See that papercut? It's by Anna Brones, founder and editor of Comestible, a quarterly food journal with a wonderful handmade feel and inspiring content that's full of heart and free from pretension. I have a recipe in the Spring issue, plus an essay on sweet corn coming up in the Summer issue. Go to Comestible's Kickstarter page to order a Summer 2016 copy. There are some fun merch/goodies there, too.
My recent Serious Eats feature (which yay, I’m so excited about) is an inside look at ramp dinners, but my initial interest in ramps came about from the attraction of finding and getting them. Looking for ramps in the woods in the spring is a bit of a treasure hunt in nature. A person heading out foraging and coming back empty-handed at least got outside for a while and saw many non-ramp examples of wildlife, and that was pleasing to me.
I think that’s part of why ramps have become so trendy the past decade; even if you don’t get the full-on foraging experience from buying them at a fancy farmers’ market, just having them on your plate connects you to the larger romance of their story.
But this year I learned more about how our love for ramps is harming them. Nature can’t keep up with the demand, and ramps—while hearty—are very slow to grow.
Ramps were my introduction to foraging, but I like to get out and scrabble around for all kinds of greens, fruits, forest herbs, and mushrooms. Oftentimes I am not very successful, but the success is ultimately about reconnecting with my role in the immediate ecosystem where I happen to be at the time. Still, the lure of going into the woods is not nearly as potent without the potential reward of encountering something delicious to eat.
So I decided to be a little bit more proactive in making sure my actions help preserve the forest habitat I love so much—without it, there is no foraging. I think of it as reverse foraging. It may be just a drop in the bucket in the face of everything our modern lives do to alter the landscape we live on, but I think intentions go a long way for one’s spiritual well-being.
Planting ramp bulbs in areas in decimated ramp patches, or, better yet, collecting ramp seeds in the early fall and planting them in the woods (which is actually very easy).
Pulling up invasive garlic mustard and properly disposing of it so it does not spread. This one in particular is like beating back waves, because garlic mustard is very tenacious. But I saw some growing in my favorite ramp patch, and I was like, “that’s it, man! This is WAR!” Also, pulling up garlic mustard can be cathartic if you are in a foul mood.
Following the basic principles of courtesy by not foraging for more than the land can easily recover from.
- Getting friends excited about the wonders of what grows right where you live. Even if someone is not going to go out and collect shagbark hickory nuts, just knowing they exist increases the value humans place on those trees, and, by extension, the biodiversity of their surroundings.
There’s a school of thought that the changes humans make to our natural systems is, in its own way, natural (e.g. invasive species accidentally coming over to new landmasses on ships, or people intentionally introducing new species). I get this—there were no apples in North America prior to the arrival of the Europeans, and goddamn do I love apples—but I think it’s fine to make judgments on a case-by-case basis, rather than cop out and say “fuck it, we’re screwed, but I’ll be dead by the time it matters.” Just today I was thinking there could be a year when I have grandkids and I’d tell them, “I remember when there were bats in North America,” or “There used to be these wild onions in the woods called ramps, and I liked to dig them up and cook them.” What a dreary future to have in store. I don’t want us to get there without a fight.
Despite the momentary cold snap, violets are popping up everywhere now. Last year at this time it settled into me as a slow-burning mania, and I decided I just had to make violet syrup. Read my essay here on Full Grown People to find out what happened (hint: it's probably not what you think happened).
I did discover a few things about violets.
- It takes baskets and baskets of violets to get anything close to enough for culinary applications with any kind of character.
- Some violets have more flavor and aroma than others.
- My front yard violets are bland, and whatever violets went into the violet extract my friend Nikki brought back from France and added to her violet buttercream are not bland.
- Adding lemon zest to violet sugar to punch up its flavor will make the violet sugar turn a muted fuchsia instead. It's the chemical reaction between the anthocyanins in the violets and the acid in the lemon zest (lemon zest isn't that acidic, but it's acidic enough, apparently) that dulls the color.
- My days of cooking with violets are probably finished. I think I got it out of my system. Picking violets is fun, but as far as edible rewards and foragables, I much prefer mushrooms, greens, and fruit.
