Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Purple Potatoes

A few weeks ago, I went down to Greenwood’s Uptown farm stands to see what Parisi farms had to offer and found some beautiful purple sweet potatoes.  I bought them but had no idea what to do with ‘em.  I didn’t know if the color would “go away” after they were cooked, and I knew that the more they looked purple the more likely it was that my kids would eat ‘em. So, I decided it was time to get what I had wanted for years: a mandolin slicer.  I have looked at fancy ones before—and they are all very cool—but I wanted to see what Walmart had to offer.  I found it: a $19.99 Farberware one.

I took that thing home, and boy can it slice.  First purple sweet potato experiment: chips. I just sliced them thin, dropped them in my old-school Fry Daddy, and cooked them twice.  To make them crispy you need to dunk ‘em once, drain ‘em, and then give them to the oil one more time.  We sprinkled one batch with cinnamon sugar and gave another batch fine sea salt—they’re great both ways.

Second experiment: fries. Same process: sliced them with my julienne attachment, fried them twice, sprinkled one batch with cinnamon sugar and another batch with fine sea salt. Everyone loved them.

Third experiment: no mandolin, no fryer.  Just rubbed them with shortening, baked them for about 45 minutes, split them open, and topped them with butter and cinnamon sugar; in other words, I just treated them like regular old sweet potatoes.

All three experiments were smashing successes for two reasons: the really deep purple color remained unchanged, and my kids were successfully duped into eating sweet potatoes.  They always resist sweet potatoes, no matter how we dress ‘em up. This time we got “What is this? Is it a sweet potato?” My answer: “They are purple potatoes.” Kids: “But are they sweet potatoes?” Me: “They’re purple potatoes. Can’t you see that they’re purple potatoes?”  I wasn’t lying; I just wasn’t answering their question.  And then despite their skepticism, they ate the purple sweet potatoes and said they were delicious.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

When You Can't Take It any More . . . Turn It into a Fritter

Although the summer is young, my family has reached a pivotal moment: we’re growing tired of summer squash and zucchini.  I planted early, with seedlings from Early Bird Farms, and since this is my first garden at a new home, my crop has been bountiful.  I haven’t lost a single plant to squash vine borers, though I’m sure they will find me next year.                

Our standard approach to squash and zucs is to simply sauté them with butter and sweet onions.  When we tire of that, we swap the butter and onions for olive oil and Italian herbs.  I’ll also cut them lengthwise instead of into rounds and grill them, but that’s a minor and boring variation. If ever we need   little more richness in our diet, we go with a buttery squash casserole.

Tonight, however, I made my first attempt of the season at zucchini fritters, and they were a tremendous hit, more of a hit than the one time I made them last year, when they were largely dismissed as some kind of messed-up hoe cake.  There are plenty of recipes around the Internet for zuc fritters, but I like Martha Stewart’s for its simplicity—it doesn’t dictate what kind of pan one should use or offer any other unnecessary advice.  The unnerving thing about these fritters is the sloppy consistency of the batter—it’s about like a pancake batter—but the payoff is tremendous: a crisp golden-brown exterior with a slightly creamy (thanks to the egg, I guess) interior that really lets the herbs stand out.  I used fresh parsley, as Martha recommends, but I would also give basil a shot.   

The one tip I borrowed from Smitten Kitchen was that I squeezed the moisture out of the zucchini before adding it to the batter, but I did it barbarian style—with my bare hands instead of cheesecloth.

I served my zuc fritters with something my family calls “okra sauce” because I first trotted it out as a dip to accompany fried okra (which we thought needed some kind of dip that was neither ketchup nor honey mustard).  It’s roughly equal parts mayonnaise and ketchup, with a dollop of horseradish (I like to grate my own and keep a root in the freezer, but the prepared stuff is okay when it’s fresh) and a squeeze of lemon juice.  We have come to the conclusion that this Okra Sauce is the perfect accompaniment for virtually any fried vegetable.  It’s a little creamy but it has enough bite to cut through the oiliness of such fried goodies. 

