Friday, September 25, 2009

Potatoes make the meal

I don't think I will ever look at a potato the same way again. I've always loved potatoes - baked or mashed or fried - and I've always considered them simple but satisfying food. But after visiting Walters Produce in Newdale, Idaho, I've gained a new respect for the lowly spud.

My sister and I have been on a road trip through Idaho, Wyoming and Montana, and tomorrow we will head for South Dakota. Our first stop was in Tetonia, Idaho - just west of the Grand Tetons. We opted to stay at a bed and breakfast in Idaho, rather than pay the exorbitant prices in Jackson, Wyoming. The Locanda di Fiori, or Inn of the Flowers, turned out to be more than we could possibly have imagined. It was, in short, perfection. The owner - Carol - has become our new best friend. Not only did she pay attention to every last detail, including Ralph Lauren sheets and towels, organic soaps, and herbal teas in our room, but her breakfasts are to die for. Our days started with fresh fruit, eggs, bacon, French toast, ham, and the best coffee west of the Mississippi. They continued with laughter, intelligent conversation, the last float trip of the season down the river in Jackson, Wyoming, with the Barker Ewing company, where we saw moose, river otters and bald eagles - to mention just a few things. Carol then bought us some wine at Dornan's restaurant in Moose - yes, that's Moose - Wyoming, with a spectacular view of the sunset over the Tetons. We laughed and talked and wound up having pizza and more wine as we watched the colors change.

She then guided us back to the inn, where we changed into our suits and soaked in the hot tub for about an hour, sipping wine and practically listening to the stars crackle in the crisp night air. The next morning we said our goodbyes, and we headed off to Newdale. Carol had told us about the potato processing plant there and said that we had to visit it. At this point, we knew that we'd like anything she said, so we crossed the tracks, turned right, and drove down to the office.W. Jeffrey Walters and his brother are the third generation owners and operators of Walters Produce.
He took us on a tour of his facility, which processes something like 800,000 pounds of potatoes - mostly from Idaho. The soil in Idaho is volcanic - a rich, black soil which produces potatoes unlike any other kind in the U.S. Potatoes from farms owned and operated by the Walters family, as well as farms all over Idaho and surrounding states arrive daily by trucks. They are graded, sorted, washed, inspected, bagged, boxed, dried, shipped and stored - all in a giant, automated facility which employs hundreds of workers - many of whom are on a work program from the local prison.With every step through the plant, we inhaled the earthy smell of potatoes. Right now they are processing mainly russets, with some Yukon golds. At different times of the year, there are different varieties being processed. By the time we left, we absolutely needed to have some potatoes! We both opted for some of the medium sized ones - perfect for baking. He was so kind - he gave us a small bag of them, even though we only asked for 2! So far we haven't stayed anywhere where we have baked them, so we will probably go back with them in our suitcases. But what a fabulous souvenier! It beats a tee shirt any day!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Using up leftovers before my next trip...

I know....I know..... I seem to be going on more and more trips lately. I just got back from Orcas Island and now I'm headed off to the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone. And Montana. And South Dakota. I mean, there's a buffalo roundup in Custer State Park just minutes from Mt. Rushmore! What's a gal to do? When I was in New Mexico over Memorial Day weekend, a friend told me that she had gone to it several years ago, and the ground shakes under your feet as 1500 bison come roaring over the hill. I knew I would have to check that out. Besides, I've never been to that part of the country, and it's something I've wanted to do for a long time.

So I'm doing my own version of a roundup here at home. I'm rounding up everything I've got lying around the fridge and trying to eat it before I leave. While I try to limit the amount of pasta I eat, it really is the very best way to incorporate leftovers into a tasty meal. Now I need to invite the neighborhood over for dinner so that I don't have leftover leftovers!

This meal is one that doesn't really have a recipe. You take whatever pasta you've got and cook it. You add whatever leftovers you've got. With me, it was mainly grilled veggies, tomatoes from my garden (not exactly "leftover", but I did want to eat as many as possible!), and some goat cheese. I tossed it together with some olive oil and had a simple, tasty meal. I've done this many times over the years and it's always different depending upon the leftovers, but it always works.
I'll be leaving tomorrow and back on Oct. 1st. But before I go, I wanted to respond to something that Terry B from Blue Kitchen wrote in his comment on my last post. I had stated that part of our national obesity problem comes from petroleum - that we'd rather drive than walk. His response was a good one (I'd encourage you to read it). He stated that it was a cultural thing - that Chicago was a walking town, whereas St. Louis was not. I get this one. I was born on Long Island, and New York City is a walking town, as are pretty much all the cities in Europe. When I lived in the mountains of New Mexico, it wasn't common for people to walk to the grocery store, even though it was only 1 1/2 miles away, because there were no sidewalks. But New Mexico is a place where people who love the outdoors go to live. Instead of walking to the grocery store, people go for hikes in the mountains in the summer and ski in the winter.

Here in San Diego, there are sidewalks, but walking is still looked at with suspicion. Jogging? No problem. But walking? Is there something wrong with your car? Perhaps when the price of gas gets up to what Europeans have been paying for years and years, even people in San Diego will consider putting on those new walking shoes and actually walking in them!

