Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Cranberries From The Tundra

As mentioned earlier, I've been picking a lot of cranberries/lingonberries (both names are used for the same berry) recently, freezing my fingers and toes in the process. They've shown up in my oatmeal, in crisps, in breads, in sauces, and I just keep picking more to restock my supply. This all comes in handy for this month's Garden Cook Event hosted by Paulchen's Foodblog for which the theme is cranberries.

I decided to add cranberries to my lemon bar recipe because 1) I love lemon and cranberry together and 2) it uses four eggs and I was, once again, the happy recipient of 18 locally-laid eggs the other day. Three dozen eggs gifted in 10 days means finding a lot of ways to use eggs!

This was mostly successful, but I really needed to have been bolder about how many cranberries I added. They were a little thin on the ground, as you can see.

The bars were delicious, though, so here's the recipe. In the future, I think I'd use about a cup and a half of cranberries, or maybe even a cup and three-quarters.

Lemon-Cranberry Bars


1 cup butter, softened and creamed
2 cups flour
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1 teaspoon each of dehydrated lemon and lime juice

Preheat oven to 350F. Mix the ingredients well and pat into a 9 x 11 inch brownie pan. Bake for 20 minutes, until just starting to brown. Remove from oven.


4 eggs, beaten
5 TBS flour
2 cups sugar
juice and zest of one large lemon
pinch of salt
1 cup fresh or frozen cranberries (or more)

Combine the first five ingredients and mix well. Pour over crust and sprinkle evenly with the cranberries. Bake 25 minutes. Remove from oven, dust with powdered sugar, and let cool completely before cutting into squares.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Sustainable Seafood Month: Wild Smoked Salmon Strata

The Leather District Gourmet is hosting a sustainable seafood event this month, and I'm getting in just under the wire today. If there's one thing Isolationville does have, it's fish. Lots and lots of fish. We live in one of the largest salmon spawning grounds in the world, so our salmon is not just wild, it's local, and very, very little fossil fuel energy was spent to get it to our table.

This year was a great one for salmon in our particular drainage. The escapement (the number of fish that get past the commercial fisheries) was 3 million sockeye alone! We have kings and silvers, too, so there were one heck of a lot of salmon swimming upriver just a couple hundred yards from our house. We did have to drive about 14 miles to where we put in our net to get our subsistence catch in July, but that's it for transportation of these beauties.

My belief is that sustainability is in the use, not just the type of fish and how you get it. Our planet would be so much better off if we all treated animal foods, including fish, as a special occasion food or a condiment. With that in mind, my dish for this event features some of peppered smoked sockeye I made this year. It packs a flavorful punch, so you don't need much of it to get good salmon taste. I was also working on using up the wonderful fresh eggs a friend gave us. A friend of hers keeps chickens who are going nuts with laying, so I was the very happy recipient of 18 fresh eggs last week.

I made an eggy smoked salmon strata, or a stacked omelet. It was fun and pretty easy. Here's a rough recipe:

Wild Smoked Salmon Strata

5 eggs
1/4 cup milk
1/4 cup water
salt to taste

Beat the eggs and liquid together very well. Set aside.

1/4-1/3 pound smoked, peppered salmon, shredded
1/4 cup capers, minced
1/4 onion, slivered
1/4 cup cream cheese or soft, mild cheese (or goat cheese would be great)
fresh pepper
butter for frying

The dish is a stacked series of very thin omelets, each with one of the fillings. For the smoked salmon strata, I did four layers with the salmon, two of which were heavily peppered as well, two caper layers, a cheese layer, and a thick onion layer. For most of them, I melted butter in a nonstick, small pan, poured in a scant 1/4 cup of the eggs, sprinkled on the filling, flipped, and cooked a minute on the flip side. Each finished layer was added to a straight-sided bowl to help shape the finished product. For the onion layer, I first carmelized the onion, spread it evenly in the pan, and poured the egg on top.

I served this with stuffed, twice-baked potatoes, so I let it sit a while to let the layers come together a bit, and then rewarmed it during the last ten minutes that the potatoes were in the oven. I inverted the strata onto a plate for cutting and serving. It's not much more difficult than making each person an omelet, but it can be quite elegant, and is a versatile dish.

For the price of a tail-end of one half of one fish, locally caught, we had a dish full of salmon flavor and goodness.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Gathering, Revisited

This morning, I picked cranberries.

It sounds so ordinary, typed plainly like that. It was anything but ordinary or plain.

Our cranberries here are tundra-dwellers, not bog cranberries, and grow close to the ground and moss. All advice suggests picking them after the first frost, so they will be sweeter. Not sweet. Just sweeter than they would have been otherwise. The advisors did not mention how much deeper the red would be -- the color of blood that has congealed slightly -- but that was an easy observation.

I didn't get to pick cranberries last year. I was gone before the first frost, and when I returned, we had snow cover until spring. I had been told you could pick the berries until April, if there was no snow cover. That didn't happen last winter. So this was my first experience. Almost. I picked a couple small batches in the last week, just enough for my oatmeal in the morning.

This morning, though, I was determined to get out there while they were still frozen from the night's frigid temperatures. I thought I had gotten used to the tundra's beauty, not immune to it, but at least comfortable enough with it so I didn't have to actively appreciate every small vista my eyes wandered to. And maybe during the day, when it is thawed, I have reached that level of intimacy.

Not this morning.

Most of the berries I picked still had a frost on them, as if nature had sugared them for me in preparation for decorating a cake. They lay nestled in frost-crunchy leaves with moss lying alongside, crisp and ice-outlined. I was unprepared for the beauty of the truly frozen tundra. I may have joked about living on the frozen tundra over the past couple years, but until this morning, I'm not sure I'd ever really experienced the tundra except when thawed. It is a different landscape below 32 degrees.

Maybe the knowledge that I will soon leave this tangled miniature jungle imbued it with a special radiance this morning. The skies were gray, so it wasn't the angle of the light or the quality of the sunshine. Or maybe knowing that my gathering opportunities will be limited in my new life in the desert made this particular foraging expedition just that much more special.

I don't know. What I do know is that the cold disappeared. My vision took in the layers of vegetation more clearly than usual. I appreciated the unfrosted berries hiding beneath icy, fall-reddened leaves as much as the sugary berries sticking up above their foliage, begging to fall into my ungloved fingers.

I will gather again tomorrow morning, before the sun warms the berries and their tundra home. I don't know if it will be as magical as this morning. I don't know if it can be. Even if it is just a typical berrying outing, I will be grateful as always that I can gather to me wild foods tended only by nature; that I can return, however briefly, to a simpler, shorter food chain that ties me so directly to the earth and its bounty.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

I Am A Bad Blogger

It's amazing. I go away. I stay in houses with internet access, kitchens, and access to actual stores. With good food and produce. And I don't blog the whole time I'm away.

So, to start: the news. In about a month, I will become the Not-So-Isolated-Foodie. Oh, I'll still live in a tiny town (just under a thousand, as compared to 400 now), but it's a tiny town connected to ROADS. Roads that lead to Big Cities.

Many people, upon hearing the news, have immediately said, "You must be so excited to be getting out of Isolationville!!" But, I'm not. I like Isolationville. I love parts of life as an Isolated Foodie. The food situation is not really one of the parts I love, especially now, returning from the land of plenty to the land of empty shelves (no milk at the store for the first couple days we got back, for example). But I will miss the endless views and the long sunsets over the river and the river itself, always beautiful and always changing (we're close enough to the coast that the river has significant tides). I will miss our friends and the quiet pace of life. I will miss our house that we've just finished settling into. I will miss the amazing seasonality of life here, with the boisterous summers of salmon and bears and berries and the huge calm of winter.

Life goes on. While not excited about leaving this life, I am excited about our new life ahead. We will go from tundra to desert, quite the change. I am eagerly anticipating learning to cook in a solar oven because there will be four months of the year that I will do whatever I can to avoid cooking much of anything indoors. A grill and a trusty solar oven will be my closest cooking friends, I think. Those and the year-round farmers' market that is, admittedly, a little over an hour away. But that's an hour by CAR, not airplane. I can do that. At least every other week.

