Saturday, December 27, 2008

Art. Food. Give.

Add to the list of most sought after inauguration events, Alice Waters will be "cooking" a dinner for 80 people on January 19th; the tickets are $500. We all know, however, that Alice doesn't actually cook herself (way to do your research NYT); she just tastes and tells her cooks if it tastes good. In addition, other renowned chefs, who do actually cook themselves, have also agreed to participate in the event and will be cooking dinners for 20-30 people in homes around DC on the same night. In addition, several arts related guests will be in attendance, including Maya Lin.

The event is called Art. Food. Give. and proceeds will benefit D.C. Central Kitchen and Martha's Table, which both operate soup kitchens and help to run FarmFresh Markets, which gave 17,000 pounds of food to emergency food providers during its first year. In addition, in keeping with Water's rhetoric for locally produced foods, the ingredients for the dinners will come from local and sustainable farms. In addition, Alice Waters' organization of this event is significant considering her role in trying to persuade President-elect Barack Obama and Mrs. Obama to plant a victory garden on the White House front lawn. Her role in "cooking" this inaugural dinner indicates her possible role in shaping food and agricultural policy in years to come. Let's hope at least.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Why WASPs should never try a Jewish Christmas

This, my friends, is what I ate for Christmas dinner. My parents decided to do the whole Christmas thing differently this year. Usually, in an effort to not cook two dinners at home, we spend Christmas Eve dinner at an inn-type place and have good ol' New England cuisine. Most often, it's overpriced and almost never as good as the meal we cook the next night. So, realizing how ridiculous it is to spend so much money on not such great food, the parents decided that this year, we would spend Christmas Eve at home cooking and do Christmas Jew-style. We spent the morning opening presents and doing our usual big Christmas morning breakfast, and, when this was all done, went to a movie. All great so far. Once the movie was over, however, we went to a Chinese/all-types-of-Asian-food restaurant, and the day just went down hill from there.

As I have had pretty adverse reactions to Chinese food and MSG in my lifetime (ie. face blowing up and dizzy spells) I decided to go with something I knew I liked and that was going to be simple: sushi. So I picked out the Maki triad, whose description on the menu read something along the lines of yellow tail, tuna, and salmon maki rolls decorated with festive rice paper. Festive decoration, that could be good, right? It's Christmas, after all. Um yeah, bad idea. That description apparently meant this lovely (read, utterly horrible) entree pictured above where the seaweed had been replaced with Easter colored rice paper. As much as these cheery colors would be lovely decoration for "festive" Easter eggs, I by no means wanted to consume them, especially on Christmas. What? Are we celebrating Christ's death before he's even out of the manger yet? And for serious, Christmas is my most favorite day of the year and I consume this? Um, gross. And um, I have indigestion now too. Chinese restaurants should not try to do all Asian cuisine. It doesn't work.

Anyways, so no Jewish Christmas for me next year. I'll eat left overs.

And, just for the record, this is not meant to be insulting an any way to any religion. Please forgive me if I have offended any of you.

Ruminations on Christmas Cookies

So this Christmas, my lovely roommate and I decided to get our bake on just a bit. Our bake on as well as our drink on, evidenced by the Knob Creek in the background of this photo. (Actually that second bit is a joke; I can't drink bourbon with a straight face for the life of me.) Anyways, the five batches of cookies we baked required a disgusting amount of butter, somewhere north of 12 sticks; I'm not going to say exactly how many north as many of the readers of this blog ate the cookies we baked. Sorry for those of you who have hereditary tendencies towards high cholesterol.

The two cookie types I baked were white bark balls and chocolate chip cookies, which would eventually have white chocolate covering and fleur de sel topping respectively. In the above photo, the initial batters are sitting in the fridge to cool down for their respective times.

After the bark ball batter (love the alliteration) had cooled in the fridge for 24 hours, I took the balls out one by one and covered them each with melted white chocolate. I would like to point out at this time the smaller than normal "sheets" of wax paper I used; I realized around 8:45 at night that we didn't have any wax paper left. By 9 I was out the door, only to find that almost every grocery store in Cole Valley/Upper Haight/Ashbury Heights was closed or didn't sell wax paper. As a last resort, I went to the wine shop just off the Carl and Cole intersection, and asked the man behind the counter, "I know this is a long shot, but do you have any wax paper?" To which he responded, "You mean something like this?" as he pulled out the used backs of UPS labels. "Well, yes I responded. But a few more. I'm baking cookies." The wine merchant then proceeded to take the UPS labels off all the wax covered backs he had and said, "I don't care, it's just UPS that's paying for it." Ha. A man after my own heart...and a man that allowed me to finish baking my white bark balls.

