Sunday, May 30, 2010

Wok and Roll

The first piece of specialty cookware I remember getting was a wok. It was a gift for my college graduation from a couple of high school pals. The gift even came with a cookbook, Better Homes and Garden “More From Your Wok” (1982). I never did try the recipe for Apple Bread Pudding made in the wok, but I do recall that for some time I harbored an intense wok obsession.

Eventually, I burned the shiny finish off the base ring, and for years the wok sat in my basement because my electric stove (with coil burners) wasn’t much suited to heat a wok to the temperature needed for a super-hot stir-fry.

With the recent upgrade to a gas stove, I took the plunge and purchased two updated woks from Calphalon – one smaller size for weeknights, and a larger one for a crowd (and no shiny base rings required).

Now, I’m reliving my former passion, relishing the Zen simplicity of the stir-fry. This easy recipe for Chicken, Red Pepper and Green Bean Stir-Fry from Epicurious uses a short list of ingredients, most already on hand.

The stove sure gets splattered, but that’s part of the theatrical fun of stir-frying. Remember those old Benihana TV commercials?

And, the taste is 100 percent authentic takeout - Wok-a-doo!
©2010 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, May 23, 2010

White Dog and Chicken Little

Growing up in suburban Long Island, I was terrified of dogs – in particular, one white dog named Pom Pom. That’s right. I lived in fear of a white poodle with a really sissy name. Pom Pom was vicious. Her owner would keep her cooped up in the house all day and then look the other way when she escaped through the front door. Pom Pom would run straight for me. It happened over and over again and it was traumatizing. I’ve gotten better, but I’ve never really been comfortable with dogs. You never quite get over these childhood associations.

So, I was just a little apprehensive when my college roommate “Ford McKenzie” suggested that we sample the “white dog” whisky recently profiled by the New York Times. In case you missed the story, white dog is raw whisky, also known as “moonshine.” Produced by craft distilleries, it’s all the range, and it’s darn potent.

Ford shows absolutely no sympathy for my residual childhood demons. Says Ford, “That poodle was a walk in the park compared to what’s going to be in our glasses.”

So we convene at the Modern for a taste of their “Devil in White” cocktail – a violent brew of Death’s Door White Whiskey, Dolin Blanc Vermouth of Chambery and A.B. Smeby Black & White Bitters. Two shimmering, iridescent, huge cocktails are delivered to our table garnished with tart, brandied cherries.

It looks to be the height of sophistication, but is it my imagination, or do I hear growling? I take a sip. It tastes smooth, balanced, brisk and velvety – I’m thinking white cashmere on a chilly day.

Ford tastes the cocktail and lets the effect wash over him. “I guarantee this is gonna bite us,” he says.

I take another small sip. I still taste the luxury, but suddenly there is something bald and feral going on. And, I can no longer remember a thing that happened to me in 1979. Don’t misunderstand me. The Devil in White is yummy, but it’s ferocious.

Ford seems to have a much greater affinity for wild animals. He wants a second. I’m feeling my memories of 1980 slipping away even as we speak. But, I meet him half way and we split the second cocktail. It’s a dog walk on the dark side, but I just manage to escape with my life. We chat briefly with Nancy Schumann, a manager at the Modern and I barely refrain from smothering her with wet doggie kisses. This ain’t no velvet painting of a dog, but a modern work of cocktail art.

Ford has planned out the evening with his usual meticulous sense of adventure. Our next stop is the steak house Patroon, that on Friday night serves a special fried chicken dinner by Chef Charles Gabriel. (I’ve heard of chicken and waffles, but chicken and dog? I don’t get it, Ford.) Turns out, it’s a soothing, clubby environment with a snappy piano and bass jazz duo. And, the three pieces of crispy fried chicken, sweet cornbread and choice of sides like macaroni and cheese, black-eyed peas and yams is enough to calm the still-raw memories of the canine cataclysm.

We eat the chicken with our fingers, and snarf down the entire dinner in record time.
Rumor has it Ford refuses to let sleeping dogs lie, and has made a return visit to the Modern. It's probably just as well that I didn't accompany him.

Maybe I'm just a cat person at heart.
©2010 T.W. Barritt all Rights Reserved

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Springing Forward at Restoration Farm

Nature has done an about face. The hint of summer weather has abruptly changed and now resembles brisk autumn in May. I pull my wool coat up around my neck as we head down the wooded path towards Restoration Farm. It is “opening day” weekend – a time to welcome new members to the CSA and reconnect with returning members and friends like the Kalamidas family, George and Arline Garbarini and head growers Dan Holmes and Caroline Fanning.

It’s been a long winter. For many months, I rationed out vegetables from the farm that had been braised and frozen. And, I bemoaned the fact that butternut squash purchased at the supermarket tasted bland and colorless compared to the sweet and silky Restoration Farm squash that I pureed and flavored with maple for Christmas dinner.

But, in just four weeks, the 2010 distribution season begins anew, and this visit is just a taste of what’s ahead.

We hike past freshly turned fields, scented with manure that will burst with cutting flowers as the weather warms.

Dan offers a short tutorial on the fundamentals of cover crops and how they nourish the soil.

A buckwheat cover crop provides different nutrients to the soil.

In the Spring field, early greens in neat rows poke through the soil. Tender lettuce enjoys this cool snap and will be the some of the first produce harvested. An entirely new field has been dug for potatoes and experiments are underway with asparagus and rhubarb. Dan also reminds us that there will be plenty of kale and Swish chard should any of us be concerned about a shortage.

Caroline talks about her favorite field, which she calls “the sweet field.” Indeed, there are succulent berries in our future. The blackberry bushes already look out of control, and strawberry plants are covered with delicate white blossoms. While blueberries are still a year away, the bushes have taken root.

