Monday, July 18, 2011


So, I've been doing a lot of thinking about this project.  It's hard to describe the effect it's had on our lives, even only a month in.  Looking back over the pictures I've posted, it blows my mind how different and yet the same the food we've been eating is.  As adults, Joe and I have always been adventurous eaters -- people for whom food is an experience.  I know that sounds terribly snobby, but stick with me for a moment.

Back in, oh, 2005 or so, Joe and I had the pleasure of eating at a restaurant in Tyson's Corner called Maestro.  Maestro was headed by an ambitious young chef, Fabio Trabocchi, who did an Italian fusion cuisine that was considered some of the best in the Mid-Atlantic.  What I remember most about that meal weren't my veal cheeks, or the perfectly seared sushi-grade tuna amuse-bouche, but a fennel soup, served cold in a test tube, as a shooter.  I can still bring that sensation to mind, even now.  The soup was bright green, and in a heady sort of way it was the pure Platonic taste of spring.  The flavor shocked my tastebuds and the aftertaste left me desperately wanting to taste the soup again.  Thinking back, a larger serving would have been a terrible idea -- any more and I'd have gotten the malted milk ball effect (you know the one; you eat one malted milk ball and it's the BEST THING EVER, then you eat another and it's okay, and then you eat a third and you suddenly never want to taste that again until a couple years pass and the cycle repeats itself).  But in that moment it was sheer heaven.

I certainly can't claim to cook like that.  I'm not a chef, I'm a home cook and baker (and Joe's a better cook than I am (but I'm the better baker!)) who is tentatively stretching out her culinary reach by going back to basics.  We're rediscovering what it is to eat with the seasons, savoring each ingredient in its turn.  Now that the beets are done, I kind of miss them, and I'm going to revel in their return next spring.  The Tomato Apocalypse is about to strike in our backyard, and I'm going to gorge myself in our fresh tomatoes, and re-explore a childhood skill, canning, to preserve what I am able to for this winter.  I'm making some serious plans for next year's garden because I've learned so much from my planting mistakes this year.

We're looking at our fridge and pantry as the source of our food instead of using recipes in cookbooks as our inspiration.  The question has gone from "what are we having for dinner tonight?" to "what are we making with the food we have on hand?"  I haven't set foot in a grocery store in over a month, where I used to have to run out for a specialty ingredient just about every day.  My shopping days are Thursdays and Saturdays, the days that our Farmer's Market is open in Manassas.  I'm starting to recognize and be recognized by the people who are growing, raising, and/or slaughtering my food.  I feel more connected to what I'm eating, and I feel like we're getting a lot closer to Michael Pollan's ideal of "Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants".

I'm also having a lot of fun making things from scratch that most people don't make any more.  Baking bread, making pasta, these are easy things that most people have done in their lifetimes.  Finding an ethical source for milk, meat, and eggs is easier than you'd think, but I've had a terrible time finding good mozzarella or ricotta.  So I've made my own ricotta already and will be exploring mozzarella this week for pizza.  It feels amazing to look down at a cheesecloth-lined strainer and see ricotta that you've made, and it's even more amazing to find out that store-bought ricotta tastes nothing like homemade ricotta.  Joe always thought he hated ricotta until I made some for our beet green ravioli.

When we started this project, Joe and I would joke about how we'd be so excited this fall, when the last CSA delivery happened and the Farmer's Market closed down, to go back to being able to shop 'normally'.  I think that what's going to happen is that we're going to miss this.  I think we're going to miss chatting with the people who produced the food that we're buying, miss the flavor of truly fresh, ripe produce, and miss the sense of connection.  We'll find out.

Here's your food porn for the day:

I needed some comfort food last week, and this is it for me.  Mashed potatoes (potatoes from our CSA), topped with aged cheddar from the good people at Cabot (hooray co-ops doing it right!), sprinkled with bits of bacon (from Steve Baker, who raises heritage pigs that get to live outside), and thinly sliced scallions (from the farmer's market).  Local, ethical, and a perfectly satisfying dinner all on its own.

Tomorrow I've a big post about quiche lined up.  See you then!

Friday, July 8, 2011

It's CSA Day, and Summer Squash Gratin

Look for another post today or tomorrow about our CSA bounty this week!  We pick our share up between 5:30pm and 6:30pm on Fridays.

So, last week we had a sizable amount of zucchini come in our CSA share.  We love zucchini grilled or sauteed as a side dish, but side dishes weren't going to cut it with the amount of yellow squash coming out of the garden, or the zucchini coming from the CSA.  So, into the kitchen we went for some zucchini-centric main dishes.

