Thursday, January 31, 2008

Kids Make German Meatballs

More than a month ago the kids in my "food appreciation" classes here in the District of Columbia peeled a bunch of turnips and turned them into sauerruben, basically the turnip equivalent of sauerkraut.

The turnips were mixed with sea salt and pressed into a heavy-duty plastic bucket, where they have remained in one of the colder back rooms of our house ever since, fermenting ever so peacefully.

Today, I decided, was time to unveil our sauerruben to the kids who made it. But I couldn't see just plopping a lump of fermented turnips in front of them. We needed something to create pizazz, some buzz. We needed a show-stopper food partner that would give these turnips the lift they deserved.
Why not...meat balls?

By way of the internet I was steered right back to The Joy of Cooking and a recipe for German meatballs that I've modified slightly. What could be better than German meatballs to go with sauerruben? That, in fact, is a very good question, since I completely struck out when I went searching for recipes that employ sauerruben in an actual meal--even in my small collection of German cookbooks (lots of sauerbraten, sauerkraut, sausages--no sauerruben).

There are plenty of reasons for caution when cooking meat and with children. Hygiene would be first and foremost. Keep the meat cold. Have the children wash hands frequently. Maintain immaculately clean work surfaces. Otherwise, they love the process of making meatballs--squishing all the ingredients together in their fingers, rolling the mix into balls.

They especially love eating meatballs. I served them with a coq au vin sauce I just happened to have in the fridge (we called it "gravy"). And they gobbled up the fermented turnips, this after all kinds of moaning and groaning and face-making when we passed the bucket around. They do give off quite a distinctive stench, these fermented turnips, but the taste is oh so nutty and sweet, with a horseradish-like bite.

For the meatballs: In a mixing bowl, place 1/2-pound each of ground beef, ground pork and ground veal (or turkey). Add two beaten eggs; 1/4-cup diced onion, sauteed until lightly browned; 3 tablespoons chopped parsley; 1 1/2-teaspoons salt; 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce; 1/2 teaspoons mild paprika; zest from one lemon, finely chopped; 1 teaspoon lemon juice; and one thick slice rustic bread, soaked thoroughly in milk.

Using both hands, squish all of the ingredients together until well mixed. Form into 2-inch balls and brown in a skillet with butter or extra-virgin olive oil. Pour 5 cups beef broth into the skillet. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat, cover and simmer until meatballs are cooked through, about 12 minutes.

Use the broth to make a gravy. Serve the meatballs warm, with a spoonful of gravy over each and tangy, fermented sauerruben au naturel on the side.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Thanks for the Mention, Washington Post

Today's Food section in The Washington Post wraps its arms around the whole hullabaloo over safe, wholesome food and in the process mentions a few websites that are championing the real versus the nasty in the food world.

Consumers are looking for sources they can trust, and increasingly are turning to farmers markets, retailers such as Whole Foods and bloggers such as Ethicurean, Grist, More Deliberately Every Day and...and...The Slow Cook.

Huh? Us?

Well, I could think of a number of worthy candidates. How about Sam Fromartz over at the Chews Wise blog? Or David Gumpert, whose brilliant posts on The Complete Patient have been illuminating the debate over raw milk.

Anyway, we are flattered to be included in such esteemed company and will continue to fight the good fight.

Right, Bonnie?

Dark Days: One-Pot Chicken

This meal starts with the roasting chicken we received in our weekly CSA package from farmer friend Brett.

This is not to be confused with the stewing hen I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. Brett, being a man of many facets, deals in two kinds of chicken. One, the laying hen, needs to be cooked forever. The roaster cooks more like a conventional bird. Brett advises that it may be a bit chewier than the chicken you buy at the store. It does spend most of its time running around the farmyard pecking at things, after all.

We share our CSA subscription with friends Helen and Jeff so what we were dealing with in fact was half a bird. My visit to the farmers market over the weekend was intended to find some companion vegetables for the chicken. The dish that took shape--improvisational in the truest sense--was a one-pot affair with rice and squash on the side.

Divide the chicken into pieces and brown it in batches with extra-virgin olive oil at the bottom of a heavy pot or Dutch oven. Set the chicken aside and toss an onion, diced large, into the pot, scraping any brown bit off the bottom of the pot. When the onion has softened and browned a little, add about three cloves garlic, thinly sliced, to the pot and cook for a minute or two. Then add a large carrot and a large parsnip, peeled and sliced on an angle. Also add a large white potato and a sweet potato cut into 1-inch pieces. Place several sprigs thyme and a bay leaf or two amongst the vegetables and add two cups chicken stock and one can diced tomatoes with the juices.

Note: this dish cooks for about 1 1/2 hours on the stove top. If you like your potatoes and sweet potatoes more on the firm side, wait until 45 minutes or so into the cooking before adding them.

Bring the pot to a boil, then reduce the heat to very low and simmer until the chicken is extremely tender and ready to fall off the bone. Originally I had thought of serving this in a bowl with the broth, like a pot au feu, but changed my mind and decided to present it more in the Hispanic manner with rice.. I drained off the cooking liquid and used it to make brown rice, making the plate a bit monochromatic and bit redundant in the starch department. A squash I had intended to cook with the chicken was impossible to peel, so I baked it in the oven and served it--mashed--on the side, mixed with some brown sugar.

This simple, rustic dinner could have come out of your grandmother's root cellar, but of course you have the satisfaction of knowing you made it yourself from the best ingredients around.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Designing Food Courses for Kids

The school where I teacher "food appreciation" classes has asked me to consider teaching on a stepped-up schedule during the summer.

Up to now, my focus has been mainly on elementary school children enrolled in the after school program. The classes are informal. I've had free range over food topics, from making healthy, whole-grain muffins to putting up our own pickles and sauerkraut to baking macaroni and cheese by way of exploring nutrition labeling.

We always include a story reading that somehow links to our food topic, after which we get to eat whatever we made that day.

The summer clases will be something different. I'll be teaching middle-school kids aged 11 to 14, with two one-and-one-half-hour "major" classes each day and two one-hour "minor" classes. It's been suggested that the "major" classes be devoted to weightier subjects such as health and nutrition, while the "minor" classes could consist more of making fun, summer foods such as ice cream and sorbets.

As far as I can tell, this is something new for the school and I hardly know where to begin. There are so many great issues to tackle. The rise of processed foods. Industrial agriculture. Food production and the environment. The surge of local foods. The meaning of organic. We could spend days just exploring the Safeway across the street and dissecting supermarket design.

Teaching a cooking class during the summer opens whole new vistas of possibilities that don't really exist during the school year. All that fresh produce, fruits and berries, herbs. We could do a whole class just on grilling foods--if they'd let me.

I'm starting an outline now. But I wonder what readers think. If you had carte blanche to design food courses for kids, what would you do?

Monday, January 28, 2008

January Farmers Market

I try to visit a farmers market at least once a week to see what's being offered here in the District of Columbia in the depth of winter. The tone of the market changes when the temperatures rise above freezing. There is more bustle, more chatter--the food seems to come alive. This display of salad greens--no doubt greenhouse grown--would almost have you believe spring is near.

Maybe I'm imagining things, but it seems there are more vendors every week offering finished products. Besides the breads and breakfast croissants, there are pies and cookies.

We are near the Chesapeake Bay and that means crabs. They aren't really in season this time of year. But on Sunday mornings at the Dupont Circle farmers market--probably the trendiest market in the area--you can order a fried crab cake for breakfast.

There are several cheese vendors from Virginia and Maryland. Customers line up to taste the product. Here's a cream cheese dressed with hot pepper jelly.

The meat vendors were particularly busy yesterday. There was a line in front of Eco-Friendly Meats, where the coolers were jammed with roasting chickens, pork chops and a jumble of other cuts from locally raised livestock.

The mushroom vendor always seems to draw a small crowd of admirers.

The display yesterday was particularly yellow and gay.

The market is full of boutique goods at boutique prices. I'm always happy to see staple items for sale at more down-to-earth prices--onions, potatoes and these cabbages. I love braised red cabbage. These were $3 a head.

But I wonder who bought the carrots at $5 a bunch. Too precious for me.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Weekend Update

Seems like only a week ago we were reporting on tests that showed swordfish with dangerously high mercury levels being sold in supermarkets in California in Florida.

Now comes the New York Times causing a rumpus with a report that the tuna in sushi also tips the scales with mercury.

The Times conducted tests on sushi in 20 local stores and restaurants and found that at most of them a regular diet of just six pieces a week would exceed the levels considered acceptable by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Sushi from 5 of the 20 places had mercury levels so high that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration could take legal action to remove the fish from the market.

The Times quoted an environmental and occupational medicine authority as saying, “No one should eat a meal of tuna with mercury levels like those found in the restaurant samples more than about once every three weeks."

Mercury in fish is nothing new. Large predatory fish at the top of the food chain, such as tuna and swordfish, are especially apt to accumulate large quantities of mercury in their body tissues. But it seems that vendors and consumers alike need to be reminded occasionally that mercury has not disappeared and remains a real hazard.

What gets lost in the mainstream reporting is that we do theoretically have a federal agency that could take legal action to remove tainted seafood from the market, but usually doesn't. That would be the FDA.

Diners seem to take the latest news with a yawn. “It’s something I enjoy,” said one woman who had just purchased 12 pieces of sushi at a store where the tuna had registered the second-highest mercury levels in the Time's research. “I don’t eat sushi every day, so in moderation is it really a problem? It sounds like one of those everyday things they tell us could be harmful. Last week, what was it, caffeine for pregnant women is harmful? That’s common sense.”


The mercury issue follows new concerns that some of our favorite seafood might not be around much longer. Bluefin tuna--yes, the same tuna that is so prized on sushi menus--seems to be headed for extinction. Here's a revealing segment from the CBS show 60 Minutes on how the latest fishery technologies--along with Japan's appetite for sushi and the absence of quota enforcement in Europe--are wiping out the bluefin.

Last year I participated in a focus group with the Monterey Bay Aquarium examining ways to spread the word about which seafood choices were the most environmentally sound. There was talk then about some sort of electronic method of dialing up sustainable seafood information. Apparently that day has arrived.

The Blue Ocean Institute has come out with something called "fish phone" that allows you to access a text message service that will tell you about the sustainability of your seafood choice while you are looking at the menu in a restaurant or standing in front of the seafood counter and the supermarket. Sam Fromartz, at the Chews Wise blog, has a run-down on the new technology as well as some helpful links to sustainable seafood resources.


Whole Foods is getting rid of plastic shopping bags. The country's largest purveyor of organic and natural foods says it discontinuing the use of plastic bags in all of its stores--including the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom--and plans to be plastic-free by Earth Day, April 22, 2008.

"More and more cities and countries are beginning to place serious restrictions on single-use plastic shopping bags since they don't break down in our landfills, can harm nature by clogging waterways and endangering wildlife, and litter our roadsides," read a Whole Foods press release. "Together with our shoppers, our gift to the planet this Earth Day will be reducing our environmental impact as we estimate we will keep 100 million new plastic grocery bags out of our environment between Earth Day and the end of this year alone."

The cities of San Francisco and Oakland already have banned plastic shopping bags and at least a dozen other jurisdictions are considering similar restrictions. But the alternative isn't necessarily paper bags, which consume millions of trees. Shoppers need to get used to the idea of bringing a re-usable bag--such as the canvass ones Whole Foods sells--on their shopping trips.

I've got plenty. But does anyone else have the same problem remembering to take them along?


If you are committed to local foods and live in the northerly latitudes, you may have noticed that most of the farmers markets closed months ago. So how does one go about eating local food in the dark days of winter?

More and more people are growing and preserving their own food. The New York Times gives us this encouraging look at how the natives on Martha's Vineyard use all kinds of strategies to put food by for the winter and work together to make food available through the dark days. The result is an alternative food economy that tourists would never know exists.


Dedicated consumers and dairymen are pressing the case for raw milk in Maryland, California and elsewhere. But there are few stories as compelling as that of Barbara and Steve Smith who have been under constant assault by agents of New York State after establishing a limited liability corporation to provide raw milk to about 120 shareholders of Meadowsweet Dairy.

The Smiths have been subject to repeated searches by state agriculture authorities, seizure of their milk products and threats of being shut down. But they and their shareholders argue that whatever sate law might say, consenting adults have a right to trade in raw milk amongst themselves. They believe that raw milk is healthier than the pasteurized variety and that the state should not interfere.

The Smith's were in court recently to argue for access to raw milk. No definitive rulings yet. The legal wrangling continues. You can read all about it at The Complete Patient.


Remember home economics class? I do. It was one of the traditional high school offerings back in the day. But home ec apparently went out of style long ago. It may be making a comeback.

More and more schools are building their own vegetable gardening and teaching students about the benefits of locally grown foods. School officials in the United Kingdom are pushing the envelope even further. They want to make cooking lessons compulsory for all students aged 11 to 14 by the year 2011.

The mandatory cooking classes--one class per week--are part of the British government's strategy to tackle childhood obesity. Schools Secretary Ed Balls is calling for the training of 800 cooking instructors.

"I think it is important to act now and maybe we should have acted earlier," Balls said. "It's not going to be just the technology of food, it will be how you can use simple ingredients, simple recipes, so that children and young people can be prepared for adult life."

And maybe live that long...


It's not just adults agitating for better food in schools. Kids are taking up the banner as well.

Students at a City Neighbors Charter School in Baltimore have decided that good food is a constitutional right. They've drawn up a Cafeteria Bill of Rights, saying they deserve to have fresh fruits and vegetables and more than one meal selection a day.

Recently a group of City Neighbors students got together with their social studies teacher and traveled to some neighboring schools to see if the food there was any better. What the students are most upset about is the quality of pre-made meals that are made off-premise and transported to the school. The students have taken samples of their food to school board meetings and have e-mailed the city's schools chief, arguing that they should have their own cafeteria that turns out decent meals.

"The mashed potatoes don't move, and the bread is sometimes moldy," Ethan Maszczenski, 12, told a reporter for the Baltimore Sun. To prove his point, a classmate peeled the plastic wrap off the top of a dish of mashed potatoes and turned the container upside down. Nothing happened. The potatoes were solid.

