The Walking Dead Broccoli Rabe

ImageThe Walking Dead Broccoli Rabe

“These should have died, but they somehow survived.” said the farmer.

Several farmers here in NYC are offering incredibly flavorful greens that survived multiple winter frosts and snowstorms to emerge even sweeter than they were before. They are the delicious undead veggies of the farmers market. One farmer explained that many winter vegetables like carrots and parsnips are so sweet because they have to work so hard in the cold weather and that ‘work’ produces sugar. But some greens, like broccoli rabe, that are normally more vegetal, work hard enough to survive the winter and develop the same kind of sweetness.

The taste is hard to describe but if you can imagine the freshest tasting green you’ve ever tasted and then add a little hint of an almost honey-like sweetness, that’s pretty close.

I like to balance the sweetness with the heat of chili flakes and I like to use a touch of sherry vinegar for some acid. But truly you don’t have to do much to make this stuff taste delicious and I ate several leaves raw on the way home from the market and they were great.

So ask around at your local market and see if anyone has any wintered greens left over. If you can find them, you’re in for a treat. If not, sit tight. Hunker down and watch out for The Governor.

Wintered Broccoli Rabe with Chili Flakes and Sherry Vinegar

Farmers Market Bill $4/4 Servings ($1/serving)

Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in large skillet over low heat

Add 2 cloves of sliced garlic a pinch of chili flakes

Keep the heat low as you’re actually making a garlic/chili oil while you prep the rabe

Rinse and chop 1 head of wintered broccoli rabe

Remove garlic slices with a slotted spoon and increase heat to medium-high

Saute rabe for 5-7 minutes

Add a generous pinch of salt and some black pepper, 1.5 tablespoons of sherry vinegar and return garlic slices to pan

Toss together and taste for seasoning. If desired, add more chili flakes or salt and pepper.

Sichuan Chicken with Local Chicken and Peppercorns from Thousands of Miles Away!

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There is a sign at my local Whole Foods that says something to the effect of “We carry local products and coffee is no exception.” Unless climate change is even worse than I realized, New York has not yet become a coffee-growing region but I applaud their seeking out local roasters. Coffee is indeed on my list of foods that I’m not willing or able to give up despite the distance it has to travel. There are plenty of others as well like olive oil, some citrus, and almost every Asian seasoning I can think of. It is possible to find local ginger here in the Northeast but I don’t see it very often. And my favorite seasoning of all, Sichuan Peppercorns, are not likely to be growing in the Hudson Valley.

I’ve recently taken some classes in Sichuan cooking and have done an extraordinary amount of careful research involving eating authentic Sichuan dishes and then saying “Yum.” When it’s done well, it’s far more than just spicy. In fact, the slightly warm tingle that comes from Sichuan peppercorns is nothing like the sharp heat of chili peppers or hot oil and for me, it’s the most pleasurable part of good Sichuan cooking.

Even when cooked simply, local chicken can have a richer flavor than some cuts of beef or pork and some specialty breeds like Belle Rouge chicken from Violet Hill Farm are so rich and delicious that I feel like I’m at a celebratory holiday feast every time I take a bite of one. So when well-raised, local proteins combine with the intense flavors of Sichuan cuisine, the results can be ridiculously satisfying.

Some ingredients like black vinegar and Shaoxing wine can be hard to find outside of a Chinese supermarket so I suggest substituting balsamic vinegar and dry sherry respectively. If you can find the real thing, go for it.

The peppercorns however, have no substitute.

Sichuan Chicken with Local Chicken and Peppercorns from Thousands of Miles Away!

4 boneless chicken thighs (with skin)

3 tablespoons of soy sauce

2 1.5 inch pieces of peeled ginger

3 large cloves of garlic

1 tablespoon of balsamic vinegar

1 tablespoon of dry sherry

1 tablespoon of sugar

2 teaspoons of corn starch

1 small eggplant

2 tablespoons of peanut oil

1 teaspoon of toasted sesame oil

2 tablespoons of Sichuan peppercorns

 

Cut chicken thighs into 1 inch pieces

Grate 1 piece of ginger and mince garlic (setting aside one clove) for later and combine with soy sauce, vinegar, sherry, sugar and corn starch

Whisk together and pour over chicken thighs

Toss together and marinate for 1-2 hours

Mince second piece of ginger

Crush 1 tablespoon of peppercorns with a mortar and pestle or with a chef’s knife and leave other tablespoon whole

Remove chicken from marinade and pat dry with paper towel

Cut eggplant into 1 inch pieces

In a wok or large skillet, heat peanut and sesame oil over high heat

Add chicken and eggplant and stir fry until it has good color (around 4 minutes)

