Friday, December 30, 2011

Lucky Peas

About half the country will celebrate New Year's Day with lucky peas. The tradition of eating black-eyed peas to invoke prosperity seems to have infiltrated the South almost two centuries ago as a carryover from West Africa, where enriching power was ascribed to the related pigeon peas. Some people think the South's most common preparation, "hoppin' John", comes from the common English mispronunciation of what the French speaking Creole's and Caribbean slaves from West Africa called "pois pigee on."

Since right now black-eyed peas become the momentary coin of the realm, some people think you have to eat 365 of them on New Year's Day to insure chances for prosperity all year long. That's why many folks whip up a big batch. Lucky peas are served with collard greens, which not surprisingly represent money bills, that green folding stuff, so nobody is stingy with this either. And it all goes down with cornbread, whose gold color is unmistakeable. Thus setting the New Year table with black-eyed peas, collard greens and cornbread is "hint hint" to the universe to send a little "lettuce" your way.

The most traditional lucky peas recipes represent not only great nutrition but cheap chic, easily meeting the latest Slow Food challenge: healthy food for less than $5 a person. A leftover ham hock or stray pieces of ham or bits of bacon are used to flavor onions and the peas, perhaps even the collard greens. The only extras for this frugal dish are chili peppers or sauce, garlic and rice. But what a bang for the buck in this nutritional pile up!

A 1 lb bag of black-eyed peas goes a long way. The vegetarian version I just made for a New Year's potluck looks like it will feed at least 15, even if nobody brings anything else. So one of the ways something like "hoppin' John" is "lucky" is that it doesn't break the bank, even if you have to feed a multitude.

This is comfort food every which way you think about it, because it's even easy to prepare. I soaked a lb bag of peas overnight in cold water and drained them. I sauteed two very large chopped onions and six minced garlic cloves and a chopped roasted Poblano pepper in corn oil imbued with 2 tsp. chipotle chili powder and 1 tsp smoked Spanish paprika(trying for the smokiness of ham), plus 1/2 tsp ground cayenne for heat. Once the onions were translucent, I added 3 very finely chopped celery stalks, 2 tsp ground black pepper and the peas, blending everything in the pot. I poured in 4 cups of vegetable broth and 5 cups of water, added a tbsp salt, and brought everything to a boil. Then I put the burner on simmer, covered the pot, and went onto other things.

I came back in about 45 minutes and chopped a bunch of collard greens into small pieces. I threw them into the pot along with maybe 3 cups of rice (I didn't measure), stirred everything up, covered the pot again, left it on simmer and went about my business. Again, I came back in 45 minutes and there was "hoppin' John." I adjusted the seasonings to my taste, which is peppery and salty, and got ready for the potluck.

I have to confess though, I kept interrupting myself to go back to the kitchen, for another and yet another spoonful. Those lucky peas were addictive. America, I'm doing my bit for prosperity. Et tu?


Sunday, December 25, 2011

Another life saving gift

In case I haven't given enough reasons for the urgency of shopping at and supporting your local farmers' market, here's a last minute holiday gift. It's from the national Environmental Working Group. Their newly revealed "dirty dozen" are the "fresh" supermarket ingredients most likely to be toxic due to pesticide contamination. With the list, the EWG urged Americans to purchase these items elsewhere, hopefully labeled organic. The safest "elsewhere" is of course your local farmers' market. Happily, many if not most of these items are readily available there.

Here's that dirty dozen in the order of toxicity:
Bell Peppers

Note how most of these items are the highly touted must-eats for a strong body with good health, foods we tend to eat every day. So if you are shoveling in supermarket fruits and greens, you may be piling up pesticides inside your body. Going to your local farm or farmers market should be a New Year's resolution, for it could be a life-saver in the years that follow.

A delicious and nutritious 2012 to all.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Coming In From the Cold

The US Department of Agriculture is saying that winter farmers' markets are now sprouting in great profusion. In 2011, there were 38 percent more than in 2010, which means 1,225 instead of just 886. According to USDA, winter markets now represent 17% of all farmers' markets and they are growing because, " consumers are looking for more ways to buy locally grown food throughout the year."

New York state has the most winter markets, followed not surprisingly by California where winter in many regions is the equivalent of early fall or late spring everywhere else. Massachusetts is 8th on the USDA list leading newcomers Virginia and Michigan.

The great indoors often gives winter markets a merrier atmosphere than summer versions, a shopping party with music and hot cocoa or coffee. They can be even more colorful too as fruits of the land are replaced by fruits of the hand: knitted hats and scarves, candles, lotions and potions, pottery, leather goods, quilts, potholders, stuffed animals and all sorts of joyful craft are there for the harvesting.

And the eat goes on. It's no surprise that winter markets are the best source of farm fresh eggs, milk, yogurt, cheeses and meats. Or that you can find handmade breads, smoked fish, jams and pickles, pies, maple syrup, honey and winter squashes. What
is amazing and getting ever more so is how the farmers bring from the cold a variety of fresh greens, herbs, and sometimes even root vegetables.

In other words, winter markets are all the rage because they really are super markets.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

More Gifts from the Farm and Market

It's still not too late to create a few season's eatings from the bounty of the farmers' market, not if that's where you get bread. With bread you can make a supply of croutons, crackers, crunch bread and Christmas canapé supports that can come in very handy and end being greatly appreciated.

Tasty croutons--butter, garlic, herbs, oiled--can last a long time in a tin and be an uplifting gift to most winter salads or soups. And they don't necessarily have to be those perfect squares that come processed and packaged at a high price. Fine, if you want to cut precise squares out of your bread, no problem. But you can, say, also thickly slice a day old baguette and once it's baked, break it in half. Or you can cut bread sticks.

For croutons, if you want buttery, melt 1 1/2 tbsp for each loaf of bread. If you want buttery and garlicky, mince three medium cloves to the butter. If you want peppery, blend in some freshly ground black pepper. And finally add a pinch of salt. Now brush this mix all over the bread pieces on all sides and put the bread in a single layer on a baking sheet. Bake at 275 degrees until the croutons are uniformly crisp and hard, anywhere from 40-60 minutes. Cool and pack in tins. (My measurements are approximate.)

If you prefer olive oil and herb croutons, or olive oil and garlic, put 2 tbsp olive oil in a shallow bowl. Blend in 1 tsp dried thyme, 1/4 tsp celery seeds, 1/8 tsp ground coriander. If you want to add garlic with or without herbs, mince up 2 cloves and stir them in. Put the bread pieces in the bowl to coat them with this marinade. Then spread them in a single layer on a baking sheet and bake at 275 degrees until uniformly crisp and golden. Cool and pack in tins. (Measurements are approximate.)

To make crackers for cheese, you will need a baguette. Cut this in slices as thin as you dare. Then brush the front and back of each with olive oil. Once the bread is moist, you can if you like flavor the cracker. Sprinkle on one side a pinch of poppy seed, or a pinch of Fleur du sel, or a pinch of cracked black pepper. You can even brush on fresh lemon juice with the olive oil for a different taste. Or for a truly olive taste, you can blend about 1/4 tsp black olive paste into the olive oil before brushing it on. Place the prepared crackers on a baking sheet and bake at 275 degrees until they are uniformly toasted: crunchy and golden brown. Leave no soft spots please. Pack in a tin.

To make what we used to call "crunchy bread" growing up because my grandparents liked to eat it, you need a rectangular loaf of white bread thinly sliced. All you have to do is put each slice on the baking sheet and bake at 250 degrees for an hour or two until the bread is hard and lightly brown. This is the original melba toast or Zweiback, which means "double baked bread." It makes a magically delicious breakfast slathered with fresh farm butter sprinkled with coarse salt, or cream cheese with a light coating of quince paste or apricot jam. It's also good for someone ailing to dip into tea, for teething tots, and for travelers.

To make Christmas canapés, get a rectangular loaf of sliced bread and get out your Christmas tree cookie cutter. By cutting one up and one upside down, you should get two "trees" out of each slice. Bake them in a single layer on a baking sheet for 30 minutes or until they feel firm to the touch. Now you have the base for a green Christmas tree canapé that can be made several ways. One is to cover the "tree" with a thin layer of fresh pesto and then to decorate it with garlands made of those thin little pieces of pimento that come in the very small glass jar. Another is to make a paté from maybe 1/3 cup creamed or soft ricotta cheese, a minced garlic clove, freshly ground black pepper and 2/3-1 cup of minced fresh parsley or cilantro--enough herb to turn the paté green. Decorate this "tree" with slices of olive hung like balls. Serve these immediately.

And finally, here's a shout out for a really great gift to us all: Jim Gerritsen of Aroostook County, Maine.

This farmer, who grows potatoes, corn and wheat, is president of the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association, a national organization that encourages resistance to big agriculture’s control of seeds for farming. He went from Aroostook to Zuccotti Park to Occupy Wall Street as part of Food Democracy Now. “I have not spoken to one farmer who doesn’t understand the message of Occupy Wall Street," he told a New York Times reporter, "that message that so many people keep saying is nebulous. It’s actually very clear. Because of business and corporate participation in agriculture, farmers are losing their livelihoods.... Metal prices are high, so we’re paying higher prices for farm equipment — like $200,000 for a tractor,” he said. “And the price of food in supermarkets is higher than it’s ever been. So, while farmers are hanging on by their fingertips, consumers are paying through the nose. The money that gets made in between is going to companies, and the government isn’t doing anything about it. We have fifth- and sixth-generation farmers up where I live being pushed out of business, when all they want to do is grow good food. And if it goes on like this, all we’re going to have to eat in this country is unregulated, imported, genetically modified produce. That’s not a healthy food system.”

