Saturday, August 30, 2008

Wow, I want to eat this immediately

Sweet corn ice cream sounds AMAZING!

Tiny market, giant Swiss chard

Today I got up late, and I was way too tired and grumpy to consider dealing with the 10 a.m. USG crowd. Since I needed to stop by my vet on Berry Street, I decided to go for a long walk to McCarren Park and do my weekly shopping at the pint-sized Williamsburg greenmarket.

Not too shabby for a little market:
1 lb. wax beans
1 bunch carrots
1/2 lb. mesclun greens
1 bunch GIANT Swiss chard
1 bunch beets w/ greens
1 bunch parsley
1 bunch arugula
3 onions
1 lb. nectarines
1 lb. peaches
Total spent: $30

For scale, here's a photo of the chard leaves positioned next to a lounging 15-lb. tomcat. As you can see, they are about the same size.

There were fewer than ten vendors in McCarren Park, but a few of them had good selections. Things seemed a bit more disorganized than with Union Square vendors, perhaps because the crowds at the Williamsburg market are smaller, and a bit more laid-back. I don't think I'll start going to this market regularly, but it was a nice change of pace for a morning when I just didn't feel like making the trek out to Manhattan. I was disappointed that nobody had any corn - I'll have to go to USG midweek for our corn-on-the-cob fix.

On the way home, I stopped by Brooklyn Kitchen to pick up a dozen more mason jars and a box of pectin. Today I'm making nectarine jam, and I think I'll do half with pectin and half without so that I can eventually compare them.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Just a reminder...

...that créme anglaise is pretty much the most delicious substance in the known universe.

Culture (and nectarine) jamming

Today I made a list, and stuck to it!

1 1/2 lbs. yellow string beans
3 heirloom tomatoes
2 lbs. green and yellow zucchini
2 jalapenos
1 1/2 lbs. carrots
2 ears bicolor corn
1 lb. cranberry beans
1 bunch kale
1 bunch chard
1 lb. (mixed) sorrel, pea shoots, and salad greens
1/2 lb. shallots
2 heads Rocambole garlic
1 bunch Italian parsley
1 bunch thyme
1 box blackberries
2 lbs. peaches
3 lbs. nectarines
Total spent: $68

Nectarines are rapidly disappearing, so I'm going to have to decide whether to eat or jam this batch. I think I might do half and half - even two jars of jam from these otherworldly nectarines will be wonderful to have on hand for winter. In other fruit news, I'm going to attempt to make vanilla bean creme anglaise to pour over the blackberries for dessert tonight.

I'm currently reading Unmarketable by Anne Elizabeth Moore, and while what's socking me in the stomach about every four pages are her astute and unflinching observations about the way corporations co-opt underground culture, including music (and the spectrum of complicity from the underground artists and producers she names, several of whom are friends and about half of whom I've worked with), the connections to the way food is marketed are unmistakeable.

The USG, for all its sprawl, flapping banners, and denim-clad, often-grubby-handed vendors, can instill in shoppers a sense of local pride, as well as a feeling of connection to the food and the land; above all, meeting and talking to the people who grow our food creates a sense of community and trust. Emotional responses to consumption (discussed in depth by Moore) are nothing new, and in this case, they're based on genuine shared experience.

Across the street, shoppers entering Whole Foods are encouraged toward the same emotional responses, but for these shoppers the responses are engineered by the marketing departments who put together the stores. Though local produce constitutes a relatively low proportion of what's available at Whole Foods Union Square at any given time, the word "local" in various home-style fonts swirls around the high-heaped market-style displays, implying that just by shopping at Whole Foods, the local community is enriched. Slogans throughout the store make frequent use of the pronoun "we," encouraging a sense of attachment to some (false, artificially constructed) Whole Foods community.

Perhaps most ludicrous is Whole Foods' current attempt to brand themselves as an economical choice, offering "smart shopper" tours that tout sales and their in-store brands - thoough it doesn't appear that any actual price-cutting has attended this new marketing effort. However, Moore makes the point that nowadays advertising messages don't need to be true; even claims that are instantly refutable are made in such a way that consumers will unknowingly embrace the associated "feeling" (in this case, connecting Whole Foods with economical shopping) even when the facts speak otherwise.

