Grilled Cheese, The Mission & A Petting Zoo

grilledcheese

Yesterday, around 12:30, I found myself in San Juan Capistrano with an hour to spare. I considered all my options: feeding the goats at the Petting Zoo; dining at The Ramos House Café; or visiting The Mission. As I approached the railroad tracks, however, I spotted a new café, Blendz, and walked in to check it out.

Now, I have to admit, I’m sort of going through an anti-fine dining phase. I’m not into the smoked sundried tomato pestos and lemon-basil aiolis right now. Sometimes I just want a sandwich. Anyway, Blendz offers salads, smoothies, paninis, and apart from its “intoxicating champagne dressing” basically keeps things pretty simple. I ordered the kids grilled cheese, made with a combination of Monterey Jack and cheddar, and was very pleased — no tapenades; no pestos; no vegetables. Just plain grilled cheese pressed on a panini machine. Yum.

Let’s see. Not much else too report. Here’s the second article in The Bulletin series: Ten Days

This is just one of many beautiful citrus trees inside the Mission San Juan Capistrano. Tomorrow, the Mission is celebrating the return of the swallows. Come visit!

My Cheese Book Arrived, And I Made Cheese!

cheesemaking

I can hardly contain my excitement about my new book. Soon after it arrived on Friday, I drove to Henry’s Market in Laguna Niguel to buy a gallon of raw milk (Aunt Vicki, don’t be mad … and don’t tell Jerry) and some other basic supplies: cheesecloth, a colander and a thermometer. I returned home and set to work. Within two and a half hours, I had made a small batch of lemon cheese. It was amazing!

I’m referring to the process, that is. The cheese, taste- and texture-wise, needed serious doctoring — salt and herbs, as recommended in the book, and also a few tablespoons of milk (a spontaneous decision) to help bind it together. The addition of milk gave the cheese a creamier texture, sort of like goat cheese but without the chalkiness and that distinct goat-milk flavor. I’m not sure it was the right move, however. My dad said the cheese tasted “milky,” and then devoted his attention to the wedge of gouda we had picked up earlier in the day at the Del Mar farmers’ market. View all the photos from my experiment here.

While my first cheesemaking attempt may have flopped, I’m still determined to try several other recipes in this book. And I’m going to try them despite having lost all hope that cheesemaking, as the title promises, can be made easy. Let me explain. The authors, Ricki and Robert Carroll, begin by wondering why “the art of breadmaking fled the factories and resettled in our homes so far ahead of the art of cheesemaking.” Then, they list all the tools the home cook needs to make cheese including a dairy thermometer, a curd knife, cheesecloth, butter muslin, molds, and a cheese press. A cheese press! (Pictured at the right is a Wheeler press, an English model. These can cost between $200 and $300. They don’t look like they fit easily into cupboads either). Then, the Carrolls describe the preparation process — sterilizing equipment, pasteurizing milk (they recommend not using raw milk) and making starter cultures. All of this before the cheesemaking process even begins!

I’m totally game to do all this, and I’m sure the process becomes easier/faster after several attempts, but I’m still unsure as to why the Carrolls don’t understand why home cooks picked up breadmaking before cheesemaking. Breadmaking requires yeast, flour and water only. No special equipment; no sterilization; no pasteurization. Alas, maybe one day I’ll understand.

As I mentioned Friday, I’m slowly figuring out my employment situation. I’m now writing a weekly column for The Bulletin, the newspaper I worked for this past year in Philadelphia. It’s about life in the military, or I guess I should say, it’s about life for a couple new to the military. (In other words, it’s about Ben and me.) I’ll post a link each Friday to the article. Here is the first in the series: Focus Points.

Also, as the link I posted on Friday for the rapini article failed to produce the recipe, it can be found here: Rapini To Relish.

Tat Soi & The Sun Post News

tatsoi1

Last Sunday, I walked home from the San Clemente farmers’ market feeling a bit like a hog. I had spotted six little bundles of tat soi — what I thought was bok choi — sitting atop the arugula at the Peterson Specialty Produce stand, and I purchased them all.

