Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Hot Chicks


Last Saturday, I became a chicken mama. For the next few weeks I have 4 little guests in my spare bedroom, scratching, flapping, peeping, and sleeping (sleeping, and sleeping). My intention is to wean them into their outdoor coop where they will become fulltime egg laying machines!

Urban chickens have become a trend among elitist types, obsessive foodies, humane activist, Reece Witherspoon, entrepreneurs, hippies, and even the occasional hipsters. Fresh, pastured eggs are going for upwards of $8 a dozen at Farmer’s Markets across the country and more and more people are on board with the nutritional benefits of well fed chickens. Think of it like this… If I sit around and eat Fritos all day (aka chicken feed) versus my neighbor who eats salad and a few nibbles of lean protein, who at the end of the day, is going to have a better lean muscle mass? The same applies to chickens. Feed a chicken corn and soy and watch the cholesterol in their eggs skyrocket. Feed a chicken carrot tops, grass, flax seed, and the occasional garden snail and their eggs will provide a plethora of vitamins, Omega-3s, and nutraceuticals

Chickens are also most effective gardeners, scratching in the dirt, nibbling tender weeds, snapping up seeds, shitting every where, and gobbling up bugs. They are a one-man organic team of aeration, herbicide, pesticide, and fertilizer!

For a $1 each, indulge in the joys of rearing chickens in your own backyard.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Peas, Glorious Peas!


It’s spring again. Little nubs of growth have popped up on the fingerling ends tree branches. Irises taunt us with their mangy beards. Birds prance and sing and act-a-fool over thoughts of passionate nest making. And at the farmers market, delicate flavors or early spring come peeking out between the masked flavors of winter.

The flagship for these troops is asparagus. Sometime in March they pop their closed-fist tips out of firm frosted soil and we are blessed with a grassy green ancient veggie until almost June. Every week I buy $2 bunches from the lady who sells exclusively asparagus making creamed soups, adding into carbonara pasta, sautéing with peas and mint, grilling, and even blanching elegant little log-cabin stacks next to eggs for brunch. Alas! Nature is perfectly timed so that just as I am sick-and-tired of these green spears and I can pee stinky no longer, the warmer weather smacks them down and they disappear for another 6 months.

My second omen are the sugar snap peas, dressed in plastic green baskets with little bucket hat foliage tips. I eat these by the dozen as a mid-morning snack, crunchy and raw, amazed at the balance between the saccrine pod and the bitter green babies tucked inside. Where there are peas, there are pea tendrils (great sautéed) and sweet pea blossoms ($5 will buy you a heap in fuchsia, soft pink, and white that will perfume your pad for days).

If you really want to splurge, grab a bag of English peas that have been shelled. These, I suppose, are related to the guys you buy frozen, but bear no resemblance in flavor. They are a stunning addition to pasta, sidled up next to a piece of ham, or just steamed and buttered. If you’ve got time on your hand, grab a bag of fava beans and spend your Sunday like a Southern lady shucking, boiling, and shucking again for little thumbs of bitter beans that are truly the prize of the season.

Other delights to be on the lookout for are faintly orange Meyer lemons, spearmint, delicate baby lettuces, new potatoes, purple-tipped scallions, green garlic shoots, chives, Bloomsdale spinach and of course, strawberries.

Follow the calendar and use the seasons as a guide for how to cook! All these subtle flavors of spring meld together perfectly for almost any dish… the green garlic shoots never overpowering the rustic funk of peas or the bright bite of mint. And as the weather warms, bold flavors hum and intensify until in August we are sweating and delirious with the intoxicating bounty of red blushed peaches, potent red onions, eye-rolling tomatoes, sour plums, and sweet purple basil. Wait for it. Enjoy the journey that is spring. It’s worth it.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Sweet Life


Sweet Potato Chorizo Street Tacos
Makes 8 tacos

3 tbsp vegetable oil or lard
1 medium finely chopped onion
¾ lb. peeled sweet potato, chopped into ¼ inch cubes
4 inches of Mexican chorizo
5 cloves of minced garlic
salt and pepper to taste
8 corn tortillas
2 cups shredded cabbage
8 sprigs cilantro, chopped
8 tbsp sour cream
1 lime
hot sauce to taste

In a large sauté pan, heat oil and add onion and sweet potato. Cook over medium heat until onions are tender, about 7 minutes. Next, remove the chorizo from the casing and add to sauté pan. Cook with onions and potatoes until it is crumbled and starts to brown, about 3 minutes. Add garlic and cook for another 3 minutes, or until sweet potato is tender. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Steam tortillas in a clean, damp dish towel for 1 minute in the microwave. Next, assemble your tacos, dividing all remaining ingredients among the 4 tortillas. Start with the potato chorizo mixture, top with cabbage, cilantro, and sour cream. Squeeze lime and add your favorite hot sauce to taste.

Note: I keep chorizo frozen and saw off a couple of inches every time I find the other ingredients for this recipe in my house. I even use “soyrizo” the vegan chorizo, quite often and it is great!

Friday, March 6, 2009

The Milky Way

My husband has always stood by the claim that if he ever had to get a tattoo, it would be a loaf of bread and a slab of cheese; two passions in life that will never go out of style. I’ve got his back on this one. What could be more primal and delicious than the magic of fermentation to raise and set such delicate foods?

This all hit home while reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. I was swept away with a passage about family pizza night. No, no… not a Boboli with bagged cheese and a sauce packet… making pizza from scratch. Dad would gingerly proof the dough in the late afternoon from a little yeast and flour. The kids would prep the toppings of choice. And Mom would make the cheese. Yes, make the cheese.

I was curious. They swore of a 30 minute mozzarella recipe that birthed little white balls of fresh (and inexpensive) real cheese that melted and browned beautifully in the oven. I could not resist the pastoral sales pitch.

After a quick purchase on cheesemaking.com, the website of the self-proclaimed Cheese Making Queen, Ricki Carroll, I was set.

The first and perhaps, most important part of making cheese is the milk. Grocery shelf milk is typically “ultra-high pasteurized” meaning is it heated to a really, really high temperature to cook out all its beautiful, tiny enzymes. These little guys are necessary to make cheese (and for all you lactose intolerant people out there, also to properly digest your milk… Hello! It’s no wonder you clog up like a disposal after Thanksgiving… your milk has been killed!). But I digress… Fresno State pasteurizes their milk, but not to scorching hot temperatures, so it works like a champ. The other option is of course the local folks at Organic Pastures, whose raw milk has the full spectrum of flora and fauna needed for cheese.

Once you’ve got your milk, you start in on the chemistry. It’s a matter of a little rennet (some little vitamin-like tablet that’s a digestive enzyme), citric acid (a sour powder), salt, and water. Mix, heat, and then the whole thing sets up like a giant pot of silky white custard. From there, you separate the curds (future cheese) from the whey (strange translucent yellowed liquid that secretly tastes really good). For mozzarella, you heat the curds until they are almost unbearable to touch and then stretch the whole mess like taffy to twirl into little balls. Ricotta, you simply hang in a little cheese cloth for about 30 minutes and voila!

I confess, the mozzarella took about 45 minutes on the first attempt, but honestly, it was a milky miracle to make something so complex and enigmatic in a matter of minutes! The taste was fresh and silky, moist and gentle. And the ricotta was firm and mild, a distant cry from his store-bought, soupy, gelatin enhanced cousin. Let’s just say, I’d do it again… and I’m game for giving lessons.

Take back your kitchen and learn to pull off a couple of tricks that would have wowed your great grandma or your high school chemistry teacher. Now… if you could just learn to make the perfect loaf of bread…

- Home Cheese Making by Ricki Carroll at www.cheesemaking.com
- Organic Pastures Dairy Company at www.organicpastures.com
- Fresno State Dairy at www.auxiliary.com/AGF/farmmarket