Sunday, March 29, 2009

Joie de Livre

I thought of that title what I woke up in the middle of the night and couldn't quiet my brain enough to fall back asleep. Then, it struck me as a clever expression of my love of books with a little play on words. Now that I see it up there, I'm not so sure, but it'll do.

I am a life-long reader and amasser of books. I have always been a lover of fiction, as is my husband, and neither of us have ever sold a textbook from college. We moved into a home previously owned by a buyer for a large local book store who had bookshelves built in when they finished the basement. We inherited a large collection of his books that were left behind after the move. This was a large factor in our decision to buy this place.

I routinely bring home large hauls of books from the library on a wide range of topics. Most of which I skim, some of which I renew and read thoroughly. This is one that I asked my library to buy and will likely buy myself. It's a fantastic book about taste as a social phenomenon. So so interesting and easy to read. Food, The History of Taste.

I inherited a little hutch that nobody else wanted (luckily some past family member was as crazy as I am and painted the interior bright orange) and it has become home to my cookbook shelf.

Click here on page 148 to read Shelf Life, a fantastic piece by M.F.K. Fisher (::bow::) about the ebbs and flows of her cookbook shelf. Great read.

My shelf is infantile in comparison to her collection, but I think it gives an insight into my values and practices as a cook, and must be taken in a very different context given that my adult culinary experiences have taken place in the internet age.

Since we have ample space in the basement to store books, I try to only keep on hand the books I find myself using often. I've chosen some books that illustrate the various reasons I keep books around to give you some idea about the information I find valuable and useful.

I must begin with Joy of Cooking, the tome that has survived (albeit altered significantly) since 1936 and is considered as indispensable as ever. This is my go-to for baking, and for American classics. I keep this book around because it's a reference that, thanks to its unparalleled popularity and diversity of content, has been used, tested, and revised over the last 70 years. It's a great place to find things people don't make anymore, but should.

And whenever I need to throw on my boots and skin a squirrel, Irma is there for me.

(you better click on that one.)

Another great reference that I use for basics is this book, Essentials of Cooking by James Peterson. It's full of pictures that illustrate all those things you should have learned in culinary school but didn't because you were studying linguistics.

Like, how to determine the doneness of a steak by touch.

Or how to cut up a duck. (this is one where the pictures really help)

The last reference-type book I keep on hand is the Food Lover's Companion, which is a dictionary of sorts. It's not comprehensive, it's not thorough, and it's not always perfectly accurate, but it's a great little book to have when you're trying to understand the name one of the billion styles of pasta, or figure out what exactly lutefisk is. (you don't want to know)


Just like a dictionary. Ahh, Limburger.

Another type of book that I must have around is the food science nerd book. My other books tell me the how about food, these tell me the why.

Everybody's favorite (somewhat annoying) FoodTV chef, Alton Brown, who I mention on here often, has a great basic book, I'm Just Here for the Food.

He refers to cooking methods as "applications" and divides the book up that way. This is a great way to approach cooking if you're new at it. Learn how to sear, then try lots of different recipes using the skill. Plus it's a little kitschy.

You can think of Harold McGee as AB's smarter, more thorough, more disciplined, and slightly dryer grandfather. His book, On Food and Cooking, is so fantastic that I don't think we can be friends if it's not already on your shelf. I use this book all the time. It's equally good for references as it is for simple entertainment. His writing is clear and precise, and he never lets me down. He's less entertaining that AB, but still has a prose style all his own.

(Yeah, it won the James Beard AND the IACP awards)

Here, a really handy list of basic herb sauces by region.

Less practical, though just as prized, are the books that I keep for historical significance.

The first is one that I've read through mostly and use as a starting point for some stuff, but don't often cook from directly. It's important because it is an important style of French cooking. The "nouvelle" (new) cuisine uses simple but excellent ingredients prepared in a lighter fashion and is a form of haute cuisine. Cooking the Nouvelle Cuisine in America by Michele Urvater.

I find traces of this book everywhere I read about food. I can't recall the first time I read its title,but I've seen it on many top book lists, including the Fisher one above. I inherited this copy with the house, and can't wait to read it. The Physiology of Taste by Brilliat-Savarin, the first real gastronome.

Fisher herself notes the importance of a good loaf of bread at each meal, and I've always had an obsession with breads of all kinds. While there are so many interesting (beautiful) bread books out there, I really only have one essential bread book. This one can't be beat. The Bread Baker's Apprentice by Peter Reinhart. The best pizza crust, baguette, wheat bread, lavash, and cinnamon rolls I've ever made all came from here.

Shaping marble rye, and on the right is my favorite bread for toast.

