Sunday, October 15, 2017

Cooking with Kids: Bake Cookies!


My nephew had a day off from school and his parents had asked, somewhat apologetically, if I might be able to babysit him for the day. This is a kid I've been in love with since the day he was born; whether its some "grandma gene" that switched on the minute I saw him or his own little magnetic personality, I can't get enough of him. Smart, funny, insightful, delightful…here, let me show you his picture…

Yes, it's that bad.

So a whole cloudy-rainy-Northwest-fall day to hang out seemed the perfect opportunity to bake together. I had been thinking of making cookies with him, and one of my favorite cookies at his age—any age, to be truthful—were snickerdoodles, with their sugar cookie-coated-in cinnamon taste, soft-rather-than-hard texture and heavenly smell. Plus at seven (he'd correct me, saying, "Seven-and-a-half, Auntie!") he now has the manual dexterity to be able to gently roll the little balls of dough without squishing them into globby lumps.

It also gave us the opportunity to talk about a little family history, since we were using my mother's recipe, written in her own hand, and to talk about what it was like growing up making cookies with her. I had to explain what "tsp." and "Tbsp." meant, and talk about how many "1/4 tsp." would fit into "1 tsp." (math!), and there were the inevitable requests to taste the dough between additions of sugar, butter, flour and eggs.

The recipe makes almost five dozen small cookies and the whole process took a little more than two hours, just about a perfect amount of time for his age, and the reward of those soft, cinnamon-scented cookies may just bring him back to make more.

Snickerdoodles

1/2 c. butter, softened
1/2 c. margarine, softened (or shortening)
1 1/2 c. sugar plus 2 Tbsp.
2 eggs
2 3/4 c. flour
2 tsp. cream of tartar
1 tsp. soda
1/2 tsp. salt
2 tsp. cinnamon

Preheat oven to 400°.

In a stand mixer, cream the butter and shortening together, about 2 minutes on medium-high. Add 1 1/2 c. sugar and eggs and beat into butter mixture for another 2 minutes.

In small mixing bowl combine flour, cream of tartar, soda and salt. Add flour mixture to shortening mixture 1/2 cup at a time, beating slowly at first until combined before adding the next half-cup. Chill the dough for one hour.

While dough chills, mix together 2 Tbsp. sugar and 2 tsp. cinnamon in a flat bowl. When dough is chilled, roll into balls the size of walnuts, then roll each ball to coat in the cinnamon-sugar mixture. Place 2" apart on a parchment-covered baking sheet. Bake until lightly browned but still soft, 8-10 minutes.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Farm Bulletin: A Proper Scolding


A previous post extolling the value of greens on root vegetables prompted contributor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm to pen this (gentle) scolding. Message received, sir.

As a traditionally schooled market farmer—my father grew and delivered vegetables to the great Covent Garden Market all through the Battle of Britain and regaled his children with lore of the old market and its vendors—I was amused to see you perpetuating the “leave the tops on root vegetables” myth. This practice leads to a decline in the root’s quality, flavor and texture, even in short-term storage.

The reason is biological. When plants are out of the sunlight, they must still keep the leaf blade tissues alive, which requires energy and moisture. Maintaining the tops in the absence of sunlight means that sugars and nutrients are moved from the root to support the leaves, and water as well, as part of the respiration process. In fact, the leaves will pump out more moisture through respiration than a severed stem, that’s their job. That is why celery is stored with its leaves trimmed, leaving just the stalks, assuring a longer storage life. The roots with their herbage attached may “look fresher” but the leaves are actually consuming the root before you do.

Flavor and texture of the roots are determined by tasting a sample, not beholding the pretty greens. Bear in mind variety and culture are the most important determinants of quality, and many roots actually develop their flavors in storage, belying the notion that a “fresh" root is the better vegetable. Roots harvested after the frost will taste sweeter. Varieties with rattiest looking greens in the field can have spectacular flavor; there is no correlation between "fresh looking" leaves of the plant and the quality of its root. Verdant greens on a carrot may be an indicator of over-use of nitrogen rather a healthy plant per se.

