Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Friday, November 12, 2010

'l' is for leek

The lovely leek is a member of the Allium family. Alliums, members of the Liliacceae or lily family, have been under domestic cultivation for at least 5,000 years and as such, are one of the world's first food crops. Following their great exodus, the children of Israel remembered longingly "the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely, the cucumbers, the melons and the leeks and the onions and the garlic."

Leeks look a bit like giant scallions, but are much milder than either onions or garlic. In the first century A.D., Nero ate leeks in oil as he was convinced they had a divine ingredient responsible for his fine singing voice and as such, was derisively nicknamed 'Porropagus' or 'leek-eater.' Aristotle was also convinced of the leek's positive effects on the voice and once wrote that the piercing cry of the partridge was attributable to their frequent consumption of leeks.

The leek has been recognized as the emblem of Wales since the mid 16th century, and was depicted in a coronet on the British one pound coin in 1985 and 1990 as a tribute to Wales. As legend has it, the leek's association with Wales can be traced back to the battle of Heathfield, which took place in a leek field. St. David reportedly persuaded his countrymen to distinguish themselves from their Saxon foes by placing a leek in their caps. The Welsh celebrate St. David's Day each year on March 1 by wearing bits of leeks in buttonholes or caps to commemorate the victory. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Welsh also have a reputation for being fine and enthusiastic singers. As evidence, I give you - this.

Americans incorporated the leek into their cuisine in 1910, when French Chef Louis Diat of the Ritz Hotel in New York reinvented a peasant soup he remembered fondly from his childhood, which was made with leeks and potatoes. He added heavy cream, topped it with chives, and served it cold. He called it 'vichyssoise' after his home town - a wonderful word that sounds like a flourish or a dance don't you think?

But alas, dear readers, there is a dark side to the history of the venerable leek. Leek growing competitions and festivals became popular in Northern England's mining communities in the late 19th century when one of the few affordable hobbies was gardening. 'Pot Leek' shows began in the pubs and clubs and were so named because of the pint pots the gardeners used for beer drinking. The competition for victory in these shows is so fierce, sabotage unfortunately abounds. Competitors have been known to sneak into rival leek fields at night and slash, trample, firebomb, or douse them with toxins. Oh no!

William Ivory became fascinated by competitive leek growing - so much so that he wrote a comedic play about it called 'King Leek' in 1996. "When I started looking into the passions that leek growing arouses in some men I was surprised," says Ivory. "Obsessive growers get so involved with the welfare of their leeks it's like a love affair. If you don't take it seriously, it's not fun. If you take it too seriously, it can break your heart." In the weeks before a big show, leek growers have been known to sleep in their leek fields to ensure no harm comes to them, often sleeping with their leeks more than their wives!

For me, leeks conjure up images of cold, misty, damp afternoons, warm soups and roaring fires. Much like you can see here and here where the talented and ever-dreamy Jamie Oliver whips up the most wonderful leek pasta and salad dishes in a rustic English country cottage. Oh my. Wouldn't you just love to be there?!

Folklore source: "75 Exciting Vegetables for Your Garden" by Jack Staub

Monday, October 18, 2010

'k' is for king arthur flour

"I came into music just because I wanted the bread. It's true. I looked around and this seemed like the only way I was going to get the kind of bread I wanted." ~ Mick Jagger

How fun is it to imagine the 'bread' our beloved Mick was referring to was an elusive artisan sourdough rather than just boring old money!? There are few things I cherish more than a meal of freshly-baked bread, a variety of wonderful cheeses, endless slices of salami, and (of course) free-flowing champagne! I believe I could live on these things indefinitely (sadly, doing so would undoubtedly shorten 'indefinitely' for me).

Making bread is no small undertaking, but is a truly rewarding endeavor. While not an expert by any means, I've become fairly comfortable with a basic rustic white loaf, rye bread, and pizza dough (which believe it or not was the most difficult for me to get just right). Other than pizza dough, bread baking is not a frequent occurrence at Chez Sweetbittertart because I enjoy making it the long way. If you haven't tried it yet, gently punching down a bowl of cool, smooth, puffy bread dough is all kinds of tactile awesomeness. And the smell of bread baking is swoon-inducing. The whole process fills me with warmth and wonder. How is it possible to turn so few, seemingly incongruous, simple ingredients into the delightfully yummy miracle that is a freshly baked loaf of bread?

The first step is to begin with the highest quality ingredients you can find - the key of course being the perfect flour. Simple enough, since flour is flour, no? No! All it takes is a short stroll down the baking aisle of your local grocery store to become overwhelmed by a dizzying array of choices. There's all-purpose flour, bread flour, cake flour, and pastry flour - and those are just some of the varieties of wheat flours available. So however does one decide which one to use?

