Monday, March 31, 2008

A Long Day's Journey into Strawberries (Act I)

Me: "The strawberry cobbler's ready."

The Wife: "Great! Too bad we don't have any ice cream to put on it."

"We have some of that homemade strawberry ice cream left."

"I don't like strawberry ice cream."

"But it's the exact same recipe as vanilla ice cream, just with strawberries added to it."

"I told you, I don't like strawberry ice cream."

"When it melts on top of the hot cobbler, the ice cream's strawberries will mix in with the cobbler strawberries and you'll never know the difference!"

"Are you deaf?"

Curtain closes.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

U-Pick Strawberries

Yesterday we hit the U-pick strawberry patch out at Boone Hall.

Last night, it was Strawberry Cobbler for dessert. I had all the best intentions of doing up a big pie, but by the time I got into the kitchen it was already after six and I just wasn't up to rolling pie crust. This cobbler recipe is an old fallback that I got from Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything, and he credits it to John Willoughby, who supposedly found it in a Southern boardinghouse. I call BS on that last bit since Willoughby isn't all that old, and have you heard of anyone staying in boardinghouses since the era of Thomas Wolfe? (I'd believe "bed-and-breakfast" . . .). Anyhow, it's a great, simple recipe, and i've made it time and again with fresh strawberries with great result.

You just slice the strawberries, toss them with sugar, and put them in a baking pan. For the crust, you cut a stick of butter into a half cup of flour in a food processor, then mix in an egg and a little vanilla, then drop the dough by the spoonful over the top of the strawberries. You can literally throw the thing together and have it in the oven in less than five minutes. 40 or 45 minutes at 375 degrees and you have a golden, crusty treat.

It's perfect with a scoop of ice cream over the top.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Lowcountry Bookshelf #1: Charleston Receipts

The Lowcountry of South Carolina has one of America's oldest and most distinctive food cultures and thriving modern restaurant scene. The cooking of this region has been captured in dozens of books, some with a historical focus and some with a more contemporary slant. This series takes a look at the essential cookbooks for anyone seeking to learn more about the classic cooking of the Lowcountry.

In 1950, members of the Junior League of Charleston undertook a project to raise funds for the Charleston Speach and Hearing Center. The result was Charleston Receipts, a sprial-bound hardcover volume with some 350 pages of receipts compiled by a committee of twenty-one league members.

Most committee-created cookbooks from America's churches and civic organizations are eminently forgetable: collections of cream-of-mushroom soup casseroles and bland pie recipes that gather dust on people's shelves and are never actually used. Not so with Charleston Receipts. The book is one of the key volumes documenting the food heritage of the Lowcountry. With over twenty printings during its first half-century, it has sold over 750,000 copies and is the country's oldest Junior League cookbook still in print.

So what makes it special? Charleston Recepits sits as a bridge between the 19th Century and the present day. By the time it was published in 1950, American food culture had already crossed the divide from traditional cooking to the industrial food of our time. But, the women writing the book (most of whom have recognizable Charleston family names like Laurens, Izard, Rhett, Gaillard, and Stoney) remembered firsthand the older food culture of Charleston, and many of their favorite receipts have Antebellum roots. The book's text captures and provides commentary on many of the changes that had occurred during the authors' lifetimes.

The changes are reflected is in the language itself, starting with the title and its use of the classic Charlestonian term "receipts" rather than "recipes". Little snippets of verse are scattered throughout to help clarify term for the reader, like the following opening to the "Hominy & Rice" section:

Never call it "Hominy Grits"
Or you will give Charlestonians fits!
When it comes from the mill, it's "grist"
After you cook it well, I wist,
You serve "hominy"! Do not skimp;
Serve butter with it and lots of shrimp.

These little ditties are worth the price of admission alone, but it's the receipts themselves that really capture the history. The volume begins with five pages of punches, including the traditional concoctions served by the St. Cecilia Society, the Cotllion Club, and the Charleston Light Dragoons. The "Soups" are dominated by crab and oyster versions; "Game" is plentifully stocked with receipts for turkey, duck, marsh hens, and venison; and the "Meat" section includes more than one receipt calling for the head of an animal.

The volume was written at a time when shrimp was still caught not by big ocean-going trawlers but in the creeks and inlets around Charleston, and they were sold not in markets but by street vendors with baskets. The Breakfast Shrimp receipt captures the lost classic of the Lowcountry breakfast table, and there are multiple versions of shrimp pies. In the "Hominy & Rice" chapter you can find several classic pilaus as well as Hopping John, and the "Desserts" section opens with puddings, syllabubs, and charlotte russes.

