Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Squeamish Farmers

There was an interesting article in Slate ("Organic Panic") a few weeks back on how the Obamas vegetable garden makes some conventional farmers squeamish. Apparently Michelle Obama's statements supporting local food and organic farming are a little too tough for some big growers to handle. My favorite quote in the article is this:
"It's a charming idea and everything, but it's not practical," says Xavier Equihua, who represents the Chilean Exporters Association as well as the Chilean Avocado Committee. The main problem, he says, is that local food is seasonal. For example, avocadoes grow in California during the summer months. Same with grapes. "What happens if you want some grapes during the month of December?" says Equihua. "What are you going to do? Not eat grapes?"
Yes, it is quite a problem that local food is seasonal. That's one of the main reasons I eat local food! I like being more in touch with the seasons and what's available when--not to mention that local food eaten in season tastes a lot better. I love asparagus and would love to eat it all the time. But it tastes so much better in May and June that I am willing to hold off and just eat as much as I can during that two month period.

What happens if you want to eat grapes in December? How about you DON'T eat grapes? How hard is this? There are lots of other foods that are in season then that you could eat. Oranges, for example. Maybe we shouldn't be able to have everything that we want whenever we want it. The ability to eat grapes year round means that we don't know when grapes are in season anymore. Same with avocadoes. Nor do we really know where avocadoes come from, where they grow well, because the world is at our fingertips in the seasonless grocery store. Eating seaonally is one of the easiest ways to get in touch with nature--you don't even have to drive out to a state park or lake to do so. Just open the fridge.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Best List of All: the Booze List

See that? That's our drinking notebook. I carry it around with me wherever I go. Inside are lists of all the bourbons, whiskeys, beers, tequilas, sakes, and vodkas we've had. Well, all that we've had since I started carrying the notebook. Or remembered to write down because sometimes I forget that I have it. That usually only happens after I've had a few. It's a pretty impressive list nonetheless.

We've made it a point to always try something new when we are out. It's easier at some places than others. I don't think we'll ever get through all of the beers at the Old Fashioned. I love that. I also love that almost all of their beers, and all the ones on tap, are from Wisconsin. Drinking locally is a taste of place that's just as important as local food.

There's also a satisfaction in knowing that you've had everything on tap in a bar, too, though the satisfaction quickly fades when you realize your drinking options are Canadian whiskeys (do Canadians not have taste buds? Or do they actually think that fiery nail polish remover tastes good? every Canadian whiskey I've ever had are varying degrees of terrible), Bud Light, and Miller High Life. No one wins with this choice.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Fish Guts and Beer

If you think it's crazy to stand outside in the February cold, some even waiting in line to get in, to potentially get hit--splattered, rather--by a flying fish, then you've never been to Bockfest at Capital Brewery. Bockfest is Capital's annual winter party to celebrate the release of its Blonde Doppelbock. And while I count myself among Capital's biggest fans, I had somehow never made it to Bockfest.

The party began at 10AM but we didn't get there until around 2:30PM. Entering the gates of the biergarten, we were given bright orange bracelets with a pull-off tab marked "BEER." We headed toward the main bar area, where we traded in our beer tab (and $5) for a pint of the Doppelbock. We also got a liter-size commemorative mug, into which we promptly poured the contents of our separate cups (each person is limited to one pint of the Doppelbock and while we asked them to fill our liter with our combined two pints, they refused).

The "highpoint" of Bockfest comes at 3PM when the Kirby Nelson, Capital's brewmaster, appears on the roof of the brewery astride a green brontosaurus. Greeted with roaring cheers by the crowd below, Kirby got off the dinosaur, raised his arms, and then turned to grab a chub. Raising the chub to the sky like a talisman, he proceeded to toss them to the crowd below. These weren't just any fish, though--these were fish that exploded on impact, sending fish guts flying.

Now let me just say that little disgusts me more than fish. I attribute it to the seafood section in the grocery stores growing up, where the smell of rotting fish permeated the back of the store. And frankly, they just look kind of gross. So the idea of fish flying toward me, potentially exploding their guts on me, might be close to my worst nightmare.

Fortunately, I managed to avoid impact. Another girl was not so lucky--her back turned to the flying fish, a chub smacked her squarely on the back, sending fish parts spewing down her coat. Other people tried to catch the fish in their upturned mugs. Supposedly an intact fish head netted you a free beer--as much as I love Capital beer, that isn't enough of an inducement for me. But I'm glad to say that I've finally been to Bockfest. And that is some damn fine beer, worthy of a strangely wonderful Wisconsin winter festival.

Monday, February 23, 2009

That Old Food Flame

Or "How the Ladies who Lunch Lost Their Lunch Spot."

My friend Natasha and I have lunch every week--we are truly ladies who lunch. Except unlike other ladies (a word impossible for me to say normally and without thinking of Tim Meadows as Leon Phelps, "the ladies man," on Saturday Night Live), we are not actually well-off, well-dressed, or old-monied--we just like to eat--together, if possible.