First, Joe developed a summer squash gratin.

This was particularly awesome because not only do I love gratins, but it used up four veggies and even the last bit of baguette from the last baking day.   We used the Italian peppers and the purple peppers,
 a yellow summer squash and a zucchini, and made fresh breadcrumbs.

Summer Squash Gratin
serves 4 as a main course
2 zucchini 
2 yellow summer squash 
6 small Italian sweet peppers
1 purple bell pepper
1 onion, diced
2 cups whole milk
6 oz sharp cheddar cheese, grated
1/2 cup breadcrumbs
2.5 Tbsp all-purpose flour
5.5 Tbsp butter
4 oz bacon, diced
3 Tbsp Parmesan Reggiano

First, put together your mise en place.  Quarter the squashes and cut them into 1/2" chunks, grate your cheeses, dice the bacon, seed, rib and slice the peppers.  Pre-heat your oven to 375F, and pull the Dutch oven out of the cabinet. 

Put the bacon in a cold pan, and turn the heat onto medium.  Heating the pan and the bacon at the same time will render more of the fat, which is good for this recipe.  You want super crunchy bacon to add some textural interest to the dish.  Let the bacon cook as you work on the vegetables.

Melt a tablespoon of butter, and work it through the breadcrumbs with your fingers.  Spread the buttered crumbs out in a small baking dish and bake the crumbs until they're golden brown and toasted.  Remove from oven and let cool.

In the Dutch oven, melt 1 Tbsp of the butter over medium heat, and saute both of the squashes until you start to get some color but the flesh is still reasonably firm.  Remove from the pot and set aside.

Melt a second tablespoon of butter into the pot, and then add the onion.  Saute it until it's softened and slightly translucent, and then add the peppers.  Saute onions and peppers together until the peppers are tender.  Remove peppers from pot.  Check the bacon -- it should be getting close to done.  When it's fully cooked, turn the bacon out onto paper towels to drain.

Add 2.5 Tbsp of butter to the pot, and heat until the foaming subsides.  The foam is the water being boiled out of the butter, leaving behind just the oils.  If you did this carefully in a separate pan, you'd be making clarified butter.  This is quick and dirty and just right for a rustic dish like this gratin.  Once the foaming has gone down, stir in the flour.  Congrats, you've made a roux!  Keep stirring the roux until it's a golden-brown color and the raw flour taste is gone.  Return the peppers and onions to the pot, and stir to coat them with the roux.  Whisk in the milk, and keep stirring constantly until the mixture is thick and bubbly (somewhere around six minutes).  Remove the pot form heat, and stir in the cheese.  Stir in the bacon.  Finally, return the squash to the pot, and fold it into the cheese mixture gently.  You don't want to smush the squash.  (Which is totally fun to say).

Mix the Parmesan with your cooled breadcrumbs, and spread over the top of the gratin.  Technically, you could and should transfer the gratin to a 9x13 baking dish or gratin pan now, but we were lazy and kept it in the Dutch oven.  Bake at 375 for about a half hour.

Serve with a crusty bread to soak up all the cheesy goodness.  We served with the last loaf of the cheese bread I baked two days before.

Don't worry about plating -- this is about as rustic as it gets

Even rustic food deserves wine!  A bright, mineral-y wine like a Sauvignon Blanc (aka Fume Blanc in California) contrasts nicely with the richness of the cheese and bacon.

This recipe could be easily made vegetarian by omission of the bacon and it'd be just as good.  You can also substitute just about any kind of sweet pepper you want for the Italian and purple bell peppers.  Swiss or Gruyere cheese could be used instead of Cheddar, just do what you feel.  There's also no reason you couldn't use 2% milk for a lighter version, though I don't think it'd work if you tried to use fat-free milk.  Be creative and have fun!

As for the second main course using squash, here it is!

I wasn't feeling well at the beginning of the week, so Joe pampered me by making risotto.  This is a variation on classic Milanese risotto (see the saffron threads?), with red bell pepper and zucchini added.  I'm thinking of calling it Risotto d'Estate -- why should Pasta d'Primavera have all the fun?

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Thursday Farmer's Market and Roasted Beet Pasta

Welcome to the Thursday Farmer's Market in Manassas!
 I got up today and headed straight for the Manassas Farmer's Market (and remembered to bring my camera this time).  I got a little distracted by my shopping, so here's a couple of photos to tide you over until next week.

Cherokee Purples, Brandywine Pinks, and Stripeys, oh my!

It's a pepper explosion! 

I love the market because it's a great way to fill out what we get from the CSA -- aromatics like onions and general purpose veggies like bell peppers are currently in season but we didn't get any in our share, so this tides us over until we start getting them.  And, it's the place where we get our meat and dairy, so it's doubly important.  We will be making a pilgrimage to some of the other markets in the DC area, including the Arlington market (which is year-round, those lucky bastards!) but it's nice to have such a good, producer-focused market close to home.

So what did I buy today?  Almost two pounds of red bell peppers for $4.00, a big bag of 'second' peaches for $4.50, a pound of pork chorizo sausage for $5.70, and two gorgeous beef shanks for $7.00.  On Saturday we bought a half-gallon of whole milk for $4.25 (and a $1.75 bottle deposit), some red onions for $3.00, 4 ounces of fresh goat cheese for $4.00, a pint of Rainier cherries for $3.50, and 11 pounds of bones for making stock for $14.  We also picked up some Parmesan Reggiano and  Cabot sharp cheddar from a 'real' store for $28.  That brings our total for the week to $79.70, plus the $30 for the CSA.  So we're four bucks over for the week (Curses!), but the stock that is currently simmering on the stove will last us for the next few months.  All in all, I feel like we're not doing too badly at all.

  And here's your food porn for the day, since I've been a little spotty on posts and I'm trying to catch up. ]

Last week Joe and I were trying to decide what to do with our beets, and Joe found this gorgeous recipe for a roasted beet pasta.  The blog he found it on is called Food And Style, and it's the sort of beautiful, high-production-value blog that I aspire to some day become.  You can find the recipe and Viviane's incredible beauty shot here.  The recipe itself is vegan, but Joe and I can't see a dish of pasta without wanting to grate some Parmesan onto it, and we liked the additional depth of flavor that the cheese added.

[defensive]  I like that my homemade pasta ended up that pretty variegated red to pink to white instead of Viviane's even and lovely ruby colour.  [/defensive]

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Last week's CSA and the Farmer's Market

The bounty of our CSA, week 3

Week 3, and the vegetables begin to be more recognisable.  We still have some wonderful oddities like kohlrabi, but Joe got emotional at the thought of potatoes.  We're pretty excited about our plans for these veggies, and I'm going to be experimenting with a new way to post about our meals -- I'm going to show off what the CSA/garden/farmer's market ingredients are, and then show what we did with them.

So, we'll start off with Friday's meal!  After I got home from picking up the CSA share, Joe helped me wash and store what we got.  I'll try and get photos of that process for this Friday's post, because if there's anything we've learned from the CSA it's that storing what you get properly makes all the difference in the world when it comes to longevity.  We finished off using the pac choi in Friday's meal . . . yes, the pac choi that we got back all the way in Week 1, and it was just as crisp and lovely as it was when we stored it.

The stars of Friday's meal were the potatoes,

and the pac choi,with a little help from the fresh thyme out in the garden.

We pulled a steak out of the freezer stash (starting to run low on those!) and we put together one of our favorite easy evening meals: Steak with a pan sauce and thyme-roasted potatoes.

The steak was easy enough to handle:  rubbing with coarse salt and fresh ground pepper is really all you need to do to good meat.  Sometimes we get fancy around here with some of the spice rubs I make, but we kept it simple since Joe was going to be using the fond and drippings from pan-frying the steak to make a reduction sauce (mounted with a little butter).

The potatoes were halved, and then cut into fairly thick horizontal slices.  We brushed a half-sheet pan with oil, added the potatoes, and added salt and a combination of fresh and dried thyme.

They went into the oven to roast, and Joe handled the steaks and the pan sauce while I tackled the pac choi.

I chose to go pretty simple for the preparation of the pac choi.  I think that the bitterness of hearty greens like kale, spinach or pac choi is a nice complement to the unctuousness of a well-marbled steak.  I decided to run fresh ginger and garlic through a garlic press, toss them in our big saucier, saute them until they were fragrant, and then add a little water and the pac choi, trimmed of stems, to wilt.  When the greens were wilted and bright green, I pulled them out and we plated.

July 1st dinner, steaks with a pan sauce, thyme-roasted potatoes, and wilted pac choi

This was the first time we've had a 'big hunk of meat' presentation since the experiment began, and it was amazing how special it felt.  Back before industrial farming really took off, foods were generally meat-flavoured instead of meat because meat was much more expensive than vegetables.  In 1928, the Republican National Committee even used the idea of "a chicken in every pot" to entice voters to vote for Herbert Hoover because having meat consistently was a marker of prosperity.  Now everything is on its head, with a hamburger at McDonald's costing less than a dollar, while a head of pac choi at the supermarket (assuming you don't live in an urban poor area and even have a supermarket) is $2.39(at our supermarket), before tax.  I'll talk more about the real cost of meat (at least meat that hasn't been tortured) in a later post that I am working up.  It will involve some trips out to meat and poultry producers, and there will probably be pictures (though gory ones will be past a jump).