Emotion-based branding is so extensive that most of us probably don't realize how much we've been affected by it. I've recognized some of my own attachments: e.g. no matter how much I disdain its ownership by Nike, or how tacky I find their new shoes, there is an unshakeable place in my heart for Converse. When I was a kid, they were still the shoes of the counterculture, and when I put on my first pair in 7th grade, this symbol of misunderstood cool salved the everyday torture of middle school for a nerdy smart girl. Regardless of how much the company and I have both changed, that association is too powerful to dissolve.

Given its connections with comfort, family, body image, self-control, and health, food is already a highly emotional area for many of us; thus food shopping, already rife with anxiety and perceived stigmas, provides immediate emotional access to marketers. The more we hear often-misleading mainstream media coverage of the locavore movement and carbon footprints, meat recalls, e.coli outbreaks from spinach, the debates over the value of organics, or the healthfulness of dairy products, eggs, or fish, the more vulnerable we become to the type of food marketing (like that practiced by Whole Foods) that offers to soothe the seething worry.

As with most powerful marketing initiatives of our age, the irony is palpable: across the street from the "eat here and you'll be fine"-messaged Whole Foods (and its plethora of nutrient-fortified, lab-formulated, sugar-laden, processed "health" junk food) are food choices that can genuinely negate these anxieties. The meat, eggs, and milk are pasture-raised from local, grazing animals and therefore pose little or no risk of heart disease; some of the vegetables are organic while some are not, but none of them are processed in the type of facilities that are vulnerable to e.coli contamination; the locally-baked breads are preservative-free: in short, it's unlikely that any meal sourced from the greenmarket will be detrimental to health.

Whole Foods and many of the corporate-organic "health" brands it sells benefit from keeping us confused about what's good to eat, then offering their brand as an umbrella answer - though many of the foods they sell range from simply unhealthy to actually toxic. Local farmers, who sell genuinely healthful, sustainable foods, don't market themselves. Whole Foods is crowded every time I shop there, but so is the greenmarket, and increasingly so: while our branded world honestly terrifies me, the weekly crowds at the greenmarket offer some room for hope.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Ol' Strawberry Arm in the media

I have long meant to post a photo of the tattoo I have on my arm - a reproduction of a botanical illustration of a strawberry plant - but I am quite lazy. Luckily, Bill from Tattoosday recently featured it on his blog. Read his post and find out what a nerd I really am HERE.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Lentil pepper-pot

We had dinner last night at 10 p.m. because I got home late and had a bug to make this lentil soup I'd dreamed up on the train. I just used the peppers I had on hand, which weren't Anaheims but were similar; the soup turned out terrific, but next time I might heighten the smoky flavor by adding some ancho chile powder along with the cumin. I served this with whole-wheat tortilla triangles that I sprayed with olive oil, sprinkled with cumin and smoked Spanish paprika, and crisped under the broiler (on the "low" setting). I'm not totally sure on the yield but it makes LOTS, probably at least ten cups.

Lentil pepper-pot soup
3 tbsp olive oil
1 cup minced onion (about 4 small)
1 jalapeno pepper, cut into very small dice
2 tsp ground cumin
3 cloves garlic
1 red bell pepper, roasted and cut into small dice
2 Anaheim peppers, roasted and cut into small dice
4 cups vegetable stock
2 cups water
2 cups red lentils
4-6 cups Swiss chard leaves torn into 1-2" pieces
1 tbsp lemon juice, or to taste
salt to taste

Heat 2 1/2 tbsp olive oil in medium-to-large heavy-bottomed saucepan (5 qt. would be ideal), add onions, jalapenos, and a pinch of salt, and saute until soft and onions are slightly golden.

Clear the center of the pan, add remaining 1/2 tbsp olive oil, add garlic and cumin, and stir together until fragrant, about 30 seconds; add roasted peppers, stir all ingredients together, and cook about 1 minute.

Add stock, water, and lentils. Cover and bring to a boil; reduce to a simmer and cooking, stirring occasionally, until lentils have completely softened and broken down, about 20 minutes? (oops, I wasn't paying attention to how long this took).

Add lemon juice, salt to taste, and chard leaves, and cook 3 more minutes, until chard is completely wilted. Remove from heat, taste again for seasoning, and serve.

