Saturday, December 3, 2011

Yule Cookie Drop

Each year on the week of the winter solstice, Kevin and I carry out an operation we call the “Yule Cookie Drop.” It’s the culmination of weeks of effort, and looks something like this:

Lemon ginger drop cookies
Decorated gingerbread cookies
We bake hundreds of cookies to give as holiday gifts. It isn’t exactly cheaper than buying presents. These cookies are our calling card. Making them is a labor of love, a way to feed our friends, and create a unique gift. We do it because we love cookies, and our friends, and want to give something from we take great pride in making. Cookies are simple, and always appreciated. Even our friends who don’t eat cookies like to get them, because they inevitably have friends who do eat cookies, and who think our friend is awesome for sharing his treats. I never worry that the recipients of our cookies wish we’d bought them a gift card, instead.

Plan ahead

Start by making a list of recipients in a spreadsheet. Family, friends, co-workers, classmates: everyone you want to give cookies to, individually or as groups. We bring big platters of cookies into our workplaces and to holiday parties, and give little gift bags to friends, the postal carrier, our chiropractor. We mail big tins of them to our friends, and give really big tins to our friends who have big families. You may want to plan enough for party platters, to set out for guests over the holiday season, to serve at your parties and holiday meals, and to enjoy, yourselves. I even have special ice creams that I like to make using homemade cookies as stir-ins, and we plan for those, too. Include all of these in your spreadsheet.

For each recipient in your list, know what size container you want to give them, and whether you’ll have to mail it.

If any of your recipients have allergies that you want to be sensitive to when packing up their cookies, make a note of it.

Buy cookie tins. You can get awesome cookie tins if you order online, or you can go thrifting or discount shopping to find enough containers of the sizes you need. In either case, buy them early while supplies are still good. 
Cookie tins
Cookie gift bags
Gather the mailing addresses of those you plan to mail cookies to, and buy packing materials for any cookie tins you plan to ship.

Once you know how many containers of various sizes you want to give, decide how many cookies will fill each size, and how many varieties of cookies you want to make. Divide the total number of cookies you want to produce by number of varieties you plan to make. Check recipe yields to determine how many batches of each variety of cookie you will need to make in order to reach your target number of cookies.

Get ready

Which items will you be baking? Know your recipes very well. Bake practice batches earlier in the season if you need to, to make sure you like the results.

Create a spreadsheet for cookie ingredients. For each variety, write down where your recipe comes from, so you can find it from year to year. Make a list of the ingredients and quantities for a single batch. Use formula functions to multiply the quantities by the number of batches. Use these numbers to buy fresh ingredients for each recipe or day’s baking.

Additionally, use the spreadsheet to add up the total amounts of ingredients you will need for all of your baking, so you can decide whether to buy certain items in bulk for the whole project.

Each year, we build up stores of specialty ingredients like sanding sugars and exotic flavor extracts. We review our bin of baking materials and decide whether to upgrade to better cookie cutters, or buy more baking sheets this year. For shelf stable items we’ll run through a lot of, like flour, ziplock bags, and parchment paper, we buy in bulk.
Decorated sugar cookies

"Osito" brownies

Baking buddies

The whole project requires both of our efforts, and you should scale your Yule Cookie Drop to however many bakers are committed to your household’s gift-baking effort. Additionally, we each find it useful to have a baking buddy around for much of the time: this is a friend to hang out with, put on music, watch the double boiler, set the timer, order in dinner, and generally keep the baker company. Kevin is going through his first gluten-free Yule baking season, so he hasn’t been able to taste his own work. This is just one more reason to have baking buddies.

Quality testing is job one

A baking tip: Eat a whole, proper sample for quality assessment. Don’t eat the crumbs. You won’t get the true experience from eating crumbs, just a bellyache.
The other psychological advantage to the buddy system is in talking up the baking effort even before it’s under way. Reminding our friends that we’re doing this again this year, and telling new friends about it, is one of the ways that we commit ourselves to the effort.

As you go

It’s usually best to bake cookies in single batches, maybe doubled at the most. Beyond that and mixing becomes too difficult as you exceed the capacity of your largest mixing bowl, and the dough dries and leaveners lose their power, hanging around wet and waiting to be baked. Bake one sheet at a time for even results. As you’re baking, record notes such as true yields and changes you make to the recipe, and put them in your cookie spreadsheet. Note how many batches you made, and their yield.

