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Thursday, August 31, 2006

Dining Out

It's been great to cook so much this month, but it's also been strange to not eat at restaurants more often: Gahlord and I usually tend to go out a few times a week, for either breakfast or dinner. We did hit the town twice, though, since several area businesses stepped up to the Eat Local challenge by offering dishes that fit within the localvore guidelines. Some of our friends chronicled their field trip to Pizza on Earth in Charlotte, which was by all reports fabulous. American Flatbread (at least their Burlington location; I'm not sure about the Middlebury and Waitsfield "hearths") offered one veggie and one meat special throughout August. Unfortunately, American Flatbread couldn't get local flour in the commercial quantities necessary, and I was being a stickler for details, so I didn't try out their localvore 'za.

Smokejacks_dinner Gahlord and I visited Smokejacks on Church Street for dinner, toward the beginning of the month, and we each got the localvore entrée they've been featuring: a big steak from Laplatte River Angus Farm,  served with grilled tomatoes, zucchini and summer squash, and new potatoes. Our waiter was very helpful in finding out the sources of ingredients, and we talked about local vineyards quite a bit. I felt like a bit of a poser refusing the grainy goodness of the bread basket (not made with local flour), and asking whether the vinegar used in the dressing for a side salad was local (it wasn't, so I didn't get it). But apart from that, the meal was a hit. Everything was delicious. This photo doesn't really do it justice, but here's what my plate looked like halfway through, when I finally remembered to whip out my camera.

The other prepared-local-food offering we sampled was at Viva Espresso in Burlington's Old North End, this Tuesday. They've stocked locally grown peppermint tea all month, and at least one baked goodie per day made with all-local ingredients. Gahlord had an apple-cream-cheese square, and I got a rhubarb muffin. After sampling some of G.'s breakfast in the name of reportage, I can say both items were very tasty, though I found the muffin a bit sweet.

Applecreamcheese Rhubarb

I have to admit I've run out of localvore steam the past few days. I've stuck with the challenge, but my time in the kitchen has been a bit uninspired: I haven't made many new dishes this week. Instead, I've stuck with standby preparations that I've made before: scrambled egg sandwiches, bean dishes, and leftovers from Sunday's corn-on-the-cob grillfest. Most lunches and a few dinners have been black beans with fresh tomatoes, some of the Red Hen localvore loaf, and the remainder of the wedge of Frog City Cheese I opened way back on the first of August (still perfectly OK). On a roll after the caramel popcorn, I did make honey-caramel-covered apple wedges on Tuesday night, and they were very tasty, if tooth-endangering. I just cooked the caramel a bit longer than in the popcorn recipe, and added a bit more salt. Leftovers were twisted into bits of wax paper, as a sort of butter-toffee candy.

Ah, sweet memories. Although today is the last day of the challenge, I'll follow up with a few wrap-up posts tomorrow and over the weekend, before putting this blog to bed. Also, look for an essay on my Eat Local experience in next week's edition of Seven Days.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Honey Caramel Corn

Popcorn_jug_1_2 Popcorn is one snack I've had ready access to all month, because we bought a gallon jug of locally grown popping corn at the Intervale "eat local" kickoff party in late July. I'm glad we did: it cooks quickly, so if you arrive home ravenous, hunger can be staved off long enough to come up with a game plan for cooking an actual meal. Even though we've had it every two or three days, the container is still two-thirds full!

Gahlord and I tried this localvore version of dessert popcorn a few nights ago, inspired by my friend Mandy's tales of homemade junk food. It's easy to make, and really good!  It pays to be a bit careful not to overcook the caramel, but other than that, you really can't go wrong.

Cooking_caramel_1 Ingredients:

— 1/2 cup popping corn
— olive oil and/or butter for popping
— 2 tablespoons butter
— 1/4 cup honey
— salt to taste

Put the honey and 2 T butter in a saucepan on the stove, over high heat. You may want to add a little bit of salt at this point (under 1/4 teaspoon?), especially if you're using unsalted butter. Make sure your saucepan holds at least 5 or 6 cups, since the honey will bubble up quite a bit. Meanwhile, pop the popcorn, and dump it into a big bowl. We have a stovetop popper, and it usually takes about 4 to 5 minutes to cook one batch. If your popping method will take longer, either put the honey mixture on lower heat, or wait until the popcorn's done to cook the caramel.

Pouring_caramel Popcorn in the bowl? All righty. Now, keep stirring the boiling, bubbling honey-butter caramel until it seems thick enough — about 3-4 minutes. I dipped a chilled spoon into it and when it was thick enough to coat the back, I considered it done. Remember, it will harden once it cools. Working quickly, drizzle the caramel over the popped popcorn, scraping out the pan. Toss the popcorn-caramel mixture with two spoons or your hands, until all of the popcorn is evenly covered with caramel.

Popcorn_closeup_1 Better than Crackerjack!
This stuff is pretty great, but I think the one improvement I would make using non-local ingredients would be to add toasted peanuts, almonds and pecans. And maybe a wee plastic prize.

Enjoy! Any leftovers can be pressed into snowball-sized popcorn balls and wrapped in wax paper for later.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Corn on the Cob!

It's been a while since I've eaten corn on the cob that deserved an exclamation point, but this weekend I had it twice. Gahlord and drove to central Vermont on an errand Thursday night, and discovered a great little roadside farm stand at Dog River Farm in Berlin. They sell lots of different sorts of vegetables, including tomatoes, broccoli and beets, but the highlight of their produce array is plump, fresh corn. We pooled all of our cash, bought eight ears, and had them later for dinner. I was pretty hungry by the time we got home, so we had the fastest dinner we could make: new red potatoes boiled in their jackets, corn boiled briefly, and ground turkey from Misty Knoll Farms.

The turkey was frozen into a block, but I put it in a pan over low heat and just kept scraping and stirring until it was cooked. I added butter, flour, and a little Butterworks Farm cream to the center to make a roux, then threw in salt, pepper, and tarragon from our now-overgrown herb garden. It turned out pretty tasty.

Turkey_cooking_1 Dinner_plate_2

The corn was so good I didn't even think about adding butter or salt. It tasted perfect, and each kernel crunched delicately, and deliciously, when bitten. We bought a full dozen ears when we passed through Berlin again yesterday, and had some last night for dinner with grilled buffalo sausage. It makes me happy to think of the leftover ears all cooked and waiting in the fridge: I'll either eat them cold, as-is, or take the kernels off and add them to another black bean salad later this week.

Highlights from this weekend:

— A fragrantly ripe, sweet, local muskmelon as big as my head that we brought to a housewarming potluck party
— Gahlord made two batches of French-style potato salad with warm "Rose Gold" potatoes (rose skins, yellow centers, kind of like a Yukon Gold), scallions, salt, olive oil and rhubarb wine
— A friend gave Gahlord a bunch of gourmet garden produce: dandelion greens, shallots, and fresh flat Roman beans, to sauté into a lovely green side dish
— Our friends Angela and Ben hosted a potluck barbecue at their house, with grilled meats & veggies, and side dishes that included a roasted-beet-and-onion salad, local sauerkraut, beet-lettuce salad, black bean, corn, tomatoes and peaches, plus honey-blueberry buckle for dessert.

There are only three more full days left before the Eat Local Challenge will be over. I won't say there aren't things I'm looking forward to having again, but we have eaten very well this month.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Food for Thought

Is it just me, or does anyone else find this image disturbing? The Champlain Valley Fair opens tomorrow, and one of the featured activities for little kids is the "corn crib," where tots can play in a John Deere-themed ag sandbox full of dried corn kernels:


Maybe it's just because I've had to be careful not to waste food for the past several weeks, but this is distasteful to me. Even if the grain is food for cattle, teaching kids that it's OK to play in something that took time, energy and effort to grow, dry and store — sustenance which could offer continued life to another living being — is a bit weird. What does that say about the value we place on commercially grown grain? Is it so cheap that we can treat it like sand?

Something tells me you wouldn't have seen this at the fair 50 years ago.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Black Bean Ice Cream

This is fun to make. There's a lot of time between certain steps, but if you're doing other things in the kitchen and you don't want ice cream right now,  it's a great side project.

Ice_cream_maker_3 Ingredients:

— 1 cup dried black beans
— 4 to 5 cups boiling water
— 1/2 to 3/4 cup honey
— 2 cups whole milk
— 4 egg yolks
— 1/8 teaspoon salt
— 1/2 pint cream (about 1 cup)

Put the beans in a heavy saucepan with a lid, and cover with the boiling water. Let sit, lidded, for an hour or so, then stir in 1/4 cup of the honey. Simmer over medium-low heat for another hour, adding water if necessary, then turn up the heat and stir the mixture continually until almost all the water evaporates and you have black beans in a dark, heavy syrup. At this point, the beans will hopefully be tender. Pour into a medium-sized bowl and allow to cool.

