Archive for the ‘Ingredients’ Category

Tomato Season

July 20th, 2011

My husband and I bought our first house this year, and we moved during of one of the snowiest winters the Mid-Atlantic has seen in decades. I thought I’d be back in full swing with the cooking and blogging by now. Everything in the kitchen was ship-shape quite some time ago. But then there were the boxes of things I hadn’t found a place for that were stacked in the bedroom, the family room, and the dining room. Then there was a garden to plant and a lawn to seed. Not to mention the responsibility of a day job and commute that was leaving me wiped out by the time I got home. The next thing I knew, months had flown by and I hadn’t cooked much or written anything worthwhile. But now everything is finally in its place, and the tomatoes are beginning to ripen. Dozens of tomatoes; possibly hundreds.

I have a deep love of homegrown and locally farmed tomatoes. Each summer I had grown a few varieties in containers on the asphalt out back of our rented house. Our kids learned early the difference between the insipid tomatoes purchased in the off season at the supermarket, and the luscious sweet-tart taste of a sun-warmed, freshly harvested tomato. So, for the first time equipped with a garden in which I could plant anything my heart desired, I went to the garden center and bought some tomato plants. Apparently I got a little carried away. I now have approximately 15 large tomato plants, representing five varieties, bearing fruit.

One may imagine my delight when some of the cherry tomatoes started to turn red. And then the anxiety set in when I realized I was going to have a few dozen plum tomatoes ripening at the same time that I would have to can quickly. I’m also working on a plan to use a few plants’ worth of green, purple, and red slicing tomatoes, which involves a number of salads and sandwiches, and a lot of happy co-workers who will be receiving some of the harvest. It’s not that I’m not grateful for the abundance of fruit – it has been a nearly perfect tomato-growing season so far – it’s just that I had lost my cooking mojo. What a way to get it back!

Tomatoland

But if anything convinced me that growing my own tomatoes and canning them for the winter is an absolute must, it’s Barry Estabrook’s Tomatoland. A bone-chilling account of the mistreatment of tomato pickers by tomato growers in Florida, and the incredible disregard the growers have for the public by providing a product that is not only terrible tasting, but, in my opinion, possibly not safe to consume.

While I’ve been conscious for years about factory farmed meat, making an effort to purchase meat and dairy from farms that provide humane conditions for animals, I have given barely a thought to who has grown and picked our vegetables and fruits. When I’m buying produce, I might look for organic when I know that particular fruit is prone to being heavily treated with pesticides, or I will buy our vegetables from farmers market when in season. But never had I thought about the treatment of the workers in the fields, or offices for that matter, until now. “Slavery is alive and well in America” is not a quip.

“When I asked [Douglas Molloy, chief assistant United States attorney] if it was safe to assume that a consumer who has eaten a fresh tomato from a grocery store, fast food restaurant, or food-service company in the winter has eaten a fruit picked by the hand of a slave, he corrected my choice of words. “It’s not an assumption. It is a fact.” (Read an excerpt here.)

Mr. Estabrook shows the perspective of the Florida tomato industry from all sides - from the pickers to the distributors, from the grocers and fast food chains to Congress – revealing a poisonous and inhumane culture one would expect to see only in movies. Tomatoland is fascinating, well-written, and scary as Hell. I had no idea how many tomatoes my husband and I consume in a typical week, but this book made me notice tomatoes are in the majority of our meals. Even a slice of pizza has me looking crosseyed.

I believe Tomatoland may have the same impact on the produce industry that Omnivore’s Dilemma and similar books have had on the cattle and poultry industry. By opening eyes to how backwards and unjust our industrial farming culture can be, as well as how progressive some farms are becoming, the public will be put significant pressure on commercial produce buyers and growers to lessen their use of harmful pesticides and prove they are treating (and paying) their workers fairly. The cost will surely trickle down to the consumers, but it’s a price worth paying.

While there is no immediate answer, for now I’ll be enjoying the fruits of my own labor, and putting renewed effort into paying serious attention to the source of the food we buy.

The Mailman Brings Cheese

February 9th, 2010

Vacherin Mont d'Or, Murray's Cheese Label

It all started with my friend’s enticing post about Vacherin au Four, a soft cow’s milk cheese, studded with garlic, fortified with wine, then melted in its wooden box in a hot oven and poured over potatoes or served fondue-style. There are few things I have a harder time resisting than melted cheese. Plus, it is winter, the height of the melted cheese season, so it seemed a perfect opportunity to try making this simple dish at home.

That meant getting my hands on some Vacherin Mont d’Or. Easier said than done in Northern New Jersey. I telephoned Wine Library in Springfield, who told me that while they did have an order that was supposed to arrive on the next boat, he wouldn’t know if it made the boat until it arrived, and even then he wasn’t sure it would make it through customs. I called Summit Cheese Shop in Summit, and was told that it would be nearly impossible to get, and good luck with that. I phoned Gary’s Wine and Marketplace in Madison, and was told they were out and didn’t expect to get any until next season, which would mean maybe October. I called Murray’s Cheese in Manhattan and was told, yes, they had plenty! I made two dates to hop into the city to pick some up, but both trips were foiled. I was going to have to suck it up and pay for shipping.

A foodie, shopping a website listing a large variety of cheese, armed with a credit card. Well, you can see where this is going, can’t you? My eyes glazed over as my fingers clicked to the “Special Sale” page. I would be saving money if I purchased some cheese on sale, wouldn’t I? And oh, what’s this? A virtual cheesemonger! Answer just a few multiple-choice questions, and my own cheesemonger will guide me to my ideal selections. I went deeper into my trance as “Amanda,” my virtual cheesemonger, described a list of cheeses that I’d surely enjoy. Click, click, click. I should get some bread too! Click. And oh yeah, I almost forgot, the Vacherin Mont d’Or. Click!

Two days later my professionally packaged box of cheese is waiting for me on the porch, with a stamped message on the top of the box informing the FedEx delivery person that it’s OK to leave the package with the recipient, even though it may stink. A lovely (to me) odor envelops our dining room as I inventory the contents of the box: Two Vacherin Mont d’Or (one for me, one for a friend), a half-pound of Cabot’s clothbound cheddar (a friend’s recommendation), a half-pound of Fourme de Ambert (“Amanda” said this blue is mild and sweet), one puck of Brunet (“Amanda” says it’s her favorite goat), a half-pound of Tete de Moine (I need this as have not used my girolle in ages), and one pound of Parmigiano-Reggiano (well, it was on sale), and a loaf of bread (if you’re going to go this far, you may as well buy the bread so you don’t have to go to the store).

Counter-top tasting: The first night, we have a simple tasting. My friend is right, Cabot’s clothbound cheddar is outstanding, and “Amanda’s” picks are spot-on. Not that I wouldn’t have been just as happy with any other cheesemonger’s choices. I have no prejudice against any cheese, but it was nice that these were cheeses that noticeably agreed with my taste. The goat is super creamy and mild, almost the texture of camembert, while the blue is downright luscious with a bit of tang. We eat it standing at the counter, all except the Vacherin and the Tete de Moine. Those, we’ll eat later.

Brunet, Fourme d'Ambert, Cabot Clothbound Cheddar

Vacherin au Four: I meant to make this on day two, but couldn’t get to it until day four. Life got in the way, as it often does, and we didn’t get to it right away. This is too bad because Anne over at Pots and Plumes had emailed me to say that we shouldn’t wait, as hers had been too ripe. I should have listened. When we received ours, it looked very fresh, almost white. By the time I retrieved it from the refrigerator to cook it, it was nearly orange and it had a very strong odor. I cooked it with garlic, wine, and a bit of chive, and ate it with potatoes and bread, but it had taken on a flavor of ammonia and was overripe. I emailed Murray’s Cheese, not to complain but to warn, and was told that I would be credited for the Vacheran Mont d’Or. Way to go Murray’s customer service! We will definitely be ordering from them again.

Vacherin Au Four

Interlude, cheddar with Diana Pittet: Ironic that of all weeks I should be attending a talk by Diana Pittet, who writes of her adventures in cheddar on her blog, CheddarBound. This is a very cozy affair in the private room at Jimmy’s 43 in Manhattan, during which Diana regales a crowd of listeners with stories of her travels and the making of cheddar. We enjoy a tasting of five cheeses, along with a cask ale, an apple cider, and an apple wine. Apple beverages go fabulously with cheese!

Spicy tomato and blue cheese soup
: It has occurred to me that perhaps I have purchased too much cheese. I should include some in a recipe, perhaps. I find the recipe for Michael Symon and Michael Ruhlman’s spicy tomato and blue cheese soup on leitesculinaria.com. Made with sriracha and blue cheese, it is creamy, fruity, and spicy. I highly recommend it. But I’m not sure I could have it more than a few times a year. It is rich.

Spicy Tomato and Blue Cheese Soup

Spicy Tomato and Blue Cheese Soup

Another tasting: End of the week, another spread of cheese on the counter for my husband and me to pick at. I’ve discovered this is probably my favorite way to eat cheese. It goes against all tenets of healthy eating, but I like it. Take what you want, when you want it. Leave the bread out with a knife nearby, or crackers, and maybe some olives, fruit, or nuts. Cheese is Nature’s processed food, so I figure it can’t be all that bad for us.

Tonight or tomorrow the Parmigiano-Reggiano will take its turn, grated over pasta. Sometime this weekend I’ll be leaving the girolle out on the kitchen counter to enjoy the thin rosette-shaped slivers of Tete de Moine with a glass of white wine. Probably while perusing Stinky Bklyn’s website. Their cheese-of-the-month club looks very tempting….