The difference between them lies primarily in their gluten content (the protein that helps yeast rise and stretch), which varies depending upon whether the flour was made from hard wheat or soft wheat. Bread flour typically has the highest protein content, and is best for making yeast breads. Cake flour is made primarily from soft wheat and has a low protein content, making it best for cakes and pastries that do not need to rise much. All-purpose flour is made with an average protein content that makes it suitable in most cases for either bread or cake making. To further complicate things, within each type of flour, there is often a difference in gluten content and quality among brands.

Enter The King Arthur Flour Company to save the day! Formerly named Sands, Taylor and Wood (ST&W), the company was founded in 1790; that's just shortly after George Washington was elected president! Headquartered in Norwich, Vermont (in a compound called 'Camelot' no less), The King Arthur Flour Company is 100% employee-owned and maintains the highest standards of quality. With an online resource center; mail-order baker's catalogue; award-winning cookbooks; on-site bakery, cafe, store, and baking education center, the company provides a veritable wealth of information, education, engagement and general yumminess to its community of loyal customers. The company is also dedicated to giving back to the community and protecting the environment so it's the perfect combination of good people, good works, and good food.

Highlighting its adherence to the highest standards of quality, King Arthur Flour's motto is "Never Bleached. Never Bromated." In an effort to increase production, some manufacturers mill the heart of the wheat berry, but also close to the bran - the berry's darker outer layer. This creates dark flecks in the flour, which requires the flour to be bleached to give it the appearance of pure white flour. While bleaching provides a pure white look, the performance of the flour is not the same. Bran's hard sharp edges cut through the gluten strands, making it more difficult to develop good structure in baked items. King Arthur Flour is only milled from the innermost heart of the wheat berry, which contains the lightest color and the richest, gluten-producing proteins. You can bake confidently with King Arthur Flour!

Before we part, dear readers, I must warn you to be wary...did you know that flour dust is explosive?! While not explosive in its inert state, flour and other carbohydrates become so when hanging in the air as dust (thankfully not very likely in the home kitchen). Flour grains are minuscule, so they burn instantly and can ignite the other grains around them, creating an explosive force within the dust cloud. The Great Mill Disaster occurred at the Washburn 'A' Mill in 1878, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, from just such an explosion. Flour explosions are sometimes referred to as 'flour bombs.' I don't know about you, but the only 'flour bomb' I want to be anywhere near is this one. Happy (and safe) baking wishes to you!

Saturday, October 9, 2010

'j' is for jelly

Or is it jam? Or marmalade? Or preserves? What the heck is the difference between all these things anyway? Let's investigate!

The first place I usually turn when embarking on food research is On Food and Cooking - The Science and Lore of The Kitchen, by Harold McGee. The book is a veritable treasure trove of scientific and historical facts for hundreds of culinary ingredients. According to Mr. McGee, the first sugar preserves were likely to have been pieces of fruit submerged in honey or the boiled-down juice of wine grapes.

Sugar, like salt, makes the fruit "inhospitable to microbes: it binds up water molecules, and draws moisture out of living cells, thus crippling them." Yikes! It appears that our sweet sugar has a Dark Side! He praises the sweetness, consistency and color of fruit preserves, noting that Nostradamus once described the color of a quince jelly as "so diaphanous that it resembles an oriental ruby" (Hmm...I have a feeling we will learn more about 'quince' a bit later in our alphabetical journey).

But what about the distinctions between the various types of fruit preserves? Fear not! Further research has revealed the following:

Jam - is made with whole fruit that is cut into pieces or crushed. The fruit is combined with sugar and heated to release the fruit's pectin, which acts as a setting agent. (Not to be confused with a secret agent.) The mixture is cooked until it is soft and easily spreadable.

Jelly - is a translucent fruit spread. The process of making jelly is similar to that of making jam, but with the additional step of straining out the fruit pulp after the initial heating. A muslin bag is typically used as a filter. The bag is suspended over a bowl by a string to allow the straining process to occur slowly and naturally, using gravity. Forcing the straining process will result in a jelly lacking in perfect clarity.

Preserves - are a bit trickier to nail down. The term is sometimes used to describe any fruit preserve (jelly, jam or marmalade), but is also know to mean a type of jam that includes larger pieces of fruit.

Marmalade - its roots probably lie in Portuguese quince paste (marmelada), but today the British-style marmalade is typically made from citrus fruits; orange is the most popular. The process of making marmalade is similar to that of making jam, but the citrus peel is included in the mixture to provide it with its distinct tang.

So you would like to sample them all you say? Well you're in luck! The French company Bonne Maman makes wonderful preserves, jellies and marmalade in over a dozen flavors. It should also come as no surprise that I'm more than a little curious about some of the savory options available (jalapeno jelly? port wine jam?) and can't wait to embark on that quest.

Did you know that these delightful fruit spreads have provided inspiration to many musicians over the years? It's true! As evidence, I leave you with jam, marmalade, and jelly. Enjoy!

Saturday, October 2, 2010

'i' is for izze

Izze is my favorite soda (and coincidentally, also the nickname of my favorite niece)! Izze is natural, pure and simple - with just the right combination of sweetness and sparkle - just like my real-life Izze!

The Izze Beverage Company was founded in Colorado in 2002 by Todd Woloson and Greg Stroh - two friends with a shared love of good food and drink. They wanted to create all natural sodas from pure and simple ingredients. They also wanted the goodness of their brand to go beyond what they put in the bottles, so they are committed to giving back to their community through their involvement in several charitable organizations.

Izze sodas come in intriguing and delicious flavors like Blackberry (I know!), Grapefruit, Clementine, Blueberry, Pomegranate, Apple, Peach, Birch, Ginger and Lime, and most recently, Guava. And yes, they make amazing cocktail mixers.

I'm usually not much of a fruity drink person, but Izze is not too sweet and its fizziness adds just the right kick to a cocktail. The Blu Sushi restaurant came up with these delightful sounding concoctions:

Tuscan Sunset
Pinot Grigio topped with Izze Clementine sparkling juice and several drops of cranberry.

A blend of Pearl Blueberry vodka and Izze Pear sparkling juice.

Senor Feliz
Boca Loca rum with Izze Clementine sparkling juice and blood orange juice.

You're welcome. : )

Sunday, May 16, 2010

'h' is for humboldt fog cheese

Humboldt Fog is an artisanal goat's milk cheese produced by Mary Keehn's dairy, Cypress Grove Chevre, in Arcata, California, about 200 miles north of San Francisco. Arcata is adjacent to Humboldt Bay in Humboldt County, and the cheese was named in honor of the ever-present fog for which the area is known.

In the 1970s, Mary began searching for a source of wholesome, healthy milk for her children. Her neighbor owned a herd of Alpine dairy goats, so one day she asked if she could buy one. Her neighbor replied "Honey, if you can catch one, you can have it!" Well, she caught two! Hazel and Esmerelda were Mary's first goats. Mary soon proved to be a talented goat breeder. So talented in fact that her large herd was producing much more milk than she and her family could consume. The surplus led to her exploration of the art of cheesemaking and in 1983, Cypress Grove Chevre was born.

Humboldt Fog is Cypress Grove Chevre's flagship, award-winning cheese and is an amazing goat cheese with a creamy exterior and a texture that becomes more dense toward the center. It is characterized by a thin layer of vegetable ash that runs through the middle, similar to Morbier. Traditionally, in making Morbier, morning milk was separated from evening milk by a layer of ash. With Humboldt Fog, the ash was introduced to add subtle texture and flavor.

In addition to being the foggy home of one of my favorite cheeses, all sorts of interesting things go on in Humboldt County! According to a 2002 Cannibis News article, Steve Bloom, former editor of High Times magazine said "Humboldt is the nexus point of the whole growing movement. It's kind of like Napa to wine. Mendocino and Humboldt are the Napa and Sonoma of marijuana country...the people who left San Franciso and other parts in the 60s came up here and started doing the growing and established the whole growing industry." Their community was memorialized in the 2008 film, Humboldt County.

Hmm. So in what I can't help but believe is related news, Humboldt County is also home to the Kinetic Grand Championship. Which is seriously the most awesome thing in the history of ever. The race is known as the triatholon of the art world and involves all sorts of crazy human-powered art sculpture thingys on wheels that are designed to travel over both land and water in search of Victory and aesthetic glory. Next weekend (said Championship takes place each Memorial Day weekend), people in Humboldt County will be pedaling crazy contraptions shaped like fish or dragons and dressing like bees and martians and having an all around grand time. For real. You really need to watch the videos.

While that's sinking in (and as if that weren't enough), Humboldt County is also home to a Chicken Wingfest, the Arcata Oyster Festival, a Mushroom Fair, AND a Blackberry Festival. Note to self: WHY DON'T I LIVE HERE?!! : )

Sunday, March 7, 2010