Sunday, October 31, 2010

Butter, Salt and the Simple Gifts of Restoration Farm

The best things in life are nearest: Breath in your nostrils, light in your eyes, flowers at your feet, duties at your hand, the path of right just before you. Then do not grasp at the stars, but do life's plain, common work as it comes, certain that daily duties and daily bread are the sweetest things in life.
~Robert Louis Stevenson

And now, the growing season concludes again at Restoration Farm. Delicate spring salad greens gave way to the sweet berries of summer, ending with the russet flesh of autumn squash.

I am just a bit melancholy, but mindful of the simple gifts that flourish at Restoration Farm.

This season the food from the farm was less about striving for fussy culinary achievements. It was about the snap of a green bean, the tenderness of young spinach leaves, the earthiness of a golden beet, the savory richness of a tomato or the creaminess of a freshly-harvested potato.

Head grower Caroline Fanning said it months ago.  Really good food just needs a little salt and butter. Indeed, why meddle with perfection? So, I steamed and stir fried. I ate the spinach fresh because that moment in time was so brief. An heirloom tomato “slicer” made the perfect dinner for a sultry summer night. I roasted eggplant until it was rich and velvety. Crisp kohlrabi was sliced into wedges, each adorned with a dollop of peanut butter. A Napa cabbage sautéed in butter and sprinkled with dill melted on the tongue. And, my favorite autumn pleasure – the impossibly sweet butternut squash from the farm – was steamed and pureed until silky smooth with a little salt, butter and maple syrup.

I was not always happy with my stewardship of my share.  I didn’t volunteer to work enough, and I didn’t seem to be on top of preparing or preserving the food I received.   Too often items were wasted, and when that happened I was ashamed.   When I think of how quickly the months flew by, I regret the food that was wasted.  

There is a sense of solitude as I walk down the wooded path for the final visit of the season. The air is crisp and cold. I recall summer mornings in the berry field where – at times – it was just me and the bees, and perhaps the only peace I would find during seven days of mayhem. Because the farm is part of an historic village, there were moments when I believed I was a time traveler and I wondered what century I was in. On occasion, a lone interpreter would walk by in rustic 19th century garb and I’d have to pinch myself. I remember the morning the serenity of the berry field was abruptly shattered by a gunshot from a Civil War encampment on the other side of the road.

The fields are nearly slumbering now, covered with a blanket of green. Head Grower Dan Holmes just loves the cover crop. For him, it symbolizes the rejuvenation and nourishment of the soil for the season to come.

At the final distribution, there are leeks and red cabbage, more of my favorite beets and carrots, and even some lovely autumn lettuce to remind us of how it all began.

Even as the season draws to a close, the community of members gathers once more to plant garlic.   We sit at wooden tables and split cloves that will be pushed into the soil.  It is miraculous when you consider how a single clove of garlic will multiply. 

The community continues to multiply.  George is at a table pulling apart the cloves, and there’s a new couple who have just moved here from San Diego.    The pungent aroma of garlic fills the air.

We move to the field and tuck garlic cloves into dimples left in the soil.    We are surrounded by flaming autumn leaves and a brilliant blue sky.   I try to drink it all in.  These simple moments are rare and should be savored.  

Simple and sweet.    

©2010 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Harold McGee’s "Keys to Good Cooking" – A Review

Harold McGee is a noted authority on the science of food and cooking. He studied science and literature at Caltech and Yale, which for many (myself included) is akin to trying to combine oil and water. Yet McGee seems to effortless blend a skill for storytelling with the sharp eye of a researcher.

His new book is no exception. “Keys to Good Cooking: A Guide to Making the Best of Foods and Recipes” offers Harold McGee’s reassuring voice serving up an exhaustive compendium of years of culinary research and insights. “Keys to Good Cooking” is designed as a reference book, but hardly in the massive textbook mode of McGee’s classic, “On Food and Cooking.” Instead, this is more like Harold McGee, your favorite college professor, dropping by your kitchen for a cup of coffee and gently guiding you through your latest culinary project.

