Monday, April 26, 2010

City fresh eggs

Close to 15 years ago, I read Animal Liberation by Peter Singer. While I didn't agree completely with the logic of his argument, my eyes were opened to the disgusting ways in which we raise the animals who become our food. I quickly decided that I would become a free-rangatarian, and I was likely one of the first of my kind. Of all the cruel excuses for animal husbandry, I believed that of egg laying chickens was one of the worst. So unlike most vegetarians who occasionally ignore the egg in their meal, I was pretty hard core about not eating factory farmed eggs. Hence the nickname "free range".

Free range to your health
Fast forward a few years and people started to understand what I was talking about when I said "free range". In fact, many people agree that it is probably a good idea, if only for the health benefits. And it's true. Hens that are allowed to forage outside of cages tend to produce eggs lower in fat and cholesterol and higher in omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins (see the table below from Organic & Thrifty). Some people even argue they taste better, but I can't really vouch for that. I do know that it is easier to eat without a side of guilt.

Factory farming ("free range" is not the perfect solution)
Now fast forward even further, to today. Thanks to more books about animal treatment and documentaries, like Food Inc., people are starting to really see and really get how absolutely abhorrent the factory farm paradigm is for the animals and the people involved.

So what's the solution? I always buy free range eggs at the store, however I have my doubts as to the authenticity of their claims. For example, claims that their chickens are free range and fed a vegetarian diet are dubious. Part of what chickens pick up when foraging outside a cage is a variety of bugs (in Hawaii, many people had kept chickens in order to keep the cockroach population down). Bugs, I learned in grade school, are not vegetables. I have a sense that producers started labeling their products as "fed a vegetarian diet" after the whole mad cow scare. To be fair, chickens would likely eat a cow if you fed it to them, so an optimistic view of this package labeling is that they're just trying to assure us that we're not going to have mad eggs.

If they're not being straight forward about their health claims, what about the actual heart of the matter "free". Are these animals actually free or just marginally free? Do a quick internet search and you'll find a lot of pictorial evidence to the contrary.

Know your farmer
Every time I have a chance to buy farm fresh eggs at the farmer's market, I jump on it. They're usually half the price, much higher nutritional value, and they're supporting the local economy. Sometimes they'll even take back the egg cartons, which also allows you to reuse, keeping packaging out of the waste system and helping the farmer save a little money.

Be your farmer
But you can get fresher than that. You can raise your own hens in your own backyard. You think I'm crazy? It's a national trend. In fact on a jog through my Cambridge neighborhood, I ran across a whole family of poultry hanging out.

Certainly a lot of people started raising their own chickens and growing their own food because of the recent recession. Unfortunately, many found that the cost of raising chickens is not offset by the tons of eggs you receive. However, chickens will eat just about anything, so you can make due feeding them your scraps and supplementing with chicken feed and foraging in the yard.

I haven't raised my own chickens so I'm not an expert, but from everything I've read there are certainly some things you should consider.

  1. They need a coop. Even city porches or yards have predators, if only the cat next door. You need to keep your birds safe.
  2. High production hens can lay as many as an egg a day. And they don't need a rooster.
  3. Roosters are a liability for raising chickens. They're noisy and not actually necessary. They'll make your neighbors complain.
  4. Many cities allow for chickens as pets, which means if you don't eat the chicken, you can keep it. 

For way more information than I have on chickens, check out the city chicken:

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Crunchy bread

One of the first tiffs I had with my boyfriend was when I got offended when he said I was crunchy. I argued, "I don't like granola. I shave my arm pits. I LOVE white bread!" While I have relented that I am probably at least a little bit crunchy, I do still really prefer a good, crusty white loaf to whole wheat. There's something about its quintessential breadiness; the way that you can eat it with anything. So when said boyfriend suggested I make a whole grain loaf, it took me a while to actually try it out.

After much experimentation (sorry to all my friends on whom I tested not so awesome recipes), I think I've arrived at a very yummy version of a whole grain no-knead bread recipe. I invite you to make the recipe as is, or to play around with it yourself. The trick is always to have enough white flour to compensate for the really heavy dense stuff you put in it. I've read that the maximum you'd ever want whole to white would be 1:1. Otherwise, the bread ends up way too dense (and stone like). I'm pretty happy with a 1:2 ratio.