Have storage

This year, our infrastructure investment was to buy another full-size freezer. You need adequate freezer storage if you’re going to be spreading your baking out over any length of time, and we take at least a month to do all of our holiday cookie baking. After fully cooling each treat, we pack them into the freezer.
  • Cookies are gently stacked into gallon ziplock bags.
  • For brownies and bar cookies, slice into individual pieces, place the servings in cupcake papers, then pack them into a ziplock bag for freezing.
  • Meringues don’t need to be frozen, but stored in a cool, dry place in an airtight container.

    Shortbread cookies, with and without chocolate drizzle

Several kinds of cookies in the Yule Drop

Pack it up

Create a descriptive insert to go along with the cookies. At a minimum, it should list the names of the cookies, enough description to allow the recipient to confidently match the real thing to its listing, and the ingredients. Like the spreadsheets of recipients and recipes, your insert is a document you can update each year and re-use. 

Use your ingredients spreadsheets to create ingredient lists, and consider bolding the common allergens: nuts are the big one for cookies. You can get creative with the insert: tell a family story about the recipe or a time you made them. Instead of describing the cookies yourself, you could record your kids’ descriptions of the cookies and have them illustrate it.

Set aside a day just for packing the containers. Generally, we do this on a Sunday, and deliver in a blitz on Monday morning. Review the spreadsheet totals for each of your cookie varieties and recalculate, if necessary, how many of each kind will go into each gift box or tin. Make notes of any recipients whose container needs to be customized because of a food allergy.

In each gift box or tin, we include eight little ziplock bags, one for each kind of cookie or treat. Grab your baking buddies, take everything out of the freezer, and employ all hands to repack into smaller ziplock bags, each with one kind of cookie, in the quantities needed for each of the sizes of gift containers. This keeps all of the cookies as fresh as possible, prevents the moist brownies from making the crisp meringues soggy, and makes it easier to pack the sturdy cookies beneath the more fragile ones. For small gift boxes, there may be just one or two cookies in a bag, while there might be a dozen of each kind of cookie in a giant tin.

Plan to deliver in a mad blitz, so the cookies arrive as fresh as possible. There will be a trip to the post office, where it goes without saying that you should ship your packages at the highest priority so they will arrive quickly. If there are gifts you will not be giving immediately, or cookies you’re holding back to serve later, put them right back into the freezer until you’re ready to serve or give them away.

Take pictures, keep notes, and continually improve your process each year.

Date-pecan pinwheel cookie

Linzer cookies

Monday, November 21, 2011

Butchering a turkey into boneless roasts

Kevin and I got drove to Mockingbird Farm yesterday afternoon to pick up the two turkeys we'd ordered ahead, figuring we'd want to eat turkey more than once this year. It was a fine late autumn day, dry and clear. Pete Solis' farm is on a residential street in Easthampton, houses filling in what must once have all been farmland. When we got out of the car, what was notable was how sweet the air was. You wouldn't know he raises pigs and cattle as well as chickens and turkeys, or, except for all of the cars parked in front of his house and down the road,  that today had been a day for slaughtering.

In the yard, what looked like a bladeless guillotine stood, spattered with blood, and a few long turkey feathers lay before it. Chickens crossed and re-crossed the yard, evidently unconcerned. The turkeys were already packaged, bagged and then bagged again in red insulated bags, lined up on the barn floor. After a conversation about bird size, hens versus toms, and flavor, we picked two larger birds, around twelve pounds each. I asked about eggs and was able to buy some that were apologized for as being dirty. I guess I'll have to wash them before I crack them.

We made room for it all in the fridge yesterday, and today after Kevin went to work and I'd walked the dog and had breakfast, I cleaned up the kitchen, sharpened my best knife, and took out a turkey to cut up. My plan was to take them both apart, make boneless roasts of the thighs and breasts, save one whole turkey's worth of roasts in the fridge to brine before Thanksgiving, and freeze the others. Use the wings and bones for stock to make gravy and dressing for Thursday, and freeze the drumsticks to stew another day.

