Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Delicious Giving

It is the season to give and it is the season to bake. I like to combine the two. This is time of year you’ll find me in my kitchen baking delicious and decadent treats instead of walking through the malls (not that you’d ever find me walking through malls any other time of the year).

The hardest part of making food gifts for the holidays is deciding what to make. As I prepared to write this article, I sorted through my cookbooks looking for a few good recipes. I filled an entire page with ideas (granted I was hungry when I did this).

Food gifts can range from simple cookies and breads to elaborate candies or homemade mustards and jams; or how about fresh made cheese; or handmade liqueur or infused wines and liquors; or flavored butters and honeys; or jars layered with all the ingredients for the receiver to bake up a batch of something yummy themselves. See what I mean, I just couldn’t stop. It all sounded good, fun to make, and even more fun to give (you should see the look of bliss and wonder when someone bites into one of your homemade marshmallows for the first time).

I usually decide to make a half dozen different items and give a few of each to everyone on my gift list. Once I’ve whittled down my list, I look for the perfect containers to give them in. It’s not fair to your delicious creations to be given on a paper plate with some plastic wrap thrown over it.

Look for containers that your recipient can use again. Consider using glass containers with lids or a bento box with all those compartments to hold each of your treats. A coffee mug stuffed with biscotti or a new baking pan already filled with sweet bread will bring back memories each time your loved one reuses it. Even a pretty flowerpot lined with plastic wrap or aluminum foil can be filled with goodies. Be imaginative and try not to buy cheap plastic crap that will end up in a landfill when the cookies are gone.

Include recipe cards printed on pretty paper so your friends can make any of their gifts over again and explain how to use anything that might not be self explanatory (like what the heck do you serve lemon rosemary butter on).

When it comes to actually making the food, use all organic ingredients and fair trade and local products when they are available. It’s like giving two gifts that way. One goes to the receiver and one goes to the earth and the people who grow your food.

Go the extra mile in making everything look beautiful. Don’t just make one kind of truffle, make four or five so they look strikingly delicious when the box is opened. Carve designs in the top of flavored butters. Make the cookies just a bit fancier by drizzling chocolate on them or rolling refrigerator cookies in nuts before slicing them. You get the idea (and if you don’t here are a few recipes to get you started). But most of all have fun and lick all the bowls!

Chocolate Truffles
8 oz Bittersweet Chocolate
1 ¼ oz. Butter
4 oz Heavy Cream
¾ oz. liqueur of choice (optional)

Finely chop chocolate and place in a heat proof bowl. Cut butter into small pieces and add to bowl. Heat cream to just boiling and pour over chocolate. Stir until chocolate and butter are completely melted and mixture is smooth. Add optional liqueur. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate. When mixture is firm but not hard, form into small balls using a small scoop, a teaspoon or your hands (work quickly so the chocolate doesn’t melt, this is the messiest method). Refrigerate again for 10 min. and roll into smooth balls. Chill again then roll in any of the following toppings:

4 oz. shaved bittersweet chocolate
2/3 c. finely chopped nuts
4 oz. toasted coconut
Cocoa Powder
or, for the truly daring, 22 carat gold dust

Makes 2-3 dozen truffles that will keep refrigerated for 1 week. Bring to room temp before serving. To extend the shelf life, dip truffles in tempered chocolate instead of rolling in toppings.

Coconut Marshmallows
5 cups toasted unsweetened coconut
½ c powdered sugar
2T + 2 ½ t. unflavored gelatin
½ c cold water
2 c sugar
½ c light corn syrup
½ hot water (about 115 F)
¼ t salt
2 large egg whites
¾ t coconut extract

Mix coconut and powdered sugar. Grease a 13x9x2” rectangular pan and sprinkle sides and bottom with 1 ½ cups of coconut mixture.
In the bowl of a standing mixer (you can make these with a powerful hand mixer but it’s hard on them, a standing mixer is best) sprinkle gelatin over cold water and set aside.
In a heavy 3-quart saucepan, cook sugar, corn syrup, hot water and salt over low heat and stir until sugar dissolves. Raise heat to medium and boil without stirring until an instant read or candy thermometer reads 240 F (this is a very important temperature, don’t quit early or you will only have a very sweet sauce. It takes at least 12 minutes) Carefully and immediately, pour sugar mixture over the gelatin and mix with the whisk attachment on low speed for 30 seconds then on high speed until tripled in bulk, white and fluffy and marshmallow-like. While sugar mixture is whipping, use a hand mixer to beat egg whites to soft peaks. Beat egg whites and extract into marshmallow mixture until just combined.
Pour mixture into prepared pan and sprinkle another 1 ½ c. coconut mixture on top, pressing down gently to make sure it sticks. Chill marshmallows at least 3 hours.
Invert pan onto cutting board and pry out marshmallows. Cut into squares and coat them in remaining coconut.
You can make plain marshmallows by substituting vanilla extract for the coconut and coating the pan and the marshmallows in powdered sugar and cornstarch. You can make other flavors as well. Try substituting half the coconut extract with almond extract and adding finely chopping toasted almonds to the coconut coating. You can add natural food coloring and blend it in completely or leave it partially blended to add a multicolored look.