And for over a year, our lunch of choice was Madison's Caspian Cafe with its daily lunch specials and delicious, reasonably priced Persian food. Not to mention the plentiful vegetarian options as nearly everything came either meat or vegetarian, demarcated on the menu by tiny tomato icons. Tuesday was my favorite day: the dolmeh, but not the dolmeh you may be imagining. No, this dolmeh was an eggplant or green pepper stuffed with lentils, rice, and tomatoes. I also loved okra stew on Wednesdays and herb stew on Fridays. And if I wanted "the spicy" as co-owner Mir asked us once, we came on Monday for spicy cauliflower. The kuku sabzi sandwich was also hard to resist, available every day and a tempting diversion from the specials. We used to swear the food had crack in it because we craved it, needed a fix every week.

The owners, Mir and Mohila, were always happy to see us, and we them. Every week, it was CC, or "our place" as we called it for lunch. It's where I first learned that Natasha was pregnant and where we ate all through her pregnancy, usually by the window, crammed into the small table with our waters and sometimes, Persian tea. Where we ate our amazing Persian ice cream--saffron ice cream with rosewater and pistachios--and where we split a piece of baklava, never wanting to let lunch end.

And then in the fall of 2008 it closed. Out of the blue, at least to me. Mohila told me on a Tuesday that Friday would be their last day. They were moving to Florida to be near their daughter. And so we were left without our place, our home away from home. We're still looking for a new place. The lunches haven't stopped, but the sense of home and comfort that we felt at the Caspian Cafe is gone.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Pure Wisconsin Fridge

We're brewing beer, a pilsner. That's Karl (I gave him a good German name), our carboy, chillin' in the fridge. Surrounded by bottles and bottles of beer... hopefully inspiring Karl to make some fermentation happen. And really, we consume more than beer, though this shot of the fridge may lead you to think otherwise. We also have cheese and sauerkraut in there. And soy milk.

A pilsner, which unlike the amber ale we did the first time, needs to be cold to properly ferment. We aren't actually sure whether it is fermenting, though the "Ale Pail" (I didn't come up with that corny name--it came emblazoned on the side of what would otherwise be your standard five gallon white bucket) did have a healthy coating of gunk after its first fermentation:

(I realize it looks like puke. I assure you it is not.)

Brewing is a fairly straightforward process, especially if you buy a kit. The basic steps are: making wort, fermentation, conditioning, and bottling. Kits usually come with liquid malt extract, which when reconstituted in water produces wort (generally means unfermented beer), hops, and yeast. As you boil the water and malt, hops are added at two different points--the first for bitterness and the second time for flavor and aroma. The hops come in the form of compressed green pellets, a far cry from the vivid green pinecone-like hop flower that you see climbing poles in the fields. Just for kicks we tried one and it was truly terrible (Disclosure: I hate hoppy beer). It took a while to get that horrible bitter taste out of my mouth! After the wort is done boiling, the hot wort is poured into the Ale Pail (the first stage in the two-stage fermentation; Karl is second) filled with cold water. The yeast is then "pitched" (aka poured into the bucket), which, according to the Carl Sagan-inspired label, releases "billions and billions" of yeast into the wort and fermentation begins!

So now we wait... for Karl to make us some beer.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Master Cheesemaker, amateur edition

Living in America's Dairyland for more than six years now, I can attest that cheese (and attendant dairy products) truly is everywhere. I had never seen a cheese section so large as that at Woodman's (also the largest grocery store I'd ever been in) nor had I ever gone to a school where cheese was made on-site or where you could become certified as a master cheesemaker, or lived in a place where cheese curds are as ubiquitous as Coke and Pepsi. So it's really a wonder that took me so long to try to make some of my own.

I've been on a DIY food kick of late--my boyfriend and I have been brewing beer, growing mushrooms (edible not hallucinogenic... at least that I know of), and growing herbs, among other things, in our rather small place.

Enter the New England Cheesemaking Supply Company hard cheesemaking kit (for some reason I got two of them in the mail so the cheese gods must really want me to make some cheese). The kit was labeled for "beginners" but flipping through the instruction booklet, "beginner" must mean daughter of a milkmaid or at least a native of a dairy state (my hometown, Redmond, WA, is known for many of things, none of them milky). But I pushed on, confident in my abilities...

I decided to make feta, mostly because many of the other options, cheddar, colby, monteray jack, needed to age and wouldn't be ready until fall 2009--I'm not known for my patience. And despite lacking what appeared to be necessary equipment (who has a pot big enough for two gallons of milk that will then fit inside of another pot?), I did the best I could and produced, in 12 hours or so, a fairly passable feta. The instructions were a tad unclear at points--what exactly does "cut into convenient-sized blocks" mean?--but if it looks like feta and smells like... well, cheese, it must be okay. It might taste more feta-y if I had used goat's milk but cow is what I had so cow is what I used.

Master cheesemaker, here I come.