February 28, 2008

Verdant and Victorious

My maternal grandparents grew up in a rural community in northeastern Mississippi.  My grandmother, along with her nine siblings, composed the labor force on their parents' small farm.  As a child, I loved hearing her stories about picking cotton, swimming in the cow pond, and swiping eggs from the henhouse to exchange for a Baby Ruth at the general store (run by her grandfather).  Her after-school snack, she told me many times, was a turnip or onion pulled from the garden on her way in the door.

While my choice of snack was different (butter-and-sugar sandwich, anyone?), the meals I ate at Maw-Maw's house included the foods that she'd prepared her whole life: butter beans, grown on Paw-Paw's farm in Liberty, Mississippi, and canned in their kitchen; boiled red potatoes with white sauce; ripe tomatoes from the garden; turnip greens, which my mom liked to eat with pepper vinegar; and a cast iron skillet of cornbread, which never contained wheat flour or sugar.  Paw-Paw enjoyed leftover cornbread with milk for his breakfast, while I chose Maw-Maw's biscuits with homemade peach and huckleberry preserves.  

A theme of Maw-Maw's stories was growing up poor during the Great Depression.  However, her family's hard work on their farm meant that they never went hungry like so many others did.  Growing food was something that she had always done, and was common in rural communities at that time.  During WWII, the Victory Garden movement expanded small-scale food production to urban areas, as well, in support of the war effort.

If its popularity on the blogsphere is any indication, the Victory Garden concept is experiencing a renaissance.  Its relevance extends beyond our status as a nation at war: we are also a nation facing rising food costs, unease over food security, and backlash against industrial agriculture.  Backyard gardening offers a hobby that helps us feed ourselves.  

As a garden neophyte living in Zone 5, I'm relieved to find a plentiful supply of garden blogs and even support networks online.  I've signed up for the Growing Challenge, organized by Melinda at Elements in Time.  Participants commit to growing one more fruit or vegetable crop than they did last year, and to publishing weekly posts about their gardening activity.  I'm also joining the Victory Garden Drive led by Pattie at Foodshed Planet, whose goal is to inspire two million new organic gardens this year.  Pattie also encourages experienced gardeners to mentor those of us whose thumb color is yet undetermined.  To find a companion gardener, or to "Take Five" new gardeners under your wing, check this post.

In addition to my gardening posts, I'll also provide a blogroll of gardening resources that I come across.  Reader contributions are also welcome, particularly if you garden in Zone 5!

February 18, 2008

Discovering the Dirty Truth

The Dirty Truth features 40 taps and a satisfying menu.

Lately, I've been disappointed in Old Man Winter's offerings to our corner of New England: rain, sleet, and temperatures in the 40's.  I've been eager to log some hours on my new snowboard, but the weather has not been favorable for that activity.  However, it turns out that conditions are just right for relaxing on a bar stool at a cozy establishment, with an entertaining companion and an intriguing beverage close at hand.

My wonderful husband being the perfect date, I looked to The Dirty Truth to supply the rest.  I had heard raves about the beer hall from friends, and finally figured out that I've unknowingly passed it a dozen times.  The storefront on Main Street in Northampton, MA, is understated; that is, it displays no sign, only a folding chalkboard on the sidewalk listing menu specials.  However, the interior is bold, with deep red walls, an oversized, metalwork clock, and a row of forty (40) taps. 

From the wall-mounted chalkboard, we chose our first beers: Maudite and Trois Pistoles, both Belgian-style brews from Unibroue in Quebec.  I love the richness and complexity of their beers, and this was the first time I'd tasted them from a keg.  You can find Unibroue bottles in four-packs at better beer retailers.

We then turned our attention to the printed menu, which included the list of bottled beer, wines by the glass, and menu items.  There was some controversy over who would order the Cuban pork sandwich; I graciously allowed Charles that privilege, reserving the right to share.  I chose the chicken pot pie, and we called out a request for onion rings at the last minute.

A small mountain of onion rings was delivered shortly: hot, crispy, sweet, fantastic!  The beer batter and sweetness of the onions were irresistible, perfectly complemented by the mellow heat of Cajun mayonnaise (I don't know what exactly was in it, I was too busy enjoying it to analyze).

The best was yet to come, in the form of a soft bun densely layered with succulent, flavorful shaved ham, moist pork roast, and melted gruyere.  My first bite of (Charles's) sandwich surprised me with a kick of horseradish and a kiss of sweet pickle.  Normally, I'm not a fan of either, but this combination was heavenly.  The thin, sweet potato frites occupying the other half of the plate provided a simple, satisfying counterpoint to the unrestrained flavors of the sandwich.

What? Oh right, the chicken pot pie.  It was satisfactory.  Nicely browned puff pastry crown, full of tender white meat, peas, and onions... and copious amounts of thyme.  It was a good dish for the season, but is not the same caliber as its menu mates.  Next visit, I'll try the Dirty Reuben or the catfish sandwich, which I hear are excellent.

We chose a liquid dessert: a Czech lager for Charles, who was itching to grip a stein, and a half-pint of Brooklyn Brewery Black Chocolate Stout.  Remember when Violet Beauregard experienced a multi-course meal by chewing Mr. Wonka's gum in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?  Well, I felt like I was eating a slice of chocolate torte and washing it down with an espresso by drinking that stout.  It was so rich, deep, and complex, I wondered who could drink a full pint!  

If you are near Northampton and like beer, scan the Main Street sidewalk for a lonely chalkboard, and stride boldly into The Dirty Truth.  The barkeep will point you toward something lovely, and you may yet find yourself feeling friendly toward Old Man Winter.

February 10, 2008

Solar Bars

So, it turns out that blogging begets blog-reading.  I was recently reading a wildly popular food blog, 101 Cookbooks, perusing the recipes and enjoying the photography of Heidi Swanson.  Her recipe for Big Sur Power Bars caught my eye because I have recently given up a favorite snack, Luna bars, due to an oat allergy.  The beauty of home cooking is the freedom to experiment, so I decided to give homemade power bars a try.

It was necessary to buy a few items that had never before seen the inside of my pantry: brown rice syrup, crisped brown rice, and some kind of flaked grain.  Following Ginger's suggestion, I looked for quinoa flakes, but couldn't find them and settled for wheat flakes instead.  I used the Omega Trek Mix blend from Trader Joe's (disclosure: I work for TJ's) with some raisins to supply the nut-and-dried-fruit component of the bars.  

The finished power bars resembled my favorite Luna bar flavor, and were declared delicious by the tasting panel.  I love this recipe because it's adaptable, and it shows you how easy those stylish bars are to replicate.  I would have been too initimidated to try making them on my own.  The recipe below differs a little from the original recipe, and I'm going to keep tweaking to create a firmer bar. 

Solar Bars 
adapted from Heidi Swanson's Big Sur Power Bars (with video)

2 c total dried fruit and nuts (I used Trader Joe's Omega Trek Mix)
2/3 c unsweetened, shredded coconut
11/2 c flaked quinoa or wheat (rolled grain, not cereal flakes)
13/4 c crisped brown rice (or Rice Krispies cereal)
1/4 c wheat bran
c brown rice syrup
1/4 c turbinado or sugar
1 t vanilla extract
1/2 t sea salt (optional)

  1. Place a sheet of wax paper or parchment paper over the bottom and sides of an 8X8" pan.
  2. Preheat oven to 350 F.  Toast nuts and coconut on a baking sheet for seven minutes, stirring twice.  Do not toast dried fruit.
  3. Mix the dry grains in a large bowl.  Add nuts, dried fruit, and coconut
  4. Heat rice syrup, sugar, vanilla, and salt in a small saucepan over medium heat.  Stir as it comes to a boil and thickens, about four minutes.  Pour over dry mixture and stir until evenly coated
  5. Press into lined 8X8" pan to create an even layer.  Allow to cool to room temperature and use the paper to gently lift or turn mixture onto a flat surface.  Cut into bars and enjoy!
Makes 16 bars.

I loved the Omega combination of dried cranberries, pepitas, pecans, almonds, and walnuts.  I didn't toast it because of the fruit, and I left the nuts whole for a chunky bar.  The next flavor I'm excited to make includes TJ's new nut mix with rosemary and thyme; I plan to add lemon zest to the syrup during heating.  A blend of candied ginger, cashews, and apricot is also on the list.  

I hope you have fun with this great technique!

Update, Feb. 13:  I wrapped the bars individually in wax paper, which can be rinsed and reused, and am keeping them in the freezer.  I grab one before heading out to work, eat it during the morning, and pass by the Luna bar display with nary a glance.  Hooray!

February 8, 2008

Everybody's Got a Water Buffalo...

UPDATE:  The company producing this product has been sold and is now known as Vermont Water Buffalo Inc.  Use of the name, "Spoondance Creamery," is suspended, and product availability is limited.  Read the full story here.

Since our last topic of discussion was traditional Cheddar, I thought we might focus on something exotic today.  To set the tone, please visit my friend, Larry, for a bit of song and dance (warning: check your computer's volume if you're reading this in your cubicle).

And now, I present to you: yogurt made from water buffalo's milk!  This yogurt is so thick and creamy, you can turn the cup upside-down without any ending up on the carpet.  It's perfectly smooth, not a bit grainy on the tongue.  When I peeled back the foil wrapper to reveal the strawberry yogurt, there was no puddle of whey on top, just a uniform, dense texture that stayed obediently on my spoon.  The natural, berry flavor was just sweet enough to complement the yogurt's tanginess without overpowering it.  I ate this yogurt more slowly than usual, savoring the fresh balance of flavors and the creaminess.  It was so satisfying that one six-ounce cup provided two servings for me.

This unique product is made by Woodstock Water Buffalo Company in Vermont.   Spoondance Creamery is the new line of lowfat yogurt, joining the full-fat yogurts and mozzarella that bear the WWB label.  The website for Spoondance Creamery isn't running at the time of this post, but you can visit WWB's site to learn about the company.  One of their objectives is to support the expansion of water buffalo husbandry in the US.  It seems that water buffalo are highly adaptable to various climates, and they can thrive on less nutrient-dense food than cattle.  A good article about WWB can be found here, a newspaper article that was published sometime in 2007 (no dateline?).

I found their products at my local Whole Foods Market.  The other flavors I recall seeing are raspberry, blueberry, and plain.  I'm planning to buy the plain flavor to replace Greek-style yogurt because I prefer the smoothness and clean flavor of the buffalo milk.  Yum!

February 10 Update: Vanilla flavor is also offered by Spoondance Creamery.  I bought several containers of plain flavor, as well as one of blueberry.  Tried the blueberry this morning, and can report that it's tart.  I mean, biting into purple Sweettarts tart, leaving that faint tingling sensation on your tongue.  Wonderful Husband Charles didn't appear to enjoy it, judging by his expression.  It turns out that Spoondance flavored yogurts contain about two-thirds of the sugar content of the flavored yogurt I usually buy.  I like the tartness, but I think that the strawberry is more approachable than the blueberry flavor.

Feb. 12:  The plain yogurt is mild, but has a sour aftertaste like sour cream.  It was perfectly suited to eating with honey, and also great with blueberry jam stirred in.  I'm really tickled replace imported Fage Greek yogurt with this high-quality product from Vermont!

February 4, 2008

Mummy Dearest

You like Cheddar, right?  Sure, everybody likes Cheddar!  Whether it's cut from a shrink-wrapped block, peeled out of a wax sheath, or sliced from a bandage-wrapped truckle... wait a minute.  What's that dirty rag doing on my cheese?

Fear not, my friend, the traditional trappings of Cheddar.  Unlike wax or plastic, a layer of bandage around the rind allows the cheese to breathe and to lose moisture as it ages.  Matured for at least ten months, bandage-wrapped Cheddar gains a crumbly texture and develops an astonishing range of flavors.  

Of course, what's inside counts, as well.  Traditional Cheddar is made with unpasteurized milk and animal-derived rennet.  It perfectly demonstrates why raw milk cheese has a dedicated following: the subtle characteristics of the milk are amplified in the finished cheese.  Take the English farmhouse classics, Keen's and Montgomery's Cheddars.  Though they are created by the same process,* Keen's exhibits a vegetal, horseradish-like bite and gingery spiciness, while Montgomery's has a mellow meatiness and suggestion of sweetness.  Don't be alarmed to by a faintly musty scent or a few streaks of blue-green mold near the surface-- they are only evidence of a proper upbringing.

American examples, too, elicit a greater vocabulary than "mild" and "sharp."  Hailing from California, Fiscalini Farmstead's Bandage Wrapped Cheddar is redolent of butter and nuts.  The award-winning Cabot Clothbound Cheddar fills your mouth with sweet richness, and lingers just a moment too short-- must have another taste!  And though I haven't had the pleasure of trying it myself, I hear that Bleu Mont Dairy offers a full-flavored, bandage-wrapped specimen in Wisconsin.

Before we part ways in search of fine Cheddar, let me share some happy news: Grafton Village Cheese, a venerable producer of Vermont Cheddar, has its own cloth-wrapped version waiting patiently in the aging cellars of Jasper Hill Farm.  I have a feeling that the Cave-Aged Cheddar will reveal the distinct richness of Jersey milk, which Grafton uses in all of its Cheddars.

Do you know of other bandage-wrapped Cheddars produced in the US?  Post a comment to share your experiences!

*Click through the cheddar-making process (no bandage-wrapping)-- Grafton Village Cheese
Beautiful photos of making and aging famous English Cheddars-- Neal's Yard Dairy
Account of a visit to some of England's great cheese producers-- Artisanal Cheese Journal