Welcome to austinagrodolce … My family and I garden with more intention and enthusiasm than allocated budget or overall design plan. It shows. Wildlife populations don't seem to notice our lack of cohesive design, they just like the native plants here. It seems by growing local we've thrown out a welcome mat. Occasionally, we're surprised at who (and what) shows up.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

A rose by any other name...

It is always a combination of delight and frustration for me when somebody I cook for regularly tries a dish they have steadfastly refused at home either in a restaurant or at somebody else's house, then proclaims it delicious, a new favorite.

I'll never forget the amused reaction my 8 year old son's friend's mother had when I pressed her for the recipe of the "Mom you've got to find out how she makes it" chicken she'd fed him at their house the night before. She played me along for a bit, telling me it was a big family secret - if she shared it I had to promise never to reveal she'd betrayed her vow of silence.

The big secret? A Tyson brand whole roasted chicken that she'd chopped into serving pieces and warmed through.

Up side? At least I could duplicate that, no worries.

I have two family members who are downright dedicated non-eggplant eaters. I've got a truly delicious caponata recipe they both liked - until they found out they were eating eggplant. They still liked the taste but tend to avoid eating it or encouraging me to make any when they remember it has eggplant as a major component. However, as long as they are properly distracted/amnestic about the ingredients - or nearly starving - they'll dig right in and admit it is flat out GOOD.

And it was just that combination - unknown ingredients plus a ravenous appetite- that prompted my sweet husband to slather some of the dip provided in the restaurant at our hotel in Arizona on grilled flatbread while we waited for the rest of our lunch to arrive last Wednesday.

We'd left a seasonably cold and drizzly Austin earlier that day, stressed over the potential of not finding a parking space and/or missing our flight, survived the Southwest Airlines cattle call seating process, then bounced and jostled our way through turbulent skies to the airport in Phoenix. We were staying in Scottsdale, a good 40 minutes away, and by the time we dropped bags off in our room it was well past lunchtime and we were STARVING.

We played our version of the maddening "Where do you want to eat?", "I don't know - where do YOU want to eat?" game in the elevator and pretty much stumbled over to the first restaurant we saw. We gratefully accepted water, ordered, and tried to get our bearings.

I'd heard the waiter announce "roasted eggplant" as he placed the dip on our table, but my husband was busy looking out at the gardens and golf course just beyond the windows. He dipped, he bit, he pronounced. "This is great" he enthused as he reached for more.

"This is most likely a version of Baba Ghanoush" I shared. "Roasted eggplant with lemon and garlic and I can't remember what else.". I couldn't remember because I'd never thought to try this out on my "no eggplant parmesean/caponata for me ever!" cast of regulars at the dinner table.

But that is all changed now. Thanks to the great folks at Nellie Cashman's Monday Club Cafe at Westin's Kierland Resort in Scottsdale, I have a recent eggplant convert on my hands. A change in fortune which dovetails neatly with a near unanimous family decision to eat less animal protein and more vegetables. Or at least to try.

I figure the rich and filling Baba Ghanoush, served with warmed pita bread, will be a great supplement to a large dinner salad with just a sprinkling of leftover grilled chicken on top. Since this is my first try at "homemade", I'll wing it with a half-batch for starters so as not to be left with a bowl of deliciously high calorie spread that only I find irresistible. The point of this is to eat less overall, not more.
I'll be back later with a report on how this tastes. Meanwhile, here's the recipe:

Two one pound eggplants cut in half lengthwise
one quarter cup olive oil
one quarter cup tahini
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 garlic clove, chopped
Pita bread wedges

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. On a well oiled rimmed baking sheet place eggplant halves, cut side down, and roast until very soft, about 45 minutes.

Cool slightly, then using a spoon scoop out pulp into a strainer set over a bowl. Let drain for 30 minutes.

Transfer pulp to food processor. Add oil, juice and garlic; process until almost smooth. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Transfer to a small bowl and serve at room temperature with pita wedges.

Notes: Various other recipes advised letting the mixture sit for a few hours in the refrigerator before serving for the flavors to fully develop and blend. I plan on doing just that. I'm also going to try drizzling with olive oil and then warming the pita bread in my panini maker and see how we like that. So far? Panini = delicious.

