Sunday, October 25, 2009

My Favorite Cookbooks

I basically have put a moratorium on new cookbooks. I just don't need anymore. I'll make an occasional exception (my stepdaughters have each given me EXCELLENT cookbooks I didn't ask for: Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian and Alice Waters' Chez Panisse Vegetables) but mostly I just stick to what I have and they all have plenty to teach me.

My two most instructive books are Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything (that includes meat) and Julia Child's The Way to Cook (which, rather than Mastering the Art of French Cooking, is my Julia bible). If I'm encountering a new cut of meat or some other new element in my cooking, I always consult both of them ("What would Mark and Julia do?") to understand the principles of the challenge in front of me.

But the cookbook that I turn to over and over again that has never failed me -- especially for dinner parties -- is Patricia Wells' Bistro Cookbook. (By the way, all of these books are available in the Urbal Tea Store.)

I was reminded of how much I love this book last night when I made her tarte tartin aux poires (a tart tartin with pears instead of apples) for my stepdaughter and her 16-month old who came to dinner last night. It was an amazing tart, I must say, and even though Paloma was very busy bouncing balls and running back and forth, she still had the wherewithal to return to her mother for "more" bites of tart.

Wells gives you really great guidance (for instance, on how to get the pears nice and brown and carmelized without burning them) and she makes things easier rather than harder (for instance, she has you pour the pears into a casserole for baking in the oven with the crust, rather than in the cast iron pan, which is so heavy to flip over when the time comes).

I have never done a recipe in that book that didn't work, which I think is highest praise for a cookbook: her leg of lamb roasted over a gratin of vegetables (I've modified the recipe so that it's root vegetables) is the surest dinner party winner I've made; her golden cream and apple tart is the best apple pie I've ever had; the pissaldiere comes out perfect each time; and her recipe for Madame Cartet's potato gratin is as good as you'll get if you go to the bistro of the same name in Paris (which I did and, while being in Paris definitely improved the dish, Wells' recipe is astonishingly true to the original).

My dearest friend from high school, Barb, who is the best entertainer I know, swears by Wells' creme brulée, which I haven't made (yet). Barb, in many ways, was my first inspiration for wanting to cook. I recall being at a party she was giving, and she looked at people devouring the offerings on her buffet table and said to me, "God, I get such pleasure out of watching people eat my food." I caught the cooking bug, I think, at that moment. And when I make something from Bistro Cooking, I know exactly what Barb meant.

P.S. I think the other best cookbook I own came from Barb, years ago: Marian Morash's The Victory Garden Cookbook. It is my bible on vegetables: how to freeze or otherwise preserve them; understanding yields; basic treatments for them (for instance, how many minutes to steam a green bean vs. a lima bean). If you have an urban or suburban vegetable garden, this book is indispensable.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Are You a Shouter?

I forwarded this article (For Some Parents, Shouting Is the New Spanking) to Andrew, who deleted the email after reading the headline. "Hey! What gives?" I, ah, said sort of loudly.

His reply, "I'm a shouter. I've come to terms with it. I'm probably not going to stop." And then he looked down his nose at me, over his half glasses, and said in an accusing tone, "The sooner you come to terms with it and accept that you're a shouter too, the more relaxed you'll be." Grrr. I hate it when he's right.

I am a shouter. But now I wonder after reading this article, if shouting is so bad, what should I be doing? I have tried a low growl, it works, but sometimes, this bear can't take it and must let loose with a full yowl. Do the kids respond to our shouting? Umm, they used to. Our 10-year-old seems to be going through a trying phase or else he's ready for juvie. Although, unlike some of their friends, both our kids tend to be pretty good around outsiders. In fact, we love having weekend guests just so we can enjoy our children.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Meat the Frankenbirds

This summer I finally read The Omnivore's Dilemma and The Ethics of What We Eat. I was temporarily put off my feed. Yes, I know I read these books long after everyone else. I kept shelving them because, I guess, I knew how they would end — the girl is put off the corn chips and is totally denied the cow. There could be no happy ending unless a state of pure vegetarianism was achieved. Talk about off-putting.

Seriously, I get it. The way our food is produced is atrocious and I understand that most Americans don't have a clue. It's sad. When our children's friends come over and they look at a fresh egg as if it were poison I begin to wonder about where they are coming from. Anyway, both Andrew and I read these books and then spent a weekend on a farm that is part of an international agritourism business (we were invited—read free—guests of the company owner). This particular farm was located in upstate NY. It's a cool place and we were totally into what the couple were doing—farming and raising kids sustainably. It was a lovely organic picture that I am most certain did not include Tyson chicken fingers in the freezer or Ho-Hos in the cupboard. Don't get me wrong, our kitchen contains neither as well. Hey, do Snickers count?

