Thursday, March 25, 2010

So I started another blog

Mostly food-related, mostly unrelated, modest proposals is a collection of internet-y bits that I find interesting, funny, or gross (most of the time, all three).
Check it out.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

All I've been eating for the past two weeks....

Hello, muffin.

It's been quite nice spending two weeks with you and all of your friends.

I'm glad I learned your almond butter secrets; you taste pretty good.

It is time, however, for you to find some new homes.

Anyone want one?
Or twelve?

Better Than The Bakery Cranberry-Nut Muffins

3½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1½ teaspoons double-acting baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
¾ teaspoon non-iodized table salt
2/3 cup unsalted butter, at slightly-cooler-than room temperature
1½ cups granulated sugar
2 tablespoons creamy almond butter, at room temperature
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1¼ cup low-fat buttermilk, at room temperature
2½ cups fresh or frozen cranberries, chopped in half (if using frozen, do not thaw)
1 cup walnuts, toasted and chopped

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and spray a 12-cup muffin pan with cooking spray. Spray the top of the pan as well as the inside of the cups.

Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt into a medium bowl. Set aside. Cream together the butter and sugar on medium speed of an electric mixer until lightened in color and well mixed, about 2 minutes. Turn off the mixer and add the almond butter. Return the mixer to medium speed and cream until combined. Add the eggs one at a time, continuing to beat at medium speed until smooth, about 45 seconds.

Gently fold in 1/3 of the flour mixture, followed by 1/3 of the buttermilk, until the flour just barely disappears. Fold in another 1/3 flour and then 1/3 buttermilk, and repeat once more, again, just until you can no longer see the flour. Do not over mix. Gently fold in the cranberries and walnuts just until incorporated.

Spoon the batter into the muffin pan, filling each cup so that it mounds slightly over the top of the cup. The batter should fill 12-18 muffin cups, depending on the size of the cup.

Bake 40-45 minutes, or until the tops are mounded, smooth and deeply golden brown, rotating the pan halfway through the baking time.

Remove pan to a cooling rack. Let the muffins cool in the pan for 15 minutes to set, and gently remove to a cooling rack for another 3-5 minutes. Eat while still warm.

Happy Spring

I don't know what was up with those freak snow flurries the other day, but I think it's now safe to say that spring is springing here in Atlanta.

The major farmers markets open in a couple of weeks, but for now, get yourself to Decatur or Morningside and make a giant salad!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Southern Manners

In my valuable minutes between batches of granola and batches of cran-nut muffins, I’d like to talk to you about something that is growing increasingly important to me, as my time in the South grows longer like the daylight. I knew leaving Portland, aka farm-to-table Mecca, aka foodie paradise, aka blogger wonderland would necessitate a change in my eating, shopping, and even writing habits. During my time on the left coast, I assumed I could always know from which state, or even which city or town, my pear, broccoli, and mushrooms came. I assumed I could always find responsible meat, even if it cost an arm and a leg. I assumed I could always eat locally, even down to the flour in my cookies and the oats in my granola.

Jesus I was spoiled.

I can still find much of the same produce here in Atlanta that I bought in Portland, but 2500 miles is a long way for Oregon pears, Washington apples and California kale to travel before hitting my plate: a far cry from local; a far cry from sustainable, even if the produce is organic. Of course, Atlanta has farmers’ markets, just like Portland. But at last count, Portland has 16 operating farmers’ markets, excluding the other 23 markets in the metro area. Atlanta? It has 16. For the entire metro area.

I don’t mean to complain, or wax poetic about a city that gets more than its fair share of fanatical press. I just mean to point out the challenges of living in a city a bit less connected to its agricultural blessings. Georgia is a largely agricultural state, and Atlanta is beginning to see much more local produce, meat, cheese, and specialty products now than just five or so years ago. The problem is, all of these great foodstuffs are isolated in specialty shops, expensive restaurants, and our, mostly small, and mostly competitive, farmers’ markets. Our grocery stores, even Whole Foods, are saturated with Mexican and Californian produce, and the names of these far-off origins are hidden or non-existent on the store shelves. Consumers on a budget or with strict shopping schedules (as much as I hate to admit it, many well-intentioned people just can’t make it to a farmers’ market on Wednesday afternoons or early enough on Saturdays to catch the good stuff) have little choice but to buy their citrus from California, even with excellent choices available from Florida, or their apples from Washington, even while Southern heirloom varieties are beginning to make a comeback.

In the past few months, I’ve been doing my best to discover or re-discover the alternatives. Because there are sustainable eating options in Atlanta, and they don’t all break the bank. It just takes a close eye and a willingness to explore new stores.

In the spirit of Southern hospitality, here’s a list of where I like to do my shopping:

Your DeKalb Farmer’s Market
Not a farmers’ market at all, this warehouse of a store is more of an international grocery metropolis. They don’t pay much attention to seasonality, but they do a great job of listing from where every product was sourced and stock more organics than Whole Foods. They’ve begun to carry cage-free eggs (I know, not the same as true free range, but it’s a start), organic milk from grass-fed cows, heritage pork and grass-fed beef. They also carry a huge variety of grains and flours, many from Kentucky (it’s not super local, but at least you know that it’s from the Southeast). Oh, and everything is dirt-cheap.

Whole Foods
Okay, so I talk a lot of shit about WF, but they have been stocking more local products lately. I’ve found local Johnson Farms milk for only $5.99 a gallon (many of the smaller stores who carry their milk charge upwards of 5 bucks for just a ½ gallon), Atlanta Fresh yogurt, and local free-range eggs for decent prices. They’ve also begun to rate the animal-friendliness of their meat producers, and the meat guys are totally willing to ask any questions about the source and raising practices of all of the farmers. Bonus points? They now carry local beef, pork and cute French-style chickens. The chickens get a 2 (out of 5) on their ethics scale, and the both the beef and the pork get a 4. I’ve tried the pork, straight up and in sausage form, and it’s pretty good. They also carry a bunch of local beers, and some of the stores stock Sweetgrass Dairy cheese. Sometimes you can find local produce, but it’s still pretty Cali-saturated.

Decatur Farmers’ Market

I haven’t been here in a while; my nanny job keeps me busy during their Wednesday afternoon hours, but you can find some awesome greens, pickles, salsas, bread and mini-pies most weeks. It’s still pretty small, but it has grown every season, and I’m sure it will be pretty excellent once spring produce begins to come in full force. Also, I just saw that they'll be expanding to a Saturday market in addition to the Wednesday market, beginning in May (yes!!).

Morningside Farmers’ Market

You’ve got to get here early on Saturday mornings; lines begin to form way before the 8 am opening time. Prices tend to be higher here (because of the neighborhood?), but, man, I’ve bought some beautiful vegetables on my visits. A couple of the farmers sell eggs, and there’s a meat guy there most weeks (I haven’t tried these proteins, but I’m sure they’re good).

Alon’s Bakery
When I get done at the Morningside market, I hop across the street to my favorite bakery since … forever. Alon’s has grown considerably since we first started buying their cookies when I was 6 (?). They make several varieties of hearth-style breads, decadent pastries (the mini-cookies, in oatmeal raisin, chocolate chunk, and double chocolate are, um, the best?), and stock a few different local cheeses amongst the European selections. They also carry Johnson Farms dairy products, Atlanta fresh, and local eggs, but these all carry a hefty price tag.

Sawicki’s Meat, Seafood, and More

This one-woman powerhouse of a store carries local eggs and dairy, as well as local and specialty meats and seafood. You can also ask for just about anything meat-wise and she’ll order it for you.

Pine Street Market
Housemade sausages from local pork? I think yes. Plus the owners are totally cute.

The Mercantile
It’s a bit farther from my house, and they stock a lot of the same products as Alon’s, but the cheese monger is more friendly, and super knowledgeable (and they have samples!).

Where do you like to shop in Alanta?

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Yogurt Trials

Lactobacillus Acidophilus.
Streptococcus Thermophilus.


Music to my ears.

The key to my lactose intolerant heart.

Yogurt and I have a close relationship. In fact, if I were to calculate the cost of my yogurt consumption over the past, oh, 23 years, it would surely outnumber the money I’ve spent on any other relationship by some absurdly significant amount. I spoon it over granola and mix it into biscuits for breakfast, dollop it on soup for lunch, and dash it with cinnamon and honey for dessert. I eat it frozen, stirred, lumpy; full fat, non-fat, goat-fat. As long as it isn’t full of flavorings and or soymilk, I’m game. It was only a matter of time until I tried to make it myself.

I’ve read enough and heard enough (my mother has fantastic stories about her hippie days and electric-blanket culturing) about yogurt creation that it just seemed like a no-brainer. Heat milk, cool it a bit, add yogurt, and stir? Easier than high-school chemistry.

Or not.

For my first batch, I sought out the best local milk I could easily get my hands on (Perhaps one of these days I will get my hands on some raw milk for my “pet,” but such delayed gratification is just not in the cards right now). I had been enjoying Atlanta Fresh Yogurt, and a little research revealed the source of their dairy: Johnson Family Farm, who luckily sell their milk retail just ¼ mile from my house, at Sawicki’s in Decatur. I snagged a half-gallon of whole milk and brought it home to my lab/kitchen.

