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Archive for the ‘Dinner’ Category

Musing about how The Child eats jump-started my writing, especially after we began eating goat at home.  It was the first time we ate goat we prepared ourselves, and the first time we purchased meat directly from a farm.  A positive experience, we were encouraged to search for a regular meat-CSA to join.

Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) is a food distribution model wherein the consumer and the farmer share the risk and rewards of farming.  Typically a subscription, the consumer pledges a monthly rate for a share of what the farm produces each month.  While it is more common to find fruit and vegetable CSAs, the demand for meat and dairy is on the rise.  Consumers typically seek out CSA food in an attempt to eat local, support small-scale agriculture, or obtain organic products.  They may also supply a greater variety of products, as well as heirloom produce or heritage breeds.

Singing the praises of Godfrey Family Farms is long overdue.  We experimented and signed up for a monthly share at the start of the year.  Having no idea what to expect, we planned to re-evaluate after 6-months.  Honestly, I thought by June our freezer would be bursting, and it would prove to The Spouse that our family was not large enough to justify the 15 pounds of meat each month.  We do not have sufficient square footage for a deep freeze of our own.

But I was wrong.  I love it.

One Saturday morning each month, The Spouse drives to a Home Depot parking lot to fetch our share of the monthly meat.  It runs $100 for approximately 15 pounds of various cuts from various beasts, including fresh eggs.  Rose and Brian Godfrey are remarkable.  They write a blog to keep folks posted about happenings on the farm, and have a Facebook Fan Page as well.  They both have a way with words and wit.  Back in January, I read their post about geese including photos of Thanksgiving…

…looking through the fence at Christmas…

…and I knew these were my kind of people.

Our traditional Easter dinner is rabbit after all, and we call him Thumper.

As it turns out, we consume most of the share each month.  We even purchase extra;  several dozen more eggs, and additional chickens anytime they have them.  We are thrilled when some challenge of farm living means there are extra rabbits, ducks, or veal bones to be had.

The meat CSA has made a profound difference in our diet and our lives. From the very first shipment of duck eggs with a magical double yolk… to guilt-free pastured veal… and a variety of beasts… Yes, it is safe to say I am biased.

To counteract said bias, I will skip the compulsory review of pros (eating local, pastured, and small-scale), and head straight to the cons of any CSA.  But are they really cons?   Seem more like advantages to me.

You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit. My daughter learned this in pre-K, and it is a rule many adults could stand to learn.  When you join most CSAs you do not typically get to place orders.  And if you do it ought be considered a lucky perk worthy of your undying gratitude, not setting an expectation.

We learned how to meal-plan based on what default produce arrived in a box on our doorstep, and this is really no different. So we have tried new things such as guinea fowl, water buffalo, and duck eggs.  Instead of shopping based on a plan, we plan based on the shopping.  One Saturday each month we gather around the cooler to see what Santa brought us while attempting play a game of freezer Tetris with the frozen blocks.

Please remember it is a farm people!  The animals and crops really do not care what your schedule is, much less your menu.  Sometimes the guinea fowl are too much trouble to raise again.  Sometimes the butcher goes on vacation and instead of pork you get glorious water buffalo from the neighbor’s farm.  Sometimes the momma animals turn out to be less than skilled mommas.   And sometimes the hams, sausages, and bacon come cured by someone else.  We have fallen in love with Rose’s recipes, the Italian sausage and brats in particular, and this is not a con for us.  But it may be for some folks.  If you are particular about what cuts, or which beasts, or what sizes you *need* to have, perhaps this isn’t the right purchasing model for you.

Eating nose to tail. A big part of eating sustainably is eating nose to tail. Philosophically, if you are going to show respect for the animal you are consuming, let nothing go to waste. Economically, if you learn to cook the stuff other people do not want, you will have a wide selection of cheap proteins from which to choose.

It was not our intention to pose the chicken as if it were dancing off stage left. *giggle*

I am confident someone is enjoying the extra bits. (Lucky #$%^&*@!)  And even though Godfrey chickens arrive intact from beak to toes, most of the regular shares do not include offal.  When a family of three buys 15 pounds of meat per month, it reduces our trips to the grocery store.  That puts a dent in how many times we pick up braunschweiger or headcheese for lunch, have calf’s liver for dinner, or discover we like new things like veal kidney chops.

I miss my butcher. Well, not a particular butcher per se.  We predominantly shop at Lunardi’s Market, since the Andronico’s near us went out of business (pout).  It is an average-sized traditional grocery store with a meat counter, and a veritable army of butchers.  They appreciate questions and are quick to ask someone if they don’t know the answer.   I have never been ignored or hustled along.  The Child always loves to visit them.  Since infancy, she has been accompanying one of us, helping to pick things out, watching all the action as the butchers break things down, and fascinated by the various meats hanging from the ceiling.

Approaching this calmly as a reality helped her develop comfort and understanding of what lands on her plate.  But we spend less time visiting the local butchers now that our freezer is packed to bursting once each month.

Maybe it is time to figure out where to put the deep-freeze after all?  The Spouse can park his car in the driveway, right?

Okay, maybe not.

Skillet Sausages

Cast iron skillet (optional)
Bratwurst, bockwurst or favorite sausages
Onions, sliced in half, then in half-rings
A favorite beer or hard cider

Brown the sausages and add the onions tucked in around the edges, i.e. don’t just layer them in on top.   Open up a favorite beer to enjoy and share with the skillet.  Every once in a while check to see that things aren’t sticking.  When they do, add some beer and use your tongs to scrape up the brown bits off the bottom of the pan.

