Archive for September, 2008

A Sweet Something

I am having a little bit of a problem of abundance right now.  There’s still all those really wonderful seasonal ingredients rolling into the market, and I can’t keep up (must eat some more tomatoes, must get one more melon, oh, what about all that squash in the farm share??). The problem is compounded by the ever-increasing list of dishes that I must make at least once a year. You know, I have to revisit the tortino di melanzane, and there’s pasta pepperonata to be eaten, and what’s September without some sort of plum dessert? But I want to try new things too, and I hear the siren song of braised pork shoulder with quince and duck aux framboises . . . and if they’re as good as they sound, then I’ve got a problem, because the roster of Dishes that Must Be Revisited will grow ever longer. What’s a girl to do?

Well, what this girl did this Saturday, as we settled on a dinner of grilled salmon with warm balsamic bacon vinaigrette on a bed of arugula  (with some killer roasted French fingerlings on the side)  — a favorite that appears a couple times of year on our table and that blends a late summer freshness of flavor with enough warmth to feel like a real supper on a cool night — was to say “well, at least I can make a new dessert.”

And now I’m in trouble because it’s a keeper.  It was quick and easy and the aroma of baking pear made the kitchen redolent of autumn. And, pared down (forgive the pun) to a dessert for two it was just so sweet (sorry, again) tucked into its little souffle dish. Plus it’s great with ice cream.  It’s a perfect dish for two, but you might want to be a little stingy on the portions and then shove the serving dish quickly out of sight. Because it’s almost more perfect for one, cold, with espresso, for breakfast.

Perfect Pear Crisp for Two

(adapted from a recipe at Epicurious from Claudia Fleming of Gramercy Tavern)

1/4  cup dried Michigan cherries
Water or red wine, such as a pinot noir, enough to cover the cherries
2 ripe pears, peeled, cored, and sliced
2 T granulated sugar
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
2 T ground almond meal (the original recipe calls for toasted almonds, broken up, which would add more crunch, but I was making do with what was on hand)
1 T packed dark brown sugar
Dash of ground cinnamon
Dash of ground nutmeg
2 T cold unsalted butter cut into a small dice

In a small saucepan, cover cherries with wine or water. Bring to a boil and turn off. Leave to plump, anywhere from half an hour to overnight.

In a bowl, combine pears, cherries and their soaking liquid, and the granulated sugar. Let sit for half an hour until the pears juice up  nicely.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

In a medium bowl, combine the rest of the ingredients. Work the butter into the flour with a pastry cutter, a couple of knives, or your fingertips until the dry mixture resembles coarse cornmeal.

Layer the pears and cherries, with their juices, into a two or three cup soufffle dish, or into two smaller ramekins.  Spread dry mixture on top.  Cook until browned, warm and bubbly, 40-45 minutes.  Eat warm or at room temperature. Or cold. For breakfast. See above.

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A few weeks ago, Jan Longone, the curator of the renowned Longone Culinary Archive at the University of Michigan’s Clements Library, dropped us a note inviting us to visit her new exhibit at the Clements, “The Old Girl Network: Charity Cookbooks and the Empowerment of Women.” I’m lucky enough to work steps away from the Clements, so I wandered over at lunchtime to have a look. Of course, I had failed to read the information about the exhibit with any care, and got to the building twenty minutes before it opened, but a kind-hearted volunteer saw me with my nose pressed to the glass and took pity and let me in. So, let me confess, that I was expecting to be in and out really quickly. This is not because I had any doubts about the quality of the exhibit, but because of my own peculiar failings. Oddly, for one who has spent a lot of her life immersed in text in one way or another, I’m really not that excited about old books. I thought I’d take a look, get a quick impression and write up a pointer to the exhibit for readers who might be interested. Well, let me also confess that close to an hour and a half later, I was scrambling out of the building, trying to get to a meeting on time, and regretting the short shrift that I had to give to the last case.