Joe and I have found ourselves eating vegetarian more often than not, accidentally.  We'll be halfway through dinner and look at each other and say "Huh.  We ate vegetarian again."  Hell, we even ate VEGAN last week with the tofu and pac choi stir fry, and we're about as far away from vegans as you get.  (You'll get our cheese when you pry it from our cold, dead fingers)

Oh, and about the Thursday Farmer's Market in Manassas?  I went out there to scout it and to see if we could fill out our store of aromatics like onions.  Thursday is the producer's market (meaning you won't find distributor resales there), and I was more than pleasantly surprised.  I hooked up with Jeff Adams, who runs Walnut Hill Farm with his wife, Ginny.  I'll be heading out to visit their farm for that 'real cost of meat' post, where they raise heritage breeds of cattle, sheep, pigs, and goats, as well as pastured poultry that is processed on-farm, in the open air.  It sounds a lot like Polyface Farm methods, and I'm excited about heading out there.  I also bought a pound of ground beef from him to restock a new, more ethical Stash!

Last week's total spent on food:

$30 for the CSA
$5.50 for the ground beef
$2.25 for a bunch of spring onions (not scallions, bigger then pearl onions, smaller than regular onions)
$ 3.00 for 1.25 pounds of purple bell peppers

We'll see what happens when the stash runs out, but I am cautiously optimistic about how this is going!

Oh.  I also baked cheesebread on the 1st, ostensibly for lunches and such this week.  Sadly, it didn't make it through Monday.  Guess I'll have to bake more!

There were four loaves this size, two with the fresh basil and oregano you see here, two without.  None survived the weekend

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Stash

We'll start this off with a quick pictorial of what we did with our CSA veggies on Monday and Tuesday:

Monday was a Tofu and Bok Choy stir-fry

Tuesday was stuffed Japanese Eggplant and summer squash 

The stuffed squashes were a creation of Joe's, made entirely with what we had on hand in the stash.  They were stuffed with ground beef, onions, tomatoes, garlic, garlic scapes, and topped with fresh mozzarella and basil from the garden outside.

You could easily sub in chicken or pork in the tofu stir-fry, but with its sherry-soy sauce marinade the tofu is wonderfully crispy on the outside and creamy-tasty on the inside.

So, what's this Stash I keep referring to?  Well, before this blog started, Joe and I tended to shop economically, buying things like meat and canned goods in bulk and freezing/storing them as appropriate.  As much as I love this experiment, we're not going to waste all that food by letting it languish in the freezer getting freezerburned.  So, we'll keep you all up to date when we run out of things in The Stash and what we're using to replace it.  We'll be following our Rules when we replenish, and part of that is humane, ethical treatment for not only the livestock involved in the food process, but the humans and the land too.  'Organic' doesn't mean good conditions or a living wage for farmhands, after all.  This means that simply heading to the grocery store and grabbing the first thing we see labelled as 'Organic' isn't going to cut it -- there are a lot of problems with the USDA Organic labelling.

One of the biggest problems with the USDA's certification system is the expense and amount of paperwork required.  This is a cost that agribusiness giants can roll into their operating costs pretty easily, but that can be quite difficult for small family farmers to bear.  Another issue is that once the standards are federally regulated, it opens the door for agribusiness lobbyists to water down the standards.  Finally, regulation is spotty at best -- there are only 53 domestic USDA Organic inspectors for the entire United States, and only 41 for the rest of the world!  Nonprofits like The Cornucopia Institute have formed to push for better enforcement and as an opposing force to agribusiness lobbying, while other organizations like Humane Farm Animal Care have created their own, higher-quality certification schemes for livestock producers trying to do the right thing.

All this seems pretty daunting when you just want to buy food for your family.  Over the next few months, I'll be researching these programs and others like them, going on farm visits to local producers around the region, and trying to figure out if it's possible to live entirely on food we can live with.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Long-Awaited Ravioli Post!

Hi everyone!  Sorry for the gap in posts -- this last week and weekend were kind of crazy with various festivities and friends.  I'll try and catch you all up over the next week.  We actually only cooked TWICE last week, which is unusual for us.  But what we did cook was marvelous.

