Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Goodbye, 2008!

And so we come to the end of another year. This year has not been an easy one for me. Sure, there were a lot of high points. We attended four weddings, and it was truly a blessing to witness our friends pledging vows and starting new lives with partners that in every case seemed like perfect matches. We also spent four beautiful days by the ocean with Dan's extended family. But these trips, though pleasant, formed but a small part of a year that was filled with challenges, including many frustrating setbacks and Dan's emergency surgery. It was a year rife with hard decisions and difficult circumstances, punctuated by brief but wonderful experiences. Today, in the snow, walking back from the video store, Dan remarked that this year had been a roller coaster, and I said that I hoped next year would be a more of an ascent; that a year from now, we would look back and say, "Look how far we've come."

One of the high points of the year for me has been starting this blog, and I thank you for joining me here. Improving Choice of Pies is high on my list of goals for 2009, and I plan to start tomorrow with a new look. I'll post a few of my cooking-related resolutions tomorrow, and I hope you'll join me throughout 2009 as I attempt to make these changes. In the meantime, have a safe and happy New Year!

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas!

I'm taking a few days off to ping-pong back and forth between the houses of Dan's parents and mine. I'll be back shortly before the new year. Happy Holidays, everyone!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Family Tradition: Grammy's Cookies

In my family, on Christmas Eve, desserts take center stage. Yes, the ham and the macaroni and cheese are important -- God forbid anyone try to change that menu -- but that spread pales in comparison to a dessert table so weighted down with homemade cookies and candy that it is shocking the table still stands. My mother and grandmother would spend the month of December crafting peanut butter fudge, chocolate fudge, needhams (aka potato candy), penuche, peanut butter cups, and out-of-this-world candies. The cookies might vary a bit from year to year but the old standbys are peanut butter blossoms, spritz, and sugar cookies.

Oh, the sugar cookies! For years, my grandmother would spend days rolling and cutting Christmas trees, stars, stockings, candy canes, reindeer, elephants (my grandmother collects elephant figurines), and Santas. Another day would be devoted to glazing the cookies and, once the glaze dried to a shiny finish, piping on the final details. The cookies are highly coded, the decorations painstakingly proscribed; the specific design patterns are as much a tradition as the Christmas Eve gathering itself.

Growing up, just about every year, I would help my grandmother decorate the cookies. It was from her that I learned how to make a vanilla glaze, how to make buttercream frosting, how to use gel colors and how to pipe intricate designs. This year, for the first time, instead of aiding Grammy, I got to take responsibility for the whole process. I had a lot of fun making these cookies, and I hope you enjoy looking at these pictures. Click here to see more.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Year in Review: Autumn Afternoon Tea

Remember when we took Grammy to the tea room? While we were comparing our cups and plates and playfully arguing over who was using the prettiest ones, Grammy remarked that she had a beautiful teacup collection of her own and lamented that her lovely cups and saucers sat on a shelf and were never used. "Why not have a tea party?" asked Dan, and so a plan was hatched.

Grammy and I worked out the menu and settled on the Saturday after Thanksgiving for a date, since many people (including Dan and I) would be back in Maine that weekend. I printed invitations at the letterpress studio on campus. The day after Thanksgiving, the three of us shopped for ingredients and prepared the table. The hardest part of this was choosing our ten favorite cup and saucer sets out of Grammy's collection of around three dozen.

The next morning, I made two batches of scones while Dan and Grammy made all the sandwiches. Grammy had already made some cookies and I had previously baked an applesauce spice cake with cream cheese frosting.

The full menu:
-Earl Grey scones
-cranberry-almond scones
-blueberry muffins (brought by Aunt Gail)
-lemon curd, clotted cream, and apricot jam for the pastries
-chicken salad on French bread
-cucumber sandwiches (no crusts)
-rye toasts with cream cheese and olives
-almond-raspberry cookies
-applesauce spice cake with cream cheese frosting
-cream puffs (purchased)
-Swiss rolls (also purchased)
-three kinds of tea: Earl Grey, Scottish Breakfast, and classic orange pekoe

We had a wonderful time! We sipped and nibbled and chatted the afternoon away. As the only female out of seven grandchildren, I've always been surrounded by boys. I like boys, I really do, but having a room full of women at Grammy's house was a refreshing change.

Dan was allowed to attend, despite not being a woman, because, well, the party was his idea! But he's also a wonderful man who can appreciate a nice, civilized tea. However, he did spend most of the party in the other room, having been dragged there by our niece, Leah, who, at two years old, has better things to do than sit at a table while we drink tea. Instead, she and Dan played bedtime: she ordered him to lie down on the couch, covered him with a blanket, said goodnight, and then commanded, "My turn! Switch!" This was the pattern for about an hour and a half, although at one point, Dan asked for a lullaby and was gifted with a rare live performance of Leah's hit John Denver cover, "Sunshine on My Shoulders Makes Me Happy."

Monday, December 22, 2008

Year in Review: Thanksgivings

When it comes to holidays, we are a family cemented to tradition. Change and innovation do not come lightly. Something as a simple as the suggestion of a change to the Christmas Eve menu has been known to cause actual rioting. So it's no surprise that on Thanksgiving, our table has always been filled with traditional fare: turkey, of course, plus gravy, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips, cranberry sauce, dinner rolls, and roughly one 9" pie for every two people in attendance. Delicious, indulgent, tryptophan-triggering? Of course. But I felt something was missing: the color green. So I asked my mom, who hosted this year's get-together, if I could bring brussels sprouts.

As I mentioned in my review of The Harrison, I love brussels sprouts. This is not an enduring affection but rather a newfound passion, still young and bright and wallowing in the puppy-love stage. You see, prior to this fall, I had never tasted brussels sprouts. Never. But we got some in our CSA one week and for me, it was love at first bite.

For Thanksgiving, I sliced three pounds of loose sprouts in to halves and roasted them with a little olive oil at 400 degrees for about forty minutes. The outsides turn dark, nearly black, but the inside becomes a soft, creamy treat. I tossed the roasted sprouts with crisped pancetta, grated parmesano-reggiano, and some lemon juice. The sprout eaters at the table were very satisfied, and I got to eat the leftovers for days.

Incidentally, this year there was another green dish: Aunt Liz's spinach casserole, which is absolutely delicious. I'm going to get the recipe from her and will write about it in a separate post soon after I do.

You may have noticed the s in the title and thought it a typo. It's not; this year, we were blessed with two Thanksgiving dinners, as my in-laws decided to push their celebration up a few weeks and have a Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings in late October, to coincide with a visit from Great-Aunt Rose. The menu was similar to that at my mother's, with a few variations. Lynn, my mother-in-law, makes an awesome homemade cranberry sauce (while my side of the family is married to the canned kind). Also, because Lynn is Armenian, instead of mashed potatoes, she serves pilaf. (Pilaf holds a very special place in my husband's heart, so years ago I secured his mother's/grandmother's recipe; when he asks what's for dinner and my response includes pilaf, I'm guaranteed praise for days.)

For this early Thanksgiving dinner, I made a carrot cake with cream cheese frosting and busted out my piping tips to add some old-school decorations. The pattern was not planned: I just went where the frosting took me, which was apparently back to the 1970s, as the bright orange frosting, inspired by the frosting carrots that top bakery carrot cakes, reminds me of nothing more than the orange formica countertops in the chalet my family once owned.

The carrot cake (based on this recipe -- I skipped the pineapple and used whole wheat flour) was moist and delicious and I had fun making it. My decorating skills have deteriorated, though, so I might have to start using my piping tips more often.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Not dead yet!

December has been absolutely insane. I've been battling a cold on and off since the month began -- just when I think I'm over the cough, congestion, and nausea, they bounce back up like whack-a-moles. On my healthy days, I've been baking up a storm, and in the midst of regular holiday madness, two work projects that had been languishing for months both suddenly needed attention. But with the month almost over and thirty things crossed off my to-do list in the last three days, I can finally turn my attention back to this poor, neglected blog.

Between being ill and being inundated, I haven't done as much cooking as I should have. Too many times this month I have resorted to takeout, frozen pizza, or pasta sauce from a jar. But I have done a little cooking and a whole lot of baking, which I'll post about over the next week or so. I'm also preparing some year in review posts, where I'll look back at some of the meals and events that somehow never made it on the blog. And I can promise a new and improved Choice of Pies for the new year: look for a relaunch early in 2009.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Bagel Time!

