Sunday, March 22, 2009

Homesteaders, Sharecroppers, and a Barbecue...

...incredible pictures from the '40s, courtesy of the Library of Congress' Food Security Administration-Office of War Information Collection (via photo district news).

New Mexico Homesteader. October 1940.

Canned vegetables: yellow squash, peas, beets. Between 1941 and 1945.

Sharecroppers chopping cotton. June 1941.

Kitchen utensils and spices. Between 1941 and 1945.

New Mexico Homesteaders. October 1940.

Harvesting corn. October 1940.

Cutting pies and cakes at a barbecue. October 1940.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Best Practices: Ministry of Food

I'd like to start this post off by picking up on my last one, when I quoted Barbara Kingsolver's book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle:
Cooking good food is mostly a matter of having the palate and the skill.
A palate, I think, simply comes with time and a willingness to try a variety of foods. Take, for example, my beloved boyfriend - Pete:

Pete didn't eat vegetables for 25 years.


Probably not since he looked like this:

Pete's the crayon. Sorry, I couldn't resist.

He was raised on canned yams and microwaved broccoli, and when we met almost 6 years ago his philosophy was to avoid eating anything green.

I don't blame him.

Over time - after many trips to farmers markets and farms, after watching Jamie Oliver dig up and prepare veggies from his garden (god bless the Food Network), after buying and preparing fruits and vegetables in their natural state (brussel sprouts actually come on stalks and carrots more often resemble crooked crone's fingers than the symmetrical cones that Bugs Bunny munches) - Pete learned to love vegetables.

"I'll eat just about any vegetable now... as long as I respect where it came from," he comments from the other side of the room.

Skill is a little trickier.

Whatever skill Pete and I now have in the kitchen was accrued by trial and error over many home-cooked meals. I'm not sure I'll ever live down the time tried to cook chicken by mashing it into a frying pan with my spatula, burning it and the onions surrounding it and setting off the fire alarm in my apartment while my dinner guests asked if I needed any help. I wouldn't wish some of those experiences on anyone...

Fortunately, we have Jamie. Well... okay... we don't, but the Brits do. (Yes, I'm finally getting around to that "best practices" bit.) Jamie Oliver has set up Britain's first Ministry of Food. It's not actually an official ministry, but it is doing a bang-up job of getting people to cook their own meals and of educating the English on the origins of their ingredients. With this program, Jamie takes out a lot of the trial and error, imparting instantaneous skill and launching the participants directly into cooking tasty meals of their own.

How does he do it, you ask?

Simple: I know how to cook a few dishes (as messy as that learning process may have been) and I have at least two friends who don't know how to cook at all. It's simple arithmetic: if I host a dinner party and cook the meal with my two friends, teaching them how to make the dish in the process, then there are now 3 people who know how to cook a dish or two. His catch is that those two friends should then go and teach that dish to two of their friends, and so on... exponentially increasing the number of people who can cook.

Here's a promo for his program:

This video is a bit more informative, but they wouldn't let me embed it.

I just think the idea is genius in its simplicity - and who doesn't like to have a few friends over for wine and food? Brilliant.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

This just in...

Holy cow. They're actually going to do it.

Common Sense

I've started reading Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life (review to come later) and wanted to share a passage that struck a particular chord with me:
A handful of creative chefs have been working for years to establish this incipient notion of a positive American food culture - a cuisine based on our own ingredients... However, to the extent that it's even understood, this cuisine is widely assumed to be the property of the elite. Granted, in restaurants it can sometimes be pricey, but the do-it-yourself version is not. I am not sure how so many Americans came to believe only our wealthy are capable of honoring a food aesthetic. Anyone who thinks so should have a gander at the kitchens of working-class immigrants from India, Mexico, anywhere really. Cooking at home is cheaper than buying packaged foods or restaurant meals of comparable quality. Cooking good food is mostly a matter of having the palate and the skill.

