Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Cooking from the Heart...

I strive to be a really positive influence on others, but we all experience times of doubt and insecurity. Sometimes, I don't think I am as honest with my readers as I could be about the struggle that is a part of healthy eating and living. The truth is that for as often as I am happy about the progress I have made, there are days where I beat myself up. It could be that I finally broke down at the deli and bought a candy bar after months of clean eating, or simply that I woke up that morning I didn't like what I saw in the mirror. There's a part of me during those moments that knows it's time for a reality check, but sometimes that voice can get stifled.

Food and I have a tenuous relationship. As humans, we need sustenance to live. At a young age we come to acknowledge those who provide us with that sustenance as our caregivers. From very early on, we learn that to feed another person is to love them. When I met Joe and discovered that I liked him, one of the very first things I did for him was to make sauteed balsamic-thyme sirloin tips with mozzarella cheese. And it was not a dish I made to be particularly impressive, but because I had those ingredients in the fridge. It won him over, and the feeling of providing that kind of comfort to another person won me over. True, I'd spent the latter half of my freshman year of college cooking weekly meals with a friend for our group of friends, but that was the first time it was me alone just whipping something up on the fly for someone else. In any case, I kept cooking. I read culinary textbooks, southern cookbooks, cookbooks for every ethnic food imaginable...anything to stimulate my imagination to create new things. But at the same time, I found it difficult to avoid overeating when I was always trying out new recipes. I walk the line. I am constantly trying to balance between being passionate about the creation and sharing of food while avoiding gluttony and irresponsibly grown/created food products. It becomes overwhelming, it becomes burdensome, and worst of becomes guilt-ridden.

And then I know it's time to step back, take a breath, and just go home again. Time to take a day and remember why the act of sharing a meal is an act of love. Remove everything else from the equation and just create out of the desire to love another person.

And on Sunday, I did just that. Taking flour from Morris farms, eggs from Polyface farms, cheese from Blue Ridge Dairy Co., tomatoes, garlic, and basil from Bull Run Mountain Farm, and cayenne peppers from my own backyard, I brought together those who provide me with products I know are grown and raised with love and a sense of pride.

First, I made these:
I made the pasta dough from a combination of whole wheat and whole grain durum (semolina) flours, two eggs, a few tablespoons of olive oil, and a few tablespoons of water. It made a fine, elastic dough that was surprisingly light. I think that one of the keys to whole wheat pasta is to make sure that the dough gets a proper rest before it's rolled out. The filling is comprised of part-skim ricotta, parmesan, and pecorino romano cheeses. I bound it with an egg and added a few herbs and spices to bring out the flavors of the individual cheeses.

What good are ravioli without a nice sauce? Since Leigh said that it was likely the last week for big, ripe tomatoes (damn blight) I took the bunch of gorgeous orange and yellow ones he gave me and sauteed them in a few teaspoons of bacon fat with garlic, some bell pepper, thyme, basil, and spices. I finished it with a diced cayenne pepper. I'm not really a huge spicy food fan, so I removed the seeds first. After tasting the sauce, I instantly mourned that it would be gone so quickly. Even Joe, who normally asks me to go light on the marinara sauce when I serve him pasta, asked for more of it on his plate.

And what better to serve a lovingly prepared meal on than a dish designed with the earth in mind?[FYI, that's a seven-inch triangle plate in grass green from Riverside Design Group's Sea Glass collection. How awesome is that color? If I didn't already have an "Empire Red" theme going on with my kitchen appliances, I think I'd go with that green. It's refreshing!]

After it was all said and done, I felt accomplished. Even satisfied.

But it wasn't until Joe brought me his empty plate in search of a few more ravioli that I felt "the happiness." There was that same look that made me feel all warm and fuzzy five years ago, and I thought "Yes. I may not always do right. I may not always make the best choices. But if I can always give this kind of comfort and love to the people around me, then I think I'll be okay."


Thursday, September 3, 2009

Marriage, Mystery Food (lucky 13!) and More...

What an absolutely amazing and fabulous vacation. I could not have asked for more happiness to somehow have crammed its way into this past week. It still boggles my mind a little that my brother is a married man now. He and Jessica both looked amazing at the wedding and truly happy to be with one another. Both of them were so alive with joy the whole time that you really couldn’t help but have it rub off on you.

Joe and I had a really fun time in Pittsburgh and I’ve been missing everyone terribly since we got back. It’s always hard to come down from something that you looked forward to for so long. Ah, we’ll just have to find another reason to celebrate soon and get together again! Fall is almost here, and that means holidays so I’m sure it won’t be too long.

Anyway, I’m back in action here in Arlington and went to pick up some goodies from Leigh last night:Sweet corn, tomatoes, tomatillos, hot peppers, Thai basil, Italian basil, chives, sorrel, sweet potatoes, peaches, apples, and garlic. Yum! Everything looks so vibrant. This is likely the last week we’ll get big tomatoes though, so I’m rationing those.

I haven’t done much cooking yet this week aside from a little bit of flatbread with various vegetable/meat toppings last night. I did, however have a nectarine and a few apples left over from last week and a craving for sweets. It led to this:

Spiced Nectarine-Applesauce

The great thing about fruit sauces is that it takes very little effort to make them delicious. In-season fruit is a candy all its own and combining it with a few spices makes a great treat. You can even spread it out on some puff pastry and bake for a fast tart.

This particular sauce was made from some Ozark gold apples and nectarines. The method is fairly simple. Cut the fruit and treat it to prevent browning, then put it in a small saucepan with just enough water to cover the bottom of the pot. Add some spices if you like. This batch had a few cinnamon sticks (remove before pureeing) and a few sprinkles of pumpkin pie spice (a blend of cloves, nutmeg, lemon peel, cinnamon..). Set the heat to medium-low and cover. Let it cook until all of the fruit is nice and soft and then use a potato masher, immersion blender, or food mill to process to your desired consistency. Sweeten only if you think it needs it. The nectarine I had was really ripe and almost tooth-achingly sweet. Some types of apples benefit from a teaspoon or so of honey added to the mix.

Over the holiday, I had the great fortune to receive some wonderful plates, platters and bowls from the folks at Riverside Design Group in Pittsburgh, PA. The sauce in the above picture was photographed in a 7” bowl in amethyst over a 10” bowl in gold from their Sea Glass collection.

From their website:
“Since 1996, RIVERSIDE has been passionate about creating a more sustainable global community. We remain committed to both responsive and responsible design. We use post-industrial/preconsumer recycled glass and other sustainable materials, our packaging and promotional items are environmentally friendly, and our offices are located in a LEED certified building (Leadership in Energy and Environmental
Look for more of their unique, earth-friendly designs to pop up in future posts…

We have a long weekend for the Labor Day holiday, and I’m really hoping to make some homemade pasta this weekend to enjoy with those magnificent orange tomatoes from Leigh.

And before I disappear for the holiday, here's a really important plug for Slow Food regarding the Child Nutrition Act and their "Time for Lunch" campaign.

So far, over 16,800 people have signed the Time For Lunch petition to get real, quality food back into America’s schools. Every 4 to 5 years, the Child Nutrition Act (which governs the National School Lunch program) comes up for renewal in Congress. This program sets the standard for what over 30 million children eat at lunch every day. In the past decade, school budgets have been slashed over and over again, leaving our nation’s schools struggling to provide nutritious, wholesome food to the next generation.

The deadline for renewing the Child Nutrition Act is coming up at the end of September. Congress and the Obama administration must renew this act in a way that benefits children and provides them with healthy, sustainable food. Here is the official platform from the Slow Food website:
1. Invest in children’s health.
Give schools just one dollar more per day for each child’s lunch. Under the National School Lunch Program, the USDA reimburses schools for every meal served: $2.57 for a free lunch, $2.17 for a reduced-price lunch and 24 cents for a paid lunch. Since these reimbursements must also pay for labor, equipment and overhead costs, schools are left with only $1.00 to spend on food. How can schools be expected to feed our children and protect their health with only a dollar a day? It’s time to build a strong foundation for our children’s health by raising the reimbursement rate to $3.57.
2. Protect against food that puts children at risk.
Establish strong standards for all food sold at school, including food from vending machines and school fast food. At most schools, children can buy junk food in vending machines, at on-campus stores and in the cafeteria as “a la carte” items. These overly processed, high-calorie “fast” foods sneak under the radar of federal nutrition standards. They undermine the National School Lunch Program’s investment in children’s health and allow food companies to profit from selling obesity. It’s time to take the first step towards making real food the standard by approving Rep. Woolsey’s and Sen. Harkin’s Child Nutrition Promotion and School Lunch Protection Act of 2009.
3. Teach children healthy habits that will last through life.
Fund grants for innovative Farm to School programs and school gardens. This spring, 30 fifth-graders joined Michelle Obama in planting a vegetable garden on the White House lawn. “What I found with my kids [is that] if they were involved in planting and picking it, they were much more curious to give it a try,” Mrs. Obama says. Every child deserves the opportunity to learn healthy eating habits at school. In 2004, a section was added to the Child Nutrition Act to provide schools with grants to cover one-time grants that enable them to purchase local foods and to teach lessons on healthy eating in kitchen and garden classrooms – but Congress never appropriated funds for it. This year, it’s time for Congress to guarantee $50 million of mandatory funding for Farm to School programs.

We also ask that Congress and the Obama Administration:

1. Give schools the incentive to buy local.
Establish financial incentives that encourage schools to buy food from local farms for all child nutrition programs. Buying fruits and vegetables from local farms is an economic engine for creating jobs in our communities, rebuilding rural economies, and supporting family farmers. By shortening the distance food travels – from farm to table – it also saves oil and ensures school foods are as fresh and healthy as possible.
2. Create green jobs with a School Lunch Corps.
Train underemployed Americans to be the teachers, farmers, cooks, and administrators our school cafeterias need. We can’t serve real food in schools without investing in school kitchens and the people who prepare and serve lunch. This spring, President Obama signed the Serve America Act, which expanded Americorps and reinforced his call for Americans to serve their country. Right now, our nation has an opportunity to train young and unemployed Americans to be the teachers, farmers, cooks and administrators we need to ensure the National School Lunch Program is protecting children’s health. President Obama has called for an end to childhood hunger by 2015; let’s answer that call by putting Americans to work building and working in school kitchens nationwide.
Please go to to sign the petition or sign up to host or attend a Labor Day Eat-In. An “Eat-In” is simply a potluck held in a public place like a park. Let people know that you’re showing your support for real food in schools by gathering community members, family, and friends together for a shared meal. If you can’t make it to an Eat-In on Labor Day, there are many other ways to help out, like a telephone call or letter to your state representative. A PDF version of Slow Food’s platform is available on their website and is great to use as a starting point if you aren’t sure what to say.

Enjoy a local Labor Day weekend everyone!