While most of these books were written by culinary professionals, I do have one book from a doctor. We rarely buy new books, but this one made its way into our collection recently and is very interesting. It's about nutrition and the benefits of getting the essentials from whole foods. It's frightening how little education physicians are required to have on nutrition as part of their training, so I find it necessary to educate myself. Chef MD's Big Book of Culinary Medicine.

A section on "what to eat for that". (The quoted Chinese proverb says, "He that takes medicine and neglects diet wastes the skills of the physician")

Last on this looong list is a book that I found for $1 and keep around for laughs. Anyone who is drawn to vintage cookbooks has seen some pretty disgusting recipes and photos, and this book brings many of them together in a hilarious way. Behold, The Gallery of Regrettable Food(ugh, so.much.aspic.)

Cabbage head.

I have to share with you my old food journal. Before I got onto the blog bandwagon I wanted a place to log my recipes and give myself feedback. I haven't written in this much lately, but it's tone was much more like a journal than this blog. Plus it has the tactile benefit of pen and paper, which I really crave.

(Greek night! It was a good one:))

It being the internet-age and all, I have a drawer full of recipes that I've printed and reuse.

My collection has huge holes and there are so many things I want to add to it, and so many things I've read but didn't keep, but this should give you a little glimpse into my history and present.

So, what's your favorite food book?

Friday, March 20, 2009

CSA PSA: Local Farmers Need Your Support

I am so proud to live in a part of the country where a rising consciousness of agricultural practices and a love of food coalesce.

The system here between farmers, restaurateurs, and eaters is strong, and growing. Chefs (like Kurt Friese and Matt Steigerwald) support local farmers by featuring their ingredients in seasonally-inspired dishes. (You probably won't find a tomato at either place this time of year.)

Local farmers invest in specialty products that meet a demand from the chefs and eaters alike. It's not common to find a local supplier of elk meat, which is very healthy, but you can get it at Wildlife Lakes. You can also get grass-fed beef and pasture-raised pork directly from fifth-generation farmer Steve Rodgers at Highland Vista Farms. (Heck, they'll let you wander onto the farm and meet the animals if you want.)

We are also very close to the absolutely fantastic Seed Savers Exchange, a non-profit organization that preserves our agricultural heritage by storing, cataloging, and distributing seeds for heirloom varieties that are non-existent elsewhere. (I am totally going to the conference and campout this year!!)

These bright hard-workers keep plugging along, doing great things year round largely undisturbed. However, every once in a while, legislators on various levels stick their noses into this neat system and, often through misunderstanding, threaten to derail the progress that has been made. Luckily, the strong system usually holds up and rights the major wrongs. A great example of the strength of this system and of how it can only function with the support of the people is the recent case of ZJ Farms in Solon.

Meet Susan Jutz, owner of ZJ Farms. (photo from their website)

If you care to read the details of the conflict, you can find them here and here.

Essentially, there is a provision in Johnson County zoning regulations that is intended to prevent non-agricultural affairs from interfering with real agricultural work by requiring a permit for activities deemed "non-agricultural" on land deemed agricultural. While its intention is noble, a recent ruling by the the zoning board turned this regulation on its head and actually threatened agricultural progress on ZJ Farms.

At issue is the farm's annual tour which allows visitors to see the farm and its animals. The tour was judged to be non-agricultural by the board, and thus the farm would be required to get a permit for each event as well as treat its gravel road, both at great cost. Upon the board's ruling, the owners of the farm appealed and sought community support on the basis that these tours are in fact agricultural because they educate consumers as well as promote the farm's CSA program.

The farm was met with an outpouring of support from friends, family, farmers, and the surrounding community. The ruling was overturned five to none, and the farm is allowed to have its annual tour without issue.

This event has great significance for eaters in Iowa. It is a reminder that the suppliers of our food are always under pressure, that our system is unfortunately structured around commercial agriculture, and that local agriculture cannot thrive (or even survive) without significant support from the community.

I'm posting to stress the importance of staying informed about your local food supply and being committed to supporting the people who work hard every day to supply us with healthy food. One of the best ways for you to support your local farmer is to get a CSA.

When trying to control my food supply, I chose to go the route of growing as much of my own food as possible. I'm lucky enough to have arable land next to my house. If you can't grow your own food, or don't care for the significant commitment of gardening, shopping at the farmer's market is the next best thing. Going to the market each week and choosing what you'd like from each vendor gives you the flexibility to plan your meals ahead and pick the best of each item. That said, a fantastic alternative that has the added benefit of supporting a specific farm is a share of a CSA. CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. When you buy a share of a CSA, you are investing in that farm. At the beginning of the season you buy a share of that year's harvest. Each week, the farm puts together shares with vegetables, eggs, bread, and other products. You can have the share delivered or you can pick it up at the farmer's market. Essentially you are making a financial commitment to the farm to support them regardless of the product. So if the spinach harvest isn't great, you don't get much spinach. If the squashes take over, you get plenty of them. This is an opportunity to put a face on your food (as the Japanese say) and to extend the kind of support farmers need.