But what’s a girl to do? I love baby bok choi and have yet to see it at the farmers’ markets here. Sautéed with garlic and red pepper flakes, this Asian green makes a wonderful side dish. My love for this tasty (and adorable) vegetable began at Twenty Manning, in Philadelphia, with their steamed baby bok choi side dish.

Anyway, tat soi, I’ve discovered, looks and tastes very similar to bok choi. I can’t tell you how the two differ, only that a difference certainly exists: “Tat soi, not bok choi,” Andrea Peterson, the woman who grows these delectable mini cabbages, told me over the phone last Sunday afternoon, after I told her I had bought some bok choi earlier that morning.

I had called Andrea to learn more about her farm, Blue Heron Farm, and the variety of greens I have been purchasing from her each week: rapini, arugula, baby lettuces, and now, tat soi. So intrigued by what I learned — she also grows bananas and mangos on her Fallbrook farm — I wrote up a little story. It appeared today in San Clemente’s Sun Post News. Ahhh, slowly but surely I’m finding employment. (I’m not sure the article has been uploaded to the Web site, however, so the article can be read here: Rapini To Relish.)

Sautéed Tat Soi
Serves 2 as a side dish

5 bundles tat soi (there are three tat soi per bundle)
1½ tablespoons olive oil
2 cloved garlic,
minced
crushed red pepper flakes to taste
kosher salt to taste

1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil.

2. Unwrap the bundles of tat soi and place in a large bowl filled with cold water. This will allow any dirt to fall to the bottom of the bowl.

3. Meanwhile, place the olive oil and garlic in a large nonstick sauté pan. Turn the heat to medium. When the garlic begins to sizzle, turn the heat to low and let cook, watching closely to be sure the garlic does not brown. After 2 or 3 minutes add crushed red pepper flakes to taste and turn off the heat.

4. When the water boils, add the tat soi. Let cook for 10 to 30 seconds max. Drain and rinse under cold water.

5. Turn the heat under the frying pan to medium high. When the garlic and pepper flakes begin to sizzle, add the tat soi. Season with kosher salt to taste. Shake the pan or turn the tat soi with tongs to coat it in the olive oil-garlic mixture. Serve immediately.

Pictured below is the rapini-linguini I made following Andrea Peterson’s instructions. She learned this simple recipe from two Italian customers who brought her rapini seeds (from Italy) for her to grow. For the recipe and to read more about Blue Heron Farm, click here. The recipe … shocker … features none other than Delaney’s Culinary Fresh red pepper linguini.

Blood Oranges and Ettinger Avocados

bloodoranges

OK, I know, my consumption of oranges and avocados is getting out of hand. What’s pictured below is just my mid-morning snack. Ben drew the line last night before dinner. He told me he was starting to get “freaked out.”

To be fair, let me put his comment in context. For the most part, we have been eating the widely recognized Hass avocados — the dark, rough-skinned variety. Last night, however, I changed things up a bit and pulled out the Ettinger avocado I had purchased at the Sunday farmers’ market. A woman working at the Eli’s Ranch table told me Ettinger avocados have a “buttery texture” and “a pine nut flavor.” They also look like ostrich eggs, which I believe is what freaked Ben out.

I told Ben to look away as I sliced into its flesh. I didn’t want him to lose his appetite. Once on the plate, sprinkled with a little salt, however, these avocados look just like all the others, and Ben could eat his meal in peace.

Blood Oranges. Since reading a post in Matt Bites about a blood orange and campari cocktail I have been wanting to a.) make the drink and b.) experiment more with blood oranges. I have yet to make the cocktail but I have been eating my fair share of blood oranges. Mixed with avocados, sprinkled with sea salt and drizzled with olive oil, they make a yummy, simple salad or, as I mentioned above, a nice mid-morning snack.

