Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Homegrown Cassoulet

Here's an old-fashioned pleasure: shelling beans.

We grew a hefty crop of lima beans in a our kitchen garden here in the District of Columbia, about a mile from the White House. I let them dry on the vine and finally just the other day got around to removing the beans from the pods.

I reckon most people have an image of something green and plump when they think of lima beans. But these--Jackson Wonder beans--are a mottled brown and cream color when they emerge from the pod. When cooked, they turn a solid brown. They are luxuriously meaty, and I can't think of a better place for them than in this quick "cassoulet."

A true cassoulet includes sausage and confit of duck and of course beans, all cooked in a lidded pot slowly for a long time. It's pure peasant food. My quick vegetarian version involves cooking the beans first, then baking them in the oven with bread crumbs. All the flavor comes from the beans, which makes this one of the world's finest bean dishes--flavorful and cheap. This time I used some of our own canned tomatoes, making it a very home-grown cassoulet. Then at the last minute I remembered that our friend Bob, on a recent visit from France, had brought us some canned confit.

Canned confit? Don't laugh. We're not usually into canned goods. And I just assumed this variety--Les Recettes de Maite--was the French equivalent of Dinty Moore or something. Just look at the picture of this woman on the label. Some merchandizer's fantasy of a French homemaker, no? But when I started snooping around on-line, I discovered the woman is real. She has a restaurant in a place called Rion des Landes in Southwestern France and apparently makes canned goods on the side. Which makes her closer to the equivalent of Lidia Bastianich--a confit capitalist. Check out her singing website.

In an interview with a French women's magazine, Maite declares that the Southwest has the best ingredients: meat, duck, foie gras. "And with that, you can make miracles." I had some doubts about the confit coming out Maite's can. How good could it possibly be? It's covered in great globs of fat. The meat itself--two large thighs--is shockingly pink and otherworldly looking. But baked with my beans....transcendental. You're eyes will roll back in your head and you would never guess it came out of a can.

So thanks, Bob, if you're reading this: We loved the canned confit.

To start, soak your dried beans overnight. (Use cannellini or Great Northern beans, or something similar, if you don't have these wondeful lima beans.) I had about two cups, and covered them with water in a large bowl to a depth of several inches. The following day I cooked them in a heavy pot with an onion, halved, 2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed, 2 bay leaves and a small fistful of fresh thyme sprigs. Cover everything generously with water and cook over moderate heat until the beans are tender, about an our. Drain the beans but save the cooking liquid. You can toss the onion, garlic, bay and thyme.

Next you will need a large onion, peeled and cut into small dice, along with three cloves of garlic chopped fine. Place these in a heavy pot over moderate heat with extra-virgin olive oil or, if you are planning to use confit, some of the duck fat. Season with salt and cook, covered, until the onion is soft and perhaps browned a little, about 10 minutes.

In a large bowl, mix the beans with the onion mixture and 1 pint of canned diced tomatoes. Add a tablespoon of finely chopped sage leaf. Mix everything together and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper as needed. Add pieces of confit, if using, and pour into a ceramic casserole.

Cover the bean mix with reserved bean cooking liquid if you remembered to save it or with chicken stock, preferably homemade. Top everything with a generous dusting of toasted bread crumbs (I used part of a Tuscan loaf from Whole Foods, crust removed and run through the food processor.)

Cover the casserole with aluminum foil and bake in a 425 degree oven until the cassoulet is bubbling, all the flavors have melded and the bread crumbs have begun to absorb some of the liquid, about 1 hour. You can serve this hot, or save it for another day. It will only get better with age.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Have Fire, Will Make Raclette

In my youth, I set a personal best at Raclette with 13 servings. That would be 13 swipes of the knife as you see in this picture, 13 times the cheese was set before the fireplace until it became molten. I don't know what possessed me to perform such a stunt. That was back in my student days, living in Switzerland. Anything like it now would probably induce a heart attack.

But I still harbor a kind of secret obsession with Raclette. Whenever I see a fireplace, I imagine a shortened wheel of this semi-hard cheese positioned before the flames, waiting for that magical moment when the cheese just begins to run. Then quickly lift the wheel and, using the back of a sturdy knife, swipe the melting goodness onto a plate. Give it a good grind of black pepper and serve with simple boiled potatoes, cornichons and cocktail onions.

So it was that I began to conjure up images of a Raclette feast when my sister and her husband found new digs in a rental overlooking the Potomac River in nearby Virginia. This 60s-style bungalow has a cozy little fireplace in the living room. We immediately planted the idea of a Raclette dinner and last night our number came up. I brought a 4-pound piece of cheese, the pickles, the potatoes. Tom, my oenophile brother-in-law, provided the progression of white wines: a lovely California chardonnay, an herbacious sauvignan blanc from Bordeaux, and a wonderfully fruity pinot gris from Alsace. (In Switzerland, some eaters prefer hot tea with their Raclette in the belief that cold wine causes the molten cheese to form a ball in the stomach. Personally, I've never experienced that problem. But apparently, balls of cheese in the stomach are to be avoided.)

The meal itself couldn't be simpler. Tom had already started the fire. I positioned a cinder block in front of the fireplace and covered it with aluminum foil. The open face of the partial wheel of cheese was set on top of the foil to catch any drippings. All that's left to do is wait for the fire to have its effect on the cheese. Then quickly take the cheese in hand and scrape a portion onto a plate. That's the one drawback--or perhaps the charm--of Raclette: Only one person gets to eat the cheese at a time. You have to wait your turn, and that makes this a very casual meal, perhaps best taken while gathered around the fire.

At a certain point enough cheese has been scraped away to reveal a subtantial portion of rind exposed and dangling off the edges. It gets nicely caramelized and crunchy facing the flames. With the sharp side of the knife you can trim this crunchy rind onto the next eater's plate as an added bonus.

You can see why Raclette in its country of origin constitutes a basic peasant food among the cow herders who make the cheese, perfect for winter using potatoes from your root cellar and some of the vegetables you pickled in the fall. By all means serve some of your favorite bread. My sister also made a salad and a chocolate bundt cake for dessert.

You meat eaters might also consider a platter of salamis or perhaps some paper-thin slices of Switzerland's famous dried ham, Bundnerfleisch. Save any leftover cheese for your next fondue.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Cleaning the Bay: They Lied

An expose in today's Washington Post tells how federal and state officials for years have failed to gather the political will to save the Chesapeake Bay, instead feeding the public false information about "progress" in the cleanup effort in order to maintain their funding, to the tune of $6 billion so far.

Officials have long known how rampant shoreline development and runoff from farms, storm drains and industry were destroying the Bay. They've even had the science to solve the problem. But they just never had the guts to tackle the issue head-on. Goals for curbing pollution have never been met. Instead, state environmental agencies and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency were painting a rosy picture of the Bay's health using phony computer models rather than actual data. The truth was, the EPA didn't even have the equipment in place to actually monitor what was happening in the Bay.

Recently Maryland and Virginia officials asked the Bush administration to declare the Bay's crab industry a disaster in order to scare up federal funds to help out-of-work watermen. The Bay's once thriving oyster population has long been in shambles, almost non-existent. Each summer pollution spawns huge "dead zones" in the Bay where the water is starved of oxygen and lifeless.

"It'll always be beautiful," said Bernie Fowler, 84, a former waterman, county commissioner and state senator from Calvert County, who has argued for cleaning the bay since 1970. "But there's nothing out there living."

Environmentalists and watermen have threatened to take the EPA to court to enforce cleanup goals. Otherwise, it's business as usual.

Friday, December 26, 2008

A Christmas Roast

Nothing says meat better than a beef rib roast. In our family, there's a tradition of serving one of these beasts for an early dinner on Christmas Day along with Yorkshire pudding and the mandatory mashed potatoes. It doesn't hurt that one of the sisters-in-law works for a meat distributor in Baltimore. Have you checked the price of beef lately?

