Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Things To Know

Okay, its finally time for the second part of my series on things every cook should have and things every cook should know. After doing some thinking I have decided to break the "things to know" segment into two parts as well. This section will focus on technique while the other section will focus on execution of those techniques.

These items are basic bits of knowledge I think every serious home cook should be able to execute. Obviously, this is just my humble opinion but I really believe they are essential bits of knowledge that can take you from a basic "housewife" kind of cook to the woman (or man) the neighbors are always asking for recipes, tips, etc. Who doesn't want to be the envy of the neighborhood? And, in this economy I think its important to run to your kitchen even more often than running to your favorite local restaurant.

In digging through my mind for this article I was taken back to my first day of culinary school so that is where I'll begin. So, sit back, read up, and expand your culinary repitore.

After reading these tidbits if you're intrigued to learn more I reccomend The French Culinary Institute's book "Fundamental Techniques of Classic Cusine" for further reference. The book is very comprehensive and approachable and the photography is quite beautiful. As I recall it was quite pricey but you may be able to find a good used copy from some culinary school kid who flunked out.

1. Know basic knife cuts and skills. When encountering a recipe you should be aware of the difference between dicing, mincing, and julienne. Although the cut of a vegetable may not seem incredibly important, if you do not cut to the specifications of the recipe cooking time and even texture/mouth feel of the recipe can be affected. Its also incredibly important to learn how to use your knife properly so you can execute these cuts without removing a finger. Good knife skills come with practice and for me, precision is always more important than speed. ESPECIALLY at home. Money isn't being lost if you're a slow home cook, so take your time and practice for perfection. Maybe your husband/wife/children/neighbors/grandkids won't care that you've got perfectly diced potatoes and onions in your vegetable soup but you'll have a sense of pride in knowing that it not only looks great, but also tastes great because everything cooked evenly because it was cut evenly. If you want to learn more on the internet this is a good photo gallery of basic cuts. Or, if you want to see a video of proper cutting techniques I reccomend this video.

2. Know Basic Methods of Cooking. After you've beautifully cut the food you're about to prepare it is important to know what cooking method to employ to get the best flavor and texture out of your food. There are several methods of cooking and you've probably heard of most of them - but do you really know what they mean? Braise, roast, stew, saute,fry, blanch, poach. There are subtle differences between each but the differences do matter. I'll provide a few definitions but then its up to you to go here

Braise - defined by Larousse Gastronomique as "a method of cooking food in a closed vessel with very little liquid at a low temperature for a very long time" The word braise comes from a French word meaning ember. Anyone who has cooked over and open fire is familar with placing a dutch oven (a braiser) in a bed of embers and covering the lid with more embers so heat comes from all directions. During the 17th and 18th centuries in France much cooking was done in this method. Today, it seems many home cooks are turned off by braising as it takes a long time. However, braising is a perfect way to utilize the not so sexy cuts of meat like brisket and shank and turn them into something tasty. As I mentioned before, in this economy saving money is key and if cheaper cuts of meat are your only option maybe you should dig out that dutch oven. The theory behind braising is for the meat to release flavorful juices into your already flavorful cooking liquid (usually a stock) so both can be utilized. Harold McGee (the God of Food Science) explains the science behind why meat becomes more tender when braised as opposed to other cooking methods here.

Ragout (this is to stew in French) stewing differs from braising in that you generally use smaller pieces of meat and more liquid. Stews are generally prepared on the stovetop while braising is most often done in the oven (but can be done on stovetop).

Roast - This is a method of cooking that employs direct radiant heat in a dry oven. Roasting can be used on all types of poultry as well as red meat cuts like ribs, loins, sirloins etc. Roasting is a relatively simple cooking method and if done properly results in juicy flavorful meats. Smaller pieces of meat should be roasted at higher temperatures for shorter amounts of time and larger pieces should be roasted at lower temps for longer time. After a roasted meat is removed from the oven it MUST MUST MUST be allowed to rest. During the intense heat of roasting the juices of the meat are forced to the center of the item. When the meat is allowed to rest for 10 to 15 minutes this allows for the juices to redistribute throughout the cut and makes for a moist meat that is easier to carve. So remember, shhh the meat is resting!

Saute - literally saute means "to jump" I think this is a cooking method most people don't quite understand. Sauteing should use relatively little fat and the item to be sauteed should be relatively dry. If the food is moist, or the pan is coated in tons of fat the item will fry or steam rather than saute. The point of sauteing is to quickly sear a food over a high heat prior to finishing the cooking process over a lower heat. Sauteing should be used for uniformly sized thinly cut foods. Sauteing shouldn't be used for thick cuts as the exterior will always burn before the interior is cooked. Some basic rules for sauteing are as follows.

-The pan must be very hot. As I learned in culinary school from a very old French man it should be "hell hot." If you feel heat rising when you hold your hand over the pan it is hot enough. Or, if the fat is shimmering you're ready to saute.
- The surface of the pan should have only a FILM OF FAT. Sauteing is not frying.
- Do not crowd your pan, if you must, cook in batches.
- Never cover the pan, this creates steam and then you're not sauteing.
-Do not shake the pan right away after adding the food. allow it to sear and it will detatch itself from the pan. Seriously, I mean it! This is especially important with meat.

Frying - Yes, it has its place. Who doesn't love fried foods occasionally? The same French chef who told me to get my pan "hell hot" also said deep fried foods are healthy. And hey, he's the expert here. As with sauteing a fried food needs to be very dry before being placed in the pan or fryer. Often a breading or a light coating of flour is added before frying to absorb excess moisture and to make sure the outer crust forms immediately and doesnt allow the meat or vegetable to absorb the hot fat.

Blanch - This is the process of plunging food in boiling salted water for a few seconds (or in some cases minutes) and then plunging into ice water to stop the cooking process and set the color. Blanching does not fully cook the vegetable so it should retain a crisp texture. Generally this is done to brigten the green color in foods like broccoli, brussels sprouts, and green beans. It also helps to speed the cooking process if you plan to continue cooking vegetables via roasting. You cannot forget to plunge your blanched veggies into an ice bath. If you don't the retained heat will finish cooking the veg and the color will quickly fade to brown.

Poach - This cooking method is most often employed with fish but can also be used with poultry. It is my least favorite method of cooking as I think it results in the most bland food. Poaching is a delicate cooking method perfect for delicate fish and fruits. The water should be held at a constant temperature between 160 and 180 degrees. This is not simmering or boiling. The liquid is usually a well flavored broth, stock, or court bouillion used to impart as much flavor as possible and must always fully submerge the item to be poached.

I am going to leave this entry with just these two items. Once you have a grasp of how to use your knife, how to make basic cuts and when/how to use cooking methods you can move on to the next segment which will be putting your techniques to use .

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Sweet And Savory

Combining sweet and savory flavors in one of my favorite ways to play with food. Last weekend I made a pound cake using the flavors of fresh lemon and lavender and the results were better than I expected. I am certainly no pastry chef but I enjoy baking for home use. So, since I was so pleased with this recipe I thought I'd share it with you all. Hopefully in the future I can post more recipes with sweet and savory combinations.

The cake is incredibly simple to make. The only difficult task may be coming up with a substantial amount of lavender for a reasonable price if you don't grow it yourself. I obtained the lavender through my work but you may be able to buy some at your local farmers market or order it online.

For the cake:
1 cup butter
2 cup sugar
5 eggs
2 1/4 cup flour
6 tablespoon corn starch
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup sour cream (or plain yogurt)
1 1/2 tablespoon lavender
Juice and zest of 2 lemons

Start by creaming the butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl. Beat in the eggs one at a time at a slow speed. In a separate bowl combine all dry ingredients except lavender flowers. Now, begin alternately adding dry ingredients and sour cream to the butter/sugar/egg mixture. Make sure you scape your bowl a lot, especially if you're using a stand mixer as the paddle will never completely get to the bottom of the bowl.

Finally, fold in the lemon zest/juice and the lavender flowers. You will see from my pictures that I used the lavender flowers whole. After making the cake for the first time I have decided the flavors are a bit overwhelming so I would reccomend that you grind the flowers using a food processor or electric chopper of some sort before adding them. Bake the cake in a VERY WELL GREASED bundt pan. My bundt is well seasoned and I've never had a cake stick but this cake did. Bake in a 325 degree oven for about 50-60 minutes or until a pick inserted comes out clean.

I also made a lavender simple syrup glaze for the cake to add moisture and a more intense lavender flavor. I made the syrup by steeping 2 tablespoons of lavender and half a lemon in 1 cup of boiling water and then straining the flowers out. I then brought the water back to a boil and dissolved one cup of white sugar into the water.

To serve, I poured a bit of the syrup on the bottom of the serving plate and sat the cake in it. I then drizzled a bit of the syrup over the cake. The results were an incredibly bright flavored and very moist cake. It was a huge hit at the Bed and Breakfast where I served it. Hope you enjoy.

