The good, the bad, and the mediocre.

All in a day’s eating. Tuesday, to be specific.

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The Good: Dried blueberries

My friend Shannon? The one who was the magical source of a certain quantity of sour cherries earlier in the summer? Well, she’s also my source for low-spray local blueberries. She can get lots of them, and will sell them at a great price. As an experiment, she gave me five pounds of berries and asked me to dehydrate them. Since I’m typically not happy unless I make a job a bit more complicated (or so claims my spouse), I decided to try drying them two different ways.

First, I simply washed them and stuck them in the dehydrator. A dozen or so hours later, these are what I had:

Not what I was going for. A dull, crispy-dry blueberry. Not necessarily crunchy, but also not moist and chewy. A strange popping sound when you bit into them, like they were filled with air. Blueberry balloons.

So, for the next batch, I quickly simmered the blueberries first in a very light sugar syrup. For a pound of blueberries, I put them in a pan with water barely to cover, and a half cup sugar. They simmered very gently for about five minutes — it’s important they don’t cook to the point of falling apart. I drained them, let them dry a bit spread out on a towel, and dehydrated just like the first batch. This was the ticket:

Slightly glossy, full-flavored, moistly-dry morsels. Sometimes, making things a bit more complicated pays off (ahem… spouse? are you reading?).

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The Bad: Liver Mousse, via Mastering the Art of French Cooking

I have tried. I really want to like liver patés. For one, it just seems like something I’m supposed to like — especially after reading about all the offal-cooking in Fisher’s With Bold Knife and Fork. I even like foie gras (the few times I’ve had it). So I whipped up a batch of Julia Child’s liver mousse — hoping that the flavor would match the decadence of the name. But, alas, I can’t. I can’t do it. My two younger children love it, but I’m not there. My palate has not yet matured.

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The Mediocre: Dinner at Restaurant Tallent

Sigh.

If I wanted to like liver, I wanted even more to have many good things to write about my dinner this week at Restaurant Tallent, in Bloomington. Moderately recommended, with overlap with the Indy food community to boot, we’ve been wanting to try it out for a while. My friend Cherith was spending a few weeks in July at Indiana University, and I figured it was a good time to make the trip down, meet up with her for dinner, and give it a go.

Between the two of us, we ordered 3 dishes from the “snack” courses, 3 dishes from the “starter” courses, and two desserts (our ordering decisions were based partially on the suggestions of this local restaurant reviewer, who happened to review Tallent this past weekend and was not bullish on the entrées).

I won’t go into the details of each dish — but I will generalize, and simply say that nothing seemed quite right. There were good ideas along the way (a clearly seasonal menu with rare additions such as chanterelles and white truffles), but in translation to the plate the proportions or seasoning went awry. Most disappointing was a snack course of deviled eggs that seemed no different from the ones you might pick up at your Aunt Becky’s July picnic; the tastiest dish (and best-presented, arriving served on vintage glassware) was a watermelon and tomato salad that was still a bit tomato-heavy and wanting for a few more cubes of feta. We were served mussels mounded with well-cooked frites but almost no broth for dipping (and several inedible, nearly-closed mussel shells), over-salted ravioli, and two ample desserts (a blueberry tart and a banana pudding) that were both in need of a mind-changing twist of sorts. While the tart sported a scoop of sweet corn ice cream, it couldn’t balance the heavy sweetness of what was, in my opinion, an overload of streusel — a winter’s load, rather than a summer berry portion.

All-in-all? A really hard sell for a $50 tab (just me, with a $7 glass of wine, before tip). Not sure I will risk the investment again (I really do want to be a cheerleader — I’m just too damned stingy with my eat-out budget).

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But to leave us back on The Good: if you’re in Indy and are female, join Girls Pint Out next Wednesday for a tour of SunKing Brewery. It’s for a great cause: fundraising for the folks at teecycle.org who’ve lost most everything in the Milwaukee floods.

Basil pesto

I know — basil pesto is so mid-90s.