You don't do much to a rib roast other than seasoning it aggressively with salt and pepper. Getting it to the table is really more about technique than anything else. Do you like your meat rare? Medium? Well done? It is critical that you know in advance what sort of meat you want to be serving. From there, it's all about timing.

Most of the advice you read about doneness in recipe books is all wrong. In fact, as we prepared our roast for the oven, we read in one book or another that to serve our beef rare, we would need to cook it to an internal temperature of 140. It advised 170 for well done. Either would have resulted in something like shoe leather.

One thing many cooks fail to take into account is that a large roast (even a smaller one) continues to cook even after you pull it out of the oven. A very large roast cooked at a high temperature will build up such a head of steam that it will "coast" for quite some distance. Just sitting on the cutting board, the internal temperature will continue to rise 10 degrees or more. We learned this the hard way at past Christmas dinners, wherein we pulled the roast from the oven at what we thought was an ideal temperature for juicy and rare, only to slice into something closer to well done because we had to wait so long for everyone to get to the table.

Consequently, I've learned to undershoot the temperature a little, and since temperature is so important--really, the only way to gauge a tender roast's doneness--it pays to have a highly accurate and reliable thermometer. If you can afford a roast like this, you can certainly afford the cost of a good digital thermometer, the kind with a probe that you can insert into the roast for the entire cooking time. An oven-safe cord connects the probe to a sensor with an alarm that will sound when your desired temperature has been reached. The sensor usually has a magnet on the back so you can hang it on the refrigerator door and walk away while your meat cooks.

Typically we take the meat out of the fridge and leave it on the counter for a few hours to come up to room temperature. That will speed up the cooking time. This year, our digital thermometer--with the probe inserted squarely in the middle--showed the roast to be 56 degrees cool before we put it in the oven. May aim was to bring it up to 115 degrees for a fairly rare result.

After seasoning the meat top and bottom, I preheat the oven to 500 degrees. A half hour at 500 degrees (meat up, bones down) develops some nice browning and crustiness on the roast. I then reduce the heat to 325. I've read that some beef houses like to cook their rib roasts at very low heat for several hours to achieve that perfectly rosy interior. Using my method, a 12-pound roast is done in about 1 1/2 hours.

If you are looking for something closer to medium rare, shoot for an internal temperature of 120. Once it comes out of the oven, let the roast sit on its cutting board for 15 or 20 minutes so the juices can redistribute themselves. Cut the roast too early and all the juices just run out of it. When it's finally ready and people are seating themselves, I like to cut the meat away from the rib bones all in one piece. This makes for much easier carving at table.

You can separate the rack into individual bones and pass these around the table on a platter. Some of your guests will enjoy gnawing on them as a sort of appetizer. I know I do.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Building a Chowder

There is a world of difference between a true chowder and the soupy, flour-thickened stuff you find in the run-of-the-mill seafood restaurant. My own ideal chowder would recreate what I imagine was a simple, one-pot meal constructed by the fisherman while he was out on the cold, cold waters of the Atlantic, waiting to pull in his lines. It would be made with the simplest ingredients, and not too many of them either.

Note that chowder making once was all the rage in New England. Families and friends would pile into sail boats with their pot and other essentials and make a weekend out of boiling up a chowder while on the beach of some wind-blown island.

What you see here is something very close to my own ideal--not a soup, certainly, and not even a stew. Something closer to a creamy muddle. It's made very simply by layering onions, potatoes, fish and crackers in a heavy pot, then covering it with a seafood broth and baking in the oven. Before bringing the pot to the table, a generous amount of heavy cream is poured into the brew and returned to the oven so that it emerges with a deliciously caramelized top.

This must be a very ancient and widespread technique, because we make a similar seafood stew with Portuguese origins. The basic ingredients are almost identical--onions, potatoes, fish and shellfish--but of course the seasonings are not and there is no cream involved. We love that stew also because it is so simple and everything cooks together, all at once, in the same pot, which then becomes the serving vessel set on a trivet in the middle of the table. It's a wonderful way to entertain a group of friends who are easily satisfied with a bowl of stew and perhaps a simple dessert as well, such as gingerbread cake with whipped cream. Imagine such a meal washed down with a hearty beer, or maybe a tall glass of sparkling wine.

This particular recipe comes from Jasper White's 50 Chowders, one of the best-researched volumes on the subject. If you like chowders and want to know how to make them properly, this would be a very good place to start.

In olden times, a chowder like this would be made with cod fillets, or perhaps haddock if company were coming for dinner. But since cod and haddock have very nearly been wiped out in the Atlantic, and since humankind is working so hard to destroy the rest of the ocean ecosystem, we have to be careful about which kind of fish we use in our chowder. I try to follow the guidelines of the Monterey Bay Aquarium's "Seafood Watch" program.

Lately I've been using hake--it is such a bargain compared to most other fish in the market--but now I find that only certain kinds of hake are considered a "good alternative" by "Seafood Watch." Halibut would be an excellent choice, and I suppose you could also substitute striped bass or even catfish and, as a last resort, farmed tilapia. In fact, you really don't recognize the fish much when the chowder pot comes out of the oven. But it is rather more satisfying to bite into a solid piece of fish, rather than something that has simply disintegrated in the cooking process.

If I have time and some fish bones, I make fresh fish broth or fumet for this chowder. It really is the best and doesn't require much time or trouble. Otherwise, use a quality commercial seafood stock such as Kitchen Basics.

One further note: fisherman used to make chowders with a tough cracker called "hard tack" that later came to be known as the "Pilot Cracker." Nabisco had planned to cease making the "Pilot Cracker" until a group of ladies in Maine rose up in protest. It's hard to find these thick and very plain crackers outside New England. But I found that the very thin and humble water cracker makes a pretty good substitute just crushed with the hand into bite-size pieces.

4 ounces salt pork, rind removed and sliced very thinly
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 large onions, peeled, halved and thinly sliced lengthwise
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme leaves
2 dried bay leaves
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 1/2 pounds Yukon Gold or similar potatoes, peeled and sliced very thinly
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 1/2 pounds skinless white fish fillets (such as halibut)
4 ounces water crackers, broken into bite-size pieces
5 cups fish stock
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
chopped parsley for garnish

Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees

Fry salt pork at the bottom of a large, heavy pot or Dutch oven until just browned. Remove salt pork and save for later.

Add to the pot butter, onions, thyme, bay leaves, cloves and nutmeg. Gently saute onions until soft but not browned, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool.

To build the chowder, put 1/3 of the onion mixture at the bottom pot, followed by half the potatoes, then half the fish fillets, then half the crackers, seasoning along the way with salt and ground pepper. Repeat with another layer, using the final 1/3 of the onions to cover the fish. Pour the fish stock over everything using the handle of a wooden spoon, if necessary, to poke through the ingredients and make sure the stock fills in from the bottom. Place over moderate heat on the stove until the liquid begins to steam.

Put the pot, covered, in the stove and bake until the potatoes are just cooked through, about 30 minutes. Scatter the cooked salt pork over the top of the chowder and pour in the cream. Return to oven, uncovered, for 15 minutes longer, at which point the cream should be browning around the edges.

Ladle the chowder into preheated bowls and garnish with parsley. Serve with your favorite beer or wine. Or perhaps you have a bottle of local hard cider you enjoy?

Monday, December 22, 2008

Sunday in the Nation's Capitol

Hard as it may be to imagine, real people do live in what the rest of the country refers to as Washington, D.C., and what we longtime residents more affectionately know as the District of Columbia. One benefit of living in the capitol city is our proximity to all the attractions on the National Mall. It's a great place to visit on a winter's Sunday afternoon. One of the little gems nestled among the museums is the skating rink in the Smithsonian Institution's "Sculpture Garden."

From here you get dramatic views of the capital building. Now imagine this same space on January 20, filled with a million or more people come to hear the new president's inaugural address.

We were surprised to see the famous carousel outside the Smithsonian's castle-like headquarters building open for business on such a cold winter day. No waiting in line today. We couldn't resist taking a turn.