Add remaining ginger and garlic as well as the whole peppercorns

Cook for another 1-2 minutes

Add dried chili peppers and toss together

Cut into a piece of chicken to make sure it is cooked through and serve on a platter

Sprinkle crushed peppercorns over the top just before serving

Thoughts on the Foodie Backlash

ImageThoughts on the Foodie Backlash

Happy New Year everyone. I read a lot of food blogs and articles. Lately, I’ve come across more and more people who seem annoyed with the growing foodie culture. Even I have become confused with the sheer number of food-based reality shows and I understand there are more to come this year. Others are tired of waiting for tables at popular restaurants that have been well-reviewed online and in the press, and they’ve vowed to never wait for a meal again. Others still are tired of food that they believe has become too complicated, and they want only “simple” dishes. I understand and I’ve certainly found lots of menus pretentious. I also don’t go to restaurants only because they are trendy or popular, and there are many nights when I can’t imagine eating anything more complicated than a simple bowl of pasta. These critics seem to be saying that they are tired of food talk, food entertainment, and are asking quite simply, ‘Why can’t we just be happy with regular food?’

Fixing our food system is one of the most important things we can do for our country. The current system of mainstream food production is devastating to the environment, the lives and safety of its workers, animals, and to the health of consumers. I’m hearing from people who are ‘over’ organic and local foods and are even becoming annoyed when restaurants talk about their sourcing with diners. Don’t get me wrong; I love making fun of foodie culture. A lot of it is silly. When I first heard that an upscale restaurant here in NYC served two different olive oils, one for men and one for women, I was certain it was a joke or an SNL sketch. I’m not sure I could listen to a waiter explain ‘feminine oil’ to me without saying something wildly inappropriate. I also can’t get enough of the Portlandia scene where the waitress gives the diners the name and photo of the local chicken they are about to eat. If you haven’t seen it, it’s hilarious and really worth watching.

But I don’t think the pretension and occasional silliness of the language of the sustainable food movement should be used as a reason to minimize the movement all together – because we’re making progress. The fact is, many restaurants and home cooks are far more concerned with sourcing and sustainability than they were even a few years ago. There is more pressure on big companies to improve farming practices and people are, at the very least, discussing the role that soda plays in our national health crisis. Mark Bittman did a great piece last year that outlines the recent progress we’ve made in the food movement http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/19/progress-is-our-most-important-product/.  Bittman, and nearly everyone else involved in improving our food system, is fully aware that fixing our food problems will be neither quick nor easy.

Establishments that make efforts to source responsibly need to inform their customers that they’ve done so. It can indeed be a lot to process on a menu. I might not want to read a lengthy description of the farm where a restaurant gets its eggs, but I can skim it and then at least acknowledge that the establishment went out of its way and probably spent a substantial amount of money to buy a product that wasn’t produced on a factory farm. I read a post recently by a diner who is tired of burger places making a big deal about serving grass-fed beef and just wants a ‘regular burger.’

The problem is that ‘regular’ food is in many ways more complicated than more sustainable food. While a ‘regular’ restaurant certainly could describe in detail how its chickens were raised, it would take lots of space (probably more space than the chicken was afforded most of its life) and it would not make for nice pre-dinner reading. Mass-produced food is still the norm and if a restaurant wants to let us know that it went out of its way to source animals from a specific farm or eggs from a specific breed of chicken, it needs to say so or add a label like ‘heritage,’ ‘pastured,’ or ‘local.’ The labels may be annoying to some people but to immediately peg them as pretentious misses the point. Restaurants are not required to tell diners when meat has been raised on a feedlot or processed with a new ammonia-based cleaning product. We assume that’s the case. They only need to say ‘beef.’ No label and no pretension. It’s just beef and it’s what’s for dinner. And unlike in the UK, eggs don’t need to be marked with a specific label letting the consumer know if the chicken spent its entire life in a battery cage. So we look for ‘cage-free’ eggs because without the label, the eggs are almost certainly not cage-free. The labels are simply giving us information about where the food came from.

Agribusiness has the best marketing I’ve ever seen. They’ve been able to convince people that a Wendy’s burger is ‘Old Fashioned,’ that pork is a white meat and that tomatoes are juicy and delicious 365 days a year regardless of where in America you live. From that perspective, a hamburger from a cow that wasn’t fed corn-based feed or antibiotics is a trendy new dish. Pork from a pig raised outdoors, is a food snob item. And tomatoes grown nearby in the summer rather than picked green and shipped 5000 miles are a luxury.