Skip the bun, serve with mustard and a side of sauerkraut or coleslaw… or both!

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Back in California, in the land of farmers markets, we don’t often go to them anymore.  As school and work and responsibilities crowd the schedule, we tend to cozy-in on weekend mornings and share family time together at home.  Between the weekly organic grocery delivery and the monthly meat CSA share, we have plenty of food options.  And nearby markets, even the very basic ones, have a wide range of ingredient choices hailing from all over the world.

But we spend our summers in Wisconsin.  Vilas County, Wisconsin to be exact.  Head north a mile or two across the lake and yer in da U.P. (that’s Upper Michigan for the uninitiated).  By we, I mean The Child, The Dog, and myself.  We leave The Spouse back in California for most of the summer, and come here, to the little 70’s shack where I spent my summers.  This is our third year, and so far the experiment seems to be working…  The Child has proven to be an outdoorsy kinda kid.  She is comfortable trading a busy schedule of activities and play-dates and friends, for solitary independence.  She can go outside and play, she can explore the woods and the shore and the yard.  She may be by herself.

Food shopping and cooking here in the Northwoods is very different than the options we have back in California.  The markets are extremely limited, and I am reminded of the Kwik-E-Mart challenge on Top Chef.  We make do with processed food and very few fresh ingredients.  Occasionally specialty local products are available at gift shops.  But our small town of Land O’ Lakes has a weekly farmers market on Thursday mornings.  It is small, often only one vegetable stand, one meat purveyor, and a few local folks selling cheese, honey, preserves, or foraged items.  Most of the booths are more reminiscent of a swap meet or garage sale than a market, but there are typically about a dozen tables selling goods.  In California, going to the farmers market has become an occasional and social destination, but here it is a necessary part of our weekly shopping.

Last year we discovered kohlrabi at the farmers market.  Mountains of them.  Most were green, but some were purple.  Most were softball sized, but some looked closer to soccer balls.  When I asked what they were and heard kohlrabi, I must have flinched a little, remembering not liking things like rutabaga and kohlrabi as a kid.  The woman working the stand made a point of assuring me that they were incredible, and that her favorite way to eat them was raw, sprinkled with salt, on a sandwich.  She deftly hacked into one and shared a slice, while quickly looking at the veggies I had selected and tossing in a few extra things for free, just so I could replicate her favorite sandwich when we got home.  We made a few sandwiches that afternoon, and she was right!  I was hooked!

It was, botanically speaking, incorrect of me to group rutabaga and kohlrabi together taxonomically.  They are both in the cabbage family (Brassicacea), but while rutabaga is its own species, Brassica napobrassica, kohlrabi shares a species designation with everything from cauliflower to brussels sprouts as they are all considered cultivars of wild cabbage, Brassica oleracea.  Thousands of years of specialized breeding have resulted in a multitude of cabbages which don’t look or taste anything like each other.  The next time you are eating your broccoli, take note that it is one of the ultimate GMOs mankind has ever produced.  There are so many cultivars of wild cabbage in fact, that they are classified in groups based on their developmental form.

•    Brassica oleracea Acephala Group – kale and collard greens
•    Brassica oleracea Alboglabra Group- Chinese broccoli
•    Brassica oleracea Botrytis Group – cauliflower, Romanesco broccoli and broccoflower
•    Brassica oleracea Capitata Group – cabbage
•    Brassica oleracea Gemmifera Group – brussels sprouts
•    Brassica oleracea Gongylodes Group – kohlrabi
•    Brassica oleracea Italica Group – broccoli

Very easy to grow, kohlrabi is generally disease free, it can take shallow soils, and is unaffected by most garden pests.  More than just frost-hardy, anecdotal reports online indicate it may stay quite happy in the ground until temperatures dip into the twenties and snow begins to fall.

Kohlrabi literally means ‘German Turnip’ and it is vastly more popular and traditional in Europe.  But monj (or munji?) is also a staple of Kashmiri cuisine where the round, swollen stems are cooked along with the edible greens.

Slicing kohlrabi first makes trimming off the peel very simple.

Raw

Raw kohlrabi was a revelation.  Just sliced up, woody skin trimmed off, sprinkled with some kosher salt, and YUM!  Served on a sandwich of toast, mayo, fresh tomato and a slice of cheese?  Double yum!!  So all year, I have been craving it.  Looking forward to that first Northwoods-summer farmers market when I could get some more.  And it did not disappoint.

The slices which did not make it onto sandwiches were chopped into chunky sticks and served with a side of salt for dipping.

Kohlrabi makes an excellent snack! (and yes... that's an old ashtray repurposed as a salt cellar)

Cooked

Last year, none of it ever made it past being crunched up raw or julienned into slaw.  This year I decided we were going to try cooking it.  Most of the recipes online indicated cooking times of about 15 minutes in a sauté pan on the stove.  A friend said she liked hers sautéed in bacon fat.  Fast cooking plus bacon?  I’m in!  The results were fabulous.  The Child enjoyed it enough to gush over her first helping.  She did not help herself to seconds, but later in the week enjoyed the nuked leftovers for lunch.  Frankly, I am surprised that there were any leftovers, since after dinner I was compulsively picking straight from the pan with my fork.

Last year raw.  This year cooked.  Next year?  I’m thinking pickled.

Braised Kohlrabi with Bacon

½ of a giant kohlrabi (~8” across) or an equivalent amount of the more widely available smaller specimens, skin trimmed, cut into small cubes
2 rashers bacon, cut small
Fresh cracked pepper

Chop kohlrabi into your preferred shape.  Some recipes use slices, or strips, or even grated.  I liked the little cubes.  Make sure it is uniformly cut for even cooking.

