Sunday, November 22, 2009

Eating gulf oysters in August and other bad ideas

Well friends, Claire's Kitchen is busy as a bee prepping for the upcoming holiday food bonanza. This year, the hubby and I are having a two-part Thanksgiving. Dia de Gluttony, part uno, will be this Wednesday at our humble abode. We're having a pre-Thanksgiving Thanksgiving dinner for a few of our family and friends who just can't get enough of golden roast turkey, tart cranberry relish, and silky pumpkin pie. Then on Thursday, we are jetting down to Florida with my sister to have Thanksgiving, part deux, with my parents in their lovely winter home. Don't be surprised if we come back looking like this:

Yeah, right, Fluffy. You are one fat kitty.

Two Thanksgiving dinners in one week is probably not the healthiest choice ever. However, Claire's Kitchen tends to have a laissez faire approach to eating; in other words, adults should be able to eat what they want, provided they are given ample, truthful information about what they are eating and how it will affect their body. I came across an article in Slate the other day that dealt with a similar topic of consumer choice vs. consumer protection.

For those of your who are just too wiped out from all of your own Thanksgiving planning and preparation to click on a link, I'll summarize. Basically, the FDA wants to ban unprocessed oysters coming from the Gulf of Mexico during the summer months. Apparently that old saying "only eat oysters during months that contain an R" is actually true, at least for Gulf oysters. See, during the summer, the Gulf heats up to the point that those little oysters become breeding grounds for a bacteria called vibrio vulnificus. I'll spare you the details about what happens to people when they get raging infections from this nasty little bug - feel free to click the link to read more about it. Sicko.

Anyway, seems like a good idea, right? The FDA wants to protect people from disease. What's the problem? Well, the thing is, the whole situation could very well be blown out of proportion. First of all, most restaurants don't serve unprocessed oysters during the summer anyway. Secondly, those that do amply warn customers about the risks of eating unprocessed, raw oysters. Third, and my personal opinion, banning oysters due to a naturally occuring bacteria that kills around 15 people per year (virtually all who have underlying medical conditions that increases the virulence of the bacteria) paints the FDA as - well a bunch of hypocrites. The article points out that diseases stemming from the increases in factory farming, such as e. coli and salmonella, kill about 5,700 people per year, yet the FDA doesn't seem keen to shut down all factory farms any time soon. Why beat up on Louisiana oyster farmers? The FDA has come under fire lately for some pretty huge food-poisoning incidents, but it seems to me that basically killing the oyster industry in New Orleans while ignoring blatant industry-wide health issues in the factory farms is like kicking the cocker spaniel for barking but ignoring the pit bull for attacking the neighbor kid. I think the FDA is trying to fight a battle it knows it can win, which isn't very fair to the 3,500 people in the oyster business who could be out of a job next year.

Anyway, that's just a Claire's Kitchen opinion for you. Feel free to post in the comments with any debate, disagreement, or kudos on the subject. Next post will most likely be less soapboxing and more yummy photos of my many Thanksgiving dinners, so you've got that to look forward to next week!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Thanksgiving and those pesky vegetarians

So far, today has been a banner day in Claire's Kitchen. Not only did my December digital issue of Saveur magazine arrive, with some very inspiring articles about Swedish Christmas breads, but I received a phone call today from Provenance Food and Wine that they just got in a new shipment of the fig salami that I've been wanting to try for weeks, but couldn't seem to get. What great customer service! And just in time for Thanksgiving.

Last night, I went to a potluck dinner that my friend Tegan hosted. It was a small group, but two of the potluckers were vegetarians. I made a lovely butternut squash soup, which proved to be an epic win. Go me! However, this party made me think about dinner parties in general, and how to be a good host when you have a mixed group of vegetarian and meat-eating guests. Of course, during this time of year, my mind automatically turns to thoughts of Thanksgiving. What do you do when you are hosting Thanksgiving dinner, the showpiece of which is a roast turkey, and some of your guests don't eat meat?

First of all, I'd like to say that although I am a meat-eater (lambchops....gaahhhhhh! *drool*), Claire's Kitchen is a vegetarian-friendly place. I have many friends who eschew meat for various reasons; even my own mother gave up meat for many years (she now eats white meat chicken and turkey...sometimes). Friends and family are important to a happy kitchen and a happy Claire, so I'm willing to adjust recipes to suit the veggie-lovers. However, giving your vegetarian guests some culinary choices doesn't mean you have to forgo the turkey for a tofurky. Personally, I don't think I know any vegetarians that even like that stuff:

Hearty, meat-free appetizers, side dishes, and desserts are a better way to accommodate those who won't be partaking in the turkey. Below are some tips for having a successful Thanksgiving dinner for vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike:

1) Many traditional Thanksgiving dishes are meat-free or can easily be made without meat. Substitute vegetable stock for chicken stock in soups or stuffing. Use sauteed shallots instead of pancetta or bacon in brussel sprouts or green beans.

2) Make additional amounts of side dishes and cut back on the turkey. If you are hosting dinner for 12, but four of your guests are vegetarian, you will only need enough turkey for 8 or 10 (if you like leftovers), but you'll need enough side dishes for 14-16 (as four people are eating side dishes as main dishes).

3) Call your vegetarian guests ahead of time and ask if they eat dairy or eggs. If not, they are probably vegan. If they are vegan, ask them to either bring a dish or two that they know they can eat as a main course or ask them to send you a recipe they like. Reconsider having this person as a friend or family member. Ha, ha, ha, just kidding.....yeah.

4) Have meat-free hors d'oeuvres options, such as this wonderful fig salami I found:

Actually, I just wanted to post a picture of this to make your mouth water a little. I found out about it here.

Vegetarian or not, you should make this soup for your friends and family at Thanksgiving this year. Or after Thanksgiving. Whenever, really. It's easy! Feel free to play with the recipe to suit your needs. Serves 5.

Claire's Kitchen Butternut Squash Soup

2 small-medium sized butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into chunks
1 shallot, diced
1 medium clove garlic, minced
6 large sage leaves, chopped
3 1/2 cups vegetable stock
1/2 cup water
couple of teaspoons cinnamon
tsp or so of ground black pepper
large pinch of crushed red pepper

Put all ingredients in a crock pot*. Cook on low for 8-10 hours (high 4-5 hrs). Transfer to a blender and blend until smooth (or transfer to a large bowl and use a handheld blender). Add more water, veggie stock, or whole milk if the soup is too thick. Taste, adjust seasoning if necessary. Serve hot with sprinkled chives, toasted pumpkin seeds, and/or a swirl of creme fraiche.

*You can also cook this on the stove top in a stock pot. Simmer, covered, on medium heat until butternut squash is very, very soft.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Italian Navy Bean Soup

Gentle reader,

First of all, my apologies for the delay on this post. You see, dear friends, occasionally a Claire must leave the kitchen to do other things that are far less interesting than cooking. However, I don't think that anyone would want to read the blogs entitled "A Claire at Her Desk Staring at a Computer" or "A Claire Reading Academic Journal Articles with a Highlighter in her Mouth". Yawn! I'm bored just thinking about it.

So let's get back to food, shall we? Specifically, yummy soup cooked all day, slow and low, filling the house with warm, savory goodness.

Believe it or not, this recipe was inspired by none other than my beat-up (but well-loved) copy of the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook. Oh yes, that stalwart old standby with the red and white gingham cover. The recipes in this book aren't exactly modern, but they often provide the muse for culinary inspiration. I tinkered with their Italian Sausage-Navy Bean Stew and came up with something a little healthier,less greasy, and full of rich flavor (thanks to some homemade stocks).

Tips for excellent slow-cooking:
1) If you are using meat, sear or brown it first. That seals in the juices and gives depth of flavor and color to your dish. Some veggies can also be browned before going in the Crock-pot. Cubed butternut squash comes to mind...

2) Use less water than you would need if you were doing stovetop cooking, especially when cooking rice. Slow-cookers hold in both heat and moisture quite well - great for cooking all day as it's virtually impossible to overcook food. Not great if you add too much water and get soupy rice.