Bon appetit....

Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Last Fish: Lobster Chowder

This is the first in an occasional series about good seafood choices, based on the recommendations of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program.

A client recently requested a "special" birthday dinner for a friend who loves seafood. I could not think of anything more decadent and delicious than meaty lobster chowder. And isn't it nice to have such a generous patron who can afford to foot the bill?

I turned to the Monterey Bay Aquarium's "Seafood Watch" listing fully expecting to find that my Maine lobster was an "excellent" choice. But, lo, Maine lobster rises only to "good" alternative, mainly because no one is quite sure how many lobsters there are out in the oceans and because management of the species is considered to be not the best. Also, right whales and other mammals are apt to become tangled in lobster traps.

There are other lobsters that rate as "excellent" choices. There's the trap-caught spiny lobster from the U.S. and Australia, for instance, and the wild-caught spiny lobster from the Baja penninsula. But avoid the Caribbean spiny lobster: These typically are overfished and harvested too young.

Lobster chowder violates some of my most basic principles for chowder. It's not simple, and it's certainly not cheap. My favorite method for making an authentic chowder is to layer fish with onions, potatoes and pilot crackers in a pot and cover it with fish stock. I can easily imagine the ancient mariner constructing just such a frugal, one-pot dish is his vessel out at sea.

For a lobster chowder, you first need to cook the lobsters, then clean them. We used seven 1 1/2-pound Maine lobsters to feed 12 people. The lobsters were lowered two-at-a-time into a large pot of boiling salted water and cooked four minutes, just to the verge of doneness. Harvesting the meat is a mess: winter lobsters have hard shells (it's the peelers, or soft-shelled lobsters, you see at the lobster shacks in summer). I used poultry shears to open the tails and a cleaver to crack open the claws. Be sure to spread newspapers over your work area. There will be lots of wetness and goo.

Jaspar White, whose 50 Chowders is the text I use as a reference, recommends making a stock by cooking the lobster carcasses for one hour with water, white wine, chopped tomatoes, sliced onions, celery, carrots, garlic, thyme, bay leaves, fennel seeds and black peppercorns. I cooked my stock very gently for four hours to achieve a rich flavor. After straining out all the solids, I then reduced the stock by about 25 percent over low heat, skimming it frequently. It is a very potent brew, indeed.

The stock can be made a day ahead. To finish the chowder, saute four ounces of slab bacon, cut into small pieces, at the bottom of a heavy pot until almost crisp. Remove the bacon pieces and cook a large onion, cut into medium dice, and the leaves from two or three sprigs thyme, chopped fine, in the bacon fat. (If there's not enough fat, add some butter. Nobody said this was a heart-healthy dish.) Stir in two teaspoons Hungarian paprika and cook one minute longer, stirring frequently.

Now add to the pot 1 1/2-pounds Yukon Gold or other all-purpose potatoes cut into 3/4-inch pieces. Cover with lobster stock, turn up the heat and boil, covered, until the potatoes are cooked through. If the chowder doesn't seem thick enough, mash some of the potatoes using a potato masher.

Using three hard-shell lobsters, this will make enough chowder to feed six people. Just before serving, stir the lobster meat--cut into generous pieces--and up to 2 cups heavy cream into the chowder. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Ladle the chowder into large, shallow bowls and garnish with fresh chives.. We serve it with a basket of yeasted sweet potato rolls on the table.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Kids Make Real Mac & Cheese

The kids in my "food appreciation" classes concluded their recent exploration of nutrition labeling with a comparison of macaroni and cheese.

The macaroni and cheese that comes in the little blue box from Kraft may be one of the most popular processed foods of all times. We know some college students who eat little else during their four-year studies.

But what, exactly, is in those playful orange noodles? And how would they compare with a dish made from scratch with real cheese, real milk, real pasta?

This exercise presents some interesting choices because the "real" version of macaroni and cheese actually contains more calories and fat per serving than the processed kind. In this case, Kraft's "Premium Three Cheese" product lists 360 calories per 1-cup serving, 130 from fat. There's 2.5 grams of total fat, one gram of which is saturated fat.

Meanwhile, our home-made dish, made according to our favorite recipe from Martha Stewart, has a whopping 590 calories per serving, 296 of them from fat. Martha's version contains 33 grams of fat, 23 grams saturated, and all of 102 milligrams of cholesterol, compared to 5 milligrams in the Kraft product.

Where do all these calories, the fat, the cholesterol, come from? It took a bit of research to answer that question, because our Martha Stewart macaroni and cheese is made with artisan cheeses from Whole Foods, and these do not come with "nutrition facts" labeling the way processed foods do.

Still, I made sure my handout for the kids listed the nutrition information for all the ingredients in our home-made macaroni and cheese so they could see clearly that the cheeses--lots of cheddar, and a lesser amount of Emmentaler--are dense with calories and fat. There's also butter in there, bread crumbs. The macaroni itself, though fat free, is rich with calories.

What's a body to do? We turned to the ingredient list. In the case of Kraft, it reads like a science experiment with "modified food starch" and "sodium tryployphosphate" and "cellulose gum" and at least two artificial yellow dyes to give the noodles that trademark orange glow.

Our Martha Stewart noodles, meanwhile, consist of just eight easily-recognized ingredients. It's "real" food, compared to stuff that's cooked up by food scientists.

And one other thing. Take a look at the sodium content. Processed foods, it turns out, are extremely high in sodium as a general rule and so is Kraft macaroni and cheese: 610 milligrams in each one-cup serving, or 32 percent of the daily requirement for a 2,000-calorie diet. Our made-from-scratch noodles have just 179 milligrams.

The lesson from all this? It's not enough just to look at calories and fat. Would that the world were so easy. Other ingredients matter. Dyes and additives matter. And so does serving size. When our macaroni and cheese emerged from the oven and we started to dish it out, we found that one cup was actually a huge portion. Even a half-cup was too much for a child-sized plate. We doled out 1/3-cup portions that seemed just right.

If you really like something but it has lots of calories and fat, I told the kids, that doesn't necessarily mean you should never eat it. Just don't eat it so often. Take a smaller serving. Just know what you're eating. It's about balance.

And, oh, was it good. There was enough left over for some of the teachers. By the second day of our lessons, word seemed to have spread through the entire school. The teachers were lined up with their plates and forks, begging for some of our home-made macaroni and cheese.

The foundation of this dish is a bechamel sauce made in the traditional way with butter, flour and milk. Grated cheese is added to the sauce and melted smooth. After seasoning the sauce with salt, pepper, nutmeg and cayenne, add cooked macaroni--we used a jumbo elbow noodle called chiocciole in Italian--and pour the mix into a casserole dish. The noodles are topped with buttered bread crumbs and baked until golden and bubbly in a 375-degree oven. You can find the complete recipe here, at Martha Stewart's website.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Dark Days: Meat Grinder Pasta with Pork Ragu

Armed with my new meat grinder, I've been anxious to try this trick I first saw performed by Mario Batali: extruding whole-wheat pasta.

The sauce was a simple pork ragu made with ground pork ($8 for a little more than one pound at the farmers market), diced onions, diced carrots and, in the absence of our own canned tomatoes, a prepared tomato sauce from the farmers market.

