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Archive for May, 2009

Ashley with some wild watercress picked fresh on our family farm in Kentucky

Ashley with some wild watercress picked fresh on our family farm in Kentucky

My sister Ashley runs a cooperative weekly rotating dinner party called a “Supper Club”. I’ve often thought of doing something similar but have had difficulty finding people who will commit to hosting one meal weekly. I’ve invited her to guest blog about her experiences doing this, and today will be the first of four non-consecutive posts on the topic. Hope you are inspired, and enjoy! j.f.

On occasion, I like to write. Especially when doing so of my own volition on topics of interest. My sister offered to let me crash her blog with my adventures Supper Clubbing and I agreed, hopefully not to her later disappointment. (of course not! jf)

First, since this seems to be a foreign concept to a lot of people, let me elaborate on the concept of a “supper club”, or at least what it means to me. I’m sure there are other names for it, but at its most basic, a supper club is a group of people who take turns cooking for each other. At the moment, my Supper Club only has three members (down from a high of six), so we field trip to restaurants on weeks when the stars don’t align for one of us to cook.

Many people are so scared to cook for themselves that I’m sure the concept of cooking for other people seems absolutely daunting, if not downright impossible (right up there with trying to refuse a second helping of desert at Thanksgiving!).

Let me allay your fears by passing along my own personal mantra as said by Catherine Aird, “If you can’t be a good example, you’ll just have to serve as a horrible warning.” : ) There are definitely times when I feel I’m the latter much more than the former, but I persist nonetheless because doing is really the only way to get better. Failure is often the best way to learn (and incidentally, makes for much better stories)!

If you’re skeptical still, let me assure you that in the course of my supper club I’ve had meals which were undercooked, overcooked (and even set on fire), several hours late and bestly (yes, I said bestly) perfectly done.

In the end, we’re not looking to be a top chef. Supper Club is not simply about becoming a better cook, though that’s nice. It’s about connecting with other people. When we pop open a bottle of booze and talk the week out over a home cooked meal, I don’t think things get much better. It’s possibly the best thing about my week. Anyway, I think I’ve rambled enough for now. Stay tuned for my first post on the last Supper Club I hosted.

Ashley

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meatless_main_dishes

In a move that would happen in the United States only over the dead bodies (er, so to speak) of the U.S. Beef and Poultry industries, the city of Ghent, Belgium has begun asking its citizens to give up meat once a week.

Last year, Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, suggested that the most useful step ordinary citizens could take to help combat climate change would be to stop eating meat. In Belgium, an entire town is taking his advice to heart. The Flemish city of Ghent has designated every Thursday as “Veggiedag” — Veggie Day — calling for meat-free meals to be served in schools and public buildings, and encouraging vegetarianism among citizens by promoting vegetarian eateries and offering advice on how to follow a herbivorous diet.

Why? Because it’s almost universally acknowledged to be better for your health, the environment and your pocketbook. That’s doesn’t mean meat doesn’t taste good and isn’t nutritious. It doesn’t mean eating meat is wrong or evil. But it does mean you probably shouldn’t eat it every day, either.

According to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, meat production accounts for 18% of annual greenhouse-gas emissions — more than transportation, which accounts for roughly 14%. Each year, millions of acres of rain forest are cleared for cattle ranchers and suppliers of animal feed, further accelerating climate change. Then there are the urgent human-health issues: the world feeds much of its grain to cattle and other animals even as millions of people starve. Those wealthy enough to consume fatty animal products are themselves at higher risk of certain health problems, including heart disease and some cancers.

Yes, you read that right. Meat makes more greenhouse gas each year than cars, trains and planes combined. Rainforest in Brazil is being felled every day to clear more land for soybean fields planted for cattle feed.

Now I hate environmental guilt trips as much as the next person, but if you read my other blog, you know I care deeply about all of the amazing, weird creatures on the planet. And it turns out a lot of them hang out in the Amazon. We’re cutting down their homes so we can enjoy cut-rate stir-fry beef. That makes me sad. Really sad. Because slime molds need homes too.

If you couldn’t care less about climate change, rain forests, or slime molds, consider this:  a pound or so of tofu rings up at about $1. Can you say the same for a pound or so of steak? If you couldn’t care less about climate change, rain forests, slime molds, OR your budget, consider the health case for cutting back on meat.

Now I’m not a vegetarian. You can have my bacon and sausage when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers. But I do try to minimize how much meat I eat. I estimate I eat meat about once a week. I’m what’s called a “flexitarian”. And I like it. I can have my tofu and bacon both.

You can too. I’ve spoken about how I believe it’s important to avoid all-or-nothing thinking (unless, of course, one has a violent nut allergy, etc.) There’s no reason you have to eat all meat all the time or all vegetarian all the time if you don’t want to. There is a middle ground.

