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:

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

You Put the Lime in the Coconut (really)

Another lovely Food Project CSA pickup yesterday afternoon. This week, there were bins overflowing with dark green spinach, and fragrant new cilantro in the fields, just next to the sugar snap peas that my 4 year old happily picked, tasted, and immediately rejected as being "too green." Oh, well.

This gives me the opportunity to make one of my favorite cold summer soups, based on a recipe from raw food guru Dr. Ritamarie Loscalzo. It does require me to stray a bit from my loyalty to locally available produce, but seeing as I'm not ever going to be willing to give up avocado or coconut, I'll live with the guilt. This is really refreshing when it's hot, and you can adjust the spice to your own taste. All of the measurements are pretty forgiving, so if there's something you don't like here, leave it out; if there's something you love, double it.

This is part of a series of wonderful blended soups and smoothies that I've discovered in the past few months in a journey through the world of raw food diets (which I've dabbled in but haven't fully embraced - more about that later). You don't have to be a raw foodist to like this recipe, though. If you really don't want to be a raw foodist, leave most of the water out of the soup, add more avocado, and serve it as a sauce over grilled flank steak.

Spicy Lime-Avocado-Coconut Soup

2-3 handfuls spinach leaves
1-2 handfuls fresh cilantro
1/2 large or 1 small avocado
3 tablespoons young coconut meat (or cream of coconut)
juice of 2 limes
1/2 red or yellow bell pepper, or 1 poblano pepper, roughly chopped
1/2 small jalapeno pepper, seeds removed (or, if you're brave, use something hotter like a Thai chile, Habanero or Scotch Bonnet)
1-3 cloves garlic
coarse salt to taste

Place all of the ingredients in a blender with about 1/2 cup water and puree until smooth, adding water as necessary to adjust the consistency.

As an added bonus, when you make the soup, you can annoy your friends and family by singing or playing Harry Nilsson's "Coconut" or, for a really special occasion, you can drag out the Muppets version.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Butter You Than Me

Grilled new potatoes with compound butter and chive blossoms

I have two young children. From time to time, they have, let's say, a little bit of surplus energy. There are days when it seems I'm on a neverending quest to find outlets for this energy, but every so often I find something that works beautifully, and making butter has always been one of those things. If you haven't tried this with your kids, you should. It's especially fun if they've been reading Little House on the Prairie, because they'll get a chance to feel industrious and self-sufficient like pioneer children, but you'll be saved the trouble and effort of some of Ma Ingalls' more bothersome homemaking tasks such as skinning a whole hog.

Little kids like projects. When the projects are messy and also potentially dangerous, their appeal increases dramatically, so I work to emphasize those aspects of butter making. It's really very simple, and you get tangible results fast. I start by putting some nice heavy cream in a glass jar (there's the potential danger) with a plastic top, then tell the kids to start shaking (there's the potential mess). If weather permits, we do this outside, just in case.

When the teachers at our preschool first suggested this activity, I thought we'd be watching little hands* shake jars forever, but it really takes only a few minutes to start seeing results. After some vigorous shaking (with help from an adult every now and then), we see lovely whipped cream:

And then, if you keep going, there's a stunning moment when everything changes. We do this all the time, but it never fails to surprise my kids when, while shaking and shaking and shaking, they suddenly hear a splash as the butter separates from the buttermilk.

At this point, don't shake too much more, or your butter will become hard and nasty. Just agitate a bit longer to finish separating, then strain out the buttermilk and put the solid butter in a bowl. You may have to take over here and "work" the butter a little bit more to get the last bits of water out. This is when you can add some good coarse salt and move on to making a compound butter, which is simply butter with some chopped herbs or other flavoring added. I used our lovely CSA chives for this one, but almost any fresh herb will work beautifully.

Compound butters can be frozen, tightly wrapped in wax paper. This stuff is terrific on potatoes, corn, good bread, grilled fish...almost anything. I like to make cinnamon/nutmeg butter for breakfast.

If you feel like living on the edge a bit, you can make cultured butter, which has a slightly tangy taste and a nice rich texture, and, according to people who think about such things, is full of beneficial probiotics and antioxidants. There are two ways to do this:

- Milk a cow, chill the raw milk, skim off the cream and then let it sit out at room temperature for about 12 hours, or until it starts to smell sour, then proceed.
- Get yourself some culture starter (I like Body Ecology) and follow the instructions on the package insert, which basically just involve mixing the starter into organic cream before agitating.

As we don't have a cow and it's quite difficult to find raw milk, I go with method #2. If you haven't tried cultured butter, I recommend it. The culture starter also makes great creme fraiche.

