October 30, 2007

Brown-butter, Baby

Well, the first frosts of the year have arrived. And while I’m happy – elated, actually -- finally to see some colder weather, it’s hard to come to grips with what that frost means: bye-bye fresh herbs. Walking my son out to the bus stop this morning, I saw black, shriveled up leaves on a plant that just a few weeks ago I used to make the last of the summer pesto.

It’s really an awful feeling to know that I can no longer walk out to my patio with a pair of scissors and snip off a mitt full of thyme, some long threads of oregano or tarragon, a few petals of basil, or a small sampling of sage.

What the frost means is that how we cook, or what we’re able to cook, changes dramatically. Combined with end of our CSA season next week – the topic for a whole ‘nother post of dread that I’m nowhere near mentally prepared to start writing – no longer can we make decisions on the fly about how we’re going to sauce that pasta, season that chicken, make that vinaigrette.

It means having to know exactly what you want to cook, because the herbs we have at our disposal are limited to what we remembered to buy at the grocery store. And that assumes, of course, that the herbs in those little plastic packs are actually still good by the time I want to use them.

The cup-half-full folks might say that the situation forces you to step out of the usual routine, use the abundance of spices that are available even in most standard grocery stores these days to make meals you’ve never made before, to experiment with new cuisines.

And that’s true. But that’s something we already do. It doesn’t make up for the immediacy of stepping out my back door to pick some mint and cilantro, dice it up, whisk it together with some oil, salt, pepper, or other herbs and use it as a rub on some chicken thighs. It doesn’t compensate for those missing flavors that for many months now have been available on a whim.

And so it was, with what ended up being the last of our back-patio sage, I made a real favorite meal of ours – and perhaps the quickest and easiest of any dinners we make. All it takes is some quality ravioli or tortellini (especially if it’s stuffed with pumpkin or butternut squash or maybe gorgonzola, which is what we had last night) that you only need to boil in water for 10 minutes or so to cook through, a good bit of butter, and, of course, some fresh sage.

Ravioli in a Brown-Butter Sage Sauce

  • 1 lb of ravioli, tortellini, similar “pocket”-type pasta that only needs to be boiled in water to cook
  • 4-5 tablespoons of butter
  • 6-8 sage leaves, torn in half
  • Salt and pepper
  • Big splash of balsamic vinegar
  • Grated parmesan cheese

Cook the pasta according to the package directions. Melt the butter in a large pan over medium-high heat, let it go for a few minutes, stirring it a little to get it to foam. Add the sage, salt, and pepper and stir; cook until the butter starts to brown a bit. Remove pan from the heat, add a good sized splash (a splash, not a guzzling pour) of balsamic vinegar, and add the pasta to the pan, toss and coat, and then add the parmesan, toss and coat some more.

I’ve seen recipes that call for adding lemon juice at the end – which I would advise against if using balsamic -- or topping the pasta with some toasted walnuts.

UPDATE: While the basil quickly succumbed to the frost, and the sage is not fairing very well, the tarragon, mint, and oregano are still hangin' in there. In fact, I used some tarragon last night in an excellent tomato soup. Recipe soon.

October 26, 2007

Scrapin’ Up the Bits, Locals-Do-Well Style

NPR provides an update on the Farm Bill and a concise overview of its main components, or “titles” in legislative geek speak. Meanwhile, burghpunk over at Daily Kos gives a rousing summary of the importance of the Conservation title.

Speaking of the Farm Bill, a big part of the debate on it often centers around subsidies for corn. The excellent environmental blog Grist, which often produces some very insightful pieces on food and food policy by Tom Philpott, has an interview between the aforementioned Mr. Philpott and two representatives from two organizations who, in many respects, represent "Big Corn." The intro to the interview is enough to make the average person dirty his or her pants...

According to the U.S. Grains Council, the U.S. produces about 44 percent of the globe's corn crop -- that's more than China, the European Union, Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico combined. Iowa alone, which produces a sixth of U.S. corn, produces about as much as the European Union.