Scald the milk in the top of a double boiler. Beat the egg yolks slightly in a small bowl, add the salt and just under 1/4 cup of honey, then beat again. Spoon some of the hot milk into the eggs, stirring, then add the entire egg mixture to the milk, and stir again. Continue to stir constantly over gentle heat in the top of the double boiler, until the custard begins to thicken. As soon as it is noticably thicker than water and can coat the back of a spoon, remove from heat. Add the custard to the bean-syrup concoction, and taste it. If necessary, add a pinch more salt and some more honey. You'll be diluting the mixture with cream in a minute, but the honey will mix more evenly with warm ingredients, so it's important to adjust the seasonings now. Keep in mind that things taste less sweet when they're frozen.

Black_bean_ice_cream Stir in the heavy cream, cover the bowl, and put it in the fridge for 4 hours or overnight. One hour before you'll put the mixture in your ice-cream maker, put it in the freezer, checking and stirring once every 15 minutes. Then, make ice cream! Our ice-cream maker is basically a special insulated bucket that stays cold in the freezer, and you affix a plug-in part at the top that attaches to a revolving paddle. I turned on the machine, dumped in the mixture gradually, and the ice cream was done within about 25 minutes. It was still a little soft, so I packed it into a yogurt container and froze it overnight until it got hard as a rock.

Way back in the first step, I scorched the black-bean-and-honey mixture and just rinsed the beans off and continued. I'm sure it affected the taste a bit, but I didn't mind, because to me the end result tasted coffee-flavored.  There's no accounting for taste, though: more than one person at Monday's dessert potluck said the black beans reminded them of chocolate chips. If I made this again, I'd be more careful not to burn the beans, and I'd use a bit less honey. Outside of the Eat Local Challenge, I might use softer and naturally sweeter Japanese red adzuki beans instead of black ones (canned beans would save having to cook the beans).

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Just Desserts

That's what we got last night! Thinking that it might be nice to have a mid-month pick-me-up, my sub-group of localvores in Burlington convened for a potluck consisting solely of after-dinner sweets.

In addition to black bean ice cream, I brought a German apple pancake that my friend Allaire and I made. The dish is basically an egg-enriched batter poured around hot apples fried in cinnamon and honey, then baked quickly in a hot oven. Here's a picture of it before and after baking in the batter:

Cooking_apples Apple_pancake

This version turned out really salty; I'm not sure why, but I guess I may have to adjust the recipe a bit. We substituted blueberry vinegar for lemon juice, to keep it local, and that may have made it taste a bit weirder than usual. I'll try again with this in a few days.

Other, tastier treats on the table included a strawberry cake with honey-caramel frosting (made with frozen local berries), little cups of sweet custard made with fresh corn and topped with a currant-and-blueberry sauce, and an entire watermelon from the Intervale (one of the crunchiest I've ever eaten). Oh, and to cut all of the sweetness there were also tangy, spicy, homemade "quick" dill & garlic pickles, cured in the fridge, and lots of lemon balm tea.

Desserts_1 I haven't really missed sugar this month, partly because there's an abundance of maple syrup and honey. I don't put either in my herbal tea these days, but whenever I want a sweet treat, it's easy to add a bit of maple syrup to some milk for a quick drink. Baking with liquid syrups has also been much easier than I expected. I had been dreading burning every baked item, or having them turn out goopy, but so far cakes and other sweet dishes seem pretty straightforward. The trick is to add a pinch of baking soda, which cuts the natural acidity of both honey and maple syrup, and makes it act more like sugar. Courtesy of my friend Mandy, vegan baker extraordinaire, here's a handy formula for sugar conversions:

Honey: 3/4 cup of honey for each cup of granulated sugar, then reduce the liquid in the recipe by 1/4 cup and add 1/4 teaspoon baking soda. Reduce oven temperature by 25 degrees. Honey tends to make things darker and chewier.

Maple Syrup: Substitute 3/4 cup maple syrup plus 1/4 t baking soda for each 1 cup granulated sugar and reduce liquid by 3 tablespoons. Use a lighter grade if you want to avoid a heavy maple flavor.

I find it's usually helpful to beat the additional baking soda right into the honey or maple syrup before you add it to whatever you're making. They honey will turn an opaque, creamy color, but that's normal.