When Mom turned to me during the car ride down to the train station and declared, "I have to get a bagel before we leave the city!" she echoed my thoughts perfectly. Thursday morning we went to the deli across the street from Grace's apartment and got bagels, juice, and fruit salad. We watched all the New Yorkers rushing in and out to grab their breakfasts on the way to work and enjoyed quietly pointing out the particularly interesting ones: the man wearing a vicuna coat with a baseball cap, the Spanish woman with a very cool minidress with long belled sleeves and an agressive, full-length frontal zipper, the young Russian man behind us who was almost too pretty to be real. It was nice to sit and relax in the midst of all that hubbub. And there's really nothing like a New York City bagel. We both chose multigrain with cream cheese; Mom opted for scallions on hers while mine, pictured above, was slathered with strawberry-flavored spread. I don't eat bagels very often, but when there's a really good bagel to be had, I can be tempted. My favorite combo? Salt bagel with veggie cream cheese. Mmm....

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Harrison, NYC

I'm back from a fantastic but short trip to the city. It was great to finally see the movie I worked on three years ago and to meet up with some old friends. My mom and I carpooled down to New Haven, took a train in to Penn Station, and stayed at my friend Grace's apartment. Grace joined us for the movie and for dinner beforehand. She is a devoted foodie and assembled a fabulous list of restaurant options; after some debate we narrowed the list to two and Grace made the final choice of The Harrison.

Please excuse the lousy photos; the restaurant's candlelight made for great atmosphere but terrible shooting conditions. It was just too dark and I had to resort to using the flash. With food this tempting, we could barely hold off on digging in long enough for me to take pictures, so I snapped just one quick photo of each dish.

Above is Mom's appetizer of black mission figs with blue cheese and prosciutto; it was absolutely delicious and something we will definitely make at home. It's such a simple but satisfying combination.

Grace opted for the oven-roasted sardines with breadcrumbs and garlic oil. It was tasty, but I'm not sure I'm a sardine fan. I've only had them once before, at my second grade class's Oktoberfest (my teacher was German).

And here is the dish that caught my eye from the very first moment I opened the online menu: kabocha, delicata, and brussels sprout salad with pumpkin seed vinaigrette. It was spectacular - the squashes perfectly roasted, the textures pleasingly various, and the sprouts - oh, the sprouts! The sprouts had been marinated and were very, very vinegary, which was fine with me, because I love vinegar. They were plump and juicy and when I bit down they let loose bursts of tangy, green flavor. Brussels sprouts are my new favorite vegetable, and while so far I've tried roasting and pan-searing, now I'm determined to make some sour, mouth-puckering, marinated sprouts like these.

Apparently I'm not alone in my love of vinegar; the chef at The Harrison must love it, too, as he uses it liberally. Sometimes a bit too much, it seems. This is Mom's entree of red snapper with graffiti eggplant, tomatoes, and fregola (a Sardinian pasta akin to couscous). The snapper had a really nice texture, with a surprisingly crisp crust, considering it didn't appear to be breaded, and a nice, flaky interior. But it was a little bland and didn't quite stand up to the robust flavors offered up by the rest of the dish. The server had warned us that the graffiti eggplant was very sweet that day; the sweetness wasn't a problem, but the excessive vinegar was. On its own, I rather liked the eggplant (again, I love vinegar), but it was too much vinegar for my Mom, who ordered the dish, and it definitely overpowered the delicate flavor of the snapper.

I ordered the Black Angus flank steak with red potatoes, pommery mustard, and sweet red onions. I love, love, love stone-ground mustard, and since no other entree really jumped out and screamed "EAT ME!" I ordered this. It was a good choice; the steak was incredible tender, the potatoes and onions were perfect, and there was just the right amount of mustard. The greens that you can see peeking out from under the onions were also doused with vinegar, but since there weren't a ton of greens, it was just the right pop to wake up the tastebuds.

Grace chose the monkfish special with broccoli rabe and spaghetti squash and I believe she enjoyed it. (Grace, if you're reading, can you weigh in in the comments?) She certainly came closer to finishing her entree than either Mom or I did. That's another thing about The Harrison- the portions are quite large. I hardly ever leave anything on my plate when I go out to eat, but I left probably a quarter to a third of my food on the plate. Not because it wasn't good, but because I didn't have room.

Of course, not being able to finish our entrees didn't stop us from ordering dessert. The three of us split the chocolate pretzel tart with sea salt potato chip and malted anglaise. The cream on top seemed to be creme fraiche; Grace also detected a hint of creme fraiche in the chocolate fudge filling of the tart. The crust was similar to a graham cracker crust, only made with crushed pretzels. The tart was good, the chocolate very rich, but I think the salt could have been stronger. It was a little too subtle.

