Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Ask the Huisvrouw: DIY calcium intake boost

Dear Huisvrouw,

I've been reading your blog for a while now. I love the mix you have going on here--crafty stuff like writing and knitting, culture and the arts, and especially all your fantastic food content.

The question I'm writing to you about today has to do with that last, food, and I'm afraid it's a two-parter. It's recently come to my attention that I really need to increase my intake of calcium. Per my doctor's recommendation, I'm taking some very sciency, organic supplement, but she's been really stern with me about needing to incorporate more calcium-rich foods into my regular diet. So, part one of my question is, what should I be eating?

Part two: Here's the deal: I have a partner and a cat, but no kids, yet. I'm in my early thirties, and of modest, modest means. And I'm a bit of a food moron. I'm an awesome waitress, but my back-of-house knowledge set and self-efficacy is nill. I do, however, reallllllllly want to learn. I'm passionate about living healthier for myself and for my partner and the kids we might get lucky enough to have someday. So, and dumb it down for me, Huisvrouw, how do I eat the calcium-rich foods, once I get them home from the store?


Waitress Lost in the Kitchen
Dear WLitK,

I'm so flattered you asked. I've had calcium-boosting behavior drilled into me since birth, almost, given how many risk factors for osteoporosis (the brittle bone end game for insufficient calcium intake) I happen to embody: I'm female, white, thin, and have a family history of low bone density (dad, not mom). But I enjoyed doing a little research on the subject, primarily at the National Osteoporosis Foundation and the totally excellent, interactive, customizable new government food pyramid site (It's so nice to feel positively about something the feds have done in the past 5 years).

Let's talk first about the role of calcium in the body and what's behind your doctor's concern.

Calcium is an important structural component of healthy bones and teeth. In addition, calcium ions play a messenger role in all kinds of other cellular business, from the firing of muscles to the firing of synapses. A small amount is also excreted each day, mainly through the kidneys, and when women are breastfeeding, they secrete enough to meet the considerable needs of the little bone-growing machines that depend on them. If there doesn't happen to be enough calcium in circulation at the time that it is needed, your bones dispense it like an ATM. It just gets harder and harder to make compensatory deposits once bone growth has ended, so over time the bones can get porous and weak. A person with osteoporosis not only might fall down and break a hip, but she might spontaneously break a hip and fall down.

Women suffer from osteoporosis at higher rates than do men (20% of white and Asian women over the age of 50, vs. 7% of the corresponding demographic of men; for non-Hispanic blacks, 5% of women vs. 4% of men; and for Hispanics, 10% of women vs. 3% of men) not only because of the potential breastfeeding component, but because we generally have smaller, finer bones, which are the effective equivalents of smaller starting bank accounts. (The same thing goes for us skinny folks.) Also, estrogen levels drop precipitously with menopause, while testosterone production in men declines more gradually, and it turns out that these sex hormones help the body to retain calcium. It is possible for women to lose 20% of their bone mass in the first 5-7 years after menopause.

Smoking further leeches calcium out of your bones at whatever age you do it, as does an inactive lifestyle. On the positive side of the equation, stretching and weight-bearing exercise helps to build bone strength, as does an ample supply of vitamin D, which has to be present for bones to absorb and store calcium. Your skin actually makes vitamin D out of sunlight (which might have something to do with why pale whiteys like me who have to stay out of strong sun are at greater risk for osteoporosis than people of color are), so more and more doctors are starting to recommend that we allow ourselves 10-15 minutes of sunscreen-free exposure to the sun 3 or 4 times a week.

Now I know that you didn't really ask me for a whole science lesson, but I always find it easier to figure out the kinds of changes I'm willing and able to make when I also know the hows and whys involved. If you look in the paragraphs above, you can already see a number of things you can do to make maximum use of the calcium you're already taking in: stretch, exercise, spend a little time outside each day, and try to give up cigarettes if you smoke. The next step is to consider what kinds of foods you can eat to average about 1000 mg of dietary calcium a day.

We'll start with the easy stuff: dairy products. Everyone knows that milk has a lot of calcium, and now you know why; nature intended that milk for calves, which also need to build bone as they grow. One cup of milk provides about 300 mg, or 30% of your recommended daily allowance. You can get the equivalent amount of calcium from 1 1/2 ounces of hard cheese, 1/3 c. shredded cheese, 1/2 c. ricotta cheese, or 2 c. cottage cheese; or you could enjoy a single 8-ounce serving of yogurt. And here's another sneaky thing: there are about 52 mg of calcium per tablespoon of nonfat powdered milk, and you can add it into homemade baked goods at the rate of 2T per cup of flour.

But what about the majority of the world's population that is more or less lactose intolerant? (As a group, only Northern European peoples seem to retain the ability to digest milk after childhood.) And what about a balanced diet? Well, consider these other options:

Fish (especially whole or canned ocean fish with bones): A 3-oz serving of salmon, which realistically speaking is about half of an entree-sized portion, contains 180 mg of calcium. The same 3-oz. serving of trout has 146; sardines, 325 mg; ocean perch, 116; and even shrimp have 102.

Pretty much any fruit or vegetable you pick up contains 40-60 mg of calcium. The real heavy lifters, though, are dark green veggies. Consider how much calcium there is in one cup of each of these foods, and load up your plate: Spinach, 291 mg; collard greens, 266 mg; turnip greens, 246 mg; okra, 176 mg; broccoli, 188 mg; bok choi, 158 mg; okra, 176 mg; rhubarb, 348 mg.

Beans: A lot of the sources I consulted specified dried or canned beans; I doubt the preparation method has anything to do with calcium content. More likely this is just a reflection on our overall impatience with foods that take a long time to cook. At any rate, you should feel free to crack open a nice convenient, easy can now and again--just make sure it didn't come from China, and it's not on the current botulism recall list. One cup white beans, 192 mg; cowpeas, 212 mg; kidney beans, 80 mg; refried beans, 90 mg.

Soybeans are beans too, you know: 1 cup edamame provides 176 mg calcium, and there's also good calcium in soy derivatives: 3 oz. tofu, 150 mg; tempeh, 82 mg.