Butchering a turkey is much like butchering a chicken, something I do much more often. I follow the same order: take off the wings, then the legs, then deal with the breasts last.

Front left casserole dish contains two each of boneless breasts and thighs, and the drumsticks are in the bowl to the right. Behind them is turkey number two.
If this picture is too much for you, you probably don't want to continue reading. These are the steps for butchering a turkey down to boneless roasts, wings, and drums.

How to butcher a turkey into boneless roasts, wings and drums:
  1. Place the turkey on its breast. Use one hand to pull the wing away from the body, manipulating the wing until you can see where the joint of wing and shoulder is.
  2. Slice into the middle of the webbing of skin toward the shoulder joint. 
  3. When you encounter the joint, look for the dull white cap on the end of the wing bone, then angle the knife between the wing bone and the turkey body, slicing through some cartilage and tendon. Finish slicing through the meat of the wing, angling back to include as little breast meat as possible in the wing portion you're cutting.
  4. Turn the turkey around and repeat the steps to remove the other wing. If you like, you can tip the wings so that you can keep the tips for stock and serve the wings. Manipulate the tip and prod it with your finger to find the joint. Slice through the skin to the joint, move the tissue around and slice it some more to find the joint if necessary, then slice between the bones.
  5. Place the turkey on its back to remove the first leg. Use one hand to both pull the leg away from the body, and to brace against the turkey to hold it steady.
  6. Make shallow cuts to split the taut skin, then widen and deepen the cut. There may be some foamy-looking connective tissue to cut through, but other than that it's mostly skin and then a gap and then meat. 
  7. Widen the cut and push the leg farther away from the body.
  8. Begin making the cut starting at the head-end of the body, holding the knife against the body as you cut through the skin and flesh at the top of the thigh. Cut as close to the body as possible to include as much meat as you can in what will be the boneless thigh roast.
  9. Cut along the body, this time from the tail-end toward the thigh joint, again holding the blade close against the body to include as much meat as possible in the cut. When you reach the joint, look for the end of the thigh bone where it joins the body and angle the knife around the bone cap so that you only have to cut through tendon, not bone. As you cut through the rest of the skin and meat connecting the thigh to the back, keep the knife against the body to get as much meat as you can.
  10. Prod the joint between thigh and drumstick to find the joint in the leg quarter.
  11. Cut into the meat, then move the tissue around to find the ends of the bones, and slice between the bones to remove the drumstick from the leg quarter.
  12. Slice down the center of the thigh.
  13. Using the tip of the knife, trim the meat from the cartilage and connective tissue around one end of the thighbone.
  14. Slice the meat away from the bone, rotating the thigh and pushing back the meat as you go, until the roast comes free of the bone. Trim away any remaining hard tissue on the thigh roast.
  15. Repeat the steps to remove the other leg, separate the thigh from drumstick, and meat from the thighbone.
  16. Grip the turkey firmly while making an incision just to one side of the breastbone where it protrudes.
  17. Using the tip of the knife, and keeping the blade against the bone, widen the incision, only going about an inch deep to where the sternum joins the ribs, and following this concavity with the knife.
  18. At the bottom or tail-end of the breast, free the tip of the breast meat from the bones by slicing along the ribcage, and holding the breast meat out of the way.
  19. Holding the tip of breast meat at the bottom, continue working the knife along the ribs to part the meat from the bones. Always keep the knife close against the turkey's bones, and take as much meat as possible for your boneless breast roast. Some of the edges of rib meat may come out a little ragged, but better to take as much as you can and trim it later if you're so inclined. I will tie these roasts with string and no one will know the difference.
  20. As you finish removing the breast, continue staying close to the ribs. Look for the shoulder joint and cut through the small muscles around it to free the larger breast and attached tenderloin from the turkey body.
  21. Remove the other breast the same way, holding very firmly to the rack, as now that most of the meat is removed, the turkey will become unstable on its back.
Now that you have disassembled your turkey, you can bag the cuts and freeze or refrigerate them, depending on when you plan to use them. The racks and other bones, turkey neck and heart (but not the liver) can all be roasted in a 350-degree oven until deeply colored, then covered in water in a very large stock pot and simmered for stock. The roasts can be brined for a day before roasting, but do not over brine them or they will get mushy and too salty.

    Friday, November 11, 2011

    Like them apples?

    Apples grown in western Massachusetts

    The harvest season in New England is rich in the produce that is depicted with nostalgia, and sometimes tasted only at this time of year. The apple, that lowly fruit so common that even McDonalds sells them now, could be in danger of being so highly commercialized that, like milk, what was once the image of wholesome, natural food is muted in all of its original flavor and food value. In an Ingmar Bergman film, a meal of raw milk and apples is treated as rustic ambrosia. The variety available from a fast food outlet does not taste like this, but you can still get real apples in western Massachusetts.

    The problem with commercial apples is how few varieties are grown, and the qualities that commercial growers prize them for are not what endear them to eaters. I want taste, an acidic bite, a dry, crisp texture. I want different kinds of apples: little mild ones to pack in my husband’s lunch, and big zesty ones that hold their shape when I bake them into pie. Ugly, flavorful apples that make me feel like a clever insider for knowing that a knobby Russet exists despite its unlovely mug because it has a winning personality worth propagating.

    The website Orange Pippin, no doubt named for Cox’s Orange Pippin, a variety of apple, describes an exhaustive list of apple varieties on their website, including such western Massachusetts favorites as the Mutsu, Rhode Island Greening, Ananas Reinette, and Knobby Russet, as well as the more widely known varieties like Macoun, Empire, Gala, and Golden Delicious. The images, while lovely, don’t give a sense of scale. Here are a Mutsu, which typically weigh about a pound each, beside its tiny cousin, the Ananas Reinette.

    Ananas Reinette, left, and a Mutsu apple, right
    During apple season at my neighborhood co-op, the produce manager hangs a chalkboard with the number of varieties of apples available for sale that day: forty-three on the day I visited. “These were all harvested a month ago,” Joe Stan told me, indicating the baskets of local apples from Dwight Miller, Apex Orchards, and Scott Farm, among other local orchards. “And they’ll fill orders through March.”

    The secrets to storing your apples, according to Joe Stan, are low humidity and a cool temperature, around forty degrees. If you plan to cellar your own apples, choose unblemished specimens only--use the ones with nicks and bruises, don’t store them. Wrap each storing apple in a clean sheet of newspaper to prevent the apples from touching one another, and store in a dark, dry place in the cellar. For cooking apples, you can peel, core, and slice even imperfect apples, then either cook them gently, cool, and freeze for pie filling, or put the slices in a food dehydrator or warm oven until they are beyond leathery to brittle. Dried apples reconstitute well in porridge and stews.

    I've been experimenting with gluten-free alternatives to the classic apple pie. Here are a butternut custard pie with a "crust" of sliced apples, and an apple pie recipe from Real Food Forager that uses a pecan meal crust.
    Butternut custard pie with a crust made from thinly sliced, peeled apples
    This apple crumble pie is made with a pecan crust
    Another tasty way to enjoy the local apple harvest all year round is as cider. A local vendor, West County Cider, produces ciders from several named varieties. They range from dry to sweet, and the crisper ones are like champagne. Much drier than the sweet, fresh cider you give the kids, and an excellent alternative to wine or beer at Thanksgiving or any harvest meal.

    Tuesday, November 1, 2011

    Back to normal after the Halloween Snowstorm

    Bacon, egg, and cheese grilled sandwich

    Eighteen minutes.

    That's how long it took me to make this amazing sandwich. Just for kicks, I checked the clock before starting. While I was making this sandwich, a variation of which I've eaten almost every morning for months, and so a task I have broken down into the most efficient series of steps, I also put on a pot of chicken stock, and started a batch of yogurt in the crock pot.

    We had a crazy weekend: a snowstorm struck Saturday afternoon, before Halloween. The snow fell quickly, and because of the relatively warm weather was very heavy and wet. It fell all night, dropping about a foot of snow. It's so early in the season for a snowstorm, that most of the leaves were still on the trees. Heavy snow and ice bent the trees, in some cases to the ground, and in others, breaking boughs. I saw a few relatively small trees in people's yards, where two laden boughs crashed on either side of the trunk, which was split down the middle. Branches and trees came down across roads, and brought down power lines. The night of the storm, we heard transformers going off like shotgun blasts, then actual fireworks. Then the power started going out.

