Thursday, July 29, 2010

Slavery-free chocolate

Just popping in briefly to share a couple of useful links. Recently, the public has grown more aware of child slavery practices used in cocoa production. You can read about child labor and chocolate here.

The news is deeply saddening. But we can help by buying only chocolate that uses fair-trade practices -- or, in a pinch, chocolate that is labeled "organic." Organic farming subscribes to its own set of labor-monitoring laws. Also, there are no known "organic" chocolate farms in the Ivory Coast as of now, and that is where the majority of child slavery reports is coming from.

So please, buy slavery-free chocolate. It's a little more expensive, but it tastes better than that Hershey's muck, which is mostly sugar anyway. If we look at chocolate as an occasional treat rather than a daily requirement, it is easy to treat ourselves to only the best varieties for our tastebuds, our bodies, and our consciences.

This page has a huge list of corporations and their statuses on use of slave chocolate, and this one has a list of fair-trade and organic chocolate producers, where to buy them, and the products that they make.

Say no to slave chocolate. If I can turn my nose up at that bowl of Snickers and Milky-Ways in the break room at work, believe me, ANYONE can.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

And I'm back

Hello, phood phriends! I'm back after a bit of an absence and hoping I can get it together enough to post in here semi-regularly again. My long dry spell had to do first with having four jobs and a class and having no time to cook anything really special beyond my old stand-bys (stands-by?), much less to blog about it, and second with moving and having no internet connection for a few weeks. But I've unloaded the camera and I hope I'll have enough stuff backed up to write about for a while.

I'm going to start off by cheating, with a recipe I got directly from a book Brian gave me for my birthday, but it's a book I strongly recommend and a recipe you've GOT to try, at least if it ever cools down enough to turn the oven on again. (I haven't baked anything for weeks...sad!)

The book is Savory Baking by Mary Cech (Chronicle Books, 2009) and everything in it looks fantastic. So far, I've only tried this recipe but I'm thinking when it gets cold again I'll try to power through them all. The recipe:

Peppered Pear and Goat Cheese Scones.

Makes about 6.

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspons baking powder
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 1/4 teaspons salt
1 1/4 teasoons freshly cracked black pepper
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cold and cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1 medium pear, peeled, cored and roughly chopped
4 ounces goat cheese, broken into large walnut-size pieces (the high-quality real goat cheese was delicious, but in a lower-budget time I've used good old Athenos feta and had similarly good results - I just reduced the salt to something like 3/4 teaspoons, since that stuff is pretty salty. --LC)
1/2 cup whole or low-fat plain yogurt
2 tablespoons whole milk, plus more for brushing

Preheat the oven to 375 F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a nonstick baking mat. (I just used nonfat cooking spray and it worked fine. --LC) Put the flour, baking powder, sugar, salt, and pepper in a medium bowl and stir together. Add the butter and break it into pea-size pieces with your fingertips. Sprinkle the pear pieces and crumbled goat cheese over the top of the flour mixture and gently toss together, being careful not to break the cheese into smaller pieces.

Soften the yogurt by whisking in the milk. Pour the yogurt over the flour mixture and gently blend the ingredients together with a spatula, being careful not to break up the cheese. The dough may look slightly dry, but it will produce a moist scone. Divide the dough into six equal mounds on the baking sheet, leaving about a 1-inch space between each to allow for slight spreading. (Please note -- "slightly dry" is an understatement! When I made these the dough seemed like a loose, crumbling aggregate of component parts. Don't worry! Just pile them together as best you can and they will magically turn into delicious, moist scones in the oven. --LC)

Brush the tops of the scones with a little milk. Place the baking pan in the center of the oven and bake until lightly brown, about 25 minutes. Remove the baking sheet from the oven to a cooling rack. Serve warm or at room temperature.


Enjoy these on the next cold day! They're AMAZING. I served them with bean soup once and it was a really nice accompaniment. Thanks again to Mary Cech. Please check this book out.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Pressure cooker

I used my new pressure cooker for the first time. First, I used it to quick-soak chickpeas. Quick-soaking normally takes 1-2 hours. (Soaking overnight, of course, takes 4-8 hours.) I never prepare chickpeas because I rarely plan ahead to that extent -- it's hard when you work full time. In the pressure cooker, it takes 4 minutes of cooking, plus an additional 2 or 3 to let the pressure come down. Amazing!