Check It Out

Whoever makes two ears of corn, or two blades of grass to grow where only one grew before, deserves better of mankind, and does more essential service to his country than the whole race of politicians put together.
- Jonathan Swift

With that said, check out my dad's interview with Food Chain Radio from this morning. You can find it by going to FoodChainRadio website and clicking on Episode 659 The Seed Giants.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Thoughts

Sometimes I wish I was one of those people who could run home and blog complaints about their job every night and make up little nicknames for co-workers so as not to get caught but I just can't do that.

Lately though, I have been feeling like I am much more dedicated to my job than my job is dedicated to me. I would do ANYTHING they asked me to do, stay as late as they wanted me stay, work as many days/hours/weeks/months as they requested, but yet they seem like it is such a burden to them to help me grow as a cook. They know I want to be the best, yet offer so few opportunities that allow me to learn and grow and become better. So frustrating. The more I give the more they take and offer nothing in return.

Don't get me wrong, I love my work I'm just not so sure how much I love my job anymore. I just wish they were offering me more challenges and pushing me harder. I went to this place for opportunity and right now I feel like rather than moving forward I'm simply moving laterally. For me, its never acceptable to just be on cruise control and coast through life/work. I NEVER want to just settle. I know they appreciate all that I do but is it selfish to want challenge over appreciation? Honestly, I'd rather be pushed and proded than thanked right now.

But, in an economy such as ours I refuse to be the girl who complains about having a stable job that offers me a decent wage and insurance benefits. I am so lucky to have what I have. On the other hand when I go to my boss(es) begging them to push me harder, to challenge me more often and never to hold me back I expect to see effort on their part if they really care about my future as a cook.

Everyday I try to find the smallest opportunities to learn SOMETHING. It's becoming harder and harder. So for now I will continue to work as hard as I possibly can and prove myself as a passionate cook.

Rant over.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Essential Kitchen

I decided I would do a 2 part blog series on things I think every great home cook should HAVE and things every home cook should KNOW. As a professional cook sometimes you forget how different home cooking really is. But, there are essential tools that will make the home cook's experience in the kitchen even more enjoyable.

None of the items are incredibly expensive but some are certainly splurges or items that must be saved for. I will include approximate price for each item and why it made my list. I'm also going to omit things I consider "basics" every kitchen should already have - wooden spoon, spatulas, cutting board etc.

Today we are inundated with gadgets for the kitchen claiming to make your life easier. If there is one bit of advice I can give it is not to waste your money on gadgets. Think back to the delicious meals your mom or grandma used to prepare and remember she never had any of those silly tools. Instead, spend your money on a few great essentials that will carry you through the years.

Tools Every Home Cook Should Have

1. A good quality French knife and a steel. This can be an investment as a good quality knife will cost about $100 but, if you take good care of it, it should last for years. As a woman I prefer Japanese made knives as they are lighter and seem to "fit" better in my hands. I use an 8 inch Global brand knife and love it. The knife and handle are all one piece of stainless steel. It is incredibly easy to wash and maintain and I can't speak highly enough of this knife. For a home cook I recommend nothing longer than an 8 inch blade and nothing less than 6.5. You don't have to go with a Global brand but it is personally my favorite. Another great Japanese made knife that you may like is the Shun. Obviously, German made knives are the most famous but, for me, they are just too heavy in the hand. I recommend buying a knife from a store that will let you actually let you cut with the knife before you purchase it.

It is also important to own a steel and know how to use it. A steel is not to sharpen your knife, but rather, to hone and align its edge. You must also have your knives professionally sharpened or learn to use a sharpening stone. Use your steel every time you begin to cook or in between lengthy cutting projects. To use your steel first make sure it (and your knife) are clean. Hold the steel in your non-dominant hand and run the knife over the steel at a 22 degree angle. Start with the heel of the knife against the steel and pull the blade towards you. Make sure to hone both sides of the blade. Watch this video to really see how it is done.

2. Fine Mesh Strainer. I would like to put a chinois on this list but a true chinois costs roughly $85 and that is just ridiculous. I don't even have one at home. However, a fine mesh strainer can get the job done pretty well for lots less money. Using a mesh strainer to strain cream soups or sauces will change the way you think about soup and sauce. The difference between eating a strained soup or sauce is like the difference between eating velvet and corduroy. You'll love it. For home use a 5 to 8 inch mesh strainer will cost about $15

3. Microplane. If you've never seen a microplane it is basically a fine grater on a handle. This is the perfect tool for zesting citrus fruits, grating ginger or garlic and grating super hard cheeses like Parmesan. These graters are super sharp and make zesting really easy. If you don't use them everyday (like I do at work) they stay sharp for a long time and you shouldn't have to replace them often. A microplane will cost about $16 at any kitchen store.

4. Stand Mixer. This one is another investment but one that is well worth it. A good stand mixer will cost about $200-$250 but is another tool you should never have to replace if you buy quality. When shopping for a stand mixer look for one with all steel gears. I use the KitchenAid Pro500 which retails for about $350. This is a bit more than most home cooks need but was a better choice for me. The pro version of the mixer features all stainless steel, a larger capacity, a better dough hook, and rather than having a tilt head the bowl lifts & lowers - which I prefer. I also did not pay full price for this mixer and if you look out for sales or go to stores like Marshall's or Khol's you may be able to find a great deal like I did. Having a stand mixer will save you an amazing amount of time in the kitchen as it frees up your hands to do other prep or cleanup while mixing.

5. digital scale. Digital scales are a great addition to any home kitchen. Weighing ingredients rather than measuring in volume makes for a better recipe especially when baking. Try to get used to weighing ingredients and you will see more consistent results. Basic digital scales cost about $20 and will be just fine for the home cook. If you can't find recipes that list ingredients in grams or ounces use an online recipe converter to change your recipes.

6. heavy bottomed pan. This is another tool that can be a bit of an investment, but again, one that lasts a lifetime. Heavy bottomed stainless pans are much better than aluminum pans. They provide more even cooking and won't discolor light colored sauces or soups when whisking (aluminum pans can cause light colored foods to turn grey). If you can afford it get both a sauce pan and a saute pan. You won't regret it. Stainless pans aren't "non-stick" so you might have to do a little scrubbing when you wash but they also allow you to deglaze and make lovely pan sauces after roasting meats. A 3 quart saute pan (great size for home cooking) retails for about $200 but again LOOK FOR DEALS. You can get a 3 qt saucier for $150-$200 as well. Just as a note when I say the pans are heavy I mean it. Pick it up in the store and make sure its the real deal and avoid aluminum at all costs.

7. Hand Immersion Blender. This may also be called a "stick" or "wand" blender. This little tool will be your best friend once you get one. Its great for making a quick morning smoothie as it only needs a quick rinse to lean. Its lightweight, easily stored, and much less intimidating than a blender. Don't get me wrong blenders have their own place in the kitchen but the immersion blender is just awesome. This hand blender can be used to puree soups, sauces, make whipped cream or mayo etc. Some of them (like mine) even come with other attachments like an electric knife (I've never used), whisk (awesome), and a chopper tool. Mine with the attachments was $40 but you can find one without the extra tools for about $30.

8. Spice Grinder. This is on my "I want" list but I really believe its something every cook should have and it is a money saver in the end. Buying spices in bulk that haven't been ground is cheaper and helps keep your spices fresher longer. Having a grinder also allows you to choose how course or finely ground your spices are. A Krups coffee/spice grinder retails for $20-$30.

9. Stock Pot or Dutch Oven Or both really... Making your own stock saves money and tastes better than store bought. Most home cooks won't be making 5 Gallons of stock at a time so using a Dutch Oven works well too, as long as you have enough room to cover your bones completely with water. Dutch Ovens can also be used to make stews, roast chickens etc. I love both my stock pot (for making large batches of marinara, soup or stock) and my dutch oven for all the other reason I listed. My 12 qt stock pot is aluminum so I use it strictly for broth soups, stock and tomato sauce and it cost about $20. Dutch ovens can range drastically in price so just do your research. Some Dutch ovens are made entirely of cast iron and can be used both indoors and outdoors.

10. Swiss Peeler I actually never knew what this type of peeler was called until I went to write this blog. I usually just call them the peelers that look like disposable razors. You may also hear them called T-peelers. These peelers are awesome. This is one of the only tools grandma probably had that I think should be upgraded. These peelers save you tons of time, are very sharp and super cheap. You can buy them in a pack of 3 for $10.

So that is my list of 10 essentials and if I could add one bonus it would be the Japanese Mandolin. They retail for about $20-$30 and are great for making perfectly shaved or julienned veggies.

Happy Cooking.

And, since the holidays are approaching if you saw something on this list you've just gotta have... write a letter to Santa! I'll vouch for you and tell him you really need it and you've been a very good girl/boy!

Monday, October 12, 2009

just for fun

This year for Halloween some of you may be having trouble finding a cool costume. Might I suggest something... I know everyone wants to be trendy and make a statement at Halloween so here's a costume that is sure to spark a conversation about current events and politics.

How about dressing up as Frankenfood??

Make a statment against GMO's this Halloween!