But, the book has only one foot in the 19th Century. The other is firmly planted in the 20th. Worchestershire sauce appears all over the place (including in an otherwise quite wonderful receipt for a classic shrimp pilau)--but you can easily omit that. Chicken Tetrazzini and Spaghetti with Beef (including tomato catusp and "1 small bottle stuffed olives, chopped") appear amid the chicken pilaus and Country Captain. There's a whole section dedicated to "Canapes" (very 1950s!), but even amid the horrendous celery rings and egg balls are some old gems like benne seed biscuits and pickled shrimp.

All told, Charleston Receipts is an indispensable reference for anyone looking to explore the traditional old recipes of Charleston and the Lowcountry.

Friday, March 28, 2008

The Original No-Stick Pan

Last night I made dinner with two of my four cast iron pans--corn bread in the smaller one, braised short ribs in the larger. To clean up, I just wiped them out with a wet rag, dried with a towel, and put them away--less than 60 seconds for both.

Thank you, cast iron.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Daylight Savings

It's official. I have survived yet another transition to Daylight Savings Time. It's odd: I travel a lot for work, including lots of trans-Atlantic flights as well as red-eyes from the West Coast, so I'm no stranger to jet lag. And yet I swear the little one-hour spring forward messed me up just as severely. I walked around like a dopey zombie for three days, and I'm just now back to the point where I don't feel exhausted when I wake up each morning.

Neither The Wife nor I have much truck with the whole Daylight Savings thing, since we don't see much real benefit to it beyond screwing up everyone's internal clock. According to Wikipedia, the whole concept of Daylight Savings Time was the brainchild of builder, outdoorman, and general busybody William Willet when he "observed with dismay how many Londoners slept through the best part of a summer day." It figures such a loopy notion would be conceived out of contempt for others. Wikipedia does a nice job of limning DST's clear-cut pros (increased time for evening leisure activities) and clear-cut cons (missed appointments) and the many things that may be pros or may be cons but we just don't know (increased or decrease traffic fatalities? economic impacts? energy savings?).

Here's another to add to the list, thanks to an NPR interview via Fanatic Cook: Daylight Savings screws up dairy cows and milk production. Though it's not clear who's to blame here, society at large or inflexible farmers . . .

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Local Beard Nominees

The nominees for the 2008 James Beard Foundation Awards were announced, and Charleston was well represented. Sean Brock of McCrady's was nominated for the national "Rising Star Chef" award, while Mike Lata of Fig and Robert Stehling of Hominy Grill were both nominated for "Best Chef: Southeast".

Winners will be announced June 7th.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Organic Schmorganic

It's not news that "organic" food is fraught with uncertainty and that much of it is almost as industrialized as the "conventional" stuff put out by Archer Daniels Midland and ConAgra. Here's a handy chart (have you noticed yet that I love handy charts?) put together by Good Magazine to help you ID the corporate parents of the major organic brands.

Here's another fun one. Go to the Stonyfield Farm website. Notice all the material on carbon offsets and solar electric arrays and "Profits for the Planet" and the commitment to "sustainable agricultural practices." What a great small company.

A family member of mine got a job with Dannon, the yogurt people owned by the French food giant Danone Group. And, noticing the stack of Stonyfield Farm yogurt containers in our fridge (the Two Year Old loves the stuff, and I'm willing to pay a lot more for it because, first, I recognize all the ingredients on the label and, second, it just plain tastes really good), he said, "Oh, yeah. We make that stuff."

Really? Danone Group, the multinational food giant? It's not mentioned anywhere in the lead "Our Story" text on the Stonyfield site, but if you look hard enough you'll come across an "Our Partnership with Group Danone" link. The term "partnership" is used in sort of a loose, marketing context here, meaning that Danone owns 85% of Stonyfield Farms shares which, unless I'm missing something, means they actuall own Stonyfield. With the aid of Google you can find a more detailed press release with all the relevant facts.

I would love to say that I'm shocked, stunned, and dismayed.

But, I'm not. I would expect nothing less at this point.

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Strawberries Are In!

Mike at Mike's Table is hosting "Strawberry Seduction", a blogging event calling for posts about recipe made with fresh strawberries. By some strange coincidence (call it, perhaps, the start of strawberry season), I recently became deeply interested in strawberries myself.

Every day as I drive to work I pass by the Boone Halls Farms fields out on Highway 17, and for weeks I've been watching the strawberry plants and looking for the little speckles of red to appear amid the green leaves. And the berries are now in.