Frittata_with_beans Oh, I did make that frittata last night, and had it again for lunch today. Here's what it looked like. I think the finger foods made the meal: the cherry tomatoes were delicious, and the raw green beans were so good and crispy-crunchy that I wonder why anyone would ever cook them. Normally I'd spend lots of time prepping and steaming green beans, but if it's not chilly out, now I think I'd rather eat them fresh, by the handful.

Dinner tonight will either be more roast chicken or something else cobbled together from various leftovers. And afterward? Gahlord and I might try to make something Mandy mentioned last night. Localvore carmel corn: popcorn topped with hardened honey-butter. Good heavens.

Monday, August 21, 2006

The Local(vore) News

Just a quick roundup of regional media coverage of the Vermont Eat Local Challenge:

The current edition of the Vermont Guardian has a story by Jen Gilbert of southern Vermont, detailing her ups and downs during one week of the challenge. Her account makes me realize how lucky I am when it comes to locating certain things: Burlington-area retailers and markets are full of local products — wine, dairy, produce, meat — that are easy to buy off-the-shelf for folks participating in the challenge. In a pinch, I can always purchase a key ingredient to complete a dish or a meal — but people doing all of their shopping at weekly farmers' markets might have a harder time. Gilbert also went without salt, oil or spices, all exceptions which I am finding really helpful in chasing away monotony from this month's cooking.

Also, Vermont Public Radio's call-in program, "Switchboard," will be devoting its Tuesday-night show this week (tomorrow, 8/22) to the Eat Local Challenge. It airs from 7-8 p.m., and if you'd like to participate, the number to call is 1-800-639-2211.

Weekend Eats

On Friday night, Gahlord grilled a steak from Laplatte River Angus Farm, along with corn-on-the-cob, plus potatoes, sweet onions and rosemary done up in a foil packet with butter, salt and pepper. We also had a salad of local arugula and romaine lettuce, with no dressing, because I was too tired to bother making any. Naked greens are good for you.

Coffee_cup Saturday's breakfast was very waffle-centric. I accidentally made a passable coffee substitute when I burned some black beans with honey — I just strained out the beans, added some hot water, and voila!  Instant chicory flava. Not sure whether I'd want to recreate the experience, though: the drink was very bitter, and the built-in sweetener made it taste a little weird. I did add milk, but it might have benefited from more dilution with water. Definitely woke me up, though.

As you can tell, I experimented with black beans this weekend. They don't respond to baking as well as the yellow-eye beans from North Hero that we've been eating. Slow simmering on the stove cooks them eventually, but it takes a very long time. Once they were done, we had savory black beans stewed with garlic, which I used as a base for huevos rancheros, along with leftover grilled corn cut off the cob, and some tomato-basil salad left from Thursday's potluck. I liked this way of fixing eggs so much that I had them for two meals in a row.

Roast_chicken Yesterday afternoon I roasted a Misty Knoll Farms chicken with carrots, garlic and a variety of local potatoes. I covered the bottom of the roasting dish with about 1/3 of a bottle of rhubarb wine, another fine local vintage made in Cambridge at the Boyden Valley Winery. I usually add chicken stock to the pan as well, but I think it turned out OK with just wine. Sometime later this week I'll make chicken soup, unless it gets really hot again, in which case I'll freeze the bones for later. I find that I'm calculating meals more closely this month, because making one dish that lasts for three or four meals means I don't have to cook again during the week if I don't feel like it.

Breakfast today was half of a Ginger Gold apple (they're huge!) from Champlain Orchards, cut up, with maple yogurt from Butterworks Farm. I also had half a multigrain waffle from last week's brunch, popped into the toaster and drizzled with maple syrup. I'm excited about the Ginger Golds — they seem very similar to Granny Smiths, an apple I use a lot in the kitchen because they don't turn mushy when cooked. I bought a bunch of these at City Market on Sunday, and German apple pancakes are a definite possibility this week.

Rising_bread For lunch, I had cherry tomatoes with some of Saturday's black-bean-and-corn mixture and the heel of this week's Red Hen localvore loaf. I know we're picking up another Red Hen loaf tomorrow, but I keep baking bread: I happened to have some oatmeal and the dregs of a container of apple cider in the fridge yesterday, so I mixed it up with yeast, then with all-purpose flour, butter, milk and more flour to get a loaf with a much softer texture than last week's sourdough. Here's what it looked like while rising. We'll use this bread to trade or swap for other goodies this week, or else we'll put it in the freezer.