Have a great couple of weeks, my friends! Oh - and if anyone knows of a great little restaurant in Bozeman, Mt., or anywhere near Jackson Hole, Wyoming, I'd love to hear about it!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Obesity, "Stuffed Nation", and further thoughts on food

Jenn, our very own Leftover Queen and founder of the Foodie Blogroll, has brought up a subject which has been on my mind for years. It was prompted by the book "Stuffed" by Hank Cardello, who is also the author of the blog Stuffed Nation. Jenn has asked us to write about our thoughts on the escalating obesity rates in the U.S. as well as food policy in this nation.While I have not yet read Mr. Cardello's book, I'm someone who has been in the "alternative" health care field for the last 18 years, and have had lots of time to think about food and health. I have had many people call me to ask if acupuncture will help them lose weight. (The short answer is "yes", but the real answer is more complicated than that - perhaps a subject for a future post.) People are truly searching for ways to lose weight and are willing to put their dollars to work to do this. Snack food companies have understood this for years, which is why the supermarket aisles are filled with fat free and sugar free foods as well as "diet" sodas. So why is it, with so many diet foods at our disposal, are we gaining so much weight?

For many years, I'd tell people that the answer was petroleum. Petroleum, you ask? Yes. People will get into a $25,000 car, move it 8 blocks to the supermarket, and then go in to buy a fat free or sugar free snack food, hoping it will help them to lose weight. In Europe, where people have paid over $6 per gallon for gasoline for many years, they walk. They walk in the winter and summer. They walk in the rain, the snow, the heat and humidity. I remember years ago when traveling by myself in southern France, I met a woman at a restaurant in Arles. She invited me to sit with her as we were both dining by ourselves. After dinner we took a walk together and I noticed that she had a great figure for a woman "of a certain age". When I asked her if she belonged to a gym she laughed. "Mais non!" She told me that she walked everywhere.

I live in southern California, where walking is looked upon with some suspicion. I walk anyway. I came back from a grocery store which is about a mile and a half from my home, carrying my groceries. A neighbor looked at me with surprise and asked "Did you walk to Henry's???" "Yes." And I wondered if this woman would consider it strange to walk 3 miles if she was in the mountains on a hike? I doubt it. Just strange to do it where there's pavement.

So petroleum plays a big role in our obesity, because it enables us to easily move from here to there without having to expend much effort. (Read "calories"). We take the elevator. We drive the car. The guys who are out there doing yard work are using those gas powered blowers to blow the leaves around, rather than an old-fashioned rake, which requires more effort. If you've seen the movie "Wall-e", you can see the exaggeration of what petroleum has done to us. We have become rounder.

Another reason we are gaining weight as a nation is the subsidies we pay our farmers for corn and soy products. Corn is what they use to fatten cattle. High fructose corn syrup is what they put in almost anything out there that's sweet. In other words, we have marched ourselves into a national feedlot, happily eating our corn and growing fat. Farm subsidies are part of our national policy, and I can imagine that there'd be a cogent argument in favor of subsidies. I won't get into that now, but there is something called the Law of Unintended Consequences. Whether you're in favor or against subsidies, it must be recognized that where we, as a nation, put our dollars affects all of us. And when we make it a national policy to subsidize certain crops, it makes it seem that they are cheaper. When we perceive that these foods are cheaper, we will find more and more ways to use them, whether or not that perception is based in reality. Taxes pay for subsidies, after all, so it's a question of whether we pay more in taxes or more at the supermarket.

And finally, there's the way many of us eat. I mentioned in my last post that I had seen the movie "Julie and Julia". When Julia Child was writing her book, fast food restaurants either did not exist, or if they did they were in their infancy. Women, for the most part, cooked. Meals were made primarily from scratch. "Convenience foods" were an outgrowth of WWII. They came from the rations that the soldiers used in the field - the dried and powdered foods that were developed to feed the troops. After the war, food manufacturers tried to sell these foods to women, but initially women rejected them. They didn't want to "just add water". After some research was done, it was discovered that if women had to do more than add water - if they had to add an egg and some oil to the cake mix - they were more willing to buy the convenience food. It was probably the first "crossover" concept in the food industry, and it was an enormous success.

Another post-war development was the electric (and gas) refrigerator, which replaced the ice box. As refrigerators developed, their freezer components went from the size of a couple of ice cube trays to what we see today. All of this invited the food industry to create newer convenience foods, and today we have what I'm sure must be a multi-billion dollar industry which has the capacity to feed many people for a relatively low cost. The hidden cost, of course, is the consequences of eating all this processed food - most of which contains corn and soy, as well as ingredients which are unpronounceable. If you can't pronounce something, how do you know it's food? Will your body recognize it as food? Or is it the equivalent to putting 20 octane gas in your tank? Would you consider putting 20 octane fuel in your tank? I doubt it. But most people are more than willing to put "20 octane fuel" in their bodies. Then they wonder why they don't feel well, and where this "dis-ease" came from. Perhaps what we put into our bodies has something to do with what we get out of them?

