Sunday, July 31, 2011

Using more of the plant

The closer you are to growing your own, the more you can take advantage of every edible portion of the plant. When I read "That’s Not Trash, That’s Dinner", it got my wheels spinning. I like the idea of making a chic little salad out of shredded broccoli stems, and I should save more of my peelings for stock: I have plans to work on my vegetable stock repertoire as the season progresses, and already have a few items stashed away in my freezer. The Purple Kale blog has a few "Otherwise, Trash" posts, dedicated to using what would otherwise be compost, but the recipe I wanted to play with, for a cold corn soup made with a corn cob stock, is from their workshop. I had fresh corn and wanted a light, summer soup. I made the stock, and as I do when I’m making chowder, sauteed some minced onions in bacon fat. After simmering for a couple of hours, the stock hadn’t reduced by much, and I was all out of potatoes, so I improvised (as we do). I pureed some of the corn into some of the stock, then returned it to the pot I was making the soup in. I also added some of the herb mix I’d chopped for a pan of roasted vegetables that afternoon, and was sprinkling on everything: parsley, basil, rosemary, and thyme. I finished it off with half and half and a pat of butter.
I still have the other half of the corn stock in my freezer. I’m sure it’ll find its way into something.
As for the rest of the tips in the NYT article, I would not oven dry whole orange peels, pith and all, because the white part is so bitter, but it’s a good idea to zest citrus and save the zest if your citrus is getting soft and you don’t have an immediate use for it. But why do you need a separate recipe for chard ribs? I always cook them with the leaves: they’re very tender. You can even give them a minute or two lead time in the pan before adding the more tender leaves to the chopped stems.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Choosing cuts of meat for the grill or broiler

I worked behind a meat and seafood service counter for three years, and got to know some of my customers' meat purchasing habits. There were the ones who would only buy ribeye, and the people who avoided visible fat like it didn't taste good or something crazy like that. Worst were the ones who wanted a ribeye, with the fat whorls cut out. That's what makes it a ribeye! I was always happy to help someone find a cut with the qualities they were looking for, but there are certain combinations that are hard or impossible to find, like "fast, cheap, and good." As they say, pick two.

My own specialty in cooking meat is finding the cheap cuts that I like to cook with. But you can't just grab any cheap cut, and cook it any way you want, and expect good results every time. Here are a few of my favorite cuts of beef, pork, and lamb for the grill or broiler.


Top sirloin is the best deal on the whole beef. Lean, moderately tender, and flavorful, it's as close to "fast, cheap, and good" as you can get, without being the cheapest. It doesn't need marinade, just some salt and pepper. A top sirloin steak usually weighs around a pound: enough for three generous servings, since there's almost no waste.

A slightly better cut is the sirloin tip, which is cut from a triangular flap that caps the sirloin. The tip is cut into short, thick steaks that, at their widest, are about half a pound: a nice serving size. But since the tips come in all sizes, and they're a little more tender than regular top sirloin, they're perfect for kebabs. Sirloin is also a good choice to cut up for kebabs.

L-R: Ribeye steak, chuck delmonico, chuck steak

Chuck delmonico steak, or chuck ribeye, is the part of the chuck that was closest to the rib, and still looks like ribeye steak. Don't buy a regular chuck steak: it's not as good tasting, doesn't grill as tender, and is fattier. Chuck delmonico steaks are smaller, leaner, and more flavorful than ribeyes, and can be half the price. These are well worth it for a special weekday meal or to bring camping. No marinade necessary on these, either. Each steak is generally good for one serving.

Hanger steak is becoming more popular, though once is was considered a "butcher's cut," meaning it was one of those odd cuts that aren't numerous enough to make an effort at selling—there are only two steaks on the whole beef—but they're flavorful and easy to cook. The whole hanger piece is two steaks connected by a membrane: lazier meat departments may neglect to remove the tough, white tissue, so if you see it, cut it off. The steaks resemble whole tenderloins, with a coarse grain like brisket. They take a marinade well and are very flavorful, but a little chewy. Cook to medium, allow to rest five minutes, and slice against the grain to serve.

Skirt steak and flank steak are both similar to hanger in their coarse grain and rich flavor. Skirt steak is the original cut for fajitas—fajita means "belt" in Spanish, another word for this cut—and is fattier than flank, which has a finer grain and is fairly lean. Both should be marinated and seared to crackling over a high flame. Skirt is very thin and will cook quickly, but that's okay: you want your skirt more well done than either a sirloin or a flank steak, which are both better on the medium-rare side of the spectrum.

Ground beef is your cheapest grilling option, tasty, and easy to prepare. You can mix ground beef with other ground meats, like lamb and pork, or add flavorful seasonings like minced thyme, basil, garlic, and onion. Seasoned meatballs can be skewered and grilled as kebabs.

Shoulder chops are at least as much fun to eat as ribs, and if you can't find enough shoulder chops, add some arm chops to the mix. These cuts are relatively cheap for lamb, flavorful, and with a marinade and the grill, become an exotic feast the whole family will be gnawing off the bones. Like other fatty, gristly cuts, you want to cook them fairly well done.

Leg of lamb is the most elegant and versatile cut. It's so tender that it needs no marinade, and like the beef sirloin, flavorful despite scant marbling. Cut it up into kebabs, grill leg steaks or a whole, boneless leg, butterflied. Leg is good grilled as rare or medium as you like.

Ground lamb, seasoned with herbs and onion, is delicious as a patty or a meatball kebab. Try seasoning the ground meat with mint and green onions, or garlic and rosemary, plus salt and pepper, before forming and grilling.

Most pork is pretty lean, and easy to dry out. If you grill a tenderloin, use plenty of oil in the marinade. Fatty loin chops, rib or center cut, are also good choices for grilling and broiling. My favorite seasoning for a pork chop is ground coriander.

For a nice, fatty cut, try country-style boneless pork ribs. Traditions vary by culture and region, but the cut I'm talking about should be cut from the shoulder, or butt, and have a generous amount of fat on them. Baste them with barbecue sauce as you grill them on a medium flame. Internal temp should reach at least 140 degrees F. on all cooked products containing pork. Shoot for 150, but don't let it get to 160 or it will be tough and dry.

Ground pork, seasoned with Italian sausage spices like fennel seed and garlic, makes a delicious grilled patty. Try fresh ginger and green onions with a splash of tamari for an Asian-style grilled pork patty.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Cool salads

This past January, I resolved to eat more raw foods. Near the end of winter—in the spring, really, but before any hint of spring produce in the markets—a co-worker turned me on to a food blog with an amazing celeriac salad. Authentically French, with an uncommon flavor and a refreshing, crisp texture, it put me on the hunt for composed side salads: the kind of dish that has a strong flavor and crunch, and which sets the stage for other flavors, whether as a complement to a rich, meaty entree or as a kind of amuse bouche. After celeriac season was over, I continued making the cabbage slaw I posted about at the same time: another good side salad, but we ate it all spring and I wore it out; and so this summer, I’ve been trying new ways to eat raw vegetables.

Through our long summer farm share season, we have lots of salad greens. I’ve whipped up a couple of vinaigrettes, adding a little dry mustard and ground cumin, fresh herbs, and green onions or garlic scapes if I had them, to pour over my usual salad of washed greens and lentil sprouts. I’ve also eaten some little salads of chopped summer squash and zucchini, with some sliced tomato and sprouts, with this dressing. This is a basic version:

Summer vinaigrette
Makes enough to dress 4 dinner salads

½ cup balsamic vinegar
½ cup olive oil
1T chopped fresh herbs: any one or combination of parsley, thyme, rosemary, marjoram or oregano, mint, basil, and cilantro
2-3 green onions, chopped
½ tsp ground dry mustard
½ tsp ground cumin
½ tsp salt
¼ tsp freshly ground pepper

Put all of the ingredients into a cruet and shake well. Serve at room temperature. Store extra dressing in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.


Last night I had company over for dinner, and whipped up a little cucumber salad dressed with fresh lemon juice, olive oil, and mint. This may become my chic little side salad this summer.

Cool cucumber salad
Serves 4 as a side salad

2 medium cucumbers
Juice of one lemon
2T olive oil
1T fresh spearmint, minced
Salt and pepper to taste

Peel the cucumber and slice it lengthwise. Use a melon baller to remove the seeds. Slice the cucumber into thin half-rounds. Dress with freshly squeezed lemon juice, olive oil, mint, salt, and pepper. Serve immediately; it will be okay the next day, but watery.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Cooler ice

How I like my coffee in the summer: ice cold

It sure is hot outside. I usually drink water most of the day, but after sweating a lot, I want something a little more replenishing and refreshing. Something with ice, and maybe sugar.

Plain ice
My freezer doesn’t have an ice cube maker, so I use the old-fashioned kind of ice cube tray. I keep filtered water around the house: one pitcher in the fridge for cold drinking water, and another on the counter for the coffee maker and for cooking. I also use filtered water to make ice cubes, for chilling water, juice, sodas, and iced tea. I only have a couple of ice cube trays, so when a batch is frozen, I crack it into a ziplock bag that I keep in the freezer. When I’m expecting a rush on ice, I stock up.

Lemon ice
I don’t just have plain filtered water ice cubes, either. When my fresh lemons are getting a little soft, I juice them all and freeze the juice in ice cube trays. After they’re frozen, I crack them into a labeled ziplock bag. A typical ice cube is about ⅛ cup, or two tablespoons. You can spoon measures of water into one compartment of your ice cube tray to find out how big your ice cubes are.

Frozen lemon juice is as handy as frozen basil pesto: it’s an ingredient I often want and, unless I’ve planned for it, don’t always have on hand. I can usually melt the cube right into the dish I’m cooking, but I can also put an ice cube into a small, metal bowl, and let it rest on the stovetop while I cook. After it melts, I measure out exactly what I need.

To make lemonade: Put two ice cubes of lemon juice, a couple (or more) tablespoons of sugar, and water in a glass. Stir vigorously until the lemon cubes have melted: in true lemonade season, this will take a couple of minutes, tops. Taste for sugar and adjust, as needed. Add regular ice and serve.

Iced tea and coffee
For iced tea, I brew a strong batch and keep it on hand in the fridge, for pouring over plain ice. To make iced coffee that doesn’t get diluted, I make coffee ice cubes.

Each morning we brew a pot of coffee and drink a cup or two. I pour the rest into a jar and keep it in the fridge. When the jar gets full, I make a batch of coffee ice cubes. Like with the lemon cubes, I crack the frozen coffee ice into a labeled ziplock bag.

To make iced coffee: When I want a glass of iced coffee, I start with either some of the morning’s lukewarm coffee, or if it’s all gone, some cold coffee from the jar. Add sugar and cream and stir: the cream will help the sugar dissolve. Add plenty of coffee ice and serve.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Gardening the Community an oasis in Springfield's Six Corners

The Hancock Street garden

Gardening the Community youths deliver their produce to market by bicycle

Childhood obesity and diabetes disproportionately affect people of color, poor people, and people who live in what are called “food deserts”: places where corner stores may abound, but few, if any, retailers sell fresh groceries.

Embarking on its fourth season, the Mason Square Farmer’s Market is an oasis in the Springfield food desert, serving the Six Corners neighborhood from an array of local producers of fresh fruits and vegetables and other farm-fresh foods. Held in the Baystate Mason Square Health Center parking lot, this seasonal, open-air farmer’s market is open to the public on Saturdays, from 10AM to 2PM from July through October. One of the vendors is Gardening the Community.

On Wednesday, I joined a tour of the Hancock Street garden led by Ibrahim Ali, Youth Director of Gardening the Community. While more than a dozen young gardeners worked near us in small groups, representatives of a local community task force learned about their work. One person on the tour who introduced herself to me gave me a briefing on how funding trickles down to support projects like this one. Deborah Albury has a daughter who worked for GtC, but this visit was in her role as Project Director of The Healthy Communities Collaborative. Albury explained one source of funding for projects like Gardening the Community that originates with state mandates for hospitals to invest in community health. State funding from the departments of Public Health and Nutrition is channeled through area hospitals under mandate, including Baystate, to organizations like the Mason Square Health Task Force, which distributes minigrants to small, local projects that foster the health of communities like Six Corners in Springfield.

Another way government dollars are channeled into growing gardens in urban deserts, is through food stamp (EBT/SNAP) benefits and the WIC program. Farmer’s markets all over Massachusetts accept these benefits, allowing the residents of the Six Corners neighborhood to go to the Mason Square Farmer’s Market and use cash, EBT/SNAP, or WIC benefits to buy fresh vegetables that were grown by the young people of their community, in nearby garden plots that nourish and beautify the area.

The most important growing that occurs in Gardening the Community, is what happens in the hands, hearts, and minds of the young people who work in these gardens. From volunteers as young as nine, to young adults in college, GtC grows experienced gardeners. The young people may earn a daily stipend or hourly wage for their labor, but more importantly, they learn valuable skills, an appreciation for what goes into producing food, and enthusiasm for the foods themselves. I heard one young man speaking of some herbs he had planted, that might have been threatened by invading neighborhood dogs: “My cilantro?” he said, putting the emphasis on the possessive. “That I grew?” He was invested.

By putting the young people in charge, from selecting which seeds to order, to selling the produce in the farmer’s market, Ali and GtC are growing future leaders. One young man I spoke to was emphatic and clear about the leadership skills that were fostered in the garden, telling me that they have given him practical experience and confidence in his ability to lead, wherever he is. This is a measure of wellness, for which everyone involved in Gardening the Community can be proud.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Grilled sandwiches

A perfectly grilled egg and cheese sandwich has broken, fully-cooked yolks. For crispy and brown toast, don't skimp on the butter, and don't use a very high heat.