    I'm eating the sandwich while I compose this post and enjoy the cable internet connection. We lost our power in the evening on Saturday, and got it back, finally, on Monday. All weekend, we read our email and surfed on our Android phones. We have a glorified car battery with a handle that Kevin bought for our honeymoon camping trip last year, and it's proven handy through the power outage, allowing us to keep our phones charged. We had miraculous hot water but no heat, due to weak link of an electric thermostat on our gas heat. Comcast has just restored sweet, sweet internet service this morning.

    I talked to my local friends to make sure they were all right, and we even hosted friends for dinner on Saturday night. Last night, despite local officials "postponing" Halloween (as if you can do that), we got one group of trick-or-treaters, and were ready for them, too. All in all, I'd say that while we would not be the first wave caught in a zombie apocalypse, we should not become complacent. We were lucky as well as somewhat well-prepared. We have a quarter of a beef in the freezer, and if the power outage had threatened to run longer, we might have tried to buy a generator. When the power came back on, we checked it out and everything was still solid. Food that was in the refrigerator was mostly eaten over the weekend or has come through all right.

    Today I can stock up from the Northampton Tuesday Market on greens and eggs. I checked for farmers' markets running on Mondays, but they're all so far from here that I've muddled through on what products I can get at the local supermarket. They remained the only open business in town, as far as I know, through the power outage, selling only shelf-stable items and running their registers on generator power. Once the power was restored, they were selling cold things again. A friend warned us that another local supermarket, upon reopening, was selling meat that felt warm to him; he reported it but his complaint seemed to fall on apathetic ears. Caveat emptor.

    I posted in the summer about how to make a grilled sandwich, but I neglected to mention the importance of warming the fillings before you begin. In fact, the way to make a good grilled sandwich is to build it from the inside out. This applies to omelets, as well. Fry bacon, warm sausage, sauté potatoes, warm greens or any other fillings, then cook the eggs. Then, if you're making a sandwich, assemble it and grill it.

    Tuesday, October 11, 2011

    Vegetables for breakfast

    A fresh tomato and herb frittata with cheese

    Most people eating Western diets could use some more vegetables in their day. One meal that is often overlooked as an opportunity for adding a healthy serving of veggies is breakfast. The most important meal of the day can also be the cheapest, healthiest meal, and one that satisfies you easily until lunchtime.

    A hearty breakfast will provide you with roughly a third of the food you plan to eat all day. Common breakfast foods like bagels, breakfast cereals and bars, and other pastries pack a lot of carbohydrate, and while some are fortified with vitamins and minerals, they're usually still weak on the other macronutrients. A balanced breakfast has protein, fat, and fiber as well as carbs, and about a third of your caloric needs. Eating enough at breakfast, and particularly foods that keep you feeling full—fat, protein, and fiber are especially satiating for their caloric density—will give you energy and focus to get through the morning.

    You can make something ahead, like a frittata that tastes just as good cold as it does hot. You can whip something up from last night's leftovers, or make something fast and fresh. Here are a few ideas.

    Beef soup for breakfast
    In many parts of the world, it’s common to start the day with a hot bowl of soup. My husband likes to make his own. He warms a cup of beef or chicken stock in a pan on the stove while he juliennes or shreds a little bit of vegetable: some cabbage or another leafy green vegetable, plus a bit of sweet bell pepper or root vegetable. He cooks these in the warm stock while thinly slicing some beef chuck steak. Chuck is his favorite and is one of the cheapest cuts, though if you prefer leaner or higher quality meat, try top round or sirloin. For beef soup he prefers beef stock, but sometimes he gets pork for breakfast, and says that it tastes best with chicken stock. Whichever kind of meat he uses, he slices it thinly and adds the meat to the soup last: it cooks in less than a minute. He eats it with a squeeze of sriracha hot sauce. The amounts of meat and vegetable he uses are not very large, about half of a typical serving. Later in the day he has a smoothie with milk, yogurt, and fruit, complementing the soup by adding fat and carbohydrate to his protein-rich breakfast. Both are full of vitamins and enough fat for their absorption.

    Eggs with greens. I haven't gotten into Kevin's soup routine, preferring the comforting familiarity of eggs for breakfast. I share coffee and a smoothie, then take a walk with our dog. After I come home and shower, I’m ready to eat something more substantial. For most of the summer I ate grilled egg and cheese sandwiches. Other times, I make a more composed plate, and then I like to add some greens to my dish. A typical breakfast of eggs and greens starts with a handful of fresh, chopped collards or kale sauteed in butter or bacon fat, though other kinds of greens are also good (I love callaloo), and if I have leftover, cooked greens from the night before, I'll just warm a serving of those in a skillet. Then I move the greens to the side, and fry a couple eggs in the same pan.  When I fix my plate, I put the greens on the bottom, and top them with the eggs. Sometimes, after cooking the greens, I will just make a little hole in the middle, and fry the eggs in the hole. Then I can warm a split sausage in the same pan, and it won’t get coated in egg. A lazy method, yet still makes an appealing breakfast.

    Fried eggs over sauteed collards, a split half-link of curry sausage, and a wedge of cantaloupe

    Another way I like to eat vegetables with eggs is as huevos rancheros. When I have leftover cornbread and/or chili, I incorporate them into my breakfast. I split a wedge of cornbread, butter and toast it in a toaster oven. You can also fry your cornbread in a skillet. Warm the chili in a small, covered saucepan and when it’s hot, crack the eggs into the chili and poach them, covered, until they’re opaque. Part of the thrill of eggs in chili is cutting through the molten yolks and having them run through the chili, making everything taste very rich. Consider that many French sauces are little more than egg yolk, and this seems less strange.

    If I don’t have cornbread, I just eat the chili and eggs: maybe with some grated cheese, chopped avocado, pico de gallo or salsa, or some sriracha. My chili is full of vegetables, including kale, usually, and tomatoes, as well as peppers and sometimes squash or sweet potatoes. If I have cornbread, I serve the eggs over them, either with the chili or fried in a skillet with greens. For a rich meal like this, I like something to cut it: salsa, or a piece of fresh fruit to eat alongside.

    Potatoes count as a vegetable, too. Hashed potatoes are tasty, cheap, and filling, and there are other ways to use potatoes in breakfast dishes, like these two recipes for spicy breakfast foods. Sweet potatoes baked or steamed from the night before are also good for breakfast, refried in butter. I like a little pinch of chili powder on them when I eat them this way with eggs. You could make a hearty vegan breakfast of white or sweet potatoes, cooked or refried beans, and sauteed greens.

    Practically any prepared vegetable leftovers from last night’s dinner, from steamed kale to roasted eggplant, can be thrown into an omelet or scrambled eggs. Warm the fillings in a small saucepan before adding them to a cooked omelet. Fresh chopped tomatoes, avocados, green onions, and fresh herbs, with or without a grating of cheese, make an elegant filling for a breakfast omelet. Have your omelet alone or with fruit or toast, over polenta, or wrapped in a tortilla.

    A portable and versatile breakfast dish is the burrito. Stuff it with leftover vegetables, cooked beans, eggs cooked any way, chopped up cooked leftover meat, cooked plain or seasoned rice, and anything else that appeals first thing in the morning.

    Wednesday, October 5, 2011

    A Greek Moussaka in New England (with Asian Eggplants)


    Moussaka is a delicious casserole made with eggplant, tomatoes, and ground meat. If you like lasagna or eggplant parmigiana, but don’t want the noodles or breadcrumbs because you’re cutting out refined flour, carbs, grain, or gluten, you should try this dish. The flavors in this dish combine the Arabian, where I often find lamb and cinnamon in a tomato sauce, and the Greek, with its fresh parsley, oregano, and lemon. I’m so addicted that I just made it last week, and I really hope there’s more eggplant in the share I pick up this afternoon, because I’ve already got the lamb thawing for another batch. I am definitely making moussaka again this week.