As it turned out, the pint jar of sauce I purchased ($4) was only half what I needed. Enter one large can of Cento tomatoes.

What you see on the right in this picture is Hubbard squash ($4 at the farmers market), roasted then mashed with brown sugar, allspice and nutmeg. Quite delicious and a very generous quantity.

Again, I felt a bit stung by the price of the ground pork. By my wife was quick to point out that it made perhaps two quarts of sauce. We'll be freezing some, or eating it for quite a few days to come.

The pasta noodles were another story. The dough is simple enough: 2 cups white whole wheat flour with two eggs, kneaded for about five minutes. My first attempt came out more like spaetzle. I'd forgotten that you need to remove the blade from the grinder. On the next go-round, I removed the blade and increased the size of the die in the grinder. The noodles came out looking like alien space worms only chewier. What I need is a die sized somewhere between the two choices that came with the machine, or around 1/4-inch.

But I was pleased to see daughter gobbling up the whole-wheat pasta (the spaetzle kind) with the pork ragu. "These carrots are delicious," said the little girl who hates cooked carrots. But wait--it's not all cooked carrots she hates, just the big slices that we make as a side dish.

Carrots, apparently, are very complicated.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Thing About Carrots

Last night I was making the simplest possible dinner, but of course daughter is eating off an entirely different menu--no salad for her--so I put on a pot of carrots to boil.

"No, Dad!" she screamed in horror.

"What's wrong?" I inquired.

"You know I don't like carrots!" she stormed.

"Since when do you not like carrots?"

"I mean, I don't like carrots cooked," she said in her most didactic tone. "I only like them raw. How many times do I have to tell you?"

She's awfully bossy for an 8-year-old, that daughter of ours. I just threw up my hands. So Mom stepped in, quickly drained off the carrots and we sat down to our dinner: potatoes smothered in coq au vin sauce, for us, potatoes not smothered in coq au vin sauce--and raw carrots--for daughter.

Truth is, I had originally thought of grating those carrots raw and turning them into a carrot salad. A mental picture of the salad--a little mayo, some raisins, a little curry powder--had flashed across the back of my brain pan for a nano-second. And that, for some reason, was enough to send me on a carrot jag from which I still have not fully recovered.

We plant a lot of carrots. In my usual fashion, I had to have one of every kind and my first efforts consisted of mixing all the carrot seeds together and sealing them in a paper envelope. A snipped off one corner of the envelope and whenever I needed to plant more carrots, I would simply remove the envelope from its place in the crisper drawer, pour some of the seed mix out of the snipped-off corner and scatter the seeds in the garden bed.

As you might imagine, I had some pretty ungainly growths of carrots. There were fat carrots, skinny carrots, thumb-sized mini-carrots, orange carrots, yellow carrots, red carrots. You could spot the yellow carrots from a distance: They sent up incredibly thick, robust foliage and seemed to grow twice as fast--and big--as the other varieties.

But it turns out no matter what color or which size, carrots all taste pretty much the same. I am starting to think variety is not as important as the seed catalogues would have you believe. Maybe focusing on making really good soil for the carrots, planting them on a regular schedule and harvesting them before they get woody and tough would be a better use of my time.

We don't give carrots much thought, yet they are so important to so much of what we cook. Onions are ubiquitous (can you imagine cooking without onions?) Carrots come in close behind. Two days ago I made a split pea soup. The soup would not have been complete--would have been terribly lacking--without onions and carrots. It cooked for a long time, that soup, and I could not help admiring the way the carrots held their shape--cut into little dice--to the very end of the cooking process. I scopped one up with a spoon and even after four hours on the stove it still had the sweet, fresh taste of carrot, as if I'd just pulled it out of the garden.

Yesterday I made a pasta sauce with ground pork. After the pork browned, diced onion and carrot went into the pot. You don't always see carrot in pasta sauce. But I wanted this one to have it. Maybe I've just had carrots on the brain. But somehow a sauce with friendly bits of carrots in it puts a smile on my face, as if the garden were speaking to me through my pasta.

Yes, we take carrots too much for granted. We toss them into the mix of our roasted root vegetables with hardly a second thought. We dice them up for our mire poix as if they were just another aromatic. We unconsciously slice them on an angle for a stand-alone side dish or as a vegetable buddy for our beef stew, knowing but not consciously acknowledging how handsome they are sliced just so, and how pathetic they would look cut into silly little rounds.

But now that it is January, the worst that could happen has come to pass: There are no more carrots in the garden. I actually had to buy some in the store. In fact, I had harvested all of our carrots before winter set in, cooked them and froze them in individual bundles. We have bags of sliced carrots the daughter will not eat.

I see carrots in my future. But you know what? I'm not complaining.

Best Split-Pea Soup Ever

I recently wrote about a mongrel split-pea, lentil and ham soup. That was a great soup, thrown together with a variety of legumes in small quantities that were taking up space in our pantry.

Well, we recently put together a birthday party for our friend Desson and inherited the meaty bone from a honey-glazed, spiral-cut ham. I've been saving it for a split-pea soup. In honor of the occasion, I stopped at Whole Foods for some split peas from the bulk section.

Soups are great for cleaning out the crisper drawer. This one calls for one onion, diced small, and the one-and-one-half carrots I had in the fridge, peeled and diced small. I also had a medium-sized parsnip, so I peeled and diced that up as well. All those things were sauteed about eight minutes with 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil and a teaspoon of kosher salt at the bottom of my Le Creuset pot.

I then added the ham bone (you could make a vegetarian version omitting the ham bone and using vegetable stock), a bouquet garni--made with several sprigs thyme, two bay leaves and a half-dozen peppercorns wrapped in cheese cloth--one pound split peas, then the four cups turkey stock (the end, finally) I had left in the fridge and four cups of water, or until the liquid rose to about one inch below the top of the pot.

Bring this to a boil, then reduce the heat to low, cover and cook gently for several hours, or until the ham has fallen off the bone and the peas are completely disintegrated.

I've never had a better split-pea soup, neither too pasty nor too thin. Serve it hot with a wedge of your best iron-skillet corn bread. This is dinner for a cold, winter night when ice is hanging off the eaves and the wind is knocking on your window.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Accidental Pizza

A slushy snow storm last week cancelled some of my "food appreciation" classes and left me holding four wads of pizza dough the kids had made the day before.

I had been holding the dough in the fridge, wrapped in four bundles. By the time Sunday rolled around I was desperate to do something with it. A call to sister Linda and brother-in-law Tom and we were soon cooking the toppings and readying ourselves for a championship football game to be broadcast from the frozen depths of Green Bay, Wisconsin.

For the occasion, oenophile Tom brought the usual traveling bag containing his favorite wine glasses--mighty big ones, the better for swishing the wine around--as well as two outstanding red wines. The first, a 2003 Saint-Emilion Grand Cru, was incredibly deep and rich, almost chocolatey. The second also was wonderfully inky and smooth, a Craneford Cabernet from Australia.