I bought a big basket today and man, oh man, are they delicious. The best thing about freshly picked strawberries is not their sweetness--the winter varieties from Chile have that--but rather the crisp texture and tangy tartness that mixes perfectly with the sugars. And that is the true taste of spring.

The problem with strawberries is that they don't stay good for long, so I had to do something with them. And what I did was make ice cream:

1. Stem and slice about 3 cups worth of strawberries

2. Mix with 1/2 cup of sugar and 4T lemon juice and allow to macerate for at least an hour, until a good red liquid has been produced from the berries

3. Combine a cup and a half of whole milk with a 1/2 cup of sugar and blend with a mixer set to low for a couple of minutes.

4. Strain the strawberries, reserving the juice, and mash half of them with a potato masher.

5. Add the strawberry juice, mashed berries, 2 1/2 cps cream, and 1-1/2 tsp. vanilla to the milk and sugar and stir well.

6. Pour into your ice-cream make and churn as required until thick and creamy, about 20 minutes

7. Add the remaining berries and continue churning another five minutes or so.

The results are breathtaking. This is perhaps my favorite of all the homemade ice-creams I have made. Something about the fresh strawberry flavor and the rich cream just goes perfectly together. Proof positive that Spring has arrived in South Carolina.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

And Even MORE Corn

All right, corn fans (and, pretty much, I mean you, Janet), if watching a major corn documentary on a tiny television screen and, even worse, having to wait until mid-April to do it just isn't acceptable, there's a better option. A special sneak preview of "King Corn" will be shown on the big screen at the Charleston County Public Library this coming Thursday (March 27th) at 6:30 PM as part of the library's regular Independent Lens series.

Like corn, it's free, except that you subsidize it from your taxes.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Can You Still Afford to Eat?

Is your family going hungry yet? Are you clipping coupons again? Have you had to pass up the ribeye and buy a can of Alpo instead?

If you read recent newspaper stories like this, this and this, you may well start to worry.

Who's to blame? Corn, of course. Increased ethanol production has driven corn prices up, and as well all know by now, everything we eat today is actually made of corn, so now all food is more expensive.

But how dire is it really?

If you read the stories all the way to the end, you'll find buried toward the last paragraphs a few notes to the effect that, over the past century, food prices have dropped dramatically, at least in comparison to our incomes. In 1901, the average American family spent 43% of its income on food; in 2004, it was only 14%.

But that's just relative to household income. Does this mean food has actually gotten cheaper over the last century or just that nobody had any money in 1901? And who cares whether your great-grandfather could afford steak or not. What about us? Maybe things got better and better up until about the _________ Administration (fill in your least favorite recent president here), then it all went to crap.

In hot pursuit of facts, I spent some quality time recently reading the latest magnum opus from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service with the riveting title Price Trends Are Similar for Fruits, Vegetables, and Snack Foods. It's only 23 pages, but it seems much, much longer. It does have pictures, though, and that helps.

Here's the good news. Junk food just keeps getting cheaper. If, like The Wife, you think cookies and Diet Coke constitute a meal (she likes to call it "breakfast"), then you're in luck:

And, what's better, potato chips prices are absolutely plummetting:

This, of course, is the big bugaboo for most nutritionists: sure, some foods are cheap, but it's the healthy ones that aren't, hence the obesity epidemic. Who can doubt that, assuming prices were equal, the average Joe would naturally select a big bowl of steamed broccoli over a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos. What else but price could possibly be responsible for the fact that Americans eat so many chips? If only vegetables were cheaper . . .

But wait! There's more to the story. The researchers at the USDA found that the prices of fresh fruits and vegetables have indeed risen considerably over the past 25 years (heading up some 49%, when adjusted for inflation). But they attribute this rise not to actual price increases but also the introduction of a whole range of "value-add" fruit and vegetable products like bagged lettuce and "baby" carrots where there's a lot of labor involved in preparation beyond just the picking.

And the rise of these "ready-to-eat" products has been remakable. Washed and bagged spinach didn't exist on the market before the 1990s. By 2003, 65% of all fresh spinach purchased was for the ready-bagged stuff. A full 69% of all carrots bought in 2003 were peeled and trimmed, shredded, or otherwise prepped.

This is great news for the lazy. (Or, as The Wife likes to call them, "people who have far better things to do with their lives than spending all freaking day in the kitchen peeling carrots." We don't always see eye to eye on gastronomical matters.) But it does obscure the issue of whether fruit and vegetable prices are going up. You have to compare apples to apples. Literally.