Just across The Mall is the Natural History museum, famous for the huge, stuffed elephant in its rotunda, as well as the gem collection containing the Hope Diamond. We found a new mammal exhibit with ferocious lions attacking a wildebeast.

Daughter is always anxious to visit the Insect Zoo at the Natural History museum. And this year we found another new attraction: A butterfly exhibit swarming with real butterflies. The enclosure is the size of a small house that from the outside looks like a space capsule. It's filled with bright lights and flowers and hundreds of butterflies flying around freely. It's a toasty-warm place to linger and be amazed.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Kids Make Gingerbread Cake

The aroma of old-fashioned gingerbread baking in the oven automatically signals the arrival of Christmas. With its strange mix of molasses, cloves, nutmeg and other spices, gingerbread is an anachronism. Yet somehow it has maintained its grip on the holiday tradition.

Personally, I don't care much for gingerbread cookies or the stuff that gingerbread houses are made of. But this cake has a wonderful moistness to go with its heft and spiciness. There's nothing difficult about it once you have all the ingredients assembled. And that's part of the fun making it with children--all those ingredients arrayed on the counter top and the extra time and care it takes to mix them all together.

The original recipe calls for mixing first the wet ingredients, then the final batter with an electric mixer. But we found that mixing with a hand whisk worked just as well and was more fun. The original recipe also calls for baking the cake in an 11 by 7-inch baking pan. But our pan was a little smaller and square: 8 1/2 by 8/12 inches. This increased our baking time from the suggested 40 minutes to 52 minutes. The key to doneness is that the cake should be fully risen in the center and should bounce back when pressed with a finger. A toothpick inserted in the middle should come out clean. In a smaller pan, this may mean that the finished cake is a little crispier around the edges, which cook first.

Try serving this cake with plain yogurt or even a dollop of sour cream to cut the sweetness.

2 1/4 cups sifted (9 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon Dutch-processed cocoa
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled to room temperature
3/8 cup molasses
3/8 cup dark Karo syrup
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup milk
1 large egg

Place oven rack in middle of oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Grease the bottom and sides of an 11 by 7-inch baking dish and dust with flour, tapping out the excess. Or spray with Baker's Joy.

Whisk together flour, baking soda, salt, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, allspice and cocoa in a medium bowl.

Beat butter, molasses, sugar, buttermilk, milk and egg in a large bowl. Add dry ingredients and beat until batter is smooth and thick, scraping down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula as needed. (This should take about a minute with an electric mixer, longer if done by hand.) Scrape the batter into the prepared baking dish and smooth the surface as needed.

Place baking dish in oven and bake until the top springs back when lightly touched and edges have pulled away from the pan sides, about 40 minutes. Set on a wire rack to cool for 10 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Creamed Chipped Ham & Collards

This just proves that flavor doesn't care where it comes from.

In anticipation of boiling some collards, I simmered smoked turkey necks for a long time in a pot of water, then added a ham bone that turned up in the process of catering a client's buffet.

This mongrel broth was not so much to look at. But I was certain it would lend some big flavor to our greens. Just before cooking the greens, however, I remembered a big hunk of leftover ham in the fridge. Now, there are a lot of things you can make with leftover ham. But if you haven't made creamed ham in a while, a vision of dinner begins to form.

Instead of pouring all that mongrel broth in the pot, I set aside two cups to make a sauce for my ham. I sauteed two shallots, cut into small dice, in 3 tablespoons butter. When the shallots were soft, I added 3 tablespoons flour and cooked that gently for just a few minutes. Then I poured in my 2 cups of broth and turned it into a sauce, adding some milk and finally a bit of half-and-half for richness. As you can see in the photo, you are looking for a gravy-like consistency. Add perhaps 1/3 cup crumbled cheddar cheese and stir until it has completely melted. Finally, add your ham, cut into dice, until it begins to look like creamed chipped ham and season it with salt, pepper and a bit of freshly ground nutmeg.

I also had some leftover riced sweet potatoes, so this was lunch: that velvety creamed chipped ham poured over sweet potatoes, with collards on the side. The sound you hear is my wife moaning over the creamed ham.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Rhubarb, a Winter Warrior

The leaves and stems of our rhubarb plants dropped to the ground some time ago, marking the end of another year. But look what's happening. The rhubarb are pushing up new leaves and stems in the middle of December. Rhubarb truly is a cold-loving plant. The District of Columbia, with its horribly hot and humid summers, is about the southern limit for rhubarb. Many varieties will not thrive here. We are growing the green-stemmed Victoria variety from some spare root stock give to us by the Washington Youth Garden.

We are eagerly awaiting the spring, which will mark the third season since we planted our rhubarb. You should wait about three years after planting before harvesting rhubarb very heavily. This gives the plants plenty of time to establish healthy roots. So this year are efforts will finally pay off--rhubarbs sauce, rhubarb pie, rhubarb jam. Just the thought of it will keep us warm through the winter.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Accidental Soup: Turkey & Wild Rice

Sometimes the process of making soup is totally opportunistic. But that is as it should be: soup is the poor man's way of letting nothing go to waste.

In this case, the stock was gleaned from the carcasses of two roasted turkey breasts, scavenged from a recent catering job. I made the stock in my usual fashion--chopping the carcasses into pieces and adding onion, carrot, celery, parsley and bay leaf. A reader recently suggested using leeks in this stock instead of the more common onion. But I can only say we are planning to eat the soup, not make love to it, so why flatter it with such precious baubles as leeks?

In any case, I had been planning to make a soup eventually with this stock using some sort of small pasta from the grocery. But then while rummaging around the pantry I came across a fairly large quantity of wild rice previously purchased in bulk. I cooked some of that in turkey stock until it was puffed out and bursting with flavor. And it occurred to me: why buy pasta, when I had a big pot of wild rice? I went out to the garden and harvested some carrots and some parsnips that have been resting very comfortably in the soil and gaining sweetness in the recent cold weather. And so this soup was born.

Simply saute with extra-virgin olive oil in a big, heavy pot a half a small onion, a couple of carrots and a couple of parsnips, all cut into small dice and seasoned with a teaspoon of coarse salt to bring out the juices. When the onion is soft, add about 8 cups turkey stock, then about 2 cups turkey meat (saved from our heritage Thanksgiving bird) cut into medium dice and 1 1/2 cups (or so) cooked wild rice. Over moderate heat, bring everything up to steaming. Season as needed with salt and freshly ground black pepper and serve in warm bowls with thick slices of a rustic bread. You can garnish the soup with chopped parsley or cilantro, as you like.

I do believe this is one of the most satisfying and flavorful soups I have ever tasted.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Sweet Potato Biscuits

We like to use sweet potato biscuit during the holiday season to make little cocktail sandwiches for a buffet. Simply cut the biscuits open and lay them out assembly line style. We stuff some sandwiches with roasted turkey breast and cranberry chutney. Others we make with a roast ham and grainy mustard.

The biscuits you see here are not sweet potato biscuits but our other favorite, buttermilk biscuits. The recipes are very similar, however, and the standard admonitions apply: Don't work the dough too much, and bake at a fairly high temperature.

The sweet potatoes do give the biscuits a festive air. We use the recipe in Bill Neal's Biscuits, Spoonbread, and Sweet Potato Pie.

2 cups low-gluten all-purpose flour (such as White Lily or Gold Medal)

Heaping 1/2 teaspoon salt

3 1/4 teaspoon baking powder

5 tablespoons chilled butter

4 ounces (1/2 cup) sweet potato, either roasted and riced, or pureed from a can

7/8 cup whole milk

Preheat oven to 475 degrees.

Mix the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Add the butter in pieces and work it into the flour using quick pinching motions of the fingers. The flour and butter should be completely incorporated, until it looks a little like sand. Mix in sweet potato. Add milk and stir until dough forms a ball.

Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Knead lightly, about 10 strokes. Stop as soon as the dough begins to look smooth.