Miscellaneous: Nuts (1/4 c. almonds, 89 mg); Blackstrap molasses (1 T, 172 mg); and a few other things you can look up yourself at the sources I cited above. (If I could sneak in one more plug for the MyPyramid site, it would be that you can use the Tracker function to get both a broad view of the quality of your diet over time, and the specific nutritional content of almost any food you can think of.)

Whew. This is getting really long, so I'm just going to wind it up with a baker's dozen or so of calcium-rich meals or snack ideas to get you going.
  1. Spinach lasagna, made with tons of spinach, ricotta, and mozzarella cheese; you can really get a lot of servings out of a pan of lasagna, so this is a good, cheap meal
  2. Salmon steaks with something dark green on the side; season the fish with salt, pepper, and a little dill if you want to get fancy, then stick it under the broiler for about 5 minutes
  3. Raw broccoli dipped in a yogurt-based dip; add some instant onion soup mix to plain yogurt for an easy savory dip, or make a sweetened yogurt dip for fruit, which is always good, too
  4. Stir fry with bok choi and tofu; there's a Dutch saying (or maybe something that I just always have said) that is central to my stir fry logic--hoe kleurrijker hoe gezonder. The more colorful, the healthier it is. Saute a bunch of seasonal veggies on high heat, starting with the hardest vegetables and working your way down to the tender ones. Just make sure you've got one or more dark green things in there
  5. Plain yogurt on your baked potato (similar effect and much more calcium than sour cream)
  6. Molasses cookies, made from scratch with blackstrap molasses and powdered milk sifted into the flour
  7. Fruit parfaits made by layering yogurt, almond granola, and fresh fruit
  8. Keep almonds and cheese around for grab-it-and-go snacks
  9. Spinach salad
  10. Steamed soy beans with coarse salt, aka edamame; you can buy these frozen and then all you have to do is heat them up, sprinkle salt on them, and sit back and look fabulously cosmopolitan
  11. Soul food! Say yes to collard greens and baked beans, okra, and (yep) sneak some powdered milk into the flour you use to batter the chicken and/or green tomatoes
  12. Haute bourgeois tapas with sardines, garlicky white beans, and a wedge of Manchego cheese; considering that you can get the beans canned and just jazz them up a minute with some garlic and whatever fresh herbs are plentiful in the moment, this is remarkably easy, and with the possible exception of the cheese, pretty cheap. Actually almost anything, even the fancy looking stuff, is cheap if you are willing to do all or part of the preparation
  13. Caesar salad with fresh dressing: go heavy on the anchovies and parmesan cheese
  14. Rhubarb cobbler with ice cream

Friday, July 27, 2007

(botulism free) Chile beer: a recipe

Most of the cool farm wives and frugal huisvrouwen these days freeze rather than can, but I've always been fascinated with jars of preserves.

It's complicated. It's about going down into the dank, slightly scary basement at my grandparent's house in earliest memory to pick out a quart jar of beans or peas, and how much I would give to be standing there now. It's about the home ec barn at the Minnesota State Fair, where the colors and patterns of backlit preserves rival those of the quilt display. It's about a kitchen 10 miles out of Athens, OH, where A. and I put up apples and tomatoes, lining up the jars on shelves by a window that framed frosty laundry and a defunct pump in the yard.

And it's about botulism toxin, the stuff that stills the palsied and spastic and makes so many New Yorkers look smooth and impassive, that grows in oxygen-deprived spaces and that is lethal in in doses above one microgram. And that is potentially lurking in tens of millions of cans of chili sauces, hash, beans, and other meat- and chili-containing products made by Castleberry Food Co. for major store brands like Meijers, Krogers, Piggly Wiggly, Food Club over the past two years. (For a complete recall list, click here.)

All the more reason to cook up your own tasty chile products at home. Here's my recipe for chile beer, adapted from Shawn Davis and Fred Colby's 'Hot Chihuahua' Jalapeno and Santa Fe Chile Blonde Ale (Zymurgy Sept/Oct 2005) and originally inspired by Sigda's Green Chili Beer. I just cooked it up yesterday so I can't speak for the results yet, and honestly, several critical recipe alterations were the unintended consequences of mistakes. It is bubbling furiously right now, though, and you know how much I love that.

for 5 gallons/19 liters:
  • 7.5 lbs. (give or take) Cooper's Light malt extract
  • .5 lb 80L crystal malt
  • .5 lb clear candi sugar
  • 1 oz N. Brewer pellet hops, added at the start of the boil
  • 1.5 oz. Cascade flower hops, added with 15 minutes left on the boil
    • [This would also have been a great time to throw in an oz. of ground coriander seed to give the beer a little citrusy something something, but I forgot. On the other hand, it's deep summer and our apartment is never in the temperature range (70-75 degrees, tops) recommended to prevent 'fruity esters' from cropping up in my beer, so I guess I can just leave it to the little yeasties.]
  • Irish moss added in the last couple of minutes to clarify
    • [Usually I use Whirlfloc tabs, but dried seaweed seemed much more sporting.]
After the wort was cool, I pitched Windsor yeast. This was a mistake; I was supposed to use Doric Ale yeast, which apparently I must have thrown in my Irish red batch a couple of weeks ago, also by mistake. I haven't found a really detailed description of the flavors imparted by either one, but I have no complaints about the work ethic of the Windsor strain in this batch.

  • Dry hop with 3 oz. of dried Guajillo chiles and 3 oz. of dried New Mexico chiles.
  • Dry hop with .5 oz flower hops; I'll probably use Saaz.
Kegging/bottling day:
  • I plan to chop up 3 fresh serrano chiles--I like them better than Jalapenos and anyhow that's what's in Sigda's--boil them in 2 c. water, strain out the chiles and throw the cooled water in the keg along with the priming sugar.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Revolt of Guadalajara, installment 5

A couple of months ago I began the serial translation of a 1937 novella by Dutch writer Jan Jacob Slauerhoff called The Revolt of Guadalajara. I'm going to try to be more disciplined about hashing it out but would be grateful for any insistent clamoring you could muster to that effect.

