Thursday, November 29, 2007

Kids Make Applesauce

Applesauce may be one of the culinary world's best-kept secrets. Fresh applesauce is incredibly easy and so quick, it's a wonder (or maybe just a shame) anyone buys it in a jar at the store.

My "food appreciation" classes resumed after the Thanksgiving break to take up seasonal fruits and I've been wanting to focus on apples. Applesauce turns out to be an ideal subject because in addition to taking hardly any time at all, it involves some of the kids' favorite equipment, including the mechanical apple peeler and the food mill. So there was plenty for everyone to do. (I now have the kids trained to save the peels and cores from the apples for my compost pile.)

This is hardly a recipe, more a formula. Take three pounds sweet apples (I used gala, but I've seen Macintosh frequently mentioned). Peel and core the apples, then chop them into 1/2-inch pieces. Place these in a pot with 1/2 cup water, bring to a boil on the stove top, then reduce the heat, cover and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes, or until the apples are cooked through and tender.

Run the cooked apple through a food mill over a bowl (or pulse in a food processor--it should be a bit chunky, not perfectly smooth). Season with approximately 1/4 cup light brown sugar and about 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, or to taste. Mix well and serve warm.

That's all there is to it. And kids couldn't have been happier with the results. They wolfed it down and begged for seconds.

While the apples were cooking, we read a storybook that sort of jumped out at me while I was visiting the children's section at our main library branch here in the District of Columbia. Called Latkes and Applesauce, it's about a snowbound, starving Jewish peasant family outside Minsk whose yearning for their traditional Hanukkah meal is miraculously resolved by a homeless kitten and a stray dog.

Hmmmmm. I'm trying to think who might play the lead in the film version.

Dark Days: Meal 6

Turkey left over from the 31-pound Thanksgiving bird we butchered at our friend Mike Klein's farm in nearby Prince George's County. Here some dark meat is piled on a thick slice of yeasted sweet-potato bread (using sweet potatoes from our CSA package), smeared with mayo and gingered cranberry relish. Everything is then smothered with giblet gravy. In the background is a simple salad composed of the many lettuce varieties, arugula, mizuna and baby mustard greens we have growing in the garden.

The sweet potato bread is from Bill Neal's classic Biscuits, Spoonbread, and Sweet Potato Pie.

To make two loaves in standard loaf pans (9 x 5 x 3 inches):

2 pkg. dry yeast

1/2 cup warm water

1 cup milk

1/4 cup sugar

1 1/2 tsp salt

1/2 cup butter

1 1/2 cup mashed, cooked, cold sweet potatoes

1 tsp cinnamon

1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg

4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 cup rolled, uncooked oats

Dissolve dry yeast in warm water.

Heat milk with sugar and salt, stirring until dissolved. Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature.

Cream butter and sweet potatoes well. Add dissolved yeast, milk mixture and then all dry ingredients. Beat very well, then turn out onto a floured surface. Knead vigorously until satiny, about 10 minutes.

Place dough in a bowl, cover and let rise in a warm place until doubled, about 1 hour. Punch down and divide into two portions. Roll into loaf shapes and place in greased loaf pans. Cover and allow to rise about 1 hour or until doubled.

Before baking, glaze the loaves with 1 egg beaten with 2 tablespoons milk. Place loaves in a 400-degree oven and bake 45 minutes. They should emerge a deep honey color.

Note: These loaves can also be braided before placing in the loaf pans.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Cholent: Is Moist Pot Roast Possible?

A pot roast should be the easiest thing in the world to make. And yet, it so often is not.

Take the pot roast of my grandmother Arentz.
Grandma Arentz was a large woman who owed a sardonic disposition to a number of hard knocks. She had two favorite haunts when she visited our house outside Chicago. The first was at one end of the kitchen table, where she communed with a tumbler of bourbon and cackled at the antics of her five grandchildren. The second was in front of an upright piano in the living room, where she pounded out show tunes like a Liberace on steroids.

Every once in a great while, to our everlasting astonishment, Grandma Arentz was swept away by memories of housewifery. She would push her Jim Beam aside, rise up in her faded housedress, and heave herself into a cooking fury. The result was a giant Sunday pot roast that emerged from the oven surrounded by potatoes, carrots and onions, all slowly bubbling and browning in a deep baking pan wrapped with aluminum foil.

Lifting the aluminum foil unleashed waves of enticing steam and beefy aromas. We would watch anxiously as the great slab of chuck was carved into thick, tempting pieces, transferred to plates and drenched with pan juices. We lifted our forks, nearly levitating with anticipation: Where to poke first into those lovely long strands of braised meat?

Then into the mouth, where our eager taste buds shrieked, but not with joy.

No, not with joy, because the meat was dry.

I mean dry, as in, We-was-robbed dry.

Sad, but true: When it came to Grandma Arentz’s pot roast, the sensations we experienced in our mouths never lived up to those we saw with our eyes and smelled with our noses. For a long time, this haunted me: How could a piece of meat that looked and smelled so good coming out of the oven just plain fail on the tongue?

I never blamed Grandma Arentz, whose pot roast obviously was a source of pride. I actually thought this must be in the nature of things: If it was pot roast, it must be dry.

People would boast about their cooking: “And I make a great pot roast,” they would say, as if this certified them as world-class chefs. I dismissed them as imposters. Nobody, I thought, could make a pot roast that isn’t dry. Can’t be done.

Years passed, yet I retained the image of Grandma Arentz’s pot roast as a sort of metaphor for the cruel twists this life can dish up. As far as pot roast goes, these were my years of wandering in the wilderness.

But then, as so often happens, things took a turn. My perspective shifted. I met cholent, the meaty braise Jews prepare for their Sabbath meal, and suddenly I had a new outlook on pot roast.

Apparently, cholent (also spelled chollent, or tscholent) is what Jews were making when my grandmother’s Norwegian ancestors were busy drying their cod. Cholent elevates shoulder of beef to the metaphysical: It is a triumph of man’s determination to eat well in the face of a religious conundrum.

While some cooks were merely puttering away at pot roast, the Jews grappled with a true dilemma. Strict interpretation of Jewish law forbids not only the lighting of fires on the Sabbath, but also the preparation of food. Yet rabbis consistently urged their flocks to serve a hot meal on the Sabbath as a kind of mitzvah, or good deed.

