Saturday, November 28, 2009

I am still stuffed

We learned some important lessons this Thanksgiving.

Number one: French press coffee makers do indeed whip heavy cream into glorious submission:

Number two: Homemade appetizers still don't get eaten unless they are a) decor for bloody marys (celery, cheese, olive, sausage, surprisingly appropriate) or b) macarons (espresso and salted caramel, explosively delicious):

Number three: Turkeys cooked in a roasting rack do sometimes look like torpedos:

Number four: Eight Thanksgiving servings are always smaller than eight regular servings. We would all have to eat like this:

(and then some) to eat all of this:

(I still don't know where Ted's sausage-walnut-sage stuffing went. It was delicious, I promise).

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving!

For the first time in three years, I will not be cooking a turkey or manning a kitchen on this, the best of Thursdays. Instead, I am whipping up some winter squash soup, cranberry sauce and a pecan pie, traveling across southeast to eat with a smaller group of friends. Relaxing and somewhat strange, I'm sure that it will still be a deliciously gluttonous evening.

Whatever your plans today, travel safe, eat well, and laugh. A lot.

Thursday, November 19, 2009


Late fall in Portland begs for soup. It pleads for steaming bowls, big spoons and a leisurely dinner spent slurping. It commands us to spend extra time and care in front of a hot stove, stirring, smelling, tasting until we achieve, night after night, the perfect blend of warmth and silky satisfaction.

It’s the wet and the cold and the drafty windows that do it. The chill brings bone-numbing shivers, demanding that we pull out the raincoats and the rain boots and the umbrellas (for the non-natives). It makes us run inside to bars, coffee shops, movie theaters and creative combinations of the three. It causes us to complain, but it also makes us stronger.

Lest we forget, it’s the long months of rain that bring us the red and the yellow of carrots and squash and apples demanding to be transformed into comfort. It’s the long months of rain that bring us rows upon rows of hearty winter greens, the mysterious stalks of Brussels sprouts and the fractal beauty of romanesco.

If we can brave the soaked markets and the puddle-filled parking lots, it is with pleasure that we should take a few more minutes to roast that squash, caramelize that onion and stew those greens, melding all of these wonderful autumnal flavors to create a bowl of goodness more special than even the sum of its parts.

Take first, for example, warm cabbage salad (for which I am eternally indebted to Heidi Swanson):

Bitter, raw, crunchy vegetables take a warm dip in oil, vinegar, raisins and spices to emerge just ever so wilted, ever so sweetened, ever so royal.

Or next, pile warm stewed kale on top of a thick slab of homemade toast and drench with the runny yolk of a just-cooked over easy egg (oh, Orangette, you are so very wise):

Yet my favorite this November has been the bowls upon bowls of winter squash soup. I’ve made it with whatever orb strikes my fancy–pumpkin, butternut, acorn, delicata–stewed with everything from apples to sage to shallots, sometimes with water, sometimes with chicken stock, sometimes with leftover bean cooking liquid. I’ve found that the best soups come from a roasted squash, a single fresh herb profile, a bit of apple and a splash of acidity. The flavor lingers, complex but not overwhelming, and matches perfectly with all of the above.

Roasted Winter Squash Soup
Very loosely adapted from Serious Eats
Serves about 4, depending on sides

1 medium or a couple smaller winter squashes (I like the combination of acorn and delicata), cut in half with the seeds scraped out (save to roast for a snack!)
Olive oil
½ sweet onion, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, minced
about ¼ cup dry white wine
2 apples, on the tart side, cored and chopped
about a 1-inch segment of fresh ginger, smashed with the side of a kitchen knife
1 clove, stuck into the segment of ginger
about 6 cups chicken (or veggie) stock
pinch red chili flakes or cayenne pepper
juice of half a lemon
kosher salt and fresh-ground pepper

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Generously salt the halves of squash, rubbing the salt into the flesh. Place on a baking sheet, cut side up, and roast for about 20-30 minutes (depending on size), until the tines of a fork can pierce the flesh easily.

Meanwhile, heat a good glug (about 1 tablespoon) of olive oil over medium heat in a good soup pot (I use my Le Cruset). Add the onion, sprinkle with salt, and sauté until softened. Add the garlic and sauté for about 30 seconds, or until you can smell it. Add the wine and let it reduce until almost evaporated.

At this point, if the squash isn’t done, remove the pot from the heat. Once the squash is cooked, let it cool just until you can handle it without burning yourself (this has never happened to me…). Gently peel the skin away from flesh, trying not to smash up the soft squash all over the counter (again, never happened…). Cube the squash and add it to the soup pot along with the apples, ginger, clove and stock (I usually just add enough to cover all of the other ingredients. You can always add more back in at the end if the soup is too thick). Gently bring up to a simmer, cover, turn down the heat to low-ish and simmer until the apples are cooked all the way through.

Once everything is cooked to your liking, remove the pot from the heat and (carefully, in batches!) puree in a blender or food processor. (Make sure to only fill up your blender/processor about 1/3 of the way and make sure to blend slowly. You do not want a soup-covered kitchen–trust me. It helps to have another bowl or handy for your pureed soup. If you are lucky enough to have an immersion blender, use it!) After pureeing the last batch, return the soup to low heat. Add chili flakes/cayenne to taste, lemon juice and extra stock if the soup is too thick. Taste for seasoning and add salt if it needs it.

Serve with wilted salad, stewed greens or a grilled cheese sandwich.

Drink a hot toddy. Cuddle.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Meat Beat

I don’t know if you follow foodie news sources with the same obsession…er…rigor… as myself, but if you do, this whole sustainable meat business probably caught your eye. It started a few weeks ago (well, it really started much longer ago, with the likes of Michael Pollan et al, but, ugh, I don’t want to go there) when Nicolette Niman (yes, that Niman) published an editorial in the New York Times arguing, basically, that vegetarianism doesn’t do all that much to help with global warming. She argues that meat can be farmed and butchered sustainably, and, in these cases, the act of producing meat does not contribute much to carbon dioxide and methane emissions. Obviously, she acknowledged the harm that industrial meat farming has on the environment and health and … the list goes on; however, the gist of the article is that you can be a meat eater and a tree-hugger, too.

Not surprisingly, the editorial proffered a flurry of debate in the food press–prestigious and otherwise. Many derided Niman’s claims of meat’s inner innocence and I am sure there are many vegetarian/vegans kicking and squirming at the very thought of responsible carnivores. There is still a lively debate going on over at the Atlantic’s food site, and I recommend that you check it out before tossing in your two cents.

But–what does this have to do with me?

I recently got to write up a short piece for WW on a couple of up-and-coming butchers in the Portland area. Both are making their names for themselves with a badge of sustainability, and both have given me a lot of food (heh) for thought surrounding this issue.

The younger of the two, Berlin Reed, came back out to Portland at the end of the summer after spending a stint working in the Brooklyn (NY) food scene. Most recently, he held the post of butcher at Greene Grape Provisions, a store that seems to be doing a lot right. He basically taught himself how to cut up animals, how to cure bacon (including lamb! bacon! yes!) and how to source the most ethical meat possible. Best part about Berlin, though, is that he used to be a vegan. Militantly. He was so vegan that he wouldn’t even sit next to, let alone have a legitimate conversation with, meat eaters. For him, it had always been an ethics issue. He knew about the horrors of industrial meat production and wanted nothing to do with it.

Once he found good meat, though, his veganism was gonners. His first bite of flesh in 14 years was rib-eye, and he hasn’t looked back. In the last year, he has penned himself The Ethical Butcher, writing a blog, networking with farmers, making insane bacon* and being an advocate for sustainable omnivorism. But all of this is in my story. You should read it.

The part of his story that got left out of editing, and what really got me thinking, was his derision of pescatarians. I know a lot of pescatarians. In fact, most of my vegetarian friends eat fish regularly. I’ve always been a bit confused by that choice, but I never understood why I couldn’t accept it as reasonable. After Berlin and I got to talking, I remembered some images I had seen of shrimp farms in god-knows-where Asia and thought, those look just like the shots of Tyson chicken farms that made me so ill. And then Berlin brought up migration patterns and worldwide oceanic ecosystems and dwindling populations and shipping and … oh yeah, fish and other seafood are just as unsustainable as meat. There just aren’t evil corporations like Tyson for us to shake our fists at. Sure, there is sustainable seafood out there. Programs like the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch do a great job listing safe products, and even give you a really easy color-coded system to check on tomorrow’s future dinner.

Yes, it’s tricky to keep up with fish sustainability. Today’s green light will be tomorrow’s red flag, but really, if you think about it, it’s not that much harder than remembering peaches are not seasonal in December or that there are no winter squash in July. Some seafood (farmed shrimp) will never be sustainable to eat, just like New Zealand kiwis will never lose their giant carbon footprint. So pay attention. If you do choose to eat only fish, do it with the same responsibility you attribute to avoiding meat. Think local. Think seasonal.

Speaking of local seasonality, let’s talk giant Oregon animals. Let’s talk grass-fed beef and heritage-breed pigs.

It turns out, there are way more Oregon ranchers raising these awesome animals than it seems when I walk into New Seasons and look for my bi-weekly meat purchase. Many of these ranchers, it turns out, don’t show up in New Seasons because it is way more lucrative to send their animals clear across the country than it is to wrangle the financial hardships of selling to small local shops. Since USDA regulations require that all meat products sold retail in the United States be slaughtered and processed in USDA-certified facilities, and since these certified slaughterhouses are gigantic and inhumane and few and far between, it is hard for local ranchers to maintain the level of sustainability required to pass muster financially and ethically in Portland’s picky foodie market.

But there’s a loophole. If you sell a live animal to a person for personal use, you the farmer are allowed to slaughter the animal however you choose. This loophole has allowed the formation of what are called meat CSAs–consumers can contact a farmer and request a whole or half animal, which is then slaughtered and processed on site to insure humanity and sustainability. Most of the time, this huge hunk of flesh will get divided among friends and stuck in meat freezers all over town. The problem is, most people don’t know the first thing about getting involved in a CSA like this. And, most farmers don’t have the time to meet potential customers.

Camas Davis is trying to fix this. Since returning from a summer spent learning the craft of pig butchery on a small family farm in France (um, so jealous), she has been working to form the Portland Meat Collective (PMC). By becoming a member in the collective, you will enter into an organized and streamlined version of the meat CSA system. Camas will act as liaison between farmer and shopper, enabling many more people to be involved in the process. In addition, and this is the most awesome part, PMC members will get to take butchery classes with Portland butcher-chefs, learning the best way to break down and eat their animal. This is my idea of a Saturday afternoon.


My take on all of this sustainable meat dialogue is a bit mixed. I am obviously not a vegetarian. I take great care in selecting the meat and fish I do eat, and I feel like I am very aware of the way in which my purchases affect my place in the whole global warming/good health/ethical eating system.

However. The problem I have with the argument that, “yes, meat is okay because there is sustainable meat out there” is that, yes, there may be sustainable meat out there, but it’s not everywhere, and it’s certainly not affordable for much of the country. I can afford to buy expensive meat because I only do it so often and I am only feeding myself. I am also lucky to be surrounded by so much good meat here in Portland. Laurelhurst Market. Tails and Trotters. The Eastmoreland Market. New Seasons. To consumers in, say, Vidalia, Georgia, this is not the case.

I think that we live in an exciting time foodwise. There are so many young people out there who are devoted to Slow Food and organics and locavorism that we really do have a shot at changing the food system in this country. It is starting to change, and I think the poor economy actually helps (of course it’s cheaper–and better!–to eat food grown in your own backyard), but we’re going to need more people out there growing beautiful produce and raising happy animals.

The only way we can get better food more accessible to more people is if we have more people out there growing it. We need more farmers.

With any luck, I’ll be out there doing my part in the next couple of months. Keep your fingers crossed.

*If you have a couple extra bucks, you really should contribute to Berlin’s quest to get his bacon in the Portland farmer’s markets. He’s currently part of a funding program called Kickstarter, which helps young and creative entrepreneurs get dollar bills for their projects. Participants get a certain amount of time to get a set amount of money in pledges. If they meet their goal in the allotted time, they get the money. If not, no dice. In Berlin’s case, if you pledge $20 or more, you’ll get a tee shirt. If you shell out the big guns ($50 or more), you can get the opportunity to design your own bacon flavor and get it named after you.