Friday, December 31, 2010

Words to relish: Ode to a poet

In these anticipatory hours leading up to toasting the new year, I’m indulging in some poetic language and imagery that has all the sparkle of champagne, the smooth spicy richness of that final seasonal eggnog. In her musical hymn-like book, New Mexican poet Pat Mora pays homage to the famous Chilean poet Pablo Neruda by writing a collection of her own “adobe odes” in honor of everyday things, many of them tied to home and hearth. In her lyrical musings, an adobe house is a “honey-hive, sun-baked loaf,” a “dream cave” containing “beans simmering for centuries.” Her chiles are “flamenco queens” laden with a blaze that tastes of “a sweetgreen fire.” Colorful quacamole is “parrot-sassy,” chocolate imparts “dusky layers of possibilities,” and a lemon is “a little canary nun” that embodies “the inwardness of prayer, outpourings of clear radiance.”

 An ode can be made to anything, and she sings exuberant praises for skin, tulips, rain and workers with equal precision. In applause of the apple, that “ruby story,” that “firm flower,” she writes:

“The first bite best,

a sweet river on the tongue,

the flesh innocent until we began to chew

and felt a hunger,

companion now to the grave.”

By blending the occasional Spanish word or phrase into her verse, she announces her Hispanic heritage and gives her writing a uniquely Southwestern flavor. A devoted dispensary of what she calls “bookjoy,” she’s also a prolific author of children’s books, a public speaker and event organizer, and she has plans for 2011: namely, to celebrate the 15-year anniversary of El dia de los ninos/El dia de los libros (Children’s Day/Book Day) in schools and libraries around the country.

Her poems make clear her deep reverence for the role of food making in the making of a life. “Feel the rotation,” she says to the imagined reader standing over a pot on the stove, “centuries of circular stirrings, hands spinning ollas, reveries.” One of her most beautiful tributes is her “Ode to Kitchens” (I’ve taken a couple of excerpts from the longer poem here), which leaves a haunting sense of why our best memories from year to year are fed by the joy found at the heart of the home and around the table:

    “Home within my home,

we explore

      your aromatic hiding places,

cabinets, possibilities,


     of pans and bowls…


Lids clang their incantations

            in the calligraphy of smoke,


of simmering soups —

         lentils, corn, tomatoes

              scents mingling with yeast’s

perfume. Dough’s modest chest swells

          with expectation under a cotton cloth.

Warmth works its daily mystery,

           alters elements

into a bouquet of bread...

    Gathered, we feast,

humble temple,

          perpetual family flame,

                     muse of metamorphosis.”

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Eat, Drink, Cook: Setting the table for the new year

Country singer Trisha Yearwood has a new follow-up to her first cookbook, Georgia Cooking in an Oklahoma Kitchen, featuring more simple, home-style Southern recipes. One recipe that caught my eye was the grape salad... whole seedless red and green grapes combined with a dressing made of cream cheese, sour cream, sugar and vanilla, pressed into a square pan and chilled in the fridge, then topped with a sprinkling of brown sugar and chopped pecans. (I have seen U.S.-origin grapes at the grocery store lately, although labels have to be checked carefully. I concede this dish might be best saved for when grapes from the Western Slope are in season again.) But such a refreshing salad/dessert combination (it can be served either way) sounded good this time of year.

I was intrigued to learn that grapes are eaten at New Year's for good luck in Spanish cultures. It is best to eat at least 12... one for each month of the year.

When I think of food to serve at the dawning of a new year, I think of a traditional shrimp linguine pasta, although I'm not sure why. As it turns out, seafood is considered a popular choice in many cultures.

Another food closely associated with New Year's is oranges. It's an important symbol of prosperity and luck in Asian cultures. I personally think the abundance of citrus is one of the food highlights of our year's coldest months. (Ranch Foods Direct will be featuring citrus recipes in our January newsletter, provided by Marcy Nameth of nearby Greenhorn Acres. It's such a pleasure to be the beneficiary of her great recipes and cooking ideas.) For new year's, we had planned on roasting a duck (not the most auspicious choice apparently), but on a more optimistic note, I'm also thinking about making citrus collard greens (after all the holiday cooking and eating, isn't everyone craving leafy greens?) and fluffy muffins studded with bits of real chopped oranges (which are great for brunch or can do double-duty as a dessert when topped with whipped cream or orange buttercream frosting... as an alternative, some type of orange bundt cake would also be seasonally appropriate.) For some reason, visions of sweet potato pie have danced around in my head. (Turns out that Yearwood's new book includes a sweet potato pudding that makes a decadent side dish or doubles as a dessert. It is made with cornmeal, eggs, milk, sugar and salt and topped again with pecans and brown sugar.)

