League of Kitchens

Photos and story by Emily Stephenson

This past weekend I took a cooking class at the Queens home of Dolly, who is an instructor with League of Kitchens, a New York City-based organization that connects accomplished immigrant home cooks with anyone interested in learning about other cuisines and cultures.

I had wanted to take a class for years, but, as often happens with me, somehow never got my act together. (They fill up fast, life gets in the way, etc.) That finally changed this past weekend, when I was paid back for a favor done in the form of a cooking class. A few weeks ago, my friend and I compared calendars, and I crossed-referenced menus. The classes are very vegetarian friendly, but I wanted to make up for seven years of not eating meat. So curry goat and roti it was. Continue reading

Posted in American, Behind The Scenes

The Relish Tray Spreads Out

Text and Photo by Kerri Conan

My youth was dotted with pecan-crusted cheese balls, the hub of every respectable 1960’s aluminum party platter. The display varied from hostess to hostess—and competed for coffee-table real estate with full ashtrays and empty highball glasses—but relish trays were an obligation taken seriously. There might be devilled eggs and vegetables marinated in red wine vinegar and dried oregano. Cubes of salami and bacon-wrapped cocktail onions. We kids ate canned black olives we had stuck on our fingertips as we ran outside to play; the adults dragged a Ritz through the artichoke dip on their way to the bar.

Now, as an adult, I can hardly go a day without an assortment of piquant snacks, especially during the holidays. And my guests are frequently subjected to the same fate. But instead of confining the selection to a tray, I scatter little bowls and plates across the whole dining room table and call it “The Relish Spread.” Continue reading

Posted in American, Cocktails

Thanksgiving in the Rearview Mirror: Turkey Gumbo

Text and photos by Pam Hoenig

At our house on Thanksgiving, side dishes may switch in and out but two things remain constant: turkey is the main event; and there is always apple, pumpkin, and pecan pie on the table.

The menu for the next day is also set in stone. For the last fifteen years, we have invited friends to our house for turkey gumbo and an eclectic assortment of communal leftovers. It’s a guaranteed good time; everyone has successfully navigated Thanksgiving and can really relax and kick off the holiday season.

Making the gumbo has become kind of a meditation. First thing in the morning, I get the stock going, breaking the carcass into pieces, adding onion, celery, black peppercorns, and water to cover generously. Bring just to a boil, dial the heat down to a bare simmer, and let it do its thing on the stove for three hours or so. Once it cools down a bit, strain, then strip all the meat from the bones. This gets put in a bowl, topped up with additional turkey that was cut off the carcass before it went in the stockpot. Continue reading

Posted in American

A Weekend in Des Moines

By Mark Bittman

Photos by Mark Bittman

I was in Des Moines this past weekend (wasn’t everyone?), in part for the Niman Ranch “farmer appreciation dinner” as, more or less, an observer. The weekend was interesting not only for that but for a number of other reasons. Continue reading

Posted in American, Behind The Scenes, Travel

Campfire Cooking: Eisenhower Steak

By Pam Hoenig

Photos by Pam Hoenig

It seems like months ago but I spent last week on vacation on Point Judith in Rhode Island. This is our fourth year renting the same lovely house with our good friends Dolores and Steve, who are always up for my culinary explorations. Last year it was grilling cheeses, this year it was Eisenhower steak.

Setting perfectly good meat right on blazing hot coals was apparently Ike’s favorite way to grill steak.

I’ve always had serious qualms about this technique. How could it possibly not end up a burnt mess? Vacation seemed like the perfect time to try. I found three gorgeous strip loin steaks, each just over a pound and a little more than one inch thick. I blotted them dry, then seasoned with salt and pepper.

For us, cooking dinner on vacation ends up being a late night affair, after lingering at the beach and enjoying cocktails in the backyard while we chat about the day and watch the sun set over the water. By the time I went out to build the fire, it was pitch black. But soon I had a blazing fire going and into the flames went the steaks. Six minutes on each side, out they came. Five-minute rest and they were perfectly medium rare, with a delicious char crust, the flavor unlike anything I had ever gotten cooking above the fire.

If you want to try this, a couple of things to keep in mind:

  1. Use hardwood charcoal (or hardwood burned down to coals, if you have the patience): Your food will be sitting right on the fuel.
  2. You want your steaks to lay flat on the coals, so make sure your fire is big enough to accommodate the number of steaks you are cooking.
  3. You want a hot fire. Even though you blot the steaks dry, they still contain moisture, which can tamp down the fire. If you let the fire get a little past prime or haven’t made it big enough, your steaks might take a bit longer to cook.

So why don’t the steaks just don’t catch fire? My theory is that because they’re right up against the coals, there is less airflow, which keeps the melting fat from lighting up like a firecracker.

One final warning: When you turn the steaks, pieces of charcoal tend to stick to them. Just pull them off with tongs and be sure you don’t take one into the house with you by mistake or drop one into dry grass.

And if you don’t have a chance to sit by a campfire this summer, you can always enjoy this Virtual Campfire GIF of my strip steaks sizzling away.

Posted in American, Behind The Scenes

Bait Plate

Photo by Mark Bittman

One of the things I look for in food when I’m in a place is a sense of place; you get it in those farmers’ markets that limit their vendors to actual producers. You get it in the best, most honest restaurants. (You don’t get it in dishonest restaurants, which probably comprise the majority.)

I’ve complained for years that Cape Cod restaurants don’t strut the Cape’s stuff—which, despite declining stocks of cod and other fish, is still a pretty rich place—as well as they might. (By the way, note that that link goes to a piece I wrote nine years ago, so the information in it is way out of date.) So it was with delight that I recently visited Terra Luna, whose site (I assume kiddingly) describes the restaurant’s cooking as “rustic neo-pagan,” and was served, as an appetizer, what chef-owner Tony Pasquale calls the “bait plate,” a pile of what were once considered trash fish, all (or nearly all; depends on the night) sourced locally.

Razor clams from Eastham, which have been scarce—not because they’re not there, but because no one’s bothered to forage for them—are often on that plate, as are Eastham mussels; these are also hard to find, because almost everyone is selling the vastly inferior farmed mussels from Prince Edward Island. There’s also squid caught off the pier in Provincetown (such an easy catch that even I’ve done it), and a couple of small baitfish, which might be sardines (not always local, I’m sad to say), mackerel, eel, and the awesome Cape herring.

The cooking of these fish happens to be perfect, although—not to downplay it, kudos to the kitchen—that’s the easy part. It’s making the effort to deal with local fishers and ensure the product is genuine that’s tricky. This kind of behavior has got to be applauded.

– Mark Bittman

Posted in American, Seafood

Serving Up School Lunches of Tomorrow

This is the sixth episode of “California Matters,” a series of videos about sustainable agriculture and healthy eating that I produced in collaboration with the Global Food Initiative at the University of California.

It’s no secret that, although progress has been made, school lunches need help. This is a national project, and an important one. One of the proving grounds is San Francisco, where the school district is joining with researchers from the Department of Agriculture and the University of California, Berkeley’s School of Public Health to evaluate a project designed to increase school lunch participation, improve nutrition, reduce waste and ultimately counter tendencies toward obesity.

I took a look at a pilot project for this program by visiting Roosevelt Middle School and chatting with Zetta Reicker, who’s the director of the school system’s student nutrition services, and Kristine A. Madsen, an associate professor at the school of public health. (I also talked to a few kids, and ate lunch. Which was — for institutional food — better than O.K.)

Read the rest of this column here.

What’s the Buzz About Wild Bees?

Among all the pollinators, honeybees get the most publicity, deservedly, because of the problems around their survival. Claire Kremen’s research at the University of California, Berkeley, looks at diverse pollinators — not just bees, but also birds, moths and many insects — and the issues affecting them as emblematic of the broader problems of the food system. Pollinators are critical to global food production and about 75 percent of crop species depend on them to produce food that is more abundant and nutritious than it would otherwise be.

Monoculture — a single crop in an open field that may measure many hundreds of acres — increasingly depends on importing thousands of hives (by truck, usually) for the pollination of crops, especially in places like California. For example, the state produces 80 percent of the world’s almonds, which has concentrated the need for bees way beyond the capacity of native pollinators.

Focusing on a single crop reduces the biodiversity pollinators need to survive, and the timetable they best work on. It’s also a risky endeavor to rely on one species, especially when there are diseases, management problems and the inherent risks of transportation. Yet the large single-crop farms require the large apiaries to get the job done.

Read the rest of this article here.