During my break from blogging due to travel, I did eat some wonderful food, visit farmers' markets, and make a gazillion truffles as my contribution to a homemade wedding. Double truffle boxes as the wedding favors, so two kinds. A very plain chocolate ganache truffle, coated in chocolate cookie crumbs, and an espresso-bean-and-lemon-infused ganache coated in crushed praline pecans. They went over very well.

And now, I have to start planning a month of meals designed to use up my stores of food. I should do a full inventory, especially of the frozen treat type foods, and really plan this, but I probably won't.

Monday, August 27, 2007

HHDD #14: The Roundup and Voting

The gnocchi are in! The roundup for this month's Hay Hay It's Donna Day event is posted at Cafe Lynnylu. The guidelines for voting for a winner are here.

I enjoyed this blogging event a lot. Both my original meal and the leftovers were successful dishes in our house.

It's Berry Season!

I am a somewhat obsessive berry picker. Today, for example, we stopped so I could take a picture of some taiga-like landscape, but I happened to notice that there were a lot of bear berries. Or bog cranberries. We were in disagreement about just what they were. I picked them anyway. They were gorgeous. They were tasty. They were berries. What more do I need? Most of my berry picking obsession has focused on the blueberries to this point, of course. In addition to all the berries we've eaten (certainly thousands...tens of thousands??), I've got a gallon and a half in the freezer for the winter. I'd love to have double that, but the blueberries came in early and I missed some of the best picking. I resorted to mixed-berry picking over the weekend, getting two quarts of mixed blueberries, crow berries, and cranberries.

One of my favorite ways to eat blueberries (other than in a big, fat bowl with cream, still warm from the sun) is in a crisp. I often make individual ones like this lovely beast that joined us for Scrabble last week. The topping is pretty much 1:1:2:2 flour:oatmeal:brown sugar:butter, with pinches of salt and baking powder, and a hefty bit of cinnamon and coriander (still thanking the HHDD sorbet round that I didn't enter for that one; one of the flavor combos I tried was blueberry and coriander and it's a huge winner).

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Back to Normal Weather and Thoughts of Scurvy

We had a week of summer. Glorious, sunny days in the low-70s. Sunshine blazing through my windows during what is usually the wettest month here in Isolationville. It was a treat. It was a trick. Overnight, our weather reverted to normal, with gray, wet skies and winds gusting above 40 mph. Ah, well, it was lovely while it lasted, and we took advantage with nice cool meals like cold sesame noodles with snow pea salad.

Tonight, however, soup was on the menu. Sopa de lima, to be exact, from the Sundays at Moosewood cookbook. I love this soup. I like the freshness of the tomatoes and lime, the soggy crunch of the tortilla chips (or strips of fried tortilla, which is what I usually do), the richness of the avocado. It all mingles in the bowl so amiably. We had some grated pepperjack and a few sprigs of windowsill cilantro to finish off the toppings.

When I first moved to Isolationville, deep in the throes of the coldest winter in a couple decades, I made the mistake of reading a collection of journals from ships trying to find the northwest passage (a previously mythical sea-route across the top of the North American continent; with global warming, it may soon be a reality almost year-round). The bravest (or foolhardiest, depending on your perspective) of the explorers ended up caught in ice at the end of the summer, doomed to spend the winter in a giant ice cube with diminishing supplies and no way out. Many of those crews succumbed to scurvy, and as I read these accounts, I started to crave oranges and tomatoes and limes.

It made perfect sense: I was in a land of darkness for much of the day, surrounded by piles of snow, with no escape route, and the produce section of our small store left much to be desired. They did carry citrus. I will have to admit that up front. Husband made fun of me, claiming that "nobody gets scurvy anymore."

Oh, really?

Just in time for me to score a major debating victory, the NYTimes Sunday Magazine printed one of their occasional "medical mystery" columns and the mystery illness was scurvy! A modern case of scurvy, not in some northern hinterland, but in the Bronx. I felt vindicated!

With this lovely soup, however, even I don't worry about getting scurvy:

Sopa de Lima (Sundays at Moosewood, page 455)

1 cup chopped onion
4 large cloves of garlic, minced
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 or 2 chiles, minced
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
3 1/2 cups chopped fresh tomato (here in Isolationville, I use a can of crushed and a can of diced tomatoes instead of fresh)
3 cups vegetable stock
1/3 cup fresh-squeezed lime juice
salt to taste

In a medium pot, saute the onions and garlic in oil until the onions are translucent. Add the chiles, cumin, and oregano, and saute a few more minutes. Add the chopped tomatoes and sprinkle with a little salt. Cover the pot and cook gently until the tomatoes begin to release the juices. Stir occasionally. Add the stock and simmer, covered, for about 15 minutes. Add the lime juice and salt to taste.

Serve topped with grated cheese and crumbled tortilla chips. Garnish with finely chopped cilantro, if desired. (I usually serve it with cubes of avocado and lime wedges as well.)

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Leftovers Are Beautiful, Too

My leftover gnocchi went to good use, as planned. For lunch the day after I made them, I sauteed half a red onion and red pepper flakes in some olive oil until they were just barely starting to turn brown. Then I added capers and the gnocchi and tossed for a few minutes. I had planned to stop there, but the gnocchi started sticking to the pan a little before they were hot, so I drizzled in enough cream to prevent such silliness. And then I remembered that I hadn't used quite all the buttered crumbs from the night before, so we had those as a little crunchy topper. All very yummy.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Apple Tacos -- Who Knew?

We've been having what qualifies as a heat wave here in Isolationville. It's been all the way in the 70s, with abundant sunshine and calm winds. Our wall o' windows ensures that our house gets very warm without diligent heat management through blind closures and window openings changing throughout the day.

And so, I've been inspired to cook summery foods. There isn't a lot of call for them around here, so I'll take what I can get. Lunch the past two days has consisted of edamame salad with a toasted sesame dressing and spicy sesame noodles. The leftovers made today a lot easier than it would have been otherwise. For dinner tonight, I'd planned tacos thinking to use up the last of the tomatillos from my birthday package. Things did not go quite as planned.

I set my tofu to drain, because I didn't feel like thawing out some Gimme Lean ground beef style even if we do, indeed, still have a package of it in the deep freeze. I'm not convinced that we do anyway. My brilliant plan was to coat small pieces of tofu in a combination of taco seasoning, flour, and nutritional yeast and fry it to a crispy goodness. That part worked. The part that didn't work was the salsa I'd planned to go with it. I was thinking tomatillos, cilantro (from my flower pot in the window), green chile, lime, and either green or red onion, depending on my mood when I got to that bit. But when I opened up the tupperware, I found that I'd left only three small tomatillos. Clearly, not enough for a salsa fresca.

I started poking around the kitchen and pantry. My first thought was to just use my fresh ingredients to liven up a can of Herdez salsa verde. It could have worked. But then I spied the green apples hanging out by the sink and thought, why the heck not. I could see nothing about a granny smith that didn't go with the rest of my planned ingredients.

So that's what we had. Lovely, crisp-fried taco tofu, shredded cabbage, and an apple-tomatillo salsa on hot corn tortillas. I went with the red onion, mostly for color, and the whole thing worked surprisingly well. I'd make it again. I think.

Monday, August 6, 2007

HHDD # 14: Smoked Salmon Gnocchi

My first introduction to food blogging events was supposed to be the HHDD that featured sorbet, but I just didn't get my act together. I've managed a few others, but I'm very pleased to present my very first attempt at gnocchi for this month's event hosted by cafelynnylu.

When I read the announcement, I tried to think of some flavor combinations that would be appropriate for Isolationville. I've never made gnocchi before and didn't want to mess with the basic recipe too much, so I decided to stick with savory so I didn't have to worry about swapping out the parmesan. Given that we're still up to our hips in salmon, I decided to work with that. I had a very small piece of traditionally smoked/dried salmon left.

