Take ten

If North Carolina residents spent just 10 percent of their food dollars on foods produced locally, it could pump about $3.5 billion a year into the local economy. So say those promoting a “10% Campaign” to boost local foods.

The Center for Environmental Farming Systems, which develops and promotes food and farming that protect the environment, strengthen local communities and provide economic opportunities, recently launched the statewide effort. Among other supporters, the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service has designated local foods coordinators in every county to help connect consumers and businesses with local producers. N.C. State University’s dining facilities have pledged to serve 10 percent locally grown or produced foods by 2012.

At the campaign’s website, you can find out where to purchase local foods and other information. Whether you officially sign up to the effort or not, consider where you spend your food dollars.

Food news roundup

There’s some great stuff in The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) and Charlotte (N.C.) Observer today – making ice cream without a pricey, counter top-eating ice cream machine, to name one. But a more interesting item is in N&O food writer Andrea Weigl’s blog. The Raleigh Downtown Farmers market is struggling. It’s a great market, great farmers, local seafood, you name it. The problem, in my opinion, is it’s in the middle of the workday. Where are downtown workers supposed to keep veg and fish if the office has no refrigerator? I think an end-of-the-workday market would draw more shoppers (say, 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.).

Community gardens are not new. But a huge garden (1,000 sweet potato plants, for starters) in Winston-Salem, N.C. is being grown by volunteers, with the entire crop going to Second Harvest Food Bank. Read more in the Winston-Salem Journal, here.

Cupcakes? They’re so ’09. The hip baked good now is the macarone, declares the Kansas City Star here. No they’re not shaggy macaroons. Macarones are puffy, light, colorful cookies in unusual flavors.

Water your whiskey? Ice cube in your wine? Not so crazy, writes food scientist Harold McGee in the New York Times. Water can actually be a useful flavor enhancer. Read more here.

Meatless loaf

When my husband and I visited Kansas City, MO last month, we started our trip with a large, highly appreciated hunk of meat at Blanc Burgers. The following day, we went next door. Within inhaling distance of the beef was Eden Alley Cafe, a vegetarian restaurant recommended by the same friend who clued us in to Blanc Burger. We felt in an atoning mood. The menu was creative – not loaded with sprouts and lentils. And my dairy-allergic husband was glad to see most items could be made vegan. We ordered a pizza-like item that featured cashew cheese. Cashew cheese was not a hit with either of us – it was more like a thin, orangy-colored sauce with a grainy texture (from the ground nuts, I suppose). But we enjoyed the entrees: a sweet potato burrito with fruit salsa, and spinach-mushroom loaf with tomato sauce. We liked the spinach-mushroom loaf so much – it tasted almost like real meat loaf – that I purchased the restaurant’s (rather pricey) cookbook.

I made the spinach-mushroom loaf last night, and it was as good as we remembered. I have a beef (ha, ha) with the recipe, though. It’s confusingly written and omits some information, such as what kind of tofu to use. I assumed extra-firm. The recipe also didn’t say how to prepare the spinach and mushrooms. I think both should be chopped to work with the other ingredients. Here’s my reworked version. And this makes two ways in which I will eat tofu. Could this be a sign of the apocalypse?

1/2 pound spinach, de-stemmed and chopped

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 large onion, diced

1 1/2 tablespoons chopped garlic

1 1/2 teaspoons oregano

1 1/ 2 teaspoons thyme

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon black pepper

1/4 teaspoon chili powder

1/2 pound chopped mushrooms

2 cups cooked brown rice

2 cups fine bread crumbs (in the canister from the store)

1/2 pound extra-firm tofu, shredded

Tomato Coulee (recipe follows)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Place the spinach in a large bowl and set aside. Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Saute the onions, garlic, herbs, salt and pepper, chili powder and mushrooms until the onions are translucent. Pour the hot mixture over the spinach and stir. Add rice, bread crumbs and tofu. Mix with your hands and form it into a loaf on a sheet pan sprayed with cooking spray. Bake 50 minutes. Let cool for at least 20 minutes to let it set. Top with Tomato Coulee.

Tomato Coulee

1 medium onion, chopped

1 1/2 tablespoons chopped garlic

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoon sugar (original recipe said 1 tablespoon, but I reduced it)

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

2 (14-ounce) cans diced tomatoes

1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil

Heat the olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Cook onions, garlic, sugar, salt and black pepper until the onions are translucent, then add the tomatoes. Bring the sauce to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer gently for 30 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes or so. Remove the sauce from the heat and stir in the basil. Use immediately or cool and refrigerate.