In America, the closest thing we have to Ghent’s resolution is this:

The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, for example, recently spearheaded a “meatless Mondays” campaign in which it and 28 other public health schools run local outreach programs that promote a meat-free start to the week.

So if you haven’t already, consider trying a meatless day yourself once a week. Crack open a cookbook and see if it has a meatless section. Because when even that bastion of Southern Cooking, The Southern Living Cookbook, now has a chapter called “Meatless Main Dishes”, you know it’s probably time to get on board.

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In my last post I implored you to use your freezer as often and as soon as possible with leftovers.

Claire Walter made a good point in the comments:

The REAL secret is managing your “freezer files” — labeling each container or Baggie with contents and dates, and then somehow remembering or reminding yourself of what’s in the freezer.

I don’t know if I’m that organized, but I do try to label what I can. Remember: stay away from all-or-nothing thinking. You don’t have to be perfect. Label what you can. A good Sharpie (nigh unto indestructible black marker popular amongst the laboratory crowd) is a fixture in my kitchen. A bonus of using an actual Sharpie, and a little known secret I picked up from my laboratory days, is that the Sharpie isn’t truly permanent: You can take it off glassware, at least, with a little rubbing alcohol. In any case . . .

A few weeks ago, Mark Bittman over at the New York Times made, and elaborated more fully on, the same point about the tremendous value of the freezer. Mark has lots of great specifics on everything from livers to lemon juice. I have some comments of my own to add (and will in the future), but his list is the best starting place.

The main idea:

[I]f you conscientiously use the freezer in two ways, you’ll value it as never before. The first: take raw ingredients you have too much of — or whose life you simply wish to prolong — and freeze them. The second: take things you’ve already cooked — basics like stock, beans, grains and the like, or fully cooked dishes — and freeze them.

To the extent that you do both of these tasks regularly, and keep your freezer organized, you’ll make your cooking cheaper, more efficient and faster.

Here’s the full version– highly recommended reading.

And finally, also via Bittman’s blog, here’s a fascinating look at the actual contents of people’s refrigerators and freezers. Pay close attention and you’ll find some very interesting details.

See? It's the little details that count. NOT my actual freezer. We'll cover that later. : )

See? It's the little details that count. NOT my actual freezer. We'll cover that later. : )

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I learned this from my old friend Joel: when you have leftovers, whether from a restaurant or your own kitchen, freeze them unless you know you’ll be using them the next day (or in two days at the latest). In other words, freeze the majority of your leftovers right away. If you’re unsure, freeze it!

This prevents tons of food waste, and provides you with frozen leftovers whose quality you can trust, instead of stacks of tupperware whose contents have been in there so long they’re starting to organize and demand better hours and health insurance. It also helps prevent leftover fatigue, in which you start to get sick of whatever it was you accidentally made 8 servings of. If it’s parceled out into frozen food containers, you can leisurely decide to eat it again two weeks from now rather than feeling forced to have it for lunch and dinner every day for three days.

The corollary to this is that you’ll be eating food from your freezer quite a bit. But that’s ok — guess what you just made? Homemade frozen dinners! Guess what happens when you have homemade frozen dinners in the freezer? You don’t have to cook when you get home from work!

This little rule (along with some other principles I’ll pass along) has made my fridge a much happier place. Give it a try for a week and see if you agree. Then be brave and report back here on what you find. Did this suggestion help? Do any of you have similar tricks to help you manage your fridge?

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S’more Brownies: meat-free (thank goodness!), not dairy or wheat free. Time: About an hour. Difficulty: Medium. Recipe at bottom.

OK, time for the institution of a promised institution: kitchen disaster corner. This is a regular feature about how even in the best of kitchens, disasters happen. Let’s laugh at them and share our war stories, but not let them scare us away from cooking. : )

This week’s Frazer kitchen disaster came at the hands of a box of Graham Crackers. Some really old Graham crackers. Now, I’m pretty cheap. That’s a big reason I cook at home, and a big reason I started this blog. I like to economize and want to spread the gospel. But there is, as I’ve found on multiple occasions, a cheapness line you probably shouldn’t cross. I crossed that line last week.

I’d decided to make a delicious S’more brownie recipe my sister lifted from the Food Network and praised to high heaven. Perfect! I thought. I have an old box of Graham crackers lurking in my cupboards that’s been waiting for a use for . . . well . . . a long time.

I’d purchased them for a camping trip in years past, but just how many years ago I couldn’t say. You see, for those of you who are Easterners and confused by the survival in non-mush/molded form of graham crackers over the course of several years, you must realize this: In the Rockies, we suffer from horrible dry skin in winter, but our crackers, cookies, chips and cereal stays crisp forever. I mean forever. Those Graham crackers were as crisp as the day the package was opened.