The texture and flavor of this particular smoked beauty (and yes, that's a little scale in the corner of the picture) lie somewhere in the realm where shoe leather, bacon, salmon, and smoke all come together. It's not for the faint of heart and a little goes a long way.

I shredded it finely for the gnocchi, knowing that the oils would seep through the dough nicely and spread the wealth of smoky goodness. I ended up with about a half a cup. I had some troubles with the dough. It was so wet as to be unworkable, no matter how much flour I put on the board. So I dumped it back into the bowl and added another 1/3 cup of flour. It was still wet, but barely workable, so I rolled out my worms of dough.

They weren't the prettiest of creatures, but they got the job done. I had made a cream sauce, very simple, by reducing to half the original volume 3/4 cup of wine with the zest of about half a lemon (it's what I had; Isolationville's store didn't have any for sale). I added a cup of heated heavy cream and reduced that a little before seasoning it with salt, black pepper, and crushed red pepper. Once half the gnocchi were boiled, I puddled a little sauce into each of two soup plates, spooned in the gnocchi straight from the pot, topped them with more sauce and buttered, toasted bread crumbs, and popped them into the oven for about fifteen minutes, to let everything get hot and bubbly.

It was delicious. Husband's comment after his first bite was, "I could eat a lot of these!"

This was my first bite. Creamy, dense, and crunchy; a true stick-to-your-ribs dinner. Although we ate quite early, and the portions weren't enormous, neither of us got hungry later. A bonus of this whole exercise is that half the gnocchi are still left! I had practice from the first half, and so managed to make the second set a little more presentable. I think they will be our lunch, reheated through a quick saute with red onion slivers and capers, a sort of deconstructed smoked salmon bagel.

Ok, so they're still not the fat, grooved cocoons that are store-bought gnocchi, but they're cute. They remind me of undercooked peanut butter cookies, only smaller. And with smoked salmon bits. I had a lot of fun with this event and got two good meals out of it, so I'm happy all around.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Birthdays Are Grand

My birthday was a few weeks ago now, and one of my belated birthday presents was a box of produce from my ever-understanding sister. Two luscious tomatoes, full of the sun and heat that are so missing from Isolationville's "summer". Blue potatoes, tomatillos, chiles...oh, she's a good sister.

The fate of the tomatillos was a given: fish tacos. I know I recently posted a photo of our Fourth of July fish tacos, but they were deficient in a number of ways. Chief among the defects was the lack of tomatillos for the cilantro-sour cream salsa. Last night, we fixed that problem. Into a small pan went tomatillos, whole garlic cloves, a jalapeno, and two green onions. These got a short simmer and then a trip into the container for my stick blender. The second blending was the juice of a lime and a big bunch of cilantro. Both blended batches then joined some sour cream in a bowl.

Simple pleasures: hot corn tortillas filled with simply pan fried tilapia, shredded cabbage, and cilantro-sour cream salsa. Crunch, juiciness, and an explosion of flavor.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

I'm A Gatherer

I've never really thought of gardening or picking wild berries as an atavistic exercise in getting back to my Pleistocene or Neolithic roots before I read the following two paragraphs in The Omnivore's Dilemma, but the thought tickles me:

Playing at self-reliance takes different forms in different people, and you can probably tell a lot about a person by his choice of atavism: whether he's drawn to the patient and solitary attentiveness of fishing, the strict mathematical syntax of building, the emotional drama of the hunt, or the mostly comic dialogue with other species that unfolds in the garden. Most of us have a pretty good idea which of these jobs we'd try for if somehow a time machine were to plunk us down in the Pleistocene or Neolithic.

At least until my adventures in hunting and gathering, I'd always thought of myself as a Neolithic kind of guy. Growing food has been my atavism of choice since I was ten years old, when I planted a "farm" in my parents' suburban yard and set up a farm stand patronized, pretty much exclusively, by my mother. The mysteries of germination and flowering and fruiting engaged me from an early age, and the fact that by planting and working an ordinary patch of dirt you could in a few months' time harvest things of taste and value was, for me, nature's most enduring astonishment. It still is.

Michael Pollan, The Omnivore's Dilemma, pages 364-365

The academic in me argues that being a "Neolithic kind of guy" does not restrict one to just gardening/farming. Plenty of "Neolithic guys", including many today, live not by hoe alone, but supplement with hunting and gathering of wild meat and plant foods.

That aside, I'm most definitely a gatherer at heart. It's a bit strange that I feel so content in that conviction, because I garden whenever I can (even in my Isolationville garage these days) and I was, for a couple years, a market gardener. I also study farming on many different levels, in many different times and places.

But still. I'm a gatherer.

The joy of feeling a hard lump in the sand, of knowing that a big, fat quahog lies there beneath my toes. The frantic sensation of standing in the middle of square miles of tundra, understanding that no matter how long I pick, I can never pick even a significant fraction of the billions of blueberries that surround me. The moment, as Pollan puts it, when I get my eye on, and morels jump out at me from the leaf litter and I can almost taste the mushroom tart they will become.

My heart also sings when I see seed leaves emerging from the soil, knowing that I put the seeds there, I gave them water and nutrients, and they grew. There is magic in agriculture.

For me, though, there is a greater magic in harvesting what no person produced. It makes me feel natural, in the same way as nursing my daughter makes me feel mammal. I was designed for this: for picking out the color and shape of the berries against the fall-purpled tundra, for kneeling amongst the hummocky wetness, using my opposable thumbs to pluck the berries from their branches, even for being able to make and carry containers to hold the berries as I pick.

It's much more than a feeling of getting something for nothing. There's an innate rightness about collecting food from nature. Gathering wild foods connects me more directly to the natural world than almost anything else I do, other than simply exist. The distance between the sun's energy and me is short, and the path it took between us direct.

For all the pitfalls of living in Isolationville, it does provide many opportunities for foraging from nature. Even the salmon are gathered here more than anything else. When there are millions of them, very literally, you don't exactly have to hunt for them. There may not be many green edible things around here, but there's plenty of protein, fat, and carbohydrates nonetheless.

Isolationville is a good place to be a gatherer (and a hunter, too, I should admit; just because I don't eat our furry friends doesn't mean they aren't here in abundance). Just lucky my avatar isn't an addicted gardener. Then, I'd be in trouble.

Monday, July 30, 2007

I'm Almost Back

I'm excited to get back to my food blogging! Our camera was returned yesterday, so I can take pictures again. I have been hesitant about blogging specific meals without being able to take pictures. I'm not sure why. More than that, though, I was sick last week and so didn't cook much that was very interesting. That will all change now! I've been keeping my eye on upcoming food blog events and there are a few I'll probably join.

In the meantime, I've finally read The Omnivore's Dilemma (a birthday gift from clever Husband!) and I'll post a couple thoughts about that this week, too.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

I (Mostly) Love Michael Pollan

After way too long a wait, I'm now in the middle of reading The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan. I read and liked Botany of Desire and his many articles in the Sunday NY Times Magazine. In virtually all his writing, I find one tiny little nugget that I strongly disagree with. I've already found it in Omnivore's Dilemma.

Let me start by reminding anyone reading this that my blog actually started as a wonkish food policy blog before I realized that my heart lay in a true food blog. So this little nugget is very little. And very particular. And very petty. See, but I recognize AND acknowledge this! It's a step in the right direction, no?

In discussing the stages of grass's domination of human food supply and the planet, Pollan refers to what he says is "usually called" the invention of agriculture. He quite rightly sees that as a pretty darn smug way of looking at it. The problem I have is that people who actually study that phenomenon (myself included) virtually never call it an invention. At most, discovery might slip. But generally, it is referred to as "origins of food production" or "the transition to food production". Researchers recognize that there were always (at least) two species involved and changing, that it was a process, not an immediate change, etc.

I realize that almost nobody else cares about a three-word phrase out of a whole book. It's my field, though, and I get irked when people writing about it for the popular press so badly misrepresent how the phenomenon is viewed within the field.

And that's the end of my rant.

