Archive for August, 2008

Book Review: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

I finished reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle a few weeks ago, and I can’t stop thinking about it. I’m surprised, actually, that it has affected me this much. But it re-enters my consciousness often, such as when I’m planning my next meal or walking down the block to the farmers’ market.

The book chronicles the Kingsolver family’s efforts to eat locally and seasonally for a year, while simultaneously weaving factual information about food production into the narrative. They grew and produced as much food as possible on their Appalachian farm—in addition to fruits and vegetables they raised a flock of heritage turkeys and egg-laying hens—and bought other necessities from local farmers’ markets and purveyors to fill in the gaps.

Even writing the book was a family affair. While Barbara Kingsolver was the primary author, informational sidebars were written by her husband Steven L. Hopp. Recipe plans and additional perspective into the project were provided by eldest daughter Camille, a student at Duke University. Youngest daughter Lily wasn’t old enough to sign an author’s contract, but she is a lively presence throughout the book, even starting her own egg business.

The informational anecdotes about subjects such as commercial meat processing, high fructose corn syrup, and the importance of CSAs didn’t interest me much. To be honest, I found them a little repetitive, similar to what I’d already read in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I should note, though, that for those unfamiliar with these issues, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle would be a suitable introduction.

What resonated with me more were the personal stories about the Kingsolvers’ efforts to live off their farm. The work is hard, but the author’s description of her family’s dedication is inspiring. They learned how to do everything, from making their own mozzarella and caring for their hens to butchering their own turkeys and freezing vegetables for the winter.

Now when I sort through my CSA produce, I find myself wondering how the Kingsolvers would prepare beet greens or what they would think of purple basil. I remember Camille’s seasonal meal plans and recipes, where she let nothing go to waste. While preparing my homemade tomato sauce last week I thought back to the chapter on tomato season, and envisioned the Kingsolver kitchen filled with jars of canned tomatoes.

I don’t have a farm or garden to call my own, but the Kingsolvers’ story has encouraged me to think in new ways. Obviously I’ve been interested in cooking, food, and food issues for some time, but I thank the Kingsolvers for sharing their experience and inviting me into their world. It’s a wonderful one to be in, and thanks to their website, I can return often.

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Working Out with Tomatoes

I have a confession to make: I haven’t been to the gym in over a year. I used to work out, but I don’t anymore, and I need to start again. But thanks to the arrival of tomato season, I’ve just discovered the perfect upper body work out: making fresh tomato sauce.

Last week I couldn’t resist all the tomatoes I saw at the farmers’ market near my office. Knobby, misshapen heirlooms, peppy yellow and red cherry tomatoes—it was difficult to choose, but I finally bought three pounds of juicy plum tomatoes and came up with my saucy agenda.

I borrowed my mother’s food mill, a simple metal contraption with a hand-operated crank that used to belong to my grandmother. After cooking the tomatoes for a few minutes, I turned, pushed, and swirled that crank over them, running the press forward and back again as the tomatoes’ skins and seeds separated from the pulp. When my right arm had enough, I switched to the left. I could almost feel my muscles getting bigger and buffer.

But what excited me more than my possibly chiseled biceps was simply making my own sauce from scratch and having a strong connection with the meal I was creating. It was so much more satisfying than opening a can of crushed tomatoes and cooking them down into a sauce. I actually smiled and laughed out loud as I spun that crank around and around. I never had this much fun on the StairMaster, I’ll tell you that much.

As the sauce slowly cooked on the stovetop, it thickened and became as crimson as an ocean sunset. I tossed it with some penne pasta and garnished the dish with fresh basil for a simple, sweet meal that I enjoyed from start to finish. With a glass of red wine and a green salad, I was set for the night. I’ll get back to the gym some other time, maybe after tomato season is over.

Recipe for Fresh Tomato Sauce 

  • 3 pounds plum tomatoes, cut into quarters
  • 1 medium onion, halved and then cut into thin strips
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • salt
  • sugar 
  • basil
  • 1 pound of penne or any other ridged pasta
  • parmesan cheese
  • black pepper

Heat a large sauté or sauce pan over medium heat. Add your tomatoes. Cook for about 5-10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes begin to soften and their juices start to run out. Take the pan off the heat.

Spoon a small quantity of the tomatoes into a food mill. The food mill should be placed over a bowl, so that the pulp can drip into it. Turn the crank and run the food mill’s blade over the tomatoes, crushing them so that skins and seeds are separated from the pulp. You should turn the crank forwards and backwards, pushing down on it to add pressure. Repeat until you have strained all the tomatoes. Discard the seeds and skins from the mill.

