Saturday, June 6, 2009

New movie: Food Inc.

One of the joys of living in Charlottesville is being able to get a more personal view of our food (although thanks to the farmers market in Sacramento, we got to know several of the farmers in that area, too), and to learn about small-scale agriculture.

I was just reading this Q&A in Denver's Westword tied to an upcoming movie, "Food Inc." (The photograph is from I was struck by this quote (to read the whole Q&A, click here):

It's a minor miracle, and we (Americans) spend less on our food than at any point in history, but this low-cost food comes at a really high cost. I thought it would be interesting to talk to all the producers from Joel Salatin (owner of Polyface Farms, which is near Charlottesville) to big companies, but agribusiness does not want us to know where food is coming from.

I didn't realize this, but they didn't want us making this movie. From their point of view, they don't want you thinking about this stuff. There is still the white picket-fence illusion and from their point of view, they don't want you to know it's coming from a huge factory.

It all relates to the tobacco analogy, where there were powerful organizations with connections to government. They totally lied about what smoking did to your health. There are total similarities. There is this misconception that we have many options for food, but it's all coming from a few big companies.

Food for thought, eh?

Friday, June 5, 2009

A rice by another name?

Risotto is a rice, yet it comes to the plate looking more like sauce than substance. Yet in every good risotto, the rice is the star, and the sauce is the solar system that revolves around it. And to create this universe, this Milky Way, takes time. But it is so worth it.

You can cook pasta in a similar way, but the payoff isn’t nearly as great.

To make a good risotto, have all your ingredients measured out and at hand before you start. Keep your broth at a simmer and have a good dipper to add it at the right intervals. And be familiar enough with the recipe that you can pay attention to what the rice is doing at any time so you can adjust the heat and broth accordingly. And give yourself plenty of time. The dish will stay warm a long time, but it can’t be rushed.

Recipe: Risotto


3 1/2 cups regular or low-sodium vegetable broth

2 teaspoons unsalted butter

2 teaspoons olive oil

1 large shallot, finely diced

1 cup arborio rice

1/2 cup dry white wine

1 tablespoon butter (salted OK)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste


In a large saucepan over medium heat, bring broth to a simmer.

For the risotto, heat butter and olive oil in a wide, shallow, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat. Add diced shallots and saute 3 minutes, or until tender and translucent. Add the rice and toast for 1 to 2 minutes, or until slightly translucent. Add the wine and stir until it has evaporated.

Cook the risotto at a slow simmer, adding heated broth a half-cup at a time. Stir occasionally, making sure the risotto absorbs the liquid before adding more. Use more or less broth as needed.

Continue cooking in this manner for 18 to 20 minutes. Taste the risotto - it should be creamy and thick. It's best al dente, which means it should be fully cooked, yet still retain some firmness when you chew it.

When the risotto is nearly finished, stir in any other ingredients you'd like to add. Turn off heat, stir in 1 tablespoon of butter, and season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Serve immediately.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Cooking-for-a-crowd tips

Staying at the Browns always reminds me of cooking breakfast for at least a dozen people, and if you’ve ever worn yourself to a frazzle trying to cook for more than eight people in the morning, here are some tips to get you through your next big event.

