Thursday, January 1, 2015

Entertaining in a Small House

 The holiday season is always a time of reflection and it occurred to me that one of the reasons I love to cook is to feed the people I love.  I go a bit over the top. It's really like a gift from me to them, not a material gift but a gesture.  A way,  I guess of saying you are one of my family or dear friends and you matter enough to be included in my little circle.
     A recent dinner party on the Winter Solstice (Yule) reminded me of how long its been since I blogged.  Attempting five classes while working full time took its tole. I did not have enough time to write for my blog, although the creative cooking, photos and plans kept rolling in my head.  This blog is about holiday or anytime gatherings.  My house is very small. I am forced to keep my largest group to a maximum of 16 people.  Every year my dear friends and a few new ones are invited to feast.   It is most enjoyable to see their interesting and varied personalities mingle.

    The key to entertaining in small spaces is good planning. For my house, I focus on keeping the traffic flow out of the kitchen space which is only 12 x 12 and occupied by the usual stove, fridge, hosier cabinet and my work table in the center.   I learned by trial an error not to use this space for the buffet. It was elbow to elbow chaos that year.  I now set up a buffet on a lovely old library table in the dining room and pull up six chairs to the round table. I scatter groups of chairs in the remainder of the dining room and living room, making sure there are small tables near-by to set drinks and plates.  I fix a dessert table in the living room near the tree, again to keep people moving about and mingling. The beverages are arranged on the hosier cabinet in the kitchen.
An old distressed library table serves as the buffet

I like to display food a varying heights to add interest
An important point to remember is the keep the number of guest realistic to the size of your entertaining space.  I really push it with sixteen but it creates a cozy setting where everyone seems to engage in conversation. 
     Part of my planning process includes preparing as many dishes ahead of time as possible.     Generally I like to have some appetizers out before the guests start arriving, that way I can make sure they help themselves to food and drinks while I do last minute prep and plate up the main courses as more guests arrive. Looking back, planning has made it possible to truly have an enjoyable time at my own gatherings. 

     I am a sucker for beautiful and inspiring cooking magazines during this festive time of year.  My favorite remains Taunton press's "Fine Cooking".  Often I use the fabulous menu ideas for entertaining.  Last winter I made the entire Nordic Feast.  The Roast Pork with current gravy and Spice-cured Salmon turned out so well, friends requested it again this year. Therefore, what follows are our favorites from the Yule feast this year and last. 
  • Spice-cured Salmon with horseradish cream
  • Roast Pork & Red Current gravy (my variation)

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Wild Delights

It is a habit of mine to wake with the birds and the rising sun. I have never been much of  a late sleeper. The morning is the best part of the day by far, especially for writing (or reading). So today I set my pen to paper, sitting on the deck with a good cup of coffee and the birds singing.
     Initially, I wanted to do a post on maple syrup, but time got away on me. Then our unusually late spring finally 'sprung' and I have been spending all my free time outdoors hiking and cycling. Yesterday was spent readying my large containers for tomato, pepper and herb plants. The property I rent is owned by non-gardeners, so I have never been at liberty to dig in a garden or convert the useless lawn to an edible landscape.
     the front yard faces west and is hot and dry, shaded from by a very large maple whose canopy shelters us from the blazing hot summer sun. This is the only area that has a planting space, unfortunately nothing likes to grow there. That is why  I garden heavily in containers. I use two flat, one foot deep containers for my greens (mesclun mixes, kale and Swiss chard).
 I picked these up from Menard's several years ago. I drilled holes in the bottom for drainage and use good quality organic potting mix.  The other very large decorative container will hold my heirloom tomatoes, peppers and herbs.
  This time of year I also delight in  foraging for some of my favorites. Spring brings with it Ramps (wild leeks), Morel mushrooms, fiddle heads and asparagus.
***DISCLAIMER: My blog does not serve as a field guide, merely suggestions on how I use wild foods. Always consult one or more field guides and/or go with an experienced forager. Mushrooms can be fatal and there are many plants that look similar. Take this advice seriously.
     The ramps seemed extra vigorous and the season for harvesting lasts awhile, until the flower heads form and the leaves die back.  I always take only one or two bulb from a clump and move on. Never over harvest an area, be ethical.  Both the bulb and the tender leaves are edible and can be used in everything from salads to cooking. You can also briefly blanch and freeze them.
     Morels have been late this year. I am certain it was the long cold spring.  However the ones we found were clean and vigorous. Morels seem to be nearly everyone's favorite wild mushroom and folks like to keep their favorite picking spots secretive.
Stumbling upon a group of morels in an unexpected place, such as one of the city parks is half the fun. Or having an epic crash on your mountain bike and finding some! Makes the scrapes and bruises so worth it (extra bragging rights).
     Stinging Nettles are at tender-prime right now. You must harvest them with gloves.I use the tender shoots and you can  harvest them all summer by taking the tender tips and leaves. They must be cooked thoroughly but not mushy. Excellent in soups, stews and sautes, they serve as a summer-long useful and nutritious green.
  I am one of the few loonies who will unclip from my bicycle and run for asparagus growing in ditches and fence lines. Then the problem of transporting it home comes into play. Snapping them off where they get tough makes them 'almost' small enough for my bike bag but then they get tossed with some pretty yucky bike tools and melted snacks.
Because not all my favorite are in season, I have only included the ones I am currently cooking with. Here is the recipe run-down:

  • Morels in Alfredo Sauce over angel hair pasta
  • Wild Leek Kimchi
  • German potato salad with Ramps
***DISCLAIMER: My blog does not serve as a field guide, merely suggestions on how I use wild foods. Always consult one or more field guides and/or go with an experienced forager. Mushrooms can be fatal and there are many plants that look similar. Take this advice seriously.

Monday, April 7, 2014

A Foodie's Dilemma - Eating Healthy on a Budget

 The Foodie’s Dilemma
          I still have a hard time believing folks who claim that it’s more expensive to eat healthy than eat crap-food. You can’t convince me. My observation and well documented reports point the other direction. It is more expensive to purchase and consume processed food and eat from fast-food restaurants, ESPECIALLY when you add up the invisible, long-term health costs that come with poor eating habits. Of course often ignored is the “fat-burning” side of the equation, “Living an Active lifestyle” or that you can still gain weight and have health issues by eating too much of the wrong kinds of organic/natural foods.  Most Americans are delusional about how unhealthy they actually eat. In a poll, 59% of obese and overweight people thought they were careful (even strict) about their food intake and food choices. 
      Europeans tend to spend more of their income on quality food than Americans. We tend spend more on material things. I am not surprised. Americans love our big screen TVs, big cars, dish and cable channels...and big food I guess. 
     I do the bulk of my shopping one day a month at a Natural Food store 30 miles from my town.  The rest of my shopping is from our local Farmers market.  When I run out of certain things, I do go the  conventional grocery store.  Occasionally I purchase walnuts, chocolate chips and good cheese (when they have it) at a local Aldi store.  Yes, you can find healthy choices there if you look, shop wisely, and rush through the junk food isle. 
As a research project for a class, I set out to dispel many food myths about healthy "clean" food.  
The most common myths I hear are:
  • healthy foods cost more
  • a calorie is a calorie
  • it's cheaper to eat fast food
  • If it's organic, it must be better
  • advertising is to blame
I love this quote: 
"Blaming unhealthy habits on cost is incorrect. People who eat lots of unhealthy food aren't doing so because they lack cheap options.  Instead it's because they LIKE junk food." ~ Mark Bittman, The New York Times
  My personal observation of people, prove Mark to be correct. 

Above: March 2013 Weekly shopping for 4 people at a NATURAL FOOD STORE $115.   There is no way I could have purchased as much quality ingredients or free-ranged meat and eggs, veggies at a conventional grocery store. This is nearly our entire months’ worth of food.  Probably helps that we are not gluttonous eaters. 
Consider Unhealthy Food...
  • A processed food diet is a MAJOR factor in Obesity!
  • These foods contain cheap non-nutritive fillers, chemicals and artificial ingredients
  • Many of those additives are banned in modern European countries
  • They contain refined, often hidden sugars, HFCS (high fructose corn syrup) and other by-products
  •  Contains many GMO (genetically modified organism) ingredients. 
  • Non-nutritive high-Carbohydrate foods and snacks contribute greatly to diabetes and obesity. 
A trip to the Farmer Market: From the Menominee (MI) Farmers Market in 2013, shopping for nearly the entire  week + consisted of: 1# of VERY fresh, locally roasted Organic Coffee, 2# Organic WW Flour, 1# Organic Oat Flour, 1 Pt. REAL maple syrup, Spelt/Kamut Bread, Bag of Swiss Chard, Bag of Kale, 2 pts of tender young Broccoli, 2 Kohlrabies’, Pecan Brittle, 2 dozen Free Range Eggs, 3# Free Range locally raised Ground Beef ,Total:  $49.50

About Healthy 'Clean' Food
  • Shop at Farmers Markets
    • NO middle man
    • Keep $ local
    • reduced transportation costs
    • freshness
    • knowing who grew it
  • Shop at local, small Natural Food stores 
    • Eating seasonally and locally is less expensive
    • less packaging = less costs
    • buy bulk from co-ops and Natural food stores
  • Choose Organic when you are at a conventional store, your $$ is your vote!
  • Research shows that healthy foods can be cheaper and less expensive than highly processed foods ~ USDA 2012
  • Fresh home-cooked meals taste better!!
 Becoming more health conscience began when I was around ten years old. An Uncle would drop off his Mother Earth News and Prevention magazines (when it was a legitimate read) for my step-father and I to read. I began learning to use native herbs about the same time from my stepfather who was an old style farmer.  This has never been a trend or image I was trying to project. It is my lifestyle.  Perhaps that explains why I struggle with the idea that people know what they should not consume, but continue to make poor choices. 

      I have done my own personal experiments shopping locally at a large supermarket and at a small town Natural Food store.  Sadly of all the folks on food assistance (nationally 1 out of 8 people – probably more locally), only about three families in my town utilize their food assistance card  at the farmers market (that I am aware of).  That same card works equally well at both the natural food stores in the area. It also works interstate. Admittedly my family has been on and off Food Assistance twice. I did not change the way I fed my family, #1 because we did not have health care and I know prevention is less expensive than a band-aid cure. #2 it is not more expensive to eat organic/local/sustainable/farmers market.
  •  Make wise choices. A family can still over spend on too many “natural” chips, dips. Sweet snacks and too much dried fruit as it can on conventional junk food (minus bad ingredients).  
  • Make wise choices.  Cook your own food, don’t fall for processed, pressed soy burgers, etc. 
  • Eat Real Food. Use real butter and decent Olive Oil. 
  • Don’t follow trends; there is no magic food, herb, vitamin or enema that can take the place of exercise and eating REAL food. 

For month 2/2014, $140.24 includes Smart Chicken, bacon, eggs,
 butter and quite a few bulk items.

Mangu-Ward, Katherine. "Five Food Myths about Healthy Eating." The Washington Post 17 October 2011

Russell, Natalie. "Health-food Myths." April/May 2007. Whole Living. Internet. October 2013.

I have put together some cost effective, delicious recipes here.  As always there are plenty of leftovers for lunches or freezing.  Look over the information sources above. You can also analyze passing grocery carts and their drivers - just a thought?
And just for the record: I do not own a big screen TV, do not subscribe to dish or cable, drive a 15 year old vehicle and would rather eat good healthy food, lead a active life and reap optimum health...and why not age gracefully?

  1. Quick & Easy Mac and Cheese (Way better than any box-mix) with variations
  2.  Chicken Paprikash, suitable for company!

May good eating bring you the good health you and your family deserve!

