Sunday, February 27, 2011

Homemade Bread

I have fond memories of helping my mother make bread, and then getting to eat the heel, fresh out of the oven, with too much butter. When I was fifteen or sixteen, I started making bread on my own, and remember feeling great pride that I could actually make something edible. As an adult, I am very comfortable with baking and I look back on my teenaged self and have two thoughts: one, how naive I was to think making bread was hard, and two, maybe it was good I felt it was an accomplishment or I wouldn't have continued.

Now I go through phases where making bread feels like a wonderful treat, warming the house on a cold day, and then I'll feel that buying bread from our local bakery is the treat - how easy! How many choices! Luckily, I am able to time these phases to the seasons so I don't bake bread in the summer.

I am a little glib in my statement that bread is easy. Some bread is. I certainly have had my share of brick-like flops. Sourdough alludes me. I have yet to get a really dark, rich raisin bread like a bakery can. However, I have found a recipe that works for me, day in and day out. My first two cookbooks were The Joy of Cooking from my grandmother and The Baba-A-Louis Bread Book from my father. I practiced with the bread book for years, making consistently good bread. I followed their basic formula of 2 lbs flour to 3 cups water and 1 teas. yeast, adding extras as desired. That formula morphed into my own basic loaf that I make two or three times a week. I vary the extras, sometimes bake it in a bread pan, sometimes I form it into a boule. It's always slightly different. Once you get the basic formula down, you, too can explore.

The joy of this bread, for me at least, is that it can go all day. I put it together in the morning and sometime in the evening put it into loaves to rise. By the time I go to bed, I've cooked it. The long, slow rise eliminates the need for a second kneading, so that this bread almost makes itself. It's similar to laundry: the whole process can feel overwhelming until you realize all you need to do first is sort the clothes and put a load into the washer. You then have some time to do something else before the drying step happens, and then more time before you fold and put away. Broken down into steps, it's quite doable in an otherwise full schedule. I make the dough in a mixer, though it definitely can be kneaded by hand.

Basic Bread
makes 2 loaves

1 lb. white flour (or bread flour which makes for a smaller crumb)
1 lb. whole wheat or white wheat flour
2 cups dry oats
1/4 cup cornmeal or wheat germ
1/4 cup flax seeds
1 teas. instant yeast
1 teas. sea salt
2 TBSP olive oil
2 TBSP molasses (maple syrup can be substituted though it makes the bread dry out quicker)
3 cups warm water

In the bowl of a mixer, add all ingredients. With a dough hook, mix until dough forms a wet, evenly mixed mass, ~ a minute or two. It will seem very wet but the oatmeal will soak up a lot of the moisture as it rises.

Remove bowl from mixer, place a damp towel over bowl, and put in a warm place. I use a radiator. Hours later (anywhere from two to ten), punch down and divide into two even lumps. Knead each lump on a floured surface for a few minutes, form into a loaf, and either put onto an oiled cookie sheet for a boule or into two oiled bread pans for loaves.

Let rise in a warm place for an hour or so, until dough has almost doubled in size. Preheat oven to 350 and bake bread for 40 minutes. Remove from oven and let sit for 5 or 10 minutes then remove bread from pans or cookie sheet and let cool on a rack. Unless you want to dig into the bread immediately, which I highly recommend.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Winter Potato Salad

I have an image of my parents bringing home to eat random strangers they ran into who were in need of a home-cooked meal.  It probably actually happened only a few times--there was a monk with a travelling planetarium who might have even stayed with us for a while, and maybe a man who was biking accross the country--and I'm guessing the encounters and the indviduals weren't so random.  But whatever the real details, it left me with memories of unfamiliar and hungry faces opening into gentle smiles, then hearty laughs over thick, rich broth and home-made bread.  It made me wish that, at Passover dinner at Diana's house, someone would walk in off the street to sit at the place reserved for wanderers. 

This idea of sharing food got me into a few soup kitchens when I was younger, but the huge vats filled with a revolving lineup of soups and pastas, the inevitable culinary mishaps incurred when the eager and untrained try to cook inexpensive high volume meals, and the end understanding that this food was better than no food, lost the connection.  I didn't stay.

Then a few weeks ago I discovered Community Cooks.  Renee and I can join other home cooks in sharing with local folks in need what we are happy to have at our own tables.