The main barrier standing between ourselves and a local-food culture is not the price, but the attitude. The most difficult requirements are patience and a pinch of restraint - virtues that are hardly the property of the wealthy.
It's not common, but I certainly have been accused on multiple occasions of being a food snob, which is an offense that I take very personally. My frequent visits to the farmer's market (the one that sells local goods instead of the one with bananas and oranges and parmigiano-reggiano), my pursuit of organic food that is hormone/pesticide/fungicide-free and raised sustainably, my aversion to factory-made apple pies that can sit out for 2 months and not get moldy (true story)... I'm not doing this because I'm trying to keep up with the cool kids. I'm just trying to keep myself and my environment healthy.

It started in college when I was broke and trying to eat healthy. My boyfriend, Pete, and I watched a lot of Food Network between classes and it occurred to me that good food didn't have to be out of reach just because I had stooped to picking pennies out of the gutter (also a true story)... a few cheap ingredients (beans, pasta, tomatoes, etc.) thrown together with some spices (a bit more expensive, but worth it because of their shelf-life) can produce a really good meal.

As it happened, an appreciation for tasty food led to an appreciation for good ingredients, which naturally led to fresh ones... seasonal ones... ones that didn't have scary chemicals in them... and when I finally got out of college and got a job and could really afford to buy the food that fit my philosophy, I was disturbed that my new ingredients were oftentimes inaccessible to folks with less money - people like my former self - who neither have a garden nor the $5 for a gallon of organic milk. Before I knew it, I woke up one day with a strong bent toward food justice. Kingsolver seems to be down-playing the cost of food a bit too much for me... but that's precisely the problem... now that we know what good food is, we need to figure out a way of sharing the wealth.

Really, this is all to say: don't knock the sustainable, organic movement. Maybe it's a fad for some people, but for many it's just common sense. And, anyway, isn't a fad that promotes a healthier planet a good thing at its roots?

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Cookbook Review: The Modern Baker

In January I discovered the DC Public Library. Of course I knew one existed and had even visited a time or two before, but when the cold weather hit down here (my Michigan friends and family are probably laughing at me now) I decided to burrow in and read. I've gone through an average of a book a week since then, but little did I realize that I would soon have to up the ante.

Libraries have cookbooks.

I was shocked. I don't know why I didn't come to this conclusion earlier, but it caught me by surprise as I was browsing the non-fiction aisles last weekend. There are so many baking books I've been wanting to try out, but cost is a bit of a hurdle... I mean, who really has $40 to throw at a new cookbook every few weeks??

So I pulled a stack off the shelf and launched into Nick Malgieri's The Modern Baker on Sunday afternoon.

I have to say that the most impressive thing about this book is that it shows you how to make croissants and puff pastry in about an hour... for those of you who aren't crazy enough to devote the better part of a Saturday to what is now apparently the old-fashioned way of making these basic pastries, let me assure you that Nick deserves all the good things coming to him for sharing these secrets with the public. His process is quick and sensible, and is definitely the next thing on my "to bake" list.

In fact, I would have made croissants on Sunday if his Chocolate Caramel Pecan Tartlets weren't so darn attractive. The little sweet tart shells filled with homemade caramel folded into dark chocolate were just to hard to pass up... and, trust me, the results were phenomenal. I wish I could post the recipe for you all, but I'm afraid you'll just have to waltz into your own public library to get the goods...

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Graham Crackers... who says they're just for kids?

I mean, really, graham crackers were invented as a means of incorporating whole grains into the average American's diet, which in the early 1800s (as now) leaned more towards refined white flour than rye or whole wheat. We'll just ignore the fact that Reverend Graham conceived them as part of the Graham Diet, which was supposed to curb "unhealthy carnal urges..." yeah... feel sorry for the students at Oberlin College, who were forced to endure his regimen for the better part of the 1830s.

Anyway, I love 'em and it occurred to me a couple weeks ago that it was probably possible to make them at home.

The recipe below doesn't taste like Nabisco, but - trust me - they are totally addictive... and I've somehow fooled myself into thinking that they're healthy to boot. I mean, they do have whole grains and I kept the refined sugar far away from this recipe.

Now all I need is a few marshmallows and an open fire...

Graham Crackers
1/2 c AP flour
1 1/4 c whole wheat flour
1/2 c rye flour
1/2 c raw sugar
1 t baking powder
1/2 t baking soda
1/2 t sea salt
3/4 t cinnamon

Mix the above ingredients in a food processor. (You could do it with a regular mixer or by hand as well... the processor will just make this easier.)

1 stick unsalted butter, cut into 1/2 inch squares

Process or "cut in" the butter until mixture resembles a coarse meal. (Think pie dough.)

3 T molasses or honey
1 T maple syrup
1/4 c cold water
1 t vanilla

Add above ingredients and mix until the dough collects in a ball.

Roll out the dough until its about half an inch think, cover it in plastic wrap, and chill for at least a half hour. When it's ready, dust a workspace with flour (your choice) and roll the dough out to about an eighth of an inch thick... a bit on the thick-side for a cracker. Now you have a lot of options open to you - I cut my crackers into squares, but feel free to pull out your cookie cutters or use a glass to cut circles out of your dough. I ended up baking my scraps as they were, and they actually made for some of the better crackers. Oh, and if you want, you can use a fork to prick holes in yours or to spell out your roommates' names... it's really not necessary for the consistency of the cookie though.

Bake for about 13 minutes at 350 degrees on a greased/lined baking sheet... be mindful that they'll continue to cook a bit more after you pull them out of the oven.

Yield: Not enough.

At long last...

My apologies for my long absence... an especially rough work schedule and a week or two of some unknown illness kept me out of the blogosphere, but here I am - again - ready to get back to work.

To begin, I guess I should probably post my long-lost inauguration pictures. I actually would have put them up earlier, but I was trying to figure out how to do a montage, which - as you will see - didn't quite work out. Hopefully you'll appreciate them anyway.

We'll start with my favorites...

...I got such a kick out of watching my city become something like a scene from Titanic...
...people... masses of people... literally flooded Washington's streets on that January morning, trying to make it to one spot on the Mall or another...

...the District didn't plan all that well for the non-ticketed crowd and left us without a route past the reflecting pond in front of the Capitol Building. That's when everyone started jumping barriers and streaming over (and under) the commuter highways that run through the middle of the city. Those big orange dump trucks were originally intended to block the use of the roads from foot traffic... haha.

It was fun to see the city that way though... not a car moving, people shuffling along Independence Avenue or 6th Street SW - some half-awake, moving silently; most in a festive mood, singing "Kiss Him Goodbye" and proudly waving tiny American flags.

Despite the numbers (that was without a doubt the largest crowd any of us will ever be a part of as long as we live) everyone was friendly, helping each other over barriers, giving sporadic high-fives, holding up crowds so a family of five could weave its way across the street. I was only mildly surprised to find out later that no one was arrested that day in DC.

After about two and a half hours of walking, I ended up at the base of the Washington Monument - usually a 45 minute jaunt from my house. There was no way you could see the Capitol Building from there but off in the distance there was a Jumbo-Tron, and believe me... the crowd back there was as psyched as the folks in the front... if not more so. The crowd sang in unison, jeering at some officials as they made their way onto the stage and cheering for others... an air of triumph was impossible to ignore.

With all of the noise we were making, I was shocked when everything went absolutely silent... as the music played and Joe Biden took his oath, there wasn't a peep from the nearly 2 million standing in our nation's back yard. Cheers went up after Biden was finished, then all was still again. As Obama took his oath, some people cried and everyone cheered and we hugged our friends and family and the strangers next to us with equal vigor.

During his speech, there were loud affirmations from the crowd, and when he was done no one wanted to leave. People drifted from place to place, trying to get a better vantage for a photograph, heading off to watch the parade, giving interviews for the press. Some simply sat down, tired after a long morning of excitement.

And then Bush flew overhead...

...and we knew that it was finally over... everyone went over to skate on the reflecting pond.

The end. :O)