Salsa and Wine, all Home grown

27 08 2010

Everybody has some fall-back meals. Easy things that you keep the ingredients for in the pantry. For me, quesadillas and nachos involve having chips or wheat tortillas on hand, and some tasty cheese. From there on out is where it gets interesting.

I was invited to make a salsa at the Mill City Market’s Salsa Fest, and I was mulling over my options. Sure, tomatoes are great right now. But I think your average locavore has been making tomato salsa for a while now. Gazing over at some lovely local cantaloupe that I had handy, I thought, hey, I make a great melon salsa. Adding to my inspiration was a bottle of wine that had been given to me by a friend who knew that I was seeking out great local finds.

The wine, a Frontenac Gris from the St Croix Vineyards, was a white, described as having notes of peach and pineapple. Hmm, a fruity combo, one that might just accent my fruity salsa and cheesy nachos perfectly.

St Croix Vineyards is located out by Stillwater, on Manning avenue, and they have a tasting room for anyone who wants to come on out. It’s right next to Aamodts apple farm, which also offers all sorts of apple tastings as well, so if you are in the mood for a Napa-style tour of the scenic area over by the river, its a great destination.

So, I made my cantaloupe salsa, adjusting the acidity, adding some jalapenos from my garden. Opening the wine, we poured some and gave a sniff. All that fruit was there, and then some. A sip revealed a little sweetness, so I added a drizzle of local honey to my salsa to keep them even. I scattered my Whole Grain Milling corn chips on a platter, and grated a lively blend of Cow Caviar Cheddar and some Stravecchio for an aged tang. The cheeses and some scallions made a toasty blanket over the chips after a few minutes in the oven.

So how was it? The salty, savory chips, the sweet and fruity wine and the sweet and sour salsa were a great summer meal. The quaffable wine and the munchable chips kept our tastebuds jumping, and the nutty cheese brought it all back to earth.

If you are a locavore who has not tried local wines, give them a shot. The U of M and the local winemakers put alot of effort into making grapes that will flourish in our decidedly not-Napa environs.

Try my salsa, or come see me make it at Mill City Saturday, 8/28 at 10 AM.

Cantaloupe Salsa

Depending on the sweetness of your melon, you may need more lime, or a drizzle of honey.

1 1/2 cups finely chopped cantaloupe

1-2 Tbs fresh lime juice

1-2 jalapenos

1/4 cup cilantro or mint, chopped

2 chopped scallions

1 pinch salt

Stir the ingredients together and adjust for taste, think about the meal and the wine and make it sweeter for a sweeter wine, or add more lime for a dryer wine.

Cheeseburger, Fries, and a Side of Statin Drugs?

24 08 2010

It really says something about our ability to educate ourselves about food when we start talking about serving the antidote to junk foods in pill form right in the restaurant.

At the beginning of August, researchers from Imperial College of London published a study in The American Journal of Cardiology with the conclusion that handing out statins with a cheeseburger could somehow balance out the cholesterol-raising effects of the food.

A little over a year ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) announced recommendations to prescribe cholesterol-lowering statin drugs to obese children as young as eight.

Have we really fallen so far?

The researchers seem to have taken an ultra-realistic view, assuming that people will eat this food by the ton no matter what anyone says, so we might as well throw some drugs in to try and keep the inevitable cholesterol crisis at bay. Never mind that this scheme would probably make people feel even freer to eat more burgers and fries, bringing all the non-cholesterol health problems that come with, like, say, obesity and diabetes.

Let’s not forget, that when you hear those commercials for statin drugs, they have to list some pretty ugly side effects, starting with unexplained muscle pain and weakness, caused by the breakdown of muscle and tissue, which overload the kidneys and can lead to fatal kidney failure. Then there is weakness, mental confusion, memory loss and neuropathy, a nerve disorder that causes all sorts of pains in the body.

YUM! Maybe making people watch a tape loop of the side effects of both the food and the drugs as they stand in line would scare some consumers away from even the yummiest of greaseburgers.

We have been inching toward bringing healthier food to the masses, with rules to make restaurants list nutrition info for foods, and many of the worst fast food places are offering decent options to meet demands of their customer base. For what it is worth, McD’s did bring in some yogurt parfaits and Newmans dressing on some salads. Which are undoubtedly a tiny fraction of sales.

Maybe, instead of adding drugs and charging more for the offending food, whole grain buns and side salads should come with every burger. Perhaps every time someone orders a cheeseburger, they are offered a spinach pie, or a triple veggie burger, or a copy of the film, Supersize Me?

The idea of adding drugs to food is silly, and it is highly unlikely that it would ever happen. If anything, this just shows how difficult these problems are to solve. Cheap, accessible food has only boomed in the recession, and we can expect a wave of poor health, as stressed, junk eating people start clogging and having cardio-events.

I’m counting on the power of celebrity, with folks like Michelle Obama, Jamie Oliver, and Mario Batali promoting education about healthy eating.

Folks like me have been writing, teaching and talking about eating right for years and years, and it will take millions more of us to keep the faith and carry on.

But I am still not ready to suggest adding drugs to our feed, not yet.

Ask me later.

A Local Adventure with “The Minnesota Table”

19 08 2010

I am guessing that if you are reading this, you probably have some commitment to local foods. Whether you trek to a Farmers market or shop your Coop or grocers looking for the local label, you seek out food with fewer food miles between you and the grower.

But have you ever taken a tour of the state, seeking out growers, producers and wine-makers? I recently talked to someone who did just that, and the end result is now a book. BJ Carpenter, local chef and locavore, teamed up with Shelley Holl to seek out the Minnesota food gems that are tucked away in small towns and byways across the state. BJ developed the recipes for  The Minnesota Table, Recipes for Savoring Local Food Throughout the Year (Voyageur Press, $25.00) Her friend Shelly wrote the profiles of food makers and farmers throughout the book.

“It was fun,” said Carpenter, “the things we discovered when we got out there, like the Communion Wafer factory (Little Falls), and the largest Yak herd in the US (St Joseph). They were fun trips. Then we stumbled across the Nun who started the first CSA in the state, and even got to pet a big bison. It was a little scary, but he is a pet, who appears in commercials and movies.”

If that doesn’t pique your interest, the book is also packed with lists of u-pick orchards, wineries to tour, and contact info for the places that they found great local foods.

Carpenter’s recipes, though, make up the bulk of the book, and she has crafted a seasonal parade of local bounty. Alongside that are tips for putting up the harvest of each season, whether it is berries, herbs or root vegetables. Handy charts tell you how to blanch, freeze and dry, so you can save your favorites when they are best and cheapest. As an experienced chef and long-time canner and pickler, Carpenter knows people need some tips.

“Our mothers and grandmothers all canned and baked. They didn’t have the luxury of stuff trucked in from Mexico. They ate what was in season. Eating local foods in season is sort of a novelty now.”

Her pursuit of quality is as much a part of her interest in local as any sort of politics. “I call ahead to Mississippi Market to find out when they are making fresh mozzarella. I go get it and go straight home and slice it with some ripe tomatoes. It’s phenomenal how good that tastes. It sounds crazy, but if you put the water on to boil and then go pick the corn, and drop it in for a minute and a half, it’s like nothing you have ever had. My neighbor girl brings me fresh eggs she just gathered, and I cook them right away. There is just no comparison.”

The recipes are crowd pleasers, familar food with updates and tasty touches that make you want to give them a try. Pink Potato Salad, made with pickled beets, or a Roasted Garlic Custard are just a couple of variations on that theme. And for rutabaga fans, there is a rutabaga milkshake recipe from the rutabaga capital, Askov MN.

If you are a locavore and want to find some of the unique gems that your state has to offer, this book is your road map. And if you don’t feel like visiting the farm, you can always bring your treasures home and make the tasty dishes that were inspired by the amazing foods of Minnesota.

Local Exotica:Yard Long Beans go Italian

14 08 2010

A great resource that we have at our markets in the Twin Cities is the Hmong growers. Every farmers market has several of these dedicated and hard working farmers. They grow everything from beets to watermelon. But what gets my culinary juices flowing is all the Asian produce. Dappled green eggplants the size of big ping pong balls, hollow-stemmed malabar spinach, Gai Lan Chinese Broccoli, and assorted squash/gourd-like vegetables that go by many names. I have taught a class on cooking these vegetables several times, and I have found that most Minnesotans take a look, but feel at a loss when it come to cooking this exotic bounty.

While I love to use these veggies in their native style, simmering up Thai curries and spicy stir-fries, I also like to use them in more familiar, Mediterranean style fare. I find that using a Thai eggplant in ratatouille, or a bottle gourd in a garlicky soup adds the twist that makes a familiar dish that much more special.

Which brings me to one of my favorites in the Asian vegetable canon, available all summer long: the yard long bean. Sometimes called asparagus bean, or simply long bean, it is instantly recognizable because it is, well, long.

They are not really three feet long, but you get the gist

While you may love your green beans, I strongly urge you to buy a bundle of these extra tall beans and give them a try. I find them to be meatier in texture, and with none of the pronounced string of some string beans. All you do is wash and chop- the tips are tender and there is no stringing involved. Now my first mouth-watering thought when I see these beans is “get a wok and make Szechuan…” and that is a great way to go. But since we are staying away from imports this month, soy sauce was off my list. So I decided to go Italian-style, and harvest some fresh sage and cherry tomatoes from my back yard.

One thing I would borrow from the Szechuan dish was the idea of dry-frying. Basically, the beans hit a hot pan and are stirred until the wrinkle and shrink down. That really complements the texture of these beans. So, I heated up my cast-iron skillet, and when it was very hot, drizzled in some of my local sunflower oil. In went the beans and some slivered fresh sage. I love to fry sage until it is crispy. Then, halved cherry tomatoes and garlic. Keep stirring until the beans are wrinkled and the tomatoes have melted.  Salt and pepper, Mangia Bene!

Long Beans Italian-Style

Eat Local, Corn Crazy

8 08 2010

Well, folks, it’s week two of the Eat Local Challenge Month, and what a fine month it is. Here in MN, even more than other parts of the country, we have a short, intense growing season. Things like asparagus happen in mid-june, and if we are lucky, melons ripen by August. While the Californians might pity us, I’d like to suggest that it has an up-side.

Minnesotans have a “carpe diem” approach to summer that borders on the fanatical. We spend so many months of the year with a frozen landscape that when it warms up, we get crazy. Only in MN have I seen people in shorts when it hits 40 F. So when we get our local produce, we go hog wild.

This week, we are on week three of local corn. The first two weeks always involve the purest expression of the love of sweet corn:simple boiling, buttering and salting. Like a reuniting with a friend, long away, we don’t need to leave the house. Then we start stepping out to the deck to grill some corn. Not far, though.

Nature's own best cookware, the husk.

But after a couple of weeks, we need a little more variety. The sweet, crisp corn calls out for some creativity. Now it’s time to start improvising with what is good right now. It’s time to start cutting the kernels off the cob and sauteing them.

So, looking around my garden, I picked some red jalapenos, golden zucchini, fresh thyme, and ripe, red tomatoes. Garlic from the farmers market and Pastureland butter completed the picture.

A quick chop and mmmm.

A hot skillet and butter met the corn, zucchini and jalpeno for a quick sizzle. The thyme and garlic joined for a few more minutes, then off the heat, I tossed in the tomatoes. It was even good the next day on nachos.

Simple is best when the corn is good!

Locavores Will Love Minnesota Grown Sunflower Oil

5 08 2010

A bottle of LOCAL sunflower oil!

Even the most devoted locavores have to work around the limits of Minnesota. We don’t grow olives, coffee, chocolate, or sugar cane. Beets, yes, but I have yet to see anyone marketing a local beet sugar.

So when folks pledge to go all-local in their kitchens, they often leave a little wiggle room for their beloved imports. I mean, California olive oil is not as bad as Italian in food-miles, right?

Well, your dilemma is now solved. Tom Smude, whose farm is near Pierz, MN, is now selling his gorgeous, golden cold-pressed sunflower oil. Interested? Currently in the Twin Cities, The Golden Fig and Local D’Lish are carrying it in their loca-foods stores-both of which deserve a shop by any locavore.  The oil was put into a distributor’s warehouse about three weeks ago, and if you ask your coop or grocery store to carry it, they should be considering it at this very moment.

Tom Smude spoke to me on the phone, as he was watering his sheep, who were expressing their gratitude loudly. “The sunflowers look awesome, they are just flowering right now. It’s been a challenge, but it’s been fun.”

The decision to get into the oil business took a winding path. It started as an idea for a drought resistant crop that could be used to make bio-diesel for his tractors and to sell, and the leftovers used for animal feed. After some research, it looked like there was no money in bio-diesel, so he started looking into the food grade oil market. A big broker was interested in buying big loads that would be chemically processed and used in big food manufacturing. That didn’t look like a very good bet, either.

sunflowers at the Smude Farm

Smude’s experience raising natural Black Angus Beef had already introduced him to the experience of having middle men take all the profits. “We put all these hours into these cattle, and somebody makes money, but it’s not us.” So, he decided to take the leap and make a high-quality oil, bottle it and sell it as “Smude”s Cold-Press Sunflower Oil.” The crop is sustainable, and nothing goes to waste. “When we press the seeds, we make the leftovers into feed for the cattle.”

A big difference with cold-pressing is the absence of chemicals in the extraction process. “Cold pressing, I get 90% of the oil out. They use hexane to get 100%.” Said Smude. Hexane is a neurotoxin, and there is some evidence that traces of it remain in food. Commercial oils are also processed with high heat to make them stable, and stripped of their natural flavors.

Sunflower oil is comparable to canola in its lipid makeup, and refined sunflower oil often used for fried foods because of its high smoke point. Don’t be confused, though, this is cold press oil, with a smoke point of 325-340 F, so it is better for making sautes, salad dressings and baked goods.

I tried the golden oil in muffins, cookies, and roasted some new potatoes in it. The flavor is buttery, with a hint of sunflower flavor. We also rolled some sweet corn in it before salting, and crushed some garlic into a puddle of it to dip bread. It was tasty in all applications. Smude recommends it as a popcorn oil. “We have been sampling out popcorn popped in the oil at Farmers Markets, and only getting great feedback. People want to buy it once they taste it.”

The Impossibly Tall Pie kicks off Eat Local Month

2 08 2010

It’s August, and time for the Eat Local Challenge. In the spirit of eating local foods as often as possible this month, I searched out the best local ingredients for a “kick-off” local pie. I also had to start deciding who was going to get to eat this pie. A pie like this must be appreciated, as you will see.

I started at the St Paul Farmers Market. There, for a brief period, Mark and Sue Christopher of Maple Leaf Orchard sell sour cherries every year. This year I was very lucky to get them, as there was a late freeze on May 9, which damaged the tender cherry blossoms. The crop was smaller than usual, which only made it more urgent that I get a few quarts pitted and frozen.

And baked into a pie.

Then, I made a trip to the Mill City Farmers Market to pick up fresh whole wheat pastry flour, grown and ground locally, and freshly flaked organic oats. Sunrise Flour Mill is a local treasure, and they put on a bit of a show at the market. The mom-and pop operation is all about bringing the freshest, local grains to the people, and they like to demonstrate their tabletop oat-flaker right there for the crowds.

My next acquisition was the always divine butter of Pastureland. Grass-fed cows make the milk for this local treasure, which has the natural yellow hue that comes from the carotenoids in grass. It’s secretly health food, but tastes too decadent to have any thoughts of healthiness cross your mind while you eat it.

The final, crowning touch were the Hickory nuts from Wisconsin that I had in the freezer from last year. Kind of a cheat, but I thought ahead. I had them once at Lucia’s restaurant, and was hooked. If you have never had hickory nuts, they are like a smaller version of a pecan, but taste like a delightful cross of walnuts and pecans. I ordered them on the internets from Ray actually cracks each nut by hand, so the $24 a pound is a bargain.

So, I made my pie crust with the pastry flour, butter and salt. I made a streusel topping with flour, oats and hickory nuts. And I made the pie filling with the sour cherries. In my zeal, I wanted the pie to be overstuffed. This is what it looked like:

Of course it will run over- you know it will!

I covered the pie with foil, put a baking pan under it to catch the flow, and put it in a 400 F oven.  In half an hour, I turned the oven down to 375 for 30 minutes, then I uncovered the pie. By this time there was so much juice in the pan that I poured it off into a cup, where it thickened to a delicious sauce. I thought it needed another half hour, but it too about 45 minutes to get browned and thickened throughout. It was hard to wait, but we had to let it cool.

It all came out in the end!

So you might be wondering, who got to eat the pie? Many miles were traveled to share it with my Mom and Dad. I think I owe them a pie or two!

The Overstuffed Sour Cherry Pie

Don’t serve this to people who won’t appreciate it. It’s too special.


1 cup whole wheat pastry flour

6 tablespoons butter

1/4 teaspoon salt

ice water and a shot of vinegar


1/2 cup pastry flour

1/2 cup oats

1/2 cup raw sugar

4 tablespoons melted butter

a handful of hickory or other nuts


2 quarts fresh sour cherries, pitted (you will have about half a cup of extra filling)

1 cup raw sugar

3 tablespoons cornstarch

3 tablespoons unbleached flour

1/4 teaspoon almond extract

1.Make the pie crust by mixing the flour and salt, then cutting or grating in the cold butter. Add 4 tbs ice water and gently mix, adding more to bring the mass together into a dough. Form a disk and chill for an hour. Roll out and line pie pan, flute rim and chill again. Preheat the oven to 400 F.

2. Stir together the streusel ingredients.

3. Mix the filling, stuff it in the pie, and top with streusel. Cover with foil, place on a rimmed baking sheet, and bake for 30, then reduce the heat to 375F. After 30 minutes, uncover and bake until thick juices bubble through the golden brown streusel.