Wipe out your original sauce pan with a paper towel. Over medium heat add a few glugs of olive oil. When the oil is hot, add your onions. Sauté the onions until they are soft and translucent, about 10 minutes. Remove the onions and discard.

Add your strained tomatoes to the pan. Add a few dashes of salt, a pinch of sugar, and a handful of fresh basil leaves. Cover and bring to a boil. Stir the sauce and reduce heat to low so that that sauce is simmering. Cover and cook for about 40 minutes, stirring occasionally. The sauce is ready when it reaches your preferred level of thickness.

When ready, cook your pasta. Toss sauce with cooked pasta. Top with freshly grated parmesan cheese and fresh black pepper. Garnish with fresh basil and serve immediately. Serves 4. Enjoy! 

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Zucchini Fatigue and a Frittata

I thought I was done with zucchini. As you may remember, a couple of weeks ago I believed I had cooked it in every way possible, even frying up some of its blossoms for an afternoon feast. Well, another shipment of zucchini and yellow squash from my CSA last week had me suffering from a severe case of zucchini fatigue.

(In case you are wondering, zucchini fatigue is a very real, albeit small-scale epidemic. I hear it hits every year around mid-August.)

Lucky for me, the New York Times came to my rescue with Laura Sbrana’s recipe for a zucchini frittata. Reading through the article I wondered why I didn’t make frittatas more often, as they are perfect for quick and healthy weeknight dinners. A frittata is basically an Italian omelet, its ingredients mixed with eggs instead of folded inside. It is cooked in a pan over low heat on the stovetop, and usually finished under the broiler.

I had seen recipes for zucchini frittatas before, but Sbrana’s required a special touch: Zucchini blossoms would be snipped into pieces and sprinkled across the frittata’s surface before it finished cooking. I couldn’t resist using these flowers in such a beautiful way. What can I say, I’m a sucker for artistry.

I made a few adjustments to the recipe based on what I had in my refrigerator, and I also stole some zucchini flowers from our friends’ garden on the way home from work. (They’re on vacation, they’ll never know.) I tossed slices of squash and zucchini with eggs, low-fat milk, green onions, parmesan, and basil, poured everything into a pan, and let it cook over low heat, tilting the pan every now and then to make sure the eggs cooked completely through.

Sbrana’s recipe recommends flipping the frittata on the stovetop instead of finishing it under the broiler, but as I seemed to be flipping-impaired, I stuck with my broiler method. After the frittata was cooked, I cut a few slices and dug into a fluffy and fresh mass of eggy zucchini delight. I loved how the zucchini and squash retained their elasticity after cooking, and I vowed to work frittatas into my dinner rotation more often. So bring it on CSA, throw some more zucchini my way. I dare you.

Recipe for Zucchini and Squash Frittata (Adapted from Laura Sbrana’s recipe in the New York Times)

  • 1 medium zucchini, cut into thin rounds
  • 1 medium yellow squash, cut into thin rounds
  • 2 medium green onions, diced
  • 8 large eggs
  • 1/4 cup low-fat milk
  • 1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 cup chopped basil leaves
  • 4 zucchini flowers
  • salt
  • pepper
  • Extra-virgin olive oil

Over medium-high heat, heat a few tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy 12-inch skillet or 3-quart sauté pan. The oil should just cover the bottom of the pan. When the oil is hot, add the zucchini and squash and season with salt and pepper. Add the onions and season again.

Cook the vegetables until they start to soften, stirring often; this will take about 10 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat.

Whisk the eggs in a large bowl. Whisk in the milk, 3 tablespoons of olive oil, cheese, and half of the basil.

Put the pan with the vegetables back on the stove, over medium-high heat. Add the remaining basil and cook briefly, until the basil wilts and you can smell its perfume. Pour the egg mixture to the pan with the zucchini and squash.

Reduce the heat to medium-low. As the eggs begin to cook, use a spatula to lift them away from the sides of the pan. This will keep the frittata from sticking to the pan. Tilt the pan as you lift the eggs, so that the uncooked egg flows underneath and continues to cook.

When the eggs appear cooked through, remove the pan from the heat. Turn on the broiler. With kitchen scissors, snip the zucchini flowers into small pieces over the frittata. Place the frittata under the broiler until it begins to brown. This will take about 5 to 7 minutes. Check it often, so that it doesn’t burn. Remove from heat.

