Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Fruit of the Southwest Desert

Summary Mount Garfield (right) near Grand Junc...Image via Wikipedia Food deserts, disconcerting to city dwellers who care about equal shopping opportunity for all, mean an entirely different thing in the high desert of southwest Colorado. The combination of hot summer days and cool nights makes for monkey-good peaches and corn. I don't recommend combining the two, unless you're in the mood to freak out your children.

The towns that produce my favorite summer fruits and veggies are in southwest Colorado. Palisade, just outside of Grand Junction, is famous for peaches. A bit further south towards Montrose you'll find Olathe (pronounced o-LAY-tha), which produces wonderful sweet corn. Both towns are located in the valley of the Grand Mesa, the largest flattop mountain in the world. Temperatures reach into the triple digits under the hot midday sun, and drop into the 60s after dark, locking in all the sweetness you find in a good peach or ear of sweet corn.

I've spent a glorious month revisiting this beautiful part of the country, enjoying plain peaches and steamed corn on the cob, but also peach cobbler and beautiful corn salads. When I retreat to the great metropolis of Chicago I'll find solace in the fabulous (and fabulously expensive) corn salad at Trotter's to Go. Until I slingshot myself back to the city I'll be enjoying lots more produce from the high desert.

I made a peach cobbler using my basic cobbler recipe.

Peach Cobbler
Serves 6

Combine in a mixing bowl:
6-8 ripe peaches, sliced
1 T flour
2 t cinnamon sugar (or 1/4 t cinnamon and 1 1/2 t sugar
juice of half a lemon

Cobbler topping:
1 cup flour
2 T sugar
½ t baking soda
1 t baking powder
½ t salt
2 T butter, melted
½ cup buttermilk

Preheat oven to 350. Transfer the fruit mixture to an 8-inch square baking dish. Those Pyrex ones are great for cobbler.

Next prepare the cobbler topping. Combine dry ingredients and mix well. Add melted butter to buttermilk and stir to combine. Add to dry, mixing with a fork very gently until just combined. The dough will be sticky – don’t worry.

Drop the dough by spoonfuls onto the fruit – try to space it out somewhat evenly. Bake for 25-30 minutes until the crust is golden and the fruit is bubbling up all around. Serve hot or warm.

Summer Corn Salad
Print recipe only here

Serves 4

3-4 ears of sweet corn, shucked and steamed 4-5 minutes
handful grape tomatoes, halved
1/4 cup red onion, finely chopped
3-4 leaves fresh basil, stacked, rolled together and thinly sliced
2 t cider vinegar
1 1/2 t good olive oil
pinch kosher salt
fresh ground pepper

Boil water in a suitable pot to steam the corn. Shuck the ears while you wait. Combine remaining ingredients in a mixing bowl. Steam corn, then allow to cool to room temperature. I like to stop the cooking by submerging in icy water. Prepare yourself to make a bit of a mess as you trim off the kernels. Position an ear of corn upright on a cutting board and trim as close to the cob as you can. Add the kernels to the mixing bowl and toss well. Let sit about 10 minutes before serving, or reserve, covered, in the fridge.

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Saturday, July 17, 2010

On Fish as Food

Shopping and eating responsibly means eating with a small footprint, and not eating so much that your footprint gets too deep. It means supporting local growers who don’t use chemicals, prophylactic antibiotics or hormones. Thanks to farmers markets and consumer demand for information about how our carrots and pork shoulder were cultivated, it has become easy to stock our shelves with sustainable produce and meat. But being a responsible consumer of fish is not as easy. A 2005 ruling forced fish to be labeled by their country of origin but those labels tell us nothing about the methods used to raise or procure the harvest. Even the distinction of Wild when purchasing salmon doesn’t tell the whole story. How was it caught? How many other fish were caught (and killed) inadvertently at the same time? How far did it travel to reach your plate?

We turned our back on the ocean. The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates over 70% of the world’s fish species are either fully exploited or depleted. Yet I’m hopeful tides are shifting. All the reports from the Gulf of Mexico, depressing as they may be, are raising awareness about the health of our oceans. Writers like Paul Greenberg, organizations like Greenpeace and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, retailers like CleanFish, I Love Blue Sea, and SweetSpring Salmon are beginning to reach consumers. Even Target gets good marks from Greenpeace for selling sustainable fish. We’ve become a more educated, respectful and resourceful population with regards to what we harvest on land. It’s high time we take to the sea, and become good stewards of all our resources.

Consumer awareness may be improving but there remain mixed messages about purchasing and eating fish. The AHA tells us to eat fish twice a week, that the benefits (improved heart health, lower incidence of certain diseases) outweigh the risks (contaminants like mercury, PCBs, and dioxins). The good folks at the Monterey Bay Aquarium advise we eat wild, not farmed fish, because of poor aquaculture practices harm native fish populations. Farmed fish frequently escape and spread disease among and compete for food with wild fish. The pens themselves pollute surrounding water with waste and excess feed. Further, a farmed fish raised in poor conditions, with poor feed and the use of antibiotics and hormones is just as bad as eating meat from a feedlot. And farmed fish require a lot of smaller fish to grow, resulting in a net loss in the ocean. Farmed Atlantic salmon, for example, requires three pounds of fish food (smaller fish) to yield one pound of harvested salmon, so a farmed Atlantic salmon consumes more fish than it provides.

So the Monterey Bay Aquarium (MBA) advises we purchase only wild Alaskan salmon. But if we’ve already overfished the waters off California and most of Oregon, and the demand isn't going away, aren’t we just on borrowed time if we continue to eat wild salmon from Alaska and Canada? And air travel from Alaska greatly increases our footprint. Indeed, it would seem if we’re meant to eat locally then we’re going to need to build some environmentally friendly fish farms in our inland cities. The MBA also fails to take into account that not all fish farms employ the same practices. Some farms are making a concerted effort to produce a sustainable, low-impact product.

A quick sidebar – the local argument is such an interesting one to me. Growing up in a household that appreciated both food and travel, we sought out the local catch wherever we found ourselves. Due to overfishing, this is becoming nearly impossible to do. In San Francisco, the birthplace of the locavore movement, Dungeness crab is practically the only wild creature left to harvest. Read about fish imports in the land of locavorism here.

In 2006 Science published findings from a four-year study and predicted the world will run out of seafood by 2048 if marine species continue to decline. Other scientists concur: consumption of wild fish is unsustainable; supply does not meet global demand. Farmed fish are the future.

So how do we become responsible consumers of farmed fish? The answer lies in knowing your fish farmer, or knowing the right questions to ask at your local fish counter or restaurant. Greenpeace has been quietly compiling a Supermarket Scorecard for the past four years. I was surprised by the results:

1. Target
2. Wegmans
3. Whole Foods
4. Safeway
5. Ahold
6. Harris Teeter
7. A&P
8. Delhaize
9. Wal-Mart
10. Trader Joe's

The worst, from bad to worse:
11. PriceChopper
12. ALDI
13. Kroger
14. Costco
16. Giant Eagle
17. Publix
18. Winn-Dixie
19. Meijer
20. H.E. B.

An interesting side note to the Greenpeace report: when they started rating supermarkets, not a single one passed. In four years, grocers have shown willingness to improve, a very positive shift.

The Greenpeace scorecard is based on policy (on things like catch method, or low by-catch numbers), inventory (selling endangered/overfished species), support of conservation measures, and transparency (labeling). Taste and product quality, which are critically important to discriminating cooks and eaters, were not factors. Whole Foods, where I buy delicious fish, pledges they know where their fish swam, what they were fed, and what they weren’t fed. Read Whole Foods' fish/shellfish standards here.

In the end, the best a consumer can do is to make informed food choices and purchase foods that that are healthy for our bodies, the land on which we dwell and the seas we are still discovering.

What you can do:
1. Buy fish from responsible retailers. I didn't even know Target sold fish, but I'll take a look.

2. Know what species to choose and which to avoid (see #3, below) or ask your fish guy. My personal faves are: Farmed tilapia (tilapia are herbivores so they don’t have the net fish loss associated with carnivorous farmed fish), Rainbow trout (environmentally friendly to farm because they are efficient at converting feed into body mass, and because they are mostly farmed in Idaho and the US has done a good job keeping escape and pollution levels low), farmed Atlantic Salmon (my fish guy at Whole Foods promises me it’s sustainable. I hope he’s right.) I have yet to try US-farmed freshwater Coho Salmon. The MBA reports this variety eats less than farmed Atlantic salmon, and has lower risk of escape/contamination issues.

3. Download and consult the Monterey Bay Aquarium's mobile or pocket guides.

4. Read and learn. Several compelling articles were a part of this research effort, including:

Farmed Fish, Food Fish; Wild Fish, Few Fish
Melissa Block, NPR

Tuna's End
Paul Greenburg, The New York Times Magazine

Farmed or wild fish: Which is healthier?
Elizabeth Landau, CNN

Is Fish Farming Safe?
Terry McCarthy/Campbell River, Time

Benefits of Fish Exceed Risks, Studies Find
Sally Squires, Washington Post

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Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Fool-proof High Altitude Birthday Cake

If you've ever baked at altitude you are probably a little sick of tinkering with recipes, and just a bit afraid every time you bake that your cake will sink. When you need to make a perfect cake at altitude and nothing less will do, I suggest making an ice cream cake. It's guaranteed to not lose it's shape until it melts.

Here's what you need:
Plastic wrap
waxed paper (optional)
9-inch cake pan
1/2 gallon ice cream
spatula or large flat spoon
6 ounces bittersweet chocolate
3/4 cup heavy cream

Set your ice cream out to soften, about 15-20 minutes. You can speed up the process a bit by mixing it in the bowl of a stand mixer, but still let it soften for a good ten minutes first.

