two little words

“Look at what realists have done for us. They have led us to war and climate change, poverty on an unimaginable scale, and wholesale ecological destruction. Half of humanity goes to bed hungry because of all the realistic leaders in the world. I tell people who call me ‘unrealistic’ to show me what their realism has done. Realism is an outdated, overplayed and wholly exaggerated concept.” —Satish Kumar, editor of the amazing Resurgence Magazine.

and of course:

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the conditions that surround him. The unreasonable man adapts surrounding conditions to himself. Thus, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” —George Bernard Shaw

And:

“You can not be creative in a system that is very unjust, like the system we live in, unless you are a dissident.” — Nawal el Saadawi (who my coconut cream pyramids are named for!)

A lot of small businesses are struggling these days.

My BFF Christy’s secondhand kid’s clothing shop in Portland, LilyToad, is on the brink of closing, and a wildly popular vegan cinnamon roll bakery in Berkeley is strapped for cash this month, too.

It’s a damn hard thing, this small business owner thing.

The other week when I was doing my grocery shopping for the meal delivery service, I kept a little tally of how much I would have saved if I’d bought 100% non-organic, non-local, non-heirloom, non-artisanal items. I generally get a wholesale order from United Natural Foods of dry goods, then my CSA produce, then more produce from Taliaferro Farms across the street from my house, then little things here and there (and all the things I forgot to order wholesale but need this week, oops!) from my friendly local health food store, and finally lots more from the New Paltz, Rosendale, and sometimes Kingston and Rhinebeck farmer’s markets. I also special-order many specialty items from teeny tiny small companies that don’t wholesale, so I just pay retail prices plus shipping. I also have wholesale accounts with more specialty food vendors for my olive and grape seed oils, other nibbles here and there, and my chocolate suppliers. Sometimes it seems I spend half my life buying groceries in one form or another, and I’m constantly forgetting things, no matter how many lists I have.

Instead of all that, I could just get non-organic, non-local produce, plus all my dry goods, from a huge distributor like Sysco. One or two deliveries a week, everything I need, all at once. So easy and efficient!

The only problem is that I’d sort of rather die than order from Sysco.

There’s nothing really wrong with them, it’s just not how I function. I have these weird little rules I live by, like: don’t buy chocolate made by child slaves. Don’t lose your politics to convenience. Silly things like that. Sysco is a remarkably successful company which provides a service extremely well. We live in a capitalist system and they fill their role in the system very well: buy cheap products from producers, mark them up and sell them to food-service outlets at a price that allows them to further mark up their finished products in order to balance the need for a suitable profit margin with the need to attract customers. Simple.

But I love my farmer’s markets and my CSA. I love knowing my maple syrup guy is making my maple cream for the new chocolates I’m working on on Saturday and I’ll have it by Sunday. I love that I can talk to him about how he knows every tree he taps, knows the land like he knows his children, knows how to fix his giant huge sap-boiling contraption when it breaks down, knows everything I’d ever want to know about maple syrup. I buy it by the gallon, for about $40. Do you know how much maple sap, how many hours of labor, it takes to make a gallon of extra-dark (thus extra flavorful) maple syrup? $40 is a bargain, as far as I’m concerned. I know how hard this guy works.

So, in one week, a week when I didn’t even need to buy maple syrup, I estimated that if I’d bought non-organic, super cheap, super crappy versions of absolutely everything at all these places, from Goya brand beans instead of fancy pants organic French lentils or Rancho Gordo heirloom beans, to artificially low-priced wilty Sysco produce instead of glorious greens and veggies from the family organic farm one minute from my house, I’d save at least $300-400. $400 A WEEK! Now you see why a quick assessment of the walk-ins and back room of almost all restaurants that proudly claim the big O mantle feature precious little actual USDA-certified organic groceries (not to mention the ones that straight-up lie to you about using local produce, and admit that they’re lying!). Organic peppercorns are almost double non-organic ones. Food cost margins in the restaurant industry are notoriously tight even without the organic option. I don’t blame the restaurants that lie. Organic is a buzzword, and it does bring in consumers. And some things are just ludicrous to buy organic.

But I buy these things anyway. Organic nuts? LUDICROUS. But I buy them.

I buy them anyway, because want to know a secret?

I’m not actually in this business to make you food.

For eight years that’s what I’ve been doing, and I love it and blah blah blah, but my real mission is something I’ve kept mostly a secret. It’s two little words that are tattooed on my brain, two words that I repeat to myself over and over when times get tough. Two little words that get me into masses of trouble all the time. Two little words that sum up not only my business philosophy but my life philosophy:

No compromises.

All I wanted, in 2002 when I decided to try to work for myself full-time, was not to compromise my beliefs. Those beliefs are the same as they ever were:

-I believe in a sustainable food system not dependent on giant agri-business conglomerates that force down wages and food quality and receive outlandish amounts of federal subsidies while wasting massive amounts of food and encouraging the development of more genetically modified and otherwise dangerous food.

-I believe in seasonal food grown by farmers I trust.

-I believe in mind-blowingly delicious food.

-I believe I’m entitled to a pleasant work environment without garish fluorescent lights, disgusting kitchens, and chaos.

