Sunday, February 25, 2007

Worship and Dinner

The Wife and I just held our first real dinner party in this house. It was a potluck for our Quaker Meeting (equivalent to our church), to welcome a new member into the community. In general, it went really well--assuming your definition of really well is open to encompassing a kid throwing a fit because he was in an unusual environment, a mom who has been sick as a dog for a week, extra guests and extra food sensitivities.

Part of what is important about food is how it makes community. I think this is particularly true in religious communities. I was raised Catholic; there, it was about the sanctified food of the Body and Blood of Christ. Among Quakers, it's social hour, that period after Meeting for Worship when we drink coffee, eat saltines with peanut butter, and talk. By committing this act of eating together, so closely tied together with the experience of the divine, no matter what we name it, we draw ourselves closer to some center we stand around, until we touch each other, gently, at the edges.

But the dynamics of this are complicated by the dynamics of what we can eat. The Body and Blood are made of wheat and alcohol; and do crackers and peanut butter set any better precident? I've taken it upon myself to bring things to Meeting whenever we have a 'big eating event,' such as a potluck, or the afternoons before Business Meeting when folks eat lunch to prepare for the three hours of worship-slash-collective-self-government that is about to happen. My dishes always come neatly labelled "VEGAN/NO DAIRY, EGGS, OR MEAT/FISH/SHELLFISH, GLUTEN/WHEAT FREE, NO CORN OR SOY, ASK IN KITCHEN FOR DETAILS" so that people know, at least, what they are getting into. I want to extend that community created through eating to everyone around me.

Which is part of why tonight was complicated. Among the 10 people at the table, one has celiac disease and is gluten free, one follows a gluten-free/casein-free/soy-free diet, one is a vegetarian, one is on a 3 week detox diet that involves, inter alia, no gluten, no animal products, and no refined sugar, and one has multiple, but mild, food sensitivities and avoids gluten, soy, corn, dairy, kidney beans, and I think some other things I didn't catch. 2 of those people didn't announce their sensitivities in advance, which made things a little awkward: I would have kept the crackers separate if I'd known that there was an dairy allergy (as opposed to avoidance) in the bunch, for instance, and probably wouldn't have put the cheese at little-kid-height. But I had my brain on sensitivities, knew what was in everything I put out, and even pulled the cake mix bag out of the recycling so everyone could read the ingredients.

As we sat down to eat, we held hands to say a silent Quaker grace. In that moment, I felt the connection. Each of the ten people in my house to each was a tangible spiritual being, and for that moment, we bumped into each other and stayed there. The woman we were welcoming squeezed my hand, and I opened my eyes. We all looked around the table, and there was a moment when we exhaled, together. Then we smiled down at our bowls of soup and began to eat.

Menu for Spiritual Enlightenment
In Honor of Nichole

Hors d'oeuvres:
Cheese plate: fresh chevre, New York cheddar, and raclette
Crackers: Almond Nut Thins (contains nuts, dairy), Tamari Sesame Rice Crackers (contains soy, sesame seeds), corn crispbreads (contains corn, rice)
Kalamata and Picholine Olives
Mixed nuts (pecans, roasted cashews, and raw almonds)
Vegan Terrine (purchased, though I had wanted to make one)

Unfiltered apple juice
Orange juice
Filtered water
2005 CĂ´tes du Rhone (red--is there another type?) (brought by Ted)

First Course
Potato-Leek Soup (by Ted and Nina)

Main Course
Romaine Salad with carrots, cucumbers, grape tomatoes, and string beans (by Mary and Helen)
Polenta, served with Good Mother Stollard Beans cooked in sage and garlic (by me and The Wife)
Green beans cooked with shallots and garlic (by Shannon and Giancarlo)

Namaste Spice Cake
Apple Millet

Polenta: I made crock-pot polenta, since I didn't want to have to jump up and cook during dinner. 6 cups water, 2 cups stone-ground cornmeal, teaspoon of salt, on high for 3 hours, on low for 2.

Beans with sage: Boil as many Good Mother Stollard beans as possible. Cranberry, Borlotti, or Pinto beans would be a good substitute. When boiled, drain, and put a good amount of olive oil or butter in the pan. If using butter, let it brown slightly. Add the beans, along with tons of chopped fresh sage and 2-3 cloves of garlic. Cook until the outside skins of the beans become crispy and crunchy, and they have started to stick to the pan. Serve over polenta.

Apple Millet: Chop 1/4 cup dried apples. Rehydrate in warm water, about a cup but there's no need to measure. (This step can be done up to a few days in advance and then stored in the fridge, or can sit on the counter for a few hours while you do other things.) Drain the apples, pour the liquid into a measuring cup, and top off with enough apple juice (unfiltered, unsweetened, please) to make 2 cups. Put 1 cup millet, the rehydrated apples, the apple juice/soaking liquid, and about 1/2 cup more water into a pot with a sprinkling of cinnamon. Simmer until the millet is done, about 20 minutes to half an hour. Does not need to be served immediately.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Vegetable Love: Green Beans and Flageolets over Sweet Potato-Parsnip Puree

Valentine's Day is about love.

All kinds of love.

Earth love. This is a pile of compost in the making. Compost is an amazing gift you can give to the environment; it takes lots of trash out of the wastestream, and puts nutrients back into the scarred New York City soil I live in. I keep two bins in the backyard, one an old broken plastic box with worms in it, and another a supposed-to-be-a-compost bin without worms. Start composting already: LES Ecology Center.

