Sunday, June 29, 2008

Kitchen Disasters

That was a beautiful and delicious pizza I made last week with local flour, turkey sausage and radish greens, and nonlocal tomato sauce and parmesan. Yes, you can eat the greens that come with a bunch of radishes. I wash them thoroughly, sautee them, and they wilt down a lot. They're a little bitter, but add a nice complexity to pizza.

I loved the pizza so much that I tried to make it again this week, but with the sick humidity crushing us this week, I decided to try my hand at making grilled pizza. I'm not sure exactly what went wrong, but I tried twice with two pizzas, and both times the edges of the dough grew colored and crispy, almost burnt, while the gummy inner dough refused to cook through, no matter how long I let them linger on the hot grill or in the toaster oven afterward. They looked tasty like they wanted me to eat them, but I couldn't. I salvaged the sausage and radish greens by scraping them off and throwing together with quick-cooking orzo for a meal, while the pizza remains above sadly went into the garbage.

I have three theories - I should have used a dough that reliably produces a thin crust since my recipe usually puffs up a bunch; I shouldn't have topped it with so much sauce and sausage; I should have let the first side cook longer before I flipped it over. We'll see. For now, it's back to my tried and true method for making pizza in the oven, despite the heat.

This meal that I made for dinner last night looks great, but it wasn't actually, because it was pervaded by bitterness. I was so excited about being able to eat radish leaves, that I decided to give carrot tops a try. The bunch that came with my carrots from the Greenmarket looked so pretty and frilly that it seemed a shame to just throw them away.

I made a salad of lolo rosso lettuce, grated carrots, and a garnish of chopped carrot tops, with a roasted garlic dressing. The dressing was a gift and was pleasant. But the lettuce was overwhelmingly bitter, and the carrot greens didn't help, being chewy and bitter and not fun to eat. I couldn't even finish my salad. I guess there's a reason why people always throw out carrot tops.

I used Sixpoint Gorilla Warfare, a rich stout, to cook the mussels. I sauteed garlic scapes and another handful of carrot greens in olive oil, then added mussels and half a pint of beer, and let it cook, covered, until the mussels opened.

I had been craving mussels all week, but it was a bit disappointing. The garlic scapes weren't potent enough to lend the dish a garlicky aroma like I hoped, the wilted carrot greens weren't much to taste, and the stout gave the mussels a slightly bitter taste. I should have known that a mild lager or white wine works better for mussels. It wasn't a total disaster, like the failed grilled pizza, but it wasn't the rich warm broth of mussels that I had hoped for.

But that's how it goes with cooking. You experiment, and you learn from your mistakes. And post them on the Internet for others to learn from as well.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Other White Meat

Tofu's not something I cook with often. I used to eat it more when I was a semi-vegetarian in college, for no better reason really than being wary of handling raw meat, but since careening down the path of eating local, whole, farm fresh foods, I left tofu behind, along with all the other "Chik Patties" and overprocessed fake meats I stopped eating.

But after work the other day, I made a rare trip to Whole Foods to check out their organic chicken selection, since I wasn't able to stop at the farmers market the day before, and I needed more food for dinner that night. To my surprise, Whole Foods' organic chicken breasts are more expensive than at the Greenmarket! Why would I pay $10 a pound for factory farmed meat when I can get happy chicken breasts from Quattro's Game Farm for $6-7 a pound? No thanks. Seeking an alternate source of protein, I ambled (more like pushed and dodged) my way over to the tofu section. And what did I behold but a tofu package beaming "Local Tofu" back at me, made in Nyack, NY. No, it is unlikely that the soybeans were grown in the area, but I was happy to at least be supporting a local vendor. And at $1.99/package, tofu definitely trumps chicken in terms of keeping my savings in my pocket.

I've realized lately that I am spending more money than I'd like to on food, probably as a natural consequence of being a foodie. Of the money I spend, most of it goes toward food (and some to alcohol), since due to my anticonsumerism stance, I don't buy much clothes, or makeup or books or movies at all (thank you library). And yes, I totally espouse the idea that it's good to pay more to buy sustainable food, because it's important to pay the true cost of food. But I still don't like to see my money disappear. So I've been making a concerted effort to cut down costs by buying cheaper cuts of meat like sausage, cooking less meat, cooking with dried beans (at $1-2/lb in bulk, they are the cheapest protein ever!), baking my own bread, buying the less fancy vegetables like radishes that have dual uses (roots and greens), growing my own herbs, and meal planning up the wazoo to make sure food in my fridge gets eaten or frozen in some form before it goes bad. As food prices rise, we all want to find ways to cut costs, and Cathy also recently posted helpful suggestions on how to "combat soaring food prices."

