Edible bounty

I recently signed up to join a produce-buying cooperative called Bountiful Baskets, which operates in most states. I’m not exactly sure what their structure is, but it seems to work: they buy produce at rock-bottom prices and allow people to make a contribution each week in exchange for a (ahem) healthy portion of that produce.

Eager to pick up my first basket, I headed out into the frosty dawn this morning to a slightly seedy industrial section of town not far from my house, down a street along the railroad tracks that I’ve never traveled in my more than six years of living here. As I approached the facility from which the food would be distributed, I noted several cars parked along the road, filled with individuals and families, engines running to ward off the single-digit chill. I turned around and found myself a place to park, and waited. Before too long, an invisible signal apparently came from somewhere, because as if on cue, engines switched off and car doors opened all up and down the street. I didn’t know what the protocol was, so I just followed the lady in front of me through the ice-clogged parking lot and took my place in line. We waited 15 shivering minutes or so before finally the door swung open and a volunteer cheerfully called “come on in!”

The line began to move slowly forward, and I took the time to look around behind me. The crowd had grown considerably, stretching out the better part of a city block. Everyone carried a handful of reusable grocery bags and the occasional laundry basket. I was amazed to see how popular this service is in a small town in the frozen heart of winter.

After a few minutes, I got my turn to go inside and found an industrial shop turned into an enormous temporary pantry. Rows and rows of white plastic baskets filled with fruits and vegetables were set out neatly over every inch of free floor space. I initialed next to my name on the list, showed my printed order confirmation email, and was directed to pick up two of the baskets—one of fruits, the other of veggies. I quickly transferred everything into my reusable bags and was on my way in minutes. Quite a pleasant experience, all in all, despite the wait in the cold.

I got my bags home and unpacked them with great anticipation of meals to be made! Here is what I received:

bountiful-basket

  • 2 English cucumbers
  • 2 bunches of green onions
  • 2 bunches of red radishes
  • 1 bunch of baby asparagus
  • A 1-lb plastic bag of carrots, plus 3 unattached stragglers
  • 11 red potatoes
  • 3 huge Jonagold apples
  • 7 Fuji apples
  • 6 navel oranges
  • 2 Asian pears
  • 1 personal-size watermelon
  • 9 exceedingly green bananas

I don’t know how many pounds that all adds up to, but probably around 15, and the total price for the lot of it was only $15. So I think I made out like a bandit! I have already devoured an orange, some of the watermelon, and a couple of carrots. I gifted the asparagus, some green onions, a few potatoes and two bananas to my neighbor Sue, who teased me that I turned her down when she offered to go halves with me on one of these baskets several months ago because “you were in your butter phase then.” Well, I guess I’m in my veggie phase now, and looking forward to making some great meals from all this bounty!

Oh, also, I want to mention that the impetus for my interest in fresh produce and recently intensified interest in cooking is this presentation by food activist and author Michael Pollan.

I am currently reading his latest book, Cooked, and am finding it fascinating. Highly recommended.

 