Gravlax (salt and sugar cured salmon)

2 lb fresh wild caught salmon filet, skin on, halved lengthwise
2 T aquavit or an anise flavored liquor
½ c kosher salt
1/3 c organic sugar
2 T cracked, not ground, peppercorns (I use a Ziploc bag and a hammer)
zest of 1 lemon
1 t crushed fennel seeds
4 oz or more fresh dill

Mix the salt, sugar, pepper, lemon zest and fennel seeds together in a small bowl. Remove any bones from the salmon fillet. Line a baking dish large enough to contain the salmon with plastic wrap. Place the salmon skin-side down in the dish and sprinkle with the liquor. Rub the skinless side of the salmon with half of the salt mixture. Center one of the halves of the salmon on the plate and cover with the dill. Top with the other half of the salmon. Cover the top with the remaining salt mixture.
Seal up this salmon sandwich in the plastic wrap. Place a plate on top of the sandwich and add at least a pound of weight on top of the plate. Place in the refrigerator for at least 24 hrs and up to 3 days, turning the package over every 12 hours.
The gravlax is done when the flesh has lost it’s translucency and is somewhat firmer to the touch. Wash off the remaining salt, sugar and dill and pat dry.
Thinly sliced on the bias and remove the skin. Serve on pumpernickel or rye with lemon, capers and creme fraiche.

Monday, December 5, 2011

An Ill Wind

Word of Mouth
by Vicki Reich

We were at dinner the other night with friends when one of the men, aged 28, belched. He immediately apologized (with a bit of a devilish grin on his face). He then asked if it was true that in some cultures burping after a meal was a sign of respect to the chef, or if it was just a fantasy of boys from age 6 to 60?

A long discussion ensued but with no definitive answer. I, of course, needed to find out if it was indeed true that some countries out there aren’t as prudish about their bodily functions as we are. When I got home, I looked it up on the Web.

As I guessed, there wasn’t really any reliable answer to be found. There was some indication that chefs in China appreciate small polite burps. Maybe the Inuit people in Canada think a good belch is a compliment. And it’s possible that some people in the Middle East and India won’t be fazed by your ructus. Mostly, I found lots of people out there wishing everyone could prize their burps as much as those fantasy chefs.

Burping and farting (we might as well bring that other “gas” into play) were not always eschewed in polite company. There are lots of historical references to both. Chaucer and Shakespeare enjoyed making their audiences laugh with burp and fart jokes, and these were not 8-year-old boys on the playground jokes. These were grand literary burp and fart jokes. I can imagine the Middle Ages dining halls were full of “wind”.

Whatever your take on the politeness or impoliteness of passing gas at the dinner table, it’s because we’re at the dinner table that it happens. Burping and farting have two separate causes but they are both food and beverage derived.

Burping is caused when air is swallowed along with your food or drink. It also happens when the carbon dioxide trapped in your carbonated beverage needs to escape.

Flatulence is a more complex process. Some of it comes from the same process as burping; it’s air swallowed with our food. Joining this swallowed air is gas produced from the digestion of the food itself. Food that is hard to digest or that passes partially digested from the stomach and small intestine to the lower intestines meets up with yeasts and bacteria in the large intestine. The yeasts and bacteria ferment rather than digest this food and give off gas as a byproduct (kind of like how beer gets carbonated by the byproduct of the yeast in it, but not nearly as appetizing).

There are several foods that are notoriously hard to digest and therefore excellent gas producers. The best known is, of course, beans (the magical fruit). It is the raffinose, an oligosaccharide, in the beans that are the culprit here. Our bodies have a hard time breaking down these complex carbohydrates so the bacteria in our lower intestines get to feast on the undigested remains. Cruciferous vegetables also contain large amounts of raffinose and may cause you to toot. Jerusalem artichokes can be blamed on an occasional ill wind, but in their case it is the complex carb inulin that our bodies can’t digest.

Other foods that can cause a bit of bloat include: cheese and milk, especially if you are lactose intolerant and lack the enzyme to break down the lactose before it hits your colon; onions, garlic and other members of the allium family; and fiber-rich foods.

All this gas isn’t something to be embarrassed about; we all produce, on average, a quart of gas a day. However, you can work on eliminating some of it by increasing the intestinal flora that does all the digesting in the small intestine. Taking probiotics and adding live culture yogurts to your diet can accomplish this. Digestive enzymes also help your body break down those pesky complex carbohydrates.