Determined Jewish homemaker’s found they could comply with Talmudic restrictions and still have their hot Shabbat supper: They put the meat in the oven the day before.

Since the Jewish Sabbath begins at sundown Friday, that meant assembling a one-pot meal and laying it over a slow fire shortly before nightfall. The pot—often a big bronze one emblazoned with Hebrew script-- stayed in the oven well into the next day.

Hence, some believe the word “cholent” derives from a French phrase meaning “slow heat.”

Across the Jewish world, cholent evolved around local cuisines. In Eastern Europe, the pot typically contained barley and a variety of beans. If there was meat, big pieces of beef chuck or brisket, sometimes tongue and marrow bones, went into the mix. In other words, foods that will stand up to a long cooking time. In France, the meat might be duck or goose. In North Africa and the Middle East, lamb and rice.

Often, cholent did not cook at home, but at the village baker’s. That presented other issues: Jewish law frowns on carrying heavy objects outside the home on the Sabbath. Too much like work. So the villagers would create an eruv, a way of designating the entire village, or shtetl, a private domain so that everyone could get their cholent home from the baker’s.

Over time, cholent—with its prodigious cooking requirement--acquired mythic status as the Diaspora’s reply to the eternal question, How long, oh Lord, how long? Meaning, whatever trials and tribulations, there was always a nice, warm cholent waiting at the end of the day.

Not being Jewish, this was news to me when, in my Midwestern goyishness, I discovered cholent years ago in a cookbook by Bert Greene.

It was one of those eureka moments: A pot roast that isn’t dry.

Of course, Bert’s was just one of millions of cholent recipes. Cholent is a dish that changes from one house to the next. But his had all the classic elements, with a sort of gypsy twist: a big, fatty piece of beef, beans, barley, onions, garlic and paprika. It did not call for potatoes or lima beans, as so many cholent recipes do. But it did offer one surprise: ground ginger. All this immersed in beef broth and slowly cooked until the meat is moist and tender and the beans and barley transform into a kind of juicy pilaf, utterly infused with beef essences.

Can you say, Ahhhh….

Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether meat is dry or just flavorless. In red meat, the compounds that impart flavor as well as juiciness are in the fatty connective tissues. That’s why tough cuts with lots of fatty connective tissues, such as shoulder, shank, breast, ribs, tend to gain in flavor and succulence as those tissues are rendered gently, in a moist environment, over a low fire.

Thus, my early efforts at cholent using so-called “select” cuts of meat, or two grades below prime, failed. Too lean, too dry.

Likewise, various “choice” cuts of boneless chuck from a high-end grocer also fell short of the right stuff. Flavor missing.

Finally, having made this particular cholent countless times, I’ve settled on a thick, “choice” bone-in cut of shoulder, the so-called blade roast. I prefer the rustic texture of chuck, as opposed to the more finely grained and easily sliced brisket. I think the bones add flavor, and there is plenty of fat to keep the meat moist.
There is one important note on preparation: This recipe only requires four hours cooking.

Since there are still people in the world cooking their cholent overnight, I tried it. Result: After 17 hours at 190 degrees, the beef was a bit overcooked. The broth had separated from the cooked beans and barley. I adjusted by straining out the liquid, reducing it, and using it as a sauce. But an orthodox interpretation would disallow this on Shabbat: Too much like cooking. You’d have to serve it in a soup bowl.

Here’s an alternate treatment for orthodox cholent: Bring the cholent to boil in a large crockpot just before sundown. Then turn the setting to “low” and let the cholent simmer overnight until you are ready to eat it.

Beef Cholent
Serves 8

This is my adaptation of the recipe published by Bert Greene in “The Grains Cookbook.” According to Greene, he based the recipe “loosely” on one from Fanny Sylverstein in “My Mother’s Cookbook.”

If you insist on potatoes and lima beans in your cholent, you can add to this recipe two pounds boiling pototes, such as Yukon Gold, cut into bit-sized pieces, and 1 ½ cups frozen lima beans.

3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 5-pound, bone-in beef blade roast, about 2 ½ inches thick
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons hot paprika
½ teaspoon ground ginger
2 quarts beef stock or broth
1 cup dried pink beans
1 cup pearl barley
1/3 cup chopped parsley for garnish

Preheat oven to 250 degrees

Over a moderately high flame, heat oil in a heavy Dutch oven. Brown the meat all over. Remove meat to a platter and reserve. Drain off all but 3 tablespoons of fat from the Dutch oven.

Lower heat to medium-low. Sweat the onion and garlic in the Dutch oven until the onion is tender, about 5 minutes. Stir in salt, pepper, paprika and ginger. Add beef broth, raise heat and bring to a boil. Stir in beans and barley. Bring mixture to boil again and add the roast.

Cover the pot and place in the oven. Cook for 2 ½ hours. Stir the mixture. Cook another 1½ hours. If the mixture is too wet, remove the lid and cook some more in the oven.

There may be as much as a cup of fat on the surface of the cholent. To serve, spoon off the fat. (If you cook the cholent a day or two ahead, the fat is easily removed with a spoon once it has chilled in the fridge.) Spoon the bean and barley mixture onto plates or large, shallow bowls. Place slices of meat over the top and garnish with chopped parsley.

Note: You can make this with a smaller, boneless piece of meat. Since pastured meats are leaner, check for doneness after the first 2 1/2 hours cooking. If the meat is done, remove it and just continue cooking the rest of the dish in the oven. If, after 4 hours, the contents of the pot are still too liquidy, remove the lid and bake some more, or move the pot to the stovetop and continue cooking there over very low heat until the liquid has reduced.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Leftover Madness

Now that Thanksgiving is behind us, it's time to dig out from all the leftover food.

There were a couple of big pots of turkey stock in the cold room that needed to be broken down into smaller containers, labeled and frozen. One down, one to go.

On Sunday, friends agreed to help out by actually eating some of the leftovers in the form of dinner--open-faced turkey sandwiches with cranberry relish and gravy on sweet potato bread. (More about that later).

