Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Mini Breads in CSA Box

No pictures today, although the mini breads are certainly picture-worthy. Cute Ezekiel and pumpkin-cranberry breads. We sliced the fruit bread and spread each slice with cream cheese. Very nice snack. The Ezekiel bread is made with grains from Ezekiel 4:9: "Take also unto thee wheat, and barley, and beans, and lentils, and millet, and spelt..." It's very healthy tasting.

Also in the box: lettuce, sweet peppers and oyster mushrooms. The mushrooms are slated for a stir fry with shrimp and edamame.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Goodbye Gourmet, and Ruth Reichl, Don't Forget to Write

The November issue, the final issue, of Gourmet is on newsstands now. I picked it up today to read at lunch, over a ham sandwich and Coke Zero at the bookstore. The Thanksgiving issue has always been the star of the Gourmet lineup, and editor Ruth Reichl has said in the past that as long as she's at the helm, a roasty-toasty turkey will be on the cover of the November mag. I guess then it's fitting that this Rockwellian turkey, bosomy and burnished, is on the cover of the last Gourmet magazine.

It's been a couple weeks since Conde Nast announced it will pull the plug on Gourmet and the issues already in the can will not see the light of print. Some media observers say the final issue marks a sad day for foodies. I say it's a sad day for all who love a perfectly written declarative sentence, the kind that my quirky journalism professor with the geek glasses (long before they were considered coolly ironic), reading aloud a student's work would proclaim "it sings!" With evocative photography and spot-on recipes, Gourmet was a hat trick of words, pictures and food. Words, pictures and food better and distinct from its competitors. Not the brain candy of Paula Deen (bless her butter-basted heart) and some other successfully merchandised chefs/cooks I could name. Not the effervescent entertaining how-to's of Gourmet's kid sister, Bon Appetit. Not the precise execution of Cook's Illustrated, with its clipped narrative describing recipe evolution from disaster to culinary dynamite. Not the idiosyncratic appeal of Fine Cooking, itself newly renovated, hardly a venue for stirring prose, and until recently, not much of one for photographs and design, either.

Gourmet and I go back two decades, when as a newlywed, I decided that the magazine would teach me how to cook. I recently came across a couple issues from those days, and was astounded at the advertising and page count - December 1987 tops out at 278 pages. (I bet the ad staff's Christmas party was a blast that year.) Inside, the much-missed regular feature, Gastronomie Sans Argent, and Laurie Colwin's charming "How to Make Gingerbread." Colwin was one of those writers with a knack for pulling you into her world and making you feel like a cherished friend, one who would serve a cup of Darjeeling alongside a plate of fresh-baked gingerbread, and scribble the recipe on the back of a receipt, apologize for not having recipe cards, and press it into your hand as you left. Colwin departed this world too soon, in 1992, but her books on food are still in print 20 years later. The Gourmet columns are collected in two volumes, "Home Cooking" and "More Home Cooking," and just like Proust, deserve to be pulled from the shelves and re-read every couple of years.

Now to Reichl, a writer I first discovered through an advance copy of her memoir "Tender at the Bone," a fine entry into the "memoir with recipes" genre along the lines of Colwin. Reichl has a similar gift for sharing her life's story through the food that she eats and cooks and it was starting to look like she would always helm Gourmet. Under her leadership, Gourmet brought in even more fine writers, and broadened the scope of its mission to include the politics of food, for example, publishing a story on migrant workers in the tomato fields of Florida; and farm to table issues. For a time, the letters column had a bit of the rant and rave feel to it. I remember a particular letter writer commenting on an issue dedicated to Latin American cuisines stating that they didn't care to get their politics from Gourmet magazine. I say to any party, Democrat, Republican or Flying Purple People Eater, if there's food, set a place for me at that table, that's my kind of politics.

TV viewers watch Food Network for their favorite chefs. Gourmet's readers thumbed the table of contents to find their favorite writers: Calvin Trillin, Ann Patchett, John T. Edge; and at, scholarly Doc Willoughby, relatable new mom Lesley Porcelli, the enigmatic Francis Lam, (who we'll probably find out one day is Pynchon or Salinger or Harper Lee or some other reclusive novelist who desperately needs an outlet to write about food). Two issues of the past few years stand out: a slim but satisfying edition of food writing featuring the best from its quiver of authors, and the January 2008 tribute to Edna Lewis, the late doyenne of Southern cooks and writers (that issue also included a tribute to the town of my birth, Nashville, Tennessee, composed by novelist and hometown girl Ann Patchett.)

Two decades of Gourmet, and the one word that comes to mind is transcendent, that's my Gourmet experience. Sure, it's wrapped up in its own name-brand world, of Gucci and Baccarat and Rolex, Sotheby's and Chanel. That's not my planet and likely never will be. And maybe that was the problem all along, because magazines, no matter how excellent the editorial product, if they don't have advertisers, they've got bupkis. I've often wondered who the target audience of Gourmet really was, because the advertising, except for the promotions with Goya beans and M&M candies, is geared way out of my price range. It seems unlikely that the Louis Vuitton-wearers of the world would break a sweat over the origins of the tomatoes on their carefully composed salads.

I've always felt a little like the red-headed stepchild relating to this magazine. But I can't deny that the editorial product spoke to my soul. Maybe someday I'll eat a thin-crust apple tart in a bistro in whichever arrondissement one must tour, but for now, I'm content to make that scrumptious tart in my very own kitchen, thanks to the guiding hand of Gourmet.

So, Merci, Gourmet, for 68 years of good food and good living. And here's hoping that an influential someone, somewhere, realizes that Ruth Reichl was on to something important, essential, and life-giving and gives her another shot at culinary magazine greatness. Until then, I'll thumb through the Thanksgiving issue and be thankful for what we all had.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A New Herb in the CSA Box

This week's box includes apples, collards, braising greens, garlic, sweet peppers and sweet potatoes. The herbs are onion chives, English thyme and lovage. Lovage is new to me and one of those tastes that once I taste it, I want more. I use it wherever I would use parsley, although in my mind, it's a stronger taste. It's excellent in fish dishes and would probably be good with chicken. I used the herbs in the briami, just cut them up right over the top of the oil-kissed vegetables (of course, I stripped the leaves from the thyme). Delicious.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Jazzy, Gingery Carrot Soup

Autumn approaches the middle South on Eliot's cat's feet,

"And seeing that it was a soft October night,
curled once about the house, and fell asleep."

And before you know it, nothing but soup will do. This carrot-ginger soup is an improvisation and an in-between. Not quite warming enough for brisk days in winter, just right for those evenings when the temperatures are beginning to dip into the 50s and 40s. It's satisfying and light and full of beta-carotene goodness, thanks to the pound or so of carrots and the red bell pepper. You see, this isn't a real recipe, it's just what happens when I listen to too much jazz and the vegetable drawer overflows with color and the phrase "carrot-ginger soup" spins around in my head. I would use a recipe, but just looking through the usual suspects in my cookbook collection doesn't turn up a Carrot Ginger Soup recipe. Crescent Dragonwagon's Carrot-Orange Soup from "Dairy Hollow Soup and Bread" comes close, so I followed her lead and then tossed some ginger in to the food processor as the vegetables blitzed.

So, for all you cats out there, here's how to make Carrot-Ginger Soup.

1. Place your favorite soup pot or Dutch oven on the stove over medium heat. Put a couple of tablespoons of unsalted butter in and saute one chopped onion. Add one chopped red bell pepper (roasted is ok, if you have an open jar in the fridge). Add some salt and pepper to the onion mixture and continue stirring.

2. Take a pound or so of peeled, chopped carrots and add them to the soup pot. Stir, add a half cup of water, cover and let steam for about 15 minutes, or until very soft. At this point, you can add either water or vegetable broth or chicken broth, just enough to cover the vegetables. Add a 2 inch piece of peeled fresh ginger, roughly chopped. Season to taste and when mixture is cool, puree in batches in a food processor (for vulgarians like me who prefer a rustic texture) or a blender (for those who like an exceptionally smooth puree).

3. This soup can be dolled up with all sorts of green tender herbs, such as parsley or cilantro. A contrasting sprig floating in the middle of the bowl looks particularly pretty. I suppose you could add some cream to the soup, just be sure to amp up the seasoning to compensate for the dairy.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Lunch Box Favorite: Sweet potato gingerbread

I love cakes that use a vegetable base, like carrot cake and pumpkin cake. It's a stretch to think of these kinds of cakes as health food, but as a treat, they're different from the usual vanillas and chocolates. This sweet potato gingerbread is just right for these cool autumn days. It's delicious without the frosting, but if you have kids, you can't get away with that, you simply must use the frosting and put a slice in your child's lunchbox every day that you possibly can. Your child will be the envy of the lunchbox crowd.

Sweet Potato Gingerbread with Cream Cheese Frosting

3/4 cup vegetable oil
1 1/2 cups packed light brown sugar
3 large eggs
1 cup baked, mashed sweet potato, at room temperature
1 tablespoon Grandma's molasses (or equivalent mild molasses, don't use blackstrap)
1 tablespoon finely grated fresh ginger
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1. Preheat oven to 350. Place rack in center of oven. Lightly grease a 9-inch square baking pan.

2. In a medium bowl, combine brown sugar, oil, and eggs and using a mixer, whisk until the sugar is dissolved. Add sweet potato, molasses, grated ginger, salt, cinnamon, cardamom and nutmeg. Add the flour and baking powder and soda to the batter and combine just until blended.

