Monday, November 28, 2011

Honey: now the true sweet spot of Farmers' Markets

Winter farmers' markets are open for business and if you live near one, be very grateful. The pickings may seem slightly slimmer than the full bounty of summertime, but they're probably more precious. Fresh greens instead of that DOA produce in the supermarket, organic squashes and root vegetables, trustworthy eggs and 100% maple syrup instead of that high fructose corn filled lookalike.

Be especially grateful this year for honey. You don't want to buy it anywhere else right now--if you want real, honest-to-bees honey. The mainstream media doesn't dare pick up and publish the sour news that food safety experts have just found that more than 76% of all honey sold in this country is not exactly honey. It's "ultrafiltered golden Chinese sludge." The translation of that is, as one exposé writer called it: honey laundering. Possibly polluted crap from China with a lot of water added.

This is one of the sadder results of the ironically much publicized demise of our honey bees. Honey, by the FDA's definition, must contain real pollen, which is to say, real traces of real bee activity. So few bees, not so much honey. But you'd never know that from all those cutsey plastic bears glowing gold and selling cheap. The food safety folks found absolutely no pollen in any of the big box discount store honey (think Walmart, Cosco...), or in most of the big supermarket chain honeys either.

The food safety tests did discover that 100% of farmers' market honey is in fact the real pollen inflected deal. No ultrafiltered Chinese sludge, just the pride of working local, locavore bees. How sweet is that!?!

And what a gift to give this holiday season. Real honey from real bees has real antibiotic qualities so it's great for that inevitably sore winter throat. No sweetener comes close to its glory in a cup of hot tea or its flavor in stewed dried fruits, which are a delicious and nutritious way to start a winter day. Stir a tablespoon into fresh yogurt, add a drop of real vanilla extract, a pinch of cardamom or nutmeg or cinnamon--your choice, and dig in to something memorably tasty and insanely healthy. Combine it with soy sauce and ketchup to make a quick, yummy sauce for basting spare ribs. Drizzle it over pound cake or bananas. You can't go wrong with this most perfect sweet.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Talking Turkey

Gobble gobble day is almost here and newspaper columns are covered in turkey cooking coverage. My favorite is the straight shooting curmudgeon who insists turkey was never a tasty bird and thousands of tries at making it one just prove it over and over. You've got to endlessly baste it--indeed there's even a kitchen gadget known as a turkey baster, or brine it--that turns it into an old salt--or blast it in a deep fryer that's downright dangerous.

The big breasted supermarket turkey is an industrial marvel that no amount of industrious kitchen effort can turn into good homecooked food. If you have to get yours from a chain store, at least think small. It works out much better to have, say, two 10-12 lb specimens than one 22 lb big bird. For one thing, you get more drumsticks to go around. The white meat will definitely be juicier. And you won't have to stay up all night baking and basting. Small turkeys are good to carve in just under four hours. I always used to put mine in the ovens just as Santa made his way into Herald Square, closing Macy's big parade and turned the ovens off just as guests were piling in between 4 and 5.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of two turkeys is two tastes. You can make each one a different way, which will jazz up the meal by eliminating those foregone conclusions that make it so boring. Two turkeys means two different stuffings too. I used to alternate between three. The one for the traditional parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme turkey was braised vegetables (onion, leek, eggplant, green pepper, mushrooms, spinach or chard, parsley and peas) mixed with pine nuts and Jasmine rice cooked in chicken broth. This is the perfect leftover: eat it as a side dish, a main dish (think risotto) or pour on chicken broth and turn it into soup. The stuffing for the curried turkey was roasted pecans and pistachios with dried fruits (prunes, apricots, cranberries, currants, figs, cherries) stewed with cinnamon, cloves, cardamom and orange zest. This turkey got a maple syrup glaze at the end (paint maple syrup on it when you take it out of the oven and it will shine). Both of these turkeys need to be basted with chicken or turkey broth.

The surprise big hit, the one everybody started to ask for every year, was the cornbread stuffing with onions, roasted poblano pepper, kidney and black beans (from the can), corn kernels, pimentos, pepitas and chili powder. This is because it was inside my barbeque turkey. I got so bored with tradition and so frustrated by the eh quality of my efforts, that one year I said: what the hell, and slathered the turkey in my own barbeque sauce. The night before, I smeared that under some of the breast skin, in both cavities and all over the bird. I smeared on more when I put the turkey in the oven at 475 degrees to get it sizzling, lowered the heat to 400 for two hours and basted alternately with chicken broth and more barbeque sauce, then lowered the heat to 300 until that turkey almost dissolved into pulled turkey. It was so finger licking luscious, people still ask me how to make it. ?? I always improvised that sauce, but its basics were garlic, fresh minced ginger root, maple syrup, ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, Balsamic vinegar, a dab of Asian chili sauce (the bottle with the rooster on it will do), a spritz of Tamari, chili powder, Chinese black bean garlic sauce (a key ingredient and it comes in a jar), salt and oregano.

