Saturday, June 23, 2012

Arizona to Little Compton: Blog Limbo

I tried to plan my packing for RI around the blog, I really did. Now that I am too far away to drive back and forth without eating up two weeks, I ship a few boxes to Little Compton in advance, timed so they will arrive a day or so before I do. Into the boxes go the heavy clothing—the sweatshirts and cotton sweaters for walks on a windy beach, the rubber shoes for walks in dew-soaked early-morning fields—the farm dresses and other country clothes, and the stuff I will need to get some work done. That is the tricky part—deciding what can be packed and sent off weeks in advance that will not be needed in the meantime, and what has to be held back to bring on the plane.  Fear of forgetting a certain item can color one’s judgment, and regret invariably sets in a day or so after dropping the boxes off to UPS, when you suddenly need something that you were a little too worried about leaving behind.

This year it was the cable for transferring photos from my camera to my computer. I like to use a camera rather than my iphone for blog photos, although in practice I tend to use both. I packed the cable in one of the boxes because I didn’t want to forget it, and now I can’t transfer the photos I took for the blog this week. The cable from my old camera (this one is new), doesn’t fit; it has a microscopically different shaped plug that goes into the camera. Really, Olympus and Canon, get with the program.

So I can’t show you the peach and raspberry tart I made with the really nice Arizona cling peaches I bought at the farmer’s market this week. They were, like the strawberries a few weeks ago, from Yuma, and they were drop-dead gorgeous: juicy, sweet, tender. That’s them mixed in with other local produce (fabulous tomatoes); the growing season is in full swing here. I’ve been drawing down inventory prior to leaving for the rest of the summer, and made roughly this peach pizza recipe, but used a butter-lard pastry I had in the freezer and added 6 ounces of raspberries (they’ve been incredibly cheap). This was the most psychedelically colorful tart I’ve ever made: the bright orangey peach slices and the brilliant cerise of the raspberries (odd how the names of two different fruits seem more descriptive here than their own). A picture is worth many words, so I will post one when I am reunited with my camera cable. See you in LC.

P.S. I just noticed that a post from a few years ago on grassfed beef has appeared as a post for today. Haven't got a clue...

Grass-fed Beef: Sustainable and Satisfying

When I moved back to Rhode Island from Philly in 2006, one of the things I was worried about was: will I be able to get grass-fed beef?? Counter-intuitively, despite the fact that I lived smack in the middle of Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, about as urban as you can get, I could literally walk outside my door and have my pick of meat and poultry purveyors—at least, on Tuesday and Saturday, when the farmers came to the Square and set up on the sidewalk. Although I was moving to a farming area when I returned to Rhode Island, I just wasn’t sure that Little Rhody, always a bit behind the times in that endearingly provincial way, would be up to speed.
Not to worry. Turns out that Don and Heather Minto of Jamestown have been raising grass-fed animals since 1980. The source of that commitment is a fervent belief, grounded in knowledge and experience rather than ideology, that grass-fed is just plain better, in every way: better for the land, better for the farmer, better for the animals, and better for the customer. I can certainly attest to the latter. I find grass-fed beef to have a cleaner taste and richer flavor than conventional beef, and to have superior texture and cooking properties, whether I am making rib eyes or hamburgers. In particular, it yields far less water than meat that has been frozen for long periods in order to make its way from industrial production to your supermarket.
While grass-fed beef is generally leaner than industrially raised beef, it is not, as I have heard some complain, either gamey-tasting or tough. One key is in the cooking: grass-fed beef, in my experience, should be cooked at slightly lower heats, for shorter times, than conventional beef. But the taste of grass-fed beef may depend greatly on the way it is raised. Don Minto’s beef is completely grass-fed and grass-finished on small lots. Through a system of adjustable fences, he moves his cattle to a fresh paddock every day, so that they are always eating new, nutrient-rich grass, and the pastures they’ve eaten on can re-grow for a future, high-quality feeding. Some farmers keep their cattle on a single large lot, where they eat grass of ever-diminishing quality, and may be put out on grass only prior to slaughter or other portion of their time. Don’s animals are never in a barn; they live in the fields, and they are healthier and happier for it.
Another element in achieving optimal, and consistent, taste and texture is the breeds themselves. Don learned this after doing everything possible to improve the grass quality, and
still being unsatisfied with the meat. Realizing that the cattle themselves were the weak link, he has steadily converted his herd over to Red Devon cattle, a heritage breed that is one of the oldest breeds of beef cattle, and considered to be one of the best for grass. Since their arrival on American land, most likely with the earliest settlers, breeders have been improving their genetic characteristics as hearty, economical, ideal grass feeders, as have farmers in other parts of the world where grass feeding makes sense. The practice of increasingly selecting and breeding for the right genetic characteristics to do well on local grass and yield the qualities consumers want from their beef is considered by today's farmer's, including Minto.
That is, Minto is matching his animals to the land. He is convinced that this approach is the future of agriculture, for several compelling reasons. First, it is sustainable, using far less energy, and far less labor, while simultaneously improving the land through sound management practices. It eliminates the risk of diseases such as mad-cow. It yields healthier meat: high in omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid, lower in calories, total fat, and saturated fat. And of course, it tastes better, like the beef of your childhood (because it is the beef of your childhood). There’s demand for it.
The combination of attractive economics to farmers and attractive benefits to consumers is producing what Don calls, no pun intended, a grass-roots movement away from industrial toward sustainable local animal farming. Don is instrumental in this, through speaking and selling his special stock both here in Rhode Island and around the country. Sale of the meat itself remains local. The Mintos sell their beef at farmer’s markets, and off-season through direct order, under the label Conanicut Island Grass-Fed, allowing them to complete that link from the land to the consumer. The markets run until the first weekend in November.
Naturally, the estimated 6,000 head of beef cattle in Rhode Island will never be converted to all grass-fed. And the lack of a slaughterhouse in the state, requiring long drives to Pennsylvania or Vermont for slaughter and butchering (soon to be cut down significantly when a dormant Massachusetts slaughterhouse re-opens), may be seen as a barrier by some farmers to convert to grass-fed production for local sale. Nevertheless, not only Red Devons but also Scottish Highlands and other happy grassfeeders have found homes on Rhode Island fields. There is an expanding and increasingly steady supply of sustainably raised, fine-tasting grass-fed beef, in cuts ranging from steaks and roasts to brisket and burger, and I, for one, am happy.
Clock Burger Rhode Island Style
I am a true carnivore, and while I adore a good steak, preferably a Porterhouse, nothing is so satisfying to me as a good burger. This Mexican-influenced burger was the creation of a former boss of mine, Gary Barret, who moonlighted at a restaurant called The Clock in Monterey, CA, while working in publishing during the week (we were a group of foodie editors, not food editors); I have localized it by using Portuguese Sweet Bread for the roll and a small amount of chorizo in the stuffing. Gary passed away this year, so this is in his honor, as it has been every time I have made this burger since leaving California 22 years ago.
For each hamburger
7 oz. ground beef (not sirloin)
1 oz good-quality Monterey Jack cheese, cut into small rectangular slices or coarsely grated
2 T cooked ground Portuguese chorizo (optional)
1 small roasted and peeled poblano pepper
1 Portuguese sweet bread roll
Mayonnaise seasoned with a little chopped chipotle in adobo (optional)
Through the top, stuff peppers with the cheese and the chorizo, pushing it in with a small spoon. Set aside. Form the beef loosely into a patty about 1” thick; salt and pepper it, and let it stand, loosely covered with wax paper, to room temperature, or at least ½ hour. Grill burger over medium-high heat until medium-rare; depending on your fire and the meat, this should take only 5-8 minutes.
While the burger is cooking, butter and lightly grill the roll. Place the burger on the roll and lay the stuffed pepper on top of the meat. Serve with chipotle mayonnaise if you like.
To roast and peel peppers: Put the peppers on a rack under a broiler, and broil, turning occasionally, until the skin is charred and pucker but not burned. Remove to a plastic bag and steam for a few minutes; rinse under cold water, rubbing off the skin. Gently pull the stem, with most of the seeds, and rinse the inside with water to remove any remaining seeds. Drain on paper towels.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Lemongrass: Citrusy Complement

I imagine that, like me, when you hear “lemongrass,” you think: Thai food. That’s pretty much been the extent of my use of it, anyway. But I’m beginning to change my pigeon-holing of this somewhat odd ingredient, thanks to a new book out on cocktails—as previously mentioned, my latest culinary inclination—by Katie Loeb. Self-described bartendrix and Aphrodite of Alcohol (don’t you love that?), Katie has produced a book that fits more into the genre of cookbook—one of my few true addictions—than any of the other recent, and often laudable, rethinkings of the cocktail book. While others raise the cocktail to the artisan, craft level, Katie brings it closer to the realm of, well, food. Her book, Shake, Stir, Pour: Fresh Homegrown Cocktails, has all the characteristics of a cookbook, too. Her recipes are more fully developed and individually introduced, and are accompanied in many cases by step-by-step technique photos as well as photos of the finished drink. The explanations and overall tone are clear and unpretentious—some of the cocktail stuff lately has gotten a little gee-whiz—and the book itself is attractive and user-friendly, lying flat in its nicely trimmed and designed spiral binding.

I should say that I don’t know Katie. Except that I sort of do, in a virtual kind of way. She is one of the many professionals on the e-gullet forum, a culinary micro-world where the technically ideal and the palatably sublime are in a constant search for perfect balance. And where, I’ve noticed recently, all things drinking-related are starting to gain a curious primacy.  Chefs and alcohol, no real surprise there, but still, an unexpectedly dominant theme.  Apparently, I’ve been sucked in. And can’t believe I never met Katie all those years I lived in Philly, where she presides over the imbibing needs of lucky locals.

Anyway, back to lemongrass and cocktail-making as cooking. Lemongrass is, as its name suggests, a citrusy grass. Its stalks have a kind of sheath, rather fibrous, that should be removed before you slice and, to release the flavor, lightly bruise the centers. You can slit the length of the sheath with the tip of a paring knife or a sharp fingernail to remove it. Lemongrass serves the function of an aromatic, like leeks or garlic, in this case one that is more fruity and sweet, almost perfumey, than pungent and savory. I would not have thought of using it to make cocktails, but a recipe in Katie’s book for Ruby Red Grapefruit-Lemograss Cordial inspired me. Her 50 recipes include classics like grenadine and cocktail onions and, close to my heart and equally opinionated, cocktail cherries (see mine here). Thanks, Katie.

Vodka Sunset

I had both lemongrass and local ruby grapefruit on hand, so the cordial recipe called to me. I made this drink, also with things I had on hand, with a slight adaptation of the cordial recipe (subbing coconut water for some of the called-for grapefruit juice and jasmine water for the rose water, which appears to be lost in my kitchen). I named it for the beautiful glowing color of the cordial.

2 oz vodka
1 oz lemon juice
1 oz orange juice
¾ oz Ruby Red Grapefruit-Lemongrass Cordial from Katie’s book
2 dashes orange bitters (I used Regan’s)

Shake well with crushed ice til very cold; strain; garnish if desired with a twist of orange or lemon.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Desert Strawberries

I was surprised to see true local strawberries, the kind we get for a brief few weeks in June in Little Compton, at the farmer’s market a few weeks ago. Since commercial strawberries have gone the way of tomatoes in recent years—giant mutants, red outside and all white and fibrous within, tasteless, mealy—I really don’t eat them except when they are local and just-picked. This is another way of saying I only eat the real deal. No fake fruit for me.

The berries were from Yuma, of western movie fame. You may remember from seeing either the old or the new version of 3:10 to Yuma (both very good) that the sun is pretty steady there, to say the least: Yuma describes itself, apparently with accuracy, as having “more sunshine than any city on earth.” Strawberries like that. These were fragrant and juicy, and red right through, as a strawberry should be. I’ve always thought that strawberries needed a little cool moisture to set right, so maybe the fact that Yuma is on the Colorado River—yes, rivers do run through deserts—provides just enough to do the trick. Or the farmers irrigate. Whatever, these berries were delicious.

And they were cheap: a nostalgic, like the berries themselves, $2.50 a pint. Had I not been on my way out of town, I would have bought tons and made jam and shortcake . I bought only two pints, promptly ate one out of hand, dipping a few in heavy cream and demerara sugar, and, after briefly considering marinating them for one of my favorite quick desserts, pureed and froze the other. It is all relative, but even here in AZ, we have a kind of winter. There are few more hopeful reminders that spring will come again than taking something berryish from the freezer on a cold winter night. The taste of summer is always something to look forward to.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Rio II: Feijoada and Friends

I just returned from my second trip to Brazil this year, again to speak at a conference on research integrity, an area in which the growing Brazilian research community is making an admirable commitment.  To be able to spend several days with like-minded people is treat enough, but to do so in a beautiful and friendly city like Rio is doubly satisfying.
My colleague Sonia, the energetic powerhouse behind the organization of this multi-city, multi-venue conference, invited all of us presenters into her home for a welcome lunch of traditional Brazilian food. It was a family affair. Her mother (pictured) made the food; her daughter helped serve; and her husband, god bless him, took photos and washed all the dishes by hand in their small kitchen.  

We began with what Sonia described as her “famous ginger caipirinha,” made with honey instead of sugar, and it was both very good and had less cacha├ža  than the ones I had last year in bars—that’s a good thing, as a caipirinha is a potentially dangerous drink.  After some raw veggies and dips we were served the national Brazilian dish, feijoada.  Feijoada is a complete meal; here, ours consisted of white rice; farofa (manioc flour toasted with bacon); fresh pork shoulder; smoked sausage; finely shredded, lightly cooked collard greens; black beans; and pimiento, a hot sauce of onion, parsley, and green chile. For dessert we had a fresh fruit salad and ice cream. All very good, eaten in the open air on Sonia’s balcony.

Here are some photos. We were fed—quite well—at the conference, so I didn’t get out much this time, although did shoot a few photos on the street: the ubiquitous suco stands—Brazil is famous for their fresh juices of papya, coconut, guava, pineapple, mango, and other tropical fruits--; the churro stands with their ingenious needle-like pumps for injecting your fresh-fried churro with dulce de leite or chocolate; a family enjoying a seafood stew served in a roasted pumpkin at Dark Blue (Azul Marine), a favorite Copacabana spot to watch the surfers at sunset. Obrigada, Brazil, for another great visit.