Friday, December 3, 2010

Sunday Recipe

I wanted to share this thrown-together recipe with you! I have no idea what to call it -- maybe I'll just be simple: peposo with date tapenade and goat cheese.

This dinner was inspired by Jamie Oliver's Peposo recipe in his cookbook Italy. Peposo is a peppery stew using beef or veal shank and a long, slow cooking process. I was unable to find beef shank so I used some sort of round and it turned out fine. The meat is just one component of this light meal or appetizer.

The night before:
2 lbs. beef shank or other beef cut suitable for the slow cooker
10 cloves of garlic, sliced
Dried or fresh rosemary
kosher salt, fresh ground pepper
enough Chianti to cover the meat
bay leaf

Slice the meat off the bone and layer the beef, garlic, rosemary, and salt & pepper. Place the bone and bay leaf on top of the last layer. Refrigerate and remove in the morning to allow to come to room temperature. Cover the meat with the wine. I used a little less than a whole bottle. Set the slow cooker to 'low' if you plan to cook for more than five hours.

That evening, slice a baguette into small rounds for crostini. I bake them at 350 for at least 10 minutes -- I really keep an eye on them. After they come out of the oven, I drizzle with olive oil.
In the mean time, for the tapenade:
7 or 8 pitted dates, chopped
at most 2 tablespoons of balsamic vinaigrette
a pinch of cayenne
rosemary and pepper
1/4 cup water

In a small saucepan, combine water and chopped dates. Bring to a boil and allow the water to evaporate/become absorbed. The dates will soften. Reduce the heat and add the balsamic, cayenne, and rosemary and pepper to taste. Stir often -- this is a sticky mess but worth it. I didn't think it needed salt but that's just my opinion.

Remove the peposo from the liquid in the crockpot with a slotted spoon. Shred the beef using two forks and add some of the liquid back to the beef to keep it from drying out.

Now it's finally time to assemble: Spread a good amount of goat cheese on the crostini, layer with the tapenade, and top with the beef. The sweet/pepper combination is really beautiful. Serve with a nice salad and a dry red wine.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Trends in Food for 2011

The Huffington Post published their 2011 Food and Restaurant Trends and I was really excited to see what they came up with.

This past year, macarons surpassed cupcakes and we traded huge, unseemly portions for small plates. There was a huge movement toward simple cooking, using minimal but high quality ingredients and emphasizing which farm they came from. We wanted comfort food, but we wanted it exactly as we remembered it AND revamped in new, interesting ways. We called Mom about her macaroni and cheese recipe, but we also tried pumpkin penne with Gruyere, truffle oil mac, and macaroni and cheese with cauliflower puree. It seems 2011 will, at least for awhile, continue this trend, as well as branching out into new territory.

HuffPo predicts the dessert for 2011 will be pie. It'd be great to see restaurants trade out dense chocolate cake (it's at every restaurant! the same one!) for airy lemon meringue pie. Small plates and slimmed-down menus should stay for the majority of the year, and we'll see an upswing in single-ingredient restaurants (like this one devoted entirely to peanut butter).

The list also includes various meat bellies, which is wonderful, because pork belly (which gained popularity this year) is delicious. It's usually found in Asian and some Southern cuisine. I don't think neck will fare as well as they do, however I thought the same about cod cheeks last year and was dead wrong.

Hummus was mentioned, which could go one of two ways. If they mean simple, as-God-intended-it hummus, I agree with the list. Hummus never goes out of style. If they expect to see crazy variations a la 2009/early 2010, they're barking up the wrong olive tree. They also claimed hay would become an integral ingredient for smoking and roasting, which I'd never heard of before. A quick Google search shows there are plenty of meat-enthusiasts who have already tried various ways of flavoring with hay. I'd be up for a hay-infused dish -- I imagine hay would lend an earthy and sweet flavor. If Nick and I were the type to grill, we'd do it ourselves, but I'll leave it up to someone who has done it before. Hay is probably insanely flammable.

All in all, I'm thinking it was a good list. There were several more predictions, which you can check out in the slide show here. I don't entirely understand what they meant by 'dirt', because they then clarified by saying "dried, crumbled, and powdered ingredients" instead of sauce. I understand seeking different texture combinations, but I just don't get 'dirt'.

What do you expect to see in 2011's spotlight? What do you hope falls out of favor?

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Homemade Food Isn't Special -- It's Normal

(Sorry for being gone for so long!)

Homemade? I'll Take It!
It's unfortunate that we commend people on making 'homemade' anything. One of the selling points about our desserts at my restaurant are that they, like our soups, are homemade. People ooh and ahh and decide then and there, that since it's so different, they want it. That's sad.

It's understandable that since women have entered the workforce, they have less time to spend in the kitchen. In the past, women spent over an hour cooking daily when today, you can only catch the family cook in the kitchen for an average of 27 minutes. It doesn't help that the supermarket and the media has made it much more attractive for busy men and women to simply pierce the plastic with a fork and microwave on high for three minutes. Voila, dinner!

The Kitchen as a Sports Arena
And even on cooking shows, the emphasis is on saving time. Semi-Homemade by Sandra Lee and 30-Minute Meals by Rachel Ray make this evident. Dump in a bowl, stir, and heat. When any sort of expertise or craftsmanship is shown, it's entirely too quick for an amateur to emulate: Iron Chef, for instance. On Iron Chef, beautiful, unique meals (most of which get high ratings for flavor) are created and then judged within an hour. Because of the time constraint and Alton Brown's football commentator persona, there is little to no educational value -- knife work and other nuances are lost.

The Price
Our wide-eyed fascination with food and our complete lack of interest in cooking are in no way compatible. With less and less time spent on making meals (and marveling at the people that do find time), the fatter and fatter a nation becomes. Our nation, to be specific. Food corporations know that people are hard-wired to love sugar, fat and salt -- guess what those prepared meals are chock full of? These ingredients keep you coming back, time and time again, as you and your children grow heavier. It's easy, it's literally addictive, and it's killing us.

I honestly feel as though today's men and women have more resources available to them than their parents and grandparents did concerning making homemade meals. Sure, they copied what their mothers did, but we have the ability to cook across cultural barriers. There are thousands of cookbooks in bookstores (ranging from burgers to beef shawarma) and YouTube tutorials on things as simple as dicing a tomato or roasting spices. Our food options are limitless now, but sadly we tend to reach for what's easy and fast instead of what is interesting and delicious.

Demystifying Food
Cooking may be magical at times, but it's not magic. Food blogs are a fantastic way to find real-life recipes made by regular people with normal schedules, kids, and often no formal training. I found this recipe, this one, and dozens more that are now part of our regular meal rotation. Use the resources at your fingertips: the internet, the library, and your friends and family. The only way to break our dependency on boxed meals is to educate ourselves and spend more time in the kitchen.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

You're Fat Because You're Poor

A family-sized box of Kraft Mac n Cheese in my local grocery store is 89 cents. A bunch of organic carrots costs $2.76.

When families are faced with making dinner on a budget (and honestly, how many families aren't?), often times the Blue Box wins out over vegetables.

And who can blame them? I wouldn't just serve carrots to my (non-existent, future) children.And if I had to choose how to best stretch my dollar, 89 cents to feed three people sounds a whole lot better than nearly $3 for a side dish.

Saving Money, Losing Health
However, saving money on cheap, processed meals means costly health problems. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have found that in our obese nation, our poorest citizens are also our fattest. Obesity isn't just coupled with low self esteem or poor body image -- it also brings diabetes, heart disease, and even cancer to the dinner table. In Texas alone, the high availability of nutrient-poor, high-calorie processed food is costing the state $15.6 billion in health care costs.

The problem, again, goes back to the subsidization of corn. Corn is able to add calories to just about any and all processed foods. Calories are cheap -- nutrients are not.

Nutrients are also sometimes difficult to keep shelf-stable. In many urban areas, which are also referred to as 'food deserts', the only place to buy groceries is at the convenience store on the corner. The lack of space and inability to keep fresh products means no fruits, vegetables, or sometimes even milk. Minorities are especially hard hit: besides predominately inhabiting urban areas, the food seems to have more detrimental effects. African-Americans are 1.8 times more likely than whites to be diabetic, and a whopping 25% of African-Americans between 65 and 74 are diabetic. Diabetics, especially, need constant access to real food -- those that have to survive in a food desert have five times as many visits to the doctor as diabetics with access to adequate food.

Some states have proposed 'fat taxes', taxing foods that are calorie-dense and fat laden. This could potentially even the playing field in the supermarket -- coupled with education, consumers on a budget may choose carrots over chips.

Legislators are hesitant to promote a 'fat tax', however, because it suggests that overweight people are being penalized. This isn't the case -- it's making food that has no redeeming value less attractive in terms of price.

Another idea is to offer a 'thin subsidy', which would reward healthy food choices. Of course, no one is going to be calling your house to see if you've eaten your fruits and veggies every day -- the subsidy would be based on your grocery bill. This too isn't gaining much political ground, since offering incentives to better the lives of Americans isn't popular among some members of Congress.

More importantly, I think, is making it known that in most states, EBT cards (formerly known as food stamps) can be used in farmers markets. It may be easier to push legislation allowing the use of EBT cards at the farmers market than implementing fat taxes or thin subsidies.

In the meantime, please keep in mind that the only people who are profiting from your thrifty attitudes toward food are the food corporations and the insurance companies.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Go meet your local farmers!

I gave you plenty of tips the other day on how to shop at the supermarket, and today we're going to talk about your local farmers market.

As I've mentioned before, Nick and I are lucky in that the State Farmers Market is about 20 minutes from our house. It's open seven days a week all year long and there's always a wide variety of produce to choose from. If you're unsure where a farmers market is near you, go to and type in your zip code.

When buying fruit and vegetables from your farmers market, don't stock up unless you plan to can/freeze/otherwise preserve these items immediately. The produce available is usually picked when it's at its ripest, and won't be able to sit on your kitchen counter for as long as produce from the supermarket. Plan on using within the next day. Try not to discriminate against the not-so-perfect looking tomato or apple -- it most likely tastes even better than the bloated ones at the grocery store.

Again, you should keep track of what produce is in season in your region. There are a couple of vendors at our farmers market that provide avocados, pears, and strawberries year-round. Strawberries don't grow in North Carolina year round, and it's difficult at best to keep an avocado tree alive here. It pains me to admit it, but these vendors aren't being honest about where they obtain their fruit, and I may as well just buy these things directly from the supermarket because that's where they came from.

You will have sticker-shock when it comes to the local milk. At our farmers market, a half-gallon of milk costs nearly two dollars more than a full gallon of milk at the store. For a lot of people, buying a full gallon of organic milk is much more cost-effective than buying a half-gallon of milk at the farmers market. At least consider buying the local milk, however, for a couple of reasons: your money directly supports a local family; you can easily find out the living conditions of the dairy cattle in question; and the local milk often comes in reusable glass bottles, which is more environmentally friendly than plastic jugs.

Have a Chat
Finding out the living conditions of any animal involved in producing your food is crucial. Strike up a conversation with people selling meat and dairy products. Ask them about their farm, the kind of food their livestock eats, and their practices. Often, the farmer will invite you out to see their farm or let you know when tours are run. If they don't offer, you can always say something like, "I'd really love to show my kids happy animals on a farm!" It doesn't matter whether you have kids, or any intention of visiting the farm -- you're looking for a reaction. If the farmer balks, don't buy from him. He's most likely not confident that conditions will be up to your standards.

Things to listen for in conversations with farmers:
"Practicing organic"
"Corn/soy/wheat free"
"Animal-Welfare Approved"

That last one might seem like a contradiction -- in an earlier post, I said that 'free-range' means nothing. Well, let me clarify: 'free-range' means nothing when large corporations are involved. However, 'free-range' means a lot when talking to a farmer who has no problem letting you see his farm. To be perfectly honest, those two words may not even enter the conversation -- it might not occur to the farmer that his chickens/pigs/cattle will live any other way.

The meat at the farmers market is a little more expensive than conventional meat. However, you should be comforted in knowing that your money does NOT go toward unnecessary antibiotics, hormones, or fillers. Because of a lack of fillers, you may feel satiated more quickly with less meat than when you eat conventional meat. So really, you're saving money.

Also, farmers market meat is almost always nitrate-free (the seller will specify when it's not), which is a plus for those of us who can't concentrate as well after eating processed meat. Nitrates cause a 'fuzzy' feeling in some people (including me), and after switching to organic, minimally processed, and/or local meat, that 'fuzzy' feeling will be gone. Rejoice!

I'll be writing individual posts in the future on eggs, beef, 'practicing organic', etc. For now, I'm putting off writing about factory farms, but it's critical in understanding why a change in our food culture is so important.

Happy shopping!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Not Exactly on Topic

I don't know anyone that would be rude or inappropriate to someone in the service industry, but I thought I'd bring up standing up for waitresses when they're being harassed.

I work in a small, Southern restaurant during the lunch shift. The majority of our customers are regulars and we get to know them pretty well. It's also kind of cramped, so conversations are easily overheard from one table to the next.

When Nick and I were first married, one of the other waitresses was gushing over my wedding to a customer. Gushing was her thing, and weddings, babies, and birthdays really got her going. I was called over to the table and, upon seeing how young I am, the customer said, "So, how many children do you have?"

Not, "What colors did you use?" or, "How did you and your husband meet?" No. Instead, she decided to assume things about me and back me into a corner. The nicest thing I could possibly say: "I've never been pregnant."

I smiled and walked away, seething. What I had really wanted to say was, "I know it's unconventional, but we got married for love -- weird, right?" but I value my job. I know other people heard this conversation and decided to stay quiet.

Today, a guy that we've had trouble with before was ordering to-go, and my manager was very close by. He was joking around and said that he'd need to get the employee discount because he's the dishwasher. I joked back, saying, "I know the dishwasher and you aren't him". He got this look on his face and said, "Oh, I'm sure you do. I'm sure you know him real well."

I stopped what I was doing and focused all my attention on him. "I am married," I spat, "And you can not talk about me like that."

My manager completely ignored the situation, but other waitresses might not be so fortunate. Working at another place, I could have been written up or even lost my job for responding.

Now, I know waitresses can be rude sometimes, and if you notice someone berating a waitress for her behavior or service, it is best to stay out of it or alert a manager. But if you hear inappropriate, personal things being said to a waitress, please stand up for her and say the things she can't. If a manager gets involved, let them know the truth about the situation. The waitress will be forever grateful and you'll have done your good deed for the day.

OK, we'll return to normal posts this weekend. Just needed to rant a little =)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Grocery Shopping with Confidence

This post is exciting because now you can put your new vocabulary to work!

I decided to talk about the grocery store before talking about farmers markets because there isn't always a convenient and large farmers market close by. Nick and I are lucky in that we have the state farmers market about 25 minutes from our house, and it's open year-long. Even so, we still have to supplement our groceries with items from the supermarket.

In most grocery stores, the produce section is closest to the door. This is where your knowledge of in-season fruits and vegetables comes into play. You can skip over the organic fruits and vegetables that you know are in season in your area and instead buy them at the farmers market, where all your money will directly profit the farmer. If you buy these products at the supermarket, your money will be split at least three ways: between the supermarket itself, transportation, and the farmer, with the farmer making an average of 20 cents for each dollar you spend.

Since you're already hugging the outer edges of the store, don't be tempted to wander into the inner aisles! These aisles are typically the most nutritionally vacant, tricked out with high levels of fat, sodium, and high-fructose corn syrup. Occasionally, though, you do need to venture into these aisles for items such as flour, sugar, coffee, nuts, etc. Proceed with caution! The packaging on processed foods looks attractive for a reason -- to attract your attention! Remember that this packaging also means the majority of your money isn't going to the rightful recipient: the producer.

In my most-frequented grocery store, the deli is next to the produce. The goat cheese may look good here, but it tastes better coming from a local farmer. Buy cheese that isn't produced in your area, like mozzarella or Parmesan, and read the labels! There should be few ingredients and the majority of them recognizable (although 'rennet' might throw you for a loop, this is a crucial ingredient to making most cheese).

Next is the meat and seafood counter. We buy the majority of our meat from the farmers market. We wish we could buy local seafood, but must be too far away from the ocean to be able to do so. I keep track of the Super Green List on Seafood Watch, to be sure I'm not purchasing fish whose capture is harmful to the environment. Unfortunately for me, my favorite sushi item is on the 'avoid' list.

I buy eggs exclusively at the farmers market these days, especially after the salmonella scare. If you want, buy a half dozen conventional eggs at the store and 'splurge' on eggs at the farmers market. Once you get them home, crack one of each side by side. It won't seem like a splurge after that, especially after learning 'free range' means squat. 'Vegetarian', too, but that's for another time.

Let's talk dairy for a moment. In a future post, tentatively named 'hierarchy of purchasing organic food', organic dairy products are the most important things to spend your money on. When a carton of milk is labeled "USDA Certified Organic", it means the cow was NOT treated with growth hormones or antibiotics, and her pasture was pesticide-free. This is great for the health and safety of dairy cattle and for consumers. Organic milk also has higher levels of omega-3s and antioxidants than conventional milk. You might have sticker-shock when comparing the price of organic milk versus conventional, but keep in mind organic milk has a longer shelf life. If you find yourself throwing out quarter gallons of milk each week because your family can't drink them fast enough, switching to organic is a logical choice.

Most importantly, read the labels! Stay away from high fructose corn syrup, a bunch of science-y words you don't understand, and an ingredient list a mile long. Stick to simple ingredients with few preservatives. The new five line by Haagen-Dazs is a great choice -- there are only five ingredients, and each of them is recognizable.

Happy shopping!