Friday, January 18, 2019

Game-Day Comfort: Beer Cheese Soup!

When I heard that a couple we know have an annual party on Super Bowl Sunday, I was shocked. You see, if there are any of our friends who seem completely unlikely to be putting on giant foam hats or wearing team scarves or jumping around pumping their fists in the air (covered or not in outsized foam rubber pointy fingers) shouting at the television, it's these two.

Pimento cheese on a Ritz.

So I was relieved when they admitted, after witnessing our shocked countenances (mouths agape), that it was really all about the food for the event. It conjured images of miniature hot dogs swimming in mahogany barbecue sauce, overflowing bowls of salt-encrusted potato chips with virtual vats of onion and clam dips at the ready, as well as the requisite pimento cheese dip to slather on crackers—Ritz, Triscuits or Wheat Thins, depending on your inclination.

All that salt was, of course, as anyone knows who has succumbed to the siren song of free pretzels at their neighborhood watering hole, intended to encourage the consumption of any liquid within reach, normally beer, for purposes of hydration. Naturally I volunteered to bring any and all of the consumables mentioned above to the festivities, since, being a person of dodgy acquaintance with sporting endeavors yet always johnny-on-the-spot for anything involving chips and dips, I was, as they say, all up-ons.

The recipe file reveals all.

The conversation happened to coincide with running across a recipe from my college days when I managed a soup kitchen—we called it a "coffeehouse" at the time—at the U of O that served a soup and bread lunch for a nominal sum five days a week, relying on a haphazard yet dogged cadre of volunteer cooks to prepare several gallons of the potage of their choice for the day's service. Most were a simple combination of stock, vegetables and protein, like Robert's French Onion Soup l'Abbe or Jane's Potage Parmentier—but one in particular stood out for its inclusion of beer.

Mike, the ostensible manager of the campus Koinonia House, had a family recipe for a beer cheese soup that her family was  crazy about and that she volunteered to make on a weekly basis, a guaranteed winner in my book. It also became a viral hit in those pre-viral days, and I commend it to you for any and all of your game-day gatherings. Rich, creamy, with that certain beer-y je ne sais quoi, it's best made a few hours or even a day ahead to allow the flavors to meld and the beer to mellow. Or heck, if you want, just whip it up a few minutes before guests arrive and let the li'l smokies flow.

Mike's Beer Cheese Soup

3/4 c. butter  (one and one-half sticks)
1/2 c. diced onions
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 c. diced celery
1/2 c. diced carrots
1/2 c. flour
5 c. chicken stock
1/4 c. parmesan cheese
1/2 tsp. dry mustard
6 oz. cheddar
1 12-oz. bottle (or can) of beer, preferably a lager or pilsner
Salt and pepper to taste

Melt butter in large saucepan or Dutch oven over medium heat. Sauté  onions until tender. Add garlic, celery and carrots and sauté until tender. Add flour and dry mustard, stirring to combine. Stir for two minutes to prevent sticking, then stir in stock and cook for five minutes. Blend in cheeses and beer, combining well, and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent scorching. Using a stick blender or working in batches with a blender, purée the soup. Season to taste with salt.

This is best made a few hours or, better yet, a day ahead and reheated, which allows the flavors to mellow. Serve with salad and a good artisan loaf.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Farm Bill 2018: Two Views

Months of "jockeying, hand wringing, and horse trading, largely behind closed doors" according to Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer, came to a close recently as the Farm Bill, the sweeping agriculture and nutrition legislation that comes up for renewal every five years, passed the House by a vote of 369 to 47. It was largely stripped of Republican demands for work requirements for people receiving food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps), which had stalled the bill for months.

Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer.

The bill that was passed largely continues the agricultural subsidies of previous bills, which are predominantly claimed by large corporate farms, and added a provision that said any member of an extended family who runs a "family farm" can annually receive $125,000 in subsidies ($250,000 if they are married) if they provide “active personal management only,” even from afar, according to an article from Taxpayers for Common Sense. This basically redefines a family farm as a managed operation where the manager doesn't even have to set foot on the farm in order to collect government subsidies, a clear boon to corporate-owned and industrial operations.