The increasing popularity of the "slow food" movement, and the idea of eating locally produced foods is something which would make grandma smile in her grave. She'd recognize it for what it is - common sense. What we are discovering is that common sense produces some darned good eating. We are being told that it's not really possible to make the leap to common sense right now - that it's too far from where we are to the common sense of eating home made food produced locally. I'm not convinced of that. It seems to me that one of the "silver linings" of the recent economic downturn is that more and more people are learning about gardening, and how to grow their own food. Will it replace modern agribusiness? No. Of course not. I would never underestimate the power of the money behind modern agribusiness. But I'm pleased to see an increasing number of community gardens which are springing up. And I'm thinking that at the very least, the kids who are getting to help their parents out in these gardens will make an important connection between the food they eat and the land it comes from.

I'm reminded of going to a local, high-end appliance store when I was remodeling my house back in 2003. A salesman was walking me around the store and showing me all the different appliances which I would need in my new home - stoves, refrigerators, faucets, showerheads etc. As he whizzed down a hallway with me in tow, I stopped in front of a gorgeous stove. "What's that?" I asked, breathlessly taking in this gleaming steel object with copper railings and a flat top with concentric steel flat circular plates set into the top. "$35,000," he answered, as he whizzed off. Later, I wandered back to have a closer look. I believe it was a La Cornu stove, with 2 ovens. He told me that the way you adjusted the heat on the top was to move the pot closer to the center of the rings for higher heat, and further away from it to reduce the heat. "Just like my friend Julie's wood cook stove", I thought. And then I laughed. To think - modern technology has advanced us to the point of cooking on a wood cook stove without the wood, and at a much, much higher price.

Our taste in food just might be going back to the time when grandma was a girl, too. If we can keep the price down to under $11 per tomato, we just might be on to something!

One last comment. For those of you who think you do not know how to cook, or live with someone who thinks they don't know how to cook, I have a wonderful story. A friend of mine's husband had his best friend visit from Ohio. The friend made dinner for all of us. My friend's husband looked at his old friend and asked incredulously "You know how to cook???" "No" said the friend. "But I know how to read."

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Summery Couscous

I just discovered how much it costs to run my fans. Unbelievable!! I have no idea how much worse it could be if I had air conditioning. I don't want to know - it's heart-stopping enough with just fans running, doing a semi-adequate job of keeping this place cool. My kitchen is running on half time. I'm running on half time. They say it will be cooler this weekend. I can't wait.

Going to the movies in the middle of the day is an ideal way to beat the heat. Have any of you seen Julie and Julia? It's lovely. I've always adored Meryl Streep, and she's perfect in this role. For those of you who already have cookbooks published, you can probably relate to it even more. I think, though, it might have taken her longer than anyone writing today, if for no other reason than the fact that she used a typewriter. A typewriter! I remember those days, people. If you don't remember them, then you can't imagine how fantastic these computers are. They are a godsend - trust me.

I have lovely heirloom tomatoes growing. I think they're called plum tomatoes. I got them at the farmer's market, lured by their rich purpley color. I dried the seeds from one and planted them. Now I have 3 tall plants with green fruit hanging on them. When they ripen, I will have to find something special to do with them. But meanwhile, I picked a bunch of my little cherry tomatoes to feature in the couscous I served at the last dinner party. This was the star of the show for the vegan, but I must say that those of us who are omnivores also loved it. It's quite simple, really, and worth turning your oven on for - especially if you plan on having dinner outdoors.

For tomatoes:
  • a large handful of cherry tomatoes, halved lengthwise
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons sugar
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 10 fresh basil leaves
  • 12 whole fresh oregano leaves plus 3 tablespoons finely chopped
  • 2 teaspoons fresh lemon zest, removed in strips with a vegetable peeler and finely minced
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 250°F.

Toss tomatoes with sugar, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper and arrange, cut sides down, in a small shallow baking pan. Heat oil in a 9- to 10-inch heavy skillet over moderate heat until hot but not smoking, then cook garlic, stirring occasionally, until pale golden, 1 to 2 minutes. Stir in basil and whole oregano leaves, then pour oil over tomatoes. Roast tomatoes until very tender but not falling apart, 2 1/4 to 2 1/2 hours.

Transfer tomatoes with a spatula to a large plate, then pour oil through a fine-mesh sieve into a small bowl or measuring cup, discarding solids. Stir in chopped oregano, zest, juice, and remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt and pepper.

Cook Couscous

Heat 2 teaspoons olive oil in a 3-quart heavy saucepan over moderate heat until hot but not smoking, then toast couscous, stirring occasionally, until fragrant and pale golden, 3 to 5 minutes. Add broth, water, and salt and simmer, covered, until liquid is absorbed and couscous is al dente, 10 to 12 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand, covered, 10 minutes, then stir in 2 1/2 tablespoons lemon oregano oil. Season with salt.

And then, because I wanted a more complete protein in this dish, I opened a can of garbanzo beans, drained them, and added them to the couscous before stirring in any of the oil. I topped this dish with the tomatoes and voila! A side dish for the rest of us, a satisfying dish for the vegan.

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