Well, the end of my rant about the invention of agriculture, anyway. There is so much more to rant about in Pollan's work. Again, this is my field, so he isn't saying much I haven't heard before. That said, he puts information together in a clear, connected style that makes his reader sit up and take notice. He makes me glad, all over again, that I haven't eaten poultry or red meat in over twenty years. He reinforces my conviction that I won't eat them for another twenty unless I'm raising the animals myself, and maybe not even then.

Last night, I had to think back to the meal I had made and try to figure out how much corn and corn by-products were in it. Not many, truthfully, since we had one processed component with a big salad followed by a rhubarb/blueberry crisp. The salad dressing I made definitely had at least a little corn in it somewhere. I'm sure the packaged bread crumbs that went into the crisp topping had corn in them. The butter was no doubt from corn-fed cows. The sugar was straight cane.

My lack of a camera is starting to get to me. I really like sharing pictures of what we're eating. I'll have to watch more carefully when Husband shows me (for the third time) how I can take still photos with our digital video camera.

Bagel Dreams

I see that the best part of having people comment on my blog is following a link back to their blogs and seeing the wonderful things they've been cooking. In particular, I've seen a few of the Daring Bakers' bagel challenge over the past week. Today, I got to see the bagel party that is featured on My Kitchen in Half Cups. So much fun!

I admit to being a bit of a bagel snob. I have New York roots and a good bagel is a thing of glory. A bad bagel? At best, a decent roll. At worst, a conglomeration of bits from so many different baked goods without the glories of any of the constituent parts. When I first moved to the city I called home before moving to Isolationville, I was delighted to see lots of bagels displayed at the local chain of bakeries. Until I looked at the flavors. Blueberry, the clearly and rightly despised bane of bagels mentioned in the commentary that goes with the Daring Bakers' bagel recipe, was not even the worst.

Dutch Apple Crumb.

Three words that should never be associated with a bagel, and yet I kid you not. They made and sold Dutch Apple Crumb bagels. I still shudder. And yet what did they not have? A good, old-fashioned onion bagel. No garlic, either. What's the world coming to?

The various Daring Bakers make bagel making look so fun and easy that I need to try it myself. I've wanted to for quite a while, but this is the motivation I needed. We, of course, cannot get real bagels here in Isolationville. Thomas's and Lender's are the bagels on offer, and those hardly qualify. And they come in blueberry, too. So, with any luck at all, I'll soon be posting some bagel commentary of my own.

And, of course, enjoying the bagels with my own smoked salmon!

Saturday, July 14, 2007

A Week of Guests and Salmon

Ah, so woefully behind! Good friends came to visit for almost a week -- yes, all the way out here in Isolationville! (I told you they were good friends!) Their visit followed a weekend of salmon, salmon, salmon, and this all adds up to having no time to blog.

So here's a bit of a roundup of the last week:

Last Saturday, we did a little salmon netting with friends and came home with six big, beautiful salmon, caught about a mile from salt water. Some of one became dinner, some went in the freezer, and some bathed themselves in smoke for many hours before joining their friends in the deep-freeze. Unfortunately, there are no pictures of this yet. Our camera is once again gone walkabout.

Monday, our friends arrived, including a 3 1/2 year old. We dined on fresh salmon, roasted potatoes, and zucchini the first night. Breakfast the next day was English muffins with cream cheese and two kinds of smoked salmon, plain and peppered. Both were appreciated.

On Wednesday, our kitchen reverted to fish processing central after Visiting Friend caught two gorgeous king salmon (our netted fishies were sockeyes). Most of that went straight into vacuum packs and the freezer so they could transport it home to Pennsylvania at the end of their visit. A bit became dinner. Some filleting scraps did a very quick brine-and-smoke to become a quite-delicate smoked salmon that was part of two breakfasts later in the visit.

Thursday, we were out adventuring with nature and our picnic-style lunch consisted of, among other goodies, a loaf of The Bread, more smoked salmon, Maytag blue cheese, olives, sliced red peppers, avocado, and crackers. Visiting Friend caught a lovely sockeye, which was promptly filleted, brined, and smoked overnight, some plain, some peppered, so it would be at least partly frozen by yesterday afternoon when they hopped the first of their three flights home.

Friday required a late afternoon snack of reasonable proportions to keep the travelers hale and hearty until dinner in the next airport, so we had a reprise of the blueberry cornbread shortcake concoction.

And now it's Saturday and I have to decide if I'm still going to try to make a sorbet this weekend, just under the deadline, or if I'll move on to a different food blog event.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

A Mexican Fourth of July

DogNextDoor's person joined us for a Fourth of July meal last night. We had agreed to do this, but not discussed menus at all. On general principle, I made a loaf of The Bread, but we ended up deciding on a Mexican theme for the night. I couldn't not use The Bread, though, and my memories of glorious breakfasts of a fresh, crusty roll stuffed with avocado, lime, and salt led to our appetizer. It worked just fine. The avocado was courtesy of our grocery store's new and improved produce section, and was the second of a package of three that are good-looking and reasonably priced. It's all very exciting!

Our second/main course was fish tacos. Normally, they'd be even simpler than the picture shows because they would have just plain old shredded cabbage. But no cabbage was to be had, and a bad of cole slaw shred was the substitute, explaining the purple and orange bits. I make very simple fish tacos. When I have the option, I use tilapia because I like it's flavor and texture for tacos. I panfry fillets heavily salt-and-peppered until the tail bits get quite crispy. I flake that roughly once it's cooled a little. The sauce is a sour-cream/cilantro sauce made with jalapeno, green onion, garlic, loads of cilantro, lime juice, and sour cream. Isolationville has yet to reward me with tomatillos, but they are usually in the mix for the sauce, too.

I only got to take one picture of the tacos, because Husband was complaining to DND's person that he never gets to eat his food hot since I started blogging, so I abandoned the camera for marital harmony.

Dessert was lovely. DND's person brought a pint of Ben and Jerry's NY Super Fudge Chunk ice cream, and I heated a little goat's milk cajeta (carmelized, sweetened condensed milk) to drizzle over it. So yum!

All in all, a lovely Mexican-themed Fourth of July in one of the few parts of the country never colonized by the Spanish or owned by Mexico. Go figure.

The Dumpling Roundup and How to Shop for Isolationville

The roundup of Waiter, There's Something in My...Dumpling is up at The Passionate Cook this morning. A lot of gyoza/wonton/potsticker varieties are there keeping mine company, alongside some delicious-looking sweet dumplings.

The Passionate Cook wonders, quite sensibly, how I get gyoza wrappers in Isolationville, and the answer is that I don't. Like virtually everyone else in and around Isolationville, I have a very large deep freeze in my garage and it is a depository for all things unavailable in our isolation. Mine tends to have a pretty good stock of things like edamame, gyoza wrappers, frozen herbs, and the frozen bounty of our local landscape: fish and berries. And Trader Joe's treats, of course. The non-local stuff comes via return trips from the World Out There, when we stuff coolers and ship boxes full of all kinds of things we can't get here.

We don't do quite as much stocking-up as some people do. In part, that's because Husband's job takes him out of Isolationville with regularity, though not frequency, and so we don't usually need to keep more than two months of exotics on hand. It's also because we don't have the ready cash it takes to do it properly. Between the actual food costs and the shipping, we typically spend $400-700 on a shopping trip in The City, not counting the car rental and hotel. Some folks spend thousands.

A typical day includes two trips each to CostCo, an Asian/International grocery, a health food store, and a regular supermarket/department store. The first trips are for non-perishables, which get packed and shipped parcel post or via the airline's special food freight services. You only get the special food rates if you're shipping over a hundred pounds, so if we're taking all the perishables as checked luggage, we sometimes don't have enough for that. The second trips are last-minute for frozen stuff. We can ship that via the airline, and sometimes do, but if we've only been away for a short time and don't have a lot of luggage, it's easier to take a cooler with us and then check it on the way home, full of goodies.

Right now, we're in the middle of a four-month stretch with no relief from Isolationville, and our food stores are showing it. We've actually just placed a desperation order with one of the services that shop and ship for you. Unfortunately, there were some things I wanted (like another bottle of sweet chili sauce) that weren't available, so now I'm going to have to hope that the store in The Other Town has it. They do a very good job of trying to stock a lot of different things in a small store with a tiny customer base, so they might have it.

