Roots of Change Meeting & More Arugula

arugula

Before I moved out to California, Bob Pierson, director of Farm-To-City, told me my new state would be decades ahead — agriculturally speaking — of the East Coast. While I have been amazed at the number of farmers’ markets out here, only after yesterday am I beginning to understand what he meant.

You see, despite the obscene amounts of avocados and oranges I’ve been delighting in, I’ve actually spent the past month feeling proud of Philadelphia and the diversity of local foods available to those living in and around the city. While the farmers’ markets run only from May until December, Philadelphians can shop year-round at the Fair Food Farmstand and have the option of joining buying clubs during the winter. As I mentioned recently, I lived ten blocks away from a source for local grass-fed beef, lamb and pork, raw milk, raw-milk cheeses, nitrate-free bacon, fresh chickens, eggs and seasonal fruits and vegetables.

I have encountered no such stand or source like the Fair Food Farmstand in my time thus far on the West Coast. Now, I could eat sautéed Swiss chard, mustard greens, kale, etc. mixed with rice and parmesan every night. However, I do have a husband to feed, and my recent dinners, I suspect, have left him wanting. The last time I made a meatless dinner, Ben said, “Mmmm, this is delicious,” and he cleared his plate. About an hour later, he was scrambling eggs and scouring the fridge for a morsel of protein to add to the pan.

So, I ventured down to San Diego two days ago to attend a Roots of Change meeting in search, I’ll admit, of meat. I wandered into the room, spotted the legendary Melanie Lytle and claimed a chair at her table. Before long, I saw the California Bob Pierson had described.

Like many people across the country, Californians are concerned about the current state of our food system and the future health of our communities and planet. These worries foremost, believes Larry Yee (County Director), are driving the “food revolution.”

People partake in this revolution in countless ways: by using reusable shopping bags at the grocery store; by boycotting bottled water; by shopping at farmers’ markets; by joining CSAs and buying clubs; by shopping for humanely raised meats; by purchasing organic and locally grown foods.

California, I learned, has taken this effort to the next level: Roots Of Change has drafted a comprehensive plan to create a sustainable food system in the state of California by the year 2030. This plan demands the collaboration of food producers, food distributors, businesses, nonprofits, government agencies, foundations, etc. As Yee noted, a sustainable food system — not just a sustainable agriculture system — is the goal of this ROC initiative. In a state where many people with diverse interests coexist, an “enlightened leadership,” says Yee is critical to the success of this project.

Yesterday, I learned a lot about my new state and, in particular, San Diego County:

California is:

• the nation’s most populous state; the nation’s largest food producer; and the world’s 5th largest supplier of food and agricultural commodities.

In San Diego County:

• there are more organic farms than any other county in the country.
• 63% of the farms are 1 to 9 acres.
• 92% of the farms are family owned.
• 22% of the farms are Native-American owned.

California, many of the speakers noted, is the most important agriculture place on Earth. With its countless forward-thinking foundations and entrepreneurs, California sets the trends for the world.

About half-way through the meeting, Michael Dimock, (President of ROC and MC of the event), passed the mic to the crowd.

• Naomi Butler, a nutritionist with the County of San Diego, stressed the importance of getting food into our school systems via garden and farm-to-school programs. We have to start, said Butler, “by changing the taste buds of our kids.”

• A young, private chef emphasized educating children on these matters because “they are the future.”

• Others inquired about increasing points of contact — farmers’ markets, co-ops, distribution centers, etc.

• One chef noted, “We have particular issues down here,” referring to the unique problems facing San Diego County. She worried about the welfare of the Spanish speaking community — how are we going to deal, she wondered, with immigration?

• One woman noted the number of farmers that will soon retire (a nation-wide reality) — what will happen to their farms?

While the challenges are vast, the bottom line, as Eric Larson (Executive Director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau) concluded, is straightforward: profitability. If farms are profitable, they’ll stay in business. Farmland is expensive in California and in a globalized world, small farmers face serious competition.

I drove home from the meeting feeling slightly overwhelmed, but understanding this: We have a lot of small farms in San Diego County. These small farms use organic and sustainable techniques. Our health as a community rests on the survival of these small farms. And the survival of these small farms demands the work of many hands.

I feel a little embarrassed knowing I had ventured down to the meeting primarily to learn how I could find meat for Ben and me. There are far more important issues to tackle, namely getting good food into schools and low-income communities. Alas, I am inspired by the many people involved in this daunting task, and hope to play a role in the ROC’s effort. Want to pitch-in? Join the ROC Leardership Network.