Finally in today's installment, we get some characters:

Chapter 1, pp. 11-15

Besides the churches and banks, Guadalajara also had a Gobierno Central, a representation of the federal government, a municipality, three hospitals, a Supreme Court, a tax office, four convents, an Episcopal hall, some ten big houses belonging to rich landowners and industrialists that could be called palacios with a bit of good will, and beyond that the city that, other than a number of stores and warehouses, consisted of low huts. Almost all larger buildings lay on the Avenida Central and formed the drab stretched-out skyline that was visible from the far horizon above the bald brown or grey-red plain and most resembled the back of a prehistoric animal, a crocodile or iguanodon.

In keeping with an obvious and unspoken agreement with the authorities that dated back to the era of slavery and continued in effect long after emancipation, other than the livery-coated or uniformed or priestly garbed servants of church and state, the Indians never came into the Avenida Central, such that it almost always lay dead and abandoned both in the heat of the day and in the dusky night. Only in the brief twilight hour did the carriages of the more distinguished residents pass to and fro, or a few men walk and sit on the terraces of the two cafés. Only for processions and a few national holidays did the Indians enter the Avenida too. Processions took place quite often, as the church authorities knew from centuries of experience that every people, however humbled and oppressed, must have occasional opportunity to push themselves up, to experience themselves en masse, hearing each other’s shouts, filling their noses with each other’s reeking. Coming together in the Avenida didn’t stir up any kind of mass consciousness of power; to the contrary. Devoid of will, the stream flowed in a single direction between the lines of the big buildings and was dissipated by the gendarmes once the parade had run its course. Contented, tired and sleepy they go back to their houses and rest or drink the rest of the holiday away, and rebellious thoughts never take root: they are tired and hoarse from screaming.

With the examples of Christian humility borne on litters and flagstaffs before them, they could vent their suppressed lust for life through shocking dances done to a music gone gradually over from the plodding tempos of the church to a dance beat. The hubbub of the city, the high gables on either side, these overpower them and then suddenly it is all over, the parade disbands on a silent square and they head docilely for home.

The high church authorities made the occasional remark about what they termed the degenerative influence of processions in the otherwise tranquil Guadalajara. But Monseigneur Valdés, who’d sat in the bishop’s seat over Guadalajara for twenty years, took up the defense in an articulate hand. Monseigneur Valdés wrote gladly and copiously. How otherwise could he employ his great gifts of spirit and heart?

What was this talented priest still doing stuck out in Guadalajara? Was it because of a foreboding that precisely here, in this city, something big was sure to pass? Or had he simply been forgotten? Or does the consistory of cardinals secretly have it in for great talents? Or was Monseigneur Valdés not who he took himself to be?

He took the first solution to be correct. God’s ways were inscrutable, surely something big was going to happen in Guadalajara. He never spoke about these expectations with the dean or the canons of the diocese. They believed only what they saw happen. But he did with a young Indian priest, Tarabana, who served in the little church of the Sagrado Corazón, in the middle of the old Indian neighborhood, and who wrote with a very legible hand.

Tarabana was not a pale, docile, stunted youth, like so many of his associates, he was lively, walked tall, secretly believed in the rebirth of his race.

Really it was a wonder that the authoritarian and priestly Valdés could stand this young man; or did he see reflected something of himself that never had come into its own? In the end a certain kind of intimacy had developed between them. Tarabana could listen for hours to the orations of the bishop. Usually they began along these lines:

‘Don’t be unhappy, Tarabana, with your little wooden church, any more than I am with my meager and remote diocese, that really should have had its seat on the council by now, long before González and Machado, who are less talented than I am. Something big is going to happen in Guadalajara, otherwise I wouldn’t still be here, it must be for something. It should have happened a long time ago, but we never know what obstacles stand in God’s way. He also likes to write destiny along crooked lines. But something’s coming! Just look once at Saint Iago, who has the most prophetic spirit of all the saints. Hasn’t he on the occasional rainy day ever had an ominous feeling?’

In this way he got the young priest all wound up. Tarabana often really would have liked to ask just exactly what was going to happen but he didn’t dare; when he had it on the tip of his tongue the bishop looked vacantly past him or suddenly began writing as if in midstream on a sheet of parchment that always lay ready. He’d been working for years now on a church history of Mexico, on the description of miracles witnessed in the area. If nothing happened in Guadalajara, at least in the time that he was still there, then his name would still become famous through the publication of these works. The Holy Father would reproach himself for having left Valdés moldering his whole life in Guadalajara, instead of giving him a place where he could shine.

Tarabana then stood wavering at the other end of the table. Should he go away or stay? Sometimes Valdés looked at him with boredom and confusion, in which case he knew for certain. Sometimes he stopped looking up altogether and then he off he went, swearing to himself never to return. After these visits he didn’t go to his church, where malice and brooding made it hard to hold it together, but to the hut where his parents still lived. It stood on the outskirts of the Indian quarter by the steeply pitched river that dribbled one day and ran dry the next.

Tarabana’s parents were among the poorest, but they had the good fortune of having only had one child, and a son at that. For this rare dearth of offspring—most averaged ten or more children—they thanked the gods and saints regularly.

the importance of secondary fermentation: the jury is still out

This morning I moved the Irish red ale from my new secondary fermenter, a glass carboy, into a keg, and then the Saison that was the source of all that ruckus a couple of weeks ago from the plastic primary fermenting bucket into the glass carboy. This involved a considerable amount of washing and sanitizing, not to mention an episode of spatial impossibility when it came to extracting a muslin bag of hops from the carboy's 2-inch neck. It was floating at the top like a big tea bag, so it wasn't hard to snag it and pull the first couple of inches through, but eventually I had to cut the bag open and pull out successive wads of hops until finally I could wrest the rest out; it brought camels and eyes of needles to mind, and the certainty that there has to be a better way...right?

Two-stage brewing purportedly makes for clearer beer; sure enough, only a small amount of trub had collected following transfer from the primary fermenter, and it was easy to leave this behind when I siphoned the beer into a keg for the final conditioning phase. Worth the hassle? I'll let you know when we tap it.

