Food


Wikipedia)

Buckwheat, in its 19th Century botanical color plate form. (Source: Wikipedia)

The Backstory:

(scroll to bottom for recipe)

One of the more significant limitations Elena and I face in terms of cooking hinges on an otherwise benign, if enigmatic staple: buckwheat.  As a flour it is most commonly consumed – I would guess – in the form of soba noodles, a Japanese pasta made from buckwheat flour.  However, it’s more commonly known as “kasha” the roasted version of buckwheat groats used heavily in Eastern European Jewish cooking.  Small, chewy, and distinctive, these little groats (as they are technically not “grains” per se, but hulled archenes) are fairly healthy, and loaded with obscure minerals like Manganese, Copper, Phosphorous, and Zinc.  I’ve always been intrigued by the shape–like two pyramids fused at their respective bases.

Kasha varnishkes, that ubiquitous staple of Eastern European Jewish Cuisine, employs buckwheat as its primary ingredient.  Coated with egg, pan-fried, and paired with onions, bowtie noodles, mushrooms, and sour cream, kasha varnishkes is a spectacularly simple, and surprisingly delicious dish.  I love it; and Elena absolutely reviles it.  (For the record, one of my brothers has the same reaction to Buckwheat groats, so maybe its one of those love-hate foods like cauliflower or cilantro.)

So much for deep-seeded religious and cultural traditions.  Elena comes from Ashkenazi stock, and I have predominantly German Catholic roots, so common sense would lead one to surmise the opposite.  Nevertheless, I’m the one with the kasha-fixation.  The months following this discovery were spattered with intermittent efforts on my part to find a new method for cooking buckwheat groats that Elena would like.  I tried a few different versions of kasha varnishkes; I even tried an vaguely Italian variation with vermicelli, fall vegetables, and leeks (recipe available here, third from the top).  Nothing seemed to work–until Sunday.

The Experience:

My father was always the breakfast cook growing up.  Alongside the familiar feeling of the cold metal chains of playground swings and the strong scent of dry straw bales wafting out of flung-open barn doors, few associations are as strong and childlike for me as my father, in his well-worn grey robe, making breakfast.  One of his specialties was buckwheat pancakes.  I always remembered their delicious and distinctive nutty flavors, but I hadn’t attempted to make them on my own before this weekend.

I spotted a baker at the Union Square Greenmarket on Saturday that was selling fresh milled flour and cornmeal.  I bought cornmeal (which I had been out of for some time), buckwheat flour, and a pumpkin “whoopie pie”.  The whoopie pie,  as delicious as it sounds, was consumed that afternoon with a bottle of Dogfish Head’s Burton Baton over a half-game of scrabble.  The buckwheat, by contrast, sat peacefully on the shelf until Sunday morning.

On Sunday morning, I slayed two demons that had been nagging at me for some time: buckwheat flour and yeast.  Anyone who’s a from-scratch pancake maker–and this should be everyone, quite frankly–knows that there are two methods of making pancake batter.  One, the more simple and expedient method, calls for baking powder.  Satisfyingly fast, these flapjacks are ready to go instantly; just mix the liquids into the solids (or vice versa), and you’re ready to go.  However, baking powder comes with a slight aftertaste, and is a chemical product.  So if you’re looking for the all-natural, “real deal” pancake, baking powder probably isn’t for you.

The second method uses yeast as a leavening agent.  This method involves letting the batter sit for an hour, but honestly after having tried this method I can assure you that it’s well worth the wait.  When you’re done you end up with a light, fluffy batter and the cooked pancakes have an consistency and lightness and depth of flavor that will amaze you!  The buckwheat flour, too, did not disappoint.  When used to make pancakes, the flour gives the batter a blue-grey color, with beautiful dark specks: almost like a variation on a robin’s egg.  The flour must have been freshly milled as the flavors were intense and delicate.  They hardly needed maple syrup; just a little butter would have done the trick.

And the best news of all: Elena liked them! Mission Accomplished!

Buckwheat Pancakes.  Forgive the product placement; it was unintentional.

Buckwheat Pancakes. Forgive the product placement; it was unintentional.

The Recipe:

Adapted, slightly, from an out of print and slightly odd 1970’s version of the New York Times Natural Foods Cookbook:

2 cups lukewarm water

1 tablespoon dry active yeast

2 tablespoons brown sugar

2 cups buckwheat flour

1 cup unbleached white flour

1 cup lukewarm milk

1 teaspoon sea salt

Mix yeast and brown sugar into warm water in a large mixing bowl and stir until dissolved.  Add the milk to the yeast mixture, and then the flours and salt (sifted together if you’re feeling ambitious). Beat this mixture by hand until smooth.

Cover and set aside in a warm place to rise for about an hour. The mixture should be light and fluffy at this point.  Stir well and bake on a lightly oiled medium-hot griddle (or cast iron frying pan, if you’ve got one), until browned on both sides.

This is a pretty big recipe, so if you’re cooking breakfast for two, I’d recommend halving the recipe.

Note: in my experience, the first pancake always ends up less than spectacular; its always too oily, or you’re griddle was too hot and it burned a bit.  Don’t worry about it, just treat the first pancake as calibration.  Adjust your temperature and move on to the next one.  Also, you shouldn’t need to oil the griddle/pan after the first pancake.

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I have a bone to pick with my brother, Neal (or Boozhie, as he is more commonly known).  A few days back he opined the following thought:

Shallots are for babies; Onions are for men; garlic is for heroes.

I’m unsure of the origin of this quote: whether he found it somewhere or composed it himself.  And, grammatically, I am impressed.  A big fan of creative and appropriate semi-colon use, I applauded the architecture of the sentence.  However, the message, I fear, is inaccurate.

Not to say that babies shouldn’t eat shallots, or that garlic isn’t for heroes, but the flow of the sentence implies a hierarchy whereby shallots are inferior to onions, which is, in turn inferior to garlic.  It seems as though your implication here, is that shallots are for wussies.  This, sir, I cannot abide!  I raise my sword in defense of the noble shallot, and will not permit her name to be sullied by someone I otherwise respect.

Therefore, Boozhie–consider this my response. My dropped gauntlet, as it were…

The admittedly three-day-old roasted vegetables that I am about to tear into for lunch at work today.  Pardon the crummy presentation.

The admittedly three-day-old roasted vegetables that I am about to tear into for lunch at work today. Pardon the crummy presentation.

Since I’ve moved to New York, where the Farmer’s Markets persist year round and seasonal eating has become a way of life, I’ve become enamored with a very simple fall dish: roasted vegetables.  There are a few keys to this dish:  oil (I’ve taken to grape-seed over olive), diversity (that is to say, the adequate balance between root vegetables–unpeeled, of course–and non root vegetables), a simple array of spices (salt, pepper, thyme, and, if I’m feeling adventurous, a little fresh rosemary), and, last but certainly not least: the onions/garlic.  Clearly, an entire bulb of whole peeled garlic cloves is essential, but recently, I have begun to appreciate the spectacular flavors of whole roasted shallots, particularly when paired with turnips, brussels sprouts, and cauliflower.

If you care to endeavor garlic’s superiority over shallots, I challenge you to eat this dish.  Sure shallots are a little more expensive, but, I would insist, they’re worth the investment.  And I hope that you reconsider your otherwise witty remarks, and make room for the noble shallot.

And please save some room for leeks in your semi-colon-spattered taxonomy.  They’re also well worth the inclusion…

At the end of this month, a number of local activist and education groups will be holding a national urban agriculture conference: “Pollinating Our Future.” This occurrence, at this time, in this fine city is (at the very least) fortuitous. As anyone who knows me can attest to, urban agriculture and urban food systems are my primary activist concerns, and I am in the middle of an independent study through which I hope to devise an avenue for urban agriculture as an economic development strategy in cities like Milwaukee.

Pollinating Our Future

As anyone who lives in a large American city can attest to, a sort-of food revolution has begun in small populations of Americans: whites with a certain level of income. However, the people who would be best served by an agricultural revolution that values quality over quantity, localism over the international trade of perishable food items such as rock hard tomatoes, wilted bell peppers, and iceberg lettuce, and an emphasis on seasonal eating, are being left out: the poor.

As incomes have dropped in America’s inner cities, vicious cycles have begun to develop as regards goods and services. Hospitals in inner cities (St. Michael’s in Milwaukee) have been forced to close and move to the suburbs in search of greater profitability, which is a different injustice for a different post altogether. And grocery stores have also moved to the peripheries of metro areas, leaving inner city residents–who largely get by on public transportation–without an affordable source of quality foods, and without a reliable source of health care: the brutal combination of which has had a devastating effect on the well being of millions of Americans in the form of increased Type II diabetes, asthma, etc.

As usually happens when we let the falsely titled “invisible hand” of capitalism rule over the business community, the poor are continually under-served. I believe that urban agriculture can provide good jobs, increase education among populations of Americans that no longer understand the value of good food or the consequences of a poor diet of processed food, decrease the cost of food for inner city residents (through decreased transportation, preservation, processing and handling costs), increase the availability of good food, help the city economy as a whole through import-substitution, and by providing an outlet for municipal waste (compost) that will help to close the nutrient loop that has been painfully, catastrophically severed since the onset of public sanitation.

If that last paragraph was a bit jargonistic, my apologies, but honestly, if things are going to be genuinely changed, they need to be attacked from technical (rather than amorphous, hippy-dippy, earth mother, divisive) language. Essentially, y’all should take a look at the conference website, check out the types of sponsorship organizations, speakers and workshops that will be happening. Its a good way to start understanding the causes of urban degradation in America, and to start looking at ways to remedy some of those neoliberal policies that have led to the shrinking middle class, the privatization and financialization of services, the resulting lack of accountability when the private sector gets involved in urban public policy formation, the increased efforts to get Americans to take on debt, and a number of other things that we as a society have refused–out of convenience, primarily–to see correctly: both the forest and the trees.

In addition, I will be adding to the links section of this site a number of urban agriculture websites and organizations that are helping to educate the public, that are trying to convince people that the separation of agriculture from cities, from urbanity was a catastrophic, artificial imposition.

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