Monday, January 31, 2011

Le Mort

My celebrity objects of worship are standard for a woman in her mid-40s. My hunky movie stars are Colin Firth, George Clooney and Johnny Depp; from music, I go for Bruce Springsteen (who doesn't?) and Carlos Santana; and my TV funny guys are Jon Stewart and Jerry Seinfeld. Even my TV chef picks are typical: Anthony Bourdain and Jamie Oliver. As for women, I'll watch even the worst Julia Roberts movie (I didn't think "Eat Pray Love" was so bad) and I adore Helen Mirren and Meryl Streep. In music, it's Aretha.

But I'll wager that my "person with whom I'd most like to have dinner" (aside from Barack Obama, of course) is rather unique: Mort Rosenblum, my favorite food writer.

Mort is not technically a food writer nor a celebrity. He's a former foreign correspondent for the Associated Press, and he's written more words on war than on food. But I haven't read any of that war stuff.

I first discovered Mort in the remainder bin of a bookstore. The book was "Olives: The Life and Lore of a Noble Fruit", and the price was right: $5.98. I was immediately mesmerized. I read passages aloud to my husband to impress him with the clever phrasing. At some point, I looked at the author's bio and exclaimed, "John! This guy works for the AP! Do you know him?" (My husband is also an AP correspondent, but in a much less-glamorous location than Mort's Paris). John said that yes, he knew Mort was one of AP's star foreign correspondents but had no idea he had written a book on food.

Well, Mort didn't write just one book on food. He's written three, and they are all superb. After "Olives" came the enchanting French culinary adventure tale, "A Goose in Toulouse," and then his pièce de résistance, "Chocolate: A Bittersweet Saga of Light and Dark". This book has an entire chapter on Nutella! I didn't want to just read "Chocolate", I wanted to disappear into the pages as if they were a magic wardrobe that could transport me to a cacao farm on an island off the coast of Africa, or to a tiny artisan chocolaterie in Paris.  I wanted to meet his guide, Chloë, who surely has the best job on the planet, being paid to taste chocolate.

For a few years, I harbored fantasies of meeting Mort. I knew from his books that he is friends with the owner of Ann Arbor's food wonder, Zingerman's, so that gives him a bit of a Michigan connection. Plus there was the AP link. Back when the Michigan members of the AP had an annual meeting every summer, at which a notable journalist would be invited to give a keynote address, I asked John to lobby his boss to invite Mort to be that speaker. Since John's boss' wife is a food writer, I thought she might support my campaign, but I suspect that John never even mentioned it, and now those meetings don't happen anyway.

"Chocolate" was published in 2006 and I've seen no hint of another Mort food book. His last two titles have been about journalism; I gave John "Escaping Plato's Cave" a couple of years ago as a Christmas gift, and he said it was good. All indications are that my favorite food writer is finished with writing about food, so I shall have to make do with re-reading the three.

The next title on my reading list comes from my second favorite food writer, Michael Pollan. My book group has chosen his "In Defense of Food" for our February selection. I'm sure it will be excellent, and I will review it here, but I don't expect it to have the magic that is Mort.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Rolling in Dough

Almost everyone who uses the kitchen for more than reheating take-out will eventually try to bake bread. It is one of the most basic and satisfying forms of cookery. The transformation of flour, salt and water into a stretchy, pliable dough is magical; the aroma that fills the house as it is baking is so comforting that real estate agents often ask home sellers to put a loaf in the oven just before a showing.

In my nearly three decades of adult cooking experience, I have baked many loaves. Until about a year ago, my primary guide was the classic whole grains Laurel's Kitchen Bread Book. Then I decided to try a sourdough recipe from Sandor Katz' Wild Fermentation. After feeding the starter for a week or so, I baked a brick. I don't blame Mr. Katz. It's possible I didn't properly follow his instructions, but I think it's more likely that my house was too cold for the starter to fully ferment and I should've let it grow more before baking.

Since I really have no need to bake (as the evidence below will demonstrate), I gave up on sourdough until this past summer, when the lovely La Brea Bakery book caught my eye. The first recipe, for a basic country white loaf, is about 28 pages long, including instructions for a 14-day process of growing a culture, or "mother". The resulting bread was a huge hit with my family, and I quickly moved on to some of the more complex recipes.

However, for the past few months my "mother" has been sitting, almost completely forgotten, in my fridge. This is why:

First, the bread rack at Oryana, my neighborhood natural foods co-op. Nearly everything pictured here is local. We have whole grain organic sourdoughs from Pleasanton Brick Oven, the sophisticated sourdoughs from Stone House Bread, as well as Bay Bread, my friend Pearl's Old Mission Homestyle, Oryana's own PapaDoc bagels, and L'Chayim bagels from Beulah. Confronting this during every shopping trip had already caused me to question my decision to take up home baking. I was, more often than not, stashing my "mother" in the fridge because I just picked up one of these excellent loaves.

Most of these bakeries have their own storefronts in town. Stone House, for instance, opened a café at the end of my street this past summer. Sometimes I think Traverse City should be renamed Bakers City!

And then, this past November, came the final, crushing blow to my bread-making aspirations. Just two blocks from my house, Jen Welty moved into a little shop on Front Street with her 9 Bean Rows Bakery. I had already been buying her bread and fabulous croissants at the Farmer's Market, but now I could be supplied five days a week! My "mother" hasn't been out of the fridge since.

Now 9 Bean Rows is starting a CSB (Community Supported Bakery), basically a bread-of-the-week club. A year's subscription costs roughly $3.25/loaf and gives a 20 percent discount on all other bakery items.

And what items!

The croissant basket.
The pastry case.

Croissants, pain au chocolat, cream puffs, eclaires and more!


Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Minimalist Kudos

I was all set to write about movies this morning until I clicked on The New York Times. I scanned the headlines, read the editorial on President Obama's State of the Union speech last night, and the brief analysis of the bizarre Michele Bachmann Overdrive exhibition. Then I saw this: "The Minimalist Makes His Exit".

My heart nearly stopped. No! Mark Bittman can't be leaving! He must have anticipated such panic in his fans, because he reassures us in the first paragraph that is not quitting the Times; he is only ending regular publication of his weekly column. At the end of this farewell column, he tells us that he will be joining the Times' Opinion page. I'll save my opinion on that for the end of this blog post!

One of the many reasons I love The New York Times is the superb food writing. I'm not old enough to know what the food pages were like before the reign of the renowned Craig Claiborne, but I know that the standard of excellence present at his retirement in the late 1980s has continued. More than any other source, I credit the NYT food pages with expanding my culinary horizons, be it an in-depth report on a food previously unknown to me or a story about coffee geeks in search of a perfect brew.

Mark Bittman's focus has been to demystify cooking and make it accessible to those who may be daunted by their lack of training, space or time. But a food guru for the masses he's not. Balding, middle-aged and low-key, Mark Bittman is to Rachael Ray what Umberto Eco is to Dan Brown; I can't imagine him on the Food Network any more than I can imagine an Eco paperback at an airport kiosk. Despite his sincere admonishments against food snobbery, his recipes are not likely to appeal to those whose comfort zone is the middle aisles of Safeway or the Taco Bell drive-up window. Yet I would recommend his cookbooks and columns to a beginning or moderately-experienced cook who isn't freaked out by seeing something like tofu or quinoa on an ingredient list. And even an experienced cook who likes to spend all weekend in the kitchen may appreciate his no-fuss recipes on a weeknight.

One of my favorite Bittman columns was his advice on cheaply outfitting a kitchen. There may be many excuses for not cooking (some people simply don't want to, and that's fine), but an inadequate kitchen shouldn't be one of them. To cook, all you really need is a heat source and something to hold the food so that your hands don't get burned. Think campfire cooking. I once saw Alton Brown cook kebabs by digging a small trench in the ground, building a fire in the middle and laying skewers of meat across the top. He made it way more complicated than it had to be (examining all available skewers at a kitchen store till he found the best), but it still serves as excellent evidence that a Viking range is not a necessity for home cooking.

I only have one of Bittman's cookbooks in my overcrowded library (his The Best Recipes in the World) and often I forget it's there. But sometimes, when I look in my fridge and find an assortment of seemingly incongruous items, am too lazy to go to the grocery and don't want to be in the kitchen all afternoon anyway, I pick up his book and find inspiration for something new (a head of cabbage, a pound of sausage and a few seasonings make a tasty Italian dish).

Most of the Bittman recipes I've tried have come from his Minimalist column, so I will be sorry to see it go. However, I'm thrilled that he will be advocating for real food on the op-ed pages. I can't wait to see his first column!

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Slow Life

Aside from my internet connection, I can't think of anything that has increased my satisfaction by speeding up. In most of life's broad categories, I find that slower is better.

Perhaps the best known of the slow movements is Slow Food, an international organization founded in 1989 in the wake of the opening of a McDonald's in the heart of Rome. Among its many endeavors, Slow Food strives to support the survival of artisan and small-scale producers of extraordinary edibles, who are often struggling in a global marketplace that prefers homogeneity. In the U.S., author and food biodiversity researcher Gary Paul Nabhan has championed the RAFT project through Slow Food USA. I highly recommend his books, particularly Renewing America's Food Traditions and  Where Our Food Comes From.

A spinoff of Slow Food is Slow Money, but I will write more about economics in a future post.

I also like slow transportation. My favorite mode is walking because it provides the most intimate interaction with my community of neighbors, both human and non-human. Since I will undoubtedly lecture about transportation choices ad nauseum in future blog posts, I'll move on now.

Being an unemployed homeschooling mom, most of my days are slow. But in the winter, some glorious days are slower than others; these I dub "pajama days". When I have nowhere to go and the weather outside is frightful, I plop myself in this spot with the TV remote (I adore Netflix) and my laptop (usually World of Warcraft in one window and the New York Times in another). If I tire of the electronic media, I have plenty of books available.

Today is a Pajama Day.

For the past decade or so, I have arduously resisted the pull of modern culture to a frenetic busyness that leaves most people complaining that they "don't have time" to do the things they want to or know they should.The key, for me, has been to try my best to follow Wendell Berry's advice to "want less". Our car is an example of this. The three licensed drivers in my house share a 1998 Ford Escort wagon. The 17-year-old driver has mentioned that this is an embarrassing car for him and it would be much better for his cool image if he were to drive a "Call of Duty" edition Jeep. But to his credit, he rarely complains. I think he understands the trade-offs our family would need to make to acquire those types of material goodies.

We are a slow family of introverts. Despite one member having a demanding job and another having several extra-curricular activities, most evenings and weekends still find us home together. Yet this morning I'm keenly aware that this blissful situation won't last and I'm wishing I could slow time. The kids are both out taking the SAT. The oldest will be graduating high school in less than 18 months and will likely be going to college far from home.

Actually, I don't want to slow time; I want to freeze it.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Winter Oatmeal

The Northern Michigan Small Farm Conference kicks off tonight. I'm not attending, mostly because I'm not a farm by any stretch of the imagination. However, seeing it on my calendar did put me in the mood for oatmeal. I was reminded of the time I attended several years ago when Sally Fallon, president of the Weston A. Price Foundation, was the keynote speaker. I was on the Oryana board and someone had the idea that all board members should go hear Sally as her cookbook was currently trendy among the co-op foodies.

I'm an unintentional cookbook collector (I can't resist them) and have dozens. I'm afraid to count them. Some are ragged with use, others barely opened. Some cookbook authors, such as Thomas Keller, inspire me to reach for perfection in the kitchen. Others, like Mollie Katzen, Madhur Jaffrey and the Moosewood Collective, help me decide what's for dinner when I'm all out of my own ideas. But if I had to choose one cookbook for that desert island, it would be Sally Fallon's Nourishing Traditions.

Presumably, if I were stranded on a desert island, I would actually have time to do everything the Sally way. It's not that her methods are unduly time-consuming -- and she insists that once these preparation techniques become a habit, time in the kitchen returns to a normal level -- but they do require advance planning. (To save space, I won't go into details here on the theories behind her methods.) The primary adjustment is learning to soak grains and legumes -- even nuts -- before cooking.

What this means is that if you want oatmeal for breakfast, you need to decide the night before. But oh, what oatmeal! Sally's oatmeal is the best on the planet, and with 2 minutes of preparation before bedtime, it can be ready the next morning in the time it would take to open a package of instant, add water and pop it in the microwave. And, if you buy oats in bulk (organic bulk rolled oats at Oryana are cheaper per pound than store-brand oats at Meijer, last time I checked), it is a very inexpensive breakfast.

Winter Oatmeal (adapted from Nourishing Traditions)

1/2 c. rolled oats
1 c. water
1 Tbsp. plain yogurt (or whey)
1/2 tsp. sea salt

Several hours before cooking, warm 1/2 c. of the water and stir in the yogurt. Add the oats, cover and let sit. The next morning, bring a fresh 1/2 c. water to boil. Add the salt and the oats mixture. It will be ready in less than 5 minutes. This makes a generous single serving or two side dishes. Double or triple as necessary. Enjoy!

While this is tender and delicious eaten plain, if you have time, dress it up according to your tastes and pantry ingredients. This morning I added goji berries, toasted almond slivers, butter, local maple syrup, ground flax seeds and sliced banana. I put the rest of the banana in the blender with some yogurt, a cup of strawberries frozen from the summer harvest, more ground flax seed, a teaspoon of dolomite powder, about half a scoop of whey protein powder, and a cranberry Emergen-C mixed in a cup of water. Delicious and nourishing!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Tropical Vacation at Home

While local and seasonal remains my ideal in the kitchen, sometimes I want what I want (to badly paraphrase Meg Ryan's Sally Albright).

A morning forecast of another lake effect snow dump headed our way and more days of very cold weather was followed by a trip to the doctor's office perusing the waiting room travel magazine featuring photos of India and the beaches of Uruguay. Afterwards, I arrived at Oryana forgetting why I had stopped there. So, with no shopping list in hand, I let myself be seduced by the tropical sirens in the produce section. I left with a mango, a bunch of bananas, two ripe avocados, a large bundle of cilantro and a lime. I'm imagining the places where these were grown, all far away. Oryana is very good about labeling produce with the country of origin, so I know the mango was grown in Ecuador. I've been following the adventures of the GoBe girls on their sustainable chocolate tour of Ecuador and wishing I had gone along. Instead, I raise my glass of mango lassi in their honor.

Yes, the mango went into the blender with a little too much yogurt, some Shetler's milk to thin, a generous squeeze of local honey and a few cardamom pods. The avocados were mashed with the juice of half the lime, a large handful of cilantro, a sprinkle of sea salt and a few spoons of minced purple onion. And voilá! Lunch is served.

I feel better now.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

CSA Traverse

Today I was reminded why I don't need to fret too much about my meager composting and gardening skills. The Meadowlark Farm 2011 CSA signup arrived in the mail. I may once again plant the peppers in the wrong spot and forget to water the lettuce, but my family will still enjoy a bounty of fresh, seasonal, local veggies from spring through fall, just as if I were able to successfully nurture a garden.

Community Supported Agriculture is an economic model that allows small producers to share the financial risks and rewards with their consumers. Prior to the growing season, when many of the costs of farming (such as seed purchase) are incurred, the farmer raises needed funds by selling shares of the coming harvest. All season, the purchaser receives a portion of the harvest, usually in weekly installments. In a good year, the share holder will get a bounty beyond what could've been purchased at the farmer's market or grocery store for the same cost. If the season is bad, the farmer still has a guaranteed income that enables him/her to continue farming without resorting to additional debt to compensate for crop failure.

We have been shareholders at Meadowlark for the entire 15 years (I think!) that Jon and Jenny have run this CSA and every season has been a bounty. Occasionally some crops fail; the great tomato blight of 2009 was heartbreaking to all. But if one crop disappoints, another will delight. Some years we have received so many beets that we were all peeing red for a month!

The benefits of obtaining food through a CSA are many, but perhaps my favorite is the creative challenge of boundaries. Here in the 21st century United States, generally the only evidence of seasonality at the grocery store is in prices. We tend to plan our menus around our desires, with little thought to availability. Most things that we want to eat are in stock most of the time. We plan a dinner menu and then head to the grocery with our list of needed ingredients. Participating in the CSA turns that around; eating seasonally and locally means I start with the list and create the menu from that.

This creative challenge, admittedly, has lessened over the years as I've become familiar with the rhythms of the farm and now know what is likely to be in the weekly box before I open it. I find myself mentally saving recipes throughout the year for the time when the main ingredients will arrive. Some family favorites, such as Mediterranean Roasted Veggies (eggplant, garlic, tomatoes, zucchini tossed liberally with feta and olive oil), are all the more anticipated for appearing on the dinner table just once a year.

Still, some of the creative challenge remains, such as the spring and early summer dilemma of figuring out how to serve pounds and pounds of beautiful spinach and other greens without making my family beg for mercy (the quick answer: cook most of them down and blend them into soups and casseroles). Right now, I'm saving my current craving for saag paneer for April, when I know it will be easily satisfied.

I'm also excited to see a new optional extra this year called "Herbal Adventures", which will include tea and medicinal herbs as well as "some funky and unusual culinary herbs of the world." Sign me up! I'll be planting herbs in my own garden, as usual, but it's nice to know that thanks to Meadowlark, I'll be able to rely on something other than oregano actually appearing in my kitchen.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Planning Season

I have a vision for a yard that is lush with delicious edibles always ready to submit themselves to my culinary ambitions.

Well, maybe "vision" is the wrong word. Vision implies a plan, or design, which I don't have. So far, I have, at best, a wish.

This is the season of planning, as opposed to planting, which will have to wait a few more months. Underneath the current blanket of white, I imagine various hues of green emerging, perhaps with some red flecks of strawberries or purple beans.

After a dozen years of failure, I'm conceding on tomatoes, acknowledging that our large shady oaks are like a hostile border patrol to sun-loving species from the tropics. Yet the shade and the short growing season will not deter me from growing at least a little of my own food. Surely, in the great flora biodiversity of this planet, there exists something other than oregano that will like my yard.

I'm currently highly inspired for this planting planning work after trudging through deep snow and biting winds Saturday night to hear a wonderful lecture from permaculture teacher and writer extraordinaire Toby Hemenway. I've read every word of his Gaia's Garden and will use it as my manual for transforming my small patch of inner-Traverse City into a regenerative oasis.

The task is daunting, but the time to begin is now, while I can make use of the indentured servant labor of my strong teenaged son. I will do as Julie Andrews sang and "start at the very beginning," which, in this case, must be with compost. For the entirety of the dozen years we've lived here, I've been composting with the less-than-ideal heap method. Basically, everything goes in the one big pile, and if I want to spread some compost in a planting patch, I have to dig it out from the bottom. My guru-of-all-things-eco friend advised me yesterday that I really need to start a second pile and just let the other one sit and rot until it is all compost. So the first task, after the snow melts, will be to set up side-by-side bins, which will require relocating the whole shebang. Of course, I can make another container out of discarded shipping pallets, which are free, but I'm sorely tempted to get an attractive compost bin like this. Why do they have to cost so much? Being a cheapskate, I'll undoubtedly nail together more pallets. That $170 could be better spent on a cheese press, or wine cellar, or cookware, or .... well, college tuition for the kids.

Now that I feel like I've accomplished some yard work, simply by thinking about it, I can move on to the next task of perusing online seed catalogs.