Spring is here. Gardening is nigh. Last week I fluffed up the dirt in our raised bed and planted some brassicas and herbs and lettuces and radishes and...hmm, I think that's it for now. I even tested the soil and amended it a little with some fancy compost. This will hopefully be an abundant growing season.
You can build your own low-cost version of the raised bed pictured above by following this step-by-step tutorial I did for Paste Magazine. It uses reclaimed materials and is a lot cheaper and sturdier than a similar raised bed kit I saw at the hardware store this weekend.
Also! I have two pressure cooking classes coming up in May and June at The Seasoned Farmhouse. Click here to learn more.
For food writers, maintaining a balance can be difficult. Most of us would have the public to think we spend our days in a photogenic sequence of tasting, pondering, journaling, and then mess-free tinkering in the kitchen.
But if you’re doing it right, this is definitely not the way it goes for anyone. The ebb and flow of deadlines seems to collide with spells of failed recipes and technical issues: a leak under the sink, a downed internet connection, a flat tire when you need to drive to a special store to get a very specific ingredient.
This is why I don’t like to blog. Writing about the mundane inconveniences I face may be honest, but it’s not very engaging. And I don’t want to project an airbrushed (or filtered, as it were) image of what my daily life consists of. There’s a lot of typing and a lot of using the internet and a lot of cross-referencing different recipes. There’s a TON of grocery shopping and washing dishes and wiping down kitchen counters and sweeping flour and crumbs off the floor.
And there’s cooking. I get antsy if I go a few days without cooking. I taught a pressure cooking class this weekend, and I’ve been developing recipes for a few different assignments the past few weeks, so I’ve been in the kitchen a lot, but yesterday I realized I needed to just get in the kitchen and cook for fun.
That’s where the balance comes in. If you don’t make space in your schedule to lavish in the sheer joy of making food with no agenda, then your writing and your recipes won’t be inspired at all. You have to put yourself in the place that made you want to get into food writing in the first place.
So a few days ago I blocked out several hours and made the food I wanted to make. I minced the cores and stems of some broccoli and cauliflower, and I cooked them in a skillet with some olive oil until they were browned in some parts and soft in others. I made a miso dressing and cooked some quinoa and made myself a big bowl of healthy stuff, because that’s what I like to eat.
And then I cleaned up and went to pick my daughter up from school. Out of the blue she asked me if we could make monster cookies, and I said yes, even though monster cookies had absolutely nothing to do with any of the assignments or independent projects I had going on.
We needed to get M&Ms to make monster cookies. Without M&Ms, they are a different cookie. We got the M&Ms. We made the cookies. I experienced the small triumph of my parenting identity and my writer-chef identity intersecting peacefully. Most of the time I feel them tugging at one another, keeping me from being fully present in any one role, but for about fifteen minutes I was right in the zone with Frances. It felt good.
I though the freestyle cooking and the cookie-making sessions would set me behind the following day, but I wound up tearing through my to-do list. I also decided I needed to type up the monster cookie recipe, because I tinkered with it a bit, and I was happy with how those came out, too. Frances was even happier, though.
Makes about 2-1/2 dozen medium cookies
I don’t know too much about the origin of these. Why are they called monster cookies? What region are they most identified with? I do know they are popular here in southeast Ohio, they don’t contain any wheat flour, and despite that they are probably not gluten-free, because I’m sure M&Ms contain gluten somehow, and monster cookies are not monster cookies without M&Ms. Packed with candy and sugar, they are not health food, but they are hearty and wholesome and rich and peanutty. This recipe is an adaptation of an adaptation, like a modern folk song. Like “Louie, Louie” or “Hey Joe.” I love songs like that, and I love these cookies.
· 4 cups rolled oats
· 1-3/4 teaspoon baking soda
· ½ teaspoon table salt
· 1-1/2 cups peanut butter (chunky or smooth, processed or natural)
· ½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
· 2 cups light brown sugar
· 2 large eggs
· 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
· 12 ounces (1-1/2 cups) semisweet chocolate chips or chunks
· 12 ounces (1-1/2 cups) milk chocolate M&Ms
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Arrange the racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven. Line two baking sheets with parchment or silicon baking mats and set aside.
2. If you’d like the oats to be a little more varied in texture, pulse them a few times in a food processor fitted with a metal blade, until some are powdery and others are still whole. Empty into a large bowl. Add the baking soda and salt and stir to combine. Set aside.
3. In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine and peanut butter and butter. Beat on medium-high speed until smooth. Add the sugar and beat until lightened, about 2 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, and beat until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the vanilla.
4. Add the oat mixture, one half at a time, and beat at low speed. Beat in the chocolate chips and M&Ms (you may need to do this with a sturdy wooden spoon instead of the mixer). The dough will be greasy and a little soft, but not crumbly.
5. Scoop out the dough in rounded tablespoons (about 1-1/2 inches in diameter) and place 12 to a sheet. Bake for about 10-12 minutes, rotating the pans from top to bottom and back to front halfway through baking. The cookies will be lightly browned when ready, but their centers will still feel a bit soft to the touch. Let the cookies rest on the baking sheets for 5 minutes before removing to a wire rack to cool completely. Cookies will keep, tightly covered, for up to 5 days.
Listicles--those breezy list-article hybrids that everyone shares on your Facebook feed--are a bit like marshmallows. Puffy and light, they go down easily, but if you've ever made them at home, you know there are distinct elements to their manufacture. Skip a step and they fall flat.
If you're a food writer who'd like to get in on the listicle action, or an author of published listicles looking to sharpen your writing toolkit, check out the guest post I wrote for Will Write for Food, the blog of food writing coach extraordinaire Dianne Jacob. I talk about the qualities that make or break a list, how to pitch lists to editors, and why lists matter in today's food writing landscape.
Just in case you were waiting, the wait is over now. I started an Instagram account. If you like pictures of desserts in progress, foraged fruit, or musty old records, you are in luck, my friend! Follow me here (@sausagetarian).
The above photo is the orange tree across the street from my friend Adam's house in Los Angeles. His neighbor said it's okay to plunder the bounty of these sexy orange trees, and that's exactly what I did. Not all of the oranges were fabulous, but the ones that were just blew my mind--so juicy and sweet. I lived in California for seven years, and I never got over the fact that citrus trees just grow here and there like it's no big deal.
You can keep your sous vide machine. Slow cookers? Blech. I’m a fast cooker, and proud of it. You can be, too. Pressure cooking is more mainstream than ever, which is great news.
I’m biased, of course. I own five pressure cookers. This may seem excessive, but since I teach pressure cooking classes, I need a whole fleet of them. In fact, I’m game to acquire a few more, because every time I’ve taught a pressure cooking class, it has sold out. This is not so much because I’m awesome, but because pressure cooking is a positive trend was can be happy about.
I was skeptical about pressure cooking at first, but now it’s a way of life for me. And, in large part, I have The Veggie Queen—a.k.a. Jill Nussinow--to thank. I got into pressure cooking because I had to, but Jill made it welcoming and rewarding.
A number of years ago, I worked in a fancy cookware store. I’ve always been a cookware gearhead, plus I have a background in professional kitchens, so I was good at moving the high-end stuff: All-Clad, Mauviel, Le Creuset. The store also offered Fagor and Kuhn Rikon pressure cookers, and on the rare occasions a customer asked about them, I froze up.
This drove me crazy, because I do not like to be poorly informed, but lo! One day I got an email from Jill Nussinow, who I’d interviewed once as an expert on whole grains. She offered to send me a copy of her DVD, Pressure Cooking: A Fresh Look. Hmm, I thought. This could be the key.
Her short video and affable yet straightforward manner took away all of my misgivings about the thing. I borrowed the store’s demo model, a Fagor Duo 6-quart, and began experimenting at home. Long story short, I fell in love. Not only did I become the store’s go-to pressure cooking authority; I never returned their demo model. The Fagor Duo 6-Quart remains my favorite model to this day (don’t fear; the store had a spare).
There are some differences between how Jill and I cook. For one, she’s vegan, and I’m not. I use a more generous hand with fats and salt than she does. I eat a lot more gluten. Jill’s a Registered Dietitian, and I consider hot dogs to be a fun and special treat.
But the funny thing is how much our pressure cooking styles intersect. We rely on pressure cookers to turn out fresh, flavorful, healthy meals for our families and for ourselves. We rely on pressure cookers to make whole foods, like dried beans and whole grains, speedier to incorporate into our daily menus. We both like having soup for breakfast. Pressure cookers deliver on all of those fronts.
I had the opportunity to test some of the many quick and colorful recipes in Jill’s newest book, Vegan Under Pressure: Perfect Vegan Meals Made Quick and Easy in Your Pressure Cooker, and I’m delighted to see it hit the shelves. I teach some of her recipes in my pressure cooking classes, and I’ll gladly refer my students to this inspiring volume. Just looking at it makes me want to break out one (or two or three) of my pressure cookers. The Barley, Shiitake, and Walnut Burgers are favorites, as is the That Red Curry with Winter Squash, Mushrooms, and Broccoli. Even though I consider myself a pressure cooking expert, there's always something new to learn, and Jill's book showed me how to rig up a set of foil helper handles to lift hot bowls from the interior of a pressure cooker (before, I'd just fiddle with tongs, which is unwieldy and unsafe). So even though the recipes are fantastic, the tips and tricks are a big draw, too, making this a cookbook useful for pressure cooking novices and veterans alike.
Here’s a recipe from Vegan Under Pressure I’m sure I’ll come back to. It’s fast and flexible, because you can swap out some of the vegetables for others if you don’t have everything on hand. My carnivorous husband found the tofu and tahini combination satisfying, and the kick of sriracha was just what we needed on a slushy winter evening. Serve this over hot brown rice, like I did (the brown rice I made in an Instant Pot electric pressure cooker, another item Jill got me into). So it was a 2-pressure-cooker dinner, which is always an indication of a gratifying meal. No worries, though--you only need one pressure cooker to make yours.
Sassy Sesame Tofu with Sweet Potato, Carrots, and Sugar Snap Peas
from Vegan Under Pressure by Jill Nussinow, MS, RDN
"This crowd-pleasing recipe is a simple and delicious way to prepare tofu, which gets firmer under pressure and absorbs the flavors of the cooking liquid. It cooks very quickly. It’s best to cook the sugar snap peas on low pressure for just a minute so they don’t become mushy. The sweet and spicy sauce at the end makes it even more special. Serve this over any type of rice or other grain."
- 2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
- 1 medium yellow, white, or sweet onion, sliced from top to bottom to equal about 2 cups
- 1 carrot, peeled and cut on the diagonal into ½-inch pieces
- 1 cup diced peeled sweet potato
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 tablespoons sesame seeds
- 1 pound extra firm tofu, cut into 1-inch cubes
- 1 to 2 tablespoons tamari
- 1 tablespoon rice vinegar
- ⅓ cup vegetable stock
- 2 cups sugar snap or snow peas, cut in half [Sausagetarian note: I substituted chopped napa cabbage, using the same cooking times, and was very pleased with the results.]
- 2 tablespoons sriracha
- 2 tablespoons tahini, optional, for a richer dish [Sausagetarian note: I really liked the flavor kick and body this gave to the dish, and recommend using it if you’re a fan of tahini]
- 2 tablespoons chopped scallion, for garnish
1. Heat a stovetop pressure cooker over medium heat or set an electric cooker to sauté; add the sesame oil. Add the onion, carrot, and sweet potato and sauté for 2 minutes. Add the garlic and 1 tablespoon of the sesame seeds and sauté another minute. Add the tofu, tamari, vinegar, and stock.
2. Lock the lid on the cooker. Bring to high pressure; cook for 3 minutes. Quick release the pressure. Carefully remove the lid, tilting it away from you.
3. Add the peas and lock the lid back on. Bring to low pressure; cook for 1 minute. (If you do not have a low pressure option, lock the lid on and let sit for 2 to 3 minutes.) Quick release the pressure. Remove the lid, carefully tilting it away from you.
4. Stir in the pepper sauce and tahini, if using. Garnish with the remaining 1 tablespoon sesame seeds and the chopped scallion and serve.
Variations: Use broccoli florets or 1-inch pieces of green or wax beans instead of the peas. Cook at low pressure for 2 minutes with a quick release.
Text excerpted from Vegan Under Pressure, © 2015 by Jill Nussinow. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.