Longone’s thesis, that the production of charity cookbooks have been intricately woven into the fabric of the political and social empowerment of American women is intelligent and well-argued, both in the extensive prose that accompanies the cases and by the displays themselves. The cookbooks served as focal points around which women could and did organize themselves and assert an influence that went far beyond the culinary. And the cookbooks were also concrete organizational tools, raising money so that women could help others, often other women, almost always the economically and politically disadvantaged.

But that’s not what kept me bent over the cases and kept my pen racing furiously across my notebook pages. For me, there are two incredibly compelling aspects to the exhibit. The first is the pure and powerful suggestiveness of those open books. Again and again, I found myself wanting to reach through the case and flip pages to get more of the story, to learn more of the rich history of everyday life that is embedded in what people eat and how they talk and think about what they eat.

On top of that, there are a number of extremely delicious sounding meals and dishes recorded on those pages.  The Washington Woman’s Cookbook, published in Seattle in 1909 records the menu for a state dinner as “Olympic oysters, rainbow trout and Snohomish blackberry pie.”  Talk about local food! I’m there.  It also apparently contains a “woman’s list for the mountains” which I would very much like to review. What did a lady in 1909 need when she took to the mountains? The Centennial Buckeye Cookbook, constantly revised and reprinted from 1876 to the present calls for, in 1903, a green bean cooking time of three hours. Three hours! That’s worse than my mom.  By 1991, the cooking time is down to 10-15 minutes, and I find myself wondering what seismic shift in our relationship to vegetables has made for that change.  In one book from 1907, for which, most sadly, I forgot to note the citation, we are given instructions for a Hot Tamale Lawn Fete: “Now have the Committee of Refreshments gather round a long table with a pan of mush in the center . . .” It also gives some helpful advice on livening up the party: “If possible, have Mexican hats and sashes for the girls who serve.”  Now, I’m a bit humbled by all this, because I think I’m all cosmopolitan and eclectic and all, but a tamale did not cross my lips until well into the 1990’s and here’s some Midwestern church group, some bunch of Iowa farm wives, serving up tamales at the turn of the last century. I know what my next party is going to be . . . I’m organizing the Committee on Refreshments now. Anyone got a lead on Mexican hats?

The delightful details kept me moving slowly from book to book. But after a while — and this is the second reason I stayed so long —  I shifted from amusement to some deeper emotion. Because even though many of these charity organizations represented political or social perspectives with which I am sure I would have little truck, I could not help but be tremendously moved by the enormous expression of collective love embodied in these books. There are, for example, the women who put together a cookbook “to procure funds for all of the farmers in that part of France that was devastated by the invasion of the German armies.” Or the Central Pennsylvania Home Cookbook published in 1891 to assist debilitated veterans of the civil war, written as “part of the high and holy mission of lessening pain.”

In the last case, there is a drawing from “Peace De Resistance” a text that came out of the Women’s Strike for Peace in Los Angeles, California in the 1960’s. The drawing shows a woman picketer and her sign reads “Bring the Boys Home for Dinner,” and it was this little bit of comedy that made me cry, that was the reason I was all sniffles and red eyes at that meeting I had to hurry to. I am susceptible to these things these days, as a mother who looks at her sleeping son and then watches the news and thinks about how she’s glad she has a place to live on an island that’s a very short boat ride to Canada. The sentiment of that drawing seems to me to be such a pure expression of the bonds that hold us together. At some level, most of us want nothing more than to sit down with those we love and eat in peace. We eat and we love and we love and we eat and these two things are not parallel or coincidental. They are wonderfully entangled and inextricable.

Jan Longone will be speaking about the exhibit this Sunday, September 21, at 3:00 at the Clements Library on the Universityof Michigan’s central campus. (The exhit will be open starting at 2:30 and until 5:00).  I urge you to go see her, because I’m sure she’ll be erudite and entertaining about the story she’s telling with the exhibit. But I urge you more strongly to go see the exhibit because in it you will find a story of your own.

The Clements Library is located at 909 South University Avenue, and is open Monday through Friday from 1:00 to 4:45 p.m.

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I bet you think this post is about tomatoes. Anne already did such a lovely job with that topic that I’ll just flash you some tomato confit and dash off some quick notes to let you know what I’ve noticed going on in the Ann Arbor Food World these days.

