On eating local food

So, I sort of made a dumb deal with myself in which I would participate in NaBloPoMo to keep my writerly juices flowing (because the flood of freelance work and academic writing isn’t enough?!). Mostly I wanted to goose my blog writing because I have a bunch of ideas but haven’t taken the time to write any of them down here.

So, a day late (maybe I’ll extend this to Dec. 1 to compensate for missing yesterday), here we go. First order of business: I read this Opinionator blog by Mark Bittman yesterday and nodded to myself, all, “yep, totally. Agree 100%.” And then, this morning, he mentioned on Twitter that the conversation on the entry was being dominated by Big Food apologists and bratty Americans who didn’t want to give up their Chilean berries, so I decided to post this comment:

I buy local food as much as possible because I care about the environment, because I want to help support and foster local farms and farmers, because I want to know that my food has been handled safely and responsibly (and in the case of animals, grass-fed and raised and slaughtered humanely). I want to eat food that tastes like what it’s supposed to taste like and hasn’t been fiddled with in some laboratory somewhere along the way. I buy local food because I don’t want a penny of my money going to Monsanto. I buy local food because I don’t want to be part of the homogeneous Big Food/industrial agriculture system. I buy local food because the stakes of the Big Food companies are to make as much money as possible, while the stakes for local farmers involve their families, communities, and ecosystems. Want to occupy Wall Street? Buy local food.

Bittman is right to point out that the Farm Bill and its concomitant corn subsidies are among the roots of the problem with our food system today. Some may argue that people can’t afford to buy local food, which is true, but the corn subsidies have done so much damage to our food supply, our environment, and our health (and if you don’t think that Occupy Wall Street has anything to do with your $2 meal combo, you haven’t been paying attention) that we MUST take action. ConAgra actively lobbies to keep the corn subsidies in play because that’s what benefits its bottom line. Which is more important: taking care of our bodies, our ecosystems, and our communities by incorporating as much local food as we can into our diets, or perpetuating the stranglehold corporations have on every aspect of our lives while they make money off our increasingly fat asses?


Salted Caramel Brownies

Not a recent batch, but close.

These brownies have become my go-to for bake sales. Not only did I make them for the Japan bake sale (where we earned more than $11,000 for earthquake relief!), but I also made them for the recent Bastrop bake sale (where we brought in more than $14,000 for wildfire relief!) and, most recently, the BK’s school Halloween carnival.

I am a big believer in bake sales. In fact, I have a post percolating about bake sales and how they can go really, really right (see above) and how they can just be seventeen kinds of wrong. Stay tuned for that.

For now, here is a recipe, adapted from Baked Explorations

Salted Caramel Brownies

For the caramel

1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons golden syrup or agave nectar
1/4 cup water
3/4 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon sea salt

Combine the sugar, golden syrup, and water in a medium saucepan. Cook on high heat for about 6 or so minutes or until the mixture is golden brown. Don’t get jumpy and pull it off the heat too soon; just watch closely until you hit that perfect shade between dark amber (think of the mosquitoes in Jurassic Park) and the color of a glass of Fat Tire. If you pull it too soon, the caramel will not thicken enough. Remove from heat (I take it off the burner altogether) and slowly add the cream (be careful, because it will bubble up) and the sea salt. Set aside.

For the brownie
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons dark unsweetened cocoa powder
11 ounces dark chocolate chips (I use Guittard or Whole Foods brand)
1 cup unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
5 large eggs, at room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
Spray the sides and bottom of a 9 x 13 inch cake pan. (NOTE: if you are using a nonstick pan, don’t use spray. Use butter.) Line the bottom with a sheet of parchment paper.
Whisk together the flour, salt, and cocoa powder in a medium-sized bowl.
Boil some water in a saucepan. Put the chocolate chips and the butter cubes in a large stainless steel mixing bowl and stir occasionally until the chocolate and butter are melted. Remember that the bowl will be hot, so plan accordingly.
Turn off the heat, but keep the bowl on top of the saucepan; add both sugars. Whisk until completely combined and remove the bowl from the pan.
Add three eggs to the chocolate mixture and whisk until just combined. Add the remaining two eggs and whisk until just combined. Add the vanilla and stir until combined.
Sprinkle the dry ingredients mixture over the wet mixture. Fold until there is a just a trace amount of the flour mixture visible (watch for pockets of flour mixture toward the bottom).

Pour half of the brownie batter into the pan and jiggle it until it is relatively smooth on top. Carefully pour the caramel mixture evenly on top of the brownie batter, but don’t add it all, and be careful to avoid the sides. Strategically place the rest of the brownie batter over the caramel layer and smooth it across the top. If you have any caramel that has escaped and is snuggled up against the parchment, just use your spoon or spatula to nudge it back into the batter. The caramel gets absorbed into the brownie during cooking, so you won’t be messing with the aesthetics of a layer by doing this.

Bake for about 30 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through the baking time. The brownies are done when the toothpick comes out with a few moist crumbs; sometimes I don’t need the full 30 minutes, sometimes I need a few extra minutes. Stick as close as possible to the 30 minutes if you like a fudgy, supermoist brownie.

(At this point, you can choose to drizzle the remaining caramel on top of the brownies, or sprinkle some coarse sugar or fleur de sel on top. I don’t do either of those.)

Cool the brownies on the stove top for about 15-20 minutes, then chill them in your freezer or fridge until completely chilled (I use a metal pan; use your discretion with a glass dish). Remove the pan from the freezer/fridge, use the parchment paper to lift the brownies out onto a cutting board, then slice the brownies. Chilling them should help you get clean lines instead of a crumbly mess. Enjoy!

Baked Sunday Mornings: Grasshopper Bars (and a Slow Food Quiz Bowl wrapup)

I don’t think I’ve ever had a grasshopper bar before, nor have I had the drink. I think I might have had a bite or a slice of grasshopper pie at one point in the distant past, but not in any recent memory I can access in my mind grapes. That’s probably because all things grasshopper are so very dated by this point that it’s just not a thing anymore. Besides, I like to get my chocolate-mint combo in Thin Mint form anymore.

That said, I really like these bars. They are quite tasty (and when they were freshly made last night, they even tasted a bit boozy, although that aspect of their flavor profile has mellowed a bit since then) and pretty darn easy to make. Of course, I’ve made some variant of the Baked brownie about a million times now, so that step is pretty much second nature by now. I was pretty nervous about the buttercream, certain that I would jack it up one way or another, but it turned out beautifully. Seriously, I have nothing but good things to say about these bars. I would totally make them again, and probably will, since I have 90% of a bottle of Creme de Menthe left over. (Which reminds me: I was a bit paralyzed by indecision at the liquor store when faced with the option of the white or green creme de menthe. I went for green, obviously, for verisimilitude.)

I took a few of the bars with me to the quiz bowl today to share with my teammates:

I think it took Kathryn, like, three hours to eat this thing.

The quiz bowl was pretty fun. It was great to hang out with my food bloggy friends, hang out and crack wise with my new friend Christian and his wife Julie, and meet and talk with local restaurateurs while eating yummy food. While our team did not fare so well (things I’m proud of: my pulling the answer for “raclette” out of thin air at the very last second, knowing what “farmstead cheese” means; Jodi and Kathryn pouncing on the ingredient list for the Moscow Mule; Megan knowing that “sushi” is called that because of the rice that’s used. Things I’m not proud of: costing our team 5 points for answering that authentic mozzarella is made from cow’s milk, not buffalo, EVEN THOUGH MY STUPID BRAIN KNEW IT WAS BUFFALO), it was nice to know that we were part of a much bigger project, which was helping raise money for Slow Food Austin and a local charity. The team that beat us, Barley Swine, went on to take the whole prize; they will donate the $1200 prize pool to Urban Roots, a worthy organization indeed.

After the event, the husband and I went home to relieve my folks of babysitting duties, and we cooked dinner. I made a huge salad, a big bowl of fruit, and Matt grilled some chicken, steak, and ribs. We turned off all of the various screens and just enjoyed each other’s company and conversation (topping off the meal, of course, with grasshopper bars!). Everything about today — from making the bars from scratch to sharing them with my friends, to enjoying the fruits of this community’s commitment to local foodways, to preparing and enjoying a leisurely meal with my family — was the very epitome of Slow Food. Everything is connected, no?

Slow Food Quiz Bowl!!

image snagged from the Slow Food Austin website

Well, it’s official. On Sunday, August 14, I will be representing — along with Jodi, Megan, and Kathryn — the Austin Food Blogger Alliance at Slow Food Austin’s annual fundraiser. What is it, you ask? Why, a Quiz Bowl, of course!

I am a fan of the Slow Food movement because it is committed to preserving local food traditions and emphasizing the virtues and pleasures of conviviality and commensality. (Look for a related blog post soon!) There are so many practitioners of Slow Food in Austin — Bryce Gilmore, the folks at Dai Due, the Kocureks, to name just a few — heck, if you go to the farmers market to stock up on your week’s groceries, harvest veggies from your backyard for dinner, make it a point to go to a restaurant that sources its ingredients locally, or simply take the time to cook the family meal from scratch, making sure that everyone is fully present (rather than bolting down food with eyes glued to the TV), you’re a practitioner of Slow Food.

It is my opinion that now, more than ever (ugh, such a cliche! But apt.), we need to work hard to preserve our local food traditions and place a bold underscore under the importance of eating together. What better way to stand up to the Monsantoization of our food supply and the McDonaldsization of our food culture than to eat unsullied, lovingly prepared food in the presence of our loved ones?

If you’re interested in attending the Quiz Bowl, you can buy tickets on the Slow Food Austin site. There will also be a raffle of cool stuff, as well as a live auction of cuts of meat broken down right before your eyes.

If you’re interested in contributing to our team entry fee of $150, which will ultimately go to the charity of our choosing (because we are going to ROCK THIS OUT!!!!), you can donate here.

Please do come out and support this very worthy cause. At the very least, it’s a good excuse to drink cocktails on a Sunday afternoon.

Strawberries three ways

Much of my childhood is pretty hazy, but I do remember really loving going to my Great Aunt Edna’s house in the spring and raiding the strawberry plants in her back yard. My cousins and I would pick as many as we could, snitching unwashed berries while we picked, then taking what remained of our spoils back into her house for a dish of fresh strawberries with cream poured over them.

I think I had forgotten what insanely fresh strawberries tasted like into my adulthood, growing accustomed over time to grocery store berries. I remember getting some strawberries out of season, probably imported from Chile or something, and thinking that they didn’t taste like strawberries. In fact, they didn’t really taste like anything. It was very disappointing and a stark reminder that I just really, really need to always buy produce in season, preferably from local purveyors, because nothing beats the simple pleasure of a strawberry that wakes up your taste buds with the intensity of its strawberry-ness. All politics about sustainability and the like aside, eating local, in-season fruits and vegetables is an unparalleled pleasure.

To that end, back on Good Friday, I canceled my class and took the kids out to Sweet Berry Farm to pick strawberries. We discovered Sweet Berry a few years ago, probably through the Mama Mafia, and have gone once or twice in previous years. We have never really picked very much while there, mostly because the last time we were there, the Big Kid was still pretty small and the pleasures of picking strawberries was pretty much lost on him.

But this time, we were primed and ready! Big and Little Kids attacked the berry plants with gusto, moreso when our friends I and C (and their parents) arrived. The Little Kid wasn’t too excited about the fact that the rows were fairly muddy, which made things a little slippery (and dirty), but we did our best to find the driest rows possible. We picked and picked and picked and picked — I had a hard time stopping because every time I thought to myself, okay, this is the last one, I’d see another perfectly ripe and plump gem a few feet away, calling out to be plucked.

We filled two boxes (I and C’s family filled three!), to the tune of nearly $30 (10 pounds of strawberries x $2.75/pound!). I had strictly budgeted $20 for berries, so I had to borrow $10 from our friends (and I’m reminded that I have, to date, neglected to repay that $10! Whoops!) to cover the rest of the bill.

We fed the goats, took some pictures, picked up some pie at the Blue Bonnet, ate lunch, then headed home. I had the daunting task of hulling those 10 pounds and figuring out what to do with the darn things, and in a hurry. Berries as ripe as the ones we picked had about a 2-day window before going to mush.

I started out with an embarrassingly easy freezer jam, the supplies for which I picked up at HEB for a measly $5 (freezer jars and a packet of Ball freezer jam pectin). A friend of mine had gifted me with a jar of her freezer jam a couple of years ago and I had always wanted to make more. So I did. And that knocked out four cups of the 10 pounds. This jam is really delicious and simple: it captures the sweetness of the fresh berries without sacrificing their inherent tartness. It goes well on bagels, but might be a little runny for a pb&j. I really like to spoon a couple of tablespoons of it over some reduced-fat Greek yogurt for breakfast.

Next, I made a dessert for Easter dinner at my folks. I had seen this recipe on Facebook via my friend Jillian last summer and made it for the family fourth of July barbecue. It was a HUGE hit — people were taking seconds and thirds even after stuffing themselves on burgers and the like — so I decided to make it again.

It doesn’t look very pretty, but believe me: this icebox cake is DELICIOUS and crazy easy. You can even lighten it up by using reduced fat graham crackers and light Cool Whip, depending on your feelings about processed foods. I did compromise and use Honey Maid graham crackers, but I made the whipped cream and the chocolate ganache from scratch.

Finally, because the Big Kid got really excited by the prospect of strawberry ice cream, I used a couple of cups of the berries for that. I used a French Vanilla base, the recipe for which came in the booklet accompanying my KitchenAid ice cream maker attachment; you add the cut-up berries in the last few minutes of freezing. I thought it was delicious, but Big Kid rejected it, saying it was “too lumpy.” (The lumps being the strawberries.) Sigh.

Fortunately, the ice cream did not go to waste. I took it this past week to a house party (hosted by Stephanie and Megan) celebrating the release of Kate’s book. Kate had brought a DELICIOUS rhubarb crisp to the party, and the ice cream paired with it beautifully. In fact, I may need to use the remaining four or so cups of berries (currently languishing in the freezer) to replicate that blissful pairing (or I might just make a strawberry-rhubarb crisp, if I can find some rhubarb at the farmers market this morning).

ATX Food Swappers, April edition

On Sunday, April 10, the whole family headed out to Tecolote Farms for the most recent ATX Swappers event.

City kids heading to the farm!

We got there super early and so the kids got to log some time in the tire swing (they later moved on to the hammock, which they loved. Shall have to figure out how/where to hang one in our backyard). It was a hit!

I packaged up 10 huuuuuge scones, totally excited to go see what else would wind up on the swapping table. In the past, I’ve gotten some really lovely things, including yummy caramels, whole wheat beer bread, and tangy-crisp escabeche.

This time, there were a TON of people there — it was the largest swap yet — and there were some really beautiful offerings. There were coolers and coolers full of fresh veggies from the farm, as well as some from others’ personal gardens (I scored a HUGE bag of freshly picked lettuce!). A few people brought backyard eggs (which the Big Kid was VERY excited about, especially since some of them were green!) and even some homemade sausage! Holy wow! That put my humble scones to shame, to be sure.

It was truly a pleasure to get out into the country and mingle with friends old and new, introduce the kids to horses and chickens, and step back and admire the blossoming community that is growing up around the simple pleasure of sharing food. Not only did the Big Kid get his eggs, the Little Kid got her very own bag of blueberry marshmallows from Curious Confections, I got a lovely jar of lemon curd (and failed to get the name of the lady I traded with), some incredible panna cotta with pear gelee (from JW, whose blog address I don’t have), as well as hugs (and cardamom-ginger vodka) from Jote and Melissa. So even though I felt a little bit of anxiety about the fact that people weren’t exactly tripping over themselves to get to my baked goods, I still feel like I came out ahead.

Austin Bakes for Japan!

ooey gooey delicious salted caramel brownies

Here I am, posting my preview at the last possible minute! Tomorrow (Saturday, April 2), I am participating in a citywide bake sale to raise money for Japan tsunami relief. My brownies — plain and salted caramel — will be for sale at the East Austin location at Nomad Bar from 10-2. Click here to find out the other locations and come buy some diet-busting goodies for a good cause!

Don’t live in Austin? Perhaps your city is represented here? There are dozens taking place across the country!

plain brownies

Apricot-Almond Biscotti with cardamom and white chocolate

Don't hate us because we're not beautiful.

I’m bringing two items for trade to next week’s ATXSwappers (read about it here, here, and here). I was going to bring lemon curd, but then I saw that Kristina is bringing so, so I decided to make this instead. The other item I’m bringing is (are?) these biscotti, inspired by the hazelnut cinnamon chip biscotti in Baked. Needless to say, I’m super excited about the swap, because it’s such a great opportunity to meet other food-loving people. Not to mention that my friend Carly is coming, and she makes any party better.

Apricot-Almond Biscotti with cardamom and white chocolate
1 1/3 cups sugar
1 ¼ tsp. baking powder
1 ¼ tsp. salt
1 tsp. ground cardamom
4 large eggs
2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
3 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
1 cups chopped dried apricots (not the unsulphured kind)
1/2 cup chopped toasted almonds
2 cups white chocolate chips (I used Whole Foods chunks)
1 large egg white

    Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

    In a small bowl, whisk together the sugar, baking powder, salt, and cardamom.

    In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the eggs and the sugar mixture together until the color is uniform and the mixture is thick. Add the vanilla and beat for 5 seconds. Add the flour in two batches and beat until just combined. Scrape down the bowl and mix for a few seconds more. Add the apricots, almonds, and chocolate chips and beat until just combined.

    Turn the dough out onto the prepared baking sheet and shape it into a log about 16 inches long, 3 ½ inches wide, and ¾ inch thick. Use an offset spatula to smooth the surface of the dough. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes until firm, but now browned. Let cool on the pan for 10 minutes.

    Lower the oven temperature to 325 degrees F.

    While the log is cooling, whisk the egg white and 2 tablespoons water together and use a pastry brush to brush the egg wash onto the top of the log.

    Cut the log into ¾-inch slices with a serrated knife, set them on the baking sheet cut sides up and down, and bake for 25 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and cool on a wire rack for 5 minutes. Makes approximately 24 biscotti.

These do not look like traditional biscotti, and I had some problems with the dough being too sticky. Then instead of parchment, I used a silpat, which I think I probably shouldn’t have (I didn’t have any parchment and am forever forgetting to buy some more). Also my log was too thick, so the outer parts of the cookies were done before the middle was done. THAT SAID, these are freaking delicious. The apricot, almond, and white chocolate are very subtle, allowing the cardamom to take center stage without being overwhelming. I think these would go nicely with an afternoon tea, perhaps even a chai latte if you’re a cardamom fan.

White chocolate cranberry oatmeal cookies with candied orange peel

(“…and bacon and lobster and broccoli and cheese,” jokes my husband upon hearing the cumbersome, ingredient-heavy title of these cookies. Perhaps there’s a more graceful name for them?)

Back in December, I went to the inaugural ATXswappers event and really, really enjoyed it. In addition to taking home some AMAZING food, I met (and got to reconnect with) some really talented people.

Among the tasty goodies I brought home was a baggie of candied orange peels made by Addie. They’ve kind of been languishing in my kitchen-counter fruit bowl (currently stocked with a belt of lemons destined to be lemon curd for the next swap!) because I didn’t really know what to do with them.

A couple of weeks ago, I bought the ingredients for some white chocolate cranberry oatmeal cookies and after giving it some thought, figured, why not put some of that orange peel in the cookies? Who doesn’t love the pairing of cranberry and orange? Then I sort of tossed around different ways to deal with the white chocolate — make a ganache and glaze the cookies with it? Make a ganache and swirl it in the batter? Ultimately, I decided to just put the chips in with the batter per the recipe, mostly because I’m lazy and sick to death of washing dishes.

So, to make a short story even longer, I minced up a few pieces of the candied peel and put about two tablespoons of it into the batter; that was the perfect amount, as any more would have overwhelmed the cookie and any less wouldn’t have shown up in the flavor profile. Let me tell you, these cookies are AMAZING. Seriously, send help. I ate three before I could even help myself, and so did Matt (“They taste like they’re good for me, but they’re also really good.” I then informed him that the recipe called for a stick and a half of butter. “That must be the good-for-me part that I’m tasting,” he replied.) I considered sending the remainder (about two dozen) to work with him today, but they already got 2/3 of the Almond Joy Tart (“should be illegal,” was some of the feedback) this week and I am greedy. But I’ve also lost 13 pounds in the past four months and I’d like to keep that going.

So. A box of really delicious (and fattening, despite the presence of oatmeal) cookies needs a home, preferably not in my belleh. *cue sad music*

The cookie version of puppy-dog eyes.

Seriously, though, I’m really looking forward to the next swap on Jan 31. Not only might I find the next ingredient that can make an otherwise-mundane recipe pop, but I am super excited about the potential for this budding community of bright, creative folks who are passionate about good food and even better company.