Wednesday, August 15, 2012

OMG I Love Basil

One of my favorite summer foods is basil. Basil is culinary ganja. I love to take a moment when I'm picking it to just breathe it in. It smells so pungent and rich and luscious.

One of my least favorite summer foods to pay for is basil. If you plant it early (we plant it from seeds), put it in a sunny spot, and water it frequently, you can have all the basil your heart desires. This summer, the hubs planted several pots of basil ('cuz he knows I like plentiful, generous amounts basil), including some Thai basil (see the copper planter in front), which is a bit more savory.

My favorite dishes with fresh basil are caprese salads--I make a little vinaigrette with balslamic, olive oil (usually regular as the extra virgin is strong tasting) some fresh lemon juice, salt and pepper--pasta with pesto, and any (preferable spicy) thai dish. But you can also sprinkle fresh basil on pizza, on pasta with marinara sauce, or on any pasta dish. If I only have a small serving of pesto leftover, I'l use it to make a pesto-mozzarella-tomato sandwich, or I'll whisk it into some eggs before I scramble them for a yummy breakfast or brunch.

I'll leave you with the recipe (my mother's) I use for pesto. I am a pesto purist. I don't generally get adventurous and add herbs other than basil and parsley. I always make this recipe. It is easily doubled or tripled. The amounts needn't be exact--if you have a little more or less of any ingredient, it won't matter. Just make sure you have plenty of basil. Frankly, I have never included the butter (my husband is lactose intolerant and even so I don't add butter to dishes when I can use olive oil instead). And I don't measure out the olive oil. I just keep mixing it in until the texture is right. I also sometimes use regular olive oil and I sometimes use extra virgin. I only use fresh parmesan. I am not that familiar with Sardo and I hate to admit it but I do not care too much for pecorino cheese. With the exception of Pyrennes Brebis, I am not a fan of sheep cheese. It's too sheepy tasting. Finally, I sometimes roast or sautee the garlic first (and in that case add more than two small cloves) because otherwise, the taste can be too sharp and linger longer than I'd like it to.

2 cups fresh basil leaves
1/2 cup fresh Italian parsley
2 small cloves of garlic
2 Tb pine nuts
1/2 - 3/4 grated Sardo, pecorino, or Parmesan cheese
3 Tbs butter
1/2 cup olive oil
salt to taste

Directions are simple:
1. In a blender or food processor, whirl together all ingredients EXCEPT the oil.
2. Add oil in at a slow trickle.
3. Enjoy!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

You're A Good Man, Sandor Katz

I first heard about Sandor Katz when The Sun published this interview with him this past May. I was instantly fascinated by his ideas and his story. When I saw that he was profiled by one of my favorite food writers, Burkhard Bilger, in another one of my favorite publications, The New Yorker, this past November, I was thrilled.

Katz is a self-declared "fermentation fetishist." He studies and writes about how food can be preserved, enriched, and transformed via fermenting. Not only is fermenting environmentally sustainable as the process does not require fuel, electricity, or refrigeration, fermented foods are damn good for us--they are full of good bacteria, so much of which we regularly wash away with our glut of anti-bacterial products.

Before moving to rural Tennessee, Katz was a political, community, and gay rights activist in his native Manhattan. He didn't renounce that work so much as he moved on from it, finding his current work and lifestyle more meaningful. What I like so much about Katz, as opposed to locavore extremists, is that he's not ideological or prey to pseudo-science; rather, he's educated, knowledgeable, reasonable, practical, and scientific in his approach. 

Katz is H.I.V. positive and tried for years to medicate himself with fermented and herbal remedies. Once he became severely ill, he acknowledged that to stay alive he needed to take anti-retroviral and protease-inhibitor drugs. This and some of his other capitulations, such as to humane meat, have earned him the scorn of some of his followers, to which he has responded with Jesus-like understanding. He believes, rightly so, that his diet has been a great part of his healing, but as he says to Bilger, "that doesn't mean that kombucha will cure your diabetes. It doesn't mean that sauerkraut cured my AIDS." Exactly. While I would assume that recognizes the value of consuming raw milk, he also recognizes that it must be done right, especially given how our current food system operates. Suddenly ending pasteurization would be he says, "the biggest disaster in the world. There would be a lot of dead children around."

I highly recommend reading the pieces in The Sun and The New Yorker in their entirety (and I highly recommend subscribing to both of these fine publications if you don't already). Katz has also written two books on the subject, Wild Fermentation and The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved. Given his moderate success at pickling radishes, I am lobbying my husband to read them and become our household's Fermenter in Chief. What do you say, babe?

(photo by flickr user Shannon Henry)

Sunday, December 5, 2010

A Year Later: My State of Food Mind

It was about a year and half ago that I wrote this rather critical post in response to Michael Pollan's piece in The New York Times Magazine trashing the Food Network. (In fact, it's been a little over a year since I've posted to this blog. Is anyone still out there?) I really do value Pollan's work. In fact, if there were a Pulitzer Prize for food writing, he should win it. This clever piece by author Rowan Jacobsen really sums up how I feel about Pollan, though--he's right, but, man, is he patronizing.

I had defended healthy diet proponent and food television personality Jamie Oliver in that post, and I'll continue to consult his recipes, but for reasons that are different from Pollan's, I have become disillusioned with him. After reading this long but worthwhile piece in AlterNet, I realized how sensationalist, damaging, and misleading Oliver's show on ABC was, and how complicated our school lunch system is.

If you don't have the time or stomach for one of Pollan's books or for an episode of "Food Revolution," this piece by Nicolette Hahn Niman gives similar advice and is relatively non-preachy. She lives in California, however, and a lot of what she suggests doing is harder to replicate in other places, but she does cheer on even small steps toward changes in food consumption patterns. I look at the items on her list as long-term goals and not necessarily as ones my family and I can match entirely right now.

Speaking of California, it's also been almost a year and a half since we moved back to Central Virginia from Oakland. I thought it would be impossible to match the year-round, local, sustainably grown, diverse produce we got from our fabulous Eatwell Farm CSA, but the alternatives in Ashland are none too shabby. My husband harvested a modest amount of herbs and greens from some planters this past summer and some friends with gardens shared some of their bounty. The Ashland Farmer's Market takes place on Saturday mornings from May through October, but also includes special Thanksgiving and holiday markets as well as renegade markets, often every first and third Saturdays, during the off season. Route 1 (just north of its intersection with Route 54 ) hosts a couple of produce stands which carry local produce. My favorite option is Local Roots Food Co-op. I joined initially because I was having such a hard time making it to the farmer's market. It started out small with limited options, but I figured I would invest anyhow in the hopes that my support would help it grow. Well, it's definitely grown and I am absolutely thrilled with the selection and quality. Also, how can you beat shopping on-line and locally?

Finally, in this fascinating interview in The Sun, "Farmed Out: On the Need to Reinvent Agriculture," Wes Jackson proves to be even more radical, and humble, than Michael Pollan. You can't access the whole interview unless you're a subscriber, but, hey, it's a great magazine.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

If I Had a Salad, I'd Dress It All Over This Land

When I was growing up, my mom, my dad, my sister, and I had dinner as a family almost every night. Usually my mom cooked and included a protein, a starch, and a vegetable in each dinnertime meal. The vegetable was almost never salad; she's simply not a big fan of it. I, on the other hand, love salad, especially the dressing. When my mom does make salad, she prefers it undressed or maybe with just lemon juice. Fortunately, she made dressing for the rest of us on the rare occasions that she did make salad. When I started cooking dinner once a week for the family, when I was about seven-years-old, I wanted to make salad. My mom gave me this simple recipe for vinaigrette:

3 Tb olive oil
1 Tb red wine vinegar

juice squeezed from a wedge of lemon
(peeled) garlic clove (which should be removed before the dressing is poured)

1/4 tsp mustard

1/4 tsp thyme

freshly ground pepper

According to
Michael Ruhlman, author of The Elements of Cooking and the recent Ratio, which was a recent housewarming gift to me from my mother, the ratio for basic vinaigrette should be three parts oil and one part vinegar. Mom taught me well. I use the recipe she gave to me as a base for other recipes. I almost always use olive oil or extra virgin olive oil. I have discovered that if I leave the garlic clove whole that the dressing is not garlicky enough, but if mince the garlic, the flavor is too garlicky. So I cut the clove into four pieces and let it sit in the vinaigrette and then press it with the back of a fork to release some of the "garlic juice." And I almost always add a pinch or two of salt and sugar. Ultimately, how I make the vinaigrette usually depends on what kind of salad I'm making.

For a standard french vinaigrette, which I usually use with a simple green salad, I use extra virgin olive oil, red wine vinegar, lemon juice, mustard, a garlic clove cut in four (as described above), salt, pepper, and a pinch of sugar.

For potato salad, I use the french vinaigrette plus a dollop or two of mayonnaise (low-fat is fine) and a couple of dashes of paprika. Sometimes I do mince and keep in the garlic because the potatoes can absorb it. The longer the garlic can sit in the vinaigrette, though, the more it cooks and the milder the flavor.

If I am making a spinach salad, I'll often use (regular) olive oil, balsamic vinegar, mustard, a drop of honey, salt, and pepper. Because the balsamic vinegar adds a heavier and sweeter flavor, I'll often omit the honey, but it depends on how sweet the particular vinegar is. I'll dress this salad a bit in advance to let the vinegar cook the spinach a bit.

With tender, tasty greens, such as arugula, I'll make a very simple dressing either with just extra virgin olive oil and lemon, or extra virgin olive oil and sherry vinegar, and sometimes a dash of mustard if I'm going with the sherry vinegar. My favorite arugula salad involves arugula, caramelized onions and finely chopped hard-boiled eggs that have been slightly undercooked. Greens like arugula are also often tasty with a nut-based oil rather then olive, like walnut oil.

For a Greek Salad, I'll use olive oil, red wine vinegar, lemon, dill, and a dash of mustard and a pinch of sugar.

For an Asian slaw, cucumber salad (I scoop out the seeds first), or even a green or spinach salad with julienned carrots, red peppers and cucumbers, I'll use sesame or peanut oil, rice vinegar, a couple dashes of soy sauce, fresh ginger, and some brown or white sugar, The fresh ginger should be minced. If you don't want a strong ginger flavor, let it sit in the vinaigrette a while and then remove it before pouring over the sald.

I adore Caesar Salad. (This is an aside, but the best and most affordable Caesar Salad I've ever had and I've had lots, is the one at Bodo's Bagels in Charlottesville, although be forewarned that sometimes they overdress or underdress, but they'll give you extra dressing when they underdress.) I use The Joy of Cooking's recipe as a base for my own Caesar dressing. The only difference is I use only extra-virgin olive oil and no butter and I don't add eggs and I change the ratios a bit to make it less oily and I add a dash or two of red wine vinegar. I do include anchovies, but use paste from a tube.

I don't usually go for creamy dressings, the exceptions being creamy cilantro-lime dressing and blue cheese dressing. I don't make blue dressing myself because my husband is lactose intolerant, but I may try
this recipe soon. The cilantro-lime dressing I managed to eke out using my food processor was inspired by the creamy cilantro-lime dressing they serve up at Sticks Kebob Shop in Charlottesville (but also in Richmond now, I just found out!!!) Unfortunately, I don't recall the specific recipe I used (probably because there wasn't one), but it included the following ingredients: freshly squeezed lime juice, red wine or apple cider vinegar, fresh cilantro, reduced-fat or no-fat sour cream, olive oil, a bit of mayonnaise, one or two cloves of garlic, paprika, fresh jalapeno, and some honey. I know the amounts of ingredients that I would put in as I was preparing the dressing, but I wouldn't measure them or anything. I would use relatively small amounts to start and limit the stronger-flavored ingredients, like the vinegar and honey to just a dash. Once I mixed them all up, I would taste it and see what it needed. This dressing can be used on salad, to accompany grilled meats or vegetables, or as a dip.

As for bottled dressings, most I don't care for, but there are a few I swear by:

Newman's Own Olive Oil and Vinegar Dressing, but I make sure to shake it thoroughly before pouring.

Newman's Own Lighten Up Sesame Ginger Dressing, but I add a dash of rice vinegar with it because I like vinegar like that.

3. Goddess Dressing. I had this stuff for the first time at a twin-twin play date in Oakland and I was hooked!
Annie's Naturals makes this in a natural or organic version (not quite sure what the difference is), but Trader Joe's version is just as tasty and about half the price. I'll soon try the Full Circle brand version of it that I found at Ukrop's here in Ashland.

4. When I do have a hankering for blue cheese dressing, I shell out the extra few bucks for


Saturday, October 17, 2009

Scotch Buy cookies, anyone? published! (albeit, in July)

Okay, so this was published on Defenestration back in July and I'm just getting around to posting on the blog now, but here goes.

It's called "Scotch Buy cookies, anyone?" and it was the first piece I posted on my blog.

If you haven't has the chance to read it, give it a try now.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Composting for Dummies (and PhDs)

My first exposure to compost was the small compost bin kept behind the cabinet door beneath the sink at my maternal grandparents' house. My grandfather, a.k.a. Farmer John, was a chemist by trade but a gardener by passion. And so he composted. I remember my grandmother dutifully scraping plates off into the compost bin as well as discarding egg shells and coffee grounds there. But I didn't really understand what composting was all about. Although they are concerned about conserving energy and my mother is an active gardener too, my parents don't compost. In fact, when they renovated their kitchen in 1979, they added a garbage disposal.

A guy I was dating who worked at one of the DC-based environmental organizations informed me that using garbage disposals was actually worse for the environment than just putting food-based waste in the garbage. He may have suggested composting as a better way to manage and dispose of such waste, but if he did, it went in one ear and out the other. I think I was too busy listening to him go on and on about his ex-long time-girlfriend.

When I met my (then future) husband Cedar, I learned that his parents composted, even when they didn't have much of a garden. When Cedar and I moved in together and later bought a house, though, we didn't compost. I'm not sure why we didn't think to follow in our elders' composting footsteps. I think I still thought that composting was just for people who gardened, rather than a sound environmental practice.

Then we moved to Oakland, California, where the city composts everything: milk cartons, pizza boxes, food scraps, used tissues. We collected our compost in our beverage cartons and had our kids take it to the green (of course) compost cans outs
ide, which were emptied once a week. Once we moved to Ashland , Virginia, one of the first things we did was take advantage of Hanover County's offer of free composting bins and made a compost heap in the back of our house. (And actually, Hanover County has a well-done bit about composting on its website.) Because the soil here seems to be pretty bare bones and we are renting (and Cedar, the gardener of our household, is working toward tenure), we don't garden, but we still compost. In fact, after life in Oakland, as we constantly work towards running a more eco-sustainable household, we can't imagine not composting. Here is a link to an article on what can be composted. Cedar says things like food-soiled paper products can not really be composted on a small scale (like the compost in our backyard), but I'm sure some would disagree with him.

Besides encouraging them to buy sustainably produced meat and seafood and to ca
rt home their groceries in re-usable shopping bags, I have been encouraging my parents to compost. My mom keeps telling me she will as soon as she teaches herself how. This is a woman who has taught herself about a dozen languages, has a PhD in linguistics, and a law degree. So here, Mom:

Adapted from an e-mail from my father-in-law:

1) Get a half-gallon plastic container (we use yogurt containers).

2) Fill it with all of the stuff you'd normally out in the garbage disposal (plus any food scraps you normally put in the trash like banana peels and corn husks).

3) When full, transfer to a five-gallon container outside and then when that's full transfer to a small hole in the ground. Or empty each small container directly to a sm
all hole in the ground.

4) Shovel some leaves and dirt over the top and "presto, chango, it goes back to Jesus in no time" (in about six months).

5) Every once in a while turn the mixture over with a shovel to mix up the n
ew and old compost.

a more comprehensive look at composting, here is a link to the site. For example, some people don't use a hole in the ground but buy or build one of the high-tech jobbies you see below.

py composting!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

I'm just in it for the honey cake

I don't remember ever having honey cake for Rosh Hashanah when I was growing up or even round challah with raisins. In fact, I don't remember any culinary traditions associated with the high holidays except for, of course, apples and honey and pigging out during the break-fast after Yom Kippur. Once I had my own children and became part of the Jewish community where we lived in Charlottesville, Virginia, I became aware of the honey cake tradition as well as many other traditions I had either forgotten about or never really known about or understood. Being a lover of food and cooking, especially seasonal dishes, I was happy to latch onto the honey cake ritual. At the high holiday kid-friendly gatherings we attended in Charlottesville, I was introduced to the honey cake from Albemarle Baking Company, the royalty of bakeries in Charlottesville. My friends raved about it and there was nothing wrong with it, but I normally gush over Albemarle Baking Company, so I was disappointed, although to their credit I rarely stray from chocolate-less desserts.

This year, I decided to make my own honey cake. I wanted something traditional but with a twist. I didn't want anything meant to be low fat a la Cooking Light or anything too hippie-ish (like encrusted in sunflower seeds and sweetened with bark from maple trees). I posted a call for recipes on facebook and got the following three interesting suggestions:

1) an old-fashioned oatmeal honey cake from Cooking Light. I usually avoid desserts in Cooking Light because they seem to replace fat with excess sugar, which just turns into fat later and gives their desserts a overly-sugary taste. They also hack away at their fat levels with processed products like Cool Whip (I'd rather have the pure cream). This recipe does look decent, though, and I'm sure it's worth a try.

2) a recipe for Polish honey cake from Michael Symon of the Food Network (see, Michael Pollan, I told you some people get actual cooking recipes from the food network). This one looks fabulous and with the twist I was looking for, but it wasn't quite traditional enough and I didn't feel like dealing with making bread crumbs.

3) a recipe for classic honey cake. This one seemed too traditional and like it might be a bit dry.

Next, I found a recipe in the Food Bible, a.k.a., The Joy of Cooking, which looked pretty good and which I probably would have made had I not found exactly what I was looking for: a traditional honey cake with whiskey-soaked apples. This recipe came from another blog which took it from another blog which took it from a cookbook. I'm not sure what this proves except for maybe that in this era of food blogs for every three recipes posted there is one original recipe. Or something like that.

One thing the blogger forgets to tell the reader in this receipe is what to do with the apples once they've been soaked. My mother and I were frantic (well, Mary Levy-style frantic) as we searched through my cookbooks to see what other cooks do with their apple cakes. So, I made each cake a different way. In one, I nudged in the apple slices, arranging them over the top after the batter had been poured into the loaf pan. With the other, I stirred the apples into the batter before I poured it into the loaf pan. Each one turned out well, but the downside of placing the apples on top is that the cake doesn't cook as evenly. The downside of mixing them in is that the apples are not necessarily evenly distributed. I changed one other thing: I replaced the cup of strongly brewed coffee or black tea with a cherry-cinnamon herbal tea. Given all of the spices, I thought this might make the cake a bit lighter tasting and I thought the cherry flavor would complement the apples nicely. I also made some mini-cakes (in mini-bundt pans) for the kids with the leftover batter and plain apple slices.

Happy New Year, Happy Fall, or just, Happy Honey Cake Day. Enjoy.