Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Blushing Maiden of Summer: Apricot-Lavender Jam


There's little more sensuous than summer stone fruits. Take the cherry, dripping with ruby juices - how many double entendres can you think of of using that small pitted orb? The peach is a brash redhead with its luxurious fuzz; the nectarine, only a slightly tamer and more refined cousin. We mustn't forget the plum, a little tart with brightly covered vestments.

But what about the apricot, the blushing maiden of summer? We've never quite developed the same level of desire for it. Perhaps, it's our lack of knowledge about of the little fruit - many years it barely appears at the market, hiding behind more showy relations. Others, it does but proves to be a terrible disappointment, fibrous and flavorless. What a delight then it is to have a year like this. Easily freed from its stone, this year's apricot is the color of a Caribbean sunset melting into a red brick building. The flesh is firm, yet tender, perfect for preserving.

The apricot may make only one more appearance at our markets and therefore my suggestion is to run, not walk, to yours to find even a small box. Once you do, run, not walk, back home to capture its maidenhood in your canning jars.

Apricot-Lavender Jam
1 1/2 pints

3 cups peeled, sliced apricots
2 cups granulated sugar
1 sprig lavender

Mix together the ingredients in a medium, non-reactive bowl. Cover and let sit overnight. Scrape the mix into a large saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon, mashing the slices to a pulp. Cook for about 10 minutes or until the jam drops in large gobs from the spoon and the apricots have broken down. Remove the lavender sprig and pour into hot, sterilized jars. Process for 5 minutes in a hot water bath. Remove the jars from the bath and cool on a clean towel without touching. Check the seal and then store in a cool, dark location.

Monday, July 26, 2010

A Maddening (and Irresponsible) Meal Plan from Let's Move

In a recent post, I made it clear that while I’m a supporter of the Let’s Move initiative I still view it with a critical eye. Obviously, I believe in its goal and don’t question the motivation behind it; its execution, well, that’s another story.

I criticized the Chefs Move to Schools for its lack of clear goals – something that I believe can be rectified. Unfortunately, I don’t think I can say the same of Let’s Cook.

Unveiled last week, Let’s Cook is a program of the Let’s Move initiative, in which:
“Chefs from across the country visit the White House kitchen to create nutritious and affordable menu plans for busy families. With one shopping list, a little preparation and dinner recipes to take you through the week - Let's Cook makes it easier to eat healthy at home. Print, email and share recipes with friends, tell us about your healthy cooking on Facebook and visit often for new recipes.”

The first installment featured Chef Marvin Woods. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Chef Woods, his bio states:

“Cookbook author and TV chef Marvin Woods is recognized for his inventive take on food rooted in northern Africa, South America, the Caribbean and the Low Country. Woods has developed a wellness program called "Droppin' Knowledge with Chef Marvin Woods" that is designed to teach lifestyles that are healthy for kids and their families.”

Personally, I love meal plans. In this country, despite its obsession with chefs, food literacy isn’t high. Therefore, I think that meal plans – ones that create intersecting recipes that help people understand how they can preserve resources, time and money are awesome. Skipping over the video, I went straight to the recipes. Looking at the first one, I was a little surprised.

The Sunday meal is Spice Roasted Pork Loin, Sweet Potatoes, and Cooked Green Beans, which is interesting because the accompanying picture is of a pork loin, paired with rice and lentil pilaf, and roasted tomatoes. Problem two, nowhere does the recipe indicate how many people it should serve, though it does provide nutrition facts and cost per serving (costs that don’t add up as $3.55 multiplied by 4 does not equal $14.25). The third issue, the pork loin is cooked for 1 hour at 350º F, while the sweet potato is cooked for 40 minutes at 425º F. I don’t know about you, but my kitchen only has one oven and even if I had two I wouldn’t waste the energy to fire up two ovens for two dishes.

With as many boo boos in this first recipe, I was intrigued to see what the rest would yield. The second meal is “Asian Stir of Pork and Vegetables” (I believe the title is missing a word because a stir without a fry is just a salad). I understand the intent is to use a ½ pound of the cooked meat from the previous night’s dinner, but looking back at the first recipe, there’s no indication that anything should be saved, or how it should be stored after it’s cooked. Then this meal and the next two call for barley as the grain, except that instead of cooking it all at once, lessening the time and energy (both personal and natural) required, it suggests cooking a small amount ½ cup each day. Do any of you like plain barley enough to cook and eat it three days straight?

I could go on and on, but I think you get the point. Instead of beating a dead horse, I’ll give you my top 4 criticisms:

1. Far too many of the recipes call for ingredients that are not readily available to most Americans, such as smoked paprika, green Sicilian olives, and fresh or frozen black eyed peas.
2. The costs aren’t a true accounting. For example, one recipe calls for ½ cup ricotta (mind you no other recipes in the plan call for ricotta, though there is one that uses 1/8 pound of mozzarella and feta cheese). I suspect that the costs were calculated by dividing the cost of ½ cup from the total cost of the tub. All of us smart shoppers know that this doesn’t reflect the true cost. The cost is what comes up on the check out register and since you can’t buy a ½ cup of ricotta, it’s the price of the 2 cup tub.
3. The recipes are too complicated. If you make a nice pork loin with a spice rub, there’s nothing wrong with serving a side dish of simple sautéed veggies. There’s no need for all these chef-y flourishes or recipes with multiple steps that lengthen the time needed to prepare and increase the cost. In fact, these flourishes may make the recipes less appealing to the picky eaters in your family. The little locavore is a healthy eater who eats a broad variety of foods, but he would turn his nose up at many of these recipes.
4. Poor copy editing. While I’m the first to admit that I am not the best proofreader. I will personally guarantee that you’ll find errors in this post and maybe just a few others. That being said, if my recipes were being posted on the White House website, I would have everyone I know and a few people that I paid proofread it to ensure it was as close to perfection as it could possibly be. If these typos weren’t frequent, glaring, and often misleading, I might not make this point. But they are and if Chef Woods’ people didn’t catch them, they certainly should have been corrected by someone at the White House.

I found that I’m not alone in my criticism. Allow me to share some comments that I received after posting this on Facebook:

"This recipe plan, while lovely and I'm certain delicious, is a disaster for busy families. Mrs. Obama ought to ask herself whether she, a non-cook, would make this plan when she was working full-time, pre-private chef, before it is presented as part of the Let's Move program. I would doubt it."

My status update inspired a lively discussion, all critical of the plan. Here are a few highlights:

“I'd like to see some start in the morning/eat in the evening crock pot meals. Also, single pan/pot meals would be nice, too. I cringe at three bowls, a cutting board, two pans, and a commercial kitchen - and probably some staff in the background to do all the dishes... sheesh!”

“Oh my! Melissa, you are so right! Not only is it a disaster from a time/busy-ness perspective, but it calls for a variety of specialty ingredients. And then there's my pet peeve: turning on the oven during the summer! If we are supposed to be green, it makes no sense to turn on the oven just to cool down with AC, using up more energy. I think three nights required the oven. Stir fries are great, and pan sautes are great. Such a lost opportunity.”

“Thanks for pointing this out, Melissa... I would call the shopping list prohibitive to start with. s/o who is not yet cooking will not be able to afford all this stuff in one week. True, a lot is pantry items, but I bet people get scared looking at this list. Plus, wondering why the pictures do not show the dish described? That is surely confusing... “

“I edit cookbooks for a living. I was about to defend this since I thought the idea was that you cook pearl barley one day and have leftovers for another. Same thing with pork roast—roast on sunday when you have time, then use leftovers for stir-fry. However, that is certainly NOT clear. And then I saw the chili. Raw ground turkey into the sauce and no cooking of it other than residual heat! I think that's a food safety issue, no? Am I missing something?”

“People will just ignore this in favor of the $1 menu at the local fast food spot. Too expensive, too time consuming, too difficult. Most Americans do not have the cooking skills for this and noncooks are not going to be inspired by it.”

This final comment nails the problem. This meal plan is not just poorly thought out and written, but it is also irresponsible. To restate, food literacy in this country is not high. Recipes on this site should be simple, clearly written, and easy. In addition, they should call for ingredients readily available in an ordinary grocery store. Simply put, these don’t fit the bill and the danger in posting them is that, after seeing the list of ingredients or the list of steps, ordinary non-cooks will be discouraged.

Ultimately, I think that the White House is asking the wrong people to execute a good idea. Menus plans are brilliant. They can be a huge time saver and teaching tool for busy parents. However, I would submit that chefs, at least ones with restaurants who have staff and well-stocked larders at their disposal, may not be the right people to write them. It takes a special talent to not only cook well, and then to explain accurately and entertainingly how to replicate your recipes. If the White House really wanted to create realistic solutions for everyday people, it needs to be more careful in who it selects to highlight. Personally, I think that it shouldn’t limit itself to restaurant chefs, but should instead highlight cookbook authors and bloggers whose specialty is decoding delicious dishes for their readers.

If the White House would be willing to look beyond chefs, who would you like to see create a meal plan for Let’s Move?

Friday, July 23, 2010

A Single Ear of Corn: Avocado-Corn Salsa


Despite a bad experience a few years back with another farm, we joined a CSA (community supported agriculture) this summer. Each week we get a half share from Harvest Moon Farms, a certified organic farm in Viroqua, Wisconsin, owned by my friends, Jenny and Bob Borchadt. Pristine in quality and generally diverse in its contents, the Borchadt’s know how to please their customers. We pick it up every Friday at Lush, a wine store just a few blocks away, anxiously awaiting our weekly bounty.

This week’s share we received a bunch of kale, a handful of rhubarb, a few celery stalks, green beans, red potatoes, mucho cucumbers, two zucchini and one ear of corn. Yes, you heard me, a single ear of corn. For my Midwestern born and raised husband, this was a sore disappointment. Then I reminded him of one of our favorite summer recipes: Avocado-Corn Salsa. One ear of corn will go pretty far on our table tomorrow night.

Avocado-Corn Salsa
Serves 4

1 ear corn
1 avocado
¼ medium red onion, cut into ¼-inch dice
¼ Serrano chile, seeded and finely chopped
2 tablespoons cilantro, finely chopped
½ lime, juiced
Kosher salt to taste

Shuck corn and remove the kernels. Toast the corn in a dry, medium-size skillet over medium heat until tender, approximately 5 minutes. Halve and pit avocadoes. Cut into ¼-inch dice. Mix together avocadoes, corn, white onion, Serrano chile, cilantro, and lime juice in a small bowl. Season with kosher salt and serve immediately.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Action Required: Child Nutrition Act

This just in from the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children:

As many of you are aware, the federal Child Nutrition Act is (over)due for reauthorization. The Senate Agriculture Committee unanimously passed a strong child nutrition bill, Healthy, Hunger-free Kids Act (S. 3307), out of committee, and last week, the House of Representatives passed their version of the bill, Improving Nutrition for America's Children Act (H.R. 5504), out of committee. Both of these bills reauthorize several major federal food programs including the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs, the Special Supplemental Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), and the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP). However, if the Child Nutrition Act is not reauthorized before Congress goes on recess in two short weeks, we risk losing the historic investments and improvements for child nutrition programs included in the bills. For example, although at CLOCC we do not feel that the proposed meal reimbursement rate is adequate, if Congress does not take action now, schools would miss out on millions of dollars in meal reimbursements and the opportunity to finally get unhealthy food out of school vending machines. Please urge your Senator and Representative to work with their leadership to move their respective child nutrition bill to the floor and pass it now.

A model letter/email that you can adapt for your organization and send is provided below. (Remember: The more organizations that they hear from, the better!) Your email today can help make improvements to child nutrition programs a reality by the beginning of the next school year. Thank you for advocating on behalf of these bills.