Cook cut bacon in large sauté pan until it starts to render a little fat (on my old electric stove this took a few minutes).  Add chopped kohrabi and sauté a bit before adding just enough water (or braising liquid of your choice) to keep it from burning.  Cover and let cook about 15 minutes, stirring regularly and checking for when it is just fork tender.  We enjoyed ours more al dente than mushy.  Generously add a few grinds of fresh pepper and serve hot.

Made 3-4 servings

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On Thursday last, Shauna James Ahern at Gluten-Free Girl tweeted an idea.

“What’s the first dish you ever learned to cook? How did it make you feel to cook it?”

Milestone meals started popping into my head, and in reverse chronological order I worked my way back to the first thing.  Okay…  perhaps not the first thing.  That would be Roast Beef with Pickle Gravy, lovingly prepared in Imagination Land as a very small child.  My dad made me a yellow toy stove in his basement woodshop, complete with real stovetop dials, electric burners painted on, handles leftover from their kitchen remodel, and one door which opened the same way an oven would (with a sliding rack inside too!).  I remember playing with that stove all the time.

My first proper independent cooking was breakfast.  Eggs to be precise.  I started with scrambled.  Maybe sautéing some onions in some butter before pouring in the beaten egg and chives, then mixing in some cheese or cut up salami.  My parents had a white, glass-topped, electric stove, and it was awful.  The breakfast preparation process involved putting the pan on the stovetop, turning on the burner, tossing a pat of butter in the pan, and walking away.  Only then would I bother with prep work;  cutting up onions, harvesting chives, cubing cheese, getting a plate, etc., because it seemed a full 15 minutes before that butter even started to melt.  But in any case, that routine became a rhythm and many mornings before school I got up to make my own breakfast.

It was not long before scrambled eggs became omelets.  To me, omelets feel like the first real dish I ever learned to cook.  I think I was around 12-years old, and it was utterly empowering!

Omelets were the first dish I made for someone else.  The scrambled eggs were always for me.  I cannot remember if my little sister ever ate the scrambled eggs, but the omelets were for everyone.  As if the act of sharing food with others is the last real step in preparing anything.  I remember getting praise from my parents, and being brave enough to cook breakfast in other people’s kitchens after an overnight.  I remember my mistakes in judging how much filling was too full to fold without cracking, which fillings got too runny, and how to get all the egg to cook without scorching the bottom too badly.  In point of fact, these omelets were more like a folded and stuffed frittata than a proper omelet, but they were tasty and very close to what my father made on the weekends.

Not long after, say 7th or 8th grade, my parents had me get dinner started once in a while.  I have few memories of being confident in middle school (who does?), but yet I have clear recollections of standing at the kitchen counter after school and enjoying these tasks.  I felt comfortable in my own skin.  It was never anything challenging.  These were uncomplicated assignments with clear direction.  My father is always one planned meal ahead.  He wakes up contemplating dinner, and he goes to bed thinking lunch.  But even without being complex cooking, these chores built an underlying ease with simple routines:  adding marinade to meat and getting it in the fridge, peeling potatoes, forming hamburger patties so they were ready for the grill as soon as the folks got home.  One frequent recipe in particular was simple baked chicken with a combination of garlic salt and brown sugar.  In college I asked my dad for the recipe, and he humbly sent a scrawled recipe entitled Dad’s Incredible Chicken.  It was met with acclaim by the roommates, and The Spouse and I still regularly make it, lo these many years later.

The remarkably addictive thing about learning to cook is that the learning feels good.  The process of diving into something new.  Deciding to try.  Learning how to fail.  If we succeed in passing these skills onto The Child, this already gutsy and resilient kid just might feel empowered too.  The Spouse commented last night that it is his hope The Child will find herself heading off on her own already “just knowing” how to cook.  I taught myself technique in my mid-twenties, but I already just knew how to cook.  Thanks Dad!

Dad’s Incredible Chicken

1 chicken, quartered
Garlic salt
¼ – ⅓  cup brown sugar

Arrange chicken skin side up in lightly oiled baking pan.
Season fairly heavily with garlic salt.
Sprinkle generously with brown sugar.
Bake at 375°F for one hour.
Cover with foil after 30-40 minutes if chicken appears too dry.
May be served hot or cold.
Share with friends and gloat.

***************************

Updated 6/15/2010:

I have so enjoyed reading the memories of the other contributors to the project.  Check out Shauna’s post to read more: http://glutenfreegirl.blogspot.com/2010/06/first-meal-i-ever-cooked.html

What was the first thing you ever cooked?

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No foodie should preach about sustainability and local agriculture without taking a serious look at their own pantry.  We have been getting organic grocery delivery of local produce for many years now, and I find it well worth the drawbacks for our circumstances.  Recently, we joined a local meat CSA (community supported agriculture) and drive once a month to a predetermined drop point to pick up our share of the monthly meat.

But if Vidalia onions are in season you can bet I am going to select them over the local ones, and I cannot function in the kitchen without my spice drawer which hails from all over the world.  All across California wine country there is a movement to drink local.  That’s great.  Support your community.  But I hardly think Napa would like to encourage restaurants across the country to only drink local.  In fact the story of their success depends on worldwide exportation and is a fabulous example of local agriculture makes good for a community.

So recently when I opened the pantry looking for a quick and easy side dish I saw the quinoa, which hails from *checks package* Bolivia.  Hmmm… dinner is going to have a big carbon footprint tonight kiddo… Except of course these things are all relative.  Quinoa packs nutrition, history, and socially-responsible agriculture into a tiny grain.

