Sunday, July 31, 2005

Slow Food LA Weiser Family Farms field trip

What a wonderful day. Despite my early morning misgivings about getting up when the alarm went off at 6 a.m. on a Sunday, it was all worth it in the end...and even in the middle.

I joined the Slow Food L.A. tour to Weiser Family Farms in Tehachapi, which is about 2 hours outside of Los Angeles, up where the Sierras are thinking about beginning.

Weiser Family Farms sells a variety of organic produce at southern California Farmers Markets. Much of it is rare or unusual varieties. At our market in Thousand Oaks, they mostly carry melons and tiny potatoes in red, white, yellow and purple.

About 40 of us foodies piled onto a fancy Santa Monica City "Big Blue Bus" (unlike most city buses, it had a restroom, TV screens and high-back seats) at 8 a.m. in Santa Monica after standing around drinking coffee and eating croissants and muffins in the parking lot.

Chattering like a bunch of caffeinated parakeets, we made new friends and talked food on the way up. We passed through dusty, deserty towns like Mojave, Lancaster and Palmdale, but as elevation rose we began to see more trees and green.

Alex Weiser greeted us. He is a wiry, enthusiastic, dark-haired guy who, along with the rest of his family, started the farm in the early 1980s after his dad, Sid, retired from teaching.

His passion and love for his work came through in every word, and as he got more into what he way saying, his hands began to fly in broader and broader gestures.

We drank Evan Kleiman's wonderful agua fresca of melon, mint and ginger while we listened to Alex's story of the first few years of the farm.

The family first tried growing apples and peaches and selling wholesale, but realized they couldn't make a living with such a narrow range of crops and with the low prices they were getting at wholesale markets.

Selling at certified farmers' markets is what made it possible for them to keep farming. Alex thanked us for supporting the markets. He said that the interaction with customers gave them the feedback they needed to know what to plant. The willingness of Farmer's Market patrons to try new foods or varieties also gives them an incentive to grow test plots every year, he said.

Then we headed out to the fields to see what the Weisers were growing up here at 4300 feet elevation in a town Alex calls "The land of four seasons." He said Tehachapi has four true seasons, each lasting about 3 months. It doesn't get as hot up there as it does in their other farms sites at lower elevations.

We saw tomatoes, branching broccoli, peppers, carrots, onions, potatoes, tomatoes, berries, lilacs and all other manner of wonderful things on the farm.

People bring the Weisers seeds and cuttings from travels around the world so they can try new crops and introduce foreign foods to their customers. Alex revealed a few things he has in the pipeline to us, but I won't reveal his secrets, lest other copycat farmers get a jump on him.

We ate things that we harvested - tiny carrots, brocolli, tomatoes - standing out in the sun and enjoying tastes of pure freshness.

Warm melons were plucked from the vine, sliced up with pocket knives and shared. We had to bend over to keep the juices from running down our chins as we ate. It was a little taste of sweet heaven.

Someone said, "Notice how small everyone's vocabulary has gotten?" as everyone was reduced to saying "Oh wow," "Oh my God" or just "Ohhhhh."

We came in from the fields after about an hour and a half to find a feast that Evan Kleiman, chef/owner of Angeli Caffe in Los Angeles, who also has a fabulous radio show on KCRW, Good Food, had made.

There was grilled eggplant, griddle-cooked bread, rustic bread drizzled with olive oil and grilled (or maybe grilled and drizzled with olive oil), sauteed chard, a rich potato and pasilla chile dish, carrots, a beautiful salad of heirloom tomatoes, oil-cured black olives, cucumbers and feta cheese -- and those were just the vegetarian offerings.

Weiser's workers had made a huge pork and potato stew in big pot in an underground oven and simmered it for a long time, letting the rich flavors come together.

We all came to the table and stayed for hours, eating, drinking and sharing. We were outdoors under a big tent with the fields just a few feet away.

The Weisers joined us and we toasted and thanked everyone in sight. There was a lot to be thankful for. I felt like I was in one of those gorgeous Saveur magazine photo spreads.

Just when we thought we were done eating, we found out that Evan had been busy making ice cream during the meal. Mindy Pfeiffer, one of the organizers, handed out little plastic cups of pinky-purple ice cream and as soon as everyone took a taste, conversation stopped for a minute as we pondered the layers of flavors our tongues were experiencing for the first time.

Then we got busy playing "guess the ingredients." Finally Evan came out and revealed the secret combination: goat milk, mulberries and saba, a concentrated grape must. I can make a pretty confident bet that that was a new one for everyone there and that it is something most of us will never have again.

The wine and the heat and our full bellies conspired to make our eyes heavy and our thoughts grow slow. Just in time, we climbed back on the bus, cranked up the air conditioning, and took a nice siesta on the two-hour trip home.

I love the spirit of people who love good food. Everyone was unpretentious, giving, and eager to share thoughts, recipes and experiences. I hope to be able to attend more of these Slow Food Los Angeles events.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Cook next door

You coax the blues right out of the horn, Meme,
You charm the husk right off of the corn, Meme!
(an ode to "Mame" in case you couldn't guess.)

Thanks to Megret at Morsels of Megret for tagging me for the Cook Next Door meme. I was in desperate need of some inspiration.

What is your first memory of baking/cooking on your own?
On my very own? I know I "cooked" plenty with my mom and my three sisters and brother. I remember one particularly messy (and good) jelly roll my sister PK made when mom and dad left us in her care. But the first thing I recall making on my own was meringue cookies, because they had the fewest ingredients of any recipe in my mom's huge cookbook. Eggs, sugar and maybe vanilla. I still love meringues.

Who had the most influence on your cooking?
Well, my mom is a trooper in the kitchen. She made meals for all 7 of us all the time. Breakfast, lunch, dinner. She tried her darndest to accommodate my very picky tastes, too. So she taught me about feeding people.

But for my entree into cuisine, I would say probably Stacy, my college roomie. Before her, I had never even seen ingredients like pine nuts, sun dried tomatoes, and basil. That was in 1985.

Do you have an old photo as "evidence" of an early exposure to the culinary world and would you like to share it?
I have one but my scanner is on the fritz.

Mageiricophobia - do you suffer from any cooking phobia, a dish that makes your palms sweat?
I am a vegetarian. One of the reasons I became a vegetarian was because I could not stand the thought of cooking meat, and I figured if it made me that ill to think of, I had no business cooking it or eating it. I thought chicken was the worst but the other night I decided to suck it up and try to cook some salmon for my BF and guest...and I found a fin and almost threw up.

What would be your most valued or used kitchen gadgets and/or what was the biggest letdown?
I admit I am an addict. Coffee maker and good corkscrew. Of course I love all the regular stuff. Good chef knife and bread knife. Citrus reamer. Big blue Kitchenaid. Zojirushi rice cooker. Ancient Osterizer blender.

Biggest letdown - zillions of tiny tart and other molds I keep buying at garage sales and never using.

Name some funny or weird food combinations/dishes you really like and probably no one else.
It's normal in Mexico, not so much here - melon with lime, salt and chile powder. I also like watermelon curry (see previous post). When I ate meat, I loved peanut butter, sweet pickle and bacon sandwiches, which my mom made up. She loves them too.

What are the three eatables or dishes you simply don't want to live without?
1. (I stole this one from Megret) Chocolate. I mean, a world without chocolate would be a sad, sad world.
2. Tortillas. Fresh handmade corn, yes, but I will settle for flour or whole wheat if I must.
3. Raspberries. They are too perfect.

Favorite ice cream:
I know it is gilding the lily, but Ben & Jerry's Phish Food (chocolate with caramel and marshmallow stripes, and tiny dark chocolate fish...that being said, I eat it about once every three years.)

You will probably never eat (again??):
I hate to say never. I have even eaten meat on some very odd occasions. But raw's a dread fear of parasites that keeps me away. And orange-leek soup. Nothing could be more horrible, since it tasted exactly like bile. Mmm.

Signature dish:
Butternut squash enchiladas:
1 lg butternut squash, baked til soft.
Mix hot flesh with as much cream cheese as you think is wise (1/2 box if you are low-fat, the whole thing if you are crazy and wild) and a bunch of chopped green onions.
Use the squash mix as a filling for enchiladas - at my house I use flour or corn tortillas dipped in Las Palmas red sauce, folded over, covered in a bit of Monterey Jack cheese or queso quesadilla. Bake until hot through or longer - 350 for 20 minutes or so.

Question added by Zarah: On average, how many times a week would you cook something to satisfy your sweet tooth? Zero to three.

Question added by Cathy: What do you usually eat for breakfast? Toast with jam and butter. Bread is just raw toast to me.

Question added by Alice: What are your stand-by dinner options when you don't have the time or the inclination to follow or create a new recipe? Quesadillas. Pitas with ajvar (see previous post) and a handful of olives. Boca burgers in a pita.

Question added by Karen: What would you like to cook someday that you haven't tried before? Vegetable pate.

Question added by the chronicler: Sweet or savory? Depends on many factors.

Question added by Snackish: Soup or salad? Salad

Question added by Grommie: Do you have any food quirks you'd like to admit?
Hm. Being a vegetarian should be enough...If I don't go to the market every other day, I feel like I am missing out.

And now, to debut the future bloggers who are tagged for this meme:

Beurre Monte
Pinoy Cook

Good luck, and have fun!

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Good Korean cooking

I knew Cecelia Hae-Jin Lee was a cool person because we are in WriteGirl together.

I also knew she had published a cookbook because the LA Times ran a rave review of it.

I didn't know what a good writer she was, though.

I picked up her book, Eating Korean at the library. I flipped it open there in the aisle and started reading.

Not only is it a cookbook, but it also has personal stories from Cecelia's life, some of which are incredibly sweet and touching and sad. I was crying within 2 minutes.

Check it out.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Matira - Yellow Watermelon Curry

The photo is of yellow watermelon curry. You can make it with red watermelon, but I bought the yellow one unsuspecting until I opened it up.

This recipe is modified from a LA Times article in June of 2003, I think. They got it from "The Great Curries of India" by Camellia Panjabi (a great name, no?).

It is festive food because you can be pretty sure most people in the U.S. have never tasted it before. If you can get them to try it, they are amazed by the wild combination of flavors and textures.

Watermelon Curry
10 cups watermelon, seeds removed, cut into 1 inch dice (about 1/4 of a large melon)
1/8 tsp paprika
1/4 tsp chili powder or more to taste
1/4 tsp ground turmeric
1/2 tsp ground coriander
1-2 garlic cloves, pressed or minced
1/2 tsp salt

2 tsp vegetable oil
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
Juice of 1/2 lime
1/2 Tbsp sugar

Puree 1 cup of the watermelon with the spices down ingredient list to salt.

Heat oil in a large skillet over high heat, add cumin seeds and fry a bit until they turn a little brown and fragrant. Immediately add the watermelon juice puree. Lower heat and simmer for about five minutes, until it is reduced by one-third. Add lime juice and sugar and simmer one more minute. Add the watermelon chunks and toss gently until warmed through.

You can serve hot, at room temp, or cold. It is wild and amazing whichever way you choose.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Crispy Crispy Parmesan Lavosh Crackers

This depends on whether you can find fresh lavosh. Or lavash. Or lahvash. Armenian Bread. Whatever.

Just don't buy the Ak-Mak crackers in the box - you have to find a source for the fresh-baked kind.

I wanted parmesan crisps for my party but didn't want to pay $3.99 for 8-10 of the parmesan baguette things at Whole Foods. I am, above all, cheap.

This was my solution. Lavosh runs about $1.19 for three or four huge pieces where I am. I made enough crackers for 15 people with most of one package.

Crispy Crispy Parmesan Lavosh Crackers
One package of fresh lavosh
One half-cup egg whites (I used the pasteurized kind in the carton)
1/2 lb freshly grated parmesan

Brush the lavosh with the egg whites, one sheet at a time. Sprinkle with grated parmesan. Put under broiler just until cheese is light brown and before the whole thing has caught on fire (things happen!)

When cool enough to handle, break into lovely random cracker sized pieces.

I also made some sprinkled with sesame seeds and poppy seeds with a little salt and pepper. They were good, but people were picking through the basket to find the cheese ones.

The crackers will be thin and exquisitely crispy.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Shrimp and Mango with lime and mint appetizer

A shrimp is not a vegetable, I know. But after making about a zillion tiny empanadas filled with potatoes and chiles or vegetarian sausage, I felt I had to give my guests at the Great Journalist Gathering of 2005 at least a little something with animals in it lest they rebel and write bad things about me.

I made this up out of my head and they all pronounced it fantastic. Your mileage may vary. When journalists are faced with free food, they can get mighty enthusiastic.

Shrimp, Mango, lime and mint on endive leaves
1/2 pound cooked shrimp, finely chopped
1 ripe mango, diced fine
1/2 sweet red pepper, cut into tiny squares
Juice of 1 lime
1 tbsp mint, chopped fine

A dash or two of Green Jalapeno Tabasco or a bit of finely minced jalapeno pepper
Belgian Endives - eight or so

Combine all ingredients but endives. Peel endive leaves off and use for little edible dishes. You can only use the outer leaves of the endives, because they get small and soft inside.

Then, if you are a veg, you will have lots of lovely endive insides left for you!

Thursday, July 14, 2005

A true taste sensation - Dry Brown Curds Snack

I bought this at the Middle Eastern market. The people there are super nice and they have a zillion foods I have never heard of. This is one of them.

I know "Dry Brown Curds Snack" doesn't sound too appetizing to most people. But I am, as my BF says, the person most likely to order the weirdest item on the menu. If it is novel and doesn't contain meat, let me at it.

So this was right up my alley. It looks a bit like fruit leather and claims to be made of yogurt. So far, so good.

(Sour) it says on the label. They should issue some kind of stronger warning, I think, because this may well be the sourest item on the planet. Super sour gummy worms taste like cotton candy compared to this.

You can see from the photo the size of the sample I took. Unfortunately I tasted it while I was on the phone with the BF. I immediately began making weird noises and gasping, having lost the ability to speak.

Once the initial shock and pain of my salivary glands shriveling up passed, I was able to tell him what happened.

The stuff was so sticky and a piece stuck to my molar, but I was actually afraid to move it, lest the sour flavor blast start again.

This may have a use, but I am not sure. If Persians can actually eat this with joy and happiness, they are much better and stronger people than I.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Cafe de Olla

This is my latest obsession:

Cafe de Olla
2 cups water
1 cinnamon stick
1/4 tsp anise seeds or a dash of anise extract
1/4 cup piloncillo (Mexican brown sugar pressed into cones - you can grate it off) or brown sugar

Bring to a boil in a 2 quart saucepan.

Add 1/2 cup ground coffee and remove from heat. It will foam up in a dramatic fashion.

Steep 5 minutes.

Strain through a fine strainer and drink straight up or with hot milk. It is best from little rough clay cups, in Mexico, but it ain't so very bad in a mug in California, either.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Oh Canada!

Cookies in honor of Canada Day

To recognize our dear friends to the north, I made these Maple Shortbread cookies in the shape of a maple leaf and decorated them in a Canadian-flag theme.

This photo is kind of a funky cookie, but the rest of the photos were pretty bad. But you get the idea.

The cookie recipe is in 2 parts so it takes a while for the maple butter to cool enough to make dough out of.

Maple Butter
2/3 cup maple syrup
1 cup butter, softened

In a small saucepan, bring maple syrup to a boil and cook until it reduces by half, about 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool. Add the butter and stir until completely blended. Place in refrigerator until firm. Makes1 cup.

Shortbread - this is simple!
1 cup maple butter
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt.

Combine the ingredients in a food processor. Pulse using the steel knife just until well combined and form a ball. This should take less than 30 seconds.

Flatten into a disk shape. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate until the dough is well chilled. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Position rack to centre of oven. Remove dough from fridge and roll to 1/8-inch thickness. Cut dough into desired shapes. Place cookies on an ungreased cookie sheet and bake until slightly golden brown, approximately 10 to 15 minutes.
Makes about three dozen two-inch cookies.

I used a Betty Crocker white icing recipe with slightly more butter than Betty calls for (she actually called for margarine, pretty funny considering the recipe is labeled "White Butter Frosting" - 1 1/2 cups powdered sugar, 1/2 cup butter, 1 tsp. vanilla and 1 Tbsp milk, blended with an electric mixer til smooth.

Spread icing on cool cookies. Place a strip of paper over the middle of each cookie and sprinkle with red sugar.