Sunday, May 30, 2010

Food For Thought: To Everything, Turn, Turn, Turn

What's in season? 

Such a simple question has become so complicated.  In our 24x7 world, where everything is available anytime, is there even such thing as 'in season' any more?  It begs questions about my questions. 

Try the following quiz.  Answer each on a scale of 1 - 10, 1 being absolutely not and 10 being absolutely yes. Depending on what your answers are to these questions, it seems like you can make better choices, and live with them.  , "When you say in season, do you mean...":

A)   ...produce grown outdoors?  
My response:
7.  I like my food food grown outdoors but recogize that sometimes a hothouse is necessary.  A lab, not so much tolerance from me.  
B)   ...produce grown in soil?  If not, can you tolerate hydroponics or other means of production?
My response:
8.  I am hesitant about hydroponics and other unconventional farming methods. This is mostly due to my own lack of knowledge relating to the techniques, and further lack of time to research them properly.

C)   ...produce grown nearby? How do you define it? How do you know?
My response:
7. I prefer my food grown nearby, but recognize that I cannot always get what I want or need, and as a busy mom must occassionaly give in to my own constraints and limitations.  So my rule is, look for local first, and after that anything from the US or Canada goes. 
PS:  This tool from Epicurious is pretty helpful guide to question C; it provides a nice geographical overview of what is gowing, and when.  I recommend it as a simple way of keeping up with the farms.   

D)   ...produce grown without the aid of airplanes, ships, pesticides, sprays, other petroleum products? If not, are you limited by what you can eat?
My response:
7. See C.  I recognize that some of what my family eats comes from a long distance.  I accept that as a means to and end, that being eating fresh food.  I would be more than willing to pay extra for this indulgence.  As for sprays, etc I try to avoid anything that has been through this process, but sometimes do not have enough knowledge to make that call.  I always wash my fruits and vegetables in a special rinse, and take time to make sure they are clean before using them.

E)    ...produce that was picked within the last 5 - 7 days prior to sale? If not, how long can it sit in storage or on a shelf before you call it quits?

My response:

7. Yeah, OK it is important that it was picked recently.  But for things like apples which are naturally shelf stable, I am more lenient.  

Sadly, even after all this soul searching and self-awareness it is nearly impossible to cross-reference this knowledge with the actual choices I make at the market.  For most produce today, there are no answers to these questions.  The information is simply unavailable. And so that brings me to my final point, which is that more often than not, when inquiring about seasonality, we need a better epistological model.  You can know yourself and your limits.  But if the subject (fruits and vegetables) are unknowable, then we are presented with quite a philosophical conundrum.  If I feel strong tendancies toward absolutely yes for any or all of these questions, the only way to confirm, to know that I am adhereing to my own rules is to pick it from the farm myself.  And folks, that is not a practial way to live, at least for most of us in contemporary western society.  So compromises need to be made, controls instilled, and a healthy dose of faith applied.  Without it, we are not only without a sense of season, but an inability to reason. 

Friday, May 28, 2010

On The List: Zatar

Zatar is a mixture of sesame, sumac, hyssop, and other spices, finely ground together into a tapestry of taste and texture.  It imparts a warm, lemony, and earthy taste, unlike anything else I have ever sampled, and works well on roasted vegetables, baked pita bread, and all manners of meat.  Zatar is a great solution to the mid-week cooking blah's, where it adds tang and surprise to the "are we having that again" peanut gallery.  It also doubles nicely for holiday meals, given that so much of the sum of its parts have historic and religious import.  For example:
    Sesame: A wonderful seed that has been around since biblical days, although not mentioned explicitly in the Hebrew or Christian bibles.  It is repeatedly referenced in the Koran, especially as sesame oil.  It is also used as part of the mourning ritual:
    "Malik said, 'A woman whose husband has died should anoint her eyes with olive oil and sesame oil and the like of that since there is no perfume in it.' " Hadith - Muwatta 29.107
    Sumac: A powder made from the purple leaves of the Mid Eastern sumac tree, one much like the one in the Terebinth of Morah, which landmarked where Abraham traveled in Genesis.  
    Hyssop: There seems to be a lot of debate over which plant the bible actually was referencing as hyssop; the more common theories seem to place their bets on Syrian Oregano or marjoram. It is often referenced with purification and cleansing.  In Pslams 51:7, after King David has gone to Bathsheba, he asks for compassion. 
    "Be gracious unto me, O God, according to Thy mercy; according to the multitude of Thy compassions blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.For I know my transgressions; and my sin is ever before me. Against Thee, Thee only, have I sinned, and done that which is evil in Thy sight; that Thou mayest be justified when Thou speakest, and be in the right when Thou judgest.Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me. Behold, Thou desirest truth in the inward parts; make me, therefore, to know wisdom in mine inmost heart. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow."
I order mine online; you can find it at nuts online (my favorite for bulk dry goods) or amazon.  You can also purchase it in most Middle Eastern grocery stores; either way, just don't give up the search easily.  This spice mix has more aliases than a terrorist watch list, and is also known as zaatar, zatr, zahatar, or satar. Once you have it, it keeps well in a dark canister for about a year.  

Below is my Friday night standard Shabbat dinner; I find the zatar gives the chicken and potatoes a nice zing and terrific color, and hope you enjoy it as much as my family does.  

Zatar Chicken a la Noonie

1 4 - 5 lb chicken, washed, patted dry, and cut into 8 pieces
1/4 cup + 2 tbsp olive oil
Kosher salt and pepper
1 oz zatar
2 lemons, zested and juiced
1 lb of fingerling potatoes, cleaned and scrubbed

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Sprinkle olive oil on chicken.  Massage kosher salt and black pepper into the chicken. 
  3. Sprinkle chicken with zatar and massage gently into the meat.  Place in roasting pan.
  4. Sprinkle lemon zest, less 1 tsp, on top of chicken pieces, and then add the lemon juice.
  5. Roast the chicken for 1 hour.  While cooking, prepare the potatoes.  In a bowl, combine potatoes, olive oil, and 1 tbsp kosher salt.  Massage thoroughly.  Add remaining 1 tsp of lemon zest to the mix.  Set aside.
  6. After the chicken has cooked for 30 minutes, add the potatoes to the roasting pan. Continue to cook for the remaining 30 minutes.  
  7. At the end, turn on the broiler for an an additional 5 minutes.  Remove pan from oven, allow chicken to rest for 10 - 20 minutes under foil.  Serve warm. 
Note:  You can also throw in green beans for the last 10 minutes of cooking.  They work well with zatar, and the chicken fat and olive oil will cook them beautifully. 

Photo courtesy of Ken Chen

Friday, May 14, 2010

DIY: Pissaldiere

Olives and anchovies and onions, oh my.  While Pissaldiere is to not for the shy nor that first date, it is a wonderful rustic pizza that imparts terrific flavor and texture, very much like it's distant cousin, french onion soup. 

I adapted it from Joanne Harris' terrific cookbook, My French Kitchen, a terrific and underrated tome full of some of the most beautiful food photography in print.  Whenever I read it, I feel like I vicariously vacationing in France. I often give this book as a housewarming or birthday present, as the recipes are as good as the the  vibe.

A couple of words on working with this recipe:
Use the best olive oil you can find.  The anchovies, olives, onions, and dough are all enhanced by the fruity effect of the oil, and substitutions will diminish the final dish.  I was lucky enough to have a friend who has a relative who has a friend in Italy, and they go there once a year to harvest and press the olives.  Nice work if you can get it.  Anyway, they allowed me to purchase some very tasty oil which I purposed for this recipe, and it worked beautifully.  If you do not have such a friend or bottle on hand, most Spanish or Italian imports will be fine, and are readily found in your grocery store.  Extra virgin is fine, although a less refined press might work well with the strong flavors in this recipe.

You are baking a simple yeast bread for this recipe.  Get out your french pin, as anything with handles is tough to manage.  Basic white flour is all that is required here - this is a peasant dish. Note: If you are pressed for time, feel free to buy store bought pizza dough, which I suspect will work just fine in a recipe like this. 

The onions need to be sliced thin - 1/8 of an inch, tops.  As in get out your mandoline if you have one.  You can try a food processor, but if you do, push the food through rapidly, to ensure a thinner cut.  

Thyme is the unsung hero in this recipe.  If you can find it fresh, all the better.  

Ms. Harris is very picky about the anchovies.  She highly recommends the dried kind, which are hard to find and a little extra work.  I couldn't locate any on short notice, and so I used La Squista, an imported Italian brand you can find at most Italian grocery stores.  Delicious, as are most anchovies that are 1) packed in olive oil, 2) packaged in glass, and 3) imported from Spain, Italy, or South America. 

This dish is delicious served on it's own or with a simple green salad.  For dessert, try one of Ms. Harris' eponymous chocolats, also found in her lovely book.  

Adapted from My French Kitchen, by Joanne Harris and Fran Warde


1/4 cup olive oil
3 1/2 lbs yellow onions, thinly sliced
1 tsp sugar
4 oz shredded Gruyere cheese (optional)
2 teaspoons fresh thyme 
20 - 30 oil pitted mediteranean olives
1 small glass jar of anchovies (about 15), sliced in halves, lengthwise
olive oil for drizzling

.50 oz/ 2 packets active dry yeast
2/3 cup warm water
1 tsp + 2 tsp sugar
2 cups white flour
4 tbsp olive oil, plus extra for brushing
1 tsp salt

  1. Saute onions in oil on medium low heat for 45 minutes.  Add 1 tsp thyme.  Add sugar and cook until lightly carmelized, about 10 - 15 more minutes.  
  2. Make dough.   Dissolve yeast in warm water.  Proof with 1 tsp sugar. In a large bowl combine yeast mixture and remaining ingredients.  Knead and then let rise for 30 min.
  3. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Form dough into a round ball, and roll out into a rectangle.  Place on a baking sheet.
  4. Brush dough with olive oil. Sprinkle with gruyere cheese, thyme, and onions. Criss cross the anchovies into decorative 'x' designs, and place olives in between. 
  5. Bake for 20 - 25 minutes.  Serve warm.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

On The List: Yeast

My neighbor called to tell me she had a yeast problem, and I'm all 'I like you and everything but shouldn't you talk to your doctor?' Turns out the problem was above the waistline, in the kitchen.

If bread is life, yeast is life force.  It causes dough to rise and literally breathe, and yields delicious results. Cinnamon buns. Challah. Coffee cake. Parker House rolls.  Bread sticks.  Donuts. Are you drooling yet? But yeast can also be a bit daunting for the uninitiated. This post will attempt to enlighten on how to buy, store, and bake with yeast.  Once you get the hang of it, it turns out to be a lot of fun to work with, and you'll be telling your friends who in turn will want to learn, and the whole yeast experience will become gloriously...infectious.  

Buying it
Unless otherwise specified, most recipes call for dry, active rise yeast, commonly found in the baking goods aisle of your local grocery. It is often packaged in small packets of three, although buying it in bulk is much cheaper and more cost effective.  Each packet is about 1/4 ounce in volume.  Active dry yeast must be proofed (see below), and then employs two dough rises.  

Before you grab that packet of yeast, double check to make sure it is not the Rapid Rise variety, which is only used for very specific (and often not very good) recipes.  It is a time saver, as you do not need to proof it and can add it directly to ingredients.  However, please note that this product has been genetically engineered to accomplish this feat.  Generally, I find it results in an overly dense crumb, invariably made soggy buy whatever is baked on top of it per said not very good recipe.  Rapid Rise yeast is also sold in small jars and labeled as "Bread Machine" yeast.  

Fresh yeast can be found in your dairy aisle, often near the eggs.  It is sold in little cubes, or cakes, and yields delicious results - by far the tastiest choice.  Fresh yeast and active dry yeast have similar usage and cooking cycles, and can be used interchangeably.  

1 packet of yeast = 1/4 oz = 2 1/4 tsp = 1 fresh yeast cake (.6 oz)

For those of you completely off the grid, you can make your own yeast by adding equal parts flour and water.  Cover, leave in a warm space for a few days, and you will come back to a smelly mess also known as wild yeast, or a starter. 

Storing it
Different storage and shelf lives apply:
Active dry:
  • Packets will have expirations printed on them, and are probably good for one year past this date.  Store at room temperature.  
  • If you buy it in bulk and then open the package, the clock starts ticking.  It will keep in the fridge for 6 months, and the freezer for 12 months.  In both cases, make sure it is tightly sealed.  If you leave it at room temperature, it will gradually decrease it's potency at a rate of about 10%/month.  
Fresh yeast cakes:
  • It should have an expiration date on it, usually for a few weeks after it was packed.  You can also store it in the freezer for 4 months (you will need to defrost it before using).
Using it
Let's assume you use Active Dry or Fresh Yeast - you need to test it before adding, also known as proofing.  Although I am sure you have taken my storage tips to heart, it is important to know that your yeast is active, and ready for use.  Otherwise you tend to wait around a lot and waste much eggs and flour.  

Proofing yeast is one of those things you need a visual on.  It really is not hard, but unless you know what it is supposed to look like, a written description will not suffice.  Many concise/lazy/patronizing authors will tell you to proof the yeast, end of story unless of course you have a friendly neighbor who can help you out.  Otherwise you feel pretty silly.  I know, because I remember learning myself; it took me 7 tries to get it right, and even then I was not sure it was correct, having no proper frame of reference.  And so gentle reader, allow me to show you the way home. 

First, check the directions for the yeast to water ratio.   Turn your kitchen tap on, and put it on the warmest setting.  Once it is heated, add required amount of water to a doubly sized measuring cup (ex: use a 2 cup tool if 1 cup of water is required).If you have a thermometer, shoot for 105 - 110 degrees Fahrenheit.  Add the dry yeast and one teaspoon of sugar.  Whisk (maybe for 5 - 10 seconds). Within a minute it should look like the picture on the left, just a little foam on top.  

After about 10 minutes, the foam should be doubled or greater, proof that it is ready to be used in a recipe.  It should look like the picture to the right.  You add the entire contents of your measuring cup, foam and all.  

What if it doesn't work?  It happens.  A number of things can adversely affect yeast rising.  Extremely humid conditions can throw it off.  The water may be the wrong temperature.  The yeast may have expired; it keeps active in Egyptian tombs for thousands of years, but not so shelf stable after a while.  

Finally, here are links to some of my favorite recipes that use yeast.  Enjoy, and comment below to tell me more about your own experiences working with it.