Wednesday, October 31, 2007

A Time to Braise

I am waking these days to the sound of the furnace clicking on. The recent plunge of the mercury adds a sense of urgency around the garden. We are bringing in the last of the tomatoes. The basil needs to be turned into pesto and frozen. We have a sudden taste for the deep flavors that attend the change in seasons.

In the summer, I am not so interested in cooking. I think I could easily survive on tomatoes from the garden, just raw with a little dressing, a shave of Parmesan cheese. Or perhaps some freshly dug potatoes, simply prepared and seasoned with a drizzle of olive oil, some coarse salt.

When cold weather arrives, though, I bring out the big guns, the heavy pot I using for braising. Now it is time to celebrate those tough cuts of meat, the muscles that have been working so hard and need a long, slow cooking to come up tender and moaning in their own unctuous juices.

Lamb shanks are one such cut. They are full of flavor and used to be so inexpensive. But now cooks have discovered them and they are not nearly so cheap, but not so dear that they can't be enjoyed from time to time. They don't need much in the way of treatment to yield a great depth of flavor. One of our favorite places for lamb shanks is a little Egyptian place a few blocks for our home where the food is like home cooking and a generous plate doesn't take a huge bite out of your wallet.

The best recipe for lamb shanks I know is from The Union Square Cafe Cookbook. The finished shanks are extremely rich and tender, falling off the bone, with a great depth of flavor from garlic and herbs. This should be served when you want to fill the house with meaty aromas.

The original recipe calls for cooking the shanks in the oven at 325 degrees, but I usually cook my braises at a lower temperature, around 250.

Preheat oven to 250 degrees

6 garlic cloves
4 lamb shanks
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 cups sliced onions
2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary
2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1 cup white wine
3 cups veal stock (or substitute a mix of beef and chicken stock)

Cut one of the garlic cloves in half and rub it all over the lamb shanks. Slice the other cloves thin and set aside. Season the shanks with salt and pepper and dredge in flour.

Over moderately high heat, heat olive oil in a heavy pot or Dutch oven and brown the lamb shanks, in batches if necessary. Remove shanks from pot and set aside.

Toss the onions and sliced garlic into the pot and cook, stirring to scrape any brown bits off the bottom of the pot, until the onions are soft, about 5 minutes. Add rosemary, mint, thyme and parsley and cook another 3 or 4 minutes.

Add the wine to the pot, raise the heat and reduce by half. Stir in the veal stock (or beef-chicken stock mix), season with salt and pepper to taste and bring to a simmer. Place shanks in the pot, cover and bake for about 3 hours, or until the meat is fork-tender.

Uncover the pot and turn the oven up to 500 degrees. Let the shanks brown in the oven for about 20 minutes, basting the meat thoroughly with the pot juices every 5 minutes or so.

Remove the shanks from the pot and cover them to stay warm. Strain the pot into a bowl and use a bulb baster to skim off as much fat as possible. Return the gravy to the put and reduce by half over high heat on the stove. Serve the lamb, spooning some of the gravy over the meat and presenting the rest in a sauceboat on the side.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Dark Days: Meal 2

There is always this chicken-and-egg question when shopping for the family dinner: do we approach our provisioning with a preconceived menu in mind, or do we see what the market has to offer and make our meal around that?

I went to the Dupont Circle farmers market on Sunday knowing exactly what I wanted: a big, ripe chicken to roast on my charcoal spit. The sides for this meal were still a bit vague, but I was sure I would find something in the teeming morass of vegetable vendors.

Sure enough, at one of the vegetable stands I noticed cartons of okra, still fresh and alert. This has to be the last okra of the season. And though I think this is cheating a bit (okra hardly being "dark days" food--more like August), I thought, Why don't we just save the turnips for later?

Then I spied these big, glorious sweet potatoes and a summery menu began to take shape: fried okra and sweet potato salad. Now all I needed was that chicken, down at the Eco-Friendly food stall at the other end of the market. I made a beeline for the poultry coolers, but all I saw were breasts and miscellaneous pieces. A dark cloud of dread began to form over my well-laid plans.

"We didn't have any whole chickens to bring this week," said one of the salesmen, apparently reading my mind. "But we do have these poussins," and he directed my gaze to a display of little immature chickens--les poussins. Too small for the charcoal spit. But fine for roasting in the oven. My plans would not be completely thwarted.

So here you see my take on Meal 2, Halloween Week. Call it the last of the summer menus: Oven-roasted poussin with a sage-garlic rub, fried okra and sweet potato salad with toasted pecans and a orange-maple syrup dressing.

In other words, I will continue with whatever summer leavings the farmers market has to offer, until the November winds blow us right into fall.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Adios, Bulk Spices

First it was the Israeli couscous, then the whole wheat couscous. Today I trekked down to Whole Foods for a small quantity of ground coriander and found the entire display of bulk spices had disappeared.

Used to be there was a shelving unit near the food supplements stocked with big jars of all kinds of commonly used spices--cinnamon, cumin, allspice, fennel seed, mustard seed. You just scooped what you needed into a small plastic bag and rang it up at the cash register.

There were distinct advantages to this system: you only took as much spice as you needed, so it didn't have to sit on a spice rack at home going stale. And you didn't waste the glass jar, plastic lid, labels and whatever other packaging normally comes with spices from the typical spice aisle.

That, at least, used to be one of the attractions of going to Whole Foods, something that set the eco-grocer apart from other purveyors. But now the bulk spices are history, replaced by health books or something. There's no indication the spices were ever there.

"People found out that if they bought less than a quarter-pound they didn't have to pay for it," said one of the clerks, meaning the spices didn't weigh hardly anything in small quantities, so they didn't register on the scale at checkout. The cashiers would panic for a minute, then simply toss the spice bag in with your other groceries, gratis.

"We were losing tons of money, and I think we're one of the last stores to get rid of it," the clerk said.

I suppose it would have been too much trouble to devise some other system so that customers could still purchase the spices they needed--and only what they needed, without the packaging--and pay for them as well. It does make a shopper feel like a bit of a nobody when these changes occur overnight, without any notice--like falling off a cliff where there used to be a road. Don't we deserve at least a bit of signage, a little crumb of info?

Call me naive for thinking there must be a better way...

Steel Cut Oats

It's official. Yesterday in recognition of the cooler weather settling in I replaced the usual granola in a client's breakfast with steel cut oats.

This whole grain cereal may be one of the healthiest foods on the planet, but I like it particularly for the nutty texture. Still, many consumers have never heard of steel cut oats, sometimes labeld "oat groats."

More popular are the ubiquitous rolled oats, which are oat grains hulled, then pushed through steel rollers to flatten them. For instant oatmeal, the grains are first cooked, then rolled out super-thin. Steel-cut oats, on the other hand, start with the whole grain--meaning the unadulterated bran, germ and endosperm, where all the nutrition is--then are cut into small pieces with steel blades and left unrolled so they look like little nubs of brown rice.

A single serving, or 1/4 cup dry, of steel-cut oats contains 150 calories, no sodium, very little fat, and plenty of dietary fiber.

Oats grow especially well in the cool moist climates of of the British Isles. Not surprisingly, oat porridge is practically the national dish of the Scotts. In this country the steel-cut variety is available from Quaker Oats and others, notably the McCann's company, which packs its product in a metal container with a distinctively old-fashioned and classy looking label. But you can also buy steel-cut oats in bulk at health food stores and groceries such as Whole Foods.

As you might imagine, the cooking time for steel-cut oats is longer than what you may be used to if your only experience is with rolled oats. Some recipes call for several hours of cooking to achieve a really creamy porridge. I recently saw a blog post recommending cooking steel-cut oats in a slow cooker with dried fruits. Apparently you can also prepare them in a rice cooker. Mine usually simmer on the stove for about an hour.

You can cook steel-cut oats in milk or in salted water. One method recommended by McCann's is to soak the oats overnight. Bring four cups water to boil, add one cup steel-cut oats and stir until the water is absorbed. Leave to soak overnight, then bring the cereal back to a boil in the morning and cook until tender.