So speaking of meal planning and using up what's on hand - after dinner that night (radish, bok choy, and tofu stir fry with soy sauce, sesame seeds, and quinoa), I combined the rest of the tofu with my leftover garlic scape pesto, this time adding parmesan and almonds to beef up the pesto. I left the tofu pesto salad in the fridge for a couple days to let the flavors mingle. Then, amidst all the running around before camping last weekend, it made the perfect lunch served on homemade bread with fresh lettuce. The tofu pesto salad sandwich was creamy and had a nice spicy kick from all the garlic scapes. I thought it would also taste good blended into a tofu cream cheese (speaking of which, I really need to attempt that), or warmed up on the stove a bit, for a form of imitation scrambled eggs. Something tells me we'll be seeing tofu a little more often around here.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Camping at Little Pond

I don't recommend camping just for a night - it's too much prep work to drag out camping gear, figure out food, pack everything up, set everything up, and do it all in reverse again the next day. But that's what we did anyway Saturday, as we found ourselves on a long drive up Route 17 to camp in the Catskills. We stayed at Little Pond Campground, a state campground that actually features a rather large pond with a beach, picnic areas, and hiking trails. There are even some campsites situated tranquilly right on the water, but those were already taken by the time we made our reservation.

The campsites were quiet and more secluded from each other than other campgrounds I've stayed at. Our site was bizarrely large, as you can see below.
Near dinnertime, I tried to grill potatoes in foil, but our fire wouldn't stay consistently hot. After over an hour the potatoes were still raw and hard. We have much to learn in the art of fire-making for our next camping trip. Our propane-powered camping stove is great for cooking, but I would also like to be able to harness the fire's energy for cooking like Liz.

After giving up on the potatoes and chucking them back into the cooler to be cooked later in the week, we turned to making the rest of dinner: burgers on homemade toast (made with local flour before we left) and topped with beer-braised swiss chard. We simply sauteed half a bunch of swiss chard in olive oil and then let it braise in half a can of beer for about ten minutes. It could have used some more spices, but that was all we had on hand and it worked. Then Jesse came up with the idea to put the swiss chard on the burgers, which was brilliant.

The burgers were grass finished black angus from a new Greenmarket vendor, Grazin' Angus Acres. Their farm in Columbia County uses wind power and they also raise chickens to provide the farm's nitrogen needs, inspired by Joel Salatin's sustainable farm described in Omnivore's Dilemna. I recommend taking a look at their website, which has informative information on the health and ecological benefits of grass fed meat. Not to mention that the burger was delicious. And of course, what camping trip is complete without cheap beer? I forgot to pick up tastier local beer, so Jesse's Bud is what I was stuck drinking.

It rained just as we woke in the morning, so we stayed inside the tent until the torrents passed. Unfortunately that meant we didn't have time to cook breakfast before we had to pack up and check out, so breakfast was at Roscoe Diner.

I don't recommend it unless you like institutional style food, down to the bagel that was toast in the shape of a bagel. As I ate it, I realized it's been years since I've eaten that poorly. Luckily, I wasn't a foodie back in the days of my Aramark-catered dining hall, or I don't know what I would have eaten throughout college.

The sun perked up during our long drive home to Brooklyn so I could fully enjoy the lush green landscapes of the Hudson Valley and cry a little inside about not living in the country anymore. Summer in the Hudson Valley is my favorite thing ever. We took a detour on the way to pick up my sister from my hometown and ferry her to the city.

While there, we also stopped at Rosner Soap in nearby Sugarloaf, a cute crafts village, so I could stock up on soap. They make my favorite soap - it comes in a multitude of flavors like lemongrass oatmeal and peppermint tea tree that smell heavenly, it lathers well, it doesn't contain scary chemicals like store-bought soaps, and at $4.50 a bar it's much cheaper than certain $8 Brooklyn-made soaps. Add to that their colorfully painted stores and beautiful flowers, and I get the feel-good buzz of supporting a local vendor.