While I often buy flour which is milled nearby in New England (like King Arthur), they actually get their grains from places like Kansas or North Dakota, which are not local by any stretch of the imagination. I am willing to make this sacrifice because I do love the wheaty carbohydrate foods like pasta, bread, and pizza. So instead, I'm committed to buying in bulk and making it myself whenever possible. The good news, for those of you equally addicted to bready food, is that this no-knead recipe is extremely easy. The only hard part is that it takes time (not effort, just time).

  • 2 C unbleached white bread flour
  • 1 C whole wheat bread flour
  • 1/2 C rolled oats
  • 1/2 C rolled wheat (if you can't find this at your store, just double the amount of rolled oats)
  • 1 T sugar
  • 1 1/4 t salt
  • 1/4 t instant yeast (if you use active dry, double the amount and proof for 10 minutes with the sugar in luke-warm water)
  • 1/2 C total of any combination of seeds (I used pepitas, sunflower, and flax; if you want to use larger nuts, like walnuts, mix them in before the second rising)
  • 1 5/8 C filtered water
Start by roasting your seed combo in a shallow pan over medium high heat. Stir frequently to keep from browning. Take off the heat after about five or so minutes. (If you're using active dry yeast instead of instant, start proofing now.)

Mix the rest of the dry ingredients in a large, non-reactive bowl. I'm a huge fan of the Pyrex mixing bowl set with lids. When making breads and pasta, this basically eliminates the need to cover in disposable plastic wrap (yay!).

Add the water and the roasted seeds and stir till mixed thoroughly, about a minute. You will end up with what they call a "shaggy" dough that is wet and sticky. This recipe calls for more water than a typical kneaded dough. You're basically providing enough food and water (and time) for the yeast to do all the work through fermentation that you would have to do by kneading, namely allow the gluten molecules to bond to each other, creating the elasticity to hold the shape as the yeast releases air in baking.

Then comes the easy part - cover and wait.


And wait a little more. In total, you should let it rise at room temperature for at least 14 hours or even longer if you have the time. I typically make the dough the night before I want my first loaf. The dough will have settled into the full shape of it's container (rather than the ball you left it in) and should be dotted with bubbles.

You can cook it all at once or you can take a quarter or a half or whatever amount you need. The rest of the dough you can store in the refrigerator till you need it. One quarter will give you about 2-3 servings. Unless you're feeding a small army, you should only cook a small amount at a time. The whole grains are really awesome at holding in water, so you end up with really moist bread. But you can also end up with a mold time bomb if you don't eat it within a few days. No matter when you use it, the bread turns out great, although I will admit that it tends to be lighter when made without refrigeration.

Whatever portion size you've chosen, plop it on a floured wooden surface. I give it a few good kneads, but all you really need to do is flop it over on itself a few times picking up some of the flour. (If you want to add nuts or dried fruit, do so at this time.) Cover with a smaller Pyrex bowl (should be big enough to allow the dough to double in size) for fifteen minutes. Generously dust the inside of the bowl with flour. Form the dough into a ball and place into the bowl. Cover and let rise for at least two hours.

If you're taking dough from the fridge to use, follow the same steps as above, but then tweak the second rise. If you want bread for dinner, take dough out in the morning and let it rise all day. If you need it more quickly you can use a proofing box or preheat your oven to 100 F for about five minutes and place the covered bowl inside with the door ajar. Don't allow the oven to get too hot. You don't want the dough to be above 90 F or it will kill all the yeast. This method will shorten the rising time to just shy of two hours.

About a half hour before the second rise is finished, preheat the oven to 475 F with a Dutch oven warming inside. To get a gorgeous crusty crust, you will need a covered cooking dish to hold the water in. I've found a Dutch oven works best. If you're cooking the entire thing you'll need at least a 6 quart Dutch oven. Scale down accordingly for other portions. Other methods include cooking on a pizza stone with a pan of water below it. Also, spraying the loaf with water 3-5 times during the first ten minutes of cooking.

To get the dough into the cooking device, dust the top of the dough with flour and then flip the bowl over your hand. Gently coax the dough out and quickly transfer it to the cooking device. Cover and place in the oven. Start checking the bread around 15-20 minutes in. Once a nice crust has developed, take the top off and allow it to cook 15-20 minutes more. Cool on a rack and then enjoy alone or with butter, goat cheese, or jam.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Scrap soup

In the fairy tale of stone soup, clever strangers trick a village into creating a hearty meal with them. The key to this story is that the villagers are convinced that they have no food to share, but are able to find just a little something to add to the soup to help finish it off. When we think of our own kitchens in that way, always saving just a little for the soup, we can end up with quite a tasty broth.