I'm going to post now and get dinner on the table. If this turns out to be a spectacular failure I'll update with a warning. Otherwise, let the eggplant rumpus begin!

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Twelve Commandments for Serious Eaters

Here are Michael Pollan's "Twelve Commandments for Serious Eaters", from his new book, "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto".

As Pollan writes on his website: "Food. There's plenty of it around, and we all love to eat it. So why should anyone need to defend it?

Because most of what we're consuming today is not food, and how we're consuming it -- in the car, in front of the TV, and increasingly alone -- is not really eating."

So how do we assure we are eating real food and past that, really eating - not just consuming? Read on:

1. "Don't eat anything your grandmother wouldn't recognize as food."

2. "Avoid foods containing ingredients you can't pronounce."

3. "Don't eat anything that won't eventually rot."

4. "Avoid food products that carry health claims."

5. "Shop the peripheries of the supermarket; stay out of the middle."

6. "Better yet, buy food somewhere else: the farmers' market or CSA."

7. "Pay more, eat less."

8. "Eat a wide variety of species."

9. "Eat food from animals that eat grass."

10. "Cook, and if you can, grow some of your own food."

11. "Eat meals and eat them only at tables."

12. "Eat deliberately, with other people whenever possible, and always with pleasure."

What are your reactions?

I have my own thoughts which I'll save for another time. I want you to have a chance to react to what Pollan has written without my framing to interfere or distract.

As always Pollan is a provocative read. Whatever you might think of his "commandments" - he has certainly cooked up some serious food for thought.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Eggstravagantly Local

I've bragged (incessantly) on here that my son is a chef.

Well, my daughter is a CPA. Not a Certified Public Accountant, but a Certified Permaculture Apprentice. This comes after having studied abroad in central Brazil in a program run by Amherst jointly with Ecoversidad.

This means various things in various situations but mostly that she can tell me sternly how I need to be turning my compost heap at least twice a month and get away with it. She knows about compost heaps and how they work and why they have to have a certain balance of materials and be nurtured in order to do their intended work.

My daughter is the one who got the Omnivore's Dilemma book for a gift at Christmas, read it enthusiastically, and thereafter redoubled her efforts to get me to the Farmer's Market to use my food dollars in ways that support local growers and more sustainable food sourcing.

When I ended up with fresh eggs from the Market last Saturday, it was this same CPA/Dilemma Daughter who was excited over the prospect of seeing firsthand what Pollan was writing about in the section of the book that served not only as a paean to fresh farm eggs from uncaged, unclipped chickens but also as an extended commercial for the Incredible Edible Egg.

My market eggs are not organic, Hairston Farms uses some commercial feed for their small flock. However, their birds are pastured rather than caged, and have free access to grass, bugs, and whatever else chickens living loose like to find and eat on their own. Organic or not, these are, doubtless, content chickens in contrast to the caged, de-beaked critters whose eggs I usually buy. Definitely worth celebrating.

What, we asked ourselves, would be the best test of the visual and gustatory advantages of our Hairston Creek Farm orbs?

My daughter Eureka'ed first - Eggs Benedict.

Eggs Benedict is one of those "every time we are on vacation or eating out for brunch" favorites for both my daughter and I. It has acquired the status of special celebratory food, especially given my reluctance to prepare it at home.

I made Hollandaise sauce once from scratch and checked that off my lifetime list as "done". It isn't that Hollandaise is difficult to prepare or that it takes so much extra time or energy or uses too many bowls or any of that. For me it is mostly that in order to eat Hollandaise sauce without feeling I am begging for a heart attack, I need not to have such recent knowledge of the ingredients.

However, my daughter had some pancetta on hand that she'd ended up with the same way I now have Italian Seasoned bread crumbs (it was right next to what she wanted and thought she was grabbing...). We decided to use our amazing free range eggs to make Hollandaise from scratch, prepare Eggs Benedict, and use up her pancetta in place of Canadian bacon.

So we did just that. Michael Pollan was right - the eggs do have better flavor all round and the yolks were amazingly colored as the result of a varied, more natural diet offered a free ranging hen. See for yourself. We also enjoyed organic grapefruit from the market, and more than that, the understanding our meal was composed of at least some ingredients that came from within three counties of where we live.

Today I am making Butternut Squash Soup following one of the video recipes Whole Foods provides on their "Secret Ingredient Video Blog". I'd hoped to procure a squash from the Farmer's Market, but couldn't find any. I ended up with a squash from my grocery store, a local chain at least, and it is called a "Big Chuy" which I admit I kinda like. Peeling the squash demonstrated for me how seriously dull my knives are, which is a sure sign of dissolute living, and in order to feel better about myself, after I took the squash skin peelings out and dumped them in, I actually turned our compost pile. That is not an activity for the faint of heart, certainly, but it did serve to restore my self esteem to some extent to be a person who A) actually has a compost pile; 2) has a daughter who knows to tell her to turn the stuff at least twice a month; and B) finally turned the durn thing.

The Eggs Benedict the other night was amazing and delicious. The pancetta was not just a substitute for Canadian Bacon, but an improvement. If I ever do make Eggs Benedict again at home, pancetta will be on the plate.

I am hopeful the Butternut Squash Soup (southwestern version) will receive similar high marks. My Big Chuy may not be local, but the host chef for Whole Foods, Scott Simons, IS. The thyme stirred in and the cilantro to garnish on top the soup are from the back yard, and the Nilgai sausage I added to satisfy my carnivorous type omnivores is from south Texas by at least 4-5 generations.

The soup tonight will be served with cumin seasoned roasted pumpkin seeds, a step I'll reserve for immediately pre-dinner to take advantage of the aromas I anticipate. I'll be sprinkling the soup with Queso Fresco from Industry, California and serving flour tortillas alonside that come "listas para el comal" via Guerrero bakeries in Irving, Texas. When all is said and done, that will be plenty local enough for me for tonight.

Saturday, January 12, 2008


Smug Alert: I went to the Farmer's Market today and I am feeling pretty satisfied.

I realize going is it's own reward, and there is no reason to get all self congratulatory over this, and yet I do feel slightly superior to anybody who did not go to an open air market and buy fresh, organic, locally grown produce today.

The fact this is the first time I have done so in a matter of a year or so is totally beside the point. It is January of 2008, and at the moment all that counts is THIS year. So far this year I am doing pretty well with the percentage of food purchased from a local vendor. Fully half my trips for food have been to a Farmer's Market. This year.

I'd been highly motivated recently because over the holidays I read Michael Pollan's excellent "Omnivore's Dilemma" and I urge you sincerely: BUY and READ THIS BOOK! It was on the bestseller lists for a reason and there is renewed buzz about it as Pollan has released another book "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto".

To get further into the mood earlier I was reading an interview with Alice Waters from over a year ago where she made her own case for shopping in a Farmer's Market. Waters' stories of chatting with farmers, learning how they raised their crops and taking time to personally thank and encourage them, were charming. Thanks to Pollan and Waters and others, there is a growing movement afoot for everybody to go to whatever trouble it takes to determine where our food comes from, who grew it, and how.

I was all set to take my environmentally groovy shopping bags and conversational skills out to "Encourage Central Texas Farmers" on my own this morning. I double checked the directions, pressed my husband into Sherpa Service, and off we went to the Sunset Valley Farmers Market.

I was pleasantly surprised to see a multitude of canopied stalls arranged around an open air dining area of sorts in the lot of AISD's Toney Burger Center complex. Today was a beautiful sunshiney 58 degree January day, but beginning as early as April, those covered stalls will begin to demonstrate their practicality as the temperatures climb.

As long as you ignored where you were in the larger sense - on one side of an ENORMOUS span of asphalt, it was a pretty crunchy scenario. "Only in Texas" will you find them selling organic fruits, vegetables, soy candles, grass fed bison, beef, pork, and free range eggs out on the asphalt that alternately serves as the parking for one of the area's largest outdoor football venues/headquarters for the District's athletics department.There was live music. There were loads of young families with strollers and plenty of coots and codgers who reminded me poignantly of my Dad and my father-in-law. Both of them were accomplished gardeners in their own right, and both were the kinds of guys who would have blissfully spent the morning roaming stall to stall to talk about how things were growing.And, as Alice Waters directed, that is precisely what I wanted to do, only the market was such a bustle of people choosing and lining up and paying for their produce that there were no opportunities to stand around and chat about anything other than how much are these and did I have a bag or need one.That miniscule disappointment aside, I did pretty well for my first foray. Or at least that is what I think right now, while all of it is still fresh, still enticing, and still waiting for me to do something with it to move it from "Raw Produce" to "Meal".