Just for laughs here are some photo suggestions. I especially enjoy the "frankendog"

Quotable

Morning Glories and Queen Anne's Lace are baptized by the wind. These inspirations are my saving grace in the times we're livin' in.

-William Elliott Whitmore

Unfortunately, I haven't been feeling too inspired lately. I think I need a muse. Can women even have muses?

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Monsanto is in big trouble

AGAIN....HOORAY

As many of you may know, Monsanto faced a class action lawsuit in 2003 in Anniston, Alabama. The suit had to do with chemical dumping and other pollution that left people in the town with severe health problems. Monsanto reached a $700 million settlement in this case.

It seems the same is happening again, and this time it's here in Illinois and much closer to Monsanto's home-base in St. Louis.

Over 80 years ago Monsanto incorporated a village by the same name along the banks of the Mississippi River. The village was (and is still today) ruled by the Sauget family, with the Monsanto company holding their grasp on local taxes and regulations. In the beginning, the Sauget family set their own environmental standards and the village of Monsanto was seen as a mecca for industry.

Today, the village name has changed to Sauget and the citizens of the small village are sick. Cancer, lung problems, and other health issues plauge the community. A group of citizens and several lawyers (including one from the Anniston case) are working to sue Monsanto and other industries released toxic PCB's and dioxins on the community.

Plaintiffs in the suit feel they were misled by the big businesses regarding the dangerous/hazardous nature of the substances being released into their community. Due to the population density of Sauget the problem could be even worse than that in Anniston.

Sadly, it seems that Monsanto's MO is to target communities where people are poor, less educated, and less likely to have a say in society. Hopefully, this lawsuit will draw even more attention to the heinous acts of this awful company.

And, just to be objective here I'll give both sides of the story - Monsanto claims this lawsuit has no grounds and the plaintiffs are merely after their money. Oh, thats right, I forgot they can do no wrong.

Get the full story here

Oops!

I posted a blog recently reviewing my favorite restaurant - Lula Cafe - for some reason it appears under a post on August 7, 2009. Please go back and read my review of a lovely little spot!

Quotable

"In every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations ... even if it requires having skin as thick as the bark of a pine."

—Great Law of the Iroquois

A group of Iroquois Native Americans in 1914

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Reflections

Lately I've been thinking about how I got to the place in my life where I am right now. If someone had asked me 3 years ago what I'd be doing for a living my answer certainly wouldn't have been cooking. It seems crazy to get PAID to cook food.

Many of you may not know that just about 3 years ago I was in my senior year of college at the University of Illinois at Chicago pursing a degree in psychology. From as long ago as I can remember I always wanted to help people so it seemed a natural progression to go into the field of psychology.

I always loved to cook. It was something I grew up watching my grandma and my mom do and I knew good food made people happy. During college when life was stressful I would cook. It was a way to calm down and connect. Cooking was a form of instant gratification. Never a career path, always a hobby, sometimes a joke. Anytime studies got rough I would joke that I was going to drop out and open a restaurant.

During a summer away from college working as an Environmental Education director at a summer camp I had a lot of time to think. I had the opportunity to cook for a lot of staff members at the camp as well as many of the children. I knew in the back of my mind psychology was an interest not a passion and I knew in the back of my mind that cooking made me happy. The realization came to the front of my mind when a 9 year old asked me "Are you a chef?"

That question hit me like a ton of bricks. Why aren't I a chef? I couldn't formulate a reason. I spent the next several weeks going over and over this question in my head. I spoke with some friends and co-workers and made my decision.

When I returned to Chicago I made the choice to leave UIC and pursue a culinary degree at Kendall College. It was a huge crazy step but I had never felt better. I took a job as a breakfast cook at a bed & breakfast and began my new life.

Even at this point I still had no idea why I wanted to be a cook. I just knew that I loved it. I didn't know what I wanted to do with a career as a cook and was worried I wouldn't feel fulfilled without "helping people.

When the problems with Monsanto began to really come to a head for my parents I felt a lot of mixed emotions. I was scared Monsanto would sue my dad and take everything he's worked so hard for, I was angry at an evil company, I felt helpless being so far away and not there with my mom and dad, and I felt guilty for having a job that wasn't in jeopardy.

But, it was in these moments that I realized why it was my destiny to become a cook. I am the farmer's daughter who grew up to be the cook. I live in both worlds of food now. Where food comes from and where food goes. I am in the best possible place as a cook.

And, it was in those moments that I realized I can help people as a cook. This blog has become my way to not feel scared, angry, helpless and guilty. I realize more and more each day what my role is and will be. As a cook and an educator. Even in the passing moments at work when I'm able to talk about what kind of greens we are cleaning because I've seen them growing in my mom's garden. Or when someone has a question about Genetically Modified foods. I am helping people.

Thomas Keller says there is no such thing as perfect food only the idea of it. And our role as a chef is to strive towards perfection not to achieve it, but rather, to make people happy. That is what cooking is all about. For me this rings very true but for me it goes beyond making people happy with eating the food. I want people to have the experience of food.

To have just one guest who understands their meal came from a farmer's field or a gardener's greenhouse not from my kitchen would mean success to me.

So, now I am a cook and I have my amazing parents to thank for their support in my decision.


To my grandma for always cooking and letting me help

To my mom who taught me that tomatoes come from your garden not the grocery store and for introducing me to the vidalia.

And to my dad for showing me what real work is. For getting up before the sun and working until the work is done.


And, both of my parents for doing something they love even if it means they'll never be rich.

Dad, no matter what Monsanto does to us, everything you've worked for you've earned and that is all that matters.

I am a cook. Today, I understand why.

Friday, October 2, 2009

One Small Victory

And I'll take it!

On September 22nd a US District Court in Northern California ruled against Monsanto's Roundup Ready (GM) Sugar Beets!

The Court ruled that the USDA had not adequately evaluated the environmental and economic risks of the sugar beets. The USDA did not prepare an environmental impact statement before 1.1 million US acres were sown with Monsanto's beets. This is not surprising considering Monsanto's infiltration of the USDA.

But, at least the Court has woken up to Monsanto's history of bullshit.

The dangers of these beets are two pronged. Roundup Ready products promote the growth of weeds that are extremely tolerant to weed killers and are not easily erradicated by conventional means. Also, organic and conventional beet farmers are at risk of cross-pollination due to wind when GM sugar beets are planted in the same area. Obviously this damages the integrity of the REAL food being grown in a conventional manner.

The Court ruled that the USDA must do a rigorous report of the environmental and economic impact of growing these beets and be ready to present information in October. Unfortunately, in my opinion, one month is not adequate time to do a "rigorous" study of anything...

As usual, Monsanto is sweeping this under the rug. Stating the ruling is about "procedural" problems and not questions of food safety.

Assholes.

Well, it was a small victory, and I'll take it!


Thanks to Cathy @ The Fund for making me aware of this ruling.

Get To Know...

Sherry Vinegar - en espanol vinagre de jerez

Prior to working in a restuarant I was not exposed to the vast array of vinegars available on the market. Today, I would like to focus on a vinegar I have come to appreciate very much in the last couple years.

Sherry vinegar is a wine vinegar made from sherry (duh). It is produced in the Cadiz provence of Spain and must be produced in the area between three Spanish cities referred to as the Sherry Triangle. Many laws dictate what vinegars may or may not be called Vinagre de Jerez (similar to the laws regarding what sparkling wines can be called Champagne).

To be a true Sherry Vinager it must be aged in American oak barrels within the Sherry Triangle for a minimum of 6 months. There are 3 levels of Vinagre de Jerez. Vinagre de Jerez Reserva is aged a minimum of 2 years. Vinagre de Jerez Gran Reserva is aged a minimum of 10 years. Any Sherry Vinager aged 2 years or less is simply Vinagre de Jerez. At the restaurant we use Cepa Vieja a Reserva vinager. It retails for about $20 for a 17 ounce bottle and can be ordered online.

Sadly, Sherry Vinager used to be considered a failure in the bodegas which sold Sherry. When Sherrry had undergone an acetic ferminatation and turned to vinegar it was esentially garbage. The vinegar was sometimes given away to the staff of the bodega or put in storage away from the sherry. Some say there are barrels of forgotten sherry vinager that are aged over 50 years in the region. It wasn't until the French discovered great uses for Vinagre de Jerez that its popularity as a vinager increased. Today, the French are still the largest users of sherry vinager in the world.

I find sherry vin to be particularly complex and flavorful rather than just harshly acidic like many vinagers. It is a great vinegar to use for a vinagrette and pairs really well with lots of veggies.

Sherry vinegar is also an essential addition to a great gazpacho. It gives that extra oomph some gazpachos are lacking.

Recently, I used sherry vinegar to add a much needed burst of acidity in a cream of mushroom soup and found it worked perfectly. It also matches well with black truffles.

This week try to experiement with vinager in some way. If you're making a dish and it lacks "something" that something might be acidity! Vinegar can bring out rich, complex flavors in soups and casseroles. Don't be afraid of the acid!!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

quotable


"Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independant, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to it's liberty and interests by the most lasting bands."
Thomas Jefferson



picture borrowed from gourmet.com i just love it!