But it has staying power, and who doesn’t like it (outside of my three children)? Yes, we can outdo ourselves from time to time, experimenting with other herbs like parsley, or nuts or arugula — but basil is so classic, and infinitely usable.

Not to mention freezable. Which is why I harvest my basil in large amounts, and make a couple batches at a time for that purpose. We eat pesto pizzas and pastas all winter long, enjoying a brief reminder of summer during the long, dark nights of January.

About 8 or so years ago, I grew my first basil plant. When it was large enough, I began harvesting leaves to make a batch of pesto. Problem was, I didn’t know how to harvest the plant — so I picked individual leaves off my 2-foot plant until it looked naked and ashamed in the daylight, unable to find a single leaf with which to cover itself. The plant was pretty much history after that, and I was left wondering how in the world people make multiple batches of pesto. Do they just grow a lot of basil plants, and hope for a single batch from each one?

Then there was the year I figured out that, once your basil gets those flowers on the top, your basil pesto will no longer taste right, but rather wrong — something like pesto mixed with black licorice. I found myself at the Broad Ripple Farmer’s Market a couple weeks ago, and felt genuine panic when I saw a vendor selling live basil plants with huge stalks of flowers already growing atop. What if someone bought those, and planted them, and tended them, and used the leaves, only to end up with an anise-flavored dinner? How could the farmer be so irresponsible in her herb vending? Like the me of 2002, not everyone knows not to eat flowered basil (unless, of course, you’re into that kind of thing, meaning, a person who likes licorice pesto).

We’ve covered before the fact that I’m a slow learner. I finally figured out that it’s best to harvest basil before it flowers — and that if you do, it’ll even keep growing. And when you harvest, you cut stalks just above the point where two more stalks venture out. Only then do you remove the leaves for use. When I treat my two basil plants kindly (is it kind to vigorously pinch off the first sign of a flower?), I get many batches of pesto from each one.

My go-to recipe for pesto is from Ina Garten. But it’s a variation of countless similar recipes — hers calls for both pine nuts and walnuts. I like the combo, but in a pinch I make it with all walnuts (esp. when pine nuts are crazy expensive, or — as I was told by the guy at Trader Joe’s yesterday — held up by the FDA at the shipping docks for some bizarre reason, explaining why the shelves of many groceries are pignolia-bare right now). Hers was also the first recipe I came upon that implored the reader to cover the pesto with a coating of olive oil before freezing, to preserve the green color. A great call — it works like a charm. Her original recipe is linked here — but I’ll reprint my modifications, which include using a little less olive oil and salt:

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Basil Pesto (adapted from a recipe by Ina Garten)

Feel free to use all walnuts rather than a combo. To freeze, pour pesto into small glass (baby food) jars, or into ice cube trays. Cover with a drizzle of olive oil, and freeze. (Pop pesto cubes out of ice cube trays when frozen, and keep in plastic ziploc bags for thawing one or a few at a time.) This recipe halves well.

  • 1/4 cup pine nuts
  • 1/4 cup walnuts
  • 3 Tbsp minced garlic (about 9 med. cloves)
  • 5 cups (gently-packed) basil leaves
  • 3/4 tsp fine-grain salt
  • 1 tsp ground pepper
  • 1 1/4 cups extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
  • 1 cup freshly-grated parmesan

Place the nuts and garlic in a food processor. Process for about 15 seconds. Add the basil leaves, salt, and pepper, and process until finely minced. Scrape the sides and corners of workbowl to incorporate. With the machine running, slowly pour the olive oil through the feed tube until pureed. Add the parmesan, and process another 30 seconds. Taste for seasoning.

Use immediately, or store in the refrigerator/freezer with a thin layer of olive oil on top to protect from air.

The incredible, indelible egg.

Remember that ad campaign of the 70s/80s? The one where the egg producers of America tried to battle the bad rap unleashed on the shy and unassuming egg (the rap being that the egg was a suicide oval, a widow-maker, a cholesterol-spiking grenade-of-sorts)?

The poor egg. It didn’t have a leg to stand on.