The Saison continues to be a mystery. Fermentation had slowed but not entirely stopped, judging from the 2-3 lazy bubbles per minute still visible in the airlock this morning, 10 days after the batch was brewed. I wanted to get the beer into glass, though, to prevent it from oxidizing. I don't really know what that means in a beer quality sense, but it sounds bad; anyhow, I want to be able to keg it by the end of next week, when we're headed away for a few days, so there was no more time to delay. I heaved the bucket up onto the kitchen cabinet at the beginning of the whole process so it would have time to settle before siphoning. When I finally pulled off the lid, though, I saw evidence of the most cataclysmic fermentation my bucket has ever known. There was trub blown all the way to the top of its walls, trub caked and dried on the underside of the lid, trub creeping up the airlock's central tube, impossible to remove. I'm not sure what this means, if anything; I just know that it's as different from the scant inch or so of mayhem that I usually scrape off the fermenter as the 10 days were from the customary 2, and I'm really curious to taste the results in about a month.

If I have time tonight, I think I'll finally make that chile beer.

What's Fresh Now: CSA week 8

green beans
shelling peas
Swiss chard
cucumbers, lots of cucumbers

A few related comments:
1. I love beans.
2. No more lettuce!
3. This time I'm not screwing up the Swiss chard. At my brother-in-law-the-chef's advice I'm going to blanch it in some really salty water for a couple of minutes, then saute it (though I patently refuse to blanch or saute it "off" as current chef speak dictates--no offense, B., it's just my own little losing usage battle) in olive oil with a whole lot of garlic.
4. I will make some nutritious use out of the cucumbers. I will probably slice one up for a snack in a few minutes, for instance. But mostly I will make Cucumber Drinks, my summer cocktail of choice for 5 or 6 summers running, ever since my friend J. from Leipzig-by-way-of-Zipolite introduced me to them.

Cucumber drinks (snazzier names welcome):
If you're like me, you grew up thinking of cucumbers fondly enough maybe, but ultimately as vehicles for vinegar and/or salt. One sip of this cocktail will turn you on to a subtle but sensuous pleasure that's been right under your nose all this time.

1 bottle of seltzer
1 bottle of ginger ale
1 cucumber

  • Peel your cucumber if it's waxy; if it's not, leave it alone because it will make the finished product taste that much more green.
  • Next, using a slicer or a sharp knife and a steady hand, cut paper-thin cross sections. You'll need a quarter cup or so per serving. I like making up a whole pitcher at a time, but you can do it glass by glass if you don't mind having to keep going back to the kitchen as people try them and decide they want their own.
  • Combine the shaved cucumber with (per serving) a couple of fingers of vodka, ice, and more or less (depending on how sweet you like it) equal amounts ginger ale and seltzer.
  • Steep for about 5 minutes and serve. If it's really hot and you're worried about the ice melting and the fizz fizzling before they're ready to go, you could steep the cucumbers in just the vodka ahead of time. I'm just never that organized.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

in which she reasserts the enjoyment of naming

We took the Circle Line today. The loop around Manhattan took 3 hours, and our guide had very little to say about the Bronx, for instance, so parts of it got a little boring. But it is good, I think, or at least good for me, to cultivate a sense of being new to these parts, of wonder at wherever I happen to be.

I have been thinking about this a lot lately. Recently I passed my 4-year anniversary of becoming an ex-expat*. I have basically lived my adult life in 4-year chapters, so what this means to me looking out across the open sky of year 5 is that I have no idea how to proceed. In the past, I've staved off boredom by up & moving to a far-off land where I would proceed to expend my very last breath trying not to be an outsider, which I interminably was.

Still, I remember laughing once at a breathless someone who imagined my life to be incredibly exotic. I laughed because most of the time my life was a bag of papers that had to be graded by Monday. It was not exotic, I protested, not at all, but while that was true, it was also true that the littlest things that surrounded me all had different, new-to-me names, names that I was prone to repeat and savor in my mouth**. It simply was not possible for me not to pay attention.

New York is like that for a lot of people, I know, th'usband included. Everything that happens here is a bit more laden and/or fraught with meaning by sheer virtue of it having happened in New York. In subsequent retellings, the stage directions always specify the neighborhood(s) involved. There are accents and pushcarts and zany bystanders and local color. Everything is lit with heartbreakingly New Yorky light.

*Attempting to appear Interesting, I suppose, I commented to someone I've never met that I am an ex-expat. I said this because I'd been thinking about all of this, and feeling a bit beige, and because my earlier admission that I was an ex-poet had generated excitement and inspired a whole new del.icio.us category. It inspired; with it, I'd carved out a whole new plane of existence for myself. For a second there it was almost like up & moving. But this ex-expat business, while kindly received, turned out to be a statement of the obvious. "of course poets are ex-pats so an ex-poet would almost have to be an ex-expat," sed ryan.

Ouch. He's right, of course. An ex-pat is always finding out the word for something for the first time and cannot afford lapses of attention. At first it is about understanding and being understood and being able to participate in serious conversations without sounding like a six-year-old. Later it is about the pleasure of those words in your mouth, and that is poetry. **Gertrude Stein put it this way:
What is poetry.
Poetry has to do with vocabulary just as prose has not....
And what is the vocabulary of which poetry absolutely is. It is a vocabulary entirely based on the noun as prose is essentially and determinately and vigorously not based on the noun.
Poetry is concerned with using with abusing, with losing with wanting, with denying with avoiding with adoring with replacing the noun. It is doing that always doing that, doing that and doing nothing but that. Poetry is doing nothing but using losing refusing and pleasing and betraying and caressing nouns. That is what poetry does, that is what poetry has to do no matter what kind of poetry it is....
I have said that a noun is a name of anything by definition that is what it is and a name of anything is not interesting because once you know its name the enjoyment of naming it is over and therefore in writing prose names that is nouns are completely uninteresting. But and that is a thing to be remembered you can love a name and if you love a name then saying that name any number of times only makes you love it more, more violently more persistently more tormentedly. Anybody knows how anybody calls out the name of anybody one loves. And so that is poetry really loving the name of anything and that is not prose. Yes any of you can know that. (From "Poetry and Grammar," one of Stein's 1934 Lectures in America)
Look, all that happened today is that we took the Circle Line and I took about fifty pictures, and when we got off and we were walking towards our car on 46th St., a guy spotted the camera around my neck and asked if we needed a cab. And although my immediate response was to get all I'm-from-Brooklyn on him (because I am still always all about expending hasta el ultimo aliento trying not to be an outsider), in the seconds that followed I realized that it was a good thing to be taken as a tourist. If my project for year 5 is to learn how not to up & move it behooves me not to make myself too much at home. I need to look up from the sidewalk in front of me, ask people for the words for things, hear the accents, linger in the New Yorky light. I need to carry a camera and pay attention. That's all I'm saying.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

What's Fresh Now: CSA week 6 or 7

I've lost count how many weeks it's been, but we are now officially, as a newly favorite blogger of mine commented, in "a new spot in the summer....deep summer." It's made for a lot of bitching about the humidity, which I actually enjoy to a certain extent (the humidity, not the bitching), as well as for a whole lotta tasty veggies. Here's a picture of this week's haul (red lettuce, arugula, basil, broccoli, snap peas, carrots, squash).

