Thursday, January 27, 2011

Potluck: Cooking and Dignity

I am a big fan of democracy - even if it is messy and slow - and so have been closely following events of late in Tunisia and Egypt. I guess something is happening now in Yemen so I will have even more reading to do.

I am very excited that ordinary people - especially young people - are attempting to stand up for freedom of expression and for the right to govern themselves by rule of law. They want to be treated with dignity by their governments. They want a say in their future. I'm for that.

So what does this have to do with food? Food or government - to me we are faced with the same choices.  It is all a matter of individuals taking responsibility for their own lives.  Yes - there is collective action but the group is made up of individuals.

If you are a CSA member (or a farmers market shopper or a gardener etc.) you have decided to take more personal responsibility for choosing and preparing what you eat. There is certainly dignity in that choice. I am glad you and I have the freedom to make these choices.

A good food friend of mine just shared a link to a video about food self-reliance. Take a few minutes to watch it - it is interesting.

In a few minutes I am going to start chopping some vegetables for our dinner. If Tunisians and others can risk their lives for freedom and democracy I guess I can take some time to chop and cook and personally support an agricultural system that - in my opinion - affirms the dignity of people, animals and the planet.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Hands On - Sauerkraut

Fermented foods have been around for thousands of years for a reason - they are tasty and nutritious and they store well.  If you want to learn about fermentation, a good place to start is sauerkraut. This is a living food.  Another example of how bacteria - properly managed - can be our friends.

What you will need:
5 pounds of green winter cabbage - the kind that has a dense head - not loose cabbage like napa.  Five pounds of cabbage will make about a gallon of kraut.
2-3 tablespoons kosher salt or pickling salt
A sharp knife and cutting board or a mandoline or other tool for thinly slicing the cabbage
A clean crock or other large nonreactive (glass, food grade plastic, enamel or stainless steel) container
A plate and a weight or other system for weighting down the cabbage
A cover for the crock
A location for the crock that is consistently about 65-70 degrees fahrenheit

The steps  (See the steps in pictures - below)
1.  Cut up the cabbage.  Quarter and core.  Slice as thinly as possible.  (Make sure you start with a little more than five pounds of cabbage to allow for waste.  Please compost the cores and other waste.)
2.  Put the sliced cabbage in a large bowl or pan, sprinkle on 2-3 T. of salt.  Some say use a little more salt in summer and less in winter.  Mix the salt and cabbage with clean hands - squeezing and pressing hard - for a few minutes.
3.  Let the cabbage rest about half an hour.
4.  Pack the cabbage into the crock or container.  Press down hard.  You can use a potato masher to do this.
5.  Put a clean plate on top of the cabbage - ideally one that just fits inside the cabbage container.
6.  Put a weight on top of the plate - you can use a heavy plastic bag full of water, a clean jar full of water or even a clean rock.
7.  Cover the crock with a clean towel or plastic wrap.
8.  Set the crock in a place that is 65-70 degrees for 7-28 days.  Check the crock after the first day - the brine should completely cover the cabbage.  You do not want air to reach the cabbage.  Fermenation needs an anaerobic environment.  If the brine does not cover the cabbage then add more brine -- one cup of water to 1 T. salt.
9.  After the first day, you don't need to check the kraut more than once every 5-7 days.  Some mold may appear on the surface.  If it does, just skim off what you can.  Don't worry about this - it is just a result of surface contact with the air.  The kraut is under the "anaerobic protection" of the brine.  If some brine evaporates, just add more brine to keep the kraut covered.
(Note - the temperature should never go over 72 degrees in the fermentation process.  Lower temperature means slower fermentation.)
10.  Tasting - after a week or so, remove the weight and plate and taste a bit of the kraut.  It is possible to stop the fermentation process at this point if you like kraut this way.  You stop the fermentation by lowering the temperature and refrigerating the kraut.  You could decide to take some out and eat it and leave the rest to continue fermenting.  If you remove some kraut make sure you repack the rest, smooth the top and make sure there is enough brine to cover.