New Good Local News

Looking to satisfy a craving for local food, prepared by talented local chefs, and rub elbows with other local foodies? The HomeGrown Festival is this Saturday from from 11am-4pm at Community High in Kerrytown. In addition to $2 “tastes of Ann Arbor” (including “Watermelon Soup, Spinach and Goat Cheese Pizza, Slow Roasted Pork, Michigan Sweet Corn Tamales, real BBQ Chicken Wings and PawPaw Gelato,” as the Farmer’s Marketer puts it) there is some free entertainment on offer as well. You know you’ll be at the farmer’s market already, and the festival is just across the street. What do you have to lose? Exactly. Read more about it on The Farmer’s Marketer.

Or perhaps you need a taste of your news served up with some talking-over-the-fence flavor? You can get your fill at The Ann Arbor Chronicle, a community-focused news website that just launched and includes an A2 Food category, about which I am enthusiastic. From A2C, I learned about good barbecue that’s available on football game days in the Morgan & York parking lot, which I’m dying to check out. Also, that the Cupcake Station opens next week (9/19), and will be handing out 500(!) free(!) cupcakes. Oh, yeah. Thanks, A2C!

Maria tells me that there is a farm cart with fresh produce at the gas station on the west corner of Packard and Stadium. Alli reports another farm stand a little further down Packard towards Ypsi, at the corner of Packard and Boston, between Hewitt and Golfside.

And the Observer reports that a fellow is selling homemade bread and poetry on Washington St., near the YMCA. The bread is making him some bread. The poetry? Not so much.

Old Not-Good Local News

Everyday Cook has closed. For real this time. And we’re sad. Read all about it on the Everyday Wines blog. We are thanking our lucky stars that Everyday Wines is still open. We’re awaiting news about what the erstwhile chefs are up to these days. Word has it that Aaron is cooking up some fine lunches at Cafe Japon on Liberty St., but we haven’t stopped by yet to try them. We do love their baguettes.

La Zamaan has closed. G3 reader Jeff mentioned it awhile back in the comments to our review of the restaurant. We’re also sad about this.

Weekly News, Good and Local

Tonight, and every Thursday night, is complimentary appetizers and music in the wine bar at eve-the restaurant from 9:30-11pm. It’s been going on for some time, but if you haven’t checked it out, I heartily recommend it. Our friend Forest will be spinning some records. I’m going tonight, and I hope to see you, too.

Just News (not sure yet whether it’s good or bad)

Chipotle is going in on State St., near the Theater.

On Main Street, The Black Pearl and The Melting Pot have seemed poised to open . . . but when?

Do you have any local food news you’d like us to report? Drop us a line at gastronomical3@gmail.com.

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Tomato Time

I’m not tired of them yet. Are you?

We’re pretty far into the tomato season at this point, but I still can’t get enough. Unfortunately the Mr. Stripey heirloom tomato plant in a pot on my back deck has produced fruit but is taking forever to ripen. I think the long dry spell and my husband’s light hand with the watering can may have slowed poor Mr. Stripey’s development. But this week I did notice a slight bit of color coming through. Cross your fingers, otherwise its fried green tomatoes again (I don’t seem to have a lot of luck with tomato plants in pots, and I don’t have a vegetable garden to plant them in – yet!).

Anyway, I made this tasty dish a few weeks back with heirlooms and cherry tomatoes from a local market since Mr. Stripey hadn’t yet produced. The recipe comes from the June 2008 issue of bon appetit (I wanted to just link to it but it doesn’t seem to have made it to epicurious or the bon appetit website). It is relatively simple to put together and was a smashing success with my fellow diners (even without the Saint Agur blue cheese – I just used supermarket gorgonzola). So if you are still into savoring those last juicy tomatoes of the season you may want to try it out.