Part of my reward for helping our friend Mike butcher his turkeys was a stewing hen he had in his freezer. I originally thought I'd make it the center of a coq au vin, but then used the dark meat in our paella. Yesterday I turned the rest of the bird into soup and, at daughter's request, that was last night's dinner, with carrots, peas and linguine noodles.

Most of the weekend was spent making client meals. The leftover meat from our 31-pound turkey was begging to be included. Presto-changeo, turkey-a-la-king. The sauce was especially delicious with the addition of our very potent turkey stock. Whole Foods had run out of puff pastry (I can't even count the number of times that happened), so along with a 4-cup container of turkey-a-la-king, I sent the client two thick slices of toasted country bread. Necessity is indeed the mother of invention.

Still, I have several pound of turkey meat to deal with. Into the freezer, perhaps? Or will inspiration strike somewhere where we least expect it?

Yesterday I was finally able to turn my attention to the bowl of green tomatoes I'd picked during the big garden cleanup a week ago. I'd stashed them in the cold room, but some were not so green anymore. The morning started with the assemblage of a big pot of the green tomato and apple chutney I wrote about earlier. A very heady aroma fills the kitchen when all those tomatoes and apples, brown sugar and cider vinegar, ginger and cinnamon, get to boiling on the stove top.

While the chutney bubbled away and reduced down to its delicious chunkiness, a client dinner for Wednesday demanded that I shop for and prepare a Jewish pot roast, or chollent. (I'll write about that tomorrow). So the chutney, one day later, is still in its pot on the stove, waiting to be reheated and canned. And let me count the other chores awaiting: A pot of turkey stock to freeze, pounds of turkey meat to dispose of, sundry leftover sidedishes that haven't even been completely inventoried yet...

Will it ever end?

Monday, November 26, 2007

Paella Deconstructed

Let me confess up front that I am new to paella and that the sum total of my knowledge comes from the two books on Spanish cooking in my collection: Delicioso!, by Penelope Casas, and My Kitchen in Spain, by Janet Mendel.

Paella is a dish I have always wanted to become more familiar with but was simply intimidated. I'm not a rice cooker by habit, and I don't have a Paella pan. I kept putting thoughts of paella aside, figuring some day I would bite the bullet and actually purchase an authentic paella pan and master the technique.

Sometimes fate intervenes. A catering friend recently called with an urgent request: she had a dinner for 20 to cater three days hence. Paella was the centerpiece of the buffet, and her chef was stuck in New York. Could we possibly intervene?

So I gave myself a crash course in paella making using the above references and here is what they said:

* Paella was a farmer's or field hand's dish, made of several different ingredients--but always rice--in a single, wide pan over an open fire.

* Paella originates from the area around Valencia and traditionally did not contain seafood but earthy meats such as rabbit, pork, sausage, snails and chicken.

* A short- to medium-grain Spanish rice is preferred for making paella, but similar rice from other sources, such as Arborio rice, can be substituted.

* Paella is a festive dish, usually reserved for gatherings of friends and family, much like a barbecue.

* Paella should have a bright yellow color, some from the addition of saffron, but largely as a result of yellow food coloring.

* The traditional pan for cooking paella is wide--17 or 18 inches--and shallow, and ideally used over a wood fire.

* As at a family barbecue, the paella is cooked for the guests with great fanfare, then served immediately.

Given that we had neither the paella pan nor the open wood fire, our challenge was to approximate as closely as possible a genuine paella in a catering situation where it would have to be transported to another location and reheated.

I genuinely like the idea of one-pot cooking over an open fire. One of my most vivid food memories is picking grapes in the champagne region of France where breafast consisted of the pickers and the owners gathering around a fire and eating bread and sausage and quafing generous quantities of wine. But I was not confident that I could make a one-pot dish of paella--especially for 20 people--without overcooking the meat or having the rice come out either undercooked or mushy.

So we kept the idea of using one pot, where all the flavors could meld together, but cooked the different ingredients separately, catering style.

To serve six persons, start with a heavy pot with a coating of extra-virgin olive oil at the bottom over moderately-high heat. Add 6 ounces of andouille or Kielbasa sausage, sliced. Brown the sausage, then add the meat from four chicken thighs, cut into chunks, season with salt and pepper and cook until the chicken is cooked through. Remove the sausage and chicken and set aside.

If necessary, add more olive oil to the pot, then add one green bell pepper, cut into medium dice, and cook until the pepper begins to soften. Lower heat and add 1 or 2 finely-minced garlic cloves. Continue cooking until garlic is cooked through. Remove pepper and garlic (add to sausage and chicken) and set aside.

In the same pot, add 1 cup short-grain Spanish or Arborio rice, along with 2 cups chicken stock, a generous pinch of saffron, about 4 drops yellow food coloring and 1 bay leaf. Season with salt to taste. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, covered, until rice has absorbed most, but not all, of the liquid. Add 1/2 can diced tomatoes, drained, and about 2 tablespoons pimentos. Stir into rice. Place 1/2 pound large shrimp, peeled with tails left intact, on top of rice. Replace cover and continue cooking until shrimp are just cooked through. Remove them (add to sausage, chicken and other cooked ingredients) and set aside. Add about 2 dozen cleaned and de-bearded mussels to the top of the rice, replace cover, and continue cooking until the mussels have cooked through. Remove mussels and set aside separately as garnish. (The juices from the mussels will permeate the rice.)

Lastly, stir about 1/2 cup frozen peas into the rice.

When the rice is cooked through, the paella can be served immediately, seasoning with salt and freshly ground black pepper and mixing with the other reserved ingredients in a large bowl. Garnish with cooked mussles.

Or, if serving the paella later in the day (or the following day), allow the rice to cool before mixing in the other ingrediens and simply re-heat it. Refrigerate the cooked mussles in a sealed container. Alternatively, refrigerate the rice and other ingredients separately, then reheat them separately before mixing.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Weekend Update

It was a slow news week because of the Thanksgiving holiday. But we here at The Slow Cook News Desk did detect a kind of symmetry to recent events.

For instance, any semblance of political leadership on critical issues seems to have flickered and died here in the U.S. of A. Efforts to make the Farm Bill an engine for change in the way America feeds itself foundered on politics as usual. Congress could not move the bill forward, as politicos--heads deep in the public trough--scraped and groveled for sources of money to fund the huge agricultural subsidies that remain the beating heart of this legislative monster.