    Although best known as a Greek dish, moussaka is known throughout the region: in the Balkans, including Greece; the eastern Mediterranean; and the Middle East. Claudia Roden writes in “The New Book of Middle Eastern Food” that in the Arab nations where moussaka is made, it’s generally made without the bechamel: the white sauce. The Wikipedia article on moussaka mentions other variations, such as the Turkish, which adds peppers and does not layer the dish. Tyler Florence’s Greek Moussaka recipe, the one I started with, is also made without the bechamel, so this is not a classically Greek moussaka. And since I made it in the United States and Mr. Florence and I are both American cooks, I guess that makes this an American moussaka.

    I made enough modifications to warrant re-documenting the recipe here. Although his recipe uses three large, Italian-style eggplants, peeled and fried, I substituted the long, thin Asian eggplant. I don’t bother to peel them: the skins are not unpleasant. Instead of frying the slices, I roasted them in my new cast iron roasting pan with salt and olive oil until they were golden brown. I used my own tomato sauce rather than a can of tomatoes, and didn’t trust a recipe that has me crumble whole lemon slices, pith and all, into the mix, so I juiced my half lemon in.

    I served this with green salad and broad beans sauteed in butter. Keep in mind that the serving of moussaka should look fairly generous, because eggplant and tomatoes are both low calorie vegetables and make up the bulk of the dish. I shoot for between a quarter and a third of a pound of meat in a serving.

    Moussaka in New England (with Asian Eggplant)
    Serves 6-8

    5-6 large Asian eggplants (the long, thin kind; may substitute any kind), sliced into ¼” slices and on a bias to make slices that are several inches long
    ¼ cup or more olive oil
    ½ tsp salt
    2 lbs ground lamb
    1 small onion, minced
    4 cloves garlic, minced
    Juice of ½ lemon
    7-8 sprigs fresh oregano, marjoram, or a blend, minced
    7-8 sprigs fresh parsley, minced
    ½ tsp ground cinnamon
    ¼ tsp ground black pepper
    1 quart of ragu or marinara (or plain tomato sauce)
    4 oz feta, crumbled
    Romano or Parmesan cheese, grated (to taste)

    Preheat the oven to 400 degrees while you prepare the eggplant slices. Lightly salt (about ¼ tsp) and oil the eggplant and toss the slices in a roasting pan. Roast in the oven for 20 minutes, toss, and continue roasting, tossing every 10-20 minutes until they are a deep orange-brown color over most of the surface. Remove from the oven, turn the temperature down to 350 degrees, and set the eggplant aside until you're ready to assemble.

    In a large skillet on high heat, brown the ground lamb. Add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring, until they are translucent and softened. Add the remaining salt, pepper, cinnamon, fresh herbs, and lemon juice. Stir, then add the tomato sauce. When the sauce is hot, turn off the heat.

    In a casserole dish of about 9”x12”x3” dimensions, lay the ingredients by thirds to make the moussaka: a single layer of eggplant slices, then the ground meat and sauce mixture, then a crumble of feta and some grated Romano. Repeat the layers.

    Bake the casserole at 350 degrees for 40 minutes. Serve hot. (Also tasty eaten by the bite, cold, from the refrigerator.)

    Wednesday, September 14, 2011

    Real milk is available in Massachusetts

    Milk is an important food. It’s one of the earliest foods of agriculture. It’s a whole USDA food group. But the milk sold in stores today is, by and large, not the same as the milk that we’ve consumed for thousands of years.

    As was pointed out in a recent Grist article, one gallon of commercially available milk could contain milk from cows on farms around the country--even the world. In order for the food industry to safely process milk on such an enormous scale, they have to pasteurize the milk. Pasteurization kills bacteria, but also beneficial enzymes and organisms that are part of what makes milk so good for you. Homogenization, by which cream and milk are prevented from separating, and other modern processes routinely used in milk production change some of its fundamental qualities, making modern milk unlike the milk of the 1920s and earlier.

    In a few places in the country, raw milk is available for sale, usually only directly from the farmer and not through a store. In Massachusetts, licensed raw milk dairy farmers can sell their own raw milk on their own farms. These raw milk producers are usually small, and are held to very high standards by the USDA. The USDA has cracked down on milk buying clubs, farmers who sell their milk raw, and even people who carpool to farms to buy raw milk, in places where these are prohibited by law.

    While organic baby spinach and ground turkey are knowingly sold in this country with contaminants, and food recalls remain optional even in cases where people are sickened or die from food poisoning from a known source, raw milk sold directly from its farm of origin continues to be treated as a dangerous substance.