I neglected to realize one thing: though the crackers will keep in Colorado forever, their oils won’t. I ground them in a food processor only to discover they smelled. . . well, a bit off. I have a big thing about noticing when oils and whole grains (which also have oil in them) have gone rancid, and it dawned on me that Graham crackers might fall in this category as well.

Oh well, I thought, maybe the funk will bake out. I should have known better. Once, when I lived in the Boston suburb of Roslindale, I made a dessert using flour that my roommate must have purchased sometime during the Reagan administration. It produced baked goods with the flavor of wallpaper paste. Not cool.

The S'more brownies before I browned the marshmallows.

The S'more brownies before I browned the marshmallows.

After their quality time with my broiler.

After their quality time with my broiler. If you try this at home, watch the brownies like a hawk . They will go fast!

Still, the miser in me persisted in insisting the finished product would be fine. It was not. It tasted, well, off. Fishy. I ended up having to scrape the Graham cracker crust off to make the brownies palatable. And believe me, they still were.

But I relearned an old lesson: Don’t cut corners if it means compromising on taste and quality. I could have easily afforded the extra $3 for a fresh box of store brand graham crackers or graham cracker crumbs. The final product’s value would still have far exceeded the expense and cost far less than the equivalent purchased product. But I didn’t.

Coloradans and Wyomingites — Don’t be fooled by our climate! Taste or smell your grain and oil products before you use them. Crispiness isn’t enough.

OK, open mike time. Who else has had a kitchen disaster lately. Care to share? : )

Oh, and in case you’d like to make these brownies with fresh graham crackers, here you go. You’ll want to make them for a crowd; they’re super rich.

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In the New York Times this week was some sobering news about the safety of proccessed foods. The frozen-pot-pied-induced sickening of 15,000 people shows it’s not just undercooked hamburgers and poultry-juice contaminated cutting boards that are sickening people anymore.

[T]he supply chain for ingredients in processed foods — from flavorings to flour to fruits and vegetables — is becoming more complex and global as the drive to keep food costs down intensifies. As a result, almost every element, not just red meat and poultry, is now a potential carrier of pathogens, government and industry officials concede.

… The problem is particularly acute with frozen foods, in which unwitting consumers who buy these products for their convenience mistakenly think that their cooking is a matter of taste and not safety.

Because food processors can no longer guarantee the safety of their ingredients, they’re putting the burden on consumers to ensure the safety of their products by asking you (in confusing language) to use a kitchen thermometer — and object which even I do not own (but wish to purchase, and which one commentator noted may not even give accurate readings unless it is digital). But doesn’t that defeat the whole point of “convenience” foods?

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Today I want to give you my findings on a topic of interest to anyone who enjoys Asian cuisine: Can you freeze coconut milk?

Well, the short answer is: of course you can. You can freeze anything. But what we really want to know here is: can you freeze coconut milk without harming its quality? And the answer to that question is: sort of.

The first time I froze coconut milk I did it on the instincts of a cheapskate. For those of us who aren’t cooking Asian meals on a daily basis (read: most of us), the leftover coconut milk from a can (which, frustratingly, almost never matches the quantity a recipe calls for) can’t simply be stowed in the fridge. It’s going to spoil before you get around to it.

At the same time, I wasn’t going to throw perfectly good coconut milk out when I had a perfectly good freezer right next to me. “Like hell! I’m goin’ for it!” was, I believe, my line of thought.

I didn’t care what the outcome would be, and at worst, at least I’d find out for myself if it was a total disaster. Out of curiosity and just prior to freezing, I tried researching the subject in my cookbooks and online and found little. This definitely called for the awesome power of Science and Cheapness combined.

So here’s what I’ve found from repeated experiments: coconut milk easily freezes in tupperware into an opaque white block, as you’d expect. It has a quirk on thawing, though — it stays solid much longer than you’d expect the equivalent block of ice to do. If you put it in the fridge to thaw, it may take several days. Overnight thawing in the fridge will result in a still-near-solid block.

You can help things along with a microwave set on defrost, stirring occasionally, but it will pass through an interesting “slush” phase. Finally, you will end up with a watery, grainy fluid. Some of the coconut milk solids are no longer emulsified. Here’s what it looks like in a pan:

thawed_coconut_milk

The thing is, you can still use it just fine for purposes that don’t depend on coconut milk’s texture or consistency; the flavor seems to be preserved. For the purpose of coconut rice, for example, it works great. The fluid gets sucked up into the grains of rice and the solids adhere to the outsides and seem to become creamy again.

I’d guess if you were mixing it into other dishes with lots of ingredients, the texture change would probably be unnoticeable. However, for items like Thai Iced Tea, thawed coconut milk is probably a loss. So you’ll have to use your own judgement.

Has anyone else had any experience freezing and thawing coconut milk? If so, what were your results?

jf

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