Dan Rather, the former CBS news anchor, takes yet another look at those subsidies that have so much to do with why agri-business profits while Americans get fatter and sicker.

While Congress dithers, the United Nation's panel on climate change--recently awarded a co-share of the Nobel Peace Prize, along with Al Gore--issued its latest and most dire report, saying that if drastic action is not taken by the world's powers within the next few years, we and the planet are, well, screwed.

The consequences of inaction, the panel said, constitute a global catastrophe, with island states submerged and abandoned, African crop yields down by 50 percent, a 5 percent decrease in global gross domestic product and many thousands of animal species wiped out.

“If there’s no action before 2012, that’s too late,” said Rajendra Pachauri, a scientist and economist who heads the UN panel. “What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment.”

As if on cue, a huge swarm of jellyfish, the likes of which had not been seen before--literally miles and miles of squirming and voracious jellyfish--attacked and destroyed Northern Ireland's only salmon farm.

"In 30 years, I've never seen anything like it," said John Russell, managing director of Northern Salmon Co. Ltd. "It was unprecedented, absolutely amazing. The sea was red with these jellyfish and there was nothing we could do about it, absolutely nothing."

Yet in our little corner of the globe, about a mile from the White House in the District of Columbia, Mother Nature goes about her business. Ttemperatures have dipped into the 30s, just above freezing, but inside our new compost pile--constructed of weeds and refuse from the garden, leaves and grass clippings from a neighborhood condominium complex--the thermometer registered almost 120 degrees.

Soil microbes, in other words, continue their work, oblivious to the flailings of humankind.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Turkey Stock

In our house it was customary the day after Thanksgiving to divide the carcass and start a huge pot of turkey stock. The house would fill with the unmistakable aroma of turkey on the stove, a signal to one and all that we would soon be embarking on a week-long mission to consume as much turkey soup and leftover turkey as possible. Thus did we give proof to the adage that when something is in season, you eat it until it's gone.

It seems axiomatic that when the Thanksgiving feast is over, something of a turkey penury begins. My wife, for instance, loves the holiday--loves all the preparations and the family gathering and the protocols of the meal--but hates leftover turkey. I can remember an infinite number of turkey sandwiches--is there anything more delectable than the combintation of turkey, mayo and cranberry sauce?--as well as the slogging through of the first turkey-a-la-king, followed by the seemingly interminable nights of leftover turkey-a-la-king.

Personally, I love turkey sandwiches and turkey-a-la-king, preferably with cremini mushrooms. And for all those cooks who dread the onslaught of leftovers, there is this thought: freeze it.

We will not have nearly so many leftovers as a 31-pound bird might produce, because everyone who joined us for Thanksgiving dinner had a package of leftovers thrust at them before they could exit the house. Still, the carcass I saved in the cooler is a pretty large one and will make a generous quantity of stock.

Use this for turkey soup, of course, but also to enhance that turkey-a-la-king sauce, to put some spark into a turkey chili, perhaps, and for soups with beans and hearty greens. Perhaps you have some favorite uses for turkey stock? By all means, send them along.

The process is almost identical as for a chicken stock. The main point is to break up the bones to extract as much flavor and collagen as possible. A good stock should be quite gelatinous once it is refrigerated. I use a heavy cleaver to crack the carcass into numerous pieces. In fact, I need two pots for this operation.

At the bottom of a large pot, place an onion sliced in half, two carrots broken into pieces, two celery stalks broken into pieces, a fistfull of leafy parsley stems, several sprigs of thyme, two bay leaves and a dozen pepper corns. Cover these with pieces of the carcase, leg bones, wing bones, etc. Cover with cool water and place a heavy object on top to hold everything down. I use a stainless, collapsible steaming basket, but a ceramic plate also works to hold all of the solid contents under the surface of the water while it cooks.

Bring the liquid almost to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer where bubbles are occasionally breaking the surface. You do want to cook the stock, but boiling and roiling will make the stock cloudy. Continue cooking for three hours or more, until the stock is quite flavorful. Remove the pot from the heat.

Allow the stock to cool a bit and collect itself. Then use a slotted spoon or (my favorite) a Chinese spider to remove all the solid contents from the pot. Pour the stock through a fine sieve to remove all the remaining particles. Clean out the cookpot and return the stock to it. Refrigerate overnight. The following day, the fat will have risen to the top of the stock and congealed. You can easily remove it with a spoon and save it for future use (frying potatoes, perhaps?).

The stock is ready to use, or--more likely--divide into containers for the freezer.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Dark Days: Meal 5

Oh, it was quite the feast, this Thanksgiving, with the 31-pound bird we butchered at our farmer friend Mike Klein's farm at the center of it all. Brother-in-law Tom, the oenophile, outdid himself, with bottles of champagne to drink with hors d'oeuvres, a beautiful Sancerre and an audacious German auslese Riesling, Pinot and even a port for dessert. Father-in-law Dave, meanwhile, came armed with a lively Zinfandel.

My wife had started cooking a day ahead. Spiced pecans for starters, a Tarte Tatin and pumpkin creme brulee for dessert. (She's so smart: She even had the vanilla ice cream for the tarte scooped and ready to serve in the freezer.) She also made a classic stuffing, baked on the side, and her famous macaroni and cheese. Sister Linda brought a beautifully composed cranberry relish with candied ginger as well as ginger-spice cookies for the dessert segment. Mother-in-law Susan arrived with two gorgeous dishes of the family's traditional, cheesy onion casserole. Apparently she thought we'd invited an army for dinner.

Specifically local: we changed our original menu according to what we had grown in the garden. For hors d'oeuvres we displayed radishes and carrots along with bowls of pickled green tomatoes and pickled beets. Turns out it's not just me who's crazy for the pickled tomatoes. They disappeared in a flash. My wife had a genius idea for serving soup in shot glasses. I made soup from the Longue de Nice squash we received last week in our farm subscription box (plus maple syrup, brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, etc.) and garnished it with roasted pumpkin seeds.

For the buffet accompanying our magnificent double-breasted bronze turkey I harvested all of the Lima beans that were still hanging on the vines here in our edible landscape in the District of Columbia. These I soaked the day before; they plumped up beautifully. I turned them into our faux-cassoulet, a baked casserole with garlic, onion, sage and bread crumbs. We have so much Swiss chard growing in the garden and it loves this time of year. I gathered the stalks (and leaves) from two plants and sauteed these with red onion and pomegranate molasses, then added some of the beets that are plumping up nicely. We have so many potatoes still in the ground. These were cooked simply and mashed the old-fashioned way, with butter and cream. The bread for the stuffing was baked at the local Whole Foods. And my wife, who's been on quite a baking tear or her own lately, made the most deletable and handsome dinner rolls infused with sweet potatoes from our CSA subscription.

To juice it all up, there were two kinds of gravies: one with giblets, the other without.

We followed the buffet with a salad of the many different lettuces that are so happy in our garden at the moment. We had planned to make a much bigger production of the salad with sliced pears and nuts, but in the end we just tossed the greens with a simple honey-mustard vinaigrette. I had a big plateful and could easily have taken seconds.

We've concluded that while 31 pounds is still a bit large for the turkey, we would pay almost anything for the quality. Everyone at the table remarked on the succulence of the meat, the flavor of this pasture-raised bird. Over the years, we've also noticed that beyond a certain weight, turkeys take about three hours to cook no matter how much they weigh. Those instructions in the classic cookbooks where it says to calculate 15 minutes per pound? Don't believe it.

There are several ways to judge turkey doneness. The meat and skin will be shrinking away from the ends of the drum sticks. The legs and wings will allow some movement in the joints. And the best measure: an instant-read thermometer will register about 165 degrees in the deepest part of the thigh.

My method of cooking the bird is to brush it all over with extra-virgin olive oil (my grandmother used butter) and season liberally with coarse salt and black pepper, inside the cavity as well. I stuffed the bird with big handfuls of sage and rosemary gathered from the garden, along with two small heads of garlic cut in half, half an onion, and half an orange cut into two pieces. I did not truss the bird at all, but did fold the wings back so the tips were not exposed.

Place the turkey breast-side-up in a rack inside a roasting pan and bake 1/2-hour at 425 degrees to start the browning process. Then lower the oven temperature to 325 and cook with the breast up another hour. Remove the bird from the oven and turn it upside down. (I used tea towels to turn the hot bird. Balled-up newspaper also works.) We laid some aluminum foil on the rack at this point so that the ribs of the rack did not dig into and cling to the exposed breast. Place the bird back in the oven and continue roasting another 1 1/2 hours, or until it is done.

The timing might be very different for a smaller turkey. I don't think we've ever had one less than 25 pounds. But turning the bird seems to help retain the juices and distribute them so that the breast meat isn't all dried out. It certainly results in a uniformly brown bird. Whether this would have the same good results with a factory-raised turkey is another question. Personally, I'm not interested enough in eating a factory-raised turkey to find out.

My grandmother used to get up at the crack of dawn to begin preparing the Thanksgiving meal. We awoke to the smell of onions and parsley being sauteed for the stuffing. She was also quite particular about covering the breast with a cheese cloth that she drenched in butter. And she would continually baste the bird throughout the roasting. We did none of these (our turkey covered the entire roasting pan. There was no way to get at the pan juices to baste it with). Yet our turkey came out browned to a stunning, light mahogany color all over. The meat could not have been more perfectly cooked--it was so moist and flavorful.

Truly, with family and friends gathered 'round, with great food--much of it grown ourselves--and fine spirits, it was a meal to be thankful for.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Why We Give Thanks...

For being at the top of the food chain...

For the good earth...

For friends...

For Mother Nature...

For music...

For dance...

For laughter...

For a place to grow...

For good things to eat...

For family.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Struggle to Survive

Finally, I had caught up enough with chores to start disassembling the tomato cages here on our edible landscape in the District of Columbia. The tomato plants seemed to have given up the ghost weeks ago, although the reappearance of August in October stretched the growing season to unheard of lengths.

But lookey here! Two days before Thanksgiving and the tomato plants are soldiering on, making new flowers and fresh leafy growth. Tomatoes are a hot weather plant, and temperatures lately have been dipping into the 30s. We are actually below normal for a change. But the tomatoes refuse to die. I can only admire their determination.

In fact, I have recently been scraping the bottom of our last jar of last year's green tomato and apple chutney. Powerfully good stuff. Green tomatoes are utterly transformed by the addition of brown sugar, apple cider vinegar, raisins, coriander, mustard seed. We spread it on cheese with crackers. So as I started breaking down the tomato plants, I kept an eye out for green tomatoes and, sure enough, there they were. Not many, some old and gnarly, some small and very new. There were clusters of them on the cherry tomato plants. I collected those, too.

There may just be enough to make another batch of green tomato and apple chutney. On the chance others of you may have green tomatoes still to be harvested, I'm giving the chutney recipe we use, from Fancy Pantry. This chutney lasts a long time, and makes a thoughtful Thanksgiving or Christmas gift.

3 pounds completely green tomatoes

2 pounds firm, tart apples

2 cups raisin, either dark or golden

1 1/2 cups diced onions

2 teaspoons finely minced garlic

2 cups (packed) light brown sugar

1 cup granulated sugar

2 teaspoons pickling or other fine non-iodized salt

1 1/2 cups cider vinegar, plus a little more if needed

3 to 4 tablespoons finely minced fresh ginger, to taste

1 1/2 tablespoons mustard seed

2 teaspoons ground coriander

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon finely minced fresh hot red pepper, 1/2 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes, or 1/4 teaspoon (or to taste) ground hot red Cayenne pepper

Rinse and drain the tomatoes. Cut out the stem scars and any blemishes and cut the tomatoes into 1/2-inch chunks. You should have about 8 cups. Place the tomatoes in a preserving pan or heavy pot.

Peel, core and cut the apples into 1/2-inch chunks; add them to the tomatoes. Add the raisins, onion, garlic, brown and granulated sugar, salt and vinegar. Mix the ingredients well and bring the mixture to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat and boil the mixture slowly, uncovered, stirring it often, for 30 minutes.