As for pizzas, we had caramelized very slowly two onions, thinly sliced, in our cast-iron skillet. The sweet onions make a wonderful combination with Gorgonzola cheese. A second pizza was topped with fennel, browned very aggressively in the skillet, then simmered with white wine. We paired this with a truffled Pecorino cheese we just happened to have on hand. A third pizza was slathered in the home-made pesto we keep in the freezer, then topped with turkey pepperoni. Finally we made a vegetarian pizza with broccoli and fresh mozzarella.

I'll have to call this Clean Out the Fridge Pizza Night, because we did not do a lick of shopping, just used the stuff that was there.

We watched the New York Giants miss two field goals and send the game into overtime. Improbably, the Giants' kicker came onto the field for a third time and we were certain he'd miss. Lucky guy--he had his redemption. I couldn't help thinking the Redskins coulda been in that game, going to the Super Bowl.

Any bets on New England versus the Giants?

Farmers Market Deep Freeze

There was a noticeable thinning of vendors and customers at the Dupont Circle farmers market as temperatures dipped into the low 20s. Everyone was bundled up against the cold. Even the vegetables were wearing their heaviest woollies.

You have to feel for vendors forced to stand for several hours when the wind is trying to bite off your ears. But some of us just have to have our weekly fresh yogurt fix. Me included.

I stopped by FreshMeadows, one of my favorite meat purveyors, for some pork shoulder. I have in mind a slow-cooked sugo for pasta later in the week. No pork shoulder here, I settled for ground pork. I should have known there would be several other vendors elsewhere in the market happy to sell me pork shoulder.

There are still fresh vegetables to be had in the middle of January. They've been covered with heavy mover's pads to keep them from freezing. One thing to be said for the cold: You don't have to wait in line to pay for your purchases.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Weekend Update

I may be the last person on earth to see this photo essay from Time magazine comparing what different families around the world spent on food in one week.

The range in costs is astounding, from $500 for a family in Germany to $1.23 for this family in a refugee camp in Chad.

Personally, I am more interested in the food being eaten by the families in less developed countries--lots of healthy vegetables and whole grains, it looks like. Very depressing is the amount of soda and junk food and processed goods being consumed all over the world. Note the family from North Carolina with the takeout pizza a tablefood of packaged food that makes them look like an ad for the processed food association. Makes you wanna cry....

Thanks to Lavinia for sending this along in an e-mail. You can view the photo essay in its entirety at the Green Taxie blog.


If you are prepared to be disgusted by some of the things we Americans eat and actually pay for, check out this list of the 20 Worst Foods in America put out by Mens Health magazine.

Topping the list is a "starter" served at Outback Steakhouse called "Aussie Cheese Fries with Ranch Dressing." It weighs in with an astounding 2,900 calories, 182 grams of fat and 240 grams of carbohydrates. This dish could very well be shared with two or three of your friends. Still, follow it with a steak and all the trimmings, a couple of beers, and you've probably exceeded your nutritional needs for the entire day.

Also on the magazine's list of the 20 worst are the "Stacked Nachos" at On the Border, with 2,740 calories, 166 grams of fat, 191 grams of carbohydrates and a death-defying 5,280 milligrams of sodium (can that actually be true?). Or try the "Spaghetti with Meatballs and Meat Sauce" at Macaroni Grill: 2,430 calories, 128 grams of fat, 207 grams of carbohydrates and 5,290 milligrams of sodium.

My favorite, the breakfast at Bob Evans: "Caramel Banana Pecan Cream Stacked and Stuffed Hotcakes." Check the 1,540 calories, 77 grams of fat (9 g trans fat) and 198 grams of carbohydrates (109 g sugar).

Kinda makes you want to run out and dive into a pool of creme brulee.


Meanwhile, Democarts, having gained control of Congress, are trying to make a "Green Capitol," including local and more healthful foods in the mess hall. They are running into just a little resistance from lobbyists for the industrial food merchants, who don't like it when someone points out how bad their products are for us.

Restaurant Associates, the catering conglomerate that sources food for the House of Represenatives, ran afoul (so to speak) of the industrial chicken lobby when it boasted on its web site that it was feeding congressmen eggs from humanely-raised, cage-free chickens, sparing the birds the horrors of battery cages. The caterer softened its tone after Big Ag let its objections be known.

Then the dairy industry called in to complain about Restaurant Associates' boast that it was not using milk produced with bovine growth hormone on grounds the hormone had not been adequately tested. Again, the caterer back-pedaled.

The industry rag Feedstuffs editorialized that Resaurant Associates and its parent company, Compass Group, are “hooked by propaganda of animal rights groups...”

You can read more about it in Marion Burrous' report in the New York Times.


We here at The Slow Cook news desk never cease to be amused by the f'ederal government's ability to spend billions of tax dollars subsidizing the production of foods that make Americans fat and sick, then turn right around and make pronouncements on things like food pyramids and what we citizens need to do to stay healthy.

The latest funny bone tickler is this scheme by the the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to tell New Yorkers that they are too fat. What the HHS did was team up with the Ad Council to place tiny little tee-shirts in the washing machines at Manhattan laundromats saying, "Shrink a Few Sizes." A message on the shirts directs people to the HHS "Small Steps" site, which exorts visitors to “shed those holiday pounds, reduce their risk for obesity and lead a healthy lifestyle.”

Or, start reading up on the farm bill....


There is a temptation to believe those sophisticated Europeans are more noble of purpose, purer of heart, just because they're, well, European. Nothing could be further from the truth, especially when it come to Europeans' rapacious attitude toward draining the oceans of fish.

Having devasted the hunting grounds in their own waters, Europeans now are paying off the governments of Third World contries so that Euro fishing fleets can park their vessels offshore and rake in the local bounty. The end results could be easily foreseen: At some point, there will be no more fish for the locals to catch.

That is precisely the case in areas of West Africa where the Atlantic has been so thoroughly fished out that the local seafood industry is in a state of collapse. What follows is a surge of refugees, as people with no source of food or employment take to boats and try to immigrate to Europe illegally through the Canary Islands.

“As Europe has sought to manage its fisheries and to limit its fishing, what we’ve done is to export the overfishing problem elsewhere, particularly to Africa,” said Steve Trent, executive director of the Environmental Justice Foundation, a London-based research group.

Last year roughly 31,000 Africans tried to reach the Canary Islands, a prime transit point to Europe, in more than 900 boats. About 6,000 died or disappeared, according to one estimate cited by the United Nations.

Said one Senegalese fisherman who has tried and failed to make the journey to the Canary Islands: “I could be a fisherman there,” he said. “Life is better there. There are no fish in the sea here anymore.”


In case you were tempted by the previous item to run out and buy some fish for dinner, a recent study of swordfish purchased in California and Florida grocery stores found that 80 percent contained mercury levels above the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's "action" threshold.

Yes, you read correctly: eight fish out of 10 above the limit for mercury. But if you are expecting the FDA to leap into action, don't hold your breath. Although the agency has the authority to take legal action to remove offending food items from store shelves, recent internal audits show the FDA--and especially its enforcement arm--to be in a shambles.

Mercury is especially harmful to children and pregnant women. The supermarket sampling was conducted by Micro Analytic Systems Inc. using what the company purports to be "the world’s first rapid, large-scale mercury-testing process for seafood." The FDA's own data shows about half of all swordfish exceding the "action" level for mercury.

Either way, the lesson for swordfish would seem to be, Eat at your own risk.

Bon appetit....

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Dark Days: Coq au Vin

Throughout the winter CSA season, our farmer friend Brett will occasionally include a chicken with our weekly produce delivery.

This is one of his laying hens. People sometimes tell Brett the chicken is tough. Brett says, cook the chicken longer. By that he does not mean an hour or two. He means three or four hours.

This particular chicken, cooked with red wine, bacon, garlic and beef broth, braised four hours in the pot. Still, it was on the chewy side. But oh, the flavor. Dark and gamey, that's how I like it.

I had also been watching carefully the progress of the turnips in my garden. I had a hard time getting the turnips to germinate this summer. Rutabagas, too. Was it too hot? Did I not water the seeds enough? I don't know the answer. I planted seeds twice and still did not get a full crop. But the turnips that did finally take hold are beauties. I can see their white flesh rising out of the ground all the way from the front stoop.

The two I pulled yesterday were baseball size, perfectly round with rich soil clinging to the roots. These are not the turnips I would normally plant for greens. But I tasted the leaves anyway and they were delicious--sweet. I decided to include them in a braise with the other greens from our weekly package.

So there you have our totally local meal for the week: coq au vin, turnips mashed with blue cheese and braised greens seasoned with apple cider. Homely, yes, but very satisfying. Just the thing for a winter's night.

The turnips came out so well--sweet, with just a hint of horseradish--that I am convinced to plant more and pay better attention to them in the coming year.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Raw Milk: Letter from Annapolis

This week members of the Maryland Independent Farmers and Consumers Association converged on Annapolis, MD, to convince state legislators that sales of raw milk should be legal. But rather than hear me tell about it, here's a letter from the MIFCA's Liz Reitzig:

Our second annual legislative brunch and lobby day proved to be another great success. Over 100 legislators and aides trooped in after the General Assembly, ready for great food and conversation. Local producers and consumers provided a wonderful buffet of fresh milk, raw milk cheeses and crackers, homemade breads, yogurt with fruit, several types of meatloaf, custards, chocolate mousse, three flavors of ice cream, fermented veggies, gingerbread with homemade cream cheese, herbed ricotta, emu egg frittata, and many other delights.

While some MICFA members served the food, others visited with legislators and aides. Several legislators and aides expressed an interest in learning about other locally produced foods and helped themselves to extra literature. It was inspiring to hear from the delegates and senators that they were there because a constituent had invited them. Many of these asked to be directed to the constituent who had sent the invitation. (Thanks to each person who took the time to email or call legislators. It obviously made a huge difference in the turnout. It also goes to show how valuable personal contacts are in building relationships.)

The Lobbying: A short time into the brunch, several MICFA members took the newly printed educational postcards and went to delegates’ offices, where they responded to questions about fresh milk and its benefits. Active, healthy children accompanied their mothers. The children were welcomed and enjoyed in the offices they visited.Members who lobbied said they were surprised at how easy and fun it was. Several got to speak with the delegates as well as the aides.The BillThis year’s bill (HB 147 <" target=_blank>>), is the same as last year’s. If passed as written, it would allow unregulated, direct farmer-to-consumer sales of fresh milk.

Many legislators were enthusiastic supporters of the bill. Some spoke of their desire to see an increase in availability of local foods to Maryland citizens. Delegate Kipke, this year’s sponsor, infused the event with positive energy. His commitment to see legalized, unregulated sales of fresh milk in Maryland is unequaled. Delegate Mary Ann Love, last year’s sponsor of the legislation, also came by and expressed her ongoing support of the legislation and our efforts. At the end of the day, Delegate Rick Weldon came over to meet with the constituent who had invited him. He expressed his strong support for the bill and his willingness to help out in any way he could. This is the direct result of relationship building and communication between a constituent and an elected representative.

Other lawmakers have had no exposure to fresh milk. They can learn through us. Conversely, several of the lawmakers said they had grown up on fresh milk and were surprised to learn that its availability mattered to anyone. We can change this perception.Sally and I had an opportunity to meet with Delegate Hammen, the chair of the Health and Government Operations Committee, which will hear the bill.

The meeting went very well, but we still have much work to do to convince him that fresh milk is a healthful product. His concern is that if he were to allow sales of fresh milk and someone became sick from it, he would bear responsibility. He expressed this concern several times. The appropriate action to take on this would be for those who drink fresh milk to contact him with their success stories—stories about recoveries from illness through the consumption of fresh milk, increased immunity, improved health of children, and how good health has been maintained by regular consumption of fresh milk.

Delegate Hammen needs to understand that the benefits of fresh milk are authentic and outweigh the minimal potential risks. (Delegate Hammen’s contact info:

Thank you to all who participated! We hope to see you all at the hearing. I’ll keep everyone posted with action alerts, but please be advised that we will not get much notice prior to the hearing.

And thank you, Liz.


Turkey tetrazzini, reheated in the microwave.

Preparation time: 3 minutes

Shopping: None

But wait! you say. Isn't that the same turkey tetrazzini I made a week ago from our locally-grown, self-butchered, Thanksgiving turkey?

Right you are. And the noodles were handmade too, by my daughter and I. There was a whole pan of it. My wife and I had it for dinner once. The daughter refused (she was really disappointed that we added the turkey and onions and peas and stuff to perfectly fine noodles that would have been delicious just plain--in fact, she had us wash some in the sink.)

Well, the only person around here who likes to eat the same thing more than one day in a row is me. So turkey tetrazzini has been my breakfast for the last week. I don't mind. If it's delicious on day one, it's delicious on days two, three and four, far as I'm concerned. I do the same thing with stews, soups, rice dishes, cooked greens, pizza, you name it.

Any of you others out there belong to this category of secret repeat eater?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Kids Make Healthy White Pizza

My wife thought the work I was doing teaching nutrition labeling to the kids in my "food appreciation" classes was so important I should do more. So we designed another lesson around pizza.

Last week among the processed foods we examined was a DiGiorno "Rising Crust Supreme" pizza. We were impressed not only with the mile-long ingredient list--obviously constructed in a lab somewhere off the New Jersey Turnpike--but the fat and sodium content.

The pizza weighs in at a few ounces more than two pounds, which puts a single serving size--one-sixth of the pie--at more than five ounces. That one slice contains 370 calories--140 from fat--fully 6 grams of saturated fat, 30 milligrams of cholesterol and a whopping 1,000 milligrams of sodium. These figures are even more staggering when you consider that the pizza slice in question could very well end up in the hands of a child. (Hint: you might want to cut that slice in half to make a child-sized portion.)

My mission was to construct a pizza with much lower values, write up the results and present them side-by-side with the DiGiorno figures for the kids to analyze. Then we would go right ahead and put some of the healthier pizzas in the oven for a taste test.

What I used for this experiment was our tried-and-true pizza dough recipe, calling for 2 cups each of bread flour and white whole wheat flour, 1 1/2 teaspoons fine table salt, yeast (one packet, or 2 1/4 teaspoons), 1 3/4 cups water and 2 tablespoons olive oil. This dough, which we normally mix in the Cuisinart at home, but assembled by hand at school, will make four thin-crusted, medium-sized pies.

For the topping, I prescribed for each pie about 2 cups (or a little less) of cooked broccoli spears, about 2 ounces grated fresh mozzarella, a drizzle of olive oil and a good dusting of Parmesan cheese.

It took me about an hour to tease out the nutrition values for this pizza, and these did come in a good deal lighter than DiGiorno. Granted, a slice of my pizza probably weighed less than the competition and therefore might be less filling. This is a pretty inexact comparison. But that's partly the point: When you make your own, you have complete control over the ingredients. Compared to the DiGiorno pizza, a child could probably have two slices of our pizza without overindulging.

Here were the nutrition values for one slice: 117 calories, 30 of them from fat. Three grams of fat, compared to 15, with 1.5 grams saturated, or one-fourth the DiGiorno. My pizza had somewhat less than one-fourth the cholesterol, and just 17 percent of the sodium (it's mind boggling how much salt is in the processed brand). The two pizzas had equal amounts of dietary fiber: 3 grams.

It became very clear to the kids that pizza dough is calorie-dense, no matter what kind of flour you use. And you're bound to end up with some fat if you put cheese on the pie. But they also learned that you can do without the meat and thus reduce some of the saturated fat, and that industrial pizza for some reason comes with a truckload of sodium.

Finally, our pizza had just six easily-recognized ingredients--definitely not the chemistry experiment you get in the frozen food section.

So while they pounded away on the dough, I used the batch I'd made at home to start constructing pies. Some of the kids laid on the broccoli, I grated the cheese, and within minutes we had some great pizza fresh from the oven, all warm and yeasty and made by us from scratch.

Raw Milk in Maryland?

Those pesky raw milk advocates are at it again, trying to drum up support for legislation that would permit the sale of raw milk in Maryland.

Maryland currently is among the majority of states that ban the sale of raw milk. State laws are a real hodgepodge. Some states actually allow raw milk on the market, either through direct sales at the farm or in retail stores or both. In other states, humans technically can obtain raw milk because it is sold as animal feed. In 32 states, it is at least possible to buy raw milk through one of these means.

Then there are states like Maryland, where fans of unpasteurized milk slink around in the shadows, trading on the black market.

You may be wondering why anyone would want to purchase much less consume raw milk in the first place. Isn't that terribly unsafe? Turns out many people believe milk in its natural state is more nutritious and better for you than the industrial kind. And of course while federal and state laws restrict raw milk sales, they don't seem to have any problem with huge dairy conglomerates treating their cows with Monsanto growth hormones to increase production. (There's some evidence that those hormones could be a cancer agent.)

The push for uniform pasteurization of milk goes back to the turn of the 20th century when outbreaks of tuberculosis in the tenements of large cities such as New York became a major health concern. Tuberculosis is one of those diseases that occurs in animals but can be transmitted to humans. It thrives in unsanitary dairy and milk handling conditions.

You don't hear much about problems with disease in states where raw milk is permitted, as opposed to the recalls of thousands of tons of beef from meat handling operations supposedly operating under the strictest government standards. In fact, government officials and their agents--from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control all the way down to state inspectors--seem to take special delight in harassing farmers who deal in raw milk, or try every which way to drive them out of business.

Personally, I am not a consumer of raw milk although I would love to have a nearby source for it. Back in my youth, cycling around France, it was possible to stop by the side of the road and fill your drinking bottle with milk fresh from the cow. There are few things as creamy and delicious, and many of us know the delights of raw milk cheeses.

There is a passionate and growing movement of food enthusiasts who believe that individual local farmers--not corporatized agri-businesses--are our best bet for wholesome, flavorful foods. There is a growing belief that consenting adults ought to be able to trade in products such as raw milk and enjoy the benefits of foods produced the way Nature intended. Let's not forget that people were consuming raw milk for thousands of years before Louis Pasteur came on the scene.

Currently, raw milk is outlawed in the District of Columbia, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Delaware and North Carolina. Sales of raw milk are permitted at farms and in retail stores in Pennsylvania.

There may be a small crack forming in Maryland's objection to raw milk. Holly Foster, a cheese maker on Maryland's Eastern Shore, has become the first and only cheese maker in the state chosen for a test study of raw milk cheese making. Until now, Foster has been and continues to make her cheese on a farm in Pennsylvania. (Her cheeses are available at Cowgirl Creamery in downtown D.C.) An article about Foster and her unique arrangement with the State of Maryland appears in the winter issues of Edible Chesapeake magazine.

Today, members of the Maryland Independent Farmers and Consumers Association are meeting with state legislators to push for legalizing sales of raw milk. Wish them luck. You can see what they are up to here. Click on the group's events calendar. For further information about raw milk, check the listing of resources on the lower right-hand side of this page.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Secret to the World's Greatest Popcorn

My wife and I recently agreed to help put on our friend Desson's birthday bash and here was one of my assignments: make popcorn for 100 people.

Of course I thought this a bit ridiculous, making a small truckload of popcorn on the stove top. Why not just buy the stuff already popped? But the wife would hear none of my complaints.

"That's what you get for making the world's best popcorn," she said.

Well, I've been making popcorn for years but this was something new, popping two pounds of seed at one go. A few adjustments were required along the way. But since I was knee-deep in popcorn, I thought this might be a good time to pass along my method for making the world's greatest popcorn, even though I should probably be submitting it for a patent and securing my fortune.

If the only kind of popcorn you make is in the microwave, you should know-- first--that the chemical additive that makes it taste like butter causes an incurable lung disease. Some companies are eliminating the additive because of the harm it has done to factory workers. Needless to say, you should not be spending idle hours with your nose in your popcorn. Aside from that, microwave popcorn is a laboratory experiment--it has no place in your mouth.

For a time, I air-popped my popcorn because this did solve the problem of unpopped seeds and also had some purported health benefits in that it did not require copious amounts of cooking oil, which is calorie-dense. But you could never get the salt to stick to the air-popped variety. Some people advocated spritzing the popped corn with water before applying the salt. This variety of popcorn quickly lost its appeal.

So it was back to the stove-top popcorn that I learned as a child and have been perfecting, oh, since about the time Moses brought the original recipe down from Mt. Sinai. The idea is to achieve just the right ratio of oil to seeds in the pot, to perform the popping at just the right temperature, and to make sure the seeds stay in contact with the bottom of the pot.

The pot I use is an old 2-quart Revere cook pot, the kind your mother got as a wedding present. Its sole purpose in life is popping popcorn. Consequently, it has a nice, black crust around the bottom to prove its popping chops, like a tool you might find in an old-fashioned blacksmith's shop.

The first order of business is to set the pot over high heat and pour about 1/8-inch vegetable oil (I use canola oil) into the bottom. I don't measure it--it's the depth of the oil that matters most, and this would vary with the size of your pot. You want the oil to just come over the top of a single kernel of corn that you drop in there, which might actually be more than 1/8-inch.

In fact, I drop three kernels into the oil as indicators of when the oil has reached the optimum temperature. Pretty soon you will see tiny bubbles forming around the kernels. Then they will pop, one at a time, signaling the oil is ready. (Note: the popping occurs when moisture inside the kernel vaporizes and causes a small explosion. For this to occur in the optimum fashion, you must use fresh seeds. I buy mine in bulk--about a pound at a time--and keep them in the freezer.)