Monsanto News

Not much has changed in the way of Monsanto. They are still an evil, bullying company. But, it seems that recently people are opening up their eyes even more to the destruction they are causing throughout the Unted States and the world.

On August 7th the Organization for Competitive Markets drew a record number of farmers, ranchers, seed distributors and seed cleaners (like my dad) for their conference regarding anti-competitive behaviors by companies (Monsanto) in the agriculture industry. Most importantly, the conference was attended by two top Obama Administration officials given the task of (finally) enforcing anti-trust laws which were ignored by the Bush Administration. Both the Department of Justice and Department of Agriculture were in attendence and announced major changes on Agriculture anti-trust and competition. Both the Department of Justice and the Department of Agriculture will be hosting workshops to get feedback from farmers to truly find out the impact anti-competitive behavior has on the consumer.

So far, this news has stayed out of major media and when doing searches I haven't found many other bloggers mentioning this big shift either. I must say, Monsanto has already done plenty to implicate themselves and draw a closer look from Washington.

In a September 30th article in the Olney Daily Mail Steve Hixon (my daddy!) was quoted as saying he sees this as a positive step and has "expectations that the Justice Department will finally enforce accountability" http://www.olneydailymail.com/news/x1991993902/Study-of-seed-issue-draws-plenty-of-interest

Although I personally would rather see the elimination of Genetically Modified foods and Monsanto Corporation, this certainly is a step in the right direction in offering farmers more choices when it comes to purchasing seeds.

Here's to hoping some of the CHANGE President Obama comes to agriculture in America.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Panisse

No, not Chez Panisse, sorry Alice Waters this entry is not about you.

Google Panisse, I dare you. You'll get plenty of entries on Ms. Waters and her California restaurant but I challenge you to find out what Panisse really is.

Well, I got the pleasure of learning about Panisse from my chef Patrick Sheerin and now I'm completely enamoured with the treat.

So, what is Panisse? Its a dish that originated in the South of France. Its described by some as a pancake, a custard-like substance, even a cake. Really, it is none of those things. Panisse is simple, chickpea flour, olive oil, vegetable stock, and salt. In France it is used as a snack. Often dusted with sugar and served to children. I can't imagine it tasting great but I've never had it served this way either.

Why is Panisse great? Lots of reasons! First, the flavor is excellent. If you use finely milled chickpea flour the result will be a creamy, custardy treat on the inside of a crispy fried outside. Secondly, its a gluten free snack or side dish. At the restaurant we serve a fried bit of panisse instead of a starch with an entree. This is something to keep in mind if you have friends or family who can't eat gluten. Next, its a bit of a challenge to make and it is one of those dishes that makes you swell with a little bit of pride when you finally get it right. And finally, panisse can be manipulated and experimented with to even further enhance the flavor as you will see below.

Our first attempt at panisse was a bit of an experiment. Chef had never made one before, I had not even heard of panisse nor had our executive sous. Already we were off to great start. Pat's vision was to make a panisse that had the flavor of fennel and it was my mission to make it happen. I started by infusing the vegetable stock with lots of fennel and then went to work cooking the panisse. After a few tries we finally got the desired result. Crispy on the outside, creamy on the inside.

This month Patrick presented me with a new challenge. Make a butternut squash panisse. Fennel now seemed easy... See, squash is starchy and that changes everything. So, I set off on another panisse challenge. First, I juiced the squashes (terrible yield just for the record). I let the juice sit for an hour or two and then strained it through a fine mesh chinois. I figured that would eliminate some of my unwanted starch. I cooked the panisse, fried it, and let me tell you it was awful. Starchy and heavy and coated your teeth with orange goop. Fail.

I thought about it over night and came back to work with a plan. I juiced more squash and let it sit for an hour. I strained it. Let it sit for an hour. Strained it. Let it sit once more and strained it. Then, into the cooler it went to sit over night. The result of all this sitting and waiting and straining was a much less starchy juice. The amount of starch that settled to the bottom was startling. I guess I never knew how starchy a butternut really is.

So, with my strained, and strained, and strained, and strained again juice I then cut it with 20% vegetable stock and cooked the panisse just as I had before. The result this time? Crispy on the outside, creamy on the inside and just the right amount of squash flavor. Success! And a pain in my ass. But, this is really one of those dishes that gives you such a sense of pride.

So, now I'm sure everyone wants to run home and make a panisse for themselves so I'll tell you how. First and foremost, TAKE YOUR TIME. If you mess it up the first time thats okay. It will take a few tries to get it just right. Secondly, WORK QUICKLY. Yes, I completely contradicted myself but I mean it. Once you start cooking the panisse you have to work quickly. Make sure all your mise en place is ready otherwise the panisse will set up in the pan and you will be cursing my name.

For a traditional Panisse you will need:
1000 grams vegetable stock
400 grams chick pea flour
200 grams olive oil
salt to taste

Wisk this mixture together off the heat until there are no lumps. Now, you need to get your pan ready to pour the finished panisse into. Use a 1/4 sheet pan or an 8x8 pan. Spray the pan very well with cooking spray. Put a greased spatula (an offset works best but a flat metal icing spat is okay too) next to the pan and make sure it is close to where you will be cooking the panisse.

Then, over medium heat in a heavy bottomed stainless pan begin whisking. DO NOT use an aluminum pan or you turn your panisse grey. DO NOT stop whisking. At first, not much will be going on but if you quit whisking the mixture will begin to stick to the bottom of the pan and you will not be happy.

Once the mixture starts to boil it will come together quite quickly. Don't worry if it starts to appear to get lumpy again. If you continue whisking it will smooth out as it cooks. Yes, your arm will get tired. KEEP GOING. The mixture will get VERY THICK and VERY ELASTIC. This is exactly what you want. When the panisse is smooth, thick and elastic shut the heat off and immediately pour into your ready pan. Pour as quickly as you can. If the panisse is made properly it will begin setting up immediately as it cools. Use your greased spatula to force the panisse into the corners of the pan and smooth the top. If the panisse is resisting going into the corners of the pan or springing back a bit thats a good thing - you did it right. Smooth it as best as you can and lay a piece of plastic wrap against the top of the panisse so it doesn't get a crusty skin as it cools. Put the panisse straight into the cooler and let it chill.

To serve: unmold the panisse. It should hold its shape perfectly. If it is creamy or falls apart you didn't cook it long enough. Try again. Cut the panisse into your desired shape for slicing. I recommend using a hot knife to slice it. Dust the panisse with a bit of cornstarch or flour and fry them. You can pan fry the panisse but deep frying really is best.

Enjoy.

If your panisse comes out well I encourage you to experiement with adding other flavors. When we made Fennel Panisse at the restaurant we simply made a strong fennel broth and dusted the bottom of our greased pan with fennel seed.

The squash panisse is a huge pain but tastes great. You may be able to achieve similar results by adding pieces of squash to your vegetable stock and simmering to get the squash flavor. Without juicing you won't get the rich orange color.

When thinking of chickpea my mind immediately goes to Hummos. One of my favorite items to eat with hummos is red pepper. I think a red pepper panisse would be awesome. Someone should make it for me :-)

Happy cooking. I wish you all panisse success and a sense of great pride when you take your first bite!

Chicago is....

Number One in green buildings according to the US Green Building Council. The Council reports that we boast 88 buildings with the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Certifications. This is one step in Mayor Daley's quest to make Chicago the greenest city in the United States. Currently, Chicago ranks ninth, while Portland Oregon holds the top spot.

Daley has been a vocal advocate of green architecture. Years ago, Chicago's City Hall was outfitted with a lushly-planted green roof. See look it really is green. The city requires new public buildings to achieve LEED certification. In addition, public and private projects receiving city assistance must either have a green roof or pursue green building certification.

Hooray Chicago.

Is it sad I question the Mayor's motives with this? Does he really just care about the environment or maybe the whole green movement has mob ties. Just kidding Mr. Daley if you're reading this!

WWOOF

I was recently introduced to an amazing organization called WWOOF. World Wide Opportunities On Organic Farms was started in 1971 as a way to connect people from all over the world to share more sustainable ways of living. In return for volunteer work on the hosts' farm volunteers receive a place to stay, meals, and numerous opportunities to learn about the organic lifestyle.

Volunteers do not pay for their stay and hosts do not pay their volunteers for work.

WWOOF hosts can be found in almost every country around the world. So, no matter what your interest I'm sure there is a farm, community, gardener or SOMEONE who fits your desire.

You can find more information by visiting wwoof.org

The program I am most interested in is in the West African country of Sierra Leone. WWOOF has a school garden program in SL that is teaching children how to grow their own food. The food is then served to the children and staff of the school and any surplus can be sold to keep the school running, or sent home to feed the often impoverished students' families.

Anyone who knows me knows my soft spot for children. And, anything we can do to teach sustainable farming/living in Africa will be one less way Monsanto can invade the lives of people in developing countries.

