Monday, March 28, 2011

Maple Syruping in the City

The end of winter is the start of maple syruping season. You know those country postcard style buckets hung on sugar maple trees, slowly collecting sap from the side of a tree? Well, you don't have to be in the woods in Vermont to do it, all you need is a big sugar maple and the right weather. Growing up in a New England city, I never actually saw this process as a kid. It wasn't until my son started preschool a few years back in the city of New Haven that I got to witness this incredible food experience. A huge old sugar maple towering over the playground was the object of affection for a wonderful group of teachers waiting excitedly for just the right moment to tap it with the kids and make syrup for a school pancake breakfast. Despite a life time of experience in food, I had to go back to preschool to learn how to make maple syrup.

The biggest surprise: it takes 40 gallons of clear sap to make 1 gallon of amber syrup. Yes, that is why it is so expensive. It also takes perfect and uncontrollable weather conditions: end of winter, warm days with nights dropping below freezing for the sap to flow well. This was a good year, last year however was horrendous.  

I didn't make it out into the countryside for a bucolic maple syrup festival, but rather I visited Common Ground School, an urban charter school on the back side of West Rock park land. They had an actual syrup evaporator, which slowly warms the sap in 3 chambers until it reaches the perfect temperature and density.
Walking past the school to the trees. can you believe we are in the city?!
The sap buckets. It takes about three days to fill one bucket.
Sap for sampling. It tastes like water with a faint hint of maple. Whoever thought of boiling this down for hours to make syrup was either a genius, or had a lot of time on their hands, or both.
A maple syrup evaporator. The top chamber is for fresh sap, which moves through each consecutive chamber getting heated to temperature and reducing enough to move to the next chamber, so you are never adding cold sap to hot syrup. 
Two kinds of thermometers are need for syrup making, one for temperature, one for density.
A rainbow of syrups from sap to finished product.

Hope this inspires you to do some maple tapping in your city next year! 
Look up how to do it online, or search for a maple syrup festival near you.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Finding Inspiration for Dinner

Because I am a Chef and a mother of young children, people often ask me what I cook for dinner. I know they have grand delusions of me cooking fancy three course meals every night to well behaved children who will eat anything I put in front of them. Ha! Dinner time on a week night is a mad dash to cook food before two hungry kids either: #1 eat too many snacks and have no room for dinner or #2 start fighting and crying. I have shared a number of tactics for dealing with this in the past. But when most people ask me what I cook for dinner, what they are really asking is " How do you think of something interesting to cook for dinner?".  It is easy to get in a rut of cooking the same few meals over and over again, I'm guilty of that myself. But over the years I have come up with a number of  ways to draw on my deep love of food to breathe new life into a menu, the hardest one of all being the family dinner.

Inspiration for a weeknight meal can come from anywhere. I often find that I will cook the same few things unless I challenge myself to remember neglected ingredients or put a new twist on some dinner  time staples.

Inspiration #1:  a great photo or recipe from a magazine, newspaper or blog.*
Earlier in the day I had seen my mom's copy of the NY Times food section. On the front cover was a giant bowl of roasted sweet potatoes. Roasted vegetables are one of my favorite winter time foods, and I had a bag of sweet potatoes sitting on my counter left over from last week's shopping that I hadn't used yet. These were roasted with coconut oil (which I didn't have), and added a little sprinkle of brown sugar to the mix which seemed tempting, so we were on.

Inspiration #3: a previously successful recipe from your repertoire. 
Money is tight in my house, so I have to shop wisely and be strategic. This week I splurged and bought a bag of walnuts, and those walnuts were calling to me. I wanted more protein for dinner and didn't want any meat. The week before I had candied some nuts for a salad when some friends came for dinner. Just the thought of them was enough to get me going. 

Inspiration #2: an ingredient in your cabinet, freezer or fridge that has been sitting there for far too long. I pulled out a small yellow tin of anchovies that had been lingering in my mostly bare cabinet for nearly a year. Their salty concentrated flavor made me think of Caesar salad and seemed like it would add a great burst of interest to the meal.

Inspiration #4 - The needs and wants of a balanced diet.
Then I had to figure out how I was going to put all these pieces together, both for myself, my husband and my kids. I am not interested in cooking "kid food" and "adult food". I think that kids should be exposed to all kinds of foods and that a family meal of shared food is a valuable and essential experience in a family. Having said that, I also know that good presentation of a meal to kids, can be key to getting them to like it, and that the needs and wants of my adult pallet do not always match those of my children. I might be craving a huge bowl of lettuce with delicious and nutritious toppings to balance out the heavy (and not so healthy) meal I ate for lunch, while my growing children might want and need a hot hearty meal.
So, we ended up with a big salad for me and my man, tossed with a garlicky dressing (with a hint of anchovies), honey orange candied walnuts and roasted sweet potatoes. The kids got the sweet potatoes with some spiced chickpeas and broccoli on the side and they munched on the walnuts too. I think I was the happiest one of the bunch, but at least we ended up with something delicious, nutritious and interesting for dinner.

Honey Orange Candied Walnuts
Place nuts in a bowl. Drizzle just enough honey on them to give a light coating. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Using a box grater or zester, zest the orange over the nuts. mix the nuts very well until they are lightly coated with all the ingredients. Spread nuts in a single layer on a sheet pan lined with parchment, foil, or silpat and bake in a 350 degree oven until light brown and the honey is bubbling on the nuts. remove from oven and cool completely. These are addictive and delicious. You can add any spices or herbs that you like: rosemary, cumin, cayenne... have fun with it!

Roasted Sweet Potatoes
here is the link to Melissa Clark's recipe
Essentially: cut up sweet potatoes (peeling optional), toss with oil (any kind is fine), a little salt, pepper and optional sprinkle of brown sugar. Place on a lined sheet pan and bake in a 350 degree oven for 1 hour or until golden on the edges.

Quick "Caesar" dressing

Garlic, 1 clove

Anchovies, 3 fillets
White wine vinegar, 3 tablespoons
Dijon mustard, 1 teaspoon
Salt, 1/2 teaspoon
Pepper, freshly ground, 1/4 teaspoon
Olive oil, 1/3 cup

Finely mince garlic and anchovies. Whisk in the vinegar, honey, mustard, salt, and pepper. Continue whisking while slowly pouring in the olive oil. Taste and adjust seasoning as desired.

* some of my favorite places to look for inspiration are: saveur magazine, 101 cookbooks, epicurious, nytimes, my cookbook shelf, and on and on, once you start looking it is hard to stop, so just get some inspiration and get cooking!
Please share your ideas and inspirations for a meal!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Time to Start Thinking About Growing Food Again

The piles of snow are finally starting to melt and tiny signs of spring are popping up out of the ground. This means it is time to start thinking about planting some seedlings (indoors) to be transplanted in our raised bed vegetable garden and pots. Like last year, I have some seeds left over that I will try and sprout again, and like last year, I have yet to order seeds from any of the lovely seed companies out there. 

If you are feeling inspired to plant some fruits or vegetables in your yard or in a pot or bucket on your stoop this year, check out this post from last year on starting seedlings.

If you want to start dreaming of building some raised beds, great for growing food in urban areas, check out this detailed post on building inexpensive raised garden beds.

And mostly, start dreaming of green, green and more green...spring is right around the corner...but probably covered in a dusting of snow before it fully explodes....