Thursday, December 1, 2011

Shopping in the Paris of the North Woods

Tonight I'm hosting my book group meeting to discuss Ernest Hemingway's "A Moveable Feast," which is his memoir of his life in Paris in the 1920s. We wanted to read "The Paris Wife" by Paula McLain and we decided we should also read what he had to say about it.

I enjoy theme dinners when possible, and the only difficult part of creating a theme around Parisian food is deciding which of so many delicious things to serve. Fortunately, I was aided in this by my little book, "Found Meals of the Lost Generation," which provides menus and recipes inspired by meals described by the group of artists and writers that included Hemingway.

Here are most of the raw ingredients for our meal tonight:

A scholar of Hemingway may look at this and wonder what I could possibly be serving that was mentioned in "A Moveable Feast." Focus on the potatoes, sausages and beer. I've embellished after that because I know my friends will enjoy more and I also wanted to make something Hadley might have ordered if her husband had been thoughtful enough to invite her along.

I'll have photos tomorrow of the completed dishes.

When reading novels set in France, or watching French films, I've often been envious of the food shopping experiences. Those Parisians seem to always be popping down to the corner bakery, stopping by an outdoor produce market, and picking up marvelous meats and cheeses from shop keepers who know not only their customers' names, but their tastes. They also do their shopping on foot; I've never seen a Parisian in any film pull the SUV up to the loading area of a big grocery.

But I don't need to be so jealous! Although Traverse City is not as large as Paris, nor quite as walkable, I was able to accomplish all of my shopping for tonight's meal on foot. I walked over to Maxbauer's for the sausages and on my way home stopped in the very Parisian-like 9 Bean Rows Bakery for bread. From there, I walked across the street to my favorite wine, beer and liquor supplier, Jack's Market, for some French beer. The guys at Jack's told me they don't sell French beer because it's all so bad (haha! imagine -- the French are great at wine but lousy at beer), so instead I bought a Belgian beer with a French name. Hemingway probably didn't drink French beer either. Anyway, everyone in my book group will want to drink wine, so we'll have a taste of the beer and move on to our usual beverage.

The rest of the groceries came from Oryana, where I walked yesterday in the lovely sunshine. Today's weather is drab and drippy and reminds me of Paris in November and the aroma of street vendors roasting chestnuts in big metal pans over open fires. As it happens, I have some local chestnuts, so my friends will get to enjoy that scent tonight.

Now I'd better get cooking.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Thanksgiving Leftovers

I needed three full days of rest to sufficiently recover from the cooking, cleaning and eating marathon before I could write about the results.

Our Thanksgiving feast was the best yet, with more dishes than ever before and no cooking disasters, at least not on Thursday when guests were present. Last year I apparently stuck the meat thermometer in the wrong part of the turkey thigh; when John began carving into the turkey at the table, blood seeped out and the whole thing had to go back in the oven while we waited for another hour. This year, I poked that turkey in several places prior to removing it and all was perfect.

Cranberry Sauce

Green Salad

Turkey (after carving)
In addition to the dishes pictured here, we had pumpkin pie, pumpkin cheesecake (more on that below), Madeira gravy, giblet gravy, and an appetizer tray of little cheese biscuits, spiced almonds, and olives.

I took John with me to the park to bring home the turkey from an Amish farmer who delivers each year. Of course, John decided to buy the biggest turkey he had, which was 22 pounds. After seeing that it barely fit in our oven and created a burdensome amount of leftovers, I think it's safe to say that John has learned his lesson about getting a turkeysaurus and that next year we'll stay under 17 pounds.
Wild Rice Dressing

I added one dish to the menu the day before Thanksgiving: this excellent wild rice dressing I made last year. As I almost doubled the recipe, we had a large amount of this left over. More on that below.

Cornbread Dressing
Squash with grapes, apples, chestnuts
John's Green Bean Casserole
My Green Bean Casserole
We also had dueling green bean casseroles. John insists on making his the "traditional" way, which is to open a bunch of cans and dump the contents in a casserole dish. I have been attempting to teach him that cooking from fresh ingredients is tastier, so once again, I offered one from scratch. It turned out even better this year than last, probably because I used baby portabellos for the mushrooms. I used a recipe from the Food Network, and my advice to anyone else who attempts this is to watch the onions very carefully in the oven; last year they burned before the timer went off. This year I checked regularly after 15 minutes and removed them after 25.
Corn Macque Choux
The table, ready for guests

Despite doubling the recipe, the corn macque choux was gone by the end of the day. This is a very popular dish for my family and one I should probably make more than once a year. Basically, it's a creamed corn with a cajun kick.

Now about all those leftovers.

I divided the carcass of the giant turkey into three stockpots and made about 8 quarts (maybe more) of rich turkey broth. Today some of that broth, combined with a fresh saute of celery, onion, carrot and garlic, because the base of a delicious soup. I added some of the leftover wild rice dressing, fresh thyme and parsley and about a cup of frozen corn. With a quick batch of onion biscuits, it was a pleasant Sunday night supper.

Now I must disclose the near disaster. I wasn't pleased with the texture of the pumpkin cheesecake. It was a bit too soft in the center; I think I should've cooked it for another 15 minutes. On Friday morning, still sleepy and not thinking clearly, I wondered what would happen if I baked it a little longer. This was after the cheesecake had been removed from its springform pan and cut. The cheesecake was still sitting on the bottom part of the pan, so I slid it into the oven and checked back 15 minutes letter. The whole thing had melted all over the oven! I removed the part that clung to the pan bottom and cleaned up the rest. What to do? It was too good to waste. So I thought, why can't it just be pudding, or cheesecake trifle? I spooned it all into a large bowl and chilled it again. Sprinkled with some sugared pecans, it's almost as good as it was when it was just cheesecake!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Thanksgiving Planning

Thanksgiving is by far my favorite holiday. Not only is it among the least commercialized festivities, the small amount of consumer activity prompted by Thanksgiving can easily be directed towards businesses I cherish, such as organic family farms. And the centerpiece of the holiday -- a meal of traditional dishes shared with loved ones in a spirit of gratitude -- is balm to the soul.

Of course, not everyone celebrates Thanksgiving by gathering three generations of the family around the table while Grandpa carves the large turkey in the center. Due to varied economic circumstances, as well as families being increasingly scattered, not to mention a large proportion of adults with cooking skills limited to the microwave, the Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving scene is something to which many can no longer relate.

For those in need, volunteers in my town serve a free community Thanksgiving meal at a local church; this is a popular annual event for those who serve and those who are served and volunteer spots often are filled weeks in advance. Volunteers also deliver Thanksgiving meals to shut-ins.

People in comfortable financial situations may also find themselves unable to enjoy a meal at home. Some restaurants are open on Thanksgiving Day to serve traditional meals, usually at a fixed price. Twice in my life I've enjoyed Thanksgiving in a restaurant and both were among my most memorable holidays. When I was 13, my father was on a temporary assignment in Florida and the rest of us flew down for Thanksgiving week. It was my first time riding an airplane, and dining out was a rare treat on any day; I didn't miss being at Grandma's farm with my cousins at all!

My second restaurant Thanksgiving was in Half Moon Bay, California, during the year my husband had a fellowship at the University of Colorado. We drove to California for Thanksgiving break and stopped at a restaurant enroute from San Francisco to Monterey. John and the kids ordered the traditional turkey dinner; I opted for the fish. Afterwards, we waded in the Pacific Ocean near Monterey. I loved spending Thanksgiving in short sleeves.

This year, as with most of our Thanksgivings for the 19 years we've lived in northern Michigan, I'll be cooking a feast at our home to share with close friends. We'll have 5 guests, for a total of 9 diners, and I'll cook more than can be eaten in 2 days. By the end of the weekend, we should be finished with leftovers, at which time I'll never want to see turkey again, or at least for a year.

The key to serving a large feast to guests is advance planning and preparation. Just this morning I realized that Thanksgiving is next Thursday! For some reason, I thought I had two more weeks. Fortunately, I had already been drafting a menu, so I'm not behind. I usually divide the cooking into two days -- Wednesday for everything that can be made in advance, and Thursday morning for the turkey and the day-of dishes. This year I've decided to be more organized and add Tuesday as a cooking day, which will make Monday my big Oryana shopping spree day.

In planning a Thanksgiving menu, or any large meal for guests, it is crucial to consider the time and equipment demands of each dish. For example, if you have a stove with four burners, you don't want to have a menu of 6 dishes that all need to be prepared on stovetop and served immediately. If you have a standard-sized oven, like mine, the turkey will take up most or all of the space. My strategy is to put the turkey in the oven first thing on Thanksgiving morning; I bake casseroles when the turkey is out and resting. Also, don't be troubled if you have casserole recipes with various cooking temperatures; if the recipe says bake at 325F or 375F, a 350F oven can easily handle it, so all casseroles can go in at 350F and bake together. Just peek in to check for doneness.

Anything that is served cold or chilled should be made in advance. For Thanksgiving, this may include your cranberry sauce or relish, salads, and probably your dessert.

Here's my menu and strategy:

Appetizer tray of cheese puffs, spiced nuts and salted radishes, all made ahead (Tuesday).
Cranberry sauce (Tuesday)
Pumpkin Pie, (Wednesday)
Pumpkin Cheesecake with caramel sauce, candied pecans and whipped cream (Wednesday)
Mashed potato casserole (Wednesday)
Green salad with blue cheese, walnuts, apples, dried figs and pumpkin seeds (Wednesday)
Onion biscuits (start Wednesday, finish Thursday)
Cornbread dressing (start Wednesday, finish Thursday)
Green bean casserole (start Wednesday, finish Thursday)
Turkey with Madeira gravy (early Thursday)
Squash with chestnuts and apples (Thursday)
Corn Maque Choux (Thursday)

Finally, I'd like to share the turkey recipe I've been using for the past 20 years. It's from the November 1991 issue of Southern Living and I've never found a better one. It requires only a roasting pan and a baster -- no plastic bags or deep fryers. Last year I did brine the turkey for two days prior and probably will again this year as I pick it up from my Amish farmer on Tuesday afternoon, but I can't say the brining made a huge difference.

Madeira Roast Turkey

1/2 cup butter, melted
1 cup Madeira wine
3 tablespoons soy sauce
3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1 lemon, cut in half
1 12-15 lb turkey
cooking spray or oil
1 to 3 tablespoons cornstarch
1/4 cup water

Combine first 4 ingredients and juice of one lemon; set aside.

Remove giblets and neck from turkey; reserve for other uses [my husband makes another gravy from them]. Pat turkey dry if removing from brine. Tie ends of legs to tail with cord; lift wingtips up and over back and tuck under bird.

Place turkey on rack of a roasting pan, breast side up; rub with other lemon half, squeezing juice over turkey. Spray with cooking spray or brush with oil. Insert meat thermometer into meaty part of thigh, making sure it does not touch bone. Bake at 325F for 3 hours or until meat thermometer reaches 185F, basting every 30 minutes after the first hour with Madeira mixture. If turkey starts to brown too much, cover with foil.

When the turkey is two-thirds done, cut the cord or band of skin holding drumsticks to tail. This will ensure that thighs are cooked internally. The turkey is done when drumsticks are easy to move up and down. Let stand at least 15 minutes before carving [this is when you bake all those casseroles].

Measure remaining basting mixture and pan juices from turkey. Using 1 tablespoon cornstarch to each cup of drippings, combine cornstarch and 1/4 cup water, stirring until smooth; stir into pan drippings. Bring to a boil for 1 minute [or until desired thickness], stirring constantly. Serve with turkey.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Around My French Table

I've intended to review this cookbook for months. After making my favorite new addiction from it for the third time in two weeks, I must delay no more.

My go-to cookbook for nearly all of 2011 has been Dorie Greenspan's Around My French Table. It has usurped the always-out-on-the-table place of honor previously held by Sally Fallon's Nourishing Traditions, and prior to that, Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant. (I still maintain, however, that if I could have only one cookbook, it would be Nourishing Traditions).

Greenspan writes recipes the way I like to interpret them: as suggestions. I use cookbooks primarily for inspiration, and with the exception of baked items, I rarely leave a recipe unaltered. I cook mostly with local, seasonal ingredients, so I tend to substitute what I have available for what is specified in the recipe. Greenspan encourages this practice, offering ideas for substitutions on many of her recipes, even to the point of changing nearly every ingredient! In those cases, the recipe serves as a description of technique.

Perhaps because this is a book of inspiration and technique, I've found it easier to incorporate in my seasonal cooking than some seasonally-focused cookbooks. The couscous salad, for example, specifies certain vegetables, but when I made it in early summer it was delicious with sliced kohlrabi instead of cucumber, some chopped garlic scapes and more sugar snaps instead of a red bell pepper. Greenspan says in the recipe introduction that she had a hard time writing down a recipe for it because she never makes it the same way and uses whatever vegetables she happens to have on hand. She even gives a suggestion for turning it from a side salad into a main course.

Greenspan lives in Paris and New York, a condition that is not always favorable for producing a cookbook that avoids frustrating those who live in places with more basic markets. Happily, Greenspan's own cosmopolitan and sophisticated food world does not impair her ability to deliver a book that is useful to those who lack her resources. The majority of her recipes use ingredients available from any grocery store. Occasionally a specialty ingredient may be listed (even the new spice store here didn't have piment d'esplette), but it is usually optional or substitutable. And even when she provides a recipe for something like veal, or duck breasts, which may not be stocked in the average rural grocery, it's quite easy to think of an appropriate substitution. For example, I might use pork chops instead of veal chops for the "veal chops with rosemary butter."

Greenspan's writing is friendly and engaging. She intersperses the recipes with anecdotes and stories from her elite foodie world. Some readers could find the references to the famous chefs and artists she knows to be annoying name-dropping, but I've not encountered any famous person tidbit that didn't enhance the story. I've particularly enjoyed her sidebars on French culture. In one, she describes her experience with a cheese shop in which she complained, ever so politely, about the quality of a cheese she had purchased and began receiving improved service at the shop because the complaint showed she had discriminating taste.

The book is beautifully photographed. Its hefty weight may help burn some of the calories from those rich butter and cream desserts, such as the one I'm about to share.

Here it is, my latest addiction, the Chocolate-Banana Tart, which is not local or seasonal but is chocolate heaven:

And, so that I don't have to type in a recipe, I found instructions, with much better photos, to make a version of it here.

The recipe in Around My French Table is simpler than the one on the link.  The caramelized bananas are made with only butter and sugar -- no raisins, rum or habanero pepper. I use 2 sliced bananas in about 2 tablespoons of butter and 3 tablespoons of sugar. The ganache is made by bringing one cup of cream (Shetler's, for those in northern Michigan) to boil, then pouring it over 1/2 pound of chopped bittersweet chocolate (I use two bars of Ghiradelli's 60%), whisking until smooth, and then whisking in 4 tablespoons of sweet butter. The topping is sliced fresh bananas drizzled with some warmed apricot jam. If you won't be eating all of the tart within a day or so, just slice fresh bananas as you go.

Bon Appétit!

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Northanger Abbey

Most adults with a passion for literature are familiar with the experience of re-reading a favorite novel and discovering it to not be exactly as remembered. Until a few days ago, I was convinced that could not happen for me with any of Jane Austen's novels, which are so familiar that they are my book version of comfort food.

Then I read The Mysteries of Udolpho, Ann Radcliffe's 1794 gothic romantic mystery that features prominently in Austen's Northanger Abbey. I was inspired to do so while watching the film version of The Jane Austen Book Club, in which the sole male member of the group astonishes the female members by disclosing he read Udolpho prior to their NA discussion. Immediately upon finishing Udolpho, I picked up NA and within the first few pages began to feel as if I had discovered an entirely new Austen novel! These insights, I'm sure, would be nothing new to serious students of Austen, but I'm a mere consumer of her work, content to enjoy it rather than analyze. Before reading Udolpho, I considered NA the least interesting of Austen's novels, with a trite plot and relatively silly main character. After Udolpho, I discovered Jane Austen, pioneer and literary critic.

NA is indeed a markedly different novel from Austen's other five. Not only the shortest of Austen's novels, it is the one least concerned with the romantic interests of the characters. The hero, if he may be called such, is lightly sketched; we learn little of his motives or personality, nor do we have any explanation of Catherine's attraction to him, aside from him being the first eligible man she meets in Bath. In the final pages, the reader is told that Henry Tilney's attachment to Catherine is simply a result of Catherine favoring him first, upon which Austen comments, "It is a new circumstance in romance, I acknowledge, and dreadfully derogatory of an heroine's dignity."

Austen left few letters or personal writings to shed light on her own thoughts and personality. In my post-Udolpho reading of NA, I felt as if I finally glimpsed the woman behind the pen. Some critics might frown upon the novelist's revealing herself in this way, but it is a true delight for her fans.

Udolpho is a gothic romance that was hugely popular in Austen's time. Several of her NA characters discuss it at great length and read it with pleasure; Catherine is so influenced by Udolpho and similar books that she fancies such mysteries and adventures might be available to her if she can manage a visit to a suitable ancient edifice.

Throughout NA, Austen contrasts Catherine's mild adventures with the outrageous ones of the gothic heroines. For example, on Catherine's journey to Bath, "Neither robbers nor tempests befriended them, nor one lucky overturn to introduce them to the hero. Nothing more alarming occurred than a fear, on Mrs. Allen's side, of having once left her clogs behind her at an inn, and that fortunately proved to be groundless."

Before reading Udolpho, I missed the humor in that passage, having no experience with gothic romances, in which travel is a peril causing a heroine to lose her way, be threatened by bandits, get caught in a storm, exhaust her horse, be rescued by a handsome stranger, or in a really good adventure, all of those events at once!

Later in NA, the fanciful Catherine conceded that her uncritical reading of such novels had caused her imagination to run free during her stay at Northanger Abbey, which proved to not be a castle of secret passages and hidden chambers, and its owner was not a murderous villain. But this realization does not entirely dispel Catherine's fantasies; she recalled that the events in Udolpho occurred elsewhere, in southern France and Italy.
Charming as were all Mrs. Radcliffe's works, and charming as were the works of all her imitators, it was not in them perhaps that human nature, at least in the Midland counties of England, was to be looked for. Of the Alps and Pyrenees, with their pine forests and their vices, they might give a faithful delineation; and Italy, Switzerland, and the south of France might be as fruitful in horrors as they were there represented. ... But in the central part of England there was surely some security for the existence even of a wife not beloved, in the laws of the land, and the manners of the age. Murder was not tolerated, servants were not slaves, and neither poison nor sleeping potions to be procured, like rhubarb, from every druggist. Among the Alps and the Pyrenees, perhaps, there were no mixed characters. There, such as were not as spotless as an angel, might have the dispositions of a fiend. But in England it was not so; among the English, she believed, in their hearts and habits, there was a general though unequal mixture of good and bad.
The contrasts Austen draws between her characters and story with the fanciful ones in the novels her characters read reminds me of Mark Twain's essay, "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses". Twain pokes fun at Cooper's The Deerslayer:

Pathfinder showed off handsomely that day before the ladies. His very first feat a thing which no Wild West show can touch. He was standing with the group of marksmen, observing -- a hundred yards from the target, mind; one Jasper rasper raised his rifle and drove the center of the bull's-eye. Then the Quartermaster fired. The target exhibited no result this time. There was a laugh. "It's a dead miss," said Major Lundie. Pathfinder waited an impressive moment or two; then said, in that calm, indifferent, know-it-all way of his, "No, Major, he has covered Jasper's bullet, as will be seen if any one will take the trouble to examine the target."
Wasn't it remarkable! How could he see that little pellet fly through the air and enter that distant bullet-hole? Yet that is what he did; for nothing is impossible to a Cooper person. Did any of those people have any deep-seated doubts about this thing? No; for that would imply sanity, and these were all Cooper people.
Although pointedly keeping her characters firmly rooted in the believable world in contrast with those she parodies, Austen refrains from making the sort of mirth of their writing follies that Twain enjoys at Cooper's expense. She is setting herself apart from the excesses of the romantic genre, but she spiritedly defends her fellow novelists, addressing the reader directly:
I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding -- joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it.
She then describes the usual reaction from characters in a novel upon discovering another character reading one:
"And what are you reading, Miss -- ?" "Oh! It is only a novel!" replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. "It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda"; or in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.
There we have it. Austen has a purpose beyond parody in Northanger Abbey. She is elevating her craft, putting her audience on notice that she intends to convey through fiction insights they may have expected to find only in the pages of philosophy or the critical journals of the day. Entertainment need not be at cross purposes with art and intelligent illumination of the human condition. Austen intends to do both, and she succeeded, first in Northanger Abbey (although it was not actually published until after her death) and then brilliantly in the five novels to follow.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Frugal Gourmet?

With apologies to the memory of Jeff Smith.

I'm about to enter a brave new world of thrift in the kitchen. My oldest child is a high school senior with a desire to attend college next fall. Assuming he manages to submit his applications on time, and is admitted somewhere, this time next year we will be thrown into stark poverty following the payment of the first tuition bill. Money must be found, and following a thorough perusal of family expenses, I'm forced to acknowledge that all of the fat is in the kitchen.

When it comes to clothing, transportation, entertainment and other flexible expenses, I've been quite thrifty, as has the rest of the family. We have no expensive hobbies or tastes. We share one 12-year-old economy car among three drivers and we infrequently use it.

We've been so frugal in all other areas that I've felt justified in totally disregarding cost at the grocery. I buy organic everything. I cook what I think will taste best and use the finest ingredients available, rarely noticing the prices. If I lived in Ann Arbor, I would no doubt be at Zingerman's three times a week.

But that must change. My challenge for the next year -- really, the next 8 years, for little sister will also want a college education -- will be to reduce our food bill, perhaps by half, without sacrificing taste. Can it be done?

Farmer's Market impulse buy. Cute, but not frugal
My first re-evaluation of my kitchen habits will be to determine what should and shouldn't be made from scratch. I've already put homemade mayonnaise on the "not worth it" list after discovering I could buy my favorite Spectrum Canola mayonnaise for less than the cost of the safflower oil I was using for homemade. Cheese is also probably not worth it to make, mostly because I'm not very good at it, but homemade yogurt remains a win.

Stay tuned for further develpments.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Back to school

And back to the blog. Sitting down at the computer to write seemed like such a waste of a beautiful summer day, which is all the explanation I shall offer for my two-month hiatus. Summer is too short in northern Michigan to not feel cheated by every moment spent online. Today the skies are filled with gloom, reminding me that November awaits, but I will try to be of good cheer.

September is a busy month for families. My daughter started high school last week after two years of home school (yes, I miss her!) and my senior son is overwhelmed with fall sports, marching band and college applications. On most days, the weather is still pleasant and we're wanting to spend every dwindling spare moment enjoying it. So who wants to cook? Not I.

Yet in one of nature's cruelest ironies, September is the busiest harvest month and a bounty of good food grown in northern Michigan is filling our farmer's markets. Late summer and fall crops are mingling in abundance -- gorgeous heirloom tomatoes of various colors, early apples, summer peppers and chiles, forest mushrooms, sweet peaches, tender greens. The possibilities are tantalizing, so I buy and cook. But I try to be efficient so that I won't have to spend too much of the afternoon in the kitchen.

Here's an easy casserole I came up with one Sunday afternoon to use up some zucchini:

Mexican "Lasagna" (before local tomatoes ripened)
Mexican "Lasagna"

1 lb. ground beef
2 cloves garlic, diced or crushed
1 medium or large onion, diced
1 jalapeno or other pepper, finely diced
2 c. corn
1 or 2 zucchini, sliced, shredded or diced
1 14 oz can enchilada sauce
1 14 oz can black beans
Hot sauce to taste (optional)
2-3 c. shredded cheddar cheese
1 package sprouted corn tortillas
1 or 2 ripe tomatoes (optional)

In a large saute pan, brown the ground beef, then add the garlic, onion and pepper and cook until soft. Add the zucchini and corn and cook for another 2 or 3 minutes. Stir in the enchilada sauce and black beans and taste for seasoning, adding salt to taste. At this point, you can add some heat, if desired, with whatever you have available. I used a little leftover chipotle in adobo sauce, but chili powder or hot sauce would also work.

In the bottom of a casserole dish (9x13), arrange about 1/3 of the tortillas, topped with about 1/3 of the meat sauce from the pan and 1/3 of the cheese. Repeat the layers twice. Finally, slice some tomatoes and arrange across the the top. Bake at 350F for about 25-30 minutes.

This recipe begs for improvisation. Feel free to substitute any ingredient! I also made a vegetarian version with all black beans (about 3 cups, cooked) and it was as delicious as the meat one. That night I had some green beans, so I cut them into short bits and used instead of corn.


Thursday, July 7, 2011

Books, movies and cheese

Ah, the lazy days are here, calling for easy food and pleasant entertainment. So today I offer a cheese recipe as well as reading and viewing recommendations.

My new favorite summer cheese is fromage blanc, an excellent base for the herbs now proliferating in my small garden. I use the recipe from Ricki Carroll's Home Cheese Making: Recipes for 75 Delicious Cheeses; the only supplies necessary are a stovetop, a large pot (stainless steel), cheesecloth, a thermometer, 1 gallon of milk, and the fromage blanc starter available from Carroll's New England Cheese Making Supply Company. Heat the milk to 86F, add the starter, cover and let set at 72F for 12 hours (overnight). The next morning, line a colander with the cheesecloth (or butter muslin), ladle the curd into the cloth, tie the corners into a knot, hang it to drain for 6-12 hours while you hang in the hammock and read.

Fromage blanc draining; hammock in background

The cheese will keep covered in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks. While it is useful on its own in many recipes, such as those calling for ricotta or cream cheese, I like to add herbs from the garden and make a cheese spread inspired by a recipe in Dorie Greenspan's Around My French Table: More Than 300 Recipes from My Home to Yours

Fromage Blanc spread

2 c. fromage blanc
small shallot, minced
1-2 cloves of garlic, or 2 garlic scapes, minced
2 TB fresh herbs (tarragon, parsley, thyme, chives)
2 tsp red wine vinegar
2 TB extra-virgin olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

Mix everything together in a bowl and refrigerate until ready to serve. Spread on crackers or bread; also good in omelettes.

A terrific new foodie novel to take out to the hammock is The Kitchen Daughter by Jael McHenry. This book was recommended to me by Amy at Horizon Books in downtown Traverse City last fall when I was picking up some books on Asperger's. Amy had read this debut novel and was impressed by it; her taste is impeccable, so I had her order it for me. The main character, Ginny, is a 26-year-old woman with Asperger's (undiagnosed until about halfway through the story) who is suddenly on her own after the accidental death of her parents. She comforts herself through cooking, and, in a bit of magical realism, discovers she can converse with ghosts of family members and friends who left behind their recipes. Ginny's kitchen is a place for various hues of alchemy, including one that ultimately enables her to begin her life as an independent adult.

McHenry, a food blogger, writes deftly about the transforming magic of cooking in a manner reminiscent of Laura Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate. And while she claims no personal expertise on Asperger's, only research, McHenry is adept in presenting Ginny's story and challenges. This novel has certainly provided me with food for thought, as well as a few new recipes to try!

Now, for after dinner relaxation, I highly recommend Woody Allen's new film, Midnight in Paris. For those in Traverse City who haven't yet seen it, the State has it for another week. I've been twice and will probably go a third time. Owen Wilson is the most likeable actor ever to play the Allen persona, and the screenplay is perhaps Allen's most clever and witty in decades. If summer TV fare such as the Bachelorette is making your brain cells die, you can invite a few back by refreshing your cultural knowledge of the vibrant Parisian arts and literature scene of the 1920s. To foodies who want more of this era, check out the delightful little book Found Meals of the Lost Generation: Recipes and Ancedotes from 1920s Paris; my husband, who is a huge Hemingway fan, gave me that years ago and I had forgotten I had it until I saw the film. And an excellent recent novel set in this era is Paula McLain's The Paris Wife, which tells the story of Hemingway's first marriage from the perspective of his first wife, Hadley. It inspired me to decide that I now wish to celebrate my 50th birthday (still 2.5 years away) with a bike trip through France's Loire Valley.

Finally, I just finished reading Barbara Kingsolver's The Lacuna. Kingsolver is one of my favorite authors; her The Poisonwood Bible would probably be in my top five novels if I ever made such a list. The Lacuna is a bit of a departure in style for Kingsolver; most of the story is presented through fictional diaries and letters. The story unfolds languidly; a page-turner this is not. Two friends have told me they couldn't get through it and gave up; many reviews were also lukewarm. But a patient reader who takes in a little of this at a time (I read it over several weeks) will find much to delight and ponder. Kingsolver's prose is as rich as ever and her characters are compelling. Frida Kahlo is more flesh and blood in The Lacuna than she was in Salma Hayek's screen portrayal. I'll spare a complete recap here; for those interested, I link the New York Times review.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Red berries and other good stuff

With great excitement, I present my first home-grown raspberry:

Isn't it lovely? I'm sure there will be a few more, which is good, since my daughter has already eaten this one.

These raspberry shrubs join three strawberry plants and two currant bushes as my garden expansion for the 100 YARDen DASH -- a challenge that backyard gardeners in Marquette issued to their friends in Traverse City to convert more yard space to food production. Needless to say, Traverse City will not be victorious on my meager efforts, but Leah did enjoy the raspberry as much as the junk food she purchased this morning from the snack wagon now open at the neighborhood park.

Meanwhile, organic strawberries are still abundant at Oryana and the farmer's market, and strawberry farmer extraordinaire Sandee Ware tells me she'll probably have them for another week. I can barely close my freezer door as I've packed in at least a dozen quarts of strawberries, most of which are destined for winter smoothies, if they last that long. My son enjoys summer smoothies and has gone through at least a few quarts in the past week. So I keep capping and freezing.

Of the many delicious ways to eat strawberries, my favorite is one of the simplest. The recipe:

Sharon's Strawberry Heaven

Fresh, organic strawberries
Cream (Shetler's, for those in northern Michigan)

Cap and wash the strawberries. Whip the cream. Spread a little Nutella on the strawberry and dip it in the whipped cream. Enjoy!

If you're too lazy to whip cream, skip it and just spread on the Nutella; it will still be so delicious. However, whipped cream can be made in seconds with a powerful hand blender (I recommend adding the attachment set).

And allow me a brief comment on the Nutella. Some readers may be bewildered at my recommendation of a commercially processed food. In my defense, I'll simply point out that brilliant food writer Mort Rosenblum (remember how much I love him?) devoted an entire chapter of his Chocolate: A Bittersweet Saga of Dark and Light to Nutella. His chocolate muse, Chloë (a Frenchwoman who is paid to taste artisan chocolates -- why did the Duke career planning services not tell me about that job opportunity?) is a Nutella nut. Enough said.

Finally, here's a great read on Salon today titled Thomas Jefferson, America's original foodie.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Shrooming, part 2

As I mentioned in the last post, I am now a mushroom farmer of very small scale. I have 10 shiitake logs, which should begin to fruit a year from now and produce about 2.5 pounds each over approximately 5 years. This is not nearly enough to satisfy my personal demand, so I'll continue to be a good customer at the farmer's market and Oryana, but I'm still very excited to find an edible crop that is suited for my shady back yard and requires minimal effort.

my shiitake farm
I acquired these logs a few weeks ago at an all-day workshop I attended at the beautiful Ware Farm near Bear Lake. Bernie and Sandee Ware are marvelous organic farmers, growing delicious asparagus and succulent strawberries as well as many varieties of veggies. Bernie got turned on to shiitakes by fellow organic farmer Jim Moses, introduced in the previous blog post, and now has hundreds of shiitake logs in the wooded areas of his farm.

Back in early April, Bernie joined forces for a day with ISLAND -- a small, innovative local non-profit inspired to promote community self-sufficiency and ecological sanity through a blend of programs celebrating art and nature. On ISLAND's tiny staff is the intrepid Yvonne Stephens, who with her husband, Jason, have become mushroom evangelists. For this one-day workshop, the Stephenses and the Wares procured all the materials necessary for inoculating 100 maple logs, cut by Bernie on his farm the previous day.The 10 lucky workshop attendees took turns at one of three stations: drilling, inoculating and waxing. (Being nervous of power tools, I skipped the drilling station). At the end of the day, which included a delicious potluck lunch featuring soups Sandee had prepared with their shiitakes, we each took home 10 inoculated logs and the knowledge to care for them.

I also learned that I have much yet to learn about mushrooms. I fancy myself to be at least marginally knowledgeable of most culinary inputs and procedures, yet I was surprised to learn from Sandee that shiitakes can be dried and powdered and used in soups or gravies as a flavoring and thickening agent. Fabulous!

I haven't even begun to explore the medicinal uses of shiitakes and other mushrooms, nor the ecological benefits (just this week I saw a story about oyster mushrooms breaking down disposable diapers), but I know where to find the ultimate guru. His name is Paul Stamets and he's the high prophet of the mushroom people. I have his book, Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World, which is exceptionally comprehensive. I'm pretty sure Yvonne and Jason have all of his books, and I may soon get to that level of mushroom mania.

I purchased my sole mushroom book a few years ago at our local Bioneers conference after I was so entranced by Stamets' presentation that to this day I still can't remember anything else I saw or heard at the conference. He was on stage at the large national conference in California (we watched via satellite) and as it began, it was painfully obvious that he would much rather be out in the forest than in front of a large audience. He stammered and confessed to being a shy and awkward speaker. But as he continued, I was mesmerized. He introduced me to a fungi kingdom that is mysterious, magical, powerful, intricate and abounding with potential to restore and heal our planet and ourselves.

I haven't been able to find a complete video of Stamets' Bioneers speech online, but at the bottom of the biography page on his company's website is a link to a very similar presentation he made for TED.

And now, one of my favorite recipes for shiitakes, adapted from Thomas Kelller's Ad Hoc at Home cookbook (his recipe is for morels):

Shiitakes in Madeira

1 lb (roughly) fresh shiitakes
4 tbsp butter
1 medium shallot, finely chopped
2 tsps fresh thyme
1/2 cup Madeira
salt and pepper to taste

Clean the mushrooms, if necessary, with a brush or wet paper towel, or just wash them in a bowl of water and rub them dry. Remove the stems (can cook them in 1-2 cups of water to make a quick base for miso soup later) and slice any large caps. Heat the butter in a large skillet and cook the shallot for a couple of minutes. Add the thyme and the shiitakes and stir around for another minute or so, then add the Madeira and cook until tender. Season with salt and pepper.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Shrooming, part 1

It's morel hunting season in northern Michigan, and I would wager this annual foray to find fungi gold draws more humans to the woods than the deer hunt. Unlike France, where trained dogs and pigs sniff out treasured truffles, we must use human ingenuity to find our version of mycelium heaven. The morels at least emerge from the ground, which makes them visible to the human eye, but they are often obscured by fallen leaves.

When we first moved to northern Michigan, nearly 20 years ago, we lived in a suburban house bordering a large patch of forest. The hunting in those woods was good enough that we could treat ourselves to a few breakfasts of scrambled eggs with morels, or a side dish of sautéed morels. Since moving downtown 12 years ago, we haven't found a single morel during our hikes in various public forests. I've given up.

No matter. I have something equally good, and I'm raising them in my backyard. I'm now a shiitake farmer. I won't get my first crop until next spring, but when these morsels puff out of their logs, I'm certain they will taste better to me than any elusive morel.

I've long been a fan of shiitakes from a culinary perspective. My first experience were with dried shiitakes packaged in plastic bags with Japanese lettering. I bought these in natural foods stores and typically used them in soups. I had never purchased fresh shiitakes until I moved to Traverse City, where mushroom farmers extraordinaire Jim Moses and Linda Grigg sell their harvest all summer at the downtown farmer's market. These plump, meaty and tender shiitakes are getting to be almost as difficult to procure as morels. I'm not an early riser on Saturday mornings, which often leaves me disappointed when I arrive at their stand on the west end of the market; "they've cleaned me out already!" Jim tells me.

(Fortunately, Jim and Linda also supply shiitakes to Oryana, so I'm not out of luck forever, and I'll be cooking a batch tonight for a fine dinner. Check back tomorrow for a great recipe!)

I interviewed Jim for a story I wrote for the Oryana newsletter last month about the interaction between the local foods movement and organics. Jim called yesterday to tell me he was pleased with the way I quoted him in the story (whew!) but he wished he had made a few additional points.

In the story, Jim said he believes some large foundations that have been traditionally allied with industrial agriculture are supporting the local foods movement as a diversionary tactic, to "get people asking the wrong questions." Jim said he wishes he had made clear that the questions people should be asking about their food begin with "why" and "how", not "where". As he said, no human activity is more fundamental than the growing of food; intent and methods matter more than food-miles.

With his long, white hair and often fiery rhetoric, Jim can call to mind a biblical prophet shouting at the gates of the city. Anyone who preaches stern, unpopular messages must be prepared to make a few enemies, and Jim has his share. His devil is Monsanto, a corporation he calls "pure evil" for, among other things, its production and aggressive promotion of genetically engineered "Roundup Ready" seeds designed to survive a dousing of the Monsanto glyphosate herbicide that kills every other green thing it touches.

Because Jim's devotion to the integrity of soil and water extends beyond his garden, he has recently been trying to get people and organizations here to reconsider efforts to control the spread of phragmites, a common wetlands reed regarded as invasive. Jim said he's gotten nothing but hostility for his complaints that using chemicals to eradicate the plant will do more harm to the ecosystem than would the spread of the phragmites. (If any phragmites eradicators happen to read this, please comment below; I was too timid to seek out alternative interviews for such an obscure blog).

Jim is equally uncompromising on chemicals in the garden. Prior to the adoption of the national organics certification program, Jim was a certification inspector for one of the regional organics agencies. He's aware that his relationship with other growers was strained by his unwillingness to give applicants a pass on practices that others might have merely frowned upon or overlooked entirely. His advocacy for the national standards has often been seen by other local growers as a "get certified or you're not really organic" stance, causing additional friction.

Yet Jim has softened a bit on that subject. He has compliments for some in the community who are producing good food despite lack of organic certification, and he told me yesterday that he wishes the organics movement had built a larger tent. He likes the European designation of biological farming.

Now I wish to stop writing about gardening and go work in mine. If you enjoyed reading about this mushroom man, come back tomorrow-ish and I will introduce you to two others, plus give you what I believe to be the most delicious of all recipes for shiitakes.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Lunch and a Movie

When I began home schooling my daughter Leah nearly two years ago, I had no plan and few ideas on how to guide her education. One day, desperately flailing about for an activity, I suggested we go to the morning movie at our beautifully-restored downtown cinema, the State Theater. Every Wednesday, the State shows a classic movie for 25 cents, the same price charged when it first opened as the Lyric in 1916.

This activity, followed by lunch at one of the many terrific downtown restaurants, has become a ritual for us. Regardless of weather conditions or our personal health, we walk downtown every Wednesday morning for a movie and lunch.

I have come to appreciate the educational value of films so much that I've referred to the State and Netflix as my two most important curriculum partners. Through film, to which my daughter responds with enthusiasm and attention that no printed matter comes close to inspiring in her, I have taken her around the world and through history. Her French lessons are supported by Juliette Binoche and Romain Duris; a unit on western expansion became visual, thanks to Netflix, through "Dances with Wolves" and (for the pre-enlightened treatment) "How the West was Won".

The Wednesday classic movies follow a monthly theme, often honoring an actor, director or writer, but sometimes a genre or inspiration. Previous months have celebrated Woody Allen, Lena Horne, John Hughes, and 1939. So far this year, we've had the themes of "great dads", classic romances, spring musicals, and Cary Grant. In the past two years of Wednesday classics, I'll roughly estimate that I've seen fewer than half of these films previously. Even when it's a film I know, screening it at the State is like seeing it for the first time. Watching "Out of Africa" on the State's magnificent screen, sitting in the most comfortable theater seats on the planet, was an experience that so eclipsed television viewing that it moved me to tears, almost through the entire movie!

Yesterday, segueing from Cary Grant month to what appears to be either Stanley Donen or Aubrey Hepburn month (entire May schedule not yet released), we were treated to "Charade", an exquisite film I'm embarrassed to say I'd never before seen in its entirety. Audrey Hepburn's hats! Cary Grant's charm! This film had everything: perfect direction, tight screenplay, witty dialogue, suspense, thrilling chase scenes (in high heels), romance, Henry Mancini score, and Paris. Two thumbs up, and I rate it 10/10.

Over lunch, we discuss the film and I'll mention scenes or features that I find illuminating. One of my favorite examples of film as a time capsule comes from Woody Allen's "Play it Again, Sam". He pays tribute to Humphrey Bogart and "Casablanca," references I had to explain afterwards to Leah as she had not seen "Casablanca" (although she soon became acquainted with Bogey when his films were featured). The most striking time warp aspect of "Play it Again, Sam" involved the use of the telephone. Great comedy was made of one character (the Laszlo equivalent) so devoted to his work that he couldn't be out of touch from his office; the first thing he did when he entered a house, restaurant, bar or gallery was to call his office and leave the house phone number. No cell phones back in the 1970s! We spent much time discussing how this comedic turn would need to be rewritten today.

When I mentioned to some friends last year that I was using movies as curriculum, one told me of another parent who home schooled his son using only movies and wrote a book about it. As usual for me, I read reviews of the book, The Film Club: A Memoir, by David Gilmour, who had a special expertise in the area as he is a professional film critic. Despite my lack of expertise, I've been comforted that a curriculum of only film could work out well for a teenager. (I've supplemented the films with a standard 8th grade curriculum from an online school this year).

Our mother-daughter Wednesday film club will be ending in September, as Leah has chosen to enroll in the nearby high school. These past two years have been among the most rewarding of my life, and I hope it has served her well. Although I'll miss her company beyond measure, I'm excited for her as she takes this important step into the world. And I know we will continue to enjoy movies together in the evenings and weekends.

My deepest appreciation to all the volunteers and donors who have made the State Theater such a gem in our community, and particularly the leadership and dedication of Michael Moore.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Ethiopian-Indian fusion

I hosted my book group Thursday night for our discussion of  Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese. This debut novel is a beautifully-written, expansive story of family, loyalty and profession set in three continents and featuring well-developed characters from four nationalities. Mr. Verghese, who was born in Ethiopia of Indian parents, is a physician and professor of medicine at Stanford. That would be more than enough success for most people, but now he can add "best-selling author" to his achievements. I'm impressed.

Trying to keep our book group dinner on theme, I looked for some Ethiopian recipes. I remembered a few in my trusty old Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant: Ethnic and Regional Recipes from the Cooks at the Legendary Restaurant (Cookery), and since I have no dedicated Ethiopian cookbooks in my vast collection (an oversight that must be rectified!), I chose the recipes for two vegetarian stews and injera, a spongy flatbread. I also attempted to make t'ej, an Ethiopian honey wine, from the method described in Sander Katz' Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods.

T'ej to be, maybe
I started the t'ej about three weeks ago, but I think it's not quite ready. I had to skim some mold off the surface a couple of days before the book group dinner, so I didn't dare serve it to my guests. This is my first attempt at wine-making of any type and I'm not sure how I'll know when it's good.

Both of the stews turned out well and the homemade spice blend (berbere) and spicy clarified butter (niter kibbeh) I used in cooking gave off the most intoxicating aroma. My friends said they smelled it from outside and couldn't wait to taste.

Being a slacker, I didn't read the Moosewood recipe for injera until the morning of the dinner and discovered that it required three days of fermentation! Not to be dissuaded, I googled for "quick injera" and was pleased to find several instructions for approximating its taste by using wheat flours, lemon juice and seltzer. This quick version was no more difficult to mix than the average pancake batter. None of my guests seemed disappointed.

glorious Meadowlark spinach
Saag Ethiopia
Anyway, last night I was reflecting on the cultural blend of Ethiopia and India in the novel, and recalling the delicious Indian saag paneer that Jodi contributed to our dinner, and looking at a large bag of Meadowlark Farm spinach in the refrigerator, when I had a sudden inspiration: why not make Ethiopian saag? I still had berbere and niter kibbeh. So I diced an onion, sauteed it in a couple of tablespoons of niter kibbeh, added about a tablespoon of berbere and then the spinach. It was simple and delicious!

P.S. Check out the May/June Oryana newsletter for my story on local food and why organic still matters. The story was prompted by this article by Ronnie Cummins and colleagues published by Organic Consumers Association.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Road food

Not surprisingly, one of my favorite aspects of vacation is eating out. Many travelers advance plan their food stops, or seek out a famous restaurant in a city they're visiting, but I've been known to detour hundreds of miles out of our way to hit a particular food destination. I think I may have even thrown in an extra country once (Eurorail, so long ago, can't recall exactly).

No such decadent behavior on our most recent trip, which was the usual Spring Break sojourn to southern Virginia and North Carolina to visit family. We did vary the route slightly this time, going through Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C., to visit colleges with Dylan, our high school junior.

In D.C., Dylan and I had fun playing with the Urbanspoon application on our iPods and, since we were all tired after a day of travel and college tours, we chose the nearest eatery, Guapo's, a Tex-Mex restaurant with a high "liked it" rating on Urbanspoo that was conveniently next door to our hotel. I had low expectations, but as soon as I tasted the freshness of the complimentary chips and salsa, I knew it would be safe to order from the menu. I chose the masitas de puerco al horno (slow-roasted pork medallions in a Spanish-style sauce), which were excellent. I enjoyed them so much that I forgot to stick my spoon in Leah's sopa de tortilla, which she assured me was very good. John and Dylan had something boring like fajitas or burritos, but they were satisfied.

I won't mention our interstate stops. We do the best we can, but with long drive times and two finicky teens, sometimes simply avoiding golden arches at lunch counts as a gustatory victory.

Our next opportunity for fine dining was in Raleigh. This was "date night" and John and I left the kids to enjoy pizza with their cousins and grandparents while we checked out the Bloomsbury Bistro. I was expecting the southern version of my favorite restaurant, the Cooks' House, but such perfection is rare. Still, the Bloomsbury served excellent food; some ingredients were local, and the dishes were regionally inspired. I had an outstanding duck breast flavored with cranberries and accompanied by a sweet potatoe puree. It was almost like Thanksgiving. I've already forgotten what John ordered, but I tasted it and proclaimed it delicious.

I was most disappointed in our Durham dining, or lack thereof. I had compiled a lovely list of well-reviewed Durham eateries and was excited to explore the city's renowned local foods scene, even though we only had time for one lunch. Unfortunately, I left the list (and directions) at home, and after Dylan's Duke tour, we had two hungry teen boys (his cousin joined us) and I couldn't find from memory the place I had intended to stop at on the way to Chapel Hill. We ended up having lunch at a Franklin Street sports bar where the walls are adorned with famous Tarheels and, I was told by the boys, Coach K's face decorates the urinal in the men's room. Sigh.

Family dining at Meadow
I have a brother who lives at the beach (yay!), so on our finest weather day, we made the road trip from Raleigh to Wilmington, stopping en route to lunch at the famous Meadow Restaurant, which my parents have been raving about for years. This place is the antithesis to an upscale urban bistro. It's a big country all-you-can-eat buffet full of fried chicken, country-style steak, green beans, turnip greens, hush puppies, pork rinds, and the like. The buffet also includes a dizzying array of cakes and pies, the most popular of which is the chocolate pie. The low buffet price (a little over $8) explains its fame.

For dinner, my brother and sister-in-law took us to a pleasant seafood restaurant in Wrightsville Beach, the Fishhouse, where John could get his mandatory platter of deep-fried ocean critters. I enjoyed the grilled mahi plate.

Unfortunately, being a slack food blogger, I forgot to take photos, except for the Meadow one. I'll do better next time, which will probably be our mid-May trip to Chicago (more college visits).

Friday, March 18, 2011

On basketball and education

I'm not a sports fan. Although the Super Bowl was on in our house last month, I don't know who played. I only noticed the horrible halftime show and a nice Chrysler commercial.

But there is one sport I'm passionate about: Duke basketball. As another Duke alumna remarked to me, "Once a Cameron Crazy, always a Cameron Crazy."

My beloved Blue Devils, defending NCAA champions, take the court this afternoon in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, and Blue Devils worldwide are all a-Twitter on the likelihood that stellar freshman point guard Kyrie Irving will return to action after a three-month absence from an injured toe. The possibility of a repeat hasn't been this tangible since 1992, when Duke's dominance prompted some fans to refer to the championship tournament as the "Duke Invitational."

Playing on those repeat championship teams of 1991 and 1992 was Grant Hill, and he's getting as much attention in the sports world this week as is Kyrie Irving. The New York Times published Hill's response to comments from former University of Michigan player Jalen Rose, who said in an ESPN documentary that he hated Duke in college because he thought Duke only recruited black players who were "Uncle Toms."

Grant's eloquent words and exemplary humanity make me far more proud to share an alma mater with him than do the championship titles he brought our school. I graduated in 1986, so I never had an opportunity to watch Grant from the bleachers in Cameron. Although I pay little attention to the NBA, I probably know more about Grant's post-Duke career than I do about any other alum, save Johnny Dawkins. I know he was drafted by the Pistons and has been lauded as a role model both on the court and off. I also know he collects African-American art and has exhibited his collection at Duke's Nasher Museum.

He writes in the NYT:
A good education is a privilege.
Just as Jalen has founded a charter school in Michigan, we are expected to use our education to help others, to improve life for those who need our assistance and to use the excellent education we have received to better the world.
This is what a good education meant to me, and what I want for my own children. I know that many institutes of higher learning, not just Duke, offer their students such an education. I also firmly believe that a good education need not be formal; some very thoughtful people have been self-educated or relied on the guidance of one or more mentors.

My oldest is an 11th-grader and the college decision is on our family's near horizon. I want to avoid wasting our money and his and that of any generous scholarship donors on an experience that may teach little more than how to tap a keg and fill out a job application. I've also heard educators (including my son's high school principal) comment that a college degree does not necessarily offer the employment advantage it did a generation ago, and others have noted it may be a wasted investment for many students.

In one eloquent column, Grant Hill reminds us of what a true education is all about. It's not about landing a high-paying job, recognition or awards. The true goal is to shape a person, a generation and future generations to leave the world better than we found it. We may fall short, but we should never be derided for trying.

Many professors, as well as other students, helped shape my future during my Duke years, but two in particular stand out. It was in Bruce Payne's class on Ethics for Public Policy Makers that I learned to think deeply about the goals and unintended consequences of decisions and to learn how the best and the brightest have navigated all those murky gray waters. A visiting Duke lecturer, esteemed journalist Robin Wright, was my most valued mentor and the person I credit with inspiring me to pursue writing, rather than a law degree, as a powerful means of contributing to the world's needs. Although my journalism career did not unfold the way Robin may have anticipated (as evidenced by my current location of Traverse City, not Afghanistan), Robin's influence fundamentally shaped who I have been for the past 25 years. 

Although my son is still unsure where he wants to go (Duke is on his short list) or what he wants to study, he gives all indications of viewing college as an opportunity for exploration and transformation, a few years that will help him transition from the protective bubble of his childhood in northern Michigan into his mysterious adult life. My hope for him and my daughter (following three years later) is that whatever post-secondary education they choose, it will be as meaningful as were my four years at Duke.

Now let the hoops action begin! Go Duke!!!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Brewmaster in Chief, Young Farmers, Coconuts

Forget the schedule. As soon as I committed myself to blog publication dates, I couldn't think of one thing to write, whereas before the silly self-imposed deadlines, I had more ideas than I had time to type them. So I'm back to a non-schedule of "this is my blog and I'll update it whenever I have something to say."

Today, I would like to draw the attention of my foodie readers to three recent news items.

Late last night, due to rich-dinner-induced-insomnia, I was web surfing and stumbled across the surprising news that the White House is brewing its own beer. The White House Honey Ale is homebrewed by the presidential chefs using honey from beehives on the grounds. The Obamas are even considering planting hops at the White House for future batches. How cool is that? Check out this great blog for more news on White House food initiatives. I love having a foodie president!

The story reminded me that I've been planning for more than a year to make my own mead. I have the honey in the pantry, two books of recipes, and dim memories of a workshop with local meadmaker supreme Nels Veliquette. Now I just need to lose my fear of inadvertently fermenting the wrong kinds of microorganisms and give it a try.

Today's second news item is this excellent article in today's New York Times about a new generation of small farmers, the opportunities provided them in locations with thriving foodie cultures, as well as financial challenges. The story mentions that young farmers often have difficulty finding mentors. Kudos to the Michigan Land Use Institute (not mentioned in the NYT story, which is set in Oregon) for recognizing this a couple of years ago and hiring retiring organic farmer Jim Sluyter to help address this need in our region.

And finally, for cooks, I recommend a recipe-laden feature on coconut oil from Melissa Clark, also in the New York Times. I'm eager to try the roasted sweet potatoes and the chocolate-shell ice cream topping. An excellent mail-order source for high-quality coconut oil at bulk prices is Wilderness Family Naturals. Sally Fallon, president of the Weston A. Price Foundation, published a nutrition and cookbook with Dr. Mary Enig a few years ago that includes many recipes featuring coconut oil, Eat Fat, Lose Fat: The Healthy Alternative to Trans Fats. I should get it off my shelves and actually use it!

This reminds me that I haven't made chocolate bark in a long time, which is a shame because it's unbelievably easy. I'll close with the recipe:

Chocolate-Almond Bark

1/4 c. extra virgin coconut oil
1-2 Tbsps. cocoa powder (experiment to your taste)
a few drops liquid stevia, or about 1/4 tsp powdered stevia (again, experiment to taste)
almonds, roasted if desired

Line an 8x8 square baking pan with wax paper and chill it in the freezer. Melt the coconut oil, if it's not already liquid. (In a warm kitchen, your coconut oil may always be liquid. Here in northern Michigan, mine spends most of the year in a solid state). Add the coconut powder and stevia. Toss some nuts in the prepared pan, pour over the coconut oil mixture, and put it back in the freezer until hardened. Enjoy!

Friday, February 25, 2011

Sick bed cooking

I knew it was a bad idea to commit myself to a blog posting schedule. Today, I've got nothing. Well, almost nothing. As Marge Simpson and all other moms know, we never get a holiday, even when we're sick. So when I heard "Mom, what's for dinner?", I responded, "what are you making?" And then I went to the kitchen and cooked.

For tonight, I'll redefine "local" as locally-obtained. It's deep winter here in the north woods, and fresh produce is scarce. Two more heads of garlic are all that remain from my Meadowlark Farm summer CSA bounty. On Monday, friends Joe and Nancy gave me a huge butternut squash from their garden root cellar and a bag of Ware Farm potatoes. That will make likely make a nice soup this weekend.

Pasta with mushrooms and peas
Pumpkin cheesecake with caramel sauce
A bigger imperative tonight was to use some highly-perishable ingredients that were locally-obtained from my neighbor, Jill, who gifted me yesterday with the fixings for a monster-sized batch of guacamole. In the bag were 9 avocadoes, a bunch of carrots, a sack of cherry tomatoes, 2 lemons, 2 limes, a white onion and a bunch of cilantro. I used about half of that last night for the intended guacamole. Tonight, I tossed some of the remainder into a bowl of mixed greens, along with a little bacon and blue cheese, for a salad. I also made a quick pasta and mushroom dish that I saw on last week. Then I opened a bottle of chianti (that goes well with cold medicine, correct?), added some leftover pumpkin cheesecake for dessert, and no one needed to be deprived just because mom is sick.