Model Letter/Email:

Dear Senator/Representative _______________:

Congress has a lot on its plate this legislative session, but it needs to address what's on kids' plates - now! Renewal of the child nutrition programs has been delayed for a year. However, our children cannot wait any longer. More than 12.5 million American children are now considered obese or overweight. Also, in this tough economy, American families are struggling to make ends meet, and depend on the school lunch, breakfast, and other child nutrition programs to feed their families. If (insert the name of the Senate or House Child Nutrition bill) does not pass:
• Unhealthy food remains in school vending machines.
• Schools will lose millions a year in new meal reimbursements.
• There will be no new improvements to nutrition and physical activity in school and child care settings.
Please reach out to your leadership and urge them to move (the Senate or House child nutrition bill) to the floor for a vote now. I look forward to hearing from you about the prospects for passing (the Senate or House child nutrition bill) this summer.

(Your name)
(Your organization

Monday, July 19, 2010

Healthy (Local) Snacks Video

Check out Little Locathor in action making herbed yogurt dip and a healthy berry soda in this video.

A Seasonal Delight: Fried Squash Blossoms


In our on demand society, there are very few foodstuffs that one can’t buy out of season. I remember a time, not too long ago, when I still relied upon Californian-authored cookbooks to determine what was in season, I tried to buy cherries in late April thinking that they truly were a spring fruit even in our Midwestern clime. Calling around to all of the grocery stores, I finally was told by a produce manager, in a rather no-duh kind of manner, that they weren’t in season. No longer would that be the case – sadly, cherries are available all year round.

Asparagus, raspberries, tomatoes, peas, are available for purchase at all times even though they are often sad imitations of the real deal. Given this, every summer I love to celebrate one of the truly great treats almost completely unknown out of season: squash blossoms. (The only other truly seasonal food that I can think of are fiddlehead ferns, which are more object of curiosity than desire for me). Delicate and unforgettable in flavor, squash blossoms are one of the best harbingers of summer. Dipped in a light batter of corn flour, lightened with white wine and seltzer, I love to eat them straight out of the fryer.

We finally got my son to give them a go this year after a false start. The first time I made them, he was slow to try it – letting the petals wilt and absorb the oil. He turned his nose up at them, “too greasy.” Damn his finely-tuned palate. The next time, I made the quickest beeline from the hot oil to his little mouth. This time, he gobbled it up and asked for another.

What’s your favorite food that you can’t get out of season? And how do you prepare it?

Fried Baby Squash with Blossoms
Serves 4-6
½ cup corn flour
¼ cup all-purpose flour
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
¾ cup seltzer water
1 tablespoon white wine
1 large bunch squash blossoms

Mix flours, salt and pepper in a shallow bowl. Add seltzer and white wine and stir until combined. Heat oil in a large skillet until it reaches 325° F. Dredge squash with blossoms and fry, turning once, until golden, approximately 3 minutes. Drain in a bowl filled with crumpled paper towels. Serve hot with a favorite sauce.

Friday, July 16, 2010

From Vine to Table: Cucumber-Yogurt Salad


For the first time, my son and I planted a full on garden in our small, urban backyard. For many years, we've had herb plants lining our fence for enhancing our dishes, but this year, we went full on filling terracotta pots and earth boxes with tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, broccoli, green beans, raspberries, and a whole mess of cucumber vines.


Cucumbers were the first "vegetable" my son truly loved. I put the word in quotes because as Thor will tell anyone willing to listen that the cucumber is, in fact, a fruit.

We picked our first today in the hot sun. Our first slices were warm to the tongue. After an afternoon nap in the fridge, I sliced them up and bathed the tiny nickel sized rounds in an herbed yogurt. Delicious, we devoured them, looking forward to many more in the not too distant future.

Cucumber-Yogurt Salad
Serves 2

1/2 cup yogurt
1 1/2 teaspoon mayonnaise
1 tablespoon finely chopped spring onion (I love Tropea)
1 tablespoon or more finely chopped herbs (like dill, parsley, basil or chives)
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 smallish cucumber, sliced 1/4-inch thick

Whisk together the first five ingredients in a small bowl. Add the cucumbers and serve.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A Yearful of Blueberries: Blueberry-Corn Muffins


Continuing with my series What to Preserve Now, I wanted to remind anyone who hasn't been to a farmers' market recently, that it is blueberry season. Blueberries, with their firm skim and round shape, are ideal for freezing. Give them a quick rinse, lay them on a baking sheet lined with parchment or a silicone pan liner. Leave the pan in the freezer for a few hours or until the blueberries feel like little star-topped marbles. Doing this ensures that you'll have locally grown berries throughout the year, whether for pancakes, soda, or my new favorite muffin. In fact, we just finished up the remainder of last year's berries on this recipe to make room for the new crop.

Blueberry-Corn Muffins
Makes 12

Using corn flour yields a softer muffin than cornmeal. I bought mine from Plapp Family Farms, a local flour grower. Unlike many others, these muffins remained fresh tasting for a few days.

3/4 cup corn flour
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup 2% milk
1/4 cup sour cream
2 large eggs
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
3/4 stick unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 1/4 cup blueberries, fresh or frozen

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Mix together the flours, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl. In another bowl, mix together the milk, sour cream, eggs, and vanilla. Cream together the butter and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer. Add the dry and wet ingredients alternatively, starting and ending with the dry. Remove from the stand and stir from the bottom of the bowl upwards to ensure that the batters is completely combined. Add blueberries and very gently fold them into the batter. Fill 12 paper or silicone cup lined muffin tins and bake for 18-25 minutes or until a tester comes out dry when poked into a muffin. Cool slightly and serve.

Now say you, what's your favorite blueberry recipe?

Monday, July 12, 2010

Chefs Move to Schools: An Unvarnished View


As many of you already know, early last month, I went to the White House for the launch of the Chefs Move to Schools Initiative. On a day in June that felt more like August, approximately 600 chefs, cooks, and culinary instructors descended upon our nation’s capitol, toured the year-old garden and sweated through our “whites”. Much has been written on the event in the press and the blogosphere, mostly rah rah pieces just a breath away from puff, with an occasional tempered assessment. It was my intent to post on the event soon after my return, but a number of other commitments gave me a legitimate excuse for procrastination. Procrastination led to percolation and finally, I’ve gotten around to writing up my view, an unvarnished one of Chefs Move to Schools.

The Chefs Move to Schools program is part of First Lady Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity campaign. The Let’s Move campaign seeks to spread its fingers into society in several directions: early childhood, food deserts, physical activity, and, of course, schools.

The “Chefs Move to Schools” program, run through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, intends to pair chefs with interested schools in their communities “so together they can create healthy meals that meet the schools’ dietary guidelines and budgets, while teaching young people about nutrition and making balanced and healthy choices.”

I had advance knowledge of the program from friend Rochelle Davis, executive director of Healthy Schools Campaign, who’d told me that Sam Kass wanted to create a chef corps for schools. So I was unsurprised to receive the email from Let’s Move announcing the program in early May. I was, however, pleasantly surprised to find myself invited to the launch.

Living dangerously, I flew in the morning of the event after a late night catering. My turbulent flight, canceled once, arrived at 9, only an hour prior to the opening of the gates. I was impressed by both the humility and humanity of Marcus Samuelson who waited patiently in line with the rest of us at the head of the long snaking line down the street.

Making it through security, two check points and some finely tuned metal detectors was a thrill. Being one of the first through the gates, I took a leisurely stroll through the garden. As the sea of white chef coats, dotted with a few pink, denim, and even a tie-dye one, rolled in, we were escorted to the orderly formation of seats in the hot sun of the south lawn.

Given that the sun was beating down on us, the presentation, thankfully, was brief. Chef Sam Kass provided an introduction to his East Wing boss. The first lady then presented an example of her view of a successful chef/school partner: Each of the two halves described their experience. After FLOTUS’ conclusory remarks, the event ended and we departed.

And this is where my story begins.

Obviously, given what I do, I am very supportive of the First Lady’s initiative. Childhood obesity, hell, obesity in general is a scourge that our country can’t seem to shake. The repercussions from this condition are wide-ranging – increased health care costs, decreased self-esteem, and just generally making us an unhealthy society. This being said, why am I not as gung ho about the Chefs Move to School program as many of the other blogging participants? I have a few concerns.

