Saturday, January 26, 2019

Cranberry Orange Relish

I would have never guessed that cranberries have a dark side. But, those berries do.  It is a story of corporate hegemony, regulatory failure, and farmers' resourcefulness.  Much of the story has been told a couple of years ago by Kirsten Saladow for Quartz, but, it is a story that deserves an additional look.

According to Ms. Saladow, one company -- Ocean Spray -- controls nearly three-quarters of the cranberry farms across the United States and Canada. (That's approximately 700 farms.) Ocean Spray is also behind many of the cranberry products that line the shelves of the stores in our neighborhoods.

One would think that, based upon the packaging of Ocean Spray products and the company's advertisements, there are no issues with respect to those little berries. As Ms. Saladow writes, there is the picture of a cranberry farmer:

Cranberries are grown in bogs primarily in the northern part of the US in soft, marshy ground with acid-peat soil.  They're hard to harvest on the vines they grow on, so instead, the bogs are flooded at harvest time, water reels pull them off the vine and the cranberries float to the top, allowing them to be collected and sent off to market.  Those images you see of farmers in waders, up to their chests in water with cranberries floating all around them?  Totally accurate.

Photo from
While the image of the cranberry farmer may be "totally accurate," there is a lot more to that picture.  Back in the 1950s, Ocean Spray began to use aminotrizole, a chlorophyll inhibitor that has been proven to cause "growths" in rats.  Ocean Spray limited the use of the chemical in the weeks before each Thanksgiving, but, word got out one year that the chemical was found in cranberries. That caused the purchase of cranberries to plummet by 70% that year.  Needless to say, aminotrizole is no longer used in cranberry farming. However, many other chemicals are used, including chlorothalonil, carbaryl and pronamide.  When the bogs are filled with water, that water becomes contaminated with the chemicals.  Workers who go into the water get exposed to the chemicals.  The bogs are eventually drained and that chemical-laced water enters local bodies of water. All of that runoff is not regulated under the Clean Water Act or any other major environmental law.  And, in one case, the State of Wisconsin (which produces the second most cranberries in the country after Massachusetts), the "cranberry industry" received an exemption from  wetland water quality standard law.  That exemption was granted despite the fact that cranberry farms destroyed more wetlands in the state than any other activity and have negatively impacted trout fishing due to the diversion of streams for the farms' use. 

Thus, for the most part, the story of the cranberry has been one that pitted large companies against individual growers, the environment and, hence, the community. This dark side is a serious and unfortunate one, especially given the fact the history of the cranberry has its positive notes.  Cranberries were eaten by American sailors to prevent scurvy. Native Americans used the cranberries not just for food, but also for a red dye and medicines. 

This recipe draws its inspiration from the earliest days of our country, long before the use of chemicals and the degradation of our environment.  The recipe comes from the Colonial Wlliamsburg Tavern Cookbook. As noted above, Massachusetts is the leading grower of cranberries.  The Pequot Indians introduced ibimi - translated as "bitter berry" to the pilgrims. Eventually, the berries would be exported out of the New England, finding their way south to the other colonies (such as Virginia) and eventually into the taverns of Williamsburg.  Thus, this recipe for Cranberry Orange Relish.

The best part of this recipe, and, indeed, what caught my attention, was the use of Cointreau.  The colorless, orange flavored liqueur from Saint Barthelemy d'Anjou, France. I have never tasted Cointreau, let alone used it in a recipe.  What I have found after making this recipe is that the orange flavors of the Cointreau help underscore the orange in the recipe, as well as provide a richness to what is best a side.  When I served this as part of our Thanksgiving dinner, it was well received by anyone.  After all, who does not like a cranberry orange relish where the alcohol has not been cooked out.  (BTW, if you haven't figured it out already, this is not a kid friendly dish.)

Recipe from The Colonial Williamsburg Tavern Cookbook
Makes 3 Cups

2 cups cranberries
1 orange, quartered, seeded
1/2 lemon seeded
1 cup sugar
1 cup pecans
1/4 cup Cointreau or other orange liqueur

In a bowl of a food processor, combine the cranberries, orange and lemon and process until coarsely chopped.  Add the sugar, pecans and Cointreau and pulse briefly to mix.  Cover and let stand at room temperature for 12 hours.  Refrigerate overnight.


Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Pork Vindaloo

Vindaloo is one of my favorite dishes in Indian cuisine; and, as it turns out, it is one of those dishes that did not originate in India.  The name "vindaloo" is derived from carne de vinha d'alhos, a Portuguese dish consisting of meat marinated in wine and vinegar.  In preparation for long voyages, meat and garlic would be packed in alternate layers in barrels, and then soaked in wine.  The barrels were loaded onto ships and went wherever the Portuguese explorers went. Those barrels made to the Indian subcontinent during the 15th century.  The Portuguese colonized Goa, where Indian cooks added their own local twists to the marinated meat. There was no wine/vinegar in the subcontinent, so vinegar was fermented from palm wine.  The Indian cooks also added tamarind, black pepper, cardamom and cinnamon to the dish.  Those cooks also added something else that the Portuguese brought with them, namely, chiles.

The dish evolved over time. When the British established themselves on the subcontinent, they were happy to encounter this dish, which was cooked by Christian cooks in Goa.  These cooks were not limited by religion or caste, and, therefore, prepared the dish using meats such as beef and pork. The British also managed to take this dish and turn it into what it is today ... something that has less of a vinegar punch and. according to Lizzy Collingham in an article for Saveur, a dish whose "balance of different spices has been lost under a blistering excess of chiles."

This recipe does not come from Goa, but it does come from the cookbook, 660 Curries, that my parents gave to me as a gift. The book had a few different versions of vindaloo, but this one was the easiest of the recipes.  Given that I have not made vindaloo before, I decided to use that easy recipe.  While this is a very delicious and hot dish, the one thing that I noted is the lack of a "curry."  In other words, the recipe was more of a dry curry than a wet one. Ironically, this may be a little closer to the what would have been an original version of vindaloo, as opposed to the more modern versions of the dish.

My first attempt at Vindaloo is a modest success. I wish there was more of a curry sauce.  The lack of a sauce may have been my own doing, as opposed to the recipe.  Nevertheless, I plan on trying those other vindaloo recipes, as well as exploring the variety and range of vindaloos (like, for example, duck vindaloo).  So, stay tuned!

Recipe from Raghavan Iyer, 660 Curries, pg. 229
Serves 4

1/4 cup of apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
8 lengthwise slices fresh ginger (each 2 inches long, 1 inch wide and 1/4 inch thick)
8 medium size garlic cloves
8 dried red Thai or cayenne chiles, stems removed
1 cinnamon stick
1 pound boneless pork loin chops, cut into 1 inch cubes
1 teaspoon coarse kosher or sea salt
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
2 tablespoons canola oil
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro leaves and tender stems for garnish

1.  Prepare the onion paste.  Pour the vinegar into a blender jar, and then add the cumin seeds, ginger, garlic, chiles and cinnamon stick.   Puree, scrapping the inside of the jar as needed, to form a pulpy, gritty paste that smells potent hot.

2.  Marinate the pork.  Place the pork in a bowl and pour the paste over it.  Sprinkle with the salt and turmeric and stir it all together.  Refrigerate, covered, for at least 30 minutes or as long as overnight, to allow the flavors to mingle.

3.  Saute the pork.  Heat the oil in a medium size skillet over medium high heat.  Add the pork, marinade and all, and cook, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until it is browned, 10 to 12 minutes (The meat will initially stew; then, once the liquid evaporates, it will sear and brown.) 

4.  Finish the dish.  Pour in 1/2 cup of water and scrape the bottom of the skillet to deglaze it.  Reduce the heat to medium low, cover, and simmer, stirring occasionally until the pork is tender, about 15 minutes.  Sprinkle with the cilantro and serve. 


Friday, January 11, 2019

Great Lakes Imperial Oyster Stout

The oyster stout has always perplexed me.  I am not a brewmaster. I have never brewed a beer. However, I have shucked many an oyster.  And, with a deep knowledge of the oyster, I have a hard time picturing how a brewer can add oysters to a beer to make an oyster stout.

Of course, this style of beer has existed for quite some time.  Back in the late 1800s, oysters were added to beer to "promote clarity."  Whether that clarity was ever achieved, it was undeniable that oysters provided a subtle, smooth mouthfeel and a briny flavor to the beer. To be sure, there is a difference between an oyster stout and a run-of-the-mill stout.  The mouthfeel and brine that is provided by oysters is perhaps the reason why brewers have continued to add oysters to beer. After all, what does clarity have to do with an oyster stout?  An oyster stout beer is supposed to be as black as pitch darkness. 

Anyways, if I had to choose what would be the best oyster stout that I have ever had, it would be the Great Lakes Imperial Oyster Stout.  The brewers at Great Lakes used "East Coast oysters," which is a useless label, given the wide variety of oysters along the eastern coast of the United States. For example, there is a huge difference between oysters found in the estuaries in Maine and the oysters found in the Chesapeake Bay.  Whatever oysters were used, they clearly did add a smoothness in the body of the beer and a slight briny element in the finish. 

As for the other ingredients, the brewers used an interesting combination of malts and hops.  The malts include Harrington 2-Row, Roasted Barley, Oats, Chcoolate, Cara 45.  The hops were both Simcoe and Mt. Hood. The other ingredients included the obvious -- oysters -- and the less the slightly less obvious -- cacao nibs and salt. The end result is a beer with an IBU of 37 and an ABV of 11%.

The Imperial Oyster Stout pours pitch black, the blackness one would expect when he or she  was floating in the middle of deep space, far away from the light of any star.  A slight tan foam appears as the beer is poured in to the glass.  The foam recedes rather quickly to the edges of the glass, exposing the beer to the nose.  

The aromatic elements, along with the taste of the beer, of the beer heavily emphasize the roasted malts.  There are notes of chocolate, as well as some mild coffee flavors in the taste of the beer.  The thing that sets this oyster stout apart from the others that I have had in the past is that there was truly a "softness" in the beer, which could only be attributed to the oysters.  

This beer is definitely worth the purchase. My only regret is that I did not buy an extra bottle.  Until next time...


Saturday, January 5, 2019

Blistered Shishito Peppers

For a while, it seemed that the trendy thing for trendy restaurants to do was to offer a small plate or appetizer of blistered shishito peppers. These peppers seemed to be everywhere, even go so far as to conquer the City of New York. (Somewhere, there is an idea for a Grade B - or perhaps more accurately, a Grade D - horror movie.  I can see it now, someone dressed up in a pepper costume terrorizing the people on Fifth Avenue, yelling "you ate my family, now I eat you.")

I don't know where the shishito pepper trend started, or, quite frankly, whether it is still ongoing. I try not to get caught up in culinary fads. Nevertheless, the dish was there and everywhere. And, for someone like myself, who loves peppers, I have to admit that I was intrigued. But, that interest was not enough to have me spend anywhere from $4.99 or $7.99 for a small plate of the peppers.   

During a recent trip to a local supermarket, I found myself confronted by the peppers. Not in in the horror movie sense.  I was walking up and down the produce aisles and saw these small packages of peppers.  They were not in the pepper section, where I traditionally pick up my anaheims, jalepenos, serranos and habaneros.  Instead, these packages of peppers were all by themselves, as if specifically meant to stand out from the other surrouniding produce. Sure enough, the label read, "Shishito Peppers."  I bought a small container of the peppers and then decided to do a little research into the peppers themselves and recipes for preparing them.  

Shishito peppers are a relatively sweet, East Asian pepper also known as kkwari gochu in South Korea.  An interesting "fact" about these peppers is that about 1 in 10 also tends to be hot or spicy. It is a kind of Korean roulette for people who don't ordinarily like spicy foods but want to challenge themselves: eat a pepper and see if it is the spicy one.  For me, I would like 10 out of 10 to be spicy.  In the end, the spiciness or piquancy of the peppers depends upon the exposure to sunlight and other "environmental factors." Unfortunately for me, although I had about a dozen peppers in the package, none of them were spicy.  The odds were not in my favor.

This recipe is really easy to make.  The blistered peppers make a great tapas-style dish that could be served along other simple, small plates, such as different types of cheese or slices of prosciutto.  If I ever see a package of these peppers again, I will probably make this recipe as a simple side or garnish.  But, I have not seen the peppers recently?  I wonder if I got in too late for this culinary fad?

Recipe from  Bon Appetit
Serves 4-6

3 pounds of shishito peppers
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Flaky sea salt

Heat oil in a large cast-iron skillet or other heavy skillet over medium-high heat.  Cook peppers, turning occasionally, until they begin to blister on all sides.  Sprinkle with salt and serve immediately. 


Tuesday, January 1, 2019

A New Year for Chef Bolek

As I look back at 2018, I am happy that I have been able to cook more than in previous years, as well as write more on this blog. Admittedly, I have only a handful of hobbies right now (due to time constraints). Cooking has been the most important of those hobbies.

I use cooking, as well as this blog, as a way to relieve stress from my day job (which was very stressful last year).  The research and preparation of a dish allows me to forget about my day job and focus on the ingredients, processes, and plating of the meal.  It is one of the few hobbies that allows me to do that; and, perhaps, that is one reason why I love to cook.  

But, cooking and my blog also serve another important purpose ... to learn about food, cultures and people.  They have inspired me to pursue my personal culinary challenge, Around the World in 80 Dishes, which I completed seven main courses from seven different countries (Italy, Croatia, Djibouti, Panama, South Korea, Guyana and Ghana).  Each of those challenges involved a lot of research into the countries, their cuisines and their cultures.  (Unfortunately, due to time constraints, not all of that research made it into the blog posts.)  I have also done research into various aspects of food and cooking, looking at the history of ingredients and cooking processes, as well as particular dishes.  

But, as I turn to 2019, there are going to be some changes.  I am still working them out, but here are some of the bigger ones: 

(1) Healthier Foods.  I am a carnivore at heart, but I have to protect that heart.  I will still make meat dishes, but, my goal for 2019 is to make healthier dishes, with an increase in the use of fruits and vegetables.  This is one aspect of a larger goal of creating a healthier diet (something along the lines of a Mediterranean diet or perhaps a diet based upon Ayurvedic principles).

(2) More Socially Conscious Choices.  I have already been doing this in 2018, focusing on where things come from (especially seafood) and/or how they are raised (such as primarily buying grass-fed beef).  This has been a significant part of the research that I have done in preparation of dishes.  I want to take it to the next level, perhaps by going back to a community supported agriculture program for vegetables and more work to source ingredients locally.  This may lead to a resurrection of my CSA Challenge.

(3) More Posts About Issues of Concern to Me.  Not only am I going to focus on making more socially conscious choices, I may start blogging more about issues related to food that concern me.  There are many of them and I have been tempted to do this in the past. Issues such as the environment, which is important to me because of the Chesapeake Bay, an estuary that has a special importance in the area where I live.  Issues such as human rights and worker rights, which are important in practically every aspect of agriculture and food production, but especially important with respect to modern day slavery on fishing vessels and elsewhere.  

(4)  More Experimentation.  There are many things that I have wanted to do.  They form a bucket list of sorts.  I want to make a dish using different proteins, such as alligator or turtle meat (responsibly and sustainably sourced, of course).  

(5) More conservation.  Finally, I am going to continue working on portion sizes with a goal of minimizing food waste.  Did you know that 40% of the food in the United States does not get eaten?  With starving people and children in the United States and around the world, this is unconscionable.  Change starts with oneself and then it can build from there.  So, for this year, I am going to be far more aware of the amounts of food that I buy so that I do not end up throwing away leftovers after a few days.  I am also going to explore other ways that I and my family can reduce our footprint on this planet.  I hope that you can do so too.

These are just a few thoughts that I quickly typed out for this year.  Please check back over the course of the year to see how I do and how my cooking evolves over time.  Until then ...