Living in Isolationville is a lesson in how to make do with what you can get. My cooking and eating habits have changed radically since moving here, not necessarily for the better. But I'm learning to get around the limitations, and I'm actually using this blog and especially the food blogging events to push myself to be more aggressive in pushing the limits of our food-procuring possibilities.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Corn and Salmon: Two Meals

For two nights in a row, we've been playing at eating summer. Monday was close to a real summer as it gets around Isolationville. Seventy degrees, beautiful blue skies, a light breeze to scare away the bugs. We took a long walk with Baby Girl and DogNextDoor to the public docks and let DND play in the water. When I went to the store later, I couldn't resist the corn (probably should have...the cut end was starting to ferment) and they had affordable and ripe avocados, so a summer meal was born! Our produce selection has improved dramatically over the last month. Part of that is just increased summer traffic; our store goes from one produce delivery a week to several. But there's new management, too, over the winter, and they're doing really lovely things. There was ginger. Actual, fresh ginger. I hardly know what to do with myself.

Anyway. So dinner Monday night was salmon, avocado, grape tomato, and red pepper salad with cilantro, green onion, and lime juice, and corn on the cob. Very tasty. We had some of the salmon leftover, and I had just cooked it with salt and pepper, so it was completely flexible as an ingredient the next night. We also had two ears of corn left. So for dinner last night, I combined the corn kernels, the salmon, green onions, sauteed onion and red pepper, cilantro, and a light fritter batter, and made corn-salmon fritter-cakes. The pictures didn't turn out very well, as you can see.

We ate the cakes with a big heap of finely shredded romaine, lightly dressed again with sushi vinegar, sesame oil, and salt. A sweet chile sauce finished off the meal.

As I was shredding the lettuce, I was taken back to my meat-eating days. One of my favorite sandwiches, and the last meaty meal I ate, was a good hard salami with lettuce, tomato, and mayo. Now, I realize how heretical that might have been, but it was tasty! Really good delis would make their sandwiches with finely shredded lettuce rather than whole or torn leaves, and the texture added a certain something.

When people ask me if I miss eating meat, the answer is not really. I miss certain foods that happen to feature meat, but it's not necessarily the meat that I miss. This sandwich is like that. I love the spice of the salami with the crunch of the lettuce and the creaminess of the mayo, all on a good, crunchy roll. The meat was definitely part of a larger package. I haven't eaten red meat or poultry for over twenty years, and it's still very particular dishes that I think about, not the meat at their center or side or wherever it was.

All that from shredding my lettuce.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

This Isn't My Grandmother's Shortcake!

In my family, four or maybe five generations of it, strawberry shortcake is taken very, very seriously. There is A Way to make it, a time and place to eat it, and deviations are not encouraged. For the most part, I agree with that. Once you replace the strawberries with some other kind of fruit, however, anything goes!

And so, after having a lovely meal of roasted baby red potatoes, onion fritatta, and creamed spinach, I embarked on dessert. Let's call it Spiced Blueberry Corncake.

After my blueberry flavor pairing work last week, I had a combo in mind that I wanted a use for, having decided on a different one for my as-yet-to-be-made sorbet. I had tried a coriander blueberry mix and loved it, so that was my starting point. I poured about two cups of my frozen, hand-picked, wild blueberries into a small saucepan, added some sugar and the juice of a lemon, and turned on the heat. Once everything was well thawed and giving up juices, I pulled out the berries and reduced the liquid to a near-syrup, added about half a teaspoon of coriander, a pinch of salt, and the berries, and let it cool.

Meanwhile, my cake needed to be flavorful on its own. I worked all day today, and made dinner, so I cheated a bit on the cake. I used a Trader Joe's cornbread mix with an added tablespoon of sugar and a tablespoon of fresh lemon zest. It's great! I always seem to forget how lovely cornmeal and lemon are together.

Finally, plain-Jane whipped cream. I considered vanilla and/or orange extract and decided to just sugar it a little and be done with it.

The first piece for each of us went very quickly...Husband was stacking a second round before I'd even finished taking photos of my first helping. But I was pretty quickly back, too, once I'd started to dig into that first slice. Unfortunately, my best picture was of my second round, so it's on a dirty plate. I've decided to think of it as a wabi-sabi photograph and post it anyway.

It almost makes me want thirds, but Husband beat me to it and finished off the berries.

It Boggles My Mind: The Butter Edition

Maybe I'm not giving Daniel Patterson enough credit when I sit with a dropped jaw trying to figure out how he can not have known how to make butter. In the NYTimes Magazine, he describes his epiphany about homemade butter and provides a recipe/method.

I'll be the first to admit that I may have read Farmer Boy, Laura Ingalls Wilder's food-porn biography-novel about her husband's childhood on a largely self-reliant farm, a few too many times. I've probably also visited more than my fair share of living-history museums, too. So maybe I have an advantage here and that's why my mind boggles at the thought of a chef not knowing how to make butter.

But still...I feel like I grew up knowing how to make butter. I first helped churn butter when I was not quite ten. I accidentally made butter a few years later in some of my early attempts at whipping cream without supervision. And every once in a long, long while, I've made my own. I'm not claiming that I make my own butter on a regular basis, or even that I'm a highly experienced butter maker. I'm not. It's a rare activity, mostly because of the cost.

In spite of the mind-boggling aspect of the article, I'm grateful for the reminder of just how good your own butter is. Baby Girl, as she has not yet reached the ripe old age of eight months yet, is not a candidate for butter making. She will be someday, however, and I look forward to making butter with her, if only so that she understands where butter comes from and how it gets to our table. And, of course, so she can have the sublime experience of slathering her very own butter onto a still-warm-from-the-oven slice of her very own bread.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Waiter, There's Something in My...Dumpling: Wild Salmon Gyoza

Well, getting in just under the wire, I finally made my entry for June's Waiter, There's Something in My...Dumpling event. Isolationville may not have much to offer, but one thing we do have in abundance is salmon. Gorgeous, wild, deep red salmon. So I knew that my dumplings would be filled with salmon and I decided on an Asian flavor set. I had considered a European version, fried in butter and dill, but I stuck with a gyoza styling. When I play with a recipe for the first time, I tend to be pretty loose with measurements, so the following recipe has some approximations. I served it in an appetizer portion of five gyoza surrounding a small heap of mixed baby lettuce and spicy Asian greens, all grown in my garage. The greens were tossed with tiny drizzles of sesame oil, sushi vinegar, and a sprinkle of salt.

I also played a lot more with the photographs after realizing that this is why my digital camera has a macro setting. It was fun and I'm really happy with the triptych of the filling, the being filled stage, and the about to be eaten step. They were tasty and the process from beginning to end was very fun. Thanks to The Passionate Cook for hosting!

Wild Salmon Gyoza

1/2 - 2/3 pound wild salmon fillet, chopped or minced
1/2 cup chopped green onion/scallion
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
1 TBS minced jalapeno
2 tsp finely grated lime zest
1 tsp grated ginger
1 tsp toasted sesame oil
salt to taste
Gyoza wrappers

Combine all filling ingredients in a bowl. Set aside in the refrigerator for at least half an hour for flavors to blend.

Fill wrappers according to package directions.

Heat 2 TBS neutral-flavored oil over medium heat in a large frying pan. Add gyozas; do not overfill the pan. Fry until the bottoms are golden brown, add 1/3 cup of water, and cover tightly until the water has evaporated.

Serve with a sauce of your choice (soy and vinegar, sweet chile sauce, hot mustard, etc).


Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Pizza by Force

Living in Isolationville, we do a lot of bulk shopping-and-shipping whenever we go to City. CostCo is our friend, and so our cheese tends to come in two or three pound bricks. I always promise myself that I'll pull out the vacuum sealer and break them into manageable pieces, but I almost never do. (The main exception was the lovely Maytag blue, which I was not about to risk losing to spoilage.) So I was searching in the fridge for something else yesterday morning when I came upon a sad block of mozzarella, starting to show mold on its cut surface. Somehow we ended up with two blocks open at the same time and that's just asking for the mold fairies to come visit.

