Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Granola = Tasty!

Wow, it's been a while since I've updated my blog. I'm making an effort to change that. Since my last blog post, my family's restaurant has been sold and I've added a small but important member to my family. The focus of the blog, however, is going to stay the same. I will also be posting shorter articles at examiner.com as their Farmer's Market examiner, so feel free to check out things over there as well.

Anyway, I'll be starting out with aneasy intro post and recipe. Granola. You may think it's crazy hippy food, or you may find it incredibly delicious. I fall into the latter category. Granola sprinkled on top of yogurt is my go-to breakfast. However, I have a problem with grocery store granola.

1: it's usually loaded with sugar and fat, and in cheaper brands, that fat is often partially hydrogenated and the sugar is high fructose corn syrup, and since I believe that "corn sugar" is in fact inferior to natural sugars, I prefer to avoid it.

2: good quality granola is EXPENSIVE! It can easily run upwards of $10 for a little bag that will last you a week. It certainly doesn't make for an affordable alternative to cereal.

However, the solution to this problem is simple. Make your own granola. It's easier than you may have ever dreamed, and so much cheaper.

I will give credit to Alton Brown for his granola recipe. I use this as the starting point for all of my batches of granola; however, I alter it substantially every time, and pretty much only stick with the measurements of oats and salt - everything else is up for negotiation.

Personally, I try to avoid vegetable oil for a number of reasons, primarily health and flavor. So I substitute butter or coconut oil, generally, for the fat, and I tend to use a bit less - there's no requirement that you have to use that much oil or sugar. So, melt a couple tablespoons of your favorite fat in a saucepan, and then add your sweetener. Now, you can go almost anywhere with sweeteners as well. The more granulated sugar you use, the better your granola will clump together, but if that's not important to you, simply add a tablespoon or two, or forgo it altogether. Flavor will be the determining factor of your other choices of sweetener. I have used evaporated cane sugar, palm sugar, honey, molasses, agave nectar, and maple syrup with good results. Next, add your spices: cinnamon is almostalways a must for me, and a little goes a long way, but I'm also fond of ginger, allspice, nutmeg, and cardamom. Add those in the saucepan and cook until the sugar starts to melt a bit, and you're set!

Of course, you also need to choose what sort of nuts or seeds you'd prefer to see in your granola. Almonds, slivered or whole, hazelnuts, macadamias, walnuts, peanuts, and pecans are all excellent choices; sunflower, pumpkin, sesame, or poppy seeds add unique character; and coconut is a good assertive option. Thechoices you make will have a significant effect on the flavor, as will the decision to add them to the oats before or after cooking - if you purchase pre-roasted nuts or prefer them raw, save it until your granola is out.

Choice of dried fruit is also important, and pretty much limited to whatever you can find - personally, my favorites are cranberries, cherries, blueberries, and dried apricots, but there are plenty of other things to choose from.

So, once you've created your sugar/fat/spice mixture, pour it over your measured granola and nuts and turn until it is well mixed. Spread on a sheet pan, place in a 275 F oven, and stir ever 15 mintues for a total of 1 hour and 15 minutes. Make sure that you have a relatively thin and even layer on your pan or it won't toast evenly. Once you remove it from the oven and cool it a bit, stir in your raw/pre-roasted nuts and fruits, place it in a plastic bag, and you're good to go!

This is my current batch of granola:
IMG_2529.JPG by sesara_adpm
Allspice, cinnamon, ginger, butter, sugar, and maple syrup are the seasonings, and I purchased a "heart healthy" mix of pumpkin seeds, walnuts, almonds, cashews, raisins, and cranberries from Fresh Market. You are only limited to what you can do by your own imagination! Enjoy.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Crowder Peas - A Little Known Treat

On my last sojourn to the farmer's market, I was browsing through the stalls, determining what looked most interesting.  As I walked by Crump's stand, I noticed what looked like long,  bumpy green beans...except that many of them were purple.  As they were a vegetable that I had never encountered before, this meant that I had to buy them, of course.  The sign informed me that they were crowder peas, but little else.

So naturally, I googled them as soon as I returned home.  Crowder peas, named for the way they crowd the hull, are very closely related to black-eyed peas.  Both are varieties of cowpeas, which are a type of bean that is grown around the world, particularly in warmer climates and poorer soils.  As they have the highest protein content of any beans, they are still an important dietary staple in many parts of the world, particularly Africa.  They traveled to the US along with slaves, as so many southern delicacies did.  Crowder peas are still much beloved today in the south, where some people even make jelly from the hulls.

Since I had never worked with them before, I went for a traditional southern preparation as well.  

4 slices of bacon, chopped
1 small onion, small dice
1 small green bell pepper, small dice
1 clove garlic, smashed
8 oz hulled crowder peas
1 cup water
1 bay leaf
Tabasco sauce

Render the bacon.  Add the onion, pepper, and garlic and saute until they soften.  Add the peas, water, bay leaf, and salt the water so that it is mildly salty to taste.  Bring up to a simmer, cover, and cook for about 30 minutes, until the peas are tender.  Add Tabasco, salt, and pepper to taste.

These peas had absolutely great flavor, and were far richer than I had expected.  I served them with a loaf of skillet cornbread.  I doubt that they will be in the market for much longer, but if you see them, by all means, pick some up.  Just be prepared to do the work of hulling them, which can be a little time consuming.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Late Summer Bounty

I'd like to preface this post by apologizing to all my readers (assuming I have any left) for my long absence.  It was inexcusable, and I'll try my damnedest not to let it happen again.

That said, I'll dive right in.  What can you find locally right now?  The question really should be, what can't you find.

Summer tomatoes are at their peak.  I will try to do a more in-depth article on them later, but for now, I urge everyone to buy as many as they want, and then buy extras.  This is because, tragically, we will not be enjoying our tomatoes for much longer, at least not here in the midwest, and I am told that the same goes for many other parts of the country.  This is because, due to the unusually wet and cool spring and early summer, combined with a few batches of contaminated tomatoes from big  box stores, late blight has set in on nearly all tomatoes.  This fungal disease is the very same one that caused the great Potato Famine in the 1800's.  I know that most of the people I have spoken with at the farmer's markets tell me that their tomato crops are being decimated by the disease.  My own heirlooms have not been immune to it either, and as they are ripening slowly, I'm beginning to worry that I'll scarcely get to taste them before the plants die entirely.  

However, many home gardeners and market enthusiasts are being deluged with tomatoes at present, and with that in mind, I recommend that you do your best to eat as many raw tomatoes as possible, and that what you cannot eat, you preserve either via the freezer or by canning.  If you feel that you cannot eat that much tomato sauce, remember that there are dozens of fun alternate uses for extra tomatoes.  One of my favorite is salsa, what with the bounty of peppers that is also going on.  You could oven roast the tomatoes to dry them, or go the traditional sun-dried route.  If you really wanted to be different, you could try to come up with some non-traditional uses for tomatoes, such as a tomato-basil sorbet, for instance.

Another thing that I can't get enough of, but will soon be gone is sweet corn, which again, I will be doing a more comprehensive post on later.  The wet spring meant that some farmers got their corn in late, while others got it in on time, which means that the corn season is somewhat extended this year.  But right now, it's cheap and plentiful, so if you are an afficianado of sweet corn, stock up on it for preservation purposes.  Yesterday, R. picked up our CSA delivery, which included a massive amount of corn, and I've been working out what to do with it all.  One of my favorite methods is to cook it on the grill, in the husk, along with whatever meat I'm using.  I found this recipe, which uses a slightly different method of roasting, and which I intend to try soon, as well as the recipe that follows for corn salsa.  But obviously, there are more uses than this.  Simply cooking extra corn and freezing the kernels for later use is always a good way to preserve excess corn.  I love skillet cornbread with fresh corn kernels in it, like this recipe.  Don't throw away your corn cobs!  Simmer them for an hour or so to make an absolutely wonderful corn stock, which can serve as your base for all sorts of great corn soups.  Or try making corncob jelly.  

If peppers are your thing, they're plentiful now, from mild bells in every color (including purple) to jalapenos (smoke them to make your own chipotles) to the scorching orange habanero (for the brave of heart, only).  Whatever level of heat you prefer, chances are you'll find what you want right now.  And don't be afraid to take advantage of rarer varieties from the farmer's market.

Melons are peaking now as well.  Watermelons, seeded and seedless, are everywhere, as well as fragrant canteloupes and muskmelons, honeydews, and a number of other rarer types.  Enjoy them while they last, whether you wrap a piece of ham or prosciutto around a juicy orange slice of muskmelon, squeeze lime over your honeydew, or make an Indian curry out of your watermelon.

There are still dozens of other vegetables and fruits that are plentiful in your own garden or at the market right now.  Don't be afraid to experiment, as this is the time when ingredients are at their best.  Remember, eating your veggies is good for you!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Ultimate locavore club - CSA's

Have you ever wanted to support your local agriculture, but don't know how?  Have you wanted to get your fruits and vegetables at the peak of freshness?  Maybe you want to reduce your ecological footprint in obtaining your food?  Or maybe you just want to find more interesting varieties of produce and meat?  Well, then you should look into Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA's.

What is a CSA, you might ask?  Well, I'm not going to say there are hard and fast rules, to be sure, but normally, a CSA is a family farm, or small group of farms.   You purchase a membership, or share, in the CSA, usually paid for in an upfront fee.  In return, you are guaranteed a regular share of whatever that farm is producing.  Most CSA's supply produce, although there are ones that sell eggs, milk, free range chickens, and even beef, pork, etc.  Produce CSA's typically have a weekly pickup, and members will receive whatever is at its peak that week.  Many CSA's raise their produce sustainably and organically, though often, they are not certified due to the increasing governmental fees and regulations for organic certifications that benefit corporations at the expense of family farms.  

How can I join a CSA, you might ask, and how can I find one in the first place?  Well, finding CSA's is a reasonably easy task.  One of the quickest ways is to visit Local Harvest, a website dedicated to promoting local agriculture in the form of CSA's, farmers' markets, etc.  Many, many CSA's use the site to promote themselves.

Joining a CSA can be a little trickier.  There is, after all, only so much that any farm can produce, and many CSA farms are geared towards quality, not quantity.  Because of this, CSA membership is limited, and more popular ones can have long waiting lists.  I have been on a waiting list for a fruit CSA for over a year, and I can only hope that I will have a chance to get in next year.  The good news is that new CSA's are springing up all the time.  Additionally, many CSA's also sell at some farmers' markets, so you can have an opportunity to sample the produce from different farms before making your decision as to which CSA to try to join.   Most CSA memberships fill up before the growing season starts, so it is probably too late to join one this year (though it never hurts to ask).  However, if you find one that you like, you can definitely get on the list for next year.

There are also CSA's that will sell to the general public from their farms, and though you aren't guaranteed specific items, and will perhaps pay more than you would if you were a member, it is still a good way to explore whether you would like to join later.

CSA's are a wonderful way to get the best of what is fresh now, to find produce and other products that are rare in commercial markets, and to obtain high quality food for incredible prices.  I highly urge you to check out what's in your area!

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Wonder bacteria...

You probably don't like to think about bacteria and food.  After all, if you've ever opened up a container of food and smelled an unpleasant aroma emanating from it, you've experienced bacterial growth in action.  However, bacteria are responsible for giving us some of our most delicious foods - among them,chocolate, cheese, yogurt, bread, and alcoholic beverages.  

The main type of bacteria that you can thank for this wonder is lactobacillus.  We have a fairly symbiotic relationship with lactobacillus.  There's some living in your gut right now.  This is why pro-biotics can help with digestion.  Lactobacillus breaks down sugars that we are unable to digest - sugars like lactose, from which its name is derived.  

Of course, lactobacillus is inherently tied to dairy.  One species or another is responsible for most most fermented dairy products - cheese, sour cream, creme fraiche, and yogurt are all different varieties of lactobacilli.  Lactobacillus is also present in sourdough, where it exists in symbiosis with yeast.  Lactobacillus works so well because it produces lactic acid as a byproduct.  Most bacteria don't survive well in an acidic environment, and so they are unable to form colonies.  Yeast is a rare bacteria that does fare well, which is how it is able to co-exist so happily with lactobacillus.

If you have a mother culture, it is pretty easy to keep it going.  In the case of commercial strains of lactobacillus, these strains are easily obtainable.  In the case of creme fraiche, simply add a splash of buttermilk to heavy cream, leave it in a warm place until thickened, and pour off the liquid that has separated out.

Yogurt is also ridiculously simple to make.  Scald some milk, let it cool to the point where it is hot, but not burning you, and whisk in some yogurt.  

Let it sit in a warm place (if you have a warming drawer in your oven, this works great; there are also commercial yogurt makers) until it thickens, then pour off the liquid that has separated.  Now you have yogurt that costs about half or less what you would have paid for it at the grocery store.

Furthermore, if you then take that yogurt, put it in cheesecloth, and hang it for an hour or two, you'll be left with yogurt cheese, a thick, creamy spreadable substance, that, when mixed with herbs and drizzled with olive oil, yields a wonderful spread for sandwiches, or just plain enjoying on pita.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Focus on producers - Crump Family Gardens

For my first focus on a local food producer, I conducted a brief interview with Bob and Joanne Crump, who run the Crump Family Gardens stand at the Metro Centre farmer's market.  The Crumps show up on the first of May and stay for pretty much the entire run at Metro Centre.  

The Crump family farm, which they run along with their son Bryan, is located near Carlock, IL.  They have been farming the same land for the last 21 years. Bob uses organic and sustainable practices to produce their vegetables, but as the neighbors do not, they are not able to gain certification of any sort at present.  They are a focus farm, with a few crops that they specialize in.  At present, many of those crops are not ready, so you will find a fair amount of things that are trucked in from more southern locales, but they do have some excellent early crops, in the form of asparagus, rhubarb, and greens (both lettuce and spinach).  They are also a supplier of southern Illinois strawberries.  