Tuesday was the 21st, the summer solstice, and Joe and I celebrated by making ravioli stuffed with homemade ricotta, sauteed beet greens, and Parmesan reggianio.  We sauced with a homemade red sauce, but you can also use browned butter or a commercial tomato sauce if you're not doing an experiment in sourcing your food.  Pictures for this post will be a little spotty because my camera battery died and I had to charge it so I could get the last few pictures.

I started out with making a basic egg pasta (10 oz all-purpose flour, three beaten eggs) in the food processor.  Dump the flour in and pulse it a few times to even it out, pour in the eggs while the machine is running, and when the dough comes together in a big shaggy ball, turn it out onto a clean work surface and knead any flour/scrappy bits of dough in until it's smooth.  Wrap in plastic wrap and let it rest for 20 minutes or so. 

While the dough was resting, the beet greens were being prepped.  If you don't have beet greens but still want to make this, any substantial green will work: kale, swiss chard, etc.  You want to use the leafy bits while cutting the center rib out of the green like this:

The ones on the left have been cut, the ones on the right still need to be done, and the things in the middle are some cut out ribs.  We cut the ribs out because they are quite grassy in flavor, while the leafy bits are interestingly bitter without being too much.

Once the greens are trimmed, heat 2 Tbsp olive oil in a saute pan.  Toss in a nice big clove of garlic that's been minced or put through a garlic press and saute the garlic until it's golden and fragrant (no more than a minute).  Throw in the greens, and saute them together until the greens are wilted.  Dump the greens and garlic into the food processor and pulse it until the greens are minced finely.  Turn the greens out into a largish bowl and add 15 oz of ricotta (preferably whole milk and even better if it's homemade), 3 Tbsps of Parmesan Reggiano, a little salt, a little fresh-ground pepper, and an egg white and mix them all together.
Start a big pot of salted water on the stove -- you'll need it to be boiling to cook the raviolis.

You can roll pasta dough out by hand with a French rolling pin, but I have a pasta machine and a powerful desire to use it, so machine it was.  Divide the dough into six pieces (I use a bench scraper), and work one piece at a time while keeping the others in the wrap.  Do standard machine kneading (set machine on the widest setting, roll it through, then fold the sides into the middle, turn it 90 degrees, run it through the machine again, and repeat the fold and turn twice more).

Then roll the dough very thin -- you want it to run through the machine at the next to last setting (don't forget that you have to roll it through each setting in turn!) in sheets.  Cover each sheet with a damp paper towel to keep the pasta fresh while you are rolling the others.

 Once the pasta is rolled, put a rounded tablespoon of the filling about an inch apart on the sheet of pasta.

Fold over the top half of the dough and seal the proto-raviolis.  Make sure that you get as much air out of them as possible, because the air expands during cooking and could make the raviolis explode, losing their filling to the boiling water.

See?  No exploded raviolis here!

When they float like this, they're done.  Put a cooling rack in the sink, and use a slotted spoon to gently remove the raviolis from the water and put them onto the rack to drain a little.

Sauce them however you like -- browned butter, red sauce, whatever.  Try and keep the sauce relatively simple, as you want the flavours of the ravioli to shine through.  We garnished with more Parm, and had a nice Chianti with ours.

Happy eating!

Monday, June 20, 2011

First CSA delivery!

So, on Friday it happened! I headed over to pick up our first CSA box. I intended to have a nice sit down interview with Leigh Hauter, one of the owners of Bull Run Mountain Farm, but just as he handed me the bag to pick out my veggies, the skies opened up. It poured for about 20 minutes, during which I chose this week's food and then retreated, soaked and bedraggled, to my car. Next time!

Let's begin the picture apocalypse, shall we?

The bag was provided to us by Bull Run Farm as part of our subscription. It's a lovely big sturdy bag that will get more use than just veggie toting! It looks so innocent in this shot, doesn't it?

Here's what was hiding in that bag!
Keep in mind that in these first few weeks, you'll be seeing a lot of green -- greens like lettuces, herbs, etc are always the first things to ripen.

We got radishes,

and beets

and beet greens

and curly endive (aka frisee)

and pac choi

and garlic scapes.

We also got basil, tarragon, chives, and catnip. The cats were impressed with the chives

and the catnip especially.

Temujin, of course, didn't care.

We've got a great list of meals with these ingredients planned! First up will be ravioli stuffed with beet greens, homemade ricotta cheese, and Parmesan. Joe will be making a homemade tomato sauce (using up some of the canned tomato stash!) to go with it.