Monday, November 16, 2009

Simple living and simple cooking

Before entering the Peace Corps I had a period of wonderful cookery experimentation at my home.  This may or may not have been a direct effect of my unemployment at the time.  I cooked a bunch of great meals, some failures, and I had an endless list of new things to try...
I have carried over my interest in experimenting with recipes to the campo of Nicaragua.  But, as my life has been simplified a bit, so has my cooking.  I am amazed at some of the things I am cooking in the third world; and I am always impressed by the products that the natives make using very rustic kitchens.  Upon my return to the States I hope to continue producing great food ideas with fresh, local should feel SO EASY to have all the tools of a luxury kitchen.
Yesterday I prepared my first attempt of a cheddar style hard cheese.  I helped milk the cows and brought 4 L of fresh, raw milk straight home to curdle.  The cheese is currently dripping dry in a make shift mold using part of a used plastic soda bottle, a can of tuna fish, and a bottle of rum.  Haha.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

food industry news, always love it.

Two food industry blurbs passed through my inbox this week, and since they both relate to public health, I decided a post might interest others.
It seems that the debate continues about raw milk products.  Now that I live in Nicaragua, I often think about this because fresh (and not so fresh) raw milk products are very common.  Presumably this is the case in most of the world in small agricultural communities.  For this reason, I recently initiated a workshop with some local dairy producers to teach preferred milking practices and cattle sanitation. //  In the States I often thought about the ins and outs of raw milk because of my job selling artisan cheeses.  There is certainly a market for old world style cheese, made with all the flavor factors that [many people say] only raw milk can provide. Aqui en Nicaragua, tomo mi cafe con leche directo de la teta!  Vamos a ver si me hace dano...
The raw milk debate: Economic opportunity or legal liability?

Many states have recently passed legislation to expand the sale of unpasteurized milk, allowing farmers to sell larger quantities of unpasteurized milk and thereby enhance economic opportunities in these times of severe economic challenges for so many dairy farmers. In the latest ePerspective post, Catherine Donnelly, Professor at the University of Vermont and Co-director of the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese, asks the question: Should economic opportunity be met at the expense of public health? Despite claims of health benefits associated with raw milk consumption, raw milk is a well documented source of bacterial pathogens which can cause human illness, and in some instances, death. Has raw milk legislation created economic opportunity or legal liability for farmers engaged in the sale of unpasteurized milk? Share your opinion today on Food Technology's ePerspective!


Kellogg discontinues immunity statements on Rice Krispies cereals

Kellogg Company has announced its decision to discontinue the immunity statements on Kellogg's Rice Krispies cereals. Last year, Kellogg started the development of adding antioxidants to Rice Krispies cereals. The company began advertising the change with large labels on cereal boxes that read in bold letters: "Now helps support your child's immunity."

While science shows that these antioxidants help support the immune system,given the public attention on H1N1, the company decided to make this change. Kellogg, based in Battle Creek, Mich., said it has heard very little concern from consumers about the claim, but is responding to concerns in the media about the timing of this front-of-the-box claim and the H1N1 flu outbreak. Kellogg said it will take several months to phase out the packaging but it will continue to offer the increased levels of certain vitamins in the cereal.

Really society?  REALLY?  Would some people actually, perhaps, purchase more rice crispies in as a preventative measure for swine flu?  Hehehe...

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Avocado sorbet in the campo

Another treat that I enjoyed alone in the Peace Corps...por eso, I share the idea on my blog.  I hope others will try it.

I read a book about Citrus last year and it includes a quick recipe for a treat using avocado, lime, and sugar.  It is like a sweet gaucamole.  It is a Brasilian recipe and I imagine these ingredients are abundant there!

In rural Nicaragua I am in avocado paradise compared to the States.  I can sometimes by 3 or 4 large avocados for around $1.00 (USD); sometimes I can pick an aguacate from the tree. I recall spending around $1.00 on a single avocado in the States.

So, the other day, with a sourish lemon that fell outside of the door to my room, I whipped up an avocado, sugar, and lemon juice.  Since my house is super fancy, I actually have a fridge with a freezer (most homes in rural Nicaragua have no need for a fridge...if they have electricity, they do usually have a television however---this home has a fridge because it is owned by a city family that sells fresh cheese--it is fresh because of the refrigerator).  So, I froze this creamy mixture and the next day enjoyed rich, healthy, and delicious creamy sorbet!!