The same basic trend holds for almost all of the varieties of non-prepared fruits and vegetables that were available in 1980, including bananas, lettuce, dry beans, carrots, cabbage, celery, cucumbers, and sweet peppers. As with any commodity, the prices go up and down month by month, but the general trendline over the years in unrelentingly downward:

Fresh fruit and vegetable prices may not be falling at quite the brisk pace as, say, potato chips (how ARE those things getting so cheap?), but they are falling nonetheless. We may have seen some big spikes recently in the price of butter and cheese, but overall the food-cost increases are pretty moderate: an estimated 4% overall increase this year, which is a few ticks ahead of inflation but not exactly a rocketship.

I'm about to head out for my weekend grocery shopping. I will not be taking any coupons with me.

(Note: scary photo aside, Richard Nixon really has nothing to do with this post, but when you start talking about food prices and inflation it's always good to remember back to the good old days with Tricky Dick, which was the last time our country was in a panic over rising food prices.)

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Pining for Spring, Part II

The blossoms are out, the pollen has dusted my car and the driveway and every other level surface with a thin golden layer . . . it's almost time for this:

I just finished up an assignment for the City Paper that involved eating barbecue for at least one meal on six (SIX!) consecutive days. I never thought I'd say it, but a crispy green salad is starting to sound really, really good . . . unless I contrive an excuse for some more, um, "fact checking" around noon tomorrow and make it a solid week of hickory-smoked pork.

My cardiologist loves me.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

More Corn

If reading The Omnivore's Dilemma didn't whet your appetite for good ole American corn, you can catch more on the upcoming showing of the documentary "King Corn" on PBS on April 15th (perhaps not coincidentally, the day the taxes are due to pay for more corn):

And, yes, Michael Pollan shows up in the documentary. That guy's everywhere all of a sudden!

Monday, March 17, 2008

Locavorism: The Clock is Ticking

I'm not one to toot my own horn, but . . . well, who am I kidding? I gotta say that those predictions of mine are already coming true. If my Google Analytics stats are to be believed, there's no way I can take credit for helping to reverse the trend, but it's starting to reverse nonetheless.

The Los Angeles Times is reporting that the Santa Monica Farmers' Market, once an oasis of local produce for Southern Californians, is turning into a "boutique wholesale operation", with much of the produce being snatched up by commercial distributors and shipped by air to restaurants as far away as New York. And the L.A. chefs who frequent the market are starting to resent it . . .

Over time, I've figured out when to know a trend is living on borrowed time. When the moron sales guys I worked with around 2000 monopolized lunch conversation with how much Cisco stock they just bought . . . it was a good time to get out of the tech stock market (not that I had any stock to sell at that point in my life). When I went to my kid's soccer games and heard non-stop chatter from fellow parents about ARMs and balloon payments and how much their houses had appreciated in 6 months and how they were quitting their jobs as chiropractors to take up real estate (yes, one dad actually did that), I knew the real estate bubble was about to pop.

"Locavorism" (what an annoying word!) has jumped the shark. It just doesn't know it yet.

So what will all those high-status chefs do once Meyer lemons and fingerling potatoes start showing up on Applebee's menus? I smell Crab Louis and Steak Dianne!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

This Omnivore's Dilemma

Just in the past few days it seems like everyone is reading Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma (or, at least, TRYING to read it . . . keep at it, Tammy!). The book was published two years ago, but it's got legs: the paperback version is currently ranked #42 on Amazon's sales ranking. I've heard Pollan interviewed on the radio at least six times in recent months, bloggers are blogging about it, and now everywhere I go someone mentions that he or she is reading The Omnivore's Dilemma.

If you've heard all about it, too, and are thinking of picking up a copy, I do have one word of warning. It's a really good book, but if you aren't careful it may well make you unable to eat ANYTHING.

When The Wife was pregnant with our second child, our oldest (then five) was very curious about how the baby was growing inside Mommy and, more to the point, how it would get out of there when the time came. The Wife explained the whole birthing process in a factually accurate but non-graphic way, and the Then-Five Year Old pondered it for a little while and finally concluded, "That just doesn't seem like a very good idea."

Which is sort of my feeling about the whole industrial food system after reading Pollan's detailed but non-preachy analysis. I've never had a strong moral compunction about the killing of animals for food (witness me at a barbecue joint), and I find the typical "OH, MY GOD! YOUR FOOD IS KILLING YOU" headlines ludicrous. But, the more I got into Pollan's descriptions the more unsettled I became.