As you can see, we had quite a feast. Not pictured: an order of duck fat fries with malt vinegar aioli. It was the first time I had duck fat fries and I was suitably impressed. I kept thinking they were like regular fries, but then the richer and more complex flavor would rise up. We also started the meal with cocktails - Mom and Grace had cranberry-ginger martinis, which were delicious! I'm not usually a martini drinker, but these were so smooth going down. We're going to try to recreate them for Thanksgiving. I ordered an Apple Bulleit, which was a blend of bourbon, apple cider, lemon juice, grenadine, and something else that I can't remember. It was very good; Mom thought it was too sweet, but it didn't taste sweet to me at all. It tasted like autumn - fresh apples and pumpkin pie spices! I also had a glass of O'Leary Walker 2005 Shiraz, which I enjoyed very much; it had a wonderful smell and a plummy taste that stood up well against strong flavors in the food.

Overall, our meal at The Harrison was satisfying, with interesting choices and food that was generally well-prepared, but certainly not perfect. If, like me, you have a taste for the sour stuff, order away; otherwise you may want to ask your server about how much vinegar a dish contains before making your selection.

The Harrison
355 Greenwich St.
New York, NY

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Out of the Box: Final Week of the Summer

Our CSA "summer" share actually lasted well in to October. Here's a shot of our final weekly pickup, which included potatoes, beets, celeriac, leeks, rainbow chard, dinosaur kale, cabbage, carrots, butternut squash, delicata squash, broccoli, and brussels sprouts.

Both the butternut squash and the kale I cooked and then froze for later use. Everything else I used in various dishes that I will post about over the next week or so, except for the celeriac, which I still haven't used! Luckily it's a root vegetable and keeps very well.

Here's the delicata squash after I sliced off the ends and cut it lengthwise, but before I scooped out the seeds. We received delicatas several times over the summer; the first time, I roasted the two squash halves with some water in the pan, and the result was indeed very delicate, with the texture of a very soft puree and a taste reminiscent of apples and pears. I also tried a delicata and gruyere soup, which was a huge disappointment: it was somehow too bland and too sweet at the same time (to me, anyway; Dan enjoyed it, but he's easy to please).

With this delicata, I think I finally found a method that really brings out the best flavor of the squash. I left the skin on and chopped the squash in to small chunks, which I tossed with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and roasted at 400 degrees for about twenty-five minutes, stirring once or twice. The result was amazing: the flesh was tender, the skin crispy, and the salt and pepper provided a nice, kicky contrast to the natural sweetness of the squash.

I tossed the warm, roasted squash cubes with dried cranberries and toasted pine nuts and added a simple side salad with mustard vinaigrette. This was a very satisfying and delicious meal, and the leftovers were not leftover for long; Dan couldn't pass through the kitchen without grabbing a few more bites, and I certainly couldn't blame him.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Popovers That Didn't Pop

At least once every weekend, I try to make something a little special for breakfast. Popovers are one of my favorite treats to make as they require very few ingredients, take only a few minutes to whip up, and are delicious with butter, jam, and a pot of tea. You have to be careful not to open the oven while they are cooking, as that will make them fall flat, and when you do pull them out, you're supposed to immediately pierce each one with a fork to let the steam out so they don't collapse. Sometimes, though, they fall anyway.

I've heard it helps to have the eggs and milk at room temperature before you mix up the batter; if they are too cold to start with, they just can't get and stay puffy. This time, I was impatient and took the ingredients straight from the fridge, so my popovers didn't pop. At least they still tasted wonderful.

For a simple popover recipe, go here. A note about pans: some people have special popover pans. Even though I sometimes go on popover sprees and make them several times over the course of a few weeks, I just can't justify another specialized piece of kitchen equipment, so I use a muffin tin. It works just as well (as long as you have the patience to make them properly).

And I'm back

I apologize for the recent posting drought. My computer almost crashed. It turns out I had more than 7500 photos on it and was using all available hard drive space. I couldn't even back up my photos on disc so I could clear up my hard drive because I didn't have enough memory to operate the burner, so I had to borrow Dan's drive and export thousands of photos in order to make my computer functional again. I'm now down to about 1500 photos, a third of which I just imported. So I have tons of pictures to post and things to write about.

I'm heading to New York City this week for the premiere of an independent film I worked on a few years ago. I am so excited! This will be the first time I've ever seen it. My mom and I are traveling together and we've got a reservation at The Harrison, which looks amazing! I'll definitely take photos and write up a review. I'm particularly excited about the kabocha, delicata, and brussel sprout salad and the chocolate pretzel tart. Take a look at the menu. What would you order?