You don't want to let the process continue for more than four weeks.  Three weeks is probably ideal.  It depends on the temperatures your crock is living in. It is not good to let the kraut become soft.  The flavor will be less pleasant.

11. Storing - when the kraut has reached the flavor you like, just pack it into clean glass jars, with the brine,  and store in the refrigerator.  It will keep for months.  Kraut can be canned but the heat processing will change it.  I prefer "living" sauerkraut.

12.  Sauerkraut juice - it is okay to drink the brine.  Yes it is salty but some consider it a "digestive tonic".

Sauerkraut recipes - You can even join a sauerkraut club at this site.

Here are pictures of the steps I use to make sauerkraut.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Inspiration - Winter Week #6

In this week's box:  butternut squash, green cabbage, mixed potatoes, carrots, white daikon radish, kale, dried sage

I have been back from vacation for about five days  and am finally getting into the kitchen swing of things again.  Don't you just hate post vacation re-entry?  The giant pile of mail was bad enough, but the mostly empty refrigerator was a downer too. And I was out of the habit of cooking every day.  Restaurants do have their charms.

Thank goodness I had a quart of chili, a loaf of homemade bread, a quart of turkey gravy and some leftover turkey in the freezer.  Plus a pile of winter vegetables, which do store so well.  Saved the day for sure.  Tonight I just added a few cups of chopped celery, carrots, onions and potatoes and some turkey to the gravy.  Whipped up a little biscuit dough, plopped it on top of the simmering gravy and veggies - cooked with the cover on for about 15 minutes and voila - dinner.  Refrigerator pickles on the side helped make up for the fact that it was really cold, gray and sloppy outside.

This is the time of year that can challenge even the most dedicated seasonal cook.   Yes, the cabbage, potatoes, carrots and squash in your box are fine plump specimens -- but one does yearn for some green beans or lettuce or sweet corn.  All I can say is -- patience.  All in good time.  Meanwhile, you have some good food to deal with and I will share a few of my secrets for the midwinter culinary blahs.

First - soup

Full flavored, long simmered soup is a blessing in the winter.   Pair soup with some excellent bread and butter or olive oil.  If you have been intending to try your hand at yeast bread now is the time.  You can also indulge in some apple pie or bread pudding or carrot cake - hearty desserts that might seem like too much in the summer.  But if you are eating a soup made with mostly or all vegetables for dinner - then by all means enjoy a little dessert.

You can try many soups with this week's vegetables - like cream of potato or carrot or squash.  Or try this recipe from a recent New York Times article - it uses squash, cabbage, carrots and sage along with other items.  It calls for farro - but you could use another grain instead.

I am going to make borscht tomorrow.  I have some beets to use up - and I also can use some of my cabbage, carrots and potatoes in the borscht.  I think this soup is best if you make a good beef and/or pork broth first.  If you use meaty pork ribs and chuck roast you can add the meat to the soup. This soup is best if refrigerated and eaten two or three days after it is made.

Borscht -

Make about 10 cups meat stock - use soup bones or lean meaty ribs or chuck roast.  Add a little onion, carrot, celery and bay leaf to the water.  About one pound meat and bones to 5-6 cups water is a good proportion.  Simmer several hours and strain.  Cut up meat to add to soup later.
Add vegetables to the stock and simmer until all are tender - about 2 cups chopped onion, 4 cups shredded cabbage, 3 cups each chopped carrot and potato.  If you have some parsnip or rutabaga a little of that is good too.  Add about 3 cups chopped cooked and peeled beets near the end of cooking.   I also like to add a can of whole or diced tomatoes and their juice- about 3 cups.  If you are lucky, you will have a row of beautiful home canned tomatoes in your larder - now is the time to break out a jar.

Seasonings - use salt and pepper to taste.  A handful of fresh chopped parsley and dill is nice.  Near the end of cooking, add about 1/2 cup red wine vinegar or lemon juice and 1/2 cup sugar.

Serve topped with some sour cream or creme fraiche.  Good with rye bread.  Also good with a full flavored red wine or some dark beer or ale.