Except that now, after a couple decades of egg-engineering have given us eggs pumped full of extra omega-3’s, eggs with no yolks, and eggs with no egg, the little ovum who boasts what Joy of Cooking calls “nature’s perfect shape” is making a strong comeback.

I have been reading M.F.K. Fisher’s With Bold Knife and Fork (if you enjoy reading about food at all, I highly recommend finding a copy to devour for yourself). She has an entire chapter devoted to the egg, and admits to her ability and desire to write no less than an entire book on the subject. I was struck by the author’s realization, even in 1960, that the eggs available to her were different than the eggs of her childhood. Mass-production and pasteurization were already underway, and she mourned the death, per se, of the egg:

An egg of course is meant to produce another potential egg producer, and that is why it is a living thing. Indeed, of all the foods we absorb in order to continue our own human existence, it is probably the most alive, just as wine is, in what we drink for various reasons connected with the same purpose… The great difference here, though is that an egg, because of its secret nature, can never be “pasteurized” and still remain as it was born, and intricate ovum, a small womb, with its own fetus and its protecting ovoid sea of albumen. The only way to pasteurize and egg is to render it sterile before it takes its mysterious form within the hen, and that is a sad story, according a friend of mine.

… He feels empathy, to put it mildly, for the hens raised commercially on little perches, high above the ground and far from Chanteclair. “Those pitiful chickens squatting there, all coopy, with their little old eggs rolling out on schedule according to the stuff they is fed, is in misery. They’s sick but they don’t know it. A hen needs two things to be happy: a good rooster in with her and plenty of ground to scratch and to peck. These store-eggs without a rooster won’t even beat up a good batter, and they is not fit to fry!”*

It can be startling, I suppose, to think of an egg as a living thing — especially since what our generation was raised on was probably not alive (unless, of course, you lived on a farm with chickens). But it seems important to do, if we’re going to eat them. Once you ponder it a little, if you’re like me, it will be the alternative that seems creepy.

So I’m a fan. If you haven’t already, try out the eggs at your local farmer’s market (ask if they are from pastured — i.e., grass-and-bug-eating, running-around chickens). They will run you about $3-$4 dollars for a dozen; but when you think about a protein at dinner, that’s amazingly cheap. Once you go through a few cartons, see if it’s not hard to go back to the pale, sterile ones from the grocery.

And then, in a few weeks, after you’ve transitioned to pastured eggs, we’ll have a lesson in poaching.

Not really. But Ms. Fisher — she kills me. A whole chapter on tripe. Seriously. She was nose-t0-tail before it was cool.

* Fisher, M.F.K. With Bold Knife and Fork. Paragon Books; New York, 1969. p. 110.

Because vegans need cobbler too. Don’t they?

Even though I like to wax dramatic about a certain two months of my life back in early 2007 when I had to be completely dairy-free, I’ve never followed a true vegan diet for any length of time — and given my fascination with elimination diet lifestyles, the only reason I can come up with is that I’ve simply never been effectively drawn to it. But I have friends who are, and now know a handful of people who’ve been living a strict vegan diet for over 10 years (or longer). I hold these friends up in a pinnacle of perceived willpower; for even believing that any “special” diet, once mastered, isn’t nearly as difficult as it may seem — and in fact, ironically, is often very freeing — it’s always been hard for me to imagine being vegan. For reasons very cliché, stereotypical, and perhaps gauche: 1) bacon, 2) half-n-half, 3) butter, and 4) eggs (those vegan-vices listed in no particular order of animal-product-preference).

But I’ve done my share of vegan cooking. Most of it due to the dairy- and once-believed-egg-allergic middle child of mine. But even before his needs threw me into a headhunt for suitable and tasty substitutions for butter, eggs, and cream, I’d done my share of Molly Katzen experimentation, furthered in the cause by various vegan options at The (famed, with reason) Grit (quick! someone in Athens go eat the special, and let me live vicariously! because I CRAVE that food more than almost any other). I found that I actually enjoyed the challenge. It took a few years, but I finally collected a reliable list of dairy alternatives in baking — ones that didn’t skimp on fat or flavor, and that could fool even the most sensitive palate into thinking they weren’t missing a thing.

But then I discovered something. The vegans I know — especially ones who’ve been living that way for a while — don’t need to be fooled. Their tastes have changed, to the point where they aren’t looking for things to taste “just like (fill in the blank with your favorite dairy product).” They aren’t the ones who are cleaning the shelves of soy-based “cheez,” because they don’t really want cheese (and it’s a good thing — because if there is a dairy product that, in my opinion, simply cannot be replaced, it is cheese. Glorious cheese.). So it’s not a matter of willpower — it’s simply a lack of desire.

But then again, you never know. So when invited to a Fourth-of-July get-together a couple weeks back, knowing that half the crowd would be of the vegan persuasion, I planned my takings accordingly. A vegan coleslaw would be a breeze, and required no changes (and I do love a good slaw, especially for a party, because every single time I win a new convert to the wonders of cabbage and vinaigrette, happily extinguishing that childhood-born discrimination). But the day before, I’d purchased the first blueberries of the season, and couldn’t fathom a 4th gathering without some sort of cobbler. And, let’s just be honest here: I was longing for the praise of the vegans. I envisioned, as usual, a scene where good party folks are at first wary, but then succumb to guttural ooh‘s and aah‘s, overtaken with surprise and joy as they scrape the last morsel of dairy-free cobbler from their paper plates. They would wonder aloud that they never knew a vegan cobbler could be as divine. That this was the cobbler they’d been missing all these years.

But, as is usual when my narcissistic daydreaming gets the best of my intentions: nothing of the sort happened. My sweet vegan friends either politely declined eating my cobbler, or ate such a small portion that it seemed clear they were visually rewarding my effort (was my need that obvious?). It wasn’t a bad cobbler — quite good, I thought. But it was eaten almost entirely by all the meat-and-dairy-loving slobs in the room, myself included.

When the dishes are washed, I’m ok with that. Enough so that I’m posting the recipe for perpetuity. Feel free to file it away for the next time you find yourself hosting a vegan, and fancy yourself able to woo them with baked confections. Just be prepared to consume the leftovers.

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Vegan Peach-Blueberry Cobbler
(adapted from this recipe at cooksillustrated.com)

for the filling:

  • 10 oz (about 2 cups) fresh blueberries
  • scant 2 lbs peaches, ripe but firm (about 3-4 large)
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 tsp cornstarch
  • 1 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
  • 1/8 tsp salt

for the topping:

  • scant 1/3 cup coconut milk (full-fat, unsweetened)
  • 1 tsp apple cider vinegar
  • 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup fresh whole wheat flour
  • 3 Tbsp sugar
  • 3/4 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 5 Tbsp Spectrum Organic shortening (palm oil shortening), chilled and cut into small pieces

Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position, and heat oven to 425º.

Peel peaches and cut each into 8 wedges. Gently toss peaches and sugar together in a large bowl. Let stand 30 minutes, tossing every 10 minutes. Drain peaches in a colander set over a large bowl (you should have about 1/4 cup juice reserved). Whisk juice together with cornstarch, lemon juice, and salt. Toss juice mixture with peach slices and blueberries, and transfer to an 8″ square baking dish. Bake until fruit begins to bubble around the edges, about 10 minutes.

While fruit bakes, pour the vinegar into a glass measuring cup, and add coconut milk until the liquid level reaches 1/3 cup. Set aside. In a large bowl, whisk together the flours, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Toss the chilled shortening into the flour mixture, and cut the fat in with a pastry blender until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Add the coconut milk mixture all at once, and toss gently with a rubber spatula until a cohesive dough forms (dough might be wet).

Once fruit has baked 10 minutes and is bubbly, remove pan from oven. Drop dough in 6 evenly-spaced mounds over the top of the fruit (the dough mounds should not touch). Sprinkle dough mounds with additional sugar, and return to oven. Bake until topping is golden brown and fruit is bubbling, about 16-18 minutes. Cool cobbler at least 20 minutes on a wire rack, and serve (topped with ice cream, as shown, for any non-vegan friends).

