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.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Lots of spring things!

First off, I apologize for my absence.  Things have been busy.

Back to business...avocado season is in full swing in California right now, which means that here in the midwest, they are marginally cheaper, but much, much nicer. 

Rhubarb is in full stalk as well.  One of my favorite spring treats, rhubarb is tart and tangy, and makes a great pie, cake, or even savory compote to pair with pork.  

Look for strawberries to be coming to Metro Centre this Friday.  I have it on good authority that southern IL berries will be there and ready.

Finally, it is soft shell crab season.  They will probably be in and affordable for the next 3-4 weeks.  Make sure that they are alive before you purchase them.  Or, alternatively, you can come get them from my restaurant, which I should probably plug.  Chef John's Wine Bar and Grill in Dunlap, off of Rt. 40.  I have 6 crabs left, but I'll be getting in more next week.

I will be putting in full posts about several of these things, and I will be trying to bring you some of a planned series of great foodie businesses in Peoria very soon.


Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Sweeter Side of Spring - Vidalias

I want to start off by saying that I LOVE onions.  If you don't, you probably shouldn't waste your time reading this, but seriously, if you don't love onions, then what the heck is wrong with you?

Onions are one of those vegetables that you will find stretched across the globe, in one form or another.   This is partly because onions, properly dried and cellared, keep well, and thus made a useful long-storing crop for the parts of the globe with more temperate climates.  Equally important to the onion's success as a food crop, however, would be the strong yet pleasant flavor associated with onions.  Certainly, they are an important enough foodstuff that they have had religious symbolism painted on them since the time of the Egyptians.

Obviously, with so many varieties of onion in the world, there are many unique flavors and textures.  Certainly, no one would eagerly substitute a shallot for a scallion, or a leek for a Bermuda.  But what is it that makes the Vidalia different from all those other yellow onions, like Spanish or Walla Walla's?

Well, first of all, most standard "onions" (white, yellow, Bermuda), are actually quite high in sugar content.  This is easily demonstrated by making caramelized onions of any variety.  Cook them for long enough over gentle heat, stirring occasionally, and you will be rewarded with a wonderfully sweet and dissolving golden brown mass.  Of course, this takes a great deal of time and attention, and all the texture of the onion is lost, as well as most of the "onion-y-ness" inherent to the species.  

On the other hand, a raw, or quickly sauteed onion can be quite sharp and pungent.  Anyone who has ever taken their knife to one has experienced "onion tears".  This is due to the fact that the other thing onions are notably high in is sulfur, which it easily absorbs from the soil.  No matter what old wives' tale you try to combat onion tears, the fact is that once you cut an onion, sulfur released from it combines with oxygen to form Sulfur Dioxide, which irritates our mucous membranes, causing tears and sniffling.  

Enter the sweet yellow onion family, with several varieties grown in different regions of this country, the aforementioned Walla Walla being one.  These onions have been bred to be milder, or in other words, to absorb less sulfur from the soil.  This allows your palate to taste more of the sugar, making them appear "sweet".  

So why is the Vidalia superior to other types of sweet onion, you might ask?  Well, it's got a couple of things going for it that other onions don't.  The most important one is that the region of Georgia where Vidalia's are grown has a soil that is uniquely low in sulfur.  This means that you taste even more of the natural sugar in the onion than the regular sweets.  If an onion is called a Vidalia, it must come from a very specifically defined area that covers about 17 counties in Georgia.  Otherwise, it legally cannot be sold as a Vidalia.

Ironically, the other reason that Vidalias are higher quality is because of their name.  Let me clarify that statement.  Vidalias have been around since the 1930's at least, but it wasn't until 1976 or so that the general American public became aware of them.  This is due to the fact that a peanut farmer turned politician had recently won an election.  That man, of course, was Jimmy Carter, and he imported Vidalia onions to the White House, bringing them to the general public's attention for the first time.  This timing happened to coincide with the explosion of the Nouvelle American cuisine movement, and Vidalia onions became a poster ingredient for the new food movement.  Combine that with an extremely limited availability (Vidalias are only harvested between mid-April and June) and suddenly, you have a new gourmet product that the public demands quality from.  Since the farmers in the Vidalia region are able to charge a premium price for these onions, they are able to keep quality standards, such as hand harvesting, in place.  