  • Toast: Forget the toaster and those fancy racks that we like to refer to as the “toast cooler.” Turn on the oven to 350 degrees. Put slices of real bread (the kind that doesn’t have a lot of preservatives; if you’re using Wonder Bread, you’ll probably need a rack, too) on cookie sheets. When the oven is preheated, slide the sheets into the oven and cook until the tops are light brown or you can smell the toast. Remove and flip the slices. Toast for a little less time than the first side, turn off the oven, remove the toast, put on a pat of butter, and slide back into the oven until the pats melt a little. Serve immediately.
  • Eggs: Scrambled are great for a crowd, but you always have to use so many eggs per person to make them look like a goodly amount on a plate. Poached look fancier, and my friend Elaine Corn has the easiest way to make them ahead in her cookbook, “365 Ways to Cook Eggs.” But the best way to make eggs for a crowd is to make a strata (kind of a savory bread pudding that, without crusts, looks more like a souffle; click on the word for a recipe) and top with great sauce (my favorite is marchand de vin).
  • Bacon: Oven-fried is the only way to go. Line a lipped baking sheet with foil, or make half-inch sides with the foil. Does not need to be quick-release. This will make cleanup easier. Separate bacon slices and put them in a single layer on the foil. Put in a cold oven (DO NOT PREHEAT), then turn it on to 400 degrees. Check the oven 15 minutes later. As soon as the bacon is golden brown, remove it (it will continue to cook as you take it out of the oven). The exact time will depend on the thickness of the bacon slices, but it shouldn't be more than 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and drain on paper towels. Strain the hot grease through cheesecloth if you are saving it for another use, otherwise let it solidify and toss it and the foil together.
Of course, the easiest and healthiest of all is fruit and cereal, but somehow, that just doesn't say "company" to most people.

Back in CA

We made it to SFO after 3 hours on the tarmac due to lightning storms, making it seem like a trans-Atlantic flight. So forgive me if bleariness creeps into this post and the next.

The meal aboard Virgin America was a bit better than similar ones offered by United and American; with the hummus and chips pack, there were two pieces of raw broccoli, 1 cauliflower floret, two blanched pea pods, some red pepper and carrot strips, a bit of radicchio and leaf lettuce, and a scoop of baba ghanoush. (Just so you don’t think I’m a total health nut, I ordered the chocolate bar – a 65% cocao with nibs.)

Jim had the Mandarin chicken wrap, which was slightly sweet, but good.

The wine was Wente chard and cab – so-so. But I was happy they offered seltzer (which has no sodium) rather than just club soda (which does).

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Another time-saving prep tip

Love mushrooms? Love shallots? Those are two great tastes that taste great together. When you have a little time, here's a medley that freezes well. For single servings, freeze in ice cube trays and then pop out and store in a freezer bag; reheat a cube or two as a topping for steak, pork chops, chicken breasts, scallops or pressed fried tofu, or a stuffing for a tart or crepe.

Brush off the debris from a pound of mushrooms and slice them thinly. Thinly slice a half-pound of shallots. Saute the shallots first, then add the mushrooms, in 2-4 tablespoons of olive oil, butter or a mixture of the two. Do not use light butter or margarine; they have too much liquid whipped into them and won't freeze as well. Cook over low heat until almost a paste, seasoning with salt, pepper, chopped parsley and thyme as desired. For extra flavor, add a cup of white wine or chicken broth and continue cooking until all the liquid has evaporated. Cool, pack in small containers or the above-mentioned ice cube trays, and freeze. 

Why did I think of this today? Maybe it's the foodie in me, but when I see Dulles, I think duxelles, pronounced dook-SEHL, the French name for this dish.

Hello from Dulles

I'm waiting for my flight to San Francisco (Virgin America, which my husband took a few weeks ago and came back raving about the leg room and amenities) and finally have time to post.

So first, an observation: For an airport that seems to be staffed largely by North Africans, why aren't there any African restaurants? Instead, at this end, we've got Five Guys and Auntie Anne's pretzels, a couple of coffee shops and pubs. So much for the romance of travel.

At least the water is free, if you bring your own empty container through security.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Prepping food for easy meals

Here are some tips that you can do after shopping that will save you time on weeknights after work.

Green beans: Snip the ends off. Bring a pot of water to a boil and put a drain insert or steaming basket in it. When the water is boiling well, put the beans in. Get a bowl of ice water ready. When the water comes back to a full rolling boil, take the beans out and put them in the bowl of ice water. Drain and store in the fridge for up to three days. To prepare, heat a tablespoon of butter or olive oil in a skillet, add beans, season with salt and pepper (and garlic or black bean sauce if you desire) and saute until heated. Serve. Top with a tablespoon of crumbled bacon, toasted sesame seeds or slivered almonds if desired.

