Attention to Detail

Throughout my life I have prided myself on my close attention to detail.  Whether it was a school project, an outfit for a special occasion, or a party, I always gravitated towards the little things.  I am a firm believer that a simple bouquet of flowers on the table or a well thought out thank you card can make all the difference.

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As a food writer, it can be easy to become overwhelmed with all the different possibilities.  However, in the past weeks I have realized that my interests gravitate towards detail in food, as well.  Instead of planning the whole meal, or concerning myself with how to cook a roast, I am fascinated with the steps that go into making the most beloved items on our tables actual things.

I write a great deal about cheese and coffee on this blog, and although I am madly in love with both their complexities and tastes, I adore two things most about them, and other foods like them.

1. Their presence at a dinner party or Sunday morning’s breakfast table are added delights.  To me, a warm cup of coffee is a small reminder that this world provides us with the most beautiful things, if we look closely enough.  The details are not the main event, but they make the main a little more special.

Michael, enjoying a cup of coffee

Michael, enjoying a cup of coffee

2. The process of making these small fixtures, like breads or jams are often small labors of love, from farm to table.  I adore learning about the farmer who made the cheese I’m noshing on, or the process Michael went through to can peaches.  It can be difficult to find these sorts of stories in bigger, more main stream items.  The beauty in detail presents itself again.

So next time you are feel the itch to stretch your taste buds, don’t overwhelm yourself.  Let yourself wander in a cheese shop nearby, try a wine a little out of your comfort zone, or try making a simple bread.  Learning to love food starts small (I am certainly nowhere near being able to execute a beautiful three course dinner) and it is all about enjoyment.

What is your favorite detail?

-Ashlyn

Five Reasons to Go Local

Looking around, it seems as if “going local” has become trendy.  Between the t-shirts, all local menus at restaurants, and campaigns to keep what’s on your plate as close as possible, it can all seem a bit like a fad.  Should you even care, or let local go the way of low-fat cheese?  Absolutely not!  Below are ten reasons you should try to make local happen in your kitchen.

Apples courtesy of Kuiper's Farm

Apples courtesy of Kuiper’s Farm

1. Transportation=Food Waste

According to Modern Farmer, 43 billion pounds  of food was thrown away in the U.S. last year.  A portion of this is due to the loss of food during transportation (spoiling in the truck) but is also attributed to the shelf life of a product.  Some produce has a hard time withstanding week long transit periods and looks less than fresh upon arrival, causing consumers to pass right by.  By eating local food, we eliminate the waste generated by long transportation periods and are rewarded with fresher, more flavorful food.

2. Support Local Economy

Farming is a labor of love, and one that certainly doesn’t pay well.  In recent years,it has become increasingly difficult for farmers to compete with big corporations.  Bigger corporations have the money and support to abuse their products, use unsafe preservation practices, and sell their products at a lower price than local farmers can.  Although local products are often more expensive, remember that those dollars you spend at a farmer’s market goes straight back into the farm, whether it be for feed, upkeep, or putting food on the farmers table, not advertising, and packaging.

3. Less GMOs, pesticides, rBGHs

Although this isn’t true with every farmer, many are much more conscious about pesticides and antibiotics, and traditional farmers rarely use Genetically Modified Organisms (or GMOs).  If you are concerned about the growing list of unnatural products being added to foods these days, this is a great chance to talk to a local farmer to see how he treats his animals for diseases or tends to his crops.

4. Environmental factors

Transportation of non-local food also poses a problem to the environment.  Many foods travel over 1,000 to show up at your supermarket.  Can you imagine the carbon footprint of an avocado in the middle of a Michigan winter?  It’s easy to reach for the foods we love when shopping without thinking of how unnatural they are to our climate, but next time, stop and think about where that tomato was grown.

5. Eat Real Food

Did you know that some tomatoes are not perfectly round red bundles of joy?  Some are lopsided and purple-but taste even more amazing than the grocery store variety.  By buying local food you are opening up your eyes (and mouths) to the great bounty that local land has to offer.  That food at the farmers market is about as close as you can get to digging it up yourself, so expect delicious flavors to lie ahead.

Anatomy of a Real Cookbook

When I was ten I took a crack at my first recipe.  It was for pretzels, and the instructions came out of a child’s cookbook I had received from my grandparents.  I took one look at the ingredient list and dumped everything I needed into a big bowl.  I stood there, perplexed at how un-pretzel like it all looked and decided to consult my mom.  “Oh, I do that, too,” she politely lied, “sometimes those recipes are very confusing.”