GMO-Free Rabbit Manure?

There is some absurdity to the organic ethic.  I do not want to use chemical fertilizers on my garden, so I have procured rabbits to produce manure I can use for fertilizer.  But even though my bunnies help me avoid granulated 10-10-10 and Miracle Gro, there is no easy way to make sure my rabbit fertilizer is completely pure.

The definitive book on raising rabbits is Bob Bennet’s Storey’s Guide to Raising Rabbits, and in this book the author presents as unequivocal fact that pelleted rabbit feed is the best food for captive rabbits.

Pelleted food is easy—I get it in ten-pound bags at my local Tractor Supply store for $4.99. Several weeks ago, however, a comment on a blog post asked me if my rabbit feed, and subsequent poo/manure/fertilizer, was free of GMOs. 

I had quibbled over the issue of GMO rabbit feed for some time, but the convenience and price of my rabbit pellets caused me to ignore the problem.  The primary ingredients of my rabbit pellets are wheat, alfalfa, soybeans, and corn derivatives.  The USDA approved the use of GMO alfalfa in January 2011, and most folks know that soybeans and corn are classic GMO crops.  No matter what I’m buying, I assume that products contain GMO ingredients unless the packaging tells me otherwise—USDA Organic certification, for instance, guarantees that no GMO ingredients have been used.

If I could buy GMO-free rabbit feed at Tractor Supply, I would, even if I had to pay a little more, but that isn’t an option.  The best option that I’ve found is a product by Oxbow, but it costs over three times as much, not to mention shipping costs.

The best solution I’ve found is to grow my own rabbit feed, and the best options seem to be timothy hay and/or alfalfa.  So when one of my raised beds finishes its run of veggies, the rabbit crop will go in.  Actually, I might just sow the stuff along my property line or see if I can somehow incorporate it into my landscaping as I already use native ornamental grasses.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Let Them Eat Legumes

A few days ago, when I was working on my black bean hummus, I heard a story on NPR about a recent USDA study that claims healthy food is actually cheaper than all the junk food that makes Americans fat.  Of course this is striking because conventional wisdom, since Food, Inc., has held that it is cheaper to eat fast food hamburgers and soda than it is to buy broccoli or pears.

The part of the story that most struck me claimed that legumes—particularly dried beans—are the best, or most economical, source of protein.  Ironically, as I was listening to the NPR story I was having to research how to cook black beans.  I’m a pretty smart guy—I have a freaking Ph.D.—and I cook a lot. Moreover, I consider myself a pretty astute home cook because my “cooking” is more than reheating frozen meals or churning out Hamburger Helper.  I can cook chicken to a safe temperature without a thermometer.  I can do the same thing with boneless pork chops without drying them out.  I can cook shrimp about a dozen different ways without any cookbooks or cheat sheets; I can shuck fresh oysters . . . .  Yet, when I wanted to make my hummus I couldn’t remember exactly how to deal with the beans, this simple, affordable protein.

I have no problem with the USDA declaring that it is indeed possible to eat a healthy diet on the cheap, but I do have a problem with the assumption that people can actually pull this off, today, right away.  To make my black bean hummus I had to boil the beans two minutes and let them sit two hours, then I had to cook them another hour or so, until they were tender.  Of course I could have let them soak in water overnight and then boiled them for that additional hour.  Telling people who are working two jobs, taking kids to and from school, relying on too much fast food, handling homework, and trying to get those kids to bed to work more dried legumes into their diet is like telling me that my bread would be way cheaper if I bought wheat in fifty-pound sacks and pounded it into flour myself.  As a society, we simply don’t know how to cook any more, and we need to make much greater changes than simply knowing what to do—even if I thought pounding wheat would be cool and cheap, I have no idea how to do it and certainly don’t have the equipment.