Monday, September 21, 2009

Keep it gourmet with recursos that you have

I don´t have access to many of the gastronomic delights of the U.S.A. but I am learning so many new things in Nicaragua.  I eat corn in so many wonderful forms...

Tonight I will dine on a bit of home made ricotta cheese that I made this morning from some left over whey (the farms often produce fresh cheese and throw out the whey).  I will enjoy the ricotta with some olive oil, a splash of fresh lemon juice, salt, and some local grown lettuce before I have my beans!

Friday, September 4, 2009


A Nica favorite and a pretty delicious little fritter.  My family in Carazo taught me to fill my plate because the buñuelos will be gone when it is time for seconds...

The recipe is simple, like so many great edible creations.  Peel, rinse, and proceed to shred raw yucca root (aprox. 8x 4 inch long root pieces).  One can shred by hand or using some sort of food processor.  Next, grind or mash the yucca into a paste with some cuajada (essentially Nicaraguan cheese curd/fresh cheese) or soft salted cheese.  I would substitute with ricotta in the States.  In Nicaragua, the mashing step is done with a hand operated mill--a meat grinder really--although I have yet to see a family use this tool to grind meat.  I´ve seen many things ground, except meat, and I really hope meat doesn´t touch these things b/c of the sanitation implications.
Salt the resulting mixture to taste; the final product has a nice contrast of sweet and salty.  Add one large egg to moisten and bind; mix well.  The ´masa´or soft dough should be fairly thick and slightly sticky.  The family tells me that this is the home made (casera) recipe...the fritters sold in the market are made with some added flour to make them less expensive (like filler).  Spoonfuls of the starchy mixture are deep fried. but a pan fry will probably be sufficient.  Fry until golden brown.
When the buñuelos are cool to the touch, these little yucca doughnuts are eaten with honey or a cinammon spiced simple syrup...deliciosos.
Next time I hope to explore Gallo Pinto, Nica style fried rice and beans.  And in the near future I hope to share some of the traditional corn recipes I am learning.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

It may take 2 years, but I´m learning...

I now reside in Nicaragua, Central America.  I knew before I arrived that one of my personal goals during my time here would be learning as much about the local gastronomy as possible.  There are many dishes and conceptions about food to learn (and endless new Spanish vocabulary words for me).  As usual, I am stepping up to the plate with an open mind...trying new foods, new drinks, new fruits, etc.  Since I am in the tropics, I am finally seeing some of the plants, at the source, that produce many of the common foods consumed in the states---for example coffee and chocolate.

Some new tastes that I hope to expand upon later:

Gallo pinto.  Probably the national dish of rice and beans.  A million and one ways to eat pig.  Tropical fruit frescos.  AND, I have produced my first batch of MANGO WINE, which came out quite tasty.

Las mujeres aqui tenemos la cuchara buena...the tasty spoon...they are great cooks.  I only wish there was a bit more food safety knowledge.

Monday, May 11, 2009

A world of new comida.

My new blog is up, Sustainable Nica, and I am preparing to extract myself from my comfortable lifestyle in the United States. I am beginning a new chapter in life--a new learning journey. While my passion for food will continue, I will be cooking, eating, growing, and experience all the tastes and products of a new society. During my time in the Peace Corps, serving in Nicaragua, my Gazpacho Lab blog will periodically detail some of my foriegn gastronomic findings.

Ciao for now!

Friday, April 24, 2009

Cheese plates for all !

Tiffany & I love making a meal out of cheese, fresh baguette, a veggie or some fruit, and wine. What former cheese monger would not? I still get royal treatment at DiBruno Brothers, where I learned most of my knowledge du fromage. So it's difficult not to buy cheese if I visit. But my new town (Narberth, PA) also has a great cheese shop, not to mention the plethora of decent cheeses offered at most big supermarkets. I eat a lot of cheese.

I recently revisited this brief cheese article on NPR's website. I think it has some great ideas for tasty cheese pairings. Read it and be inspired to put a cheese plate on this weekend's menu!!


Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Mercato in Philadelphia - a quick, tasty review

As I finish up my lunch of Italian left overs, I am feeling quite content in the fact that last night's dinner was large enough to spill over into the next day. I have no photos, elaborate critiques of menu, ambiance, or service--but I have to spread the word that MERCATO in Philadelphia is a top notch B.Y.O. restaurant. Tiffany and I decided to make last night a date night with a bottle of copper colored Venetian Pinot Grigio...we settled on trying out Mercato because we had heard good things about their cheese selection. We loved everything about our meal and the experience.

We started with a generous cheese course [in retrospect we would have saved it for dessert]: pecorino ginepro and caciotta al tartufo. Ginepro - a firm, aged sheeps' milk cheese, cured in balsamic and juniper berries (if memory serves me correctly). The second choice was a delicious truffled goat cheese, also hard and aged to perfection. The board came out with balsamic for dipping, apple slices, and some delicious grapes. We snacked on the cheese, had a bit of bread, and then finished getting full on a wonderful roasted artichoke, reminiscent of carciofi ordered in Rome. This was all before the main course.

We splurged for the evening specials. Tiffany decided to see how their rich, italian sausage meat-sauce tasted over fresh made fettucine. I opted for the fish: a mountain of cobia tastiness. The fish was cooked perfectly; it was fresh tasting and not at all fishy (at least not in a bad way). It was topped with some crab meat and as my fork worked its way through the fish, I discovered a heaping portion of brocoli rabe. Both dishes were outstanding. The large portions sealed the deal that Mercato serves quality food for a great value.

By the way, the menu is vast and fun, the ambience is modern Italian bistro-esque, and the service is welcoming. The staff did not make us feel rushed and I observed as they offered to decant the next table's vino. I only wish I had been able to chat with the three presumably Mexican cooks working their hearts out in the tiny exposed kitchen; great job & thank you!! This place at Spruce and Camac Street is really worth checking out; even if you just want to do an antipasti tasting. Mercato really made our evening a special one. I can't wait to check out the sister restaurant, Valanni, for happy hour specials.

FYI, our wine selection was: Specogna Pinot Grigio Ramato (2007), Venezia, Italia.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Lunch time reminder of backed up blogging

I just finished a wonderful salad for lunch, which took about 4 minutes to make:
-Herb-mix of greens from my local grocer
-A splash of lemon juice
-A heap of hummus
-A few black olives
-Feta crumbles
-Salt, pepper
-Topped with an over-[semi]-easy egg (first experienced that in France--great taste & great protein)
-A final drizzle of Laudemio extra virgin olive oil from Tuscany (the same producer makes some great wine!).

Keeping some crumbled feta and a small container of olives in the fridge really lets me add some Mediterranean flavor to my busy weekday eating. Having an excellent bottle of olive oil is a must in the kitchen (similar to salt!). This bottle of Laudemio that I purchased is amazing--hearty olive flavor, a spicy finish and a bright green color that I have seen in few other bottles.

The salad reminded me that I am quite behind on my blogging. I have been doing a lot of hasty cooking lately, often eating before I ever think to take a photo or two. You gotta do what you gotta do. I have also been processing hundreds of photos from my recent trip to Europe, which included stops in Italy and France. New food photos will be on the blog soon...along with some left over winter posts that are waiting in queue. Spring is here, a new season for food, and hopefully some interesting gastronomic blogging.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Michael Pollan on NPR

I heard this Terry Gross interview with Michael Pollan replayed recently on NPR. This is certainly not a breaking news event, but I thought I would share the link with any foodies and/or proactive consumers out there reading my blog. The inverview discusses problems with our nation's food system and some positive ideas for reform. In the long run, I believe that food policy reform can and will have a positive impact on public health.

In general, I find MP's ideas to be progressive and innovative. His journalism on food policy makes a lot of sense to me and I enjoy reading his work. I do understand that his view represents one side of a story and I have seen comments from some farmers that don't think his ideas are realistic. WELL, I have also seen writing from other farmers who do think that change is reasonable, responsible and realistic. Change is difficult, people often seem to fear it. Especially when lots of money is involved.

Other writers to take a look at are Marion Nestle and Joel Salatin, both of which I stumbled upon in my college library in recent years. Salatin of course is also written about in MP's book The Omnivore's Dilemma.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Thrice eaten bread.

Typically the only bread I make falls in the quick bread category. Baguettes are cheap and readily accessible. Also, I tend to have a fall back of sliced grocery store loaf on the counter which, for me, is certainly the most convenient bread for a spontaneous piece of toast, PB&J, or a quick grilled cheese.

I have only made real bread once or twice and I also have recorded one attempt (hey, it was pretty good) at brioche. Bread making is really enjoyable for me--the kneading is somewhat therapeutic and fresh bread really repays you for your time and effort. With minimal ingredients, a home baked loaf can be used in a variety of ways after initial consumption and staling...