Monsanto is already hard at work developing GM rice and wheat specifically to market to developing countries. I would love to see Sierra Leone and other African nations reject what Monsanto has to "offer"

According to one article Monsanto is trying to be the "johnny appleseed" of Africa. They are marketing a "high yield" hybrid maize containing fertilizer and herbicide. The maize is being called Xoshindlala a Zula word meaning to chase away hunger. Not shockingly, this is not an aid project either, Monsanto is marketing and selling this crap (yea I said it) for profit to African farmers. So, here they go - trying to convince yet another group of farmers that monoculture is the wave of the future.

Another reason to go WWOOF in Africa? Monsanto also has it's hand in the "relief" food America sends to African nations. Monsanto PROFITS from hunger in Africa due to their government contracts to provide relief food. Monsanto would hate to see Africans learning to farm on their own and SUSTAIN rather than maintain life as they are doing currently.

The UN recently released a report saying that Africa's best hope for the future is organic agriculture. Yet the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has passed S.384, the Global Food Security Act, that would require "research on biotechnological advances appropriate to local ecological conditions, including genetically modified technology" as a condition of US aid.

Instead of cynically cloaking corporate welfare for chemical companies like Monsanto in agriculture aid packages, why not support the United Nations Environment Program's Green Economy Initiative?

A new survey by the UN Conference on Trade and the Environment and UNEP in East Africa found that over 90 per cent of studies show that organic or near organic agriculture had benefits for soil fertility; water control; improved water tables, carbon sequestration and biodiversity.

This allows farmers to extend the growing season in marginal areas. The research in East Africa was among 1.6 million organic or near organic farmers from seven countries working on 1.4 million hectares.

Other findings include an increase in crop yields of 128 per cent since switching

In other disturbing news - Monsanto is attempting to forge a partnership with the CARE organization - a high profile US based food-aid agency. It seems the goal of the meeting is to use the food aid agency to test and distribute their genetically-altered seeds among poor farmers. What a load of bullshit. If CARE goes along with this they are making a terrible mistake.

So please, join WWOOF and help promote SUSTAINABLE living.

For information on statistics I have posted please visit the following websites for full articles.

http://www.etcgroup.org/en/materials/publications.html?pub_id=376
http://www.scribd.com/doc/13670789/Voices-from-Africa-African-Farmers-Environmentalists-Speak-Out-Against-a-New-Green-Revolution-in-Africa
http://e360.yale.edu/content/digest.msp?id=1550

Worthwhile Cause

As a young(ish) person who feels very passionate about food politics and the future of food in our country I feel it is important for me to take a step back from blogging solely about MY cause and focus on two other amazing projects that have recently come to my attention. Both are created by young people who are dedicated to their particular cause and I am going to take a moment to highlight each one of them in hopes that you will support their missions.

First, I want to introduce you to the Building A Future organization. This organziation helps to provide educational and social development for impoverished children in Honduras. Currently they are requesting donations for community centers that help provide daily meals, education and a place to sleep for approximately 1,000 Honduran children. I was introduced to the organziation by close friend and former co-worker Lauren Parton. Lauren met artist Maria Amalia Wood -a native of Honduras- while attending college at Judson University. Now, Maria is using her amazing artwork to raise funds for the Building a Future Organization.

Maria has launched the Butterfly Art Blox Fundraiser. These pieces of art are each magnetic 4x4 wooden blocks with gorgeous butterfly designs done in watercolor. Marias statement for the inspiration behind the butterfly design... "In an ideal world, every child would have bright colorful wings, but that is not the reality in which we live in. There are millions of children whose childhood and hope have been stolen…their wings are black and white. We might not be able to give them their childhood back, but we can give them hope of a better future. Your purchase of an art piece will add color to a child’s wings."

You can find out more information, or order one (OR MORE) Art Blox at the following website. http://www.buildingafuture.org/en/projects/faniva/butterfly-artblox

Also, watch this video to learn more about Maria and her art.

The second organiztion helps kids right here in Chicago. It is the Swish Dreams Foundation founded by an acquataince of mine Mr. Josh Mercer. Josh is a native Chicagoan and graduate of Howard University who gave up a promising career in banking and finance he felt compelled to integrate himself into the Englewood community to volunteer and change the lives of youth living in a neighborhood stricken with violence and poverty. After beginning to volunteer Josh noticed that many his students were highly deficient in the areas of math and reading but loved competing in sports. It was here that his idea for Swish Dreams was born.

The mission of Swish Dreams is to provide academic, social, and physical enrichment to Chicago's youth by integrating the disciplines of reading and math with the game of basketball.

Today, Swish Dreams has forged relationships with both the Chicago Bulls and the Chicago Sky and have served over 50 kids on Chicago's Southside.

On October 13th Josh and Swish Dreams embarks on a whole new journey. The 1st Annual Swish Dreams Fundraiser will be held at Rumba Restaurant and Lounge - 251 W. Hubbard in Chicago from 6 to 10pm. After 3 years of hard work establishing the organization, in the summer of 2010 Josh will be launching Swish Dreams as a full scale camp at the House of Hope. The goal of the evening is to raise $12,000. Please visit swishdreams.eventbrite.com to donate or buy a ticket to the event.

I cannot tell you enough how much Chicago needs a program like this. The Englewood neighborhood and other neighborhoods in Chicago's south and west sides have been riddled with violence in the last few years. As of May 2009 36 Chicago Public School children had been murdered. The number has risen substantially since May but I have not seen the latest statistic. I really believe it is young men like Josh who have the power to change the shape of the lives of these kids. Please consider a donation to Swish Dreams if you can't attend their event. For more information please visit www.swishdreams.org or email info@swishdreams.org

As a final note - both Swish Dreams and Building a Future are recognized 501c3 organizations which means all your donations are tax deductible.

Thomas Keller

Thomas Keller - the genius behind the restaurant The French Laundry once said "The life of a chef inevitably leads to areas of neglect in his life." I guess lately my area of neglect has unfortunately been my blog.

I have lots of interesting stuff to catch you up on and am looking forward to a productive few days of blogging ahead of me. I just learned (with the help of T-Mobile) how to use my blackberry as a modem to connect my laptop to the internet at home. Now, I don't have to venture across the street to the library or down the street to the coffee shop to get my writing done. Hooray!

Now I can blog in my PJ's!

Friday, August 7, 2009

I adore....

Lula Cafe in the Logan Square neighborhood here in Chicago.

I've been to Lula more times than I can count and after tonight's delicious meal I felt compelled to offer my undying love for Lula.

It's hard not to fall in love with this place. First of all there's the atmosphere. It's one of those places where you immediately feel comfortable. It's a neighborhood spot, everyone is friendly and conversing openly, the kitchen is open to the dining room, and its just a generally warm and welcoming environment. And, when the weather permits they have an adorable patio.

Secondly, for a lover of the farm like myself the menu is incredibly driven by the season, and the availability of local, sustainable foods.

And even better still, they use local ingredients WELL. I've been to Lula countless times and I have yet to leave saying "eh it was alright." Dishes are executed nicely, seasoning is always spot on, and I'm never lost in a sea of juxtaposed flavors. The food is always the focus - and to me that's what matters.

One complaint I often hear about Lula is that the platings often have a bit of a "rustic" feel. For me, I could care less. The food looks like...FOOD and it tastes great too. So, most likely you won't see a classic French presentation, but it will taste good!

Lula has been an amazing part of Logan Square for a long time now and I look forward to continuing to see them grow and change and feed the neighborhood.

Thanks to Jason and Amalea for really hitting the nail on the head. Keep it up.

If anyone is interested... tonight I had (to start) house made tagliatelle, with homemade spicy ham, basil, gruyere cheese and these delicious little heirloom tomatoes the size of peas. I'm not sure what they were called (mom a little help here?!)

For my entree I had heritage pork shoulder, prosciutto, shell beans, early Brussels sprout choucroute, grapes and hazelnut butter. Everything was awesome. I was a bit worried about the Brussels being a little bitter since we haven't had a frost yet but they were great. The flavors blended fabulously and I love that the cooks at Lula aren't afraid to serve their pork relatively rare!

And, for dessert, a local raw sheep's milk cheese with washed rind, house made grape sorbet, and candied almonds. One of the best desserts I've had in a long time. So light and wonderful, the perfect dessert for a lover of the sweet/savory combo. And for me, the cheese lover.

Ode To Ginger

No this post is not about red-heads.

Today's post will be about the miracle that is ginger root. Anyone who knows me knows of my love affair with all things ginger. I just can't get enough, and with good reason. Ginger has been known for centuries as a bit of a wonder-food. In fact, I have a zip-loc bag with about 5 pounds of pickled ginger sitting in my fridge right now. Yum!

So what's the deal with ginger?

Ginger has been regarded as a healing food for centuries upon centuries especially in Eastern culture. From Pythagorus (you know the "father of numbers") to King Henry VIII to little old me, we are all singing its praises. Pythagorus spread his love of ginger across all of ancient Rome, while Henry was said to have believed ginger could protect humans from plague. And now here I am, spreading the word across all of cyberspace.