George proudly shows off the new tool storage sheds.

Caroline and Dan stress that it is not just about the vegetables and that a sense of community is cultivated at Restoration Farm. Indeed, the word “community” comes first in “CSA” and how fitting that we all share in fresh berries and home baked cookies from Caroline’s mom, Susan Fanning at the conclusion of the tour.

A little amuse-bouche in anticipation of the summer growing season!
©2010 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Gourmet Prep of Houston – Healthy Food, Foster Youth and Entrepreneurship

How do you tackle the issue of foster youth aging out of the system at 18-years-of age? Nearly 60 percent of foster children reach adulthood with no family support and no marketable skills to assure employment. But, Houston-based social activists Gur and Stefanie Tsabar saw a potential solution to the problem in the ingredients of a gourmet meal.

Their venture, Gourmet Prep Meals launches this month in Houston, promising fresh, ready-to-cook recipe kits to busy individuals and families who want to eat healthy and cook more at home. Imagine placing an order online and receiving all the fresh ingredients for a complete meal – pre-prepped, chopped and measured, and packaged up with cooking instructions – delivered directly to your home or office. Menu items include such chef-inspired entrees as Poached Salmon with Lemon Pesto Orzo and Roasted Asparagus, Herb Chicken with Whole Wheat Couscous and a Vegetable Medley, and Portabella Mushrooms Stuffed with Quinoa and Veggies. And, you cook it all at home in under 30 minutes.
Beyond the convenience, fresh flavor and good taste, this is food with a purpose. One hundred percent of profits are dedicated to training young adults - who are aging out of the foster care system - in entrepreneurship.
“The single problem we were looking to solve is that the majority of these kids get dumped into adulthood and don’t survive the workforce,” says Gur. “We wanted to figure out a way to build a community around this vulnerable population and raise awareness about this issue.”
The commercial kitchen which serves as home-base for Gourmet Prep Meals is located in the same building as an organization responsible for transitioning Houston's foster youth into adulthood. Cohorts of 15 youth at a time will work in the kitchen preparing the food and learning sales, marketing and customer service skills – in effect, a total experience in entrepreneurship. It’s a hands-on experience, versus a classroom. The youth work regular hours, get paid, and learn from nurturing staff.
These are real jobs with real-life consequences. Gur and Stefanie are working with a variety of social agencies in Houston that will provide support and refer youth to the program. Chef Molly Graham served as a culinary consultant on development of the menu.
“The commercial problem we want to solve,” says Gur, “is that busy parents are desperate to cook more and put healthy food on the table.”
But he says it’s not a typical not-for-profit approach. He calls Gourmet Prep Meals a “social entrepreneurial enterprise.” The commercial business serves as the mechanism to train the youth. The sale of the meal kits sustains the social mission and the youth benefit in the process, not only gaining valuable skills for future employment, but a total immersion in how a start-up works.
Good food and healthy eating are integral to the business model and the experience the youth will have.
“There is a specific reason we chose a culinary experience,” says Gur. “There’s probably no more unique skill than to be able to nourish yourself. At a most basic level, we’re going to train these youth how to cook meals for themselves and introduce them to food. That’s a key skill to becoming a self-sustaining adult.”

Gourmet Prep Meals will fill a need for time-pressured families, but Gur says the food will involve families in the issue of foster youth.

“It’s a story in a box,” he says of the meal kit. “We give people good food, they read the recipe card and get an introduction to the program. The customer learns about healthy food and the needs of foster youth. The food brings people into the conversation.”

He is optimistic about the launch of Gourmet Prep Meals and its impact on foster youth in Houston. “People want to see this group succeed,” Gur says. “There’s a lot of energy we’re hoping to tap for and on behalf of these kids.”

©2010 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Pretty in Pink

I rarely keep ice cream in the house, but reminiscing about early cravings for fresh bread got me thinking about other childhood favorites. From there, it wasn’t a big leap to ice cream.

In our family, ice milk was an everyday dessert. On occasion, Neapolitan ice cream was sliced in rectangular slabs so each member of the family could get an equal serving of vanilla, chocolate and strawberry. Friendly’s Ice Cream was the stuff of family celebrations. My brother Jim’s favorite flavor was Mint Chocolate Chip. Ken’s top choice was Butter Crunch. My favorite was Peppermint Stick, usually available around Christmas. As for John, he was, and remains to this day, a diehard Carvel fan. Whenever he’s in town, we make a special trip.

But, oh, that Friendly’s Peppermint Stick Ice Cream! So festive, so sweet, so pink, and studded with bursts of peppermint candy shards! I wasn’t sure if it was still available, but then I think, “Hey, I can make this myself.” So I pull out the Krups La Glaciere and get to work.

The recipe is simple. One cup of milk is warmed on the stove. Two eggs are whisked separately with ½ cup of sugar. The hot milk is slowly added to the sugar and then the total mixture is heated until thickened. Let cool to room temperature and add two cups of cream. The final two ingredients are key – two teaspoons of peppermint extract, and a couple of drops of red food coloring to get that perfect preppy pink color.

Chill in the refrigerator overnight and then process in an ice cream maker according to directions. But don’t forget the most important addition – the real authenticity comes with those shreds of peppermint candy that pop in your mouth like little sugary blasts. I smash a handful of peppermint “starlight mints.”

The ice cream maker revs up, creating gorgeous pink waves.

As the ice cream thickens, the candies are added in the final step.

And, what could be better than serving a perfect scoop in a Comet Cup cone?

This stuff isn’t gonna last long. Fortunately, I rarely keep ice cream in the house. Self control is an important attribute for an adult.

©2010 T.W. Barritt all Rights Reserved