More food education would help, as might living wages and/or general wage increases for the lower-and-middle-classes that have experienced at least a decade of wage stagnation.  Heck, maybe we should shorten the standard workday to seven hours so that more people could get home in time to cook dinner.  I would bet that if we could combine knowing what to do with being able to afford it and the time it takes, more people would be at home cooking dinner.

Thursday, May 17, 2012


Hummus is one of the wonders of the culinary world.  It looks about like what I imagined when I read that some poor bedraggled character in an old British novel, like Oliver Twist, had nothing to eat but mush.

I can’t remember when I first tried it, but I know it was after a long period of resistance.  Now, I love it, I like all kinds: I like the jalepeno-cilantro hummus offered by Trader Joe’s, and I like the basic garbanzo bean-based hummus recipe in my vegan cookbook, Veganomicon.  My all-time favorite, however, was the black bean hummus that my family used to buy from a local establishment in Greenville, SC that recently closed its doors. 

With that black bean hummus in mind, I decided several days ago to make my own—from scratch…and by that I mean all the way from dry black beans.

I handled the black beans by the book: boiled a pound of them in water for two minutes and then let them sit for two hours.  I drained them, put them in the fridge, and came back to them today.  I took two cups of those beans, boiled them again for about another ninety minutes, when they were soft enough to smush.  I drained them, dumped them in my food processor, and started adding other ingredients: two tablespoons of tahini, the juice of one lemon, half a small sweet onion (which I got from Parisi Farms at the Uptown Greenwood Farm Stands), three big cloves of garlic, about a tablespoon of diced pickled jalapeños, a teaspoon of salt, a teaspoon of pepper, about a half teaspoon of cumin, and about a quarter teaspoon of chili powder (remember, this ain’t a cookbook—I didn’t really measure anything and I’m just recreating this all by memory).  Then I started processing it as I streamed in extra virgin olive oil, probably about ½ a cup, until I reached the consistency I wanted.

My end result is glorious: creamy but retaining some texture, garlicky, a little smoky (thanks to the cumin), a little spicy, a little salty.  And starting with two cups of black beans gave me enough hummus to enjoy tonight and have enough left over to show off to my friends on Friday night.  Next time I’ll add cilantro or parsley; I might use a chipotle pepper or adobo sauce in the place of the jalapeño and lemon juice—if you read this blog you know how I feel about chipotle peppers and adobo sauce.  Whatever the case, I have arrived at my new base recipe for black bean hummus.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

On the Glory of Pimento Cheese and My Variations

Having been raised in North Carolina, schooled in Florida, and settled in South Carolina, I have spent all my life in “The South,” and I can’t think of a time when I wasn’t aware of pimento cheese.  I never really liked it until I moved to Greenwood, South Carolina, and tried the pimento cheese that is house-made at Corley’s Market and Grill.

This pimento cheese tastes fresh, and each flavor component is distinct: cheddar cheese, mayo, pimento peppers, salt, and pepper.  It melts nicely when piled by the spoonful on a burger, and it makes a killer grilled cheese.

In short, I love Corley’s pimento cheese, but I have also experimented with making my own, with great success (I have to admit). 

To really understand pimento cheese, one must realize that there are really only three key ingredients: cheese, mayonnaise, and peppers. 

Once this is all understood, the possibilities for home-cook variations are incredible.  I have arrived at two custom variations, one with chipotle peppers, and another with fresh jalapeños and cilantro.

Version 1 (Chipotle): grate two cups of sharp cheddar cheese in a basic box grater or whatever you have on hand; Add about 1/4 cup of mayo, one canned chipotle pepper, about a teaspoon of the adobo sauce from the can of chipotle peppers, salt and pepper to taste.  Stir all ingredients together with a spoon or food processor to combine and break the cheese into smaller bits. Chop the chipotle pepper before mixing the ingredients unless you mix with a processor. (Disclaimer: I don't really measure anything when I cook, and this isn't a recipe but a loose blog-post description of how I make something--adjust everything as needed!)

This produces a cheese spread that is more flavorful than the traditional pimento cheese.  It has more heat than pimento cheese (pimentos aren’t spicy at all), and the smokiness that comes with all chipotle peppers (a chipotle pepper is a smoke-dried jalapeño).

Version 2 (Jalapeño): follow the same process as Version 1, substituting one whole fresh jalapeño, diced, and about three tablespoons of chopped fresh cilantro. 

This version is great because of its combination of the sharp, clean heat of the jalapeño and the fresh flavor of the cilantro, with the heat being simultaneously cooled by the cheese and mayo.  It has a quick and satisfying punch of heat, but it doesn’t have the extended and unpleasant burn of biting into a raw hot pepper.

As I have already indicated, the three big tests for pimento cheese are the burger, the grilled cheese, and the cracker. My two variations pass these tests, but they pose an additional problem: pimento cheese takes its name from the pimentos.  Since I don’t use this boring pepper, my cheeses are some kind of bastardized cheese spread.  I can’t call them “Chipotle Cheese” and “Jalapeño Cheese” because no one has ever heard of such things; I can’t call them “cheese spreads” because such a name would conjure images of Velveeta or Cheese Whiz (yuck!).  So, I’m willing to declare any combination of cheese, mayo, and peppers “pimento cheese” and allow myself to take liberties with the variety of pepper that joins the cheese and mayo.  In honor of Lewis Black, I’ll refer to my decision on terminology as “the soy milk rule” because, remember, no one would buy “soy juice.” 

I hope you try my variations on pimento cheese; if you have your own, I would love to hear about it!

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Manure Tea: Or, Fertilizer Ethics

I have been very public about the fact that I’ve procured rabbits for the primary purpose of fertilizing my garden.  So far, I count the experiment as a success.  All the manure from January to mid-March went into my winter compost and then went into the three raised beds I built for our garden.  Rabbit poo is virtually odorless and dry—nothing really nasty about it.

But, this week I decided to try out the “manure tea” that I’ve read about in countless organic gardening publications and websites (Don’t believe it’s so popular? Just google it—54,800 hits).  I tried it, and I found it absolutely revolting.  First, “manure tea” may be the grandest euphemism I’ve ever confronted.  One blogger more appropriately terms this liquid fertilizer “poop soup.” It’s nasty.

Here is the basic premise: you put manure in a bucket of water for a  few days and then you have an organic hippy version of Miracle Gro: just pour it into a watering pot, sprinkle it on the garden, and book yourself a spot in the watermelon competition at the state fair. 

I do everything I can to keep chemicals and synthetic fertilizers out of my garden, but I can only carry this ethic so far.  In my defense, I am willing to deal with rabbit manure, and I am the father of three little kids.  I firmly believe that there are things in life that are unpleasant—dirty diapers, wiping the rear-ends of the helpless, the stomach flu—but that the call of duty grants no allowances for squeamishness.

But I draw the line at “poop soup” for my garden.  To all of those champions of the muck, I salute you.  I know you will probably want to tell me that it’s not so gross and my experiment was gross because I did something wrong.  For now, however, I’ll listen to none of that and move forward believing I’ve learned my limits. I will do everything I can with my dry organic fertilizers.  I will use all the rabbit manure my trusty brood can generate (in its naturally dry form), and I will supplement that with the great Putney Farms composted chicken manure that I buy through Upstate Locally Grown. 

For me, living an organic life is something that has happened bit by bit.  It started with simply learning about the problems associated with high fructose corn syrup.  Then it involved trying to avoid produce on the constant “dirty dozen” lists.  It eventually turned into growing as much of my own food as possible.  I think it’s the same with everyone, and it always involved figuring out what we can do, what we can afford to do, what we cannot do, and what we do not want to do.  I do not want to make, use, or be in the presence of manure tea.  In my learning process, I can now say I’ve figured out how I feel about fertilizer and how I will feed my plants.