Keeping the Sustainable Food Discussion Relevant

Thanks to Stella Park, author of the Brave Tart blog, I read First We Feast’s meant-to-be-provocative article “20 Things Everyone Thinks About The Food World But Nobody Will Say”. Many of their points are long overdue for making it into … Continue reading

Compost for Brooklyn

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I didn’t think I would find my community amid a once abandoned lot filled with rotting food scraps. I merely had gotten used to composting in my apartment in Somerville, composting my produce scraps in the city-sized anaerobic composter in my ample back stairwell in the winter months or walking a bucket full of scraps to the large compost pile at the community garden a few blocks away from spring to fall. It was an step or two than just tossing the extra cucumber peels or carrot tops into the trash, but it had become a part of my routine. One more thing to do, like bringing reusable bags to the supermarket or picking up my monthly meat CSA. In fact I had my locavore diet so perfectly calibrated that I had at least met the farmer who was directly responsible for about 90% of the food in my home. It was easy, I’d say to friends. I wrote a book about how, with a little planning, anyone could do it.

But then my husband and I began spending more time at a sublet in Brooklyn. Our vegetable scraps filled numerous plastic containers that we stacked waist-high; the farmer’s markets were a three hour endeavor, requiring two trains and six flights of stairs. The local meat CSA dropped off on a day we were often in Somerville for work. The sun coverage on my new front porch (which I had realized that I was lucky enough to have in the first place) was not quite enough to encourage a harvest of a late planting of lettuce and broccoli rabe. In the first few weeks in Brooklyn, I followed all of my best advice. It was true, I knew I would eventually find the same balance that we had in Somerville. Finding our go-to local farmers could happen slowly, I realized – we weren’t going to starve. But the compost situation began to get dire. I just could not imagine throwing out those apple cores and wilted lettuce leaves that I had been committed about returning to the earth for years, now. I could not even fathom the days of a stinky, liquid garbage, of two full baskets a week, of sending so many nutrients to the landfill instead of the soil.

My efforts at finding a community garden were coming up short, especially so late into the growing season, but finally I put the two simple words “compost” and “brooklyn” into my search engine. Lo and behold I saw that the spirit of composting was alive and well in Brooklyn; I found a once-neglected lot not more than a fifteen minute walk from our apartment that had been turned into one of the most dedicated compost gardens in the city. I visited during their next drop off hours the following say and offered to volunteer on the spot.

Now, five months later, I can easily say that I have found my community of people passionate about composting and dedicated to consuming a more local-centric and sustainable diet. We have shared food and wine, have gossiped and brainstormed. I have helped write a successful grant for the garden and met people from the neighborhood whom I never would have known if not for the act of compost. And, once a month, rain or shine or freezing cold, I now volunteer to help collect and chop the scraps we collect during open hours, which helps to divert hundreds of pounds of food waste from the garbage and back into the ground. It’s the least I could do to repay this dedicated group for the work they have done bringing a little more green space to my new crowded city.

I have since joined the local food coop and found a sunnier spot for my lettuce sprouts, come spring. And my new friends at Compost for Brooklyn have begun talks to make the garden a drop off point for a CSA in the coming season. I was one of the first on the list. The best thing is that I realized that it wasn’t hard to find a way to live a the sustainable life that I want to – even in a new city. I just had to find my community in Brooklyn. And to do that I had to follow my passion – even if that passion is decaying food.

Pickled Strawberries, Round 2

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Of all the wisdom I have imparted in the past couple of years, my pickled strawberry recipe has been one of the most consistently popular posts. I recall being inspired to make these after visiting Garden at the Cellar, a particularly tasty farm-to-table restaurant helmed by Chef Will Gilson, where pickled strawberries were featured with one of the daily specials. The next day I basically swapped strawberries for cucumbers in a pickle recipe to see what might happen. And well, they were a tad strange. Certainly interesting and unique, but it was as if they too perfectly straddled the line of sweet and savory. I brought them to a few dinner parties and friends were excited to taste them, but would chew them thoughtfully, perhaps taking just one more to ensure that their flavors were a bit too odd to go back for a third. I still assert that they can make a nice accompaniment for a charcuterie platter or cheese plate, but only for the more adventuresome palate.

So with this year’s batch of fresh-picked strawberries I decided to tweak my own recipe, this time using my grandmother’s bread and butter pickles as a basis. I made two version, one more local than the other. Both turned out well – although the version with honey is a bit sweeter and more complex. These are certainly on the sweet side – the amount of added sweetener ensured that, although in the future if I started with sweeter strawberries I would cut it down even further. As it was, this season’s berries didn’t quite hold up to last season’s. So for all those looking for a pickled strawberry recipe, I ask you to give some feedback on this one. I think that if I were to make this again, I’d stick with honey as a sweetener and add maybe black peppercorns for bite or substitute balsamic vinegar in place of some of the white vinegar. Oh well… maybe next year.

Sweet Pickled Strawberries

*fills about a pint jar of strawberries

In a sauce pan, over medium heat: heat 1 cup vinegar, 3/4 – 1 cup sweetener (depending on sweetness of berries, sweetener used and personal taste) and 2 tablespoons of salt. Perhaps a teaspoon or two of vanilla extract. Heat until the sweetener and salt are dissolved and the liquid reaches a simmer.

Meanwhile, clean and de-stem enough small, ripe, blemish-free berries to fill a clean pint jar. Layer in a few clean and unbruised mint or basil leaves.

Pour the boiling liquid over the strawberries. Once at room temperature, store in the fridge. Let them sit 12 – 24 hours or more before serving.

Watch me pickling!

Strawberry Season & Celebrating Local Farms – Now Multi-Media!

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Yesterday, once the clouds broke, I convinced my husband to go strawberry picking with me. I thought I had missed the season, but the late spring and mix of hot and cool temperatures have kept the strawberry fields in full harvest mode. In fact, I had never seen plants so loaded with fruit! Unfortunately, because of the heavy rains of late, most of the fruit was blemished. Some enough to still pick and eat (I knew I could cut off the soft parts and use them in short cake topping or fresh-sliced on yogurt) while too many others were not. And, unfortunately, the flavor wasn’t what I remembered from seasons past. But still, a short half hour later we had almost ten pounds of fruit among us.

From past experience, I knew these had to be processed as quickly as possible. So today I cleaned them all, dipped them all in boiling water for a few seconds (a recent discovery, as this will keep fresh berries from rotting and molding for a few days longer) and froze many of them. You can watch this process here on my Youtube channel. I also set some fresh berries aside for eating, pickled some (recipe and video to come!) and boiled the rest in a bit of honey water for shortbread topping. I decided against jam this year, in part because I will be picking raspberries with my mom, aunt and cousins next week and anticipate a full-on jam session then.

However, what yesterday’s farm visit really did get me thinking about was the fickleness of nature and the challenges of farming. I saw so many strawberries that would be rotting on the vine. Strawberries that were bad before they were ripe; berries that could not have been saved. As I uncovered more ruined berries than good, I remembered the large swaths of the country (the world, even) that are currently in a drought situation, and perhaps just as many areas that are flooded or experiencing epic rains. There are crops struggling to grow in all of these places, and people much more dependent upon those crops than I am upon my strawberries. I thought of the stereotype of the stoic farmer – one who does not express rage or sadness but resignation over a crop ruined by pests or rain or oppressive heat. And maybe for the first time, in my very tiny way, I could understand why. What could the farmer do but watch the last few weeks of rain come down, unable to alleviate the certain consequences. To be a farmer is to anticipate that nothing can be anticipated and plan for any eventuality. For many, that becomes untenable. And for each farm lost, many people lose a local source of food and large parcels of land that have been cared for by generations of one family.

So yesterday, I picked a bit more than I might have once I thought about the fate of my local farmer. And I remembered as well why I made the trek in the rain earlier in the day to shop the local farmer’s market. I was reminded why I am part of a CSA (community supported agriculture) which requires paying for the season’s worth of produce before the sprouts are even out of the ground. Every year I have experienced an embarrassment of riches from my CSA – weeks so full of gorgeous vegetables that it felt like a full time job to eat and preserve it all. But just as easily my weekly take might have been a quart of mushy strawberries, or worse, nothing. A CSA is a way to invest in a local farm, to help insure them against a rainy spring or drought-filled summer. Because I was reminded yesterday that my life is better when local farms thrive, and of course, so is theirs.

Stuffing Sausage

Maybe I’m getting old. But if you had asked me nine years ago  if I would have thought that my big Saturday afternoon excitement would be making sausage – under the watchful eyes of my co-charcuterer’s nine month old – I would have laughed at you. Why nine years? Well because my co-chef, Keith, was the friend who introduced me to my now-husband, Steve, nine years ago last month. Keith had invited me out to a show at a local music club at which he was the MC. Steve played guitar in the headlining act. I noticed Steve right away – a combination of his dimples, searing solos and the beer I was drinking – and had asked Keith to introduce us. By the end of the night I had taken introductions into my own hands; the next day Steve called Keith and asked for my number. The rest, as they say, is history.

Steve and I have gotten married in the interim and Keith and his wife now have a son and daughter. We’ve both bought houses and spend a lot less time drinking beer and watching live music. And as much fun as we had back in the day – a good Saturday afternoon involved cheap dogs on the grill and a six pack – I kind of love that our interests have shifted in similar ways towards better food and drink. When Keith and I chatted at a recent Memorial Day barbeque we talked bacon curing and wine making. Keith said he was game for any project – and when Steve took a gig when he was to sous-chef my sausage making, I knew just who to call.

At Keith’s house, we set up the newer manual meat grinder – one I bought off ebay for twenty bucks because grandma’s sturdy grinder didn’t have a sausage stuffing attachment. We shared the dicing and de-boning duties of four pounds of pork butt steaks and then roughly followed Michael Ruhlman’s spicy Italian sausage recipe – adding homegrown dried hot peppers in place of cayenne and leaving out the basil because we didn’t have any. At Keith’s suggestion we decided to run the meat through twice – first through a medium die and then again through the smallest.

We, admittedly, had a few challenges: the silver skin (I think?) and some of the tougher pieces of fat kept getting stuck in the grinder so we had to take it apart a few times to clear it out so the meat could be properly ground. I won’t mention that perhaps at one point Keith then put the grinder together incorrectly. However, he quickly made up for it with his brawn – he was, at one point, sweating with pulsing temple at the exertion of the manual grind. But it was worth it! The meat had a silky and uniform texture by the time we got to stuffing, and that step – which I thought would be the hardest part – was really the easiest.

 

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We got nine lovely if somewhat non-uniform links from our almost four pounds of bone-in pork, pictured here with the smallest grinding die. The end sausage was a bit wonky, and, well, we needed to test our creation, so Keith fired up his cast iron skillet and grilled up a link to share.

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Verdict: the texture was smooth and uniform, with the perfect amount of fat. We did try and take care to keep the sausage chilled while working with it, and Keith had put the grinder into the freezer for twenty minutes before we used it which also helped. The flavor was delicious – a bit spicy with a nice heat that hit the back of your throat after the initial taste. Our only complaint was that we wished we had remembered the basil to balance the tablespoon or so of dried oregano that we had used.

Once the stuffing and cleaning and cooking was done, like old times, we cracked a beer – but this time a good local micro brew, better than what we could afford almost a decade ago. We cheered our afternoon’s work and I thought about how much has changed in the past ten years. We may each go to bed a few hours earlier now, and an afternoon beer is more the exception than the rule, but if getting old means eating homemade sausage and drinking a better with a long-time friend, then I don’t mind it one bit.

Corned Beef: After the Cabbage

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Four pounds of corned beef for two people is a lot of corned beef. Yet it is also not nearly enough. This corned beef was amazing and I had to keep myself from eating half of it in one sitting. After I corned it for four days (one day per pound), I rinsed it and then braised it in water plus about a cup of hard cider for two and a half hours, adding cabbage, carrots and onions in the last thirty minutes. What came next, however, made all the difference: I slathered the fatty side of the brisket with a honey and mustard glaze and put in under the broiler for about four minutes (or until the honey started to caramelize).

The first night I served slabs in a bowl with broth and veggies. Classic corned beef and cabbage. It was good, but the broth was a bit salty and sour. Maybe too much so for a lot of eating on its own. I’m going to doctor it up for a better tasting soup in the next few days.

The following day I made reubens. These were amazing, especially with the creamy, sour, sweetness of all of the ingredients. The basic preparation includes Russian dressing (I made my own with mayo, ketchup, minced home-canned dill pickles) on both sides of the bread. I warmed the sandwich open-faced in the oven: slices of meat on one side, sauerkraut and swiss cheese on the other, and then assembled for a final toasting of the bread. Really, one of the best sandwiches in the world. I would have taken a picture, but I couldn’t wait that long to eat it.

Homemade Holiday Plum Brandy

Strangely, compared to many Italian-American families, the adults rarely drank at Sunday dinner when my cousins and I were little. Maybe my Nani disallowed more than a glass of wine, served in juice glasses, wanting to set a good example for the kids. Sadly, she is not here to explain that anomaly, and how useful that lesson was to my cousins and me is of some debate, seeing that we regularly go through bottles of red wine during present-day family events. According to my mother, this was more akin to how she grew up – with aunts and uncles and her Nana and Nanu quaffing homemade vino openly, Uncle Tony sometimes sneaking my mother sips when my Nani wasn’t looking. The only time I recall illicit sips of alcohol was during the holidays or other special occassion when Nani would serve her homemade plum brandy in tiny aparatif glasses, my cousins and I finishing the last shallow pool of liquid in the bottom of the glasses when we helped clear the table at the end of the meal.

Those stolen sips were the only I ever had of Nani’s brandy – the jars found in the basement years after her death deemed too old to consume by the time they were discovered. So, inspired by the beautiful pints of tiny purple plums that reminded me of those weighing down my Papa’s trees when I was small, I thought I would try my own batch of plum brandy. I made a batch of plum brandy in the manner described below, hopefully in time to toast my Nani and the holidays of my childhood in three months.

For one quart of plum brandy

I mixed 1/2 cup sugar into 2 cups of vodka and let it set. Then I pierced the small plums with the tips of my knife a number of times before slicing it and putting the pieces into a quart jar, filling it until the fruit reached about two inches from the top. (About a pint and a half of plums.) I covered the plums with the vodka mixture, ensuring that all fruit was submerged, and securely capped the jar. I put this in a cool, dark corner and plan to open it in three months.