Later on in the season, you will be able to find an excellent selection of their focus crops.  The Crumps grow several tomato varieties, although most are conventional hybrid tomatoes.  They supply several area businesses with summer tomatoes, such as The Firehouse and The Butcher Block.   

The Crumps also put a heavy focus on peppers.  Although Bob couldn't give me the number of varieties that they grow, he did say that they put in 2700 pepper plants this year.  They grow both mild and hot varieties.  

You will also find a few varieties of potato, such as Yukon Golds and Reds, as well as summer and fall squashes, cucumbers, and a variety of herbs, all grown on the Crump farm.

I asked Bob what it was about farming that he enjoyed most, and he told me "I love being out in the field, it's quiet, and I can work at my own pace."  However, he also loves coming to the farmer's markets and interacting with his customers, which explains why the Crumps also maintain stands at the Normal, Lincoln, DeKalb, and Sycamore farmer's markets.  

Overall, the Crumps have a commitment to producing quality local food because they love working the land.  They may not have the flashiest varieties of produce, or subscribe to a particular philosophy of food that is currently trendy, but they want to sell consumers good produce at a good price.  I highly recommend checking out their stand the next time you are at the Metro Centre market.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Sour, Stalky, Sublime - Rhubarb

One of the first signs of spring, for me, was the sight of the rhubarb plants in our garden, knobbing up out of the dirt.  Then, we only had to wait until enough long stalks supported elephantine leaves before we could harvest them.  

Rhubarb is one of those plants that one has to wonder why we ever started eating it.  I mean, the leaves are poisonous, the stalks are so sour that they leave your face puckered, and it's a bit tough and stringy, to boot.  To be fair, we didn't eat it for a long time.  Rhubarb was primarily used medicinally until the 17th century, which coincided with the advent of cheap sugar (and an increase in cavities).  It appears to have become an extremely popular form of dessert in England, where they appreciated tartness.  In fact, a popular method of eating rhubarb, from then through the present day, is simply to dip the stalks directly into granulated sugar for each bite.

Rhubarb's popularity continued in the U.S. when English settlers brought it with them.  Since it is a perennial plant, and requires little care, it tended to spread with the ever-westward moving Americans.  Rhubarb's popularity peaked in the WWII and postwar period, and it has declined ever since, especially as more and more Americans have flocked to cities and abandoned their gardens, forgetting about this once ubiquitous plant.  However, with the ever increasing popularity of farmers markets', people are re-discovering rhubarb in great numbers every year.  It has also become a popular featured item on seasonal restaurant menus across the nation.  

Rhubarb may be tough and stringy when raw, but cooked rhubarb becomes wonderfully tender.  With the right blend of sugar, it is imbued with the perfect balance of sour and sweet for a dessert or a savory sauce.  Many people like to pair it with other sweet fruits for a more balanced flavor profile, strawberry rhubarb pies and jams being one of the most popular combinations.  I, myself, am a rhubarb purist.  I consider the finest expression of rhubarb to be my mother's rhubarb custard pie, which I make faithfully every year.

Rhubarb-Custard Pie

1-1/2 c sugar
1/4 c flour
1/4 tsp nutmeg
dash of salt
3 eggs
4 c rhubarb
2 tbsp butter

Mix dry ingredients together.  Beat egg just until smooth & add to dry
ingredients.  Stir until smooth.  Stir in rhubarb until coated.  Line
pie pan with crust.  Pour in rhubarb mixture.  Dot with chunks of
butter.  Top with lattice crust & seal.  Bake at 400 F for 50 minutes.

Or, you could go with another dessert favorite, rhubarb crisp.

Rhubarb Crisp

4 c. rhubarb
1/2 tsp salt
1-1/3 to 2 c. sugar (to taste)
3/4 c. flour
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/3 c. butter
1/2 c. toasted almonds (optional)

Mix salt, sugar, flour, & cinnamon.  
Cut butter into mixture so it's crumbly.  Add almonds.  
Put Rhubarb in 8x8 pan.  Sprinkle topping over rhubarb.  
Bake at 350 for 40 to 50 minutes.

There are, of course, endless variations that you can do with either of these recipes (personally, I think that rhubarb and cardamom would pair well), and I like the idea of baking the crisp in individual ramekins and serving with a scoop of ice cream.

There are some savory applications as well - for instance, a fattier meat, such as pork or duck, would pair well with a rhubarb based sauce.  I have also seen several blog posts for making things such as rhubarb simple syrup.  The point is, there are endless variations that you can make, but you'd better do it soon, before the rhubarb season is over.  So whether you get it from the farmer's market, or Schnuck's, or wherever, enjoy it while it lasts.