-I believe in fair wages for me and my helpers.

-I believe in work I’m proud of.

It’s poetic and lovely, but it’s a terrible business plan.

There’s nothing about food costs coming in under 10%, or net vs. gross income ratios, or anything like that. If I’d had investors (instead of just credit cards) when starting out, they would have been crazy to loan me money for a business based on the idea that I have an ethical system I’m proud of.

But I can sleep at night.

When all else fails—when I’m exhausted and there are too many dishes to do and the stupid sink won’t drain AGAIN and my landlord still hasn’t fixed the hood fan and why are people saying the war is over when there are 50,000 troops in Iraq and 100,000 in Afghanistan still and the end of oil is coming sooner than we think and I bought a diesel car so I could convert it to veggie oil and I still haven’t gotten around to it and damn, are sales taxes due AGAIN, already?—when it all gets to be too much and “I got straight As for 16 years and I’m just so tired of washing dishes”-ish, I have that: I can sleep at night.

I’M DOING IT. I’m the person I wanted to be back then, when I was slogging through Times Square to a mindless job just to pay bills and have health insurance. My business is miniscule, infinitesimal, positively lilliputian, but to me it’s a revolution I’m ludicrously proud of. I don’t lie. I don’t compromise. It’s my own weird, quirky business, run according to my own often-annoying standards and values.

It’s everything to me.

Not being forced to compromise means not just spending a whole bunch of money I could be using to pay down my student loans or my mortgage, it means that I’m not owned by the out-of-control capitalist system I tango with every day. It means I have reclaimed some control over the way I choose to live. It’s amazing, it’s a miracle, and the fact that I’ve found customers and clients who appreciate it is the best gift I could ever have.

this week’s menu

It’s so sunny and warm and beautiful right now, but the leaves are swirling all around and the burning bush outside my front door is beginning to flame. Autumn is here, and with it the lush and hearty vegetables and fall dishes. Here’s what’s on the menu this week.

  • Tempeh shepherd’s pie: Root vegetables, herbs, and a mushroom gravy, topped with clouds of mashed potatoes
  • Collard green olive pesto noodles: a big tangle of herbacious green noodles, brightened with briny olives
  • Baked beans with Creole sauce and vegetables: Baked beans! You can’t beat ’em.
  • Red quinoa with parsley and lemon: Lots of lemon and orange zest, the last of the garden herbs, and the superfood red quinoa.
  • Pan-fried tofu with Vietnamese-style caramel sauce and broccoli: Tofu cooked in a hot/sour/salty/sweet light Vietnamese sauce, sparked with citrus zest, shiitake mushrooms, and farmer’s market vegetables.
  • Sweet potato coins with ginger and scallions: a Southeast Asian spin on roasted sweet potato.
  • Soup: Porcini miso broth with greens and noodles: Just the thing if you feel a case of the sniffles coming on…
  • Salad dressing: lemon-oregano vinaigrette

It’s going to be a beautiful week

Lettuce from Taliaferro Farms that goes into the salad mix!

Hello eaters of the world!

Is it just me or (except for tornadoes in Brooklyn and the continuing and endless horrors that we are constantly subjecting ourselves to) has it been a great week?

Well, it’s been a great week in my life. I recently did some big business reorganizing and it’s really putting me on the sunny side of the street. It’s nothing that will be visible to my customers and clients, just some behind-the-scenes tweaks to make everything run a bit more smoothly for you and me. The change of seasons seems like a good time to step back and reevaluate a bit, and I’m really thankful I did.

Thus, it is with renewed vigor and excitement that I present to you the week’s meals!

Oh, and also: I put the meals for the rest of 2010 (what on earth?? Has this year sped by, or what?) on the website here. Please note also the weeks of no deliveries coming up.

For this Tuesday’s delivery, here’s what’s on tap:

  • Szechuan peanut noodles with ground tempeh and scallions: Szechuan peanut noodles are pretty much my favorite meal in the world. Once I ate them for pretty much a year straight. I remember my partner’s sister came over to visit once and I mixed up a big batch of peanut noodles, then she came to visit nine or so months later, and I made another batch of peanut noodles. “Do you only eat peanut noodles?” she asked. Well, pretty much. So, it’s not that I want to brag, but I have perfected this dish. My mouth is actually watering right now.
  • Fresh summer rolls with herbs and homegrown edible flowers: the perfect complement to the peanut noodles, crunchy and cool and fresh and light. I think all the edible flowers in my garden are pretty much over, but I’ll go hunting around for some nasturtiums and borage and whatnot and see what turns up…
  • Fresh corn tamales with chiles, beans and tomotillo salsa: Tamales!!! That’s all that needs to be said, really. Except that these freeze well!
  • Black bean salad with lime and cilantro: Tangy and fresh.
  • Vegetable polenta napoleons: a big Italianish meal of meaty mushrooms, fresh tomato sauce, garlicky greens, and polenta!
  • White bean-rosemary purée: Which can be heated up like a sauce and eaten with the napoleons, or can be used as a dip for just about anything.
  • Soup: Hubbard squash and apple soup with smoky chipotle peppers: Spicy and smooth.
  • Salad dressing: Lime, cilantro, and pumpkin seed oil vinaigrette: We can’t seem to get enough of that amazing pumpkin seed oil, so here’s a nice dressing featuring it. It’s based on the dressing for the stuffed tofu pockets that I make a couple times of year, so if you like that dish, you’ll definitely like this dressing.

this week’s meals!

Hello Samuel Pepys!

(I have started saying “Hello Samuel Pepys!” instead of my default “hello peeps!” when greeting people. I never used to say “hello peeps” on this here blog, but “Hello Samuel Pepys”  really only makes sense in print [and let’s admit, even in print—actually, pixels!!—it’s a tenuous jump to say it makes sense], so maybe that will be my new greeting around these parts.)

I think I was so sad about seemingly losing the little card with last week’s photos on it (also a lot of great chocolate photos, dang) that I didn’t take a lot of photos of this week’s meals…but I think I’m pretty much over the loss by now and life as we know it will continue apace until one wonderful day when I dig into some nook or cranny in a random totebag and there’s a teeny little 4 gb card with some lovely photos on it.

Thus, here is the small collection of photos of this week’s (quickly becoming last week’s) meals:

Mushroom ragout ingredients: local oysters, shiitakes, and dried porcinis--yum!

OK, what is the deal with those little fat tubes of premade polenta you can buy in the grocery store? Are they tasty? I don't get them. This is how my polenta starts--for the mushroom ragout dish, I mix local polenta with fresh-ground buckwheat groats. You can really make a polenta-type porridge with any nice grains, if you grind them up a bit in a spice grinder then cook them slowly with olive oil, and some sea salt. So homey and nice, a world away from polenta tubes!

Pan-roasted green beans and yellow romano beans with coconut, mustard greens, and a whole lotta yum.

Udon noodles before they were udon noodles.

Udon! OK, I made it sort of cheating by using the fettuccine attachment of the pasta machine, but it doesn't taste like Italian pasta, because it has no semolina. It's a springy, thick udon noodle.

Homemade udon noodles with yuzu dipping sauce and local veggies

Oh my. Look at these beauties!

baby bok choy. The nice thing about fall is the beautiful mirror of produce that we get from what was available in the spring. The greens get more juicy and tender and lose any summery toughness, until they gradually fade away.

French lentil salad with preserved lemons, tiny little red onions, maroon carrots, and celery.

Baby turnips for the homemade noodles.

Most likely the last week of summer squash. Bittersweet, for sure.

When is soup soup? When the liquid is added? When it's eaten? Is it soup now, when the carrots and beets are being sauteed? These are the things I think about when cooking.

this week’s meals!

Hello everyone!

Making preserved lemons

This is very strange, but I only have two open spots for this week. Isn’t everyone supposed to be on vacation??

Also, I haven’t yet put up the photos of the meal delivery meals from last week because I can’t find the teeny tiny little card that they are on. Those little cards are too miniscule for my wild whirling life, they are always getting lost on the way to and from the kitchen. Alas. I’m hopeful it will turn up.

In the meantime, let us keep moving forward:

  • Soft buckwheat polenta with mushroom ragoût and market greens: such a nice and comforting dish, homey and toothsome.
  • French lentil salad with carrots, celery, red onions and preserved lemon vinaigrette: I adore preserved lemons!
  • African yam and groundnut (peanut) stew with millet: creamy and warm.
  • Fresh haricot verts with shredded coconut and mustard seeds: it’s green bean season!!
  • Homemade udon noodles with dipping sauce and steamed vegetables: homemade udon noodles are so ridiculously labor intensive, but I am too in love with them not to make them.
  • Cold eggplant salad with sesame dressing
  • Soup: Scarlet carrot soup: a carrot soup with a bit of vibrant color from beets, this is a recipe from the dearly departed Gourmet magazine.
  • Salad dressing: Southeast Asian vinaigrette with lime, garlic, ginger, and mint

Making preserved blood oranges!

Gracious Gourmand guest chef photos: part two: tomato aspic!

The finished dish: tomao aspic **double rainbow!!!** with tomato powder, smoked Kauai guava wood sea salt, tomato essence, and basil

Start with the best local, organic tomatoes you can get your hands on.

Puree (I'm always too lazy to find the accent!) each color of tomatoes (these are green zebras) separately with olive oil, homemade garlic vinegar (though white wine vinegar would be lovely), and salt and pepper.

Bring each puree to a boil with agar agar powder (I used 1/2 teaspoon per two cups of puree), then let each one set up in a container before pouring the next one on top. We layered some agave syrup inbetween to help glue everything together.

To make the tomato essence---the clear layer on top of the rainbow---you mix up everything delicious about summer with some salt, tie it up in a cheesecloth bag, and let it drip into a container overnight.

Scoop off only the clear liquid on the top (use the cloudy liquid on the bottom to make bloody marys!) and thicken it like the purees with agar. Pour it onto a sheet pan to make very thin layers.

This photo shows the essence well.

We garnished the dish with tiny basil leaves, some beautiful smoked Hawaiian salt, tomato powder I made by dehydrating tomato skins, and drops of yuzu juice.