Currently reading

I picked up Stuffed And Starved by Raj Patel while browsing at St. Mark's Bookshop the other evening, surprised I hadn't heard of it until then. It's an in-depth look at the global food economy, and how corporations and governments have worked together in creating our highly profitable but volatile and totally unsustainable worldwide network of producers, distributors, and consumers.

It's been so eye-opening already: as early as the 1940s, US food aid has been used to shape political policy overseas, ensuring the political pliability of countries who become dependent on this aid. Patel also examines the growing phenomenon of farmer suicides, and looks at activist movements in countries like South Korea and Mexico that have grown up in response to "free market" farm policies whose implementation threatens small farming. This quote, from South Korean legislator and activist Kang Ki Kap about the WTO, is beautiful and its truth applies to so much about our current economic climate (italics mine):
The most essential things for human beings are the elements - sun, air, water and food. These are the essential resources for people's lives. God decided that these things would be the enjoyment of all, so that all might live. He does not intend that we monopolize the elements - yet because they're so abundant, people treat them as trivial, do not take them seriously. The trend, the wind behind the WTO, is the globalization of the capitalist system. The fundamental contradiction is the polarization of the rich and poor, with the poor getting poorer and the rich getting richer. Some might say that this is the natural logic of competition. But if you're a human being with reason and conscience, then the WTO should be eliminated. Especially the agricultural sector and market pressures. To live, people need to eat. You cannot commercialize this. It's such an anti-human behavior, not just anti-social, but anti-people.

Patel posts at the interesting Stuffed & Starved website as well. I think the next book in my Global Food Crisis Reading List will be The End Of Food by Paul Roberts - I've heard a lot about it.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Quick summary - greenmarket demo, jam, dinner

Today, I was part of the Greenmarket, not just a shopper! The Natural Gourmet has students at Union Square demonstrating seasonal recipes every Saturday through November. We made sauteed eggplant with basil and balsamic vinegar, and sauteed red potatoes with parsley and fresh garlic. It was kinda fun, but mostly just uneventful. I went shopping beforehand and stashed my haul in the walk-in refrigerator at school during the demo.

It was a long day:
1 1/2 lbs. lima beans
3 ears white corn
1 bunch swiss chard
2 lbs. carrots
1 lb. onions
3/4 lb. salad mix
4 Empire apples
2 lbs. peaches
2 lbs. nectarines
half-flat of blackberries
Total spent: $61

I've already made the insanely flavorful blackberries from Fantasy Fruit into five gorgeous jewel-toned half-pint jars of jam - though after I tasted a couple I wanted to eat the lot. I used the same basic recipe as I used for the strawberry jam, but I used 1/2 cup grated apple and 3/4 cup agave nectar. I don't know if it was the increased apple or just that blackberries have more natural thickener than strawberries, but this jam set up in ten minutes. Next, I'll do apricot and nectarine.

The limas were boiled until tender (about five minutes), then sauteed into a pseudo-succotash along with the kernels from two ears of corn, one finely-diced onion and a couple pinches of cumin; I plated it topped with some of the roasted red pepper coulis I made a few days back (roasted red pepper, hot sauce, olive oil, salt, and lemon juice). We had salad with refrigerator-pickled beets and goat feta from Lynnhaven farms first, then the succotash with half a grilled Tofurkey sausage. It was a terrific dinner!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

A late-night strawberry jam session

It worked! I went pectin-free this time, using a bit of grated apple instead. The resulting jam is much softer than our peach jam, but I like the texture. And it tastes wonderful - the Tristar strawberries from Fantasy Fruit Farm are so sweet and flavorful.

The one drawback to my jam experiment beyond being up past midnight on a work night? It was pricey. Figuring in the cost of six pints of strawberries, three lemons, an apple, and the jars, I spent more per half-pint jar than the $5.50 Phillips Farms charges for their delicious jams.

But I did get to use agave nectar instead of sugar or white grape juice concentrate, and go without the pectin. And my photo assistant and I were careful to adjust the sweetener just perfectly to our liking. If I had my own garden, or if I lived near a much-less-expensive "pick your own" farm, this jam would have been a lot more economical. As it is, I have four beautiful jars of strawberry jam I can crack open to combat winter doldrums.

Next on the list? Blackberry. Or nectarine. I'm going to try pickling jalapenos, too - and maybe some cucumbers to keep things traditional.

Strawberry Jam
6 pints strawberries (makes 4 cups mashed berries)
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/2 to 3/4 cup agave nectar
1/4 cup grated peeled apple

1. Sterilize five 1/2-pint jars by boiling them in a hot water bath for five minutes. Turn off heat and leave jars in water until ready to pack.
2. Wash and stem strawberries (I washed mine three times - little ones can get quite dirty).
3. Transfer stemmed strawberries to a wide-bottomed bowl and mash them. You can use a potato masher, but I used my fingers.
4. Stir mashed berries, lemon juice, agave nectar, and grated apple together in a heavy-bottomed three-quart saucepan over medium-high heat.
5. Bring to a full, rolling boil and boil at least 10 minutes, or up to 15 minutes. Adjust sweetener to taste after 5 minutes and again after 10 minutes. To test for jelling, put a white plate in the freezer when you start cooking the jam; when ready to test, put a teaspoon of jam liquid on the plate, and return to freezer for one minute. You should be able to make a line in the jam with your finger that doesn't fill back in at all, but this never happened to me - the line filled in most of the way even after 14 minutes boiling. My jam turned out awesome, though, so just boil it as long as you see fit, but no more than 15 minutes. Remember, the worst possible outcome at this point is runny jam, which will be delicious on ice cream or yogurt, so don't overcook your berries to try to make them jell.
6. Remove a jar from the water, ladle hot fruit mixture into jar leaving 1/4" headspace, wipe threaded rim of jar clean, and attach lid and band. Repeat until all jars are full. You will probably have enough to fill four jars, with some left over. Fill another jar partially with the excess, refrigerate, and use within a few weeks.
7. Process in a boiling water bath for 5 minutes. Leave undisturbed overnight or until completely cool (about 12 hours), check seals (they should be concave and should not pop in and out), and store. Any unsealed jars should go into the fridge and be used within a few weeks.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Wart a dilly!

I've never really understood this pun from Chicken Trek. It's one of the many pickle-themed taunts yelled at Oscar and his cousin Dr. Peter Pretchwinkle as they cross the country in the Picklemobile (which, to be exact, is actually at that point called the RemDem (tm), though its pickley appearance is really all that's relevant here).

Regardless, the phrase always pops up when I think of dilly beans. For these, I was inspired by a recipe I found on this Gardenweb thread. I used about 2 lbs. snap beans, dill, serrano peppers, slightly bruised garlic cloves, a half-and-half water and apple cider vinegar mixture, and kosher salt. Everything went smoothly, though I panicked a bit when it was time to remove the air bubbles, since I didn't know how - turns out it's easy enough to do with a rubber spatula. All the lids have popped and gone concave, which seems like a good sign. Also they are cute!

Also I made granola, which turned out fine, though next time I'll use fewer sesame seeds. I also attempted to make seitan, which was a total failure: I guess blithely ignoring the fact that the recipe calls for bread flour wasn't such a good idea. But batting .667 isn't bad for a Tuesday.

Monday, August 11, 2008

A coupla nice melons

I know, I know, another boob joke. I just enjoy them, is all. In fact, I wasn't going to photograph this pair (!) 'til I thought of the boob-joke possibility. But the real story here is that the gal on the left is a canteloupe - a green-fleshed canteloupe. I know from honeydews, and this is definitely a canteloupe, even though I've never seen anything like it. But this internet website says they exist. I haven't yet sorted out exactly what type of magical powers they are supposed to have, but it really explains a lot about my day to know that I've been carrying around an enchanted fruit.

Today I got up earrrrrly and went to the greenmarket before work, because I was out of town at our yearly distribution summit on Saturday. The Monday market is always fun, but toting fifteen-or-so pounds of vegetables on my shoulders twenty-five blocks isn't so much. And the melons added lots of weight.

My weird walk home from the train, laden as I was, was undoubtedly due to the mysterious influence of the green canteloupe. First, I saw a beefy young fellow wearing a Cal Poly San Luis Obispo shirt. Note to my parents: if this is the private investigator you hired to follow me around and make sure I'm not partying all the time, you might want to try someone else. A block later, I saw a fellow who looked and was dressed exactly like Howard Jones. Later, a guy with an extremely round head wearing a Pavement t-shirt that had the New York skyline on it smiled at me.

At any rate, I'm hoping that green canteloupe will cast a goodluck charm on my project for tomorrow - canning part two: dilly beans!