Tuesday, June 23, 2009

A Taste of Honey

Yesterday, our back yard was hectic with bees, zipping back and forth in the sunlight, turning the air golden and making me briefly and fizzingly optimistic. Bees are indicative of a healthy ecosystem. They provide plant pollination, fertilizing up to a third of the crops we eat. When you look at it that way, they're responsible for a big chunk of our food supply. That's a lot of responsibility resting on those little wings. Without bees, the plants don't get pollinated, there's no vegetables, no fruit, no seeds, no new plants and the whole system ends up in the crapper.

You have read, no doubt, about the current bee crisis. It's called Bee Colony Collapse Disorder, in which deranged bees go out and gather pollen but get lost and can't find their way back to the hive and so perish. First detected in 2007, it's done in a full third of the colonized bee population here and in Europe. It's caused by mites (maybe). Fingers have also been pointed at monoculture, pesticides, dwindling food sources and all of the above. In other words, human interference. This is what we're good at. This is what we do.

While the syndrome originally garnered a fair amount of media buzz (sorry, forgive pun), less attention has been given to its possible cure http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/04/090414084627.htmr.
Maybe because it involves giving bees antiobiotics. More interference on our part. There's the distinct possibility we're addressing the symptom without addressing the whole problem. In his 2008 book A Spring Without Bees, Michael Schacker posits bee colony collapse disorder is an environmental wake-up call, with long-term implications including potential eradication of our species.

This is nothing I'm looking forward to. However, it turns out there are more pressing concerns. My back yard may be healthy, but someone I care about is not.

I have uncharacteristically put some honey in my tea this afternoon because there’s something soothing in its sweetness (wich has a bit of beelike sting, too) and the thick flow of it and frankly, I could use some soothing. Vegans are supposed to have no truck with honey coming, as it does, from animals. Honey, as you know, is made by bees. Bees are animals, ergo. . . .

The official definition of vegan, courtesy of Donald Watson, who created the term in 1944, is a way of living which excludes all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, the animal kingdom, and includes a reverence for life.”

While my occasional honey use would have offended Donald Watson, he wouldn't be able to ding me on the reverence bit. I have no quarrel with bees and clearly, they have no quarrel with me, making themselves at home in our necklace pod and firebush, collards and broccoli. They are welcome and they delight me.

I’ve sliced and diced and rationalized my rare use of honey. I've concluded bees have been pollinating plants back when we were walking on our knuckles. They’ve also been making honey for all this time. This is what they do. You could say they’re a lot more productive and powerful than we are. I have more faith in the bees than they have any right to have with us. And rather than be miffed at us, what do they do? They make honey, which is antioxidant, anti-bacterial antiviral, nutient-rich and delicious. The honey I get is from my community shared agriculture program -- it’s local and organic and I know the source if not the actual bees.

Here is what I know -- all our days are numbered. My beloved friends’ may be countable on your fingers and toes. More about this and more about bees in time, but not now, if you don’t mind. Hug someone you like and if you’re so inclined, eat honey because it’s sweet and reminds us we’re alive.

There’s a little sting, a little sweetness in this super easy summer salad.

Moroccan Carrot Salad

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 teaspoon cumin

1 teapoon smoked paprika

good pinch cayenne

1 pound carrots (about a dozen)

4 teaspoons honey

4 teaspoons lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon salt or to taste

1 bunch flat-leaf parsley, coarsely chopped

Using a food processor, shred carrots. Alternately, show off your knfe skills and chop carrots into matchsticks.

Place in a large bowl and set aside.

In a small skillet over low heat, heat oil and spices, stirring until fragrant, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat.

When cool, add add to carrots and toss. Add honey and lemon juice and season to taste.

May be made up to a day ahead and refrigatored.

Stir in parsley just before serving and adjust seasoning if necessary. Serve chilled or at room temperature.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Food, Inc.

If you eat the Standard American Diet (or as I call it, the Silly American Diet), Food, Inc. Robert Kenner's documentary about America's food industry may be hard to stomach.  Go see it, anyway.  Because we can't be healthy if our food system is sick.

With the help of Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) and Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma), Kenner reveals the handful of corporations, including Monsanto, Tyson and Smithfield, that run our nation's food supply.  Without adequate governmental oversight, they're free to flood our markets with products that compromise our health and the health of the environment every step of the way, from the factory system where they're produced to our tables. 

