Union FoodLab and Makeshift Co-op

Apples!

Union Food Lab and Makeshift Co-op

I went to a wonderfully progressive college. At one point I remember overhearing a spirited debate about a potential honey boycott because the bees might have been making the honey under duress. (Since I graduated, the bees have unionized and are now allowed to add at least one dependent onto the company health plan).

One of the great successes of the school was its system of food co-ops. Students committed to investing a certain number of hours per week doing cooking or cleaning work and got to eat freshly-prepared meals with very good ingredients. Most of the co-ops even had a designated bread baker and there was fresh bread available at nearly every meal.

I was recently asked to speak at Union Food Lab about eating more sustainably without spending a huge amount of money. Union Food Lab rents out its commercial kitchen space to food artisans looking to expand their businesses. They also work on multiple projects focusing on culinary arts, nutrition training, and food justice and poverty.

The plan was to chat for a while with the grad students at Union and then enjoy a simple dish of local peaches and cream. The students were interested in eating locally when they could, but had time constraints that made shopping and prep difficult. A student suggested that one person could wash a large amount of salad greens at one time and leave them in a Ziploc bag for others to use. Another who enjoyed making stock suggested making it in bulk so that soup-based meals could be made in a matter of minutes. Another simply suggested that a different person could handle the farmer’s market shopping itself each week.

Many of us do not have the resources to be a part of a co-op or supper club. Of course these are great ways to share the admittedly large amount of work required to produce high quality, creative home-cooked meals. But as I spoke to the students at Union, I wondered if there might be a middle ground that could be extraordinarily effective.

We all like it when a neighbor leaves a bag of fresh apples or tomatoes on our doorsteps. But as a home-cook, I would appreciate just as much some leftover greens, some chicken stock or even some minced onions. I know finding any of these things at home would make that night’s food preparation much easier. I certainly don’t recommend knocking on your neighbor’s doors and demanding that they make you demi-glace, but you might ask if they plan to make Thanksgiving dinner this year and if so, drop them some vegetable or chicken stock. It is unlikely to cost you much additional time or money if you are making it anyway, and someone might get to taste a Thanksgiving dish made with homemade stock for the first time . You never know. In fact, I’d love to hear from other home-cooks what they would most enjoy receiving were they to start some kind of makeshift co-op themselves.

At the end of our talk, our plan had been to toss some Ronnybrook Cream into a Kitchenaid and spoon the cream over some of the last peaches of the season. We found out though that no kitchen appliances were available, so we got to work. One woman said she hadn’t realized that whipped cream could be made from fresh cream but offered to start cutting up the fruit. Another said she wanted a workout and grabbed a whisk and started making the cream. A young man mentioned that if we tore the mint into small pieces before garnishing the plate, the fruit would look better. In about ten minutes we had shared good conversation, each other’s labor, and a spectacularly simple but delicious dessert. Oh, and speaking of labor, please disregard the beginning of this post as I was just informed that Scott Walker has stripped the bees of bargaining rights.

 

 

Spring Kale and Goat Cheese Ravioli

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I used to love Olive Garden when I was little but I always thought the name ‘Olive Garden’ had very little to do with the actual experience of eating there. I do remember an olive or two in the salad and I suppose there might be a garden involved somewhere in the process of producing the food, though I doubt it looks very much like the gardens any of us have at home.

In warmer weather, I do crave lighter foods and I like to taste vegetables throughout as many courses of the meal as possible. Salads are of course incredibly easy to make this time of year but with a bit of work, it’s possible to make the entire meal taste bright and vegetal and that’s exactly what many of us crave as summer sets in.

I love the fresh goat cheese from Lynnhaven. Their cheese is grassy, a bit tart and perfect for making a vegetable dish a bit richer. I’ve found great fresh goat cheeses at markets in nearly every region of the US. Most of my guests are omnivores but none of us misses meat when we eat this ravioli. Nor do we miss the unlimited salad. A regular bowl of salad on the side seems to do just fine.

Spring Kale and Goat Cheese Ravioli

Start by making a batch of basic pasta dough. I use a little extra egg yolk when I have very fresh eggs on hand.

In a food processor, add:

1.5 Cups Flour

1 Egg + 2 Egg Yoks

1 teaspoon of olive oil

1 teaspoon of salt

Turn processor on and slowly add ½ cup of water until dough forms into a ball.

Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for at least an hour.

 

For the filling:

Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil to a pan over medium heat with one clove of chopped garlic

Rinse and chop a small head of spring kale and add to pan

Sautee for 4 minutes or until the kale softens

Add a splash of white wine or lemon juice and cook for another minute or so

Turn off heat and let cool to room temperature

In a small bowl, stir 6 oz of fresh, local goat cheese (soft chevre rather than aged) and add the kale mixture

Add a pinch of salt and a bit of ground black pepper

 

To Assemble:

Using a pasta maker, roll dough into sheets and cut into 12 4”x4” squares

Add tablespoon of filling to each square and top with another square of pasta

Seal with a fork or with your fingers

(You can cover them at this point and leave them in the fridge or even freeze them to make another time)

 

To finish:

Heat a small saucepan of salted water until it comes to a boil

While water is heating up, melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a skillet over medium/low heat and add a pinch of salt and a few sage leaves or whatever herbs you have on hand and a drizzle of lemon

Cook ravioli in boiling water for 2 minutes and then strain and add to pan with butter

Toss ravioli in sauce and serve 3 ravioli in each bowl

Drizzle the remaining sauce over the pasta

Garnish with pea shoots or a few pieces of raw kale

 

Serve with Unlimited Breadsticks

 

 

Local Cooking for the Long Haul

 

Home Cook Locavore

I’m always looking for more interesting ways to procrastinate. I mean sure HBO Go takes care of most of it, but I also love reading the Best Food Writing compilation published every year. If there’s laundry to be done, I can always do it after I finish reading about the beer scene in Illinois.  This year, I was especially interested in reading Katherine Wheelock’s piece Is Seasonal Eating Overrated? originally published in Food and Wine Magazine. I love discussing the many problems associated with the local food movement, most importantly, the fact that local foods are prohibitively expensive for many many people. (Yes, the fact that’s it’s often less expensive to buy a tomato from 4500 miles away than one grown down the block is a topic for another time).

But Wheelock’s main arguments do not concern any of the bigger systemic issues and instead focus on two main ideas: her palate tires from eating the same ingredients repeatedly while they are in season, and the lack of creativity exhibited by many chefs when they work with top quality local foods. Interesting, but not that compelling.

Both of these arguments seem weak and the ‘problems’ she cites, seem amazingly easy to fix. She talks first about her disaapointment in having been served kale salads at multiple restaurants during kale season. I can’t be sure, but I’m 99% certain that I know the Brooklyn Italian place she says served the kale salad that broke the camel’s back for her. If I’m correct, this is a upper-range but casual Italian and pizza place fiercely devoted to showcasing local ingredients simply. I’m not sure I would expect an incredibly complex kale dish from them and if I wanted one, I would seek it elsewhere or, well, order something besides the exact dish that I found so frustrating.

As for lack of creativity, she mentions in the very same article Dan Barber at Blue Hill and a couple other places doing creative things with local and seasonal foods. To her list, I would add Gramercy Tavern and the Momufuko restaurants in her home city of NYC. These are restaurants with complicated, beautiful dishes. They are not inexpensive by any account, but neither are the places where she keeps ordering her kale salads.

She also likes the fact that some restaurants change their menus seasonally but do not feel the need to brand themselves as ‘seasonal.’ This comes up a lot on food blogs and in some ways I also love the idea of simply assuming the great restaurants source locally but it’s just not the case. The vast majority of food served in the US comes from a small handful of companies and I’ve seen even very expensive restaurants receiving deliveries of both chicken and toilet paper from the same Sysco truck. A much smaller number of restaurants seek out, at great cost, higher quality products sourced responsibly and in no way do I fault them for touting their efforts on their menus even if some diners might be ‘over it.’ It’s true, there are restaurants across price ranges serving at least some local foods now. We’re a far cry from the days when Chez Panisse was making food headlines because of the novelty of sourcing local products.

Serious arguments against local and seasonal foods need to have real heft to be taken seriously. The local foods movement has consistently been about changing an industrial food system that is devastating to land, labor, animals and our health. The arguments against sustainable eating should probably include more than a diner’s boredom or her desire for more complicated restaurant dishes. There are valid arguments against solar energy as well but I would doubt that the foremost one is that solar panels aren’t that pretty to look at.

In any case, in much of the country, we’re about to enjoy the great bounty of foods that come with the arrival of spring. I’m excited to cook and eat with friends and to talk with our farmers who were working 16 hour days long before local eating was considered a fad or before it could be parodied on Porlandia.

So let’s get out to our farmers markets and  get cooking. Learning to cook seasonal food affordably is not  a fad. It’s a serious shift toward eating more sustainably and we seem to be on our way.

Ok, now it’s time for another Game of Thrones.

Russian Kale

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An older woman at the farmer’s market today stopped at an organic farmer’s stand:

Woman: I’ll bet with the recent news that your Russian Kale isn’t selling that well.

Farmer: Actually, we’ve sold quite a bit. It’s really good this time of year.

Woman: Well, the stories about Russia lately have not been good.

Farmer: But when you think about it, the vegetables themselves haven’t done anything wrong.

Pepper Roulette– Blistered Shishito Peppers with Salt

Shishito Peppers #2

Pepper Roulette– Blistered Shishito Peppers with Salt

The farmers say that 1 out of every 12 of these peppers is very hot and that you should be careful. I’ve certainly eaten a fair number of hot ones over my shishito pepper eating years and I’ve never found them to be excruciatingly spicy or anything like that. The rare hot one is somewhere between the medium salsa at a New Hampshire Mexican restaurant and a jalapeno. But it can be a rush to put a plate of these on the table and then watch to see who gets the hot one. It’s like a very low stakes game of roulette where if you lose, you simply have to have a sip of water and then you can play again. Speaking of low stakes, this is one of the easiest and fool-proof dishes that I’ve ever made and they are always delicious as long as you find good peppers at your farmers market and have a decent cast iron skillet. That’s not to put down the great Spanish tapas bars in NYC like Txikito that do this dish beautifully. It’s just that it’s accessible for most home-cooks as well. So get ready for pepper roulette and remember, always bet on shishito.

Blistered Shishito Peppers with Salt

Preheat broiler

Drizzle 1-2 tablespoons of good olive oil over 1 Pint of Shishito Peppers

Add a pinch of Kosher salt and toss to coat

Put peppers in a cast iron skillet and broil for 5-7 minutes or until they start to blister

Taste again and add more salt if desired