Posts tagged sustainable and local food

My Quest for La Quercia

Last week after our lovely lunch at Mimi’s Hummus, Rachel and I ducked into Market, the gourmet food shop next door. I walked slowly around the store, perusing the jars of local pickles and Middle Eastern spices, purposefully restraining myself from making any unnecessary (yet likely delicious) purchases. In fact, I probably would have left empty-handed had I not taken a closer look at the refrigerated case of cured meats, olives, and cheeses. That’s when I saw the yellow- and green-accented packaging of La Quercia Prosciutto Americano.

La Quercia is the only American producer of high-quality prosciutto, and its products have been lauded by Americans, Italians, and all nationalities in between. I had read about this unique Iowa-based company last year, and had recently tried its prosciutto at Danny Meyer’s new restaurant, Maialino. My dining partners and I were astonished by the meat’s authentic, natural flavor, and how it more than held its own against the Italian offerings on the cured meat platter we shared as an antipasto. But it was only after I found this pre-sliced, handy package of La Quercia’s cured pork at Market that I reviewed the company’s inspiring background again.

Herb and Kathy Eckhouse lived in Parma, Italy, for three and a half years, and fell in love with the idea of making Italian dry-cured meats in their home state of Iowa. After years of experimentation with this centuries-old tradition, the Eckhouses founded La Quercia (“oak” in Italian) in 2000. Not content to simply create an Italian facsimile of prosciutto, La Quercia produces cured meats that celebrate Iowa’s natural bounty without using artificial ingredients or preservatives. All of the pigs for its various cured products—in addition to different variations of prosciutto, La Quercia makes speck, coppa, pancetta, and guanciale—come from within 200 miles of the prosciuttificio, and are raised on vegetarian, grain-based diets, without antibiotics. These are pig products we can all feel good about.

I took the simple route with my package of Prosciutto Americano, draping its thin slices over squares of cantaloupe and eating it for lunch. Each buttery, supple slice was a revelation. The chewy, slightly fatty meat, falling in elastic sheets over the fresh fruit, was less salty yet somehow creamier than other Italian prosciutto I have tried, and I found myself eating slice after slice without pause. Later in the week, Jim and I sandwiched the remaining pieces in between some turkey cutlets for this recipe, adding a more intense layer of flavor to a simple meal. No matter what dish it appeared in, La Quercia’s prosciutto was the star. And we have Iowa and the Eckhouses to thank for it.

La Quercia’s prosciutto and other artisanal cured meats can be found at specialty food and grocery stores such as Whole Foods and the Red Hook Fairway. Check out their website for more store and ordering information.

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Martha Rose Shulman’s Mediterranean Vegetable Pies

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I’m starting to think of Martha Rose Shulman as my personal hero. Those may be strong words to describe the author of the Recipes for Health section of the New York Times, but Shulman’s seasonal and healthy recipes—which often focus on one ingredient per week, prepared in myriad ways—never fail to inspire me. I’ve been hooked ever since I tried her sweet potato and butternut squash soup over the winter, and then her light and healthy Swiss chard lasagna a month later. Now I check out her column eagerly, every week, just to see what she’s up to.

A few weeks ago, Shulman published an article about Mediterranean vegetable pies. She describes these pies, which stuff seasonal produce, eggs, and cheese into pastry shells or phyllo dough, as wonderful ways to utilize seasonal produce in vegetarian main dishes. In addition to providing a recipe for an intriguing whole wheat pastry dough, she lists four different pie variations. I printed out every recipe, and couldn’t wait for an opportunity to try them. Luckily, I didn’t have to wait very long.

Last weekend I came home from my CSA pick-up overloaded with greens. I had piles of spinach, kale, and bok choy, as well as two small zucchini, snow peas, and garlic scapes. I always fear that the vegetables I receive from my CSA will wilt before I have a chance to use them, so I decided to cook as many as possible into one of Shulman’s vegetable pies. And although the recipes didn’t address all my ingredients specifically, I hoped that they were flexible enough to accommodate some variations. Using Shulman’s recipe for a Provençal zucchini and Swiss chard tart as my guide, I combined the spinach, kale, and zucchini with Gruyère cheese and fresh eggs that I had picked up at the farmers’ market.

