Thursday, February 25, 2010

why i cook

over at the burp blog, prompted by a challenge from michael ruhlman, lori recently explored the reasons why she and paul cook, and it got me thinking as well.

this is an easy question, but not one with a single, uncomplicated answer.

when i was young, my parents had a huge, organic garden. it took a lot of work from everyone in the family to maintain it; something that my sisters and i resented often while pulling weeds in the hot sun. but we were always thrilled with such close access to perfect fruits and veggies. in the summer, we could walk down to the garden, pick a vegetable, and seconds later, be eating it for dinner. everyone has had that wonderfully sweet, perfectly ripe ear of corn from the farmer's market in august (or at least, i hope so), but it seems like much sweeter when it's eaten within 10 minutes of being picked. the hard work that goes into growing that ear of corn probably has something to do with it, too. eating sweet peas directly off the vine, still warm with sun; carrots nothing like what you'd get in the supermarket, too sweet and tender to believe (probably the reason shannon has such a deep love for carrots); gobbling green plums one after the other; peaches sweeter than candy; raspberries for dessert, eaten straight from the bush. sure, we hated the work, but we definitely appreciated the bounty.

and with that fresh food, cooking was just what we did. mom didn't often serve us frozen or pre-packaged food. so we, too, learned how to cook. i recall my first cooking revelation: making a fresh tomato sauce for pasta using tomatoes, onions, garlic, and basil from our garden. fresh, easy, and something i created.

once i moved out of the house, it wasn't until bryan and i started dating that i really started cooking again. bryan always cooked; having been a chef, it was something he continued to enjoy to do at home. he wooed me with fajita nights every thursday. once we moved in together, we began shopping at the dekalb farmer's market, spending obscene amounts of money on our groceries (hey, we lived with roomates and had cheap rent! and i like wine!). i entered a phase where i wanted to prepare the most complex meals i could, because it was fun, and delicious. i think bryan mostly humored me, knowing i would come around eventually.

and i did. the longer we cooked together, the more i learned (courtesy of bryan). i began to be able to appreciate ingredients for what they were. we were often asked why we cooked so much, and in addition to saying we enjoyed it, my response was, "we all have to eat, so it might as well be good."

i knew all along that it was healthier to prepare meals at home using fresh foods, and always leaned towards the natural/organic foods, but it wasn't really until a few years ago that i began researching more about how our agricultural system produces food. and what i learned scared me. the way produce is grown is NOT healthy. the way our meat is raised is NOT healthy. the way processed foods are produced is NOT healthy. all of this impacts the environment negatively, which in turn impacts our health. and this food, this industrial food, is BAD for us. all of it. a carrot is no longer just a carrot, folks. if more people did the research and learned what they were putting in their bodies, more people would revolt (and that's exactly what we need, but not what this post is about). having a small child and knowing that i did not want to put crap into his body absolutely affected the decision as well. it became imperative that we eat FOOD, only FOOD; food that is raised responsibly, with minimal impact to the environment. and food that is raised locally whenever possible. we radically changed our eating from there, by changing what we buy and who we buy it from. we made these commitments, and they became the driving force behind what and how we cooked.

we joined the c.s.a. with JenEhr farms; we joined a co-op for the rest of our grocery shopping. we got serious about our own garden. last year, we bought a pig and half a cow from Solar Harvest Farm. bryan began working weekends for the farm, and through the farmer's market, we began networking with local farmers (much to my squealy, giggling, schoolgirl delight).

food, cooking, eating has become a cause to me. and not a cause i am alone in, but one in which we need everyone to become educated on. i feel by buying the way we do, and eating what we eat, and supporting local farms in doing so, we are trying to save our world, literally. i am attempting to stave off some of the irrevocable changes industrial farming has on the environment, and the grave and undeniable impact to our health. make no mistake, it is critical. vote with your fork.

and in returning to the land, and locally so, i have again returned to the ingredients of my youth - fresh, simple, perfect foods that need nothing much to speak for themselves. and that became another goal: prepare these wonderful foods in simple ways that honor them. simple doesn't necessarily mean fast, either. simple can be time consuming. simple means with minimal handling, or with traditional handling; in a method which lets the food shine through. it is hard to take a bite of something so wonderful and not wish everyone was here eating what you were eating, because then, you just know, they could understand, and instead i end up feeling just a little sorry they are not. if i could find a way to stay home and cook all day, i would.

the honoring of the ingredients also takes on a slightly spiritual meaning for me, as well. food is my religion, that is also why i cook. and i challenge you to think of that as not blasphemous in any way! whatever god you do (or don't) believe in, i hope we can all agree that if this earth is our gift, if life is a gift, what better way can we honor that and be the protectors we're asked to be, than by taking care of the earth and ourselves? the best way we are care for the earth is to not poison it. first and foremost, we must not destroy it. industrial agriculture is doing just that, and it's a simple change to help make that stop. i'll say it again: vote with your fork. 3 times a day. our health, our happiness, everything else will come from this. i am not kidding when i call for revolt. only our growing voices will change the tide.

so i cook for a multitude of reasons. there is no one reason. and it's more than just eating, to me. it is part of everything, the very fabric of our earth, our health, our purpose on this earth. and i don't believe we're meant to lead joyless lives. i don't believe we're not meant to fully enjoy, in a carefree and thorough way, everything that is around us. but we have to do so in a responsible manner. responsibility and happiness are not mutually exclusive. they can coexist very happily. just come to my house for dinner, and i will show you.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

good use of leftovers: Pea and Slow Cooked Ham Tarts

i found this recipe for Pea and Slow Cooked Ham Tarts, had a ham in the freezer that i had been wanting to use (one that we had brined and smoked ourselves), and decided to adapt the recipe for winter in wisconsin.

the recipe calls for fresh peas, but i used frozen. the downside to this was extra water content, which made the filling wetter than i think it should have been. i probably could have combated this a bit more by blending the filling more; emulsifying the fat in the cream would have done the trick. but it wasn't awful, and the custard still set.

i added some parmesan to the custard because, you know, it was the right thing to do.

the shortcut pastry dough is hands down the best pastry recipe i have ever made. most basic ingredients, minimal handling - and it puffed in the oven beautifully, and was gorgeously buttery. perfect, perfect, perfect. i've been thinking of all sorts of wonderful applications for this. napoleons? pot pies? fruit pies? yes, yes, and yes.

though i wasn't a huge fan of the recommended method for pre-baking the pastry cups: the author if the recipe has you fold them over the backs of muffin tins. maybe i just needed to cut the pastry rounds a little bigger, but they weren't very deep.

i oven roasted some delicata squash "fries" to go with them, and it was a filling and delicious dinner, indeed. as if the ongoing winter here wasn't enough to make me wishing for warm weather, this recipe certainly has me thinking of june peas, which i can eat raw by the pound at their peak freshness (bryan thinks this is a problem and will confiscate the 3 pound bags i buy at the farmer's market and proceed to attempt to devour).

that's it. a simple and delicious dinner i had to share.

Monday, February 15, 2010

valentine's day en double

impressed with my french skills, no?


bryan and i aren't generally huge on the whole valentine's day thing. i get flowers, we eat a fab dinner at home, and that's about it.

this year, we both had great ideas for dinners, so we decided to do them both.

saturday, we had my pick: steak frites (using the hangar steak from our cow) with sauce gascon (essentially a pan sauce with white wine, demi glace, and mustard), homemade garlic aioli for the frites, and roasted beets with creamy horseradish vinaigrette over winter micro greens. and red wine. for dessert, we had heart cookies oliver made at day care, so of course they tasted perfect and full of love. delicious and filling. i heart homemade frites.

sunday, we had braised pork belly with sunchoke puree and grilled radicchio with balsamic vinegar. oh yea, YUM. i had to banish myself from the kitchen once the belly came out of the braising liquid lest i EAT IT ALL. it was very good, though not a whole lot different tasting than a pork roast, albeit a very, very nice one. still, no complaining. we washed it all down with some fat squirrel ale from new glarus brewing company. for dessert i made chocolate cake, with strawberry filling. i wasn't very happy with the cake. it was no where near as chocolatey as i as expecting, and the frosting didn't come out. i had never attempted that kind before and doubt i ever will again. for the strawberry filling, i used some frozen berries we had from last summer's u-pick. in the end, while it didn't look very pretty and wasn't as chocolatey as i was looking for, it certainly didn't suck. oliver in particular wasn't upset, as it's hard to cut a small piece of 3 layer cake, so he got a relatively good helping.

we ended the day by watching couples retreat, which was funnier than i expected. for once, vince vaughn didn't annoy the crap out of me; he talked non stop, but his character's view on marriage was endearing.

all in all, a very lovely valentine's day, happily spent with my two favorites boys.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

new widget: meal plans

you may notice i added a new widget to the blog, on the bottom right (i may move it up if it generates any formal interest). it's our meal plan for the upcoming weeks. i usually meal plan for two weeks at a time, based on what we have, what's going to be on sale, and what is currently striking our fancy. more often than not, we use recipes as guides and inspiration, knowing we can do better (not to be conceited or anything... just truthful). i've noted where the recipe is a loose inspiration - in these cases our finished dish will probably vary wildly from the given recipe, but be similar in concept. and just because i haven't noted a vegetable or starch in all of them means we'll be skipping them - it just means we'll make whatever sounds good that day, whatever we have on hand. it's important to note that while some things look more involved than one would necessarily tackle during the week, we occasionally do some prep beforehand (like cooking a giant batch of tomato sauce and freezing it to use in the months to come*, or roasting a whole chicken on sunday so we can use the meat during the week, or cooking a braised dish the night before since they're so much better after a day anyways), and there are certain things we've already made and keep on hand (especially canned items like homemade pickles, cranberries with port, pickled red onions, and escabeche). that's just the way we roll around here.

i do this because i've had requests in the past for access to my meal plans, so hopefully this helps satisfy some curious folks. and i figured, we used to document nearly all new meals we did with pictures, recipes, and reviews, and i've dropped that business like a hot potato due to a complete and utter lack of time. it's hardly a complete view into how i menu plan, and won't reflect any of my cherished tips to menu planning and food shopping in general (such as buying seasonably, and planning based on sales, which i cannot possibly predict outside of the stores we actually shop at, and some of the prep and storage i mention above). if anything, i hope it provides inspiration, and a few rumblies in the tumblies.

now let's just see if i can keep up with it.

* um, yes, god may actually strike me down if i were to buy jarred tomato sauce. seriously. what is wrong with you people?