All of this combines to continue to make the Vidalia one of the best quality ingredients that is produced for a large scale audience.  We are currently in the midst of the Vidalia season, so please, seek them out and enjoy them.  One of my favorite things to do with them is onion rings - soak them in buttermilk, then toss in seasoned flour and fry.  

As an alternative suggestion, saute the onions gently in olive oil until they begin to brown.  Add a few olives, capers, and some fresh lemon juice, pour over whole wheat pasta, and top with Parmesan reggiano and red pepper flakes for a quick, easy way to enjoy these onions at their finest. 

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Eggy goodness

Eggs are loved by nearly everyone.  We use them as a stand alone dish, to enrich or emulsify sauces, and as a major ingredient of most of our favorite desserts.  No matter what part of the world you're in, eggs find their way into the local cuisine.

Unfortunately, in recent years, eggs have gotten a bad rap.  Due to the fact that yolks have higher levels of cholesterol than many foods, doctors warned their patients not to eat eggs very often, for fear that their would raise already high cholesterol levels.  Of course, this science turned out to be alarmist and wrong, but the mindset stuck, and millions of Americans still think that eating too many eggs is a dangerous thing, health-wise.  So people stay away from eggs entirely, or eat egg whites to avoid the "bad" parts of the egg.

In actuality, the egg yolk is probably the healthiest part of the egg to imbibe.  Eggs are one of the highest quality sources of protein in existence.  It makes sense if you think about it - eggs contain the components necessary to create a fully living being.  The white is simply the food that being needs to eat while forming.  So please, don't be afraid of your egg yolk.  It's good for you!

Now, this is not to say that all eggs are created equal.  Nutrition and sustainability are still concerns for your eggs.  At the bottom of the totem pole, we have factory farmed eggs.  Yes, they're cheap, but at a cost.  The yolk has the lowest concentration of nutrients, due to the diet that the hens eat.  They're trucked  in from hundreds of miles away, which leads to pollution.  The factory farms on which they're raised also lead to massive levels of chicken waste, hence, more pollution.  The same farms often employ illegal immigrants or use other abusive labor practices, leading to exploitation of their workers just so that you can have a cheap egg.  And finally, the hens that lay the eggs have some of the most miserable lives you can possibly imagine for any animal, as they are kept in a tiny cage for their entire life, and we'll just say that they do some not very nice things to keep them that way.  So, if any of the above things concern you, you may want to consider avoiding conventional eggs.

Now, if you weed out these selections, you're left with a few other grocery choices - organic, omega, brown, cage free, and free range being the most common, and usually found in some combination.  A brief explanation of these terms: organic and omega eggs refer to the diet that the chicken was fed - organic grains, and in the case of omega, flaxseed and other things that will raise the proportion of Omega-3 oils found in the egg yolk.  Brown eggs are simply laid by a variety of chickens that fell out of favor for a while.  There is nothing particularly special about them otherwise.  

Cage-free and free range refer to the fact that the chickens are allowed to roam and peck their food.  Cage free chickens, as the name would imply, are not kept in cages.  However, they still may be kept in an enclosure with hundreds of other chickens, which is less inhumane than cages, but still only a minor improvement.  Free-range means that the chicken had access to the outside - however, this does not mean that the chicken actually gets to walk around looking for its food.  These terms once meant something, but due to corporate pressure on the government to define these terms, one must research the farm to find out exactly how the chickens are actually treated.  

So what's a consumer to do?  Well, due to the locavore food movement, farm fresh eggs are making a comeback.  Most of these farms raise true free-range chickens, which means that the chickens are allowed to roam for their food, which may or may not be supplemented with food by the farmer.  The advantages of buying farm fresh eggs are several.  The eggs are coming from only a few miles, the chickens are being raised in a sustainable (and often, from a pest control standpoint, ecologically friendly) method, the farm labor is usually paid fair wages, and the eggs have a higher nutrient density, as well as a flavor that will be unique to your local area.  

What this means to you as a consumer is that you will probably pay a couple of bucks more for a carton of eggs, but you are getting quality unseen in the grocery store, and you are supporting local agriculture, which is good for your community for the myriad of reasons listed above.  