And of course I've always heard that black-eyed peas and other lentils bring good luck. (Here's an article talking more about these traditions and including a recipe for "Hoppin' Juan," a southwestern variation of southern Hoppin' John.) So perhaps a good strategy would be to make a simple bean and sausage soup for New Year's Eve to serve by the glow of a fire. Or for something casual and festive, here's a recipe for a hot cheesy black-eyed pea dip for setting out with the last of the holiday treats and champagne.

It looks like this New Year's Eve will be a cold one, and it might even be a white one. Snuggling up at home might be the best bet, but take care if you plan to be out. Wind chills will dip dangerously low to mark this winter passage from one year to the next. 


Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Redeeming one of the season's favorites: the potato

As a journalist, I sometimes come across stories that almost seem to write themselves.

That's how I felt when I heard about Chris Voigt, the executive director of the Washington Potato Commission, and his successful attempt to eat nothing but potatoes for 60 days. For Thanksgiving, he actually celebrated with a mound of potatoes, molded into the shape of a turkey, because he was determined to make a statement about how healthy potatoes really are.

He has an interesting theory as to why his stunt diet led to hundreds of media requests from all over the world. (I interviewed him shortly after he returned to his office after appearing with Matt Lauer on NBC's The Today Show.) He believes people like potatoes so much that they enjoy seeing them vindicated.

With all the sugar and salt-laden foods out there, and the popularity of carbs made by extruding paste through a machine (as is the case with most pasta) I share the view that the lowly potato seems to get unfairly picked on. After all, it is produced by a plant that grows in the earth, and there's no mistaking it's earthiness.

In one of my favorite nutrition books of recent years, The Jungle Effect: A Doctor Discovers the Healthiest Diets from Around the World — Why they Work and How to Bring Them Home, Daphne Miller devotes a chapter to the Icelandic diet, which is high in potatoes but results in a population with exceptionally low rates of depression. She draws an interesting connection between the sensory pleasure associated with consuming a food and the creation of mood-enhancing hormones that act like an antidepressant. She also offers several helpful tips for making the consumption of potatoes as healthy as possible. Start by choosing the smaller waxy-textured versions rather than the big conventional baking potato. (Local farms like Venetucci grew some fabulous multicolored spuds this past year.) Pre-cooking and then cooling them before eating, as is the case in making a potato salad, lowers their glycemic index considerably. Eating them whole (and with the skin) rather than mashed also yields benefits. And finally, adding a touch of vinegar also appears to have positive health attributes.

One revealing aspect of Chris' "diet" was that he had to eat 20 potatoes a day just to try to maintain his weight. While potatoes are filling (so filling it's hard to imagine eating 20 of them) they are actually relatively low in calories at 110 per average sized vegetable. Yes, it's easy to exceed this by heaping on the toppings, like cheese and butter. Still, Chris found it difficult to maintain his weight and actually lost 21 pounds over the 60 days.

An obvious alternative — that yields similar eating pleasure — is the sweet potato. According to 50 Secrets of the World's Longest Living People by Sally Beare, sweet potatoes are one of the most nutrient-packed vegetables you can find. They offer a similar smooth and hearty consistency to a potato with less carbohydrate and even more nutrients, including the beta carotene that gives them their cheery orange color.

With Christmas only hours away, I'm thinking about how potatoes are an affordable indulgence. Since Colorado is one of the largest producers, you can always get them locally grown. Mashed potatoes seem practically inevitable next to an equally decadent slice of meltingly tender Callicrate Beef prime rib. And how many Christmas Eve traditions involve a hearty ethnic soup (such as a creamy clam chowder) enhanced by the presence of potatoes?

