Shake the hand that feeds you…

…even when it’s covered with fish guts! Here’s my husband’s first attempt at an iMovie – all about our trip to Lummi Island to meet the wonderful fishermen and women who provide fish for the AAWSM fish-buying club that I manage: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yhvgCnV0r68.

A big thank you to Dave, Keith, Lynne, Morgan, Ian, Connor, and Tanner for showing us what they do to bring us their delightful salmon.

You can read more about Lummi Island Wild Reefnet Salmon on their site and all about our trip in the Simply: Home Cooking Newsletter, What’s Cooking? If you live in the Ann Arbor area and love wild-caugh ocean fish, email me about the buying club!

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Sugar Blues Workshop Re-run!

If you missed it the first time around…don’t miss it this time! Jeri & I are re-running the Sugar Blues Workshop on Saturday, September 22.

To help us plan, please be sure to let us know you’re coming: RSVP via email to simplyhomecooking(at)gmail(dot)com.

If you know of someone else who might benefit from this fun, informative workshop, you can send them a link to the flyer or download and print it: Sugar Blues Workshop 092212

Sugar Blues Workshop Flyer

Please join me in my new (ad)venture!

Beating the Sugar Blues

2011 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Syndey Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 24,000 times in 2011. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 9 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

A revolution is NOT a dinner party…but a dinner party could start a revolution?

A Revolution is Not a Dinner Party
– Mao Zedong

Alarmists decry the “secret Farm Bill,” although the failure of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction has now rendered it moot except possibly as an example of the surprising notion that politicians can occasionally work in a bi-partisan and bi-cameral fashion on America’s own version of the Five-Year Plan. Optimists note the increasing numbers of young people going back to the land and re-learning the simple arts of growing, cooking, and preserving food. In Fair Food: Growing a Healthy, Sustainable Food System for All, Oran Hesterman writes that the fair food movement may be the movement of this young generation, much as the anti-Vietnam War movement engaged the youth of the late sixties and early seventies. Can it be that America is indeed entering into a good food revolution that moves beyond the elitist foodie-dominated dinner party?

Cover image

It was with a sense of serendipity, then, that I read about a new Chinese cookbook: just in time for the holidays, The Cultural Revolution Cookbook, by Sasha Gong and Scott D. Seligman, is available from Earnshaw Books. Full of colorful socialist realist art and notes and stories from the Cultural Revolution, this book has accomplished what few memoirs, histories, and movies about the era have done – present a reflective, thoughtfully balanced view of what has largely come to be viewed as an experiment that my ‘tween daughter’s generation would label “an epic fail.”

Sasha Gong and Scott Seligman

Sasha Gong and Scott Seligman; photo by Alice Thurston

Sasha Gong was herself one of the many youth who were “sent down” to the countryside during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976, removed from city life to work and live with (and, Mao hoped, learn from) the peasants. There are plenty of accounts of this era that dwell on the horrors of life in poverty, of stretching flour with sawdust to make enough bread to survive, of the government manipulating the media to cover up famine statistics. Ironically, wasn’t there just a piece about American fast and processed food industries using cellulose – AKA wood pulp – as a filler and binder in their products, and  wasn’t there a take-down notice on another site that posted the story?

But back to The Cultural Revolution Cookbook, which takes the stance that while in retrospect, many of the sent-down youth came to view the era as “a tragic waste of their productive years and an unmitigated disaster for China,” the truth of the matter is that many of these young people went willingly and enthusiastically, ready to do Mao’s bidding in whatever project would build the new socialism. And in fact, these youth learned a great deal about life skills, particularly about cooking.  The ability to make do with what was available created a generation of cooks able to turn what was local, fresh, and seasonal (if scarce) into dishes that provided enough nourishment to get them through the arduous physical labor required of them.

Corn harvest

This, then, is the starting point for the recipes in this book – a limited number of readily-available ingredients, simple substitutions, and straightforward instructions – and in this the authors have been highly successful. Anyone intimidated by the idea of cooking (much less cooking something as exotic as Chinese food) will find this cookbook invitingly simple, and I am all for cookbooks that reintroduce the average American to the kitchen! Additionally, with its colorful art, entertaining and informative sidebars, and attractive food photography, this book would serve equally well as a cultural artifact and coffee-table book.

On to the cold hard facts: with a friend’s help, I tested 11 of the book’s 60 recipes twice, served them to dinner guests, and have the following comments:

  • Nine of the 11 recipes were resounding successes – they delivered exactly what the authors promise: simple foods simply prepared with tasty and attractive results. It was heartwarming to hear my leftover-averse ‘tween promise her friend that she’d bring the leftover “Sweet and Sour White Radish” (enough for both of them!) for lunch on Monday. Only one dish, the Vinegar-Glazed Chinese Cabbage, earned the comment, “Well, if my mother made this, I would eat it, but I wouldn’t like it!” (My Chinese-born husband, however, says that the dish is “the real thing.”) And only one dish, the Minced Pork and Scallion Cake, was much more problematic: the instructions omitted mincing the scallion, the amount of water added is truly excessive – it would seem 1 T is more appropriate than 1.5 c), and even an estimate of the amount of time to steam was not provided. This recipe, however, seems to be an exception: while I did not test more recipes, reading through all of them as someone who has studied culinary arts, I got the sense that they would largely be successful.
  • The ingredients are wonderfully limited in number, and most of them are whole, close-to-the-source foods (the only minimally processed items were soy sauce, vinegar, canned stock, and tofu). I was a bit taken aback by the amount of sugar used and reduced it in all recipes the second time around.
  • The substitutions suggested are mostly helpful, although I think telling the average American home cook that “any wine will do” may result in some Cabernet replacing what really should be more of a sherry-type wine.
  • The instructions are simple to follow, particularly if you read the prefatory sections on utensils and portions. I would have liked to have seen a bit more clarity on procedures that can make or break a dish, such as “boiling” when “simmering” would be more appropriate, and I was surprised to see the microwave called upon a few times – not because it’s an anachronism, but because there are other, simpler ways of heating tofu and making it easier to handle. Completely as a matter of personal preference relating to ease of use, I would rather the instructions be presented as a numbered list than as a paragraph. In general, it’s as though your mother or grandmother is teaching you to make a family favorite (including, sometimes, the sense that you should do it that way just because she says so!) A more curious student might wish for a bit more explanation of the “why” alongside the “how.” And while I followed the recipes exactly as written the first time through, I balked at the all-too-frequent instruction to heat the oil to smoking – while it may be the way Chinese cooks have done it for centuries, my American sense that heating the oil to the smoking point may render it unhealthy overruled my desire to follow the directions.

Huge pumpkin

In summary, from professional chefs (who will likely make tweaks as they go) to the average or aspiring home cook (who follows recipes to the letter), this book has a lot of food for thought as well as for cooking and enjoying with family and friends. I would not hesitate to recommend it, whether it’s for your own use in the home kitchen, as a gift for a fellow or aspiring cook, or for someone who has an interest in the Cultural Revolution period of modern Chinese history.

Thanks to the authors for providing the photos!

Simmered Chicken Livers

When our daughter was very young, we were fortunate to have a series of wonderful Chinese caregivers for her – they loved her as one of their own and spoiled her rotten: multi-dish hot lunches were the norm (is it any wonder she can’t think of a cold sandwich as lunch to this day?), and one of her very favorite dishes (although she’ll deny this vociferously now) was simmered chicken livers. One day she asked for this for dinner, so off to the store we went, only to find that the chicken livers were not available. A loud wailing ensued, and an older woman bent over the stroller: “Oh, honey, won’t your mommy buy you a cookie?” She totally did NOT believe that the tears were being shed over chicken livers….

Not a lot of people seem to eat liver these days, but my husband and I do like it, so we took advantage of some extra turkey livers being available at the farm where we buy our Thanksgiving turkey. This dish is quick and tasty (if you’re a fan of liver) and can be served hot, at room temperature, or cold.

ingredients

  • 1 lb chicken (or duck or turkey) livers
  • 1/4 c dark soy sauce
  • 1/4 c light soy sauce
  • 1/4 c Shaoxing cooking wine
  • 1 T brown or raw cane sugar
  • 1/2-3/4 c water
  • 2 scallions, cut into 2″ sections
  • 3 slices fresh ginger root
  • 2 cloves star anise or 1/2 tsp anise seed
  • 1/2 tsp peppercorns

method

  1. Boil 4 c water, then pour it over the livers in a bowl. Give it a gentle stir, then drain and rinse the livers in cold water.
  2. Combine the remaining ingredients in a small pot, add the livers, and bring to a boil over medium high heat. Immediately reduce the heat to low and simmer 10 m.
  3. Turn off the heat and allow the livers to sit another 5 m.
  4. Cut into bite-sized pieces and serve hot, drizzled with a bit of the liquid.

variation

You can remove the livers from the liquid and reduce it at a rolling boil, then use the resulting syrup as a drizzle on the livers.

do ahead

This dish can be made up to 3 days ahead of time and either served cold or gently reheated. Store the livers in the liquid in a tightly covered container in the refrigerator.

 

Paying the farmer’s asking price…and increasing the farmer’s share

Rural SCALE recently released a study on the affordability of local food for the average consumer, collecting data from 24 farmers’ markets in 19 communities in 6 southeastern states. The study concludes that

Overall, farmers markets in the Southeast and Appalachia are highly competitive with mainstream supermarkets in their pricing on a range of commonly consumed foods, including produce, meats and eggs. (Emphasis in the original.)

Naturally, one might draw different conclusions from similar studies of other regions, but there are some interesting statistics (and generalizable conclusions?) about size of community and prices at farmers’ markets that sell to moderate- and low-income patrons, those who might believe that the local food movement has passed them by.

Then consider this graphic by the National Farmers Union: Farmer’s Share of Retail Food Dollar. I’m not so interested in the startling figures on processed foods (soft drinks, potato chips, bread) because few of the raw ingredients are actually supplied by a farmer. Far more disturbing are the figures on whole, minimally processed ingredients. Take the produce section of a conventional supermarket (think Safeway, Kroger, etc.), for example: farmers receive anywhere from 10.3 cents on the dollar for lettuce to 30 cents on the dollar for carrots.

Now think about buying this produce at a farmers’ market or directly from a farmer: if it’s true that the prices at the farmers’ market are comparable to those of the supermarket for comparable items, the farmer will suddenly have $4.59 (instead of $1.38) in his pocket for 5 pounds of carrots; $3.08 (instead of $0.27) for a pound of tomatoes, etc.

Buying local food at the farmers’ market certainly seems like a win-win for farmers and consumers.