Last night, I made a vinaigrette using the juice of two blood oranges, shallots, olive oil and salt (using the same method described on the sidebar below) and tossed it with arugula and shaved parmesan. Yum.

That’s all for now. I will try to refrain from mentioning oranges and avocados in the near future.

A Simple, Yummy Snack
Serves 1

1 avocado
sea salt
2 blood oranges
good extra-virgin olive oil

1. Cut the avocado in half. Remove the pit. Scoop out the flesh. Cut into large chunks. Place on a plate. Sprinkle with sea salt.

2. Slice off the ends of each orange. Using a sharp knife, slice off the peel, removing as much of the pith as possible. Cut the orange into large chunks and add to the plate of avocados. Season with a touch more salt.

3. Drizzle with olive oil. Eat.

A crate filled with Ettinger avocados. OK, so they don’t really look like ostrich eggs, but they are significantly larger than Hass.

Garlic-Cheese Butter & A San Clemente Sunset

GarlicButter

I’m becoming a real purist. I have now renounced fake butter, a big deal in the Stafford household. I mean Ben and I practically fell in love over a tub of Brummel and Brown. Not really, but for many years, this butter-like spread, made with yogurt, was a staple in our refrigerator. Toast at breakfast and warm bread at dinner always received a dab of Brummel and Brown, its unfailing room-temperature texture convenient and its health claims welcome.

So what has inspired the sudden shift? I know, I know. I mention Michael Pollan in every other entry. His latest book, however, has really influenced how I shop and what I eat. And for the better. Butter is really good.

Until today, never had I read the ingredient list printed on a tub of Brummel and Brown. Here it is: water, vegetable oil blend (liquid soybean oil, partially hydrogenated soybean oil), nonfat yogurt (cultured nonfat milk), salt, gelatin, vegetable mono and diglycerides, soy lecithin, (potassium sorbate, calcium disodium edta) used to protect quality, lactic acid, artificial flavor, vitamin a (palmitate), beta carotene (for color).

Now, let’s review a few of Pollan’s eating algorithms as outlined in In Defense Of Food:

1. Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.
2. Don’t eat anything incapable of rotting.
3. Avoid food products containing ingredients that are A.) unfamiliar, B.) unpronounceable, C.) more than five in number, or that include D.) high-fructose corn syrup.

Brummel and Brown fails on every account except 3-D. Now, the tablespoon of Brummel and Brown I spread on my toast every other day likely wasn’t going to kill me. And maybe none of these ingredients is actually that bad for me. But do we really know? A tablespoon of butter on my toast surely won’t kill me — we’ve been eating butter for over 4,000 years (according to a quick google search). So why should I eat partially hydrogenated soybean oil (a trans fat*) and soy lethicin when I can eat cream? I prefer to eat cream, the sole ingredient in a batch of unsalted butter.

Because I have failed to write up an extensive entry on In Defense Of Food, I have enclosed a link to my notes, if anyone cares to learn more about the book.

*Brummel and Brown explicitly states on its tub “No Trans Fats,” but an asterisk leads to a qualification based on FDA labeling regulations related to fats: Less than one gram of fat is declared 0 grams per serving.

So, on Sunday at the San Clemente farmers’ market, when Jordan Stone of Delaney’s Culinary Fresh asked me if I was “anti-butter” I shook my head “no” and began sampling. My favorites included sun-dried tomato asiago, basil parmesan, and garlic asiago, a tub of which I ended up taking home. Spread onto warm bread, this butter, flavored with roasted garlic, Asiago cheese, herbs, lemon and sea salt, makes the Stafford household very happy.

Contrary to how it may appear, I am not a sales rep for Delaney’s Culinary Fresh. Just a huge fan. I’ve now used several other products including the artichoke tapenade (as an hors d’oeuvres with a baguette), the sun-dried tomato marinara sauce, and the basil Asiago sauce (for an instant dinner with garlic-basil spaghetti). Yum!

This is the sunset Ben and I enjoy every evening from our apartment. Just kidding. It’s the view from The Beachcomber, a great motel in San Clemente. Each room has a mini kitchen. Come visit!