However, there is always fun to be had with all that extra gas (in the company of close friends or alone, please). You could try to unseat the current Guinness Book of World Records holder for the loudest belch, Paul Hunn, whose loudest burp was 109 db (about as loud as a car horn). Elisa Cagnoni isn’t far behind with 107db for the women’s title.

You could also spend a day seeing just how much gas you could produce like author Stefan Gates who, in his book The Gastronaut, spent the day eating as many foods that made him fart as he could and lived to tell about it.

Or you could just politely burp behind your hand at your next dinner engagement and hope your host is one of those mythical creatures who believe it’s a compliment.

Eggplant Parmesan
Serves 4

My dad would always exclaim that we were “having gas” for dinner whenever my mom served her delicious eggplant parmesan. It never had the same effect on me. None of the main ingredients appear on any of the gas producing food lists I came across so I thought it would be safe to share the recipe with you.

2 large eggplants
2 tbls olive oil

1 cup Italian herb flavored breadcrumbs (I make my own but storebought works fine)
1-2 egg
1 can tomato paste
1 tsp dried oregano
½ tsp dried basil
¼ tsp dried thyme
salt and pepper to taste
1 lb part skim mozzarella

Preheat oven to 400°F.

Slice the eggplant into ¼- ½ inch slices. Place the breadcrumbs on a plate. On a separate plate, scramble one egg. Dip each slice of eggplant into the egg, coating on both sides, then into the breadcrumbs. Place the slices in a skillet with the olive oil that has been heated to medium high and brown the slices on each side. You will have to work in batches and may need to use another egg and more oil.

Place the browned eggplant on a baking sheet. Thinly slice the cheese. In a medium bowl, combine the tomato paste, herbs, salt and pepper. Spread a spoonful of the tomato mixture on each slice of eggplant. Top each eggplant slice with a slice or two of mozzarella. Bake for 20 minutes or until the cheese is melted and slightly browned. Serve immediately.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


(This is a revised edition of an article I wrote 3 years ago. By apologies to my readers who have been with me that long, all two of you)

It’s the Thanksgiving season and I’ve been thinking about all the things I’m thankful for. The list is long and includes many food-related items. I thought I’d share at least some of the foodie thoughts with you instead of yet another recipe for stuffing and pumpkin pie. Here they are, in no particular order:

I’m thankful to my mom and dad for instilling in me a passion for good food. Sitting down to eat a home-cooked meal almost every night of my childhood and adolescence has had a profound effect on my relationship to food (and people). Helping both my parents in the kitchen made me the cook I am today. Being taken to fancy restaurants from a young age gave me an appreciation for the creative possibilities inherent in food (and fairly good table manners). All of these things have made cooking a life-long pleasure rather than a chore. Thanks Mom!

I’m thankful for local farmers. If I had to eat only foods trucked from thousands of miles away all year long, my palate would be suffering and my knowledge about the varieties of produce and meats available would be stunted. All the farmers who work so hard to provide us with fresh local fare at the farmer’s market are my heroes. Thanks Emily, Alicia, Suzanne, Mimi, Marlene and Gordon, Diane and Tom, Kevin and Anita, Carrie and Nate, Luana, Mitch, and Vern.

I’m thankful for huckleberries. There is no other fruit that you must hike out into the wilderness to obtain. Being able to get fresh air, enjoy the views, and come back with the proud badge of purple fingers plus have the makings for the most delectable pies makes huckleberries a miraculous food.

I’m thankful for garlic. What other food is so good for you and so versatile at the same time. So many foods would be lacking is not for garlic: pasta sauce, pizza, mashed potatoes, garlic bread, stir fry, ice cream (just kidding).

I’m thankful for fermentation and all the good things that come from it: alcohol in all its forms, pickles, yogurt, vinegar, chocolate, sourdough, sour cream, olives, kim chi. What would life be like without all these things?

I’m thankful for cumin. I know it’s weird to pick just one spice out of so many good choices but there’s something about cumin. It’s my go-to spice. If a dish is lacking something, a dash of cumin will often fix it. Perhaps it’s the unusual aroma from the chemical cuminaldehyde found only in cumin that makes me thankful it’s in my spice cabinet.

I’m thankful for coconut. Like cumin, coconut makes everything better. Coconut has the added benefit of making both sweet and savory dishes better. I have a hard time not putting coconut in every cookie and muffin I make and I can never turn down coconut curry if it’s on the menu. Coconut macaroons have saved me from a bad day more times than I can remember.

I’m thankful for my Global knives and Microplane graters. These are the tools I use everyday and they never fail to amaze me with their performance. My knives feel like an extension of my hand and stay sharp forever (well, not quite forever but for a long time). I’ve had them for years and they still look and perform like new. It’s always a pleasure to pick one out from the knife rack. The graters (yes, I have one of every grit) make quick work of everything from perfectly zesting only the peel of a lemon (no pith need be removed when using a Microplane) to turning Parmesan into a pile of fluff that instantly melts into whatever you put it in. Cooking wouldn’t be as much fun without them.

I’m thankful for corn (which is the most appropriate thing to be thankful for this season) in all its natural forms (I am not the least bit thankful for high fructose corn syrup or GMO corn). The list of delicious dishes made from corn seems endless: fresh corn on the cob, hot cornbread drizzled with honey, cheesy polenta, handmade tortillas, pecan pie and marshmallows (both completely dependent on corn syrup), hominy, chowder, and most importantly, popcorn. My food life would be bereft without it.

I’m thankful for my bike. I know it’s not a food but riding it allows me to burn calories in a beautiful setting so I can eat more good food and still stay reasonably healthy.

I’m thankful for cheese. I think I could live on it alone although it goes so well with bread and that it leads me to my next item.

I’m thankful for home-baked bread right out of the oven. The fact that you can combine flour, water and yeast and get something so delicious never ceases to amaze me. The variations seem endless, and when paired with all the different cheeses, the flavor combinations could keep me happy forever.

I’m thankful for chocolate. I know I mentioned it above but it deserves two billings. The way the dry crispness of chocolate transforms into creamy goodness in your mouth fascinates me. Each tiny square explodes with more complex flavors than any other food and satisfies my sweet tooth every time.

Lastly, I’m thankful that I have enough. I have enough money to afford three nutritious meals every day, while so many people in the world can barely afford one (and I have a bit left over to help those in need). I have enough land and sunshine to grow some of my own food. I have enough knowledge to transform simple foods into delicious meals. And I have enough friends and family to share in the bounty of my kitchen.

Happy Thankful Thanksgiving

Here are two recipes I’m thankful for. They contain as many of the above-mentioned foods as I could reasonable combine.

Tipsy Brownies
Makes 1 to 8 servings depending on how much willpower you have

2 oz. unsweetened chocolate
8 T salted butter
1 c sugar
2 eggs
¼ c Canadian whiskey
½ c + 1 T. flour
½ c unsweetened shredded coconut
½ t vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease an 8x8 baking pan.
Melt chocolate and butter in a heavy bottomed sauce pan until just melted. Stir in sugar then beat in eggs. Beat in whiskey and vanilla. Gently stir in flour and coconut until just combined. Pour into prepared pan and bake for 20-25 min, erring on the side of underbaked for a chewy, fudge-like consistence. Cool before cutting if you can.

Gruyere Cumin Polenta
Serves 4

4 c. water
1 t salt plus more to taste
1 c. polenta
1 t. cumin seed
1 T butter
½ c. grated gruyere cheese
Fresh ground pepper to taste

Boil water in a heavy medium-sized saucepan. Add the salt and turn the heat down to medium. Slowly pour the polenta into the water while whisking constantly. Turn the heat to low. Whisk once a minute for 5 minutes. Change to a wooden spoon and continue to stir every minute or so until the mixture thickens, about 30 minutes.
Meanwhile in a dry frying pan, heat the cumin seeds over medium-high heat until they are fragrant. Transfer to a plate to cool. When they are cool, grind them in a mortar or in an herb grinder.
When the polenta is as thick as you’d like it, turn off the heat and add the butter, cheese and cumin. Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve immediately

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A light at the End of the Cornfield?

Is it just me or has everyone else noticed that GMOs have been in the news a bunch lately? Maybe it’s because October is Non-GMO Month or maybe it’s because it’s a subject near and dear to my heart and I tend to notice it more. Whatever the cause, I think it’s a good thing.
Recent polls are showing that people know what GMOs are and want them labeled. A few years ago, similar polls showed that people had no idea what a GMO was or that GMOs were in most of the processed foods they were eating.

Just in case you don’t have a clue what I’m talking about, let me quickly explain. GMOs or Genetically Modified Organisms (also known as Genetically Engineered (GE) food) are foods that have been engineered in a lab by inserting foreign genes into a particular crop to get certain traits that can’t be bred into them the traditional way. These foreign genes come from other species or from viruses and bacteria.

The science of inserting the gene is not exact and the outcome of this mutation cannot be exactly predicted. So far the only GE food (that we know of) to cause acute symptoms in humans is Starlink corn (it was never approved for human consumption but got into our food stream anyway). However, there are no long-term human studies of the chronic effects these engineered foods might have on us (the cynic in me says we are all that long term study). The companies producing GE foods conduct all of the research that the FDA uses to determine if these frankenfoods are safe; no third party scientists test these findings.