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This post is part of Wanderfood Wednesday at Wanderlust and Lipstick.

The lounge of chocolate

Way back when, Tim and I started our lives together by spending a year and change in a lovely little mountain town known as Asheville, North Carolina. I only lived there 15 months, but it feels like many years in my memory. This shift of my own personal space-time continuum is built upon many factors: the life definition that occurs during your first year of marriage; the fact that some of our deepest friendships sprouted from that time; the frequency with which we’ve returned to the town, in some ways making it feel as though we never left.

Last weekend, I met a couple of girlfriends in Asheville for our annually-attempted “girls’ weekend.”  That phrase has quite a gamut of connotations; for us, it usually means we gather somewhere near Asheville (what better place?) and spend copious amounts of time chatting like we’ve not talked to humans in a year. Most years past there’s been a baby or two in the mix — and there are usually four of us. This year, we were minus babies and sadly minus one quarter of our crew (she’ll be back next year, though, with yet another baby).

We were more girly this year, at our weekend. We got pedicures. We went shopping. We had late-night, margarita-inspired conversations in the indoor pool. And, we spent a little time one afternoon at the French Broad Chocolate Lounge. Aren’t establishments with that name created for things such as girls’ weekends?

There isn’t much to dislike about the FBCL — except maybe the long line for service. Walking past displays touting the goods of small-batch, craft chocolatiers such as Theo and Mast Brothers, your disbelieving eyes are met with a glass display case holding the truffles of your dreams. But before you can possibly make a decision (the line is moving, after all), you look above the glass case to see a chalkboard filled with more decisions. Should I get a cappuccino or cold glass of milk to complement my truffle? Would a glass of cold sipping chocolate put me over a cocoa ledge after downing three truffles (because I can’t pick just two… what mortal could?)? But wait — how could I possibly get a taste of that macaroon brownie? And while I am here right now for chocolate, could we come back later tonight and have a pint of local beer?

Because while the edibles are what draw you into the lounge, the atmosphere gives permission to hang out. Cozy seating and dark, warm colors provide reason to relax as you wait for your order (assuming you get a table — which is good impetus to hit the lounge in the afternoon rather than evening). Local art adorns the walls, and while I can’t speak for every day, the service we had was friendly and helpful. We chose the items I mentioned above — though I did actually limit myself to two truffles — the pictured lavendar-honey and maple-smoked-salt. Between the three of us, there were truffles, lavender cold sipping chocolate, hot chocolate, a latté, and a macaroon brownie (this one goes into my “must-try” box). Chocolate, chocolate, and more chocolate — right before heading out the door for our pedicures.

Pretty decadent, I’ll admit. But it was GW, after all. I figured that after 650 or so straight days of having at least one child attached to me, I was due for a day or two off. But don’t fear that I’ve teased you with tales of hand-crafted chocolates only to leave you with a desire that can’t be fulfilled. For one, it’s not an exclusive and remote area of France that I’m talking about — it’s North Carolina. A town that is this close to becoming too big for its britches, Asheville has lots to see, and is worth a stop sometime. And if a trip to the mountains isn’t in your near future, you can always check out their website and invest in some luxury of your own — their flat-shipping rate is just $9.99. Though I can’t promise the mountain magic will arrive with the package.

This post is part of Wanderfood Wednesday at Wanderlust & Lipstick.

Stand still long enough, and I may pickle you, too.

But only if you’re pink, and bear strong resemblance to some sort of root vegetable.

I believe I’ve covered my previous pickling fetishes: red onions and radishes. Why not invite a beet to the party?

Goodness me, these might be my favorite. I can’t get enough — heaping mountains atop my daily green salad, quickly stir-frying with kale and topping with an over-easy egg, or even snacking straight from the jar (you would definitely catch me red-handed).

This new jar of vinegarized crunchiness was born from a plethora of beets in our CSA boxes of late. Since cooked beets aren’t the most popular item on my menu, and I was bored of slicing them raw on my salad, I decided to quickly (yes! quickly!) pickle a jar.