Add the ginger, mustard seed, coriander, cinnamon and hot pepper. Return to a boil, adjust the heat and continue to cook the chutney uncovered at a slow boil, stirring it often, until it holds a mounded shape when lifted in a spoon. Taste it carefully, remembering that the balance of flavors will improve as the chutney mellows in the jar; add, if needed, more vinegar, sugar, and/or salt.

Ladle the boiling-hot chutney into hot, clean pint or half-pint canning jars, leaving 1/4 inch of headspace. Seal the jars with new two-piece canning lids according to manufacturer's directions and process for 10 minutes in a boiling-water bat. Cool, label and store the jars. Let the chutney mellow for a few weeks before serving.

This is a perfect chutney to have on hand the next time you make curry. Or, as I said, a small spoonful with cheese and a cracker makes a delicious snack. It will remind you all year long why we cherish our tomatoes.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Beginning of Food

Neighbors might have thought it strange, a man wheeling bags of leaves and grass clippings up the sidewalk. But in my travels yesterday, I noticed a landscaping crew cleaning the area around a huge apartment complex down the street.

There were at least six workers busy mowing grass and blowing leaves and the sight of it I stopped me in my tracks: compost.

I suppose the workers thought I was crazy, pointing, waving my arms, jabbering away in fractured Spanish--indicating however I could that I wanted their big bags of lawn refuse. They looked at me like I was daft, then looked at each other as if to say, What is this guy talking about? But we soon had an arrangement: they would continue bagging the grass and leaves while I ran up the street and fetched my hand truck.

In fact, the captain of the crew spoke enough English that we could compare notes on composting. He agreed that I had a good mix of materials and that by next year (or maybe the year after, he seemed to think) I'd have some great soil amendment. "All organic," he said, nodding.

The trees here still haven't shed all their leaves and we have great colors despite months of drought. Normally I would be driving around the neighborhood in the coming weeks, snatching the leaves people gather and bag from their lawns and place at the curb for pickup by city crews. Brown leaves, a great supply of carbon for the compost pile, are difficult to come by in the spring and summer if you haven't saved a stash. The grass clippings, or green material, contain the nitrogen that stokes the composting process.

All of this may seem off the topic of food. Yet it is essential to the food we eat. Trees draw nutrients from the ground, which find their way into the leaves, which then fall back to the earth. Nitrogen is essential food for vegetable plants. Compost feeds the soil with organic matter, supporting an entire ecosystem of small creatures who transport nutrients to my carrots and beets and lettuces and tomatoes and make the soil a living, hospitable environment for things to grow. In the end, those very same nutrients find their way into our bellies as well.

I made several trips back and forth with my bags of loot. The landscaping crew, once they understood what I was doing, pitched in to help. Normally they use a big vacuum to blow the leaves into the back of their truck. But this time they gathered the leaves and stuffed them into more bags so I could wheel them home.

Every bit of compost I make myself means compost I don't have to buy, compost that doesn't have to be trucked into the city from somewhere else. It also means leaves and grass clippings that don't have to be trucked out of the city in the back of a landscaper's truck and dumped who-knows-where. We love the idea of nature recycling itself right here in the neighborhood and feeding us in the process.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Where Turkeys Come From

Hard as it may be for some consumers to believe, that turkey on the Thanksgiving table once was a living, breathing animal. Most turkeys for public consumption are raised in huge confinement lots, where they live a pretty miserable existence, all jammed together waiting for their date with the executioner. But at Mike Klein's farm in Brandywine, MD, about 35 miles outside the District of Coumbia in Prince George's County, a small flock lives on pasture. Their collapsible pen is moved from place to place so the turkeys can live outdoors and have fresh vegetagation and bugs to peck at.

Mike and his wife Michelle run a CSA subscription off their small truck patch, including lots of different vegetables, laying hens, roasters and turkeys for Thanksgiving. Mike's flock was smaller than usual this year, only around 25 birds. But it's still tough work. They eat their way through 100 pounds of feed each day and they are always in danger of escaping their pen and being eaten by the local foxes.

Finally it comes time to slaughter the turkeys and The Slow Cook lends a hand. This year it was a glorious day, sunny and calm, the farm surrounded by oak and hickory trees in a blaze of fall colors. It was a bit warmer than Mike and Michelle would like. But it felt great to the rest of the volunteer crew. Here is a gallery of photos showing the turkey butchering operation. If the sight of dead animals makes you queasy, this would be a good time to avert your eyes.

The breed of turkey Mike raised this year is a double-breasted bronze. The first task is to capture the birds, which dart around the pen to avoid us and sometimes find their way over the top of the electrified fencing and have to be chased back inside. We try to grab a bird by its leg, avoiding the flapping wings. The turkeys don't fly much, but their powerful wings can leave a nasty bruise or a bloody nose if you aren't careful. We hogtie the birds and cart them six-at-a-time back to the open-air slaughtering area.

The turkeys are treated gently while they wait their turn to be killed. We lift them out of the cart and hang them from hooks on a steel A-frame, so their heads are just a few inches above the ground. They hang very calmly and quietly. We say a few words to a turkey as we take its head in the left hand, then slit the jugular vein with a quick motion of a sharp knife.

So far, there has been hardly a word of protest from the turkeys. Even after their throats are cut, they dangle calmly from the A-frame. Then, as the last of the blood drains out of them and they lose consciousness, the birds flap their wings as if trying to escape. Apparently this is an involuntary reaction of the turkey brain as it thirsts for blood and oxygen. Perhaps animal rights groups would disapprove, but the turkeys have to die so we can eat, and to me, this method of killing seems extremely humane. Except for a few seconds of flapping wings, the whole process is reverential and calm, to the point of serene.

Mike lifts the turkey carcasses off their hooks and lowers them by the feet into a tub of scalding water, around 160 degrees. A minute or so is all it takes to loosen the feathers for plucking. Too long and the skin is damages.

Mike uses a machine to remove most of the feathers. It's a drum studded with long rubber nubs that look like knobby fingers. The drum spins at a rapid rate. You push the bird into the spinning nubs--they grab the feathers and pull them off. But hang on tight to that bird, or it will be sucked into the machine.