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As Shulman had claimed, the pie was indeed a bit time-consuming to make, but it was totally worth the effort. I rolled out the pliable whole wheat dough easily, which created a light and crumbly base for my egg and vegetable mixture. When I pulled the tart from the oven an hour later, flecks of rustic greens were supported by a sea of brilliant yellow eggs, presenting a farm-fresh meal that I couldn’t get enough of. Hot from the oven, the pie was an airy and gently tasty main dish. I brought slices of it to work for lunch all week, eating it at room temperature and almost enjoying it more that way.

So do you see why Martha Rose Shulman is my hero? I don’t need her to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but now I rely on her for delicious recipes that also happen to be healthy. It’s a lot of pressure for one person, but I am sure she can handle it.

Recipe for Spinach, Kale, and Zucchini Tart (adapted from Martha Rose Shulman’s recipe for a Provençal Zucchini and Swiss Chard Tart in the New York Times Recipes for Health section)

  • 1 lb of spinach, washed
  • 1/2 lb kale, washed, leaves picked off from the stems and thick ribs cut out
  • salt
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 small zucchini, cut into a small dice
  • 3 large garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves, chopped
  • 1/2 cup Gruyère cheese, grated
  • 3 large eggs
  • freshly ground pepper

While the dough is rising, prepare the vegetables. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Fill a separate bowl full of ice water. When the water in the pot reaches a rolling boil, add salt and the kale leaves. After 30 seconds or so, add the spinach leaves. Blanch for 1 minute. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the greens to the ice water, then drain. Squeeze out excess water from the greens and chop them. Set aside.

Heat olive oil in a large non-stick skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until tender, stirring, for about five minutes. Stir in the zucchini and season to taste with salt. Cook until just tender, about 10 minutes. Stir in the garlic and thyme. Cook everything together until the garlic is fragrant, about one or two minutes. Stir in the greens, toss everything together, and remove the pan from the heat. Season with salt and pepper.

Beat the eggs in a large bowl. Stir in 1/4 teaspoon salt (to taste), the greens and zucchini mixture, and the cheese. Mix together and add a bit of pepper for seasoning.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Oil a 10-inch tart pan with a removable bottom. Roll out two-thirds of the dough very thin, and line the pan, with the edges of the dough overhanging. Freeze the leftover dough. Fill the dough shell with the greens and zucchini mixture. Pinch the edges of the dough along the rim of the pan. Place in the oven and bake for 50 minutes, until the mixture is set and beginning to color. Allow to rest for at least 15 minutes before serving. This tart can also be served at room temperature. Serves 8 to 10 people. Enjoy!

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Nunu Chocolates and a Bridal Shower

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A maid of honor has numerous responsibilities. Some are emotional, such as keeping the bride calm and radiant on one of the most special days of her life. Others are more practical, like making sure all of the other bridesmaids are wearing the same color shoes. (Yes, it really does matter.) But perhaps the most crucial maid of honor responsibility is hosting a kick-ass bridal shower. A few weeks ago, I threw one for my younger sister Melissa, who is getting married in August.

For the favors, I turned to Justine Pringle of Nunu Chocolates in Brooklyn. I knew these handmade chocolates, with their creative fillings and shapes, from tasting them at the Brooklyn Flea last year. Pringle opened her own shop on Atlantic Avenue a few months ago, and that’s where I met her to discuss the favors. Tall, blonde, and extremely friendly, she asked me several questions about the upcoming wedding, my sister’s sense of style, and her wedding colors. We looked at different colored gift boxes and quickly came up with a plan for the package design. I knew within minutes that I had chosen the right person to create something special for my sister.

While I was originally interested in using Nunu’s chocolates because they tasted so delicious, I was also attracted to the story behind them. The chocolate ganaches, caramels, and other chocolate products at Nunu are totally natural, made from cocoa beans procured directly from a sustainable farm in Eastern Colombia. Being environmentally conscious has always been a strong theme in Pringle’s life, as she has a degree in Environmental Management and Technology, and worked in environmental waste management before turning to chocolate. Looking for unique merchandise to sell at husband Andy Laird’s music concerts, she studied at the Ecole Chocolat and started making chocolates. They soon became popular in their own right, and Nunu Chocolates was born.

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For my sister’s favors, Pringle and I selected four different chocolates that demonstrated a wide range of Nunu’s flavors. I was immediately attracted to the salt caramels, whose gooey caramel center combined perfectly with the rich chocolate and crunchy salt on the exterior. The festive prosecco ganache was entirely appropriate for an Italian-American themed shower, while the floral earl grey and sweet organic raspberry ganaches calmly closed the day’s festivities. Unique and tasty, they were coveted by everyone who came to the shower.