Set out your cake pan and plastico. Roll out two 30-inch (apx) pieces of plastico and set one in the pan, pressing it into the bottom and sides and hanging off evenly. Set the other piece in the same fashion, only with the overlap hanging out perpendicular to the first piece (meaning, if the first piece is set longitudinally, set the second latitudinally). It should look like this:

When the ice cream is nice and soft, spoon it out and press it into the cake pan. Don't worry too much about pockets, just try to fill it evenly. When all the ice cream is in the pan, smooth off the top with an offset spatula or the best spready-tool you've got. Cover with waxed paper (or another piece of plastic wrap if you don't have waxed paper) and press down to pack in the ice cream and eliminate air pockets. If you have another cake pan you can use it to press down on the filled ice cream cake. Fold the overhanging plastic wrap up and over the top and stick the pan in the freezer to set, for at least 3 hours. I like to give it a full 24 hours.

Next, make the frosting.

I like ganache for ice cream cakes. Finely chop your chocolate and transfer it to a glass or stainless steel mixing bowl.

Heat the cream, watching it carefully as it makes a colossal mess if it boils over. You can add flavorings to the cream like vanilla extract (a teaspoon), or liquors (about a tablespoon).

Once the cream comes to a boil, pour it over the chocolate and stir gently until smooth. Cool for about 15-20 minutes.

Remove the ice cream cake from the freezer. Unwrap the plastic from the top. I often leave the waxed paper on as a base, but you run the risk of serving it, so it's maybe a smarter idea to remove that too. You want to work quickly, but don't get stressed - it's not going to melt all over the table on you. Invert the cake onto a serving plate or a work plate the plastic sticking out the sides. Wet a dishcloth or dishtowel with hot water and press it onto all sides of the cake. It should only take a moment before the ice cream cake releases itself from the pan. If not, keep the towel hot and pull gently on the plastic wrap. If the cake looks a little melty from the heat exposure, stick it back in the freezer for 30-45 minutes.

When ready to frost, scoop about three-quarters of the ganache onto the top of the cake and spread it evenly over the top of the cake, allowing it to flow down the sides. Use more ganache as needed to frost the sides. Using a thin coat of ganache will work better as it will set quickly and freeze onto the cake. When it's all covered and smooth (using an offset spatula for frosting will make spreading and smoothing much easier) return it to the freezer. Another trick for smoothing is to heat the spatula. Do this once the entire cake is frosted and it will give the cake a clean finish.

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Monday, July 5, 2010

On Boosting Nutrients in Baked Goods and Cereals

Not too long ago I stopped adding wheat germ to my granola. For years I thoughtlessly tossed a few spoonfuls of wheat germ into my granola and banana bread recipes. We don't have any wheat sensitivities in our house, but I do feel that wheat-free foods, with their lower glycemic indexes, are more easily digested. I did a wee bit of research and was reminded about the process of refining flour, and just how terribly nutritionally vacant it is. Wheat germ is simply the embryo of the wheat kernal. It's a great source of fiber, folate, and essential fatty acids. And it's tossed out when turning whole wheat flour into white flour.

As a quick side bar to the difference between whole wheat and whole grain, while they sound like they should be the same thing, they aren't, necessarily. When choosing a sandwich bread, just look at the ingredients. If you see the word "Enriched" anywhere, you're not getting a whole grain product. You're getting ersatz nutrients, artificially added because the real essential nutrients were destroyed as a result of processing. Yet another sidebar: one thing I never discovered is the source of the vitamins used for enriching. Can their efficacy even be determined? One thing is for sure, and that is that "whole grain" has become such a buzzword that you can even purchase Whole Grain Pringles. Just read labels and use your noggin. Meaning, Yes, Virginia, Whole Grain Pringles are still bad for you.

I do keep whole grain flours in my pantry but traditional baking requires white flour. But there are opportunities for substitutions or boosting nutrients on your own. Take Raspberry Breakfast Bars. My wheat germ research was only barely digested when my youngest placed an order for breakfast bars. There is nothing remotely breakfasty about these sugary things. I have no idea how I get hoodwinked into making them in the morning. Anyway, I was totally disgusted by the flour and butter crust so I added a couple of spoonfuls of flax meal and wheat germ. It didn't counter the one-two punch of white flour and butter, but it went unnoticed and presumably did some good.

As for flax meal, that's probably its own post. I used to grind the seeds in an extra coffee grinder but now just buy the Bob's Red Mill stuff. It's a great source of EFAs and both soluble and insoluble fiber. As with wheat germ, store both in the fridge or freezer. Due to the oil content both go rancid pretty quickly, hence the advantage of grinding your own flax seeds.

I hope you all had a fine Fourth!

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Coalfire Makes the Cover (Go buy five pizzas for your mother)

Would you look at that! My all-time favorite pizza on earth made the cover of Chicago Magazine. It's not Rolling Stone, but they made the cover. I'd be proud of them if I had anything to do with it. I'd be pleased with myself (ok, I am) if it was in any way a validation of personal preference. I'd go there tonight if there weren't a line of newbies out the door. Who am I kidding?!? They're closed on Monday! I wouldn't make that rookie error. We're regulars at Coalfire. When the owner seats us he knows our order.

It really is a fabulous place, run and staffed by some very lovely people. Please go and help them stay in business forever.

That's all.

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