My most recent baguette experience had its ups and downs. On the upside, the flavor was great because I allowed it to rise slowly in the refrigerator for almost two days. On the downside, I am far from confident on my technique and I accidentally over-baked my two short baguettes, so they were a bit too crunchy and dry.
One issue may have been that I threw some whole wheat flour into the mix, but I enjoyed the flavor despite my bread's less than perfect texture. I believe whole wheat flour absorbs moisture differently than AP or bread flour.

The bread did stale quickly (it was quite crunchy from the start). But, the point is that I still got to use it for three different applications. First, I enjoyed the warm bread with some good Spanish olive oil. This was the perfect way to satiate hunger after filling my apartment with a wonderfully yeasty baking aroma.

Later, I would chop the stale bread into small cubes. At this point, the cubes could have been seasoned and baked off for croutons or bread crumbs. But, seeing how I had some left over half & half, a couple of eggs, some shredded coconut, and a few remaining butterscotch chips--why wouldn't I make some bread pudding?
So, I essentially mixed all of the sweet treats in my kitchen into a ceramic baking vessel and baked in the oven until the liquid had set up and the top had melted/browned. This turned out to be a delightful treat; one which I ate too much of, too late at night :-o

Even later, I had a few of those stale bread cubes reserved to add into a salad. I figured they could be doused in olive oil and a bit of sherry vinegar and they would accompany some greens, beans, or perhaps some tuna fish for a Mediterranean-esque panzanella.

Hopefully my future holds some more adventures in bread baking!

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Kale for the cold

I'm not very familiar with kale, but I often hear or read of its nutritional value and I see bushels of it in the greens section at the market. I'm sure I've experienced some kale as a tacky garnish and have probably eaten some in a few nondescript meals. Since it is cheap, nutritious and I had never cooked with it before, I decided to buy some for a soup.

More ruffled in appearance than its flat leafed neighbor, the collard green, kale boasts a relatively high amount of calcium, fiber, vitamins, other minerals and yummy plant compounds. The cabbage family is quite versatile. I was reminded of an article that I once read in Eating Well magazine, which touted the slogan "All hail kale!"

So, the soup was quick, cheap and most importantly: warm for winter. I simply sweat out some diced onions and garlic in a little olive oil and salt. Next, the addition of some diced, left over, hot sopressata from Arthur Ave in NYC. I lowered the heat, deglazed the pot a bit with some chicken broth and added a bit of water as well. After rinsing the kale and roughly chopping it, I threw it in the mix. When chopping the kale, I took the time to remove some of the stems, especially the larger ones, as I suspected that they may contribute some unwanted bitterness. As the soup simmered and the kale quickly wilted, I seasoned with a bit more salt, pepper, and a bit of oregano.

Nothing fancy, but soup often tastes good in winter and I enjoyed getting rid of my left over cured meat. Try something with some kale yourself! We also enjoyed the soup with some home made popovers; not exactly crusty bread, but a out of the usual treat for us. I love the eggy flavor of a warm popover.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Budget lunches: don't forget egg salad

I have truly been trying to budget wisely at the grocery store this year. I peruse the aisles for the best deals and I have been preparing recipes that easily double as dinner and the next day's lunch. Meatloaf, rice and beans, a soup or two.

One item I like to make specifically for lunch time is a simple egg salad. I feel like the ingredients are typical for most kitchens--a couple of common condiments, spices, eggs and hopefully some bread to make a nice sandwich. I boil six eggs at a time. I cover the eggs in water, put the covered pan on the heat and I occupy myself in the other room until I hear the pan start to shake. The clattering top indicates a rolling boil, at which point I turn the heat off and let the eggs sit for at least 15 minutes [I never time it...I usually just forget about the project for a little while]. Then I rinse with cool water, crack, peel and put the eggs in a mixing bowl.

Commence salad creation: Break up the eggs, either with clean hands, a fork & knife, or some other handy tool. Season with salt, pepper, garlic powder, and paprika--or whatever you think will taste good. Douse with a generous helping of your mustard of choice. Mix. Little by little, add a bit of mayo and mix and mash the mixture making sure to crush the yellow yolks. Add a sufficient amount of mayo for good taste and moist texture--but don't go overboard! I don't measure. This is a cook's discretion. With mayo I figure you can always add more, but you can't take it out; so add in small increments.

I store my egg salad in a tight fitting, deep plastic container (deep as opposed to wide to minimize surface area). Make a quick sandwich of egg salad and a bit of lettuce on some whole grain bread (fiber is good for you!). This is a pretty nutritious lunch, quick to make, inexpensive and easy to take with you! Oh yes, and quite tasty in my opinion.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Raw milk and cheese, in brief

Two posts in the same day!

My best friend, Elliot, who writes the blog Eat Raleigh emailed me a question about raw milk and cheeses made from raw milk. Since I have been asked this question a few times before, I thought I would state my opinions on my blog.

I have observed different camps on this subject as well as numerous consumers who have been misinformed about the topic--but that is not a new theme in the world of food. Some would argue that one major deterrent to healthy eating is the confusion present in the general public about nutrition (and food safety).

So, in brief, when an animal is milked, the resulting substance is considered 'raw' milk unless it is processed with a heat treatment known as pasteurization (think scientist Louis Pasteur). Such a heat treatment does not kill all presence of microorganisms, but it greatly reduces the chance that pathogens are going to end up in your milk. There are regulations about milk in place to look out for the greater good of our population. Without regulations, milk and many other foods would be adulterated and there would be higher risk of illness from consuming harmful bacteria. To my knowledge, sale of raw milk is only legal in around half of our 50 states.

There is talk about health benefits of raw milk and better flavor. I won't argue against the flavor, because I do believe that raw milk can often produce a more complex, unique cheese flavor. However, it seems to me that the jury is still out on potential health benefits of raw milk. The dangers presumably out weigh the benefits.

In a perfect world, all food producers/processors would have impeccable health standards; their operating conditions would be extremely sanitary and they would operate on a small scale. In reality, most of the food industry operates on a large scale, which in my opinion increases the chance of contamination. Large scale animal facilities often have high incidence of disease, causing the need for antibiotics.

Concerning raw milk cheeses. Many classic European cheeses are regulated so that they are always made with raw milk. This ensures the unique terroir component of the cheese character. There are a growing number of artisanal American cheeses that are also raw milk. The U.S. FDA requires that all raw milk cheeses sold in the U.S. are aged at least 60 days at temperatures not less than 35 F. In theory the aging process ensures a safe product--and hopefully a delicious one!

Bottom line. I think dairy producers are the key part of the equation. If a dairy farmer has good practices, the milk may be safe to consume raw. For most producers, it seems like pasteurization benefits both the consumer and the milk company. There is less risk of illness and therefore less risk of lawsuits. If a cheese maker is talented and creative, chances are their cheese will be of high quality regardless of whether or not the milk is pasteurized. But, if production or distribution conditions are out of spec, even a pasteurized product can pose a threat to consumer health.

I personally would not feel comfortable feeding young children, with developing immune/digestive systems, any raw milk products. And that applies to any immune compromised individual or pregnant woman as well---why risk it?

As for me, I prefer to buy pasteurized organic milk (but I often by non-organic because of price). I will indulge in just about any cheese I am offered, whether it is pasteurized, raw, runny, or 3 years old!

I said good bye to brevity a while back, but I must add: Aren't there more pertinent issues than raw milk out there in the world? Like whether or not a child has any milk?

On the web:

New year, not much new cooking

We all change focus from time to time and for me that has meant a rather uneventful month in terms of cookery. I have a few treats that are in line to be posted, but I will start the month with some gastronomic musing. I have been reading two books related to food and travel in the past few months: Stolen Figs by Mark Rotella and French Lessons by Peter Mayle. Reading accounts of culinary experiences around Western Europe may be somewhat unhealthy for my psyche; I find myself discontent with the scene in Philadelphia--I want to travel and eat like these authors!

Mayle's book is teaching me lovely knowledge about culinary traditions of France, such as frog legs and AOC (name controlled) chicken. But, my book on Calabria hits home becuase my Italian heritage originated in Calabria. Both books depict unforgetable eating experiences in off-the-beaten-path restaurants, where generously portioned comfort food is enjoyed in lieu of fancy fare.

Rotella describes a meal in Catanzaro, Italia:
"After an antipasto of soppressata, freshly smoked ricotta, mozzarella, and peppers, a most typical Calabrese dish appeared before us: penne with sauteed tomatoes and spicy sausage, topped with a fresh grating of parmigiano. Then... a plate of braciole--thinly sliced veal, rolled around bread crumbs, ground pork, and parmigiano cheese, covered with fresh tomato sauce. Alongside was a layered dish of thinly sliced zucchini, eggplant, mozzarella, and [more] soppressata."

And then the waiter says, "I recommend only fruit--something to help the digestion" for dessert.

I think it would be refreshing to have a server suggest something like that in the States! Reading about food is a hobby of mine because so much of a place's culture comes across through the food.