Sisterhood of the blackberries

I had one of those dreams that you wake up from shaking your head and thinking about the effects of what you ate before bed. I dreamed that my grandmother’s old house in Statesville, N.C. had been turned into a sorority house, and the girls wanted me to teach them to cook sweet-potato latkes on the old gas stove. Coincidentally, the next morning, I discovered an email from my cousin, who was trying to recall all the things our grandparents grew in their backyard garden.

She remembered that it was at least two acres (I agree; it was big), with corn, tomatoes, green beans, potatoes, cucumbers, shelley beans, spring onions and beets. I remember wild blackberries way in the back. I saw a big limb once while picking them, thought it was a snake, ran for the house and refused to go back. Much as I would do today. My cousin remembered how much she loved the blackberry jelly our grandmother made, and it’s still her favorite kind of jelly. That was enough for me to make good on my threat to make my own blackberry jelly.

Blackberry jam really isn’t good. Too many of those little seeds. And I’d never made jelly from fruit before. I have made jelly from bottled juices and herbal tea-like infusions. The hardest part was mashing the berries through cheesecloth. I see why people use jelly bags. But after that, it was a breeze. I can’t swear it tastes like my grandmother’s – does anything ever taste the way you remember it? – but it’s pretty good. I’ll have to send a jar to my cousin for her verdict.

“Funny how that’s what people seek out now – homegrown and preserved food – and all we wanted was store-bought,” she wrote.

If lunch could last forever

It was a stop in Raleigh, just for lunch. It was the only chance for probably some time for an old friend and her son, who live across the country, to visit with me and a mutual friend. As the three of us tried to settle on a convenient restaurant for her to find, I said, “Why don’t I just do lunch?” No biggie, I thought, that said lunch was less than 24 hours away.  Then, the guest list swelled to six, including two teen vegetarians (one described as “picky”). And my friend’s son is allergic to gluten and dairy, plus having the usual eating vagaries of 13-year-old boys.

The boy was easy. Plain baked chicken breast, my friend said, and she did mean plain – no marinade or anything. “If you have ketchup, he’ll be fine,” she said.  And potato chips. For the veggie-teens, the classic tomato-mozzarella-basil salad, seeing as we’re in the juicy heart of tomato season. Thank goodness they’re not vegans.

For the four adults with no known eating parameters, I’d spotted a shrimp salad recipe in Bon Appetit that I wanted to try. It was cooked shrimp atop lettuce with slices of avocado and mango. Well, I’m rolling in peaches, so they replaced the mango (I like them better, anyway). The dressing – rice vinegar, fresh ginger and Asian sweet chili sauce – was pretty spicy. I backed down the heat by replacing some of the chili sauce with a local sauce, Capsicana Zing. Some baguette for the bread eaters, plus hummus and pita chips from the supermarket (I happened to have both on hand). The veggie-teens’ dad arrived with cheese and some noodle salad from a deli for them, just in case. I hadn’t know what level of “picky” we were talking about.

Besides finding out that my friend doesn’t like peaches (huh?), having lunch at my house was the best choice. We talked long after most restaurants would have thrown us out, long after my husband had to go back to work, and the boy and younger veggie-teen decamped for games on our Wii. At about 3:30 p.m., my friend and her son left for their next destination, a family visit on the coast, and I looked at the counter full of dishes. It was worth every one.

Food news roundup

Rice is growing in Catawba County, N.C., along with other exotic vegetables common in southeast Asian cooking. A program is helping Hmong farmers there. North Carolina is thought to have the fourth largest population of Hmong, who originated in Laos and Vietnam, in the United States. The story, plus a primer on Hmong cooking and recipes, is in the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer, here. It’s in The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.), too.

Homemade ice cream is in the Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal today. Recipes from an ice-cream contest are here. (They almost make me forgive the use of the old “scream for ice cream” cliche.)

At the San Francisco Chronicle, there are recipes and tips for last-minute summer dinner parties. Mmm, that fig syrup – wonder if I could can that? It doesn’t address the problem of a guest list that includes picky vegetarian teens, people with various food allergies and someone who just doesn’t like peaches. But it looks good here.

A tale of obsession with pickles is in the Boston Globe today. And the humble brined goodies of our grandmothers’ time are finding new popularity. Read more here. I do attest that once you start making your own pickles, and find out how easy it is, you have a tendency to want to pickle everything.