One recent online critique claimed that the food movement is “only relevant to rich white people” — everyone invested in the food movement needs to do more to make sure that’s not true – and that people from every background benefit from a move toward less processed and more affordable healthy options. Encouraging restaurants to source more responsibly is only one part of the larger effort to improve our food system. There are plenty of neighborhoods with no fresh food available at all. There are also people who simply can’t afford to buy responsibly produced products because they are too expensive. And there are thousands of children who can’t recognize fresh garlic or potatoes let alone worry about how they were grown or harvested. There is far more work to be done.

If you’re fortunate enough to be able to choose more sustainable products, there is no shame in patronizing restaurants that focus on better ingredients or in thanking a farmer who is raising a new type of heirloom plant or animal. Recently, I visited a cheese shop here in NYC that’s pretty high up on the hipster food scale. A very cool employee described in great detail the farm that a new goat cheese had come from. He even talked about how fun it was to visit the farm and share dinner with the farmer after milking the goats. To be honest, I was in a rush and not that interested in the whole story. But I thanked the employee. And I felt thankful again that night when I enjoyed the cheese knowing it had come from a real farm with good people who treat their animals and their surrounding environment well.

I hope this year we can continue to give our food more – not less – thought. Thinking about where our food comes from is not pretentious or out of touch. It’s real. And perhaps it’s the most honest thing we can do as we choose what to eat three times a day.

Balcony Omelettes

Balcony Omlettes!

I always thought that a garden on a 10th floor balcony would be protected from squirrels. But no. Even though we have only a few small plants, squirrels are willing to climb the 10 stories for a shot at some organic vegetables. I always knew squirrels were serious about their health and diets and had high standards for local produce, but this is a little much. My wife planted garlic chives and marigolds, which actually repel them.

But because we made such efforts to protect our crop, I find myself savoring every bit of produce we get from our tiny garden and making sure nothing goes to waste. Now and then we have some extra herbs and vegetables that are more than we need for dinner. Sometimes there are extra eggplants or hot peppers but most often, we have extra cherry tomatoes and basil. They are of course good on their own or in pasta but if they need to be eaten the next morning, they work well in omelettes.

There is something energizing about having such fresh herbs and vegetables in the morning and there are very good local eggs available all over now. I’ve also been cooking with crème fraiche from Ronnybrook Farms. (I love the crème fraiche from VT Butter and Cheese Company as well). It’s tangy and rich and works really well with the bright taste of fresh tomato. Obviously, there are endless combinations of fillings that work here but I find this to be the most simple and satisfying. It works.

Omelette with Balcony Tomatoes and Basil ($2.50/serving)

In a small cast iron skillet, heat  1.5 teaspoons of butter and a teaspoon of olive oil over medium heat

Beat 3 eggs together with a pinch of salt and pepper

Pour egg mixture in skillet and let cook for about a minute

When bottom of omlette just starts to firm up, spoon two teaspoons of crème fraiche into middle of egg mixture

Cook for another 30 seconds or so and add a few halved cherry tomatoes and some basil leaves

Fold omlette and plate with some extra basil leaves on the top.

Check balcony for squirrels.

Grilled Cornish Hens with Garlic Scape Pesto

Grilled Cornish Hens with Garlic Pureed Garlic Scapes and Lemons (farmers market bill $18/2 servings= $9/serving)

When I say Cornish, surely you must think of everyone’s favorite Celtic language. Or maybe a taste that reminds you slightly of corn.  Not corn entirely but corn-ish. But when I hear the word, I think of the Cornish Game Hens that are popping up at farmers markets all over  the place. They are really just small chickens but their meat is delicate, they cook quickly, and they can take bold seasonings. I’m also seeing lots of garlic scapes hanging out at the farmers markets these days often for a dollar or 2 per bunch. And if there is a better way to blast a dish full of garlic flavor, I’m not sure what it is.

I like to puree the scapes in a food processor along with some lemon juice and salt. Herbs are great here too if you have any hanging around. Also, I love grilling some dandelion greens or even chard right alongside the birds.

Cook well and see you in Cornwall!

Grilled Cornish Hens with Garlic Pureed Garlic Scapes and Lemons

The night before:

Puree 4 garlic scapes, 2 cloves of garlic, and the juice from 1 lemon (reserve lemon halves for later) in a food processor.

Add 3 tablespoons of olive oil and a pinch of salt and pulse to blend together.

With a chef’s knife or kitchen shears, split hen down the middle

Put the halves in a large bowl and pour garlic scape puree over

Cover and refrigerate overnight

Preheat a gas grill with the flame on as high as possible

Remove hen from marinade and pat dry

Grill hens skin side down for 5 minutes and then rotate and cook for another 3

Turn heat to low and flip hen over

Baste with marinade and place lemon halves on top of hen

Close grill top and cook for 12-15 minutes and then check thigh temperature

When the thigh temperature reads 175

Remove hen from grill and let it rest for 10 minutes so juices have time to reincorporate.