These companies (Monsanto being the biggest and baddest of them all) claim that GE foods are better for us and will feed our hungry planet. So far, the commercially available genetically modified crops have been modified for one of two reasons, either they can tolerate massive doses of an herbicide that (coincidentally) the same company makes, and/or every cell of the food contains a pesticide. Neither of these modifications has been shown to increase human health or crop production levels over the long term; only corporate profits. I could go on but I want to get to the good stuff. There is tons more information like this on-line if you want to learn more about GMOs and why you want to avoid eating them.

By now you can tell I’m not a fan of GMOs and would love to know if they are in the food I’m eating. There seems to be a rising tide of people who feel the same way, but before I get to all the good news I’ve seen about GMOs I need to tell you a bit of the bad news.

The FDA is poised to approve GE Salmon. The company that created this frankenfish is close to bankruptcy but the USDA just gave them a $500,000 research grant. I smell something fishy.

Monsanto plans to begin selling seed for sweet corn this fall. This would be the first GE food eaten “straight up”. Almost all other GMOs are made into processed food or fed to livestock, which we then eat. The corn will be both resistant to Round Up and have Bt toxin in every cell. Considering a recent study found Bt toxin in the maternal and fetal blood of 93% of the samples tested (a place Monsanto swore it could never end up) and that that level was just from eating the smaller amounts of GMOs in processed foods, I wonder what eating a whole ear of corn in which every cell contains the toxin will do to us? Since it won’t be labeled, I’ll stick to organic fresh corn and not bother to find out.

And now the good news:

Locally, Winter Ridge celebrated Non-GMO month by highlighting Non-GMO Verified products and by donating 5% of their sales on Oct 19th to the Non-GMO Project (full disclosure: I work there). The most exciting thing about the donation day was that customers were asked to round up their purchases to increase the donation. An unscientific poll showed that about 80% of customers donated. That means even in little old Sandpoint people know they don’t want GMOs in their food.

Over a thousand stores participated in Non-GMO Month this year and over 3000 items are now non-GMO verified. Non-GMO food is the fastest growing category in natural foods today, with a 24% increase this year.

There are other movements gathering steam out there to push for labeling of GE foods. Just Label It, which is a group partnered with hundreds of like-minded organizations from concerned parents to health care professional to businesses, submitted a legal petition to the FDA calling for the mandatory labeling of GE foods. You can sign the petition on their website.

The Right To Know March traveled over 300 miles starting October 1st in New York and ending October 16th in front of the White House to demand the labeling of GMOs and to bring awareness of the issue to the public

Lastly, the Occupy Wall St. movement is bringing new light to the incredible amount of influence corporations have over our government. The government’s continued support of GMOs, when a recent poll showed that 93% of those surveyed wanted mandatory labeling, is a perfect example of the corporate takeover of our government. The FDA and the USDA have long been a revolving door for biotech industry execs who go between working at Monsanto and then for the government and then back to Monsanto. Maybe if people get fed up enough, we can kick the bums out.

I’m a hopeful kind of person and all this good news makes me think that someday soon this country will have mandatory labeling laws like the 40+ other countries that already do (obviously it’s not impossible). Until then, I will continue to support the companies that go to the extra effort to get non-GMO verified, eat organic, and try to avoid processed foods. And I’ll keep signing those petitions!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Celebrating Choice this October

October is Non-GMO month. Sponsored by The Non-GMO Project, Non-GMO Month was created to raise awareness of the proliferation of genetically modified organisms in our food supply and to offer an alternative to eating them. We should all be celebrating.

I’m sure my regular readers know all about GMO foods (I write about it at least once a year) but there are many people who are still unaware that this technology exists and that they are definitely consuming it (whether they want to or not). Loyal readers, bear with me while I start off with an explanation of what GMOs are and why you might not want to eat them.

GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms, also known as Genetically Engineered (GE) foods) are foods that have been bred, not in the age-old way of crossbreeding the same species to get better traits, but by inserting genes from a completely different species into a plant or animal to, hopefully, get a new trait.

Proponents of genetic engineering will tell you that these new foods, which could never occur naturally, are perfectly safe to eat, won’t cause any environmental damage. and are the only way to feed the 7 billion people now living on the planet.

The companies who created these Frankenfoods (mostly Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta) conducted the safety studies, so, of course, the tests show there is no harm in planting or eating GE foods.

Under industry pressure, laws were passed in the 90s that allow GE food to quickly enter the marketplace if they are found to be “substantially equivalent” to their non-genetically engineered cousin. However, since gene splicing is not an exact science and the substantially equivalent test only looks for known components of the foods, this way of evaluating the safety of these novel foods is flawed. New toxins could be created and we wouldn’t know from the substantial equivalency test. Only if the new toxins were allergenic (like in the case of Starlink corn) would we know right away. Some toxins could take generations of eating GMOs to discover, as some of the new testing on rats and mice is showing. Strangely enough, when it comes time for the biotech companies to patent their new foods, they claim that they are completely novel.

