feed a fever

Dinner: January 6, 2013

I’ve always been pretty proud of my ability to think on my feet. It’s a skill that has served me well at my day job, but it has proven to be invaluable since I became a mom. You just never know what the day will bring.

We’ve been lucky – Julian has been extremely healthy and robust, but yesterday he just wasn’t feeling like himself. He had had some immunizations at his 15-month checkup late last month, and his doctor warned us he might show some delayed symptoms about a week after; right on schedule, he was cranky and fussy and spiked his very first fever Sunday morning. We tried time and again to put him down for a nap in his crib, but he wasn’t having it, so I nestled him close to me in the big bed, and read while he drifted off, staying with him for nearly three hours.

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He slept deeply and well, his fever broke, and he woke with a smile on his face, but I had to shelve my original plan for dinner. Something brothy and comforting seemed like just what we all needed, so I put a small pot of beans on the stove and got to chopping while Mike took over tending to our boy.

foundation

I was inspired by a beautiful pot of minestrone I saw on Pinterest, so I cobbled together my own version, rich with alliums and fennel, carrots and parsnips, cabbage and kale, good canned tomatoes, fresh rosemary, thyme, and bay. I added a dash of Worcestershire for savoriness and a splash of Sherry vinegar for brightness, the cooked beans and their broth for heft, and a parmesan rind for the wonderful richness it imparts. I didn’t have any soup pasta around, but I did have a bag of par-cooked whole wheat spirals in the freezer left over from a previous meal, so I thawed them and stirred them gently into the soup until they were just warmed through.

celery leaves and garlic

I also had a bunch of leafy celery in the crisper, so I pulled off a big handful of the leaves to make a quick gremolata of sorts, chopping them fine and combining them with garlic and lemon zest and coarse pink salt, plus a little bit of olive oil to make a chunky paste, which I swirled on top of our soup bowls.

last-minute minestrone

We settled in at the table, passing a tray of cheese-dusted, garlicky toasts for dunking, and even Julian ate with gusto. I guess a good pot of soup really is the cure for what’s ailing you.

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Gallus gallus domesticus: A dissertationicus

Hey, it’s Dietsch. I haven’t posted here in a while, but I wanted to talk about something important: where we get our food.

More specifically, where we get our chicken. Chicken is important to us because it’s the meat we eat most often. It’s relatively lean, but as everyone knows, when it’s cooked and sourced well, it’s flavorful. Julian loves it. But, unfortunately, finding good quality but inexpensive chicken is surprisingly difficult.

Because we eat chicken so often, we want to make sure we’re eating good stuff. It doesn’t need to be organic, although that’s nice, but we certainly don’t want antibiotics or hormones in the meat. Free-range birds that eat grubs and grasses tend to taste better than birds raised indoors on a grain diet, but to find birds like that, you need farmer’s markets. And with a toddler, getting to the farmer’s market is harder now than it used to be. (We have one in the neighborhood; more on that later.)

One thing we’re adamant about, though: no Tyson, no Perdue, no Swift. None of the stuff you find at most major groceries. We’re building a boy here; we don’t want to flood him with chemicals.

brick chicken 2

Since moving back to Brooklyn in June, we’ve had to start over again on the task of researching our best food sources. In Providence, we had things nailed down pretty tightly. We knew who had our favorite chickens, for example (Pat’s Pastured), and we knew what our second and third choices were — which farmer’s market and grocery birds were reasonably good choices, if we couldn’t buy from Pat.

During our first stint in Brooklyn, things were also pretty set. I worked for a while near Union Square, so getting to the Greenmarket three times a week was pretty easy. I’d swing through in the morning or at lunch, cache my stash in the communal fridge, and haul it home at the end of the day. (Our favorite chickens in our swinging DINK days? Tamarack Hollow, Violet Hill, and Flying Pigs. It’s hard to say which of the three we liked best.)

This go-around, things have changed. I work from home now, writing and taking care of Julian. I’ve tried going into Union Square with him during the week, but to get him on the subway, I have to wear him in the carrier, and hauling 22 pounds of baby and Greenmarket goods home is pretty stressful.

We have a small Greenmarket on Cortelyou Road on Sundays. We get beautiful eggs from Knoll Krest Farm, but we haven’t asked them yet about chicken. (Years ago, we bought some stewing hens from their USQ stand and they were delicious, but I don’t know whether they sell young chickens, or just older laying hens for stewing.)

We make out okay in this neighborhood for grocery stores. I mean, we’re unlikely to ever see a Whole Foods or a Trader Joe’s here, and that’s okay with me, but we have a couple of C-Towns, a Met, and a Key Food. And also on Cortelyou, we have the Flatbush Food Co-op. Unlike the more famous Park Slope Food Co-op, you can shop at Flatbush without being a member.

Chicken offerings at Flatbush include Eberly, Wise, Free Bird, and Bell & Evans. Eberly birds are raised by Amish and Mennonite farmers in Pennsylvania. Eberly is organic and offers its birds at least some access to the outdoors. (I probably don’t need to explain how loose the term “free range” is; it’s hard to know how much outdoor access a “free-range” bird really gets.) We’ve had Eberly’s chickens many times and are satisfied. Its turkey was the centerpiece of our beautiful Thanksgiving feast this year.

Wise is a kosher operation, but it’s also organic. As with Eberly, its birds have some outdoor access. The birds are raised by “a group of ten small family farms” in Pennsylvania. We’ve also been satisfied with Wise chicken.

Free Bird is another organic producer. Free Bird’s birds are cage-free, which I don’t think Eberly or Wise claim to do. Its birds are raised on farms in the Amish country of Pennsylvania. Free Bird would be my top choice at the Food Co-op, but Flatbush doesn’t always have it in stock. When it’s out, I go with Eberly or Wise.

Bell & Evans sells some birds that are organic and some that are not; it says its birds are free-range. Like the first three, its birds are raised in Pennsylvania. We like B&E birds, but Bell & Evans sells EVERYWHERE; I don’t feel like they need my custom.

brick chicken 1

Prices vary, but generally, these four options run about $3.99 to $4.99 a pound. I don’t mind paying a premium for quality meat, raised in relatively humane circumstances without a lot of crap added to it, but still, with a kid, that’s pricey.

Recently, though, I’ve started to realize there’s another option. We went into Chelsea Market a few times, after we moved back, and while there, we stocked up on meats from Dickson’s Farmstand Meats. The Dickson’s site is pretty transparent about its sourcing, so I learned that their delicious chickens come from a distributor called Madani Halal in Queens. The birds are shipped live to Madani from Amish farms in — yes — Pennsylvania. They’re raised cage-free, without antibiotics, and on a purely vegetarian diet.

Now, Dickson’s birds are wonderful, as is all their stuff, but they’re also pricey: $5.00 a pound. At prices like that, even humble chicken ceases to be a weekly staple of your diet.

However, we live in an area of Brooklyn known as Little Pakistan, an area that has drawn Pakistani immigrants for generations. We have halal shops everywhere. Walk up or down Coney Island Avenue, anywhere south of Church Avenue, and you can’t miss them.

One shop, a bodega/butcher’s called Evergreen, is just around the corner from our apartment. At Evergreen, if you want jasmine rice, the smallest bag available is five pounds. If you have room to store a 30-pound bag, Evergreen can hook you up. Also, if you’re nuts about curries, this is the place for you; every curry spice and blend imaginable is for sale here. Fenugreek, coriander, cumin, turmeric, garam masala — you can buy them all for a pittance.

Halal, if you don’t know, is the Muslim equivalent to kosher law. The strictures are quite similar. No blood, no pork. Animals must be treated humanely, and must be slaughtered in such a way as to minimize suffering. (Although the exact method of slaughter has prompted some controversy; the Wiki entry on halal has a summary.)

Halal meat, like kosher meat, generally carries a tag or a mark to indicate that it’s safe to eat for adherents of the respective religion. So thanks to this tag, I learned that Evergreen’s chickens come from Senat Poultry, in Paterson, New Jersey.

Well, they’re slaughtered in Paterson. The chickens themselves are raised on … wait for it, wait for it … Amish farms in Pennsylvania. They’re vegetarian-fed, free-roaming birds, raised without antibiotics or hormones.

To our palates, they’re just as good as anything we can get at the co-op, and they’re as good as the birds we were getting at Dickson’s. They’re not specifically organic, but that’s the only difference between Senat’s birds and those from Eberly, et al.

Oh, wait, there’s one other difference, and this one’s major.

Evergreen charges me 2 bucks a pound. Those, my friends, are mass-market grocery prices — what you’d pay for Tyson birds at C-Town.

We’ve had better birds from the farmer’s markets, sure. But a four-pounder from Evergreen costs me $8.00, whereas a bird from a Greenmarket vendor might cost me as much as $6.00 a pound, or $24. Is that bird three times as good? I cannot honestly say “Yes.”

So, let’s sum up.

Co-op birds — Eberly, Wise, Free Bird, B&E:

  • Organic (mostly; some B&E birds aren’t)
  • Free roaming
  • Hormone and antibiotic free
  • Vegetarian diet
  • $3.99 to $4.99 a pound

Dickson’s birds:

  • Halal
  • Free roaming
  • Not organic, but hormone and antibiotic free
  • Veggie diet
  • $5.00 a pound

Evergreen:

  • Halal
  • Free roaming
  • Not organic, but hormone and antibiotic free
  • Veggie diet
  • $2.00 a pound

merry and bright

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Mike posted the following on Facebook the other day:

“2012: two surgeries for baby and a huge move for all of us. Plus first words, first steps, first foods. I mean, really, what a year.”

And that really sums it up.

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The three of us have enjoyed a pretty low-key Christmas holiday, filled with plenty of good food, and more importantly, lots of togetherness. A little calm is so welcome after the year we’ve had.

chestnuts roasting

I have no idea what 2013 will bring, but I’m so glad to be ringing it in right back where we belong. I’m looking forward to settling in, to a year of growth rather than big change. We’ll see what fate has in store for us this go-round.

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And to all of you, we wish health, peace, and happiness in the coming year. Our heartfelt thanks for sharing this wild ride with us.

12 Months | 12 Dishes: Chicken and Dumplings

chicken and buttermilk-herb dumplings

Remember back in October when we decided to take on a little cooking project? Well, a lot has happened since then, but we’re back on track now, and well on our way to coming up with a great version of chicken and dumplings.

We’ve tried three different versions so far, each of which had things we loved and things we found lacking. Mike kicked off the cooking with Elise’s version from Simply Recipes. We thought the stew had great flavor, but the dumplings were a little denser than we wanted (possibly because we didn’t have cake flour on hand, so we used AP flour instead).

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Next we tried Martha’s version, which had lighter dumplings, but a less-flavorful stew. We thought maybe we’d just take Elise’s stew and Martha’s dumplings for a third version, but after looking at a few more recipes, I decided to go in a different direction, putting together my own version of the dish.

I used six bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs (about 2.5 lbs. worth), salting them well and browning the skins in butter before putting them in the oven to finish cooking through. I then took a couple of leeks, a few peeled carrots, and a couple of celery stalks, chopped them small, and softened them in the rendered fat, then sprinkled a bit of Wondra on them and stirred it through to coat the vegetables. I let that cook for a few minutes, then added about 6 cups of our rich homemade chicken stock and several sprigs of fresh thyme.

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For the dumplings, I took a page from this recipe, which originally comes from America’s Test Kitchen. I loved the idea of buttermilk in the dumplings, but without an immediate use for a yolk, didn’t want to sacrifice an egg to the cause. I also liked the idea of adding a bit of Dijon mustard to the dumplings, a la Thomas Keller. So I ended up combining two cups of AP flour with a teaspoon of kosher salt and 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda in one bowl, and a tablespoon of Dijon, 4 tablespoons of melted butter, and 3/4 cups of buttermilk in another bowl. When I combined the wet and dry ingredients, I found the mixture to be a bit too dry, so I added another 1/4 cup of buttermilk. Finally, since I had a huge pile of herbs for the stew in front of me, I figured I’d add some to the dumpling dough as well – about a third of a cup or so of chopped fresh parsley and chives.

Dinner: December 5, 2012

When the chicken was cooked through, I shredded the meat off the bones (we snacked on the crispy skin) and added it to the stew. I plopped in some frozen peas, adjusted the seasoning, then brought the heat up and began dropping spoonfuls of the dumpling mixture in. I popped the lid back on the pot to let the dumplings cook through, then served our chicken and dumplings with the rest of my chopped fresh herbs on top.

We would have liked the stew to be a bit thicker and creamier, but the flavor was great, and these dumplings were the best yet, light and fluffy and delicately tangy from the buttermilk and mustard. While we’ve got a few more chicken and dumpling recipes we want to try during the remainder of the month, I think we’re very close to finding our winner.

abundance

black-eyes

Our apartment juts up against a part of Brooklyn that’s often referred to as “Little Pakistan.” There’s a nearby stretch of Coney Island Avenue that’s dotted with Halal butchers and take-out joints, fruit markets and ethnic grocers. The aroma of grilled meats and spice as I walk home from the subway each night is intoxicating.