As I mentioned in my last post, the farmers’ market arugula has been delectable, tasting particularly spicy. This bunch comes from Don’s Farm in Wildomar, CA (purchased at the Sunday San Clemente farmers’ market … shocker). As Don calculated my total, he looked a little nervous, apologizing for some of the dirt, explaining he had pulled the arugula out of the ground in complete darkness at 4:00 that morning. Don had nothing to worry about — a quick soak in cold water removed any lingering dirt. Besides, for greens this fresh and tasty, anyone can live with a little dirt.

I find a simple lemon vinaigrette to be the best dressing for arugula, (a deduction likely influenced by my love for Melograno’s arugula and prosciutto salad). I don’t have a precise recipe for this dressing, but I follow Alice Waters’ method as described in Chez Panisse Vegetables. She begins many of her vinaigrettes by macerating finely chopped shallots for about 20 minutes in either citrus juice or vinegar. She then adds salt, pepper, sugar, maybe mustard (I don’t have my book on hand to verify), finishing each dressing by slowly whisking in extra-virgin olive oil. It could not be simpler.

Arugula, Orange & Avocado Salad
Serves 4

1 shallot, finely diced
1 to 2 lemons, depending on size
sugar, to taste
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
extra-virgin olive oil

1 to 2 heads arugula
2 oranges
2 avocados
Parmigiano Reggiano,
shaved

1. Place the shallots in a small bowl. Squeeze the lemons over top, removing any seeds that fall in. Let sit for 20 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, prepare the salad: Place the arugula in a large bowl filled with cold water to soak. Peel the oranges, removing sections from the pith if desired. Slice the avocados in half; remove the pit; scoop out the flesh; and slice into strips or dice into cubes. Set aside.

3. To the bowl of shallots, add a ¼ teaspoon of sugar, a pinch of salt and pepper to taste. Slowly whisk in the oil. The mixture won’t totally emulsify. Taste, adjusting seasoning as necessary (with more sugar or oil, for example, if the mixture is too tart).

4. Drain the arugula and spin dry. Place the arugula in a bowl. Top with the oranges and avocados. Add dressing to taste. Toss gently. Divide among plates. Top each salad plate with a few shavings of Parmigiano Reggiano.

French Onion Soup

FrenchOnionSoup

So, I’ve found something else I’m going to miss about Philadelphia. On Monday, my sister and I met for lunch at Rouge where we enjoyed the crusty rolls served with sea salt-speckled butter and the French onion soup topped with Gruyère and provolone. These cheeses blister over garlic croutons insulating the delectable onion broth below. And the crusty bits clinging to all sides of the goblet-like bowls are irresistible.

While I can’t say I’m a French onion soup connoisseur, I have ordered my fair share of this bistro classic, including five bowls this week alone, a spree that began last Saturday up in NYC. A.O.C., the adorable Greenwich Village restaurant where I sat with two friends for a few hours, set the standard, one so high I feared no place in Philly could equal. And for the most part, the soups I sampled confirmed my worries. At both Brasserie Perrier and Caribou Café, the soup had not been thoroughly heated before being topped with the crouton and cheese and thrown under the broiler. Both should have been sent back to the kitchen.

My weeklong onion-soup bender also inspired me to make my own batch, which to my surprise and delight was very simple. I opened Daniel Boulud’s Café Boulud Cookbook, a book I have not used once, but has now piqued my interest. The success of French onion soup, says Mr. Boulud in his notes preceding the recipe, depends on cooking plenty of onions “very, very slowly until they are soft, sweet and caramel colored,” and deglazing with white wine, which adds the necessary “touch of acidity.”

My onions cooked for about an hour and I used a mix of Sherry and Madeira because I didn’t have any white wine. I also used homemade chicken stock, which Mr. Boulud describes as “rarely the star player,” but whose “supporting role can elevate just about anything.” I would agree that a homemade chicken (or beef) stock makes all the difference in this soup.

While any ovenproof bowls will work, it’s fun to eat this soup out of the traditional crocks. I found mine at Kitchen Kapers for $7.99 each. Fante’s and the Philadelphia Bar & Restaurant supply shop at 5th and Bainbridge also sell these vessels.

French Onion Soup
Serves 6

3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 pounds yellow or Spanish onions, peeled, trimmed and sliced thinly
1 clove garlic, minced
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons all-purpose flour
1 cup dry white wine or Madeira or Sherry
Herb sachet: (2 sprigs Italian parsley, 2 sprigs thyme, 8 peppercorns and 1 bay leaf, tied together in a cheesecloth)
2 quarts homemade chicken stock
1 mini French baguette
2 cups Gruyère or Swiss cheese, coarsely grated
4 to 6 sprigs parsley, leaves finely chopped

In a large Dutch oven or soup pot, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the sliced onions and garlic to the pot, season with salt and pepper, and cook stirring regularly, until the onions are a deep caramel color, about 30 minutes to an hour.

Dust the onions with the flour and cook, stirring for about five minutes to toast the flour and rid it of its raw taste. Add the white wine and cook, stirring until the wine almost evaporates completely. This happens almost instantly.

Add the herb sachet, the stock and a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and let simmer 40 to 60 minutes.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350ºF. Slice the baguette into one-inch thick rounds. Place rounds on a baking sheet, and toast in the oven until lightly golden, about 10 minutes. Remove pan from the oven and let cool.

Preheat the broiler. Taste the soup. Add more salt and pepper if necessary. Remove the sachet and discard. Ladle the soup into individual ovenproof serving bowls. Cover each with two baguette rounds. Top each generously with the grated cheese. Top each with a pinch of chopped parsley. Place bowls on a baking sheet and place under the broiler. Broil until the cheese melts. Serve immediately.

Homemade Chicken Stock
Yield = 1 gallon

4 lbs. of chicken legs
2 carrots, peeled, cut into large chunks
2 ribs celery, trimmed, cut into large chunks
2 medium onions, peeled and quartered
1 leek, trimmed, split lengthwise, and washed
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon peppercorns
1 bunch Italian parsley

Place the chicken in a large stockpot. Cover with 2½ quarts of cold water and bring to a boil. Skim off scum that rises to the top. Simmer 10 minutes, skimming regularly.

Add the remaining ingredients to the pot and simmer gently for three hours, skimming as necessary. Drain the stock into a colander set over a bowl. Allow the solids to drain before discarding them. Strain stock again through a fine-mesh strainer. Transfer to storage containers and chill in the refrigerator over night.

The next day, scrape off any fat solidified at the top of the stock. Freeze stock indefinitely or keep in the refrigerator for four days.

Mache and Persimmon Salad

persimmonsalad

I cannot believe it, but today my blog celebrates its one-year birthday. Exactly one year ago today, I wrote about quince membrillo, a sweet paste commonly served with several Spanish cheeses including Manchego, Roncal, Idiazabal and Zamorano. This past week, I introduced two good friends and their family members to membrillo and the tradition of eating membrillo with sheep’s milk cheeses. My friends, Emily and James, married in Cyprus July 18, celebrated their marriage stateside this past Sunday in Chapel Hill, and in the days leading up to the festivities, we enjoyed many delectable dinners together commenced with this classic combination.

While in North Carolina, Emily and I spent a good hour one day touring around a gourmet food shop, A Southern Season, where I found among many goodies a large selection of Cypress Grove cheeses (Cypress Grove makes Humbolt Fog). Being vegetarians, James and Emily try to eat cheeses specifically made without rennet, a coagulating enzyme made from the stomach of calves. Many, if not all, of Cypress Grove cheeses are made with a vegetarian rennet, including a yummy sheep’s milk cheese called Lamb Chopper, which we savored with the membrillo. We actually enjoyed the fruit paste with all of the cheeses — Brie, Morbier, Tomme de Savoie — we ate this past week, but the Lamb Chopper-membrillo combination proved the best of all.

My week in North Carolina to say the least was memorable. By the end of each day, my face hurt from smiling and laughing so much — I lived with James’ family for the week, a family of four funny children, two entertaining parents and two wonderful dogs. We played Scrabble and ping pong, watched Mostly Martha and Grizzly Man, took walks with Molly and Sally (the dogs), and generally just enjoyed the time spent together with good company.

On one of the first nights of my visit, we also enjoyed thin slices of Fuyu persimmons with all of the cheeses. Fuyu persimmons make a nice seasonal addition to many dishes, including salads and paninis. Available from September through December, persimmons peak in November, perfect timing for the Thanksgiving Day feast. If you’re sill searching for a first course to prepare for Thursday’s meal, try this salad — elegant, seasonal and delectable — a festive addition to the Thanksgiving Day table.

Mache and Persimmon Salad
Serves 4

2 small shallots
2 tablespoons champagne vinegar
2 tablespoons lemon juice
½ teaspoon Dijon mustard
¼ teaspoon sugar
½ teapoon kosher salt
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 Fuyu persimmons
4 oz. piece of Parmigiano Reggiano
8 oz. mache
freshly ground pepper

To make the dressing, whisk the shallots, vinegar, lemon juice, mustard, sugar and salt together. Slowly drizzle in the olive oil, whisking constantly to make an emulsified dressing. Set aside.

Cut the ends off each persimmon. With a paring knife, slice off the skin, removing as little flesh as possible. Using a mandoline, cut each persimmon into thin slices. (Alternatively, slice thinly using a sharp knife.) Set aside

Using a peeler or a knife, shave thin long strips off the block of Parmigiano. Set aside.

Place greens in a bowl and toss lightly with the vinaigrette. Divide the slices of persimmon evenly among the plates. Top each with a generous handful of greens. Top with the cheese shavings. Crack pepper over each salad and serve.

Thai Pumpkin Soup with Sweet & Salty Pumpkin Seeds

soup

So, it finally feels like fall outside, which is great, although my apartment feels like an icebox. Phil, my lanlord, won’t turn on the heat for weeks, so I guess I better get used it. My neighbor upstairs has been roasting a turkey all day just to heat up his apartment. Fortunately, I won’t have to take such extreme measures — I have quarts of this spicy, pumpkin soup on hand. Although this soup hardly resembles the pumpkin soup I first became addicted to — ABP’s, served in a bread bowl — pumpkin soup in any form always reminds me of college and of fun trips out to eat with roommates and teammates when the dining hall’s fare just wouldn’t cut it. I love pumpkin soup.

This recipe has been adapted from one I saw recently on Heidi Swanson’s 101 Cookbooks.com. Almost any winter squash can replace the pumpkin, and when I make this soup again, I will use a red kuri squash or a hubbard squash, the varieties that a woman at the Fair Food Farmstand recommended I use. (While I was shopping, I was determined to use only pumpkin for my pumpkin soup.) I did, however, roast a red kuri squash next to the pumpkins to compare flavors, and ultimately found the red kuri squash to be tastier than the pumpkins. But for a recipe like this, with lots of added seasonings — Thai red curry paste, coconut milk, ginger — a more mild-tasting squash such as a pumpkin works fine.

Next pumpkin recipe: Pumpkin Ravioli with Crispy Sage and Brown Butter Sauce … so yummy!

Thai-Spiced Pumpkin Soup
Yield = 2½ quarts

2 sugar pumpkins*, about 2 lbs. each
olive oil
kosher salt
1 tablespoon butter
1 medium onion, roughly chopped diced
1-inch knob ginger, peeled and roughly chopped
2 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons Thai red curry paste
1 can unsweetened coconut milk, (13.5 oz.)
cilantro, optional
spiced pumpkin seeds, optional
*Winter squash such as Hubbard, red kuri or butternut make fine substitutes for the pumpkin. Two sugar pumpkins yield about four cups of flesh.

Preheat the oven to 400ºF. Cut each pumpkin in half, scoop out the seeds and discard. Drizzle about a teaspoon of olive oil on a baking sheet. Season inside of pumpkins with salt and place cut side down. Roast for about 45 minutes or until a knife inserts easily through the skin into the flesh. Remove from the oven and let cool completely.

Meanwhile in a medium-sized saucepan, melt the butter. Add the onion and ginger and cook over medium heat until translucent and tender, about five to 10 minutes. Season with salt to taste. Add the garlic and sauté for a minute longer. Add four cups water, one tablespoon of the curry paste, the coconut milk and one teaspoon of salt, and bring to a boil.

When the pumpkin has cooled, scoop out the flesh and add to the pot (there should be about four cups of flesh). Return mixture to a boil and let simmer 10 minutes. Using an emersion blender, purée the mixture until smooth. (Alternatively, transfer to a blender or food processor and blend until smooth.) Taste mixture, adding more salt if necessary and the remaining tablespoon of curry paste if desired. Return to stove to heat through if serving immediately, or let cool completely before storing. Serve with chopped cilantro and spiced pumpkin seeds.

Sweet & Salty Pumpkin Seeds
Yield = 1 cup

¼ cup sugar
½ teaspoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons canola oil
1 cup pumpkin seeds

Combine sugar and salt in a large bowl. Set aside. Pour oil into a nonstick sauté pan and turn heat to high. Add nuts. Sauté until nuts begin to pop violently. After three to four minutes, when half of the nuts have turned golden brown, turn off the heat, transfer nuts to the bowl with the sugar-salt mix, and toss to coat. Transfer nuts to a fine mesh strainer and shake excess any coating off. Line a sheet pan with foil and spread nuts across it to cool completely. Store in an air-tight container.

Figs & Fennel

Figs

Several weeks ago, just before my friend Meredith (fourth year medical student, see previous entry) departed for a grueling one-month surgical rotation in Pittsburg, Ben and I had the pleasure of dining with her and her fiancé, Matt (private chef on the Main Line). We again chose Sovalo — Matt and Mere’s favorite spot — and again delighted in a wonderful dinner.

Some of the more memorable dishes of the evening include a homemade ravioli stuffed with figs, a tortelli tossed with duck confit and mushrooms, and a crispy pan-seared red snapper. The shaved fennel and Parmigiano Reggiano salad, however, tossed lightly in a lemon vinaigrette and served with prosciutto di Parma and fresh figs, was perhaps the favorite selection of the evening.

The combination of fennel and Parmigiano never fails to please but the addition of prosciutto and figs made every bite in this appetizer truly delectable. While I haven’t made a trip to the Fair Food Farmstand in a couple weeks (so sad! CSA season has ended), I doubt they still have this variety of figs, though they carried them through the first week of October at least. With a tender green skin and a brilliant magenta-colored and sweet-tasting interior, these figs make any salad restaurant worthy. Black mission figs, however, the variety served at Sovalo, will more than suffice.

We concluded the evening with two desserts, one of which we particularly enjoyed/attacked: a biscotti tirimisu layered with fruit and I believe some sort of custard, but that part of the evening, to be honest, is a touch fuzzy … cockails at the bar before dinner, wine during, Frangelico and coffee for some (me) after, and Port for all, suddenly add up — afterall it was a bon voyage dinner for our poor Pittsburg-bound Mere-Mere. Only two more weeks Mere!

Fig and Fennel Salad
Serves 4

2 fennel bulbs
olive oil
1 lemon, juiced
kosher salt and pepper
Parmigiano Reggiano
8 thin slices of prosciutto di Parma
12 fresh figs, halved

Using a mandoline or knife, slice the fennel as thinly as possible. Place in a bowl, drizzle with olive oil and the lemon juice, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Toss to coat evenly. Add a few shavings of cheese and toss lightly. Set aside.

Lay 2 slices of prosciutto on each plate. Top with a mound of the fennel-parmigiano mixture, and scatter six fig halves around the fennel. Serve.

Rosemary-Butternut Squash Bisque & Challah

RosemaryButternutBisque-1

In the beginning of the growing season, I promised to document each CSA I received. To say the least, I have been negligent, especially recently. For this soup, I think I used the contents of three separate CSAs. I definitely roasted two butternut squash and two delicata squash, and I swear I roasted a pumpkin too, but I can’t find any documentation of actually receiving a pumpkin — I’ve written down each week’s content, and pumpkin is no where to be found on my lists. Am I going crazy?

Anyway, this soup couldn’t be simpler to make, and the recipe really is just a guide. I set the oven to 400ºF or 450ºF, cut the squash in half, scooped out the seeds, placed the squash cut-side down, and roasted them until they were tender (maybe 45 minutes or an hour). Once cooled, I scooped out the flesh, combined it all in a bowl, froze 2 cups of the mix for a later use (maybe ravioli filling) and added the rest (about 2 quarts) to a pot. I filled the pot with chicken stock, added salt, pepper and chopped rosemary, and simmered it for 30 minutes. I used my emersion blender to purée the mix, and in no time I had made a delectable soup.

The recipe called for orange zest, which I didn’t have and so didn’t use, but I remember it being a nice flavor when my mother used to make this soup for us. The recipe also calls for cream — which I guess justifies the title, though I would hardly call this purée a bisque — which I also didn’t use.

I happened to have some frozen challah on hand and it turned out to be a nice dipping bread, though any bread will do. Little Lindis and Mr. T. are heating up a bowl of this soup as I write…they can be the judges.


Rosemary-Butternut Bisque
Adapted from a Molly O’Neill recipe printed in the New York Times Magazine, Nov. 06, 1994
Yield = 2 quarts

2 medium butternut squash
olive oil
6 cups chicken broth, preferably homemade
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
2 teaspoons grated orange zest
kosher salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons heavy cream, optional

Preheat the oven to 375ºF. Cut the squash in half lengthwise, scoop out the seeds and discard. Drizzle a teaspoon of olive oil on the baking sheet. Place the halves cut side down, rub in the oil and place in the oven. Roast until knife tender, about 45 minutes. Remove squash from the oven and let cool.

Scoop the flesh into a saucepan (discarding the skin), and add the broth, rosemary, orange zest, a big pinch of kosher salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and let simmer for 30 minutes. Using an emersion blender, puree the mixture until smooth. Alternatively, transfer to a food processor or blender, and puree until smooth. Taste, adjust seasoning if necessary and adding the cream if desired. Serve with crusty bread.