    “The War on Real Milk” has been documented by Kristin Canty, independent film producer and director, small farms advocate, and Massachusetts local, in her debut film, “Farmageddon; The Unseen War on American Family Farms.” Canty tells the stories of farmers who people trust with their lives, their livelihoods destroyed in the name of public health. People fighting for access to raw milk are part of a political movement based on the freedom to choose what we put into our bodies.

    My husband and I put our trust in our local farmers, not the USDA. This weekend there were at least two raw milk related events on farms in the “hill country” of  the northern Pioneer Valley. SideHill Farm, in Ashfield, held their “Raw Dairy Days” on Saturday afternoon. While we were late for the tour, any time is a good time to visit the farm stand: a shed full of freezers and refrigerators, where we stocked up on raw milk and frozen beef from their grass-fed herd of Normandes and Jerseys. Most milk sold in the US today is from dairy cattle of only one breed, the Holstein, which was bred for high milk production.

    SideHill Farm is revered in these parts for their incredibly creamy yogurt, available for sale in area groceries as well as from the farm stand: I got a quart of that, too. Grass-fed can sometimes mean small and tough, even for what should be a fatty, tender cut. The ribeyes we bought from the SideHill freezer were a terrific deal, and large and well-marbled compared to some grass-fed steaks I’ve had from other area farms. 

    On Sunday, we met up with a group touring Taproot Commons, a small dairy farm in Cummington. Here, Sarah Fournier-Scanlon uses intensive pasture management practices that fans of Joel Salatin will recognize on sight. As readers of Michael Pollan’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma” will recall from the chapter on Polyface Farm, this method allows livestock to engage in their natural behaviors, resulting in healthier pasture, cow, and hen, less work for the farmer, and more delicious, nutritious eggs and milk. When we arrived for the tour, the henhouse, which rested on a wagon, was parked in the middle of a small pasture. The rooster could be seen outside, guarding the house.

    We joined the group of Weston A. Price Foundation members and Taproot Commons farm share owners in the milking barn. After talking about the milking schedule, we followed the farmer and a Jersey named Sparkle from the barn to the pasture. Here, we could see the hens, all within sight of the rooster, foraging along the tree line. As our farmer explained how she allows the hens to do the work of scattering the cow manure, rather than use a mechanical spreader, we stood in a semicircle around one tidy job and nodded. Next, we all picked our way across the mud to a neighboring pasture, and Sparkle joined two other cows, both Swiss. With the birth of Sparkle’s calf, Taproot Commons now has three dairy cattle in production. Fournier-Scanlon hopes to harness the new calf when it is older, to plow her vegetable fields.

    Unlike commercial milk, which is both pasteurized and homogenized, raw milk separates into cream and skim milk. Shake the jar before pouring yourself a glass, and use it within five days to ensure freshness. The flavor is more complex, with sweet notes of pasture. If you like milk, or remember liking it as a child, raw milk will transport you with its purity of flavor. Normandes, Jerseys, and Swiss cows are all prized for the qualities of their milk, particularly in cheesemaking, because it is high in fat and protein.

    After the Taproot Commons Farm tour, trays of milkshakes were passed around, and members of the local Weston A. Price Foundation sat at picnic tables and shared their packed lunches. If you would like to try raw milk and you live in Massachusetts, you can purchase a half-gallon jar from a local farmer who is authorized to sell raw dairy. Prices vary, but expect to pay $7 or so for your first half-gallon, which includes a deposit on the glass jar. For very small operations like Taproot Commons, properly washing and sterilizing the jars is time-consuming and not at all automated. The advantages of such hands-on dairy production, however, are a superior, raw, and very clean dairy product. As Fourier-Scanlon explained on Sunday, the standards for microorganisms in raw milk are exceedingly high, and USDA dairy inspectors visit frequently to ensure milk at Taproot Commons is safe to drink. The farmer of Taproot Commons is very proud of her raw milk’s test results.

    To see “Farmageddon” this Friday in Boston, contact the AMC Boston Common 19 for show times and tickets; call (888) 262-4386 or visit For other screening dates and times, and to see the trailer, visit the Farmageddon website: