January 14, 2010

Golden Turnip Soup

I knew that joining a CSA over the summer/fall would expose me to a lot of seasonal produce that I wasn't used to cooking with. An unfortunate complication, however, was that if I didn't know how to prepare a suspicious veg and didn't have enough time to research it, well, into the compost bin the whole lot eventually went. Anybody know what to do with Daikon radish?

Hearty Roots was great about anticipating this predicament and included relevant recipes in their weekly newsletter. Their suggestions usually look great, but when they call for other unusual ingredients, I'm often out of luck. I've been looking all over for fennel seed to make slaw out of these funky critters - kohlrabi, aka German (alien!!!) turnips, who knew? - and in the meantime they've taken up permanent residence in my fridge. If not for Debbie Meyer green bags, they'd probably be a lost cause.

(They don't actually grow on sticks...I'm holding them up on chopsticks)

So, fan of simple recipes that I am, I was excited to see that the recipe for golden turnip soup (with blue cheese!) they sent out with my very last pick-up was really straightforward and that I had almost all of the ingredients on hand. What's a golden turnip, you ask? I'm not even sure what a regular turnip is, exactly, but it turns out that golden turnips are just a much prettier name for rutabagas. Which is a fact I'm glad I didn't discover until after I'd cooked and eaten them because just the name rutabaga makes me think it's something I should be hiding in my napkin and feeding to the dog when ma isn't looking. Have a look:

Not so bad, eh? Their taste is earthy and a little sweet, but not nearly as sweet as sweet potatoes, or as earthy as regular turnips. I was especially excited that the recipe is for pureed soup, because you can be sloppy with the prep work and mess with the quantities pretty easily. And I haven't tried it yet, but I do think this recipe is enough of a basic template that it could be adapted to any other winter vegetable: regular turnips, sweet potato, squash, etc.

Here's the recipe they sent, along with what I actually used. (Note: I actually made this soup in December, but many varieties of turnips are still available at farmer's markets around the city.)

-6 golden turnips (I just used the whole 2 lb. lot since wasn't about to find something else to to with the rest of it!)
-2-3 cloves of roughly chopped regular garlic (I used 6!)
-2 tablespoons olive oil
-2 tablespoons butter
-1 onion, sliced (or two, or three...)
-4 cups vegetable stock (used a whole box)
-1/2 cup minced fresh chervil (I've also never cooked with this and couldn't find it conveniently. I had some fresh dill from a past pick-up and dill is listed under "See Also" on chervil's Wikipedia page so....I just used that)

Roughly chop the turnips, toss with garlic cloves and olive oil and salt the whole lot, then roast for 45 minutes (or more) at 350F. Meantime, saute onions in butter for at least 30 minutes so they will caramelize. Then, put everything in the blender with the herbs. I had to do it in two batches - make sure to let the hot air escape so you don't end up with root vegetables on the ceiling!

Top with crumbled blue cheese, serve to cheese-and-soup loving husband, done! I think it would have been pretty good with some hot crusty bread, but alas, I had none on hand and if you've noticed how easy I like things to be, well, you know I wasn't about to run out and buy any!

January 5, 2010


Michael Pollan was on the Daily Show last night to promote his new book, Food Rules. I haven't read it (though I plan to...especially since it's cheap: $5.50!), but it sounds like a condensed version of his other work, focusing specifically on how to more easily incorporate healthy eating into your daily lifestyle.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Michael Pollan
Daily Show
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The interview's worth a watch, especially since Pollan and Jon Stewart also touch on Pollan's views on health care reform, questioning why we'd be inclined to resent the government if they discouraged us from drinking soda to benefit our health, when for some reason we don't resent our doctors here and now when they tell us (perhaps not in these exact words) that our lifelong food choices now mean we're going to have to be on Lipitor for the rest of our lives.

And the guy is certainly making the rounds; if you have a little more time, also check out Pollan's interview on WNYC's Lenoard Lopate Show today. It's about half an hour long, but he explains more thoroughly some of the book's specific "rules."

December 14, 2009

Pouring on the Gags?

I have to say, when I first saw this new commercial earlier today, I had just eaten breakfast and I came very close to spewing it back up again, so watch at your own risk:

It's a new ad by the New York City health department meant to discourage folks from drinking even one can of soda or other sugary drink a day, since research shows that just that small amount can amount to 10 pounds gained per year, largely contributing to the obesity epidemic. I'm down with the message, and never had any, ahem, "negative reaction" to the related subway poster ad campaign the department launched in September, but I'm not sure if this is a little much. But if it really curbs soda consumption, who knows?

Poor guy though, right? I wonder what was really in that cup...

December 4, 2009

Turkey Transformation

Thanksgiving was a success! The turkey got rave reviews, but I don't know how much of that really had to do with my cooking since it was a lot easier than I thought it would be. More likely it was the non-supermarket variety DiPaolo bird, of which I now have about four pounds of leftovers!

I am not a big fan of cold turkey sandwiches, so I wanted to transform the leftovers into a new dish altogether. Turkey chili came to mind, but I've always had a strange mental block when it comes to chili. Homemade versions seem so rooted in tradition - either the chili is from a family recipe or it's made in a particular regional style, and nothing else will do. Seeing as most of my exposure to chili has been via a Hormel can, I've always steered clear and left the cooking to the experts.

And yet...I still had to do something with my leftovers. I figured that since Shaun would be the only one subjected to my endeavor (and he'll eat pretty much anything) now would be a good time to test the chili waters (harharhar).

I decided not to use a recipe. I objected to something or other in every recipe I came across - I suppose strong opinions on chili are present even in a chili novice! Shaun's only stipulation was that there be jalapeno peppers, so I picked up a handful along with a few other ingredients that looked good. Here's what I came up with:

And you know what? It was amazing!! Worthy of an entry in my church's annual chili cookoff. Here's what I used, but if you plan to do something similar with your turkey leftovers, I'd suggest just seeing what you like to use/have on hand and winging it - it's pretty hard to screw up!

-About 3 cups of leftover turkey meat
-4 cans of kidney beans (although going forward I think I would use dried)
-2 cans of diced tomatoes
-1 jar of tomato sauce (in my case, Trader Joe's pizza sauce since it was an afterthought when I noticed the batch wasn't looking very stew-y)
-4 jalapeno peppers, diced
-2 onions, diced
-1 cup of red lentils (either pre-cooked or be lazy like me and add 2 cups of water to the mix as well)
-olive oil
-spices: minced garlic, salt, pepper, paprika, oregano, thyme

Sautee the jalapeno peppers in a drizzle of olive oil until they're slightly blackened. You can remove the seeds for less heat, but I left them in. You may want to keep a lid on the pot while they're cooking, or else you might have a coughing fit like me! Add the onions and a little more oil and sautee until translucent. (If you're worried about how spicy it will be, you can remove the jalapenos before sauteing the onions and add them into the finished batch a little at a time.) Add minced garlic, if using, and sautee a little more.
Then...add everything else! Mix mix mix, season season season, done. The seasoning is the only tricky part, but I just made sure not to add too much of any one thing at a time and it worked out fine. Many thanks to my slow cooker for doing most of the work - I still haven't figured out what exactly it is about heating something for an extended period of time that makes it taste better, but it definitely does! I cooked it on the low setting for about four hours, but I think you could do it in a pot on the stove for just an hour or however long you felt like.

It was also CHEAP! The non-turkey ingredients cost around $14 (some were even organic), and we got at least six individual meals out of it. Using dried beans would probably make it even cheaper. And it actually only used up about half the turkey we had leftover...I'm thinking about trying something else (a white chili version, perhaps?) but I kind of just want another batch of this!

November 25, 2009

Homegrown Turkey Day

With all my talk about beef, I almost forgot that Turkey Day is nearly here! I'm hosting dinner for the first time ever this year and I'm incredibly excited about the opportunity to cook and entertain with the best seasonal meat and produce I can get my hands on in NYC.

I was initially stumped when it came to what sort of bird to cook. I knew I didn't want anything along the lines of a Butterball - I've read way too much about how they're raised and processed for that to be appealing (don't read Peter Singer's The Way We Eat if you don't want to know!) I found several farms on Long Island that raise heritage birds in small batches, but with all the other preparations on my T-day list, spending a whole day to go out to the farm didn't seem worth the trek. Plenty of online retailers were willing to overnight me a frozen organic bird for upwards of $100, but that seemed counter productive (raise the bird organically just to fly it across the country?) and way out of my budget anyhow.

Before I resigned myself to Whole Foods' or Trader Joe's best option, I posed the question to The Kitchn, one of my favorite food blogs. Multiple commenters suggested DiPaolo Turkey Farm, which sells turkey products year round at many of the city's farmers' markets. I was surprised I'd never noticed them before, but then again I've never been in the market for turkey! I was delighted to discover their birds have the whole package: free range, certified organic and locally produced on a family farm in New Jersey. But the best part of all - they're just $3 a pound and conveniently delivered to Union Square!! I picked mine up around 8 am this morning with enough time left to hop back on the train and drop it off before work.

I also purchased the optional end-of-season Thanksgiving share my CSA with Hearty Roots was offering, which provided me with more cabbage, turnips and celery root than I know what to do with (or have room for considering I also have a 13.5 lb. turkey to store!) But sadly, most of the Thanksgiving staples I was looking forward to - namely potatoes and onions - were nearly gone by the time Shaun and I got to the pick up point! Note to self that good veggies and avoiding a supplemental trip to the farmers' market are worth getting up early for next time around.

Checking out the Tompkins Square farmers' market on Sunday morning (a great option on Sundays considering Union Square is closed) to pick up the rest of my veggie lot did however give me a chance to pick up these lovely kabocha squashes for my first-ever pie:

Kabocha squash pie, you say?? Now before anyone goes Pumpkin Nazi on me, hear me out. I really didn't want to use canned pumpkin - nothing much against it, I was just really excited about all the fresh winter squashes I'd seen at the markets. But I've never cooked pumpkin before, and when one of these kabochas showed up in my CSA share over the summer, I found it surprisingly sweet and got really excited to cook with it again. It's really similar to pumpkin, plus my sister-in-law is making pumpkin cheesecake, so I thought the squash would be good for variety.

Speaking of canned goods, though, I'd never thought about how much processed food makes onto the average T-day table until I started planning one myself. Canned cranberry sauce, most white bread and rolls, and canned pie filling all contain high fructose corn syrup. Don't even get me started on canned cream of mushroom soup for green bean casserole! Now I'm not saying that I'm going completely Suzy-Homemaker-make-everything-from-scratch crazy, (I'm using frozen pie crusts!) but I did manage to find managed to find HFCS-free white bread (NOT an easy feat!) for my mom's stuffing recipe. It's not a fluffy as Wonder Bread, but I'm making it stale on purpose so how much could that matter?

Of course that's not to say I was able talk Shaun out of buying this HFCS-laden beast:

None of my arguments against it can really compete with nostalgia, so we're just going to have to have a cranberry sauce off: Ocean Spray versus my stove top version. Though for some reason, I don't feel like the odds are in my favor!

November 19, 2009

The Beef Has Arrived!

Le boeuf est arrivĂ©! Okay, so right now you’re probably thinking that I’m as crazy as I initially thought people who cow-pool (real term) were when I first read about the concept in Time. “What a funny thing for people who live in the suburbs and have the chest freezer space for such things to do!” I thought. But after mentioning the article to a handful of friends hailing from states far more involved in cattle raising than my own native land (you don’t see a lot cows in the D.C. 'burbs) I realized it wasn’t that unusual at all.

So once I heard via my CSA that Awesome Farm was working with a neighboring cattle producer upstate to make split quarters of grass-fed cattle available for $4/lb (Whole Foods and the sellers at the Union Square Greenmarket regularly charge $16/lb or more), I hardly had to spread the word before I found five other beef-hungry urbanites who were interested in splitting a quarter with me.

Maggie and I examine the goods.

Even though we placed our order in September, it didn’t arrive until just yesterday. The thing about ordering a quarter steer is that the farm can’t exactly deliver it to you until three other customers have ordered the rest of it. Owen from Awesome Farm contacted me a few weeks ago after all four quarters were sold to set up the pickup time and inquire about butchering preferences. Since I don’t know a darn tooting thing about cow butchering, and since it’s hard to execute custom butchering instructions for four different customers of the same cow, we went with the farm’s recommended cuts.

The whole frozen lot, on my living room floor!

We ended up with 150 lbs all together, which meant about 25 lbs per person. There was a chance that the lot would be bigger, up to 175 lbs, since they don’t know how much the steer will weigh until they butcher it. Everything was delivered to The Brooklyn Kitchen’s brand-new (and rather awesome) location, which is conveniently just a few blocks from our place.

Once we picked it up, the matter at hand was getting the six of us in one place and figuring out the best way to divide everything evenly (and civilly!) Some parts divided surprisingly well: we had exactly 42 one-pound packages of ground beef and/or stew meat, and 12 total chuck and skirt steaks. The various roasts and nicer steaks like porterhouse and T-bone were a little trickier because we had only one or two each of about ten different cuts, but we managed to make sure everyone got something good and it all seemed relatively fair.

Each cut was labeled and wrapped in butcher paper.

Personally, I really like the concept of getting all my beef from just one cow for an entire season. Aside from it being reminiscent of ye olde family farm, it’s awfully convenient to have it all on hand. I hadn’t been buying much grocery store beef anyway, but when I did I was usually worried about getting it home and into the fridge in a timely manner. Not to mention the fact that ground beef from multiple cows (as many as 443 in one package (!!!) according to Marion Nestle’s "Safe Food") incites a major, major ick factor for me.

Freezer space to spare! The only thing I cleared out was our ice cream maker bowl, which we won't be using in the winter anyways.

I haven't cooked any of it yet, but when I do I'll likely do another post - Awesome Farm helpfully included some information on how cooking with grass-fed beef differs from cooking with conventional due to the lower fat content. Now if I could just decide which cut to make first!

November 17, 2009

Corn-Fed Beef Is Bad, Mkay?

The cow is coming tonight! I plan to write another post on the logistics of picking up, splitting and storing one quarter of a 500 pound frozen animal later this week, but for now I want to get into the question everyone asks me whenever I mention that I'm buying a cow: what’s the big deal with grass-fed beef, anyways?

Cows are ruminants, which means that they can eat grass for the same reason people can’t: their stomachs are set up with the mechanics to digest it. However, 99% of cows sold as beef in the U.S. only consume grass for the first few months of their lives. Most are then sent to a confined animal feeding operation (CAFO), where they are fed a mixture of corn, soy and growth hormones to fatten them quickly and cheaply for slaughter.

Grass, to a cow, is like spinach to a human: it’s low in carbohydrates and high in fiber and other nutrients. Corn, delicious on the cob as it may be to us, is very high in sugar and is technically a grain, which ruminants aren’t meant to eat. Excessive grain consumption causes major health problems for the cow; it’s like what a person’s body might look like if he ate nothing but soda and candy bars – pretty darn sickly.

So because of what they eat, the beef from these cows actually has a very different nutritional composition from what nature would dictate. It’s higher in saturated fat and omega-6 fatty acids and much lower in beneficial omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants than meat from a grass-fed cow. We’ve all heard that “red meat is bad,” but I have to wonder if it really is red meat itself, or just the way we’ve been producing it for decades that’s makes it so bad for us to consume.

Contamination is another major concern. The cattle’s poor health and confined quarters create a prime environment for the spread of bacteria and diseases. To combat this problem, they're often fed antibiotics. This works to a degree, but it can also promote antibiotic-resistant bacterial strains, which are all the more deadly if and when they make it to the human population. And since the cows are all slaughtered and processed together, if one cow is contaminated, the whole lot is at risk. Just earlier this month, more than 270 tons (tons!) of beef were recalled due to E. coli O157:H7 contamination. The beef was distributed to stores all over the Northeast, including Trader Joe’s, which was one of the few places I still trusted to buy meat.

Not so delish. Photo via Flickr

On top of all that, many argue that the environmental cost of conventional beef production is higher: the corn is harvested using fossil fuels, then processed and trucked to the cattle, who are themselves trucked all over the place, from their birth farm to the CAFO to the slaughterhouse to your grocery store. Graze the cows on the same land used to grow the corn and sell directly to a local consumer and you can cut out quite a few fuel-consuming steps. This argument has a couple of holes though, which I hope to explore later since this post is long enough as it is.

For now, the health and safety benefits are enough to sway me, and the fact that the whole cow is $4/lb, regardless of the cut, is a pretty good deal as well. Stay tuned for the beef pickup post – I promise that one will have more pictures!

Further reading: Time magazine's article "The Grass-Fed Revolution"

November 9, 2009

DIY Vanilla Extract to the Rescue!

Ok, I know this post is long overdue (especially since Patrick took these lovely pictures in August!) It's been a busy fall, honest! But I have a lot of new post ideas and I wanted to get this one up asap because this recipe is really affordable and makes for very cool holiday gifts, but it takes a few weeks to develop so if you want to do it, I suggest getting started soon!

Did you know I have a super power? I have the UNCANNY ABILITY to remember the prices of various grocery store items from store to store. And because with this great power comes the great responsibility of imparting my knowledge onto you, I must issue a warning:

Don't buy McCormick vanilla extract!

For one, it has corn syrup in it. For two, it's overpriced. At Key Foods in Brooklyn, it's $6.99 for 2 oz., and it's the only kind of vanilla they sell. At a Food Emporium in Manhattan, I saw 2 oz. for $8.99 (?!!) But at both Sunac natural market in my 'hood (which is overpriced on pretty much everything else) and at Whole Foods, organic vanilla extract is $6.49.

I know, I know. I just saved you at least $0.50. You can repay me with hoards of organic cupcakes later. But wait, there's more!

I think $6.49 is still pretty pricey for 2 oz. of vanilla. So does Carolyn's aunt, who sent her a recipe for a DIY version that she passed on to me. And it's really simple: Put vanilla beans into vodka!

Now, I know you have vodka (any old kind will do.) The issue is getting some vanilla beans. Sunac and Whole Foods sell them in two packs for $10-12. Two won't make much extract though, and you can get much better deals online. For $12, I got 20 (20!!) long-length Tahitian beans from The Organic Vanilla Bean Company on Ebay, plus free shipping.

I was sold on their picturesque straight-from-the-farm image, but there are a lot of other options for buying in bulk online. A few others that I found were Vanilla, Saffron Imports and Boston Vanilla Beans.

I split three beans down the middle to expose the seeds and put them in this 5 oz. bottle that formerly housed Trader Joe's toasted sesame oil (well-cleaned of course! The bottle in the first picture is a slightly larger former salad dressing bottle.) Then you just fill it with vodka, or even bourbon or rum if you want to give it a more distinct flavor. It should take at least 4 weeks for the extract to develop, and it gets better and stronger the longer you leave the beans in. Just give the bottle a shake every few days to keep things moving along!

If you use the seeds of a vanilla bean for cooking (which I may have to do, considering I have plenty more), you can throw the rest of the bean into your extract stash, and if the beans start looking really mushy, you can replace them with new ones or just take them out altogether. And every time you use some of the extract, you can top the bottle off with a little more liquor to soak up more of the bean-y goodness.

So, some quick math. If I took a 1.5 liter bottle (about 50 oz) of vodka for $30, plus $12 in beans, and put 4 beans into each of five 10 oz. bottles, that's 50 oz. of extract for $42, or $0.84 an oz. That's about the same price as cheap-o imitation vanilla extract (which is made from byproducts of either wood or coal manufacturing - eek!) And for as long as this post is, actually putting the extract together is faster than, I dunno, a speeding bullet? So you have no excuses.

As far as buying locally goes, to me the beans fall into the same category as coffee, in that it's a small item that can't be produced locally, and supporting organic agriculture overseas is a happy little pat on the back to the planet. More on that when I get to the "responsibly" post...coming soon!

September 11, 2009

Pollan Op-Ed

There was a spot on op-ed about our food system's role in health care reform by Michael Pollan (writer of The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food) in the Times yesterday. I was going to put it in the general updates post but I think it deserves it's own. Not much to add since he says it quite well!

Highlight: "To put it more bluntly, the government is putting itself in the uncomfortable position of subsidizing both the costs of treating Type 2 diabetes and the consumption of high-fructose corn syrup."

Also, check out the NYC health department's recent campaign to get New Yorkers to cut down on soft drinks. You might have seen the subway ads already, here's some info behind them.

For my part, I've been mixing up some TJ's organic mango lemonade with half a cup of seltzer for Shaun recently whenever he has a Mountain Dew craving. It's not half bad...I can't blame him for reaching for the vodka instead of seltzer sometimes, though...but hey, vodka is sugar free too! :-)