How have I not done this before? As easy as my other pickling adventures, Martha tells me they will only last a couple weeks in the fridge (really?) but I don’t think they’ll make it that long.

Sweet and tart, without the harshness of the red onion or kick of the radish. I am actually salivating right now, just thinking about them. It might be time for a late-night snack.

While I partake, I’ll point you to the recipe here. I used a combo of cider and rice vinegars, omitted the pepper (hence the lack of heat), and used a dried bay leaf, doubling the recipe with ease. If you don’t have a really good, sharp chef’s knife, then get one (a cheap and decent one is here)– it makes cutting thin slices of raw beet easy enough so you don’t have to curse my name for getting you into this mess.

Pickled! Beets!

The accidental locavore

I’m not a rebel in any traditional sense of the word. Outside of a 1995 research trip to a Harley-Davidson store wherein I tried on a stereo-wired helmet, listened to Blue Oyster Cult, and then swore I’d someday don leather and ride into the sunset on the back of a Harley (should I erase that fantasy from my bucket list since I forbade my husband from owning a motorcycle?), I’m a pretty safe and predictable girl.

The exception to this rule occurs when something comes into vogue. Even in cases where I’ve previously attached myself to a trend, fashion, or social phenomenon, the moment it becomes “all the rage,” I turn my back like a spurned lover. It’s not so much the pressure to conform as the appearance that I’ve conformed to pressure. See how warped this is? I just don’t want to look like I care what people think, or need to be identified with a thing.

Which might be why, now that local food is becoming quite vogue, it’s getting hard for me to admit I’m eating locally without simultaneously rolling my eyes just a smidgeon.

Understand what I am saying: I love eating local. It tastes better, feeds your body better, serves the environment and local economy better. But I never want local food to seem elitist, or appear as something that people must jump off a proverbial ledge to conquer. It’s often quite accessible, and there are no hard-and-fast rules (no matter what some might have us think). In this country of ours, the range of living conditions, family dynamics and financial statuses is vast enough to warrant a loose translation of the local-eating realm. People would benefit from doing what they can, maybe challenging themselves a bit, learning a little and experimenting where possible.

Which is why, a couple of nights in the past week, we have been surprised when we sat down to our dinner and realized our meal consisted of almost 100% local foods. When we figured this out last night, Tim decided it was time to do a cost analysis (murmuring something about food miles and asking me detailed questions about how much I paid for this and that, figuring percentages of CSA boxes, etc.). Was eating a local meal a luxury?

We were happily surprised to discover that it just wasn’t that expensive. Granted — this was a meat-free meal, which necessarily makes it cheaper. Here’s what we (i.e., Tim) figured:

Vegetable skillet with eggs & creamy grits:

  • 1 Tbsp rendered bacon fat, plus 1 Tbsp purchased duck fat:  $0.25
  • 1/2 pound golden potatoes: $1.00
  • 1/2 red onion: $0.50
  • 2 small zucchini squash: $1.15
  • small bunch kale: $1.00
  • 4 eggs: $1.00
  • 1 cup milk: $0.34
  • 1/2 cup corn grits: $0.40

Grand Total: $5.62

To note: while our kids did eat some grits and potatoes, the meal was eaten mostly by me and Tim. So, that ends up being $2.81/person for a local meal.  Also, we had a couple incidentals that were not local: a few shakes of tabasco, and some ketchup.

We didn’t set out to cook the dinner of a locavore. But after making slow, accessible changes to how we source a lot of our food, it just happened. Between our CSA, my weekly trips to our farmer’s market, a local meat shop like Goose the Market, and my own small garden, we had ourselves a humble supper where most things traveled less than 100 miles to get to our table.

Not that it is always that easy, or something that will now regularly occur. But it was encouraging, to know that the handful of choices we’ve made since we moved here have unintentionally created an environment in our kitchen where this can happen.

I’m no Barbara Kingsolver — but it’s nice to know that after challenging ourselves a bit, and doing what we financially can, local food can happen.