3. Pour batter into pan, using a spatula to evenly spread the batter. Bake until about 45 minutes (I use convection and it was spot on, 45 minutes.) A toothpick inserted in the center will come out quite nearly clean.

4. Let cake cool while you make:

Cream Cheese Frosting

1 (8 oz.) package cream cheese, (I usually have Neufchatel on hand)
1/2 stick (2 ounces) unsalted butter, softened
2 cups or more (to reach the desired consistency) confectioner's sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla

1. In a mixer, combine the butter and cream cheese and whip until smooth. Gradually, on low speed, add the powdered sugar until the frosting reaches the desired consistency. I like this frosting soft and melty.

2. Spread the frosting on the cool cake. Can sit out for a few hours, but put leftovers in the fridge. Subsequent servings from the fridge can be zapped for 10 seconds or so to remove the refrigerator chill.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Meet My Pet Cabbage

This week's CSA box was the heaviest ever. Inside: a half dozen apples, a zucchini the size of a cricket bat, a spaghetti squash, braising greens, okra, basil and this 14-pound bowling ball disguised as a cabbage. We put it in our extra refrigerator, next to the apple cider and Mountain Dew stash. We're calling it Audrey II.

The apples will disappear quickly in this house. I plan to make my annual apple pie this weekend, so I hope they last until then. I now have a collection of winter squashes - the spaghetti squash, an acorn squash and a butternut. Maybe I can go "Top Chef" and serve a trio of winter squashes? The braising greens are heavenly. I love sauteed greens, just chopped up a bit and sauteed with olive oil and toasted whole garlic cloves. Taste of autumn for this girl.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Sweet Potatoes This Week

Lots of sweet potatoes and apples in this week's CSA box. I love to get foods that store for long periods of time, like the onions and white potatoes that occasionally appear. I think it's a bad year for the CSA potatoes, none so far in the box. Let's hope for a better year in 2010.

Sweet potatoes make lovely pies and quick breads. I once made a veggie sandwich that began with shredded raw sweet potato that was frozen. The slightly thawed sweet potato patty was put on multi-grain bread with some onion and Monterey Jack or Muenster (not sure) cheese and grilled. It was yummy, unusual and really simple, just requiring the advance prep on the sweet potato.

In other CSA box news: braising greens that Susan identifies as Komatsuma. It's like spinach, but not as tender. Mineral tasting, good raw, but definitely chewy.

A nice rope of lemon grass and a couple sprigs of fennel. The herb will go in a braised chicken dish (bacon, carrots, onions, chicken legs). Lemon grass will be a challenge. Maybe some Asian soup?

Hydroponic lettuce. I crave this lettuce in the wintertime. It is tender and flavorful.

A slew of sweet peppers. I will gather all the peppers in the veg drawer and roast, clean and freeze them. I use peppers prepared this way in the winter in soups, chili and braises.

Okra. I can't believe the okra season is soooo long. I may get to try Dori Sanders' recipe for Summer Cabbage with Sweet Potatoes and Okra. Just waiting on a cabbage to appear in the box.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Rutabagas, Roasted

Rutabagas are humble food to be sure, and my husband has a story demonstrating this fact. His father, D.B., was a pilot stationed in England during World War II. While walking by a farm in the countryside, D.B. spied a familiar and favorite food from his Middle Georgia home: rutabagas. He asked the farmer if he could have a few to take back to camp, hoping to convince the cooks to boil the rutabagas for him. The astonished farmer refused to part with the rutabagas because, he insisted, rutabagas, also known as Swedes, were not intended for human consumption, they were fit only for the beasts of the field. A soldier returned to camp without a surefire taste of home, and the lucky cattle got to keep their rutabagas.

This story gets dusted off whenever we serve rutabagas to friends who've never tasted the earthy bulbs. I'll admit that I had never considered rutabagas as food for humans or cattle until my husband introduced me to them. His rutabagas cooked with a smoked turkey leg are now a quirky highlight of our holiday tables, partly to honor the past, partly to secure a place in the future for solid, earthy, humble food.

Tonight, the rutabagas were roasted with olive oil and salt and pepper in a 400 degree oven for about 45 minutes. As is true with most roasted vegetables, they were much sweeter than when braised. The color was golden, instead of the amber I expected. Indeed, they looked much like burnished Yukon Gold potatoes. Go ahead, give rutabagas a try. You may have a story to pass on to your kids.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Behold, the B.A.M.

This week's CSA box featured butternut squash, apples, green beans, basil, okra, arugula, hot peppers and alfalfa sprouts.

I love alfalfa sprouts, but rarely purchase them. Sprouts are a crunchy alternative to lettuce and required the invention of a new sandwich, the B.A.M., Bacon (bits). Alfalfa (sprouts). Mayonnaise (Hellmann's or bust). All on Pepperidge Farm white sandwich bread. Delish.