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.

Fajita Pasta, Farmers’ Market Arugula, Breakfast Crepes & Other Random Thoughts

fajitapasta

I know this sounds like a weird idea, but it’s pretty good. On Sunday, I bought a package of chipotle spaghetti, the latest addition to the Delaney’s Culinary Fresh pasta line. I followed owner Jordan Stone’s suggestion and sautéed peppers and onions with chicken, adding cilantro at the end. I dumped this mixture over the pasta with about ¼ cup of the reserved cooking liquid and a handful of grated Parmigiano Reggiano – yum!

So I don’t have much to report, just some random thoughts:

• I almost lost it today at Barnes & Nobles. I had a coupon for 20% off, something Ben had earned after purchasing a book on-line. After spending a half hour in BN, I went to the checkout carrying my goods, the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market Cookbook and Heat. The woman behind the register, endowed with bionic vision, looked at my coupon for one second and told me it had expired. I challenged. Today is the 18th, I said. This certificate expired at 6:56 EST, she said, 15 minutes ago. She cut me no slack and then tore my coupon in half. I was shocked.

The arugula from both the San Clemente and Laguna Hills farmers’ markets has been delectable. Look for smaller bunches, like this one pictured below – I was disappointed with a very large, extremely bitter tasting bunch I purchased a few weeks ago. Serve with a lemon vinaigrette and shaved Parmigiano Reggiano for a simple salad.


• Before Ben and I moved across country, I told many people I planned to work on a dairy farm once I got to California. I was going to learn how to milk cows and make cheese. Not a well-researched plan. As far as I can tell, there is one dairy operation in SoCal and it’s many miles from where I live.

• After reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, however, I now know I can make cheese at home. The book gives a recipe for making mozzarella in 30 minutes and recommends purchasing Cheesemaking Made Easy, a book filled with a host of other simple cheese recipes. It’s in the mail, and soon I hope to post about ordering bacterial cultures and making my own chevre, mozzarella, goat cheese, ricotta, etc. Yum.

This past Sunday morning, Ben and I enjoyed brunch at La Galette Creperie with several friends. I ordered the farmers’ plate, pictured below, and Ben ordered a bacon-, cheddar- and egg-filled crepe. Though Ben has recently declared he does not like crepes, he politely cleaned his plate.

• Last week, I saw a whale splashing about not too far from the San Clemente Pier – It was amazing!

• Mayonnaise: I like it. Not as a main ingredient in pasta or potato salad, but as a condiment. A couple teaspoons on a sandwich, I am rediscovering, makes such a difference.

• Do you ever feel there is nothing in your grocery-store meat department that is morally acceptable to buy for dinner? The February Bon Appetit, the “green” issue, lists a few eco-friendly meats: bison, grass-fed beef and heritage pork. Great, but I’m chastised if I send away for these meats. I’m going to a Roots of Change meeting tomorrow night to learn more about sustainable farming in Southern California. Will report back.

• And lastly, over the weekend, I read a very entertaining book: Skinny Bitch. I so badly want to quote the opening paragraph of one of the chapters (entitled “Pooping”), but feel I must refrain. This passage will make you laugh out loud. Please email me if you do not own the book and want to laugh. Lindsey and Mr. T., Meredith and Lisa, Bates and anyone else with a penchant for bathroom humor, please contact me.


Fajita Pasta
Serves 4

left-over roasted chicken or 2 bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts or thighs
olive oil
kosher salt
chile powder
1 T. olive oil
1 tsp. unsalted butter,
plus more to taste
1 medium onion, peeled and thinly sliced
2 red peppers, cored and thinly sliced (green peppers would be fine too)
cilantro to taste, washed and coarsely chopped
1 lb. fresh pasta, such as the Delaney’s Culinary Fresh chipotle spaghetti
¼ cup to ½ cup Parmigiano Reggiano, grated

1. Preheat the oven to 425ºF. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Line a baking sheet with foil (for easy cleaning). Place the chicken on top. Drizzle with a little oil, and season with salt and chile powder to taste. Roast until done, about 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from oven and transfer to a plate to cool.

2. Meanwhile, heat the oil with the butter in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until the butter begins to sizzle. Add the onions and peppers and sauté until tender and browned, but not caramelized (think fajitas — hot, charred peppers and onions in a smoking hot cast-iron skillet).

3. Meanwhile, remove the skin from the chicken and discard. Pull the meat from the bone and shred or cut into thin strips. Add the meat to the pan, season with salt, chile powder and cilantro to taste. Stir, then turn off heat. Transfer to a plate. Keep skillet on the stove.

4. Season the boiling water with a pinch of kosher salt. Cook the fresh pasta for 2 minutes. Just before draining, reserve one half cup of the cooking liquid. Drain the pasta but do not rinse. Place the cooking liquid in the skillet and place over high heat. Let reduce, scraping up any charred bits from the pan. Place the pasta in a large bowl. Add another teaspoon of butter and ¼ cup of the grated Parmigiano Reggiano. Add ¼ cup of the simmering cooking liquid and the pepper-chicken sauté, and toss gently to combine. Taste, adding more cooking liquid by the tablespoon and grated cheese in necessary.

5. Serve, passing more cheese and fresh-cracked pepper on the side.

Dark Chocolate & Plastic Bulls

darkchocolate

A few months ago, Martha Stewart Living magazine reported the results of a study conducted in Europe regarding chocolate. Now I can’t remember the exact findings, but the blurb read something like this: To maximize its antioxidant powers, chocolate must be consumed on a regular basis. In other words, eating an ounce of chocolate a day (it could have been two ounces a day) is more beneficial than, say, eating one large chocolate bar every Sunday evening.

In any case, what I got out of the article was this: I should eat chocolate every day. And now, I do. And this Chocolatour bar pictured above, made by Chocolove XOXOX in Boulder, CO is one of my favorite brands. When I lived in Philadelphia, I purchased these bars by the half-dozen every time I stopped by Joe Coffee Bar. I have sampled nearly every variety Joe carries including a spicy Chilies and Cherries in Dark Chocolate, but ultimately I prefer the simple, dark chocolate.

Now, I must be honest. I’m a real sucker for labels. I swear I continue to buy this one bottle of wine, Sangre de Toro, at the San Clemente Wine Shop only because a little plastic bull hangs from the cork. A small herd of bulls now greets Ben and me every morning at the breakfast table.

But seriously, have you ever seen a more beautifully wrapped bar of chocolate? The Chocolove bars even come with a romantic poem tucked inside.

I should note, too, that Chocolove bars are Fair Trade in every way but name. Just as many small farms cannot afford to pay for Certified Organic status, many chocolate, coffee, tea and nut companies cannot afford the Fair Trade licensing fees. These bars can be purchased on-line and from a number of large markets including Whole Foods and Target. Around here, I have seen them at Henry’s Market, but a number of other shops including Ralph’s and Mother’s Market are listed on the Web site as well.

Last year, in preparation for Valentine’s day, I made a slew of festive, heart-shaped desserts. Well, I guess only three, and they are all pictured below, along with some other appropriate treats for the season, if you are so inspired.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Two Heart Tarts for Two
Linzer Cookies
Red Velvet Cupcakes
Boozy Chocolate Truffles
Coeurs A La Creme

Anxious to Purchase a Steer & Trader Joe’s Grass-Fed Ground Beef

traderjoesgrassfed

As soon as Ben and I have space to fit one, we’re going to buy a freezer, one of those large, freestanding jobs that opens like a chest. And then we’re going to buy a steer or maybe half a steer, and come harvest time, we’re going to fill our box with all of its butchered parts, which we’ll subsist on until we run out.