Technically, quinoa is not a true grain or cereal.  Botanically speaking, Chenopodium quinoa is a chenopod (like beets, spinach, or chard) and can also be consumed as a leaf vegetable, although it is predominantly grown for its edible seeds.  Originating in the Andes, it can be grown at altitudes over 13,000 feet.  And although it can also be grown on fertile plains with the benefit of mechanization, this contributes to soil erosion.  But the mountain crops are both easier on the land, of better quality besides, and are hand-farmed by small-scale communities.  The quinoa I purchase is produced by a cooperative of small growers and is sold through Alter-Eco, a fair-trade product distributor.  I prefer their Red Quinoa and choose to purchase it from Amazon in bulk.   It qualifies for Amazon Prime free shipping, and is cheaper per bag ($5.67/1 lb. bag) than the bulk price offered by Alter Eco online ($6.49/1 lb. bag).  You may not be certain you want eight pounds of the stuff right off the bat…  but I think the variety of recipes available on the intertubes these days will provide a multitude of inspiration.

The National Association of Quinoa Farmers (ANAPQUI) was created in 1983 in order to maximize the revenue of local communities who were selling at a loss. The Anapqui cooperative currently regroups 1100 small producers from the south of the Bolivian Altiplano who now benefit from decent living wages, transformation and packaging facilities. The latter, partially funded by the United Nations Development Program, enables them to export directly without having to rely on middlemen. The profit from sales goes towards financing educational and training programs that have led to the introduction of organic farming methods. -- Alter Eco website

Quinoa is a low-maintenance crop as the seeds have a coating of saponins.  Saponins are nifty plant-derived chemical compounds. They are amphipathic glycosides, so they have both hydrophilic (water-loving) and lipophilic (fat-loving) qualities.  Saponins all share the same phenomena of foaming when shaken in aqueous solution, and some saponins were historically used as soaps.  Most importantly to quinoa, saponins tend to taste bitter.  Awful enough that crops are typically safe from birds, insects, and other foraging animals.  After harvest, the saponins are removed before consumption, and most quinoa available in the US comes ready to prepare.

Quinoa, together with potatoes and maize, were hugely important to the Incas and other pre-Columbian civilizations.  To the point of being sacred.  It is considered a complete protein, that is to say it has a balanced set of essential amino acids including the oft-missing lysine, which is very rare in plants, and according to the package I purchased, one quarter cup serving contains 160 calories, 5 grams of protein, 3 grams of dietary fiber, and 20% of the daily recommended intake for iron.  There is solid nutrition science behind why this stuff fueled Incan armies.

Confession

To be quite honest, I forgot it was in the pantry.  I started buying it years ago when a friend was diagnosed with Celiac Disease, back before the food industry started catering to the gluten-free niche market.  I really only ever made one recipe:  Quinoa Taboulleh from Cooking Light.  It worked well as a gluten-free dip alongside hummus, or as a side dish to roast lamb.  I usually I made it for a crowd.  I skipped the raisins and went with parsley over mint.  And I shortened the cooking time to the package instructions of 15 minutes so it didn’t go all mushy.  Back then I bought red quinoa in bulk, but we have since diversified our gluten-free offerings as more and more friends receive their diagnoses.  So the last few packages had quietly hidden in the back of the pantry until I opened it up last month assuming I would take the easy out and just boil up some pasta.

Epiphany

While the fennel and onions bubbled away on the stove I read the package instructions.  Add rinsed quinoa to water, bring to a boil and simmer for 15 minutes.  Well that is about the same time commitment for pasta, so why not?  I find rice tricky because you have to cover it and not peek, but this simmers uncovered.  It cooked up just as it said it would, and as they absorb the water and burst there is a tell tale curlicue on each grain letting you know they are almost ready as the germ separates from the seed.  I mixed in some frozen corn, about 2 Tablespoons of salted butter (the butter is key if I want The Child to eat it without complaint!), and some fresh grinds of black pepper.  I would have added other things and played more, but it was time to eat.  It was under 30 minutes from the time I opened the pantry looking for pasta to the time The Child and I sat down to quinoa for dinner.

Quinoa and The Child

Much like discovering how easily farro could replace the desperation pasta meal, it was a revelation to recall just how quick and easy quinoa is to make.  While we ate I remembered one of the reasons quinoa had fallen out of favor around here.  It was not very baby or toddler friendly as a standalone dish for our family, as the individual grains were sometimes difficult to swallow.  We had a similar baby-gagging experience with couscous.  Mixed with something mushy, like hummus, tiny grains are easier for small children to eat safely and keep from sticking to everything.  In fact at our recent re-entry dinner The Child decided that mixing it with the fennel and onion mash was a more convenient way to eat it, instead of chasing the frustratingly itty-bitty grains around her plate with her spoon.  We each had seconds and stored the leftovers in the fridge.  Later in the week we discovered the leftover quinoa and corn worked very well mixed in with salsa and scooped up with tortilla chips, as well as making an excellent omelet filling with melted cheese.

During my health issues this spring The Spouse made another huge batch.  At first to help address the residual anemia post blood transfusion (between quinoa and meat and iron supplements recommended by the doc it cleared up within a few days), and then post-surgically to get more fiber and, um, let’s just say combat a challenging side effect of the pain medication.  This batch used up our leftover vegetable broth in place of the water for added flavor.  We had it stirred into cold chicken salad and salmon salad.  Alongside scrambled eggs for breakfast.  As a side dish at dinner served much like wild rice.  But the clear family favorite was mixed into salsa.  One post-hospital dinner consisted of a jar of salsa and red quinoa mixed 1:1, homemade guacamole, and Tostitos Scoops.  The Child was thrilled to “just have snackies” for dinner, and I welcomed the opportunity to nibble while healing.

Salsa for Dinner

Before we were married, my mom and her friends hosted a wedding shower.  I reluctantly agreed on the condition that there would not be any silly games.  That request somehow got lost in translation and there were, in fact, silly games.  One of them involved each person giving a gift getting to ask me any question they liked about The Soon-to-be-Spouse.  At one point someone asked what his favorite food was.  I didn’t really know what to say, but I answered, “Chips and salsa.”  There was much derision, but it was true.  Comfort food at the time often centered around a bag of chips and and a bowl of adulterated salsa.  And sometimes that became dinner.  And now we get to share that pleasure with The Child without any worries about the meal being insufficiently nutritious.  Time to make some more quinoa.

Photo by Randy Mayor for Cooking Light

Quinoa Tabbouleh from Cooking Light

Yield:  5 servings (serving size: 1 cup)

Ingredients
1 3/4 cups water
1 cup uncooked quinoa
1/2 cup coarsely chopped seeded tomato
1/2 cup chopped fresh mint or parsley
1/4 cup raisins
1/4 cup chopped cucumber
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons chopped green onions
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons minced fresh onion
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Combine water and quinoa in a medium saucepan; bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer 20 minutes or until liquid is absorbed. Remove from heat; fluff with a fork. Stir in tomato and remaining ingredients. Cover; let stand 1 hour. Serve chilled or at room temperature.

CALORIES 182 (24% from fat); FAT 4.8g (sat 0.6g,mono 2.5g,poly 1.1g); IRON 3.5mg; CHOLESTEROL 0.0mg; CALCIUM 31mg; CARBOHYDRATE 31.6g; SODIUM 259mg; PROTEIN 5g; FIBER 5.3g

Cooking Light, OCTOBER 1999

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We actually had a *gasp* vegetarian meal.  Even when meat is not the star around here, it is typically incorporated as unctuous stock, or at the very least acts as garnish to soups or salads or sandwiches…  but without really thinking about it, I made a vegetarian meal.

First there was the broth.  Vegetable stock is a misnomer.  Without connective tissue, it is broth and not stock.  But as I figured out recently, there is no need for vegetable broth to be without flavor.  Mine turned out downright spicy!  Fennel tops, bendy celery, an old and cracked carrot, a handful of peppercorns, some salvaged cloves of sprouting garlic right in their paper skins, and some thick slices of unpeeled ginger.  And because there is no need for bones to release their collagen or for connective tissue to break down, it only took about an hour.

If at first you don’t succeed…

Fennel is new to me.  More accurately, home-cooked fennel bulb that tastes good is new to me.  I have watched it prepared a zillion times on the tube, often running right out to get some and try it myself.  I have roasted and sauteed and slawwed.  And every time it overwhelms with anise flavor in a truly unpleasant way.  I would be scared off for another year or so, convinced it was not meant to be.

To add insult to injury, I know I like it.  Anytime I order fennel soup in a nice restaurant it is tempered and smooth and gorgeous.  I grew up loving fennel seed in Italian Sausages and bread.  Decades ago in Southern California I made a hobby of learning to cook Indian food, and discovered an entirely different direction for fennel seed.  The feathery bits of leaves are great tossed into a green salad, or with eggs or fish in the place of dill.  Every part of the fennel plant is edible, even the pollen, but successfully cooking the damn bulb eludes me!

Franz Eugen Köhler, Köhler's Medizinal-Pflanzen (1887)

Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is interesting botanically because it is considered the sole species in it’s genus, although one cultivar stands out as being sweeter with a slightly larger bulb (Florence Fennel, Foeniculum vulgare var. azoricum).  Plants able to adapt to various habitats without evolving into different subspecies have to be tenacious.  This tough perennial has naturalized throughout the world, propagating easily by seed.  In climates similar to it’s Mediterranean origin it is an invasive species contributing to habitat destruction.

Introduced by humans to California, it has made itself at home across much of the state.  On Santa Cruz Island in the Channel Islands it has overrun native habitat, much like the introduced and devastating feral pigs which thrive on a diet of naturalized fennel.  Ironically it has also provided cover and shelter to native Island Foxes, a species recently hunted into threatened status by the Golden Eagle.  The Golden Eagle moved to the islands after humans completely displaced the Bald Eagle with DDT.  Ah the web we weave, or unweave as the case may be.  Recently Bald Eagles have been successfully reintroduced.

Fennel’s intricate history with humans far pre-dates California settlement and goes beyond just food.  It reads like a missing chapter from The Botany of Desire, what I find to be Michael Pollan’s most enjoyable work.  It is a book of essays about four plants which have benefited and changed due to the desires of mankind and how they in turn changed us.  Fennel was an important plant medicinally and mythologically in Ancient Greece, and the Romans carried it throughout their realm as well.  Used in Europe as one of the three herbs to make absinthe, the others being anise and grande wormwood, the rituals and lore surrounding absinthe production and consumption further the plant’s mystique.

Mystique to me is just science I don’t yet understand.  And the science which makes fennel special is really cool.  That overwhelming flavor comes from anethole, an unsaturated ether which measures 13 times sweeter than sugar.  And because anethole is less soluble in water than ethanol, it makes anise-flavored liquors milky and opaque when mixed with water.  This Ouzo Effect is a case of science spawning culture and ritual.  In this case resulting in artwork, specialized glasses, spoons, and antiques.  The collector in me swoons!  The legacy of it being hallucinogenic is entirely false, however the hypothesis is that cheaply made absinthe in the 19th century had toxic additives and color enhancements which fueled the lore.  (Humans adding toxic additives and chemicals to increase profits and thereby sell a dangerous product to an unwitting and less affluent demographic?  Imagine that!)

But yet I’ve been hesitant all these years to try absinthe.  I have never cared for licorice before, and have always turned down anise-flavored food and drink.  Really…  all this talk about making sure The Child tries new things, and here I am having never tried it before?  Note to self:  I ought set a good example and rectify this deficiency soon!  If for no other reason than the chemistry is so darn nifty.  But I digress…

"Absinthe Drinker" by Viktor Oliva

Fennel has a glorious history.  It has unique flavors and chemistry which have infiltrated centuries of human history.  It’s done pretty well for itself.  So at the very least I should learn to cook it!  In my previous attempts, I was clearly missing something.

…try, try again.

A friend recently offered a tip.  Steam it a bit.  Instead of just sauteing, hit it with a cooking liquid of some kind, slap the cover on, and let it go all translucent.  So I did just that.  I used the spicy vegetable broth I had made the day before.  And after giving it 15 minutes, took the cover off and tasted.

It was a bit soupy yet, and terribly white and bland looking, but it tasted really, really good!  I left the cover off and simmered most of the soupiness away.  At this point it I intended to let it caramelize a bit while figuring out what the heck to serve it with.  In the 15 minutes it took the quinoa to cook, the mush had reduced to more of a mash.  A colorless and ucky looking, but incredibly tasty, mash.  A little sprinkle of frozen chopped spinach (frozen peas would have also worked) and it had some color.  Sort of.  Who cares…  fennel finally tasted awesome and The Child had seconds!  She in fact chose to mix it in with her quinoa and eat them together.

This is exactly the kind of side dish that works well for an infant or toddler.  It is already nearly baby food as it is, but give it an extra whirl in the blender if necessary.  I remember sitting down with The Child to feed her dinner while we ate, and she was always thrilled when we offered her a taste of something off our plates.  Sometimes she wanted more of what we had, and sometimes she would return to the baby food options we had started with.  It instilled the family habit of The Child trying anything offered really early, but it never could have happened without us all sitting down for dinner together.

So how do you like your fennel?  All this chemistry talk makes me curious if using alcohol as a cooking liquid with fennel changes it’s flavor profile.  Maybe there is a chemical trick to various vinaigrettes which make raw salads more palatable?  I have many more experiments ahead.  Tell me your favorites, and share some recipes in the comments so I can try preparing it again and again!

Spicy Vegetable Broth

Stalks & leaves from 2 fennel bulbs
Leftover celery and carrots past their prime
Garlic cloves, given a quick smash but left whole and in their papers
2-3” piece of ginger, unpeeled and sliced
6-10 whole peppercorns
1 bay leaf

Put everything in a pot with cold water and bring to a boil.  Simmer for about an hour.  After it cools enough to handle, strain and store accordingly.

Fennel & Onion Mash

(This can hardly be called a recipe when I was haphazardly winging it on this one.   But *something* worked… I just don’t know what.  An extra puree at the end would make this the best baby food ever!)

2 fennel bulbs, sliced thin
1 large sweet onion, sliced in half end-to-end, then sliced into half circles
Olive oil
Cooking liquid (broth, stock, water, wine, etc.)
Seasonings of Choice (I used just salt & pepper)
Colored add-in of choice (I used half a handful of chopped, frozen spinach.  Peas, chopped sun-dried tomatoes, or fresh herbs would also work.  Or a drizzle of pan sauce or gravy…  Yum.)

Saute in a saucepan with olive oil and seasonings until just starting to brown on the bottom of the pan.  Add enough cooking liquid to nearly cover veg and then cover pot and turn down temperature so it slowly simmers away.  Let it simmer covered for 10-15 minutes, occasionally giving it a stir.  (For a quick soup, carefully transfer mixture to the food processor with it’s liquid at this stage.)  After the cover is removed let it simmer to your preferred consistency.  For the mash I let it slowly bubble while pulling together the rest of dinner.  It took mine about a half an hour.  Stir occasionally to keep mash from sticking to the sides of the pan.  Turn off the heat and sprinkle in chopped frozen spinach and serve warm.

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My recent post about nutrition myths inspired one of the best blog post titles ever…  I Bought a Vat of Oil.  It says it all, doesn’t it?  I am looking forward to reading about how it turned out for Maya and her mom.  It took us a few practice rounds to figure out the timing.

Basically when the food hits the oil, the water molecules inside start to boil and push their way out of the food.  This creates a vapor barrier for the oil.  But if the frying goes too long, you run out of steam.  Then the chemistry flips, and the food becomes an instant oil sponge.  This is why healthy frying can really only happen at home, or at a good restaurant under the watchful eye of a careful chef.  Most franchise restaurants pre-fry food before shipping it to locations, they don’t change the oil often enough, and they don’t monitor oil temperature.  Yuck.

"As certain as my heart is ticking, I'm certain no living chicken Has ever so clearly commanded a living cook before With an utterance so clear and shocking that even I could not ignore. Quoth the chicken, Fry some more."

We were turned on to frying after watching Alton Brown’s Good Eats.  If you have not seen AB’s show by now, it is pure genius of television production, witty writing, food science, and of course Good Eats.  The episode which really talks the beginner through how to deep fry safely is Fry Hard, wherein he demonstrates Fish & Chips.  Fry Hard II is a now classic episode all about pan-fried chicken.  But we found Alton’s hush puppy recipe was the best way to practice getting the timing just right with deep frying.  Not to mention they are a fabulously tasty little experiment!  It is really his corn dog recipe from The Man Show episode, but taking a disher to the leftover batter and frying it leads to scrumptious results.