And here they are, the finished product! On some of them, I sprinkled little mint crumbles, which made for nice decoration.

And so now, back to my chocolate chip cookies. So after, 72 hours of refrigeration, I took the batter out, made little golf ball sized balls, sprinkled salt atop each ball, and put them into the oven at 350.

And here, my friends, is the glorious results of possibly the most delicious chocolate chip cookies you have ever tasted. For serious. Especially when they were fresh out of the oven. I would like you all to pay note to how the chocolate chips melt into the batter itself. The recipe I used called for dark chocolate disks rather than chocolate chips so the chocolate morsels have a larger surface area and thus exposure to heat so they melt that extra little bit. YUM! And the salt on top makes these by far the most complex (in a good way) chocolate chip cookies I have ever eaten.

My lovely roommate Nikki took a different approach to her baking and baked two types of cookies that were rolled out and cut with cookies cutters as well as a batch of oatmeal, cranberry, white chocolate cookies that I unfortunately didn't get any pictures of. In any event, above is pictured her sugar cookies just about to go into the oven.

Here are her sugar cookies just after they have left the oven and are cooling. Please note the delightful golden brown edges that are evidence of a perfectly cooked sugar cookie.

So every year around Christmas time, there is an onslaught of sweets and other tooth rotting treats, some of which are delicious and some of which (like say fruit cake) are horrible, but in the end, all of it looks good. So after Nikki's and my little adventure in cookie baking, I think the point of Christmas cookies isn't if they actually taste good or not (although, all of ours were amazing, of course) but if they look good.

Case in point.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Tom Vilsack to be Secretary of Agriculture

Over the last few weeks, there has been much buzz over and speculation about who President-elect Barack Obama would choose as the next Secretary of Agriculture; yesterday, Obama choose Tom Vilsack, a two-term governor of Iowa. To be blunt, I'm not pleased, but my opposition is a bit more nuanced than total rejection.

Leading up to Obama's choice for Secretary of Agriculture, an online letter had been circulating that encouraged the Obama administration to choose an Agricultural Secretary committed to reform, or, appropriately dubbed, change. Leaders in sustainable agriculture, such as Michael Pollan and Alice Waters, stepped forward to speak about their ideas on the role for the next Secretary of Agriculture. Pollan specifically suggested the position's title be changed to Secretary of Food to reflect the changes in our food system since the position was first created, when the majority of Americans were farmers, in comparison to now, when our system is based upon enterprise farms using machinery for farm labor. It is no longer our agricultural system we need to protect but rather the food these enterprises create for Americans to consume. All this advocacy and excitement created an air of hope for change.

Tom Vilsack is not the choice for change. He is from Iowa, a state focused on corn; he is part of the very system that is the problem in our food chain. Corn is a problem for a lot of reasons. Both Obama and Vilsack are supporters of using ethanol as a way to reduce our dependence on foreign oil; while using ethanol does reduce our use of foreign oil, it also raises the cost of corn (most ethanol in the US is made from corn), which in turn raises the cost of food as so much of our food includes corn and corn bi-products. Corn-based ethanol is also not a sustainable energy source in comparison with other bio-fuels such as sugar cane ethanol. In addition, corn farmers currently receive large subsidies to raise corn, which has led our agriculture system to become a mono culture and the majority of our food to be processed corn bi-products, due to the surplus corn produced. Nutritionally, this means Americans are not eating a diversity of foods, which leads Americans to not consume the diversity of nutrients their bodies require. This diet based on corn bi-products also means Americans are eating unhealthy corn bi-products such as hi fructose corn syrup; most of Americans health problems can be traced back to their unhealthy, corn-based diet. And again, I will say corn is a problem for many reasons.

Being from Iowa and a supporter of ethanol, it is quite probable that Tom Vilsack will be more of the same. Obama's choice of Vilsack is also considered a thank you to Iowa for the state's support of Obama in the election. To be fair, however, as Michael Pollan commented in this morning's interview of NPR Morning Edition, Vilsack has suggested caps on corn farmers subsidies and supports more food production on a local level. In addition, it is important to acknowledge Obama's choice for Secretary of Energy, Seven Chu, who is considered an early leader in alternative energy and, importantly, is opposed to ethanol as an alternative fuel. It is thus possible that Valsack's support of corn-based ethanol will be trumped by the Nobel prize winning Chu's opposition. I believe Pollan's statement of being "cautiously hopeful" is a good one.

And yes, the picture above is indeed of Tom Vilsack, our future Agricultural Secretary.