Anyway, aside from their grass-fed, free-range cattle, sheep, and pigs, they also had an assortment of fowl. After reading the two books mentioned earlier, raising our own meat birds was high on our list. So we (Andrew) asked about the butchering of the chickens and was then taken step-by-step through the process. Fascinating. Yeah. I'm a total hypocrite when it gets right down to it. I will raise the animals, cook them, and talk up a storm about the importance of eating locally and if possible, organically, but really have no desire to ever butcher an animal. This is up to Andrew, who proclaimed seven years ago that if he couldn't kill it, he didn't deserve to eat it. This is why I love the man.

When we got back to our own small farm I started to investigate meat birds and called my favorite chicken place: Murray McMurray Hatchery. Turns out I was looking for the Jumbo Cornish X Rocks. So I placed an order for 10 (combining it with some Rhode Island Reds to help boost the kids' egg business). Before hanging up, I asked the operator if there was anything special I needed to know about the Jumbos. Her instructions were straightforward: separate them from the other chicks after two weeks because they are mean. Start them on a finishing feed, and then, very nonchalantly, she slips in that I should place their water at one end of the pen and their food at the other, so, you know, they would be forced to get up and move. She wrapped it up with: They'll be ready to butcher in about eight or nine weeks. WTF?

Over the last six years we've raised a number of egg layers, none of whom would have been finger lickin' good at eight weeks. Even after a year our egg layers were not something you'd plan a meal around. It suddenly dawned on me: I had ordered Frankenbirds! My summer reading horror list mentioned these birds, and now here I was, buying them. What had I done? I wanted to call Murray back and cancel my order, but a little voice in me clucked, "Oh c'mon, don't be chicken. It's not like you're going to pump them up with hormones and antibiotics. Let 'em ride..."

The day the chicks arrived we compared them with the reds. Aside from their color, they looked just like any other day-old bird. The first sign we had that they were different was about four days into the project when they started feathering—it was as if they hit puberty at age 6. By a week, the Frankenbirds were remarkably bigger. By two weeks they were easily double the size of the reds. Six weeks later, they are plump and round making the reds look undernourished. We tried separating them with straw bales but they hopped over powered by their big legs. When it's cold, the reds nestle under the Frankenbirds' wings. It's kind of creepy but they all seem quite happy. It's nearly time for the reds to move outside and be with their sisters. When we do this I'll start the Frankenbirds on the finishing feed (a high-protein, all vegetarian pellet). Yes, I know I haven't followed Murray's instructions but they're looking good. Stay tuned, butchering day is in two weeks (Andrew bought a knife from the local bait shop): Will the Frankenbirds be tender to the bone or just another rubber chicken?

Monday, October 19, 2009

Urban Composting

We have a compost (actually two) in our Brooklyn backyard, which has been a wonderful thing not only for our vegetable garden, but also for my conscience, having been raised by a depression/World War II-era Catholic mother, who taught me that to waste anything was a sin. My environmental conscience is also gratified that I’m now contributing way less to the landfill on Staten Island.

In the winter, because of the cold temperatures, the compost doesn’t break down much and, therefore, tends to get full. A couple of winters ago I stumbled upon a wonderful way to cut down on how much I put in the compost and make fabulous stock for soups and stews. In fact, I now do this all year round, not just in the winter. It’s also a great stock-making method for city-dwellers without backyards: yields super-easy homemade stock and allows you to practice a kind of urban composting.

The basic idea is that when I am doing food prep, I save out all “good” veggies scraps (more on “good” scraps in a moment) in a gallon-size freezer bag, which I keep in the freezer until completely full. Then I throw the bag contents along with a handful of peppercorns and a couple of bay leaves in a stock pot, cover with water, and bring to a boil. I bring the temperature down, add some salt, and simmer the hell out of it (partially covered or completely uncovered if it’s a huge pot) for a couple of hours. Strain and you should have about eight cups of very rich veggie broth.

“Good” veggie scraps include: peelings from carrots, potatoes (not sweet potatoes), turnips; onion tips and unused inner layers (but not too much of the papery skins), or onions that have gone soft and aren’t great to use but are not spoiled; old garlic that’s no longer fresh but not rotten; tops and bottoms of celery; tops of leeks (very good use for them); tops of fennel; old ginger; scallions that have gone a little slimy but are not decomposed; mushroom stems; asparagus stems; chard stems; end of herbs (thyme or sage stems, rosemary stalks, wilted basil, etc.) Anything else you can think except...

I don’t use anything from the cabbage family—broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, cabbage, cauliflower, etc.—because they stink up the stock. Or things like lettuce and spinach, which just fall apart after that long a simmer. I do use the occasional tomato (e.g., wrinkled cherry tomatoes) but I’ve never used them in any great quantity, mostly because they get eaten long before they go south.

For you carnivores, you can also save bones in the freezer and then throw them in the stock as well—a chicken carcass or old ham bone really adds depth to the stock.

Needless to say this is NOT a delicate, well-balanced stock. I don’t even THINK about balancing it —that would defeat the whole point. (I can just see some chefs cringing if they were to read this, but I’m not a chef, I’m a home cook.) So I wouldn’t use it as a base for all soups, but for something like a hearty bean soup, it’s great. I even use it for a butternut squash bisque I make—the squash is such a dominant ingredient that the stock is really background.

Here’s the one inconvenience to compost stock: you really have to wash the vegetables whose peels you plan to use to remove residual pesticides if they’re non-organic, or to remove dirt if they’re organic. Not a huge bother, but a step that you may not ordinarily take.

That said, compost stock is incredibly easy and gratifying to make—the house/apartment smells fabulous during the hours it simmers down and there’s nothing like feeling you’ve sent one less load to the Staten Island land fill.

And here's the best part about compost stock—you don't have to buy expensive store-bought stocks anymore. I have enough stock in my freezer at this point to last me the better part of a year.

A freezer full of compost stock (in recycled cottage cheese and chinese take-out containers).

Peter emptying one of our real composts.

My Body Warmer

Baby, It's Cold Outside

It's mid-October and the red stuff in the thermometer seems to have stalled at 42. That's not right. We live in what I'd call southern Virginia. Temperatures are usually in the 60s or 70s this time of year. This unusual cold snap, combined with four days of driving rain, has caught us totally off guard. October is usually spent cleaning up the garden, preparing the house and outbuildings for winter, and, with any luck, pulling in a second harvest of honey from our two hives. (I will get into our bees in a later post.) All of this has been put on hold, temporarily, I hope.

We live in a 113-year-old farm house. The place is hardly what you'd call air-tight and heating it is a costly nightmare. To save money we try to hold off as long as possible before turning on the furnace. We're a little chilly right now to say the least. I'm sitting here dressed in several layers, topped off by my fleece bathrobe with our puppy tucked inside (I kid you not, he's wrapped himself around my waist like a belt). I look like a hobo minus those fingerless gloves, which I'm beginning to think would be a good investment. Andrew just brought me some coffee, I took a sip and the steam fogged up my glasses. Last week it was 75.

That's right, 75. Andrew was finally able to start and finish the re-roofing of our chicken coop. He pounded the last nail in moments before the wind changed direction and the rain started. At least the girls are cozy. As for the garden, I have to assume the peas and broccoli are doing a little dance of happiness for the dip in temperature, but the peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, and zucchini are all whinging. We had an amazing summer harvest and were able to "put up" plenty of vegetables for winter so I'm okay with hot-weather plants calling it quits, but still. There is plenty of clean up to be done. The garlic needs to be planted.

Meanwhile, on my neighbor's farm there is a little trouble. They are away for 10 days and have left our children in charge of their chickens. In their barn they have some month-old blackstar chicks which will be placed in their outdoor coop once they are fully feathered and have a little meat on their bones to keep them warm. Outside in their coop they have an assortment of older hens plus seven Rhode Island red pullets that we started for them two months ago. Before they left on their trip they added the fully feathered pullets to their coop. I would have done the same thing—this time of year the weather is sunny and plenty warm for young birds. Anyway, this surprise cold snap took its toll. The older hens handled it without a feather out of place. Unfortunately, the pullets all perished, wet and cold to the bone. Not sure when we'll tell our neighbors. Not the kind of news you want from home while on vacation.

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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Take a walk

We don't own a car. OK, we live in New York City, so it's not exactly the sacrifice of the century to not own a car, but you would be surprised at the number of people here who do own one (all that traffic doesn't just come from taxis and people from Westchester County).

I was born in Detroit and grew up in its environs. My father worked for the automobile industry for most of his adult life. So you would think I would have some umbilical connection to automobiles. But I don't. Except for one year of my life, when a co-worker gave me her old, falling-apart Suburu wagon (whose engine still ran like a top, but whose chassis made me think I was driving Fred Flintstone's car), I have never owned a car. When I first moved in with Peter, he had a car and we kept it for about a year and then decided that the hassle and expense of having a car in Manhattan (where we lived at the time) was not worth it.

We've never looked back. We rent a car if we need one (mostly to visit Peter's family who live among various states in New England). And we take the subway and buses. But mostly we WALK. We have a "rule" that if a destination can be reached within the hour (which means it's less than four miles away), we walk there. We walk everywhere and it has had the following ameliorative effects on our lives:
1) Statistically, we're going to live longer. We joke at the end of every walk: "That's another 60 seconds longer on our death beds!" Unless, of course, a car kills us, but we're fairly cautious street-crossers.
2) We've really gotten to know Brooklyn. We moved here about seven years ago and have managed to explore on foot neighborhoods that I know we would otherwise never have ventured into.
3) It's given us time and space to talk without the interruptions of daily life. No phones (we do carry our cells but no one calls us on them because they know we're so bad at answering them); no emails pinging us (or, I should say, me, who salivates on cue); no to-do list distracting us (well, I should say me again, because Peter carries his to-do list in his head and obsesses over it, no matter where he is).

I've never done a carbon footprint analysis of what not having a car means in terms of the effects on the Earth's atmosphere, but I don't really have to do one to know that the benefits are real.

I realize that most people in this country can't live without a car, but really, do we need to drive EVERYWHERE? I'm reminded of a funny story I heard once from a European gentleman who had been visiting a friend in LA. He had gotten so crazy from driving everywhere that he begged his host to go walking with him one day in the neighborhood. No sooner had they set off when a neighbor came running out of her house, demanding to know if everything was all right. Yes, they assured her, they were just out for a walk. A few minutes later, a car coming from the opposite direction screeched to a halt. It was the host's wife. She jumped out, wild-eyed, crying, "Is everything all right?" My European interlocutor, telling the story, just shook his head.

I realize this story is about LA, which has a storied car culture, but I have family and friends living all over the U.S. and their perspectives on walking seem so distorted to me. That grocery store that's a mile away is a 20 minute walk -- if all you're doing is buying milk and eggs, put on your backpack and walk there. It's good for you and it's good for your environment.

I don't mean to sound like I'm on my high horse here (high tops might be a better metaphor) but walking is the easiest, freest, most interesting exercise there is. And if you're walking, you're not driving. And that is a good thing.

P.S. This photo is of me (and Philadelphia firefighter friends) during the 2007 Susan G. Komen Walk for the Cure, a 3-day/60 mile walk to raise money for breast cancer research. Louise got me to do the walk with her in 2006 and 2007. You train for something like this for months and believe me, your sense of distances changes dramatically.

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What the heck is urbal tea?

A little over a year ago, I started compiling a list called "Why Bother?" which attempted to chronicle all the things--both big and small--my husband, Peter, and I were doing in our Brooklyn home to try to counteract what seemed like the inexorable destruction of the planet.

I called the list "Why Bother?" both to acknowledge the helplessness I felt, and to provide a response to those feelings. As post-middle aged people (Peter retired in 2007; I have a few years left to work, if I could find some!), we made it a priority to redefine how to live in the world, if only for the sake of our grandchildren.

My friend Louise, who at the time was working with me on a magazine start-up (that crashed and burned soon after the October 2008 market collapse), talked about these issues with me all the time. She and her husband, Andrew, come at these questions from a different perspective: they live on a family farm in rural Virginia and raise two school-aged children, Graham and Katharine.

But despite our urban-rural and age differences, we share common interests: serious travel (last year Peter and I took a four-month trip to Australia and New Zealand, while Louise and Andrew took their kids out of school for the year and spent half of it living and traveling in South America); serious gardening (even though we have a postage stamp back yard and they live on a farm); and serious cooking (not fancy but principled). We also share common values: respect for the Earth; a love of culture and cultural differences; a respect for the (well) written word; a belief in the common good.

Queen Charlotte Sound, New Zealand

Over the years I've pulled Louise into my work projects, which tend to focus on technology in education. And while it's a perfectly respectable topic and she doesn't turn down the work, she keeps asking me: Can't you get on a magazine that covers gardening or travel or cooking? I wish.

Well, why wish? Fact is, the economics of publishing today mean that we're never going to start our own traditional magazine (if Conde Nast had to close Gourmet, there's no hope for any of us). But why let that keep us back from writing on the things that we feel passionately about? Andrew, who is by far the cleverest of the four of us (but don't tell him I said so), came up with the name of the blog. Urb[an] [rur]al Tea [a blend, where city meets country]. (Or, as he says, "If you have to be so literal, you don't deserve the title.")

I promised I'd write the first entry—and I admit that it's a little serious, but it's hard to get something started with the exact right tone. (I predict that Louise and Andrew will be smart-ass funny, Peter will be deadly serious, and I'll try to be funny and only sometimes succeed.)

The intent is to share the ways we're trying to figure out how to live responsibly and take pride of ownership, at least, of the small patch of Earth we're given the privilege to inhabit. It's a conversation we invite you to join.

Peter in our Brookyn garden