Blumenauer was one of three Democrats to oppose the bill, stating in a press release that it "pays too much to the wrong people to grow the wrong foods in the wrong places." He called it "a missed opportunity to make real improvements for farmers, the climate, and the food we eat every single day." The Oregon congressman has instead been pushing for what he calls the "Food and Farm Act," an alternative bill that comprehensively advances reforms on four principles: (1) focusing resources on those who need it most; (2) fostering innovation; (3) encouraging investments in people and the planet; and (4) ensuring access to healthy foods.

Clif Bar's Matthew Dillon.

A different view of the revised Farm Bill was presented by Matthew Dillon, senior director of agricultural policy and programs for Clif Bar & Company, in an op-ed he wrote for The Hill, a Washington, DC-based news outlet. Declaring that the bill as passed is a victory for the future of organic agriculture in the U.S., Dillon pointed to the fact that the bill "for the first time establishes permanent funding for organic research by authorizing $50 million in annual funding for the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative by the year 2023." The $50 million figure makes the program “baseline” or mandatory in the United States Department of Agriculture budget, creating more stability for organic researchers and farmers, he wrote.

"Demand for organic agriculture far outstrips supply, causing our country to import many organic crops that could be produced domestically," Dillon stated. "Capturing the more profitable value of organic production for American farmers is particularly important at a time when net farm incomes across the country have fallen down to the lowest level in 12 years, declining more than 14 percent this year, and showing little sign of turnaround."

Believing that support for organic research is critical in helping farmers transitioning to organic production, Dillon wrote that the guarantee of funding will aid farmers in keeping up with the most effective techniques for soil fertility and pest management. While he admitted that the farm bill will always have room for improvement, "this landmark new gain of stable funding for organic research is critical to the survival of organic farms and the expansion of organic acreage. It is good for rural communities, good for farmers, and good for the planet."

Blumenauer, for his part, takes both political parties and the Congress to task for its business-as-usual approach to the Farm Bill. "Every day that we continue the status quo, we delay improving and enriching communities, and helping families live healthier lives," he stated. "We can and must do better to help increase access to healthy food for all families.  This final bill fundamentally misses the mark on addressing critical reforms that communities across the country desperately need. Americans deserve a Farm Bill that works for them and their families—not corporate mega-farms. I will continue to lead the opposition to the current Farm Bill structure, fighting instead for a better outcome for all Americans."

Wednesday, January 02, 2019

Guest Essay: Ode to a Cabbage

I can't think of anyone I know who adores cabbage more than contributor Jim Dixon of Real Good Food, as evidenced by this essay, an updated version of one first published here in 2015. Whether fresh, sautéed, braised, pickled, fermented or fried, you'll still find it making an appearance on his table. Here he shares some history, as well as his favorite ways to prepare it. 

I love cabbage.

And I’m not talking about Savoy cabbage, the frilly version that’s been tarted up with a first name hinting of royalty. Or the other members of the Brassica oleracea family, including the various kales and collards, broccoli, kohlrabi, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts, deliciously gorgeous as they are. Or the strangely compelling relatives from central Asia, original home of turnips, broccoli rabe, bok choy, tatsoi, and mizuna, all part of the Brassica rapa clan.

No, my heart belongs to the ordinary, everyday cabbage, its pale green leaves tightly bound into a waxy ball, the humble heads tucked coyly away in the corner of the produce section. It’s cheap, reliable, and flexible; who wouldn’t fall in love?

It doesn’t hurt that cabbage is good for me, lends itself to last-minute cooking, doesn’t cost much and grows, relatively speaking, in my own backyard.

Humankind’s relationship with Brassica started early. In his encyclopedic work Food: An Authoritative and Visual History and Dictionary of the Foods of the World, Waverley Root relates one ancient Greek belief of its origins: Dionysus, the god of wine, caught Lycurgus, the Edonian king, pulling up grapevines. While awaiting punishment, the king wept, and from his tears sprang cabbages.

An alternate myth has Jupiter sweating as he tries to explain contradictory oracles, and the cabbages sprout from his perspiration.

Those ancient Greeks might’ve been on to something. But given my devotion it seems more likely that Eros, the god of love, was involved.