A cookbook I got for my birthday, Great Vegetarian Cooking Under Pressure by Lorna Sass, which gives you lots of great recipes and charts with cooking times for pressure cooking beans, grains, and veggies, imparted a handy tip for seeing if your chickpeas are properly soaked: simply cut a few in half with a paring knife. If there's a dark spot in the middle, they're not done. If they're all one color, they're soaked.

After soaking the chickpeas, I used the pressure cooker to make Chickpea Soup Italiano, a recipe in Great Vegetarian Cooking Under Pressure. It was very easy: just add chickpeas, vegetables and herbs to boiling vegetable stock, close the cooker up, and cook for 16 minutes. Let the pressure subside, then simmer it while adding tomatoes blended with some of the chickpeas, salt, pepper, and vinegar. It was rustic and simple, but quite tasty. And would have taken an additional hour or two without the cooker.

I was quite scared of the cooker at first, but I'm starting to be more at ease with its gleaming, angry, hissing presence in my kitchen. It's going to make my life a LOT easier, especially on work nights. I strongly recommend getting one, especially if you eat a lot of legumes!

Friday, January 22, 2010

New Mexico and its cuisine

(For many, many photos of my trip, click here!)

Over my decadently long University winter break, I took a trip to Albuquerque and Santa Fe -- Albuquerque to meet my boyfriend's family, and Santa Fe to not have to hang out in Albuquerque the whole time -- and as much as I was dazzled by the natural beauty, the art, the distinct architecture, the culture, and the rich history of New Mexico, I think I came away most impressed by the food. (Of course!)

Iowa has a sizable Latino population, and if you've lived here there's no doubt your small town had one or two quality Mexican restaurants. That's probably true of many small towns all over the Midwest, and the US. And when a foreign food enters the local culture and evolves over many generations, it picks up its own characteristics. My favorite local Mexican restaurant, Vel's Amigos in Fort Madison, is unique (as far as I know) in that it uses potatoes and peas in its enchiladas. That is pure Iowan Irish-German hearty comfort food, there! Anyway, what I'm saying with all this is that I'm not going to imply that you can't get good Mexican food in the Midwest. But the Mexican food of New Mexico has developed a very, very special flavor all its own that you can't experience without being there.

The first thing my boyfriend's mother told me was "Watch out -- the chili is addictive." I thought, yeah, yeah, I've tasted chilis before -- but not like this I haven't. New Mexican chili sauce is pungent and flavorful, rich with that complex chili taste but without trying to prove anything about spiciness. The capsaicin in New Mexican chili knows it's spicy, and leaves it at that. It doesn't go about posturing and betting you you can't stand to eat it. The spiciness is a complement rather than a challenge. Generally speaking, that is -- I'm sure the Southwest has its share of insanity sauces, but that's not the point of chili like it so often is out here. (I found that the restaurant with the menu that boasted, "We cannot be blamed for the spiciness of our chili!" served the blandest sauces of all. Kind of like how anything that calls itself "comedy" immediately ceases to be funny.)

"Red or green?" is the unofficial State Question of New Mexico. I was asked it the first time I ordered something in a restaurant. "Uh, uh, uh, chili?" I stammered, caught off guard. The waitress gave me a "well, yeah" look. You quickly learn your preference. I'm a red chili addict. It's deep and dark and velvety and smoky and delicious. I miss it so. I plan to learn to make it soon.

Aside from the chili, there are just so many good quality Mexican classics, and dishes unique to New Mexico. The enchiladas are amazing, just cheesy as all hell -- I don't know how authentically Mexican this is, but it's the way I like 'em. The burritos are big and hearty. The guacamole is rich and buttery. The salsas are spicy and flavorful. The tamales are mealy and comforting. Two New Mexico-only dishes I tried were posole, a stew of pork (yep, I ate meat -- I was a guest and I thought it rude to turn it down, plus I have a "try local foods while traveling" rule) and hominy, and New Mexican sopaipillas. Uruguay, Chile and New Mexico all have something called a sopaipilla. Uruguay's is more like a fried tortilla; Chile's is a sweet pastry with pumpkin. New Mexico's is a big puffed-up pillow of fried bread that's hollow on the inside. Most commonly you bite off a corner and then squirt honey inside to your taste. They can also come stuffed with beans and cheese and other fillings. I did not try this because I liked them with honey too well.

The only thing I didn't like were calabacitas, or squash, which seemed to be a Santa Fe thing -- they were offered alongside or inside everything. I don't really have anything against squash; as a vegetarian I'm aware that it is a really good source of essential nutrients, and once Brian whipped up a butternut squash soup that was delicious. But it's not my favorite. I will admit that I only had one experience with calabacitas, in a "New Mexican Burrito" at the Plaza Café in Santa Fe (Santa Fe's oldest restaurant, and the site of the falsely advertised too-hot chili). Calabacitas were the only vegetarian filling offered. I found them bland and pasty and watery. And also, why not beans?! Burritos should have beans! I'm sorry! Call me a purist! I want beans! I'm a vegetarian and I want my legumes! Also, their tomatoes tasted like cardboard. But that was my one and ONLY blah food experience in New Mexico. A separate post with restaurant recommendations is coming.

My New Mexico experience will most definitely influence my cooking from now on. I've borrowed the Southwestern cookbook Comida Sabrosa from Brian. The only question is what to try first...

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Culinary presents

I always get a few presents related to my cooking hobby. Here are the ones from this year:

1. A pastry brush, as a stocking stuffer. Neat! I've been needing one of those! My roommate and I have been using a tiny paint brush since we moved in to our first apartment three years ago, and, well, it's pretty inefficient.

2. Food Path: Cuisine Along the Grand Trunk Road from Kabul to Kolkata by Pushpesh Pant and Huma Mohsin. This is a really beautiful book with huge full-color photos and a lot of cultural and historical information along with the recipes. I'm looking forward to trying them out. A lot of them are meat-based, but they'll make for good exercises in substitution and adaptation.

3. A pressure cooker! Mom found one for 15 bucks at a yard sale, never used. I've been wanting one of these for a while. Raghavan Iyer swears by 'em and I am really looking forward to being able to cook unsoaked chickpeas in 48 minutes. Seriously! This modern world we live in! (Grandma was telling me they first came into vogue when she started out as a housewife, and whenever the ladies got together there was always a story about whose beans ended up on the ceiling. Heehee! It looks like there are enough safeties on this device that you'd have to do something pretty foolish to get yourself blown up, though.)

Other non-food highlights include the Monty Python's Flying Circus Collector's Edition, from Mom, and a subscription to the New Yorker, from my brother. Favorite presents I gave this year included a 15-year-old bottle of Laphroaig scotch for my dad (that was a joint purchase from me and Brian), hand-made portraits of a few of my friends' pets, a Yiddish alef-beyz book I've been working on for a few months for a friend who loves languages, and copies of my NaNoWriMo novel for the grandmas. (It is an economic year for handmade presents.)

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

French fight obesity with good food

The French are fighting their obesity teaching obesity patients how to cook.

Patients are told that it's okay to sit down to a three-course meal with family and friends, just not to snack and eat processed, packaged foods.

Although fighting obesity with good cooking may seem counterintuitive to some, I think they are approaching this problem very well. If you look at how obesity is spread out in America, you see that the areas with the worst problems are also the areas with the lowest incomes. Cheap food is the worst for us, but if you've grown up getting fed nothing but cheap food by your parents, you think that's all there is out there. (Cf. that poor Wal-Mart clerk who didn't know whether limes were a fruit or a vegetable...) If some of these poor malnourished people (and it is very possible to be obese and malnourished, as David Cross once pointed out) could learn to enjoy cooking and preparing great meals, they would spend more time thinking about, preparing, and savoring food, and less time eating mindlessly.

Now, you can argue that some people don't have enough money to cook well, but I think the idea that it takes a lot of money to have a cooking hobby is a flawed one. If you play your cards right you SAVE money by making your own food. I'm a poor college student and I often have next to nothing left of my paycheck after rent and electric bills, but I know how to go to Aldi, spend about twelve bucks and go away with more than I can carry, and get really good meals out of it. Most ingredients are not expensive, and many of those that are can be used sparingly or left out entirely. Anyone can cook! And I'm glad the French realize that.

Besides, anyone who's been to the Mediterranean can see that enjoying good home-cooked food doesn't make you fat...the Mallorquins were all rail thin, but my host parents overwhelmed me with food every night, and I didn't even have to endure their epic 2-hour 3-course lunches because I was in class. (Now, I DID gain a little weight in Mallorca, but I blame ensaimadas and chocolate a la taza for that!)

One thing, though -- if we follow this example in the US we have got to remember that Europe has something else we don't, which is public transit combined with a virtually big-box-free economy. Part of cooking dinner in Mallorca was walking to the market every day, getting your groceries, and walking back. You also walked from home to the metro (or bus stop), from the metro to work, work to the metro, the metro back home for lunch. Then back to the metro and back to work. And then back home for dinner. There's a lot more walking in everyday life. And I think trusting in public transit, plus trusting in our own two legs, could make all the difference for us...and our waistlines.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Gnocchi di patate

An Italian classic, these savory little potato dumplings are one of my all-time favorite things to eat. This is a perfect recipe for those long winter nights when you are feeling cold, hungry, and extra indulgent. I dare you to try not to eat way too many. Serve it with a nice crispy green salad so you don't feel TOO bad afterwards!

I first learned this recipe from Liz Clark, a chef from my home county, when I took one of her cooking classes in middle school. I've been making it and adapting it ever since.

Gnocchi di patate


2 medium or 3 small potatoes
1 or 2 eggs
1-2 cups all-purpose flour (you can also try cake flour for a lighter-textured dumpling)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon nutmeg (more or less depending on personal tastes -- I love the stuff myself)
About 1 cup of shredded parmesan cheese (none of that stuff in the green can, as Lynne Rossetto Kasper would say)
Olive oil
2 tablespoons butter, melted

Start heating up some water in a medium-sized saucepan and bring it to a boil. Wash and peel the potatoes and cut them into chunks. Place them in the boiling water and cook until easily pierced with a fork. Drain and mash. Put them into a large mixing bowl and let them cool down until they're lukewarm.

Add the salt and nutmeg to the mashed potatoes and mix. Then add one egg and begin gradually adding the flour, mixing it with a fork. Add the other egg, then more flour. Keep adding flour until the dough is elastic but not too sticky. How much flour you'll need all depends on the size of the potatoes and the eggs, so you'll just have to eyeball it.

Begin bringing a saucepan of water to a simmer. While it's heating up, dust a work surface lightly with flour and begin rolling balls of dough into roughly 3/4 inch diameter "snakes" with your hands. Ideally this will be easy, but if your dough is a little crumbly, don't worry -- you got a little too much flour in it, but just be gentle when you're rolling it out and it will still taste delicious in the end. (In the event it's too crumbly to work with you can add a little milk.)

Cut the dough snakes into one inch long segments with a knife, then carefully pick up each dumpling with your fingers and very gently roll it across the back of a fork to create a ridged pattern. (An extra dusting of flour can help if it's too sticky.)

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Prepare a casserole dish by greasing it with some olive oil. Then, once the water is simmering but not boiling, drop the dumplings in batches of eight or ten into the hot water. The nice thing about dumplings is they'll tell you when they're done cooking: remove them from the water with a slotted spoon when they float to the top, and put them in the casserole dish. Repeat until you've got as many in the dish as you want. (Extra dumplings can keep in the fridge for several days or in the freezer for several months.) Then drizzle the dumplings with the melted butter and top them with the shredded parmesan cheese. Bake in the oven, uncovered, until the cheese is golden brown. Let cool for a few minutes and serve.

Additional thoughts:

*If you're worried about all the fat I guess you could leave out the melted butter and use less cheese. It'll still be good...just not as good.

*If you don't have time to bake them, they are quite good just tossed in a bowl with olive oil and parmesan right after they come out of the water. The baking brings out an extremely delicious flavor in the parmesan and adds an appealing crunch.

*I made a recipe for Hungarian "Shlishkes" from Gil Marks' Olive Trees and Honey, and the process was almost identical, except paprika was added instead of nutmeg. I liked the flavor and color so much that now I always do both.