A tasty summer pairing: iced coffee and a grilled sandwich won't heat up the kitchen.

Skills and skillet.
I’ve got the technique down for making the best grilled sandwich. The essentials are a well seasoned iron skillet, butter, and good quality ingredients. For me, it starts with the grilled cheese sandwich, the classic. I learned to make grilled cheese so well by age nine that my mother would have me make them for us and my little sister for lunch. That version was American cheese on white bread, possibly even margarine, but on this model I learned my technique: a lot of butter and a low flame. I prized, and stil do, those very crispy edges on bread grilled with lots of butter.

I like a cheddar melt, while Kevin likes Swiss. A thin slice of meatloaf, or some tuna salad, a slice of tomato, a couple of eggs: all good additions to a simple cheese sandwich. I’ve been making grilled egg and cheese sandwiches for lunch nearly every day for two months and I’m not tired of them. The secret of a good egg and cheese is good quality ingredients. I like a very sharp cheese, and the very best eggs I can find. I eat eggs almost every day and I can tell you: not all eggs are alike. Not at all. Someone who doesn’t know you and doesn’t care about you will set some eggs down in front of you, cooked to order, side of toast, but these eggs are nearly always of poor quality. They taste tinny and sulfurous, and the reason they’re so bad is they were raised that way. A pasture-raised hen will lay an egg with a rich, buttery yolk of a deep, orange color, and mild and unmetallic-tasting whites. If this sounds wonderful but you’ve never tasted eggs like this, seek out some pasture-raised eggs. The most sublime of chicken eggs come very fresh, as the local ones at your farmer’s market are, or if you are devoted, from your own hens.

Starts with the egg.
I cannot seem to get to the farmer’s market quickly enough to get my favorite eggs recently. Most problems get better if you write about them, but not this one. If I tell you that my favorite eggs, from Mockingbird Farm, may be sold out on a Tuesday afternoon by three, you might rush down there next week and elbow me out of the way for the last dozen. Pete’s a nice guy and we shouldn’t behave that way about his coveted eggs, nor should we exhort him to take measures to make his hens lay more eggs to keep up with demand. We could ask him to maybe get a few more layers, and we could commit to buying them every week. Until then, I’m going to try to be there when he’s setting up.

Perfect grilled egg and cheese sandwich

2½ T unsalted butter (Cabot uses local dairy), or more as needed
2 eggs (from Mockingbird Farms or another local, pasture-raised chicken)
Sliced cheese, size and variety to taste (I like extra sharp Cabot Vermont Cheddar)
2 slices of whole wheat bread (Barowsky’s Organic 100% Whole Wheat is widely available in my area and has no weird ingredients)

  1. Heat an iron skillet over a medium flame. Melt a scant tablespoon of butter in the pan and spread the butter evenly with a spatula. Crack each egg into the pan by tapping it on the edge of the skillet several times, making a long crack around the equator of the shell, before opening the hinge quickly to release the contents into the hot pan. Sprinkle the eggs generously with salt and pepper.
  2. Break the yolks by cutting across their tops with the edge of the spatula. This step will save you from causing hot yolk to spurt from the sandwich at a later point, such as when you construct the sandwich or bite into it. Ignore this step at your peril.
  3. Cover the pan with a lid and allow the eggs to cook for about a minute, until the edges are solid and the bottom is substantially cooked, though the top remains clear and gelatinous. If the eggs have cooked together into one, cut them apart with the edge of the spatula into compact and roughly even portions: no gerrymandering.
  4. Flip the eggs and cook them briefly on the other side, just until they set.
  5. Hold a slice of bread in the palm of your hand, and put the slice of cheese on top. Use the spatula to place the fried eggs onto the slice of cheese, arranging them so the edges do not overhang and there is as even a distribution of egg across the bread as can be reasonably achieved.
  6. Put another scant tablespoon of butter in the pan and spread it around with the spatula. Lay the slice of bread in the middle of the pan. Put the other slice of bread on top.
  7. Move the sandwich around the pan to soak up the butter on all four edges.
  8. Allow to grill, undisturbed, in the center of the pan for even grilling, for at least a minute before checking. If the cheese is not melting, lower the heat slightly and cover the pan.
  9. When the bread is the desired shade of toasty brown on the grilled side, add another teaspoon of butter to the pan and flip the sandwich. Move the sandwich around the pan to soak up the butter on all four edges.
  10. Note: The second side will not take as long to grill.
  11. You may cover the pan again if the cheese still needs help melting.
  12. Lay a piece of paper towel on a cutting board.
  13. Remove the sandwich to the paper towel and allow to blot briefly and rest before cutting.
  14. Slice into halves. This usually works best if you slice it right down the middle, more or less between the two eggs, but if the eggs are very well cooked it won’t matter. Serve immediately.