The Food Network folks irritatingly only publish Good Eats as tiny thematic collections rather than by season.  I would have purchased many seasons worth by now, and have recently gone looking for particular episodes to buy.  Only to give up out of frustration.  They are not available on Amazon, so third party sellers have jacked up the prices as if they were out of print.  They are instead available on the Food Network Website, and I provide links below, but neither Food Network nor Amazon provide a clear indication of which episodes are included in which volume.  Not until researching this post did I find a fan website providing a cheat sheet to keep track of which episode is in which volume, I have realized I am too irritated with Food Network for wasting my time to give them any hard earned cash.  Besides, my DVR now cycles through old episodes quite regularly, and Food Network has missed the boat.  *stepping off disgruntled soapbox now*

Fish & Chips on Fry Hard on Volume 14

This is the episode which runs through what deep frying is all about, from selecting equipment, to oil, to technique.  It is available on YouTube in two parts with some quality issues, but would be worth seeking out as a real reference.

Fried Chicken on Fry Hard II on Volume 3

While the clip on the Food Network recipe page and on hulu are both fabulously instructional, the opening bit of witty writing is well worth appreciating again and again.  Thanks again to the fan site for providing a transcript!  Quoth the chicken, “Fry some more!”  In addition, this episode uses an excellent comparison to a wooden dinosaur skeleton to relay the best way to break down a bird, as well as explanations for why cast iron is just so darn awesome.

Corn Dogs on The Man Show on Volume 7

Here Food Network has provided some useful information.  On the recipe page is a video clip from the show detailing how he makes corn dogs, and the episode page indicates it should re-air on June 17th and 18th.  Set your DVRs people!

Getting back on topic…  Why do these recipes appeal to kids?  And why is it okay to consider them part of a healthy meal?

Fried food appeals to kids because it tastes good.  It’s not called GB&D (golden brown and delicious) for nothing.  It will recalibrate what a corn dog or fish stick or french fry really should taste like.  It contributed to The Child being a three-year old who wouldn’t eat fast food.  Sure, she would beg her grandparents to take her so she could get the latest toy, but during the annual power outage when I brought home Burger King for dinner, she chose to nibble and go to bed hungry.

Most kids have heard of corn dogs and are willing to try them.   This recipe even made jalapeño peppers less scary.  And healthy frying subsequently made zucchini and eggplant and sweet potatoes accessible ingredients The Child looked forward to as well.  But the fat content you say?!?!?  Remember that vapor barrier.  In his Fish & Chips preparation, AB makes enough food to feed four people.  Measuring the oil before and after frying, only 1.5 Tbsp of oil were unaccounted for, either having drained away or remained on the Fish & Chips.  One Tbsp of any fat = 100 calories.  Split four ways and rounding up, that’s 38 calories from oil per person.  Once you factor in portion control and pair it with a variety of sides, my layperson’s opinion is that correctly fried food can easily be part of a healthy meal.

Still Learning

We recently had a Good Eats inspired weekend frying extravaganza ourselves.  Saturday was our second success making AB’s fried catfish.  After watching his recent episode outlining the sustainability of US farmed catfish, as well as advice on how to purchase it (still frozen and vacuum sealed to thaw at home), we felt brave enough to try the unfamiliar.  Our only tweak of the recipe is to slice the fish into smaller pieces for a higher crust to fish ratio.  This gorgeous plate of GB&D combined with some beautiful weather spawning an impromptu block party.  Nothing like sharing with half a dozen people to ensure the best portion control around.

Fried catfish and hush puppies to share with the neighborhood

Sunday I left for an afternoon appointment, and came home to a fabulous surprise.  Daddy Daughter Doughnut Day™.  They had braved making doughnuts together.  Maple-Bacon Glazed Apple Doughnuts.  While doughnuts are obviously not health food,  the experience of making them with her dad only comes around once in a while.  They both took a huge sense of accomplishment away from the venture as well (the dough is super sticky and presented challenges), but The Child helped roll and cut out over four dozen doughnuts, and The Spouse managed to keep his plans under wraps until the literally jaw-dropping reveal.

Never-ending doughnuts... Next time, a single batch.

We had friends over, we all gathered round the kitchen counter eating our dessert first, and The Child had an epic sugar crash later.  And it was so worth it.  The time, effort, and learning which went into them made it all the more fun to enjoy her hard work with others.  And given said time and effort, these will not become a regular addition to our diet.  Plus, it’s important that The Child see the benefits of eating well most of the time.  Once in a special while it’s okay to have 3 doughnuts and spoil your appetite!

Yes, we all hope our kids eat healthy all the time.  But that’s not realistic.  So I define eating well for The Child as trying anything and everything without being rude.  She needs to eat variety, and learn portion control.  That may be very different than eating healthy, as is the case with a bacon-maple glazed apple doughnut.  But that being said, frying at home as a cooking method ought not be vilified.  And when the target food is a healthy one, healthy frying is not an oxymoron.

Maple and Bacon-Glazed Apple Doughnuts

Prepare 3 strips of bacon, dice, and reserve rendered fat.
Finely chop one apple, and saute in bacon fat.
Add sauteed apple and half the diced bacon to AB’s Yeast Doughnut dough.

Glaze:
Heat 1/2 cup maple syrup with 2 cups icing sugar.
Add a bit of apple juice until it is the correct consistency and add the remaining diced bacon.