Roll dough out to a thickness of about 3/4 inch, then cut into 2-inch rounds. Place on an ungreased baking sheet and place in the oven until biscuits are lightly browned, about 8 minutes.

Note: My wife thinks the standard oven temperatures recommended for baking biscuits--475 to 500 degrees--are too high. She likes to cook hers at 425 degrees, and I must say, they are delicious: light and airy.

Friday, December 12, 2008


Things are starting to happen under our winter tunnel. The seeds I planted back on Nov. 26 are starting to turn into little plants. Here are the tiny mizuna seedlings, looking much larger than real life once enlarged in the photo editing process.

And here is the arugula, always a pretty reliable germinator. I checked the length of the bed and also found mustards, spinach, collards, kale and lettuce sprouting. Now the question is whether these little plants can survive the deepest part of winter. The days will soon be getting longer, but the temperatures will probably get colder. Lately we've been seeing a range from the mid-20s into the 50s. We really should have planted these seeds in September. Had we done so, we could be harvesting by now.

I'm impressed by the job our Canon Elph camera does with such small subjects. The sharpness of image is there even when blown up several times. Tiny pebbles look like massive boulders.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Parents Night Dinner = Big Success

We had a great crowd of parents, kids and staff at our "Parents Night" dinner celebrating our "food appreciation" classes. With staff plating the food and kids running the plates to the tables, everything moved like clockwork.

As you can see, there's nothing terribly fancy about the dining room. But we do dress the table with place mats drawn by the kids and laminated, plus laminated menus. And this year, you might be able to discern on the table a number of our pickles and preserves. We grouped jars of our dill pickles, sweet pickled green tomatoes, pickled watermelon rinds and pickled pumpkin. Plus, there were jars of apple butter and hot pepper vinegar to go with a very Southern menu:

Hoppin' John (beans & rice)
Collard Greens
Fresh Apple Sauce
Buttermilk Biscuits
Dessert: Apple

We urged the parents to take any leftover pickles home. And we had a selection by the door as well. There was no secret which one they liked best. "Hey, Ed!" Cried one group of parents. "We're on our second jar of green tomatoes!"

Well, I love the pickled green tomatoes as well. But my favorite may be the sweet pickled watermelon rinds, flavored with cardamom seeds. They are nearly irresistible.

The menu represents the beginning of our the virtual world culinary tour in this year's "food appreciation" classes. We started right here in the District of Columbia by pickling and canning our favorite produce. Then we started south, making all sorts of apple recipes in the Shenandoah Valley, then into North Carolina for skillet corn bread, the to Low Country for Hoppin' John and deeper into The South for our collard greens.

I would never have expected this meal to be so popular. But people were coming back to the food line for seconds and thirds. They were so disappointed when we finally served the last of the biscuits.

But there's not a spare moment to gloat over our success. It's already time to start planning for this week's food adventure....

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Our New $20 Bicycle

Yesterday we arrived early at a nearby hippster cafe here in the District of Columbia to select a new (used) bicycle for our daughter, who's almost nine and just keeps growing. Turns out there was not so much competition for the kids bikes, but the place was swarming with young adults oggling and testing the grownup models.

It seemed like such a good idea--and so instantly popular and practical--that I wanted to pass on what this was about. It was three local groups who get disadvantaged children off the streets by teaching them bicycle repair. All three groups banded together for this fundraiser, putting the bicycles up for sale to the public. In fact, it wasn't so much a sale as a "suggested donation." The "suggested" amount for the cute purple bicycle our daughter settled on (or rather pounced on) was $15, but we added another $5 to the kitty as a token of our appreciation.

It all happened very much under the radar, with word spreading via e-mail and neighborhood listservs. Never has the internet been put to better use. I was so impressed, I thought we should give a big mention to the groups involved. Phoenix Bikes is located in Arlington, Virginia. The "Engaged University" out of the University of Maryland runs something called "Reanissance Community Bike Shop" in Riverdale, Maryland. Bikes for the World is sponsored by the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. And they were joined in the effort by the Mt. Rainier Bike Co-Op in Mt. Rainier, Maryland.

A great group effort, everyone. And thanks to Bea Trickett for posting the information at the Brookland Yahoo! listserv.

Meanwhile, also taking place yesterday, students from American University were collecting donated bicycles for Wheels to Africa, a group located in Arlington, Virginia, that sends refurbished bicycles to needy children and other individuals in African countries. Another great, grass-roots campaign.

Let's hear it for pedal power!

Saturday, December 6, 2008

From Our "Miracles of Nature" Department

A rosemary plant, growing out of the brick wall on our front stoop.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Kids Make Buttermilk Biscuits

One of the cleverest culinary inventions was the chemical rising agent. With simple baking powder you can make sumptuous scones, fluffy muffins and airy biscuits--all without the hassle of proofing yeast. This was a real boon to the early pioneers, who obviously didn't have room in their covered wagons for colonies of yeast.

As our "food appreciation" classes continue their way south on a virtual world culinary tour, we had to stop and make some buttermilk biscuits to go with our collard greens and Hoppin' John. The acid in buttermilk easily reacts with the base chemical in baking powder to make our biscuits rise. Another secret is to find a lighter-than-usual flour to make the biscuits lighter than usual as well.

What you are looking for is less protein in the flour. You can do this by combining cake flour with all-purpose flour. Or seek out a lighter all-purpose flour such as White Lily, popular in the South. To make these biscuits, I scoured the local supermarkets and could find neither cake flour nor White Lily (my wife swears the Harris Teeter's store in Virginia sells it, but apparently not the store near us in the District of Columbia.)

But here's a little known secret: the ubiquitous Gold Medal flour also has reduced protein. You can tell by looking at the nutritional information on the side of the package. Gold Medal lists three grams of protein per serving. Virtually every other all-purpose flour lists four grams of protein. So we just used Gold Medal.

Biscuits will come out tough if the dough is worked too much. So just mix it until it holds together. The other requirement is to have a very hot oven and to set the biscuits on the middle rack so that they rise up and bake quickly--evenly--without burning. Our recipe is adapted from one given on the back of a bag of White Lily flour.

2 cups White Lily flour (or use Gold Medal)

1 tablespoon baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup chilled butter (4 tablespoons)

7/8 cup buttermilk

Preheat oven to 475 degrees

In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, baking powder and salt and whisk together well. Add the chilled butter to the dry mix in small pieces, then cut it in with rapid finger movement, pinching the butter and flour together until the butter is completely incorporated and the finished mix is more like sand. Pour in the buttermilk and mix only until the buttermilk is fully incorporated. The dough may still be in pieces at this point.

Pour the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and press it together into a ball. Knead the dough just two or three times, then roll it out to 1/2-inch thickness or even a bit thicker. Use a 2 1/2-inch biscuit cutter to cut the dough into 12 rounds. Place these on an ungreased baking pan and bake on the middle rack of the oven just until they rise and begin to brown, about 8 minutes.

When the biscuits have cooled slightly, you can use a fork or a knife to pry them open. Spread them generously with butter and serve with the apple butter you canned in October.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Cooking Rice in the Oven

To some of you, this is probably going to sound like a cheap catering trick. Most likely, it is. But when I asked my wife, the catering chef, how she thought I should make rice for 90 people for tomorrow's "Parents Night" dinner where I teach "food appreciation," she didn't hesitate. "Do it in the oven," she said.

She wasn't sure exactly how that should be done. For instance, at what temperature should the oven be set? I toddled around the internet for a few minutes and came up with a plan. The most important thing, it seemed, was that the liquid the rice was cooking in should be boiling before the pan went into the oven. Second, there should be a tight seal on the pan.

You may be wondering why there's a picture of Uncle Ben so prominently displayed here. Isn't the Slow Cook supposed to be exclusively about healthy, long-cooking, whole grain rice? To which I answer: Yes, the Slow Cook is about all those things. Except what I am cooking is Hoppin's John--the Low Country version of rice and beans--and Hoppin' John traditionally calls for white rice (originally grown in South Carolina). I was determined not so serve a gloppy, overcooked mess of rice to our parents. Hence, a chicken-shit resort to good ol' Uncle Ben and his converted rice. Hopefully, it would be true to the label and turn out "perfect."