Here's to enjoying all the blessings of the holiday season... and refusing to condemn potatoes, eggs, red meat, real butter, whipped cream and the other various villains out there that in fact have plenty of redeeming qualities and have fed humans well for centuries.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Eat, Drink, Cook: A revival of kitchen creativity

Shortly after Thanksgiving, food writer Abigail Carroll published an opinion piece in the New York Times explaining that while the holiday feast honors the traditional gathering of pilgrims and Indians, the meals in the days that follow typically pay homage to another time-worn tradition: leftovers.

She explained that through history the popularity of leftovers rose and fell with what was happening in the culture at large. In truly ancient times, food preparation was difficult and time-consuming, meaning leftovers were practically a necessity. With the industrialization of work and food, leftovers lost their status and were even stigmatized. Hard times have tended to bring them back into vogue. She writes:

"With two world wars and the Depression, leftovers enjoyed a resurgence. Eating leftovers came alongside victory gardens, home canning and meatless and wheatless days as a form of kitchen patriotism. In 1918, 'Foods That Will Win the War and How to Cook Them' encouraged women to turn meat remainders into soup, and cold muffins into toast. By the late 1930s, reliable home refrigerators made storing uneaten food significantly easier. No longer was it necessary to pick at the same dish for consecutive meals until it spoiled. Appliance manufacturers published cookbooks with advice on putting, as Frigidaire advertised, a 'lift in leftovers.' In the 1950s, Tupperware became available followed by Saran Wrap and Ziploc bags, and since the late 1970s, Americans have been 'nuking' leftovers in microwaves for instant snacks and meals."

Even so, leftovers in the modern age have almost been eliminated in some households, she concludes, by processing that has extended the shelf life of many items to near infinity as well as "countless venues for eating out."

Growing up on a farm, a day spent slaughtering chickens or rabbits meant a certain sameness for many meals in a row. Today, as I find myself continually cooking for just one or two, a pound of beef or package of chicken breasts can go almost as far. Part of the fun of cooking is reusing leftovers in creative ways so that it isn't obvious that the same meat is being eaten at yet another meal. Variety is the spice of life. I like to have a couple of meat items "in play" (thawed and waiting in the fridge) and trade off between them as I go from meal to meal.

On the topic of meals likely to result in leftovers (at least for small families), a recent issue of Parade, the weekly insert that appears in the Denver Post and other newspapers, featured the poet Maya Angelou sharing a "Sunday dinner" recipe from her second cookbook, Great Food, All Day Long, just out this month. Potential for leftovers aside, another aspect that makes her Mixed London Grill (above) look so appealing is the diversity of ingredients. A carnivore's dream, it calls for bratwurst sausage, lamb chops, pork loin and sirloin. What really intrigued me was mention of the lamb or veal kidneys. "Kidneys have wonderful flavor, and yet few Americans eat them," Maya told Parade. Take it beyond kidneys: Americans don't eat nearly enough highly nutritious organ meats, in part as a phenomenon of the same industrialization that has made leftovers unnecessary. As consumers, we can eat the steak of the steer or the breast of the chicken every time, even though this is obviously not how animals actually occur in nature. The rest of those carcasses do go somewhere, maybe to be used in pet food, maybe shipped to a less industrialized and poorer country where the people can still make the equivalent of a feast from a head or a hoof. (In that regard, we Americans would do good to revive some of their creativity and try a little harder to use a wider variety of parts.) 

I confess, I'm actually uncertain about making this dish with a beef kidney. But I do have some chicken livers and gizzards left from a recent whole chicken processed on-farm at Callicrate Cattle Company (You can see how the birds were raised and processed in these pictures). And the beef livers at Ranch Foods Direct come from animals fed a strictly natural diet (no growth promotants) — an important consideration when buying and preparing organ meats. (The liver acts as a filter during digestion and poses as something of a sponge for unhealthy residues.)  No doubt the cleanness of the liver has become less of a consideration to a large scale beef industry that is mostly selling steaks, ground beef and roasts (not organ meats, so much.) But it's important if you want to practice eating in more rustic and creative ways, which also tend to increase nutritional diversity.

Yes, it's potentially healthier to eat more meals at home and downsize your life, if possible, so there's adequate time to engage in the "domestic arts" — perhaps to even go so far as growing and slaughtering the chickens, as well as eating them... (keeping in mind, of course, that most things are better when optional).