love and cooking

In the last few years, I've developed a passion for cooking--for the smells, tastes, colors, textures of food, and for the delight that people can experience eating food that is prepared with love and creativity. There's something both meditative and artistic, I find, in imagining a meal and then bringing it into being.

I think that my love of cooking and my desire to become healthier were the two driving forces that brought me to begin farming, though that journey has taken a couple of years. Earlier on, the idea of buying organic food seemed like a luxury and a hassle at once. My local corner grocery store didn't carry much fresh food, and the vegetables in the produce aisle cohabited with the owners' cat. Trekking into Manhattan took time. I managed to become a pretty decent cook with canned and frozen items, but we ordered in quite a bit, too! Then, a few years ago, a grocery delivery company started delivering in my neighborhood. It was great, for awhile, until I became completely disgusted with the amount of plastic packaging used...Every week, we were throwing out a seemingly endless sea of containers. And while that company offered many freshly prepared foods, they were expensive.

Last summer, I realized that I'd been going to the gym for about a year, given up smoking (again!), and wasn't seeing many changes. I switched to a new trainer, who had me write down everything I ate, every day, and show it to her. This was an invaluable activity--it really made me notice food. I was already eating pretty healthily--yogurt and fruit, veggies and pasta, lean meats and grains and salad--but just writing everything down made me think about my body as a whole complex thing, about the relation to what I took in and what was happening as I strove to build muscle and improve my cardiovascular system. I started thinking about my health differently, about whether I really wanted to take certain things into my body...

When the economy started to crash this past fall, I got hooked on the idea of "recession cooking"--using low cost, healthy, and often out-of-fashion foods and making them as wonderful as possible. Around the same time, it seemed that everyone I knew was reading Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma and other similar books (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver; What to Eat by Marion Nestle; Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlossberg).  And Mark Bittman, whose recipes I've long loved, was writing for the NYTimes in his "Bitten" blog about conscious eating and healthy foods (in early 2009 he published Food Matters: A guide for conscious eating).  So I started experimenting with sweet potatoes (grating them into hash browns with sage, roasting them and then baking them into muffins, steaming them and eating them plain), black eyed peas (great for soup with sausage and greens), cauliflower (amazing roasted, with a little olive oil, curry powder and garlic), and cabbage (tasty when briefly wilted in bacon fat and then baked with yogurt. Tomatoes, long roasted with cinnamon and garlic. Squid, braised with artichokes.  I began searching out recipes on blogs, from The Kitchn; Cheap, Healthy, Good; Food Renegade...the more I read, the more I became interested in and aware about the ethics of food, the problems with "industrial food", and how "pastured" animal products (grass-fed butter, milk and meat) is much healthier for us.

And as I became more attentive to the origin and quality of each ingredient, thinking simultaneously about cost, environmental/pesticidal issues, packaging and waste, and health/nutrition, I found that I wasn't satisfied unless I knew a lot about the food I was using to cook with. I wanted the food I used to meet a number of criteria. I wanted to support local farmers, so my food didn't have to use an airplane or a truck to get to me. I wanted to eat fresh, clean, healthy food that was nutritious to me and didn't harm any of the people who were producing it. I wanted to limit the amount of waste I generated, both by avoiding excess packaging and by using every bit of every bit. These all were related, intertwined.

And the more I thought about these issues, the more convinced I became that the cost--in terms of time shopping, time cooking, and the sometimes higher prices--were all worth it. The meals I cooked, and served to the love of my life, to my friends and family, and to myself--these meals are acts of love and faith. They say, to myself and to the world, that I believe in particular set of social and environmental concerns, that I am acting on and embodying my beliefs to the best of my ability.

I know that I can't always be totally ethically satisfied in my food shopping--sometimes you need to buy a certain thing, and it's out of season and so has to be imported from California or Mexico. And I know that sometimes you need to take a shortcut and have to buy prepared salad dressing rather than make your own. But I also know that once I devoted spending all day Sunday to cooking for the week--making a roast chicken or a stew, making 15 burritos and freezing them, cooking up some greens and some rice to last for the next few days...those Sundays were days filled with love and creativity, meditation and singing. Those were days that I was feeding myself and my wife, caring for us and thinking about the days ahead.

Perhaps it's a bit ironic that my journey deeper into my love of food and the ethics of food production has led me to move to a farm and away from my partner, who is still working in the city. We will see each other on weekends, and I'll come to the city for a "date night" every week. But I don't feel separated from her at all, and I think it's important for me to find a new path, a new profession that can feed me, and us, for the long term. So, for now, I'm learning about farming, about squashing pests by hand, about making yogurt from raw milk, about mulching and compost and mycelium, and about the wider networks of people and organizations interested in food, farming, food politics, and the future. I'll be writing about all of these topics in the weeks to come.