I should also mention the deep summer flowers bought for a pittance at the market on Saturday: butterfly weed and some kind of brilliant little tiger lilies, a frenzy of red, yellow and orange in a vase.

After several weeks of killing everything by being just way too fancy, last night I finally cooked a good meal by simply steaming the broccoli and tossing it with bacon, yellow raisins, toasted pine nuts and some oil and vinegar; sauteeing the squash with some garlic and butter; and letting the thighs of a couple of happy, pasture-raised chickens testify to the beauty of their lives without much added hoopla.

Simplicity is the name of Marc Bittman (aka The Minimalist)'s game, and here in his list of 101 quick summer meals, he's dazzlingly prolific and inventive, too. No excuse not to cook now. I think I'm almost--but not quite, since I can't seem to resist including the link--ready to forgive him for once including a buddy's (Spanish) tapas bar as the final insult in an overwhelmingly sloppy review of regional Mexican restaurants in Mexico City.

Farm Bill time

Within the last several years that I've been living back in the U.S. as an ex-expat, I've discovered the simple pleasure of calling my representatives in Washington, and more recently, in New York. There is so much about the current governance of our country that does violence to my beliefs that if nothing else, calling up my elected officials and telling them that I'm cranked up or pissed off about something makes me feel slightly less powerless. It's amazingly easy to make an impact; when in D.C. for a few days last summer, I stopped by my House Representative's office, and the intern behind the desk claimed to recognize my name. The other day, when I called up my State Senator to register my disgust that a) the Democratic majority had failed to pass a congestion pricing measure in time to receive much-needed federal funds for public transportation and b) said SS had attributed the problem to Mayor Bloomberg's failure to adopt an "ingratiating" posture, I was pleased to hear from the haggard-sounding woman who took my call that the phone had been ringing off the hook.

If you'd like to try it out yourself, let me just remind you that every five years Farm Bill time rolls around, and that this is the week. The politics of food production are intimately involved in all kinds of commonly held concerns, including environmental protection, health, energy independence, trade deficits, labor rights, immigration, and social justice. Phone calls and letters have already helped remove a measure from an earlier draft of the current bill that was intended to preempt state laws or regulations beyond those mandated at the federal level. Here are some of the current provisions you could weigh in on with your Representative, particularly if s/he is on the House Agriculture Committee:
  • an amendment by Representative Goodlatte (R-VA) would gut COOL (country of origin labeling) mandates, making these voluntary and restricting them to the 20 most commonly consumed fruits and vegetables, capping potential fines at $1,000, and defining imported animals as domestic unless they did not pass Go and went straight to the slaughterhouse
  • in happier news, other amendments support:
    • organic conversion assistance (Rep. Gillibrand, D-NY)
    • "fair share" of USDA-ARS funding for organic research (Rep. Kagen, D-WI)
    • mandatory funding for organic research (Rep. Cardoza, D-CA
  • you could also express your views, among other issues, on:
    • increased funding for the Food Stamp and Nutrition program
    • mandatory funding for the Community Food Project Grant Program, the Organic Research and Extension program, the Fruit and Vegetable Snack Program and the Healthy Enterprise Development Program that would help small and mid-sized farmers distribute their products to local markets
    • changes to the Conservation Security Program to make it easier for organic producers to participate and receive on-going financial assistance rewarding the implementation of conservation practices on their farms
    • crop insurance equity, leveling the playing field for organic farmers who currently must pay a 5% surcharge on their crop insurance rates but are typically reimbursed for their losses according to conventional prices that don't take the greater value of their products into account
For more information or to sign and send a pre-fab letter instead, click here. To get contact information for your elected officials in Washington, click here.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

yeast poop, continued

I cannot emphasize enough how much I love this Saison yeast (Wyeast 3724).

Generally speaking, the active fermentation stage in brewing goes all too fast. Somewhere between 4 and 12 hours after adding ('pitching' in brewer-speak) the yeast, the airlock starts bubbling and the air fills with the smell of rising bread. It's my favorite part and I could hover around all day loving it, except that it tends to be all over with by the time I think to look again. The first time this happened, I freaked out, requiring multiple telephonic assurances from my Brewing Uncles that there had not been some kind of catastrophic yeast blight. By now I've gotten used to it, but it's always a little disappointing, like fireworks can be. Just when it's getting good, poof.

Anyhow, this batch got started on Saturday night and is still bubbling along slowly. I have no hydrometer or the kind of patience it would take to measure the amount of malt sugars left in solution. All I really need to know is that for four days, a colony of living fungi has been living fat and happy off of my beer, chomping up the malt sugars and pooping out CO2 and alcohol. Mine is a rough science.

From everything I've read, this slow attenuation, besides providing good, relatively cheap entertainment for the better part of a week, will result in a dry, estery brew. That's really the word They use, estery. It means perfumey, more or less; fruity like pineapple, banana, or bubblegum. That may sound gross in association with beer, but I'm imagining something with a wine-like character, a fruity pucker. And it's incredible to think that those flavors are the byproducts of little one-celled mushroom geniuses, or that anyone ever was smart enough to figure this out.

The hard part is going to be waiting to tap this eventual keg. The same sources that tantalize me with aromas of juicy fruit also insist that it takes around 10 weeks for Belgian yeasts to hit their stride. I may just have to take that on faith; I want to be drinking this stuff before the saison ends.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

I think it's because I really like capes.

This just in....I am Superman!

But wait....all two other people I know who did this are Superman too, though maybe not quite so definitively, mild-manneredly, and virtuously as I am. Maybe I laid the virtue on a little thick. Can we really all be Superman, though?