Biotech companies have touted that GMOs will reduce herbicide and pesticide use and increase yields, thus causing less environmental harm and putting more money in farmers’ pockets. Recent reports of superbugs that have developed immunity to pesticides and super weeds that can withstand heavy doses of herbicide cast doubt on these claims. Studies also show that the money being made on these crops is ending up in the seed companies’ pocket, not the farmer’s.

The majority of genetically engineered plants on the market either have the Bt bacteria (Bacillus thuringiensis, a naturally occurring soil bacteria that is used as a pesticide) inserted into every cell of the plant or they have one of their genes reengineered to tolerate specific herbicides. None of the genetically engineered plants on the market today are designed to increase nutrition value and early claims of increased yields that would feed the world are not coming true. Scientists are also starting to discover Bt in the human digestive track, a place biotech companies said it would never end up. What its effects are, we don’t know.

If you are still with me, you might be wondering if 90% of the soy, 85% of the corn, 90% of the cotton, 90% of the canola, 95% of the sugar beets grown, and soon a huge percentage of alfalfa, in the US are genetically engineered why we can’t tell if we are eating them and why so many people believe they never have (if you are one of those people, I hate to burst your bubble, but if you’ve eaten any processed food or any conventionally raised animals in the last ten years, you’ve eaten GMOs)

Although at least 40 other countries require GMO foods to be labeled, the United States does not. Up until now, the only way to try and avoid eating GMOs was to eat only organic, especially if the products contained any known genetically engineer ingredients (i.e. corn, soy, cottonseed, sugar beet, alfalfa, squash, papaya, milk, and now sweet corn). However, eating organic is not a sure fire way to avoid them. There is plenty of room for contamination and most processed organic foods contain some non-organic ingredients. And those non-organic ingredients are the ones most likely to contain GMOs.

That’s where the Non-GMO Project comes in. The Non-GMO Project is a non-profit, third party certifier that tests and verifies products are substantially (more than 99.1%) free of genetically modified organisms. If you’re like me and you’re not convinced that GMOs are safe and want to be able to decide for yourself if you want to eat them or not, the Non-GMO verified label is the only way to be sure.

Last October was the first time Non-GMO month was celebrated. At the time, there were about 1000 products certified. This year there are over 3000 and many of them now bear the non-GMO Verified label on the package. There are thousands more products that are enrolled and waiting for testing results. If we buy only non-GMO verified products in October, we will send a strong message that we want to know what’s in our food and we’re willing to pay for it.
Maybe then, food producers and government officials will start listen to consumers (rather than Monsanto execs) and traditionally bred crops will once again be the norm. Until then, I’m looking for that label.

Monday, July 18, 2011

We All Scream!

It’s hot out today, an unusual thing for this summer in North Idaho. There is a bit of a breeze and, in the shade, it’s rather pleasant; pleasant enough to sit on the deck with my laptop and write about ice cream.

Ice cream is a magically food. Just the thought of it elicits wonderful memories of summer, fun, and relaxation. Ice cream can lift your spirits when you’re feeling bad or be the crowning jewel on a fantastic day. It has the ability to cool off hot summer days and warm up a cold winter night. And it does it all with just a few simple ingredients.

You only really need heavy cream, sugar and milk to make ice cream (although that would be quite boring). The cream lends fat to the mixture, which is most of what gives ice cream its creamy texture; but frozen cream by itself is rock hard. Adding sugar makes the frozen cream softer; but it lowers the freezing point of the mixture below the freezing point of water, making it impossible to freeze with just ice. Milk dilutes the milk-fat in the cream and adds water to the concoction, which allows more ice crystals to form while the cream is freezing. These ice crystals give the ice cream its solidity; but, if not frozen at the right speed and with the right agitation, can turn nirvana into gritty disappointment.

Obviously, ice cream isn’t as simple as it seems; that may be why it took centuries to perfect it. The first frozen desserts were made of ice mixed with fruit or fruit juice (kind of like the OJ snow cones my brother and I loved to make the first day it snowed). By the 13th century, Arabs had not only figured out how to incorporate milk as the main ingredient in their frozen treats but they also discovered that adding salt to ice lowered the freezing temperature of water. If water freezes at a lower temperature and you put that super cooled water in contact with a cream and sugar solution, which needs to be super cold to freeze, you discover ice cream.