Take me with you

Here’s a little ghost story for you. Happy Halloween! :-)

~~~~~

She heard Clancy’s shrill alarm barking while she was in the shower, from under a deep layer of soap suds. “That will be the mail,” she thought. Good. The check was late this month, and her cupboard was bare. The barking faded as she finished rinsing shampoo out of her hair and turned off the water.

As she stepped out of the shower and reached for her towel, she saw a flicker of movement in the bathroom mirror as Clancy jumped up to his usual perch at the foot of her bed. She smiled and called to him, “That’s my good boy!” She finished her morning toilette and went into the bedroom to find him curled in a tight ball, expertly feigning sleep. She stroked the curly hair on his head, bent down and kissed his nose. “Thanks for letting me know about the mail,” she whispered. He made a low groan in response, a sound that was neither a growl nor a whine, but clearly an acknowledgement.

Clancy was an old boy of nearly 15 years. He had been her one and only dog since her daughter had given him to her as a retirement present when he was six weeks old. “He’ll keep you company,” she said. His eyes were clouded and he was mostly deaf, but he always knew when the mailman came.

He raised his head and regarded her solemnly as she dressed. When she bent to put on her shoes, he jumped down from the bed and rapidly shook himself out with an eager air. He chased and nipped at her hands like a puppy as she tied the laces, ready as ever to go with her wherever she might be heading. She laughed and teased him with her hands, glad to see him so energetic. “You wanna go for a walk?” she said in a high, happy voice that made him prance and bark. “You wanna go?” He ran out to the kitchen and came back dragging his leash in his mouth. “I guess you do. So let’s go!” She snapped the leash onto his collar.

As they headed to the door, she looked down at the little dog, which she called a maltipoo but could have been any kind of mix. “You’re a good boy,” she said fondly, bending down to pat his head again. She never asked him if he was; she always just told him. He looked up at her through filmy eyes and panted happily, his little pink tongue extended. They walked out together into the day, which suddenly seemed to her to be blindingly bright. She saw she had forgotten to turn off the porch light this morning, but the door was already locked behind her, so she kept walking. Clancy trotted along beside her, his head high and his tail wagging.

Three days later, her porch light was still on. The neighbors across the street thought perhaps they should check. They found her in the bathtub.

“Poor old gal, here all alone,” the neighbor lady said to her husband. “It’s a blessing. She was so sad after her little dog died last year, I don’t know how she kept going this long. What was his name? Clancy?”

 

The baddest breed

I read today that PetSmart does not allow any pitbull-type dog to participate in its PetsHotel Doggie Day Camps.

petsmart-daycamp-requirements

The Huffington Post article by Arin Greenwood makes the case better than I can as to why this policy is absurd in theory and in practice, but it boils down to two things:

  1. Nobody can say for sure whether a mixed breed dog is a “bully breed” without a genetic test.
  2. Even if it is a bully breed, a dog is a dog is a dog.

Greenwood also points out that this discriminatory policy, which PetSmart only vaguely justifies, helps add to the stigma against bully breeds, which die by the millions in this country every year because they cannot be rehomed.

Ironically, PetSmart’s nonprofit division—PetSmart Charities, which describes itself as having the mission of finding “a lifelong, loving home for every pet”—recently released a report cheering the increase in pet adoptions but lamenting the barriers that stand in the way to reducing euthanasia.

This is a rather chilling excerpt from the report’s intro:

“The public continues to vastly underestimate the number of pets who are euthanized annually in the United States. An estimated 8 million pets enter U.S. shelters every year and only 4 million ever find homes. Cats, kittens, Chihuahuas and bully breeds are particularly at risk for euthanasia.”

The fear and loathing of pit bulls runs deep. Looking for statistics on dog bites in the U.S., I came across DogsBite.org, a site so rabidly (ahem) biased against pit bulls that it might almost be funny. Unfortunately, from what I can find online, it appears their central premise is correct: pitbull-type breeds are most often involved in dog bite injuries and fatalities. The second most-guilty breed in that category is Rottweilers. As many of you know, my first dog was a Rottweiler who never hurt a soul, but she frightened a lot of people just by being the breed she was. I had a client once who literally shook with fear just seeing her sitting in the back seat of my car when I stopped by his office to say hello. He wouldn’t come within 20 feet of the car and contorted himself to avoid turning his back on her. I was embarrassed for him; she was just sitting there, not doing anything but looking at him.

But I digress.

What I want to say is, I personally don’t like pit bulls as a breed (although I have liked individual ones when I got to know them). I think they have, with few exceptions, an exceedingly unattractive body type, from their blocky heads to their weirdly attenuated toenails and whip-like tails. Generally speaking, I don’t trust them, I’m afraid of them, I doubt I would ever own one myself, and I’d be nervous living next door to one (more for my dogs’ sake than for my own, because my two little terriers, believe it or not, can act exceedingly aggressively when they’re on their own side of the fence).

All that said, I grieve for the plight of all pit bulls in this nation and this world, where their innate characteristics—courage, physical size and strength, protectiveness, “gameness”—have been perverted into dangerous aggression by too many careless owners for personal gain, to the horrible detriment of the breed. A Facebook friend of mine who reposts stories of shelter dogs in need of rescue from being euthanized includes dozens of pit bulls every week. Most of them are puppies or very young, and most of them have no chance of getting out of the shelter alive no matter how sweet their temperament or how highly the shelter staff recommends them. Their breed alone dooms them. And I have to acknowledge that this is, in part, because people like me who own and love dogs won’t even go near them.

baby-pitbull

I have to admit, the blue-grey ones with the blue eyes and white socks are awfully cute. And there’s almost nothing cuter than a pit bull puppy.

A pit bull is just a dog, the same as any other dog, despite the myths surrounding it. I know that in my head, but can’t stop the convulsive clutch of fear I feel when I am out walking my dogs and we encounter a loose pit bull. “This dog could kill both my dogs. It could kill me.” I can’t help thinking this. I would think the same if we encountered a loose German Shepherd, Rottweiler, Chow-Chow, Akita, American Bulldog, English Mastiff, Cane Corso, or St. Bernard. All these dogs would scare me spitless in uncontrolled circumstances. Then again, so would any nondescript cur that comes running and snarling at us. Breed and aggression are not inherently linked.

But my personal feelings are simply that, and I don’t have the right to impose my own fears on other people or other dogs just to make myself feel safer. Therefore, I don’t support breed-specific legislation that prevents people from owning certain breeds of dogs, nor do I support rules or regulations that say that only certain breeds of dogs are acceptable or welcome. I’ve been denied rental housing and told by prospective landlords that my well-mannered, well-trained dog posed an unacceptable risk solely because of her breed. Ha.

Ruby_kiss_2003

What a beast.

I do enthusiastically support education on how to be a good dog owner and I would support laws that punish people for allowing their dogs to run loose, or to menace other people or animals. People who mistreat, mishandle or misdirect a dog should not be allowed to own one. Preventing dog bites and dog-bite-related fatalities is a job for people, both those who own dogs and everyone who interacts with dogs.

Just to be clear: I am in favor of education. I am in favor of rescue. I am in favor of dogs. All dogs. I am not in favor of discrimination against animals that have done nothing wrong.

raise-them-right

As for PetSmart , I get my dogs’ food there because they’re the only chain that carries that particular brand, so I’ll probably keep shopping with them. But I will never patronize their day camp. I take my dogs to Camp Bow Wow, which has a more enlightened policy about what kind of dogs they welcome: “Every dog must first complete an interview process so we can see how they interact with other dogs. They must be over four months old, must be spayed or neutered if they are over 6 months old, and must be current on their Rabies, Bordetella (for canine cough), and Distemper vaccinations. Additional vaccinations may be required based upon regional location. They must be in good health, flea/tick free, friendly to all dogs, and generally love to play.”

Fair enough.

Identity as wealth

I read a story in The Guardian today about a native-born Texas man named Eric Kennie who, for various reasons, is unable to secure the state-approved identification necessary to comply with the rather stiff new voting laws in his state. He doesn’t own a car and does not drive, so he has no driver’s license. He has never traveled outside his native city of Austin, or even outside the state, so he has no passport. He’s never served in the military, never held a concealed weapon permit, and his only state-issued credential, an ID card, expired in 2000. For all the state of Texas knows or cares, he doesn’t even exist. And, at least in this election cycle, he and his vote will be as absent as if he really didn’t.

This story made me realize that an identity is a product, and it is not free. In fact, it is both expensive and valuable, which makes it a form of wealth. I have a passport, a driver’s license, credit cards, bank accounts and utility accounts in my name. I am licensed by my state as a certified nursing assistant, and it has my fingerprints on file from when I was licensed as a real estate agent. I own a business, a house and a vehicle, all properly licensed and registered and insured. I have a computer with an internet connection, so I am plugged into a variety of social media platforms. In every possible way one can provably and “legitimately” exist in this world, I do. And of course I am a registered voter.

All of this costs money, one way or another. Registering anything with the state always entails fees. Except being a voter. Or so I always thought.

Casting a ballot in any election, at least in my state at this time, appears to be free. When I show up at my polling place at a nearby elementary school, I have only to say my name and sign my name to show that I received my ballot—they don’t ask me to prove anything because my name is written on their rolls. I don’t remember what I had to produce to get my voter ID card (which I’ve never once been asked to show); probably a current utility bill and my driver’s license. It was no different from getting a library card or an account at the video store. I never considered identification to be a burden or a barrier because I’ve had a driver’s license and utility service for more than 30 years. Being unable to produce “proper” identification is completely foreign to me, entirely beyond my range of experience in this world. I take such things so completely for granted that I am baffled that anyone wouldn’t always have both. Must be nice to be me, right?

privilege

I never considered my state-recognized identity to be an expense, until now. I’ve always considered it a right rather than a privilege, but apparently it is more the latter than the former. Which is scary because privileges granted by the state can also be taken away by the state with the stroke of a pen.

I exist as a person and as a United States citizen with “certain unalienable rights” only at the pleasure of the state, and it could take all that away from me for any reason or no reason at any time. The state of Texas has taken away Mr. Kennie’s right to vote, essentially, simply because he lacks the means and the will to participate in American society in the ways the state believes he should.

I like to think that I have done everything right and nothing wrong in my life and that therefore I am perfectly safe from my own government, which is dedicated to protecting my sacrosanct “rights.” But this is merely a comfortable illusion created mostly by the unearned privileges I enjoy because of my class, race and (although I have never thought of it as such) wealth. I have all the protection that middle-class white money can buy—no more, no less.

So how safe am I, really? How safe is any one of us?

 

Sweet fall treats

It’s October, which means the pumpkin spice mania is in full swing. You can find it in Oreos, M&Ms, Kahlua, and a few other things you might not have thought of, such as this, this, this and, um, these (for real?).

pumpkin-spice-everywhere

I’m happy to get on that bandwagon in my own kitchen, so here’s my contribution. I would love to give credit for this recipe to the creator of it, but I’ve had it in my files for years and don’t recall where I found it. I like it because it actually contains both pumpkin and spice. The texture of the bars is moist and dense like a brownie, but since these contain no chocolate, it doesn’t seem right to call them pumpkin brownies.

Pumpkin Spice Bars with Salted Caramel Sauce

pumpkin-bar-with-caramel-sauce

Ingredients

1/2 c (1 stick) butter, room temperature
1 c sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp ground allspice
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp salt
1 egg
1/2 c pumpkin puree
3/4 c all-purpose flour
Chopped pecans or walnuts (optional)
 .
Preparation
  1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Lightly grease an 8″ x 8″ baking dish.
  2. In a large bowl, cream together butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in spices, salt, egg and pumpkin.
  3. Sift the flour into the bowl and stir mixture until just combined. Add nuts if using and stir to distribute evenly.
  4. Pour batter into baking dish and spread into an even layer.
  5. Bake for 20-25 minutes until the edges are lightly browned and the center is set. Cool in pan before slicing.

For the sauce, I used this recipe from the Cooking Channel. It’s very simple.

Ingredients

1 c sugar
1/4 c water
3/4 c heavy cream
3-1/2 Tbs unsalted butter
1 tsp gray sea salt, crushed or kosher salt

Preparation
  1. In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine the sugar and water over medium-low heat until the sugar dissolves. Increase the heat and bring to a boil, without stirring. If necessary, use a wet pastry brush to wash down any crystals on the side of the pan. Boil until the syrup is a deep amber color, about 5 to 6 minutes.
  2. Remove the sugar from the heat and carefully whisk in the heavy cream. The mixture will bubble. Stir in the unsalted butter, and salt. Transfer the caramel to a dish and cool.

My first batch of caramel seized as I was stirring in the cream, and most of it hardened around the edges of the pan and into a candy ball inside the whisk that took quite a bit of work to untangle. I think this was because I added cold cream gradually to the hot sugar mixture. On my second round, which was successful, I heated the cream slightly in the microwave first, and poured it into the sugar mixture all at once (it foams up like soda when you do this, so be careful and stand back).

If you are a little bit nervous about cooking sugar to super-high temperatures, as I was, watch this short video to see how to do it just right. She recommends swirling the pan occasionally to even things out. I found that if you mix the sugar and water together thoroughly before pouring it into the pan, you won’t have to stir it or swirl it to make an even layer.

The pumpkin spice season will soon be over, so enjoy it while it lasts!

pumpkin

 

Julia Child’s Sole Bonne Femme

I was cruising around on YouTube the other day not looking for anything in particular when I ran across this “French Chef” episode in which Julia Child holds up a big flat fish by its tail and flaps it at the camera as she warbles, “see how to turn this denizen of the deep into Sole Bonne Femme, today on The French Chef!” How could I refuse an invitation like that?