[Corn] covers fully a fifth of U.S. cropland, far more than any other crop. It draws more subsidies than any other crop, too. According to the Environmental Working Group, the U.S. government paid corn farmers $51.2 billion between 1995 and 2005 -- more than the outlays for the next two most-subsidized crops combined (cotton and wheat) and nearly three times more than the amount spent on the Conservation Reserve Program over the same period.
Some interesting stuff in Wednesday’s NY Times Dining & Wine section:
  • One of the Times’ most emailed articles/blog posts this week has been 5 Easy Ways to Go Organic. As has been pointed out by many people, just because something’s organic doesn’t mean it hasn’t left a substantial environmental footprint to arrive at your grocery store. Same goes for locally produced food. Man it can be confusing trying to be a responsible eater.
  • Back in our D.C. days, a favorite meal at one of our regular – and, sadly, defunct – restaurants, The Fairmont Café, was lobster and mashed potatoes. I can still taste those chunks of lobster coated in buttery mashed potatoes ("Drool clean up on laptop keyboard, pronto!"). The Minimalist suggests trying something similar, but with a less costly piece of fish.

National props for some local establishments, including to Penn Brewery for proving once again that its hefeweizen is da’ finest in all o’ the land, and Bona Terra in Sharpsburg – where, gasp!, I have yet to eat – which Gourmet magazine has named one of the country’s finest farm-to-table restaurants.

October 22, 2007

Shrimp O'Rama

Great Moments in The Simpsons’ History:

Cap’n McAllister: Ahoy, mateys! Had your fill of tacos? Would ye sooner eat a bilge rat than another burger? Then come for all-you-can-eat seafood at the Fryin’ Dutchman!

Homer: Marge, we’re going to that restaurant.

Marge: But I think I’m allergic to seafood. The last time I ate shrimp, my throat closed up, and I went into convulsions.

Homer: Mmmmmm…shrimp.

Speaking of shrimp, came across these two appealing shrimp recipes and thought I’d share the bounty. Have not made either, so can’t vouch for their quality. Read them and see what you think.

Shrimp Risotto, courtesy of Leite’s Culinaria, an interesting, but, IMO, strange site. Launched by well-known food writer (how do you become one of those?!) David Leite, this site is not a blog, not a news site, something altogether different. Whether that’s a good thing, I can’t tell.

From Food & Wine comes a Curried Shrimp and Carrot Bouillabaisse. Now, I’ve never made a bouillabaisse. Heck, for that matter, I’ve never eaten one! According to FoodGeeks.Com – which is not to be confused with the Grumpy Beer Geek, not that you would make such an error – it’s made with lots of different kinds of fresh fish. It guess it's a French version of a cioppino. In either case, I would guess that soup purists might take offense at this recipe being called a bouillabaisse. Me. Not so much. If it tastes good, you can call it crap stew and I’ll eat it.

And, finally, Curried Coconut Shrimp on Rice Noodles. I posted this in July, but it seems worth pimping in a post about shrimp. It’s not the easiest recipe, but the end result is quite good.

October 19, 2007

Bad Beef, Stinky Pigs, and Healing Honey

Here we go again… While many members of Congress are focused on eviscerating the constitution—clearly an important topic—there are other pieces of legislation moving through Congress, including the Farm Bill.

I recently discussed a disconcerting effort by Sen. Diane Feinstein to try to derail a provision in the Senate version of the Farm Bill that would make it easier for small farms to sell their beef—very often grass-fed or mostly grass-fed beef—by allowing beef from state-inspected processing facilities to be sold across state lines. Bottom line is that the massive processing facilities that are inspected by the feds, the USDA to be precise, often won’t take the cows from the small farmers. Not enough coming in to justify it.

And, of course, these facilities don’t have the best reputation for food or worker safety, so the small farmers who have put in the tremendous amount of time and effort it takes to raise grass-fed beef probably aren’t real keen on sending their cattle to those large facilities for processing anyway.

In any case, the excellent Ethicurean has a fantastic round up on the latest with this provision, including what appear to be shenanigans by Big Beef—that is, the big meat processing companies—to fuel speculation about how this provision will hurt meat safety. I think it’s pretty clear what’s going on there: They are scared of the competition from a beef product that more and more people are trying because of things like recalls of 22 millions pounds of frozen beef patties.

And, in another bit of scary irony, while Sen. Feinstein is atwitter about alleged lax safety at state-inspected facilities, the federal situation—shock—apparently ain’t so good.

Several USDA inspectors said their workloads are doubling or tripling as they take on the duties of inspectors who have left the department. The force has been reduced dramatically in recent years as vacancies are left unfilled.

"We've been short the whole time I've been in," said one veteran inspector, who asked to not be named. "We don't have enough inspectors, but we have too much management. The inspectors are short all the time and getting spread thinner and thinner."

Makes me feel real safe. We had some grass-fed steaks from So’ Journey Farms a few weeks ago with a fantastic chimichurri sauce. I’ll admit, the steak was a little gamier than what you would get from a grain-fed steak or even from the Niman Ranch grass-fed but grain-finished steaks (which, I’ll admit, are always stellar), but it was tender and, overall, very enjoyable. I see myself ordering up a good bit of beef from both So’ Journey and Niman to keep us through the winter.

And about those stinky pigs In parts of Iowa, it turns out, the residents are tired of the huge factory pig farms stinking up the joint.

Mayor Kent Forbes has learned a hard truth about small-town life in Iowa: Sometimes it stinks. That's not a figure of speech. His tiny southern Iowa town is surrounded by hog farms, where tons of manure fill the air with a biting ammonia smell.

Farm odors are nothing new in a state that has long been a national leader in hog, corn and soybean production. But a steady proliferation of huge hog confinements _ many with upward of 5,000 hogs _ has drawn complaints from longtime Iowans and concerns that the odor could hinder efforts to attract businesses.

Why would these farms stink? Jeff Tietz explained in an excellent Rolling Stone article on Paula Dean’s favorite pork product manufacturer, Smithfield.

Smithfield's pigs live by the hundreds or thousands in warehouse-like barns, in rows of wall-to-wall pens. Sows are artificially inseminated and fed and delivered of their piglets in cages so small they cannot turn around. Forty fully grown 250-pound male hogs often occupy a pen the size of a tiny apartment.

They trample each other to death. There is no sunlight, straw, fresh air or earth. The floors are slatted to allow excrement to fall into a catchment pit under the pens, but many things besides excrement can wind up in the pits: afterbirths, piglets accidentally crushed by their mothers, old batteries, broken bottles of insecticide, antibiotic syringes, stillborn pigs -- anything small enough to fit through the foot-wide pipes that drain the pits. The pipes remain closed until enough sewage accumulates in the pits to create good expulsion pressure; then the pipes are opened and everything bursts out into a large holding pond.

Those ponds turn pink from all the waste and bacteria built up in them. And they stink.

Again, all the reason to search out some local farmers who sell pork from pigs raised on a pasture, not in poop and waste laden environments.

To end on a sweet note… British researchers have some advice for anybody who has a wound or has to undergo surgery: consider using honey to help it heal.

“Honey is one of the oldest foods in existence and was an ancient remedy for wound healing” explains lead author Dr Fasal Rauf Khan from North West Wales NHS Trust in Bangor. “It was found in the tomb of King Tutankhamun and was still edible as it never spoils.”

Now, I enjoy drizzling a little honey on a piece of toast that I’ve topped with a thin layer of peanut butter. And I regularly use it in various vinaigrettes and marinades. I had not considered applying it to a gash. But maybe I should…

“Now concerns about antibiotic resistance, and a renewed interest in natural remedies, has prompted a resurgence in the antimicrobial and wound healing properties of honey.

