Pie Time!

After giving me an amazing blown glass rolling pin for my birthday(!), Ora challenged me to make a pie a week for the duration of the summer and share my adventures on The Big Ceci. Upon accepting that challenge I had only made one pie in my entire life…so we might be in for a bumpy ride, folks.

Growing up in rural Ohio, we had a few rhubarb plants in our yard, and since my birthday is in late May (rhubarb season) my mom has always made me a rhubarb pie for my birthday. So I thought it only fitting to start my pie-perfecting journey with a rhubarb pie…and here it is:

I used Martha Stewart’s recipe, and I’m going to be honest, people: it’s one of the best damn pies I have ever had! Perfect amount of sweet-tartness and buttery-flakeyness. My mom uses flour as a thickener but cornstarch is much better. Flour makes the glaze cloudy and can change the flavor but cornstarch is flavorless and makes a really glossy thick glaze. I used a bit less sugar in the filling than called for as there is sugar in the filling and in the crumble top. I like it tart!

Also, while doing some quick research on rhubarb I found this:

“Rhubarb is usually considered to be a vegetable; however, in the United States, a New York court decided in 1947 that since it was used in the United States as a fruit it was to be counted as a fruit for the purposes of regulations and duties. A side effect was a reduction in taxes paid.” (“Rhubarb,” Wikipedia)

What kind of government takes a plant to court? Rhubarb is “usually considered” to be a vegetable because it is one. Fruits, in general terms, are the sex organs of a plant. They house the seed and are derived from a flower. Edible fruits co-evolved with animals so we would spread their seeds. Plants are smart: if you cover your seeds with something sweet it increases the chances that someone will eat them and then spread the seeds through their digestive processes (trying not to get graphic). Vegetables are the edible parts of a plant that support the flower: leaves, root or stalk (i.e. rhubarb).

So now with a quick botany lesson behind us, I’m looking ahead to next week. I’m going to try and stay in season and local, if possible, for the duration of the pie challenge and I’m wide open for suggestions! See you next week!

Broccoli: Unleaded

After years of gardening in Arizona (imagine elaborately constructed garden shades, waiting for rain for months on end, chopping at caliche and swatting javelinas), gardening in the northeast seems like a fairy tale. I barter a bag of magic beans, throw them casually out the door, and the next thing you know there’s a fava stalk grown halfway to Queens.  I drop a few broccoli roots in some composty dirt and weeks later I’m harvesting glorious, fragrant, emerald crowns, perfect for roasting.

Of course, every fairy tale has a villain, and in the urban garden fairy tale, the villain is urban humans, who have poisoned the soil with car fumes and paint runoff and turned that fertile luscious garden moss into a lead-filled poison pit.

In much of the world, having more than 100 parts-per-million (ppm) of lead in your soil is considered unacceptable. The US EPA rolls its eyes at this caution, and in a puff of SUV exhaust, proclaims that up to 500 ppm of lead is totally no big whoop.

In many urban areas, the soil has been contaminated to 2 or 3 or even 4 times that. (My soil tested at 1,008 ppm of lead, so even the EPA might squirm over a home-sowed salad from my backyard.) Lead won’t hurt your flowers – and flowers will, over time, help repair your soil – but lead contaminated soil can leach toxins into your homegrown food, especially my favorite leafy or rooty veggies.

Picture of my Vegetable Garden

In my lead-bed, I grow lots and lots of flowers that I fertilize with organic materials and put to bed every year under a layer of compost from my community farm. For my incredible edibles, my friends and I built a simple raised bed and dropped a few seedlings in it.

Last night we ate my first fresh broccoli of the season. Fresh-picked broccoli has a flavor that’s intense and deep and a little nutty, and completely unrecognizable when tasted alongside its wan grocery store counterparts.  It’s great raw but also pretty unbelievably fairy-tale good roasted with a little bit of lemon.

Roasted Fresh Broccoli: Unleaded

Ingredients

  • As fresh-as-you-can-get-it broccoli, including stems
  • ½ tablespoon of olive oil or sesame oil per head of broccoli
  • ¼ teaspoon salt per head of broccoli
  • sprinkle of sugar
  • black pepper to taste
  • a few lemon wedges
  1. Harvest your broccoli from low in the plant so that you get lots of stem.
  2. Preheat your oven to 400 degrees and put a baking sheet on the lowest rack in the oven.
  3. Remove the stem and set it aside. Cut the broccoli in quarters or eighths so that each floret has at least one flat side.
  4. Peel the stem, removing the tough outer skin (save this for your compost), and cut it into ½-inch thick (or smaller) spears.
  5. Toss the broccoli and stems in the oil, salt, and pepper. Sprinkle with sugar (this is just to help encourage some roasty browning on the broccoli’s edges – you don’t need more than a very tiny sprinkle).
  6. Working quickly so as not to cool the baking sheet, remove the baking sheet and spread the broccoli over it with the flat sides down.
  7. Put the baking sheet back in the oven and roast for 8-12 minutes, until the edges of the broccoli have browned a little bit and smell kind of toasty.
  8. Let it cool for a few minutes before serving. Serve with wedges of lemon.