Measuring ingredients with a weight scale, just as professional bakers do, will more accurately reproduce this recipe than will volume measurers. While more accurate than digital scales, mechanical scales are expensive, take up space and are perhaps unnecessary for the home baker. Salter brand makes several good, reasonably priced, easy-to-store scales available at Fante’s, Kitchen Kapers and Williams Sonoma. For normal baking, a six to nine pound capacity will suffice.

Challah
Adapted from Peter Reinhart’s The Bread Baker’s Apprentice (Ten Speed Press, 2001)
Yield = 1 large loaf

4 cups (18 oz.) unbleached bread flour
¼ cup (2 oz.) granulated sugar
1 teaspoon (.25 ounce) salt
1 1/3 teaspoons (.15 ounce) instant yeast
2 tablespoons (1 oz.) vegetable oil
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 egg yolks, (whites reserved) lightly beaten
¾ cup plus 2 T. water
sesame or poppy seeds for garnish (optional)

Whisk together the flour, sugar, salt and yeast in the bowl of a stand mixer. In a separate bowl, whisk together the oil, eggs, yolks and water. Pour the liquid mixture into the flour mixture. Mix on medium-low speed for six minutes using the dough hook, adding a touch more flour if necessary — dough should gather round the hook (not be stuck to the bottom of the bowl), but be careful not to add to much additional flour. (Alternatively, knead on a lightly floured work surface for 10 minutes. While this method works fine, using a mixer helps prevent adding too much additional flour to the dough.)

When dough is soft and supple (not sticky), transfer the dough to a lightly oiled bowl, rolling the dough to coat. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and leave to rise for one hour.

Remove the dough from the bowl, knead for two minutes to degas. Shape the dough into a ball, return it to the bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let rise again for another hour, or until the dough has doubled in bulk.

Remove the dough from the bowl and divide into three equal pieces. (If using a scale, weigh each portion.) Roll each portion into a ball, place on a work surface, and let rest 10 minutes.

Roll the pieces into long strands, each the same length, each with tapered ends and a slightly thicker center portion. Braid the dough starting from the middle: On a work surface, place the three strands perpendicular to you and parallel to one another. From the left, number the strands 1, 2, 3. Beginning in the middle of the loaf and working toward you, follow this pattern: right outside strand over the middle strand (3 over 2); left outside strand over the middle (1 over 2). Repeat until you reach the bottom end of the dough. Pinch the end closed to seal and rotate the dough 180º so that the unbraided end is facing you. Continue braiding but now weave the outside strand under the middle strand until you reach the end of the loaf. Pinch together the ends to seal.

Line a sheet pan with parchment paper and transfer the loaf to the pan. Beat the reserved egg whites until foamy and brush the dough with them. (Set aside whites for later.) Mist the loaf lightly with spray oil and cover loosely with plastic wrap. Let the dough rest at room temperature until it is one-and-a-half times its original size, about 60 to 75 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 350ºF with the rack in the middle shelf. Brush again with the egg whites, and if desired, sprinkle with sesame seeds. Bake for 20 minutes. Rotate the pan 180º and continue baking for another 20 minutes, or longer. The bread should be a rich golden brown.

Transfer to a cooling rack and let cool at least one hour before slicing.

Black Prince Tomatoes & Chocolate Chip Cookies

best chocolate chip cookie

I never thought I would say that I have a favorite tomato, but as of this past Saturday I do. As I passed through Reading Terminal Market on my way to the Fair Food Farmstand, I stopped at the Livengood stand, struck by the array of tomatoes on their table. I asked one of the men to suggest a tomato for a simple salad and he handed me a Black Prince. I purchased a dozen, made my way to the Farmstand for grass-fed ground beef, then headed home.

After a slight detour that led me to purchase 10 tiki torches (the price was ridiculous, really), I found my way home and started preparing for a dinner with five friends: Bates and Will, recently married and about to move to Syria for a year; Steph and Mike, recently engaged and big fans of grass-fed beef and their new East Coast city; and our friend Jon, single and still recovering from his great Asian adventure. Oh and much to my surprise, when I greeted my friends at the door, Bug, Bates and Will’s dachshund, had decided to make the trip from New York City too! Read all about the life of Bug (and Bates and Will), the latest plans for Steph and Mike’s wedding in Cabo and Jon’s wild last day in Hanoi.

By the light of the torches and a few candles, the six of us wholly enjoyed homemade hummus and pita prepared by Steph, olives brought by the New York crew and hamburgers made with Dr. Angusburger beef. The tomatoes, however, were the highlight of the evening. With basil from the farmstand, Claudio’s fresh mozzarella, olive oil, balsamic vinegar and a touch of salt, the tomatoes made a perfect salad.

Bates particularly appreciated how the tomatoes had been cut — in irregular chunks as opposed to slices — finding them easier to eat. For these shapes, I must give credit to the chef I worked under at Fork, Thien Ngo, who always plated food with a “chaos theory” in mind. He would “trash” restaurants whose food looked like “legos” on the plate. He preferred the very natural look, believing that the plating of food reflects how much the food has been handled.

Warm chocolate chip cookies and delectable green figs from the Farmstand finished the evening nicely. The simple dinner had been a success, as had the weekend as a whole: The following day, we walked to the Headhouse Farmers’ Market, where my friends all purchased cheese from Birchrun Hills Farm and met the wonderful Sue Miller. Then we walked to Reading Terminal and of course paid a visit to the Fair Food Farmstand where I showed my friends where I buy, among many groceries, grass-fed ground beef and raw milk, which we had all delighted in that morning for breakfast. And before sending them back on the Chinatown bus, we savored fresh rice noodles at Ding Ho — a perfect weekend indeed!

Soft and Chewy Chocolate-Chip Cookies
Yields about 35 1¾ oz cookies

10¾ oz unsalted butter (1 1/3 cups)
10¼ oz light brown sugar (1½ cups packed)
7¾ oz granulated sugar (1 cup)
2 large eggs
1 T. pure vanilla extract
17 oz unbleached all-purpose flour (3¾ cups)
1¼ tsp table salt
1 tsp. baking soda
12 oz semisweet chocolate chips

Cream butter and sugars together in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, until light and fluffy. Scrape the bowl, beat again on high for one minute. Add the eggs and vanilla and beat until well blended, about another minute on medium-high speed. Whisk flour, salt and baking soda together in separate bowl. Add to butter mixture and combine with a spatula or wooden spoon until just blended. Add the chocolate chips and stir till combined. The dough will be stiff.

Portion into 1¾ oz sized balls. This is a tedious task, but it makes for beautiful and uniform cookies that bake evenly. If you have a digital scale, this is an easy task; if you have no scale, use a small ice cream scoop or some other uniform measuring device. Chill the portioned balls for at least three hours, or freeze for months.

Preheat oven to 375°. Place portioned balls nicely spaced on an ungreased jelly roll pan. Flatten slightly with the back of a spoon. Bake 8-11 minutes, rotating the sheet halfway through cooking. Keep a close watch. You want to remove the cookies from the oven when they still look slightly raw—you will think you are removing them too early. The cookies will continue cooking as they sit on the tray out of the oven. Let sit for 5 minutes on tray before removing to a cooling rack, and let cool completely before storing.

Bug, enjoying the wilderness in a Philadelphia backyard:

Oven-dried Tomato Bruschetta

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I must give credit to the Fair Food Farmstand again for providing another excellent recipe in their weekly email. A few weeks ago, after receiving eight Roma tomatoes (among many other treats) in my CSA, I opened my email to find Ann Karlen’s “tried and true” recipe for oven-dried tomatoes, just the guidance I needed to preserve these seasonal gems.

The recipe required six to eight hours of cooking, so I set the oven to 200ºF, as instructed, placed the prepared tray of tomatoes inside, and went to bed. I could not believe my eyes when I opened the oven door the following morning: The plump, juicy tomatoes had shriveled into desiccated, flat disks. Seeing the dehydrated tomatoes reminded me of lifting the towel from the bowl holding the first batch of bread dough I had mixed and kneaded on my own: Doubled in bulk, seemingly alive, the dough — the transformation of the dough — inspired true amazement.

I had to try one right away. To my surprise, this withered red package tasted incredible! Unable to resist storing my homemade “sun-dried tomatoes” — my intention when I set out to make them — I assembled a little bruschetta. On a toasted baguette from Metropolitan Bakery, topped with a slice of mozzarella from Claudio’s and a basil leaf from the farmstand, these tomatoes make a delectable appetizer — the most adored tastes of summer concentrated in one bite.

Oven-Dried Tomato Bruschetta
Serves 6 as an appetizer

12 plum tomatoes
kosher salt

1 baguette
olive oil
fresh mozzarella, cut into ½-inch thick slices
fresh basil

Preheat oven to 200ºF.
Halve each tomato lengthwise through the stem. Arrange the tomatoes, cut side up, side by side on a rimmed cookie sheet. (Tomatoes should not be touching one another.) Sprinkle each tomato lightly with salt.