3) When purchasing a slow-cooker, get a big one - 5 or 6 quarts big. Nothing sucks worse than when you purchase a big corned beef that you can't wait to slow cook with some cabbage and carrots.....and then you figure out it doesn't fit in your pot. Wah, wah....

Slow-cooker Italian Navy Bean Soup
(adapted from Better Homes and Gardens, 1999)

1 lb. dry navy beans (2 1/3 cups)
2 cups chicken stock
2 cups lamb stock
1/3 cup water
1 lb. hot turkey italian sausage, cut into 1/2 in. slices (I use Jennie-O)
3 cups kale, spinach, or swiss chard
1 14 1/2 oz can of diced Italian tomatoes
1 cup chopped onion
1 clove garlic
2 bay leaves

1. Rinse beans. Cover with water in a pan or bowl. Soak for 6-8 hours or overnight. Drain and rinse beans.

2. Sear Italian sausage slices in a skillet on medium-high heat until just brown, but not fully cooked.

3. In a 5-6 quart slow cooker, combine beans, stock, water, sausage, kale, undrained tomatoes, onion, garlic, and bay leaves.

4. Cover and cook on high for 6 hours or low for 10 hours.

5. Discard bay leaves. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Makes about 11 cups (8 servings)

Friday, November 6, 2009

Current food obsessions

I made some delicious Italian navy bean soup in the Crock-Pot on Wednesday, which I'll be posting about either tonight or tomorrow. Yes there will be photos. Prepare to drool a little.

In the mean time, I want to talk about a few of my recent food obsessions. Hopefully, you'll find a few things on this list to obsess over too!

1. Cardamom

Cardamom comes in either pod form or ground. Like most spices, it loses its flavor quickly when ground, so if you buy ground, use it fast. It's most often used in Indian, Middle Eastern, and some African foods - but is often common in Scandavian baked goods. It's a key ingredient in chai tea and has a pungent, aromatic flavor. I think it tastes like Christmas. My friend Leena makes all sorts of lovely Indian sweets with cardamom, which seem decadently exotic to my white-bread midwest American tastebuds.

2. Crock-Pots
Starting in October, I use my 5 quart Crock-pot slow cooker at least once a week. Coming home to warm, fragrant deliciousness ready and waiting for my dinner is like a little slice of nirvana after a cold, dark, Chicago winter commute home. My next post will be about soup, and I'll save my Claire's Kitchen slow-cooking tips for then, but suffice it to say that once you've gone homemade, you'll loathe going back to canned soup. Not the same!

3. King Arthur Flour
Just a disclaimer: King Arthur flour is more expensive than grocery store flour. It is a superior product, though. Chewier breads, lighter cakes, flakier pasteries, etc., etc. However, even if you decide not to purchase their baking products, you can still go to the King Arthur website and find hundreds of baking recipes, along with user reviews. I get their catalog, which has additional recipes, products, and baking gadgets. I pore over it and fantasize about life as a pastery chef or a baker. Then I talk to actual pastery chefs and bakers, which makes me glad I work in an office and only bake on the weekends or when I feel like it.

Well these are just a few things I've been thinking about incessantly over the past few weeks. Feel free to drop me a comment about your food obsessions!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Hello world!

Hey, so I've noticed this thing that the kids are doing nowadays on the interwebs. It's called "blogging". And since there is an apparent lack of food-related blogs in the world, I've decided to fill that void with my thoughts on food, farming, and recipes. A Claire in the Kitchen (the blog) will be similar to A Claire in the Kitchen (real life): random, messy, full of advice, inspired, and often adorable. I'm giving out, free of charge, some of the best Claire's Kitchen-tested recipes, advice for the home cook, food-related current events and news bits, restaurant reviews, and my own philosophies regarding eating, farming, and cooking.

A little taste of me:
Claire is a 32 year old lady living on the northwest side of Chicago. She is a voracious reader and film-watcher. She is originally from Wisconsin, so she is a Green Bay Packers fan. She cannot help herself.
She recently married an amazing Dan in a tiny but gorgeous ceremony in Door County, Wisconsin. Their wedding cake was created by The Door County Bakery, and their reception was at the Whistling Swan Inn. The food was, of course, out of this world. Claire is not a professional chef. She just really loves cooking.