During the following centuries, the French and Italians got hold of this wonderful new treat and took it to new heights. The French added egg yolks to create a silkier texture while reducing the amount of milk-fat. (They did have a version that negated the savings of milk-fat and replaced it with egg fat; glace au beurre (ice butter) was made with 20 yolks per pint of cream! )

The Italians were more restrained with their egg use but still use some to create gelato. Gelato has a lower milk-fat content but higher sugar content than ice cream. The added sugar acts like an anti-freeze so gelato doesn’t get as hard as ice cream. And gelato is not churned vigorously. Without the extra air that is incorporated during churning, gelato ends up denser.

With all these advances there were still hurdles to leap before just anyone could have ice cream whenever they wanted. Even if you know that stirring a cream and sugar mixture in a salt and ice bath gives you ice cream, you still need ice. And, before refrigeration, you needed a lot of resources to have access to ice in the middle of summer. Nero had a whole legion of slaves to climb the nearest mountain and gather snow. If you didn’t have mountains nearby, you had to be landed gentry like George Washington or Thomas Jefferson (who were both known to favor the sweet treat, as was Dolly Madison, of course) with plenty of room for icehouses to store ice harvested in winter so you could churn up a batch in the heat of the summer.

The mid 1800s saw the invention of the two devices that would put ice cream on every spoon: the hand cranked ice cream maker and refrigeration. The ice cream maker made it easy to mix up large batches of ice cream with the right consistency. Refrigeration made ice affordable and available year round.

Once these two inventions were in place, industrial production took over and ice cream took a downward spiral for a while. Powdered milk replaced fresh milk to make ice cream lower fat and cheaper. Stabilizers preserved the smooth consistence for long periods of time in freezers with inconsistent temperatures. Artificial colors and flavors made for cheaper but flashier products. And corn syrup replaced sugar to make ice cream thicker (and, of course, cheaper).

Luckily, in the 1980s companies like Ben and Jerry’s and Haagen-Daz rediscovered real ice cream and we now have lots of premium and super-premium ice cream to choose from.
But not one of the super premium ice creams or gelatos available today come close to fresh churned. And now that it’s finally hot out, there’s no excuse not to mix up a batch.

Raspberry Ice Cream
Makes 1 quart

Our raspberry bush is going to go crazy in the next week or so (we’ve already picked a quart and there are so many green berries yet to ripen it’s overwhelming). What better way to show off fresh summer fruit than a batch of home made ice cream?

3 c. raspberries, washed
½ c. sugar, plus more to taste
fresh squeezed lemon juice (optional)
1 ½ c. whole milk (preferably not ultra pasteurized)
1 ½ c. heavy cream (preferably not ultra pasteurized)

Sprinkle raspberries lightly with sugar. Taste for sweetness level. Add lemon juice if too sweet, more sugar if too tart. Mix together the ½ c sugar, milk and cream. Mix in the fruit if you want to have them well dispersed in the ice cream or wait until the milk mixture is partially frozen to keep large pieces of the berries intact.
Pre-chill the mixture (with or without the fruit) in the freezer in several small containers. Stir occasionally until the mixture reaches 30F. Place all of the mixture into an ice cream maker and churn constantly. The fast you churn, the more air you will incorporate. For a denser ice cream, churn at a steady pace. For a lighter more voluminous ice cream, give it some speed.
Fold in the raspberries (if you’ve reserved them) as the mixture becomes semi-solid.
Once churning becomes too difficult, harden the mixture in the freezer in several small pre-chilled containers (if you can wait that long!). I probably don’t need to tell you this, but eat it quickly. Fresh ice cream doesn’t store well.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Chips and Salsa Salsa

This article marks the beginning of my fifth year writing this column. Sometimes it seems like it wasn’t that long ago that I sent in my first article about buying local meat. Other times, especially when I’m having a hard time thinking up subject matter, it seems like it’s been forever.

Coming up with stuff that I think will interest my readers and will entertain me while I’m writing is not always easy. Occasionally, the ideas come weeks in advance, but sometimes I’m struggling with subject matter at the last minute. When my Aunt Marilyn wrote me an e-mail wondering if I’d ever considered writing about Chips and Salsa (she’d been scooping up mango salsa while reading a past article of mine) I jumped at the chance to make her happy while not having to come up with an idea for this article myself. This one’s for you, Mar.

Chips and Salsa is actually a much more complicated subject than I originally imagined. Either one of the pair could be the focus of an entire article. The debate could go on and on about what makes a good dipping chip or what kind of salsa is most appropriate to eat with said chip. I decided to lean more toward the salsa side of the equation in this article because it offers more room for creativity and culinary exploration but first a few words about the chips.

Tortilla chips are ubiquitous today. You can’t go anywhere food (or gas) is sold without running into some. There are chips in red, white and blue, with flavors as diverse as run-of-the-mill sea salt to are-you-really-going-to-dip-these-in-salsa chocolate. In the natural food world (with which I’m most familiar) there are probably 50 different manufacturers of chips and hundreds of different flavors. I’m guessing you can at least quadruple those numbers if you include conventional brands.