I watched the clip a couple of times, taking notes the second time. I decided it sounded “awfully good,” as Julia would say, so I decided to make it. A quick Googling for Sole Bonne Femme recipes didn’t find one that sounded at all like hers, so I started from scratch and wrote the recipe myself. I hope I have done a faithful job of recording exactly how she did it.

Watch the video first to find out why it’s called “Bonne Femme,” enjoy Julia’s inimitable cheery delivery as well as her signature live-TV foibles such as snuffing out a flaming potholder, shake your head at her cheerful disregard for potential raw seafood cross-contamination in the kitchen, then come back and print off the recipe so you can make it, too.

Julia Child’s Sole Bonne Femme (Fillets of Sole with Mushrooms)

Ingredients
1 to 1.5 lb sole fillets (9-12, depending on size)
1/4 to 1/2 lb mushrooms, finely chopped (about 2 c)
1/2 c shallots, minced
1/2 c fresh parsley, minced
1/2 c dry white wine or slightly diluted dry vermouth
8 oz bottled clam juice or fish stock (1 c)
2.5 Tbs butter
2.5 Tbs flour
2 Tbs crème fraîche or heavy cream
Kosher salt and white pepper
.
Preparation
Fish
  1. Preheat oven to 350°F.
  2. Combine chopped mushrooms, about 2 Tbs minced shallots and 2 Tbs minced parsley. Season with salt and white pepper. Pour into a heavily buttered shallow baking dish that is both rangetop- and oven-proof.
  3. Lay fillets glossy side down on cutting board. Lightly score the fillets with shallow diagonal cuts, then cut each in half down the center line. Season with salt and white pepper and fold fillets over in half the long way.
  4. Layer the folded fillets in a crisscross chevron pattern over the mushroom mixture in the baking pan. Lightly season tops with salt and white pepper and a small handful of minced shallots.
  5. Pour wine/vermouth and clam juice or stock over the fillets until they are nearly but not quite covered. Bring the pan to a simmer on the stove top (2-3 minutes).
  6. Remove pan from heat and cover it with a heavily buttered sheet of waxed or parchment paper to keep the fish moist. Place pan on the lower rack of the oven and bake for 8-9 minutes or until fish is milky looking and springy (if it’s flaky, it’s overdone).
  7. Remove pan from oven, cover with a metal lid, and drain as much juice as possible into a large sauce pan. Set the baking pan aside, cover and keep warm.
Sauce
  1. Set the sauce pan with the baking juices over high heat and boil until mixture is reduced to about 1 cup (6-7 minutes).
  2. While the juices boil, make a roux with butter and flour. Cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, for about 2 minutes; do not allow it to color. Take roux off heat and allow it to cool for about a minute.
  3. Add the reduced baking juices to the roux, place pan over medium heat, and whisk until the mixture thickens, about 30 seconds. Thin the sauce with crème fraîche or heavy cream. Pour off any more collected baking juices into the sauce. Taste and adjust seasonings. Add dairy as needed to achieve desired consistency (sauce should be thick but pourable).
  4. Pour sauce over fish and sprinkle with the rest of the minced parsley. [Option: Top with a thin layer of shredded cheese such as Swiss or Gruyère and place under broiler until cheese lightly browns.] Serve with rice or potatoes. Serves 4.

Sole Dugléré (Fillets of Sole with Tomatoes) variation: Substitute an equal amount of tomato concassé for the minced mushrooms. All other ingredients and steps are the same.

I don’t usually do cooking photo essays because food photography is not my strong suit, but here is how I made this.

mise-en-place

All my ingredients lined up and ready to go. The sole fillets were frozen; I recommend using fresh. I needed to use only one of the shallots and only three of those big mushrooms.

seasoning

The finished mushroom-shallot-parsley seasoning. Just a word of caution: white pepper comes out of the shaker really fast, and it is so easy to use too much. This is a powerful seasoning, so use a very light hand with the shaker if you don’t have a grinder (which I don’t, yet, but I soon will).

seasoning-in-pan

The seasoning mixture in my heavily buttered saute pan, which I chose because it is shallow and can be heated on both the burner and in the oven. I briefly considered ordering a special au gratin dish just to make this meal, but this pan worked fine.

buttered-paper

I made the waxed paper cover just the way Julia said to, and slathered it with butter.

covered-fish

Along with the white wine, one bottle of clam juice was just the right amount of liquid to almost-but-not-quite cover the fillets.

ready-to-cook

After bringing the pan to a simmer on the stovetop, I covered it and it’s ready to go in the oven.

boiling-juices

The pan juices from the cooked fish boiled up nicely before reducing. The fish is keeping warm there in the back, and the roux is standing by in the center.

final-product

The final sauced dish, ready for the plate. I might have added a spoonful too much heavy cream, so my sauce was a tad thin, but it sure tasted “awfully good.” In fact, I’d say the whole dish is worth making just for this “lovely French sauce.”

dishes

Oh yeah, the stack of dishes to do. But it was worth it.

My only quibble with this dish was with the fish, actually. Perhaps it was that my fillets were frozen, or maybe not perfectly fresh, or I cooked them a minute too long, but they seemed rather tougher than I think sole ought to be. Probably slightly overcooked. But that sauce, wow! I’ve cooked only a few Julia Child recipes and I always think “this is too simple to really be any good,” but they always end up knocking me backward because they are so good, and this one was no exception. Sometimes the simplest ingredients make the best food.