They weren’t, but as a naive ten year old I agreed with her, even after she pointed out the page of directions I had chosen to ignore.  “Why would they put those on the other page like that?” I had asked, “they are so hard to find.”

I have come a long way in the world of cookbooks since then, but have only recently discovered that a true cookbook is a rare find among the current stocks today.  Here’s why.

A stack of some of my favorites for refrencing

A stack of some of my favorites for referencing

1.  Cookbooks should teach.  Cooking is a craft, and some people are craftsmen.  These are the people that should right cookbooks, not people who have made a few cookies and their mom liked them.  When flipping through Thomas Keller and Sebastien Rouxel’s cookbook, Bouchon Bakery you’ll be impressed at the fact that they have their ingredients measured out to the gram.  The beginning of the book is prefaced with a story and peppered throughout the recipes are tips about working clean, using a scale, and the like.  Not only do I walk away with some great cake recipes under my belt, but I understand the importance of the procedures.

From Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc

From Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc

2. Recipes should be tested.  Have you ever followed a recipe exactly and came out with a less than stellar product?  I have, and it is a major disappointment.  A lot of factors you don’t even think about could contribute to this-a different altitude than that of the author, slight change in the flour you’re using, or even a second of overmixing.  It could also be that the author made the recipe once or twice, liked it, and moved on.  Real cookbook authors made their recipes more times than they want to count, and accounted for many discrepancies that might occur, leaving you with a trusted recipe.

3. Provide background.  Most cookbooks begin with a story of the author’s culinary journey to food publishing.  Many stories are inspiring and leave you excited to begin your baking.  Reading these stories can help the reader understand why they should use a certain tool or ingredient.  When I read Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast: The Fundamentals of Artisan Bread and Pizza by Ken Forkish, I was compelled to abandon my measuring cups in favor of a scale.  Had he not told the importance of using a scale, or the best flour on the market, I would have simply thought he was being a snob.  But, hey, I learned something new (and that fulfills the number 1 requirement!)

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4. Open your eyes to new techniques.  It’s a good thing if you’ve never heard of some of the ingredients or tools listed in a cookbook.  Allow these items to open your mind to the world of cooking and baking, not intimidate you.

5. Focus on basics.  “Give a man a fish and he is fed for the day, teach a man to fish and he is fed for a lifetime,” is a great saying that works well for this rule.  Before you dive into the cookbooks that are purely for inspiration, pick up a few that help you truly understand the art of cooking.

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What cookbook has taught you something new?

-Ashlyn

New Normals

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Today was a day for discovering a new normal.  After moving back (for what seems like the hundredth time) to Chicagoland, Michael and I spent the day immersed in food.

If you are from Chicagoland, you know that homegrown, quality food is somewhat hard to find.  This is perplexing because more often than not you are surrounded by farmer fields.  Our local Meijer, Jewel-Osco, and Caputo’s are surrounded by these vast expanses of fertile, food growing soil, yet you’re hard pressed to find much more than two “Illinois Grown” items at the market.  This is an issue I discovered only after living in Michigan and finding “Grown in Michigan” stickers on just about everything.  Weird because, well, I’ve never been stopped by a combine on the highway or seen a runaway cow in Michigan, as I often do in Illinois.  If anyone can tell me why this is true you’d be helping a Midwestern girl out.

Michael spent the morning making homemade pasta, cream puffs, and sauce.

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In addition to the cooking fest that took place in my parent’s kitchen this morning, we journeyed to two of the greatest local showcases of food in the area, Heritage Prairie Farm and Ream’s Elburn Meat Market.  The former is one of the Northwest suburb’s best kept secrets, providing fresh, grown-on-site produce, honey, and packaged goods right on Heritage Prairie Farm.  In addition to the farm store, they offer farm dinners once a month with special themes and a weekly farmer’s market.  Today, we picked up a pound of lamb meat for burgers and fresh picked cherry tomatoes that almost didn’t even make it to the house they were so good.  Ream’s, a local meat market, specializes in beef, chicken, and pork, supplied from local farmers and butchering in house.  Even for a vegetarian like myself, it’s a hometown gem.  Plus, if you ever want to learn the best ways to butcher, cook, or eat your meat, stop by and the friendly folks can help you out!

How do you spend these beautiful fall days?

-Ashlyn

Why We Can’t Stop Checking Labels

Michael and I had breakfast with his mother, Marie, today.  As we sat around our table at a Rochester favorite, Michael picked up the maple syrup, a staple for restaurants that serve mostly pancakes.  He was intrigued to find a drawing of beautiful pine trees and a log cabin on the cover and flipped it over to find out where the syrup was made.

Batavia, IL.

Most of you have probably never heard of Batavia, so let me explain a few things.  First of all, Batavia is a Northwest suburb of Chicago, much like the suburb I hail from.  In this area, there are no trees or log cabins like the one depicted on the label.  There is also no tapping of maple trees, or really any other food production in the area aside from corn.  In fact, the surrounding area, which includes my hometown and Batavia, produce little more than government subsidized corn byproducts.  Sure enough, looking at the label we discovered that there was no maple syrup anywhere in the bottle, only things like high-fructose corn syrup.

Marie then began to tell a story about how she was trying to teach her young son about what really goes into food.  On a recent grocery shopping trip, she had taught him how to read labels, and how to only look for foods with three ingredients or less.  He was appalled by what he found in some of his favorite foods, perplexed to not even be able to pronounce some of the ingredients.  He had picked up a bag of Fritos and was delighted to find that it only contained three ingredients!

Although we should not all rejoice that Fritos are so called “simple” foods and buy mass quantities, it is important to take away the moral that Marie, Michael, and I took away from this story.  As educated, conscious, and healthy citizens that we all were, we agreed how easy it was to be duped by the foods that lined our shelves.  Even though Michael and I use mostly whole ingredients, not things that come in boxes with food labels, we are still tricked into believing that some things like our watermelon are as natural as possible.  Do you really believe seedless watermelon is an act of Mother Nature?

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The most alarming thing, perhaps, was the fact that no matter how conscious we were about the foods we chose to eat and no matter how many articles and books we read about food, we would always be blind to many of the true facts that surround our food.  Why do we have to settle for the fact that most of our food is sweetened by corn?  Or that the cows that become our steaks are fed an unnatural diet?

We ultimately have the choice about what we put in our bodies.  The sad part is that short of becoming a homesteader and growing all our own food, we cannot be 100% sure about what exactly it is we are eating.  However, this is our chance to take the industry out of food.  I dare you to shop at your local farmers market and make friends with the person who grows your vegetables.  Chances are, he or she isn’t a farmer for the high profit margin (there isn’t one).  They are growing food because they care about what we put in our bodies, and perhaps they want to stop the madness that has become everyday grocery shopping.  Let’s create healthier choices for everyone by educating ourselves about food, seedling to dinner plate.

Key to Happiness

I woke up the other morning to a magazine sitting at the kitchen table.  I poured myself a glass of water and gleefully tucked into my eggs, until a headline caught my eye.  “Break Your Coffee Habit!” it suggested incredulously, as if America’s love of coffee was stoking our drug habit or killing puppies.  Along with the numerous other headlines over various publications about kicking xyz habit here, a mantra my mom taught me rang in my head, “everything in moderation.”

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When I was a kid, ice cream was my best friend.  I ate a large bowl of the sugary cream at least once a day, piled high with bright colored sprinkles and maybe ever some chocolate syrup.  I ate a pint of Ben and Jerry’s once a day for two weeks while living in Chicago, and going out to handmade gems is still one of the simplest pleasures in my life.  Although I have (thankfully) grown out of my gorging habit, I still like to enjoy a bowl more often than not.  Also, as I have grown older, my palate has changed from sweet to more savory, and coffee is one of my favorite indulgences.  Robust, dark, and mysterious, I save the velvety goodness for intense writing sessions, tastings at local joints, and dessert with my family.  It is not an everyday occurrence and affording myself a cup sometimes brings me to tears of joy.

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It makes me sad that people feel the need to cut ties altogether with a food or drink they love.  Certainly there are certain circumstances where it may be necessary to stop cold turkey, but should we give up that cup of coffee forever?  Never again taste the sickenly sweet frosting off a cupcake?  If something brings us that much joy why should we feel so guilty about it?

According to the CDC, 69.2% of American adults are overweight.  This fact can make it easy for doctors, nutritionists, and skeptics to point the finger at our love of sugary sweet and fatty foods.  This may be true, but I know many people who indulge in the occasional piece of cake or hamburger and look great.  The key words are indulge and occasional.   Treating decadent food for what it is, a treat, and truly enjoying the flavor is important.  You know how when you dive into a brownie sundae and after a few bites it doesn’t taste like anything anymore?  Instead of going for quantity, focus on the quality.

This whole idea of moderation also goes back to the quality of ingredients.  It is much easier to truly get lost in a dark, strong cup of coffee than the watery version most likely served at the gas station.  Enjoying the flavors of your food is more fulfilling than eating to sustain.

So to all those people who think they need to kick that habit, stop.  Start enjoying the food you eat and stop using it as a crutch to support you through each day.  We are fortunate enough to have an abundance of delicious options at our fingertips, so let them amuse your palate.

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