For now, I'll leave you with a taste of my cooking: zucchini fritters, cold curried cucumber soup with minted yogurt, and spicy string beans. All, except the olive oil, from our garden.

Zucchini Fritters--if you've grown zucchini, you might know this already. Apparently it grows in leaps and bounds, and some people get sick of it! So I've been looking up new recipes to keep the Sisters happy about their crop of zucchini, and so far, we've been loving it. I'll write about the raw zucchini "pasta" successes another day....

So, for this dish, I used a recipe from a blog that's new to me: Whipped the Blog. I had to tweak it, because we have two people here who are gluten intolerant. So I used two cups of white beans, which I mashed into a chunky pasty mass, and four eggs, to act as binding agents. And rather than grating the zucchini (because here we typically are cooking for eight people, and I had a lot to do) I just chopped the zucchini into 2"x2" size pieces and then pulsed them in the blender until they were little bitty bits. The key in this recipe is to salt the zucchini bits well, and let them sit for 1/2 hour, then squeeze them well. Zucchini holds a tremendous amount of water, and you need to release that so the fritters hold together.

Take that squeezed zucchini and add to it mint (or dill) and lots of scallions, salt, pepper, and either breadcrumbs or smooshed white beans, and some egg. Then form into patties and fry in a little bit of olive oil. Voila!

As for the cucumber soup with minted yogurt, I got that from a Mark Bittman book that you can see on the web thru GoogleBooks...but it's super easy, and you could make it with many variations. First, take some yogurt and some chopped mint and mix them together, vigorously, for a few minutes...basically, you want to infuse the mint oil into the yogurt. Then remove the mint by straining the yogurt. Refrigerate that until you're ready. Then, take a bunch of peeled cucumbers (though you could use the peels, I suppose!) and pulse them into little bits, remove a third while it's still a bit chunky, and then process the rest til it's smooth. To the cucumbers, add some salt and a couple teaspoons of curry powder and lemon juice (or you could use chili powder and lime juice).  Let rest for two hours, if possible, so that the flavors can blend well.  Then, when it's time to serve, put some of the cucumber stuff in a bowl, then create a little well and put the yogurt in the middle.  Garnish with chopped mint and toasted nuts... Yum!  

The spicy string beans were an attempt at Chinese cooking--they came out great, but I probably will make them a little crunchier in the future, by reducing the simmer time.  I used this recipe here, but we didn't have Hoisin sauce.  That would have made it even better!  

The string beans didn't really "go" with the Mediterranean flavors in the fritters and soup, but I chose them for balance: they added some crunch and some spice to a meal that had a lot of soft, savory, and cool.  Whenever it's possible, I try to create that kind of balance, to engage as many senses and tastes as I can.  I would have preferred green beans to yellow beans, for the extra color, but yellow beans are what we picked that morning, so there you go!  


braised squid delight

image1238407802.jpgYum! Spicy braised squid, over creamy polenta.

1 lb squid, cut into rings (kitchen shears work great!)
2 shallots
8 cloves garlic
2 tbs olive oil
1-2 tsp red chili pepper flakes
1-2 tsp fresh chopped sage or other herb
3 tomatoes, diced
1 cup tomato sauce
1 cup white wine
1 cup fresh fava beans or other veg
1/2 lb shrimp, deveined
Salt pepper
1 Tbs corn starch

In a Dutch oven or large stockpot, sauté shallots in olive oil, then add garlic and chili flakes til aromatic. Add tomatoes and cook down. Add sage. After a minute, add squid and wine and tomato sauce.

Bring to a good strong simmer, then reduce heat and simmer for 45 minutes or until squid are tender. While cooking, prepare polenta and shrimp. Add fava beans for last 20 min. In sauté pan, quickly cook shrimp (tossed with corn starch, salt and pepper) over med high heat (3-4 min). On a bed of polenta, ladle squid and sauce, and top with shrimp and grated Parmesan cheese.

whirling food dervish

March is just about over!  i've spent practically the whole month, outside of work hours, in the kitchen, i think. some of you have asked for recipes (i've been posting pics most every day on facebook), and i thought it was about time to do a little write-up of what's been cooking...

the month started, apropos for the cold weather and the economy, with low-budget comfort food.  

Sweet potatoes!

Sweet potato hash, with garlic and sage butter:  
grate raw sweet potatoes (i didn't peel first), set aside.  In a good size skillet, melt some butter (2 tbs) and add a couple cloves minced garlic and a bunch of minced sage leaves.  Swirl the garlic and the sage in the butter for a 1-2 minutes, to flavor the butter.  Then, add the sweet potatoes, mix the butter in, and cook on medium for about ten minutes, stirring occasionally.  Test sweet potatoes for done-ness.

Then, sweet potato muffins--these are delicious!  The first recipe I used gave only a faint sweet potato flavor, so the second time I used a recipe for sweet potato biscuits--but after I mixed the ingredients, the dough was too wet to roll out into biscuit form, so I just plopped them into a muffin tin.  They were moist and savory!

Adapted from Chow:

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  Combine dry ingredients, set aside.  In separate bowl, combine mashed sweet potato and milk (I used buttermilk--I just add a little bit, 1 tsp perhaps, of lemon juice to milk to make buttermilk).  Then, mix the butter into the flour:  you can grate frozen butter (which takes forever) or you can just cut the butter you want to use, and then pinch off little tiny bits with floured fingers, and drop the bits into the rest of the flour.  You kind of massage the butter into the flour this way, and distribute it evenly.   Then add the liquid ingredients to the flour/butter combo, and mix lightly until "it forms a shaggy mass."  LOL  You're supposed to be able to turn out the dough onto a floured surface and roll it out and cut out biscuits, but mine was too wet, so I just spooned some into muffin tins.  And baked for 12-14 minutes.



2 c flour (i used 1 c all purpose, and 1 c barley flour)
1 Tbs baking powder
1 Tbs granulated sugar
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/4 tsp baking soda
3/4 c milk (I made buttermilk, see above)
1 c baked, mashed sweet potato
8 Tbs butter, frozen (I used only about 5 Tbs)

I served the biscuits with "Southern-style Black Eyed Peas with Bacon" for a simple dinner party.  This recipe is super easy, and allows you to hang out with your guests while the black-eyed peas braise in the oven.  

The black-eyed pea recipe (link above) was good, but I would probably jazz it up with cumin and dried chile peppers instead of oregano, and use stock instead of water.  It had a good flavor (thanks to the bacon) but it was a little one-note. That's partly my fault:  I also forgot the parsley at the end--when it says "for garnish" it really should say "for flavor" because fresh chopped parsley added at the end really brightens and sharpens a dish.   

 You can get a similar flavor on the stovetop, too, if you want to make a flavorful soup in a shorter amount of time.  Just sautee onions, add some garlic once they soften; then add some sausage (I like organic chicken sausage from Applegate Farms but you could use any kind, as long as it's savory in flavor) and let it cook together and begin to brown a bit.  Then add some beans and water, or chicken stock if you have it, and bring to a boil.  Then simmer for 20 minutes, or longer if you have the time.  Less time makes a yummy soup, and more time reduces it down into more like a stew.   



Well, that's it for today.  Coming up, adventures in cabbage, cauliflower, and cornbread.

a realization

image418843434.jpgI've been feeling a bit disappointed that I haven't been writing more, but I've realized two things: I've been traveling a good deal (Honduras trip pics coming soon! As soon as we get a new computer.). And, all I want to do whenever I have a spare minute is cook. So I've decided to start documenting my adventures in cooking as a way to combine my interests and keep up my blog.

As I wrote earlier, I've developed a curiosity about ecofriendly cooking (local food, reduced packaging, less meat, sustainable cooking tools), healthy eating (organic whole foods, superfoods, less meat), and thriftiness--what I'm thinking of as "depression-era cooking"--using inexpensive ingredients like sweet potatoes and dried beans, using minimal packaged foods, and cooking nearly every meal.

This combination has stimulated my creativity, sent me diving into new recipes and old-timey guides, and assuaged some if my worries and discomforts. For example, I know that nonstick pans are supposed to be dangerous, if they crack and the coating starts breaking off. Ours has, but I've been hesitant to buy yet another pan and send yet another item to the landfill.

And then I was reading this memoir, Little Heathens, about growing up on an Iowan farm in the Great Depression. They cooked almost everything in cast iron pans. We've had a cast iron skillet for years, but hadn't cared for it very well and it needed seasoning. So this past week, I seasoned it multiple times, with drippings from some amazing bacon I bought in Grand Central Market, at the new meats stand run by Murray's Cheeses.

And it worked so well that i tried it on a "pretreated" Le Creuset skillet that has always been too sticky--so much so that I stopped using it, and always had little flashes of resentment whenever I saw the pan, feeling that it had been a big waste of money. No longer! Now both of the skillets work great!

I know it's nothing like forging a living on a family farm in the great Depression, but there's something satisfying about refurbishing and reusing, and opting out of the "buy new", disposable way of life we've become accustomed to, even if only in a small way.

In upcoming posts, I'll describe how to make batches of breakfast burritos in advance (yummy, convenient and cheap!), how to make sure you don't waste that leftover fresh cilantro, and what to do to salvage mealy winter tomatoes.

Pictured: cauliflower and kale gratin, seasoned with brown mustard vinaigrette, and organic chicken and spinach sausage. Delicious!