But where do I find these farm-fresh eggs, you might ask?  Well, farmers' markets are an excellent place to start.  You will probably get the very freshest eggs by doing this.  Natural food stores are also a good place to look.  Here in Peoria, Greengold Acres (in Hannah City, near Wildlife Prairie Park), is one farm that supplies farm-fresh eggs.  Currently, I know that they sell eggs at the Pekin Farmer's Market on Rt. 9, but I swear I read somewhere that they also will be at the Peoria Heights Farmer's Market, which starts in June.  However, I discovered, to my delight that, you can purchase their eggs through Naturally Yours, the natural grocery in Metro Centre.  The eggs pictured above are all from the same carton.

Now, if you've gone through the trouble of getting farm-fresh eggs, you might ask yourself what to do with them.  I went for a preparation that would showcase them in their simplicity - shirred eggs.  They're quite simple to make, really - just preheat your oven to 375 degrees, and melt some butter in a ovenproof cup or ramekin.  Throw in a splash of cream, crack in the egg, and season them with salt and pepper, and maybe a little cheese. I used blue here, but I think that it was overpowering for the delicacy of the egg flavor.  Bake the eggs for 15 to 20 minutes, until is is almost set in the center.  Enjoy.

The flavor of these eggs was really incomparable, with a grassy, almost floral aroma that I've never noticed in an egg before.  I highly recommend seeking out some farm fresh eggs for yourself.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Asparagus is in!

Whilst on my shopping circuit today, I swung by the Metro Centre Market to see if any promising delectables had appeared.  I was nearly ready to drive past, when I spotted some asparagus spears lurking amongst the plants.  I immediately pulled into a parking space, and rushed over to the stall to see what was available.  Ugh.  The asparagus, up close, was clearly wilted and starting towards rot.  I inquired as to its origin, and was told it was from Southern Illinois.  If that's the case, it was picked last week.  I excused myself to peruse the remaining plants.  I reasoned that maybe there were at least some heirloom varieties hidden amongst the Better Boys.

A few feet further along, I discovered that what I had thought to be all one farmstand was in fact two.  And I noticed a large bus tub filled with water and absolutely beautiful asparagus spears, firm and fresh with purple tips.  I questioned the farmer - where was this asparagus from?  Carlock, IL, and picked this morning, was the response I got.  It shows too, looking at the beauty of the stuff.  I am embarrassed to admit that in my excitement, I forgot to get the name of the farm.  However, the gentleman running the stand informed me that his son had recently had him join some organization that was for locally grown produce, so I'm guessing this farm is sustainable or organic, or at the very least, part of the locavore movement.  

For those of you not familiar with the term, a locavore tries to eat food grown locally, usually within 100 miles.  As opposed to say, your average grocery store asparagus which is grown in California.  This is bad for a couple of reasons.  One, it has to be trucked in a refrigerated vehicle for a few thousand miles, using vast amounts of energy to get it to the store.  Two, the nutritional value, flavor, and shelf life tend to decrease with time.  Consider that from the time California asparagus is picked, it takes a week just to get it out of California and to the grocery store.  Then, it probably takes another couple of days to get the asparagus from the back storeroom to the produce section.  Then, a couple of days might go by before you purchase a bunch of asparagus.  A few more days get added on before you cook it, and suddenly, you're eating asparagus that is over two weeks old.  As opposed to the stuff at the farmers' market that was picked yesterday or today.

The quality was excellent and the price extremely reasonable, at $1.99/lb.  I find it ironic that it cost me less than the case of asparagus that I received from my food supplier last week for the restaurant, which was rotting upon delivery.  I fully intend to feature this asparagus on the menu for as long as it is coming in.  There's no comparison.

What is a food geek?

Perhaps I should have expounded upon this in my first post.  Nonetheless, I feel that it is important to define what this term means to me, and why I chose it for my blog title, especially since there are apparently a number of other Food Geek bloggers out there.

I defer to my husband on the definition of the word geek here.  He has a whole passionate spiel about what separates a nerd, dweeb, and geek.  And in his definition, a geek is someone who is extremely passionate about a specific subject, but in a literate, educated sort of way.  This leads to the expression "geeking out", which describes the action of getting extremely excited about something you really love or just learned, related to the subject in which you are a geek.  Therefore, as a food geek, most of my blog posts will be dedicated to geeking out about food specifics that I love. 