I also had a friend who made a memorably delicious turkey by stuffing it with baby vegetables including potatoes and leaving it covered on the actual barbeque grill for several hours. If I did that, I'd probably baste it with a mix of soy sauce (or Tamari) and olive oil.

Heritage turkeys will be much smaller and the white meat not exactly white. The folks who produce these game birds like to say you only need to baste with a combination of butter and maple syrup or just one of them. Also you don't have to cook them as long or at forced high heat to kill off the bacteria and germs endemic to those pitiful industrial turkeys. If you sense they're going to taste "gamey", I'd suggest squirting fresh lime juice on them the night before. Lime juice is a key ingredient in chicken tandoori cooking and brighter than lemon.

Leftovers are of course the best part of Thanksgiving dinner, and the worst kept secret in America is that all your guests have already cooked their own turkey because while everybody complains about the Thanksgiving Day meal, nobody wants to miss out on the weekend of leftovers. So they won't be taking your bird home. It's all yours. Don't leave any stuffing in it overnight. Freeze what meat you will, and don't forget on Sunday to put the carcass in a stockpot with an onion, clove, celery and water to get yourself the underpinnings of good turkey noodle soup. You can freeze that too and give thanks in January that you made all this effort now.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Season's Eatings

Thanksgiving is almost here, so now is the time to begin preparations for its required feast, remembering of course that there are two inviolable commandments no American would dare to challenge. The first is: skimpiness is a sin. The meal has to be huge, the table a sumptuous groaning board that leaves everybody groaning about being way too full. The second is: tradition cannot be messed with. People will never forgive you for serving roast lamb when they expect turkey and baked Alaska when it is officially pumpkin pie day. I actually cooked my first four Thanksgiving extravaganzas without one clove of garlic because flavoring the food with tang felt foreign. It was thyme laced turkey with trimmings like mashed rutabagas, onion puree, Brussels sprouts with chestnuts, wild rice, corn bread, Sacher torte and pumpkin pie, so everybody gobbled it up and declared it a most memorable meal.

The third commandment, perpetually violated with impunity, is: Thanksgiving is a tribute to our farms and gardens, not our supermarket supply chain. Remember, it began as a harvest holiday, a "thank God" celebration that there was food to eat in this north-American land. So now is the time to show off the local bounty, by which I mean what farmers' markets can bring to the table--including the turkey descended from the wild ones the aboriginals showed the Colonists how to eat. It is the ripe moment to fetch from the shelves the pickles and preserves made in the heat of summer, to bring in from the stoop the pumpkins and squash before the harsh cold of winter rots them, to retrieve from the root cellar or refrigerator bin the sprouts and roots mounded in the markets of October, and the time to explore the new winter markets for fresh salad greens, cheeses, eggs and heirloom turkeys.

It's easy to put together a delicious, delightful and appropriate banquet from this gleaning. Here's a hint:
While everybody is gathering and milling around and fussing with their contributed dish, serve nibbles like
Local cheeses with local breads
Dilly beans or pickled asparagus or both
Chinese tea eggs (Think of all those New Englanders sailing in the China trade)
Toasted, spiced pumpkin seeds

In the center of the table put Cranberry Conserve and Blueberry Apple chutney with the salt and pepper.

Once everyone's seated, serve a simple salad of fresh mixed greens with Jerusalem artichoke croutons or toasted pecans. You can gussy it up with pomegranate arils (those bright red "seeds" inside the duller red skin).

Then bring on the turkey (about which more next week) and the whole cavalcade of side dishes that celebrate the soil and characterize Thanksgiving. I suggest these easy recipes from my book, How to Fix a Leek and Other Food From Your Farmers' Market because they'll add taste, texture and a vivid array of color:
Rutabaga Timbales (orange color)
Brussels Sprouts with Prunes and Cranberries (light green, black and burgundy)
Celeriac Puree (ivory color)
Nepalese style Bitter Greens (a way to braise mustard or collard greens, broccoli rabe or even kale)
If you want to go overboard add the potato tart. Add pickled beets.

Everybody will claim they have no room for dessert but of course they expect an army of them. Again, from my book, I recommend:
Pumpkin mousse (lighter than pie)
Caramel pears, or poached pears if you prefer something more sophisticated
Sour cream blueberry cake (use the blueberries you froze in early August)
a peach or plum crisp if you tucked one into the freezer early in September
and a fresh apple tart or pie.

With the tea and decaf coffee, bring on those gorgeous chocolates from the local candymaker. This is the day to hold nothing back. It continues a human tradition more than 5,000 years old, hospitality, defined several decades ago by the Moroccan food authority Paula Wolfert this way: "No guest must go home hungry. And although this idea is often carried to the point of absurdity...after being served course after course...the guest will achieve shaban, total satisfaction, and know his host has held back nothing that would give him pleasure."

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Apple Blessing Time

And now a word about apples, the last great crop of the harvest season. This is the time to really exult in them, for apples that hung on through a nip of frost are crisper, tastier, last longer and make the best cider. In short, these are the keepers.

Now is also the time to get your hands on as many as you can at farmers' markets because they are where you will find great varieties that never appear on supermarket shelving. Industrial agriculture and its partner, big box supermarkets, only offer the same half dozen apples--Red Delicious, Yellow Delicious, Granny Smith, Fuji, Braeburn, and sometimes even Macintosh--and crossbred varieties of them. They're only raison d'etre in this spotlight is not taste or texture, but simply that they can withstand mechanical harvesting, conveyor belt handling, long distance rumbling and photography, which is to say that after all that, they make a flawless appearance. Frankly, there is nothing else to recommend that mushy, four-bump travesty, the so-called "delicious" apple.

At farmers' markets, you find dozens of tasty alternatives, although some might not be "lookers." For starters, if you are lucky because they are becoming a rarer and rarer treasure, you''ll come upon the Mercedes of eating apples: the tangy, crunchy, sweet tart Winesap. Frankly, if the Wicked Witch had held one out to me, I'd have taken a bite faster than Snow White. Northern Spies are the original New England pie apple, and if you don't want to make that pie until after Thanksgiving, they'll still be good. Mutsu apples are a tastier, crunchier spin-off of Yellow Delicious that will keep a lot longer for the lunchbox. Macouns are Macs on steroids, Baldwins are a very old fashioned, long lived, sweet eating apple, and Cortlands are famous because they're the one apple that doesn't immediately turn brown when its flesh is exposed to air.

Apples are right up there with strawberries and bananas as America'a favorite fruit, but they got to the top with much more publicity. We brag about its nutritional boost by insisting: "An apple a day keeps the Doctor away." We reveal its allure when we offer an apple for the teacher, or call someone an "apple polisher." In The Bible, human civilization starts with the bite of an apple and in fairy tales, Snow White's sexual awakening does too.
Fruit has always been the perfect metaphor for our human desires because it comes to us literally ripe for the taking-- we don't have to do anything but enjoy it, and the apple has become our culture's prime symbol.

This may partly have come to pass because the apple was one of the few fruits that could be grown in England. (It is native to the Caucasus, not Great Britain.) Thus the Victorian botanists and plant hunters who fanned out over the planet in the 19th Century were all too myopically apt to name strange fruits after their beloved and familiar apple: the southeast Asian rose apple and custard apple, the Bengali fruit they called "wood apple", the tropical Pacific island fruit they called "pineapple." It's doubtful that what Eve supposedly tempted Adam with was what we call an apple, because these are not hot weather, Mediterranean fruits; betting is on a pomegranate or perhaps a quince.

We all know about being as American as apple pie--which was actually brought here by British colonists, and about Johnny Appleseed planting all those trees. But as others have revealed, he wasn't thinking of pie. Earlier Americans who wanted some sweetness in their hardscrabble lives wanted apples with their high sugar content not to eat but to ferment into vinegar and drinking alcohol: hard cider and apple brandy. The large glossy picture perfect eating apple is the product of modern manufacture.

Still, a good apple pie is a great dessert. It can be made with cranberries or raisins thrown in, even chopped walnuts too. It can be made open faced like a charlotte or open upside down like a tarte tatin. It can be made now and frozen for February.

Another great dessert, or even breakfast, is the baked apple: if you can find the large, round Rome or Empire or Cortland, grab a few, core and stuff them with a mix of raisins, cranberries, chopped nuts, cinnamon, freshly grated ginger, lemon zest and maple syrup. Put them in a baking pan and pour about 1/2 cup apple cider and 1 tbsp lemon juice over them, cover tightly with aluminum foil and bake at 350 about an hour or until the apples are fork tender. Serve plain warm or later with ice cream, whipped cream or thick yogurt. This is as nutritious as it is delicious, a great way to wean kids from cakes.

Try chopping two tart apples like Macoun or Northern Spy into the batter of Indian pudding just before you bake it. This can gussy the traditional dish up for Thanksgiving dinner. Or be really old-fashioned and cook a dozen apples in some apple cider and lemon juice with a cinnamon stick thrown in, until they're soft and mushy. Then push them through a food mill or strainer into apple sauce, which you can either eat right away or freeze to enjoy in March. When I was a kid I was always dazzled that my great aunt's great apple sauce had the charming blush of pink. Years later I found out her secret was simply to leave the skins on during cooking and when she put the apples into her Foley food mill.

If you are not vegetarian, you can chop up a tart apple or two, combine it with cranberries and prunes and roast a pork loin in the mix. It will be juicy. But, of course, all of this cooking depends on not eating up all the apples just as they are in their glorious natural state.