Cover the frittata and pan with a plate, and turn the pan onto the plate so that the frittata slips from the pan. Use a second plate to flip the frittata again. Let the frittata rest at least 5 minutes before serving. Serves 4 as a main dish. Serve with a green salad if possible. Enjoy!

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The Raw and the Cooked

Sometimes I am struck by how easy cooking can be. Or rather, how easy it should be. 

A few weeks ago after work, I spent about 2 hours shucking, cooking, puréeing, and straining my CSA-delivered corn for what I hoped would be a creamy and flavorful dinner of curried corn soup. I was excited to prepare this sweet vegetable in a new way; usually I just boil it on the cob, or sauté it for my favorite salad. But for this soup I used a recipe I picked up at the farmers’ market last year and had been wanting to try.

Well, after all that effort—and several dirty pots and pans—I expected to be thrilled and satisfied with my dinner. But instead I was disappointed. Maybe it was just a bland recipe, or the fact that I’m not a huge fan of soup in general. Whatever the reason, as I lifted spoonful after spoonful of the broth to my mouth, I didn’t taste the sweet freshness I look forward to when eating summer corn. I missed biting into its firm and juicy kernels, their skins exploding with flavor between my teeth. All the reasons why I love this summer vegetable were absent once it was cooked and puréed into a porridge-like gruel. 

The very next night I got home late from work, and I didn’t have much time or energy to prepare dinner. I wound up tossing hefty chunks of raw, juicy tomatoes with slices of cool cucumber, red onion, basil, and some day-old bread left over from our meal the night before. Quickly drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and sprinkled with salt and pepper, this improvised panzanella salad exploited each ingredient’s flavor potential. With minimal effort and no actual cooking, I created one of best dishes I’ve made all summer.

What I am trying to say is that with summer fruits and vegetables, sometimes less is more. Summertime seasonal produce doesn’t need much handling in order to make a tasty, successful meal. And getting back to that corn, on the same night I made the panzanella, I also boiled some corn on the cob and got my flavor fix. As I said, cooking should always be this easy.

Recipe for Quick Panzanella Salad

  • 4 or 5 large, ripe tomatoes, sliced into chunks
  • 1/2 red onion, cut into thick slices
  • 1 medium cucumber, sliced into rounds and then halved
  • 1/2 loaf of day-old bread, sliced into thick chunks (if you like, you can toast the bread)
  • 1 garlic clove, very finely minced
  • a handful of fresh basil, leaves torn
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • Balsamic vinegar
  • salt
  • pepper

Combine the tomatoes, onion, cucumber, bread, and garlic in a large bowl. Gently toss the ingredients with your hands. Add two or three generous glugs of olive oil, and a splash of the balsamic vinegar. Add the basil leaves, and a few dashes of salt and freshly-ground black pepper. Gently combine the ingredients together with your hands. Season to taste. Serves 4 as a side dish. This recipe is very flexible, so feel free to alter it as you wish. Enjoy!

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Farmers’ Market Find: Zucchini Flowers

August celebrates the apex of summer and its abundance of fruits and vegetables. Corn, tomatoes, sweet peaches and plums, they’re all in season right now. And zucchini. How can we forget about the zucchini?

It’s everywhere these days. For the past few weeks I’ve been sautéing it and tossing it with pasta, grilling long, thin strips of it in my stovetop grill pan, and baking it into bread. I didn’t think there was anything left for me to do with it, but then I came across a box of zucchini flowers at my local farmers’ market.

These delicate, yellow-orange blossoms were too tempting to leave behind. They can be cooked in a variety of ways, but I was most familiar with two Italian preparations for fiori di zucca: They can be fried, which is how my mother makes them, or they can be stuffed with a cheese filling and fried, as Jim and I recently saw on Jamie Oliver’s wonderful cooking show, Jamie at Home.

(If you can’t already tell, there’s no escaping the frying involved with this project. Just go with it.)

Zucchini blossoms are not hard to work with, but they should be cooked right away and they need to be handled gently. Interestingly, they come in female and male versions, with the females attached directly to the zucchini and the males growing on a separate stem. 

After watching Oliver’s program for guidance, we stuffed the blossoms with a filling of fresh ricotta, basil, and lemon zest. Similar to the versatile stuffed chard leaves I made a few weeks ago, a variety of cheese-based fillings could work in this recipe. Next we dipped the flowers and zucchini into our Oliver-inspired batter, threw them into a batch of hot olive oil, and fried away.

Jim and I wound up with too many fried zucchini flowers for just the two of us, but no matter. We did our best, crunching our way through the hot, browned batter to the creamy, lemony ricotta filling hiding within. The flower petals added a fresh sweetness in the midst of the crisp coating and lush cheese center. I wonder what August will bring us next. And more importantly, can it be fried?

Recipe for Fried Zucchini Flowers Stuffed with Lemon Basil Ricotta (adapted from the television program Jamie at Home)

  • 8 zucchini flowers and any attached zucchini
  • 1/2 lb of fresh ricotta (do not use packaged supermarket ricotta)
  • 2 tablespoons fresh, chopped basil
  • zest of 1/2 lemon
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
  • 3/4 teaspoons salt, plus more for seasoning
  • 1/2 bottle white wine
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • pepper

Prepare the flowers: Gently rinse the zucchini flowers. Spread the petals open to reveal the bulbous pistil or stamen inside, at the base of each blossom. Remove it from each flower with a paring knife.

Prepare the filling: Combine the ricotta, basil, and lemon zest in a small bowl. Mix thoroughly. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Fill the flowers: Take a plastic freezer bag and scoop the filling into it. Cut off one of the bottom corners of the bag to create a type of pastry bag. Open each blossom, spread the petals back gently, and squeeze a small amount of the ricotta filling inside—you should be able to fit a couple of tablespoons of filling inside each flower. Fold the petals over each other to seal the filling in the flowers. Don’t worry if they look messy or don’t seal perfectly.

Make the batter: Be sure to make this batter after you prep the flowers. You don’t want to the batter to sit around and start to thicken. Combine the flour, baking powder, and 3/4 teaspoon of salt in a mixing bowl. Slowly add the white wine while mixing your dry ingredients. The batter is ready when it resembles a thick, liquidy pancake batter.

Fry the flowers: In a large, high-sided skillet or Dutch oven, heat your olive oil. Add enough olive oil to cover the bottom of your pan and the flowers. 

When the oil is hot and shimmering, dip the flowers in the batter, let the excess batter drip back into the bowl, and add them to pan. They should sizzle quickly and start to brown. When deeply browned on all sides, remove the flowers from the oil and set them on a plate lined with paper towels to drain.

Serve immediately. Recipe serves 4 as a side dish or appetizer. Enjoy! 

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Back in Business at the Red Hook Ball Fields

For the past few summers that we’ve lived in Carroll Gardens, Sundays have found Jim and me working up our appetites at the nearby Red Hook public pool. After an hour or so of splashing around in the water, we’d move to the ball fields across the street and enjoy a lunch of fresh, authentic, cheap tacos and pupusas from the local Latin American vendors lining the sidewalks. Smoke would billow from under the tents as the vendors cooked their wares on large portable grills and kept the crowds moving as quickly as possible.

As many New Yorkers know, the vendors got off to a late start this year due to a prolonged struggle with the city’s Department of Health. Finally the necessary permits were obtained and the vendors started operating from the mandated trucks two weeks ago. Yesterday Jim and I walked over to the ball fields after our swim to eat some huaraches and see how things have changed. 

The move from cooking under the tents to inside the trucks has altered the atmosphere more than we anticipated. Long, slow-moving lines snaked down the block, as Jim and I waited at least 40 minutes to order our food. Granted, the huarache truck seemed to be the most popular, but gone are the days of gobbling a pupusa at a picnic table and going back for more; now that would require another interminable wait. Instead I saw many people eating corn on the cob with queso while waiting in line to place orders for something else. The vendors simply don’t have as much room to cook in the small trucks as they did under the tents, causing slower service.

Although the lines were long, the scene was quiet and not as festive as previous summers. I missed the mingling aromas of pork, chicken, and beef coming off the grills, and watching my food being cooked in front of me. I missed strolling down the ball field’s sidewalks and feeling like I could sample a pupusa or a taco on a whim. But apart from the bittersweet sentiment of the situation, it’s the vendors who have suffered most of all, having to invest in expensive equipment and losing 2 months of business. In Jim’s words, something that was a neighborhood tradition has become a bureaucratic mess.

On a positive note, the new changes haven’t changed the quality of the food. Jim loved his huarache filled with pork, while I enjoyed my version with chicken ($6 each). The meat was still delicately seasoned, spilling out of its delicate corn shell with fresh, cool tomatoes, lettuce, and crumbly queso. At least some things in life are consistent. And they might as well be huaraches.

The Red Hook Ball Fields, located at the corner of Clinton Street and Bay Street in Red Hook, Brooklyn

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