Pringle will soon build a beer and wine bar, as well as a production kitchen, at her Atlantic Avenue shop. I can’t wait to stop by and relax with a selection of chocolates and a nice glass of wine, perhaps after Melissa’s wedding later this summer. Until then, a maid of honor’s work is never done.

Nunu Chocolates, 529 Atlantic Avenue, between 3rd and 4th Avenues, in Brooklyn. T: 917-776-7102. Check the website for ordering information and other locations that sell Nunu Chocolates.

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What a Difference a Year Makes: The Carroll Gardens Farmers’ Market

I know it might seem crazy to write about food with all this election madness going on, but I can’t help it. I just got back from voting, I’m too jittery to sit still, and I can’t bring myself to watch any election coverage just yet. So, in an effort to calm myself down while hoping for the best, I thought I’d write a post about a subject I’ve had on my mind for the past few months: my local farmers’ market.

As some of you already know, last year Carroll Gardens finally got its own farmers’ market. Starting in July 2007, a few tables of vegetables and fruit lined a short stretch of Carroll Street between Court and Smith Streets every Sunday through last November. While I lamented the lack of cheese, meat, and fish vendors, I remained optimistic for these changes in the future. I figured that once the market became more established, perhaps we would see more vendors on the block.

Well, it pays to think positively, because our little market has expanded quite a bit in just one year. Now when I make my weekly visit to Carroll Street, I bring two bags and indulge in a variety of local food products.

Similar to my shopping pattern from last year, I begin by stocking up on fruit from Fishkill Farms. While over the summer I focused on fresh plums and peaches, in October I scooped up apples and pears. My next move is usually towards the piles of fresh greens and other vegetables from Alex Farm as I supplement my CSA shipment with whatever other produce I might need for the week. Jim seems to prefer the vegetables from W. Rogowski Farm, so in the end we actually wind up supporting several stands at the market. I can’t forget my weekly chocolate croissant from Amy’s Bread, although sometimes I try to be healthy and buy a loaf of whole-grain bread as well.

But in addition to all of the wonderful produce and baked goods, we can now peruse products from various local meat, fish, dairy, and cheese vendors. About a month ago, Jim and I bought grass-fed, spicy Angus sausages from Grazin’ Angus Acres for the first time. We broiled them, sliced them up, and cooked them on top of one of our homemade pizzas. Raised without antibiotics or hormones, this beef was happily enjoyed with less guilt than usual. Grazin’ Acres’s sausages were so earthy and full-flavored that Jim and I went back for one of their grass-fed chickens a few weeks later.

I’ve yet to buy fish from Seatuck Fish Company, or pasture-raised eggs from Fishkill Farms, but both are on my list. Once in a while I’ll pick up some goat cheese from Consider Bardwell Farm, and a few weeks ago local honey was for sale. There are so many options, I find it’s impossible to try them all at once.

On another note, I’ve also enjoyed seeing how our farmers’ market has increased its role in the community. Every Sunday the lines seem to stretch longer and longer at each stand. A few months ago a chef from the soon-to-open restaurant Buttermilk Channel prepared a fresh vegetable pickle for the market’s shoppers. On this past Sunday, piles of mussels from Seatuck Fish Company were being prepared at one of the stands, encouraging people to linger and enjoy the day with each other.

So as you can see, our little farmers’ market has grown quite a bit in a year. I may not have tried the wares from every stand, but it’s not a problem; I have something new to look forward to every week. I just hope I can get through the rest of election day…

The Carroll Gardens Farmers Market, located on Carroll Street between Smith and Court. It runs on Sundays from July through November.

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Dinner at Blue Hill at Stone Barns

 

If you’ve read other descriptions of Blue Hill at Stone Barns, you might already be familiar with the photograph above. “Oh no,” you probably just groaned. “Not another post raving about this place and its raw vegetables on sticks.” Well, brace yourself: Last week I finally ate at Stone Barns, and enjoyed one of the most beautiful and creative meals I’ve ever had. And those vegetables on sticks? Through their farm-to-table freshness and the artistry of their arrangement, they encompass all that was wonderful about the experience.