Yeast Doughnuts
Recipe courtesy Alton Brown, 2004

Prep Time:25 min
Inactive Prep Time:1 hr 50 min
Cook Time:12 min
Serves:20 to 25 doughnuts

Ingredients

•    1 1/2 cups milk
•    2 1/2 ounces vegetable shortening, approximately 1/3 cup
•    2 packages instant yeast
•    1/3 cup warm water (95 to 105 degrees F)
•    2 eggs, beaten
•    1/4 cup sugar
•    1 1/2 teaspoons salt
•    1 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
•    23 ounces all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting surface
•    Peanut or vegetable oil, for frying (1 to 1/2 gallons, depending on fryer)

Directions

Place the milk in a medium saucepan and heat over medium heat just until warm enough to melt the shortening. Place the shortening in a bowl and pour warmed milk over. Set aside.

In a small bowl, sprinkle the yeast over the warm water and let dissolve for 5 minutes. After 5 minutes, pour the yeast mixture into the large bowl of a stand mixer and add the milk and shortening mixture, first making sure the milk and shortening mixture has cooled to lukewarm. Add the eggs, sugar, salt, nutmeg, and half of the flour. Using the paddle attachment, combine the ingredients on low speed until flour is incorporated and then turn the speed up to medium and beat until well combined. Add the remaining flour, combining on low speed at first, and then increase the speed to medium and beat well. Change to the dough hook attachment of the mixer and beat on medium speed until the dough pulls away from the bowl and becomes smooth, approximately 3 to 4 minutes. Transfer to a well-oiled bowl, cover, and let rise for 1 hour or until doubled in size.

On a well-floured surface, roll out dough to 3/8-inch thick. Cut out dough using a 2 1/2-inch doughnut cutter or pastry ring and using a 7/8-inch ring for the center whole. Set on floured baking sheet, cover lightly with a tea towel, and let rise for 30 minutes.

Preheat the oil in a deep fryer or Dutch oven to 365 degrees F. Gently place the doughnuts into the oil, 3 to 4 at a time. Cook for 1 minute per side. Transfer to a cooling rack placed in baking pan. Allow to cool for 15 to 20 minutes prior to glazing, if desired.

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Apparently it’s Incredible Ingredient Wednesday!  Who knew?  The box of veggies from spud! arrived yesterday, and tonight for dinner The Child and I had Black Knight Carrots grown by Tutti Frutti Farms in Northern Santa Barbara County.  They were dark and dirty and merely different until I went to peel them, at which point they became jaw-droppingly beautiful.  The Child heard me *gasp* and came running to see these glorious things!!

So I just had to photograph them.

Then I came back in the kitchen to chop ‘em up for dinner.  And *gasp* squared!!  I soon had a pile of sliced, purple, polka-dot carrots.  Sheer awesome!

They taste pretty much like a regular carrot raw, but I wanted to see how they cooked up.  Typically I roast my carrots in the oven, but tonight I wanted to take advantage of the color.  So I rough chopped some onion and sauteed both with olive oil, Penzeys Garlic Salt, and fresh ground pepper.  Then I added a cup or so of homemade stock and slapped a cover on while it simmered away at medium heat for a bit.  When the carrots were nearly cooked, I took the cover off and let the sauce reduce down while I nuked some leftover water buffalo chuck roast from the weekend.  Voila!  Dinner is served in 20 minutes tops.  Ha!  And I was worried we would starve with The Spouse out of town.

Black Knight Carrots and Onions with leftover water buffalo chuck roast

The carrots typically found at most markets are orange, but they also come in red, yellow, white, and as I found out today…  purple.  And it turns out that this tasty taproot probably originated as red, yellow or purple wild varieties in Afghanistan, before the Dutch developed the first recorded orange carrot in the 17th Century.  We don’t have room for anything but container gardening at our condo, but if you are looking to add a little purple pizzazz to your garden this summer, why not get some Purple Dragons from Seeds of Change and report back on how easy or difficult they are to grow.

Every different color on the plate is a different package of micronutrients.  Sometimes, kids are more interested in sampling a familiar food in a different format.  The kid eats peas, so try crunching some sugar snap peas.  They like carrots, so here is a purple one.  You like purple food?  Maybe you’ll dig beets next week.  Advocating variety is easy to preach, but some families might need baby steps first.  There are families out there struggling with a limited number of ingredients which sidestep drama, especially veggies.  And carrots are often on the shortlist.

Obviously this recipe works for any variety of carrot, including the humble orange one at the grocery store.  But if you stumble across specimens at the farmer’s market or specialty market, it is worth taking the risk.  This was the best $3.27 I have spent in a long time, and The Child loved it.  Thank you spud!.  I just hope I’ll be able to order them again next week.

When you get carrots home, remove the tops to preserve their flavor longer.  I remember reading that carrot greens are inedible but cannot remember where, and when Kevin Gillespie prepared a well received dish using them on Top Chef it made me wonder.  Apparently I wasn’t the only one, and there is an excellent post about the various thoughts on the matter of carrot tops over at The Upstart Kitchen.

Sauteed Black Knight Carrots and Onions

One small bunch of Black Knight carrots, sliced into rounds
One large onion, rough chopped
Olive oil
Penzeys Garlic Salt
Fresh ground pepper
~1 cup homemade stock, wine, or water

Saute carrot slices and onion in olive oil.  Season with Penzeys Garlic Salt and pepper, or your personal spices of choice.  Once the onion has started to brown a bit, add about a cup of homemade stock.  Cover and simmer on medium heat.  When the carrots were nearly cooked (not quite fork tender), uncover reduce any remaining liquid until it gets syrupy.  Serve warm.

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