Clearly, I needed to make something with mozzarella, and pizza usually wins in those situations.

I used to make a lovely pizza with loads of fresh chopped tomatillos, cilantro, and green onion. Tomatillos rarely make an appearance in Isolationville, but I did have the other stuff, so a Mexican-y pizza was dinner last night and lunch today. I was all set to take a picture, but quite frankly, it wasn't the prettiest pizza I've ever made, so I didn't bother. Tasty, yes, but not gorgeous in the least.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Salad Before and After

I've been growing greens under lights and finally had some mixed baby lettuces big enough to harvest for a salad last night. This is the before picture, prior to my scissor work. I'm really hoping that these greens do well and a cut and come again, as advertised. I've had good luck with that in the past, but I haven't tried this particular mix before.

There weren't really enough greens for full-meal salads for Husband and me, so I supplemented my tender babies with a bed of romaine underneath everything. Here's the after:

Along with the greens, we had cold cooked red potatoes, hard boiled eggs, red pepper, and parmesan shavings, all topped with a lemon-mustard dressing. It was lovely to eat some food I'd grown myself. Isolationville isn't all that friendly to gardening. Among other things, we can't compost because we have a dense bear population. Our growing season is extremely short and not at all what you would call warm, even if you (ok, me) desperately want to pretend it's summer. Indoor gardening is my main outlet now, so it was nice to reap some benefits.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

My Isolated Apron

I spied the announcement for Show Us Your Apron yesterday and decided that I had to enter this wonderfully insane apron I received for Christmas last year. Kudos for the photo and photo manipulation go to Husband. After braving the mosquitoes to take the pictures, we sat with our respective laptops playing in Photoshop -- geek out! My best attempt is now my profile picture, his is here.

We were with Husband's family shortly after Christmas this past winter and I was cooking something for a crowd and my mother-in-law suggested I put on an apron to protect something nice-ish I was wearing. I went to the cupboard and pulled this out, completely in love. She looked at me strangely, asked if I liked it, and when I said I loved it, she said, "Well, it's yours."

I thought she was trying to give it to me just because I admired it, but it turned out that she actually had bought it for me, along with aprons for her other daughters-in-law, but then decided that I would probably hate it, so put it with her other aprons!

Needless to say, it came back to Isolationville with me. I like that it has a defined waist; I always hated the shapeless food service standard apron and would fold over the top and wear it just from the waist down. Even though I don't usually like wearing patterned fabrics, I love the riotous mix of pattern and color in this. It makes me happy.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Cocoa and Nostalgia on a Rainy Day

I'm sitting here watching the rain hit my windows with a cup of contraband at my elbow. Cocoa. Luscious, chocolaty, slightly salty cocoa. I was eating a slice of peanut butter toast, on bread I baked from my family recipe, feeling a little chilly on this gray morning, and feeling that a big something was missing. All my life, peanut butter toast and cocoa have gone together, especially when the weather is bleak. And, quite frankly, a rainy, 46-degree day on the day after the Summer Solstice? Bleak.

BabyGirl, however, really doesn't appreciate my drinking milk. For the half-year it's been since we figured out that she doesn't like it, I have avoided all milk and ice cream, and large quantities of altered dairy products like cheese and yogurt.

But this morning, I just couldn't take it. My peanut butter toast cried out for cocoa. And so I carefully poured out half a mug's worth of milk, stirred the cocoa, sugar, and salt into some water to boil, added the milk, and now, I sit, with only a small amount of guilt, drinking my half mug of rainy day cocoa.

It's delicious.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

What Was Lost is Now Found

Wheeeeeeeee!! I have been camera-less for two weeks now. No new food photos, which is tricky, as I really want to get going on the food blog events I've decided to enter. Husband had it while he was away and came home without it. I was starting to despair and was convinced that whoever found it decided to keep it. But it turned up today and will be back in our home in a few days! Yay!

In the meantime, I thought I'd share some photos of food in Mexico a few years ago. Just because they're already digitized, so I can.

The first is from an outdoor wholesale market I attended several times in southern Puebla. There were trucks full of radishes, cilantro, onions, tomatoes, and various other veggies and fruits. These nopales are just so lovely! From another wholesale, but formal, market, a lovely pile of chiles.

This radiant treat is a raspberry tamal. Such a delicious treat, and almost translucent, the maize was ground so fine. I bought these at a barter-market before dawn in central Michoacan. They made great snacks for a very long bus ride that day. They traveled surprisingly well. I had seen these in another market a few days before I bought these, but thought they were steamed beet slices, which I thought was a little odd. It made a lot more sense when I learned that they are actually raspberry tamales.

And finally, not exactly food really. This is some detail from a huge seed-art mural at the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. I have a weak spot for good seed art and this was just beyond brilliant. I wish I had had my digital camera when I was there because it has a great composite feature that would have let me stitch the whole thing together into one image.

I was in Mexico for research and the markets were a combination of work and fun. I have loads more photos, but a lot of them are slides. It's too bad because there are some lovely food photos among them.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Eat Dessert First!

When I was in high school, roughly two decades ago plus a bit, the choice for an after-movie hang-out was a cafe run by an Austrian (I think) woman. It was in a small stone house and there were three small rooms with cushioned arm chairs clustered (almost crowded) around small, marble-topped tables. There was almost always a line out the door on weekends, even in winter. It was carpeted and cozy and full of conversation. It was lovely.

It was also, apparently, ahead of its time. The menu was predominantly desserts, and that's what people came for. They did offer some lovely cheese and fruit plates and light sandwiches, and I even shared one of the cheese and fruit combos once, but for most visitors, it was all about the desserts. Decadent cakes and tarts and parfaits. Always too many choices that sounded good. One that I occasionally recreate was a chocolate pate served with shortbread cookies and apricot preserves. I loved that cafe and I was heartbroken when it closed. The rumors were that the owner planned to re-open in conjunction with a theater that was being revived across town (this, by the way, was thousands of miles from Isolationville; I'm a relative newcomer here), but it never happened.

I'm reminiscing about it today because of a long article in the NYTimes today about pastry chefs who are opening their own, dessert-centric, restaurants. Most of them seem to be offering a larger non-dessert menu than my beloved cafe did, but they are still looking for that crowd that wants serious dessert, even if they ate out somewhere without them. I always believe that one should know at least one restaurant in a town that is worth going to just for the dessert, and that doesn't object to having that kind of customer. I like going for a cup of coffee (decaf, of course, because I'm a tad insane if you add caffeine to me) and dessert after a movie or dinner at home or just because I happen to be walking past a dessert place. I've had a few standards for such visits in the various places I've lived. In case you hadn't already guessed, Isolationville has no such place. It's sad.

So, if pastry chefs across the nation want to start opening their own places, I'm all for it. It's a trend I'll watch, if only so I'll know where to look when I escape from Isolationville.

Blueberry Flavors

I've been delving into the world of food blog events over the past week. I used to do similar types of things with pizza with a small group of people online, but that's almost a decade in the past now and I miss it. So I've chosen two events to enter in the next couple of weeks: Hay Hay It's Donna Day #13 and Waiter, there's something in my...dumpling.

I was telling this to a colleague last night, saying that I really needed some cooking challenges because cooking in Isolationville is challenging, but not in a fun way. He responded that I must not be taking advantage of wild foods, and named one in season now. I challenged him to point to one spot where said food was available, and he admitted that you'd have to hop a plane to get there. I felt vindicated.

Don't start thinking that Isolationville is full of jet-setters. Not at all. It's just that the size of our isolation requires a lot of air travel.

I considered doing a fruit dumpling, but I have moved on to better ideas for that one. Fruit will definitely play into the sorbet treat for Donna Day #13, though, and today was a day for flavor experimentation. Last fall, I picked gallons of wild blueberries and froze about two-thirds of them. That's my base. I was cooking some up for Baby Girl's next food puree, and made a bit more than would fill the ice cube tray so I could play with some flavor combos.

