Down at Market.


I totally meant to write this post earlier in the week,  but one thing after another popped up and next thing you know, it’s a week later and one realizes oh, that never happened.  And then, because I’m one of those people who believes that if you do something and you’re going to blog about it, you should do it in a timely manner, ie, just after it happens, I started debating whether to do it at all.  Sitting here on a Sunday morning where the sun can’t quite decide if it’s coming out or not, realizing that until this stinking dining room gets done, getting this house clean and decluttered is just not an option and I really should get myself geared up just a little bit more before jumping back into that dining room project, it seemed like I should write about it. Continue reading

As local as it gets.

DSCN1846We have a cherry tree in our front yard.  The neighborhood critters tend to get to it before we do, leaving us not more than a handful of cherries, at best.

This spring the tree was loaded.  You could see it walking down the street.  We had hope there would be enough for all of us.  Tuesday I had a bite of a cherry, realized they were not quite ripe yet, and noticed the tree was still loaded – a good sign.

Friday morning,  there was much activity at the tree.  Every bird & squirrel within a 6 block radius was feasting.  I ran out with my basket and picked everything within reach without a ladder.  I noticed a good deal of the fruit had some sort of funk, which was a bummer and the remaining fruit wasn’t entirely ripe, but I was going to get a crop off that tree dammit.

DSCN2000Two pounds later, I did.

Since they were mostly underripe, I knew cooking them was the way to go.  Having picked 8 pounds of strawberries later that day from our little garden patch, I thought about combining the two.

DSCN2003Yes, you read that right.  EIGHT POUNDS of berries from our little strawberry patch in one day.  Two pounds the day before that.  It’s been a banner year for strawberries.

Where was I? Oh that’s right, cherries.  First, I had to pit the cherries.  I got this little pitter last summer at Bed, Bath & Beyond.


It pits four cherries at a time, popping the seeds out into a tray underneath.  That’s practically doing it in bulk when you think about it AND it keeps clean up to a minimum.  DSCN2005I love this thing.  I strongly recommend it, especially if you are considering doing anything with cherries this summer.

DSCN2027After pitting the cherries, I chopped up an equal amount of strawberries, added sugar and let it macerate overnight.  I found this great post on Northwest Edible Life on making pectin free jam without a recipe that I used as a guideline.  Because my cherries were not fully ripe, I went with 1/2 cup sugar for each pound of fruit.

DSCN2030The resulting jam is sweeter than I expected it to be, with big chunks of fruit.


I packed it in 4 oz jars, trying to stretch out the yield as much as I could.   The result?  8 lovely jars of what we are calling “Greenleaf Cherry Berry”.  I’m beyond excited that we grew enough fruit to make jam with this year.  Take that squirrels.DSCN2058

Spread on sourdough toast for breakfast, it’s quite lovely if I do say so myself.

Cherry Berry Jam

2 pounds cherries, pitted & chopped

2 pounds strawberries, chopped

Combine the fruit in a non-reactive bowl with 1-2 cups of sugar.  Cover and refrigerate overnight (or longer).  Simmer on stove top, stirring occasionally.  As the fruit starts to fall apart, you can mash it if you’d like.  Add 2 tablespoons lemon juice and cook until it is ‘set’.  Pack into jars and process in a hot water bath for 10 minutes.

Yield – 4 pints.

Making Mincemeat.

During some conversation with my friend Leni at some point either this past fall or summer, the topic of mincemeat came up.  Leni having recently retired this past year as the African-American Historian at Monticello,  I knew that our exercise in mincemeat was going to entail historically accurate recipes, at least one of which would probably be from Mary Randolph’s  The Virginia Housewife cookbook.  First published in 1824, it’s considered one of the first American Southern cookbooks and a fairly decent record of how food at Monticello was probably prepared. The conversation had sprung out of discussions of what she was going to do with the all the various parts of the pigs she was then raising.  I was slightly curious to get a pig’s foot or two to try (what else) pickling them while she was more interested in boiling them down and making mincemeat out of them.
Yesterday was mincemeat making day.  It seems the Mary Randolph version calls for venison, which Jackson supplied, as well as some bear, which was used to make an 1839 Kentucky Housewife by Lettice Bryan version of mincemeat.  
One of the things I like about heading out to gatherings at Leni’s is that you never know who you’re going to meet there.  A few years ago, I’d heard of Jackson’s classes in which students learned to hunt, dress and cook their catch.  I loved the idea of it, would love to actually take it one day, only it seems (to me) that hunting requires patience (that whole sit in the woods thing – I cannot possibly sit still that long) one of those things I’m convinced is an over-rated virtue, mainly because I lack it.  Ideally, I’d rather skip to the butchering and cooking part, getting someone else to do the hunting for me.  
The meat Jackson brought technically was roadkill – the car in front of him hit the deer and I missed part of the story on the bear, catching only the tail end of the tale where he actually completed the killing of the bear. So it wasn’t like either animal was sitting by the side of the road for who knows how long.  I share this because I really just like bragging that I’ve eaten roadkill.  (Although as I typed that, I realized it’s not the first time I’ve had roadkill.  Hey, it’s free, grass fed, organic meat.)
In addition to Jackson, there was his girlfriend Helenah, Jenny, Jessica, two of Leni’s sons, her granddaughters, my Edie and lots of cameras.  We jumped in, with the venison version of mincemeat on one burner, the bear version on another, Leni’s pork version on a third, with a fourth burner being devoted to creating the filling of pelmeni – a Siberian dumpling made with bear.
As I was heading out yesterday, Pat asked if I even liked mincemeat, reminding me that it had been served at various family gatherings over the years to much avoidance on my part.  To be honest, I wasn’t quite sure I would like it.  I find that cooking meat well is an art, one that many members of my family lack, so I tend to avoid anything they made with meat it in over the years as a self-preservation technique.  Trust me, if you had grown up eating some of the meat I was served on a regular basis, you’d avoid it too.  I’m always willing to try something though, especially if it’s prepared by someone I know is a good cook.  Considering Leni has not only raised, but prepared some of the best pork I’ve ever had, I knew I was in good hands here.
There was much similarity in the recipes Leni had us using.  I was surprised (and delighted) to find that each one called for large amounts of fruit, generally in equal amounts or more to the meat and suet, of fruit in the form of apples, raisins and currants.  Brandy, cider, sugar and spices were also added, then the mixtures bubbled on the stove top for a few hours.
While they cooked, we feasted on some tasty smoked pork that Leni had prepared and then I learned how to make the pelmeni, which essentially is a pirogi.  I’ve always wanted to try making them but have been slightly intimidated.  Thanks to Jenny telling me I could just get going on the next batch and not wanting to appear like I had no idea what I was doing,  I just did what I was told, grabbing a dough ball, rolling it out and jumping into the process.  It certainly helped that the dough was positively dreamy to roll out, which immediately took a huge chunk of intimidation away.  (You know I walked out of there with that recipe too.  Because that is what I do when I stumble upon something like that.)
The pelmeni filling was finely chopped onions, cabbage and bear meat, which was cooked before being rolled and then boiled in broth for a few minutes before being served with fresh dill and sour cream.  
Leni thought that mince tarts would be a better way to serve the mincemeat rather than one large pie.  To differentiate between the venison and the bear mince tarts, the venison tarts had a dot of dough on top. As it was a savory filling, she used lard in the crust, making them incredibly flaky and savory themselves.  A perfect pairing.  
Verdict?  I liked the mincemeat.  There was so much fruit in the mix that the meat added texture more than anything else.  There was a nice savoriness about the tarts. The venison version, which was based on the Mary Randolph recipe was a touch more savory than the bear.  I had prepared the bear version, following the Kentucky Housewife recipe, substituting allspice for cloves that were MIA as I was putting it together.  By the time the cloves had appeared, I hesitated on adding them to the allspice, so I skipped it.   As the pork version needed more time, we did not sample it, although Leni assured us all she’d get a jar to us in the near future.  I came home with a pack of pelmini for the freezer, as well as two pint jars of bear mincemeat filling that I look forward to making into tarts over the next few weeks.
Yesterday was a learning experience on several levels – I love cooking with other great cooks because I never fail to learn something new from them. There was history, specifically food history – did you know that historically most wild game was referred to as venison?  I did not.  There was the typical small town connections made that make me love Charlottesville, where it seems everyone sort of knows everyone else somehow, even if you’ve never actually met before.  I listened in on and had some inspirational and informative conversations.  As I’m still getting over this nasty upper respiratory bug, I was not entirely my enthusiastic self, but it was a fantastic memorable day nonetheless, one that I shall be mulling over for some time.  Thank you Leni for hosting, introducing me to mincemeat as well as everything and everyone else I got to know yesterday. What a treat of a day.

Biscuit theory.

I have long held the theory that if I just found the right biscuit recipe, I would be able to make flaky, delectable biscuits that my family would rave about.  Over the years, I have sworn by this recipe and then that one.  Among my cookbook collection, I have dozens upon dozens of biscuit recipes – my Southern Living Southern Heritage series alone has 95 recipes scattered throughout its eighteen volumes.  The “Bread” volume alone has an entire chapter on biscuits, with subsections on beaten biscuits (5 recipes, including Maryland and Kentucky style beaten biscuits), yeast biscuits, basic biscuits (17 recipes, including 3 with ‘buttermilk’ in the name), as well as biscuits suitable to be served with tea. Both the beaten biscuit as well as the basic biscuit section feature picture tutorials with step by step how-to instructions.
It’s not entirely about the recipe though, it’s about the ingredients and technique of putting those ingredients together.  While many of the recipes I have call for all-purpose flour, one could assume all flour is the same, when in fact, all purpose flour differs from  region to region.  Southern all purpose flour is made with soft red winter wheat, which has a lower protein and gluten content than what is available in other regions of the country.
I first learned this in conversations with my friend Mark down at city market this summer.  He often sets up a stand, handing out samples and recipes of dishes made with local produce.  We share similar interests in food and when he’s down there, I find myself engaged in conversations with him and other foodie types, discussing things like pickles and grits and curing your own meats and yes, flours.  Turns out that while I was reading Game of Thrones on my summer vacation, Mark was reading about biscuits.  Three books worth in fact.
As a baker, I knew the importance of different flours – high gluten flour for pizza crusts that resemble the ones your favorite local pizza place makes,  Cake flour for lightly textured cakes, pastry flour, whole wheat flour, rye flour, buckwheat flour and more, including just plain old bleached & unbleached all purpose flour, but even I did not know that flour was different from region to region, brand name to brand name.
Interestingly enough, my older (1946 & 1964) copies of The Joy of Cooking both call for cake flour in their biscuit recipes, saying that it will make for a lighter biscuit.  Nowhere else have I seen a peep about how the flour you use is a large factor in making your biscuits light and fluffy.
There are differing opinions on how much to handle the dough, whether to knead or not, some say to roll it out, others say to keep the rolling pin far away from the biscuits.  Beaten biscuits, which apparently are unbelievably light and fluffy are made by literally beating the biscuits for a good 20 minutes or until the dough starts to ‘blister’ and pop.
With it being soup season, that means it’s biscuit season too.  I made my first batch of biscuits the other night,  using a technique I picked up from Rachel’s pie class I assisted with this past summer.  She cuts her fat in in stages, handling the final crust as little as possible. This, combined with using a southern flour (which took visiting a few grocery stores, believe it or not, despite the fact that I live in Virginia, which is considered the home of the ham biscuit), resulted in what I think is hands down my best biscuit ever.
They were everything you want a biscuit to be – light and flaky, excellent with butter and some blackberry jam for breakfast the next morning too. I think I have finally figured out the secret to a good biscuit – it’s not necessarily the recipe, it’s the flour you use and how you put them together.  Really, so much to cooking is about the ingredients you use as well as techniques.
Here’s my next goal – to figure out how to make a biscuit using whole wheat flour that is just as flaky and light as a biscuit that’s made of nothing but white flour.  I know that whole grains are healthier for us and since a big part of my motivation in my food sourcing and cooking is so that my family eats healthy, nutritious food, I’m not comfortable with us eating home baked goods on a regular basis that only use white flour, especially the lighter versions with less nutrients.  I have a few ideas about how I want to go about developing my own flour mixes, namely I’m going to try mixing some cake flour with some whole wheat flours and seeing what those results are.  I’ve also gotten my hands on some lard, not from the grocery store, but from animals that have been raised humanely, not commercially.  I’ve read good things about cooking with lard and I want to see for myself how they work in my biscuits and pie crusts.

You are what you eat.  Which is why I spend so much time thinking about biscuits, clearly.

Chickpeas two ways, gardens and more.

It started with this recipe.  Mock tuna salad made with chickpeas?
Had to try it.  You should try it.  It’s good.  I was surprised at how much the flavor resembled tuna salad.  Texture not so much, but flavor, yes.  I made it the way I make my tuna, right down to chopped pickles.  In this case, pickled okra. So good.  You should try that in your next whatever salad you make.  I am definitely thinking of trying my lemon basil green bean pickles in my next batch.
Up next was something that caught my eye over at E.A.T. (Which incidently is fast becoming one of my favorite food blogs, I’ve gotten a few great ideas from there recently and since it’s a Richmond blog, that’s practically local!)  I digress…
Spicy Carrot Sandwich– That had my carrot loving girl’s name all over it. Only, as I was making the hummus to go with, I added too much liquid. Necessity being the mother of invention as they say, I had to get creative with the sandwich idea, as my hummus was just a little too thin to stay on a sandwich.
I borrowed a trick from the first chickpea recipe and made the spicy carrot sandwich in rice papers.  I added sprouts and romaine and we feasted.
They liked it.
And no one complained we had chickpeas for dinner two nights in one week. 
That’s pretty huge. 
Especially when you consider it was chickpeas in rice paper wrappers, twice.
I represented Edie’s school at a meeting of the city elementary schools with the schoolyard garden folks at Buford Middle School yesterday afternoon.  It seems all the elementary schools here in Charlottesville City are in different stages of starting up gardens.  There was a group of students from the University of Virginia who are involved in different aspects of some of these schoolyard gardens, including a group that is helping to develop curriculum that ties what the kids are doing outside into things like S.O.L.’s, Virginia’s standardized tests.  Some of them are headed to California this summer, to see Alice Water’s Edible Schoolyard and gleam some ideas from there. There is going to be a celebration/fundraiser for the city elementary gardens in May – I may have volunteered to help with that.  I also asked about a garden at Walker Upper Elementary.  With every elementary school now developing a garden as part of the curriculum, as well as Buford’s garden, there is a two year gap for the kids in 5th and 6th grade at Walker.  I was told there is a plan for that and so I may have offered to help with that as well, since I will be a parent there next year.  Yes, I may have a problem with volunteering for too many things, but this is something I believe in so much – teaching kids about food, how to grow it, to think about where it comes from….it’s so exciting to be a part of and make change happen.  This is one of the big ways I truly think we are going to change our food system.
Speaking of schools and food, you might want to check out this month’s Chew on This potluck. It’s my friend Ivana‘s latest initiative, to get us talking about food issues.  This month is a conversation on her recent visit to the DC Central Kitchen and is it possible to bring something like that here.  Sadly, Wednesdays are my jam-packed days with things like Girl Scouts and piano lessons and I won’t be able to make it. But you should go, definitely.
And on a completely unrelated note, Pat superglued my glasses yesterday, so they are a little more stable than just the duct tape fix.  I do love that man of mine.

In Season.

The other night while watching television, we saw a commercial for a local produce store.  After their whole pitch about how they are the best for fresh, local produce, and the tag line “If it’s in season in Virginia, we have it in stock”, they immediately announced a special on strawberries.

Edie actually beat me to the yelling at the television. 

“It’s January.  Where in Virginia are those strawberries from!?!?!”

And then yesterday, as we were heading out to meet the egg lady*, Edie told me how in school that day, her class watched a video that included footage of chicken houses. You know, the big ones, with no windows and the sign telling you that this family farm is a proud producer of chicken/eggs for (Insert name here of big food producer, like Tyson or Perdue). Apparently they are studying the southeast and that particular clip was part of showing how the chicken industry is important economically to the region.  Every time we’ve ever driven by one of those factory farms, her father has been sure to point out, in great detail how gross they are.  Because of his career in environmental non-profits, he is well versed in how factory farming is harmful to our environment, not to mention our health.   So to be shown this as a ‘good thing’, well, my child was slightly horrified. 

“Why would you show that to people and then want them to buy the chickens and the eggs they are trying to sell?  It’s gross Mom.”

Yes, my dear, it is.  But it’s good to show that, because maybe, just maybe, it will make people sit up and question where their food comes from.

I’m pretty sure my kid takes this for granted. She’s a not quite 10 year old foodie, and has been on a first name basis with more than a few pieces of meat that have come across her plate – heck, she’s even seen it being born.  She has been raised with me questioning where all our food comes from as long as she can remember.  I’ve been called obsessed about knowing where our food comes from.  We are what we eat, after all.  My husband says of all things to be obsessed about, this one has healthy implications for our family, and it’s a good thing.  Living here in Charlottesville, it’s not hard to find like minded folks.  Back in June, Forbes Magazine called us the locavore capital of the world.  I know that the whole ‘eat local’ movement is often dismissed as a yuppie thing and I get why.  It does take tend more, both time and money, to eat foods that aren’t factory farmed and processed.  This is where I tend to go off on huge rants about how the system needs to change.  And while there are a number of changes that can only happen at the top, we need a grassroots effort to make the top sit up and notice.  This grassroots movement needs to encompass all of us, no matter our economic status, education level or the color of our skin.  Everyone needs to sit up and realize that those chicken houses are beyond disgusting, that those strawberries on special in January are strawberries in name only, because they sure as hell don’t taste like the ones I pick out of my garden every spring and I shudder to think at the chemicals involved to make them look that big, firm and red this time of year, despite the number of miles they’ve traveled.  That all this cheap, processed food is actually costing us more in the long run than it’s saving us in the here and now.

I had coffee yesterday with my friend Ivana. She was a big driving force in the new wellness policy adopted at Charlottesville City Schools recently, and is working on some other really great ideas, among them, a new roaming monthly potluck, to be held on the 3rd Wednesday of every month.  Families are welcome and child care is provided for a nominal fee (a $3 donation).  If you can’t make it this month, but are interested in being on the mailing list, there’s a spot on the website for that.  I’m really looking forward to this gathering. 

I try not to rant on here too much about the state of our food, although I do talk about how much local food we eat, my garden and canning.  I’ve been told I should use this space to talk more about my passion for overhauling the food system in this country and perhaps I will.  It’s really not hard to learn how to change the way you eat.  I often hear from friends and family “You’d be proud of me” and they then proceed to tell me how they’ve made some small change in their diet as a result of listening to me babble about the state of our food.  Yes, I am proud of them and yes, I’m proud of myself, for getting them to think about where their food comes from.  This is how we are going to change the system – from the bottom, one small step at a time.

*The egg lady is a vendor from the Charlottesville City Market that I have been buying eggs from for some time.  She asked if I would like to continue getting eggs from her farm all winter and so now I meet up with her in parking lots to get my goods.  The first time I met up with her this fall, it was in an abandoned Martha Jefferson parking lot, cold, getting dark and really sort of sketchy.  I kept waiting for some undercover agent to bust us.  It had that sort of a feeling….