Your results:
You are Superman

Wonder Woman
Iron Man
Green Lantern
The Flash
You are mild-mannered, good,
strong and you love to help others.

Click here to take the Superhero Personality Quiz

Monday, July 16, 2007

back to the yeast again

...I forgot to mention the other cool thought I thunk or maybe just read in Omnivore's Dilemma with regards to yeast: that is, that beer is what you find at the intersection of the four elements...of water, of course, and earth in the form of grain; of fire as heat, and yeast from the air. Isn't that fabulous?

aw shucks

A friend/coworker just phoned me up and told me she'd thought of me this weekend because she'd seen Michelle Shocked play and she reminded her of me. "I don't know how you sing," she said, "but she's tall and thin and political and funny and eclectic and. . . ." In fact, one of the few songs I know on the guitar is "The Ballad of Patch Eye and Meg" from the Texas Campfire Tapes, an album I first heard when I was living in Louisiana a LONG time ago; last I caught sight of her, Sister Shocked had become a born-again Christian ("yeah, a lefty born again Christian!" my friend interjected) and was playing a few nights with gospel back up in one of her old punk hangouts in Amsterdam.

I am so insanely flattered that I had to go and brag about it here, and I swear, as soon as I finish the work I've got cut out for me today, I'm going to tune my guitar.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

in praise of the sturdiness of yeast

In the last meal that food journalist Michael Pollan prepares in Omnivore's Dilemma--the meal assembled of hunted and foraged ingredients--he makes an interesting comment with regards to the bread. It's a sourdough, made from a strain of yeast Pollan captured in his yard. The air around us is teeming with microscopic yeast spores, so all you really have to do to get a starter going is to create an environment with the food and moisture yeast need to thrive and let nature do its thing. Pollan mixes flour and water to make a loose paste and waves the container around in the air for a few seconds before covering it. Within a day, he's got a bubbling, beery smelling sponge, a live culture of yeast that he can use to leaven his bread.

Recalling that incident comforted me yesterday in the moments--OK, not the first moments, but within the first hour--following a long chain of brewing mishaps that culiminated with the discovery that my yeast had not been incubating for the past several hours as I'd thought. I'd been pondering and mixing and boiling rather expensive ingredients all afternoon in my first attempt at beer recipe development, and waiting several hours to properly culture that yeast would put the cooled wort at risk of bacterial infection. I panicked and threw the contents of the yeast packet in cold.

I've been off my game a bit lately, culinarily speaking. Last Monday, in a fit of let me just clear out the refrigerator here before the next CSA pickup frenzy, I'd made a dinner that was nothing short of God awful. In one pan I had Swiss chard with olives and raisins, in another pea pods and garlic, and in a third, hanger steaks with some red wine, mustard and stock that I was trying to use as a braising liquid for mustard greens while still keeping the steaks well left of medium. Oh, and I forgot (then as now), a saucepan full of red lentils on the back burner. Needless to say, the steaks were way overdone and tough; the mustard green "sauce" I'd cooked them in a stringy, disconcertingly greyish mess; the lentils blown apart into so much baby food. Th'usband tried to put on a brave face and assured me that "most people would think of this as a fine, homecooked meal," but though I might have graciously accepted such a meal had Most People in fact made it for me, what with my pride all mixed up in there it was really, really hard to swallow.

To make it worse, a few days earlier, I truly had made that roast chicken I'd been going on about, a lovely meal to warm the kitchen and the cockles of one's heart--in November. Outside and now in our kitchen, it was at least 95 degrees. How was I managing to take all these fresh, locally produced, seasonal ingredients and turn them into such heavy, wintery meals?

But then get this: the day after the steak disaster, needing to pack a lunch for a day at the office, I filled a to go container with arugula, layered it with the swiss chard and olives stuff, and topped it with a few strips of steak. . . and Reader, it was gorgeous: peppery, summery, and light. I repeated that lunch 2 or 3 times before it was all gone, and was sorry to see it go. Sometimes food is merciful like that.

As I learned last night, so is yeast, particularly the Belgian strain I was using for this particular batch of Saison beer. Tim at Bierkraft had introduced me to the style, explaining that it was farmhouse ale traditionally made in the spring to ration out (at the rate of 4 or 5 liters per day) to summer field hands. No one was using fussy, refrigerated yeast cultures; some brewers just left their wort in vats open to the air, and others carried yeast strains from village to village on the end of a stick. (This notion comforts me too, in that lacking a Y chromosome, I don't seem to have the crazed sanitation gene common to most other brewers.) In the words of Erik the Brewmeister--who'd sold me the yeast in the first place, then spent the better part of Friday and Saturday calming me down when I started freaking out about the wisdom of shipping liquid yeast cross country on the hottest week to date of the summer--
Saison yeast is about as bullet proof as anything. After all, Saison's or Farmhouse Ales were made up of just about anything the brewers had that would ferment, and fermented in the barn, so hot temperatures and stressed yeast just adds to the complexity and is normal. Seriously, it will be fruity and estery, but it is that way anyhow.
I really hadn't set out to make a seasonally appropriate beer, but it turns out that I did. And the happy ending to the whole story is that five or six hours later, when th'usband and I returned from a dinner to celebrate the near-completion of his (totally excellent) documentary and keep me from doing violence to myself or flushing the wort down the toilet, fermentation had set in. Tick, tick, tick goes the little bubble in my airlock. Bring on the fruity esterytude! And long live this streak of successful batches brewed in a stuffy 1-BR apartment in the heat of a New York summer!

Friday, July 13, 2007

Newsflash: Contrary to market wisdom, Americans do care about more than just price

Call me crazy, but I think we've got something like a groundswell going here. Check out the results of this Consumer Reports poll, released on Wednesday following a phone survey in June. A few of the highlights:
  • 92% of consumers agree that imported foods should be labeled by their country of origin; a 2002 Farm Bill provision mandated country-of-origin-labeling (COOL) but implementation was delayed until 2008; now there's hope Congress may move the enforcement date up to September 2007
  • 86% of consumers expect the 'natural' label to mean that processed foods contain no artificial ingredients (so no more sneaking in the high fructose corn syrup, please; ditto for partially hydrogenated corn oil)
  • 83% of consumers expect 'natural' meat to come from animals that were raised in a natural environment. Currently, the USDA standard for natural meat only pertains to how the cut of meat was processed and not how the animal was raised or what it ate
  • Only 46% of consumers approved of using the 'pasteurized' label in place of 'irradiated.' This is bad news for producers depending on irradiation to cover for the poor sanitation endemic to feedlot operations, because just 29% of consumers would buy 'irradiated' meat

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Vintage Pattern Lending Library

My friend C. just passed on the best resource a long, lanky DIY-type with ready access to garment district fabric stores could ask for. Check this out!