Lettuce: Wash the heads thoroughly when you get them home and shake dry. If the bottom has turned brown, cut a 1/4 inch or so off. Wrap the lettuce in paper towels and put back in its plastic bag (clean the bag out first if the lettuce was especially dirty). You can even tear the leaves for salad if you plan on using it all in a day or two. Still, be sure to wrap the lettuce in paper (or cloth) towels. But don't use a metal knife and cut it; it will discolor rapidly.

Asparagus: If you like grilled asparagus, cook a pound or two at a time. Be sure to snap off the bottoms; they will naturally break where the tender part starts. Cook it about 8 minutes or until crisp-tender, no more. You can reheat it in the microwave (if it seemed a little bitter to you the first time, try reheating it in milk - that smooths out the taste) or use it cold in a salad or with a drizzle of lemon and butter and a poached egg on top.

More to come as I think of them.

Later this week, we will be gone a few days to see my nephew graduate; if I don't keep up my posts then, please check back after June 9 for sure.

C'ville local food movement meeting

Is anyone going to this? I'm interested:

Sustaining the Local Food Movement - A Left of Center discussion
WHENTuesday, June 2, 2009, 7 – 8:30pm
WHERERapture -- on the Downtown Mall
303 E. Main Street
Charlottesville, VA
EVENT TYPEPublic Meeting

Left of Center is holding a discussion on the local food movement.

Is the local food movement a passing fad for the wealthy, or is it possible that it can permanently alter how we all eat, work, and live? How do we expand it beyond weekly sales in parking lots to something accessible to—and affordable by—everybody?

Kate Collier, an owner of Feast! and Founding Director of the Local Food Hub, and Melissa Wiley, Director of the Piedmont Environmental Council’s Buy Fresh Buy Local program, will speak about the direction that the movement needs to take in order to overcome these hurdles. They’ll address how local food initiatives can succeed in having a lasting impact on preserving open farmland, supporting endangered small family farm businesses, and promoting agricultural diversity and sustainable environmental practices.

Come on out, join some friends for a beer and join the discussion.

C’ville Market / Cavalier Produce, Horse & Buggy Produce and Integral Yoga Natural Foods are co-sponsoring this event.

Left of Center is a Charlottesville, Virginia group of mostly twenty- and thirty-something local Democrats.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Why don't we cook at home more?

The New York Times had an article yesterday headlined "The Commander in Chef," which called on Michelle Obama to set an example by cooking a meal at home occasionally, and went on to cite some statistics about how few Americans cook at home. Yes, the reasons are sound: Cooking can be a chore and many people don't have the energy once they come home from work.

But much of the problem is setting priorities and sharing chores. If you enjoy cooking and eat with someone else, ask them to clean up. If someone else does the cooking, offer to clean for them, or help them with the prep. And make dinner a focal point of your day. Plan a few meals per week (don't plan for every day, because things happen - someone may ask you to join them for dinner, for instance, or there may not be enough time to cook between work and night meetings or entertainment, and you can probably squeeze in another trip to the store later in the week if necessary). If you're tired when you get home, do what the French do; pick up a fresh baguette on your way home, smear it with jelly for the kids (maybe you, too) or maybe just a little bit of good butter. and enjoy it while you relax with a glass of cool water (or something stronger, if that's your pleasure). Once you're relaxed, get on with the dinner prep.

And think of dinners that taste great and don't take all that much time to prepare. 
  • For cheaper cuts of meat, start them in the crockpot before you go to work. 
  • When you're ready to start preparing dinner, fix the rice or fresh potatoes first (they usually take the longest, and stay hot the longest, as well). 
  • Pound chicken breasts to about a half inch so they cook fast and evenly. 
  • Roll out hamburger patties between two sheets of wax paper to about 1/4 inch before slapping them on the grill (for the best cheeseburgers around, roll them even thinner, put a slice of cheese, or blue cheese crumbles, top with another thin patty, seal the edges well and grill).
  • Summer squash halves cook in about 8 minutes, try stir-frying greens, or start corn on the cob in the microwave and finish it on the grill (add butter or a mixture of olive oil and seasonings when it's done).
I'll post about do-head prep tomorrow.