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Archive for the ‘Vegetables’ Category

It’s hot. Eighty-six on Monday, mid-sixties overnight. Ninety tomorrow. Isn’t this Minnesota, in May? I feel like I’m back in Auburn! Meanwhile, back in Alabama, my best foodie friend Sharyn has been enjoying weather cool (80) and dry enough to ride her bike to work. Global weirding, indeed.

When the mornings are perfect for working outdoors, cafe-side, it’s hard to resist Patisserie 46 and their Earl Grey-infused scones.

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They also serve good espresso. This is an achievement, because many, many places think that squirting some thick brown stuff into a little cup counts as serving espresso, but the acidity will eat right through you. But Patisserie 46 makes good espresso (as does Urban Bean, where I’m sitting right now).

Evenings are also perfect for sitting outside. Al fresco has just entered Jack’s vocabulary. It’s pretty cute hearing a seven-year-old say, “Are we going to eat our sausages al fresco?” Summery evenings put me in the mood for foods from the Solanaceae family: nightshades. Think tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. So, when my Saveur e-newsletter arrived with a recipe for Caponata, the nightshade-rich Sicilian dish, I knew what I had to do.

The secret ingredient in this preparation is unsweetened chocolate, shaved in with a fine zester. It helps to pull all of the other ingredients together, both physically and… well, tastily.

While the eggplant fried on the stove, I played around with Lizzie and Instagram.

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And then we enjoyed this light meal on the deck.

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Caponata

3 cups olive oil
2 lbs. eggplant, cut into 1″ cubes
1 large yellow onion, chopped
1 rib celery, roughly chopped
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
3 tbsp. tomato paste, thinned with 1/4 cup water
1 cup crushed canned tomatoes
6 oz. green olives, pitted and roughly chopped
1/2 cup white wine vinegar
1/2 cup golden raisins
1/4 cup salt-packed capers, rinsed and drained
3 tbsp. sugar
2 tbsp. finely grated unsweetened chocolate
1/2 cup finely shredded basil
2 tbsp. pine nuts

Heat oil in a 12″ skillet over medium-high heat. Working in batches, add eggplant and fry, tossing occasionally, until browned, 3–4 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer eggplant to a large bowl; set aside. Pour off all but 1/4 cup oil, and reserve for another use. Return skillet to heat, add onions and celery, and season with salt and pepper; cook, stirring often, until beginning to brown, 10 minutes. Reduce heat to medium, and add tomato paste and cook, stirring, until caramelized and almost evaporated, 1–2 minutes. Add crushed tomatoes and continue cooking for 10 minutes. Stir in olives, vinegar, raisins, capers, sugar, and chocolate, and cook, stirring occasionally, until thickened, about 15 minutes. Transfer to bowl with eggplant, along with basil and pine nuts, and mix together. Season with salt and pepper, and let cool to room temperature before serving.

 

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We’ve lived in Minneapolis for a month now.  We spent the first 9 days in our new place without furniture, which was interesting.  In fact, it was surprising how quickly we adapted to living with minimal stuff.  But don’t worry, I’m not about to launch into a sermon about the importance of living with less.  I’m glad to have a couch to sit on, pots and pans to cook with, and 200 pairs of shoes to choose from.  (Well, no, sadly, I’m actually limited to a few pairs of Birkenstocks, since that arthritic toe joint has flared up again.)  What made that first week of camping out on hardwood bearable was the thrill this city buzzes with when it’s summer time, the lakes and parks, and the amazing food spots we’ve discovered.  There are great grocery stores, fun farmers’ markets, and countless hip cafes, coffee shops, bistros, patisseries, and pizzerias. (According to some survey that was cited in the Star Tribune last week, Minneapolis is the hipster capital of the country. I bought a $3 cup of hipster-made coffee at our neighborhood farmers’ market and thought it was so-so.)  Our favorite place to eat out is the pizzeria we went to on our first night here, which is just a block and a half away: Lola. They have an enormous, round, beautiful, shiny, copper wood-fired oven in which they cook thin-crust pizzas topped with only the best ingredients.

They also have the tastiest soft-serve vanilla, which you can get between cookies, unadulterated, or with a drizzle of olive oil and sea salt.  The latter tastes like a vegetal twist on caramel, which is novel and delicious.

One night, instead of having pasta bianca, we went uptown to Lucia’s, where Peter had mussels served with this delicate chive-flower-sprinkled crostini:

And after our things finally arrived (but before our kitchen was fully functional)…


to celebrate we went to another fantastic bistro, Cafe Maude, where Jack ordered a kids’ cocktail called “Rubber Ducky,” which is topped with a Peep!

I think it’s love.

And, let’s see, how many times have I been to Patisserie 46? I’ve already lost count.  Our first time there was also something of an occasion. We met up with my college friend, writer Emily Sohn, whom I haven’t seen since graduation!  She lives here with her husband Gabe and adorable son Zach.  After some morning pastries and perfectly executed cappuccini, we walked slowly to the closest park, where the little boys stripped down to their shorts and splashed around in the wading pool.  The first time I tasted Patisserie 46′s delicate pastries was the week before, when I found their stand at the Fulton Farmers’ Market, which is close to home.  While I ate a cherry & almond-topped brioche and drank my hipster coffee, Jack, in the mood for more savory fare, waited in line at Chef Shack for a brat with mustard.


I also bought two heavy bags of produce: a gigantic head of oak leaf lettuce, English peas, baby bok choy, new potatoes, kale, cucumbers… I forget what else.  We’ve been eating very well.

A few days later, when my parents came to visit, (in addition to eating at Lola and Cafe Maude, and then Cafe Ena) we visited the Mill City Museum, which is really the museum of flour.  We learned about the central role of flour in the growth of Minneapolis, and stood for what must be our oddest family portrait.


Notice anything peculiar about me? Yes, that’s right, I’m pregnant.  The little girl is due November 2nd, and is squirming and wriggling away as I write. Jack is so excited.  When I asked him to take a belly picture, he took me quite literally, and cut off my head:

Jack has been busy playing with his new neighbor friend.  They wanted to have a lemonade stand, and the only lemonade I had was the pricey Trader Joe’s organic. Their customers commented, they said, on how delicious the lemonade was.  No crystal lite on this corner!

Another day, we went to Sebastian Joe’s Ice Cream on Upton Ave., where they make their own small batches of uniquely flavored gelato-like ice creams.  The first time we went, I got cinnamon.  Next time they had salted caramel. Mmmm… is all I can say.  They have back-garden seating, which feels Berkeley-like, and a big iron turtle to crawl on.


It’s been a busy, happy, well-fed month.  And even though I haven’t touched on it much here, I have been doing some cooking.  But it’s summertime cooking: quick, a little lazy, conducive to warm nights. Last night, I mixed up a pesto for our ravioli using basil from the pot on the front stoop and peas from a local farm. The peas gave it a bright color and sweetness that was a refreshing change from the basil pesto I usually make, which always contains the evidence of an over-zealous garlic pusher. If only I could extend the evening with a few glasses of rosé….  Instead, I’ve been reading Clarissa.

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We’re deep into our CSA season with Red Root Farm, in Banks, Alabama, and we’re knee deep in big leafy greens: kale, collards, mustard, cabbage.  The first three I’ve cooked many times before, and know that with some pancetta, garlic, or walnuts tossed into the saute pan, you can’t go wrong.  But I’m not big on cabbage.  Cole slaw stayed behind in my childhood.  Braised cabbage has appeared infrequently on my table.  What to do with a beauty like this?

(Cinnamon bear is looking on dumbstruck, as you can see.)

So, since the red ones are my lentils of choice lately, I was pleased to find this yummy recipe on Smitten Kitchen, under the heading “recipes from a cumin junkie.” Love it.

Another veggie that I’ve… um… rediscovered is the humble turnip.  The other night I made a hot pan of braised and glazed turnips and carrots to go along with the chicken I’d roasted while my family was visiting.

But I’m also a sinner when it comes to foodie pleasures.  Total locavore, I am not.  As you know, I take great pleasure in my Bialetti, and am even a bit fanatical about it.  The new one I have, the Brikka, makes an actual crema through the use of a pressure valve.  Check it out:

The best accompaniment to an espresso?  The thinnest, spiciest little gingersnaps on earth, from Sweden, and purchased at World Market.

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Last night’s dinner was a celebration.  The meal marked the inauguration of the American Academy in Rome as a Slow Food Terra Madre Community.  Terra Madre is a network of food producers, purveyors, artisans, and consumers committed to making food sustainable for human economies and communities and for the planet.

The event started at 4:00 in the afternoon with the children.  First, they all went out to the garden to gather carrots, radishes, and fennel for what turned out to be a radically simple salad of these three vegetables washed and simply sliced, with no accessorizing flavors or sensations.

After that, the children followed the kitchen interns to one of the dining room tables, where a half dozen large cutting boards had been dusted with flour and set up with a ball of dough.  The task: to make orrechiette, or little ear-shaped pasta.  It was an interesting display of manual and cognitive development.  The 2-4-year-olds loved the feeling of dough in their fingers; they were happy to manipulate the soft irregular shapes, and completely disregarded the goal of shape.

The 8-10-year-olds worked with the manual confidence of seasoned chefs.  Confidence, that is, not skill.  They rolled the dough into snakes as fast as that, then chopped the snake into bits with fast loud chops, and squashed those bits into bowls as big as clamshells and as small as fingernails, quick as they could, talking Star Wars and Legos all the while.

The result (of their efforts and of those of the kitchen staff) was delicious: tender pasta tossed with pork sausage, chopped braised kale, and just enough red pepper flakes.

This meal, including arugula salad and a semifreddo with tart orange granita, culminated in speeches by the presidents of Slow Food Italia and of Slow Food Roma, and with the presentation of a certificate recognizing the efforts of the Rome Sustainable Food Project, and naming the Academy a Terra Madre Community.

Then, we drank “after dinner drinks” and decorated the Christmas tree.

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IMG_2239 Italy’s Parliament voted unanimously this summer to recommend that UNESCO list the Mediterranean diet as endangered, so that it might be protected and preserved as a part of cultural heritage.IMG_2499

I’m interested in this public declaration, in part, for its semantic implications.  Can a diet be treated as an aesthetic or religious object, or as a plant or animal species?  In fact, the Mediterranean diet is all of these things.  Italians are rightly proud of their food, and of their heritage. Diet here is interwoven with cultural practice, with religious ritual, with craft and design, and with plant and animal species that have an intimate connection with both the geography and the history of Italy’s distinct regions.

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Of course, the natives of this boot-shaped land could describe the complex set of cultural practices that is the Mediterranean diet better than I, an outsider, and a barbarian American, could.  But I’ll offer a few arguments, anyway, in favor of designating this diet an endangered piece of cultural heritage.

The Mediterranean diet is interwoven with national and regional identity.  This goes deeper than the kind of identity declared by small towns with billboards at their borders declaring them the pistachio capital of the world.  It’s an identity that has less to do with marketing, and more to do with the deep emotional ties of childhood memories, in which food and family are tightly woven together.  Particular foods and foodways are tied to family traditions, religious rituals, and to regionally specific cooking styles.

When I was at the Bioversity offices yesterday, I met one of the senior scientists there, a man named Stefano, whose work as a scientist and educator about agricultural biodiversity perfectly aligns with his passion for food and food memories.  In our brief conversation, he gave me many examples of the Mediterranean diet as cultural heritage and as endangered.  When he was a child, he said, the whole neighborhood would get together in someone’s garage to peel, cook, and bottle tomatoes for use as sauce.  While he was living in Africa, his homesickness took the form of a craving for the comforts of pasta. His mother and sister write down the recipes and menus of family meals; these recipes are their family scrapbooks and triggers to memory.  One of these recipes is for a stew containing 57 varieties of wild leafy green.  (Surely this recipe and the knowledge of how to find, much less cook, 57 varieties of wild green are endangered!)  Another recipe is for quince jelly.  How many quince orchards have you seen lately?

These foods and practices—this cultural heritage—is endangered for several related reasons: the globalization of simplified diets based on cheap, and less nutritious, commodity crops; the lure, or necessity, of convenience foods for working mothers who don’t have the time or inclination to hunt out 57 varieties of wild green; the encroachment of fast food into the diets of children; the loss of food and cooking knowledge through the generations.  One of the terrible consequences of the loss of food practices is that the actual foods can be lost as well.  Many of the crops that have sustained peoples all over the world for millenia fall under the new designation of “neglected and underutilized species.”   This is how food as a cultural and aesthetic practice shades into an endangered species.

Another, no less important, reason to preserve the Mediterranean diet is that it works.  People have thrived, and not been prone to cardiovascular disease or obesity and its consequences, on this diet for many generations.  This is because of the intrinsic nutritional value of the foods themselves, and it is also because of the set of cultural rules that guide eating.  The people here eat small portions, a variety of vegetables, whole grains, fish, and cheese, meat, and wine in moderation.  No cappuccino after lunch, no hard liquor before dinner or gelato in the morning… the list goes on.  And dessert is often fresh fruit.

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As we rode the train north-east, from Rome to Venice, we passed through Italian regions famous for their food and wine.  And really, which ones aren’t?  One sight that struck me again and again was the smallness and odd shapedness of, and variety of growth on the fields.  They reminded me of Vermont.

Why is this interesting?  There is a correlation between the size and shape of the agricultural fields, the omnipresence of them over all kinds of landscape, and the presence of produce like this in the markets:

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I’ve been interested in the fact that there’s so much great variety at these street markets which are all over the city.  Why are people in many different economic situations able to buy a variety of leafy greens or tomatoes, for example, when in the U.S. the less well-off are stuck with processed food at their local markets?  One explanation is that Italy has a culture that values food, and that the rituals and culture based on food are stronger than the modern urge for convenience.  Another explanation is that lots of agricultural land has been owned by the church for a very long time, and is leased to people who farm relatively small plots.  This means they don’t pay a premium for land, and therefore don’t have big profits as their only care; the small scale also encourages crop diversity.  And I guess there’s the geography of the place—no great plains to cover with corn; mountains; and a strong sense of regional identity. Wine culture has something to do with it too; food and wine are seen as something special and are historically connected to national and regional identity.

The economics of food in the U.S. is a real problem.  Because of the perversity of the farm subsidies, which go toward commodity crops and wealthy farmers, non-nutritious processed food ends up being a lot cheaper than good, whole food.  Because organic food and “unusual” produce is more expensive and less available, it is seen as elitist food.  There are changes that could be made: government support for small farms growing diverse crops, and for the creation of farmers’ markets in many more places; revamping the farm subsidy programs to provide more help for small food producers and less help for the factory farms.  I really think there’s hope, if the government can ever break the power of the strongest lobbies.  But the other problem, which relates to the comparison with Italy, is that the U.S. doesn’t have a food culture.  Food isn’t really valued for itself, doesn’t have a lot of history or ritual attached to it (except on holidays, when the tradition is to overeat), and isn’t passed down through the generations as a set of rules, knowledge, and values.

Convenience encroaches here, too, though.  I see people in the park where I run gathering wild edible greens and mushrooms.  They are all over 70, as is, I think, the farmer-couple I like to buy from at the market.

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What a Saturday!  Jack and I started the day with Harry and Ramie at Dolci Desideri: cappucini and cornetti (one with marmalata, one whole wheat with bitter honey) for the moms, frutti di bosca (wild berry) muffins for the boys.  Then, in the 39-degree-Fahrenheit chill, we walked around the block to the outdoor market on Via Nicolini.  First, we went to one of the small organic farmers’ stands.  What’s in season at this farm near the airport?  Dandelion greens, chicories, peppers, eggplants, potatoes, various hard-skinned squashes.  I bought some of almost everything, and she stuffed some fresh herbs in my bag for free.  At the next stand, we bought apples, plums, pears, and broad beans.

Back at the Academy, we stopped in at the bar, and Alessandro made Jack some hot cocoa.  He doesn’t know how lucky he is.  The ingredients were whole unpasteurized organic milk, house-made chocolate ganache, and house-made marshmallows.  While he worked, Alessandro told Jack, in Italian, about his pet turtle.

Lunch at the Academy, served at one, was phenomenal as usual.  The dessert was an incredible taste sensations.  “Outrageous,” according to one diner.  There was a sweet crumbly shortbread style tart crust, in which was a warm custard flavored with—or really just subtly evoking the flavors of—honey, lemon, pinenuts, a few raisins, and something else more evanescent.  What was it?

Unbelievably, we did more eating as the day went on.  Some of our next door neighbors with young kids came over for dinner.  I roasted a bunch of the veggies I’d bought, and tossed them with pasta, rosemary, olive oil, and grated pecorino romano.

Nick and Rena brought dessert: a Dolci Desideri cherry-infused chocolate cake that seemed to be half crumb, half ganache.  Jack and Lulu licked all of the plates clean:

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I’m not sure what the goggles were for.

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