It's not a pretty picture: the dominance of corn monoculture and the never-ending spiral of farmers' chasing higher yields at the expense of never-ending new technology, ever-mounting debt, and dependence on the government and single crops. The grim absurdity of the cattle feedlot, where bovines are loaded up on a food they can't tolerate (corn) and crowded into pens hoof-deep in cow crap and pumped full of antibiotics just to keep them alive long enough to be killed. The scientific dismantling of food into its constituent parts (proteins, sugars, starches, etc.) then putting it all back together again into new, unheard of combinations (the chicken nugget)--it just doesn't seem like a very good idea.

But thanks, Michael. Your book is also makes a pretty convincing case that the alternatives aren't much better. Like "Big Organic" food, which is to say most Organic food, which except for not being grown with chemical fertilizer doesn't seem particularly different from "conventional" produce (e.g. "ready-to-serve" greens that are cleaned, chopped, wrapped, and shipped across the country in refrigerated trucks). Joel Salatin's back-to-the-earth alternative farm produce sounds fantastic, but how the hell do you get your hands on it? If everyone reading your book wanted to try it, all the throw-back farmers in America would be sold out in half an hour. And, as much as I enjoyed reading about your adeventures in trying to kill and forage your own food, I do have to keep my day job.

And that's the real Omnivore's Dilemma: there's nothing left to eat!

Do yourself a favor: don't read this book now. Wait until June when the farmer's markets are open again and a fresh stream of local produce is available. If you read it now, it's just going to sink you into depression.

I go to the local Publix and push an empty cart up and down the aisles looking for something that isn't loaded full of hormones, adulterated with high fructose corn syrup, or picked three weeks before ripening and shipped here on a plane. I'm gone for an hour and a half and come home with a bag and a half of groceries, and even those aren't very tempting.

Since I no longer bring food into the house, The Wife has had to fend for herself in recent weeks, which means she is living on a diet of Fruit Loops and drive-thru burgers, which is the exact opposite of the book's intended effect. This can't go on.

Fortunately, Pollan isn't going to leave us foodless forever. His latest book, In Defense of Food, was published in January and promises to give you the magic secret of how we can actually find enough good nourishment to stay alive amid the flood of un-food. It's fourth on the NY Times bestseller list for non-fiction, so a bunch of people are buying it, but surely no one is actually reading it. I mean, he gives away the whole content of the book on the jacket flap by boiling it all down to a simple dictum: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

I'm all for the first part, but "Not too much?" "Mostly plants?" I can tell you right now that's never going to fly.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Produce Chart

The South Carolina Department of Agriculture has a handy PDF chart of what produce is in season when here in SC.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Pining for Spring

It's official: I'm ready for Spring. I went to the Boone Hall Farms store today and everything looked so wilted and wrinkly and unfresh--even the root vegetables--that I couldn't bring myself to buy anything except for some dried red cowpeas. Over at the supermarket, there was some passable-looking asparagus and beets from Mexico, which I optimisitically took as evidence that Spring was on its way. It had made it as far north as Mexico, the line of thinking went, which means it couldn't be much longer before it makes it to the Carolinas--as if Spring were some sort of migratory bird. I, of course, have no idea if the part of Mexico where the asparagus and beets came from even has discernable seasons, but no matter.

We've had a few weeks of unseasonably warm weather, including a couple of lovely days in the seventies recently--enough to make the flowers on my azaleas start to pop out and lull me into thinking winter is behind us.

But it's not. The Marion Square farmer's market won't open until the first week of April. The U-Pick Strawberry patch down the road is still teasing me with its "coming soon" sign.

I need veggies, damn it. Some fresh, tender spring things. One more month . . .

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Glorious Pork Fat

What's the difference between these porks chops and run-of-the-mill ones?

Yes, that's right. They have FAT on them. Glorious pork fat!

These chops originated from the Upstate Farmers Alliance by way of Ted's Butcherblock. The bone's still in, and that nice big white ring around the outside is how they looked AFTER the butcher trimmed the excess fat off! And that equals moistness and flavor when you cook them.

After years of wrestling with "the other white meat" and trying to conjure life into dry, tasteless pork, I'd almost given up on the stuff. I seared these chops in a pan, dashed in some shallots and parsley, then poured over a little white wine and chicken stock and let it simmer for about ten minutes. Removed the pork to a plate, reduced the cooking liquid down to a thick sauce, and poured it over the top. Tender, moist meat with flavor! Amazing!

Long live the other red meat.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

More Bad Restaurant Web Sites

It seems I'm not alone in my aggravation at ill-designed restaurant websites. And, to make me feel even better, it seems San Francisco has even worse restaurant websites than Charleston. Check out the Market Bar site for perhaps the most obnoxious design flaw ever.

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