Saturday, October 31, 2009

My Mother's Relaxed Applesauce

Happy Halloween!  Today I am getting ready for my Halloween party.  I just finished up my costume and am about to embark on an afternoon of treat-making, but I wanted to write about something non-Halloween related.  It will be more fun to write about all my Halloween festivities once they have happened, so today is all about applesauce.

I just love the abundance of apples during this time of the year.  I seem to be getting them from all kinds of sources--the farmers market, my CSA, friends who have gone apple picking.  Of course they are wonderful for eating and baking but here is another idea--make sauce!!  About a month ago, my mom started telling me about the applesauce she was making.  In the front yard of the house in Connecticut, there is a small apple tree.  Years back, hurricane Bob pulled down our old, huge, beautiful apple tree; the tree had a wooden swing and played many featured roles in me and my sister's play.  Later, my parents planted this new baby tree and finally it has begun to bear fruit.  Recently, some of the fallen fruit was attracting yellow jackets (who are starting to realize they don't have too long left before winter).  This can dangerous when my dad mows the lawn--if you mow over an apple by mistake it's not such a problem, but it is a big deal if that fruit has bees in it!!  So after picking up all the fruit in the grass, my parents found themselves with a plethora of apples and started making applesauce. 

The other day, I too found myself with loads of apples on hand.  Although I would have loved to make a pie or crisp, I am now a working girl and I wanted a quicker and less hands-on recipe for an apple something.  I emailed my mom about it, and here is her response:

Here’s how I do the applesauce – skin them, unless they are organic and then you can leave the skins on to make pink applesauce – chop them (doesn’t need to be perfect) – make sure the core is gone.  Throw them in a big pot – if the pot is a big soup pot or stock pot size and you fill it at least ½ way or more with apples, just add ½ cup to 1 cup of water – put it on medium heat until it gets warm and bubbles a little, then turn it down to pretty low.  You try never to boil them because it will burn.  Just keep it simmering about ½ hour, uncovered, then stir.  If it looks too thick, add more water.  Too thin, add more apples!

As you can see it’s a pretty relaxed method.  When it is done, throw it all in the blender, especially if you left the skins on and make sure there’s no skin bits – when it looks like applesauce, add a little cinnamon and you’re done.  We are eating it these days on top of oatmeal and it’s yummy.

It is a very relaxed method!!  So much so that I dubbed it "Relaxed Applesauce".  The bonus about it is that you can add in other things you have on hand--I had tons of pears from my CSA so I threw a few in just to sweeten it up.  I also decided I wanted extra cinnimon and a chunkier texture--instead of using the blender, I used a potato masher.  The loveliest part of this super simple recipe (aside from how good it tastes) is the amazing smell that wafts from the kitchen through the apartment.  Everyone who stops by will wonder what you have been cooking and they will be very impressed when you tell them.  Enjoy!! 

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Toujours Bon Appetit!

One of the secrets of cooking is to learn to correct something if it goes awry; one of lessons is to grin and bear it if it cannot be fixed. --Julia Child

Last night I finished Julia Child's book, My Life in France.  Whenever I mention the book, people first think of the movie Julie & Julia, but perhaps that is a shame.  While it is true that I did not know about Child's book before the movie, this book contains so much more beauty and life that the movie ever could!  This book is one that will stay with me for a long time and I encourage you to go out and read it, whether or not you saw the movie.

I have always loved travel writing--books about living abroad and travels.  I absolutely adored Peter Mayle's series of books about his life in France; it begins with A Year in Provence, moves into Toujours Provence, and ends with Encore Provence.  I also love France; I was fortunate to travel there a bit during college and visit some lovely friends living in Provence at the time.  So it comes as no surprise that I could not put Julia's book down!!  The book chronicles much more than just her life in France--I would consider it almost an autobiography.  She touches on her childhood, her family, her first meeting Paul (her husband), and their early marriage before they move to France.  Of course she writes extensively about her time in Paris where she first learned to cook (not until her late 30s!!) but then she continues on about life in Marseille, France; Bonn, Germany; Oslo, Norway; Cambridge, MA.  She describes her rise to fame--a happening that surprised her just as much as anyone else.

I simply loved everything about this book.  Her descriptions of food vary between mouth-watering to outrageously gross sounding and everywhere in between.  Some of the descriptions of the strange meats and animal parts the French eat were very weird to me, but it was still fascinating to read about.  I appreciated her descriptions of buying food from outdoor markets or from the artisans who made the cheese, bread, sausage, etc.  I wish we all could shop that way!!  This passage in particular about the attitude toward food resonated with me:
This is the kind of food I had fallen in love with: not trendy, souped-up fantasies, just something very good to eat.  It was classic French cooking, where ingredients have been carefully selected and beautifully and knowingly that tastes what it is.
 I also love reading about Julia's many relationships--with Paul, with her co-author, with the multitude of characters she meets in Paris and elsewhere.  Her descriptions of the countryside are heavenly and caused me to fantasize about jumping on the next plane to the south of France!  But overall, it is Julia's voice that makes this book a sheer pleasure to read.  Julia's sincerity, essence, and joy for life seep through every word.  I felt as though I got to spend a few days enjoying her lovely company.  I also took heart that one need not become a success overnight--good things come with time, step by step.  For Julia, the fame and fortune were just a wonderful by-product of following her heart and doing what she loved--cooking.  A wonderful, inspiring read that I utterly Julia would say, bon appetit!!

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Food Issue

On Sunday, the NY Times Magazine released its annual Food Issue.  I finally got around to reading some of the articles in the online version and I'm very glad that I did.  I wanted to post and comment on one of the articles that resonated with me.  It is not my intent to use this blog as a political platform or a clearinghouse of news articles, but since I love food and all that it's preparation entails, I cannot help but discuss where food comes from.  Eating is one of the most basic human necessities and the fact that it is often politicized is sad to me.  From my point of view, all people benefit when they ask themselves, "where did my dinner come from and how was it grown or raised?".  With that disclaimer out of the way, I hope you find time to check out the articles and think a little more about where your dinner came from. 

Against Meat is a wonderfully written piece by Jonathan Safran Foer about why he gave up eating meat.  Foer speaks to connections between family, food, and memory.  His issues with meat speak directly to mine!  Since I have never considered myself a true vegetarian, I often have trouble explaining my views around meat--it has nothing to do with my politics and it's not as simple as saying "I feel bad for animals" or saying "I'm an animal lover".  I appreciated this article because Foer brings to light how important, and difficult, it is to force ourselves to carry our morals over into the kitchen.

For me, the process of becoming what some of my friends refer to as a "kitchen vegetarian" (meaning I don't usually cook meat or eat it at home) has been a long one.  After graduating from college, I considered myself a lover of all things meat but I found myself living in intentional community in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps with a very small stipend.  Due to limited resources, my community rarely purchased meat.  Oh how the lack of lunch meats and ground beef left me sad!  Yet over time I got used to eating less meat and I began to learn more about agribusiness; I starting wondering where my food came from and making the connection between plate and farm.  As the years passed and I continued to educate myself, I stopped buying meat almost altogether, although I still buy it occasionally when I am at a greenmarket like the one in Union Square and I can talk to the farmer who raised the animal.  But things are not always black and white: when a friend makes meat for dinner, I will usually eat it.  I also tend to be loosey goosey about my meat rules if I am eating at a nice restaurant, although I'm trying to work on that.  Things get really tricky though with family and when the holidays come around.  For as Foer writes in the passage below, food is very strongly tied to cultural memory. 
Changing what we eat and letting tastes fade from memory create a kind of cultural loss, a forgetting. But perhaps this kind of forgetfulness is worth accepting — even worth cultivating (forgetting, too, can be cultivated). To remember my values, I need to lose certain tastes and find other handles for the memories that they once helped me carry.
I have incredible family memories surrounding meat.  On cold winter days my Mom would make beef stew with dumplings and when she lifted the lid, the steam rising off the pot was so deliciously fragrant!  It was hot enough to heat our bellies and the house.  Although I miss beef stew, my Mom has begun making vegetarian chili that is also warm and beautifully fragrant.  Ok, so what about Thanksgiving without turkey?  For a few years I struggled very much with that one--turkey is inextricably tied to the holiday but factory farmed turkeys live a horrific life and my family has never bought a small farm, happy life turkey.  Finally last year I stuck to my guns and didn't eat turkey for the first time.  Honestly, I didn't miss it!  I realized that the other foods were enough.  It felt so good sticking to my guns and allowing my everyday life to flow into my family's holiday table.  And, it is very true that when you stop eating as much meat, you develop new tastes and let go of old ones.

In case you don't have time to read Foer's article, here is a snippet of his reason for being vegetarian that closely mirrors my reason for being a kitchen vegetarian:
According to an analysis of U.S.D.A. data by the advocacy group Farm Forward, factory farms now produce more than 99 percent of the animals eaten in this country. And despite labels that suggest otherwise, genuine alternatives — which do exist, and make many of the ethical questions about meat moot — are very difficult for even an educated eater to find. I don’t have the ability to do so with regularity and confidence. (“Free range,” “cage free,” “natural” and “organic” are nearly meaningless when it comes to animal welfare.)
According to reports by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N. and others, factory farming has made animal agriculture the No. 1 contributor to global warming (it is significantly more destructive than transportation alone), and one of the Top 2 or 3 causes of all of the most serious environmental problems, both global and local: air and water pollution, deforestation, loss of biodiversity. . . . Eating factory-farmed animals — which is to say virtually every piece of meat sold in supermarkets and prepared in restaurants — is almost certainly the single worst thing that humans do to the environment.

So, there you go.  A case against meat I suppose--but more so a case for understanding our food supply and learning about your place in it.  

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Book Club and Water for Elephants

At the end of May when I found myself school-free, I started reading again.  What I mean is that instead of reading scholarly journal articles I began again to delve into books that I picked out personally.  In fact, I began consuming books at an increasingly rapid rate.  Recently, I started wondering if the reading style I picked up during grad school (skim skim skim in order to retain only the most relevant information necessary) had carried over into my reading for pleasure.  During my studies it was important to use this method since I had hundreds of pages to read each week.  Now though, this style is taking away from my enjoyment.  Consequently, I am making a new effort to slow down and make each book last longer.  Two things are aiding me in this endeavor: one being the book club I am part of and the other being this blog.  Now that I am in a book club, it is important for me to savor every snippet of the books I read for the club so that I can wholeheartedly participate in our conversation.  Also, since I've committed myself to posting on this blog about the books I read, I will be forced to slow down a bit and really appreciate the literature I have in front of me.

For me this is a manageable and appealing task!  My love for the pastime of reading rivals my love for all my other hobbies combined.  From very early on in my reading career, I was hopelessly hooked.  I owe much of this love to my mother--where would I be if she hadn't read A Little Princess, Anne of Green Gables, Little House on the Prairie, or Little Women to me and my sister before bed so many nights?  As I have grown older and my mother has started to consider me her "fraughter" (that's daughter + friend), our conversations almost always drift to books: those we have recently read and those we are hoping to read soon.  Almost every time I visit home, I wind up with a Mom-recommended book or two packed away in my bag.  I cherish the relationships I have had with the characters of well-loved books over the years and I am thankful to have this space to share the new books in my life.

In case you are interested in what I've been reading recently, I added a list of books I've read within the past three months to the blog.  Also you should check out Read All Day, the blog of a woman in CT who literally reads a book a day and then reviews them (there was an article about her in the NY Times this weekend also if you are interested). 

Most recently, I finished a book for our club meeting coming up tomorrow.  The book, Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, is about the circus, but this circus is not the kind you went to as a child.  This is a Depression-era show that travels the country by train and performs under a big top tent.  Despite a strong opening, I was not enamored with this book.  I usually judge books according to how deeply immersed I become in the character's lives and how much the book lingers with me once I finish reading.  Although Water for Elephants was an enjoyable read, it is not a book that will stay with me.

Told through a series of flashbacks, the book's protagonist is a 90 year old man named Jacob who now resides in a convalescent home but who once worked as a vet for a circus. The flashbacks recount the story of why and how Jacob came to work for the circus, the development of his relationship with a performer named Marlena and a disaster that led to the end of the show. The prologue of the novel contains a snippet of the disaster, a stampede of the circus animals during which a murder also happens, and certainly piqued my interest.  However, I thought Gruen ultimately failed to sustain the intensity of the opening and I often felt somewhat bored.

Most interesting to me was reading about the day-to-day experiences the circus workers lived.  The imagery was rich and I give Gruen credit for the extensive research she performed regarding the circuses of that era.  Her detailing the enormous amount of manpower and endurance required of workmen and performers to pull off the show time and time again was fascinating.  The circus entailed the setting up of tents and cookhouse, the feeding of numerous workmen and performers and animals, the task of performing crowd control, the grand attempts at living a normal life on board an overcrowded train and much more.  Notably, the schism Gruen describes between the two types of circus employees (performer and workman) was an engaging theme. 

I also enjoyed many of the minor characters--Camel, a worker who becomes sick; Walter, the dwarf with a tough exterior but caring interior; and of course Rosie, the smart elephant who saves the day in the end.  But I sensed a disconnect between the younger and older Jacobs.  The older Jacob is just so ornery and unpleasant, though I sympathized with his situation--I realize that he was unhappy with where he was living and with his frail, aging body.  I felt that the essence of the younger Jacob was pleasant, caring, and loving.  I just did not see many ways that these essential qualities carried over into the older Jacob.  Also something about Jacob and Marlena's relationship bothered me; perhaps it is in the way Gruen ties up the loose ends of the time between the end of the circus and present day.  The development of the relationship just seemed rushed to me.

All in all, Water for Elephants is an interesting and enjoyable read--just don't expect to be bowled over by it.  Have you read it?  Let me know what you thought.  I've moved on to My Life in France by Julia Child and it's lovely--I can't wait to tell you about it!

Friday, October 9, 2009

Norwood Food Co-op and Flexible Veggie Veggie Soup

The other day I was volunteering for my CSA (community supported agriculture) during pick-up time.  Being jobless these couple of months has afforded me the delightful opportunity to help almost every week in some way.  I have really enjoyed meeting new people and chatting about the beautiful produce.  I love being part of the CSA, not only because it supports the work of Norwich Meadows Farm and neighboring farms, but also because it forces me and my roommates to be creative with our cooking.  So as I sat there at pick-up, I started dreaming up what to make for dinner.  This is a favorite pastime of mine, especially when I have a full fridge!!  There were so many possibilities that afternoon, but since the weather was cool I decided I had to make soup.  When the weather gets cool, I slowly begin to rekindle the love I have for soup-making that always fizzles when the summer approaches.  I spent many evenings during my JVC experience making soup for community members and so the act is forever associated the kitchens I have known and loved from my past: 10 Romasco Lane in Portalnd and 7 Patten Street in Jamaica Plain.  From those experiences, I can assure you that homemade soup is not only good for your body and soul, but all that chopping is a definite cure for whatever ails you!

When I got home, I poured over some of my favorite cookbooks and finally settled on a vegetable soup from Mollie Katzen's Enchanted Broccoli Forest.  I love that her recipes are often flexible--you can substitute one thing for another if you like or even add in lots of extras.  Here is the biggest difference between cooking and baking; one is scientific (baking) and the other is a fluid art (cooking).  When I first started cooking, I thought I had to follow the recipe line by line.  Yet with practice I discovered what is most beautiful about cooking--almost nothing is written in stone, be creative!

Ok so getting back to the soup.  I began to chop and chop lots of veggies from the CSA and the farmer's market I had been to in the morning--carrots, pac choi, green beans, potatoes, tomatoes, onions, etc.  Everything was going smoothly as I dug into Mollie's recipe.  Then a big oops!  Her basic vegetable soup is a tomato based soup (as in, you need tomato juice and paste for it).  I hadn't read far enough along to see this important point.  Because I didn't have those ingredients, I made the base of the soup into veggie bullion since I had loads of bullion cubes on hand.  And in the end, I took one Mollie's suggestions for an add on:  I dropped a few eggs in for an egg drop soup feel.  The result was lovely and I have been enjoying it for a few days.  Below is what I am calling Flexible Veggie Veggie Soup, an adaptation of Mollie's Vegetable Soup recipe:

 -2 medium potatoes, scrubbed and diced--leave skin on
-1 medium-large onion, chopped
-2 stalks of celery
-1 large carrot, diced
-1 big handful of green beans, chopped
-6 cups water
-2 or 3 cubes of veggie bullion
-spices you like--I added rosemary and thyme and bay leaves
-3 ripe roma tomatoes (or any kind of tomatoes you find)
-6 garlic cloves, minced
-1/2 head of pac choic, chopped
-any kind of pepper laying around in the fridge, diced
-3 eggs, beaten

Note: Feel free to add any veggies you get from your CSA or those you have lying around!  As Mollie writes, you ought to add harder veggies first (potatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, etc) and any softer veggies later (greens, peppers, zucchini, etc).  Leftover beans or grains or pasta would also be delicious--add these just before you eat the soup.

  • Put potatoes, onion, celery, carrot, green beans, and water in a big soup pot.  Cover and bring to a boil.  Add in the bullion and spices.  Lower the heat, stir, and simmer covered for about 20 minutes.
  • Add in the remaining veggies and the garlic and let simmer for about 10 more minutes.  Check the seasonings and adjust as needed--at this point if you need an extra veggie bullion cube or salt, pepper, or other spices, add them in!!
  • When everything tastes delicious and the vegetables soft enough, slowly drizzle in the beaten eggs while stirring.  
I love the way just a few little eggs bring new life to a long-time favorite soup and I hope you do too.  Enjoy!!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

A Recipe for Challah: Commitment, Patience, and Faith

Monday was Yom Kippur.  I don't know much about Judaism, but from friends who are Jewish I do know that the holiday is the holiest day of the year for Jews.  It means fasting from sundown of the night before to sundown the day of the holiday.  But it is more than just fasting--it is a day of atonement, of prayer and meditation about your sins against God.  I take that to mean you think about those places in your life where you feel far from God.  I like the idea of setting aside a day to be intentional about that.  And while I did not fast, I did help prepare the meal that my roommates and I shared with neighbors in order to break the fast.  My contribution was the challah bread.  I love challah!  It is a relatively easy bread to make and it looks oh so beautiful when it comes out of the oven.  It is slightly sweet and egg-y tasting.  Whenever I make bread, I get a lot of compliments because I think it seems like a very daunting task to create homemade bread.  I think many people would love to make bread from scratch but are a bit intimidated. Or perhaps people do not have quite as much free time as I do! 