Now, no one is really sure if ginger can protect from the plague, and I don't want to be the guinea pig in that study, but we do know that it has several real, testable health benefits. And its taste is like nothing else in this world.

Motion Sickness (and morning sickness too!)
Ginger has been tested in several laboratories, and is shown to significantly reduce nausea and dizziness associated with motion sickness. Researchers believe something in the ginger is responsible for blocking the body's reflex to vomit. It is said that only 1/4 teaspoon of ginger taken 20 minutes before a car ride can provide up to 4 hours of relief from motion sickness.

Headaches

Researchers in Denmark have discovered that ginger can block the effects of substances that cause inflammation of blood vessels in the brain which leads to headache/migraine.

Other
Researchers are also discovering that ginger has a similar effect as aspirin on blood clots. And, it appears that cholesterol levels are being lowered in individuals who consume fresh ginger. Ginger can be used to calm an upset stomach and relieve bloating and gas. The intake of ginger helps stimulate the secretion of mucos, which can quiet coughs and soothe irritated throats. Ginger contains anti-viral, anti-fungal, and anti-hisitimine properties, making it a great treatment for the common cold and allergies. Ginger also displays anti-inflammatory properties and is being tested as a treatment for different forms of arthritis. In some studies ginger is being shown as more effective than today's commonly prescribed medications.

I often eat ginger based desserts after a heavy meal or even drink a ginger tea to help settle my stomach. The Greeks have been doing this for centuries and I swear by it. Ginger always calms my stomach. And who can resist that spicy complex flavor?

So what is ginger? Although the common name for the part we eat is ginger root. It is technically a rhizome not a root. The rhizome is a horizontal plant stem usually found underground which sends out the roots below and shoots above ground. It serves as the reproductive structure for the plant. Some people say it is a tuber. I'm not really sure what the difference between a tuber and a rhizome is. I think I heard somewhere that a tuber is just a swollen part of the rhizome that contains a lot of starch. Mom is any of this right??? The reason for ginger's insanely pungent spicy flavor is due to the fact that it is made up of 3% essential oils.

Anyway, I'm just going to eat the thing... and hopefully
so are you. So, here are a few uses for ginger that I love.

First of all, as with almost all foods, FRESH is best. When selecting a ginger "root" you want to look for one that is firm and has smooth tan skin. I use the same guidelines when selecting a man. Haha. Sorry mom. Anyway... Shriveled skin indicates the flesh inside will be dry and lacking flavor. Once you get the ginger home use it right away or store it in the refrigerator. Only peel the part of the ginger you are going to use. Try to avoid putting peeled ginger in the fridge as it will lose flavor and dry out quite quickly. If you absolutely must store peeled ginger, do so in an air-tight container.

Homemade Ginger Ale
This recipe is so easy and so much better than store bough ginger ale. You will wonder why you ever bought it in the first place. (I will say that Goose Island Chicago makes a wonderful bottled ginger ale without any high fructose corn syrup. Thanks Goose Island)

For about 2-4 servings all you need to do is make 2 cups of simple syrup (equal parts sugar and boiling water) blended with a hand blender (if you have one) or a standard blender if you don't.

In a sauce pan bring to a boil 2 cups of water, reduce to a simmer and add one cup of peeled sliced ginger. Let it simmer for a few minutes then shut off the heat and remove the ginger pieces.

To serve - combine ginger water, simple syrup and 2 cups of club soda. Garnish with a lime wedge or even better... homemade candied ginger (recipe follows). You can also experiement with incorporating fresh fruits/fruit juices into your ginger ale. I personally enjoy pomegranate in mine.

Candied Ginger
This snack is delicious. It is the perfect garnish for a glass of ginger ale with your favorite spicy rum (my drink of choice). Or, a great stomach settler if you've had too much to eat or drink. And believe me, it tastes so much better than Pepto. Even better news, this snack is super cheap to make. All you really need is ginger, sugar, water and a knife.

Peel and thinly slice about 1 pound of ginger. Some people say to use a spoon to peel ginger. I personally prefer a regular old vegetable peeler.

Place the sliced ginger in a heavy saucepan and cover with water. Note, I said cover not, drown. Cook it gently until the ginger is soft. This will take about 30 minutes. Drain off the water and weigh the ginger. Measure equal parts sugar. Retun the ginger to the sauce pan and add the sugar plus 3 T. water. Bring to a boil stirring often and cook until the ginger is transparent and liquid is almost evaporated. Reduce the heat and cook, stirring constantly, until almost dry. Once dry, remove from heat and toss the ginger in a "sanding" sugar (you know the big crystals) to coat it. Cool the crystallized ginger and store in an airtight container for up to 3 months!

These are just 2 way to incorporate ginger into your diet. I know lots of other ways and am interested in hearing how you enjoy ginger. Please share, and if you'd like to hear more ways to use ginger feel free to contact me!

Heres to happy stomachs,
Vanessa

Monday, July 20, 2009

Ooops!

I know I promised 2 ricotta recipes and I'm a bad person and only posted one. So, better late than never I'm posting one more.

Everyone knows Gnocchi.... the tradtional northern italian potato pasta. It is heavy and delicious almost like a dumpling. The perfect wintertime treat.

Well, in Florence they do it differently - Ricotta Gnocchi. Its light, fluffy, and delicious. Here is my version of the recipe.

You will need about 16 ounces of the ricotta that you made, or 16 ounces of a high quality ricotta from the store. Depending on how wet your rictta is you may need to drain it. If your ricotta is very wet (sometimes the homemade kind is) place it in some cheese cloth and press it. Try to get as much liquid out as possible.

Add one egg to your ricotta once you have it dry. The egg is the "binder" in your pasta. Fold in about 3/4-1cup of a dry cheese like parmesan (more mild) or pecorino if youre looking for a bolder flavor. Season your dough with salt, black pepper, and if you want a chiffonade of fresh parsely.

You will also need about 3/4 to 1 cup of CAKE flour. Cake flour is lower in gluten and will result in a lighter gnocchi. Fold in the cake flour with the cheese mixture. Do this slowly as you may not need all the flour - or you may need more. Gnocchi is really something you learn to make by "feel"


My method is this - form the "dough" into a big ball and put it on the table. Poke your finger into the ball and pull it back out. If your finger leaves a dent and but the dough still feels a bit sticky you've got it right.

Be sure not to overwork your dough as it will get tough. The best way to make gnocchi for the first time is by trial and error and a little bit of patience. Before you even start rolling your dough get a large pot of boiling SALTED water going so you can test your pasta. Once you have your dough the way you think you want it sprinkle a little flour on your work surface and roll out logs of dough about 3/4" thick. Cut the dough into 3/4" long pieces. I then like to pinch the dough into a little "pillow" shape. I find it holds the sauce better and looks cute! Put one gnocchi into the boiling water and wait until it starts to float. Once it floats another 2-3 minutes and you're ready to test. Remove the gnocchi with a slotted spoon or a "spider." Taste it. If it falls apart in your mouth you may need a little more flour. If its too "doughy" maybe you over-did it and should add some more cheese. Like I said, making gnocchi for the first time is trial and error. So, adjust as needed and then finish cooking your gnocchi.




Once all your gnocchi is cooked remove it from the water and toss with a little bit of olive or canola oil. I like to lay it out in a single layer so it doesn't stick together. The gnocchi is best served right after cooking but you can also refrigerate it for a couple days.

For this delicately flavored gnocchi you don't want to drown it in a heavy sauce. Ricotta combines very nicely with fresh peas so I would reccomend making a pea coulis to accompany the gnocchi.

For the coulis you will need fresh or frozen peas and a nice vegetable stock. Simply blend the peas and the vegetable stock until you get a nice nappe consistency. Then strain through a fine mesh strainer and season with salt and black pepper. If you want to make the sauce a bit more rich you can also blend in some butter until it emulsifies.

When you're ready to serve heat some olive oil in a pan and add the gnocchi. Saute until they begin to crisp lightly on the outside. Add your sauce and rehduce the heat so your sauce doesn't break (especially if you added butter). You can serve the gnocchi just like this or you can go one step further... and I think you'll want to.

Split ripe heirloom tomatoes in half and sear on the grill until nice marks form. Set aside until they cool and remove the skin. Roughly chop the tomatoes and fold in thinly slice garlic, basil, salt, and black pepper. Form a mound of grilled tomato mixture in the bottom of a bowl and top with the hot gnocchi and pea coulis.



Delicious.

Note- the gnocchi above is shown with a piece of cripsed parmesan cheese and micro opal basil as garnish.

What is HR 2749?

Awhile ago I posted a link on my facebook urging people to read and understand HR 2749. Maybe you missed it - so I'm going to break down HR 2749 for you the way I understand it.

HR 2749 or the Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009 is an attempt to address the problems with factory farming in the United States. But, the way it is now the only thing this bill will do is undermine the few good things we have left in American agriculture - the small farmers producing for our local markets.

Upon first look the bill poses as a way to address the rising problems of contaminaton from foodborne pathogens as a result of the reliance on industrialized farming in the United States. All the contamination issues we have seen in the last few years have been linked to huge factory farming establishments. Not once has a small farmer been linked to an outbreak. Yet, HR 2749 will drive small farmers from endangered species to extinct.

For example, in this bill the FDA will require industrialized agriculture facilities and farmers to register and pay yearly fees. If a small farmer choses to make jam and sell it at the local farmers market he will be required to register with the FDA and pay a $500 fee. The food giant Del Monte will be required to do the same. This bill offers no consideration of the size of the company when assessing fees.

The Federal oversight of small farmers is over-reaching and overbearing in this bill. I understand that disgusting, dirty, filth-ridden factory farms need to be scrutinized. But really, must we make life even harder for the men and women who are trying to keep us healthy and vital by being stewards to the land and providing us with delicious local foods?

Another reality of this bill is the complete disregard for religion when it comes to Amish farmers. Under this bill all producers will be required by law to register electronically with the FDA. Amish farmers are already saying they refuse to register as it violates their religious beliefs. Religion doesn't matter to HR 2749. If a farmer knowingly violates a provision of the bill he or she can be sentenced up to 10 years in prison and up to $100,000 in fines.

Most importantly, the bill does not even address the underlying cause of food safety problems which is our reliance on industrialized agriculture. Rather than breaking up these food giants and taking America back to the small farmer the bill masks the problem with fees and registrations. Last time I checked $500 and mountains of paperwork won't keep e.coli from growing in a filthy factory. But hey, what do I know?

So, now that you know a bit more about HR 2749 please feel free and do more research on your own to get the whole scoop. You can find more information on this bill on Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund website at www.farmtoconsumer.org. For even more information on HR 2749 please visit http://www.infowars.com/hr-2749-totalitarian-control-of-the-food-supply/

Most importantly - TAKE ACTION. Please contact your congressman and senators and tell them how you feel about HR 2749. Fight for your right to eat real food. You can find your representatives by using the "finder" tool on www.congress.org or you can fill out the online petition against the bill at the following address http://www.ftcldf.org/petitions_new.htm and click on the link to Oppose HR 2749.

The High Cost of Cheap Food

My mom sent me this article written by a woman named Megan Nix for the Denver Post. It is one of the most well-written and easy to understand articles I have seen to date regarding the "food safety" bills. I hope she doesn't mind me re-posting it here. Enjoy

The High Cost of Cheap Food
I used to find Flaming Hot Cheetos, bagged pickles, and the occasional plate of fried chicken in my classroom when I taught Senior English in Louisiana.
I allowed some of my students to eat at their desks after lunch. I had to; there were three pregnant seniors in my fourth period.
Shayna, who was in her third trimester during her last semester of high school, mostly snacked on packets of those horribly orange peanut butter crackers. Over half of my class was obese. After pizza or macaroni or hamburgers from the cafeteria, they'd fall asleep against their will, come to, apologize, then nod off again.
My students were kids who carried iPhones and wore brand-name shoes. Eighty percent were black, 98 percent were low-income. They'd been raised to look as good as they could, but eat as cheaply as possible.
For awhile, you can ignore poverty in schools, outbreaks of cookie dough E. coli, and the fact that 27 percent of our country's children are obese. But they're all connected — and these layers of bad news will eventually weigh one down.
I found this statistic a little harder to overlook: For the first time in 200 years, today's children have a lower life expectancy than their parents.
Unhealthy school lunches are certainly one reason. Here's another: Most of our food comes from huge factory farms that are government-subsidized to produce food products quickly but not nutritiously.
A partial list of Health and Human Service's recalled foods so far this summer include:
• Lewis Laboratories' chocolate flavor nutrition drink;
• C.F. Sauer gravies and sauce mixes;
• Publix Brand chocolate and vanilla whey protein;
• Malt-o-Meal Maple & Brown Sugar; and
• Three types of seasonings from Kroger.
There aren't any unfamiliar family names up there because smaller, organic farms abide by the rules of nature: You are stewards of your stock; you allow the soil to regenerate; and you don't add dry milk and MSG to everything, then recall it a month later. You learn the names of the plants you're eating, and you connect a chicken sandwich to a living thing with feathers — something the fifth- grade students I worked with couldn't do. The bigger farms are the ones responsible for the litany of gone-wrong products.
The most recent "good news" is that the FDA is pushing for "preventative process controls" through the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009 (HR 875) and the Food Safety Enhancement Act (HR 2749), in order "to protect the public health by preventing food-borne illness and ensuring the safety of food." Problem is, the process controls the government will deem as necessary will likely be too expensive for small organic farmers who are doing more to keep this country healthy than the huge agribusiness companies (Tyson, Sedexho, Hormel) who can buy bigger freezers and continue to sell nicely wrapped crap.
What the passing of HR 875 and 2749 could mean is a loss of organic, small-farm options and a reduction of both the shopper's autonomy and the good things that are happening in the food world today.
Endangered are farmers' markets, Community Supported Agriculture, and programs like the Farm to Cafeteria initiative, which fills cafeterias with fresh heads of lettuce and teaches kids that accountability can mean nurturing little green lives. These programs banish the resentment often extended toward the gourmet, neo-hippie organic movement. Supplying cafeterias with local organic food isn't fancy; it's cheaper than skipping lunch. In the long run, our tax dollars wouldn't subsidize the petroleum that keep factories surging, trucks transporting our tomatoes, and our health insurance bills skyrocketing.
In the long run, I would like for Shayna's little girl to have a banana when she's hungry in the afternoon and dirty fingernails from digging in a garden, not a chin covered in garish orange crumbs.
Are these aspirations likely? One in three children today will develop Type 2 diabetes (one in two if they're black or Hispanic). It's partly because we aren't eating diversified foods anymore, and the FDA's new plans to protect factory farms will ensure that we continue to eat a fairly homogenized diet of refined sugars.
According to Vandana Shiva, an Indian crop ecologist quoted in Barbara Kingsolver's book "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle," over the course of history, humans have consumed over 80,000 plant species. That number has now been reduced to eight species, with a continuous honing in on modified canola, corn and soy.
When Kingsolver wrote the book in 2007, only six companies controlled 98 percent of the world's seed sales (Monsanto, Syngenta, DuPont, Mitsui, Aventis, and Dow), and they continue to desecrate land. Juggernauts like Monsanto send 330 small farm operators off their land a week.
In a nutshell, government regulations will soon favor genetically modified (or GMO) seeds over organic seeds, and organic seeds might eventually become illegal.
Hand-planted kale and preservative-less poultry might be things of the past. The FDA says requiring eggs to be kept at 45 degrees will make us healthier, but I've owned chickens, and their eggs are like silk when it's 60 and sunny.
The standard that food providers should be held to is purity of process and intent. We don't need to add bad things to our food. Agribusiness doesn't promote food safety, it swells with immoral shortcuts (a thousand chickens in a bedroom- sized space, soil made prematurely infertile, etc.).
What we need to do is take a good, hard look at what "safe" means.
Take a garden. Plant what grows best in your sun. Water the leaves, the roots. Walk through your rows. (If you don't have a yard, that's what urban gardens are for.)
Now take another garden. Grow it long and wide, cutting away the ecosystems along its edges. Decimate the birds and the bugs. Spray it with regulatory chemicals to ward off the changes provided by the wind and the rain, the nutrient highways for our food.
Which one would you call "safe"?
I tried to teach my kids how to write, but I also told them what I'd learned: that an adult needs eight hours of sleep, that homemade bread and hand-written letters are second to none. That, as Annie Dillard said, "How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our years."
On a more human level, the current statistics mean that less of our kids' days are spent learning, whisk in hand, how their grandma's wrist turned yolks in a bowl. We are unaccustomed to bugs in our lettuce, fish with heads, berries covered in the harvest's dust.
The situation here is honest food; the deeper story is our respect for human life. Lose the first, and you lose the second, too.
I might not have much to hand down to my kids (when I have them). But I do have a recipe for sweet potato bread and a dad whose knees are muddy all summer long from gardening. I'd like to give my children shiny vegetables, basil that leans into the sun, and teach them how to smell a crust that's done. If the worsening economy means our kids might inherit less, then we should be giving them longer lives to live.

You can reach Ms. Nix at www.megannix.com or by email at thenixonary@gmail.com

Friday, July 10, 2009

Food, Inc.

Attention Chicagoans - The movie Food, Inc. is playing @ Landmark Century Center Cinemas at 2828 N. Clark St. and you MUST GO SEE IT!!!!!!!!!!! If you don't already know, the movie is a sad and scary look at the American food industry. The filmakers name is Robert Kenner and he collaborates with Michael Pollan (writer of the Omnivores Dilemma & In Defense of Food) to give people an in depth look at where America is really headed in terms of food. Not suprisingly he launches attacks on companies such as Tyson and my favoriate Monsanto - and as usual these companies were unwilling to cooporate with the filmmaker. Rather than seeing a "point-counterpoint" documentary you're just going to see a scathing review of American industrial agriculture (yay!!). Oh, and the film also features another seed cleaner and ally of my dad who was attacked by Monsanto - Maurice Parr from Indiana. So, go see it and learn even more about the politics of food.

Remember you are what you eat and you are what you eat eats too!

love, vanessa

PS if you aren't in Chicago find a theatre near you that is showing the film!!

PPS if you can't find a theatre near you then check out clips of the movie on YouTube

Where Have I Been?

I'm not really sure, but I'm back now! My visit home was great and relaxing and too short. I am now the albino of the family as I am the only one with an "indoor" job. (see photo for proof) Anyway, I really enjoyed getting to be at home and let my allergies totally take over, lost my voice and everything. Sadly I had to leave before these were ripe. Very jealous about that. Well, I'll leave with an apology for not being a good blogger and a promise to be better in the future.

ESPECIALLY SINCE I JUST BOUGHT A LAPTOP TODAY!!!!!!

Yes, thats right folks, no more blackberry blogs - that means more pictures and more frequent updates!

xoxo, vanessa

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

hooray!

I'm going home to visit my mommy and daddy on Wednesday!! My suitcase will be filled with clothes and Berkshire pork baby back ribs :-) I'll try to update while I'm away.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

we are all screwed

I wish I had more time to blog right now but I'm on the bus on my way to work and blogging while driving makes me ill. Anwyays, please read this link and pass along. This information needs to reach EVERYONE asap!!! This is really happening and we have to make it stop. http://www.dailykos.com/story/2009/6/17/743564/-Henry-Waxmans-betrayal-of-our-existenceHR-2749

Lots of love, vanessa

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

use the cheese you made!!

So I promised you two recipes using ricotta and I'm going to give it to you but I'll break it into 2 posts so they aren't so long.

My first recipe is probably an unexpected use of ricotta but it is the most amazingly delicate delicious tender wow pancake you will ever taste.

Yes I said pancake

So without further ado let's make

Lemon Ricotta Pancakes

You'll need:
1 1/2 c. all purpose flour
2 T. sugar
1 t. baking powder
1/2 t. baking soda
1/2 t. salt
2 large eggs SEPARATED
2 T. vegetable oil
1/4 c. buttermilk
1 c. ricotta (the one you made of course!)
1/4 c. FRESH lemon juice
1 or 2 T. lemon zest (depends how lemony you want them)

Mix together flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Set aside.

In another bowl combine egg YOLKS, buttermilk, ricotta, lemon juice.

Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and pour in the wet ingredients. Mix until dry ingredients are just incorporated. Sprinkle with lemon zest.

Beat the egg whites until stiff and fold into the rest of the batter. Let the batter sit 15-20 minutes (the longer the better to let the lemon flavor really come out)

While the batter is resting make the lemon sauce for the pancakes. These pancakes definitely don't get syrup!! Instead you'll be making a warm lemon sauce to top them. This sauce is basically a lemon curd that you keep warm so it doesn't set up. So for the sauce....

1 c. sugar
1/2 c. butter
1/4 c. water
1 egg yolk
1 T. lemon zest
3 T. fresh lemon juice
Simply combine all the ingredients in a medium size saucepan and whisk constantly over medium heat until butter is melted and sugar dissolves. Let the sauce boil and then lower the temp. Allow it to boil for 2 minutes then remove from direct heat but keep warm.

Butter a pan and begin making your pancakes. These pancakes won't get very brown, just golden and they will be a bit creamier in texture even when fully cooked because of the cheese.

Once cooked drizzle with the warm lemon sauce.

I like to add a small dollop of ricotta, fresh raspberries (or strawberries) and a dusting of powdered sugar.

These are some of the best pancakes I've ever tasted and are great for a special occasion! Definitely an interesting use of ricotta. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.

Happy eating.

xoxo, vanessa

make your own cheese, no seriously!

I want to share this recipe for homemade ricotta cheese not only because it is incredibly delicious (SO much better than what you buy at the store) but also because of the sense of pride I know you will feel from making your own cheese. Its way more simple than you think!!

So to make your own ricotta you will need a couple things you probably don't have lying around at home....

Citric Acid - you can find this at Whole Foods or any healthfood store. Just make sure it is FOOD GRADE citric acid. If you don't have a whole foods or independent health food store in your area check your local grocery store or order it online.

Cheesecloth - you should be able to get this at any grocery store

So after you round up these two things the rest is easy.

In a large pot over medium heat combine 2 quarts of high quality (preferably organic) buttermilk, one gallon of 1/2 and 1/2, 2 tablespoons of citric acid, and a fat pinch of salt.

See I told you it was easy!

Now, you wait. Make sure the mixture never boils and just warms slowly. If you have a thermometer you can suspend it in the center of the pot. You are looking for the center to reach about 180 degrees. But, if you don't have a thermometer that's okay. You will see the curds beginning to form at the top of the pot. Once the curds have formed a "raft" covering the entire top of the pot or your thermometer has reached 180 remove from the heat and let the cheese rest for about 15 minutes.

Line a colander or other perforated pan with cheesecloth and suspend over a larger (non perforated) bowl/pan. Very carefully remove the curds from the whey using a slotted spoon or a fine mesh skimmer put the curds into the cheesecloth lined colander and allow to drain for at least 4 hours but preferably overnight. What your left with is a light, fluffy, tangy, delicious cheese.

This recipe yields about 3 or 4 cups of ricotta (I'm guessing a little here) you'll have a lot of whey waste but its totally worth it once you taste the cheese!

Once your cheese is drained you're ready to season it. For me, I usually think the cheese needs more salt. Black pepper is fabulous with ricotta and a drizzle of high quality olive oil is all you need.

Use the ricotta in lasagna, stuffed shells, or your favorite recipe. I'll share 2 of my favorite recipes using ricotta in another post!

So seriously TRY THIS its so simple and quick and the result speaks for itself.

Oh, and you can brag to your friends that you make your own cheese!

Happy cheesemaking!

Love, vanessa

Factory Farming

Please go to this link and watch the video. Its really a great, simple explaination of factory farming. Please watch and pass along!! http://www.themeatrix1.com/

lots of love, vanessa

Friday, June 5, 2009

fun at the grocery store

I live in a working-class neighborhood here in Chicago so unfortunately there isn't a Trader Joe's or Whole Foods within reasonable distance for someone without a car. So, when I need a few quick things and I don't have all day to spend on a grocery trip I go to the Jewel down the street. Don't get me wrong they are really moving in the right direction when it comes to offering organic items at a reasonable price. Honestly, I've been pretty impressed with the progress they've made over the last couple years. But, with that said it can still be quite a chore to find products that don't contain Genetically Engineered (GE) products (mainly modified corn and soy) which I guess shouldn't be too surprising when considering the vast majority of corn and soy grown in the united states in GE.

I used to challenge myself to buy items that didn't contain high fructose corn syrup for health reasons. Now, I challenge myself not to buy a product with any modified corn or soy. This means no .... glucose syrup, maltodextrin, crystalline fructose, ascorbic acid, lecithin, dextrose, maltose, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), MSG, caramel color, xanthan gum and that's just what comes from corn....

In fact there are an average of 45,000 items in an american supermarket and over 25% of them contain some form of corn. Sad.

And don't think that if all your purchases come from the produce aisle that you haven't purchased a GE corn product. The vegetable wax used to give fruits/veggies their pretty shine is made of GE corn. (Thanks to author Michael Pollan for this information)

So, back to my trip to Jewel. Like I said they're doing a good job getting on the organic bandwagon. But, its still a hunt to find stuff that's truly healthy and not just masking itself as a healthy product. Example - yogurt. Almost every major label of yogurt contains HIGH FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP. Thankfully Jewel stocks a huge supply of organic yogurt sweetened with GASP real sugar imagine that.

Another one - snack crackers like triscuits, wheat thins, fiber one, etc. Every single one contains all sorts of modified corn and HFCS. Today it took me awhile but I did find one called back to nature. No hydrogenated oil, no hfcs, or preservatives. And quite tasty.

My big issue with Jewel today was over cream cheese. They only have 2 choices. Philadelphia and store brand. Both contain stabilizers made of corn. Sorry but I just want cheese in my cheese.

Like I said, whole foods and trader joe's and other health food stores offer many more organic/natural products I just wish major chains would see the importance of carrying these products. For example, Jewel carries several types of organic milk and yogurt but no organic butter, cream, or buttermilk. No good.

Today I also found something that really excites me. Ginger Ale containing NO HFCS. Its sweetened with clover honey and pineapple juice. It contains 17 grams of fresh ginger per 12 ounce bottle and is REALLY tasty!! (Reed's Ginger Brew) Maybe I just have a highly sensitive palate but I can definitely taste the pineapple notes which make for a fun twist on regular old ginger ale.

Oh, and apparently the packaging looks too much like beer. I got carded buying my 6 pack today. HA

Today I challenge you to be more discerning when reading your labels at the grocery store. Move beyond calories and read the ingredients! Don't you deserve to know what's going in your body? And if you can't pronounce it do you really want to injest it?

Good luck on your quest to becoming a better eater. Not just for the health of your body but the health of this planet.

Happy eating!

And grocery shopping (I hope)