Traditional gardeners and farmers knew this fact going back at least to Pliny, based on simple observation even in the absence of a firm grasp of the biological processes involved. The discerning vendors at Covent Garden would have summarily rejected Cecil’s roots if they were delivered with a messy bunch of useless herbage attached. For historical perspective, the Baroque still life painter Juan Sanchez Cotán, and the market scenes of Pieter Aertsen (top illustration) and Joachim Beuckelaer from the 16th century, show the root vegetables properly trimmed to a short stalk. They were painting from life and felt no compunction to pretty up the roots with lush greens.

At market, we always sold our roots with tops trimmed to 1/2”, or about 14mm, of stalk. No one ever complained about freshness and in cool weather the roots stored nicely on the back stoop for weeks. The notorious “woody core” only results when the top of the root is removed. This leads to desiccation of the root’s core. A hard trim is often used for parsnips because the sap in the tops causes a nasty rash when the skin is exposed to sunlight (phytophotodermititus). To avoid any risk, some farmers trim them back too hard. For the customer the sap isn’t a problem because it dries and seals the stalk. The other vegetable commonly cut back to the root is the rutabaga because the tops rot and have an awful stench. To keep rutabagas from drying out, they are often coated in wax.

Regarding the value of the greens attached to the root, this is another glorious bit of 21st century goofiness. The greens associated with roots are just not in the same league, from a culinary or nutritional perspective, as those of the same vegetables bred for their greens. The development of a bifurcated vegetable selection, for example, knob celery and pascal celery, beet and chard, turnip and rapa/raab, rutabaga and cabbage, root chicory and heading chicory, root parsley and leaf parsley, Florence fennel and non-bulbing fennel, are a testament to this understanding extending back millennia. I always think its funny when people think they have discovered something that was missed in 3,000 years of food development and breeding that have formed the vegetable selection we enjoy today.

And regarding all the scolding about food waste that has proliferated of late in the food press, the best practice is to field trim the roots and leave the tops for nature. They belong in the farmer’s field where they continue to provide food and shelter. The superfluous greens and stems are only wasted if they are removed from the farm. Our daughter wryly notes that serving up the greens from root vegetables is the culinary equivalent of wearing a hair shirt to display virtue. She cringes when friends proclaim they are serving greens that would otherwise have gone into the compost. Many years ago I noted the importance of leaving excess crops in the field where they are valuable as a supplement to a cover crop. [See Ayersini's translation of Carolystra and Antonocoles, the respected Gastonian Folio. - KAB] There are real issues of food waste, but serving greens best left in the field is a hollow virtue. A good green grocer should be trusted enough that the flashy and ill-advised show of “toppery" is unnecessary. It is, in fact, even a bit déclassé, dare I say.

Incidentally, the restaurants always thank us for the careful job we do trimming our roots and fennel. Chefs are happy to glean value from a delivery, but they hate paying for and disposing of compostable herbage that should have been left at the farm. The custom of displaying roots and bulbs with their tops has become entrenched in the last 20 years or so as an aesthetic gesture, probably an artifact of the proliferation of famers’ markets, but it runs counter to science with respect to food quality. Someday, perhaps, the scientifically validated wisdom of my father and the vendors he sold to at Covent Garden, and Aertsen's women of the Flemish vegetable markets carefully tending their goods, will return.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Fighting Invasive Species One Bite at a Time


I know, I know…just the word "invasive species" makes you shudder, right? Visions of monstrous, deformed aberrations don't generally sound like something you want to find on your plate, much less put in your mouth or serve to guests.

The Purple Varnish or Savoury clam.

But rest assured, gentle reader, that, in this case, the invasive species in question is simply just the wrong creature in the wrong place. Known as nuttalia obscurata, the Purple Varnish clam or just Varnish clam—sometimes marketed as the more delicious-sounding Savoury clam—was most likely sucked up as planktonic larvae into the ballast tanks of a large ship that was traveling from Asia to the Puget Sound. When the ship arrived and the ballast tanks were discharged, the surviving larvae found footing in the hospitable waters of British Columbia and the Sound.

Steamed and ready to eat!