Much of this I knew.  What saddened me most is that we've become a nation of the silenced, that we feel helpless, that we can't speak out.  But we can.  There's Kenner and there's the Davids he features who face down the Goliaths of the food biz, like one chicken farmer who dared speak out against Tyson, though it meant losing her job and her farm, like the mom who turned food advocate after her son died of eating tainted meat.  If these guys can do it, so can we. We can, as Michael Pollan puts it, vote with our forks.  And our wallets.  

We're spending more on local food, up 49 percent from 2002.  Keep it up.  Buy from your local farmers market. Say no to processed food.  Become part of community-shared agriculture (CSA).  Small steps and conscious acts make a difference.  I believe this.  Because if that's not true, then we're screwed and I cannot accept that.  

Food, Inc. reminds me of the myth of Pandora. What Kenner shows is the world of woe our food system has become.  But there's hope, too.  And guess what? We're it.

For this recipe, I wanted something simple, soulful and sustainable -- to show how wonderful elemental, fresh food can be.  Lofty aspirations, but not much time or ingredients -- a garden full of mint and some walnuts.  From that comes alchemy by way of

Hope for Tomorrow Walnut-Mint Pesto

1/2 cup walnuts
1 cup flat-leaf parsley
1 cup mint
1/4 cup olive oil (another tablespoon or 2 if you like your pesto on the moister side)
1 garlic clove
2 tablespoons lemon juice

Heat oven to 375.  Pour walnuts into a shallow baking pan and lightly toast, for about 6 to 8 minutes.

Pour walnuts and all other ingredients into blender or food processor and blitz for a minute or until smooth.

Makes 2/3 cup.  Amazing atop any fresh vegetable and, according to a happy nonvegan, very good on the Irish soda bread from my June 15 post.

Monday, June 15, 2009

And Yes I Said Yes I Will Yes

"Don't eat a beefsteak. If you do the eyes of that cow will pursue you through all eternity." This isn't me talking or even PETA's latest ad campaign. The line comes from James Joyce's 1922 classic Ulysses.

Ulysses takes place in the course of one day, June 16, 1904, when Leopold Bloom, Joyce's hapless hero walks around Dublin, overhears people on the street like the vegetarian quoted above, meets Stephan Dedalus, gets good, drunk and obstreperous, then comes home to his lusty wife, Molly. And you're thinking, what does this have to do with me?

Tomorrow, June 16, is Bloomsday, celebrated all over Dublin and even on this side of the pond by lovers of literature and hibernophiles like me. Bloomsday features marathon readings of Ulysses and, being Irish in origin, involves a fair amount of beer. That's okay. Beer's vegetarian. Corned beef and cabbage is not. Nor is it Joycean. Leopold Bloom wouldn't have any part of it. He ventures into The Burton, a Duke Street pub for lunch, smells "pungent meatjuice," sees someone "chump chop from the grill. Bolting to get it over," hears a man order "One corned and cabbage" and leaves. "Couldn't eat a morsel here."

Joyce wasn't a vegetarian and neither is Leopold Bloom. In fact, as we learn at the beginning, "Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed foast heart, liver slices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencod's roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine."

Um, no thanks.

Like all great characters in fiction, Bloom has a change of heart. After witnessing the meatfest in The Burton, he heads to Davy Byrne's on Grafton Street, very real and in business to this day. He orders a Gorgonzola sandwich, "a nice salad" and a glass of burgundy. "Mr. Bloom ate his strips of sandwich, fresh clean bread. . . pungeant mustard, the feety savour of green cheese. Sips of his wine soothed his palate." Thus restored, Bloom decides, "After all there's a lot in that vegetarian fine flavour of things from the earth."

Great literature can inspire. Let Ulysses inspire you to go meatless. Celebrate Bloomsday with beer, by all means, but also with "weggebobbles and fruit," as Bloom puts it. "Its healthier." As his wife Molly puts it at the novel's orgasmic conclusion, yes.

Irish Soda Bread

One of Ireland's true culinary treasures, soda bread is greater than the sum of its parts, with an almost Zenlike complexity. The delicate tang of the bread plays off the rustic crunch of the crust. It's so easy that many Irish households make it fresh every day. There's no yeast, so there's no aggravation.

1-1/4 cups all-purpose flour (work in more if necessary)
1 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup oatmeal
1/4 cup toasted wheat germ
1-1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter, softened
1-1/3 cups plain yogurt

Preheat oven to 425.

Grease a 9" pie pan or 9 x 5" loaf pan.

Sift together dry ingredients. Work in softened butter until just combined and the mixture has the texture of coarse crumbs. Using a wooden spoon or your hand, mix in yogurt. Knead just so it all comes together, no more than a minute. Add another handful of flour if dough is sticky. Dough will be thick.

Press into shape in greased pan. Resist urge to smooth dough. Irish soda bread is rustic and not meant to be prettified.

Bake for 30 minutes, until top is brown and crusty. Slice thin.

Gorgonzola Sandwich, Davy Byrne's Pub-Style

1 loaf Irish soda bread, sliced
1 pound Gorgonzola cheese
kickass Dijon mustard
unsalted butter
fresh ground pepper to taste

Butter the bread lightly and add a layer of mustard. Don't skimp here. Bloom doesn't. "A warm shock of heat of mustard haunched on Mr. Bloom's heart."

Lay on lettuce leaves, thinly sliced tomato and cheese. Top with a grind of pepper and another layer of bread.

Serves 4 to 6.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Edgy Veggie Meets Crackerman

Serendipity can happen in the kitchen, with a surprising but happy-making combination of flavors, or it can happen elsewhere, with a surprising but happy-making combination of people. With Crackerman, I got both.

Crackerman, aka Stefan Uch, has Michelin star chef creds and a gorgeous wife, Theresa. Together, they make Crackerman crackers (www.crackermancrackers.com).

Stefan and I met to discuss their crackers, which they're just launching, and wound up talk about everything -- global cuisine, literature, whackdoodle ideas about nutrition, food writers we like, how who you are plays out in what you cook (he's German, I'm mongrel, he purees, I'm into crunchy) and what we believe in.  For Stefan, that's science, his sense of smell and pheromones.  How could I not like the guy?  It was one of those wonderful coming togethers, meeting for the first time yet feeling we'd been friends for ages, realizing we were of the same tribe. 

It was after we spoke I finally tried the crackers -- big sheets of golden seed-flecked goodness, organic, of little yeast, big crunch and big flavor, great to crack apart, hence the name (I'd figured they'd named themselves after the Stone Temple Pilot song  (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tOfmNSHTWaI&feature=related) and excellent as dip conduits.  Crackerman also makes a kickass organic whole bread, chewy and seed-studded, earthy and honest.  

Right now, Crackerman crackers and bread are sold online and at Miami farmers markets. Stefan and Theresa are working to get their products into local markets and beyond.  I hope they make it.  Of all the products I get pitched, this was the softest pitch with the biggest payoff.  Crackerman crackers and bread are as real deal and delicous as the couple who makes them.  I love when this happens.

To mark the occasion, I wanted something that showed off the coming together of bread and vegetables. It could be a sandwich, no brainer-y enough, but I wanted more, a melding of the two, an effortless affinity. So here it is, a Tunisian bread and pepper and tomato salad, freewheelingly adapted from Paula Wolfert's outstanding The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen.  The Italians do something similar called panzanella. It's popular in the Middle East made with pita and feta, tomatoes and cukes, in which case it is called fattoush (eating too much gives you one, says a punnish friend).  

I really like the combination of flavors in this salad, especially with Crackerman bread.  Puffy grocery store bread won't do for this.  It sops up the vegetable juices and turns immediately to mush.  You want bread with oomph and chew, produce deliciously full-flavored and ripe.  

This substantial salad must be started a day ahead, but time does the work, not you.  It employs the lazy roasting technique used in my June 4 blogspot and the final tossing together happens in minutes.  It's best served not straight from the fridge but edging towards room temperature.  This serves 4, but you can double or triple it for a party.  It's luscious, durable and looks impressive as hell.

Tunisian Bread Salad

3 or 4 handfuls of spinach or arugula
2 large ripe tomatoes
1 red pepper
1 green bell pepper
1 serrano pepper
4 garlic cloves
1 teaspoon dried mint (I love fresh herbs, but this goes into the dressing and using dried really works -- a serendipitous discovery)
1 teaspoon caraway seeds
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon cumin
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon capers
1 teaspoon harissa (Moroccan hot sauce) 
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
4 generous slices whole grain or country bread, cubed
kalamata olives for garnish
fresh chopped cilantro and mint for garnish
nonvegans can garnish with 2 hard-boiled eggs, halved
sea salt and freshly ground pepper to fininish 

The day before you enjoy your salad, preheat oven to 400. Tomatoes, peppers and garlic go into a large baking pan, the pan goes into the oven and you let the whole thing roast for 30 minutes, until vegetables are nice and soft.

Remove from oven and let cool.  Chop tomatoes and peppers.  This will let loose a torrent of juice. Save every drop to a large bowl. Mince garlic and place into the bowl.  Place colander atop bowl, fill with the chopped tomatoes and peppers.  Refrigerate overnight, allowing vegetable juices to drain.  Vegetables do not need to be covered.

The next day, take your roasted vegetables and veggie juice from the fridge.  Remove the colander of vegetables and set aside for a few minutes.  To the bowl of accumulated vegetable juices, add dried mint, caraway, coriander, olive oil harissa and vinegar.  Whisk together briefly.

Place greens on a serving platter or in a shallow bowl.  

Lightly and swiftly, dip bread cubes into dresssing, letting the flavor permeate, not the wetness.  Scatter bread cubes on top of greens, arrange peppers and tomatoes on top.   Garnish with olives, capers, chopped cilantro and mint (and for nonvegans, egg halves).  Drizzle any remaining dressing on top.  Sprinkle with a pinch of sea salt and a generous grinding of pepper and knock yourself out.

Next time: And yes I said yes I will yes.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

A la Recherche du Poivrons Perdu

Yesterday involved several deadlines, punctuated by numerous interruptions and emergencies, all of which fritzed me out and put me a couple hours behind.  I'm sure this never happens to you.

The good news was at least I wouldn't have to scramble for dinner.  I had the makings of a Mexican-themed meal -- some black beans that could reheated and two ripe avocadoes ready to morph into guacamole, with the help of some scallions, cilantro, a ripe, red tomato and some chilis from the garden.  I'd also come into some adorable little red and orange peppers I'd planned to do something clever with.  The planning never happened (see first paragraph).  I threw a handful of peppers into a baking pan, added a drizzle of olive oil and sea salt, said via con dios, then bunged the peppers in the oven along with the beans.

Then I forgot about them.  This is my favorite trick.  At work, I am the opposite of ADD, even when trying to multitask.  When I'm working on a story, I forget about everything else.  My friend even gave me a little kitchen timer shaped like a chicken, but I get cocky and think, oh, I don't need it, of course I'll remember, that's the kind of girl I am.  But I don't, and while nothing's ever gone entirely to cinders, pots on the burner routinely overflow. Folks don't mention this when they talk about the beauty of having a home office. 

So I'm at my desk working away on some assignment and suddenly my husband's home and oh, jeez, it's 7:30 already and the beans and peppers have been in the oven for 45 minutes.  

The black beans, fortunately, had a lid on them.  They could be stirred and salvaged, and are most forgiving, anyway.  The avocados, alas, were riper than I'd realized, on the spectrum of avocado green that skews to brown. The guacamole was edible but not lovely.  I was cursing at it and trying to camouflage by adding more cilantro when my husband said, wow, that's gorgeous.

He was not being smart-ass, he was looking at the peppers.  I'd barely looked at them when I yanked them out of the oven, but there they were on the counter, looking like the addictive pimientos de padron we'd had at our neighborhood tapas place a few days ago. They were blackened and glossy with heat and oil, with the true color of the peppers shining underneath.

I bit into one.  It was sweet and smoky and tender and perfect.  It did not, like Proust's madeleine, evoke childhood, but it did remind me of, if not grace, then a certain cosmic and culinary benevolence.  It reminded me life is not always nutty and we don't always have to be running frantic. There is time to stop, time to breathe, time to uncork a racy rioja and eat sweet peppers that come together beautifully and of their own accord.    

Benevolent Peppers 

small peppers, sweet or hot, or some of both, whatever you like
olive oil
sea salt

Throw peppers into a baking pan, drizzle with oil, sprinkle with sea salt, bung into the oven set at 350 and faggetabout it.  For 30 to 45 minutes, anyway.  They will manage without you. More cautious souls can set a timer.  This works, too.

Many times, roasted peppers respond favorably to being sweated, peeled and seeded, gilded with aged balsamic and garnished with a handful of chopped herbs.  This is not one of those times.  This time, there is the moment, the peppers and you, pure and simple and just as you are.  Enjoy.

In the next post -- more about self-cooking, benevolent peppers, plus Edgy Veggie meets Crackerman.