* If, after seeing this photograph, you'd like to engage my services as a manicurist, please email me. You'll need to spend a few days using Playdoh and digging in a sandbox to get the edgy weathered look on your nails, but I can mix colors with the best of them.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009


This is the lettuce I brought home yesterday after our first CSA pickup from The Food Project in Lincoln, MA. I love everything about this organization. The food is just gorgeous - hence the beginnings of my summer obsession with photographing vegetables in strange and intimate ways, which befuddles my children. But look at the color! The Food Project's philosophy, which values sustainable agriculture, community development, and educating young people, is so completely wonderful that it's sort of hard to believe. All that and garlic scapes, too...

Yesterday's share was small, but with such promise of summer: lettuce, bok choy, radishes, scallions, chive blossoms and mint. The herbs have me thinking about compound butters, but more about that later. The lettuce, in addition to being as beautiful as any flower, was crisp and full of flavor. I grew up thinking that the bland white leaves of iceberg lettuce that sat in our refrigerator for, apparently, weeks without noticeable change were what lettuce was supposed to be. I feel a bit weepy when I think about BLTs made with dessicated bacon, iceberg lettuce, spongy white bread, mealy tomatoes (that had been refrigerated - shudder) and Miracle Whip. Fortunately, those childhood experiences didn't leave me permanently scarred, and I was willing to give lettuce another try later in life.

When I've reached my limit on BLTs and salads, I turn to the lettuce wrap to renew my faith in this leafy green. I like to use big lettuce leaves as containers for what might otherwise build a really great sandwich (and I get to feel self-righteous about it, too, for abstaining from bread). My favorite lettuce wrap fillings:

- a mixture of browned ground pork and ground turkey or veal (in equal proportions), seasoned with sauteed chopped onion, soy sauce and oyster sauce (about 1-2 T of each sauce per pound of meat)
- avocado, cucumber and very thinly sliced seared tuna or raw sushi grade tuna, with just a splash of hot sauce or wasabi
- rice noodles (mai fun), mung bean sprouts, cucumber and mint leaves, with Pungent Dipping Sauce (see recipe below)
- any mix of julienned raw vegetables and sprouts with ginger-miso salad dressing
- very thinly sliced fennel, a bit of grated ginger, turkey breast and beets

Needless to say, the possibilites for lettuce wraps are endless.

Pungent Dipping Sauce

I love this sauce and will happily find just about any excuse to eat it. You can dip carrots, jicama or radishes in it and slurp away, but it's really best with some sort of Asian spring or summer roll.
  • 2 T fish sauce
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 2 T fresh lime juice
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 T cane sugar or white sugar
  • dried red pepper flakes, to taste
In a small sauce pan over medium-low heat, mix the fish sauce, water, lime juice and sugar, stirring, until the sugar is dissolved. Add the garlic and continue to heat, stirring, for about 1 minute. Add the red pepper flakes and remove from heat. Allow the sauce to cool to room temperature before serving with lettuce wraps, spring rolls, or over grilled meats. The sauce will keep, covered and refrigerated, for about a week.

Monday, June 1, 2009

What Hope Looks Like


This impending strawberry is a big deal for me, because I planted it. And the plant is alive, and growing, and even bearing fruit. If you know me well, you realize that this is a significant turn of events, because - well, let's just say I'm not the most adept gardener. I aspire to be. I look at photos of beautiful vegetable gardens, and admire my friend's new raised bed full of seedlings and optimism, and think how lovely it would be to fill my back yard with such abundance. And then...something goes wrong. I don't know what it is, but I've never really been able to nurture plants.

But this year, I'm determined to make it work. My older daughter is deeply interested in the life cycle of plants, and I feel it's my obligation as a parent to help her see it through. Mindful of my bleak past in the garden, I decided to try something a bit different and invested in a couple of Earthboxes. Earthbox enthusiasts claim that these things are virtually foolproof, and they do seem to be a terrific solution for those of us who have neither the space nor the gardening acumen to cultivate traditional gardens. It's simple: you fill a large plastic container with soil, then layer in dolomite and a little "trench" of fertilizer, top with soil, insert your plants, and protect the top with another plastic cover. The bottom of the container holds a reservoir of water, and the plants can absorb this water from the bottom up (which is apparently the way they prefer to do things). Once everything is planted, you just fill the reservoir through a little tube on the side; excess water drains out an overflow hole at the bottom of the container, so that even I won't be able to drown the plants.

We'll see. I have two Earthboxes on our back deck, one with strawberries and one with little bell pepper plants. And I have lots of hope.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Pop over some time.

Rainy morning breakfast. :)

My kids love popovers. They're simple, they're fun, and you can fill them with ridiculous quantities of jam before your parents notice that you're doing it.