There are no recipes. The book is divided into 24 chapters on key food and cooking categories, such as “Milk and Dairy Products,” “Sauces, Stocks and Soups,” “Fish and Shellfish,” and “Coffee and Tea.” Think of each chapter as the “back story” behind a recipe. McGee serves up his well-studied insights on culinary techniques, how ingredients perform, shopping tips and some fairly alarming guidelines on food safety that I appear to routinely violate. Important facts are offered in bold and specific directions are delivered in blue italic.

Essentially, McGee has compiled the kind of insights that you can’t get from a single recipe, and it’s a valuable resource. Exploring the book reminded me of my experiences in culinary school classes encountering the type of wisdom that only the chef instructor – and hands on experience – could provide.

Think of the chapters in “Keys to Good Cooking” as required background reading before undertaking any culinary project. I’m fairly knowledgeable and well-trained in certain categories such as Breads and Meats, yet I learned things I didn’t know that could change the way I approach certain recipes in the future. For example, I didn’t realize that water makes up nearly half the weight of bread dough. Or, the fact that you can restore a partial or whole loaf of stale bread by moistening its crust and baking in a medium oven for 15 minutes or until hot and soft inside. For carnivores who like their meat juicy, it only takes a few degrees to go from firm and juicy to hard and dry, a transition that begins at about 150 degrees Fahrenheit, so keep that thermometer handy. Anyone unnerved by all the recent media coverage of eggs would have a much deeper understanding of the real issues – and important precautions - after reading Chapter 10 on Eggs. And, it seems like buying any food item pre-cut is a bad idea. It affects flavor, freshness and potentially safety.

“Keys to Good Cooking” is chock-full of functional insights and I suspect I will be a smarter and more skillful cook if I train myself to review the appropriate chapters before undertaking a recipe. If I have one complaint - and it’s a small one – it has to do with the book’s austere design. McGee has never been known for flashy presentation and he does suggest that the simple typeface and white spaces are there for home cooks to make their own notes. Yet with all the celebrity chefs lining up for our attention at the bookstore this holiday season, I do hope the Plain Jane “Keys to Good Cooking” doesn’t get lost. It deserves attention and could easily become an essential kitchen reference.

The Penguin Press provided me with a complimentary copy of “Keys to Good Cooking” for my review, but the opinions expressed in this post are my own.

©2010 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Monday, October 18, 2010

Apple of My Eye

Everything’s coming up apples in New York. Although I was raised on - and became addicted to - sweet and tart McIntosh apples, it seems like there are now at least as many varieties of apples are there are heirloom tomatoes – Fuji, Red Rome, Honey Crisp and Ginger Gold. Wouldn’t we love to know the stories behind these alluring names?

On the weekend in the Hudson Valley, the sky is azure blue, the wind is crisp and the bright red orbs are everywhere. Traffic is heavy as people rush to satisfy their autumnal apple fix.

At a busy farm stand, the aroma of warm apple cider doughnuts draws me in for a sample.  

I return from the Hudson Valley laden with pink Fuji apples.  Beyond the obvious portable snack, how best to enjoy my cache?

My excursion included a stop at Tuthilltown Distillery in Gardiner -- the first whiskey distillery in New York State in over 80 years -- for a sampling of their Hudson Baby Bourbon Whiskey. 

It seems an Apple Bourbon Cake would be the perfect culinary incarnation of my Hudson Valley sojourn.   The recipe from the New York Apple Association proves a lovely project for a lazy autumn afternoon.

Chunks of apples and walnuts are drenched in a healthy amount of bourbon.    The Baby Bourbon adds notes of warm vanilla and caramel – with just a dash of hooliganism - and the deeply burnished cake is sweet and intoxicating, just like a day spent outdoors amidst the orchards of the Hudson Valley.  

