Riding Out the Storm

Actual texts between me and Brian Levinson during Hurricane Sandy:

Brian: This is the first time in my life I have been afraid that the weather was going to come into my house and kill me. How fares Boston? 8:52PM, Oct. 29

Me: We’re sitting in the dark, eating homemade blondies and playing Trivial Pursuit with help from a candle and a bike helmet light. 9:09PM, Oct. 29

Brian: Not bad, considering. 9:10, Oct. 29

Sure, we lost our power midday, but it wasn’t a big deal. We got it back by midnight.

I lived on the island of Manhattan for seven years. My heart breaks with every photo I see of flooded subway stations, darkened streets and burned down homes. According to Facebook, all my friends and their family members are accounted for.

Like I said, we lost power, but it wasn’t a big deal. Also not a big deal:making these blondies, or, as the recipe calls them, “butterscotch brownies.” I made them right before we lost our power. They took less than 10 minutes to put together, and then a half hour in the oven. I used a Fannie Farmer recipe, although I tweaked it a little bit, changing out one of the two cups of dark brown sugar for one cup of light brown sugar. It just sounded too sweet with two cups of dark brown. The recipe leaves the nuts vague, and I will too. I actually had a packet of mixed nuts on the counter from an Eat Boutique package I won. I think walnuts are pretty traditional, but that’s entirely up to you. I melted the butter in the microwave using a glass mixing bowl at 35 second intervals.

Oh, I won the Trivial Pursuit game. And dessert.

Butterscotch Brownies (Blondies) from The Fannie Farmer Cookbook

Ingredients

½ cup melted butter

1 cup dark brown sugar

1 cup light brown sugar

2 eggs

½ teaspoon salt

1 ½ cups flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup chopped nuts

Directions

Preheat oven to 350F.

Butter a 9×13-inch cake pan.

Mix all of the ingredients together, combining them well. Spread in the pan and bake for 25-30 minutes, or until dry on top and almost firm to the touch. Let cool for 10-15 minutes, then cut into small squares.

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Boston Vegetarian Food Festival

Just a quick note to let you know that this weekend marks the 17th annual Boston Vegetarian Food Festival. It’s being held at the Reggie Lewis Athletic Center in Roxbury on both Saturday and Sunday. There will be lots of food to sample, cooking demonstrations to watch, and some interesting lectures to attend. My suggestion is to bring an empty stomach, a canvas bag for free samples, and an open mind. And it’s all free!

An Apple (Cake) a Day

Last week the acupuncturist told me that apples are full of qi and that I should be eating one every single day. “Oh, that’s not a problem at all,” I quickly replied. “The CSA gives us pounds of apples every week, and I’ve been baking apple cakes pretty constantly this year.”

“We really need to work on your filter,” Rich observed, not for the first time, when I recounted the conversation. But it’s true, I’ve been on a bit of an apple cake tear. This gingerbread upside down cake with apples and bourbon cream by Sally Pasley Vargas might be the best apple cake I’ve ever had. Jess’ Teddie’s was another good one; we loved the walnut crunch. We each made a set of these apple chunk breakfast loaves from Liz. The second round was brought to my parents for Rosh Hashana for a nice breakfast cake. I think the apples she found at her shuk in Israel are much smaller than my stateside apples, because I could only squeeze in two per recipe, as opposed to her four. This one, also by Sally, was pretty good, although I think I’d reduce the cinnamon in the topping the next time. And this Dutch Apple Cake from last year is always a fine treat.

But I digress. Anyways, I’ve been following the acupuncturist’s advice all year long, and I’ve been feeling great, so I figured it’s best to do what she says.  I’ve incorporated a peeled apple (sans skin; better for my tummy) with some peanut butter in its core as part of my breakfast on most mornings, although I’m still on a constant lookout for new apple recipes.

So when the good people at Knopf asked me if I was interested in checking out Lidia Bastianich’s new cookbook that she wrote with her daughter, Tanya Bastianich Manuali, I immediately said yes. I think I’ve mentioned in the past how much I adore Lidia – her show on WGBH Create is one of the few cooking shows I watch, and I am a big fan of her Lidia’s Italy cookbook. Although, looking through my archives right now, I don’t think I’ve ever shared a recipe of hers with you. Strange, because I’m a huge fan.

When the new cookbook arrived, I did a quick read of the introduction and looked over the “100 Foolproof Italian Dishes, from Basic Sauces to Irresistible Entrées” in hopes of a new apple cake recipe to use up the bowlful on my counter. Sure, there was a strudel, and a roasted beet and beet greens salad with goat cheese, but the recipe that caught my eye was like none I’d ever heard of before: Spaghetti in Tomato Apple Sauce. We actually don’t eat a lot of pasta in this house, but the acupuncturist also did encourage the eating of deep red and colorful fruits and vegetables, so a dish involving bright red tomatoes and apples piqued my interest.

Lidia does note in the introduction to this recipe that the combination of the two might sound “odd,” but apparently in Tretino-Alto Adige, one of the most northerly regions of Italy which is known for its apples, this recipe wouldn’t be too surprising.

My back was feeling a bit cranky, so I assigned Rich the task of putting together this dish. (This actually served the dual purpose of keeping me off my feet, and seeing how well-written the recipe works for the kitchen novice.) The result? It was incredible. Honestly, one of the better pasta dishes I’ve had in my life.

We continued to cook our way through the CSA with this cookbook, enjoying the butternut squash in the marinated winter squash, and the chard melted ever so nicely when I braised it with tomatoes and cannellini beans. I think tonight I’m going to try out the Brussels Sprouts braised with vinegar for a new take on a beloved vegetable. (At least it is in our house.)

Spaghetti In Tomato Apple Sauce from Lidia’s Favorite Recipes: 100 Foolproof Italian Dishes, from Basic Sauces to Irresistible Entrees

One thing I noticed about this recipe was that it called for a food processor or blender to purée the tomatoes. I’m a big believer in the food mill, but it looks like Lidia has acknowledged that there is more likely a chance of a home cook having one of those two machines than an old-fashioned food mill. This shouldn’t stop you from purchasing a food mill. It’s almost winter time, and the persimmon pudding won’t make itself!

I would also suggest putting the pasta water on to boil before starting on the sauce. Big pots of water take a while to boil, even if you’re not watching them.

Ingredients

3 cups canned Italian plum tomatoes (preferably San Marzano)

6 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 large stalks celery, cut into 1/4 –inch dice (about 1 cup)

1 medium onion, chopped (about 1 cup)

1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for the pasta pot

1 pound tart and firm apples, such as Granny Smith

1 pound spaghetti

1 cup freshly grated Grana Padano or Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, plus more for passing

Directions

Pour the canned tomatoes into a food processor or blender, and purée until smooth.

Pour 4 tablespoons of the olive oil into a skillet, set it over medium heat, and strew the celery and onion in the pan. Cook and stir the vegetables for about 5 minutes, until they wilt and start to caramelize. (Rich says this took a lot longer than 5 minutes.)

Stir in the puréed tomatoes, season with the salt, and heat to a bubbling simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes or so. As the tomatoes perk, peel and core the apples, and remove the seeds. Shred them, using the coarse holes of a shredder or grater.

When the tomatoes have cooked about 5 minutes, stir the apples into the sauce. Bring the skillet back to a simmer, and cook the sauce, uncovered, for about 15 minutes, stirring now and then, until it has reduced and thickened and the apple shreds are cooked and tender.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil, drop in the spaghetti, and cook until just al dente. Lift the spaghetti from the water, let drain for a moment, and drop it into the warm sauce. (Reheat if necessary.)

Toss the pasta with the sauce for a minute or two, until all the strands are coated and perfectly al dente. Turn off the heat, sprinkle the grated cheese over the pasta, and toss well. Drizzle over it the remaining olive oil, toss once again, and heap the pasta in warm bowls. Serve immediately, passing more cheese at the table.

Top Banana

I really enjoyed this week’s Four Questions interview with Jonathan Rosenthal, the founder of Equal Exchange.  I hope you will, too. Oh, and there’s a recipe. 

Four Questions with Jonathan Rosenthal, founder of Equal Exchange

by Molly Parr / October 15, 2012
created at: 2012-10-04If you’ve ever enjoyed fair-trade coffee, chocolate or a banana, you have Jonathan Rosenthal to thank. In 1985, Rosenthal co-founded Equal Exchange and pioneered the sale of fair-trade coffee. Twenty years later, he did the same for bananas with Oke USA. Today, he and his wife run Just Works Consulting, helping fledging nonprofits bring their visions “from concepts to reality.” I asked him about the relationship between his work and Judaism. 

You pioneered fair trade. Today, you can find fair trade and organic products in supermarkets. Do you worry that these terms will lose some of their meaning?

I take the long view! The struggle to connect social and economic justice has been a core theme in religious, spiritual and revolutionary communities for millennia. For example, I wrote a commentary on a commentary on this passage from the Bible: “And you shall bring no abhorrent thing into your house or you will be under the ban like it. You shall surely despise it and shall surely abhor it, for it is under the ban” (Deuteronomy 7:26).

In the late 1700s, Quaker Abolitionists in England created a Slave Free Produce, calling on civilians to only purchase produce and textiles produced without slave labor. This idea was brought to the U.S. and popped up in different locations of the U.S. for over 60 years until the Civil War ended the formal need.

In the 1960s, the Black Panthers organized access to free breakfast and connected local community-owned businesses and products with the notion of a healthy community.

Fair trade has succeeded in ways we did not envision 20 or 30 years ago. So, yes, there are parts of the fair trade world that have focused on the mass market in a way that has watered down some of our ideals. The challenge now is for the idealistic part of the movement to develop new strategies to keep our integrity intact and find new ways to innovate in the marketplace.

The good news is that fair trade has been absorbed into the corporate mainstream and not crushed. The challenging news is that it has been absorbed and is being reframed. We need to build new alliances and organizations and keep our ideas alive.

Your current business provides consulting services. How has the recession affected the landscape for the kinds of organizations you work with?

Many of the organizations I work with have been slowed down by the recession. That means they have less money for nonessential training and facilitation and less appetite for exploring new projects. That has meant it has been harder to rely on my traditional networks for new business. So I have worked with my life and business partner, Ora Grodsky, to rebuild our website and put more time into outreach.

You’ve built your career on making business more ethical. How does your Judaism inform that mission?

I was not raised with much conscious connection to Judaism beyond a general connection to the 10 commandments. I was instilled with a strong commitment to service and ethics but it wasn’t grounded in my heritage or any particular tradition. I found my way to Jewish community through my daughters, who asked for and pursued a Jewish education. Our family joined a congregation, Dorshei Tzedek, to facilitate that education. My own connection to my new Jewish community began through fair trade and other food activist activity. Over time, I realized that I felt a sense of connection, community and belonging that was powerful and compelling. Through social justice activity, I have slowly, step by step, begun to learn about the rich body of thought, struggle and wisdom that is my heritage—this has been a tremendous gift for me. I probably would not have struggled past the hurdles to find my place if it had not been for the warm, compassionate and encouraging leadership of our rabbi, Toba Spitzer.

The second company you founded imports fair trade bananas. Give me your favorite banana recipe.

After having read much history of bananas and the banana trade, it’s hard to eat a commercial banana. So my favorite recipe is one that uses fair-trade bananas from Equal Exchange or Interrupcion or other ethical banana brands. One recipe I recall from the Fair Trade Foundation in the UK is simple and delicious:

Take ripe yellow fair-trade bananas (not too soft), slice the skin once and stuff with delicious fair-trade chocolate. Wrap in foil and bake on the BBQ or toaster oven until the chocolate melts and the banana is gooey (approximately 10 minutes).

Duly Noted

Forget Joyce’s Ulysses. More often than not, I find myself wishing for annotations on recipes I read. The offenders can be found everywhere: in cookbooks, online, in magazines…other blogs. I can’t be the only one who reads food preparation instructions with a raised eyebrow. Caramelize an onion in 15 minutes? I beg to differ.

As thrilled as I was to find a hot and sour soup recipe in a recent issue of the magazine Saveur, I was skeptical about the time it took, not to mention a seemingly out of nowhere addition of pork tenderloin. I’m a huge fan of this fiery soup and was excited to try out the recipe — with reservations.

And now, ladies and gentleman, I bring you Suan La Tang, Hot and Sour Soup, with my annotations in italics.

Suan La Tang –Hot and Sour Soup, Saveur #150 (November 2012)

For the pork:

1 tbsp. soy sauce

1 tbsp. brandy

1 tsp. cornstarch

4 oz. pork tenderloin, cut into 1/4-inch cubes

[The addition of this animal seems completely unnecessary and without merit. I will ignore this direction and continue on with the rest of recipe.]

For the soup:

8 cups chicken stock

[Really, does it have to be chicken stock? Maybe we can just call it stock and keep it vegetarian?]

3 tbsp. soy sauce

3 tbsp. white wine vinegar

3 tbsp. corn starch

1 tsp. ground white pepper

[Um. White pepper? Is that really necessary? After checking a bunch of hot and sour soups online, it looks like an essential ingredient to the soup. Luckily, spices were 50% off at Star Market this afternoon. I will now have to find a dozen more recipes that call for white pepper, or, make this soup over and over and over.]

1 tsp. kosher salt

½ tsp. cayenne

12 oz. firm tofu, drained and cut into 1/4” cubes

[But tofu usually comes in 14 oz. packages. I’m not going to use all but 2 oz. of tofu. That just seems ridiculous.]

¼ cup cubed potato

[I peeled and cubed the potato while I waited  for the broth to thicken. There was a lot of waiting.]

6 shiitake or wood ear mushrooms, cut into 1/4 “ pieces.

[I wonder what people who don’t frequent Ocean State Job Lot do when recipes call for a random amount of shiitake mushrooms.  Even though the directions didn’t call for it, before I tackled any of the recipe, I set the mushrooms in a bowl of near-boiling water and lidded the bowl with an overturned plate. The mushrooms soaked until it was time to add them to the pot. This made them much easier to cut.]

1 egg, lightly beaten

1 tsp. toasted sesame oil

2 tbsp. finely chopped cilantro, to garnish

[Eh, I’m not going to bother with the cilantro tonight.]

Directions

For the pork:

[See above. I’m just going to completely ignore this part of the recipe and hope for the best.]

For the soup:

Whisk together stock, soy sauce, vinegar, cornstarch, pepper, salt, cayenne and ¼ cup water in a 4-qt. saucepan, and bring to a boil over medium-high heat.

[I don’t own a 4-qt. saucepan, so I’m going to use the huge pot I use for making pasta. Do people typically own 4-qt. saucepans? About the boiling: It seems to take a good 14-17 minutes to bring 8 cups of stock to a boil, just an FYI.]

Add pork, reduce heat to medium-low, and cook, stirring occasionally, until soup thickens, about 30 minutes. Add tofu, potatoes, and mushrooms, and cook until potatoes are tender, about 15 minutes.

[As it turns out, the thickening took more like 50 minutes, rather than 30 minutes. The potatoes getting tender took closer to 25 minutes, rather than 15 minutes.]

Without stirring, slowly drizzle egg into simmering soup in a thin, steady stream. When egg strands float to surface, stir in the oil. Ladle soup into serving bowls and garnish with cilantro. Serves 4-6.

[Wow, the drizzled raw egg morphing into floating streams was almost instantaneous. So cool. I want to do it again.]

The verdict: This soup was excellent and worth sharing. With annotations. I started it at 5:30 and it was a little after 7 before we sat down to eat. Will definitely make it again, but will keep in mind for the next time that this soup takes about an hour and a half to prepare.

The Luckiest

My cousin Mark, who is best described as tall, dark, handsome and phenomenally successful, is also the world’s luckiest vegan. I say this based solely on the fact that his mother, Aunt Sydney, is the best cook I know, and she makes sure that his belly is always happy and full when he’s home for a visit. Whether it’s a bowl of fluffy quinoa tabouli for Pesach, or a jar of pickled beets, he is always well-sated.

Aunt Sydney lives only a few blocks from my parents, so when we are all home for the holidays, like we were a few weeks back for Rosh Hashana, the cousins, nieces, nephews, spouses and grandchildren all gather at Sydney’s for an afternoon visit. We try to catch up as best we can. Sometimes there’s plum cake; this year there was stellar mandelbroit. The visit always begins with Sydney asking what Mom served, and us clamoring for her menu.

I actually didn’t hear the full details of her menu on this last visit (I was distracted by the mandelbroit – it was that good), but Miriam, Syl’s wife, reported back to me about one of the vegan dishes she’d served. I honest-to-goodness gasped when I heard about the pan of butternut squash, leeks, sage and grapes, and may have even started to moan when I began to imagine what it must have tasted like. It sounded like pure autumn to me, a perfect harvest dish, which meant that it would be on my Sukkot table.

Sukkot is one of the three Jewish pilgrimage holidays, Pesach and Shavuot being the other two. Like Pesach, it starts with festive holy days (praying, eating, no work), has interim days (more praying, but back to work), and ends with some more holy days. (At some point I’ll write about my favorite holiday of all, Simchat Torah, but one thing at a time.)

Sukkot means, roughly, Feast of Booths, because the Children of Israel were commanded to spend the days of the holiday eating all their meals in a temporary structure, called a sukkah, to remind us of the 40 years in the desert. (Some people also sleep in their sukkahs, although I’ve never done it.) We also have some rituals involving a lulav (a palm branch) and an etrog (a citron), with a few pieces of myrtle and willow leaves tucked in between.

Sorry to bore you with the details, but it’s a really wonderful holiday for the whole family. A definite highlight of being a little kid is making colorful paper chain rings to string throughout the sukkah. We always had a sukkah growing up, and my parents have kindly offered their sukkah to me and Rich. We borrowed someone’s station wagon over Rosh Hashana to bring it back to Boston, but it turns out we’ll need to rent a truck to do it. Someday…

But yes, Sukkot is a harvest holiday, and nearly everything in this dish came in last week’s CSA. When Rich saw me take the dish out of the oven, he made two observations: that it looked like fruit salad at first glance, and that it looked like a Thanksgiving dish to him. Yup, I said, that’s exactly right. It is a Thanksgiving dish.

Aunt Sydney didn’t actually give me a recipe for this dish, but I guessed it in the same way that I guessed how to make her sweet potato and cilantro soup. I’ve taken to waking up earlier than Rich on the weekends, so I had actually cleaned the butternut squash earlier in the day making this a pretty quick dish to put together. Using a sturdy peeler, I simply peeled the squash, cut it in a half at its waistline, sliced those pieces in thirds, scraped out the seeds from its bulb, then cut those into thirds, or approximately two inch cubes.

For the leek, I chopped off the top, peeled away its stiff, dark green outer layers until I got to very pale green part, sliced the leek in half vertically, and ran the stalks under running water and wiped out any dirt stuck in its crevices. To make certain that the leeks wouldn’t burn in a hot oven, I kept those pieces and their layers altogether in rather large pieces, about 2 inches. I intentionally photographed the pieces of leeks so you could see for yourself.

Roasted Butternut Squash with Leeks, Grapes and Sage

Ingredients

1 butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cubed into 2-inch pieces

1 leek, halved, cleaned and sliced into 2-inch pieces

2 sage leaves, sliced into a thin chiffonade

1 cup red grapes, rinsed

2 tablespoons olive oil

Pinch of kosher salt

Directions

Preheat oven to 450. If you didn’t wake up earlier in the day to clean a butternut squash, my advice is to preheat the oven before you prep any of the vegetables.

In a large bowl, toss together the squash, leek, sage, olive oil and salt. Place all ingredients into a roasting pan with sides or medium-sized casserole dish, and cover tightly with foil. Place into the hot oven for approximately 30 minute. At the end of 30 minutes, remove the foil, and give everything a stir. Things should have softened very nicely by now. Remove the pan from the oven and add the washed grapes and give everything a stir. Place the casserole dish, uncovered, back into the oven for approximately 15 minutes more. Your goal at this point is to soften the grapes. In 15 minutes time, check on the pan. If everything is softened, and perhaps a little bit browned, remove from the oven, and serve.