For two sandwiches: Use a large enough skillet to accommodate both sandwiches at once. Halfway through grilling each side, rotate each sandwich 90 degrees for more even grilling.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Keeping food fresh, safe, and attractive

The square, glass jar at top left is a Kilner jar. The other jars are bail-and-gasket, except for a little screw-top jam jar in the middle of the bottom shelf. The Glassware comes in a variety of sizes of glass dishes, and their matching plastic lids have built-in gaskets.

My refrigerator

Recently, I’ve switched over to glassware for food storage in my kitchen. I used to re-use plastic, quart-size yogurt containers for storing prepared foods, but I started to become aware of the dangers of hot food in plastic containers, and wanted to move away from using them. When I wanted to put away food that was still warm, or pack a lunch that would be microwaved in the office, I would ask myself, what chemicals are we eating in our food when we heat the disposable plastic containers food is stored in? I don’t want to be called an alarmist, but I don’t know that “acceptable” levels of toxins are low enough, either.

For health reasons, but in some degree also for the aesthetics, my husband and I replaced our cabinet full of take-out containers, mismatched brands of plastic containers, and quart yogurt containers with an all-glass alternative. We bought two solutions: one old-fashioned, and one new.

The old
To store liquids, like soup or homemade yogurt, I use canning jars. Mine are wide-mouth, quart-size glass jars with a wire bail (or bale; both spellings are common) and rubber gasket instead of a screw-on lid. Sometimes these are called Weck jars, or Fido, after a couple of popular manufacturers of jars that use gaskets or wire bails or both. Another similar product is the Kilner (or Kelner) jar, which can have a wire bail closure instead of a screw top, but does not have a separate gasket. Because of this difference, Kilner jars are not suitable for canning, only storage. I don’t use my jars for canning, although they would work.

The new
Costco had 18-piece sets of Glasslock containers, and we bought two sets. These are square and rectangular containers in a range of sizes, each with a snap-on plastic lid that has an inner gasket to seal shut. The largest sizes are perfect for quantities of prepared foods and packed lunches. I can fit a two-cup recipe of rice, or a whole roasted chicken cut into pieces, into one of the 1.5 quart containers. I pack a lunch into a quart container: about three-quarters full is usually the right amount of food. The smallest sizes I use for bits of leftovers, to pack single servings of oatmeal, and for sides of tangy salads like these.

With both of the products I’m using, the Glasslock containers and the bail-and-gasket jars, only glass touches the food while it is still hot. The Glasslock containers are microwave safe (I use them in the oven, too; it’s tempered glass), though any jar with a wire bail should not go into the microwave. The Glasslock containers and lids, as well as the jars and their removable gaskets, are dishwasher safe.

I continue to label foods when I put them away by writing on a piece of masking tape with a marker and indicating any ingredients of note and the date it was made. Meat, dairy, and wheat are the three I usually make note of, since these are important to my most frequent houseguests. I’ve replaced opaque plastic with clear glass containers, so while I still label them with masking tape, if the contents are obvious and simple, sometimes I only record the date. The dates help me to rotate stock so there’s less waste.


Packing a salad for lunch in a plastic quart-size yogurt container keeps the salad from being crushed, and makes a great salad shaker.

I haven’t gotten rid of the yogurt containers. They’re so lightweight compared with the glass jars, yet crush-resistant. I use them to pack salads with our lunches. I use a thick, creamy salad dressing, so when I pack the salad, I put a little dressing in on top, and it stays put. When I’m ready to eat my salad, I shake it first to distribute the dressing. If your dressing is thinner, such as a vinaigrette, you can pack it separately so it doesn’t wilt your greens, then use the yogurt container to shake up your salad after you add the salad dressing.

I also bring the yogurt containers with me to the farm and take them into the u-pick fields. They make excellent, lightweight containers for delicate produce like berries, beans, small greens, and herbs, and take up little space when stacked.

I haven’t bought enough jars yet for my all of my dry goods storage needs, so I continue to use yogurt containers in my cupboards for bulk items.

The last place I use the quart yogurt containers is as storage for used cooking oil. I save bacon grease and chicken pan drippings in labeled glass dishes with plastic lids, to use in cooking. To safely dispose of used cooking oil and grease that I do not want to reuse, I cool it to room temperature, then store in a plastic container. I add cooled grease and oil to the container and keep it in the refrigerator until it is full, and then throw the whole thing away.