I’ve read that larger brand yogurts make better starters than artisanal creations because they tend to contain a larger number of precious cultures, and thus yield a more consistent product. We already had some Stoneyfield Organic non-fat in the fridge, so I used it for my first batch.
The heating and cooling steps seemed straightforward—the first recipe I found directed the cook to heat the milk to 180-190 degrees and then cool to 115 to 120 before adding the starter (2 tablespoons per quart). I was careful to monitor the temperature during these steps, and then placed the mixture in a 1-quart mason jar wrapped in kitchen towels. I then stuck the whole thing in my oven with the oven light (but nothing else) on for four hours. After this period, the “yogurt” was pretty viscous—kind of like ooblek—but certainly not yogurt textured. However, the directions specificied “setting time” in the fridge, so I figured this would lead to the desired consistency.

Um, nope.

Whether it was the too high heating temperature, non-active starter, too short culture time, or just the milk, this never became yogurt. It tasted great: fatty in the way that only whole milk can be, with a distinctive tang upfront. I just couldn’t spoon it on to anything, and it dripped and oozed and slimed its way all over the counter every time I tried to eat it.

But, damn, this milk was expensive. Not to be wasted.

Hence, the ice cream maker.

Another snowstorm and a freezer full of other cartons of frozen decadence notwithstanding, I was determined to create something edible and worth the effort (and hopefully yummy). But this yogurt was totally cursed. Manufacturer’s directions are there for you to read, people. Ice cream paddles will not fit into the container once the mixture has started to freeze. All milk mixtures generally make ice, no matter how long and hard you churn. And these icy mixtures will freeze into a hard block when there’s not enough sugar or fat to keep it spoonable.

I like to think of my yogurt ice block kind of like a Dairy Queen Blizzard: it won’t fall out of its container when you flip it upside down. And scraped on top of raspberry sorbet, the ice eventually melts into a creamy sauce that tastes pretty good.

But it’s still not yogurt

So I tried again yesterday.
This time, I bought less local but still grass-fed and organic milk (vat pasteurized!) from the Dekalb Farmer’s Market and chose Danon low-fat yogurt as a starter. Urged on by different directions, I lowered the initial heating temperature to 170 degrees, let it cool all the way to 108, and mixed in a full ½ cup starter. I followed the same swaddling/oven-light culturing strategy, but I left it in incubation for almost 6 hours.

The result? See for yourself:

It’s still not perfect: I’d like it to be tangier, and I could probably push the incubation up to 7 or 8 hours for a firmer product. But this will do for today’s, tomorrow’s, and possibly the next day’s breakfasts, snacks, and desserts. And there’s no ice cream maker to clean.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Best Kind of Saturday

As a once again very busy underemployed jack-of-all trades, I have learned to value the long Saturday afternoons I now have wide-open-free for experimenting, crafting, stirring, tasting. The best of these Saturdays, shining bright after an endless week of carpooling and 30-minute meals are filled with some variation of the ultimate trifecta: pie, granola, and ice cream.

The pie: a sour-cherry confection, baked for my cousin’s 21st birthday (perhaps the ultimate hang-over cure?). I started with a double crust pate brisee from Martha,* and mounded a precariously high pile of canned (uh, I know, not the best, but hey, this was the request) sour cherries mixed with a tablespoon of cornstarch, ½ cup-of sugar, ½ teaspoon vanilla and a pinch of salt (next time, lemon juice!). The top crust fell apart a bit upon its careful placement, but hey, that’s what “rustic” cooking is all about.

The granola: my adaptation of Orangette’s adaptation of Nigella Lawson’s breakfast blend. It’s got the usual suspects—oats, nuts, honey, cinnamon—but is laced with applesauce, unsweetened coconut, and brown rice syrup, the secret to crunchy clusters without corn syrup. The recipe is super-flexible, so, at least in my house, no two batches are quite the same. Sometimes I add molasses, sometimes I add sesame, sometimes it’s flax seeds. Each adds its own magic.

The roasting process (especially if making a double or triple batch) can take quite a while, especially in my parents’ tinier than tiny oven, but there is seriously nothing more therapeutic than slow, routinized stirring, tossing, and tasting. And with this winter aiming to be the longest, coldest winter, um, ever, sticking by a hot stove all day is pretty freakin’ great. Once finished, this granola is worlds away from anything you can buy at the store, flavor-wise, money-wise, and health-wise. I eat it most mornings with yogurt, some kind of fruity topping, and occasionally mixed with Flax Plus.

The ice cream: left-over from my grandmother’s 78th Sundae birthday party. The ménage a toi of chocolate, vanilla, and mint-chocolate chip is particularly good topped with coconut, chocolate sauce and a cherry.

*Try as I might to convince myself to try a new recipe, like the supposedly foolproof Cook’s Illustrated vodka-laced pastry, I just can’t break with habit. This crust may be a bit finicky during humid weather, but it is crumbly-flaky in just the way I like it, and melts on the tongue in a way M&Ms can only dream of.

Oh, and a big Verdant Kitchen P.S. I prepared a trio of dips and crackers for a CDC party last week. Check it out over on my other webpage.