My family rediscovered popovers during a summer visit to our favorite, place, Acadia National Park in Maine. The Jordan Pond House, which is on a lovely lakefront spot inside the Park, has been serving afternoon tea for about 100 years, so you can sit and partake of refreshments there and imagine yourself among the Rockefellers. The popovers and strawberry jam are very nice, though the rest of the menu is unspectacular. It's really more about the setting than anything else. It's especially not about the restaurant itself, which began its days as a lovely grand structure with hulking fireplaces and porches all around. A fire destroyed it in 1979, which was spectacularly bad timing, because it meant that the redesign happened in the early 80s - not really a high point for American architecture. It's not ugly, exactly, just not quite what you imagine as you wander around the park and see the imposing stone bridges and gatehouses built by John D. Rockefeller.

Jordan Pond House used to look like this:

And now:

Oh, well. The park is still gorgeous and popovers are still worth eating. If you go there, just sit out on the lawn and face the water, where troublesome views of the building won't distract you. Perhaps you can recreate the 19th century experience for yourself by wearing a large hat and uncomfortably constricting undergarments.

Or you can just make popovers at home. The process is great for work with kids because there are so few ingredients and it's so quick; my kids just take turns pouring things into the blender and then peeking through the oven window. You'll need:

1 cup whole milk
2 eggs
1 cup all purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 T butter, melted and cooled, plus more for preparing the pan

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Lightly brush the cups of a popover pan with melted butter. Mix all the ingredients in a blender for 30 seconds, then pour into your prepared pan (the cups should be no more than 1/2 full). Bake for about 20 minutes in a convection oven, 30-40 minutes in a regular oven. The popovers are done when they've puffed and turned a deep golden brown.

As my favorite guy Alton Brown points out, the popovers puff because of steam created inside, so once you remove them from the oven, it's wise to make a tiny cut in the top of each one to prevent disappointing sogginess.

I like mine with tons of butter. My kids prefer, as I've mentioned, to use popovers as an excuse to eat a full half pint of jam in one sitting. They're also very nice filled with chicken salad. Give it a try.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Pickled Pink: Rhubarb

There's certainly never a dull moment with rhubarb. Consider these fun facts:

- The leaves of the Rheum Rhebarbarum plant are potentially toxic, but the beautiful red stalks are edible (ooh - danger! intrigue! flirting with death while eating a vegetable!).*

- Legendary Brooklyn Dodgers broadcaster Red Barber used to say that players were "havin' a rhubarb" when fights broke out on the field. Not only did the phrase become one of his trademark expressions, but it stuck so well that Ebbets Field was often called the "Rhubarb Patch."

- When film and stage directors need to create a scene with a crowd stirring in the background, extras are often told to shout the word "rhubarb" repeatedly, thus evoking a sense of hubbub and general excitement.

As if that varied and colorful background weren't enough, rhubarb can also make lovely pies, compotes and even wine. My father loved rhubarb cobbler, and my husband considers the first fresh strawberry rhubarb pie a more critical harbinger of summer than Memorial Day. All that's fine, but yesterday I decided to take rhubarb in a different direction, and pickled it.

Well. Why on earth did I wait so long to consider this application? These rhubarb pickles are tender and tangy, with a nice spicy kick at the finish. I think they'll be fabulous with simple grilled meats. I'd also consider using pickled rhubarb to top a baked sweet potato or a green salad with some cheese. It's quite simple to make:

Pickled Rhubarb

4-5 large fresh rhubarb stalks, chopped
2 cups apple cider vinegar
1 cup white sugar (I prefer cane sugar)
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1-2 T kosher salt
a pinch of dried cloves
a small (1-2 inch) piece of fresh ginger, thinly sliced
1-4 small dried peppers such as jalapeno or habanero

Combine the vinegar, sugars, salt, cloves and peppers in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil, and stir until sugars dissolve. Remove from heat and let the mixture cool for about 5-10 minutes. Place the rhubarb pieces in a large glass jar, and pour the hot liquid over them. Let cool for 30 minutes, then refrigerate for 24 hours before serving to allow the flavors to mellow. The pickles will keep, refrigerated, for 4-5 days.

A note on the dried peppers: I used two small dried habanero peppers, and the resulting pickles were pretty hot - not blisteringly, tongue-numbingly hot, but hot. Jalapenos would make a milder pickle, and if you really don't want much heat you could omit the peppers altogether or use 1/4 tsp of red pepper flakes for brightness without strong heat. The ginger also spices it up a bit, and next time I make these I'm going to use twice as much, I think, to make the flavor a little more complex.

*OK, so you'd have to eat pounds and pounds of bitter rhubarb leaves before you suffered any significant consequences, but it's more fun to say the plant is really dangerous.

Saturday, May 23, 2009


More fresh spring radishes today. This one just cried out for a little transformation.