Now it is time to pour just the right amount of seeds into the pot. They should come just to the top of the oil and a little higher, so that each kernel is coated with oil. Quickly cover the pot and wait for the popping to begin. You should have at hand a large mixing bowl (I use stainless) and some fine table salt.

As the seeds begins to pop, give the pot a little shake. Soon, the popping will become very rapid, even frantic. Steam will pour out from under the lid and you might think things are happening a bit too quickly. But remain calm and let the popped corn begin to lift the lid. Then snatch the pot off the stove and pour some of the popped corn into your bowl, tipping the pot and removing the lid just enough that the popped corn can escape.

There's still quit a lot of popping to do. Put the pot back on the burner and shake it vigorously. The shaking helps the unpopped kernels find their way back to the bottom of the pot. You've probably done this and had too many unpopped kernels at the bottom of your popcorn bowl. Well, that's partly from starting with too many seeds, maybe not enough oil, but almost certainly from not shaking the pot enough and allowing those seeds be carried up and out of the pot in the popping process.

You may overflow the pot again, in which case empty some of the popped corn into the mixing bowl as before and bring the pot to the heat again for a third time, shaking like mad, until the popping stops or you begin to feel the popcorn might start to burn, in which case you are done. Dump the remaining popped corn into the bowl and season it with salt.

The seasoning method is an art in itself and quite ritualistic. I shake a little salt, then toss the popcorn into the air--not too high--giving the bowl a bit of a twist. It's all in the wrists. Repeat this twice or three times, or until the popcorn is salted to your liking. Just be careful not to over-salt your popcorn. There's nothing worse, and unfortunately you cannot remove the salt once its there.

Made too much? Not to worry. The overage can be poured into a sealable storage bag. It will keep a good day or two, sitting quietly on top of your refrigerator.

Monday, January 14, 2008

January Farmers Market

Here we are in the depth of winter. Most of the farmers markets in the District of Columbia are closed. But the Dupont Circle market, in the heart of the city, is jammed with vendors and customers on a Sunday morning when temperatures climb into the 50s. No shortage of fresh produce here. Look at these stunning parsnips.

There are all kinds of prepared foods at the market now--crab cakes, soups, pies. You can also find every kind of meat and poultry--leg of lamb, pork roast, grass-fed beef steaks, even buffalo burgers and buffalo sausages. But what impressed me most were the crowds, the frenzy of activity. Everywhere people were waiting in line to make their purchases.

The line for yogurt...

The line for bread....

The line for greens

The produce is highly photogenic. Here are squashes in all shapes and colors

Lots of apples

An impressive display of mushrooms

Even fresh shucked oysters from the Chesapeake Bay. These are great days for sourcing local foods. But for how much longer? We'll continue to check on a weekly basis and report.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Quote of the Day

Angry 8-year-old daughter says:
"There's never anything I like to eat around here. It's always, homemade, homemade, homemade..."

Weekend Update

My idea for boosting local agriculture is to create indoor markets where local farmers can sell their products year-round and on a daily basis. I'm not sure if that would constitute a co-op arrangement, or just a facility where farmers could set up shop. It certainly would create a comfortable atmosphere for shoppers, greatly expand the availability of local produce and encourage farmers to stretch the growing season.

Well lookee here: It seems New York is one step ahead of me. Gov. Eliot Spitzer is promising to break ground this year on a wholesale farmers market in the Bronx. The facility would at least guarantee a regular supply of local farm product for large buyers such as schools and hospitals. Seems to me that this kind of market is just a short hop and skip away from a retail facility that would offer the same daily, indoor shopping opportunities to the rest of us.

Gov. Spitzer was a fast friend of New York's community gardens and apparently his support extends to small farmers. News of Spitzer's push for the wholesale facility first appeared in the New York Times food section, then in an analysis by Tom Philpott at Grist. Definitely something to cheer.


What price fertility?

Iowans are finding that it may cost close to $700 million annually to meet new federal standards for reducing nitrates and phosphorous in the local waterways. Intensely farmed with artificial fertilizers, Iowa already has some of the most polluted rivers and lakes in the world as a result of farm runoff. A study by Iowa State University found that the cost to abate pollution from agriculture already is around $435 million, but would climb significantly to meet standards proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Another recent study in Illinois found that farmers routinely over-fertilize their land. Nitrogen and phosphorous then find their way into the local watershed. Abatement measures aren't cheap or easy, requiring terracing, planting cover around waterways, contour farming and sometimes no-till farming.

Or, we could all go back to organic farming and keep the nutrients in the soil, right?


How much are you willing to pay for your next tall one?

In case you were wondering when urban sprawl was going to hit the price of beer, the answer is now. The price of hops, one of the primary ingredients that give beer its distinctive flavor, is going through the roof. Seems some unkind weather events in Europe have cut the crop there. More ominous is the disappearance of hop farms in the the northwestern U.S., where crops have been plowed under to make way for housing developments.

"All those beautiful old hop farms [in Washington state] are now beautiful gated communities," says Tod Mott, brew master at the Portsmouth Brewery in New Hampshire.

Small brewers are scrambling to fill their hop requirements and finding prices doubled, tripled or quadrupled. Some special varieties of hops might not be available at all, meaning the brews that depend on them will just dry up.

The message seems to be, drink up while you can.


Hops for beer aren't the only thing disappearing. If you've followed the news here, grain prices around the world are going through the roof, partly as a result of the push for corn-based ethanol, partly because people in the growing economies of China and India are demanding more grain-fed meat in their diets.

Well, where the money is, people are sure to follow. So it shouldn't be any big surprise that thieves are raiding the grain silos in the nation's heartland. That's right--when nobody's looking, they just pull a big truck up to the local grain elevator and fill it up.

Police in western Kansas, for instance, are investigating almost a dozen incidents where thieves using tractor trailers stole wheat from grain elevators.

The thieves hit at least four grain elevators near the town of Syracuse and made off with more than $50,000 worth of raw wheat.

Terry Bertholf, attorney for insurer Kansas Farmers Service Association, said wheat elevators are often unmanned at this time of year. He said the thieves knew how to operate the augers to offload the grain, and then they drove the wheat to other grain elevators in the area and resold it.


It seems the plague of childhood obesity has drawn the interest of the nation's political cartoonists. Who knew?

Here's an amusing (or perhaps not) a series of cartoons posted at MSNBC. As Pogo would have said, We've met the enemy, and he is us.


Finally, U.S. fisheries authorities for years have been fond of blaming Europe for the demise of the bluefin tuna. The tuna populations on the western and eastern sides of the Atlantic travel, creating some convenient cover for those who would shift blame for the fish's demise. But thanks to new high-tech tracking methods, it has become clear that the western bluefin is being fished to the point of extinction not somewhere in the Mediterranean, but right here in our own back yard.

U.S. officials have simply ignored the best advice of marine scientists and gone their own way with bluefin quotas. Now the U.S. bluefin population is down almost 90 percent just in the last five years, and fishermen are going out of business.

Doesn't this seem like deja vu all over again?

Bon appetit...