It’s been two month since the program was announced and a month after the launch and it still is not clear what it means for a chef to “adopt” a school. Are we looking at the Jamie Oliver-Food Revolution model or Alice Water’s Edible Schoolyard? How much time is a chef expected to volunteer? How will the schools and chefs be paired? How is the USDA recruiting schools? How does an initiative like this work in districts like Chicago, which is comprised of 100’s of schools?

Since signing up through the USDA website, I’ve only seen one email from the powers that be – one that passed along a request from Epicurious for chefs to demo at the Daley Plaza farmers’ market. It does seem that with all of the resources at the USDA’s and First Lady’s disposal, that we would have received some direction by now.

On the positive side, the lack of direction from the Let’s Move initiative on this program should allow individual schools, districts, and individual chefs to create programs that work best for their communities. But this does require more effort and time from the individual chefs, which leads me to my second concern.

Without a clear understanding of what it means to adopt a school, how can a chef make a firm commitment to participate in the program? The brief description found on the USDA’s website seems to imply that it would like chefs to both improve the food served in schools AND provide nutrition education. From my experience of working in the schools for the past 5 years, to do even one of these two would require a significant commitment of time and resources. It’s a pretty big ask even if funding were involved. But the USDA and the White House have requested that this all be done on a volunteer basis.

Chefs are a busy bunch. They work hard, long hours and it’s hard to believe that many would be able to fit in the many hours that Chefs Move to Schools really requires. From my research, it appears that the inspiration for this program came from Slow Food’s Edible Schoolyard and New York City’s Wellness in the Schools, both of which are sophisticated and well-funded. There are other models as well including Art Smith’s Common Threads and Gracie Cavnar’s Houston based Recipe for Success. I am hoping that when some direction comes from the White House/USDA, they recommend chefs seek out organizations like these in their communities, ones with the resources, connections, and institutional knowledge to help chefs effectively work in the schools.

Here in Chicago, we’re doing just that by co-convening a meeting with Share our Strength and Healthy Schools Campaign where participating chefs will learn about the new nutrition standards that will be in effect in the coming school year and CPS’ Go for the Gold partnership with Healthy Schools Campaign, to help individual schools meet the gold standard of the U.S. Healthier Schools Challenge. They’ll also hear from organizations, like mine, about working in the schools either as individuals or within the context of another entity. We don’t want to dampen anyone’s enthusiasm, but instead help translate that enthusiasm into effective action. I also hope that it will encourage some of the chefs to work in some of the more underserved communities, which leads me to my final concern.

The USDA has not stated how chefs will be partnered with schools. The website states that it will “pair chefs with interested chefs in their communities.” But what does a community make? In Chicago, is it the city or is a neighborhood? If the latter, from looking at the map, there will be plenty of chefs for the north side, but there are very, very few on the south and west, neighborhoods that coincide with the greatest need for nutritional assistance. Yet again, these communities will be underserved. Unless the USDA makes some attempt to equitably divide the resources of the Chefs Move to Schools, it will only serve to perpetuate social inequities.

On the subject of social justice, I was a bit surprised to see that the USDA has allowed private schools to sign up for the Chefs Move to School program, at least one of which in Chicago has a tuition that ranges from between $22,000 (for JK) to $35,000 for high school. When I posted an informal poll on my facebook page, many suggested that regardless of tuition, all kids should be taught good nutrition. Agreed. However, I do feel that private schools, especially one with ample resources, shouldn’t be looking for volunteers through this program. Certainly, if a chef has a personal connection to this school, the story is different. For example, I founded a wellness committee for my son’s school, another Chicago private school; nevertheless, I view that as fulfilling my volunteer commitment to his school, not as part of the Chefs Move to Schools. With close to 700 public schools in CPS, I feel strongly that the resources of Chefs Move to Schools should be used to support those schools, especially because the infrastructure of the program is supported by our tax dollars.

Obviously, the intent behind the Chefs Move to Schools – getting new creative ideas from food service professionals – is excellent. I’m sure with a little consideration of these concerns, the USDA, the White House, and individual communities can address them. So I ask you readers, how would you deal with my criticism of the program?
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