Second - vinegar  Cook or season with vinegar.  Try different kinds.  Make coleslaw with a mustardy oil and vinegar dressing.  Shred or slice radishes and marinate with a little vinegar and sugar.  For more about vinegar see this 2010 blog post:

Third - pizza
Learn how to make homemade crust.  Or buy prepared crusts.  Experiment with different toppings.  How about butternut squash puree instead of tomato sauce?  Sprinkle it with some chopped garlic, crumbled dried sage, and grated parmesan.  Bake.  Serve with sliced plain raw radishes on the side. Maybe make a little dipping sauce for the radishes with some soy sauce, sugar and a little rice vinegar.

Or try beet pizza.  Really.  I would make a crust with a little whole wheat or rye flour.  Spread some caramelized onions and sliced roasted beets on the crust.  Dot with goat cheese.  Maybe add some walnuts.  Bake.

Fourth - comfort foods  Don't forget classic old favorites like colcannon - which is just potatoes and cabbage bound together with a generous dose of butter and milk.  You can use kale instead of cabbage to make colcannon if you like.
Add some roast chicken and maybe an apple for dessert and you have a great simple meal.

Or how about macaroni and cheese with some glazed carrots or braised cabbage on the side?   Or scalloped potatoes with a little ham and a raw carrot and radish salad?  Who needs fresh tomatoes and green beans when you have such excellent cabbage and carrots?

Save some of your cabbage and in few days I will tell you how to make your own sauerkraut at home.  It is easy.  Really.  And fermentation is the next new (old) thing.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Potluck: Kitchen Rehab

Do you like your kitchen?  Does being in your kitchen make you feel happy and relaxed?  Or do you dread a stint of cooking because you just don't like working in that space?  Do you have things arranged for your convenience?

Are you hanging on to stuff you haven't used in years just because you haven't gotten around to having a garage sale or loading up a box for the Salvation Army?  Do you have a jar of cloves in the back of your cupboard that has been there since the turn of the century?  (Come on - I know you have some old stuff around.   I finally tossed a bag of dried bean curd sheets a few months ago because I never did figure out what to do with them.  It killed me because I HATE to waste food.  But sometimes you just have to admit failure and move on.)

I am not going to recommend a $50,000 kitchen renovation, complete with the latest trendy countertop surface or new type of cooktop.  I am going to suggest that you set aside several hours this month to clean and organize and improve what you have.  This will cost little or nothing, except your time.  This will help you become a happier cook which will inevitably lead to becoming a better and more productive cook.

You know better than I what is driving you crazy in your own kitchen.  Maybe it is a dark corner that needs better lighting.  Maybe it is the utensil drawer that is so full you never can find the tongs when you need them.   Maybe it is ten boxes of old and half eaten breakfast cereal sitting on top of the refrigerator.  The horror.

Here are some ideas to get you started:

Take everything off your countertops and all available flat work space in your kitchen.  I mean everything.  Scrub all the surfaces.  Now put things back - but I want you to think carefully about each item.  Do you really need all the tschotkes that you have taking up valuable real estate?  Set priorities.  Make sure cutting boards, peelers and knives are in a place that is very convenient and accessible.  Same with spices, herbs and salt and pepper.  I like keeping a basic supply of oils and vinegars close at hand too.

I really like good lighting - natural or otherwise - in a kitchen.  This is one area where you might need to spend a little money.  Maybe you need a new fixture or even an electrician to add some new wiring.  Maybe you just need light bulbs (time for LED's?) that pack a bigger punch.  We have long and dark winters in Minnesota.  Lighten up your kitchen.  This might be more effective than anti-depressants.

Make a little pile of the tools you use all the time.  For me it is a few spoons, rubber scrapers, whisk, tongs and potato masher.  I find it convenient to use some of my prime counter space for a few crocks that hold utensils.  I also have one drawer chock full of things like a cherry pitter, cookie cutters, thermometers and other small but indispensable items.  I may not use them every day but I want them close by when I do need them.  If have a pile of items you never use - pass them on to someone who will.

If your knives are not sharp - do something about it.

Pots and pans
Decide which ones you use the most.  Put them where you can easily reach them.  The roaster you only use once or twice a year?  Put it in the basement, the apartment storage closet.  You get the idea.  

The cupboard
Go through the boxes, cans, jars and bags.  Are you EVER going to use the can of fermented lettuce you picked up when you visited Chinatown in Chicago? No.  The answer is no.  Toss it.  Grieve.  Move on.
Once you have tossed all the old stuff or the stuff you are truly never going to eat, then do a little organizing.  Plan some meals to use up what you have.  Stumped?  Go on Featherstone's Facebook page. Ask for help.  "What can I  cook with x, y and z?" See what happens.  I promise to help.

Herbs and spices
Take an inventory.  If something is really old and has lost most of its flavor, out it goes.  Make a list.  Go to your favorite co-op and restock the basic herbs and spices that you think you need.  You don't want to be making chili and find out that you are out of chili powder and cumin.  Make sure you have some bay leaves around - I use them all the time in soup stock. 
Don't forget dry mustard powder - also a staple in my house. 

I hope you have fun with this project.  Let me know how it goes.  Maybe we should have an annual exchange of cooking tools and utensils and appliances for Featherstone Farm members?  Help useful things find a good home and encourage us to keep our kitchens lean and mean.  Do you think that is a good idea?

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Inspiration - Winter Week #5

In this week's box:  Butternut squash, red cabbage, yellow potato, carrots, black Spanish radish, Beauty Heart radish, beets, garlic (final week)

I hope you all had a joyous holiday season and that you enjoyed cooking and eating beautiful vegetables with any special meals you may have shared with friends and family.

I have been traveling since Dec. 23 and now am in Atlanta visiting my son and his family.  I'm going to cook out of their CSA box tomorrow -- but I can still write about YOUR Featherstone CSA box, thanks to Margaret Marshall telling me what you are getting. 

Before I talk about recipes - I would like to tell you about a book I just started reading.  It is called The Lost Art of Real Cooking - Rediscovering the Pleasures of Traditional Food One Recipe at a Time, by Ken Albala and Rosanna Nafziger.  This is a humble little book - only 233 pages including the index.  No color pictures and just a few line drawings.  It was published by the Penguin Group in 2010.

I like this book because it extols the virtues of cooking real food at home, from scratch.  The authors make the case that convenience and speed are overrated and admit to being "obstinately old-fashioned".  These folks are singing my song.  A brief excerpt:
"Cooking slowly with patience is inherently entertaining, and the food it yields tastes better, costs less, and connects you with the people you feed in a way that a prefabricated meal can never hope to do.  There is, it cannot be denied, unspeakable pleasure in providing sustenance for others with the labor of one's own hands."  Food for thought.

Speaking of unspeakable pleasure,  let's talk about the vegetables in your box.  This week I am focusing especially on salad ideas - since January is a time when local and seasonal eaters can be challenged to think of alternatives to the omnipresent green "tossed salad".   I hope these recipes get you started on developing your own winter salad favorites. 

Butternut Squash
On my trip I have seen butternut squash being used in salads on many menus. This is what I have come up with:

Squash salad
Peel, seed and dice (1/2 to 1 inch pieces) butternut squash and steam or boil until just barely tender - you don't want the squash to fall apart.  
Ingredients (about six servings)
(Note  - you can vary amounts according to your own taste.  If you want to add a cup or two of cooked beans - garbanzos or cannelini or even black beans would be nice - this would be a full meal.)
3 cups cooked, diced squash
2 cups cooked barley
1/2 cup toasted walnuts
1/2 cup chopped onion (red?) or shallots
1 cup raw winter radishes or carrots - cut into matchsticks - for crunch
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
Your favorite vinaigrette - I think making it with some fresh orange juice would be nice.  A little honey or maple syrup would complement the sweetness in the squash.