“Honey has a number of properties that make it effective against bacterial growth, including its high sugar content, low moisture content, gluconic acid – which creates an acidic environment – and hydrogen peroxide. It has also been shown to reduce inflammation and swelling.”

Researchers have also reported that applying honey can be used to reduce amputation rates among diabetes patients.

Stressing that patients should always check with their surgeon before applying any substance to post-operative wounds, Dr Khan adds that studies have found that honey offers a number of benefits.

“It can be used to sterilise infected wounds, speed up healing and impede tumours, particularly in keyhole surgery.”

Well, perhaps I’ll hold off on applying it to any surgical wounds. But I’m going to try it the next time I get a little scrape.

October 12, 2007

Cigarettes, Chocolate Milk, and Cauliflower

Rufus Wainwright is very popular in our household. This is a live performance of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," one of Rufus' signature songs these days.

As for the post title, I had this nice-looking head of cauliflower from our CSA earlier this week and wanted to use it in a two-day meal—that is, enough for two dinners—which we try to make twice a week.

So I turned to Molto Mario’s The Babbo Cookbook – which, admittedly, can call for ingredients beyond the reach of the typical at-home cook (hen-of-the-wood mushrooms or wild boar, anyone?) – and came upon this simple recipe that seemed perfect, and, as a bonus, also would make for a mostly “sustainable” meal: a red onion and cauliflower from our CSA, garlic from Farmers @ Firehouse, mint from our own herb garden. Molto called for ziti, but we only had cavatappi, which worked very well.

Ziti with Tuscan-Style Cauliflower

  • 1/4 - 1/3 cup of extra-virgin olive oil
  • Small red onion, finely diced
  • 1 cup plus of roughly chopped mint
  • 1 tsp of crushed red pepper
  • 2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped or thinly sliced
  • 1 head of cauliflower, cut into small pieces
  • 1 lb of ziti or similar pasta
  • Salt and pepper

Bring a well-salted pot of water to a boil. Add the pasta.

In a large sauté pan, heat the olive oil (I would lean more toward the 1/3 cup) over high heat for a minute or two. Turn down the heat just a little, then add the onion, garlic, mint, and crushed pepper, and sauté for about a minute or two. Add the cauliflower and cook until the cauliflower is tender and beginning to brown in spots, about 10-12 minutes.

Drain the pasta well, and when the cauliflower mixture is ready, add the pasta to the pan, mix well, and cook together for a minute or so.

Serve with grated pecorino romano, if you have it. Otherwise, use parmesan. This is not a saucy dish, so if it seems a little dry, just give it a quick swirl of a high quality olive oil in the pan before serving.

October 5, 2007

Scrapin' Up the Bits... Carrots style

Enough about Giada’s cooking… assets. According to Serious Eats, today is National Taco Day.

Here is the recipe for tacos I’ll be preparing this evening…

  • 1 lb or so of ground beef
  • 2 cloves finely chopped garlic
  • 1/2 cup of finely diced onion
  • 1 tbs cumin
  • 2 tbs chile pepper powder (not chili powder)
  • pinch of cinnamon
  • 1 cup of medium salsa (the only store-bought salsa I will even eat is Jardine's)
  • Chopped tomato
  • Chopped cilantro
  • Shredded cheddar
  • Diced avocado
  • Sour cream

Cook the garlic and onion in a little olive oil over medium heat until onions are soft. Add cumin, stir, and cook for another minute or so. Add ground beef and cook minutes until browned. Stir in chile powder, salsa, and cinnamon and let cook for 10 minutes or so until heated through and flavors have melded. Taste and add salt and pepper as needed.

Eggs for dinner… We love frittatas in our house. This one – which has Swiss chard in it, low on my scale of favorite greens -- ranks right up there with any we’ve ever made. My only deviations from the recipe were to use less onion than it called for, and not to add more parmesan on top before putting it in the oven.