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Update: Roasted Vegetable Soup

I found a few more pictures of the roasted vegetable soup that I posted about the other day. Here's a shot of the tomatoes, leeks, and carrots in the lightly-oiled pan, about to go in the oven:

And here's a shot of the finished product, served with smoked cheddar and a whole wheat biscuit. This makes a wonderful meal for the cold, drizzly, late-fall days.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Roasted Vegetable Soup

One of the best things about our CSA boxes this summer was the amazing array of heirloom tomatoes that came in August and September. My husband, Dan, is crazy about tomatoes, so most of them were eaten raw. As the weather started to cool, however, I wanted to try something a little different. I came across this roasted vegetable soup recipe while searching for a use for fennel and decided to give it shot. The method is incredibly simple and could work for almost any combination of vegetables. Basically, you roast the vegetables until soft, then puree them with some stock or broth and heat before serving. The first time I made it, I used leeks, carrots, and tomatoes, and the result was spectacular. Roasting the vegetables, rather than just boiling them, adds an incredible depth of flavor to a very simple dish. This recipe inspired me to create a new pasta sauce, which I'll describe in another post. I've since made the soup a few more times with different combinations, and it's sure to be a go-to recipe for me in the future.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Trip Wrap-up: Konstanz, Germany

Remember when we went to Germany in August for a wedding, and I promised to have some great food posts when we got back? Well, I failed. I got so caught up in visiting with dear friends that I haven't seen in years that I just forgot to take pictures most of the time. But it's okay; sometimes you just need to put down the camera and enjoy the moment.

I did get a lot of pictures of people, and some of places, and one decent food photo (German pastries! Hallelujah!), which deserves its own post later. So for now, here's a little photo essay to share our amazing trip with you.

We stayed in Konstanz, a beautiful old town on what the Swiss call Lake Konstanz and the Germans call the Bodensee. Konstanz also borders Switzerland and is about 45 minutes by train from the Zurich airport. We stayed at the Golden Tulip Halm, which was conveniently located across from the train station, in the Old Town, near the lake front, and a short walk from the wedding venue. The room was nicely decorated and comfortable, and the service was good, for the most part, although the concierge got snippy at check-out time when I pointed out that she had charged us for breakfast ($30 per person per day!) every day even though we hadn't eaten there at all.

We had a great time walking around the Old Town and gawking at buildings several centuries old yet integrated in to modern life. Bakeries, electronics stores, pharmacies, and even a Woolworth's are housed in and next to medieval buildings. Many of the buildings have signs like these carved in to the stucco that provide historical information (i.e. year of construction, name, and original purpose). Every sign is different and there are some really beautiful and creative designs.

Between wedding events and rambling around the Old Town, we took breaks in coffee shops like this one. This picture was taken at Aran, which is sort of the German equivalent of Starbucks. There were big, wooden tables spread with beautiful food and design books, and the coffee came steaming hot in huge, round bowls that you had to cup with your hands. I tried the German version of a bagel and schmear, which was a thick slice of dark, multigrain bread topped with three different spreads. There must have been thirty options, and since my German is not very strong, I couldn't understand many of the labels, so we picked the prettiest colors. We ended up with an avocado spread, an olive spread, and a pinkish-orange thing that turned out to be a mixture of onions and cheese. This was one of the instances when, caught up in conversation with friends who live thousands of miles away from me, I ate almost the whole thing before looking down at a few lousy bites and realizing I should have taken a picture. Oops! It was tasty, relatively cheap, and we had a good time.

The wedding took place at the Inselhotel, a former Dominican monastery on a small private island very close to the Old Town. They have done an incredible job with the conversion, preserving as many elements of the old monastery as possible while integrating modern design elements, creating beautiful, light-filled spaces that maintain a sense of history. The reception was held in what must have been the church sanctuary, given the placement of the soaring stone columns. Fragments of frescoes punctuate the crisp white walls. The cloister, seen above, has been glassed in to create a central courtyard with a corridor running around the edge.

The day after the wedding, we all went to the bride's parents' house on the island of Reichenau. We sat for hours at the long table on their patio, surrounded by greenery (including grapevines) with views of sailboats on the lake and Switzerland beyond. We ate pastries and warm fleishkase (literally, "meat cheese," a pate-like loaf) on seed-encrusted buns. Later we grilled various types of German sausages and drank wine. In between, some people took a dip in the lake, and most of us went for a walk around the island. There's a pathway that follows the coast, and it is peppered with views like the one above.

Here's another shot from the pathway: one of the three medieval churches on the island. I believe this one is the Abbey.

It's hard to believe we were only there for a few days. This was my second trip to the area and Dan's first; neither of us has been anywhere else in Germany. When I told my German client that I was going to the Bodensee for a wedding, she gasped and declared, "That's the prettiest part of Germany!" I, for one, am inclined to believe her.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008


Where did October go? The past few weeks have been a whirlwind of house guests and homecomings, punctuated by the health and behavioral problems of one very stubborn cat. (I think I hate going to the vet even more than she does, although when the doctor holds her down for her steroid shot, she does give a remarkable Linda Blair impression.) While I have been too caught up to post, rest assured that I never forget to eat, so I have lots of memorable meals to write about. I'll also add some more (not-even-close-to) Daily Threads, as well as a few travel posts and some reviews.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Why We Chose a CSA

It's good for our budget. We elected both summer and winter CSAs; the summer season goes from June through October, while winter spreads from November to May. When we signed up last spring, then, we essentially pre-purchased a year's worth of vegetables. The total for both seasons came to about $500 -- this breaks down to less than $10 a week. A look at any of our weekly portions shows that we are getting a good deal here; the equivalent amount of fresh produce from our local Price Chopper would unquestionably cost quite a bit more, even if we bought the less-expensive non-organic vegetables.

It's good for our health. We selected an organic farm for our CSA; many, though not all, farms that offer CSAs follow organic practices. Among other things, organic means they don't use any chemical pesticides, so we don't have to worry about ingesting them. Also, because they don't travel as far, we receive the veggies much sooner after they are harvested. Typical grocery-store produce travels an average of two to three weeks before it is even sold. Since the nutritional value starts to decline immediately upon harvest, the sooner the produce is eaten, the better it is for your body.

Our CSA also offers a third health benefit: because we receive such a bounty each week, our vegetable consumption has gone up. While I would always buy vegetables when I went to the grocery store before, I rarely bought enough. It's too easy to get distracted by things like cereal or boxed mac and cheese. Now, every Friday, there's a boxful of veggies in our kitchen, and we are forced to consume them - or deal with the guilt of letting good veggies go to waste. Most of the time, we successfully consume (or preserve) the whole load.

It's good for our taste buds. Because these vegetables have a shorter and quicker trip from farm to table, they are fresher and more flavorful when we consume them. Also, much of the produce available in grocery stores is of varieties that are bred for durability and uniformity rather than taste. Because the veggies don't have to travel so far, our farmer can grow heirloom varieties that offer richer and more complex flavors.

It's good for our community. CSAs help farmers because they get some guaranteed income early in the year during a period when most aren't able to sell much produce. By signing up during the off-season, we provide farmers with a much-needed cash-flow injection at the hardest time of the year. They can then use the money from CSA subscriptions to buy seeds for the new crops. It also helps them judge how much to plant, because they know how much they need to produce to satisfy the CSA subscriptions.

Keeping small, family-run farms going is important to me because I appreciate the rural qualities of the area I live in. I like driving by farmland, seeing productive fields, and knowing that there are lots of places very nearby where I can go to pick berries or apples. I also like that most of my food is coming from fellow community members rather than from an enormous, impersonal, factory-style organization thousands of miles away. CSAs help farmers, but as I made clear above, CSA subscribers also benefit enormously from the relationship. This is not charity; it's good old-fashioned commerce, working in such a way that it benefits all parties involved - just as it should.

It's good for the environment. Organic farms don't use synthetic pesticides, which run off in to our rivers and seep in to our groundwater. Most small farms also rely on old-fashioned practices to keep soil productive. Rather than planting the same crop over and over on the same space, which can leech the soil of its nutrients, small farmers, who have to make the most of their limited land to survive, often practice crop rotation that allows the soil to stay productive. This means they are getting the best use out of the land.

Also, because CSAs are local in nature, they help to conserve our energy resources. Much of the produce in grocery stores has been transported thousands of miles, either by boat or truck. That requires vast amounts of oil and gasoline. Buying locally ensures that these limited resources aren't wasted. When we went to North Carolina this summer, I was flabbergasted to see only California peaches for sale. Why would you ship something from three thousand miles away when the same product was growing all around? A few days later, we made it to a nearby farmers' market, where to my delight, we found fresh North Carolina peaches. They were twice the size of the grocery-store peaches, packed with twenty times the flavor, and hadn't wasted valuable resources in getting to us.

So there you have it: my many reasons for CSA participation. There are a few downsides, which I will address in another post, but they are far, far outweighed by the benefits.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

potato-leek soup

Remember the potato-leek soup in progress that I posted the other day? Here is a shot of the finished product from another batch. We had this for lunch on Saturday with a side salad of field greens, carrots, and Macintosh apples in Greek dressing.

2 leeks
5-6 medium russet potatoes
1 tablespoon olive oil or butter
1 can broth of your choice (I like fat-free, low-sodium chicken)
salt and pepper to taste

Wash the leeks thoroughly. Since dirt gets between the layers, I find the best way to do this is to cut the green part off, then slice the white part in half down the center and gently peel back the layers under running water, looking for clods of dirt. Slice the white parts thinly and saute them in butter or oil in a deep stock pot.

While the leeks are cooking, wash and thinly slice the potatoes. You can peel them first if you want, but the peel has fiber and adds a nice shot of color. Once the leeks are soft, add the potatoes and the can of broth. Add one or two cans full of water - enough to cover all the potatoes and leeks. Add chopped leek greens. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat, cover, and simmer for about 25 minutes, until potatoes are very tender. Remove from heat. Using a potato masher, break up the potatoes. If you want a really smooth soup, you could use a hand-held blender, but I prefer a slightly chunky texture. Stir to incorporate and season to taste. Makes four servings.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Daily Thread #2

Anthropologie is my favorite store. I say that without ever having set foot in one of their storefronts or having purchased a single garment. For years, however, it has been my virtual shopping destination of choice. If I won the lottery, along with buying a house, endowing a scholarship, and taking the whole family on a trip, one of the first things I would do is go to an Anthropologie store and buy anything that I liked, which would be damn near everything.

This adorable pullover from Anthropologie embodies everything that I like about their clothes: it's cute, interesting, wearable, and would not look dated in a year or even five. It's quirky enough to stand the test of time and not be slaughtered by the trend wave, but there's something very classy about it, too. The angled lines, nipped waist, and slightly flared peplum would all flatter my curvy shape. It could go over a camisole in the warmer months or a longer-sleeved shirt in the winter. If it didn't cost $98, it would be in my closet right now.

Photo from

pumpkin bread

I have an absurd love of pumpkins. As autumn rolls in and all of a sudden piles of pumpkins pop up along these country roads, I become giddy and can't help but squeal, "Look! PUMPKINS!" every time we pass a patch. To me, they are the most beautiful vegetable. I love their rotund form, their twisting stumps, and their relentlessly bold color. No wallflowers, pumpkins declare themselves proudly.

For several years, starting when I was around eight years old, I had a backyard vegetable garden. One year I grew pumpkins. I got a small crop and picked most of them, but left the largest one on the vine to get bigger. Every day I went out to check on it and decided to let it grow just a bit longer. Finally one morning I decided it was time, but when I went out to the garden, my pumpkin was gone. Fat and happy the day before, it had been attacked by slugs in the night. All that remained was the stump and a few sad, stringy seeds. It was an important lesson: patience may be a virtue, but hesitation can get you screwed.

As much as I love pumpkins, I rarely bother with roasting them and scooping out the sweet flesh. Why go to all that trouble when the canned puree is flavorful, perfectly smooth, and cheap? I always get the plain pumpkin, not the pie mix with all its added sugars and spices, because I prefer to spice it myself and I actually rarely make pie. My three favorite things to make with canned pumpkin are pumpkin ravioli, curried pumpkin soup, and pumpkin bread.

I made the season's first batch of pumpkin bread last Friday using the recipe from my circa 1970 Betty Crocker cookbook, which I picked up in a thrift store just before moving in to my first apartment. The recipe, which uses one 15oz can or half a large can of pumpkin, makes two 8" loaves. The bread is so irresistible that the two of us could easily go through a whole loaf in a day or two, so I split the batter among four mini loaf pans and freeze some. Later in the season we can pull one out of the freezer at night and have it ready for breakfast in the morning.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Daily Thread #1

When I started this blog, I said I would mostly focus on food in the beginning but eventually expand to other topics. Since the regular CSA season is winding down and my life is (almost) no longer dominated by what to do with all those veggies, now is a good time to branch out.

If you know me in real life, you know that one of my passions is clothing. Not necessarily fashion, per se, with its endless label obsessions, but clothing, in all its wonderful forms. I even went to grad school to study its history. As times are tight and I don't have the means to purchase or create many of the things I would like to, I'm going on a window shopping spree. In addition to continuting to write about cooking and restaurants, I'm debuting a new series for the blog called "Daily Threads." The idea is that I'll post an interesting item of clothing (just about) every day.

For our first Daily Thread, check out this shift dress from Banana Republic. It may not look like much at first, but this is actually a very rare breed: a shift dress that works for curvy girls. As a textbook hourglass (bust and hip measurements identical, with waist exactly ten inches less), shift dresses have long been out of the question for me. They tend to make my midsection disappear under a shapeless swath of fabric. But my friend Amelia, who has a very similar build, just bought this dress and raves about it. The secret in this case is the curved bodice seams and seamed waist; unlike the usual darts, this construction, along with the knit material, allows the dress to conform to our curves rather than hiding them. And at $59.99, it's a pretty good deal.

photo from

Thursday, October 2, 2008


Here is a shot of that applesauce spice cake I blogged about earlier. Now that I know to build in at least eight hours for the flavor to develop, it's earned a place in my baking arsenal. This time I topped it with - what else? - cream cheese frosting.

This is the beginning of a pot of potato-leek soup I made a few weeks back. It was simple, delicious, and perfect for the gray, rainy days we've been doomed with lately. No picture of the finished soup because it didn't come out well (too late for natural light - the days are getting shorter). I served it with popovers.

Whole-wheat pancakes with walnuts, dried cranberries, and Vermont maple syrup - the perfect beginning for a Saturday. I apologize for the lousy picture quality; this was during the borrowed-camera phase and this particular camera was definitely my least favorite. I'm so glad to have my new Canon now!

Kale and azuki beans is a very simple but delicious and healthy dish. Azuki beans are small, red beans popular in Japan; they are usually sold in the bulk bins at the grocery store. This dish starts with sauteing greens (in this case, fresh kale, but I've used frozen spinach many times before) with a little garlic and oil, then adding the cooked beans. I usually spritz the combo with Bragg's Liquid Aminos, but you could use soy sauce instead. Serve over brown rice and you have a tasty, nutritious, and cheap meal.

And lastly, no food story here, but I snapped this shot at a rest stop on the way back last weekend. This is why I live in New Hampshire.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Out to Eat: Jacqueline's Tea Room

I recently visited Jacqueline's Tea Room, a lovely little house in Freeport, Maine, where for $23.75 per person, you get a pre-set four-course menu and all the tea you could possibly drink (from a selection of about seventy varieties!).

Jacqueline sets the tables with teapots, cups, saucers, and plates from her extensive personal collection.

Grammy came along for the first time. White wrought iron, floral prints, and pearl-bedecked crystal chandeliers make up the little-girl's-fantasy decor.

For Dan and I, this was the second visit. On display throughout the house are books, stationery, scarves, jewelry, and of course, tea implements, all of which are for sale. You can also purchase any of the dozens of teas on the menu.

We started with scones. Here's a delicious almond scone with clotted cream and lemon curd. Strawberry-raspberry-cherry jam was also available.

Next came the tea sandwiches. Clockwise from the top: chicken salad, peach and ginger, salmon roll, cucumber with lavender. All were tasty, but this was the best chicken salad I've ever had: bedecked with cranberries, almonds, and celery, and held together with something that didn't quite taste like mayonnaise (a plus, since I am not a mayo fan). The peach and ginger was delicious, too, and could have easily been included on the pastry plate.

And what a pastry selection it was! Clockwise from top left: nut cakes with caramel, chocolate-cherry cake, jam tarts with Earl Grey cream, and almond macaroons with passion-fruit curd. The maraschino cherry baked in a chocolate cupcake was my least favorite; it's a cute concept, but the flavor was just not as interesting as anything else on the plate.

Both Dan and I agreed that the nut cake was the best. The texture was moist and incredibly velvety, and the caramel was just right.

For the final course, a touch of berry sorbet graced with a nasturtium. In the cooler months, instead of ending with sorbet, the meal begins with a cup of soup. By this point we were absolutely stuffed; between the three of us, we'd gone through at least six pots of tea.

Having been twice now, I can definitely say that I love Jacqueline's Tea Room. It's the perfect place for a bridal or baby shower or just a special treat!

Jacqueline's Tea Room is open Tuesday through Friday and every other weekend, with seatings at 11am and 1pm. Reservations required.

Jacqueline's Tea Room
201 Main Street
Freeport, Maine