Strip Steak with Blue Cheese Butter, Marinated Heirloom Tomatoes and Salsa Verde

1/4 c chopped parsley
2 T chopped basil
2 T chopped tarragon
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 t finely grated lemon peel
1 t anchovy paste
1 t capers, minced (I didn’t mince them)
7 T extra virgin olive oil
4 oz  Saint Agur or other creamy blue cheese
1/2 c butter, room temp
1/2 c grape tomatoes, halved
4 large heirloom tomatoes (assorted colors), cut in 1/2-inch slices
4 NY strip steaks
Grilled steaks with tomatoes, salsa verde and blue cheese butter

Mix parsley, basil, tarragon, minced garlic, lemon peel, anchovy paste and capers in small bowl. Gradually whisk in olive oil. Season w/salt and pepper. Mix blue cheese and butter in another small bowl to blend. Season w/salt and pepper.

Prepare bbq (med-high heat). Toss grape tomatoes with 2 T salsa verde in small bowl to coat. Arrange heirloom slices in single layer on rimmed baking sheet. Season w/salt and pepper. Drizzle remaining salsa verde over heirloom tomatoes. Grill steaks until done the way you want them. Let rest 10 minutes.

Stack seasoned heirlooms on each of 4 plates and place steaks alongside. Scatter grape tomatoes over each plate. Top each steak w/generous dollop of blue cheese butter.

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One of my household’s more painful end-of-summer rituals is the annual review of spending. Not nearly as much fun as the last swim of the year or a big bike ride out Huron River Drive.  This year it became apparent that our grocery spending was a little, ahem, out of hand.  Even when adjusted to reflect that we were eating out a lot less because of increases in a) our dissatisfaction with the local restaurant scene, b) experimentation in our own kitchen and c) mobility of young Nick who has little patience for restaurants these days (oh for the days when he slept in his carrier while we sipped wine at the Earle) the food bill was still pretty extravagant.

Sort of.

There’s been a lot of talk in the food world in the past couple of years about the way in which Americans underspend on food, certainly relative to the rest of the world and probably in some sort of absolute ethical terms. We expect to eat well and eat cheap, and our national spending on food averages out to around 9.7% of post-tax income (these numbers can vary depending on whether you look at just eating in or a combination of eating in and dining out; approximately 55% of our food dollars are spent on food for our kitchens and 45% on food from restaurants, mostly, I suspect, of the fast food variety.)

The ever-eloquent and ever-intelligent Michael Pollan, argued in Unhappy Meals, a popularly quoted piece in the New York Times Magazine (that he later expanded into the book In Defense of Food) that we should:

Pay more, eat less. The American food system has for a century devoted its energies and policies to increasing quantity and reducing price, not to improving quality. There’s no escaping the fact that better food — measured by taste or nutritional quality (which often correspond) — costs more, because it has been grown or raised less intensively and with more care. Not everyone can afford to eat well in America, which is shameful, but most of us can: Americans spend, on average, less than 10 percent of their income on food, down from 24 percent in 1947, and less than the citizens of any other nation. And those of us who can afford to eat well should. Paying more for food well grown in good soils — whether certified organic or not — will contribute not only to your health (by reducing exposure to pesticides) but also to the health of others who might not themselves be able to afford that sort of food: the people who grow it and the people who live downstream, and downwind, of the farms where it is grown.

After spending a while with my budget analysis pain, I decided to console myself that I was at least Doing The Right Thing and spending a higher proportion of my income on food because I was making Good Choices — good for me and good for the environment.

Until I ran the numbers. In fact, even though our monthly grocery and dining expenditures sometimes, er, often, creep close to four figures for my family of four to five people (the size of our population varies throughout the year),with a couple of dinner parties a month thrown in, our percentage is close dead-on for the American averages. Actually, it’s a bit low, since it works out to a little over eight percent. If you look more narrowly at income brackets, we are again, right on target for the average. The more affluent you are, the smaller the percentage of income spent on food. Since two fairly senior white collar professionals (that would be me and my man) bring in more than the national average income we are off to one side of the curve a bit. It’s pretty depressing, if commonsensical, that poor families spend 35% of their income on food while the rich spend minuscule percentages.

I suppose the cheerful side of this in terms of my personal economy is that even though we’ve made a big shift toward organic and local eating in the past couple of years, relative to the rest of American eaters we’re not actually taking an unusual hit in terms of our overall budget .  This could be  influenced by our simultaneous shift to eating at home more; only about twenty percent of our food budget goes to eating out and food dollars go a lot further at home even if you’re spending them on nice wine and classy extra virgin olive oil.

Nevertheless. Gas has gone up, we’ve got two mortgages to pay and two kids to send to college some day, ya da ya da ya da. Some belt tightening is in order. (And, you know, if we don’t stop eating so well, that belt-tightening might get harder).

So, I’ve been focusing a lot these days on cooking with what’s on hand rather than my more usual pattern of being inspired by an ingredient or two that’s in-house and then going on a sometimes expensive hunter-gatherer foray to get the rest. Saves on fuel too! So far, I don’t think any of us have been deprived, except maybe Nick who enjoys trips to the store and often asks, first thing in the morning, “are we out of something?” in the hope we’ll make a shopping expedition. Admittedly, the current state of pantry satisfaction is probably colored by my former spendthrift ways. It’s easier to cook well with what’s on hand when that includes five different kinds of sea salt and bags of Rancho Gordo beans, not to mention the farm share arriving every Wednesday. But cut me a break; I’m trying, I’m trying.

To that end, last night’s dinner, and it was a nice one. I would make this again, even if I had to go out and buy the stuff. But I didn’t, and that was the beauty of it. Look in the CSA box, dig out a leftover sheet of puff pastry dough (isn’t there always one left?) from the freezer and see what odds and ends are around. Last night, this was supplemented by a couple of ears of fresh corn (get it before it’s too late) and a handful of halved cherry tomatoes with oil and balsamic vinegar. Plus a glass of (cheap, really) Trader Joe’s wine.  We felt good about ourselves. And just plain good.

(Self-Satisfied) Leek Tart From Leftovers

1 sheet frozen puff pastry (I used Trader Joe’s “Artisanal” puff pastry which was very good. It’s about ten inches by ten inches and fed two nicely as  main dish.  Other brands come in large rectangular sheets and would feed more. You would just have to use more toppings or spread them thinner).

A few slices of bacon (4-6?) sliced into half-inch strips

1 T butter

2-3 medium leeks, roots and green tops removed

1/2 cup grated gruyere (or other cheese that has a bit of backbone without being overwhelming; the nuttiness of the gruyere was particularly pleasant here)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Clean the leeks and cut into quarter inch slices. In case you haven’t cooked with leeks before, be aware you have to rinse the heck out of them to get out the grit. You can either slice them in half lengthwise and rinse under running water, folding back the layers to get at the dirt, then slice, or slice them first, put them in a colander and rinse, rinse, rinse until the grit is gone. Set aside.

Fry the bacon over medium heat until it is a little crisp and lift out of the pan with a slotted spoon. Set on paper towels to drain. Assess the amount of bacon fat in the pan. If it seems a bit intimidating, drain some off, but make sure to leave a little slick of fatty goodness.

Add butter to the fat in the pan. When it has stopped foaming, add the leeks and give a good stir.  Turn the heat down to low and cover. Cook until thoroughly softened and beginning to melt, 20-30 minutes. You want the leeks to be totally relaxed without browning. In the middle of this process take the puff pastry out of the freezer and leave to defrost on a sheet pan for ten-fifteen minutes.

When the leeks are finished, tilt the pan a bit so that you can get at some of the butter in the bottom of the pan. Dip a brush in this and brush the pasty sheet all over.  Then layer on the leeks, the bacon and the cheese. Leave a little bit of bare pastry around the edge to form a crust. Pop the tart into the oven for 20 minutes or so, until the cheese is bubbly and the crust is golden brown.

You can probably imagine that this preparation is easily varied with a different vegetables, meats and cheese. I would just advise not overloading the shell to avoid sogginess, and if you eschew fatty meats, you may want to add a little more butter or olive oil to your saute pan to keep things moist.

Spend dinner calculating your savings and wondering whether it justifies buying some expensive cofee this week. Old habits die hard.

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