Sunday, July 8, 2007

how to eat closer to home

Not long ago, my friend H. challenged me to write some how-to's for would-be ethical eaters. She had been reading Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, a book about one family's experiment with eating locally, and was inspired to eat 'better' herself--just a little unsure about how to start. I haven't read the book myself yet, but from what I understand, the Kingsolvers decided to opt out of our heavily industrialized food chain by spending a year eating only what they could grow on their land or buy from their neighbors.

While totally sold on the various arguments for eating locally, I feel pretty unqualified to tell anyone else how to shorten their food chain. I'm new to the pursuit, and rather longer on theory than I am on practice. But I can probably pass on a general principle or two of the sort that can always be taken up a notch from wherever you--or I--happen to be at the moment. I eagerly invite any and all other lovers and defenders of real food to chip in their respective two cents.

1. Summertime, and the Eating is Easy....At no other point in the year is fresh, locally produced food going to be so abundant. Look for it today, whether by stopping at a roadside stand or shopping at a farmers' market; here's where you'll find one.
2. Connect an existing priority or personal goal that you have to a new, specific commitment that you can make to these food sources. Do you want to reduce your exposure to pesticides? Keep this wallet-sized list of the most and least contaminated kinds of fruits and vegetables handy when you do your shopping, and be as consistent as your budget allows about limiting yourself to the organic, local versions of the worst offenders. Trying to lose weight? Exercise auto-portion control by starting your largest meal of the day with a salad, then aim to get some or all of the fixings from a local food source. Want to shake your reputation for being a picky eater? Try one new (seasonal, locally produced) vegetable every week of the summer. Alarmed by reports that the oceans are running out of fish? Print out a regional guide and commit to buying (and ordering) seasonal, sustainably fished seafood only. Grateful for the animals in your life? Decide that eggs from cage-free chickens are worth a little added expense.
3. Do anything and everything you can think of to emphasize the social dimensions of eating. As often as possible, eat meals that an actual identifiable and known-to-you someone has prepared. Call up your mother-in-law and ask her for that great recipe. Plan a picnic. Get home from work in time for dinner with your actual or improvised family. Organize a group of friends to pick apples, can tomatoes, or take a cooking class. Strike up a conversation with someone at the farmers' market about their plans for that fine-looking eggplant. And--this is most important--ask questions of the people who sell you your food, whether the lady selling sweet corn or the guy behind the butcher counter. Reward those who give you knowledgeable, thoughtful responses and take pride in the quality of their product with your loyalty. Food has the power to connects us in all kinds of wonderful ways. By making eating a social practice, you will find yourself naturally inclined to cut out the middle man on lots of different levels.
4. Learn to cook. Keep it simple--fresh, quality ingredients don't need a lot of fancy preparation. Instead of going out to the store with a list of things you need for a specific recipe, go to that farmers' market or roadside stand and buy what's in season, which not coincidentally will also be the cheapest and most plentiful stuff there. This is the information age, and I promise you, you can come home, google a recipe, and come up with a million doable ideas, especially if you keep some basic staples on hand.
5. Be frugal about your food. This is different from being cheap. Being frugal amounts to a much more complex appreciation of the value of your food. It means making thoughtful decisions about what and where you buy; limiting your purchases to what you can actually use (last night's roast chicken can be today's chicken salad, and you can make soup or stock from the carcass and the vegetable peelings); and saving money not by pinching or bypassing local farmers, but by buying food in season and doing the value-add part (whether peeling the carrots, frying the chicken, making the applesauce, or canning/freezing those beautiful green beans) yourself.

Chile beer? Hold, please....

Finally some traffic from brewers! I was getting a swelled head about how many hits I got this week until I traced pretty much all of them back to a homebrewing forum's interest in those Kathy Ireland pics. (Sigh...and here I thought it was my legs that you loved.)

Well, welcome Kathy-obsessed homebrewers, because the upshot for me so far has been a helpful tip--thanks, Ron & Brenda--with regards to my current batch of would-be chile beer. It seems that chile oils wreak havoc on head generated by barley malts, so you're best off adding some wheat or Cara-pils, a.k.a. Dextrin malt.

Anyhow, the English Pale Ale I had hoped to dry-hop with chiles during the secondary fermentation stage didn't contain either of these head retainers, so I decided to keg it just as it was yesterday. I then dug around in a bunch of old Zymurgies until I found a wheat-containing, contest-winning recipe for 'chili' ale, as well as one for that (Belgian) saison-style I'd been wanting to make. Things are getting a bit more complicated, as I had to go beyond my usual supplier to find the specific yeasts these recipes require. (Can someone please explain to me why there is no brew supply store anywhere in the five boroughs?!) I'm also about to have my first experience with liquid malt extract and yeast. Meanwhile, New York is finally starting to heat up, and the witbier, my current light offering, is going fast--so I have a hunch that I'll be glad to have the plain old English Pale to fall back on with so much experimenting going on.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

The Revolt of Guadalajara, Chapter 1 installment 4

The whites could do as they pleased, take their women and cast them off again, teach their sons to be soldiers and to fight against them... If just once the old gods did decide to come after them, their gods wouldn’t even be able—despite their strength—to protect them. Really, they were sacrifices themselves! It was inconceivable, but if you really thought about it, you had to admit it! Jesus hung pale, bleeding and defenseless on the cross. Sebastian, the patron saint of a large parish, was shot through with arrows and lances and bathed in blood. John, so strong and bearded and muscled like no white person really was, had later allowed himself to be beheaded without a fight. Who were the strong ones?

The one half bled, the other was soft and sad, Mary, always with the child, Ursula, Agnes...

How did it happen that they turned out to be the powerful ones and ruled the world? They had other nameless gods they never spoke of, but that they carried with them everywhere; these kept their silence for a long time, but when they spoke it was with thunder, crashing and flame from the mouths of blunderbusses and muskets. Then they brought down destruction on their adversaries.

And besides these were gods in temples that no one ever got to see, that didn’t even make themselves known in noise and destruction, and these were the mightiest of all. They were fed with bars of gold that always were kept ready in vaults. And on small, colored papers were written the mighty prayers that crushed the entire world. The almighty white men themselves wrote a short prayer on a sheet of paper and with it got some of the gold that was really meant as food for the gods.

In Guadalajara there stood seven temples for the weak and sorrowful Christian gods: the Sé, two cathedrals and four parish churches, and three for the mightiest invisible gods: the Banco del Estado, Banco Hispano-Americano and Banco de Jalisco. In the Sé there was an old white high priest, named the bishop, in the cathedrals the nearly-white mestizos, in the parish churches the Indians... In the temples of the invisible gods a whole host of low priests served, the high ones never were seen, they sat in sanctuaries called private offices. The lower and poor believers had no access to these temples either, they were even chased off of the steps if, tired from a long trip to the city with humble wares, they sat down.


Life in the past quarter century was certainly better in Guadalajara and the environs. Barring getting sick or having accidents or too many children, one could live without going hungry all that often. For the most part there was some work to be had in the salt flats and the tin mines. And besides these and the soap-works (that didn’t go as well as they let on) a new industry had come thanks to the initiative of a philanthropic Veracruzian, who—no one knows why, because aside from the fevers Veracruz is a far more attractive city—had settled in Guadalajara. He was rich enough. After some time he’d established a couple of hat factories that operated free of any state or local subsidies and still paid a good wage. They didn’t make the majestic wide sombreros there that true Mexicans wore with such aristocratic grace. The Indians and mestizos from the region would have looked ridiculous wearing them, their narrow bony high yellow or dirty brown faces with the deepset eyes would have disappeared beneath them. Narrow, floppy hats were made there for cheap; everyone wore them.

beer update

I haven't said much about the beer lately. We're back to having two different brews on tap, a Witbier and a Porter, after running dry following my birthday party last month. I'm quite pleased with both, and like the contrast of light and dark beers.

Yesterday, I cooked up a batch of pale ale that I intend to dry hop with chiles when I transfer it to my new secondary fermenter, a glass carboy that minimizes oxidation and hence permits longer lagering. A recipe I found for chile beer in Zymurgy recommended 'New Mexico chiles,' which I don't think are available around here, but since the real inspiration for this batch was an unforgettable pint of Sigda's Green Chili at Coopersmith's Pub last summer in Fort Collins, I think I'll go with their mix of Anaheim and serrano chiles. I'd love some quantity guidelines from any brewers out there who might be reading this.

What's for dinner?

It's been a good week for cooking. Word of the cherry pies spread to friends and neighbors, so those are disappearing fast. Last night, I threw together dinner more or less on the spot--but with so many good, fresh ingredients to work with, my rhythm was on from the start. I even managed to take some pictures.

I began by chopping up some greens and reds--specifically, another bunch of mizuna, that sort of peppery Japanese salad & stirfry green that has been in each week's CSA share, and radicchio, aka Italian chicory. The bitterness of radicchio lends itself well to risotto, a creamy rice dish that is much easier to make than you might think. It's easy to tend to its modest needs when you've got faster, flashier preparations going on other burners. Just get it started about 30 minutes before you plan to eat.

To do so, I wilted my greens in butter in a wide, shallow pan over medium heat for 2-3 minutes, then added about 2 cups of arborio rice, stirring for a few minutes more to toast it and coat each grain with butter. Then I threw in about a cup of wine. Ideally, you'd use white, so as not to discolor the rice; but we didn't have any open, and the radicchio was going to give it a pinkish tinge anyway, so red it was.

Meanwhile, I'd filled a two-quart pan with water and tossed in a handful of frozen stock cubes. You can use bouillon cubes if you aren't in the habit of making, concentrating and freezing your own stock, and either chicken or vegetable flavor is fine. What you want is a nice hot liquid to add bit by bit to your rice. The simmering stock will gradually dissolve the rice's rich starchy coat and combine with it to produce a creamy sauce, then soften the grain within. You have to take it slow, though, so lower the heat if it starts to boil or you'll lose too much stock to evaporation.

I started adding stock to the rice about a cup at a time while I began thinking about what else would be on the dinner menu. With each addition, I gave the rice a quick stir and sprinkled it with salt. If I'd been using commercially made bouillon, which is already pretty salty, I wouldn't have needed so much, but you'd be surprised how much salt it takes to season a skillet full of rice. Each time that the liquid was nearly absorbed, in would go another cup. Beyond this, though, risotto just kind of makes itself.

And as for the what else part, I remembered that we still had a couple of Belgian endives in the fridge that I'd bought at the farm stand.

We also had two lamb loin chops, purchased on CSA pickup day from Dines Farms. I heated up a cast iron skillet on the stove while I rinsed the meat, patted it dry, and sprinkled it with salt and pepper. Simple preparations are the best way to show off quality ingredients, so all I did was brown it for a couple of minutes on each side on the stove top, then put the pan into a 400 degree oven to finish cooking for about 7 minutes. I let the finished chops rest on a plate on the countertop for a few minutes while I finished the rest of the meal.

Taking a cue from epicurious, I quartered the endives and browned them in butter for about 5 minutes total before drizzling them with balsamic vinegar.

I also grated a nice little pile of parmesan cheese while I waited for the final addition of the stock to absorb into the rice. When it was close, I dumped in the cheese and stirred it well to melt and distribute the cheese evenly into the risotto's sauce. I probably could have been a bit more aggressive with the stirring, but I like my risotto on the soupy side.

Et voila!...we had a meal. Th'usband, who normally isn't much of a lamb fan, said that it was the best he'd ever tasted. That's because it was pasture raised, and if all that running around made the meat slightly less tender, it also made it much more flavorful. Myself, I was grooving on the overall balance of flavors, and the fact that with the exception of the rice, the parmesan, and those few drops of vinegar, all the ingredients were bought straight from the area farms that produced them. Provecho!