For our first offering, we made a winter version of a potato salad we came up with (and posted) in the Spring.  :Local potatos, apple cider vinegar, and onions are available at the winter farmers' market!  We multiplied the recipe by ten.  In that volume, the onions didn't hold their shape well, and didn't quite caramelize, but they still added a deep sweetness to the dish.

Winter Potato Salad
serves 4

1 lb russett potatoes
2 T apple cider vinegar
2 T olive oil
1 bunch dill, chopped
2 slices bacon, sautee or baked lying flat on a cookie tray at 300 (no need to flip) 20-25 minutes.
Greens from 2 onions plus 4 green onions, whites and greens, chopped and sauteed in 2 tsp. bacon grease
1 onion, chopped and sauteed until caramelized in 1 T bacon greaste
salt and pepper to taste
salt and pepper to taste

Cut potatoes into 1" chunks and put into a pot of water.  Water should just cover potatoes.  Bring to a boil and cook until just tender.  Drain and put into a mixing bowl with vinegar and olive oil.  Add dill, bacon, onion greens, and salt and pepper and stir well. 

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Callen and Vivien's Winter Pick-Me-Up Salad

Typically, I make a menu every week, shop once or twice, and feel pretty organized. A few weeks ago, Dave and I decided to involve the kids. We have been blessed with good eaters, and we want to encourage their enjoyment of food. So, once a week, they are responsible for a meal. When I'm making the weekly menu, I help them look through their cookbooks and cooking magazine Chop Chop. It's locally produced and really well put together. The recipes are creative and well-written and really tasty. The kids often already have an idea of what they want to cook. Then, on their night, they are in charge. We offer guidance and do the knife work and stove cooking, but they decide what to put in original recipes, get ingredients out, clean up, mix and measure, set the table, clear. It's pretty cool to watch them figure things out. Sometimes I have to bite my tongue, but in general, they have really good instincts.

Last night was such a night. They opted to make chicken tenders from a cookbook Cal got from his aunt a while ago called Cooking Fun by Rae Grant. They also picked potato and sweet potato baked fries and a green salad. They got very creative with the salad and it was delicious! Colorful, tasty, fresh. They wanted me to post it on the blog and I do so without hesitation or remorse. I could not have made better.

Callen and Vivien's Winter Pick-Me-Up Salad
feeds 4 to 6 salad-hungry people

1 bunch mixed greens (we got ours from the winter farmers' market)
2 cups arugula
1 1/2 cups strawberries, cut into bite-sized chunks
1 tomato cut into bite-sized pieces
1 orange, peeled, sectioned, and each section cut into 2 or 3 pieces

2 TBSP olive oil
2 TBSP thick, dark, old, sweet balsamic vinegar
2 teas. tamari
1 teas. mustard
1/4 teas. black pepper
1/4 teas. garlic powder

Mix greens and toppings in a large bowl. Mix dressing. Toss. Eat. Repeat.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Epic Jam

It's not that this jam is particularly noteworthy for its length of preparation, and even less that it's time-consuming in the typical way, but jam takes a long time to make.  We started at 5pm.  I left close to 10 and Renee still had to finish processing the second-to-last batch and then process the last one.  Of course, in interim we had supper, played, let the kids watch a movie, had a long chat about local politics, read several books.  Ok, we chopped at little at first, and stirred or moved something from pot to draining rack once in a while, but most of the jam-making was free time.  And that's the beauty of  making jam at home: you get to hang out in the kitchen, ideally with a friend, for a really long time.  Other than that, you need a few big pots, some fruit and sugar, and jars and lids. 

One of my inspirations for going local is Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.  What I love about that book is that it celebrates going local for the pure pleausure--both culinary and social--such a venture provides, as if the political engagement were just a side benefit.  And that's the way Renee and I have lived it since we started.  But the occasional reminder that to go local for us is to reject the idea that agricultural or economic progress is best led by huge corporations, and to embrace the care for the land as a whole system not just an expendable resource, can make the process sweeter.  For as we pulled out bags of peaches and blueberries frozen over the summer and added in a local few apples bought last week at the new Somerville Winter Farmers Market, we remembered not only the full richness of summer, but also a New England landscape dotted with the small farms that have preserved and nurtured the biodiversity of our varietal fruits and also of the bugs and weeds that exist in such delicate balance with birds and fish and humans.  It is the maintenance, or the recuperation, of these balances that will protect local economies and ecosystems from New England to China, not suicide seeds and round-up and another large corporation in strange relationship to federal regulation.

So get canning and give yourself a nice big stretch of time to ponder and plan!

We used The Joy of Cooking as a guide, but did a lot of creative reworking.  Before you can, you should read up on the sterilizing and processing aspects, and get outfitted with big pots, the right kind of jars and lids and tongs, etc. 

It's the making of the actual jam, though, that takes so long.

Peach-Apple Jam (makes 8 large and 6 small jars)
In a very large pot, slowly bring to a boil
2-3 lbs apples, peeled and sliced
10-11 lbs frozen peaches, peeled and sliced

When the fruit is nice and soft, use an immersion blender to turn the mixture into a smooth soup.  This takes at least an hour.  Add 4-5 cups sugar.

Boil  for a very long time, several hours probably, until it reaches good jam consistency.  There are lots of ways to check.  It should be at a temperature of about 220.  If you put a small spoonfull on a cold plate and chill it in the freezer for about a minute, it should be the consistency you like your jam to be. 

Pour into waiting warm sterilized (that is, boiled for 10-15 minutes) jars, top with heated but not boiled lids, and process by submerging in boiling water for 20 minutes.

Blueberry Jam (makes three large and two small jars)
In a medium-large pot, slowly bring to a boil 9 cups frozen blueberries and 1/2 cup water.  When it reaches a boil, add 4 cups sugar.  Continue to boil for over an hour, maybe 2, until it reaches good jam consistency.  For blueberry jam this is when it "sheets": when you dip a big metal spoon into it and hold it sideways over it, instead of just dripping off the spoon it forms a kind of sheet that looks like it sort of hangs off the spoon.  You can also dip a big spoon in, pour off most of the liquid, let it cool for just a minute, and run your finger through what's left on the spoon.  If the line of your finger doesn't fill back in, you're good.  You can let it go longer if you like your jam really thick.  Process as for any jam (see above).

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Weight of Our Food Choices

We began this blog two and a half years ago with the idea that we wanted to make our small impact on the world, or rather, NOT make an impact on the world, by supporting local agriculture, growing some our own food, and making a concerted effort to be more aware of what we ate, where it came from, how it was produced, how it lived.

Now we are faced with a crisis that is forcing us to fully acknowledge all aspects of our food: Monsanto is successfully attempting to introduce a Round-up resistant alfalfa seed; has already introduced "suicide seeds" whose plants are unable to produce viable seeds of their own, preventing seed collection, which has allowed the human species to survive for thousands of years; farmers are being strong-armed into buying from Monsanto; those that attempt to go it alone will have their fields compromised by genetically engineered seeds, eliminating organic and heirloom and all other non-Monsanto crops from remaining pure; and to top it all off, we have no labeling legislation to inform the public when they are buying food that does contain genetically modified ingredients.

Just in the past week, Whole Foods, Organic Valley, and Stonyfield Farms pulled their dogs from the fight to prevent genetically engineered crops, saying, in effect, that it was hopeless, yet, ironically, remaining hopeful that if the USDA has some regulation, it's better than nothing, so we should celebrate! You can read here what they actually said, but I think I'm summarizing it fairly accurately, though admittedly snidely.

The New York Times had an article, which you can read here, saying that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack caved into pressure from Monsanto.

There is a very interesting organization I have just learned about this week, called The Organic Consumers Association, and they are a wealth of information about this topic. Whole Foods feels wronged by them, and they have an interesting comeback on their blog

This article explains the whole story in better detail than I do.

I could go on, siting interesting reading, but the point is, we need to do something. This is one of those times that if we choose to ignore the problem, it will not go away, now, nor ever.

My overall impression is that first and foremost, we need to do all we can to get labeling legislation passed and try to prevent Monsanto from being given carte blanche to grow GE seeds wherever they like. At first I felt very angry at Whole Foods, Organic Valley, and Stonyfield Farms from caving, but I'm backing off my original intent to boycott them. They are not sticking their noses out farther than they need to, but they are also not the problem. Lack of regulation is the problem.

So, I have volunteered to be a distributor and collector of the Organic Consumer's Association petition to get labeling laws for our congressional district (8th district, Massachusetts). I ask you to please sign this petition if you see it. If you, too, want to help distribute it, please do. Ask your friends in other parts of the country to do so, as well. Here is a link for more information. I also am asking any local stores, especially food oriented, though any store would be great, to allow me to put petitions up on your premises. This affects us all. 

This is probably near-impossible to succeed, but if we don't try, it definitely won't, so please take a few minutes to read some of these articles and do anything you can to help.