I already have recipes or applications in mind for most of what I bought. I hope to share more of that in the days to come. As I could not completely control the amounts of everything I bought, my goal is for at least 85 percent of the food to be prepared and enjoyed before beginning that short trip from produce to compost..So far my smugness is tempered by the realization that one trip to the Farmer's Market does not a locovore make.

But I am resolved to have locally grown food be a larger part of our diet this year. If I can get to a Farmer's Market at least once a month, that will do for starters. Maybe one of these Saturdays I will hit the market during a lull and actually get to chat up a farmer. When that happens, I sure hope I remember to say "thank you!".....

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Twas the Season

to be jolly. Because, as we all know, fat folks are jolly.

And if I did not start out as officially "fat" this past holiday season, my philosophical "live and let live as long as I can get another bowl of that Chex Party Mix, and while you're up would you get me another glass of wine?" stance did lead to a certain heaviness of body, if not of spirit.

So while still not "officially according to the charts" fat (yet), I am what is equally distressing. I am "fat for me". Which does not, unfortunately, lead to jollity in my case.

What it does lead to is that slightly less fun shock of recognition when reading, say, Rosencrans Baldwin's "Bonne AnnĂ©e" as he describes his fellow worker's post holiday debrief, "The first day back at work in January, a dozen people in my office gathered ‘round to wish each other happy new year. Then they got down to work: comparing how much foie gras they’d eaten over the break; the quantities and types of foie gras, and over how many meals; how it had been prepared; what it had been accompanied by; what wines were drunk alongside. Then it was time for lunch.".

I have been obsessed with food lately. Given the chance, I take time to make something delicious to eat. If I am not reading about food, or watching a show about food or cooking, I am cooking. Or worse, eating.

Case in point. I walk several times a week for exercise. The other day a fellow walker emailed me to let me know her morning was getting off to a slow start and she'd need a few extra minutes before we headed out.

Somehow, rather than taking that little window of time to say, clean out a drawer or drop to the floor and give an imaginary drill sergeant some random number of push-ups, I instead found a Molly Katzen recipe for Roasted Red Pepper with Garlic and Lime from her "The Vegetable Dishes I Can't Live Without" and whipped up a small batch.

It is delicious and I've already sampled it two ways. Once as suggested, on crostini with goat cheese and once on top of a beautiful green salad. At least the salad was, well a SALAD.

Setting aside my angst surrounding (over) eating for a moment, I have to tell you, this is a great recipe. Very simple yet it yields intense flavors from a few fresh ingredients you may already have on hand.
Roasted Red Peppers with Garlic and Lime

4 servings

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
5 large red bell peppers
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1/4 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
1 teaspoon minced or crushed garlic (I think the garlic flavor permeates faster/better when crushed)
Freshly ground black pepper to taste

1) Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking tray with foil and coat with about 1 tablespoon of the olive oil.

2) Place the peppers on the tray, laying them on their sides. Roast in the center of the oven about 30-35 minutes, turning the peppers with tongs every 5-8 minutes so they will roast - and blister - fairly evenly.

3) When the peppers are quite soft and the skins have darkened and are pulling away from the flesh, remove tray from oven. Use tongs to transfer the peppers to a bowl and cover with a plate. Let sit until peppers are cool enough to handle comfortably. (The peppers will express flavorful juices. Save this to use in soup, sauce or stock.)

4) Peel each pepper, using your hands and/or a paring knife. Remove and discard the stems and seeds. Cut the peppers into small cubes or strips and transfer them to a second medium sized bowl.

5) Add the remaining ingredients and mix gently. Cover tightly and refrigerate for at least 4 hours before serving. Serve cold or at room temperature.
Serving suggestions: Top crostini spread with chevre (shown above) or use as a relish for meat. Sprinkle into salads.

This dish keeps, refrigerated, for up to a week and the flavor improves with time. And it is beautiful. A treat for the eyes as well as the palate. Thanks, Molly, and pass the fat pants, please.