A better breakfast than cooked outs with some raisins, chopped walnuts and brown sugar is hard for me to imagine.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Weekend Update

Yes, Virginia, we used to eat something called "vegetables."

On the all-powerful Oprah Show recently, Jessica Seinfeld, wife of comedian Jerry Seinfeld, got a huge platform on which to tout her new method of eating, wherein children never have to be bothered with vegetables again because they're pureed and concealed in favorite foods such as chicken tenders, macaroni and cheese and even brownies.

There was a certain surreal air about Oprah-the-media-queen exclaiming--on and on and on--over this boneheaded idea. But then she did it again just a few days later when Jerry himself appeared on the show to pitch his new film, Bee Movie. The camera soon panned to Jessica, seated front and center in the audience, grinning and blushing as Oprah again heaped endless kudos on the cookbook, Deceptively Delicious, and told how she has taken to serving Jessica's recipes to guests.

But hold on. Now the food media are all atwitter with speculation that Jessica may have plagiarized some of her recipes from another, very similar book called The Sneaky Chef, by someone named Missy Chase Lapine (can this be a real person?). Even the subtitles are too much alike: Simple Secrets to Get Your Kids Eating Good Food for Seinfeld, and Simple Strategies for Hiding Healthy Foods in Kids Favorite Meals, for Lapine.

More astounding than the similarities, however, is the notion that such an assault on a basic food group could be published not once, but twice. Mimi Sheraton, the former New York Times food critic writing in Slate, says, "A pox on both their houses."

"Both propose a culinary scheme that is, basically, totally stupid, to say nothing of dishonest," writes Sheraton

Opines food guru Marion Nestle: "Sneaking vegetables into desserts so kids will eat healthier foods seems like such a bad idea that I can’t believe anyone would do a book on it let alone two people with virtually identical recipes."

The idea is to turn the vegetables into purees, then work these into foods that kids really like. But if it comes to that, why bother with the vegetables at all? Just use manufactured food supplements that contain all the necessary vitamins and minerals in their purest forms.

My own experience teaching kids about food is that there is a huge range of like/dislike when it comes to vegetables. Older kids are definitely more receptive, but you can usually increase interest by getting young ones involved in the preparation process. Or, do we want to raise a generation that doesn't know what vegetables are? Maybe we just don't have time.

We can't wait to see if Oprah forces Jessica Seinfeld back on the show to come clean...

******

Or, maybe what we should be doing is slathering that pureed broccoli on our skin instead of sunblock. New research, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that broccoli stimulates the body's natural anti-cancer fighting abilities. One drawback: smearing broccoli on your skin apparently also inhibits the sun-induced production of vitamin D.

Also, there's the small problem of walking around the beach looking like a broccoli spear. Apparently, more work needs to be done on the cosmetic angle...

*****

And where do you find broccoli and other healthy vegetables on Google Maps?

School children are using the latest Google technology to locate where the good food is in their home neighborhoods. This after a California study showed that typically there are four times as many junk food options in the form of fast food outlets as there are sources for healthy food in areas where kids traffic.

Students in the food class at the June Jordan School for Equity in San Francisco were so taken with the idea that they created their own Google map, showing where the good and bad food sources were in proximity to their homes.

The Urban Sprouts program shows how to create your own food map and turn it into a point of departure for talking food with children.

****

On the subject of fast food, it has just come to our attention that Doritos is a major sponsor of comedian Stephen Colbert's campaign for president.

Kat at the Eating Liberally blog has a fascinating conversation on the subject with food authority Marion Nestle, who speculates that PepsiCo, the parent company of Doritos, may have given up on traditional ways of promoting the brand.

"PepsiCo has much to gain from this alliance. Either PepsiCo is giving up on Doritos or looking for unconventional ways to promote them, as the company has pulled back on the usual ways of advertising them," says Nestle. "PepsiCo spent $29,763,000 on media advertising for Doritos in 2005 but a mere $12,856,000 in 2006 (source: Advertising Age). That leaves about $17 million for other ways of marketing Doritos. Hence: the Colbert campaign."

So all of you who find Colbert's humor a bit cheesy may be more right than you thought...

*****

Finally, we here at the Slow Cook News Desk are all about engaging cooks in contemplating that thin zone between terra firma and the troposphere where life as we know it exists. Today, we are offering this film snippet courtesy of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation that shows in graphic terms what is meant by the "dead zone" in the world's largest tidal estuary.

Once teaming with life, the Chesapeake is dying in front of our eyes, due largely to all the fertilizer run-off from agriculture and suburban lawns in a watershed that encompasses a huge area of the Mid-Atlantic, from the Shenandoah all the way into central New York State.

Here you will see water quality scientists doing their usual, mundane rounds, scooping mud off the bottom of the bay and finding that it stinks of rotten eggs for lack of oxygen. Life cannot be sustained.

In summer, the dead zone stretches all the way from the Bay Bridge outside Annapolis to the mouth of the bay in Virginia. A similar dead zone exists where the Mississippi River--carrying effluent from half the country's farmland--empties into the Gulf of Mexico. Fertilizers in the run-off feed blooms of algea, which suck all the oxygen out of the water, making it uninhabitable for fish and other wildlife.

As always, bon appetit...

Saturday, October 27, 2007

The Unbearable Lightness of Pickled Green Tomatoes

A year ago around this time I was driving 30 miles to a farm supply in Annapolis to buy a jar of something called "pickling lime." It's not that I will go to any lengths to find the most obscure ingredients, but I had a peck of green tomatoes on my hands and a recipe for pickling them that called for "pickling lime." I'd called every food and kitchen purveyor, every hardware store-- everybody I could think of in the area--and the closest jar of "pickling lime" was in Annapolis.


Well, it was worth the trip, because those were some damn fine pickles--sweet pickles made with lots of vinegar, sugar, mustard seed, allspice, cinnamon. I gave many jars to friends but had many more green tomato pickles to munch on throughout the year. In fact, I still have one jar in the refrigerator to dip into. I just have to remember to keep it within eyeshot, not hidden behind a bag of cornmeal.


So what is this "pickling lime," anyway?


Lime has been used in food processing for thousands of years. Derived from limestone, chalk or oyster shells, it was used by natives in Mexico and points south to treat dried corn, removing the tough husks and, once ground, turning it into something called "masa" that could be fried as tortillas. Unbeknownst to the Indians, the lime had the added nutritional benefit of making the niacin in the corn available for human digestion, preventing the wasting disease pellagra. This method of processing corn is now called nixtimalization.


Lime for pickling is calcium hydroxide. It has the effect of crisping vegetables by introducing calcium and reinforcing the naturally occurring pectin in whatever is being pickled. Since it is extremely alkaline, however, lime needs to be thoroughly rinsed out of the vegetables before the pickling process can begin. Otherwise, the lime will neutralize the acids that may be required to preserve the food, resulting in spoilage.


I'm not an expert in canning by any means. I feel much safer around recipes that call for lots of salt or vinegar or sugar. This particular recipe for sweet green tomato pickles comes from Fancy Pantry, a book we've turned to on a number of occasions for delicious preserves, pickles and sauces. You will need pickling lime, which is available on-line if you don't happen to have a farm supply or hardware store nearby that stocks a lot of canning items.


You will also need to process the pickles once they are in jars. I improvise when it comes to the tools for heating the canning jars and getting them in and out of the hot water bath. If you've never canned before, best to do some research and make any necessary purchases before you start cooking the tomatoes. I have to say that if I were to change anything about the way I approach this, it would be to buy a good pair of specialized canning tongs for handling the jars.

And just where do you get these green tomatoes? Why, from all those tomato plants in your garden that are beginning to fade, of course. Or check your nearest farmers market. Late in the season is when the tomato growers would be trying to get rid of their unripened crop. We had plenty. Some of the plants we set out late are still producing, but not much longer. And then I picked up a big bag of green tomatoes at the Washington Youth Garden here in the District of Columbia, where I am tending a small vegetable plot.

One note about this recipe: the lime soaking liquid turned out to be enough to process twice as many tomatoes as the recipe calls for. I don't know why. But since I already hand twice as many tomatoes on hand, I used it all. And if I'd been thinking clearly, I would have found a way to use the first batch of cooking liquid for the other half of the tomatoes. Perhaps I'll remember to do that next time.


For five pints of pickled green tomatoes:


4 pounds completely green tomatoes (do not use any that are showing even the slightest hint of ripening)

6 quarts water
1 cup pickling lime
1 1/2 pounds onion
5 cups cider vinegar
5 cups sugar
1/4 cup pickling or other non-iodized salt
3 tablespoons mustard seed
3 teaspoons celery seed
2 teaspoons whole peppercorns
2 teaspoons whole allspice
1 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves


In a very large non-reactive mixing bowl (do not use aluminum), mix the pickling lime and the water. The lime has a tendency to not dissolve completely and collect on the bottom of the bowl. Not to worry. It will still do the job.

Cut the tomatoes into moderately thin wedges and place in the lime-water mix. Stir gently to coat all of the tomatoes with lime solution. Cover and let the tomatoes soak 24 hours, stirring occasionally to mix up the lime.


Following the soaking period, use a colander to rinse the tomatoes thoroughly in cold water three or four times to remove all the lime. Some of the tomato seeds with rinse out and collect in the sink. Again, do not be concerned.


Peel the onions and cut them into thin strips, a bit thinner than the tomatoes.


Combine the vinegar, sugar, salt, mustard seed, celery seed, peppercorns, allspice, turmeric, cinnamon and cloves in a processing pan or large heavy pot. Bring mixture to a boil and cook, uncovered for two minutes. Add the tomatoes and onions, bring to a boil again and continue cooking over moderate heat, pushing the vegetables down under the surface occasionally, until the tomatoes begin to look translucent, about 15 minutes. Be careful not to overcook them.


Ladle the hot pickles into clean, hot, pint-sized canning jars leaving 1/4 inch of headspace and dividing the spices among the jars (there will be lots of leftover mustard seeds). Use a dowel or the thin handle of a wooden spoon to remove any air bubbles that may be lurking among the pickles. Seal the canning jars with two-piece lids according to the manufacturer's instructions and process for 10 minutes in a boiling water bath (I use a pasta pot with built-in strainer for this, but there are special canning devices made especially for this purpose).


Allow the jars to cool, then label them. Let the pickles mellow for a month before consuming. And not to worry--you will want to be consuming these pickles as often as possible.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Meatless Cassoulet

We catered a dinner party for a client last night and we were especially puffed up over the fact that most of the food came from our garden here in the District of Columbia about one mile from the White House.

The world may be going to hell in a handbasket elsewhere, but our front yard here is still making great food.

The opening salad, for instance, was harvested just hours before the guests arrived: a half-dozen varieties of greens provided a background for Purple Cherokee and Brandywine tomatoes tossed with multi-colored beets. Around an entree of sweet-and-sour braised chicken thighs, we served minted orange and golden carrots, and this incredible casserole of beans, tomatoes and toasted bread crumbs.

I'm calling it a meatless cassoulet but of course it isn't a cassoulet at all. It only cooks in the oven for about an hour, but the flavors so remind me of the famous dish of confit and sausage and beans from Southwestern France that a comparison is almost inevitable.

I saw Alice Waters demonstrate this dish on television where she used cranberry beans. I wanted to see if it would adapt to the "lima" beans we grew in our garden this year, of which there was a ton still to be eaten. I put quotes around the "lima" part because these were not the lima beans with which I have been familiar since childhood--those bright green beans that some people love so much to hate. They came out of the pods a mottled brown and white and turned a deep chocolate brown when cooked, reminding me more of the dried fava beans you find in the Middle Eastern grocery.

Whatever they are, they have a wonderfully deep, meaty and satisfying flavor. I thought they would compare favorably to cranberry beans and I think they actually outdo them for flavor in this casserole.

For a small casserole, you need about 1 1/2 cups of cooked beans, saving the cooking liquid (I cooked mine with some onion, garlic, thyme, bay leaf). Set those aside and saute in some extra-virgin olive oil 1/2 medium onion, diced small, and a large clove of garlic--or two--finely chopped. Season with coarse salt. Add several sage leaves, chopped fine to make about 1 tablespoon.

Meanwhile, toast fresh bread crumbs made by removing the crusts from a couple of thick slices of rustic bread (we've been using a loaf with rosemary) and pulsing them in a food processor until broken down into small pieces.

Toss the cooked beans, the onion-garlic-sage mix and a medium heirloom tomato roughly chopped (about 1 cup). Season with salt and pepper and pour this into your casserole. Pour leftover bean cooking liquid into the casserole to just cover the vegetable mix. (You can use chicken stock if you don't have bean cooking liquid). Top with bread crumbs and place in a 375-degree oven. Bake until the bread crumbs are golden brown and the liquid has been absorbed. Serve warm.

Beans, onion, garlic, sage--what a great combination, and the bread crumbs almost make the dish a meal in itself. Try this and see if it doesn't taste like a meatless cassoulet to you. You will be hungering for the leftovers.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Kids Make Middle Eastern Garden Pickles

Kids love to prep vegetables. I mean the peeling and slicing and chopping. So I wondered if there was any way to construct a lesson for my "food appreciation" classes that might combine a mess of vegetables with my urge to pickle, pickling being a very seasonal activity right now, and we are all about being seasonal in our "food appreciation" classes.

I found the answer in a book called Quick Pickles, a kind of global survey of pickling techniques and recipes. There are pickles from China, Japan, Thailand, India, Central America, the U.S. and of course the kind of Old World pickles we are all so familiar with. There are also some fascinating pickles using ingredients you might not have thought of before--pickled peaches, mangoes, pineapples, turnips and cranberries, squash and sage. There's a wealth of ideas in Quick Pickles, and perfect for hour-long classes because these pickles don't involve canning or processing or any kind of exotic equipment.


The ingredient list for Middle Eastern pickles sounds a lot like the minestrone we made last week: carrots, green bell pepper, green beans, radishes, cauliflower, green cabbage, red cabbage, garlic cloves. The brine is a simple mix of white wine vinegar, water and kosher salt. Trim and cut the vegetables into bite-size pieces, then combine with the brine. Let everything sit for three days, then refrigerate. How simple is that?


One drawback to pickling is there's nothing after the lesson for the kids to eat. So I also brought some broccoli along for them to play with. Broccoli has such a bad reputation, but I find that most kids really like it, especially if they get to help with the preparation. I let them cut the broccoli into florets, which my assistant cooked in boiling salted water while we were reading this week's story.


I wanted to read Pickles to Pittsburgh, by the same authors who wrote Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. This is the story of two children who, inspired by a postacard from Gandpa, take off in a plane and find themselves in a strange land where the forests are made of broccoli spears and fruits and vegetables rain from the sky.


I suppose it's hardly surprising that the library here in the District of Columbia is not exactly overflowing with story books in which pickles play a central role. But I did find Pickles to Pittsburgh last year for our pickling session and hoped to do so again. The librarians searched high and low but could not find the copy of Pickles to Pittsburgh that was supposed to be on the shelves in the children's section. I had to improvise and ran across something called The Incredible Book Eating Boy, which does make some fascinating culinary connections as well as teaching the value of reading, as opposed to eating books.


Afterwards our broccoli was waiting for us, fresh out of the cook pot. I served it very simply, with just a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil and a dusting of parmesan cheese. Some of the kids balked at the cheese, but otherwise they agreed this was a most excellent snack.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Happy Birthday Slow Cook

In response to an earlier post about the experience of browning chicken in a friend's extraordinary enameled iron pan, family members offered to donate one (enameled pan, that is) to The Slow Cook's kitchen battery. So I arranged an outing with my in-laws to Arundel Mills Mall outside Annapolis to visit the Le Creuset outlet.



At least we thought we were going to visit the Le Cruiset outlet.



After parking in what must be one of the world's largest stretches of asphalt, we entered a mall the size of a small city and made a bee-line for where mother-in-law had last seen Le Creuset. Well, darned if we drew a complete blank. No Le Creuset outlet to be found, nor was it listed on the store directory.


Had we merely imagined there was a Le Creuset outlet on the premises? Mother-in-law insisted there was--or had been.



So while she went off to delve further in the mysterious disappearance of the cookwares store, father-law-in and I found ourselves standing outside what looked like the entrance to Yosemite National Park--columns of timbers and a pitched lodge roof--that turned out to be something called Pro Bass Shops Outdoor World.



Through the front windows you could see acres of tents and kayaks hanging from the rafters and all sorts of golf clubs lined in rows. Just the place to waste a few minutes while we waited for the Le Crueset mystery to unravel. Except there in the short distance I noticed a sign amidst the camping gear that said "Cooking." I had to see what that was about.



We passed propane stoves and deep fat fryers in all shapes and sizes. There were a hundred or so varieties of beef jerky and several different models of vacuum packers and food dryers, just the thing if you're thinking of a long stay in the woods of Alaska, I thought.

But there at the end of the row I caught my breath: meat grinders and sausage stuffer--oh, there were so many different kinds. And so many different sizes: display models--some as big as my car, it seemed, at least big enough to make sausage out of a deer or elk or moose--and then stacks of them in their boxes ready to take home. Just tons and tons of sausage stuff. Who knew?



Suddenly, I was not so interested in a saute pan anymore.



After inspecting all the different meat grinders I narrowed my choice to the one you see in the photo above, a .25-horsepower machine that will replace the little Rival "Grind-O-Matic" that we inherited from my wife's grandmother. I see many, many links of sausage stretching out before us....



What I did find a little scary was the sheer number of meat grinders and sausage stuffers on display in a store I'd never even heard of before. The beginning of hunting and butchering season approaches, so that would explain the interest in making sausage.



But I suddenly had this eerie feeling that I'd stepped into a parallel universe where I was not the only sausage fanatic on the planet. Apparently, there are many, many others like myself who think filling hog casings with ground up pork and garlic and sage is just the neatest thing. Who could they be? Where are they hiding? Why have I never seen them?



"We just put these out recently," explained the store clerk who came over to check me out. "By spring, they'll all be gone."



Very scary indeed...

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Today's Lunch

Leftover meatloaf with hickory-smoked Benton's bacon and tomato-bell pepper relish.

Salad from the garden with extra-virgin olive oil, champagne vinegar.

Shopping time: none

Preparation time: 10 minutes

Dark Days: Meal One

I recently stumbled upon the "Dark Days Eat Local Challenge" at the Urban Hennery blog and couldn't resist. After all, eating local is a piece of cake during the summer if you have a farmers market anywhere in the vicinity. But what do you do in the winter when the farmers markets close?

That certainly is the case here in the District of Columbia. The only intown farmers market that stays open during the "dark days" is the one at trendy Dupont Circle, where you will find maybe four vendors on duty when those cold January winds blow. Another is across the Potomac River in Arlington, one of the area's oldest farmers markets. I've never been, but maybe this is the year.

In fact, most of the farmers markets in the Washington area close before Thanksgiving. During the winter, farmers are on hiatus. Nothing is growing, unless perhaps it's in a greenhouse destined for the restaurant trade.

One of the exceptions is our farmer friend Brett Grohsgal who is a bit of a fanatic about the arugula and collards and other cold-weather brassicas he grows in St. Mary's County, MD. Brett seems to love nothing better than to dress up in his Carhart overalls, pull on some Neoprene gloves and pick greens in the snow. We subscribe to his CSA, so we'll be getting fresh eggs, an occasional chicken and a bounty of greens and roots all the way to Easter.

Of course, if we'd planned better, we could have done some canning from our garden and from the produce at the farmers market that is so bountiful this time of year. Maybe we'll have our ducks in a row next year.

For now, we are joining the challenge with last night's dinner, local pork chops, pan-seared and smothered in Stayman apples sauteed with Madeira. I also made my new most favorite treatment for acorn squash, sliced and roasted with a pomegranate molasses glaze. Finally, there's a casserole of lima beans, tomatoes, fresh bread crumbs and sage. It was a symphony of browns, big flavors and certainly enough food.

The pork, apples and squash were readily available at the Bloomingdale farmers market, just a mile from our house. The lima beans, tomatoes, herbs and garlic all came from our own garden, the bread crumbs from a rustic rosemary loaf baked at the local Whole Foods.

My own thinking is that certain staples and pantry items--seasonings, flour, olive oil--do not need to be produced locally for the purposes of this challenge. Everything else I will be trying to find in the Washington metro area. I have a feeling this is going to be a lot of work, and take me places I haven't been before.

Sounds like fun, no?

Monday, October 22, 2007

Slow Cook on Video: Composting

I know this is the moment you've all been waiting for: The Slow Cook on film.

Earlier this year I agreed to shoot a series of short takes on the steps involved in composting here in my garden in the District of Columbia. They've been edited and made available free on-line by Kowlera Media as something called "Monkey See." It's like a video version of "About.com," covering every imaginable topic, only with moving graphics.

My part of the process was to write out a script and have everything ready to film when a young man from Kowlera Media showed up with his camera and remote microphone. We then filmed 15 clips: setting up a compost pile, what kinds of material to use, how composting works, how to use it in your garden, composters for urban settings and more.

This is the first time I've seen it since we did the filming--or should I say video-ing. It's pretty neat, and you can watch it all here.

Acorn Squash with Pomegranate Glaze

I'm glad we're coming into fall vegetables. I just wish the weather would cooperate and cool off a little.

Making client meals over the weekend I improvised this tasty and very easy way of preparing acorn squash with pomegranate molasses.

Pomegranate molasses is one of my favorite pantry items. It has a delicious tang and of course a deep flavor of pomegranates. I suppose it's called "molasses" because it is about that thick, pouring very slowly out of its bottle, but is grainier, not nearly as processed looking. Just about any Middle Eastern grocery will carry it.

To prepare the squash, preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Cut a medium acorn squash in half lengthwise and scoop out all the seeds. Now cut the halves across into slices about 3/4-inch thick, leaving the rind. Place the slices on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper and prepare your glaze.

For the glaze, pour two or three tablespoon pomegranate molasses into a small bowl. Add about 1 tablespoon orange juice, a good pinch of brown sugar and 1/2 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice, or your favorite combination of cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg. Mix this thoroughly, then brush over the squash slices. Place in oven and bake about 15 minutes, remove the baking sheet, turn the squash slices with a pair of tongs and glaze the other side of the squash. Return to oven and bake another 15 minutes or so, or until a metal trussing skewer slides through the squash with no resistance.

Serve warm with pork chops or roast turkey, or however you enjoy squash.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Weekend Update

Here in drought-stricken Washington, D.C., word has come from eco-grocer Whole Foods that the sidewalk powerswashing witnessed by shoppers this week was inadvertent.

"I just wanted to drop you a note thanking you for the heads-up on the power washing," store spokeswoman Jane Pearson told The Slow Cook in an e-mail after our item appeared. "We have that on an automatic schedule, and had overlooked stopping them."

Okay, but wait a second. What you're saying is you powerwash the sidewalks on a regular basis, but for some reason during a drought you're on autopilot? I'm just guessing here, but didn't the guy who pulled up with a truckload of compressor and hose announce himself at the store before he started blasting the sidewalk area where customers are normally eating at the cafe-style tables you have set up there?

Not to belabor the point, but Whole Foods does advertise itself as being so concerned about the environment (all that sidewalk and street effluent washes right into the already-overpolluted Anacostia River) and in particular conserving water and energy (both of which powerwashing consumes copiously).

And when did brooms go out of style?

*****

Elsewhere on the local front, we received a visit yesterday at the school garden from a remarkable group of cyclists who have found a way to mix their twin passions of food gardening and bicycling.

Their visit to the container garden at Children's Studio School was part of a "garden hop" they'd organized to support our celebration of D.C. School Garden Week. So I took them on a tour and explained how this 1,600-square-foot garden of mostly native flowers, herbs and food plants had come about pretty much by accident and almost certainly because one of the parents happened to be a carpenter with all the right power tools.

I'm ashamed to say I've been a bit lax in managing the garden this year. Last year we had all kinds of lettuces, broccoli, carrots and other produce for the kids to ogle and play with. We didn't plant much this year, waiting for another Master Gardener to make herself known and pick up some of the load.

I was anxious to meet members of Women's Garden Cycles because they recently returned from a incredible journey, pedealing all the way from D.C. to Montreal and back, visiting all kinds of urban gardens and cutting-edge farms along the way. Do read about it on their blog.

******

It looks like small-scale farmers may be on the verge of a real insurrection, they are so frustrated trying to survive under all the government regulations that favor industrial-scale agriculture. And isn't healthy competition what our system is all about?

Virginia farmer Richard Bean recently found himself in handcuffs. He's been selling his pork products and produce for years to restaurants and at farmers markets in the Charlottesville area. But authorities finally caught up with him for failing to have his meats processed in an inspected facility.

Armed state police troopers wearing flak jackets showed up at Bean's farm last month and confiscated his computer. Bean was charged with felony fraud for which he could face three years in prison. He and his partner are accused of selling meat improperly labeled "certified organic."


"We were trying to skirt the system. A small farm, making it work," Bean, 62, told The Washington Post. "We were able to earn a significant amount more per animal, and that's how we are able to compete with corporate agriculture."

The problem for small livestock farmers like Bean is that consolidation in the livestock business has caused most local meat processing facilities to close. And as The Post reports, he's hardly alone. This month, a county sheriff served Michigan cattle farmer Greg Niewendorp with a warrant before he would allow state agriculture officials to test his herd as part of a program to eradicate tuberculosis.

In Pennsylvania, dairy farmer Mark Nolt refused to obtain a permit to sell unpasteurized milk, prompting officials to raid his farm and confiscate raw milk, cheese and yogurt as well as equipment and sales records.

And in Charlottesville, John Coles and Christine Solem of Satyrfield Farms have dodged state regulations for nearly three years by giving away their raw-milk goat cheese, which is illegal to sell in Virginia. They have been soliciting donations for--a sign in front of their market stand says-- "legislative and court efforts to allow the sales of raw milk, cheese and other farm products."

*****

Even here in the urban confines of the District of Columbia, we've been able to reap a harvest of fresh fruit from trees growing untended along the sidewalks.We made a load of peach pies from one such tree that grows across the street. We had another favorite in an alley down the block. Unfortunately, it was recently cut down. What a pity.

Harvesting unwanted leavings is called "gleaning" and we are happy to do it if it means fresh, local food and saving a few pennies. Our friend and garden blogger Susan Harris recently posted a remarkable story about a family in nearby Takoma Park, MD, whose gleaning in addition to bio-intensive home gardening satisfies most of their food needs.

And here is a group of volunteers in Portland, OR, who turn their enthusiasm for gleaning into a worthy neighborhood cause by donating the produce to local food banks. And they tell us all about it on video.

Who says there's no free lunch?

*****

For those of you still confused about which is worse, eating mercury or not eating fish, there is help.

First, read this post by Brian Halweil and World Watch Institute. Halweil has been writing about the world's oceans for years, and he and his wife are expecting.

Second, take a look at this handy guide on healthy fish from Purdue University.

What usually gets lost in this debate is that the world's fisheries are largely pooped, depleted, fished out. As much as the seafood industry would love us to continue buying fish like there was no tomorrow, there is a tomorrow, and we should all be looking for alternate sources of omega-3, which is important for child development but available not only in non-threatened fish, but also in non-animal foods.

*****

A new survey by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control finds some improvement in fighting poor nutrition and obesity in the nation's schools. Some 30 percent of school districts have banned junk food from school vending machines, up from 4 percent in 2000.

Many schools are also requiring more physical activities. But the news is not all good. For instance, although researchers found that the proportion of schools selling bottled water grew--to 46 percent from 30 percent--they also said three-fourths of high schools sold soft drinks and that 61 percent sold potato chips and other high-fat snacks.

“What we’re seeing is that the nation’s schools really are making progress in addressing the obesity crisis and teenage tobacco use,” said Howell Wechsler, the director of the division of adolescent and school health at the disease agency and an author of the study. “But large numbers of schools are still not implementing recommended policies. We need all the nation’s schools to have environments that make it easy for children to make healthy choices.”

And should we really be thrilled about schools selling bottled water?

Meanwhile, some schools are also dropping French fries from the menu. But here's one school that's fighting fat by charging kids extra for the fries. French fries have been removed as a standard side with lunch at this Pittsburgh-area school, but they're still available for 50 cents.

Isn't that that the American way, a user tax for fries? Maybe they can use the money to start a vegetable orchestra...

*****

Finally, some of you apparently are dying to know what it is we cooked after I challenged a local chef (Ris Lacoste) to design a budget menu from locally-grown ingredients and wrote it up for Edible Chesapeake magazine.

Nothing too complicated, but utterly delicious. We roasted a pastured chicken with ratatouille and served it with roasted potatoes. We finished the meal with juicy white peaches in a local yogurt drizzled with honey.

It was great fun and a great meal and it warmed our hearts to be supporting the local farmers who work so hard to put food on our tables. Considering we had enough food to feed eight people, I thought our bill from the Dupont Circle farmers market was a pretty good deal. But you'll have to pick up a copy of the magazine to find out exactly how much it was we spent.

Friday, October 19, 2007

King Corn: Or How Earl Butz Changed the Way Americans Eat

How does corn grown in Iowa get into the structure of a hair follicle belonging to a guy from Massachussetts?

That is the question that drives two friends--linked by a common Midwestern ancestry--to move to Iowa for a year and plant an acre of corn to see how this ancient crop came to dominate the American diet of the 21st Century.

The result is a romp of a documentary called King Corn that opened here in the District of Columbia last night, a film that manages to charm as well as ask some profound questions about how this country feeds itself.

What eventually emerges from this lighthearted buddy film, however, is a tragic lesson in how a few well-placed individuals--in this case the former secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Earl Butz, working with a supportive president, Richard Nixon, and profit-hungry corporate interests--can alter the life and health of an entire nation in lasting ways. It was Butz, himself raised on a family farm, who flipped the federal system of farm supports on its ear with the specific intention of flooding the country with cheap food.

In this film, you will actually see Butz, now frail and confined to a nursing home, defending decisions that turned Americans into lab rats for corporate agri-business. Butz sees cheap food as a driver of American wealth, but we are now witnessing the true costs of his master plan: a national epidemic of obesity, sky-rocketing health care bills, a generation that most likely will be the first with a shorter life expectancy than its parents'.

After moving to the small Iowa town of Greene, our film-making duo, Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, quickly discover a landscape awash in corn. That's because the federal system Butz devised no longer pays farmers to refrain from overproducing--a system that kept crop prices high in the past--but now actually subsidizes the growing of huge surpluses.

The resulting tsunami of cheap corn becomes an essential ingredient in every fast food joint, in virtually every processed food product on grocery shelves, in the feed of industrially produced poultry, pork and cattle. Laboratory analysis of a human hair snippet shows that the carbon in the body of an average American is, in fact, mainly corn-based. As food author Michael Pollan confirms in the film, nearly everything in the typical American diet revolves around cheap corn.

"We are not growing quality here," declares one Iowa corn farmer. "We're growing crap!"

In fact, the corn grown on most Iowan farms is not edible--not by humans, anyway. The American legacy of diverse, self-sufficient family farming has been tossed in the dust bin. Farms are becoming bigger and bigger, more and more industrial, more and more obsessed with a single crop, and more and more dependent on government stipends. Family farmsteads are plowed under as consolidation swallows up generations worth of agrarian tradition. Our connection to the land has been severed.

The name of the game now is 1,000 acres, a big tractor, genetically-engineered seeds and a tank of anhydrous ammonia fertilizer parked at the end of the rows. Once the seeds are planted, it's just a matter of watching the corn grow, spraying occasionally with pesticides and herbicides, then driving truckloads of corn to the local grain elevator--usually overflowing with grain well before the season is over.

Cheney and Ellis try mightily to get a tour of a high fructose corn syrup plant but are rebuffed. Instead, they get an earful from an industry spokesman, who describes how much tastier food is when treated with HFC. We see tanker trains filled with empty calories, destined for eager bellies on all four compass points.

In tracing the path of corn products outward from Iowa and across the country, we meet a cab driver in Brooklyn who has dropped 100 pounds since he stopped drinking sodas based on corn syrup. He recounts how his father lost his legs to diabetes before dying, how his mother, his sister and he himself all suffer from the disease.

In the end, we are left chuckling as Cheney and Ellis return to their acre the following spring and plant grass, a small act of defiance against the corn juggernaut. But we know that while corn has been very, very good for corporate agri-business, the country is saddled with a huge corn conundrum.

Kids Love Minestrone

Sometimes I am utterly surprised and dumbfounded by what tickles the taste buds of the kids in my "food appreciation" classes. Turns out they are wild for minestrone.

This lesson concludes our study of fresh, seasonal summer fruits and vegetables. In the last month, we covered peaches in a peach cobbler, tomatoes with a fresh hand-made pesto sauce, zucchini carpaccio with goat cheese and cucumbers in a simple salt and vinegar salad.

It's a pretty sure bet that kids will love anything that smacks of dessert. They had mixed feelings about tomatoes and zucchini (they definitely like the zucchini sauteed more than they do the raw version) and they are more open to cucumber.

So who would have guessed you could mix those vegetables and more in a simple soup and they would fall crazy in love?

Minestrone, the classic Italian soup, incorporates so many of the vegetables we associate with summer harvest that it is a perfect match for a trip to the farmer's market this time of year. Onion, carrot, celery, zucchini, green been, potato, tomato, cabbage--this soup has it all. I can't think of a more healthful soup full of flavor and vegetable goodness.

I can recommend it even for the harried cook because it is so easy. Just cook the vegetables until tender in a heavy pot, add broth, cook a bit longer and it's ready to serve with a nice shaving of Parmesan cheese over the top. Of course, there is the matter of some vegetable prep, precisely why I chose it for my classes. The kids were all begging for a chance to use the peeler, to slice carrots and zucchinim, to help clean up.

With this lesson, we read a book called Soup for Supper, about a little old woman who lives alone with her vegetable garden, then one day encounters a giant who unwittingly steals all her vegetables for his soup pot. It's a bit dated, but fun for me to switch voices from wee little woman to big hairy giant.

Minestrone to serve 4 - 6 persons:

extra-virgin olive oil
coarse salt
1/2 small onion, peeled and diced small
1 carrot, peeled and diced small
1 stalk celery, diced small
1/2 zucchini, diced small
1 medium white or red potato, peeled and diced small
handfull of green beans, trimmed and cut into 1/4-inch pieces
1 cup cabbage, cut into 1/2-inch pieces then measured
1 quart chicken broth (preferably homemade)
1 cup water
1/2 14-ounce can cannellini or Great Northern beans, rinsed
1/2 14-ounce can diced tomatoes, drained
Parmesan cheese

Heat about 3 tablespoons olive oil in the bottom of a heavy pot. Add onion, carrot and celery, season with coarse salt (about 1 teaspoon) and cook until onions begin to soften, about five minutes. Add remaining vegetables and continue cooking a few minutes longer. Add chicken broth and water, bring pot to boil, then reduce heat and cook gently until the vegetables are completely cooked through and the flavors have melded, about 30 minutes. Add beans and tomatoes and bring back up to heat.

To serve, divide into warm bowls and grate Parmesan cheese over the soup. Serve with a thick slice of hearty bread.

Note: you can also stir pesto sauce into this soup.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

We're in Edible Chesapeake!

This marks the Slow Cook's second appearance in Edible Chesapeake since the magazine resumed publication earlier this year. My assignment: challenge a local chef to design a budget meal around locally-grown ingredients.


If you read the piece, you'll notice right off that I took a somewhat different approach than most of these chef challenges. First and foremost, I did not set a budget for the chef in question because I did not want this to be perceived as a stunt. Most of these challenges call for the chef to make a meal for four on $5, or some ridiculously low figure. Or, they give the chef $50 to make a meal for two, as if....


To tell the truth, I had mixed feelings about this from the start. For years, I've been trying to dissuade editors from going the chef route. This may be because I question the need to have professional chefs as arbiters of what the rest of us eat. And I am frequently peeved that chefs seem to be stealing the limelight where local foods are concerned.


I guess you could say I walk around with a chip on my shoulder where chefs are concerned. Maybe it's some kind of locker room-type grudge. I am a self-taught cook--not profesionally trained--and I've never been a restaurant chef. Truth be told, I'm just your average grower and eater, a garden variety populist where food is concerned.

I don't appreciate chefs dictating the terms of our cuisine. I rankle at the idea of chefs pushing food trends that the rest of us are supposed to follow. But then I read a penetrating essay by John Thorne (always penetrating, sensible, gracious), wherein Mr. Thorne pretty much echoes my own feelings, only he'd come around to the conclusion that professional chefs are good for food. Frequently they are the ones discovering the best new ingredients, supporting farmers and other purveyors, introducing the eating public to things that deserve closer attention.


So now I have to concede that chefs are responsible for some of the best in the food world, as well as the worst--the worst being the Food Network, the cult of the celebrity chef, Las Vegas as a food destination, overly fussy food, the dominance of chefs in food magazines, etc.


But I digress. What I'm trying to get at is, there are so many great home cooks out there not only making wonderful food, but intimately familiar with the requirements of feeding a family on a budget. So why do we not seek them out? Why do we not celebrate the work they do, the knowledge they have to share?


When he first took the job as food editor for the New York Times back in the 60s, one of Craig Clayborne's first acts was to introduce the idea of writing about great home cooks. When did that become passe? What I keep urging editors to do is not hand $20 to a chef and ask him to come up with a great Latin meal. Lets give $50 bucks to a Salvadoran grandma and see what she does with the money. My bet is, the grandma's going to take you places you would never see otherwise.


So, too, it is with this local food business. As John Edwards, the Democratic presidential candidate, has been reminding us--and reminding us, and reminding us--there are two Americas, one of which can afford lots of things, the other of which can't. Those of us who support local foods are kidding ourselves if we think there isn't a class divide involved in the eat-local paradigm. Face it, most Americans don't eat local, don't have access to locally produced foods and wouldn't know where to start.


So why do we keep beating them over the head with professional chefs as a primary means of selling sustainable, local foods? Time, I think, to change the equation....

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Earth to Whole Foods--How do You Spell D-R-O-U-G-H-T?

The District of Columbia is experiencing a drought with a rain deficit of almost 9 inches. But you'd hardly know it if you were visiting the local Whole Foods this morning. There, a worker was out power-washing the sidewalk.

A bright red pickup carrying a huge compressor was parked in front of the store with long lengths of hose running in both directions and water flying everywhere.

Perhaps Whole Foods is just trying to give a Bronx cheer to our neighbors in Virginia, where there's a 13-inch rain deficit at Dulles Airport. The nearby town of Purcellville in Loudon County, Virginia, where mandatory water restrictions are in place, could very soon run out of water altogether. The rain deficit in Central Virginia is more like 17 inches.

And in neighboring North Carolina, almost every county in the state is experiencing what is described as "extreme" drought, or worse. The City of Atlanta, GA, is in danger of watching its main source of water completely dry up.

It's a very bad time for the Mid-Atlantic. Here in the nation's capital, we are poised to break a record, having seen 33 consecutive days without measurable rainfall. Trees all over town are dying--turning crispy brown--for lack of water. Area farmers are desperate for rain. For many, there will be no pumpkin harvest this Halloween.

Which begs the question, Is anyone at Whole Foods watching the weather?

Over on the chain's corporate website, Whole Foods declares: "We see the necessity of active environmental stewardship so that the earth continues to flourish for generations to come. We seek to balance our needs with the needs of the rest of the planet through the following actions," including:

"Reducing waste and consumption of non-renewable resources. We promote and participate in recycling programs in our communities. We are committed to re-usable packaging, reduced packaging, and water and energy conservation.

"Encouraging environmentally sound cleaning and store maintenance programs." (emphasis added)

Makes you wonder how badly that sidewalk needed to be washed.

Getting Dick and Jane Into the Garden

Has this ever happened to you: You show up at an event only to discover that the location for the event you had planted in your mind is miles from where you are supposed to be?

Last night I arrived with a trunk full of food for a panel discussion on installing gardens in city schools. Except the school where I arrived was on the other side of town from where this confab was actually being held. The addresses of the two schools are almost identical, but in opposite quadrants. So I was a little late. But apparently people were hungry enough to devour the food once the discussion was over.


My wife had made beautiful lavender-dusted scones and whole-grain English digestives. There was a big platter groaning with seasonal grapes and fresh figs and nuts. I had made crudites with an herb sauce from the garden and a spinach-artichoke dip with toasted pita chips.


It was a neat little spread for about 25 people.


But of course the real reason we were there was to promote the idea of gardening in city schools. We had a panel of experts to talk about the benefits of gardening with children and some of the nuts-and-bolts aspects of actually funding and building gardens, all sponsored by the D.C. Schoolyard Greening organization.


Also on the panel was the director of science for District of Columbia schools, Michael Kaspar, who, it seemed to me, had some important, cautionary words for the group. "I was just in a meeting today and it was repeated again: The focus of D.C. schools right now is reading and math," he said


D.C. school children don't test well in some of the basics, such as reading and math. As Mr. Kaspar was saying, school administrators are obsessed with improving reading and math test scores, as mandated by the "No Child Left Behind" law. The point he was really trying to drive home to us garden promoters was, If you can't make gardens relevant to reading and math, your gardening projects are not going to resonate very strongly with school officials.


That's a bit of a wake-up call for us obsessive gardeners who are just working ourselves into a frazzle trying to drum up enthusiasm for the idea of connecting children with nature, with the benefits of being outside, with home-grown vegetables. And we hear so much from celebrity foodists such as Alice Waters on the subject of making the connection between children and nutritious, locally grown food. Could it really all come back to reading and math and test scores?


To my mind, kids in the District of Columbia deserve a chance to muck about in the soil, to witness the miracle of seeds turning into plants, to taste a salad right out of the garden. But apparently we're going to have to work even harder to show that gardens are good for reading and math.

Who knew getting schools to build gardens would be such a struggle? Nothing is as simple as one would like...

Monday, October 15, 2007

Success!

The mayor, the schools chancellor, the head of the city's department of the environment--even WRC-TV's political reporter, Tom Sherwood--anybody who's anybody it seems was at yesterday's kickoff to the first-ever D.C. School Garden Week.




Gardens are important not only to teach kids that there's a big wide world of nature outside the concrete confines of our city but to introduce children to the why's and wherefore's of growing things, even food and the good nutrition that comes from fresh, locally grown produce.


It's a bit of a struggle establishing gardens in the schools here in the District of Columbia. That's where the D.C. Schoolyard Greening organization comes in. And this year, taking a cue from California, where hefty amounts of funding are devoted to school gardens, we decided to designate one week in the year to promote the school gardening effort.


After months of planning and organizing, School Garden Week is here. D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty issued a proclamation, we held a garden photo contest and everything seemed to fall into place. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, D.C. Department of the Environment Director Howard S. Hawkins, Ward 4 D.C. Council Member Muriel Bowser--they all stayed to help hand out awards to the photo contest winners gathered at LaSalle Elementary School.


We had more than 100 entries from nine different schools. My rough estimate is that more than half the winners showed up yesterday to collect their prizes, including Grand Prize winner Nell Koring, an 11th-grader from Wilson Sernior High, shown here with Chancellor Rhee and Director Hawkins.

Tonight, we hold a panel discussion on how to create a school garden and work it into the curriculum. I'll be bringing the food...

Not Born in the USA

Our friend Eric was not born in the U.S. but in the city of Lille, France. His future wife, Mary, was American, however. They met in France and farmed together, then moved to this country.


We met Eric in the catering business. Eric had been a catering supervisor and was one of the best in the business here in the District of Columbia, or what may be the catering center of the universe.

Eric had an ingenious hobby. He collected the pieces and shards of broken platters from various catering events and turned them into incredible mosaics. At one point, he had his studio in our house. You always knew Eric was around by the sound of his snippers snipping broken ceramic to fit in his mosaics.

Mary died of breast cancer a few years ago and Eric now runs a small events operation for one of the local think tanks. But we love his company and especially his dry humor and his laugh. He always threatens to move back to France, but recently he made our country his country, becoming a U.S. citizen. We had to celebrate and raise the roof. My wife went all out.


The preparations took a week. First my wife made a visit to Ikea and picked up some flexible ice cube molds with stars and bars shapes. She used cranberry and blueberry juice to start freezing patriotic ice cubes. Then she devised an all-American menu: meat loaf, macaroni and cheese, braised green beans and Caesar salad with homemade garlic croutons, followed by ice cream and cookies.


She started on the cookies days ahead. Chocolate-chip, peanut butter, snickerdoodles--she made the dough, then used a small mechanical scoop to turn then into little balls that she then froze so they would be ready to bake later. Two days before the party, she was also scooping out small rounds of chocolate and vanilla ice cream and stuffing what might be best described a tall ceramic shot glasses. These would be displayed with chocolate and caramel sauces and whipped cream.

My contribution was the meat loaf and the green beans. Friends Keith and Janice brought the wine as well as a retro onion dip with rippled potato chips. My wife displayed patriotic dinner plates (we just happen to have a collection) in red and blue with white stars. Our best white linen napkins were freshly pressed and rolled with forks.

It was a great party. Eric, being the curmudgeonly Frenchman, had to be tricked into having a party at all. But he quickly turned into the perfect guest of honor, greeting all the guests as they arrived and circulating like a champ. He was beaming, and everyone else was lapping up the beer and raving about the macaroni and cheese.

The meatloaf and macaroni and cheese were every bit as good reheated the next day. And Eric is talking about being naturalized on an annual basis from now on.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Weekend Update

While mankind continues to ravage the world's oceans for its fish, evidence mounts that raising livestock for food isn't particularly sustainable either.


Researchers at Cornell University released findings that if the people of the State of New York adopted a vegetarian diet, the state would be able to directly provide 50 percent of its own food. As things stand now, with people eating a mix of meat, dairy and vegetable foods, New York only grows 22 percent of its food.


In the first study of its kind to examine the land use requirements of complete diets, researchers compared 42 diets with the same number of calories and a core of grains, fruits, vegetables and dairy products (using only foods that can be produced in New York state), but with varying amounts of meat (from none to 13.4 ounces daily) and fat (from 20 to 45 percent of calories) to determine each diet's "agricultural land footprint."


The result: a fivefold difference in land requirements between a completely vegetarian diet and a diet heavy in meats.


"A person following a low-fat vegetarian diet, for example, will need less than half (0.44) an acre per person per year to produce their food," said Christian Peters, a Cornell postdoctoral associate in crop and soil sciences and lead author of the research. "A high-fat diet with a lot of meat, on the other hand, needs 2.11 acres."

One surprise in the study, however, is that totally vegetarian diets may not be the most efficient in terms of land use. That's because fruit and vegetable farming requires high quality land, whereas growing fodder for livestock can be done on less desirable acreage, of which New York has plenty.


"It appears that while meat increases land-use requirements, diets including modest amounts of meat can feed more people than some higher fat vegetarian diets," researchers conclude.


******


Cubans may be less able to afford their traditional pork sandwich since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but they are living longer as a result.


A new study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology finds that life expectancy in Cuba has risen and now surpasses that of the U.S. largely because of the poverty and radical dietary changes that occurred there after the island nation stopped receiving its subsidies from the former Soviet Union.


The Cuban economy had become highly dependent on the financial support as well as fuel, fertilizers and pesticides provided by the Soviet regime. When that ended in 1989, Cubans had to reinvent the way they feed themselves. Nationwide, Cubans consumed one-third fewer calories and most were forced to walk or bike to work. The average Cuban lost 20 pounds, and over a period of years the country reverted to an organic system of agriculture and planted every available green space for food crops.


During the decade-long period of adjustment, the prevalence of obesity in Cuban declined from 14 percent to 7 percent. Deaths from diabetes dropped 51 percent. Deaths from heart disease declined 35 percent. Overall, Cuba's death rate was reduced by 18 percent.


Of course, now that Cuba's economy is back on track, doctors are beginning to see their patients pack on the pounds again, and death rates are climbing.


*****


For all of you who were beginning to believe that Rachel Carson really was full of hot air, a new study finds that women who were exposed to the pesticide DDT as young girls are more likely to develop breast cancer later in life.


The new research is a bit of a surprise, since no particular link between DDT and cancer had been discerned. Now scientists believe the crucial factor is the age at which exposure occurred. DDT was banned in this country in 1972, but is used elsewhere in the world to combat malaria.


The study, published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, found that young girls who experienced exposure to DDT before their breasts had formed were five times more likely to develop breast cancer as women than those who were not exposed.


The findings support a growing recognition that "what happens in early life is really important for what happens decades later," especially for breast and other tissues that undergo developmental changes in childhood, said Ezra Susser, chairman of epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University.

*****


We like to bash ethanol for a number of reasons, beginning with the fact that it's just a stupid idea, but also because using corn to drive automobiles is making everyone's food more expensive. But experts now are saying that a number of other global factors are driving the price of what we eat and that the worst is yet to come.


One of the biggest consumers of corn and other grains is livestock, and as populations in other areas of the world become more prosperous, particularly in Asia, their taste for meat and dairy products grows. Consequently, corn-fed meat exports from the U.S. are on the rise.


''We have a huge expansion under way,'' Iowa State agricultural economist Robert Wisner to the New York Times. ''That will almost certainly tighten grain supplies.''


Here in the U.S., the squeeze on corn has already boosted food prices for consumers. Ground beef is up 6.7 percent in the last year, chicken breasts 6.9 percent and milk a whopping 26 percent, according to the U.S. Labor Department.



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Not that we want our kids glued to the TV screen, but here's news of a video that may actually be good for your kid's diet. Kaiser Permanente has distributed copies of "The Incredible Adventures of the Amazing Food Detective," along with pamphlets and supporting materials, to thousands of the nation's school.

Players get to pick one of eight characters who open a "case file" describing a food problem. The food detective then steps in to unravel the case and devise a solution. For example, you might move protein foods out of the refrigerator and off the stove onto the young person's plate, or you might zap the food to reduce the portion size. Once you solve the problem that way, you then go to a series of mini-games, and the mini-games relate to the problem. There are also printed activities such as recipes for healthy foods.

And what if kids get to liking the video too much? Well, developers thought of that, too. After about 20 minutes, it shuts off automatically and kids are told to go outside and do some pushups.

There's also an online version.

Meanwhile....some members of Congress continue to agitate for more restraint on the part of food corporations in their marketing to children, but with mixed results.

In July, 11 major food, beverage and restaurant companies pledged to the Council of Better Business Bureaus (CBBB) that they would eliminate the use of licensed characters to market unhealthy food and beverage products and limit marketing to children 12 and younger to foods that meet specific nutritional guidelines, or eliminate marketing to children altogether. While Chuck E. Cheese agreed to join the CBBB Initiative in part, Dannon, Nestlé, and Yum! Brands declined.

Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-MA), Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, now says the reluctance of some companies to cooperate may require a response from lawmakers.

"At a time when our country is facing a serious childhood obesity crisis, the responses from these companies raises the question of whether voluntary industry action will be sufficient to combat this important public health issue,” Markey said in a statement. He added, "The fact that Dannon, NestlĂ©, and Yum! Brands are unwilling to restrict marketing to kids is disappointing, given that 13 of their competitors have found that it is possible to act in a socially responsible manner without harming their bottom line.”

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Finally, we are looking forward this week to the debut of the documentary King Corn here in the District of Columbia. As we've mentioned before, this film is a bit of a romp, wherein two guys move to Iowa to plant an acre of corn and see where the heck all that corn goes, anyway.

In anticipation of the film's opening, one of the writers and lead characters, Curt Ellis, blogs about it. And there is this review at the Ethicurian blog, and another at the New York Times.

Since corn is in just about everything we eat, and soon to be in most of our gas tanks, we urge everyone to get out and see this flic. The film has a website where you can check the playdates.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Red, White & Blue Meatloaf

This weekend we are celebrating our friend Eric becoming an American citizen. And what better way to fete Eric, the Frenchman, and his embrace of the good ol' U.S. of A. as his permanent homeland, than with a meatloaf?

Actually, there will be much more to this celebration. But I wanted to get right to the meatloaf because it happens to coincide with our friend Kevin's call over on the Seriously Good blog for a national meatloaf recognition.

I am not afraid to admit that I love meatloaf but rarely think to make it myself. My wife and I are always hoping that friends, who often are too shy to invite professional cooks for dinner, will have us over for their version of meatloaf.

The very name has a clumsiness about it--a loaf of meat, as if we could confer respectability on hamburger by making it look like a brick of Wonder Bread. In fact, meat loaf is a triumph of flavor over design. The notion of passing unloved cuts of meat through an extruder to create something divine is nothing to be ashamed of. This is pure human ingenuity at work, applying mechanical wherewithal to otherwise unappetizing bits of animal flesh.

Meat loaf is singularly American, a hamburger putting on airs, you might say, but too humble to call itself a pate. Because it lacks sophistication, there is a certain shame factor in our love for meatloaf; our embrace of it as "comfort food" has an infantile quality. We prepare it at home for family, rarely for guests. And yet what a thrill to find it on an actual menu, usually at some unassuming roadside diner where it is served with mashed potatoes, gravy and steamed carrots. We love it because we are famished and, like any iconic food, it reminds us who we are.

I do not have a personal meatloaf recipe. In my house growing up, we ate something called "Porcupines"--large meat balls made with uncooked rice and probably one of the hundreds of different Lawry's spice mixes that filled our kitchen cabinets, then baked in a casserole with a tomato sauce. Sorry, no idea why they were called "Porcupines," but they served the same workmanlike purpose as the neighbor's meat loaf.

On those occasions when meatloaf is called for, I've adapted a Tyler Florence recipe he calls "Dad's Meatloaf." Again, no idea how dad figures into this. This is definitely an update of the classic, combining ground beef with ground pork for additional flavor. Hearty white bread soaked in milk is worked into the meat, recalling a rustic Italian meat ball. What sets this loaf apart, though, is a piquant relish of red bell peppers, tomatoes and ketchup that seasons the interior of the loaf, is coated onto the loaf before it goes into the oven (along with strips of your favorite bacon, by the way) and then is served on the side as a sauce.

I would urge you to consider making your favorite mashed potatoes with this meat loaf and a vegetable with some pizazz--perhaps some roasted Brussels sprouts?

To serve 8 - 10:

For the tomato relish:

extra-virgin olive oil
1 onion, diced small
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 bay leaves
2 red bell peppers, cored then diced small
1 14-ounce can diced tomatoes
1/4 cup finely chopped parsley
1 12-ounce bottle ketchup
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Coat the bottom of a skillet or heavy pot with olive oil, then over moderate heat saute onion, garlic and bay leave until onion is tender. Add red bell pepper and continue cooking until peppers are soft. Add tomatoes, then stir in parsley, ketchup and Worcestershire. Season with salt and pepper. Continue cooking several minutes until the flavors are melded. Remove from heat and set aside to cool.

For the meatloaf:

3 thick slices rustic white bread, crusts removed, torn into pieces
1/4 cup whole milk
1 1/2 pounds ground beef
1 pound ground pork
2 eggs
leaves from two thyme sprigs
salt and freshly ground black pepper
6 slices hickory-smoked bacon

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Place the torn bread and milk in a bowl and mix gently to moisten bread. Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the ground beef and pork with 1 1/2 cups of the cooled tomato relish, the eggs and thyme. Season with salt and pepper. Squeeze excess milk from the bread and add the bread to the meat mixture. To test for seasoning, fry a bit of the mixture and taste.

Lightly grease a baking sheet or cover with parchment paper. Dividing the meat mixture in two, form two loaves on the baking sheet. The mix will be a bit moist, but should hold together by itself in a loaf shape. Lay three slices of bacon lengthwise over each loaf. Spread tomato relish over the bacon.

Place in the oven a bake about 1 hour, or until a thermometer inserted into the middle of a loaf reads 160 degrees.