Wild cabbages, resembling kale more than my beloved green globes, grew along the Mediterranean coast, and according to Harold McGee, in his book On Food and Cooking, the “salty, sunny habitat accounts for the thick, succulent, waxy leaves” that make cabbages so hardy. Domesticated about 2,500 years ago, cabbage spread across Europe.

Because it tolerates cold weather, cabbage became an important staple farther north, and we typically associate it with the hearty cuisines of climes damp and gray.

But the Romans, like me, loved cabbage, and they’re probably responsible for the selective cultivation that resulted in so many disparate variations. By encouraging an existing tendency for the curling leaves to form more tightly packed bunches, those early Italian farmers created today’s well-known “heading cabbages.”

Our name for these derives from the colloquial French word for head, caboche. Vegetable lore tells us that the Italian Catherine de’ Medici brought cabbage to France when she married fellow 14-year-old Henri de Valois, the Duke of Orleans and, eventually, King Henry II. History is silent as to whether she called him mon petit chou, or “my little cabbage.” But the endearment reflects the continuing French love of cabbage, from the choucroute of Alsace to the thick stew called gabure in the south.

Early cabbage fanciers also associated it with good health. Egyptians ate it with vinegar to prevent hangovers, Greeks dribbled cabbage juice into sore eyes, and Romans packed aching muscles with cabbage poultices. Herbalists today recommend cabbage for its anti-inflammatory effects, telling breastfeeding mothers to tuck a few bruised leaves into their bras for relief. It’s got lots of vitamins A, B, C, and E, and a study at Georgetown University showed how phytochemicals in cabbage might reduce cancer risks.

However, those same phytochemicals provide the frequently noted boardinghouse smell of overcooked cabbage, something that bothers others much more than it bothers me. Maybe I’m blinded, in an olfactory sense, by love, suffering from a cabbage-passion-induced anosmia. Or perhaps my approach to cooking mon petit chou reduces the breakdown of glucosinolates, the sulfur-containing compounds released when cabbage is boiled too long.

More likely, it’s the variety of cabbage. Brussels sprouts contain more of the healthful and stinky compounds than any of the other Brassicas. Heading cabbages, with their residual sugars, offer a sweeter love.

Farmers here in the Pacific Northwest harvest cabbage from mid-July through the end of December. Properly stored, it keeps for up to six months, so it’s theoretically possible to eat local cabbage all year. Prices vary, with conventionally grown cabbage usually less than a dollar per pound, organic about half again as much. Just before Christmas I bought an enormous head at a farmers’ market for only two dollars.

So, how do I love cabbage? Let me count the ways.
  1. I love it cooked in a little olive oil with onion. There’s a head of cabbage in the refrigerator and onions in the pantry most of the time, so I make this almost every week. But cabbage loves pork, and I love them together. So start with a little diced bacon, then sauté the onions and cabbage in the smoky fat. A dollop of crème fraîche makes both of these simple dishes unctuous and rich.
  2. A bed of shredded cabbage roasted under a chicken steals my heart.
  3. I love how the cabbage I add to my feeling-a-cold-coming chicken soup gives it enough substance to fill me up.
  4. I’m crazy for coleslaw, the green salad I turn to when winter’s lettuce comes wilted from a long truck ride north and again when the hot summer sun makes my garden’s leaves bolt and turn bitter.
  5. Je t’aime, choucroute braisée à l’Alsacienne: Julia Child kindled new passion for sauerkraut by teaching me to simmer it slowly for hours in crisp white wine.
  6. Marcella Hazan makes me cry, “cavolo sofegao, come sei bella,” with her Venetian-style smothered cabbage, another slow-cooked dish transformed with a splash of vinegar.
  7. Te amo cocido, tambien. While these one-pot Spanish stews often call for whole chickens, pigs’ trotters, veal shanks and a garden’s worth of vegetables, I make a simple version with just garbanzos, potatoes and cabbage.
  8. Louisiana-style smothered cabbage makes me ask, "how's ya mama and dem?"
Cabbage love comes in many other forms, and though the steady routine of our long-term relationship provides familiar comfort, I don’t want it to get stale. So I keep searching for new outlets for my passion, different ways to express my feelings, unexplored culinary territory where I can say, again and again, I love cabbage.