Sunday, June 15, 2008


Like its sister and nextdoor restaurant, Diner, Marlow & Sons is one of my favorite restaurants for its fine selection of oysters, cheeses, and local ingredients cooked in seasonal meals with flawless execution. I forgot to tell you, but when I was there with my youngest sister on a rainy late night in April, we shared a divine ramp soup and their crispy-skinned brick pressed chicken, which is among the best chicken I've ever head. I hadn't been in a while, but it reminded me that Marlow & Sons surprises me every time by taking simple sounding dishes and making them the most delicious things ever.

A couple weeks ago on a supremely hot early evening, we coincidentally took my other sister to Marlow & Sons too. We shared a baby kale salad with a simple dressing of olive oil and lemon juice and coated in thinly shaved parmesan. Meanwhile, my dining partner had to himself a warm squid salad with a broth-like dressing over Bibb lettuce. Our meal was exquisite as always. However, this time I felt a bit more depressed than usual about their prices. I understand the worth of paying more money to eat local foods made with care, but $10 for a salad of greens and parmesan?

Let's take it back to earlier this spring, when I planted a container of mixed green seeds on my deck. Most of what came up was baby kale, bitter greens, and sad small light leaves, and after a winter full of bitter green salads from the farmers market, it didn't look too appetizing. When the lettuces started to wilt in last week's 90 degree heat, I decided it was time to rip 'em out, eat 'em, and replace 'em with more fun herbs.

I harvested about a big salad worth of greens. Then one night, I wanted to have a plain salad for dinner and set out to imitate Marlow & Sons baby kale salad. I mixed a vinaigrette of extra virgin olive oil, red wine vinegar, dried herbs, and a couple splashes of lemon juice. Then I topped it off with grated parmesan. Ta da! Though mine may not have had the same soft brush of kale leaves, it was delicious and at a cost of essentially $0 vs $10, I say Marlow & Sons 0 Julia 1.

Likewise, the scrumptious squid salad at Marlow & Sons motivated me to pick up some squid from the Greenmarket this weekend. I've always been confused about how long to cook squid so I did some research. Apparently when sauteeing squid, you either need to cook it for under two minutes (after that it turns rubbery) or for more than 20 minutes (when the squid becomes tender again). I chose to go with the long cooking version and sauteed it with olive oil and garlic, added a few splashes of vermouth and water, covered it, and let it cook for about 30 minutes until tender. The aroma that filled my apartment as the squid braised was salty and wonderful.

As for the salad I served it over, I didn't replicate Marlow & Sons' bibb lettuce salad exactly, but just used what I had on hand. Romaine lettuce, thinly sliced radishes and baby carrots (first of the season!), warm sauteed squid, that same olive oil-red wine vinaigrette, and parmesan. Surprisingly, it worked. I think you could refine it further by serving it over greens that have more structure and flavor, like mustard greens, and leaving out the carrots and parmesan. But for my purposes, I enjoyed digging into a big healthy salad with perfectly tender small bites of squid, tasting of the sea.

Inspired by Jen from her ever-inspirational blog Last Night's Dinner, I also grilled clams and topped them with a garlic scape pesto. The pesto was made simply in the food processor using a few garlic scapes, a handful of parsley from my deck, the zest and juice of half a lemon, salt, pepper, parmesan, a handful of almonds, a few tablespoons of olive oil, and a tablespoon of water. It was lovely, but I think I prefer eating clams by their lonesome to enjoy their distinctive taste.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Locavore Potluck

Last Saturday was my much anticipated locavore potluck. I had been awaiting the day since I first thought up the idea sometime over winter - to bring together my friends for the most noblest of potlucks, encouraging them to seek out local food sources. I'll have it in March, I planned, naively expecting that by then the bounty of spring would appear in the farmers markets. And when March continued in winter's fashion, I hoped April would bring fresh vegetables. Until April also did not seem flush enough with green. I almost had a date set in May, once asparagus and lettuce appeared, but scheduling conflicts pushed it back another month.

Then of course nature pulled a trick and jolted into summer with a heat wave, thick and oppressive and blowing hot air and sweat around our bodies. But the show must go on, so I planned to get most of the cooking done in the morning with the hopes that the apartment would cool off before the party. The morning found me at Union Square (bizarrely with larger crowds at 9am than I'd ever seen on a Saturday) to pick up a pork roast from Flying Pigs. Stupidly I hadn't asked for it to be defrosted when I ordered it, so it was frozen solid. Luckily after an hour an and a half in a water bath at home, it seemed mostly defrosted, so into the crockpot along with a sliced onion, barbeque sauce, salt, pepper, and a little water. This is my usual method for making pulled pork, and it couldn't be easier. You just leave it in there for hours and hours on low in the crock pot, maybe turn it up to high for a couple hours, and then back to low, and after about 8-10 hours it shreds when you go to cut it.

While the pork defrosted, I got to work on buns for the pulled pork. I thought the heat would help these babies rise into fluffy buns even more beautifully than last time, but instead they refused to rise and ended up as tight undercooked mini buns. I have no idea what happened, but they sufficed for the purpose. And the mini buns meant that people piled less pulled pork onto their sandwiches, leaving me with more leftovers (muhaha!)

While the oven preheated for the buns, I also roasted some potatoes into fries. Now common sense would dictate that you would not be silly like me and turn your oven on and instead buy hamburger buns and make something like a cold potato salad. But I was determined to use my local flour for the buns. And to make roasted potatoes from an overflow of potatoes from last week's party, I had to do something with them. So all my sweating in a sauna of a kitchen was my own fault.

I also picked up garlic scapes, which are young garlic shoots, at the market that morning. They are often transformed into garlic scape pestos, but I thought they would be perfect in aioli for dipping the fries. Aioli is essentially garlic mayonnaise, and I found it to be easier to make than I expected. I noticed, though, that I didn't seem to need as much olive oil as the recipe called for, probably because my eggs were on the smaller side. So I recommend slowly whisking in the oil and stopping when the mixture has reached the right consistency, even if you have some oil left over. Mine was creamy and thinner than commercial mayonnaise, but with a much brighter, richer flavor. Now that I know how easy it is, I'll definitely be making my own mayonnaise again, except this time I'll store some in the fridge right away so I can enjoy it later in the week - instead of leaving it all out in my 90 degree living room for more than three hours during the party and then tossing the leftovers from fear.

Although I finished cooking by 2pm, the apartment wasn't any cooler by partytime, but everyone seemed to have a good time despite the heat. Now, the party wasn't entirely local - the invitation just asked that everyone try to bring something incorporating at least one local ingredient. Eating locally is new to most of my friends, so I wanted it to be an encouraging, not daunting, challenge. I was impressed that my guests all made an effort to bring something local, and enjoyed trying all their great food. There was nary a bag of chips or can of PBR to be found.

My sister (who is working at Bobolink for the summer since it's only a 5 minute drive from our parent's home - how cool is that?) brought rosemary bread she'd baked that morning, and one of Bobolink's new spring cheeses, Tarte de Vache (Cow Pie), which was medium soft, grassy and pungent. Two vegetarian couples coincidentally both brought tortellini salad, and another standout was a jar of curry-pickled baby turnips and radishes. There was also a brilliant strawberry rhubarb bruschetta with fresh mint. As well as my pulled pork sandwiches, fries, and heavenly aioli, all local except for the yeast, barbecue sauce, salt, pepper, lemon juice, and vinegar.

For dessert there was a chocolate chip loaf from a Greenmarket bakery, ice cream from Ronnybrook and 5 Boroughs (warning: their Cha Cha Chocolate is super spicy), strawberries, and locally made marshmallows from Whole Foods. And of course, a few bottles of New York state wine, and lots and lots of Brooklyn, Bluepoint, and Southampton beer. The party didn't end until late in the night when all the booze ran out and I was ready to slip into a food and drink-induced coma.

Garlic Scape Aioli

2 stalks garlic scapes
1 tbsp fresh parsley
1 egg yolk
1 tsp lemon juice
1 tsp vinegar
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

Combine garlic scapes, parsley, salt, and pepper in a food processor. Alternately, you can mince them finely, or use a mortar and pestle, but my mortar and pestle doesn't seem to do much so I went the mechanic route.

Scrape garlic mixture into a bowl and whisk in egg and then lemon juice and vinegar.

With one hand, pour olive oil very slowly into the bowl, while whisking briskly and continually with the other hand. (Not as hard as it sounds.) If you add too much oil at once, just pause your pouring and whisk until it is incorporated. Taste occasionally, and once the mixture has reached your desired consistency and taste, stop adding oil.

Store immediately in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to five days. Serve with fries, fish, asparagus, or spread on sandwiches.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

A Pleasant Surprise

So my sister's aforementioned graduation party took place this past weekend. The menu we planned sounded impressive, but in the end I felt it all fell a little flat. My rosemary roasted potatoes nicely browned but then grew soggy in the hours before they were served. My brownies came out neither fudgy nor cakey, but chalky. The chocolate coating for the strawberries was pasty and watery due to the low quality chocolate chips my mother procured from Shoprite. Then there was the oozing overly lemon zested icing on the lemon ricotta cake; the gummy rice in my rice, chickpea, and asparagus pilaf; the overly lemony hummus and the overly garlicky white bean and spinach dip. We love to cook, but aren't always that great in executing our menus. But everyone still ate most of the food and seemed to like it, so I wouldn't call it a failure by any means.

While at home in Warwick for the weekend, which is positively verdant this time of year, I had the chance to not only enjoy a double feature at the drive in despite the rainy forecast, but to check out the Warwick Farmers Market. It wasn't too large, but featured lots of baked goods, wine, homemade gourmet goods, plants, and a couple meat and vegetable stands. Since my hometown is about 50 miles outside of New York City, there is some overlap between our farmers markets. I was thrilled to see Dines Farms, which used to be my main meat guy until they were kicked out of the McCarren Park Greenmarket for some reason. I had a reliable source of tasty chicken up until then, and haven't had much chicken since. So we got a huge chicken breast and some mushrooms from Dines Farms to cook up for dinner, as well as some kind of wild green from Rogowski farm, which they told us was a kind of Mexican spinach, so I think it was quelites.

I rounded out my dinner plans with a bottle of Seyval Chardonnay Reserve from Applewood winery, which is aged in oak, making it more complex than Applewood's slightly cheaper regular Seyval Chardonnay blend.

I planned on taking a hike but got lazy and read books instead in my sunny backyard before taking my booty back to Brooklyn to cook up dinner.

I wanted to keep our things really simple, so I didn't even add onions or garlic or any spices. I just chopped up the mushrooms and the quelites, sauteed them in olive oil with a couple glugs of the wine and shakes of salt and pepper, and covered the pan for about 15 minutes until wilted. So simple in fact, that that's really all of a recipe you need.

I also grilled the hunka chicken along with a couple buttery yellow potatoes from Berried Treasures in a pocket of foil because I am a potato addict. I ate about a third of the chicken that night and smartly saved the rest in the fridge for future use (such as in the yummy chicken, radish, lettuce, and mayonnaise sandwich I just ate for dinner tonight).

But back to that night's dinner. I quartered the potatoes and slathered them with Ronnybrook butter and a sprinkle of fresh sage from my container garden. Then I sliced up the chicken and laid it over the sauteed quelites and mushrooms to practice my plating skills. Plunked down a glass of that white wine. And yum. Now, I've never liked mushrooms very much, but I really enjoyed these. Something about the earthy sour smell usually turns me off, but I always had this hope that maybe it would be different with mushrooms from the farmers market. So that's what led me to give these mushrooms a whirl, and it was a pleasant surprise - their smell and flavor was mild enough to just give a meaty oomph to the sauteed greens without overpowering my nosebuds. Success! If only I knew what they were called so I could find them again. Name that mushroom? Anyone?

It feels like the Dark Days Challenge just ended, yet here is two months later, moving on into One Local Summer. The challenge is this: to prepare and blog about one meal each week using only locally grown ingredients - the exceptions are oil, salt and pepper, and spices. Reading One Local Summer was what inspired me to start cooking local meals in the first place last summer, but I was too late in the game to join. Now that eating local is old hat, here goes another delicious summer, starting with this very first OLS entry of the summer.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Take Me Out to the Ball Game

I meant to post this months ago after I went to a Mets game but forgot...since this was the last season at Shea Stadium I might as well post now to commemorate my experiences with it:

Did you know that beers at Shea Stadium are $8? For a Bud or a Bud Light, with no other choice?

Did you know that the size of the sponsor logos outshadow the tiny sign for the Mets?

Did you know that it's hard to watch the game from the bleachers because the diamond is too small an area for my eyes to focus on for very long? I kept missing things because my eyes wandered.

Did you know that the Mets and the Yankees are both building new stadiums right alongside the old ones, for no other reason I can understand than hubris?

I didn't know these things before, but I do now. I'm not a big baseball fan, or a fan of any sports in general really, but I was excited when I get free tickets to a Mets game because I wanted to see what it was all about. And that's what I did, just took it all in - the big stadium, the big lights, the big ads, the view of Queens beyond, the big prices, the big speakers, and the guy shouting Yankee Cookie behind me (not sure what that was all about, but I guess he doesn't like the Yankees).

It wouldn't be a baseball game without the beer, so I made an exception and drank Bud, which I almost never do (being a beer snob who sticks to microbrews). But having spent all our money on beer, we headed home after the fifth inning when we got hungry for dinner, instead of shelling out for those peanuts and cracker jack. So no food review here. Sorry. and Good night.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Playing Catch Up

Did you know that just a 75 minute drive from New York City lies a serene state park where hiking trails abound and a blue lake awaits you? It's called Clarence Fahnestock State Park and I had passed it many times on so many drives up and down the Taconic during college, but had never ventured inward until this Memorial Day weekend.

With our beach plans thwarted, Jesse and I wanted some other naturesque escape from the city's grey blocks. Guessing that Bear Mountain would be crowded with similar-minded Memorial weekend escapees, we decided on Fahnestock park, which is much less known, left at 2pm, and found ourselves there after what felt like a short drive later. Even better, entrance was free! The park covers a larger area than I had imagined, filled with hiking trails, and smoky campsites, and a clear blue lake perfect for exploration via canoes and rowboats. It also supposedly boasts a beautiful white sand beach, but that did cost money, so we didn't get to see it.

After a couple hours traversing a short pass over the Appalachian trail we simply headed back home and were back in Brooklyn for dinnertime. It seemed almost too easy of a getaway. But those simple hours in the woods restored our hearts and minds and prepared us for the remainder of the alcohol hazed weekend.

On the way home we stopped at Fairway to pick up soft shell crabs. I'd been wanting to try them for so long, since Jesse had extolled their virtues as a seasonal delicacy. He grilled them to perfection according to Jen's directions on Last Night's Dinner, along with grilled asparagus. Meanwhile, I prepared a lemon thyme vinaigrette for a simple salad with fresh lettuce. We usually put together balsamic vinaigrette for our salads, so I wanted to try something new. It wasn't quite right - the flavor of the olive oil was too prominent. But it was a nice change of pace, and certainly heading in the right direction for bright summery salads.

As for the soft shell crabs, I wasn't the biggest fan. The texture of the shell wasn't as crispy as I expected and was just a little too tough. I found myself hankering for the pure unadulterated crab meat inside, but couldn't get a bite without the exoskeleton. I have hope though that maybe it's a taste that will grow on me - after all, Jesse wasn't such a fan the first time he tried soft shell crabs, but he oohed and aahed over his creation this time.

As for the rest of our long weekend, it involved an easy bike ride down to our favorite spot in Prospect Park, at the bottom of the lake, where we had beer and sandwiches from Bierkraft nestled against a tree with the wide blue lake before us;

pitchers of margaritas out in the sun on Flatbush Avenue; many more bars; and burgers delivered to our rooftop gathering because it was too much to ask everyone to coordinate a potluck barbecue when all we wanted to do was go on drinking and relaxing some more in the sun and the night. And now back to the workweek.

Lemon Thyme Vinaigrette
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tbsp lemon juice
1/2 tsp dried thyme, or 1 tsp fresh thyme (I used dried because my thyme plant isn't looking quite big enough yet)
2 stalks spring garlic, minced
1/2 tsp mustard

Whisk ingredients together and adjust to taste. Serve over fresh lettuces for a delightful salad.