huge mixing bowl with a ladle. The rice was piled into an aluminum turkey roasting pan that we have been using for just this purpose. And on the side was a great green salad with fresh tomaoes and cucumbers.

While the crowd was filling their plates, I used a very long bar to stage 34 dessert plates and set about splitting the biscuits and doling out the strawberries and a quart of heavy cream beaten into a thick laterh. By the time the gumbo was eaten, the tops had been replaced on the strawberry shortcakes. The plates quickly disappeared.

It was a very fine meal...

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Kitchen Insurrection

I'd been told that some of the teenagers in our group would be helping me in the kitchen. Sure enough, like clockwork they make their presence known shortly after dinner and we've developed a quick, surefire system for washing dishes.

It quickly became evident to me that it would be faster and easier to just wash dishes for 33 persons rather than trying to stack them all in the dishwasher. Actually, we have two dishwashers. But the biggest dinner plates don't fit. So I've trained the crew to stack plates and silver on a sideboard outside the kitchen passthrough. With one person washing, a second drying and me carrying the dishes to the pantry, we've got this down to a science.

But--and a large BUT here--last night a group of the adults volunteered and immediately the questions started.

"Why do we have to wash dishes?"

"Don't they fit in the dishwasher?"

"Can't the housekeeper do it?"

It was turning into a full-blown mutinee. I finally had to assert my chef's priveledges and tell the adults they were acting worse than children and if they couldn't take directions, they should find a replacement who would.

That quieted them down. But I know what they're thinking. So the new rule is, no more adults in the kitchen. Or, if you insist on helping, raise my rate.

We are now seriously on the hunt for local lobsters. I priced frozen Maine lobster tails at the island's main restuarant supply and they came in at a whopping $40 per pound. (So don't be surprised by the price on your restaurant menu.) It would seem logical that the local, clawless Caribbean lobsters would be cheaper. But just try finding them.

Oh, there are fishermen and trappers out there on the azure seas, hunting the spiny lobsters. But they all go to area restaurants. You don't see them in the market. But a very nice gentleman named Leslie at our local grocer's, Ashley & Sons, has put the word out to some of the local fishing contacts that we need 35 lobsters. I plan to split them in half and grill them, according to local custom. Maybe we could get by with 17 lobsters and add beef kabobs. My hosts are hounding me for kabobs.

On the subject of seafood, my latest reading is "The Empty Ocean," and you don't have to go far for evidence of that. We had also thought we'd make a dinner of the local fish, which typically means snapper.

I know from the Seafood Watch program at Monterey Bay Aquarium that most snapper is on the "avoid" list. We learned that the best source for local fish is a small bait and tackle shop called The Fishery where the fishermen bring their catch in the afternoon and the fish is cleaned. We stopped by and got instruction to call around 2 pm to see what kind of fish had been landed. When we called, we were told that all of the fish--snapper--were too small to fillet.

Can we asuume that if the locals spend the day on the water and can't bring in anything big enough to fillet, it means the big fish have already been eaten? And now they're hauling in the juveniles?

Not a good sign...

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Fettucini Alfredo for 33

Our villa on Blowing Point comes equipped with a grill. It looks like a big oxygen tank with legs, something homemade. But driving around the island, I've noticed more just like it. So it must be the preferred design.

My host family has been pressing for some barbecue and I had been balking at the idea of standing out in the rather intense heat and humidity, which lets up not very much at all even in the breeze. Among the foods the family brought frozen to the island were about three dozen individual fillets mignon wrapped with bacon. I had these defrosting in the refrigerator designated for Tuesday dinner. But the host thought they were on the small side.

"Can we make another side dish," she asked.

For some reason, fettucine Alfredo just popped out of my mouth. I had no idea if I'd find the ingredients. But in my foraging through "The Valley"--basically the closest thing to a "downtown" on Anguilla--I located the new Albert's supermarket. Really, a huge place. It could pass for a supermarket in the States. Except for the typically small selection of produce and fresh meats.

I have an instant theory that things that don't sell very well up north find their way to the store shelves down here. For instance, every kind of sausage and prepared meant--or so it seems--is made from turkey. Turkey salami, turkey Kielbasa, turkey pastrami.

What Albert's does have is a wide selection of pasta, including fettucini, as well as heavy cream by the quart and butter in one-pound bricks. No fresh parmesan, sadly. Just the bottles of grated cheese.

So here's what happened. I fired up the grill and gave the fillets, still partially frozen, a good sear to mark them. I set those aside and boiled three pounds of fettucine. These I chilled in a water bath, then drained and oiled lightly. We had several loaves of leftover bread. I turned these into some garlicky croutons for a Caesar salad (Albert's had the dressing in jars). I sauteed a head of garlic in nearly a pound of butter, poured in a quart of cream, about a pound of frozen peas and an 8-ounce bottle of parmesan for the Alfredo sauce.

All of this was waiting for the appointed dinner hour. No cooking a la minute around here. Around 5 pm I turned on the two ovens, one to warm the noodles and some Idaho potatoes I had baked earlier. The second over was set to 350 degrees to finish the steaks.

At 6 pm, with very little effort, we established a buffet with a chopping block groaning with steaks cooked medium-rare, the baked potatoes with sour cream, a big pan of Fettucine and a Caesar salad.

That meal, ladies and gentleman, was something to be hold. When I next came to the dinner table, I was greeted with applause.

Damn, we are good sometimes...

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

They Drive on the Left Down Here...

...but no accidents so far.

A lovely flight to St. Martin, quick cab ride and one ferry boat later, I am on the peaceful Island of Anguilla.

I am writing you from an internet cafe/grocery store in sun-drenched Shoal Bay, and soon back to the villa to prepare grilled fillet mignon (brought frozen by my employers), but since they are fairly small steak, also fettucine Alfredo in addition to the Caesar salad and baked potato (they insisted) that had already been planned on.

Last night wasn't my best: Does anyone know how to make "rice and peas" (that Caribbean for white rice with kidney beans) using coconut milk in the rice? I can't seem to make this dish work without turning the rice almost into a pudding before it is cooked through.

I have some wonderful photos that I will have to upload on my return to the District of Columbia. I've lucky to get a keyboard and a screen. But you won't hear any complaints from me.

It is hot as the dickens. Humid, too. Like the Washington in August, just as I expect. We have strong breezes, crystal clear views across the water to St. Martin and thunderstorms at night.

My employers are requesting lobster sometime this week, so I suppose I'll have to grab my snorkeling gear and get busy. Grocery shopping has never been so much fun. As expected, produce is weak. They don't grow anything on the island. Everything from thumb tacks to graph paper to lettuce is shipped in. Hence, rows and rows of frozen food and canned goods in the grocery stores.

Later, everyone....

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Leaving on a Jet Plane

The day has finally arrived. This morning I depart from the District of Columbia to the island of Anguilla, where I will play personal chef to a family reunion of 33 persons for the week.

A special airliner, one of the original Pan Am turboprops, has been chartered for our convenience. The only hitch: you have to dress in 1940s attire--coat and tie for the gents, no less. I don't know how comfortable this is going to be on Anguilla, where the temperature when you wake up in the morning starts around 80 degrees. Thankfully, the average doesn't climb much higher than 87 in the heat of the day, or so I'm told.

Our plane will be landing on St. Martin where I then hire a taxi for a ride to the other end of that island to catch a ferry to Anguilla. Apparently, the ferry to Anguilla is about a half-hour trip over the azure seas of the Caribbean. Once there, I will be very close to my final destination, a pair of gigantic villas with numerous bedrooms and fresh water pools.

I have no idea what to expect of the kitchen accomodations. My assignment is to plan menus, hunt for provisions and put dinner on the table each evening. If there is any time leftover, I will be searching for the nearest internet cafe so that I can keep you and yours apprised of the goings on down there. I do not--repeat, do not--expect this to be a vacation. No swimming or beach lounging for me. No pina coladas, no sun tanning. It's just work, work, work.

One question: Are they allowing sunscreen on the plane these days?

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Travels with Bob

Our friend Bob, the artist, recently took off from his home in Southern France for a trip by automobile to the far reaches of Northeastern Italy.

We received a couple of e-mails from Bob (he claims to be tech-illiterate, but he's learned how to send e-mails with photos attached).

And rather than me translating, I'll just let Bob tell it in his own words and pictures. But do note the sun-dappled, park-like settings, the gorgeous food, the wine, the wonderfully relaxed looking people...

On the road near Alps, spent night driving till about 2:00am, then slept in car.

Decided to spend half a day in a little town on Lake Garda to paint and bike around.

At 7:00 am there's nobody, perfect time to paint. Then on to Palmanova in Friuli, and to the little village of Cluoiano where Sarah was working in the beautiful Villa Manin.

I helped do some restoration and did a portrait of Vittoria, the lovely daughter of Count Maoro.

It was hot so we spent a lot of time in the pool and drinking delicious vino bianco from the region. I also had a lot of time to bike around to some other cities, Udine, Chividale and even into Slovenia.

more later

And then this note:

Penticost Monday they have a big feast in most parts of Europe. Sarah and I went to a small church just outside Cluoiano at midday to see the mass and feast at the table with the Italians.

After many glasses of wine and some great food ( really the best pancetta in all of Italy), and a little BINGO and many hours with wonderful people and some spilt wine we were still a little thirsty, so Gino suggests we go to his place for some Grappa he makes himself. Then we take a bunch of the grappa to some other friends place, and then I think we somehow got back to our bikes and biked home.

A fun day that I'll never forget, if I could only remember.