Whichever route you choose, I encourage you to be more thoughtful in your food choices and more conscious of the food producers in your area. These people are doing what needs to be done, and they deserve our support.

Some links-

Find a CSA

Find a farmer's market

Iowa State Extension Office for all sorts of agricultural news.

Johnson County Planning and Zoning Board

Check out your local farms, and keep them at the front of your mind.

Happy Spring!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Breakfast Three Ways

Heidi ho neglecterinos!
You can't blame me for not blogging enough this month. I have been on SPRING BREAK for a few days and the weather has been unbelievable. Like, in the 70s. IN MARCH. IN IOWA.
At any rate, I've been cooking and photographing a lot really, and can't wait to blog out a bunch of it. For this post I'd like to share some excellent breakfasts I've been making lately.

I'd like to begin with some super simple breakfasts that are inspired by Kath.

First is the more healthy (and thus Kath-like) of the two, a big bowl of oatmeal with a banana and flax seeds stirred in, and peanut butter and almonds on top. This is the kind of breakfast I make most days of the week at work in the microwave, but this morning it was a more relaxed stove-top affair.

Oatmeal really is the perfect weekday breakfast because it's so filling and there are endless options for embellishment. A personal favorite has become bananas or pumpkin, but Kath has a million better ideas, so check her out.

A slightly more indulgent option is a big bowl of yogurt with some No-Pudge brownie crumbles on top, also with oats and almonds. Served up with some blood orange slices, which are still really good right now.

This bowl began here-

That's right, I've been making my own yogurt! And I'll never look back. It's so much cheaper, and I always have yogurt on hand. Now, truth be told, you don't need a yogurt machine to make yogurt. (AB can show you how here.) But I like the convenience of the little containers with lids, and my mother was good enough to indulge my yogurt-making ambitions with the Donvier as a gift.

Making yogurt is so so easy. You start by heating up some milk in a pot with a heavy bottom. (Using your candy thermometer, of course.) I use 2% and add 1/2 c. powdered milk to get tart rich yogurt. Heat to between 180-190 f. (One of these days I'll teach you how to make those great beans in the background.)

Then let it cool to 110-115. You need some bacteria, which you can get either from your last batch of yogurt or a container of commercial yogurt that states it have "live active cultures" on the label. Once it's cooled, add some of the milk to 2 heaping tbsp.s of yogurt to temper it. Then add the mix back into the milk, and distribute the milk into the containers. (I find a Pyrex helpful for this.)

Ten hours later...voila! Yogurt! Lots of it!

It's plain, but it's perfect. I've finally solved my yogurt issues once and for all.

Last but certainly not least on the breakfast roll is my absolute desert-island favorite breakfast ever. If I had to choose my last meals, this would be my breakfast. (Give me another 20 years and I might have the lunch and dinner figured out)

Biscuits and Gravy


As with most things Southern, I turned to AB for advice on the perfect biscuits, and he delivered. These weren't the fluffiest I've had, but that's probably my fault for manhandling the dough. His recipe, my photos.

2 cups flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons shortening
1 cup buttermilk, chilled
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Using your fingertips, rub butter and shortening into dry ingredients until mixture looks like crumbs. (The faster the better, you don't want the fats to melt.) Make a well in the center and pour in the chilled buttermilk. Stir just until the dough comes together. The dough will be very sticky.

Turn dough onto floured surface, dust top with flour and gently fold dough over on itself 5 or 6 times. Press into a 1-inch thick round. Cut out biscuits with a 2-inch cutter, being sure to push straight down through the dough. Place biscuits on baking sheet so that they just touch. Reform scrap dough, working it as little as possible and continue cutting. (Biscuits from the second pass will not be quite as light as those from the first, but hey, that's life.)

Bake until biscuits are tall and light gold on top, 15 to 20 minutes.

All cut out-

All baked up-

The goal of not messing to much with the dough is to get that nice rise you can see on some of these, which lets you peel apart the biscuits nicely, as you'll see soon.

I had a good guess for the gravy, and looked at a few recipes which confirmed my suspicion that it's just a white gravy with lots of sausage and black pepper. (I LOVE tons of black pepper in this.)

So brown up some spicy breakfast sausage. (None of that turkey crap, it's gotta be pork. I mean, if you want to ENJOY it.)

Pull out the sausage once it's cooked and well crumbled. In the rendered fat, start a roux with a couple tablespoons of flour.

Then add some milk, some freshly grated nutmeg, a little salt, and TONS of fresh black pepper. Cook this down until it reduces and thickens.

Toss back in the sausage.

Now take one of those warm biscuits and peel it in half. (mmm.fluffy.)

Pour a good serving of gravy on top. (click this one.)

Man this was good. And it was even better the next day reheated! This didn't take too long to prepare, and was certainly worth the work for a good weekend breakfast. (I seem to be into those lately...)

Now take those leftover biscuits and slather some butter and apple butter on them! YUM!

OMG it's spring out there! Look!

and the seed starting apparatus is FINISHED! The last week of this month we'll start germinating.

Before, a root cellar-


I'm off to walk with the doggy and enjoy early spring!

Next time, we might discuss cookbooks. :) Until then, tell me. What's your favorite cookbook?

Sunday, March 1, 2009

V Day Bolognese

Hola! We've gotten a few days of warmish weather around here, which is enough to remind us that spring is really coming!

The seed-starting setup is almost finished, and we will get the first ones into the soil germinating within the next week. Can't wait!

Until then, I thought I'd share the recipe that the hubs and I had for Valentine's Day, and have had many times since then. We thought about going out since we eat out so rarely, but it was clear that we'd rather spend that money on quality ingredients and that time in the kitchen together. We wanted something indulgent and special, but nothing so tedious as to force us into too much prep. We settled on a dish with simple ingredients and simple cooking methods, but ultimately complex and satisfying flavors.

This dish wouldn't have been possible without the generosity of a friend. My friends are spread all over the country, and the world, and somehow I manage to keep in touch with most of them. A dear friend of mine was in Rome recently and I insisted that he buy me some of the good stuff while in the old country. (Yes, my family is Italian so I can say that.)How could I pass by an opportunity for door-to-door grocery shopping from Rome? What he brought back exceeded my expectations. His thoughtfulness was revealing both of our friendship as well as his knowledge of things culinary. Fittingly, he, the husband and I tasted most ingredients together, about five minutes after he arrived. They were universally delicious.

I wanted to do something quintessentially Italian with these fantastic ingredients. Something simple, but not plain. I wanted to highlight the quality of the ingredients by using them in the most straight-forward way possible. There was no question. It had to be bolognese.

You might have heard of a ragoût (Italian:ragu), (not to be confused with Ragú) the simple tomato sauce. Bolognese is simply a ragu from Bologna.

Sometimes I riff off familiar dishes by browsing recipes and deciding on my own take. Since this dish was uncharted territory for me, I reached out to the blogosphere for some help.

Do you ever have that experience of coming upon someone's work that is better than anything you will probably ever do? That's what this guy's blog is like for me.

FXcuisine is a FANTASTIC food blog, and you should visit it more than you visit mine. (That's right, he updates TWICE weekly!) In addition to his committment and fabulous camera setup, François-Xavier is deeply interested in slow food, and documenting the work of those precious few who still make things the way their ancestors did. I have deep respect for him as a journalist, and as a cook. His blog was the perfect place to find the true recipe, which he faithfully reproduces, without any personal touches.

I, on the other hand, did make some changes. The title of this recipe links to his, but the measurements and method are slightly modified, and mine.

Ragù Bolognese

In a large dutch oven, or any large oven-safe pot with a lid, add

2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp oil

toss in

1 onion, diced
1 carrot, diced
1 celery stick, diced

Once these are starting to turn soft, move them to the other side of the pan. In the empty side, cook

3-5 strips of bacon, cubed. (pancetta is traditional, but expensive)

Once cooked through, move over the bacon and brown in small batches

1 lb. ground beef

Once all your beef is brown, add

1/4 c. dry white wine

scraping all the brown bits off the bottom of the pan. Then, add

2 large cans of tomatoes (if you have fancy friends, use San Marzano. If you're slightly less fancy, use the ones you canned form the garden. If you're desperate, use the ones from the grocery store, but it just won't be the same.)

While you're doing this, keep warm on another burner

1 cup full fat milk
1 cup chicken stock

Add the milk and stock to the beef mixture.

Add salt, pepper, and a grating of fresh nutmeg.

Cover this and put it into a 250 oven for 3-4 hours. Seriously, it's worth it. You could probably do this in a slow cooker, but I've never tried.

It'll look like this.

Your house will smell divine.

This is best served with polenta (me) or pasta (him).

Two of our favorite ways to have it-

With red wine (Beaujolais!) and kale.

For Vday, with champagne and raspberries and canned green beans.

Either way, it MUST be dusted with Parmesan.

and drizzled with balsamic. If you're lucky, you'll have balsamic glaze. :)

YUM! Try it. It's really easy and the results really show just how much taking the time makes a difference.

Look, I got a copper strainer!

That's all for now. I'll update once the seeds are started!
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