Give your local farmer the gift of a living this holiday season.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Joy Preserved

I've just shipped off the annual Season's Eating packages that my friends so anxiously await. Although they have more than everything, a little jam and some blueberry chutney, a jar of pickled asparagus, dried herbs, a small tin of chili roasted pumpkin seeds, a jar of honest to Maine maple syrup and some cookies seem to unleash joy to their world. So this is, at least for me, the greatest annual moment of glory for our farmers' markets.

Those packages are the soul satisfying triumph of shopping well done. And my friends get it that I am sharing the love: the love farmers have for their work and the love I have for their food. You just can't overdo caring in today's world. So give homemade food gifts if you can. At this dark time of year, the deep fruit flavor of honest jam, the pungent zing of blueberry chutney, the heat of chili or cinnamon spice brighten a body and soul. And look it this way too: you can frustrate yourself squeezing into crowded parking areas and mobbed malls trying to buy something probably made in China that you imagine somebody here really needs or you can stay home and have some family fun in the kitchen making something you know will be eaten with appreciation--for your thoughtful effort if nothing else.

I like to throw in a small non edible gift from time to time, usually something found at the markets' handicraft stalls--a clever potholder, a handwoven basket, a unique dried flower arrangement. One year it was sheepskin hats. This year, I've been diverted because I couldn't help myself. My gotta have gift is the shoulder strap tote bag for sale at the Museum Shop of the Maine Historical Society on Congress Street in Portland. This perfect shopping bag is emblazoned with the U.S. Food Administration's 1917 (read that: during World War I) words to the wise:
1-buy it with thought
2-cook it with care
3-use less wheat & meat
4-buy local foods
5-serve just enough
6-use what's left

A big thank you to whoever preserved those guidelines! Don't they make the timeliest gift now, nearly 100 years after they were issued?

My cookies, by the way, are ginger filled, because cinnamon, cloves and ginger are the spices known to raise the temperature of the body--a favor in these chilly times. That's why they show up in mulled cider and so many holiday baked goods. If perchance you found cornmeal at a farmers' market and still have some, consider making a cornmeal pound cake or cornmeal, lemon butter cookies. These are delicious without being cloying sweet. Italian baking books can guide you.

If friends are coming over, gift them with a festive, elegant but easy to prepare feast of warm smoked chicken (now at markets) with wild rice. Add pecans and cranberries (dried or fresh) to the rice, and add butternut squash mashed with cardamom and a bit of coconut cream to the plate. Or try making a smoked chicken salad (celery, scallions, currants, cranberries, tarragon) and serving it in a warm, colorful bowl: a hollowed acorn squash that was basted with maple syrup before it was baked. If you're thinking turkey again, remember the heritage ones, the real deal turkeys available at winter markets. Narragansett is the original, and the most popular now. You might also find Bourbon Red, Spanish black or Standard Bronze.

Ben Franklin lobbied for the wild turkey to be America's national bird, finding it more appropriate than the bald eagle. The eagle, Franklin wrote to his daughter, "is a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his living honestly.... He watches the labor of the fishing hawk (ospreys to us); and when that diligent bird has at length taken a fish, and is bearing it to his nest for the support of his mate and young one, the bald eagle pursues him, and takes it from him." But the turkey, Franklin went on, shared its food, and "though a little vain and silly, is a bird of courage, and would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British guards who should presume to invade his farmyard with a red coat on."

And if you haven't had enough apple crisp or pie or even crisp apples, hurry to the winter markets. There's where you'll find the tastiest apples available, and for good reason. A recent article in The New Yorker (November 21, 2012) confirms that when big ag supersizes the harvest to maximize profits, it focuses exclusively on apples that don't bruise when mechanically harvested, sorted and shipped; picks apples long before they ripen to keep a continual supply flowing to supermarkets and despite the damage to taste components, breed for mutations of shiny red because that's how they think we all think of apples. Green or yellow won't tempt us. And quality is not allowed to interfere with quantity in the supply chain. That's why the University of Minnesota wanted to protect its newly patented consumer hit, the SweeTango apple. "When you sell the apples at your farm stand," the head of its fruit breeding program explained: " people know who grew them. But when you sell them to a grocery store, you the grower are anonymous, as far as the consumer is concerned, and that's where quality issues creep in."

Who wants to get quality issues for Christmas?