There were several things I either wanted to try originally but didn't have on hand or now want to try because one of the combos I thought wouldn't work, did. If that makes any sense whatsoever. I would have liked to try honey, but mine was all sugared and no amount of play changed that and I got rid of it. I also thought about trying it with coconut milk, but I'm not sure how well the packets will keep once opened (I do powdered because of the shipping costs for canned goods). There were some combinations I didn't need to try because I know they work, but none of them were in the running for this particular purpose.

I tried the following, all with a little sugar and some with a little lemon juice:

Cloves: too strong and the flavors didn't complement each other at all.

Cayenne: I liked the heat. Husband felt it didn't add much interest.

Pine nuts: Again, I liked it, didn't love it, Husband really didn't like it. This was the combo that made him request a water chaser/palate cleanser.

Ginger: I liked it, didn't like it enough to carry a spoonful to my test audience, who doesn't like ginger anyway.

Salt: Specifically, pink Hawaiian salt. Or red. I don't know which it claims. I have to admit that this was a bit gimmicky. I do love sweet-salty combos, but part of this experiment was simply for the visual. The flavor was good, but it's not going to be added to lists of classic sweet-salty combos any time soon. It did look cute together! I was picturing miniature sorbet sandwiches with a rim of pinky-red salt. Won't happen now.

There were two other flavors I tried that I won't describe because one of them is going to be featured in my sorbet. One, I thought had a better-than-50% chance of being really nice. And it is. Really nice. Husband agreed. The other, I thought wouldn't work. I tried it just because it was there and I figured I shouldn't ignore it. I was very, very wrong. A lovely combo and it could well be the winner. Or I might make both. Again, this might not make a lot of sense, but I think the two flavor combos would be nice in the same bowl, but not in the same scoop. Strange that it should work that way, but I think it's true. I'd like alternating bites of the two different sorbets, but not the two flavors in the same bite.

We'll see how much time Baby Girl gives me when it's time to make the sorbet.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Dreamy Kitchens

My dreams about the perfect house always start with the kitchen. Many years ago, I thought that a herringbone brick floor and a wood-burning cookstove would be great. I was young. I was idealistic. I cooked frequently in Dutch ovens and tin reflecting ovens and brick ovens and wood-burning cookstoves. Things usually worked. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Luckily, it never got implemented and my dreams have evolved. The NYTimes has a series of profiles of kitchens in and around NYC earlier this week and that got me thinking about just what my dream kitchen is these days. There are a lot of fancy-kitchen trends that I don't love. I'm not that fond of granite counter tops. I don't really like sterile-looking kitchens. I don't feel the need for every new gadget under the sun.

What I do like in a kitchen? Personality, practicality, and fun.

I had a friend in high school whose mother had a red kitchen. Every pot, implement, appliance, and surface that could be found in red, was. It was fun! It was also practical because she liked to display a lot of those red things, so implements and pots were on open shelves, on racks, and in jars, and were, therefore, easy to grab when needed.

I don't think I'd want a monochrome kitchen, but I do want color. Greens feel very fresh and vibrant, two qualities I associate with kitchens, so I'll definitely stick in some green, probably in the floor with something like a watermelon or evergreen Marmoleum. Although, in a small space that requires definition, I wouldn't rule out something like this wave or block style. Marmoleum is a mostly natural product, often listed on green materials sheets. It's got some give and doesn't stain easily, making it a good choice for kitchen flooring.

I've been fascinated recently by PaperStone for counters. I cannot get their website to load today no matter how many times I try, but it's a recycled paper and resin combo that looks a lot like chemistry lab counter tops, but in lots of colors. They've been moving away from petroleum based resins, so, again, a relatively green product.

Cabinets will probably come from Ikea. I write that as if I'm in the midst of actually designing a new kitchen that will be built sometime in the near future. I'm not, of course. Isolationville is not a permanent living, we hope, and we don't plan to own a home here. And we don't have any money for a moderately expensive kitchen remodel/build anyway.

Now Ikea won't let me choose my dream cabinets without downloading the newest version of whatever. Light wood, nothing fancy, simple hardware. That's the goal. They do have the loveliest interior cabinet and drawer organizers ever, though, and that would be necessary to kit out good pantry spaces.

The other details? It would depend on the kitchen and the amount of space. A double sink, preferably very deep, is a must. Gas stove, also, a must. Almost everything else is a little bit optional. Well, I need to have a fridge, I'm just not as picky about that as I am some other things about my kitchen. At least, I think I'm not now. If and when I actually get to design the kitchen of my dreams, it might be a whole different story.

But in the meantime, a girl can dream.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Food Bargains Come to Isolationville

I can't quite remember if I kept the post that discusses the cost of food here in Isolationville. I claim my coming-of-age ceremony here as the day when my reaction to my grocery bill was, "Is that it? Really?" That's in deep contrast to my previous reaction, which was always, "How the hell can five items cost that much?!?" I noticed yesterday that milk has gone up. It's now $7.89/gallon. Not that there were any gallon containers, mind you. That shelf space was barren. The half-gallon I bought for Husband (Baby Girl objects when I drink fresh milk) was $5.09.

So imagine my thrill when my bill came to only 38 bucks and change! I had bought (for Friday junk food nights) four cheese pizzas, a big beautiful red pepper, three zucchini, four jalapenos (hmmm...I'll bet I can use diacritical marks if I spent two minutes learning how; I'll save that for next time), a package of onion rolls, and the aforementioned, not cheap half-gallon of milk. For under forty dollars. I was babbling to the check-out girl, I was so happy about my savings.

Understand that normally, those four pizzas by themselves would have set me back more than forty dollars. They were way, way, way on sale, which is where all the savings came in. Each of those little pizza puppies would normally have been around 11 bucks, but they were on sale for two for ten dollars. And they actually had cheese pizzas. They haven't had plain cheese pizzas any time I've checked in the last three months. It was serendipity.

How sad is it that my food purchasing thrill of the week is that I got cheap frozen pizzas? I mean, a frozen pizza as a very occasional guilty pleasure is one thing, but it's a sorry state of affairs that I'm this excited about FROZEN PIZZAS. I feel like my secret foodie identity card is going to be taken away if this continues. Right now, I'm living on the credit I built up through years of growing a lot of food, making tons of stuff from scratch, introducing new people to my former home's food secrets, and just generally being obsessed with food on many levels. I did make The Bread yesterday. And I've got lettuce that will be ready to harvest in about a week. But the cheap frozen pizza thrill is taking a serious bite out of my credentials.

But until I exit Isolationville, I say, pass the red pepper flakes and dig in!

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Cheese Tortellini with Asparagus

When the asparagus came to Isolationville a couple weeks back, I made a nice pasta in addition to the asparagus pizza I posted about earlier. Inspired by Once Upon A Feast's Presto Pasta Nights, here's the recipe and photo.

3/4 pound asparagus
1 1/2 pound package frozen cheese tortellini (or something better if your non-Isolationville location offers)
5 large cloves garlic, peeled
3 TBS olive oil
2 TBS fresh lemon juice
3 TBS heavy cream
2 oz freshly grated parmesan
salt and pepper to taste

1. Set a large pot of salted water to boil for the pasta
2. Trim an inch off the ends of the asparagus, peel the stalks, and cut each into thirds
3. Place asparagus and garlic in a steamer and steam lightly for 4 to 7 minutes
4. When the asparagus is crisp-tender, remove from steamer and set aside
5. Combine steamed garlic, olive oil, and lemon juice in a small processor and process until smooth
6. Cook pasta according to directions and drain; return pot to stove
7. Over medium heat, cook the garlic-oil mix for a few minutes. Add the asparagus, toss to coat. Add the pasta, toss to coat. Add cream and half the parmesan cheese, toss to coat.
8. Add salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Sprinkle each serving with some of the remaining cheese.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Popcorn and Chocolate Chips

The title isn't a recipe suggestion, just a description of my evening snacking. I just can't get it together recently to cook real food, which sucks. I've been working until 6, coming home and feeding Baby Girl and getting her to sleep. Then I go next door to play with and feed the NeighborDog (taking my baby monitor with me!). And then I get to feed myself.

So tonight, I started with an English muffin with salsa and pepperjack. And a big glass of juice. That wasn't so bad. Then I moved on to some freshly popped, very lightly buttered popcorn. Also not that bad. Not that great, either, but as snack foods go, it's a decent option. Then I started dipping into the monster bag of chocolate chips. Dumb move. They're addictive. I had fruit at breakfast and veggies at lunch, so overall, the day wasn't a complete loss nutritionally speaking, but I am a nursing mama and I feel that I should be eating better. I'm just having trouble finding the energy.

The saddest part is that I love veggies. I love salads. I love fruit. I just can't get decent versions of such things here in Isolationville and so I have to be creative to get my basic five-a-day. In summer, I usually have no trouble getting ten-a-day, but here, it just doesn't happen naturally. I have to work at it and some days, it just doesn't happen.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Ah, Convenience Foods!

Sometimes I feel the need to sing the praises of almost-instant foods and this week has been one of those times. Husband is away on business and I am working an extra 24 hours while he's gone, so it's a double whammy of no help around the house and having to take Baby Girl to work with me every day for a few hours, getting us home about half an hour before she wants to go to bed. These are the days when I'm happy to rip open an envelope and dump the contents into some boiling water/milk combo and be done with it.

Except, not really.

Those things have little flavor and no redemptive nutritional qualities, so I add stuff. The other night, I added a cup or so of frozen peas and two chopped-up veggie breakfast sausages to an otherwise uninspired pot of garlic/parmesan noodles. They needed a little something-something, so I also tossed in Tabasco and a little Worcestershire sauce. If I had had five minutes more of energy, I would have grated some actual parmesan, but I didn't, so there you are.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Cooking Intimidation

Husband is a perfectly competent, and occasionally excellent, cook. He makes the world's best egg and cheese sandwiches. He has the gift of getting inspired by a recipe while browsing a cookbook, especially if it's got good food porn photos of each dish. And yet, he doesn't cook very often. It's ok, because I love to cook and he steps up when I need him or really want him to cook. When we talk about it, he says that he's intimidated by my cooking skills and doesn't think he can measure up. It makes me a little sad, because he really does cook well, and would improve if he cooked more often and expanded his repertoire.

At least he's not alone. Today's NYTimes has a story about this phenomenon. The article actually covers it from both perspectives: the foodie couple in a group who feel that they must keep up the high standards they have set for themselves and the other folks in the group who feel pressure to live up to the high benchmarks, too.

I really love to cook for people. Almost no matter how many or few people, what kinds of foods they like -- I just like to cook for old friends and new acquaintances. Here in Isolationville, I don't have a lot of chances to do that, but I have friends actually coming all the way here to visit in July, and I've already started thinking about the menu. She is always so good about trying new recipes when I stay with them, so I'm feeling like I need to have put some thought into it and I really want to do one sort of fancy meal. How exactly I'm going to get the ingredients, I'm not sure, but the salmon will be running then, so at least I have a high-class base for the meal!

In general, though, I have tended to do more meals for large groups rather than fancier stuff for just a few couples. Some of my favorites are theme meals. I've done soup parties with great success. Usually, I make three soups (one vegetarian, one vegan, and one fishy, usually) and make bread to go with. When people ask if they can bring something, I ask them to bring a nice wedge of cheese, which rounds out the meal. I've also done mix and match pasta parties: two shapes of pasta plus a cheese-stuffed pasta with two or three different sauces and often roasted veggies or other add-ins. One of my favorite dinners to do that way is a grilled pizza party. Individual-sized crusts can be par-grilled before guests arrive, and then everyone tops their own and puts it back on the grill for five minutes to finish it off. Very fun and popular.

The joy of this style of dinner party is that even if people rave about the soups, the fact that it's a serve-yourself-from-the-pot meal keeps reciprocal expectations pretty low. And, quite frankly, it doesn't allow me to get competitive with myself either. Because I probably would, otherwise. Each time a particular group was over, I would feel like they expected me to outdo the last meal. I'm not really interested in getting into that kind of cycle.

Someday, though, I would like to have the required elements (like a big table and plenty of chairs, maybe even matching ones!) to have larger sit-down meals. I once had access to a borrowed apartment for events like that and I had so much fun with the meal planning. The Times article profiled a couple who spend whole days shopping and planning for each dinner they give. That's my idea of a day spent well. In cities where it's possible to visit cheese shops and specialty shops for fresh pasta and farmers' markets for local produce and bakeries for the bread and...

Now I'm just torturing myself because even if I were to fly to The City, I wouldn't find most of those things.

Someday. Sigh.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Winter Wheat, Spring Wheat, Summer Wheat...Always Wheat

The NYTimes Science section has a story today about attempts to breed a perennial wheat. Agricultural researchers in eastern Washington are currently working on the problem. They see it as a solution to a variety of problems including global warming's effects on food production, erosion, and the high fuel costs of plowing and planting every year. I think it's a great goal and I hope they stick with it despite the funding problems mentioned toward the end of the article.

I have a few bones to pick with the article, though. (Please remember that I did warn in my introduction to my newly overhauled blog that I would occasionally stick in a wonky post. I just couldn't resist this.)

First bone is that there seems to be an underlying assumption that there is nothing else farmers could do to decrease erosion, particularly from wind. That's simply not true. They want to keep the economy of scale they get from having enormous expanses of unimpeded wheat fields. I understand that. That field arrangement, however, comes at a high cost. There is nothing to break or slow the wind, nothing to catch blowing soil before it leaves the farm. Windbreaks of mixed-height trees would make a huge difference. Even strips of unplowed wheat stubble would help. Yes, it would mean more time on tractors and combines because the farmer couldn't just drive for half a mile down the field with no interruptions. Sometimes, for the good of the planet, you just have to make a few sacrifices.

Along similar lines, I really hate that the author says that annual wheat can't compete with annual weeds and therefore needs herbicides. I was, in a past career, an organic market gardener. Most plants that conventional agriculture says need herbicides and pesticides and artificial fertilizers simply don't. Do they need them to achieve ridiculously high yields? Sometimes. Do they need them to produce a crop in most years? No. It irks me that agriculture in the popular press is consistently discussed as if large-scale industrial farming is the only option.

Last bone is the tossed-in comment about the ancient farmers who "chose" wheat:

The problem with annual wheat is that farmers selected it for domestication because of its high grain yield, which means the plant sacrificed other attributes to maximize the amount of seed.

Part of my "thinking about food" involves researching prehistoric agriculture. (What can I say? I'm a food geek. I'm ok with it. You?) It's really hard to justify statements like "farmers selected it for domestication because", especially when you're talking about wheat. Who know why people ten thousand years ago did anything? There are hypotheses, some with more support than others, for why people did some things, but human motivation is a tricky thing. Why is it especially problematic for wheat? Wheat was one of the very first plants domesticated, possibly the first, although it's looking more and more like rye was domesticated earlier. So the people who "domesticated" wheat didn't have some end-goal in mind because they had never seen the end-goal before. They relied on wheat in their diet, quite possibly because of the high grain yields (see, I'm willing to go along with the author's choice of motivation to some extent; I'm not unreasonable). Experimental research in high-density stands of wild wheat have shown that a family could harvest a year's worth of wheat in a relatively short time. There's a lot of debate about just how the genetic changes that define domestication came about. One of the most-favored hypotheses says that simply by harvesting wheat in the way they did -- with sickles, favoring characteristics like simultaneous ripening and holding onto grain tightly -- people selected for the genetic stock of our modern domesticated wheats.

Given my love of all things bready AND all things planet-friendly, I certainly hope they find ways to make wheat more suitable to lower-impact farming. I also hope that Congress wakes up and recognizes that agricultural research subsidies should be going to people who recognize that our agricultural practices are going to have to change with the climate.