Place in the oven and bake for six to eight hours, or until tomatoes are shriveled, but not dry and brittle. Check every couple of hours. (The tomatoes should still feel flexible when removed from the oven.) Remove tomatoes from the oven, and let cool completely before storing. Store in a glass jar or Ziploc. Moisten with olive oil if tomatoes are too dry. The tomatoes will keep indefinitely.

For the bruschetta, preheat the oven to 400ºF. Slice the baguette into ¾-inch thick rounds, drizzle with olive oil and bake until golden, about 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool. Top each baguette slice with a piece of mozzarella, a few oven dried tomatoes and a few small leaves of basil. Serve.

Watermelon Gazpacho & Watermelon Salad

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watermelon gazpacho

Last month for two weeks in a row, I received watermelons in my CSA. Though they were small, I hesitated from cracking into them, fearing I wouldn’t finish them on my own. So I let them sit for a few days until I received a fortuitous email from the Fair Food Farmstand. Emily Teel, the manager, sends an email each week listing the products the stand has in stock along with some seasonal recipes. When I saw the recipe for watermelon gazpacho, I set to work in the kitchen. Before too long, I had found a wonderful use for my two sugar baby watermelons, and produced a most delectable soup that I enjoyed, with the help of my sister, for the next few days.

While my sister and I slurped this minty, refreshing soup straight from the Tupperware containers I had packed it in, this gazpacho really deserves a more honorable presentation: The combination of colorful vegetables of all shapes and textures floating in a magenta base is truly striking. Served with a wedge of avocado and a sprig of mint in delicate bowls, this simple chilled soup makes an elegant summer meal.

When I first saw feta paired with watermelon, I thought the combination seemed odd, and truthfully, not that appetizing. My mother and I have been trying to remember where we first saw the duo — possibly a Jean Georges or Todd English cookbook, but we’re not quite sure. In any case, sweet and salty ingredients, hardly a novel concept, often work nicely together, watermelon and feta being one example. Only a few more weeks of watermelon season remain, so enjoy them while you can!

Watermelon Gazpacho
From Emily Teel, manager of the Fair Food Farmstand

3 pounds of watermelon flesh, diced (about 5 cups), divided
1 small cucumber, peeled, seeded, diced (about 1 cup)
1 red bell pepper, seeded, diced (about 1 cup)
1 pint yellow cherry or sungold tomatoes, quartered (about 1 cup)
1 small jalapeño chile, seeded, minced
3 pale green inner celery stalks, diced (about ½ cup)
½ small red onion, diced (about 1 cup)
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
¼ teaspoon salt
5-8 mint leaves, finely chopped
avocado for garnish

Puree 4 cups watermelon in blender until smooth. Transfer puree to large bowl. Add remaining 1 cup diced watermelon and next 10 ingredients; stir to combine. Cover gazpacho and refrigerate until cold, at least 1 hour and up to 4 hours.

Divide gazpacho among bowls. Top each with a slice of avocado.

Watermelon and Feta Salad
Serves 1

4 slices watermelon
2 ounces feta cheese
2 slices Prosciutto di Parma
extra-virgin olive oil
aged balsamic vinegar or reduced balsamic (see recipe below)
kosher salt and pepper to taste

Place watermelon wedges on a plate. Crumble feta cheese over the watermelon. Lay the prosciutto aside the watermelon. Drizzle entire plate with olive oil, balsamic, salt and pepper to taste.

Reduced Balsamic
Yield = ¼ cup

½ cup Rainwater Madeira
1 cup commercial balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon brown sugar

Place Madeira in a small saucepan and simmer over medium heat until reduced to about 1 tablespoon. Add the balsamic vinegar and boil until the vinegar has reduced to about ¼ cup and is very syrupy and big shiny bubbles are forming at the surface. Watch the mixture very closely at this point—it will burn easily. Remove from the heat and stir in the brown sugar until dissolved. Pour into a clean jar and cool before using.

Peaches with Ricotta and Honey

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See, I lied. I thought I had finished posting about peaches this season, but it seems I’ve found one more way to savor this delectable fruit.

This dish couldn’t be simpler to prepare: Slice a peach, top it with a few spoonfuls of fresh ricotta cheese and drizzle the whole mixture with honey to taste. This combination makes a nice dessert, but can be enjoyed really at any time of day: breakfast, lunch, a hearty snack?

This tasty treat is particularly delicious when prepared with juicy white peaches, sweet lavender honey and Claudio’s fresh ricotta.