It’s amazing to think that as recently as the 1970’s the premier corn snack was a Frito, not a Dorito. There is something so supremely addicting about tortilla chips that has contributed to their fast rise to stardom. But not all chips are created equal when it comes to the perfect dipper.

Chips for serving with salsa should be firm yet crisp and crunchy. There’s nothing worse than sinking a chip into a bowl of chunky pico de gallo and having it snap in half before you can get a big scoop of spicy tomatoes out of the dish. Chips for dip shouldn’t be flat but they also shouldn’t have some artificial molded shape. There should be a nice organic curve to them so you can pick up and hold on to more salsa. And personally, I prefer plain chips with just a hint of salt in whatever colored corn best highlights my salsa, because, when you get right down to it, the chip is just the carrier; it’s the salsa where the flavors really shine.

Salsa is a form of sauce. Both words have their origins in the Latin word sal (salt), but salsa is distinguished from other forms of sauce in several ways. Salsas are almost always based on fresh fruits and/or vegetables. I’ve seen recipes for seafood or grain-based salsa, but these are clearly outliers. They usually have some spicy heat to them. The ingredients are usually finely chopped yet they can still be easily identified within the mixture. Each ingredient’s taste, texture and color are apparent in every bite. In sauces, all the ingredients meld together to form one flavor, texture and note. In salsas, it is many flavors and textures combining in harmony to form a beautiful chord of taste.

It’s figuring out the notes in that harmonious chord where the fun of salsa making begins.

There are some key things to think about when composing. Make sure you use the freshest ingredients available. Each ingredient is going to play a role so you don’t want any of them to be flat. They should all be fresh and lively. This includes any herbs you use. Save your dried herbs for something else (and don’t even think about using dried cilantro, they shouldn’t even be allowed to sell the stuff).

If possible, cut all the ingredients to the same small size. When you scoop up your salsa, you should get some of each ingredient and you should be able to identify each as well.

Think about color and texture as well as taste when composing a salsa. If you are using red tomatoes, pick a yellow pepper to go with it instead of a red one. In a bean salsa, add some finely chopped celery or carrot to add crunch to offset the smoothness of the beans.

Most importantly, you want to make sure you have enough taste notes to make up the harmonious chord of flavor that is salsa. If you think about different types of ingredients making up different notes, this isn’t too hard.

Spicy ingredients and aromatic herbs can be considered the high notes. These are the ones that really stand out and include chilies, cilantro, ginger, and cumin.

Acidic foods such as vinegars and citrus juices are the sharps. They help enliven the mixture and also help reduce the amount of salt and sugar needed to bring out the full flavor of the mix.

Bass notes include things like beans, tomatoes, or apples. These form the foundation of the salsa, giving it body and something for the other ingredients to play off of.

With these notes in mind you could compose quick little riffs with, say, mango, ginger, lime and cayenne or roasted tomatoes, cilantro, chilies, and lime juice. You could create a symphony with beans, onions, tomatoes, chilies, garlic, honey, pineapple and scallions. Or you can be totally avant garde with a mixture of smoked salmon, sun-dried tomatoes, fennel, black pepper, cayenne, and lemon juice.

Once you get in the groove of making salsas, you might not even need those chips anymore. Your salsas will become accompaniments to your main course and you can start eating them for breakfast, lunch and dinner. No more relegating them to just snack time; serve them with your eggs, use them as a sandwich spread or top your favorite meat with them.

Your mouth will sing.

Jon’s Secret Salsa

makes a big bowl of the stuff

¼ c lime juice

1 28 oz. can diced tomatoes, drained

1 15 oz. can black beans, drained and rinsed

½ c scallions, chopped

¼ c cilantro, chopped

1-2 T jalapenos, fresh or canned, chopped

1 clove garlic, chopped

1 medium avocado, diced

dash of your favorite Tequila

Combine all ingredients in a large bowl. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Let stand 30 minutes for best flavor (if you can wait that long)

Mango Strawberry Salsa

makes 3 cups

This is not really a chip dipping salsa (although maybe this is where those chocolate flavored tortilla chips would come in handy). Serve this as an appetizer, as an accompaniment to pork or even as a dessert, topped with some whipped cream or on top of ice cream.

1 pint strawberries, stemmed and sliced

1 mango, peeled and sliced

4 t balsamic vinegar

½ c fresh orange juice

1 T Cabernet or other full bodied red wine (use the good stuff)

1 t sugar

¼ t fresh ground pepper

In a large bowl, stir together the vinegar, orange juice, red wine, sugar and pepper until the sugar dissolves. Fold in the fruit. Let rest 20 minutes before serving. Eat it fresh. It won’t keep well.