In the waters of the Sound and the Hood Canal the Varnish clams have been displacing Manila clams, also natives of Asia that arrived here mixed in with Pacific oyster seed in the 1940s which soon began invading the territory of native Littleneck clams. The Varnish clams' success may be laid to their flexible nature, able to tolerate varied types of environments. Physiologically they may have an advantage because of their two feeding siphons and the ability to both filter feed and deposit feed (here's a fascinating deeper look at this clam). Both British Columbia and Oregon have established recreational fisheries for the clam, and a commercial market is developing.

For my part, I needed to take an appetizer to a birthday party and thought steamed mussels or clams might be something different to offer, so I drove over to Flying Fish in the Providore market, where I found the regular Manila clams and this other type called Savoury that I'd never heard of. In response to my question, the helpful clerk said that the Savoury was an invasive species in Washington that was both delicious and a little less expensive per pound than the Manilas.

Sold!

Four pounds of clams more than fed a crew of ten adults as an appetizer when combined with fennel, garlic, chorizo and a cup of white wine, then steamed for ten minutes or so, and garnered raves for their size and flavor. So help out our Littleneck and other native species and eat more invasive-yet-tasty clams; they'll thank you for it.

Steamed Clams with Fennel and Chorizo

4 lbs. clams
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1/2 fennel bulb, quartered, cored and sliced crosswise
3 cloves garlic, minced
3-4 oz. Spanish-style chorizo, sliced crosswise into 1/8" thick rounds
1 tomato, sliced thin
1 c. white wine

Pour olive oil into a large pot over medium-high heat. When the oil shimmers, add fennel, garlic, chorizo and tomato slices and heat briefly. Add white wine and bring to a boil. Place clams on top and allow to steam for ten minutes until clams open. Serve with thin-slices of baguette for sopping up the delicious broth.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

In Season: Falling in Love with Autumn


It's time for the fall edition of In Season, where I sit down to talk with Josh Alsberg of Rubinette Produce (above) about what we'll find cascading from local farms and spilling onto tables here in the Northwest.

"We're in that lovely time of year where it's apple season!" enthused Josh Alsberg, giving even more credence to his Fruit Monkey moniker on Twitter. "Honeycrisp starts it off," he continued, referring to the apple the New York Times dubbed The iPod of Apples on its release in 2006, though he cautions that prices may be higher this year because it's a "short year." That means there's a lower crop of apples than usual due to the icy, cold winter and late spring rains which made for a late bloom, then the intense summer heat that stressed the trees and emerging fruit.

Apples, apples, apples!

It's also partly cyclical, he said, since last year's apple crop was extremely robust and that usually means the following year's crop will be leaner. It also calls for store shoppers to be more alert, since produce buyers may be tempted to substitute foreign-grown fruit—say, New Zealand-grown Honeycrisps instead of locally grown—because of higher wholesale prices on local fruit.

Alsberg's favorite apples, which you'll find at farmers' markets and grocery stores that carry local fruit, include:
  • Rubinette, which he describes as "very juicy, robust, a nice balance of sweet and tart" and good for eating out of hand, sauce and baking.
  • Mountain Rose, also known as Hidden Rose or Airlie Red Flesh, has pink flesh and was discovered growing on a farm in Airlie, just north of Corvallis.
  • Crimson Crisp
  • Pinova, also called Piñata
  • Ashmead's Kernel
  • Elstar, which Alsberg swears tastes like marshmallow when it's baked.
  • Newtown Pippin
Most of the apples listed above will be available at least through the winter and into early spring from local orchards.

Seckel pears.

Pears are also beginning to trickle in from Northwest fruit growers, and Alsberg encourages people to look beyond the ubiquitous Bartlett for the following:
  • Taylor's Gold, for it's firm texture and sweet, juicy and fragrant qualities.
  • Bosc, which he says are fantastic for poaching in wine or other aromatics.
  • Comice for their creamy, sweet and fragrant nature.
  • Seckel and Forelle are small in size but big in flavor, and the Forelle has a "cinnamon-y essence" that is beguiling.
These pears should be around through the holidays.

Black Futsu squash.

Alsberg frowns when I mention winter squash, since he says there are so many locally grown varieties that are enjoyable right now, and highly recommends exploring outside the well-known butternut and acorn corral to find a new favorite for your family to enjoy:
  • Black Futsu is a small, bumpy, heavily ribbed Japanese squash with a nutty, fresh flavor and is one of his faves.
  • Red Kuri is in the Hubbard squash family, as is another variety called Blue Ballet.
  • Kabocha, like the Futsu, is a popular Japanese variety that has taken well to our Northwest climate.
  • Lower Salmon River is a large heritage variety from the Pacific Northwest.
  • Long Pie Pumpkin is rumored to be derived from a Native American variety from New England that was revived in the 1980s by legendary cucurbit aficionado John Navazio. As its name suggests, it is perfect for making pies.
  • Delicata is widely available and can be delicious, but Alsberg said that a few years ago the seed from one grower in Colorado crossed with something that caused the flavor to be bitter. Fortunately John Eveland of Gathering Together Farm in Philomath had saved his own seed and was able to grow it out and avoid the bitter curse. Alsberg said that most seed now is free of the bitterness, but buying from a local farmer is the best way to guarantee good flavor.
Other vegetables that will start making an appearance at Northwest farmers' markets are potatoes, which will be moving away from small fingerlings to the cured potatoes best for stewing and roasting. Also appearing will be the brassicas like kale, broccoli, spigarello and cauliflower, all of which will get sweeter as temperatures drop and the plants pump out sugars that act as antifreeze during cold weather.

A rainbow of carrots.

Carrots also become sugar-producing factories once the first frost hits, and Alsberg agrees with me that the best bet is to buy carrots with the greens still attached so you know they're fresh. (I've been disappointed with woody, cardboard-y, bitter "bulk carrots" one too many times.) You'll be seeing root vegetables taking pride of place on farmers' tables, too, so look for celeriac, radishes, turnips with their greens attached, not just for freshness but for the high nutrition value when the stems and greens are snipped off when you get them home and saved for tossing into sautés, soups and stews. Coming soon are fennel, leeks, cabbage—think slaw, sauerkraut and simmering—with brussels sprouts not far behind.

In a month or so Alsberg and I will be getting together again to put together suggestions in time for your holiday entertaining. I can't wait!

Thursday, October 05, 2017

The "L" Word: Curried Coconut Chicken Soup


It may still be sunny, but there's a chill in the air. I hear leaves crunching underfoot as children walk by the house on their way to school. Agriculturist and author J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur first coined the term "Indian Summer" in 1778 in his Letters from an American Farmer, describing it as a season when "the rain is followed by an interval of calm and warmth…its characteristics are a tranquil atmosphere and general smokiness."

Tatsoi, an Asian brassica.

It's the season to turn on the stove again after a long, dry summer and think about soups and braises, stews and one-pot suppers. I'm back to my weekly habit of roasting a chicken, making sure to buy the largest available so there are leftovers for salads, tacos and soups, not to mention slowly simmering the picked-over carcass in water to make stock—yes, that's what "bone broth" is—that'll go into risottos, soups and myriad other dishes.

As I was casting about for something to make for dinner the other night (a situation that occurs all too often around here) I came across some of that leftover chicken in the fridge then found a couple of cans of coconut milk in the pantry. A glance in the vegetable bin revealed a bunch of spinach-like tatsoi (photo, above left) and a finger of ginger, and I was off to the races.

Thai-Style Curried Coconut Chicken Soup

2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1 onion, roughly chopped
3 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1-2 Tbsp. curry powder, to taste
2 c. chicken stock (or corn stock or water)
2 13.5-oz. cans coconut milk
2 c. cooked chicken
2 kaffir lime leaves
2” finger of ginger, peeled and halved
4 c. tatsoi, chopped (or bok choi, spinach or other greens)
1 Tbsp. harissa (or 1/4 tsp. cayenne or to taste)
Juice of 1 lime
Salt, to taste
Cilantro leaves, chopped roughly (optional)

Heat oil in a large soup pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Add onion and sauté until tender and translucent. Add garlic and curry powder and stir to combine. Add remaining ingredients except for lime juice. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer and cook 30 minutes to an hour*, stirring occasionally. Just before serving stir in lime juice and adjust salt to taste. Garnish with cilantro leaves.

* If you like, while the soup simmers, put on a pot of rice and serve a scoop of it in your soup.

Read more The "L" Word posts about creative (and delicious) uses of leftovers.