I’ve only recently begun to scope these markets out in earnest, as I strategize how best to spend every cent of our weekly food budget. At one market, you can get a 10-pound bag of onions for $2.89, a fact I file away for the next time I need to know how to feed us on next to nothing. I think of soups and tarts, and that panade I made recently that was a massive pain in the ass to assemble, but seriously delicious, all worth it in the end. Stale bread and a pile of onions cooked down until tender, with greens and a little good cheese and a lot of rich broth, truly greater than the sum of its parts. I hoard the bones from every chicken we cook at home, stash them in the freezer to turn them into gold, bolstered with a package or two of cheap feet and neck bones. We’ll always have good stock around.

making stock

Just months ago I spent $8 on a dozen eggs from some handsome young farmers at Union Square, laid by pampered, pastured chickens. A lot of people would be scandalized at that price tag, but I have grown to appreciate really great eggs in recent years, and they’re still a cheap source of protein at nearly a buck apiece. These had taut, perky whites and saffron yolks, and they were worth every penny, but our reality doesn’t allow for such frivolity right now. I’ll still pay $4 or $5 for our eggs at the farmers’ market, though, for as long as our budget will allow. A really great egg is a treasure, a small luxury I’m not yet willing to deny us.

collards

I’ve learned over the last few years how to carve a 49 cent head of cabbage into fluffy ribbons, and cook them down into silky submission. I toss them with long strands of pasta, a mountain of finely grated, sharp-salty cheese, and plenty of black pepper, a recreation of a long-ago restaurant meal shared with a visiting friend the first time we lived in New York. If we have bacon around, I’ll add that, too, crisp little batons studding the tangles of cabbage and spaghetti. A little goes a long way.

I am especially grateful, these days, for those little fruit markets and ethnic grocers along that stretch of Coney Island Avenue near our apartment, with their cheap sacks of onions and aromatic rice, their 4-pound bags of dried beans and legumes, their dense cabbages and bright bundles of hearty greens just waiting to be turned into a simple, but delicious meal. So long as we have our beans and greens, our broth and bread and a dozen great eggs, we have plenty, and we will eat well.

the shape of a Sunday

granola, pre-bake

A few days ago, Mike asked if I would make a batch of granola. I did, and decided to try adding an egg white for extra clumpiness, a trick I had seen mentioned in a few different places recently.

That meant, of course, that we had an extra yolk around. And you know I couldn’t let that go to waste.

good eggs

We’ve gotten a couple of bags of local AP flour from Cayuga Pure Organics in the months that we’ve been back in New York, and I adore how it performs in fresh pasta dough. These Knoll Crest Farm eggs are pretty great, too.

sauce on the bubble

I had also gotten a great deal on some locally-raised ground Angus beef, so I pulled together a rich, slow-cooked meat sauce to go with our pasta, and while the sauce bubbled away and my granola cooled, I whipped up a few other things for our little guy to eat during the week.

roasted sweet potato wedges

A tray of little sweet potato wedges, just slicked with olive oil and a sprinkle of sea salt, went into the oven to roast along with a batch of Judy Rodgers’ Roasted Applesauce.

Baldwins

I make this stuff just about every week – it is the easiest and best applesauce ever, and we all love it. This time I used some heirloom Baldwin apples we picked up at the farmers market earlier in the day.

I also cooked up a pot of Broccoli Cooked Forever, minus the hot peppers, as a side to our baked pasta and to have around for Julian this week – it’s one of his favorites (though very un-photogenic).

Dinner: December 2, 2012

I was craving a baked pasta, so I decided to do something a little different, canneloni-inspired, if you will. I cut my fresh pasta sheets into square sections, and blanched them as I do for lasagna. Once shocked and patted dry, I added a swipe of seasoned ricotta to each, rolled them into cigars, and set them on a bed of my sauce, with more sauce spooned over the tops. I baked them for half an hour or so, covered, then removed their tinfoil cap, grated on some cheese, and put them back in the oven to get bubbly.

tot-sized

Julian got a pint-sized portion of his own, and a chance to work on his fork skills.

concentration

He’s a natural, don’t you think?