Wild Thyme

On the Food Channel an American chef dabs a cube of raw tuna in a “middle eastern spice” before searing it lightly in a pan.  He tells the audience that the spice is a recent discovery of his and that he is finding many uses for it.  I recognize this “spice” as it is my everyday breakfast, zaatar.  I eat it every morning with olive oil and lebne (yogurt strained through cheesecloth).  It is part of the daily diet of the Lebanese.  We get it, in Man’ouche form, from the corner bakery, and eat it as we walk to work or school or just stand there in a group chatting and munching on the street corner or in front of the bakery. The man’ouche is basically a zaatar pizza and it was something that we devoured in great quantities during exam because we were told that it stimulates the memory.

When I think of zaatar I always picture Dad preparing batches of it on the kitchen table in our home in the village of Deir Keifa in south Lebanon. There would be mounds of ground up wild thyme that he had dried in the Mediterranean sun, that he had picked from the land around us.  It is easy to find as you can smell it as you approach it.  Its scent is unmistakable and always conjures home for us. There was the burgundy colored sumac powder that gives zaatar its tang.  There were the sesame seeds that Dad would heat until it starts emitting its nutty aroma.  He would blend these ingredients and then add the salt. This mix of hearty sesame, lemony sumac, aromatic thyme and salt was put in bags, one for each son, and labeled. If you were lucky he would set you up with some Lebanese olive oil from our grove.  The olive oil is what sets off this potent combination.  Then dab the mix with fresh pita bread and you are done for, you are addicted.  Some American friends refer to zaatar as Lebanese crack upon first taste.  Not the most gastromically transformative description but I understand where they are coming from.  I would describe it more as a wedding in your mouth.

There is no exact science to making zaatar but the basic formula is 7 parts zaatar, 1 part sesame seed, 3 parts ground sumac and ½ part salt.  There is a cookbook that was inspired by zaatar, and by the man’oushe to be exact.  It is titled Man’oushe: Inside the Street Corner Lebanese Bakery by Barbara Abdeni Massaad.  It is a gorgeous book that departs from the zaatar to a journey of discovery of the foods of the Lebanese corner bakery.

If you ever stop by DC, stop by my place on Sunday afternoons where I serve Turkish tea and zaatar and you will understand what all the fuss is about.

Sam Sifton and the “Post-Natal Unicorn.”

Okay…it’s confession time over here on The Big Ceci. I’ve held this in for far too long, and I need to get it out – and what better venue than a new blog about radical food?

Here’s the truth: I love the NY Times Dining section. And in particular, I love Sam Sifton.*

I’ve always enjoyed the particular brand of writing that is characteristic of restaurant reviews: biting wit mixed with attention to detail, all under the umbrella of obsession with food. And as a former server, bartender and host, I especially love reading restaurant reviews because they pay attention to the tiny details of service and hospitality that I used to take so much pride in when I worked in restaurants.

At the same time, I struggle with my love of restaurant reviews and the critics who write them. Elite restaurant reviews seem to represent everything that I am critical of when it comes to foodie culture – an entire industry built around fawning over, in great detail, expensive meals that are inaccessible to the vast (and I mean vast in the vastest sense of the word) majority of New York City. What could be more snobby and less politically palatable than a review of a meal that costs $295?

This is why I was thrilled when I came across a hilarious “review” by Sam Sifton of the famous avant-garde Spanish restaurant, El Bulli. The review, entitled “El Bulli is the Greatest Restaurant in the World,” is actually a parody of the worst offenders in the snooty food writing world (in particular, he is targeting NY Magazine food critic Adam Platt‘s article about his visit to El Bulli, entitled – seriously – “Last Supper of the Food Hacks”). Sifton’s satirical piece pokes fun at the absurdly pretentious tone that defines so much food writing, and includes such gems as, “We drank the fermented milk of a post-natal unicorn and ate monkey brain with shirred Dodo egg, spring dolphin mousse, mercury-braised carrots and an entire fistful of saffron.”

I loved Sifton’s article because it represented something I’d never seen before: a restaurant critic commenting (through satire) on the potentially problematic nature of his work.

None of this is to say that Sam Sifton is a revolutionary. But…at the end of the day, in a sea of $295 dinners and pork belly paragraphs, “El Bulli is the Greatest Restaurant in the World” is pretty damn refreshing.

*In writing this article, I learned that good old Sam used to be a NYC public school teacher – of social studies, no less! (Blog readers who I do not know: I am a social studies teacher in NYC.)

Cabbie Cuisine

Over the past few months, I have taken to asking my cab drivers about their cooking. I have found it to be a foolproof way of comfortably tapping into a stranger’s personal history and passions.

At 5 am after the legendary blizzard in December, my sisters and I were riding in the only car service we could get to take us to LaGuardia to catch one of the only flights departing that morning so we could make it home to surprise our mother for her 60th birthday.  Amidst the drama of the snow and the darkness and the sleep deprivation, the driver and I fell into a conversation about kefir. I had recently abandoned my experiment producing my own kefir inspired by an article in Edible East End about the innumerable health benefits of this strange and ancient fermented yogurt drink.  As we drove up to the terminal he hurried to give me all of the details of his mother’s recipe for Armenian kefir soup. As intriguing as it was, all I can remember is cooking it with a whole onion in the pot…an idea that I love and want to try in some kind of soup for sure–imagine how tender and flavorful that onion would be once removed from the broth! But here’s a recipe for kefir soup appropriate for this season.

Uzbek Cold Kefir Soup

Months later, while heading to Detroit to help develop the curriculum for the Detroit Future Media Workshops, Tony (my cab driver) was suffering from allergies. I asked him about what remedies he uses and he explained that the most effective one he’s tried is some concoction devised of coconut milk and oak.  When he told me he sneezes more when he eats dairy, I shared with him the little bit I’ve learned about lactose intolerance.  I explained how as mammals, we are born with enzymes needed to break down our mother’s milk and that when we grow to be around 4 or 5 years old, most people’s bodies stop producing this enzyme given that most children should be weaned off their mother’s milk by this time.  There are a few communities in the world that have co-evolved with their herd animals (goats or cows) whose digestive systems have continued to produce the enzymes needed to break down lactose. However, most of the rest of the people in the world do not continue to produce these enzymes.  There’s a really helpful breakdown of this in Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

Tony’s charming and earnest response to my mini-lecture was, “What else do you know?” I laughed and told him that I don’t know much–that I just love food. He immediately became very animated and told me that he loves cooking.

Reflecting back on the conversation, I am struck by the questions he asked me–what spices do you use? What’s your favorite tomato sauce? How do you do your rice? How do you do your meat? He was excited to share his techniques and really curious about mine. I was tickled in particular by his questions about my preferred spices–I like the idea of that as a way of getting to know someone (“Hello, my name is Ora and I like paprika and ginger”).

After telling him that I refuse to buy prepared pasta sauce and explaining how I make it myself, I insisted on him sharing his rice cooking techniques.

This is how he broke it down with me very deliberately and passionately (my reflections in italics):

“First I wash the rice and get all the impurities off. Then I soak it again but not too much because you don’t want the rice to lose its strength. Then I get a pot really hot on the stove and I mash up garlic and adobo seasoning, add it to the pot with some oil–enough to cover the bottom of the pot. I add the rice and turn it so that it is coated and then add water that just covers the rice. I turn the rice a few times, taste the water and add salt when needed.”

(Here’s where things get complicated) “After the rice gets dried out (I’m not sure what that means) I put a plastic bag over the pot and then put the lid on. This is how it stays flavorful, firm, and separate. Not how you guys do it where it gets too mushy and wet and flavorless.” (I was confused about who he meant by “you guys”…white people? Italians? I had talked about my mother’s cuisine being from Italy…either way, it is true that I personally do not feel satisfied with my rice-making technique and it is often too mushy!)    

When I asked him about the plastic bag melting, he said it melts but it doesn’t get on the rice and that’s how he makes the rice stay strong and separate. I feel like I would need him to demo this for me before I tried this at home.  But I definitely feel like he’s provided me with some ideas for how to step up my rice cooking game.

So now I’ll put Tony’s question to all of you: How do you do your rice?

Sacred Meals: Food Justice and (Sikh) Spirituality

This post is an edited version of a piece I wrote entitled “Working for Langar Justice” for a progressive Sikh blog called The Langar Hall.   I’m excited to share it here at the Big Ceci and look forward to bringing conversations about the relationship between spirituality, food, and justice to this space. 

I love food.  I love to cook.  I love to gather with friends, community, and sangat and share a meal together.

Because food is our most primal need and our common bond to the earth and one another, it can ground us as we stretch ourselves to draw in all the interlaced threads—so we can weave a whole, meaningful picture for ourselves.  I still believe food has this unique power.  With food as our starting point, we can choose to meet people and to encounter events so powerful that they jar us out of our ordinary way of seeing the world, and open us to new, uplifting, and empowering possibilities.                                                                                                        – Frances Moore Lappe and Anna Lappe, from Hope’s Edge: The Next Diet for a Small Planet

The Sikh institution of langar has always been something near and dear to me, partially because of my borderline obsession with food, but also because it really gets to the heart of Sikhi.  The practice of langar, our free community kitchen, was started some 500 years ago by Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh faith, to meet a basic human need – eating – and to create a space for community-building that reflected the Guru’s radical vision of equality.  Rules about food preparation and eating were (and still are) one of the central ways that caste oppression was enforced.  Langar turned this all on its head.  With everyone sitting together on the same level (on the floor) and eating the same simple food, which was prepared by people from all caste backgrounds, langar was nothing short of a revolutionary accomplishment.

It is with this lens that I want to discuss the food of langar itself.

When I sit down in the langar hall (which exists in every gurdwara) to eat in that very sacred space, I rarely consider where the food is actually coming from.  Yes, we very well know the labor of the volunteers from the community who prepare and distribute the food with love and with the spirit of the Guru.  But what about the ingredients?  What do we know about the farmers who grew and harvested the potatoes, cauliflower, and peas?  Do we know if they were being paid a decent wage and treated with respect?  What do we know about the living conditions of the cows from whom the milk and butter originated?  And what about the handful of multinational corporations that control the majority of the world’s food supply and bring home billions in profits?

There is nothing sacred nor revolutionary about harmful pesticides (that affect farm workers, the earth, and those of us who ingest them), the exploitation of migrant farm workers, the horrendous and unnatural confinement of animals on factory farms, and the carbon footprint of having our vegetablesshipped from thousands of miles away.

I am well aware of the barriers to accessible, affordable organic, locally-sourced food in many of our communities, especially working class communities.  But creative solutions do exist, from CSAs (community supported agriculture) to community gardens (imagine if large Sikh neighborhoods and/or large gurdwaras had their own community-run gardens!), farmers markets to food co-ops.

Isn’t it time we ask ourselves, as Sikhs who are so proud of our institution of langar and who love our Punjabi food:  What are we doing to promote food justice, or more specifically, langar justice?

If langar is an institution that is, at its core, about equality and justice, is it unreasonable to expect ethical and just food sources for this sacred meal we share together as a sangat?

Has anyone ever come across a house of worship that makes conscious choices about where its food comes from?  Any organic langar halls out there?  Locavore langars?

I know we’re a long way away from this in most of our gurdwaras and communities (where styrofoam use is the unquestioned status quo!).  But if Guru Nanak and his followers succeeded in creating the institution of langar in the face of one of the most ancient forms of oppression (caste) hundreds of years ago, it must be possible for us to transform the way we do langar in gurdwaras today to better reflect the values of Sikhi.

It’s on the bag.

Our friend Ryvka (the proud papa of this blog) recently returned from Canada with this bag from the dairy her cousin works at. I love it for three reasons:

1) I love goat cheese.
2) I love funny/cheesy (ha!) slogans.
3) Do you see how many funny slogans about goat cheese are on this bag? The best part is it seems like they couldn’t pick just one – so they kept em all!

Do you have a funny food picture? Send it in! Funny food pictures are just too good to keep to yourself at a communal table.

And with regards to goat cheese: growing up, I never ate goat cheese. My parents weren’t big fans of the ol’ chevre and didn’t keep it around the house, so I always just assumed I wouldn’t like it either. It was pretty shocking to taste goat cheese for the first time as an adult and realize that I LOVED it. Lately I’ve been using it in a lot of pasta dishes. It manages to add both richness and brightness at the same time…amazing! (In related news, I once had a delicious goat cheese and amarena cherry ice cream…shout out to Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams in Ohio!)

What’s your goat cheese story? Do you like it? Hate it? Have you experienced a transformation? How do you like to eat it and cook with it?