If you have never made bread, you should try it.  I love everything about it.  I love getting covered in flour, I love the physicality of the process--all that kneading, and I love way the smell of flour and yeast permeate the entire kitchen and apartment.  Really I think there are just three main requirements to making bread: commitment, patience, and faith.  The rest is just following directions!

Commitment is very important since making bread can require that you allow the dough to rest and rise two or more times.  You see, making bread is really more of an event, or a process, than regular cooking or baking.  And it must be intentional and planned--I don't usually make bread on a whim--because of the time it takes.  All along you must be patient, you simply cannot rush the rising or any other step along the way.  You must follow all the directions and wait (and wait and wait in some cases) for that dough to rise.  Most importantly though, making bread is an act of faith.  No one taught me to make bread.  I just saw lovely recipes and decided to jump head first into those accompanied by beautiful glossy photos of perfect loaves.  I simply had faith that somehow it would all work out.  Lo and behold, it usually does.  Of course there have been failures--of course there were times I killed the yeast and the dough didn't rise.  But more often than not, I have success.  It isn't always a perfect looking or tasting result, but I guess that's life! 

The recipe I used came from the Enchanted Broccoli Forest by Mollie Katzen (of the Moosewood Cookbook, I have 3 of her books, I love them!!).  I altered it slightly because I ran out of white flour, but I think I will keep the substitutions in the future because it turned out lovely.  Here are some pictures of the process and product and the recipe is below:


2 1/2 c warm/room temp water
1 package active dry yeast
1/2 c honey
4 tbsp canola oil
3 eggs (1 of those is for the crust)
1 tbsp salt
6 c unbleached white flour
2-3 c wheat flour

  • Place the water in a very large bowl (you want the water to be warm but NOT hot, you want it to feel comfortable on your skin, if it is too hot it will kill the yeast).  Sprinkle in the yeast and then use a whisk to mix in the honey, oil, 2 eggs, and salt.
  • Start adding flour one cup at a time.  I started with the white flour.  At first you can just whisk it in and eventually, around the 3rd cup, you need to start using a wooden spoon.  Keep stirring!!  As you start adding in the wheat flour, you will need to start using your hands to stir.  If after adding 2 cups of wheat flour the dough is extremely sticky you should add another cup of wheat flour....but I think it is better to err on the side of less than more flour since you will add in more as you knead the dough later on.
  • Cover the dough to let it rest.  I cover it with an oiled piece of plastic wrap and then put a dish towel on top.  Let it rest in a warm area.....since our stove top is somehow always a little warm, I put it in between the burners (make sure the burners are off though if you do that!!).  Come back in about 1 1/2 hours or when the dough is doubled in bulk.  (Hint:  if the dough is not doubled after this time, wait a while longer, remember the patience part!!  But the dough should at least look like it is starting to bulk up after around an hour and a half.  Have patience and come back every half hour until it looks like it is doubled in size.  If you are still having issues, you may have killed the could be time to start over, remember to use just warm not hot water in step one.)
  • Punch down the risen dough and take it out onto a well floured surface.  Flour your hands very well and divide the dough into 2 then knead each half for 5 minutes....if the dough gets very sticky add a little to your hands and the dough.  Divide each half into thirds as you see in my picture above and roll out into a long snake-like log.  Aim for about 1 1/2 inches in diameter and then line them up next to each other and begin to braid!  Just keep crossing the outer pieces over the middle--just like braiding hair.
  • Oil 2 baking sheets and place a finished braid on each.  Cover with some oiled plastic wrap and/or a dish towl and let it rest and rise for another hour until they bulk up again.  Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 375.
  • Beat the remaining egg in a dish and brush it over each braid once they are risen.  Bake for about 40 minutes (enjoy the wonderful smells!!).  You will know the bread is done when it sounds hollow if you tap the sides and bottom.  Take the loaves off the trays right away and put onto a cooling rack for at least 30 minutes.  Enjoy!

Last time I wrote about the cheese straws I was planning on making.  They were so fun to make and people really liked them!  I took some pictures that are below to show the process of that, I highly recommend them.  Next post, I'll share a craft or a book (or at least a recipe that is gluten free)!