Halloween Brews… As I said in the last post, I love September. It marks the arrival of fall, the return of the major European futbol leagues (Forza Roma!), the reintroduction of jeans as everyday wear, and the first beers of the holiday season, namely, pumpkin ales.

Now, I’ve had some bad pumpkin ales. Most noteworthy among those was one I had 8 or 9 years ago at a brewpub in Gaithersburg, Md. I actually didn’t have the whole beer, just a sip or two from a sample, because the bartender admitted that something had gone wrong during brewing, and the pumpkin ale tasted more like a bitter Goldschlager ale.

Not surprisingly, Dogfish Head makes an excellent Punkin’ Ale. Although, I have to be honest, this year’s version is a little sweet. Nevertheless, the true beer snobs seem to like it. I can assure you that it won’t go to waste in our house.

Puttin’ on the Grease… This week’s Fast Food Abomination of the Week goes to Applebee’s.

I understand that, technically, Applebee’s isn’t a fast food joint. I guess it’s considered a “casual dining” restaurant. Nevertheless, its recently introduced gimmick, Applebee’s Ultimate Trios, easily lives up to the FFA standard. It allows a diner to order, for service on a single plate, a choice of “boneless” chicken wings (aka, chicken tenders in wing sauce), mini bacon cheeseburgers, mozzarella sticks, dynamite (fried) shrimp, crispy fiesta wrappers (also fried), or the what I can only assume is the inaccurately named Tuscan cheese spread.

In other words, pass the Prilosec and see your cardiologist in the morning.

Odd combinations… I am a big Mark Bittman fan. I have How to Cook Everything and refer to it regularly. I also faithfully read his New York Times column. This week, however, he has a recipe for a zucchini & pear soup. Color me green with skepticism.

In the mood for lamb… Last Saturday, before our foray to Little Italy Days, we swung by the Farmers at the Firehouse farm market in Pittsburgh’s Strip District. While there, we purchased some honey, fresh lemongrass, and a few lamb steaks that I’m looking forward to preparing, although I have no idea how. This, however, sounds extremely appealing. And, while it might be a little bit of extra work, the chickpea fries recommended to accompany it seem like they might be, as the Brit announcers of European futbol games are fond of saying, simply sublime.

Safe Meat & the Farm Bill

Anybody who has read Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation – except for representatives from the meat industry, that is – knows that the large, federally-inspected slaughterhouses where much of the country’s ground beef and steaks are produced are a worker and food safety nightmare.

One of the positive aspects of the Farm Bill that passed the House was some flexibility built into it that would help smaller farmers get their meat slaughtered at more modest, local facilities, and sell it across state lines, as long as those facilities meet federal standards. As Michael Pollan explained in Omnivore’s Dilemma, it’s hard for small farms that do the sustainable farming thing, e.g., grass-fed beef, to find slaughterhouses that are willing to take their cows because of their small volume.

Meanwhile, the feds really are only interested in the large production facilities. In the example Pollan cited in the book, one fellow who sunk millions into setting up a state-of-the-art slaughtering facility for farmers in Virginia producing mostly grass-fed beef was eventually rebuffed by the USDA: told that the agency couldn’t provide an inspector because there wasn’t enough meat flowing through the facility. In other words, it was a waste of their time because the plant “wasn’t industrial enough,” as Pollan put it.

That’s because, as Schlosser explained last year, only 13 slaughterhouses produce most of the meat consumed each year by the large majority of Americans. Those slaughterhouses probably move more cattle through their facilities in a week than a smaller facility servicing smaller farmers might in a whole year.

And let’s just say inspections haven’t been the feds strong suit. As Schlosser explained, how could they?

Cutbacks in staff and budgets have reduced the number of food-safety inspections conducted by the FDA to about 3,400 a year — from 35,000 in the 1970s.

Then, of course, there are the overlapping food inspection duties, with the FDA responsible for some things and the USDA responsible for others, based on seemingly arbitrary differences, such as whether suspect eggs have intact or broken shells. Seriously.

And then there is the efficiency thing. You know that recent recall of meat patties? When first announced, it was in the neighborhood of a few hundred thousand pounds. But then it was expanded to nearly 22 million pounds, the second largest in U.S. history. That company, Topps, the largest maker of frozen meat patties, is now going out of business.

But as we’re learning today, it took the USDA 18 days after they first learned about the contaminated meat to decide that, hey, maybe, you know, we should recommend a recall.

Which brings me back around to the Farm Bill. Now a lot of people are hoping that the Senate will make some serious improvements to the version that passed the House. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), however, seems to be going backwards.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said she will block the Senate bill if it includes a House-passed provision that would allow some smaller meat processing plants to opt out of federal meat inspections in favor of state inspections. …

"In recent months, the safety of our domestic food supply has been called into question," Boxer said at a news conference Tuesday with food safety advocates. "Congress should be focused on more stringent food safety standards, not rolling back the federal government's crucial role in protecting our people."

Now, again, Topps, the second largest provider of frozen-beef patties, is a federally inspected plant! The provision in the House bill says the state facilities must meet federal safety standards.

The provision, supported by House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn. and Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., would allow some state-inspected meat to cross state lines, provided that the state guidelines are identical to federal guidelines.
Yet, despite this, Sen. Boxer issued a statement, which her office forwarded to me when I called about this issue, that runs counter to this fact:

If the House provision becomes law, meat and poultry plants could choose to forgo federal inspection in favor of more lax and uneven state-run inspections — putting the health and safety of millions of Americans at risk.

I’m not sure what Sen. Boxer’s beef is, pardon the pun. But, as has been pointed out by many knowledgeable people, the tremendous centralization of food production in this country – where a company like Topps could even produce 20-plus million pounds of beef patties – leads to far greater dangers when something goes awry.

And why all of a sudden is Sen. Boxer so concerned about food safety? She didn't even mention it in her May 31 letter to the Senate Agricultural Committee, in which she laid out her priorities for the 2007 Farm Bill.

This is a reasonable provision to which she is objecting, one that could possibly enhance meat safety by bringing more beef from smaller, sustainable farms to market -- you know, from cows that have spent their lives grazing in a pasture and eating grass, not wallowing in their own shit eating corn and filler products that make them so sick that they need to be pumped full of antibiotics.

Something stinks here, and it ain't cow poop!

October 2, 2007

Days of Beer and Goombas

September in Pittsburgh brings with it two events that are must-attends in our household: Oktoberfest at Penn Brewery and Little Italy Days in Bloomfield.

The food at these celebrations isn’t fancy. Bratwursts and knockwursts and German-style potato salad are prerequisite dining at Oktoberfest (alas, the potatoes were a little undercooked this year, but the dressing was spot-on). You won’t find much in the way of high-end or even classic Italian fare at Little Italy Days. Well, let me rephrase that. What you will mostly find are a few classic Italian dishes popular in America -- simple baked pastas, sausage and peppers, cannoli -- and Italian-American classics like the warm and flaky pepperoni roll pictured above that we disappeared into our bellies in a matter of minutes.

Aside from the pepperoni roll, which came from the stand outside of our favorite Italian grocery, Groceria Italiana, we also enjoyed a pretty good slice of pizza from the stand outside of Angelo’s pizzeria and the gnocchi with sausage and olives from the stand outside of the recently opened Café Roma. The gnocchi itself was perfect—firm, but not hard, and an inviting texture that held the gravy quite well. The latter, a red sauce, of course, was overpowered by too much garlic—but we still scarfed down the whole thing.

Some delicious gelato and espresso -- the former mostly consumed by the young 'uns -- and some inappropriate-for-children, old-school jokes from a Dean Martin impersonator (back-to-back jokes about carnal relations with the neighbor's wife) and we called it a day. Fantastico!