This is the ideal, of course, and one of Michael Pollan’s suggestions in In Defense of Food. Pollan writes, “If you have the space, buy a freezer.” Pollan lives in Northern California, subscribes to a CSA, and purchases meat and dairy from local farms that raise their animals on pasture. He purchases by the ½ steer, whole hog and ½-dozen chickens. I’m sort of guessing about this last detail, but that’s the idea I get after reading the last part of this book.

Like many people, I began eating grass-fed beef after reading Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I have posted several times about animal treatment in feedlots, the health benefits of grass-fed meat, and several dinner parties with friends starring grass-fed burgers.

My reasons for seeking out grass-fed meats revolve more around animal welfare than health benefits. A passage in Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life says it best. Kingsolver quotes Wendell Berry. In his book, What Are People For, Berry writes:

“I dislike the thought that some animal has been made miserable in order to feed me. If I am going to eat meat, I want it to be from an animal that has lived a pleasant, uncrowded life outdoors, on bountiful pasture, with good water nearby and trees for shade.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently shut down a Chino-based supplier of beef after a video showed slaughterhouse workers using inhumane and illegal practices on weak and sick cows. After watching the footage on the news, I find it hard to justify purchasing feedlot meat processed in these types of facilities. And after visiting farms (such as Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm) where animals live just as Berry describes, I find it difficult to support any other type of farming.

Now, until Ben and I acquire the space to fit a steer in our kitchen, or until we start our own farm and have animals living on our front lawn, we’ll have to settle with purchasing grass-fed meats buy the pound. As far as I can tell, purchasing local, pastured meats is relatively easy in Northern California, as it was in Philadelphia — the Fair Food Farmstand in Reading Terminal Market is an unbelievable little stand. I am just realizing how spoiled I was to have, in walking distance from my apartment, a place to buy local, humanely raised beef, pork, chicken and lamb as well as raw milk and raw-milk cheeses.

So far I have found few sources in Southern California for pastured meats. Though I have not researched extensively, Trader Joe’s seems to be the closest source to me for grass-fed beef. I’ve now purchased their grass-fed ground beef twice and have been very pleased both times. I called the customer service line (for future reference: 626.599.3817) to find out where the cows were raised and where the meat was processed. While the woman wouldn’t give me the name of the farm or processing plant, she told me the cows are both raised and processed in Northern California.

Now, I suppose for the real purists — extreme locavores — Northern California might be too far. As I weigh my two options, however — grass-fed beef from Northern California or corn-fed, abused beef from nearby — food miles seem like a trivial criterion. I’ll have to double check with the authority around here, Melanie Lytle (the San Diegan devoting a year to eating locally grown food), to make sure I’m not missing a closer source, but until then, I’ll enjoy my Trader Joe’s grass-fed meat with a clear conscience. View pictures of happy animals on various farms here.

Grass-Fed Burgers
Makes 4 patties

1 to 1.25 lbs. grass-fed ground beef
1/2 white onion,
finely diced to yield a scant 1/2 cup
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
buns
lettuce, tomatoes, ketchup, cheese, etc.,
if desired

Note: The package of beef I bought contained 1.22 lbs of meat and I used a scant 1/2 cup of onions for this amount. Adjust accordingly for more or less meat.


1. Spread the meat out in a large bowl as pictured above. Sprinkle evenly with kosher salt. Sprinkle the onion over top. Form into patties about 5 to 6 ounces each. Refrigerate until ready to cook.

2. Preheat the grill to high. Spinkle the burgers on both sides with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.

3. Place burgers on the grill. Cover grill. And turn heat to medium. Now, every grill is different, all meat is different, and everyone has different opinions about what rare, medium rare, etc. looks like. I cooked these for about three minutes a side and was happy with their doneness — just slightly pink on the inside and still very juicy. I have overcooked these burgers before too, however, and found the meat to be less forgiving than traditional burger meat, so be careful and enjoy!

