Monday, January 31, 2011

A taste of summer...

Now, in the middle of winter, we're staying well-fed by mostly local foods, thanks in part to some food preservation projects that we took on last summer, when the harvest was still in full swing.  In the hopes of invoking some summertime flavors, here's an account of canning some tomatoes, which we're currently enjoying in their jarred form.

We were lucky enough to score 25 pounds of ripe roma tomatoes from the farm from whom we buy our CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) share, Harmony Valley Farm, in Viroqua, WI, less than 100 miles from Madison.
We'd hoped to be able to grow enough of our own tomatoes in our garden to have extra for canning, but due to the fact that (1) tomatoes are delicious, and eminently eat-able straight off the vine, and (2) that this is what our garden looked like for most of the summer (with a few tomato plants in front being largely overtaken by runaway squash that grew uninvited due to a little worm compost mishap):
So, instead we turned to our trusty and honorable Harmony Valley (about which more in later posts) for the produce, and to the USDA Complete Guide to Home Canning for directions. (Along with some additional guidelines from my favorite blogger, Sharon Astyk at Casaubon's Book).

First, we cut X's in the ends of the tomatoes and then immersed them in boiling water to remove the skins.  You can see some of the skins sliding off all on their own:
 Justin actually found the tomato skin removal to be one of the most fun parts of the whole project:
 Then we quartered the peeled tomatoes and, as you can see on the left of the photo below, put them to simmer in two stock pots on the stove. Meanwhile, as shown on the right of the photo, we heated the glass jars by holding them in boiling water and then removing them with a jar lifter:
 Then, we carefully filled the hot jars with hot tomato mixture using a large ladle and a wide-mouth funnel:
And when all the jars were filled, we had these beauties to behold!
After putting the lids on and immersing them back into the boiling water for thirty minutes, we cooled them overnight and they were ready for the pantry!

Now, we're enjoying the fruits of those labors (literally!).

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Root Cafe

Last time, I wrote about the sense of community that Madison's Restaurant Week builds among those who love food in this fair city. But a trip to Sardine or any other restaurant like it in this city doesn't mean that much, in some sense, because there are so many places that support a local food infrastructure in Southwestern Wisconsin.  This town is filled with restaurants, chefs, and eaters who want to "nourish the links between land and table," as the motto of the REAP food group goes.

In Arkansas, where I grew up, however, such a food infrastructure is much less firmly rooted (pun intended).  Although the south has the longest growing season and some of the best soil in the country, it also has very few farmers who are growing food organically, as this 2009 map from the New York Times shows:
This puzzling mismatch of climate and presence of organic agriculture has a deep historical legacy, which I may get in to in a later post, but suffice it to say that there's still a lot to be done in the South to bring the attention of farmers and eaters (read: all people) to the issues of sustainable agriculture.

And I'm proud to say that one of my oldest family friends is heeding that call, and is getting that work started. For the past few years, my friend Jack has been working on building a support system to open a local food cafe in Little Rock--with courses and canning classes, media appearances and community dinners.  And now, after years of work and diligence, they have a physical space and the Root Cafe is set to open in Little Rock later this season! If you're in that area, do stop by and vote with your fork! And if you're elsewhere, follow their blog and be inspired by what's going on in one small corner of my (and Bill Clinton's) home state.

Thanks, Jack, for inspiring me. In large part because of you and your example, I've added "build a local food infrastructure in a place it didn't exist before" to my life list. Maybe someday we'll work on this together!

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Restaurant week: Sardine

Last week, Justin and I ventured out with a couple of friends to sample one of Madison's finest restaurants, Sardine, during the semi-annual Restaurant Week.  During this week, many of the city's favorite haunts pull out a prix fixe menu, and for $25 you can get a first course, entree, and dessert. It's not necessarily the best deal (especially since you can get dinner for two, including tax and tip, at most of our favorite places), but it feels good to take part in this community-wide (or at least the part of the community that can afford fine dining) event that honors our city's diverse foodscape.

Over my dinner of:
  • Salad of mixed greens and bibb lettuce, shaved shallots, crispy chickpeas, beets and sieved egg in a champagne tarragon vinaigrette
  • Camembert crouquettes, sauté of winter greens, crimini mushrooms, butternut squash, brandied cherries and a coarse mustard-cider sauce (oh how that list of flavorful accompaniments get me!); and
  • Lemon meringue tart

...we discussed what it is about this "community" aspect of Restaurant Week that makes us want to take part, to indulge, to reinforce traditions. We would certainly not eat at Sardine with any regularity if they offered this sort of prix fixe menu on a daily basis. Rather, it's the sense of participating in some larger Madison goings-on that makes it feel so vibrant and good to support this community of food.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Making an entrance

This week, Mark Bittman, who had written his column The Minimalist for the last 13 years for the New York Times’s Dining section, announced the end of an era.

He is no longer going to be writing his Dining column, which focused on simple dishes with complex flavors.  Instead, he’s moving to the Op-Ed* section of the Times. And although he’ll still be writing about food, he’s shifting gears a little from just sharing recipes to, as he says, “advocat[ing], essentially, for eaters’ rights” because of his “growing conviction that the meat-heavy American diet and our increasing dependence on prepared and processed foods is detrimental not only to our personal health but to that of the planet.” So, he is going to taking up this political issue, helping cooks and food writers “continue to look for ways to bring real food to all of our tables.”

Bravo, Mark Bittman.

I was so heartened to read this announcement, to see this very prominent and well-known food writer devote attention to the very real politics that underlies those beautiful dishes that he writes about so well.  We must not make his 45-minute roast turkey without thinking about whether that turkey had been genetically manipulated to have such an enlarged breast that it couldn’t naturally reproduce; we must not make his Watermelon and Tomato Salad without considering whether the farmworkers who picked those tomatoes were paid barely a cent per pound. We must take these things into account, and more.  Not because we want to take the pure sensory pleasure out of eating, but because that purity must come from a full acknowledgment of what lies behind the savory flavors, rich textures, and beautiful hues of the food on our plates.

So, for Mark Bittman a new column. For me, a new blog, a new beginning, a new dedication to the sensory pleasures—and the moral underpinnings—of eating!

Let’s dine and opine together!

*Did you know that “Op-Ed” is short not for “Opinion Editorial,” but for “Opposite Editorial”? That’s right—even though it’s typically writers expressing opinions (rather than offering “objective news”), it’s named after the fact that it traditionally appeared on the page opposite the editorial section, which displayed the unsigned opinions of the editors of the paper.  A bit of trivia there for you