How did I become a food geek, you might ask?  Well, in my case, I don't think that I had much of a choice.  My father trained as a chef before I was even born, at The Bakery, a landmark Chicago bastion of classic cuisine.  He and my mother opened their first restaurant, The Strawberry Patch, in Princeton, Illinois, when I was only 2 months old.  Food has always been a central part of my life.  At a time when other children were eating McDonald's and Hamburger Helper, my family eschewed pre-prepared food in favor of whatever was seasonally at its peak.  It helped that my mother's parents still grew a great many fresh vegetables on their farm, and the bounty flowed on to us.  Additionally, my father frequently brought in diverse ingredients for their Peoria restaurant, Stephanie's, and many of these found their way into our regular meals.  

When I left for college, food shock was probably the most difficult thing for me to adjust to.  Dorm food, at best, left me bored, and at worst, drove me to seek out alternate food sources.  This is not to say that I was forgiving to establishments that had less than optimal food.  After all, there must be a reason that my friends put me on trial for being a food Nazi.  

Fortunately, I was in Chicago, which is an excellent location for a food geek to develop her sensibilities.  Once I was armed with my own kitchen and a couple of cookbooks, the floodgates opened.  In a city where obtaining just about any ingredient is possible, I was driven to seek out the new and interesting.  Fresh fish markets, produce stands, gourmet grocery stores, they all became the norm.  Realizing that I got more enjoyment out of my stove than my anthropology degree or the corporate world, I took the last step and attended Kendall College for formal culinary training.  I embraced my inner food geek.

Perhaps this explanation gives you an idea of what I want to do with this blog.  But if you're a fellow food geek, you will hopefully enjoy following along.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Cheesy goodness

For those of you who know me, you are aware that one of my great food passions is cheese.  I can think of no better "fast food" meal than to pick up a couple hunks of it, along with some crackers, a bottle of wine, and maybe a little fruit.  I have yet to meet a type of cheese that I don't care for - I revel in washed and bloom-rinded cheese, live for the crunch inside a good aged hard cheese, and positively salivate over the beautiful veins of a blue.

To me, cheese is the ultimate expression of dairy.  On the other hand, I am frequently horrified by what passes for cheese to most people.  I'm sorry, but a "cheese tray" that includes chunks of generic and bland cheddar, Colby-jack, mozzarella, Munster, and Swiss just doesn't pass muster for me.  Why, oh why, must most Americans relegate cheese to the vaguely rubberized versions that we are most often able to find at the grocery store.  I won't even start on Frankenstein's monsters like Velveeta, that don't even deserve the label of cheese.

Until a little over 30 years ago, the only way that one could find more interesting cheese fare was to locate a specialty food shop, where you could peruse a select variety of imported cheeses from far off locales such as France, Italy, and England.  Eventually, American cheesemakers caught on and started producing some fairly generic versions of things such as Gouda, Brie, and a few blue varieties.  But let's face it, if you wanted the good stuff, you were still going to have to look around for the imported varieties.  To compound matters, there were tantalizing tales of amazing cheeses made overseas but blocked from import due to agricultural concerns.  Smuggling cheese back to the US in a pair of old socks became an acceptable practice for cheese diehards.

Fortunately, about  20 years back, people in the US suddenly realized that we could make stuff the same way Europeans had been doing it for centuries, and the artisanal movement was born Ok, technically, it was born in the 70's, but the 90's is when it really took off.  Suddenly, there were Americans who were studying traditional techniques for making cheeses, and then trying it themselves!!!  At the same time, gourmet food became a bigger market than it ever had before.  I can still remember the first time I saw the cheese counter at Whole Foods in Chicago - I felt as Robin Williams must have shopping for coffee in Moscow on the Hudson.  

The US now has a cheese industry that actually makes some truly impressive artisanal cheeses.  Unfortunately, it's not very distributed, though it's growing all the time.  At trade shows, such as the Fancy Food Expo in Chicago (now tragically defunct), I have had the opportunity to sample from a number of these artisan producers, and each year, it seems to get better.  There are now truly original American style cheeses, unlike anything that Europe is producing, as well as numerous fantastic native versions of European classics.  At the last Fancy Food show, I tasted an aged Parmesan that was easily on par with a Parmesan Reggiano.

Good cheese is truly starting to become accepted by Americans.  Even the Northpoint Kroger put in a fair cheese case last year.  Unfortunately for Peorians, most of the great artisanal cheese in the midwest is produced in Wisconsin, unsurprising given its history of producing cheese in the US.  

Nonetheless, I did some poking around on the interwebz, and discovered this gem: Prairie Fruits Farm.  Located near Urbana, they have become a hot commodity amongst Chicago chefs who feature local products on their menus.  They have a fairly impressive website, and appear to be very involved in the local food scene, doing sustainable agriculture as well.  They also host dinners and brunches occasionally, bringing in top chefs from the area to cook for them, and are active in educating the public about eating locally.  It appears that they produce a number of goat's milk cheeses.  The only downside is that they sell to the public only at the Champaign-Urbana farmer's markets, and nowhere nearer to Peoria than that, as far as I can find.  Still, they do appear to have a pretty exciting operation.  I think a field trip is in order.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Musings and gripes

Just a few things for now:

Violets are up in full force.  I'm planning to pick some and make a batch of candied violets in the next day or two, so I will try to post details and pictures on how to attempt this very simple procedure.  Also, today I ran across this post on violet extract via  I will be attempting this as well, so we'll see how it turns out.

I went down to the Metro Centre farmer's market this weekend, on both Friday and Saturday.  I didn't stick around to investigate too much.  As I suspected, not much is coming to the market right now.  The stand on the far end is selling vegetables that could only have been trucked in, so no thank you.  However, if you are interested in looking for plants, several of the farms that will later be selling produce are selling a number of plant starts, especially tomatoes.  

This is one area where I recommend checking out what they have. Pretty much all of the tomatoes that you find sold at places like Home Depot etc., are going to be hybrids like Better Boy, which are great for producing lots of pretty, round, mealy, and flavorless tomatoes.  I figure if you want that, it's probably best to just go to the grocery store.  

I know I sound like a snob, but for tomatoes, heirloom varieties are really the only way to go.  They won't necessarily produce the perfect red globes that you're used to, or the abundance that some plants put out, but the different flavors and textures are incomparable, imho.  Some of the smaller garden shops around here carry a few varieties of heirloom tomatoes, like the pink brandywine, which is truly amazing, but you're going to pay a premium for getting those varieties.  Farmer's markets can usually offer you a better price for the same heirloom varieties, though they will of course be selling the more generic varieties as well.  But if you didn't start tomatoes in your garage a month ago, you would do well to check out the farmer's market for your starts.

Things to keep an eye out in the next couple of weeks will be fresh local asparagus and rhubarb, and possibly some salad greens.

Finally, as a local area gripe, why is it that no one goes out to eat on Sunday night?  The only places that you can go for dinner after 7 pm in Peoria are the chain restaurants out by the malls or downtown, and perhaps a bar or two.  The more interesting independent places all shut down by 7 pm because they just don't have enough business, if they open at all.  I suppose I gripe in part because as a chef working 7 days a week, Sunday is the only night I get done early enough to go out somewhere for dinner, since we shut down at 7 pm.  But every time some new restaurant opens, they try to be open on Sundays and then have to give up, it seems.  Why must everyone be homebodies on Sunday night?  Sigh.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Gearing up for farmer's markets

Snow in March - not a dusting, but literally inches overnight. Rain in April - not your "April Showers" of rhyme, but buckets of rain, so much that the Illinois river has been at flood stage for the entire month.

And yet, spring has interminably marched on, the crocuses and hyacinth yielding to the tulips and magnolias, and finally this week, to the heady blooms of apple trees and lilacs. On the last day of April, spring - and with it, the growing season - has finally arrived.

Tomorrow will be the first day of the Metro Centre's farmers market. I will have to do some research, but I am fairly certain that this is the longest running farmer's market in the city. According to their site, they were founded in 1977. At any rate, I certainly have fond memories of going there with my father to buy boxes of tomatoes and fresh Manito sweet corn for Stephanie's, along with anything else that looked interesting and tasty.

Now, there are two other farmer's markets in Peoria, and they are certainly worthy of a mention, but as neither of them open until June, I'll talk about them later.

Metro Centre's farmers market is my favorite of the three. The main reason for this is convenience. The riverfront market is only open on Saturdays from 8-12. The Heights market is only open on Wednesdays from 4-7. The Metro Centre market, on the other hand, is open Monday through Saturday, from 8-2 (although I don't recommend trying to go at 1:30 - they are usually packed up and ready to go by around then). So any time that you want to stop and pick up some good fresh produce, you can usually hit up the Metro Centre market to find what you want.

I'm also a big fan of the location, which is a lot more convenient for anyone who lives on the north end of Peoria, especially if you're just stopping in briefly.

Convenience aside, I'm not saying that the Metro Centre market is perfect. Some of the vendors have an annoying tendency to truck a lot of their produce in from alternate locales, either because they want to sell things that aren't ready in central IL yet, or because their farm specializes in only one or two crops, but they want to display more to draw people to their stand. So you have to talk to the vendors to find out where your produce is coming from. I'm not saying that it's bad or wrong for them to sell these things, but if I want tomatoes from Georgia, I'll just run next door to Schnuck's, where they'll be just as flavorless, but cheaper.

Another downside to the Metro Centre market is lack of diversity of offerings, overall. Unless you go on a Saturday, there are only likely to be a few vendors in attendance, and they know what sells well, and often don't bother to try to sell other crops. Try to find young fresh garlic at the Metro Centre market - it's just not to be had. Because the other two markets are one day events, they draw a larger crowd, and some of the farmers who come to them can offer a greater variety of "funky" vegetables and fruits because they're going to get more people willing to purchase something out of the ordinary.

This is not to say that there are not a few gems at the Metro Centre market. You just need to take a little time to learn who they are and seek out their excellent quality and seasonally changing variety.

I will try, over the growing season, to do detailed profiles on some of the vendors at the different farmer's markets in Peoria, and perhaps some of the nearby markets in other cities like Pekin as well. In the meantime, I'll be heading off to Metro Centre tomorrow to see the first offerings of the season!

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Morel Moment

Every spring, they sprout.  From the deep south to the border of Canada, everyone waits for the moment they gauge the conditions to be right, and then the hunt is on.  I am referring, of course, to the morel, among the most prized of wild mushrooms.

Here in Illinois, the season is underway, which you are already well aware of if you are a hunter.  I will admit to being a novice in these matters - this is only my second season hunting for them, but I have already learned a great deal, and expect that experience will hone my skills.  Nonetheless, I will post the necessary disclaimer: DO NOT attempt to hunt morels by yourself without fully educating yourself first; if at all possible, go with someone who DOES know what they're doing before attempting to go on your own.

Ok, now that that's out of the way, I'll get down to business.  The morel is fairly unique in its structure, which makes it easier to identify than many mushrooms.  It is club-shaped, with a honeycombed exterior, and a hollow tube that extends throughout the mushroom.  There are three main varieties - black, grey, and half-free morels.  The half-free morels are considered inferior in flavor to the first two, but are often dried to add a morel flavor to a dish later in the year.  Be sure to educate yourself on how to distinguish false morels, some of which are quite deadly.

The harbingers of the morel season are moist, humid weather and a few good, warm days.  Then, you just need to know where to look.  If you know of any old apple orchards, I would start there, as this seems to be a particularly lush growing area for the mushroom.  Other good places include hardwood forests with dead elms.  I have found that they like growing under blackberry brambles, and have heard stories about finding them in abundance along the banks of streams and creeks.  If you are curious about whether morels are up in your area, there are a couple of great sites you can check out.  Morel Mushroom Hunting has a great map that tracks sightings (in a general area sense) and has regional blogs with discussions amongst fellow mushroom hunters.

Morels tend to grow in the same areas year after year, and morel hunters all have their favorite spots.  Don't expect them to tell you where to find such spots though - they tend to be guarded with almost fanatical secrecy.  If you do discover a spot, use a few common sense rules when picking them.  First, if it's a large find, leave a few mushrooms to spore for future seasons.  Second, when picking the mushroom, try to cut it or pinch it off above the base - mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of the plant beneath the surface, and by minimizing the damage to said plant, it is likely that it will produce more fruiting bodies which will again produce more spores.  Many serious morel hunters also put their morels in mesh bags, in order to sow the spores as they walk.

One note - morels for sale.  Most morel hunters never sell their morels.  They only find enough for themselves and maybe a few friends or family, which is just fine.  But there are a few who make serious money off of morels every year.  I have no problem with this - especially as I can obtain wild morels, rather than farmed ones, for my restaurant.  However, some people seem to think that people will pay anything for morels, and set the prices at rather obscene levels.  In the past, I have come across them at Whole Foods for $35/lb and had them offered to me by mushroom hunters for $40/lb.  I consider these prices outrageous, and personally, will not pay more than $20/lb.  But, if you have no way to hunt them yourselves, be aware that they are occasionally for sale.

Once you have found the morels, treating them properly is paramount.  While it is true that mushrooms absorbing water is an old wives' tale,  soaking your morels will remove some of their delicate flavor.  I suggest just brushing them gently to remove loose dirt and cutting them in half to look for errant insects.   If you must wash them, a quick rinse is still a better idea than a long soak.

Morels do contain some toxins, at least according to wikipedia, which are eliminated through cooking.  So as long as you make sure to cook them thoroughly, you should be fine.  

Now, I can think of lots of great uses for morels - battered and fried, in a sauce or stew, or sauteed in a pasta.  But in this, I must defer to my childhood memories for a recipe that I consider perfection, perhaps because of associations with our ritual family Sunday breakfast that my father prepared without fail every week.  I'm not going to give proportions, because I just eyeball this sort of thing anyway.

Morel Omelet  

Morels, cleaned & halved
Asparagus spears, woody ends removed, chopped into 1/2 inch pieces
Vidalia or other sweet onions, sliced thin
goat cheese

Over medium-low heat, saute your onions in melted butter until they begin to soften.  Add your morels, and saute for several minutes more.  Add your asparagus and saute for one or two minutes longer, until the asparagus softens but is still crisp.

In another pan, melt butter over low heat.  Whisk your eggs, salt, pepper, and either a splash of water or milk to thin the mixture slightly.  Pour your mixture into the melted butter and let the eggs begin to set.  With a spatula, gently loosen the edges and tilt the pan while lifting a edge to let the raw egg run underneath.  When the eggs are nearly set, add the sauteed mixture and crumble some goat cheese, and close the omelet.  Cook for just a few moments more and then remove the omelet from the pan.  Serve immediately.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Culinary Adventures In The Heartland

Fast food chains.  Overweight Americans.  Genetically modified foods.  Giant portions.  Bland, uninspired menu choices.  Really bad wines, both imported, and especially local.

These are all things that we have come to associate with food in the midwest.  Such stereotypes are not without merit.  I mean, anyone who has driven on a state highway knows that you can distinguish the relative sizes of a small town by whether they have enough people to support a Huck's Gas and Food Mart or a real fast food chain restaurant.  With larger cities, such as my own, Peoria, everyone knows that your dining options expand to more upscale chains, and maybe even a steakhouse or Italian restaurant.  But the general perception is that, outside of major metropolitan areas, like Chicago, that there is virtually nothing for a foodie to live for.  This perception expands to any sort of grocery option as well.  

But, as Bob Dylan once sang, the times, they are a changin'...even in the bland and boring midwest.  National trends are slowly changing the consciousness of the American public, and that even includes Middle America.  There are a lot of gems that people miss, and food trends that are stealthily advancing, for the better as much as for the worse.  I intend to talk about them.

Why should you bother to read this blog, you might ask?  Information, pure and simple.  If you are a midwesterner, particularly in the Peoria area, you will find this blog particularly useful, as I seek out interesting restaurants and ingredients available in the area.  

Some of my entries, regarding said ingredients, will aim to provide useful food geek trivia in general.  For instance, did you know that there are three main varieties of blood orange, and that the Moro, the most visually attractive and least flavorful is the primary variety grown in the US?  If that is the type of random trivia that interests you, then this is your kind of blog. 

Then there are the recipes.  Did I mention that I am a fully trained chef?  With nutrition as a hobby?  I will aim to create, or at least share, useful recipes for the ingredients under discussion.

Finally, there are the politics of food.  This country has an incredibly conflicted relationship with what we eat, and there are plenty of opinions and policies regarding food to discuss.  If you aim to become more informed on these issues, you may enjoy reading some of my entries, whether you agree with my opinions or not.

So please join me on my quest for the best foods that the midwest has to offer, where to look for them, what to do with them, and in general, food geekiness.