Monday, February 24, 2014

Cooking by the Egg Moon

 The days are becoming longer, though the cold is lingering on.  A brisk day to X-country ski today, with temps around 21° plus wind chill, and yet we are moving into the time of year some cultures refer to as the Egg Moon.  As the days grow longer hens naturally begin to produce more eggs unlike factory farms. These factory farms (sometimes referred to as fecal-factory farms) trick the hens by using artificial light year-round. To stimulate even more production, antibiotics are used.  A dangerous contribution to antibiotic resistance in humans.
     The healthy, farm-raised, free-ranged chickens produce eggs that are one of the most nutrient-dense foods you can find.  Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids are almost in balance in a free range egg. Nutrition is only one of many reasons I choose farm eggs over factory-farm eggs. Knowing the farmer is also very important. I have been to these farms and have seen their chickens, cattle and gardens.  Why would anyone trust a supermarket over a farmer's market boggles my mind.  I am keeping my dollars local and casting a vote for small sustainable farms.  We have three wonderful farmers markets in the area so after all these years you would expect to see nearly everyone utilize them. Funny how folks would rather trust plastic shrink-wrapped and mass produced packages over actually knowing who made their loaf of bread, raised that flank steak or grew that sweet carrot??
     I once read somewhere that it is illegal to sell a washed egg in France. Yes, apparently eggs have a natural bacterial film that keeps them fresher longer. Americans, we always want things sterile, clean, sanitized, but in doing so, often undue the benefits designed by nature herself.
      Sure I pay more for my farm eggs but it still comes out to less than .21 per nutrient dense, perfect food Egg!  Note how much you are willing to pay for breakfast at a restaurant?  Priorities, people. 
  Besides the many uses for eggs in cooking, baking, and beverages, I bring hard-boiled eggs for my kids to munch on before and after grueling Mountain Bike Races. Protein rich, nutrient packed eggs the are an excellent recovery snack. Better than any junk food or manufactured processed power bar. They keep well and travel easy.  
     So this post is dedicated to the wonderful folks who raise the chickens that produce those fabulous eggs at farmers markets everywhere.

Here are my recipe picks for the Egg Moon time of year:

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Sweets for my Sweets

 Valentines Day is upon us and what would be more fitting than a post about chocolate? It may be appropriate at this point to stop reading, grab a cup of coffee (or hot chocolate) a handful of Dove Chocolates or snap off a piece of your favorite Black & Green chocolate bar.  If you are in dire need, a handful of chocolate chips or a piece of bittersweet baking bar will do.
   Good chocolate like good coffee, is either worth the trouble or higher cost to you or it's not. It's a sort of enlightenment. Recent studies have confirmed the health benefits of good, dark chocolate. this has translated to me as, "eat more chocolate" or "feel less guilty."  It is not unusual to find rolled up foil wrappers from dark Dove chocolates in the washing machine, dryer, in my jeep, in the fishing tackle box, and all of my family's coat pockets. Yes, we love chocolate.
   Chocolate is my favorite de-bonking remedy on long Mountain Bike rides.  Chocolate milk is as popular a post-ride beverage as a micro brew.
   So what better reasons have we for not making some cocoa imbued sweets for our Sweethearts?

Here are some tips to keep in mind while cooking 
with cocoa and chocolate

  • Bittersweet and semisweet chocolate can be used interchangeably. Bittersweet as the name indicates is less sweet. Choose one from a premium chocolate maker.
  • Unsweetened chocolate can NOT be used interchangeably with bittersweet or semisweet chocolate.  
  • Cocoa powder can be either natural unsweetened or Dutch processed.  Dutch processed involves a treatment with alkali to neutralize the natural acidity.  Dutched cocoa is nutty and mellow, natural cocoa is sharper and fruity in flavor. 
  • It is best to use the type of cocoa called for in the recipe because both cocoas react differently with baking powder and baking soda.  Use the finest cocoa powder you can and/or try the many bulk varieties available at natural food stores.
Baked donuts glazed in ganache

Friday, January 24, 2014

Exploring 18th Century Cooking

 Whether you are merely exploring early American cooking out of curiosity, a seasoned historical interpreter or a history buff that cooks, 21st century cooks need to keep in mind varying the recipe too much will lose the charactor and authenticity of  the dish.  I find this also to be true of more modern recipes, and as a rule I cook it exactly to the recipe the first time.  I want my Osso Buco to taste like Osso Buco.  Or what's the point? So it is for the historical cook.  You want to experience the flavors and cooking styles of that time period.   If you are cooking as part of a historical demonstration, this is even more important.
   Recipes in historical cookbooks can be difficult to read, "is that an 'f'' or an 's'?"  You may find the voice in your head begins talking in a French, Dutch or Old English accent. This is a good sign, it means your are becoming 'one' with your cookbook. The seasonings, cooking methods and presentation are very different than what we perceive as appealing and this can be challenging to the modern cook.  You may find yourself having nightmares on how to construct a complicated recipe. In which case you may need to disconnect from being 'one' with your cookbook or stop reading scary books by Neil Gaiman before bed.

I have included a couple of recipes I have made over the years, close adaptations from Hanna Glasse, Mary Randolf and Ameila Simmons.  Forcemeat (ground meat) recipes are easy enough for anyone and I have plenty of venison, lamb and beef in the freezer.   The term "forced" is a version of the French cooking term "farci" which means stuffed. Forcemeat was used to stuff turkeys, chickens, pigeons, pumpkins, cabbage and more.  It also gives an interesting presentation at the table.
Good Reading...
    I would never claim to be an expert in historical cooking but I have incredible friends who I think are! I simply love reading, history and food. Myself, I work from several found cookbooks, with several more floating in my Amazon shopping cart. Some are inaccurate attempts at what was perceived to have been eaten in the 18th century, some are actually by 18th Century authors and one is a tourist-geared cookbook from Williamsburg.
   American Cookery by Amelia Simmons 1796,and Mary Randolph's 1824 the Virginia Housewife, and The Art of Cooking made Plain and Easy by Hannah Glasse 1747, are all charming,  interesting reads. Many of the recipes are for large groups of people and not feasible for the average home cook without downsizing. Recipes from that time also use weight measurements which make it difficult to translate speedily. Lots of butter and eggs, lemons, nutmeg, mace and whats referred to as 'sweet herbs" are used.
   Chef Walter Staib's, The City Tavern Cookbook published in 2009, attempts to recreate many recipes but they often seem only reminiscent of foods from that period than actual recipes. Often the recipes do not turn out well, I feel the ingredients are off a bit. Such as the Pound cake that calls for 4 cups of sugar to only 1 stk of butter and 2 1/2 cups flour. This was a disaster my bundt pan still remembers.
   Years ago I picked up The Williamsburg Cookbook published in 1971 at a used bookstore. Eager to try out the recipes I was disappointed on the obvious inaccuracies. It mostly featured canned soups, canned veggies, and recipes that seemed more out of an old Betty Crocker cookbook.
The Internet is now an excellent source for researching recipes. Several sites are dedicated to historical cooking.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Coffee Epiphany (part 2) - Cooking with Coffee

Except for chocolate covered espresso beans and Tiramisu, it never occurred to me to seriously cook with coffee.  In the last few years, however, I have stumbled across some wonderful, innovative ways for using both the brew and the beans.
Coffee can be used in marinades, spice rubs, cookies and custards.  It compliments both the sweet and savory with an earthy richness.
    Keeping with my goal of using what's on hand,(plus we are still digging out of a snowstorm), I set out to create a simple weeknight dinner which could feed four to six easily.
My fridge contained  a wonderful bunch of basil from the Farmers Market that needed to be used up, a pair of small pork tenderloins thawing, and a generous pint of organic cherry tomatoes. Organic apples, oranges and lemons left over from the holidays needed to be somehow incorporated into this menu.  Coffee would be included in at least two recipes.

  • Coffee-rubbed Pork Tenderloin with Jalapeno, Apple and Orange Relish
  •  Cherry Tomato and Mozzarella Bread Salad
  •  Chocolate Dipped Espresso Shortbread Cookies.
The pork in this recipe stays moist and has delicious full earthy flavors. It could also be made on a grill. The salad is simple yet filling. Shortbread cookies are always easy, few ingredients and never too sweet.