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.

We visited with Matt Liebman (above), who has done important work at Iowa State for years, and about whom I wrote almost four years ago, in a piece that is still relevant but that I won’t rehash here. Basically, Matt’s approach is, if you have 30 million acres of Iowa land that’s in corn and soybeans, what are the ways that can make that kind of farming less harmful to the environment? He and his team have made real inroads on that, in part by reinstituting some of the state’s beautiful prairie (first photo). The logic of it all is indisputable, but it’s tricky to get farmers to adapt to the new methods. That’s the issue: we know how to make things better (while we’re actually making them good); what we don’t know is how to help farmers make the changes.

Anyway: Matt showed us around, and then he and his wife, Laura, fed us an awesome straight-from-the-garden lunch.

The weekend’s pleasant surprise (there was an unpleasant one: the worst meal I’ve eaten in months, at a place that might as well remain unnamed) was the Saturday farmers’ market: it’s huge, probably four or five long blocks and several short ones as well. And it was packed with (as far as I could tell) both natives and tourists—the only place in town with any real energy through the weekend. (My hotel window faced a main street, on which some days I observed as many as two pedestrians.)

Some observations:

– ŸThere were both producer stands and non-producer ones. (There’s no reason to buy from a non-farmer at a farmers’ market; you might as well go to the supermarket.) But the producers’ stands—which seemed to be mostly run by local Hmong, Laotian, and Vietnamese farmers—had beautiful vegetables, some exotic, including these wacky little bitter melons (below), eggplants of all shapes and sizes, greens that have no name in English. Much of this was organic and most of it was gorgeous and not expensive.

Ÿ- The shoppers—not quite lily-white, but close—did, as you might expect, crowd around the stands selling the most familiar food (and coffee, of course) but there was a line for the good-looking papusas and for Bosnian foods. The fact that Des Moines has a big Hmong population didn’t surprise me (I’ve visited with Hmong farmers in Fresno and Minnesota, and know that they have pockets everywhere), but I was a little surprised to see borek and stuffed cabbage (first picture below) sold here. Needless to say, there were tamales (second picture below) and tacos as well, and people were eagerly buying all of this.

– ŸFinally, there were these highly unusual plobanos, undoubtedly a version of the standard poblano.

All in all, a blast. The last time I was in Des Moines it was the dead of winter—just six months ago—and I couldn’t wait to get out. This time, I hated to leave, and I’m not kidding.

Posted in American, Behind The Scenes, Travel

Cabbage Sprouts

By Kerri Conan

Photos by Kerri Conan

Witness the benefit of getting to the farmers’ market when the first stalls open at 7:00 a.m. Saturday morning: one-of-a-kind cabbage sprouts.

This is Lawrence, Kansas, in mid-summer and you never know what’s going to pop out of the ground. But if it’s edible, Avery’s Produce will definitely put a box on their table, even if only a handful exists. A quick chat with Avery reveals that no, they’re not anemic Brussels sprouts but rather baby cabbages that he calls “second growths,” sprouted spontaneously in the abnormal rain and cool weather after the larger heads were cut.

Standing at this fork in the road—do I treat them like cabbage and make slaw or cook them like Brussels sprouts?—the decision was easy. Let’s split and grill ’em, then dress to mitigate potential bitterness with my go-to Brussels sprout honey-mustard-shallot-olive vinaigrette. I tossed them with olive oil and salt and put them in a grill basket over direct medium-high heat; they were ready in just a few minutes, shaking now and then to roll them around.

And surprise, surprise, they were quite sweet, even in the spots where they were charred. (So Brussels sprouts aren’t little cabbages after all.) I changed gears and went with more olive oil, white balsamic vinegar—to play on the sweetness—and handfuls of chopped dill and chives from the garden. The resulting warm salad was the most memorable farmers’ market dish of the summer. Until now. I’ve still got a couple months of Saturday early bird specials left to go.

Posted in Behind The Scenes, Produce

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

Empty Fridge Pizza

Photo by Emily Stephenson

I was very fortunately to escape New York City for the summer, and I’ve been cooking in a minimally furnished house in the woods. It’s wonderful. But there is a downside: finding good-quality food.

The town I’m in has a deli, with little fresh produce, and the nearest grocery store is an international goliath with spotty quality (it’s also 13 miles away). So I’ve gotten into the habit of planning my week around farmers’ markets (generally at least 45 minutes away) and making do with the dry goods I hauled up with me.

It’s forced me to be creative, though there have been some weird meals I’m glad I didn’t have to serve to anyone other than myself. Things had gotten a little desperate before my farmers’ market run today. Thankfully, I was saved from any further experiments by a friend who had me over for dinner, though she also hadn’t gone shopping and was making do with what she had on hand.

She had some frozen pizza dough she let proof while the oven heated up. She had a lemon and two onions, and thinly sliced both to put on the pizza. She has a garden, which yielded up a couple ripe tomatoes and plenty of fresh basil, so we sliced those up too. We didn’t have any cheese, so she whisked some chopped chives from the garden into crème fraiche and generously spread that on the crust as the sauce.

It was delicious, and so adaptable to any bare fridge scenarios: you could use cream, sour cream, or mascarpone for the sauce, and any bits of herbs you have lying around. The lemons and onions were delicious, and something you are likely to have at home. The sliced tomatoes were lovely but it would have still been tasty without them. It got me excited for a few more weeks of very improvised meals.

– Emily Stephenson

Posted in Behind The Scenes

Grill Cake

Photo by Emily Stephenson

Inspired by recipe testing we’ve been doing, summer, and not wanting to turn on the oven, I made my first cake on the grill, with great success.

I used the Pineapple Upside Down Cake recipe in How To Cook Everything Vegetarian, subbing 2 cups pitted cherries for the pineapple. The batter came together in less than two minutes; I poured it over the brown sugar and cherries scattered over the bottom of a cast iron skillet, and I carried it up to the rooftop, where our barbecue was taking place.

We were using a standard Weber kettle grill, the one pretty much everyone has owned at some point. I tried to wait until the coals had ashed over, but I got impatient and put the skillet directly over the fire before it had hit its peak hotness. (Next time I’ll wait until the coals are fully “ready.”) I closed the lid and cooked it for 15 minutes, then checked on it; it was nowhere near ready, so I closed the lid and set my timer for 10 minutes. When I checked again, I’d say the cake was just slightly overdone, but I had been enjoying myself for those extra 10 minutes and I figured no one would notice.

They did not. The fruit mixture was bubbling around the edges and the crust was crisp and smoky. I flipped it out of the skillet onto a cake plate and let it rest while we cooked and ate the rest of our dinner (also cooked on the grill). In the end, it was the cake everyone was most impressed with. I’m now inspired to grill all my summer desserts: It’s easy, practical (you can do it while the grill is heating up), and delivers impressive results.

– Emily Stephenson

Posted in Baking, Behind The Scenes

Talking Turkey

Photos by Pam Hoenig

I’ve never been a huge fan of turkey. I like it well enough to eat at Thanksgiving and again for leftovers the next day in gumbo. And as long as it’s the dark meat, most definitely not turkey breast.

But I am here to testify that I have most emphatically changed my mind. The reason? Porchetta-style turkey breast roast. Porchetta originated in Ariccia, a small town just outside of Rome. Prepared traditionally, an entire pig is deboned, the meat seasoned with herbs, then rolled up in its skin, and roasted in a pit to insane tenderness, with a crisp exterior.

Last week I was shopping the meat counter and saw what was being sold as “turkey breast roast.” There were three of them, all in those tight little net bags that keep everything even and together, and one of them was half covered with its skin. I didn’t buy one then but it got me thinking, what if I tried to do turkey porchetta style, working the flavor paste under the skin?

I went back the next day and just one roast was left, just shy of four pounds. It wasn’t the one with the skin, but I bought it anyway, along with half a pound of thinly sliced pancetta. Home I went.

In my little food chopper I combined 1/2 cup fennel fronds (picked from the stand of ornamental bronze fennel in my flower garden), 1/4 cup fresh rosemary leaves, a handful of fresh sage leaves, salt, red and black peppers, and the zest of a large lemon and reduced it all to a puree. I pried the roast out of its netting and worked the paste all over and between the pieces of turkey breast that had been jammed together to comprise this “roast.” I reassembled them, then very unartfully wrapped the whole affair in pancetta and tied it together with kitchen twine.

Onto the grill: indirect, with a medium fire for 2 1/2 hours, until the center hit 155°F. I let it rest till it reached 160°F, then cut away the string. The pancetta had turned hickory brown. I cut the roast into thick slices; you could see the flavor paste lacing through the juicy breast. The taste was incredible—complex and aromatic. And it held up the next day when I enjoyed some in a sandwich, topped with a handful of arugula.

– Pam Hoenig

Posted in Behind The Scenes, Italian

Rosemary vs. Lavender

Photos by Kerri Conan

They’re twin herbs separated at birth. Rosemary was raised in the kitchen. Lavender got stuck in Grandma’s underwear drawer. It’s time to reunite them for a cook-off.

In starkest terms, the difference between rosemary (shown on the left) and lavender is akin to pine needles versus peach-tinted rosebuds. Each has a place and a purpose but one is easier to cuddle up with.

Rosemary has the advantage of familiarity. Unless you or someone you know grows lavender it can be tough to find it fresh. Ask around your farmers market for someone to start bringing it. If you can only find dried, that’s fine; like rosemary, lavender dries well with a similar concentrated potency.

Twice last week I took the lavender path to great success. First I pushed a couple sprigs under the skin of a spit-grilled chicken. As the drippings bubbled and reduced before straining and serving, I dropped the leaves in the pot to eke out the last bit of flavor…

And here are those leaves again, barely visible minced into mustard-seed-balsamic vinaigrette for grill-roasted beets…

In both cases, rosemary would have been appropriate. But lavender was understated in the chicken, not easily identifiable. You knew it wasn’t rosemary and it tasted almost like bay leaves. As a dressing for warm, slightly charred beets, it amplified their sweetness, where rosemary’s pineyness might have provided a more one-dimensional counterpoint.

Here are some of my favorite ways to use lavender: in the pot with white beans or lentils, rubbed on lamb or duck, steeped in simple syrup for cocktails or punch (lavender julep anyone?), brewed for herb tea, scalded with the milk or cream for custards (and strained out), in marinades for olives and feta, baked into focaccia and socca, or snuck into blueberry pie filling.

You’ll chart your own course but a good place to start is to try lavender whenever you’d consider using rosemary—if only it weren’t so harsh.

– Kerri Conan

Posted in Behind The Scenes

Cooking with Almost Nothing

Photo by Emily Stephenson

I’m cooking in a vacation rental this week, and I only brought my knife with me, which means the tools in “my” kitchen reflect the generosity of the owner and the cooking inclinations of previous tenants. I’ve found one pot, some bowls, a couple skillets, a wooden spoon, a can opener, and a colander. But I can still do almost all the summer cooking I want.

I left the tools to chance, but I knew there would be no ingredients in the house. I packed the pantry items that seemed summer-appropriate, and I stopped on the way to pick up everything I thought I might need. In truth, I think I could have gotten away with salt, pepper, olive oil, and vinegar, but I brought a bit more.

Summer is the best time for pared-down cooking. You don’t want to apply much heat to anything because it’s so ripe and full of flavor. I’d happily eat tomato sandwiches and salads and grilled vegetables (if I had a grill) through September.

Inspired by a really great noodle salad we tested a few weeks ago, fish sauce was one of the things I brought, as well as buying tofu and rice noodles. A cold noodle salad is perfect summer fare.

I knew it was going to be a time investment, but I didn’t have anything else better to do, so I started by julienning lots cucumber and carrots (knife). I didn’t do it perfectly as you can see, but, hey, I’m on vacation. I boiled water (one pot) to steep the rice noodles, then drained them (colander). I cubed tofu, chopped cilantro, and minced onion (knife). I whisked together lime juice, fish sauce, sugar, and salt until it tasted good (fork), then I tossed everything together.

It was a great summer dinner that required just four basic tools, and felt like much more than the sum of its parts.

– Emily Stephenson

Posted in Behind The Scenes, Produce

Smoke a Tongue Tonight

Finished

Photos by Pam Hoenig

There’s a headline I never in my life thought I’d write. But after tasting a slice of succulent beef tongue I smoked with hickory wood chips this afternoon, how could I not share the love?

Yesterday I was shopping for plum tomatoes to smoke on the grill and decided to swing by the meat counter to see what was out. My local store sources a lot of meat from the Hudson Valley and what they carry can change from day to day. Continue reading

Posted in Behind The Scenes

Fun with Frenching

Photos by Kerri Conan

Friday night, one glass of wine into firing the grill for steak with a pile of farmers’-market string beans in the sink, I decided to kill some time Frenching.

The plan was to stir-fry the beans in olive oil with lots of garlic and shallots until droopy, then add tomato wedges, cover, and let them stew just long enough to release some juice but not their skins. Off heat, I’d stir in a handful of basil leaves from the back yard, adjust the seasoning, and serve at room temperature. Splitting the beans lengthwise—like fancy canned and frozen green beans—would help the pods soften and absorb flavor, and I liked the idea of getting random bites with baby seeds.

My ad hoc by-hand technique varied: For straight beans, I lined the business side of the knife on top and pushed down with conviction, pretending not to care when the odd end slipped free of the hack. If they were curved, I used the seam on the bean as a guide to run the tip of the blade from the middle outward in both directions, turning each between strokes. I’m pretty fast with a knife and like the practice but apparently you can also lay them horizontally in the feed tube of a food processor and let the slicing disk do the work.

Whatever your method or recipe, try Frenching at least once this season. There’s a reason why they’re cut that way for green bean casserole. This quick braise had all the freshness you want from summer vegetables, without the squeaky stick-to-your-teeth chalkiness of lightly cooked green beans. Instead their exposed insides provided a silky counterpoint to the crisp skins. And the leftovers can become anything from a three-bean salad or toast topper to a rich frittata.

– Kerri Conan

Posted in Behind The Scenes, Produce