Located in Pocantico Hills, New York, and headed by chef Dan Barber (also of Blue Hill in Manhattan), Blue Hill at Stone Barns is more than just a restaurant. It’s a farm, an ideal, and an artistic adventure. Every effort is made to prepare and produce food culled from its own land, which is situated on a vast Rockefeller Estate. (While most ingredients used in the restaurant are produced on the farm, not all of them are. For example, Blue Hill does not farm its own fish.) Along with our friends Keith and Gabriella, Jim and I explored the farm on Saturday afternoon, intrigued by its greenhouses, herb gardens, and pastures of sheep and turkeys.

We returned later that night for dinner, and were immediately embraced by the soaring, wood-beamed ceilings and golden lighting of the main dining room, located in a sprawling stone dairy barn. As we perused the tasting menu, we realized that it was simply a list of the ingredients available to Chef Barber that evening. Beyond this list, our group had no idea what lay in store in store for us. We threw up our hands and surrendered to the experience, although we were encouraged to tell the wait staff a bit about our food personalities and preferences so that Chef Barber could personalize our tasting.

After a few nervous shrugs and glances between us, Jim declared that we were an adventurous group of eaters. On the evening of our visit, the ingredients ranged from concord grapes, bok choi, and chanterelle mushrooms to Berkshire pork, wahoo fish, and grass-fed veal, among many others. We decided to indulge in the seven-course farmers’ feast tasting ($125 each). In response to our waiter’s inquiry regarding ingredients we preferred or disliked, Jim described his love for arugula, asking to see what Chef Barber could do with his favorite green apart from serving it raw in a salad. I added that I didn’t feel like eating soft-boiled eggs, and Gabriella said she was willing to eat less meat. The adventure had begun.

Then the amuse-bouche started to arrive, as exciting in their presentation as their flavors. Those raw vegetables elegantly perched on steel spikes were crisp, fresh, and simply touched with lemon. Tiny beet burgers, skewers of eggplant coated with pancetta and sesame seeds, bread with fresh butter, lard, and soft, smooth ricotta, were placed on the table in unending parade of farm freshness. And I can’t forget the face bacon, served to us with other Stone Barns cured meats. 

No, you didn’t read that incorrectly, I wrote face bacon. Made from the farm’s own pigs’ jowls, these small, crunchy bits of meat enthralled us to no end. We raised our wine glasses when ingredients were described as being “from the farm,” creating our own amusing drinking game in the midst of the abundance. Arugula quickly made its first appearance with the appetizers, infused into a cup of salt served with our bread. I should note now that Chef Barber conquered Jim’s arugula challenge throughout our meal, mixing this peppery green into grain salads and serving it wilted on the side of our entrées.

After being successfully lured in by the appetizers, the main dishes began. One after another, each dish was a visual and edible surprise. Delicate pieces of barely seared bluefin and wahoo fish started our feast. A vegetable called celtuse, its wide, ribbon-like strands mimicking fresh pasta in a sauce of pine nut butter and yogurt, was a favorite of the night.

I didn’t know what to expect in response to my soft-boiled egg request, but I soon found out: For one entrée, while everyone else enjoyed a farm-fresh (raise your wine glass now) egg dish, I received my own small serving of eggplant parmigiana with zucchini flowers sprinkled across the top. Later in the evening, Gabriella also received a personalized dish as a substitute for one of the two meat  entrées of Berkshire pig and chicken. Now that’s what I call personal attention.

The desserts were delivered in a continuous stream, including baked plums with crispy emmer; a dessert composed from juicy concord grapes; and a curious fruit called the paw paw. Just when I thought I’d had enough, our waiter wheeled out a cart overflowing with herbs and a glass teapot. He called it a tisane, and brewed us a soothing pot of lemon verbena and sage tea on the spot. It was one of the most beautiful displays of greenery I had ever seen.

At Blue Hill at Stone Barns, art and food intersect to create an enthralling and unique experience. I know it may sound pretentious to describe a meal in these terms, but for me, it was true. Every detail, from the beautiful porcelain plates decorated with plant and animal life, to the rustic candle holders, dark wood accents, and overflowing plant arrangements in the dining room coordinated perfectly with our abundant and beautifully plated farmers’ feast. Combined with Stone Barns’s practice of cultivating as much food as possible on their own land, everything came together to offer an extremely personal and artistic meal. That’s how those vegetables on sticks represent the Blue Hill at Stone Barns experience: fresh, honest, and creative.

Blue Hill at Stone Barns, 630 Bedford Road, Pocantico Hills, New York 10591  T: 914-366-9600. A five-course tasting is also offered for $95, and on Sundays there is a four-course tasting lunch for $68. Make your reservations one to two months in advance.

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