So I dumped five pounds of rice (about 11 1/2 cups) into a large aluminum catering pan and covered it with 23 cups of a boiling broth made of water and smoked turkey necks. Notice, the cooking ratio is two cups water for every cup of rice. I sealed the pan with aluminum foil and put it on the middle rack of the oven pre-heated to 350 degrees.

Originally, I was counting on the rice being done in 30 minutes. I checked it, but there was still a lot of water in the pan. I checked it 15 minutes later and still it was not done. Finally, about an hour after first putting the pan in the oven, the rice was fully cooked and fluffy, almost spilling out of the pan. And it was, as advertised, not overcooked or gloppy but just as Uncle Ben had claimed: perfect.

So that's how you cook rice in the oven.

Okay, so this is not exactly how Hoppin' John is traditionally made. Usually the rice and beans are cooked together in a pork broth. But this is another catering shortcut: I used canned chickpeas and mixed them into the rice, seasoning with salt. Heretical, I know. Avert your eyes, all you purists! But for the shortcut artists out there, maybe this is helpful.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Accidental Buttermilk Pie

What do you do when the dairy delivers a half-gallon of buttermilk by mistake?

Answer: Make buttermilk pie.

This was my wife's inspiration. Although, if you had nailed my feet to the floor and doused me with hot coffee, I probably could have remembered there was something called "buttermilk pie."

I love the flavor and consistency--somewhere between lemon meringue and coconut custard. It has the flakiest crust and just a bit of ever-so-crunchy caramelization on top. That's because you start the pie cooking at 425 degrees, then lower the temperature.

The recipe comes from Martha Stewart's Pies & Tarts. This book came out before people started to tire of Martha as knowing too much and I definitely recommend getting a copy, not just for the many excellent recipes (I take my wife's word for it--she's the baker in the family) but for the really dolled-up photo of a very young Martha published as an inset on the cover, just below a gorgeous heart-shaped raspberry tart. (Even then, Martha was getting her photo on the cover whenever possible, it seems. Is it fair to say she was using her looks to get ahead?)

We normally associate buttermilk pie or anything else with Southern cuisine. But apparently Martha--a Polish girl from New Jersey--knew a good thing when she tasted it.

For the pate brisee pie shell:

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
1 cup cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1/4 to 1/2 cup ice water.

Put flour, salt and sugar in the bowl of a food processor and chill. All ingredients must be cold before proceeding. Then add the pieces of butter and process for about 10 seconds, or until the mixture resembles coarse meal.

Add ice water, drop by drop, through the feed tube with the machine running, just until the dough holds together without being wet or sticky. Do not process more than 30 seconds. Test dough by squeezing a small amount together. If it is crumbly, add a bit more water.

Turn dough out onto a large piece of plastic wrap. Grasping the ends of the plastic wrap with your hands, press the dough into a flat circle with your fists. Rolling will be easier if the pastry is chilled as a ball. Wrap the dough in the plastic and chill for at least an hour.

Use vegetable cooking spray to lightly butter a pie plate or tart pan. On a lightly floured board, roll out the pastry to a thickness of 1/8 inch. Place the pastry in the tart pan or pie plate and press it into the bottom edges and along the sides. Trim pastry using scissors or a sharp paring knife. Crimp or decorate the edges of the pastry, if desired, using your favorite method. Chill the pastry-lined pan until ready to use.

For the filling:
1/2 cups granulated sugar
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
4 eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
1 cup buttermilk
zest of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
freshly grated nutmeg to taste

For the glaze:
1 egg yolk with beaten with 2 teaspoons water

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Combine the sugar and flour in a large mixing bowl. Add the beaten eggs and mix well. Stir in butter and buttermilk. Stir in lemon rind and juice, vanilla and nutmeg, and pour into the pie shell. Brush the edge of the pie crust with the egg glaze. Place the pie in the center of the oven for 15 minutes. Lower the heat to 350 degrees and continue to bake for approximately 40 minutes, until the filling is set. Remove from the oven and serve at room temperature.

You'll like this so much you'll want the dairy to deliver buttermilk by mistake more often.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Turkey Stock

You didn't throw that turkey carcass in the trash. Did you?

I hope not, because now would be the time to be making some excellent turkey stock.

I don't spend too much time agonizing over this. One thing I think is especially important is to break up the turkey bones. I take them outside with a big cleaver and a hammer and crack them in two. Break up the rib cage, breast bone, etc., even more.

Throw all the bones in a big stock pot with a couple of large carrots cut into pieces, an onion sliced in half (skin on), two or three stalks of celery cut into pieces, a fist-full of parsley sprigs, a couple of bay leaves and a few peppercorns. Cover everything with a couple gallons of water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a gentle simmer and cook for a few hours, or until the stock is quite aromatic and any meat left on the turkey bones is falling off.

Use the stock to make a delicious soup and freeze rest for later.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Portrait of Bob

Our friend Bob, the artist, is in town visiting. I shot a few photos and was impressed with how our little Canon Elph performed with just the available light at night in our kitchen.

I thought the pictures had a certain Old Masters quality--not unlike some of Bob's paintings. Maybe it was just the wine. Bob is a handsome devil and makes a fine photo subject. I suggested he reproduce these in oils on canvass, but he just laughed.

Bob also is a great guest. He eats our pickles with gusto. (Or is that with relish?)

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Turkey Tonic: Green Pozole

We ate and drank too much on Thanksgiving. Friday, it was my turn to make dinner and since we had a big piece of pork shoulder in the fridge, I had a ready plan: green pozole.

Writing about green pozole was one of my first efforts as a food writer. It was never published. But that's okay, because I much prefer eating pozole than writing about it. In Mexico, a very close cousin of pozole soup--menudo, made with beef tripe--is considered the ultimate hangover remedy. So why not my green pozole with pork shoulder to sweep away that fuzzy feeling left over from the Thanksgiving binge?

Pozole, a soupy stew traditionally made with pork and hominy, may be the closest thing to a national dish of Mexico that most Americans have never heard of. On Thursday evenings in the southwestern state of Guererro, pozole vendors pop up as if on queue, and townsfolk fall into line with buckets to collect their take-out dinner. At the ubiquitous pozoleria, lighthearted diners lean over their steaming earthenware bowls, adding heaps of sliced avocados, radishes, onion and crumbled pork crackling called chicharon.

Like our own chili, pozole is made in innumerable variations. Just about every household has its own version. Folks in the west and south of Mexico prefer the green pozole made with fresh poblano peppers, tomatillos and pumpkin seeds swimming with shredded pork shoulder. Red pozole is a simpler brew of garlic and dried chiles. For “white” pozole, a red pepper sauce is served on the side, along with a platter of stewed pork shoulder and pig’s feet.

Some families insist on presenting half a pig’s head with the stew. The cooked eyeball is reserved for the honored guest.

One reason you may never have seen pozole on a menu is because pozole has never achieved the rank of restaurant fare. Even in Mexico, it is more likely consumed at a market stall or a curbside vendor. This is one of those dishes best made at home.

Americans have been trained to expect Mexican food slathered in cheese and sour cream. Pozole celebrates that other Mexican food, the more traditional cuisine that evolved thousands of years ago. The Spanish introduced domesticated meats and dairy products in the 16th century. Before that, life revolved around corn.

The ancient Mayans believed that humans were fashioned from corn gathered from a mountain and mixed with the blood of gods. The Aztecs sacrificed a maiden by way of blessing the new corn. The peyote worshipping Huichol people of the Sierra Madre continue to hold that the transcendental soul passes through a corn phase on its path to enlightenment.

Even the name of the particular corn used in Mexican pozole recalls ancient cycles, sun worship, a fecund earth: cacahuacentli.

In Mexico and to the north, natives preserved corn by drying it. They processed the dried kernels in lye or lime to remove the tough hull, or pericarp. By a fortuitous quirk of history, this caustic bath--known as nixtamalization--made the vitally important niacin within the corn available for digestion. Nixtamalization also imparts a pleasantly acrid flavor.

In this country, we call this kind of corn hominy. It is frequently ground into grits. In Mexico, the dried corn is ground to form masa, a basic dough used to make the tortillas served at nearly every meal. The Mexican hominy used in pozole—cacahuacentli--is improbably large, about the size of a nickel. After soaking the dried corn, chefs pinch off the tip of the kernel so that it opens like a crocus blossom when cooked.

Making pozole is a good way to get out and see the displays of exotic products in Latin supermarkets. Finding all of the ingredients may require a bit of initial detective work. But the final result makes a great family-style fest: Once the stew is ladled into bowls, everyone gets to pass the condiments around while they create their own meal.

For condiments, choose from the following: Sliced radishes, diced avocado, dried oregano, chopped fresh tomato, shredded lettuce or Napa cabbage, chopped red onion, chicharon--or fried pork skin--and wedges of lime. And of course warm corn tortillas on the side are mandatory.

Traditional pozole is a simple, one-pot meal. But I like to cook the different elements--the corn, the meat, the vegetables--separately, starting days in advance. The stew just gets better with re-heating. I’ve also jazzed it up with a few spices—allspice, cinnamon, clove--that might make some Mexican chefs cluck with disapproval. But I think the extra flavor is worth bending tradition.

Pozole verde (green pozole)

Serves 12

6 cups cooked or canned hominy (Juanita's is one good brand)

For the Broth:

I’ve eliminated the pig’s head, but there’s no reason to if you want to make an impression. Otherwise, the pork comes from the shoulder, a very inexpensive cut. Pig’s feet contribute gelatin for a richer broth, though they can be left out as tastes dictate. Latin markets sell them sliced into manageable pieces.

3 pounds pork shoulder

1 ½ pounds pig’s feet, cut into pieces (optional)

3 quarts (12 cups) chicken stock

½ large white onion, studded with six whole cloves

1 bay leaf

4 allspice berries, crushed

1 whole stick cinnamon

Combine ingredients in a stockpot. Bring almost to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer very gently for three hours. Remove the meat to a plate and set aside. Discard the onion. Strain the broth through cheesecloth or a fine sieve. When the pork is cool, shred it into pieces, discarding unwanted fat. Return the shredded pork to the broth. (I pick over the pig’s feet and save the edible pieces for those guests who volunteer for it. Otherwise, discard the cooked pig’s feet.)

At this point, add the hominy to the broth and refrigerate until the next step is completed.


The green chilies in this recipe are fresh poblanos, the kind typically deep-fried for chilies rellenos. They are sometimes erroneously labeled as “passilla” peppers. The poblano is broad at the stem like a green bell pepper, but much darker with a purplish tinge, and narrows to a point at the opposite end. Adding to the confusion, the poblano when dried is called “ancho.”

To prepare fresh chilies, roast them over a flame on the stovetop, or under a broiler, until the skins are blistered and charred. Place them in a paper bag to steam and cool. Then remove the stems; open the chilies and discard the seeds. Remove the skin with your fingers or the dull edge of a knife.

Tomatillos appear fresh in most supermarkets. They look like small green tomatoes wrapped in papery husks, but they are actually related to the Cape Gooseberry. They should be firm and unblemished, the husk loose and easily peeled.

5 fresh poblano peppers, roasted, peeled and roughly chopped

2 medium-sized jalapeno peppers (about the size of your thumb), roasted, peeled and finely chopped

2 tablespoons lard (or canola oil)

½ large white onion, chopped

4 cloves garlic, diced

12 ounces fresh tomatillos, husks removed and chopped

2 cups broth (from that made above)

1 ½ cups hulled, raw, unsalted pumpkin seeds

Heat the oil in a large saucepan, add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring, until the onions are almost translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the chili peppers and tomatillos and cook an additional 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, toast the pumpkin seeds in an ungreased pan over high heat until golden and crispy. Place in a food processor and chop to a fine grind. Add the cooked vegetables and some broth (you may need to do this in two batches) and process until the chilies and tomatillos are minced. Add this to the pot with the remaining broth, pork and hominy. Mix well and refrigerate.

A couple of hours before serving, remove the stew from the refrigerator and heat slowly. The final ingredient is epazote (Chenopodium ambrosioides), an important cooking herb in southern and western Mexico, a medicinal tea in the north. In this country, it grows wild as a weed called “wormseed.” The pungent flavor is somewhere between green tea, oregano and dill.

2 teaspoons dried epazote, tied in cheese cloth (I now use the fresh epazote that grows wild in my yard)

Add the bundle to the stew pot while it is reheating, then discard.

Serve the stew hot in large bowls, with warm tortillas and separate bowls of condiments on the side.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

A Heritage Thanksgiving

The first year I helped our farmer friend Mike slaughter his turkeys I came home with a 40-pound bird as my reward. It barely fit in our oven and my wife has been on a tear ever since trying to reduce the size of our Thanksgiving gobbler.

This year, we implored Mike to find us a smaller bird and he replied that he could get us something closer to 12 or 14 pounds from a friend who was raising heritage breeds. But it would cost us an extra dollar a pound, he warned. We jumped at the chance.

So our turkey this year was a 12.4-pound bronze turkey. You'll notice that these heritage birds are slightly darker, the legs a little longer, the breasts a little slimmer. I liked the look of it and cooked it in the usual manner:

About four hours before the bird is supposed to go in the oven, clean it up and salt the cavity and the outside with coarse salt. Let it sit on the kitchen counter and come up to room temperature. Just before placing it in a 450-degree oven, brush it all over with extra-virgin olive oil and stuff the cavity with onion, garlic, carrots, celery, parsley and thyme. Tie the legs together but otherwise leave the cavity open.

Place the bird on a rack inside a big roasting pan along with a handful of fresh sage and a hand full of rosemary sprigs. Place the bird in the oven for 1/2 hour to brown in the high heat. Then lower the heat to 350, remove bird and flip it over in the rack. Place it back in the oven and roast another 1/2 hour, then flip it again. Continue this process for two hours. The turkey may well be done (if you have a very heavy bird, this could take up to 3 1/2 hours. But I have never had a turkey take longer than 3 1/2 hours to roast using this method.)

To test for doneness, stick an instant-read thermometer deep into the thickest part of the thigh or the wing joint, being careful to stay away from the bone. I had to use the wing joint because the thigh on the heritage turkey wasn't thick enough. It's done when it reaches 160, or a few degrees less. Place the turkey in its rack on the kitchen counter to "coast" while you make your gravy.

For the gravy, I will have been simmering all morning the turkey neck and the gizzards (except liver) in a pot with water and the usual aromatics--onion, celery, carrot, parsley, thyme. I eat the neck with a little salt. Then I put the roasting pan on the stove top and turn the heat up to moderately high. I brown the bits at the bottom of the pan (there's much less juice and fat with a heritage turkey), then pour a couple of ladles of the giblet broth, stir everything around. Turn off the heat.

Now melt about six tablespoons butter (or turkey fat) in a large sauce pan, add six tablespoons flour and make a roux, stirring frequently over moderate heat. The flour needs to cook for just a few minutes. Now you can pour in the browning juices from the roasting pan, whisking as the gravy quickly thickens, and adding giblet broth, one ladle-full at a time, whisking and whisking, until the gravy is just the thickness you like. Remember it will get even thicker after you've taken it off the stove, so I usually shoot for something a little thinner than what I would put on the table.

Finish the gravy with a splash of heavy cream, maybe some Madeira. I didn't have Madeira this year and my wife suggested I use Calvados, the French apple brandy, instead, since we were having apple tarte Tatin for dessert. That worked just fine. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

There were 13 of us for Thanksgiving dinner at my sister's new digs in McLean Virginia, including my in-laws and sister-in-law from California with her friend from India. Everyone swooned over the turkey. The heritage bird was by far the moistest, most flavorful thing we had ever tasted. It didn't need any of that brining or deep-fat frying that the food sections and magazines are all out of breath over this time of year.

Say goodbye to the Butterball. I do believe you could cook a heritage turkey almost any old way and it would still be the most delicious thing you've ever experienced.

Friday, November 28, 2008

My New Tunnel

I probably neglected to mention that when I came home from a week's vacation in August I found that something had eaten all the seedlings I had started for the fall. Romaine lettuces, cabbages, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, collards. Everything chewed down to the nub. I assume it was birds. I had left the seed trays out front where my wife had been watering them.

Anyway, the sudden demise of my fall seedlings put me in a funk that lasted for at least two months. I didn't do much in the garden. Didn't plant anything. Just recently I started the usual fall cleanup (late) and the new compost pile. I just assumed we wouldn't be planting anything till spring. But then I started a re-read of Eliot Coleman's Four-Season Harvest and experienced a jolt of inspiration when he described a plastic tunnel design he'd come across while traveling in France.

The genius of this French tunnel is the edges aren't buried under the soil in the usual manner, which makes getting into the tunnel very awkward if you need to plant or harvest things. Instead, the plastic is cut at the soil line and held down with a criss-crossing pattern of string over the hoops. Getting inside to plant or harvest is a breeze. You just lift up the plastic and tuck it under the string.

I had the plastic in the garage. I bought some 1/2-inch PVC tubing at the hardware store and planted the hoops. Then I drilled holes and installed these eyelets for the string. Following the illustration in Coleman's book, it still took me a while to figure out the pattern of the string. It's like lacing your shoes--a little.

Here's a detail of the string, crossing over one hoop, then attaching at the bottom of the next hoop. I'm sure I got it wrong, because my pattern ended before I got to the end of the tunnel. Maybe I didn't have enough hoops. I used cinder block to hold the ends down. I'm sure that's not right either.

In any case, according to Coleman the end of November is way too late to be planting anything. "Don't even bother," he admonishes. There's not enough sun to get the seedlings going. But I'm noticing volunteer mustard greens coming up in the other garden beds. Something down there is germinating.

So today I lifted the plastic and planted a whole array of mustards, kales, collards, spinach, arugula, lettuce, tenderleaf greens and other stuff. We'll see what happens. If they don't grow now, I'm betting we'll see them in the spring. As Coleman says, if they can grow these greens in France in winter--actually much farther north than we are--there's plenty of sunlight here for them to grow as well. It's just a matter of protecting them. Not so much from the cold as from the wind.

Minimum soil temperature for brassica germination is said to be 40 degrees, 35 for lettuce and spinach. Stay tuned....

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


Leftovers, consisting of "Dad's meatloaf" with mashed potatoes and collard greens.

Preparation time: 5 minutes

Shopping: none

This meatloaf, a recipe we've adopted from Tyler Florence, is now our favorite. The loaf itself consists of ground beef and ground pork with eggs, bread crumbs soaked in milk and a wicked relish made of red bell pepper, onion, tomato, ketchup and Worcesterhire sauce. Some of the relish is reserved for dressing the meat on the plate.

The loaf is shaped on a baking sheet, then topped with more of that relish and strips of Black Forest bacon. It's smokey delicious.

The collards were cooked in a smoked turkey neck broth and seasoned at the table with cider vinegar. I can hardly imagine a more decadent lunch.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Unhealthiest City in America

According to the Associated Press, that honor would go to Huntington, West Virginia. There, the dining experience is ruled by hot dogs. Huntington leads the nation in heart disease and diabetes--as well as the number of elderly people who have lost all their teeth.

"A lot of the patients we were seeing were getting heart attacks in their 30s. They were requiring open heart surgery in their 30s. And we were concerned because it used to be you wouldn't see heart patients come in until they were in their 50s," said a nurse at the regional heart institute in Huntington.

Located in coal country near the Ohio River, Huntington is on the skids economically. People live on fast food. In fact, Kentucky Fried Chicken recently issued a challenge: see if you can spend $10 in a local supermarket and come up with a meal to beat the KFC 7-piece $9.99 "value meal."

There's a pizza joint on nearly every block in Huntington and it's rare to see a jogger or bicyclist on the streets. Said one local physician: "I don't know that I've ever been in a place where I've seen so many overweight people."

Read the whole story here.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Hard-Boiling Old Eggs

Even farmers advise letting eggs eggs grow old before trying to hard-boil them.

The reason is, as eggs get old they deteriorate. The egg's attachment to the inside of the shell grows weaker, making it easier to peel when hard-boiled. The membrane that holds the yolk in the center of the white also breaks down, which is why yolks sometimes end up in the strangest places when you hard-boil eggs.

However, there is a method for cooking new eggs that solves the peeling problem. And wouldn't you rather have a fresh egg in your salade Nicoise?

As it happens, I am cooking a dozen old eggs that we found one day on our doorstep. We still don't know who is leaving us eggs. But since they were beyond the "use by" date, I'm hard-boiling them.

The trick is to move the eggs back and forth bettween boiling water and ice water. This causes expansion and contraction between the shell and the egg inside, making peeling a breeze. The method is described in detail in Julia Child's The Way to Cook.

For a dozen eggs, place the eggs in the bottom of a tall stock pot and cover with 3 1/2 quarts of cold water. Over high heat, bring the water to a boil and immediately remove the pot from the heat. Cover the pot and let it sit for 17 minutes. Remove the eggs with a slotted spoon and transfer them to a large bowl of ice water.

While the eggs are sitting in the ice water, put the stock pot back on high heat and bring the water back to a boil. When it is boiling, transfer the eggs back to the pot for 10 seconds. Then move them back to the ice water.

When the eggs have cooled, you can crack the shells and peel them. The eggs should be perfectly cooked (none of that grey ring around the yolk) and easily peeled. Deviled eggs never looked better.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Can Compost Save Planet Earth?

That's the question I posed in my Powerpoint presentation yesterday at the Historical Society of Washington. And about 60 determined souls braved arctic temperatures and bitter winds to show up at 10 am to hear it.

During two years as president of D.C. Urban Gardeners, I never ceased to be amazed at the number inquiries about composting. And not just from gardeners. No, there are many renters and apartment dwellers out there who want to do something good for the planet by recycling their kitchen scraps. They want to know how to compost.

Yet even here in the nation's capitol we are woefully behind in responding to this pent-up urge to compost. Unlike jurisdictions such as San Francisco, which has implemented curbside recycling of food waste and dirty paper for composting, there is virtually no public composting program or infrastructure in the District of Columbia.

In fact, crews have been busy all over town lately sucking up leaves into big trucks and hauling them off presumably to a landfill. In the past, some of those leaves have been composted on a trial basis and made available at a municipal transfer station that could take you half a day and a satellite imaging system to find.

So people want to know not just the basics of composting--what kind of bin to use, how to avoid nasty smells and rats--but where they can take their food scraps to be composted, or, if they are composting with worms, where they can take the finished castings. (Okay, how about spreading them around in the nearest curbside planting?)

In other words, people need help, and the city is not offering any.

The District is in a hard place--we are a small city/state crowded on all sides by Virginia and Maryland with not a lot of big open lots for composting. But my reading is that so many people are ready to start composting, something will have to give soon.

Note: There are many composting resources linked from this blog, starting with a series of videos detailing how to compost. For a whole list of other places where you can learn more about composting, composting with worms and composting bins, scroll down to the lower right.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Potato Demise = Baby Potatoes

We've been watching several volunteer potato plants and cheering them on as fall stretches toward winter. Would they actually survive long enough to make new potatoes? They were in the pink of health well into November and seemed to love the cooler temperatures. But then this week a blast of arctic air moved into the District of Columbia. Temperatures dipped well below freezing--into the mid-20s--and our hardy potato plants were done for. Overnight, they simply fell to the ground with no hope of a rebound.

Well, yesterday I went out and dug up two of those DOA plants and this is what I found under the soil surface--tons of new potatoes. In fact, I would venture to say these potatoes are far more productive in the fall than they are during the District's scorching summers when we are normally growing our potatoes.

As an experiment, we had planted a full bed of potato sets back in September. Normally we plant potatoes here around St. Patrick's Day. These plants also crumped and when I checked, there were no new potatoes to harvest, just tiny little buds. Now I'm thinking that if I had thought this through more thoroughly, I might have built a plastic tunnel over these potatoes and they might have survived. Imagine harvesting potatoes in January....

Rather than digging these plants up, I will leave the original sets in place. Maybe--just maybe--they will survive into the spring and start over again making more potatoes.

Kids Make Collard Greens and Hot Pepper Vinegar

Here's a shocker: Kids love collard greens.

Anytime we put green vegetables on the menu for our "food appreciation" classes we are prepared for the kids to hit the reject button. Not so with Southern collard greens. They wolfed it down and begged for seconds.

No doubt this has to do with the meaty broth the collards are cooked in. Traditionally, this would involve some sort of smoked pork product, such as smoked shoulder, or shank or hock. But not everyone in a school environment appreciates pork, so in this instance we substituted smoked turkey.

(A couple of hours of cooking will usually infuse the broth with plenty of flavor. As it turned out, our initial broth was made at home in the evening, where a certain spouse promised to turn off the stove before she went to bed. Well, the pot was left to simmer all night. We woke up to the smell of a house infused with early Thanksgiving. When we made a sample batch in class, the kids loved the aroma so much they demanded a chance to gnaw on the turkey necks.)

Collards are a traditional Southern dish, probably second only to turnip greens. I consulted a number of experts--Edna Lewis, Dori Sanders, Bill Neal, John Martin Taylor, John Egerton--and found near agreement that the cooking liquid, or "pot likker," should be as simple as possible. A gallon of water and a pound of smoked meat will do fine, although some cooks like to add onion to the broth and perhaps a little hot pepper. A little salt, even a little sugar, added to the water is permissible, but not necessary.

Cooked greens are almost required with the beans and rice--or Hoppin' John--that we made last week. And a piece of cornbread (our favorite) is practically mandatory to help soak up the juice. In the end, this becomes a dream meal for us, and it's what I plan to serve for our upcoming "parents night" dinner.

1 gallon water
1 pound smoked ham hock or smoked turkey necks
3 pounds collard greens

In a heavy pot, bring the water and smoked meat to a boil, reduce heat and cook, cover slightly ajar, for two hours or until broth has the intensity of flavor you like.

Meanwhile, rinse collard greens. Discard any that are browned or faded. Shake off water and remove green parts from the thick stem. You can cut the leafy parts from the stem with a knife, or simply tear it off. Tear the leaves into salad-size pieces and plunge these into the finished broth. Return to a boil, reduce heat and cook at a gentle boil for about 45 minutes, or until the collards are cooked through and tender.

Drain the greens and serve hot. They can also be refrigerated and reheated a day or two later. Traditionally, the greens are served with a hot pepper vinegar as follows:

Fill a quart jar with whole jalapeno peppers. Cover with cider vinegar to within 1/4 inch of the top. Cover and store for at least two week before using.

Note: Some stores now sell collards and other greens already prepped and bagged, just like salad greens.

Thursday, November 20, 2008


Vegan roasted vegetable lasagna.

Why vegan? We had a client request a vegan dinner party because one of the guests was--you guessed it--a vegan. We wondered why the host insisted on subjecting his entire guest list to vegan food when just one of them professed to eat no animal products. In our book, you feed everyone else the usual way and make one vegan plate. But this particular host did not want the vegan to feel singled out. Thus, vegan lasagna.

It was preceeded by a lovely fall salad and served with our own roasted sweet potatoes with caramelized shallots. Dessert was pears poached in a Gewurztraminer syrup. A lovely meal, with a couple of servings of lasagna left over.

I make this very much the same way as our normal roasted vegetable lasagna except no cheese. Peel two medium eggplant and slice lengthwise into 1/4-inch thicknesses. Cut about four zucchini and four summer squash the same way. Cut two red onions into 1/2 rings. Spread everything on baking sheets, brush everything with extra-virgin olive oil, season with salt and pepper and roast until the vegetables are bubbling and just beginning to brown. No doubt you will need to do this in batches.

Then simply spread a thin layer of marinara sauce on the bottom of a Pyrex baking dish (or something similar), cover with lasagna noodles (my wife cooked eggless noodles for this, otherwise I use no-boil noodles) and start layering the vegetables (chop the onion rounds into pieces) and repeat until you've filled the pan. We also inserted some store-bought roasted red peppers. Over each layer, scatter some chopped fresh marjoram or basil. Marjoram gives the lasagna an assertive, densely herbacious flavor that I particularly like.

My fear was that without the cheese the lasagna would just fall apart before it got to the plates. But somehow it holds together. And it is exceptionally delicious--even reheated several days later for breakfast.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Black Bean Soup with Smoked Butt and Butternut Squash

The inspiration for this soup was a hunk of butternut squash sitting unused at the bottom of the crisper drawer and a 1-pound bag of dried black beans that came back from one of my "food appreciation" classes.

The more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea of butternut squash and black beans together. My mind has been occupied with Southern food lately, so thoughts naturally drifted toward pork in the soup somehow. I wasn't sure if this was becoming a Southern soup or something Cuban or Caribbean. It just evolved. I stopped at the market for a piece of "smoked butt," something we used to eat all the time when I was a kid. You don't see much mention of it anymore. It's really just a cured ham, but made from the shoulder--or "butt"--end of the pig rather than the hindquarters.

This soup is a two- or three-day affair. Not much work, in fact, but you do need to cook the beans. Pick over a 1-pound bag of dried black beans and remove any stones. Then pour the beans into a large mixing bowl and cover with lots of water. There should be several inches of water over the beans. Let this soak overnight.

The following day, in a large, heavy pot or Dutch oven, saute a large onion, peeled and cut into small dice, along with three or four stalks of celery, peeled to remove the tough fibers and cut into small dice. You can cook this with bacon fat or extra-virgin olive oil. Stir in a teaspoon of coarse salt to season and draw out the juices.

Cook the vegetables over moderately low heat until the onion is tender, about 8 minutes. Place a smoked ham hock in the center of the vegetables along with four thick slices of pork fat back (or "streak-o'-lean) that have been quickly browned in a skillet. Drain the beans and add these plus 3 1/2 quarts water. Make a spice sachet by tying in cheesecloth a fist-full of parsley sprigs, several sprigs of fresh thyme, two or three bay leaves and a half-dozen peppercorns. Use a length of string long enough so that you can tie off one end to the handle of your pot for easy retrieval. Drop the spice sachet into the water, bring the whole thing to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer, with cover slightly ajar, for about 3 hours, or until the beans are perfectly tender and the soup is redolent of smoked pork.

At this point, I would remove the pot from the heat, cover it completely and let it cure overnight on the stovetop. But you don't have to. The next step is remove the spice sachet, the ham hock and the fat back and run the soup through a food mill or blender until it is smooth and creamy. If it's too thick, add some water. If it seems to thin, cook it some more with the lid off. Then add to the soup 1/2 of a medium butternut squash, skin and seeds removed and cut into medium dice. Also add about 1 pound of smoked butt, cut into medium dice and browned in a skillet for extra flavor.

Bring the soup back to a boil, reduce heat and simmer until the squash is cooked through and tender, about 30 minutes. Do stir the soup frequently, especially around the bottom to prevent the beans from scorching. To finish the soup, stir in 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander and 1 tablespoon molasses. I could also see finishing this bean and squash soup with some balsamic vinegar, some red wine or sherry. There's plenty of room for improvisation.

To serve, ladle into hot, shallow bowls and garnish with chopped cilantro. A slice of buttered corn bread would be perfect on the side.