In practice this can be quite easy. Traditionally, you make a broth with whole vegetables - a few carrots, onions, stalk or two of celery. But why whole vegetables? Why not parts of vegetables? Why not the parts of vegetables you were planning to throw away anyway? Even better, why not the parts of vegetables you were planning to throw away that happen to carry the most nutrients? WOW! What a two-for!

Here's the key, whenever you are cleaning and cutting up vegetables, save all the scraps and put them in a one gallon ziplock bag in the freezer. I typically keep a bag of carrot, onion, and celery parts in one bag. This with a chicken or turkey carcass and a few sprigs of fresh herbs makes an standard poultry stock.

But don't stop there. Keep all the scraps of beets, winter squash, potatoes, and any other vegetable you may use. Beets add natural depth of color and flavor. Potatoes are a natural thickening agent. And winter squash adds just a touch of sweetness. Balance that with some fresh herbs like thyme and rosemary and you've got an amazing, rich stock for vegetarian dishes.

Just keep putting scraps into their respective bags until they fill up. Then, dump the scrap vegetables into a stock pot with a tablespoon of olive oil over high heat. Sauté for about ten minutes, preferably browning the veggies just a little. Then add a meat carcass (optional) and herbs along with about 8 cups of water, a tablespoon of salt, and a tablespoon of peppercorns. Simmer for at least two hours adding more water occasionally, keeping the water level constant.

Strain the stock through cheese cloth to remove all the vegetables and meat. At this point, you can take the time to pull out any meat that might have fallen off the bone. I'm always surprised that I tend to find about a cup of really yummy meat. However, this is not a pretty part of the process, so I will spare you any pictures. Now you've completely gotten everything out of your scaps and can feel pretty confident tossing them into the compost bin.

Refrigerate the stock over night. Strain any fat off the top. Then you can either pour the stock into containers in the freezer (I like to use 2 cups as a useful serving size) or you can can it.

Since stock is a low acid food, you will need to pressure can it, which requires special equipment. (Make sure to carefully follow the directions and canning times for canning stock that comes with your canner.) After sanitizing the pint jars and boiling the stock for ten minutes, put the stock in the pint jars and process in the pressure canner.

Trust me, it is so rewarding to take stuff you would have thrown out and make something magnificent out of it. Now, any time you need a little more umph in a recipe, you've got your very own stock in the freezer or pantry.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

An herb garden for all seasons

Local, organic herbs are available, but they typically come in plastic clamshells. Ewwww. Throwing away all that plastic makes fresh herbs hard to swallow. The simple and delicious solution has been to grow my own. The unexpected benefits of growing my own herbs has been that I have fresh flavors in the middle of winter. I cannot overstate how marvelous it is to have the likes of basil and cilantro when it's freezing outside.

I started my indoor herb garden a year ago. Over that time, I've gained a lot of tips for how to make herbs thrive.

Location, location, location
You're going to need to find the sunniest window in your house. Mine just happens to be a southern facing window in my litchen. Kitchen windows have an added bonus in that they tend to be warmer and more humid in the winter from any cooking you do. You can put pots of herbs in the window sill. I went a step further and hung shelves in front of my windows. This created more space for the herbs and also serves as a natural window treatment.

Starting from scratch
You can start herbs from seeds or buy them in pots. Starting from seed takes a little more time. If you plan to do that wait till March when you're starting to get more sun. Adult plants will make it through the winter, but tiny seedlings are really looking for more sun and warmth.

You can keep them in separate pots, which is what I do, or you can put them together in larger window boxes, which can look totally decorative. There are some herbs that you always want to keep separate, like rosemary and mint, since they have a tendency to take over. If your aesthetic sensibilities require them to be in a container with the rest, plant them with the plastic container they come in. That will keep their roots centralized. Mint will eventually sprout roots from its branches, so watch out for those wily guys.

Just a little off the top
Wait to harvest until the plant is really established, so at least six inches tall. Then you can start snipping away whenever you need a little extra kick in a recipe. I like to evenly snip a little bit, about an inch, from all branches. This helps to make the plant grow wide and thick rather than thin and lanky.

Occasionally, you're going to need to really cut things back. This happened in particular with my tarragon. It got really lanky and started to brown in spots. I literally cut it back to the dirt and it started growing back the next day. Again, wait till your plant has a truly established root system before doing this.

Nip it in the bud
Herbs like mint, rosemary, thyme, sage, and tarragon are perennials and can easily last year after year. Others, like basil, cilantro, and parsley are annuals and tend to grow like crazy and die off quickly. However, I have been able to keep my basil alive for over a year by nipping it in the bud. Nope, that's not just an antiquated saying - it's actually useful for indoor horticulture. These plants are growing fast so they can reproduce before winter comes and they die off. But if you keep cutting off its flowers (which is its only chance to reproduce) while keeping it relatively warm, it tends to stay alive and kicking. Isn't the biologic imperative to reproduce a wonderful thing?

Cilantro is a totally different story. I haven't been able to keep it alive once it hits maturity. Instead, I'll just harvest it and throw more seeds in the pot. In a few more months, I'll have another batch.

Herbs for now and later
In most cases, this has allowed me to have a constant supply of herbs when I need them. However, with growth spurts and harvesting, I've had to learn to shape my meals around the herbs that need to get used RIGHT NOW. When I can't use something immediately, another solution is to freeze batches of herbs. This works well for basil and cilantro. Basil you can just make into pesto, or, like with cilantro, you can blend it with a little bit of water. Then pour the blended herbs into ice cube trays and freeze (my mom did this with homemade baby food when I was a baby). The cubes make almost perfect single serving measurements.

Monday, April 5, 2010

End of winter sweet potato ravioli

The temperature just broke past the 60s into the 70s. It's official: spring time is here. However, if you look in my fridge and pantry, you wouldn't know it. Farmers' markets are not scheduled to open for at least another month. Perusing the produce section of Whole Foods, most everything is from California, Mexico, or Florida. Humph.

That's okay, I've still got, um, sour kraut, tomatoes, soup stock, and sweet potatoes in my pantry.

Well, I have to admit it, sour kraut, tomato-potato soup doesn't sound very appetizing. But that's not how you do winter eating. It's enough to take one of the ingredients to make something wonderful. At this point, I've got to eat those potatoes before they grow eyes, ears, legs and walk away! Ravioli is perfect.

This can be a fairly sweet and rich dish. To balance that a bit, I like to add some unexpected zest with nutmeg (spicy, but also amps up the natural sweetness of the potatoes) and cayenne pepper. If they're not your thing, omit them.

Ingredients (for two small servings):

  • half of the pasta recipe
  • 2 small sweet potatoes, baked and cooled
  • 1 egg beaten
  • dash or so of nutmeg
  • dash or so of cayenne pepper
  • 2 T butter
  • 1/4 C fresh sage leaves (I have a pot growing in my window)
  • 1 garlic clove, coarsely chopped
  • 1/4 C half and half
  • 1 oz grated Parmesan cheese (some shaved cheese for serving)
  • salt and pepper to taste

Mash the baked sweet potatoes. Add the nutmeg, cayenne, and half the beaten egg and mix vigorously. Set aside.

Roll the pasta dough into a log of dough about 2 cm in diameter. Cut the log into 1 cm disks (what's up with all my metric measurements - have I been in Europe too long?). On a well floured board, roll out a disk till it's about 2 inches in diameter (phew, that's more familiar). Using your finger, apply egg all around the edge of the rolled out dough.

Plop about 1 teaspoon of the potato mix in the middle and fold the dough over. Seal along the edges to make a half moon shape, or for more fun, sit the moon on its flat side and twist the corners toward the center and squish them together, like you're making them hold hands.

When you've used up all the potato filling heat some water to a boil. While you're waiting for a boil, melt the butter over medium high heat and add the garlic and sage. Stir and cook for about 2 minutes and turn off the heat.

Add the ravioli to the boiling water. They'll sink to the bottom and then dance around the top when they're done.

Strain the butter from the sage and garlic, slowly, into the remaining egg, whisking continuously. Add the egg and butter mixture back to the pan with the sage and garlic. Add the half and half and place the pan above the boiling pasta to get a little double-boiler action (saves gas, too). Constantly whip the sauce as it slowly starts to thicken. Remove from heat and add the grated cheese.

To serve, place the pasta on a plate. The ravioli will have made little cups. Fill those cups with sauce, sprinkle with the shaved cheese, and grate some black pepper on top.