Stock love. I love making scrap stock. It makes me feel like thrifty; it makes me fell like a pioneer woman, out somewhere in the Oklahoma territory, living by my bootstraps; and it's fun. I save the tops of leeks and scallions, carrot and parsnip peels, and celery that's about to go off in the freezer, balance them out with fresh veggies, and cook to death with salt, garlic, dried herbs, and peppercorns. You're seeing last night's leek tops, and tonight's parsnip peels.

Without-a-net love. Susan at Fat-Free Vegan set the terms for the experiment, so I had to do something I don't ever do: leave out the butter, cream, and oil. I love butter, cream, and oil. But I did this, to try it. And I think it worked.

Wife Love. She's got a very limited range of veggies, my wife does. So I've learned how to cook with the ones she likes, so she eats it. It's not what I would do if I were queen of her. But I'm not queen of her. I'm her wife. So here, in one place, are nearly all of the vegetables she eats: parnsips, sweet potatoes, and green beans. If I'd served a salad with romaine lettuce, carrots, and cucumbers, we'd have been pretty close to 100%. (She says she likes potatoes, from the other side of the couch.)

And so:

Recipe Love.

Green Beans and Flageolets over Sweet Potato-Parsnip Puree

Cut up sweet potato and parsnips: I used 3 cups sweet potato and 1.5 cups parsnips, but these are flexible. In large-ish sauce pan, bring an inch of water to a boil, with one dried chile (mine come from Hepworth Farms on Long Island), a sprinkle of salt, and two smallish cloves of garlic. Once it comes to a boil, add the root veggies and cover. Steam for ten minutes. Top and tail about a cup of green beans, and fetch about a cup of pre-cooked flageolet beans from the fridge. When the veggies are steamed, pull them out of the water. Mash lightly with a large spoon, or whatever you've got. I drained the water from the pan and added about 1/2 tablespoon of olive oil, but I'm guessing you could skip this step and use part of the steaming water to cook the green beans. Add back the garlic and chili, and sautee the green beans and flageolets over medium-high heat until the green beans change to bright green and the flageolets start to get crispy. Fill bowls with puree, and top with beans and beans. The chili is just for garnish there.

Love. It's in season.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Political Borscht

(I know several earnest thoughtful women who would rather see their children peaked than brew something with the foreign name minestrone, because in this year of 1942 the United States is at war with Italy. There is a fundamental if tiring truth about all this, and you and I can only hope that right will conquer over might before too long.) [In the 1950's some people feel helplessly antagonistic to borscht! Fortunately, I do not.]
--M.F.K. Fischer, How to Cook A Wolf. (In parantheses, from the 1942 edition; in brackets, added in the 1951 edition.)

Freedom Fries? Falafel? What are the politically despised foods of our war?

Cold War Hot Borscht
Chop 2 beets and one carrot into small chunks. (The beets may be previously steamed or roasted.) Slice one scallion roughly, or one substantial slice of onion. Put them in a pot with one clove garlic and some salt. Add enough water to cover, bring to a boil, and simmer until the vegetables are tender, topping off the water when it gets too low. When vegetables are tender, puree in a blender or with a stick blender. Serve with yogurt or sour cream, and chopped fresh chives if you've got 'em. Makes 2 generous servings.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Fresh, Local, Whatevs

I won't buy tomatoes, peaches, or other summer foods in the winter. It's an environmental disaster hauling produce halfway across the world so that we don't have to remember that things don't grow in January in the Northeast. I try to stick to the kale grown in greenhouses upstate and the root vegetables and apples from local farms. When I do break down and buy long-haul produce, I try to minimize the distance it has travelled: my cucumbers come from the Dominican Republic, not Mexico, and my oranges come from Florida, not California.

So I'm all freakin' militant about seasonal, fresh, local food. Then I smell a bag of dried peaches. Goddamnit.

Peaches are my favorite fruit. They are so sensuous and liquid, falling apart on your lips, spilling juice so readily. Their fragrence carries across distances, pulls you in. I prefer yellow peaches, with their stronger flavor, but white peaches carry the memory of my first trip to France, when my Laotien host mother bought a bushel of them and peeled them for us to eat. I thought this was a strange peach they only had in Europe, and fell hopelessly in love with them as a symbol of that foreignness. (I love canari, called canary melon in the US, for the same reason.)

So peaches. I wanted peaches. I wanted them with a passion I could not describe. I wanted them NOW. I wanted them even though they weren't there to have.

In the end, I compromised. I bought a bag of frozen sliced peaches. They came from Washington; I hope they were grown locally to where they were frozen, at least. When I got home, I dumped them, still frozen, into a sauce pan, brought them (and the juice they bled) to a boil, added maple syrup (because frozen fruit is never as sweet as fresh) and ate the whole bag in one sitting.

What do we do with ourselves as lovers of food who also care about the politics of it? What do we do when we love foie gras but hate the torture of geese? (Side note: I've actually eaten foie gras, during a phase of flexible vegetarianism, and found the fuss over it absurd. It's like if butter were made of meat. I'll take the stick of butter + steak any day over "stick of butter that tastes like steak.") If we are ethical vegetarians sitting in front of plates of our mother's pot roast? If we don't want to eat out of season, but crave a peach?

I don't have answers here. I just have questions, and an empty bag of frozen peaches sitting in my trash can.