©2010 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved  

Friday, October 15, 2010

Friday Food Truck Freebie – Malaysia Kitchen for the World

I call it Blue Friday after a crazy week.   Too much travel.  Too much conflict.  Too much clutter.   So I’m heading downstairs to grab a Subway six-inch club for lunch (it’s been a long haul, guys) and what to my wondering eyes should appear, but a vision of a totally new food truck parked outside the building.

I run upstairs to find Zany.  She’s MIA.  The story is she got married a couple of weeks ago, and is at Social Security changing her name.   Bad timing.  I expect she’ll be on line sometime until Saturday afternoon.

Back on the street, I approach the truck with wallet open.  Guess what?  The food is FREE!  

The Malaysia Kitchen Truck is traveling the streets of Manhattan for the next few weeks offering free samples from the best of Malaysian restaurants in the Metro area.   As the brochure says, you don’t have to travel 9,400 miles to sample the incredible flavors of Malaysia.  That’s a good thing.  I’m already jet lagged.  

Blue Friday quickly becomes my Friday Fantasy.   The truck is serving up fare from Café Asean on 117 West 10th Street, including Mee Udang, a Malay noodle dish with spicy shrimp broth and Beef Rendang, spicy beef with turmeric rice and pineapple.  The shrimp broth is briny and tastes like the sea, and the beef is spicy and sweet with bursts of cilantro.

Thumbs up for “Culinary Diplomacy!”

©2010 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, October 10, 2010

George’s Iowa City Coffee Cake

George Garbarini is enjoying a second career as a gentleman farmer at Restoration Farm. A long-time engineer, he now rules the pole bean kingdom at the farm and it is said that he doesn’t stop until the job is done and the last bean has been picked.

The gorgeous beans are a testament to George’s nurturing skills.

Indeed, George is a fixture at Restoration Farm, and his specialty – Iowa City Coffee Cake – is a fixture at farm pot luck dinners. You’d better not wait long to visit the dessert table on Pot Luck Night. Those who dawdle will miss their chance to get a thick slice of this moist cake, layered with fragrant cinnamon. It's a classic, and so is George.

As for the name, Iowa City Coffee Cake – I can tell you that Iowa City is located in the state of Iowa, and there are nearly 70 thousand residents. So, what’s the connection to the coffee cake? I don’t want to give away any trade secrets. You’ll have to pay a visit to the farm and ask George. You’re likely to find him in the field taking good care of the pole beans.  He will greet you with a friendly smile, and a great story. 

George Garbarini’s Iowa City Coffee Cake

2 sticks margarine
2 cups sugar
2 eggs
2 cups self-rising flour
1 8-ounce container sour cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 teaspoons cinnamon and 2 tablespoons sugar mixed together in a small cup
Confectioner’s sugar for decoration

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour Bundt pan. Melt margarine and pour in large bowl. With electric mixer, mix in sugar. Mix in 2 eggs. Mix in flour. Mix in 1 cup of sour cream. Mix in teaspoon of vanilla.

Pour half of batter into bundt pan. Sprinkle evenly with half of sugar and cinnamon mixture. Pour in rest of batter. Sprinkle with remainder of sugar and cinnamon.
Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes – not longer or it might burn. Remove from oven and allow to cool for 10 minutes. Invert onto cake plate.

After fully cooled, dust with confectioner’s sugar and enjoy!

©2010 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Green Beans and a Local Food Revolution

Frozen green beans may not be the first ammunition that comes to mind when staging a local food revolution, but for Luc Roels and Jim Hyland (left to right) - the owners of Farm to Table Co-packers in Kingston, New York - frozen vegetables and berries are critical in their arsenal.  

In June, the team opened the food processing facility, Farm to Table Co-packers to pursue a singular goal. They hope to reshape the regional food system in the Hudson Valley.  

For more on the story, check out my article on Farm to Table Co-packers in the Autumn 2010 edition of the quarterly magazine Edible Hudson Valley.

©2010 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved