The value of food

“Food is the most primitive form of comfort.” – Sheilah Graham

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Pesto chicken pizza

Be still, my heart...

Pesto—ground-up basil leaves, pine nuts, grated cheese, and olive oil—is a standby summer favorite that passes well into fall. The slightly tart, satisfying spread easily dresses up everything from pasta to vegetables to salad in a way that will please even the pickiest eaters in your household. It freezes fabulously, so stock up this fall and enjoy it year-round! And when you inevitably find yourself up to your overalls in plenteous greens by the end of the summer, it’s a great way to use up all of that extra basil.

While it’s simple to make and freeze your own pesto (add marble mortar and wooden pestle to ingredients listed above), this recipe uses ready-made. Look for it at your local farmers market.

Prep time: 1 hour

Total time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

Ingredients

PIZZA DOUGH

- 2 ½ cups all-purpose flour

- 1 cup warm water

- 1 ½ teaspoons sugar

- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

- 1 teaspoon salt

- 1 envelope active dry yeast

- Polenta (for dusting)

- Butter (for coating)

CHICKEN

- 2 chicken breasts, cut into bite-size pieces

- A small bowl of flour, for coating

- Pepper, salt, and garlic powder for coating

- Extra virgin olive oil for sautéing

TOPPING

- A 5.5 oz ball of mozzarella cheese, grated

- 1 ½ cups pesto

- 1 egg yolk

- Garlic powder

Instructions

  1. Start with the pizza dough. Put the warm water in a small bowl and stir in the yeast and sugar. Let stand for about 5 minutes, or until it begins to bubble.
  2. Combine 2 ½ cups of all-purpose flour in a large bowl with oil. Stir in the yeast mixture (Step 1) until the dough becomes stiff. Turn out onto a floured surface and knead until you have an elastic, smooth ball.
  3. Coat the inside of another large bowl with butter, and run the ball of dough inside the bowl until its entire surfaced has been buttered. Leave the dough in the bowl, cover with a dishtowel, and let sit in a warm place for 30 minutes. (Dough should double in bulk.) Meanwhile, preheat your oven to 425º Farenheit.
  4. While the dough is sitting, heat a few tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet. Combine a dash each of salt, pepper, and garlic powder (or more to taste) with a small bowl of flour. When the oil is hot, roll each bite-size piece of chicken in the flour mixture until it’s coated, and sauté in the olive oil until the chicken is golden brown.
  5. After the dough has doubled, punch it down on a floured surface and shape it to fit a pizza pan or cookie sheet that has been sprinkled with polenta. Use a rolling pin if you’d like, and then roll the edges inward about an inch and a half to create a manageable crust.

    I can't do this yet, but a girl can dream.

  6. Spread the pesto evenly on the dough, sprinkle with grated mozzarella cheese, and top with chicken.
  7. In a small bowl, combine one egg yolk with a dash of garlic powder, and brush this mixture on the remaining crust.
  8. Bake for 15 – 20 minutes at 425º Farenheit.

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The Carnivore’s Dilemma

Last Wednesday, my girlfriend and I found ourselves in the front row at The Carnivore’s Dilemma: How to Eat Meat Responsibly, hosted by the Jamaica Plain Forum and Boston Localvores, held at the Unitarian Universalist First Church at 6 Eliot St. in JP. People milled around wearing “Meat of Known Origin” t-shirts featuring smiling cartoon cows, and a raffle was held for a month’s supply of frozen meat (no, I didn’t win, thanks for asking).

The meeting centered around a panel discussion involving three local meat suppliers: Ridge Shinn, a cattle farmer; Kim Denney, owner/operator of Chestnut Farm Meat CSA; and Jamey Lionette, an author and local food activist.

Before those three had their say, though, a 2-minute film was screened, showing the living conditions of chickens, cattle, and pigs who are commercially bred specifically to end up in our McDonald’s hamburgers. Needless to say, it wasn’t a pretty picture. Squeamish fraidy-cat that I am, I had managed in my food/blogging/journalism career to as yet never, ever watch one of these frightful films. I mean, I knew they weren’t treated well. But watching it at the UU church, I was brought practically to tears listening to inverted chickens wail for their lives before being electrocuted into unconsciousness (hopefully, for their sakes), before bleeding to death out of their beaks. (Animal lovers both, Kristie and I reached for each other’s hands at exactly the same moment.)

After the video ended and my stomach calmed, Jamey said something that made me feel better. We don’t need to feel guilty for eating meat, he said. It’s natural. We’re omnivores. It’s not something we should feel bad about. It is something, however, that must be done in the right way.

That right way is easier than you might think, starting with cutting back on our overall meat consumption. You don’t have to get rid of it all (a feat I would personally never attempt to endeavor; we all love our bacon), but a somewhat substantial amount has got to go. Jamey spoke about the “reality of supply and demand”; about how the more beef we eat, the more land we need to feed the cattle (mostly with corn and grain), and therefore the less land we’ll have to actually grow good, real, food meant for people (vegetables! Remember those?).

By purchasing locally grown, 100% grass-fed beef, you can do so much. Ridge referred to the process as being “solar-powered”: because all the cattle eat is grass, no petroleum goes into the production or shipping of grain. “Grain changes everything,” Ridge said. Even when it’s introduced into the cattle’s diet for only their final 30 or 60 days, the acidity can drastically affect the omega-3′s and 6′s in the meat; not to mention the fact that E. coli bacteria love grain (they love it!). There’s no sense in exposing our families and loved ones to meat of substandard nutrition, that may also house life-threatening bacteria.

Yes, I know, locally-grown, organic products often cost more than what’s in mainstream grocery stores (Whole Foods included). Jamey vented his frustration with consumers who are unwilling to pay more for their food, supplying the statistic that Americans spend approximately 11% of our income on what we eat; the lowest our nation has ever seen, and the lowest in the world. Let’s think about priorities, here. I love my cell phone; but I love my community more. I’m not saying we should stop paying our phone bills, but let’s think twice about buying a new item of clothing every week. Food has become a commodity rather an sustenance, as Jamey put it. Food has become a non-priority item for many Americans. According to Ridge, “sustainability is about everybody along the chain making money,” from the farm to the slaughterhouse to your local butcher or farmers market who supplies the local meat you love (I swear, they’re out there.) Wouldn’t it be great if everybody on that chain were all members of your community?

Another thing that makes the food we find in mainstream grocery stores cheaper is that many items are produced with genetically modified organisms, or “GMO’s.” Sounds appetizing, right? Companies that own the patented genetics of your corn use their patents to put small farmers out of business across North America at an alarming rate. If GMO corn pollinates small-farm corn (something that happens all the time and is absolutely unpreventable) and the GMO companies can prove that their genetic material is being grown on Farmer Joe’s property (most likely without his knowledge, much less intent), they sue Joe and his family for all they’re worth. Yes, it’s legal, and yes, most of the time the big companies win. Also, GMO food kills butterflies and other kinds of important Nature. Did we forget to mention that? Good thing we’re eating it, huh?

Long story short…everything’s different about locally-raised meat. Kim names every single one of her cattle, saying that this connection enhances the quality of the animals’ lives. All three of her kids have butchered their dinners, and no doubt have a much different perspective than kids who think beef is born wrapped in cellophane. Demand more local food of a higher quality at your grocery store. Spend more on what fuels your children’s bodies. Grow peppers in your backyard. Join a CSA with friends or family members, and directly support your community members. It’s not hard,  it will change everything, and guess what? It tastes better.

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Subway: Not so fresh after all

In this BNET blog post, Melanie Warner reveals that Subway customers aren’t eating food that’s as fresh as they think it is. From meat packed full of artificial ingredients to bread made with the bleaching chemical azodicarbonamide (most commonly found in foamed plastics), Warner examines Subway’s suspect food practices.

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Tour de Champagne brings diverse crowd of sparkling wine-lovers to Boston

Look for this story in the Feb. 4, 2010 issue of Bay Windows newspaper, New England’s largest LGBT newspaper.

The ballroom of Cambridge’s Charles Hotel is dotted with bright orange napkins from the Veuve Cliquot table on Saturday, Jan. 30 at 7 p.m. Murmuring, high-heeled conversation fills the room. Tuxedoed men abound, outshone only by haute couture dresses donned by their dates. The Tour de Champagne has arrived, full force, in Boston.

My foremost regret is the fact that my girlfriend has, for the chalice that will belong to her for the duration of the evening, received a champagne flute that we determine is approximately fifty percent larger than the one that has been issued to me. We take no large offense, however, and head for the champagne tasting tables, interspersed with hors d’oeuvres offerings from the finest Boston chefs.

Photo: Tour de Champagne

 

The crowded ballroom leaves little room for navigation, but it can be inferred that the evening’s hosts anticipated this, and therefore, a new champagne station appears seemingly at every turn. While Veuve Cliquot and Taittinger rule the evening, smaller, local restaurants—like Upstairs on the Square, whose Vazart Coquart Reserve Brut Blanc de Blanes Grand Cru from Berkshire Wine, Inc. was my personal favorite—receive the same attention.

During the much-anticipated dessert demonstration, my mind reels with food-based fantasies as former White House pastry chef Roland Mesnier denounces the Food Network in his thick French accent, all the while whipping up a light, ephemeral blueberry cake creation—cool, spongy slices of which appear at our table seemingly out of nowhere. The group of people crowding the doors of the small business room in which the demonstration is being held is indicative of how lucky we were to pick this particular room in which to rest our (and by “our” I mean “my”) aching feet.

Former White House pastry chef Roland Mesnier. Photo: Tour de Champagne

 

The 52-year-old Mesnier—whose enthusiastic, child-like demeanor belies nothing of his age—begins tossing peppermint patties emblazoned with the presidential seal out into the crowd. The game is fun until the chef’s aim improves, and soon audience members are trying to dodge the gold-wrapped candies.

The pastry demonstration, the never-ending bottles of bubbly, and the thick French accents of the champagne table attendants make the experience seem that much more authentic for those who were lucky enough to attend Boston’s leg of the Tour de Champagne.

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Cornbread Muffins

In exchange for her opera tickets and six-use Swiss Army knife, my partner wanted to cook my family a traditional Southern dinner (Kristie is from Virginia).

While my girl is currently slaving over her family recipe for white gravy (quite a feat, if you didn’t know,) I thought I’d post our recipe for cornbread muffins, a staple in any Southern dinner. This recipe yields 12 muffins, so we added an extra half of all the ingredients (it’s Kristie’s first time cooking for seven).

You need:

1 cup of cornmeal

1 cup of all-purpose flour

1/3 cup of white sugar

2 tsp baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 egg, beaten

1/4 cup of canola oil

1 cup of milk

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

2. Grease a muffin pan, or use paper muffin tins to keep the batter from sticking.

3. Combine all the dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl (cornmeal, flour, salt, sugar, baking powder).

4. Add the egg, canola oil, and milk, and mix gently.

5. Spoon the mix into the muffin pan, filling the papers about half way (they’ll rise in the oven).

6. Bake for 20 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean!

Enjoy with butter, or white gravy (which has now been championed.)

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‘Araby’

My friend Steve and I met while working at Tower Theaters in South Hadley, MA, about four years ago, when I was still at Mount Holyoke. Although he was my manager, the two of us quickly became the fastest of friends, and he’s one of the people closest to me in the world, even though he’s currently in New York City and I in Boston. Steve is a  fabulously talented musician and equally an adroit writer. We share a number of “traditions” to keep in touch, including a yearly pilgrimage to see the Nutcracker with our respective girlfriends. The four of us more often end up doing something centered around food; whether it’s lunch at Fitzwilly’s in Northampton, or cooking for each other. This is my favorite recipe of Steve’s. Called “Araby” after the short story by James Joyce, published in Dubliners, this cheesy tortellini-and-chicken dish is filling, and will warm you to the core! In Steve’s own words:

You need: 1 pound of boneless chicken breast

3 tbsp of flour

1 cup of Parmesan cheese

Salt and pepper

Garlic powder

A whole bulb of garlic

Butter

Olive oil

1/2 pint of heavy cream (there’s a big one, a small one, and one in the middle…you want the middle-sized one)

A bag of microwaveable peas [They don’t have to be microwaveable, but it’s easier. Look for flash-frozen organic peas. – Hannah]

2 bags of cheese tortellini

Cook the chicken first in a large pan. Start by cutting up the chicken into bite sized pieces. Place the chicken into a large tupperware container with a lid (don’t put the lid on yet). Add 1 cup of flour, pepper, and salt to taste, and garlic powder to taste (more is usually better!) Put the lid on the tupperware and shake it like a Polaroid picture. You may have to remove the cover and mix the chicken and the flour by hand until all the chicken is coated in the mix.

Next, and this will take a long time, separate all the cloves of garlic from the bulb, strip them, and mince them. Yes, all of them. [It won’t take so very long if you use this. I swear by it. – Hannah]

Over medium heat, heat the pan and then add the olive oil. Once or twice around the pan is usually good. Add the garlic first, careful not to burn it. After about a minute or two, add the chicken. Cook the chicken until it is lightly golden on all sides and is cooked all the way through. Remove from heat and set aside. Maybe cover with a lid or tin foil so it stays hot, and remember, meat keeps cooking even after you remove it from heat.

Next, boil a large pot of water. Since the pasta takes about 5 minutes, you can wait to do this and the peas at the last minute.

While the water is boiling take another large pot…I mean, big…the bigger the surface area the better. Heat up the pot and add the heavy cream. With a whisk, stir the cream. You want to keep it from bubbling up too much. After a long long time of stirring the cream will start to appear translucent in places — you’ll see little holes, almost.  Remove from heat.

If you haven’t already, microwave your peas and add your pasta. In the interim, add the cup of cheese to the cream slowly and whisk in. Add more pepper and garlic powder to taste.

When the pasta is done, strain it, open the bag of peas and mix everything together.

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