The bird then goes to a tub of cold water where a volunteer plucks the remaining feather and gets it ready for butchering.

The turkey is very dead and very naked at this point. We lift it out of the water and lay it on the butchering table where I remove the feet at the knees (the feet will be boiled for stock), then cut off the head. Working a boning knife through the skin I expose the neck and cut it off at the base with a pair of shears. My job is to then reach into the exposed neck cavity and remove the crop, the trachae and the esophagus.

Working at the other end of the bird are Michelle and daughter Sylvia. Michelle carefully carves around the bird's anus to reveal the intestinal tract without spilling any of its contents. The carcass must not be contaminated at this point. She reaches inside to remove all of the organs and viscera. Sylvia harvests the liver, heart, kidneys and gizzards, all to be iced and packed with the birds later.

The organs come out of the turkey carcass glistening and pristine. I cannot help marveling at how perfect in form they are, identical from one bird to the next--a miracle of creation. Michelle says she has no problem spending her day pulling the guts out of turkeys. It's the turkeys' feet she can't stand.

The gutted carcasses are cleaned in two changes of water before being chilled in an ice bath. After a quick lunch of grilled sausages, we turn our attention to the gizzards. Turkeys don't have teeth. They chew their food in an internal organ--the gizzard--where grains and food pellets are ground up by the pepples and stones the turkeys pick up in their foraging. If you've ever wondered what birds are pecking around for at the side of the road, it's little stones to fill their gizzards. We slice the gizzard in half. Inside is the pouch where the stones and food contents are located. It has to be peeled away from the meat--tough and painstaking work, like peeling the inside of a baseball mitt.

When the turkeys are good and cold, we bag them and weigh them. Mike charges $3 a pound. Some customers pick up their turkeys at the farm, the rest Mike delivers individually to clients in the Washington area the following day. Here's ours, all 31 pounds. We'll keep it in a cooler with plenty of ice until Thursday.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Weekend Update

Coke and Pepsi looked like heroes when they agreed to pull high-calorie soft drinks out of the nation's schools to help combat the obesity epidemic. Now activists fear the move was just a gambit to switch the sugar for artificially-sweetened beverages and sports drinks high in sodium.

The latest twist, according to an e-mail I received from Two Angry Moms: Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) has introduced an amendment to the farm bill that would pre-empt states from enacting standards to keep drinks laced with artificial sweeteners, caffeine, dyes and sodium out of their schools.

According to Dorothy Brayley of the Rhode Island Healthy Schools Coalition, the amendment, while ostensibly limiting sales of such drinks to low-traffic areas of school grounds where students are engaged in sports, would undermine state laws that are even stricter.

In Rhode Island, Brayley writes in the Two Angry Moms missive, "we know that this means artificially sweetened products that have absolutely no nutritive value. We have seen a myriad of products that don't have the calories but that have caffeine and super fortification. Under this law these products such as the artificially sweetened Red Bull among many others will be allowable in all high schools across the nation. This law opens the door for these products, because it has absolutely no caps set for caffeine nor superfortification, nor other additives. The products are simply required to meet a 10 calorie limit."

Here's a good backgrounder on the issues involved.

Pre-empting states has become a favorite strategy of corporate heavies who would just as soon avoid skirmishing with progressive interests here, there and all over the country. They simply get Congress to cut off debate--as well any semblance of community activism--by passing retrograde legislation containing the proviso that states may not trump the federal law.

It grows increasingly apparent that corporate food interests are determined, one way or another, to extract their pound of flesh from the nation's kids.

For those unfamiliar, the two angry moms are film-maker Amy Kalafa and holistic health counselor Susan P. Rubin, who turned their frustrations with school nutrition into a national crusade. And, yes, there is a movie.


I like my burger rare, with a little carbon monoxide. How about you?

Meat packers, hit by a number of recent recalls of tainted beef, are defending a practice of dosing meat with carbon monoxide to keep it looking fresh. Consumer groups contend that keeping meet cosmetically appealing by artificial means encourages consumers to purchase products after their "sell by" dates have lapsed.

Food retailers Giant and Safeway as well as Tyson Foods discontinued gassing meats after the practice was exposed. Target has asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture for permission to put a warning label on meats treated with carbon dioxide.

Hormel Chief Executive Jeffrey Ettinger told lawmakers at a House subcommittee hearing, "Consumers are not eating bad product and are not being deceived by this technology."

An official with the USDA's inspection service said the concern over carbon monoxide is "not a priority."

Obviously, if it looks good, eat it. This from the same folks who say e. coli in beef is okay, as long as it's cooked.


Officials in Pennsylvania, meanwhile, think that what consumers don't know about the contents of their milk can't hurt them.

The state's agriculture secretary, Dennis Wolff, announced a ban, effective Jan. 1, on all milk labels stating that the milk is free of bovine growth hormone. Many consumers would just as soon not serve growth hormones with their children's breakfast cereal, and milk containing bovine growth hormone is banned in many countries. But much of the U.S. dairy industry embraces the hormone because it increases the amount of milk cows produce.

Monsanto, the manufacturer of the hormone (why is this not a surprise?), along with farmers who depend on it, have spent years lobbying federal and state officials trying to outlaw "hormone-free" labeling.

Wolff, in announcing the Pennsylvania ban, said the labeling "confuses" consumers because it implies that milk that does not carry the label must be unsafe.

Wolff's ban would also apply to labels touting "pesticide free" and "antibiotic free."

Sounds perfectly logical, no?


We've been following more and more stories lately about farmers bucking local laws in order to put their products directly into the hands of consumers. One of the products most frequently forced underground is raw milk. Here's an excellent piece in The Nation looking at the renegade farmer phenomenon, written by David E. Gumpert, who follows the raw milk issue closely on his The Complete Patient blog.


New York Times columnist Mark Bittman recently got a spanking from Edible Nation for posting a recipe using monkfish, which, as any engaged seafood cook knows, is on the "avoid" list at the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program. (Be sure to scroll all the way down when you get to the Edible Nation site.)

Personally, I felt vindicated by Edible Nation's vigilantism on behalf of sea creatures, in as much as I've been known to scold some of my fellow food bloggers on the same grounds. (Bad me! Bad me!)