Burnt Bagels, Tilden Farm Avocados and Las Golondrinas Tortilla Chips

guac

A very funny thing happened to me yesterday morning at Coffee Bean. I ordered my usual, an everything bagel toasted with butter and a medium coffee. For a change, however, I asked if I could have the bagel toasted twice. The girl looked a little annoyed, but agreed.

Well, she showed me. About eight minutes later, the girl called me from my table and handed me a paper to-go bag. I knew something was up. The whole place smelled of burnt onion and garlic flakes. I politely asked for a plate, explaining I would be having my bagel “here,” as I had the past five mornings. “Sure,” she said.

I could hardly wait to see what she pulled out of the bag. She handed me the plate topped with two charred — BLACK — disks, both halves, front and back. She must have toasted it 10 times! I almost burst out laughing. I told her I would pay for another bagel toasted only once. At this point, a manager intervened, throwing the charred bagel in the trash, starting a fresh one for me, no extra charge.

Lesson learned: Watch out for Nicole at 6:00 in the morning. Anyway, I remained on guard for the rest of the day, trying to avoid any more mishaps. And I almost succeeded.

After breakfast, I drove up to Laguna Hills to buy some produce from a farmers’ market. I had been enlisted to make an hors d’oeuvre for 10 people for a gathering Friday evening. The day before, Ben’s Aunt Vicki and her mother, Sy, had described to me a legendary guacamole, one invented by Sy’s husband, Jack. This recipe includes diced onions and finely chopped pistachios, an ingredient that adds an unexpected crunch, an ingredient that leaves tasters guessing — intrigued — hooked.

I was hooked just listening and decided I would purchase Las Golondrinas tortilla chips — best chips ever — and try Jack’s recipe. At the market, I bought avocados and onions, and at Trader Joe’s, I bought pistachios, shell on, as instructed. When I returned home, I set to work, dicing the onion finely, scooping the avocado, and shelling the pistachios. With my prep work completed, I reached for my … Cuisinart, blender, sharp knife, hammer, rolling pin, anything to help me finely chop the pistachios. Alas, all of my tools are still locked up somewhere on Camp Pendleton, in an undisclosed storage facility, a place commonly referred to as Never Neverland.

Jack’s recipe would have to wait. I did not have the patience to chop by hand given the knife I’ve been using cannot slice a banana without bruising it. I ended up making guacamole the only way I know how, with lime juice and kosher salt. And it turns out, that’s all these avocados really need.

I’m slowly putting together a list of my favorite local sources, which now includes avocados from Tilden Farm. At the market, Jimmy Moreno, owner of this Riverside farm, hands out samples of his avocados sprinkled with a little sea salt. He also sells oranges, grapefruits, lemons and a few other varieties of citrus.

Mr. Moreno’s farm is organic in all ways except name. If he paid for certification, he told shoppers, he would have to sell his avocados for $4 a piece. Mr. Moreno explained that almost all citrus farmers are organic because very few pests bother these types of crops, so they need few, if any, pesticides.

As I mentioned above, these avocados need little doctoring, but I will write an addendum to this post once I try Jack’s recipe. And, though I have not made Vicki’s variation yet, I have now savored it on more than one occasion. Vicki adds a splash of Sriracha sauce, which adds a nice kick, and a pinch of garlic powder, a subtle contribution that like Jack’s pistachios, keeps tasters guessing.

Jimmy Moreno standing behind his avocados at the Friday morning Laguna Hills farmers’ market.
Simplest Guacamole
Serves 8 to 10

4 ripe avocados
kosher salt
fresh limes

Cut the avocados in half lengthwise. Remove pits and discard. Scoop out the flesh, and place in a large bowl. Sprinkle with salt and lime juice to taste. Mash with a large spoon or whisk. Taste, adjust with more salt, limes or another avocado if, as I did, you’ve made it too salty. Serve with thin, crispy tortilla chips such as Las Golondrinas.

A bag of Las Golondrinas tortilla chips. Las Golondrinas are a local company and have a few shops including one here in San Clemente. These tortilla chips can be purchased at Albertsons as well as the San Clemente Sunday farmers’ market.