It’s hard not to listen to someone nicknamed Meathead when he’s writing about ribs, and that’s the case in the Chicago Tribune today. He offers the basics on pork ribs of all kinds here. But, how many times do I have to tell you people – “barbecue” is a pig-based noun, not a verb, nor a piece of equipment.

Beer and music fest

It’s the middle of summer. It’s hot. The kids are already driving you nuts. No better time to drink some great beer for a good cause. Aviator Brewing Company in Fuquay-Varina, N.C. is holding a Music Fest and Gulf Oil Spill Fundraiser on Saturday, July 17. Two local bands will perform. New beers will be on tap, including a special black Belgian India Pale Ale named Black Horizon that will be sold to raise money for the Florida Aquarium’s clean-up efforts. And – everyone cross their fingers – the day also might be a celebration that the gusher is finally capped. The event will run from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the brewery, 209 Technology Park Lane, Fuquay-Varina, N.C. 27526. For more information, visit here.

Rumor has it that Aviator will begin bottling its beer soon. That means I won’t have to drink an entire growler when I open it (it’s a shame to waste beer).

Food news roundup

Cheap and healthy is the theme in The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) today. The article here shows how it is possible to make a good meal that won’t stuff your arteries for a price similar to fast-food dreck. (It’s in the Charlotte Observer, too).

It’s been declared a “potentially perfect peach season” in the Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal today. Oh, what music. Read more and see recipes here.

A Salisbury, N.C. pediatrician talks to parents and children attending a camp for kids with asthma about how a healthy diet is extra-important for them. Read more in The Salisbury Post, here.

Seafood lovers are concerned about oil from the massive spill creeping into shellfish and fish from the Gulf of Mexico, but it’s too soon to know what the impact might be. Read more in the New York Times, here.

I’ve cooked with lavender. It can give an interesting touch to lemonade and shortbread, and I’ve also flavored jelly with it. If you’re not restrained, though, your food can taste like potpourri. The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.) has recipes and hints for cooking with the flowers here.

Farmers get hopping

Beer fans know that hops are crucial. The dried plant acts as a preservative and adds bitterness to balance the flavor of sweeter malts. In the U.S., the Pacific Northwest is hop-growing country. But, thanks to the growing craft beer movement here,  farmers in North Carolina are experimenting with growing the plants.

The N.C. Cooperative Extension Service is offering the Second Annual Hops Farm Tour on July 31, which will include visits to two farms in the Asheville, N.C. area (and, of course, a beer tasting afterward at French Broad Brewing Company). To sign up for the tour or get more information, call (828) 255.5522.

N.C. State University in Raleigh, N.C. is working to see just how well hops will do in the state’s climate. The plant is not easy to grow, although it is drought resistant and could become a profitable crop as interest in microbreweries – and using local products – continues to increase. Hops have to be grown on 20-foot trellises or wires, and apparently wiring them up isn’t a lot of fun. For a good explanation of the process and challenges, visit here.

Fruit+dough=mmmm

It was way past cobbler time in my house, and I remedied that omission on Sunday night. Cobblers and their ilk have a lot of names: crisps, grunts, slumps. But all involve batter or dough and fruit. They scream for summer fruit.

I have eaten beautiful cobblers that were topped with sweet biscuits, and they are lovely treats. But my cobbler is more homey, and quick to make. My grandmother and even my mother, who rarely baked, made this version and it’s what I thought cobbler was as a kid. The recipe also has adapted well to demands made by the hub’s dairy allergy.

Blueberries, blackberries, peaches or some of them all are great. On Sunday, I combined about half-and-half blueberries and chopped peaches. This cobbler’s not a looker – don’t expect to see it parade down any cobbler pageant aisles. But it’s just minutes from a gleam in your eye of cobbler to actual eating.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Place 3/4 of a stick of butter (or non-dairy margarine) in an 8-inch by 8-inch baking dish. Place the dish in the oven to melt the butter. In a large bowl, combine 1 cup of flour, 3/4 to 1 cup of sugar (depending on how sweet you like it), 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder and 1/4 teaspoon salt. In another bowl, stir together 1/2 cup of milk (or almond milk), 1 egg and 1/2 teaspoon vanilla. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry and stir until smooth. When the butter is melted, pour the batter evenly over it. Cover the batter with 2 to 3 cups of fresh fruit. Bake until the top is golden brown, 20 to 30 minutes.