But trying to parse out which variety of this or that might be suitable for your dinner plate can be a tricky business. With the oceans' fish populations rapidly disappearing, my own take is that the safest approach is to not eat fish at all. Have some squid instead.

So I am happy to recommend a new campaign that urges kids--and parents--to put the brakes on their fish habit. It's called No Fish in My Dish, and you can get the book here.

And what if you are looking at a restaurant menu and forgot to bring the little wallet card that tells you which fish species are okay to order? Check out the latest technology, a text-messaging service that allows the user to download all the info he needs about sustainable seafood while his partner peruses the wine list.


Finally, the latest survey by the USDA shows that nearly one-quarter of all children in 12 different states don't always know where their next meal is coming from. The "food insecurity" survey (didn't we use to call it hunger?) shows that one of the worst affected jurisdictions is right here in the nation's capital--the District of Columbia.

"Food insecurity" goes hand-in-hand with so-called "food deserts," areas where healthy food is not readily available, or where food shopping is done at a corner convenience store because there are no supermarkets in the vicinity.

Here's an interesting map of D.C. (click on the map to enlarge) that overlays income levels with supermarket accessibility. Guess which income level gets the fewest supermarkets...

Bon appetit

Spicy Roasted Pumpkin Seeds

We cooked five pumpkins in all for my "food appreciation" classes this week, each one a bit smaller than a bowling ball. That left quite a load of pumpkin seeds.

Several of the kids asked if we would be roasting the seeds. Well, not exactly "we." While we were preparing the pumpkins for baking for our pumpkin and wild rice pilaf (see earlier post), I had the kids carefully separate the seeds from the fibers they scooped out of the pumpkins. I took the seeds home to roast.

First, the seeds need to be thoroughly cleaned. I can report that this is not so terribly difficult, but does require a bit of washing and picking through using a colander in the sink. I then blotted the seeds dry with paper towels and tossed them with extra virgin olive oil in a bowl, just enough to lightly coat.

For seasoning, I used a spice rub that I keep on hand for grilling meats and seafood: powdered chili, garlic salt, onion powder, cumin, cinnamon, coarse salt, black pepper and dark brown sugar. Spread the seeds on a baking sheet in a single layer, then dust with the spice mix (you can make one to your own tastes, of course). Place in a 325-degree oven until the seeds are toasted and crisp, about 20 minutes.

Come to think of it, these would be a great thing to put out with hors d'oeuvres for Thanksgiving. But I do have to remember to save some for the kids when "food appreciation" resumes after the holiday.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Pumpkin Nut Bread

Cook some pumpkins and you're bound to have leftovers.

That was the case this week as we were preparing pumpkin for our wild rice pilaf. My wife has a serious itch for making bread lately. The leftover pumpkin was a natural contender for a pumpkin bread.

For a recipe, she turned to a recent issue of Cook's Illustrated. This is quick bread, meaning it uses chemical rising agents rather than yeast. We are very fond of quick banana bread and this bread is similar, right down to the walnuts. Except there's no banana, of course, and the bread embodies everything we like about fall, including the flavors of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and, of course, pumpkin.

To make one 9-inch loaf:

2 cups (10 ounces) all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon table salt

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

2 cups pumpkin, mashed (or 1 15-ounce can pumpkin)

1 cup (7 ounces) sugar

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled

2 large eggs

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 cup toasted pecans or walnuts, chopped coarse

1 cup dried cranberries

Adjust oven rack to lower-middle positions and heat over to 350 degrees.

Generously coat a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan with cooking spray.

Mix flour, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, salt, nutmeg and ginger together in large bowl. Whisk pumpkin, sugar, melted butter, eggs and vanilla together in separate bowl until frothy.

Gently fold pumpkin mixture into flour mixture with rubber spatula until just combined. Fold in nuts and cranberries. Batter will be very thick.

Scrape batter into prepared pan and smooth surface. Bake until golden and toothpick inserted into center comes out with just a few crumbs attached, 45 to 55 minutes. Cool in pan for 10 minutes, then transfer to wire rack and cool at least 1 hour before serving. (Bread can be wrapped in plastic and stored at room temperature for up to 3 days.)

Try this smeared with cream cheese, but don't tell anyone.

Adios, Wild Rice

Some of you may remember our last dust-up with Whole Foods over the sudden and unannounced removal of bulk spices from our local store. (They've since posted a sign apologizing "for any inconvenience.")

Well, yesterday as I was cruising the bulk section for the wild rice I needed for my "food appreciation" classes (see post below), I found there was no wild rice to be had. Since I've been buying my wild rice in bulk from this store for several years, I had a pretty good idea where it was supposed to be. There wasn't even an empty bin to indicate wild rice had ever been there.

When I inquired at the customer service desk where the wild rice had gone, two members of the "grocery team" showed up, shrugged their shoulders and said they couldn't say, because the "buyer" for the bulk department was out and wouldn't be back until this morning.

This morning, when I returned to the store to purchase more pumpkins, I found the bulk "buyer" loading a bin with yogurt-covered pretzels. We like the yogurt-covered pretzels, so I was happy to see she was on top of that. But where, I asked, had the wild rice gone?

"We don't sell wild rice in this section," she said.

"I've been buying it here for years," I replied.

"Well," she answered, "since I started working here a month-and-a-half ago, we haven't had it. But we do have it in boxes."

She started to lead me to the aisle where the packaged wild rice is on display, but I waved her off. No way am I paying those prices, nor do I need the packaging.

But I did stop by the packaged rice aisle just to see if my suspicion was accurate, that the price of packaged wild rice is about double the cost of the bulk variety. What I found was the Lundberg brand on display costing $4.68 for an 8-ounce package, or 58.6 cents per ounce. The day before, I had purchased my wild rice in bulk at the Yes! Natural Foods store for $7.50 a pound, or a good deal less than half what Whole Foods is charging for the packaged variety.

Wild rice, whole wheat couscous, Israeli couscous--all these favorite items of mine have been eliminated without notice from the bulk section at Whole Foods. When the bulk spice selection was removed, someone describing himself as "an insider" at Whole Foods commented here that we should "get over it" and find what we need elsewhere.

Whole Foods seems determined to have us shop elsewhere...