I also used the radish greens in my all purpose Good for You Green Soup. I've been used to tossing them into the compost and dismissing them as nasty, bitter and generally inedible, and for that I repent. The soup made with these greens had a bit of watercress flavor - it's certainly worth a try.

Good For You Green Soup is one of my favorite versatile comfort foods, easy to make and pretty reliable, and, if you don't indulge in the last minute splash of dairy, actually pretty low in calories. The base is nice and simple, and almost any spring vegetables work as accents. I've made it with asparagus, radish greens, spinach and kale. The soup is forgiving because you really don't need to measure ingredients - just toss in a handful or two of what you like. Mix the greens (spinach and asparagus are nice together). Leave out the leeks if you don't want to be bothered with them.

For 2-4 servings, you will need:

6 or 7 new potatoes, peeled and diced
Chicken or vegetable stock (about 2 cups)
Salt to taste
1 sprig of fresh herbs such as thyme, marjoram, oregano (or about 1 tsp dried - use what you like, and use more if you like the flavor)
1 medium shallot, sliced
1-2 cloves garlic, sliced
1-2 leeks (white and pale green parts only), finely chopped
Any of these spring greens: 8-10 asparagus spears, woody ends removed; 1-2 large handfuls of radish greens, spinach, watercress or kale (if using kale, remove the leafy green parts from the ribs and chop)

Put the potatoes, stock, salt and herbs in a saucepan over high heat and bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat and simmer until the potatoes are tender, 6-8 minutes. Meanwhile, heat the butter or oil in a small skillet and gently saute the leeks about 1 minute, then set aside. If you're using radish greens, add them to the skillet, stir a bit and cook over low heat, covered, until the greens have wilted, about 5-8 minutes.

When the potatoes are soft, add the leeks and asparagus or greens to the saucepan and simmer, covered, about 5 more minutes (if using asparagus, cook until it can be easily pierced with the tip of a paring knife). Allow the soup to cool a bit, and then puree (I use a stick blender, but you could cool this more and puree in a regular blender, too).

You can serve the soup hot or at room temperature. If you'd like, heat in a saucepan before serving, and stir in a splash of cream, stirring until heated through. The potatoes will make the soup thick and creamy enough, but adding dairy at the end does give it a nice velvety texture. Then top with fresh ground pepper, crumbled bacon, or chives.

A final radish note: after feeling very pleased with myself for creating the delightful radish art pictured up top, I learned about La Noche de Rabanos, a Mexican Christmas festival that celebrates local agriculture in Oaxaca. Let's just say the carving gets a little more elaborate than mine.

Thursday, May 21, 2009


This is what came home with me last week. My daughter and I drove past Verrill Farm in Concord, MA, and I was completely taken in by these gorgeous things out front, all local. Fiddleheads, ramps, radishes, asparagus. Heather, who is 4, is highly suspicious of all vegetables (we're working on that), but even she had to admit that those radishes were beautiful. She asked me if they would taste like their colors, and for a moment I was tempted to say yes, but I know that a 4 year old expects bright pink to taste...well, nothing like a radish tastes. They were bitter and crisp and peppery and I ate all of them in one fell swoop. Sliced, on really great crusty bread with really good rich butter and some salt. If you're wondering what one does with the rest of that stuff, especially the fiddleheads - just blanch them, saute them in olive oil for a few minutes, and eat. I did the same thing with the asparagus, chopped up the ramps and added them to the saute pan, and that, with what was left of the good bread, was dinner. I'm telling you, I don't do recipes if I can avoid it. I figure that food that grows in more or less the same place and is ready to harvest at more or less the same time can all be eaten together and will taste good.

And it did. It tasted like spring.

And so it begins...

I love food. I love to look at it, cook it, read about it, learn about get the idea. From time to time I'm struck by the fact that this is all an unimaginable luxury. And that's when I find myself wanting to talk about food the most - to share that deliberate appreciation, even if it borders on the ridiculous, with other people.

So here we go. I want mostly to write about what I think of as "real" food - beautiful, delicious things that come straight from the earth, or a fabulous combination of those things. Things that don't come from boxes or bags or machines. There's so much available for us to eat that I think we often lose sight of what real food is. And yes, I know you've read enough about whole food and local organic produce and sustainable agriculture and celebrity chefs...that's not really what I want to write about. I just want to write about food that I love, food that I think looks beautiful and tastes wonderful and just happens to be good for us at the same time. And let me say for the record that, while I'm admittedly a bit of a food snob, I don't think that all processed food is evil. I just don't really want to look at pictures of it or talk about it. You may give in to a craving from time to time, but I'm certain that you've never looked at a fast food hamburger, squashed and soggy after sitting in its wrapper, and thought it was beautiful.

I hope you'll join me and celebrate with me. Thanks.