February 24, 2008

Bob’s Yer Uncle

I know there are those (cough, cough… Tony Bourdain) who think he’s a bit too cheeky, a bloody fool, or perhaps some other British insult. But I happen to like Jamie Oliver, particularly his recent emphasis on supporting local, sustainable products—even though some (not me) might find his tactics a bit extreme.

I liked his old show on the Food Network -- even though the premise of always having some different friends coming over for this or that meal was annoying -- and I was pissed when it got canceled so those genius network execs could make way for more Rachel and Paula and Big Headed, cleavage-laden Italian gal.

So, I was really happy when I saw that he had a new show, even though it's on the same said evil network. And I really enjoy it. No false premises or goofy contrivances. Instead, he simply picks something from his ridiculous gardens or a local farm to highlight as the theme ingredient for each show: eggs, rhubarb, chiles, and so on.

The theme ingredient for one of my favorite episodes was the mushroom. The episode opened with Jamie and his chef pal, Genarro (sp?), tromping through nearby woods engaging in daring acts of mycology. Using some freshly picked porcinis, they used a small camping stove to make a mushroom bruschetta that looked quite remarkable (and it wasn’t even in HD!).

So I decided I’d try to duplicate it. I watched that segment from the show a second time and made it as an appetizer for a recent Sunday family dinner (and again tonight to accompany some straciatella).

It was one of the best things I’ve ever made. Now, granted, that’s not necessarily saying that much. But, nevertheless, do this right, and I guarantee the final product will elicit moans of delight. That, or your money back.

Note that there are no real measurements here, just some general guidance, which makes it a little bit of an adventure.

BTW, Sir Oliver also is the genesis of “Bob’s Yer Uncle.” I guess it means “That’s f#$@ing good!”

Mushroom Bruschetta (Adapted from Jamie at Home, “Mushrooms”)
  • Thinly sliced bread suitable for bruschetta, such as ciabatta
  • 2 packages of wild mushrooms, or 2 cups of chopped assorted mushrooms (baby bellas, shitake, crimini, etc., but NOT white buttons)
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Butter
  • Crushed red pepper
  • Fresh thyme
  • Lemon, cut in half
  • Salt & pepper
  • Small glass of water

Crank up the oven and toast the bread slices (on a lower heat if you just want crispy bread, broil if you want it a little darker)

Put two swirls of olive oil in either a 10-inch saute pan or a larger saute pan, and turn the heat to medium-high.

When the pan is hot, 1-2 minutes, put in a handful or two of mushrooms. [NOTE: The key to success is not to crowd the pan. If the pan is jammed full with mushrooms, Jamie explained, the mushrooms will release all of their liquid and the dish will be runny. So regardless of the pan size, just be sure that each bit of mushroom pretty much has the room to lay flat of its own accord (at least that’s the formula I’ve been using).

Give the mushrooms a toss or two, add a healthy pinch of salt and pepper and a dash or two of crushed red pepper. Let them cook for a minute or two. Give the mushrooms another toss, and add some thyme from two or three thyme stems.

Toss again, let the mushrooms cook for another minute or so. When they’re getting soft, add a nice hunk of butter, maybe 1 tablespoon for a small pan and two if you’re going with a larger pan to avoid having to do batches. (Personally, I like doing the batches.)

Give the mushrooms another toss or two, and over the next minute or so, watch the whole thing get creamy. If you’d like it to be a little more saucy, add just like a teaspoon to a tablespoon of water and let it cook for another minute. Squeeze in about 10 drops of lemon juice, give one final toss, and it’s ready to eat.

Put a spoonful or two on each slice of bread, and be sure to get a little sauce on each slice.

February 18, 2008

12,000 of 143 Million

As in 143 million pounds. Of Beef. Recalled.

Largest beef recall ever.

From the second largest supplier of beef to the nation’s public school system.

For example, Pittsburgh Public Schools, which has 12,000 pounds of the recalled beef.

Ms. Pugh said the beef is being kept at a food-service warehouse until federal officials tell the district what to do with it. If federal officials decide it's safe, she said, it still could be used in schools.

Ms. Pugh said the beef was part of larger shipments from the vendors. Some beef already had been eaten by students. There were no reports of illness.

I wonder how much of it made its way into the tummies of school children at other local school districts?

According to the USDA, the recalled 143 million pounds of beef, the Washington Post reported, "poses little or no hazard to consumers, and ... most of it was eaten long ago."

Of course, the most disturbing aspect of this whole sordid affair is that the only reason anybody even knows that these “downer” cows -- that is, sick animals that can no longer stand because they are so freakin’ ill – were literally being fork-lifted into the food production system is because somebody from the Human Society snuck in and took video of it happening! [Video is not for the squeamish!]

There’s no evidence that any of the recalled meat is tainted with any of those pesky bacteria that can kill people. Rather, the USDA explained, the recall was taking place “because the cattle did not receive complete and proper inspection” and therefore were deemed by the USDA to be “unfit for human food.”

The question that has to be asked is fairly simple: Is this – forcing cows that clearly are way sick to stay upright via forklift or cattle prod so that they can technically not be considered “downers” and therefore suitable to be turned into products for human consumption -- an isolated incident? Anybody would have to be a fool to believe so.

Tired of hearing about these beef recalls? A wee-bit scared that the steaks or burgers you’re getting for surprisingly cheap still at the grocery store perhaps is a little suspect? Try something local, most likely primarily grass-fed, and definitely not “processed” in massive meatpacking plants.

Below are a few local options for beef for which I can vouch. Others can be found via Local Harvest. Although, unlike at the grocery store, this is beef done on a truly small, local scale, so product only becomes available when there is enough raw material ready!

Sojourney FarmsHolbrook, PA

Rose Ridge FarmMalvern, OH, 330-904-5365

Fergaed FarmsValenica, PA (ground beef, quarter, half, or whole cows only), Caroline Hahn at 412-585-3903 or chahn@pulva.com

February 15, 2008

Bacon & Eggs

No, no, no. Not the classic American breakfast. The classic Italian pasta dish, “alla carbonara.”

The long-awaited first foray with a Zuni recipe finally took place last Sunday, spaghetti alla carbonnara. A wicked winter wind-induced power outage forced me to make it in somebody else’s kitchen, but it still turned out exceedingly well, and was remarkably easy to execute.

The recipe calls for mixing the egg/ricotta mixture with the pasta in the still-hot pan in which the bacon was cooked. But I kept the pan on a burner on low heat to cook the egg mixture just a bit more than might happen otherwise.

The sauce’s consistency was perfect: slightly thick, but still “loose” enough to thoroughly coat the pasta. I typically subscribe to the Mario Batali, less-is-more – or, as he puts it, “condimento,” – approach to saucing pasta. But with this carbonara, the condimento approach doesn’t work for me. Not that it should be swimming in the sauce, like so many Americans prefer (or think they prefer), but this sauce is the star, in my opinion, and deserves to be more than a supporting actor for the pasta.

Finally, timing is important here. The pasta will take only slightly longer to cook than the bacon, so once you get the pasta started, you want to get the bacon going just 2-3 minutes later.

The only thing I will do differently next time is load up more on the cracked pepper. Overall, though, this was highly enjoyable, and will undoubtedly become a staple. And my in-laws are owed a debt of gratitude for letting me borrow their kitchen, because I had been looking forward to this Sunday meal since the previous Monday!

Spaghetti alla Carbonara (adapted from the Zuni Café Cookbook)
  • 1 pound of spaghetti [Zuni recommends penne or bucatini, as well, but, for me, the thick, round spaghetti noodle seemed the best option]
  • 5-6 slices of a thick, quality bacon, chopped into small (1/2-inch) pieces [garden-variety bacon, I would think, will produce a disappointing result]
  • 4 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil [a few good turns around the pan]
  • 4 eggs
  • ½ cup ricotta cheese
  • ¾ cup of peas [fresh, would be ideal of course, but organic frozen peas, quickly thawed in a bowl of warm water, worked very well]
  • Good pinch of salt
  • 1 cup of loosely packed, freshly grated pecorino romano
  • Many turns of freshly cracked black pepper

Heavily salt a pot of water and get it to boiling. Put in your spaghetti.

Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a large sauce/sautĂ© pan (enough to hold 1 lb of cooked pasta). Add the bacon and cook for about 7-8 minutes, until the edges are just getting crispy, but the middle is still tender. This should not be a “crunchy” dish!

While the bacon and pasta are doing their thing, crack the eggs in a bowl and lightly beat together with the ricotta and salt.

When the pasta is just short of al dente, drain it. If the bacon is done before the pasta, be sure to remove it from the burner (remember, tender, not crunchy). Add the well-drained pasta and the peas to the pan with the bacon.

Immediately pour the egg mixture over the spaghetti and add most of the pecorino and the black pepper.

Put back on the burner over low heat, and toss well (with the spaghetti, some long tongs works well here) for just a minute or so, until the pasta is well-coated and the egg mixture appears to be slightly cooked.

Serve immediately and pass around some freshly grated pecorino.

February 11, 2008

Blood Orange Love

The cocktail. The name elicits images of swanky Manhattan dinner parties or chortling, powerful businessmen in smoke-filled lounges. Even as I’ve become a martini fan (Saphire, up, dirty, with 3 olives!), I find the idea of the cocktail offputting.

Nevertheless, this sounded good: blood orange and Campari.

If I must be truthful, until several days ago, Campari had never tainted my liver. A twist of the cap and thoughtful whiff was all I needed to determine it was a form of bitters. I would not have guessed it had 60 ingredients, but when mixed with some pulpy blood-orange juice and a decent bit of confectioner's sugar, it’s highly addictive.

After a highly successful simple two-drink test run on Friday evening, we made a batch to have as a cocktail at a dinner party being thrown by some friends on Saturday (no pictures, alas, but the beef tenderloin topped with an herbalicious pesto was a thing of beauty). Most of a large pitcher was emptied, so I’d call it a success.

If you aren’t constitutionally opposed to bitter – and like your cocktails a little on the potent side -- you can get a little more aggressive with the Campari. If you’ve got a hankerin’ for something sweet, I’d recommend a scant teaspoon of sugar per glass.

February 6, 2008

Scrapin’ Up the Bits, Lusty Bit Update Style

Ssshhhhh. I gotta secret. I got some insider information about those stickers. What stickers? Those stickers, the ones on the fruits and vegetables you buy in the grocery store. What is it? Well, as long as you promise to keep it quiet (h/t Sustainable Table):

  • A four-digit number means it's conventionally grown.
  • A five-digit number beginning with 9 means it's organic.
  • A five-digit number beginning with 8 means it's genetically modified.

Of course, most of the organic apples and celery and the like I’ve seen in Giant Eagle recently looks more like prunes they’re so freakin’ wrinkly. So, yeah, I've been sticking to the conventionally grown stuff.

This is from last week, but it got buried somewhat by coverage of the presidential horse races. If you don’t like to watch sick animals being shoved around by forklifts or smacked in the head with electric prods, then just read this (but don’t watch this).

The long and short of it:

Video footage being released today shows workers at a California slaughterhouse delivering repeated electric shocks to cows too sick or weak to stand on their own; drivers using forklifts to roll the "downer" cows on the ground in efforts to get them to stand up for inspection; and even a veterinary version of waterboarding in which high-intensity water sprays are shot up animals' noses -- all violations of state and federal laws designed to prevent animal cruelty and to keep unhealthy animals, such as those with mad cow disease, out of the food supply.

Moreover, the companies where these practices allegedly occurred are major suppliers of meat for the nation's school lunch programs, including in Maryland, according to a company official and federal documents.

Seriously, I really don’t know if I can eat a piece of meat anymore unless I have at least some indication that it didn’t come from a place like this!

It’s good to see that grocery stores are moving away from plastic, but I’m not even really sure what this particular journalist is trying to say about it.

While subbing tap water for bottled water is effortless, giving up plastic bags is an inconvenience.

Huh? She must usually write for the Style section.

Finally, some Lusty Bit updates. I’ve recently…

  • made some additions to the Intertubes Stuff I like
  • updated the recipes listing
  • and I’m finally experimenting with a little more blog sophistication, adding “labels” to my posts. The labels – which are at the end of each post – are like key words, you can click on one of them and all of the posts with that same key word, that is, that are somehow related to the topic (e.g, milk labeling), will come up.