In keeping with my goal of maintaining a spiffy, light-filled fridge, dinner tonight should be a frittata of oyster mushrooms, potatoes, onions and beet greens. I'll make it with egg whites. Those are left over from an egg-yolk custard that became black-bean-and-honey ice cream last night. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the ice cream is also slightly coffee-flavored. (My friends Mandy and Greg are hosting a dessert party later this evening, and that's what I'm bringing. If the taste test goes well, I'll post the recipe tomorrow.)

Friday, August 18, 2006

Getting Lucky

Making_pasta The potluck was fun. About 15 people came over and brought a bunch of different dishes that added up to a well-balanced meal. When I got home, Gahlord was already making pasta, cranking out egg linguine. When we cooked it later, though, it kept sticking to itself, and it ended up kind of like dumplings. G. says he'll try adding more flour next time.

The carrot cupcakes turned out OK. I substituted 1/2 c. of honey and a bit of baking soda for each cup of sugar, and used about 3 T less olive oil to make up for the added liquid. The batter looked really gooey when I poured it into muffin tins, so I was sure they'd end up  all over the oven, but everything worked fine, and they actually turned out far lighter than I'd expected. I frosted them with cream cheese from Champlain Valley Creamery, mixed with maple syrup and some dried ginger. Of course, I forgot to take any pictures of either the batter or the finished cakelets. They got eaten pretty quickly.

Tableshot_1_2 Other stuff I cooked: a slow-oven bean bake, this time with potatoes, onions and curry, and a cabbage/carrot slaw that also contained grated onion, garlic and apple, dressed with salt and cider vinegar. My new favorite drink, of which I mixed up several glasses last night, is a combo of water, cider and blueberry vinegar. Sounds weird, I know, but it tastes like lemonade. Besides cider and maple-flavored milk, other drinks included a jug of wine made by a friend's coworker, a bottle of Big Barn Red from Boyden Valley Winery in Cambridge, and some Egyptian-style blueberry-honey mead my friend Mandy made. (Check out her step-by-step photos!) The mead was good, if a bit fizzy, and definitely tasted of honey. Non-localvores and those of us making the "Drunken Marco Polo" exception also drank beer. In the middle of a conversation, I absentmindedly opened a beer and almost sipped it before Gahlord stopped me. I thanked him later.

Other dishes people brought: tomatoes layered with mozzarella and basil, local chevre to spread on bread, a tomato salad, and watermelon. There was also rice, quesadillas and tortillas for folks not doing the challenge.

I think I want to make ice cream this weekend. Further bulletins as events warrant.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Water Buffalo Mozzarella?

Not exactly Italian, but it's true. Somewhere in South Woodstock, VT, there's a herd of water buffalo, and an enterprising company is making mozzarella from their milk. According to the dairy that makes this stuff, water buffalo milk is whiter than cow's milk because it contains no carotene — the animals process the carotene directly into Vitamin A, so their milk is has a higher nutritional value. It's also thicker, more like half-and-half, and ideal stuff for making mozz balls:


One of the fun things about the Localvore Challenge so far has been seeking out ingredients I normally wouldn't need to look for. I love fresh mozzarella on summer salads, and was happy to find this stuff in the gourmet cheese section at City Market. At $7 a container, it's probably not something I'd usually buy, but given that I made one baseball-sized lump last through six meals, I think it was worth it. It tastes mildly tangy, but not a whole lot different from mozzarella made with cow's milk. If anything, it's a bit creamier, and not as stringy as some other varieties I've sampled. There's very little salt in it, which I like — I'd rather add salt myself, especially if I'm using the mozarella with food that I've already seasoned.

I usually take some scissors and just snip the cheese on top of whatever I want to eat. Some of it ended up on the tomato-basil-garlic salad I made for dinner the other night, but my favorite dish was arugula with beets and onions pickled in vinegar, with mozzarella on top:


Our localvore potluck is tonight, and I hope to try my first cake-bake of the month: carrot-cake cupcakes, with maple cream cheese frosting. I'll substitute  either honey or maple syrup for the sugar: everything else I can get locally.

Kudos to Melissa Pasanen at The Burlington Free Press for picking up on localvores in Monday's Living section. I wonder if she's participating in the challenge, too? Her week's worth of menus sound delectable, and I appreciate how they often use leftovers from a previous meal. It's great that Vermont's largest daily is encouraging people to try eating local for the remainder of the month, even if it's just one meal a day, say, dinner.

Speaking of which, I've got to get cooking!

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