Red Cabbage
I am getting to be a big fan of raw red cabbage.  Again, in winter when salad greens are scarce, it is nice to have alternatives for raw and crunchy foods.  
I love the Vietnamese salads that combine rice noodles, various raw or pickled vegetables and herbs and some kind of protein.  This recipe is my invention - let's call it 
Russian salad (with a nod to Vietnamese noodle salad)
Soba (Buckwheat) noodles - cooked and drained - about 3 ounces per serving (You could also substitute cooked buckwheat groats)
Thinly sliced red cabbage - about 1 cup per serving
Grated or julienned winter radish - about 1/3 cup per serving
Grated raw carrot - about 1/3 cup per serving
A few sliced cooked beets (pickled would be nice)
Dressing(this should be enough for at least 4 servings):  
1/2 c. sunflower oil
1/4 cup cider vinegar
2 T. sugar or honey
season to taste: salt, pepper, red pepper flakes, dill weed, maybe a little grated horseradish root or prepared whole grain mustard
Protein - sliced roast pork or beef or marinated or sauteed tofu or a few canned sardines or salmon or a few slices of cooked sausage such as summer sausage or polish sausage.
Assembly - for each individual serving:
place soba noodles (room temp or a little warm) in a large bowl.  Arrange on top the sliced and grated vegetables in an attractive fashion.  Garnish with a dollop of sour cream or creme fraiche and a spoonful of toasted sunflower seeds.  Serve dressing on the side.

Yellow Potato
Don't forget about potato soup.  In the winter we eat it at our house at least once a week.  You can add greens, some carrots or some frozen or canned corn.  Use it a base for seafood chowder or for a hearty stew with sausage and kale or other greens.  Or keep it simple - just onion, potato, water, salt and pepper and a little milk and butter at the end.  Maybe some chopped fresh parsley.  
Or make potato salad - which is not just for summer picnics.

Winter potato salad - about 4 servings

Boil one pound potatoes until just tender.  Cool slightly, peel and cut into cubes.  Sprinkle about 1/4 cup white wine vinegar on the potatoes and let it soak in.
Thinly slice some onion or shallot - about 1/4 cup.  Thinly slice about 1 cup raw fennel or celery or radish or a combination.  Mix with potatoes.  Add some chopped dill pickle or hard boiled egg if desired. 
Dress with a mustardy vinaigrette.  Good served at room temperature with sliced cold meats, some rye bread and beer or ale.

Winter Radishes 
Don't forget that you can just peel and thinly slice winter radishes and eat them in sandwiches with your favorite fillings. 

Or you can get more ambitious. I ate at a popular and trendy restaurant in Durham, North Carolina a few days ago.  I ordered  flounder with radishes because I am working on de-mystifying the winter radish.  (The fresh flounder was a great treat.  Especially because I knew it was caught sustainably.)

So -- here is how they did it at the Piedmont Restaurant:  Filet of flounder floured and fried so it was just lightly crispy and hot.  This was served atop the raw radish salad so as to gently warm and wilt the salad.  The salad was simple - very thinly sliced daikon radish mixed with thinly sliced celery and red onion.  The radish had been marinated in a little cider vinegar, sugar and salt so it was slightly pickled tasting.  That was it.  The contrast between the tart radish and the buttery fried fish was lovely.  You could do this at home with walleye or other fish.

Here is a link to the current regular menu for Piedmont.  Note the absence of tomatoes, cucumbers, green pepper, eggplant, corn etc.  Note the presence of turnip, kale, radish, mustard greens, leek, cabbage, beets and pickled vegetables.  More evidence - neither home cooks or restaurants need to depend on California and South America to eat or serve vegetables year round - in North Carolina or in Minnesota.

Beets and Carrots

So I need to know - are you having trouble using up beets or carrots?   If you still have an excess of carrots - dice them and roast up a bunch - they are great to eat just as a snack by the handful.  Or boil and puree with the cooking water.  Freeze and use later in a cream of carrot soup.
As for beets, if all else fails just pickle them.  They complement many winter dishes.  They make a nice side dish with mac and cheese.  Or eat on a hamburger instead of lettuce and tomato.  Here's how to pickle beets: