Saturday, September 5, 2009


Our Food Project CSA includes a fruit share in the fall. The first week's share included gorgeous Paula Red apples, which look like Macs, but have a slightly firmer texture and a slightly less sweet taste. Perfect, in other words, for the season's first applesauce.

Homemade applesauce is one of those things that sounds like it's going to be a lot of trouble, and then once you've done it, you realize two very important things:

1) It's really easy to make; and

2) It's almost impossible to screw it up.

All you need to do is wash, core and cut up the apples, toss them into a big pot over medium-high heat, add a splash of lemon juice, a sprinkle of sugar, and perhaps a bit of water, and then let them get mushy. I don't peel the apples, because I like a pinkish tint to my applesauce, and also because I'm really pretty lazy. If you want yellow applesauce, you'll have to be industrious and get to peeling. You go ahead and have fun with that; I, for one, just can't be bothered.*

Here are my lovely little Paula Reds, on their way to becoming applesauce. These are small apples, and so I cut most of them in half, quartering a few of the larger ones. I'm telling you, it's quick business.

After you've got everything into the pot, pop in some freshly squeezed lemon juice (half a lemon's worth ought to do it). As for the sugar, I like to be stingy with it, because I want my applesauce to taste like apples. I put in maybe a teaspoon to a tablespoon of sugar for every 8-12 apples, none at all if the apples are sweet enough to begin with. I've seen recipes that suggest up to 1/2 cup of sugar *faint*, so play with it and see what you like. I also sometimes add a cinnamon stick or two at this point, but I think that does more for fragrance than for flavor. Then heat the fruit for 20-30 minutes, until it's nice and soft.

At this point, you can just mash everything with a potato masher for nice chunky sauce, but then you've got to fish the peels out with a fork, and that's too much trouble for me. I put it all through a food mill. Once the apples are smushed, however it's done, I like to add a teaspoon of vanilla, a sprinkle of cinnamon, and (ssh) a generous pat of butter, and stir everything in while it's still warm.

After that, you can just go ahead and continue to dump cinnamon in there to your heart's content. See? Wasn't that easy?

Homemade applesauce freezes nicely, if you can get to that point. Ours usually doesn't hang around long enough to make it to the freezer. I've tried making applesauce and canning it, but haven't come up with anything that withstands the additional heating time in the canner well enough for me to prefer it to freezing.

*If you have one of these fun apple corer/peeler/slicer gizmos, go for it. My kids love to use ours, but I usually save that for apple pie projects.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

I Know, Everyone's Doing It, But...

OK, I caved. After seeing Julie and Julia a couple of weeks ago, I kept pulling out my Child cookbooks and thinking about diving in. I opened Baking with Julia and made some nice buttermilk muffins, but I really couldn't summon the courage to face anything from Mastering the Art of French Cooking - it all just seems too much, especially on a warm summer evening. And of course everyone else is doing the Julia thing now, which makes it seem silly and redundant for me to chime with one more voice in praise of Mrs. Child., I returned home from our CSA pickup laden with fresh eggplants, zucchini, onions, parsley and plum tomatoes. Shortly thereafter, I found this in my garden (OK, not really a garden - in one of my Earthboxes on the deck):

This pepper is particularly beautiful to me because I've not had much success growing my own food. I've managed a few feeble herbs from time to time, and I had one summer of successful cherry tomatoes (successful in that the plants produced nicely, but I can't say much about their taste, because our dog harvested most of them), but that's about it. The Earthbox thing seems almost too good to be true, especially for someone like me.

At any rate, faced with this particular combination of vegetables, I felt I really had no choice. So I dragged out a splattered copy of Julia Child's recipe for Ratatouille (yep, the old complicated one from Mastering) and braced myself.

I made a huge mess, and used too many pots and pans and dishes and spent far too much time peeling tomatoes and measuring zucchini slices and thinking this surely wasn't worth the trouble - which is what I think every time I try a Julia Child recipe. And then I tasted it. Damn. This ratatouille is one of the best things ever produced in my kitchen.

The only real issue I have with the recipe is that it allegedly serves 6-8 people, and I could quite easily have eaten the entire casserole. That's 6-8 French people, who have a much more reasonable attitude about food and who sit and savor their meals and eat small portions of fabulous things. A nice way to go about it, if you have the time.

Oh...what about yesterday's angst and resolve to work to fight hunger, not to wax poetic about food, you ask? Don't worry, I'm still feeling guilty and still determined to do something worthwhile. But sometimes food just tastes really good, and you can't fight it.

Monday, August 31, 2009

What Does "Real" Mean, Anyway?

So. I'm feeling silly and self-indulgent today. I had a recent conversation with someone who pretty well lambasted me for my "foodie" tendencies. She pointed out, correctly I might add, that waxing poetic about gorgeous vegetables and pristine local farms and perfect olive oils is a luxury reserved for people who have both the time and the money to think lovingly about their food.

I know.

If I had six children instead of two, and if I lived in the rural midwest instead of suburban Boston, I might not be able to feel good about feeding my children lovely organic macaroni and cheese without artificial colors or disturbing additives. I would be thinking instead about how best to afford a meal for eight people, and store brand mac n cheese for 89 cents a box would win over the purple bunny box that costs twice as much. If I had to work full time and worry about a long commute and juggling child care, I wouldn't have time to stop at three different stores or farm stands or little markets to put together the perfect assemblage of fresh and nutritious produce.

I don't take this lightly. I recognize that I am fortunate to be able to find really good food for my family, and to spend a lot of time thinking about it and preparing it. It worries me deeply that there are millions of people in the United States who can't feed their kids at all, let alone feed them well (studies I've read in the past year estimate that more than 35 million Americans live in households that are "food insecure"). I have friends and relatives who live in places where lots of people are overweight, or really sick, in large part because their food choices are limited to heavily processed foods with little nutritional value and meats and vegetables produced under pretty grim, unsanitary conditions. It's disturbing, and ridiculous, and very sad.

And here I sit, faced with a kitchen full of gorgeous heirloom tomatoes and European butter and humanely raised, grass-fed beef, all of which is quite well and good, but at the moment seems overindulgent. Perhaps I should take half the money we spend on food and donate it to an organization dedicated to fighting hunger. Perhaps I should take half the time I spend cooking and thinking about food and writing about food and use it to DO something to help bring decent food to people who need it. Perhaps I should work a little harder on learning about the Child Nutrition Act, which is up for renewal in Congress this month, instead of worrying so much whether my kids' snacks are lovely and plentiful.

All this soul searching appears to be fortuitously timed. September, as it turns out, is Hunger Action Month in the U.S., and while feeling guilty and browsing around the web this morning I came across this calendar on the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts site. It's titled "30 Ways in 30 Days," and it suggests daily tasks directed towards fighting hunger. I'm going to sit down with my kids this afternoon and look at it and make some plans.

The title of my blog seems particularly ironic in light of all this. I realize that perhaps I haven't been writing about "real" food or the "real" world, so much. I've been writing about beautiful food that makes me happy, and about my appreciation for the art of cooking and fine food, which has its place in the world and its own value. But it seems disingenuous to call all that "real" while so many children haven't eaten breakfast this morning.

Deep breath. Guilt seems indulgent, too, without action. So I'll print the 30 ways calendar and plan a family meeting and see if we can't turn this information into some sort of back-to-school project. I encourage you to think about hunger, too, and try to do something.

Friday, August 21, 2009

It's Easy Being Green (if you're salsa)

It's been too long since I've written here. I spent a while during mid-summer feeling sort of down on food, after reading David Kessler's The End of Overeating and many articles on the bleak realities of American agriculture. The idea that we're making ourselves sick with so much of what we call "food" disturbs me deeply, and for a time I just couldn't bring myself to think about frivolous foodie joy.

I feel better now, though, because it's really hard to be down on food in August. Perfect sweet corn, gorgeous bumpy stripy green, purple and orange heirloom tomatoes, all the basil you'd ever want and then's just too good.

And yesterday, my CSA pickup included a quart of tomatillos, which means I can make salsa. I've got these beautiful green treasures roasting on the grill right now, along with some poblanos, a banana pepper, onions and garlic. I'm loosely following Rick Bayless' recipe for Roasted Tomatillo Salsa, without really measuring anything. I'll freeze some of the salsa, and it will be wonderful in January - bright and piquant and reminiscent of a day like today, 90 degrees and muggy and blindingly sunny (all of which will seem so appealing when I'm wiping slushy frozen mud off my shoes).

Friday, June 26, 2009

When Pigs Fly

I have two transgressions to confess, so I may as well just get right to it.

First: it's Friday morning, and my family has just finished a hearty and nutritious breakfast of strawberry rhubarb pie. We don't eat like this on a regular basis, but my seven year old was once so happy with the pie-for-breakfast surprise that she was prompted to declare me the Best Mother Ever. Which is pretty good coming from the child who says just as often that I have ruined her WHOLE LIFE (I live in fear of what the teenage years will bring).

Second: the pie was so good because there was (shh) lard in the crust*.

I've been afraid to admit for a while that I prefer lard-based pie crusts. It's as if I can feel the judgment of the masses if I even say the word. I hear the scathing whispers of imaginary Food Police: saturated fat! Cholesterol! PIGS! And I admit that it took me a long time to decide I could brave using lard. After all, the name isn't exactly appetizing. The nutritional consequences seem daunting. And then there's my occasional aversion to animal products, which I've talked about here.

But lard, as many of us now know, has been getting a bad rap. Here's the deal: yes, lard is full of saturated fat, which is really not great for your heart, but it has less saturated fat than butter does (39% as opposed to 51% for butter). It's also significantly higher in monounsaturated fat than butter (this is the one that helps lower LDL, or "bad" cholesterol, and some of the foods that we're often encouraged to use such as olive oil and avocados, are full of monounsaturated fats). And it's certainly a winner over vegetable based shortenings that are full of hydrogenated oils, which contain the evil trans fats that you've no doubt read about until your head spins.

The upshot of all this is that lard certainly isn't good for you, but it's a heck of a lot less bad for you than some of the alternatives. And it makes REALLY good pie crusts, that are flaky and tender and lovely. Now - having said this, I won't try to use nasty supermarket lard any more. I've tried it, and it can give a pie crust a funky "off" flavor that's disturbingly reminiscent of, well, pigs. Those highly processed mass produced lards are hydrogenated, too, so they're back in the bad-for-you camp. And then of course there's the matter of factory farming rearing its all too familiar and ugly head; I feel a little sick when I imagine the conditions on the farms and in the slaughterhouses where that lard originates.

All is not lost, however, because of people like Mike and Jen at Flying Pigs Farm. These are farmers like the people who run Chestnut Farms, my meat CSA source. They raise a small number of very healthy animals in a way that gives us reluctant carnivores some serious comfort. Flying Pigs Farm raises heritage breeds, which means both better tasting meats and the preservation of some kinds of pigs that might otherwise become extinct. The farm's website talks about their commitment to giving their livestock a nutritious diet, plenty of room to move around, and a generally happy life (there's a photo on the site of a pig frolicking in the snow that's really quite endearing). And so I'm back to one of my fundamental beliefs about food: if you're going to eat meat, eat just a little bit of it, eat meat that tastes good, and most importantly, make sure you know where it's coming from. You can purchase leaf lard and other pork products from Flying Pigs Farm on their website. I think I've got gift ideas for my husband covered for quite a while now.

After tasting our breakfast pie made with Flying Pigs lard, I've managed to justify my use of lard and even to feel good about it, even if it's clearly not an every day indulgence. I think we may as well make our treats really good ones, and enjoy a little bit of something wonderful - after all, these are fun foods, not dietary staples. My grandmother, who was a legendary baker, wouldn't have considered making a pie crust without lard. I remember hearing someone question her about it once, asking whether it wouldn't be better to use vegetable shortening instead of all that fatty lard, and she said, "For goodness' sake, it's pie."


* I was a bit reluctant to post a photograph of my pie, because it's really not all that pretty. It tasted good, and the crust was wonderfully flaky, but it was also quite rough around the edges. It is one of my enduring frustrations that I'm apparently unable to produce a beautiful, perfect, country fair showpiece-type of pie crust. I can do lots of other things in the kitchen pretty well, and I've also had some success with other artistic ventures, but attractive pie crusts remain maddeningly outside my reach.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Sneaky Greens

I love June. It's the time when New Englanders can really start to believe that winter might actually be over and that we might be able to eat something fresh and delicious that doesn't come from far away.

Every June, I gorge on local strawberries, because they appear so briefly and are so much better than anything that comes from a plastic supermarket box that it's ridiculous. I can never quite believe that there's something I can eat that looks this gorgeous.

Recently, after an ambitious few days of strawberry picking at The Food Project, in a vacationing friend's garden and at another local farm, I found myself face to face with 12 pounds of strawberries (that's about 400 berries, give or take a few). I ate as many as I could stand. I turned some into this*:

And some, with the addition of rhubarb, into this:

And some more into this:

I know. It's green, not red. It's a smoothie made with fresh strawberries, a banana, and spinach. And it was wonderful. Before you decide I've taken leave of my senses, understand that this smoothie looks not only ordinary, but really quite good, to anyone who eats a raw food diet. While I haven't decided to head straight down that culinary path, I can say that raw foodists have opened up a new world of eating experiences for me, and I'm thrilled about it. I like lots of vegetables, but there are plenty of days when I just can't face a big bowl of leafy greens, no matter how good they are for me. Things like swiss chard and kale, which are among the best greens (the darker the color, the better the nutrients, apparently), have always been a struggle for me. When I started learning about raw foods and found out that there are thousands of people out there who get their greens when they add them by the handful to a blender full of sweet, ripe fruit, I was skeptical, but I have to say it works quite well. Now I'm happy to drink something that looks like a big glass full of blended lawn mower clippings several times a week.

Baby spinach is probably the easiest addition to a fruit smoothie, because its mild, sweet taste doesn't fight back too much against the flavor of the fruit. Once you've got that down, you can try adding kale to a blueberry-orange smoothie, or parsley to blended pears, dates and ginger, or basil to tomato, shallots and garlic...there really are no rules. I've even managed to get my kids to drink a smoothie made with pineapple, banana, coconut and spinach. Sometimes these concoctions are a beautiful shade of bright green, and others, with blueberries or lots of strawberries, are, well, gray. Purplish gray, maybe grurple. Not pretty, but really good. And good for you!

So, today, even though it feels like I should be building an ark instead of venturing outside, I'll probably take my kids to pick more strawberries. Because I have something special arriving in the mail today, and I sense some pies on the horizon. More about that to come...

* If you're ready to make your own jam but are horrified by the amount of sugar most traditional recipes require, check out this article in a recent issue of Eating Well magazine. It has some great information for beginners and a recipe for jam that works nicely with a reasonable 1-2 cups of sugar per batch.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Meet the Meat

I'm confronting some heavy duty stuff these days.

I've been an ambivalent meat eater for a while now. I could very easily adopt a vegetarian diet and be happy and comfortable. In the past few months, as I've learned more and more about raw food and vegan diets, I've tried foods that I might never have considered, and I've developed a real enthusiasm for vegetables. I even like kale. We (mostly me) ate every last bit of our fruit and vegetable farm share last week - every leaf of lettuce, every radish, every snap pea - and loved it all. This is, to my mind, a fabulous thing. The uncertainties of most nutrition science aside, I've never heard or read anything from any purported "expert" accusing Americans of eating too many vegetables. I figure I can't overdo it.

But there's still meat in our house. As part of my search to help our family eat the best food we can find, and to support small local farms as much as possible, I happily enrolled us in the meat CSA program run by Chestnut Farms in Hardwick, MA. I could rave for quite some time about the work that Kim and Rich have done with this farm; their commitment to sustainable agriculture, their local community, and the quality of their animals' lives is amazing. We visited Chestnut Farms' open house last weekend with our kids, and it was almost too good to be true. Beautiful pastures with stone walls and gorgeous old oak trees, happy piglets romping around, chickens with lots of room to strut and find bugs to eat and school buses to keep them safe at night. The animals were clean, had tons of space, and as far as I can tell are living happy lives.

I've heard and read enough from Kim to believe that she's truly committed to taking the best possible care of her livestock. The animals eat the foods that their systems were designed for - the cows graze in the pasture, and aren't forced to choke down corn that wreaks havoc on their digestive systems. The pigs eat grain, not garbage. None of them need the antibiotics and hormones that many commercially raised livestock are given in order to combat all the diseases that come from cramped conditions, unnatural diets, and unsanitary living spaces.

If I'm going to eat meat, I want to know where it comes from. I love the idea of animals being treated well and carefully, and of eating something that's not full of stuff that will ultimately be bad for me. And I want my children to see how animals live on the farm and to understand as much as possible about what eating meat means - including the really quite unpleasant thought that the adorable piglets we saw snuggled together are going to die if we want to eat bacon.

That's part of what's bothering me these days. We Americans all eat too much meat. It's not good for us; it's not good for our planet; it's not good for the animals who provide it. Commercial livestock farming is so resource-intensive that it's far more expensive and damaging to the environment than the nutrition it provides can justify. Anyone who's read any of Michael Pollan's recent work has heard all about it (and if you haven't read The Omnivore's Dilemma, I highly recommend it). We really ought to be thinking of meat as a condiment instead of as the primary component of our meals. And on top of that, one looks at the adorable piglets, the beautiful sheep and content cows, and I really want those animals to die because I enjoy a good steak now and then?

I find myself thinking hard about whether I want to continue eating meat, but I know it's not viable for the rest of my family to go vegetarian, especially my husband. His smoker and the ribs that come out of it are his pride and joy (justifiably so, I'll say). And my kids, I'll admit, have seen their share of Happy Meals. We have two dogs, who are natural carnivores, and they need to eat meat-based foods to be healthy. What do I do with this situation? How can I help my kids develop healthy eating habits and learn to be good environmental stewards? Telling them that fast food wasn't great for their bodies didn't make much of an impression, but now my kids will tell people, "You shouldn't eat at McDonald's very often because they don't treat their animals well." This insight was inspired by the sight of a large tractor trailer full of pigs driving past us on the highway a few months ago. The animals were crammed in there, and my seven year old noticed that they didn't look very happy. After learning that those pigs were destined for someone's plate, she took the issue of humane livestock management very seriously. So perhaps that's enough for now.

I don't think my family is ready to stop eating meat, though I'd certainly like us to try to eat less of it. In the mean time, I take some small comfort in the knowledge that the meat we eat comes from a place where the farm is run responsibly, and where the animals are allowed to live in ways that make them as happy as possible. After all, if you're a pig, I'm pretty sure this is close to perfect: