April 2011


Here’s something to think about- from whatever state or substate you live in, what would you say are ingredients and preparations thereof native to your area?

When I took on the task of making a pizza in the shape of New Jersey, utilizing ingredients native to the state they were to represent, I had it pretty easy with New Jersey. There’s a style of pizza (tomato pie), and a solid ingredient that the state is known for being a large producer of  (eggplant). However, for my second attempt at a pizza, I may have promised too much.

Wisconsin. Yeesh. My home state, land of beer, cheese, bratwurst, etc. Do they go on a pizza? No clue. Can I make them fit? Probably. How do I come up with a cohesive theme that encompasses all the great things about Wisconsin cuisine and fit them on a single pie? Moreover, how do I reconcile my desire to put everything on a pizza where the ingredients may or may not match up. Furthermore, taking from my years at the Dane County Farmer’s Market, how on Earth do I choose from the thousands of fantastic, locally grown and sourced items that were available to me every Saturday?

The local food movement is never more present than in Wisconsin, where every weekend at 6:30 AM, as I set up the bakery stall, I’d see wagons filled with local meats, cheeses, and produce, destined for restaurants around the area. There was L’Etoile, a kind of mini Chez Panisse, taking a large bit of inspiration from the mind of Alice Waters. L’Etoile spawned Harvest, whose executive chef went on to lead the Madison chapter of the Slow Food Movement. In later years, though, there was Ian’s Pizza. I’d never think that Ian’s would be so fastidious about sourcing local ingredients, as it was a late night hangout for every drunken collegiate within stumbling distance of either the Kohl Center after basketball games or State Street, the main bar thoroughfare in Madison. Still, every Saturday, Ian himself would be walking around the square, talking with the vendors, and picking out interesting ingredients for his pies.

Ian’s made a name for themselves as an inexpensive yet inventive pizza joint in Madison, staking claim to pizzas like the Macaroni and Cheese, the Steak Frites, and more recently, a Thanksgiving pizza, with mashed potato sauce base, cranberry sauce, stuffing, and bits of turkey as a topping. This is where I drew a bit of inspiration from.

Wisconsin

Here’s a map of Wisconsin: It’s much larger than New Jersey, with topography that goes from rolling glacial hills with incredibly fertile black soil in the south to sandy, evergreen forests in the middle, and cranberry bogs in the north. What to do?

In Wisconsin, there’s a tremendous amount of old growth forest-a mycological playground for wild mushroom foraging. Morels, trumpets, hedgehogs. You name it, and with enough asking and searching, you can find someone who knows just the right place to find some. Unfortunately, the only thing as sacred in Wisconsin as the allegiance to the Green Bay Packers is usually the location of one’s secret mushroom area, so good luck with that one.

***

In my head, I’ve got some ideas. I waited a couple of weeks for the first signs of real spring produce to show up. I did not want to use hothouse tomatoes, root vegetables, or anything that could have been kept in a cold store for the winter. Around April in Wisconsin, we see the first shoots of green pop up: In our gardens, we have the patches of asparagus that grow like weeds. In the forests out behind the house, we have my personal favorites, ramps. As I walked through the store the other day on my way out, I noticed we had some ramps on the shelf. I grabbed two bunches, their twist ties reading Harmony Valley Farms, a longtime Dane County Farmers’ Market staple and huge advocate for new and different local foods. They were selling sunchokes and yellow carrots long before they were foisted on us by the Food Network. They were nutty, soft, and as good then as they are today.

I found some dried apples. In the Kickapoo Valley in the Southwest corner of the state, there is a town called Gays Mills situated among the bluffs along the Mississippi. It’s known for its Apple Festival every September, where all the orchards harvest their finest crops and come together to celebrate the agriculture which sustains this three block long Main Street and the surrounding area.

In the meat department, I grab a bratwurst. Unless you know where to find Johnsonville, or you make your own, you cannot find a good, raw bratwurst in this city outside of Lincoln Square, the heavily German neighborhood on Chicago’s north side. The bratwurst we have at work is pretty good. Flavorful, and a close cousin to a Sheboygan.I also grab a little bit of bacon.

As I mentioned before, cranberries in northern Wisconsin grow abundantly, and driving through the state, if you avoid the turnoff to Minneapolis, you pass bog after bog of cranberries destined for a bottle of Ocean Spray. In the store, it’s difficult to find a dried cranberry these days that is not sweetened with sugar, so I found some that were a bit more pricey that were sweetened with apple juice.

Up to this point, I have not talked about cheese. Cheese is a touchy subject, especially if you need to find something that is going to be representing the entire state. Do you do cheddar? Muenster? Brick? Wisconsin, specifically the cheese Mecca of Monroe, has more Master Cheesemakers per capita than any other state in the country. In Monroe alone, there are 9 Master Cheesemakers, one of whom, Bruce Workman of Rothkase, has certifications as a Master of eight cheeses. You study one at a time, for two years before you’re even considered for your certificate.

Fun fact: There used to be over 100 dairy operations in Southern Wisconsin that made limburger cheese. Now, there is only one in the United States, and it is located in Monroe, Wisconsin.

Okay, back to the cheese. Which one to choose? I wanted to go with something fresh and something from Wisconsin. In my state, Dairy farming still sustains many, many families, and although times are tough, there are many farmstead operations around the state  where farmers can take their milk to be processed. One such operation is Crave Brothers Cheese. Makers of fresh Mascarpone, ripened cheeses, and Fresh Mozzarella, I found out a few years ago that a former classmate of mine had married into the family. When shopping for local ingredients, it makes me feel good to know that I’m supporting not only area businesses, but families and friends who are working hard and making a living by showcasing the agricultural heritage of Wisconsin. From the fresh case at work, I picked up a container of Crave Brothers Ovoline.

***

As I assembled the ingredients back at the house into something that I might actually want to eat on a pizza, I felt good. I sauteed some mushrooms and dried apples in butter, and in a pan on the other burner, I fried up some bacon and bratwurst. The smell hit me. My apartment started to take on a new olfactory dimension, and I became intoxicated by the bacon. As they were caramelizing, I made a quick ramp pesto using the ramp leaves, some oil that I had infused with pureed basil, and a shred of parmesan cheese. I now had the smell of bacon, mushrooms, apples, and the garlicky smell of the pesto floating in the air.

Ramp Pesto

It smelled like home, but something was missing.

I set aside the apples and mushrooms, took out the bratwurst, and sliced the browned bacon into small strips. The bacon grease came out of the pan, and there, I saw it. On the bottom of the pan was the answer to my missing ingredients.

To the fridge, where we had a cheap can of beer. (It was Old Style. Had I planned a little better, it would have been Pabst). Into the pan went a few splashes of beer, lifting the golden bits from the cooking surface. Back into the pan went the bacon, followed by the cranberries and a splash of the bacon grease. Tossed around, they got glossy and exuded a smell that I could not deny was uniquely Wisconsin.

Bacon, Cranberries, and Goodness

I did the same thing with the Bratwurst. I returned it to the pan, sauteed it with some mushrooms, and hit it up with some beer and bacon grease.

I had been putting this pizza recipe off for too long, and I knew tonight was the night, so I had to make one concession. I was not going to put it off for another day, but I didn’t have the time to make the dough. I bought a dough ball from work, which actually seemed to work out fairly well. It was easy to work with, and I didn’t mind it one bit.

Saying that, the dough was quite stretchy, and airy. I haven’t tossed dough like that in 15 years, but it worked out well enough that I could put it on our pan and cut it into a basic shape of Wisconsin.

For organizational purposes, keeping in mind that the lady doesn’t eat meat, despite being equally as enthralled by the scent of bacon as nearly any good American should be, I decided to break down the map of Wisconsin regionally. Apples and mushrooms  were to go in the southwest,  with a stripe of beerbrats and mushrooms stretching from Milwaukee/Sheboygan/Green Bay up Twin Cities way. We followed it with our cranberry and beer bacon mix in the north. As the base, we used the verdant ramp pesto, to celebrate the state’s pastoral place as America’s Dairyland, and to top it off, a good measure of the Crave Ovoline.

Into the oven. Twenty minutes at 425°.

When it came out…

A little puffy, not to say anything bad as we’d say back home. Nothing to complain about. I can see that it’s Wisconsin, and I can smell that it’s Wisconsin, but how’d you think it tasted? I’ll tell you right now- It tasted incredible.

It tasted like home.

Here is number two in the series of guest posts from friends of mine. Tonight’s fine read is from Katrina Schroeder of the website Eat, Drink, and be Active.
Katrina is a longtime friend who hails from my hometown of Madison, Wisconsin. From growing up in the family business of specialty retailing (the jewel of Madison’s small businesses, Orange Tree Imports), Katrina and her family share a strong bond over both food and an active lifestyle. Since I’ve known her, she has gone from weekend bike rides around the lake to participating in marathons and triathlons as both a competitor and vocal supporters of her family’s goals, wherever the finish line may be.
Her blog documents her take as an active person and budding nutritionist to give the body what it needs to stay fit and healthy while making smart decisions about how we live our lives in relation to food and exercise. To be more concise- Eat, Drink, and Be Active.

***
Seven Good Reasons You Should Eat, Drink, and Be Active

1. You get to eat more! Have you ever seen the t-shirt that says: “I run so I can eat?” How true. The science doesn’t lie: if you move more, you can consume more. So if you know that you’re heading to a cookout where you’d really like to sample each side in addition to that burger and brew, go for a run that morning or play a little Frisbee at the cookout. You should never feel guilty for what you eat, but you can take steps (literally) to make sure that what you eat doesn’t dominate your energy in versus energy out for the day.

2. Water equals life. You’ve probably heard that a certain amount of your body is made up of water. But think about it a little bit harder for a second: water makes up a little bit of just about everything. What do your eyes rest in? What is your blood made out of? What cushions your precious internal organs? You need to get enough liquids in you each day for the up-keep of your mostly-water filled body. It doesn’t have to be plain old water, either. Plenty of foods are made up of over 90% water like fruits and veggies. If you know you’re dehydrated a lot but just can’t stomach water on its own, try adding a splash of OJ to sparkling water or making a cucumber-basil infused pitcher of water to keep in your fridge.

3. Food is the new preventative medicine. There’s really no arguing anymore how much food can affect your health. Adapting a healthier diet and being more active can prevent most of the top fatal diseases in America. Studies continue to show that you should eat a mostly plant-based diet (this doesn’t mean you have to become a vegetarian, but if you’re deciding between brown rice that came from a plant and crackers that came from a box, pick the one that was more recently a plant). By doing this you can reduce your risk of some cancers, heart disease, type 2 diabetes… the list goes on. Eat healthy for yourself and for future generations who might want you around for a while!

4. Exercise makes you happy. Getting your heart rate up releases endorphins, which triggers your brain into being happy. It will also help you sleep better and lower your stress levels. It’s a great way to blow off steam as well as make new friends. Why not join a local softball team or masters swimming group? Meetup.com has a group for just about every physical activity and if they don’t have what you’re looking for you can start your own!

5. It’s fun to cook. Eating out is easy and tasty, but when you think about how much butter those chefs are sneaking in there to get you to come back, it’s enough to make you want to cook for yourself more so you can control exactly what’s going into your body. If you’re not much of a cook yet, it’s not too late! Try going to the grocery store and buying several types of produce that are on sale. When you get home look up recipes, or just sauté or grill them and season with some salt and pepper or your favorite stir-fry sauce. Once you have a couple of easy recipes under your belt try to see if you can change them in a way that makes them healthier or more unique to your own tastes.

6. People will be really impressed. Being healthy and active are great conversation starters and ways to impress people! Chances are if you’re active it will come up in conversation. People are always asking me if I run and when I say ‘well yes, for my triathlon training’ they often look on with awe (to some degree). Does it matter that I’m far from being at the top of my age group and will never do an ironman distance tri? No! It’s also a great opportunity to encourage others to be active.

7. You can convince other people to do it with you. Ask anyone you know who plays a sport or does physical activity why or when they started. Chances are they’ll have either a specific person or people who influenced them to get moving. When people ask me I tell them that my dad and I biked a lot when I was young and I started running because of him as well. The swimming was all me though! Now when I sign up for a race I think to myself ‘who else might enjoy doing this with me?’ and send them a message. Sometimes it only takes a little bit of encouragement from outside sources to help a person meet their fitness goals.

If you work at a Grocery store, or if you shop at one, you know how difficult it can be to find healthy options for your family at affordable prices. All the time, you hear about how places like Whole Foods are referred to as “Whole Paycheck”, (a daily occurrence for me), but in reality, it’s not that way at all.
Yes, the prices may seem somewhat exorbitant on one scale, being that you can get some products, exactly the same, for much cheaper at the local Kroger or Safeway. However, it still pales to how much we spend when we eat our lunches out.
I’m guilty of it, too. During the lunch period, I’ll wander over to Panera, get myself a half sandwich and cup of soup, and usually something to drink. A regular lunch, if only because I don’t want to be taken by too many choices in the grocery store. I want something off a menu that I don’t have to think about, and that I can order, eat, relax with, and be back to work with a decent amount of nourishment in 30 minutes or less.
The total price of a lunch? About 10 to 11 dollars, depending on the size of drink I’d like and whether I want my sandwich toasted.
Breaking it down, though, there are certain questions that begin to mount. The cup of soup is 12 ounces. I have half a sandwich. And even with a small drink, soda, iced tea, whatever it may be, the price of that drink is $1.85. Why so expensive for so little food?
Now, flip it over to Whole Foods, where the prices are allegedly high and there’s allegedly an attitude that comes with the meal. I can get a big salad for $5. I can get a whole sandwich, roast beef, cheddar, lettuce, tomato, trimmings, etc. for $4. Either that, or a 16 ounce soup full of goodness for $4. I can get a soda for 69 cents. Total price of a meal? Under ten dollars. It’ll probably fill me up. When I have the patience, that’s what I do.
When I don’t, though, it’s off to Panera I go. It’s the American way.

***

Let’s look at some of the ways that supermarkets are designed to assist your shopping experience. First, in almost any store you visit, the eye catching display as you walk in the door is Produce. It sets the tone of freshness throughout the store. Stop and look at things that are on sale. You can usually find at least one fruit or vegetable staple that is of reasonable price, and when you do, you should put it in your cart. This may be because the store has a good supplier in Mexico, or it may also be that they’re running a sale on something fresh, local, and in season. We eat with our eyes, but we needn’t forget to smell certain foods.
Tomatoes should smell like tomatoes. Basil should smell fresh and green. You should be able to get a whiff of orange oil if you lightly zest it with your thumb.
If you’re on a budget, and you are able to afford the Roma tomatoes that are hard and bland, don’t worry. Take them home, toss them with a little oil, salt and pepper, and roast them at 300 degrees until they turn to mush and their flavors bloom.
Next, look for the private label brands. Many stores have private label brands that are contracted through well-reputed companies at a lower markup. What this means is that good economic practices can work, by giving a wider audience to a company such as a Stonyfield Organic, or simply just by promoting the private label brand itself, getting the store’s name out more. Every time you open your fridge, there’s Safeway Organic Milk. There’s President’s Choice pickles. If you slapped the regular label on them, you’d end up paying a buck more for Vlasic and Horizon products. Private Label isn’t bad.
Third, the bulk section. More stores have a bulk section, where you can scoop granola, get almonds and raisins, and even pick up some treats for the kids. Bulk items are less expensive because they have a much lower packaging cost, among other factors. You can stack a pallet 8 high with 50# bags of rice, and if you buy either a whole bag, or merely a few scoops, you’re only using a fraction of the materials it takes to pack a canister of Planters’ peanuts with the foil inside and the razor sharp rim of death.
Last, buy what you know, but check the labels. If you know a Campbell’s soup is good, but you see another one on sale for half the price, try it. Try it once. You might not like it, and if you don’t, you have that knowledge moving forward, but you also have equal sustenance in your belly from your one less than flavorful interim meal. It’s not so bad. Now you know. You saved a buck and you fed yourself for a meal. This checking the labels thing? Try to use it for good things. You can’t taste the difference between a $4 can of Organic free range garbanzo beans and a $.99 can of store brand. Not after you add your garlic, cheese, salt, herbs, or anything else people put with it. Don’t sit in the aisles, poring over the labels on two competing brands of pizza, looking for the one with higher fiber. That’s not what healthy eating is about.

Remember- the more packaging something has, the less incentive it has to stay fresh. Simple packaging generally equals better food. If you can see the food without picking it up, or if you know that the food doesn’t have five layers of protective packaging or an airpuffed bag surrounding it, it might be a little better for you than a Kraft Macaroni and cheese. Case in point- the Macaroni. It’s alright. It can touch the cardboard, and it’s fine. However, the ‘cheese’? It’s in the airtight, foil lined, childproof pouch. We can easily see or hear the macaroni as it shuffles around in the box when we shake it. What we can’t do is even imagine what is in the Neon pouch of doom. That’s why I stay away from the box macaroni dinners. Colors like that don’t occur in nature.
You know what color does occur in nature? Green. If you have something green with dinner, you’re already on your way to better health. You can get a whole bag of spring mix, herbs, bitter greens, spinach, etc. for 2 bucks at my store. You can’t even get an egg mcmuffin for that, can you?
Buy some apples. Buy some bananas. If they go brown, make banana bread. Freeze them. Make morning smoothies with frozen fruit and orange juice. Find ways to utilize all the fresh food you get. It’s your money. Make healthy and sound choices for your dollar.
As a side question, when did coupons become such a bad thing? Look for the coupons. Clip ’em if you got ’em. Stock up on nonperishables when they go on sale. We have such a love for things like Groupon and Livingsocial, always scouting out things that are marketed to look like they are a great deal (some of them are!), but why not take that approach with your food? It’s a great deal in Atlanta to get a Facial and salt scrubbed body peel for 50% off today, but it seems too much to want to get 20% off of your groceries by clipping coupons or simply figuring out what is the best value for your dollar. Get your Preferred rewards card. Pick up the coupon booklet when you first walk in the store. You won’t be taken by impulse buys, most of the time. As long as you keep your head on right, and shop with purpose, you’ll be able to shop smart.

Shop S-Mart.


***

One last thing- Most people shop in terms of total dollar amounts. What many fail to realize is that packaging is perceived value. It may cost $4.99 for one container of shredded parmesan cheese, but it will cost $3.00 for a hunk of parmesan of equal or greater weight. It is increasingly popular (and I don’t know if it is mandated yet) to put unit cost on the shelf tags by the products. Next time you’re in the store, check out Unit prices, and see which items, not necessarily by sheer dollar amount alone, will give you the lowest price per ounce.

Let’s talk about the direction the blog may take. I’m looking for feedback regarding how I’d like this place to be run.

I have a lot of things that I want to say about food, but lately, I have pressing issues on my mind that revolve around how we eat, what we eat, how we treat our bodies, and whether or not the food we eat is safe. More than simply posting things about what I have for dinner, I want to start having some more conviction behind my writing.

Here are a few topics that I’m working on, with the collaborative help of some guest bloggers:

1) Nutrition- Moving forward with how we eat, what can we do to ensure the health of what we put in our bodies? There’s a lot of information out there about what people can do to gear up for the perfect summer swimsuit body, even more about what they can do to look better while feeling better, but there’s also a lot of garbage media out there that consciously enlists people to continue shopping at McDonalds. While places like McDonalds now offer “healthier options” for menu planning, the reality of it all is that there’s still a Fruit and Maple Oatmeal that purports to have fresh apples and raisins (fresh raisins, btw, would be grapes), yet from multiple reviews with pictures, actually has neither, in addition to as much sugar as a latte (32 grams of sugar-over one ounce in a total of 9 ounces of oatmeal. That’s44% of the calories derived from sugar, not to count other carbs).

Here’s one of the offending articles about it.

I’ve asked a friend to speak more about what people can do if they either have little time to cook, or if they have little skill in the kitchen. Throw that together with pointers on how to exercise, eat and drink right, and stay healthy, and you’ve got a formula that is best suited for healthy success.

2) Health risks posed by the food we eat. Yes, I’ve been watching Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, and as you know, a large part of the series is sculpted around sob stories of those people whose family members have terrible heart problems and have contracted diseases due to intake in large quantities of poor food choices. Yes, it’s made for the audience to sympathize with the plight of those who are overweight and hating it, or those who live their unsatisfying culinary experience at the drive-thru, but this is the second series of the show, and I don’t believe, in ANY market in the United States, that it would be hard to find someone who is directly affected by and willing to share their story of the failing health of one or more family members because of what they eat.

3)Back to Seafood. Since I’m woefully out of the loop at the moment with fresh seafood at my fingertips, I’ve asked a couple of people their opinions on the state of Sustainable seafood practices, and specifically, the outcry for better public safety assurance of Japanese/Pacific seafood harvesting.

4)Although my cooking is usually a joyous occasion (I put on music, I dance around the kitchen, throwing little dustings of flower everywhere), sometimes I get stuck in a rut. Even though I work in a grocery store, I walk through the aisles after work looking for something to bring home, and I don’t feel particularly inspired by anything. That’s why I’m looking forward to having the Muffin Man shoot me a blogpost about some great things that he’s doing in the kitchen. He’ll either do that or muse about great things that he’s thinking.

I guess that’s about all I’m capable of thinking about right now. Hopefully, there’s a bit of inspiration in this, and through reading and patching these testimonials together, I can come up with a compelling few weeks of posts, and get a groove back of writing for the joy of cooking, and not simply the job of cooking itself.

I think that it also helps, as I’ve been talking about with a few people, to have some fresh voices being heard, as sometimes I find myself flaming the internet seas to nobody in particular and getting riled up about stuff that I’m still not even sure many people are reading and enjoying, let alone responding to.

Speaking of fresh voices, how’d you all like that guest post from P. Soutowood last week? Last night, he did a short speech at a Pecha Kucha night in San Diego, and wrote a little bit about it on his blog today. Here’s the latest post from Handmade, all about sharing a little bit of himself and breaking a little bread at the same time.

***

So, where does this leave me? I don’t really know. It’s certainly an exciting jump off point, for parts and diatribes unknown. Please start leaving comments, so this blog can show a little bit of forward progress. I know it’s asking a little, but I’m eager to branch out, and more than that, find out what people think is valuable information that they’d like to hear. I guess it just comes down to figuring out how to engage people who may or may not read this blog.

Where should I go? What should I write about? What things would you be interested in hearing about? Let me know. Leave a comment, and I’ll get on it. Sometimes, it just takes a kick in the pants to get started. Not a big one, but just enough that you take that first stutterstep forward.

Thanks.

I didn't have an image to put in the post, so I just went with baby hedgehogs.

A lot of us are lazy, or if not, we’re complacent. We’re complacent about our time, about our food, our sleep, our exercise, and all things that lead us as Americans to be a nation of unhealthy, overweight, comfort-dependent eaters of a sedentary nature.

Even if we do sit down and watch television every night, make it something valuable. If you have kids, if you want to change your eating habits and theirs but you don’t know how, or you just want to get motivated to lead a healthier lifestyle, gather the family around the television’s warm, glowing, warming glow, and check out Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution. .

First, it’s compelling reality television with a message- We need to eat healthier for the future of our families and ourselves. Fix a dinner at home. Make a salad. Stop going out to eat as much. Listen to your body as your knees creak and you become winded from running not from pleasure but from the fact that you have to lose that spare tire. Our bodies are trying to tell us to wake up. Why does it take a television personality to alert us to the fact that we’re still doing it wrong, this whole eating thing?

Also worth mentioning is that the ratings were high enough to get renewed for a second season. Many great shows never lasted past one or two- Firefly, Arrested Development, etc. I like those shows. I like this show. I think it’s important to get the message out. Make an event of watching it, either on your own, or with someone you care about. The message is there. Eat healthy. Influence others. Do your part. Help start the food revolution.

I’m normally not a shill, but Tuesdays at 7:00 on ABC. I’ll be watching, and I’ll be more than happy to talk about it with any readers out there. Positive discussion is a must. Make it a point to care about your body, what you put in it, and what message you’re sending to those around you when you don’t. Let’s kickstart the revolution together.

Here’s the first of hopefully many guest appearances by my food blogging acquaintances. First up, we have P. Soutowood, of Handmade. A father, husband, architect, and baker of extraordinary curiousity, his blog posts are some of my favorites, and have influenced a lot of what I like to think about and talk about when I think food. If you’re ever wondering what blogs I read to get some inspiration for writing a bit of my own, his blog is a great place to start. First, a big thank you to him for sharing his talent and ideas. P, I’m honored to share my little blogging corner with you and to introduce your creativity to everyone who may be out there reading. That being said, anonymous readers, please enjoy this, the first guest post on Mulligan Stew, and don’t forget to visit his blog, Handmade.

***

Baking bread is not that difficult, I’ll get that out of the way up front.  Buy some yeast, mix up water, flour, and salt, give it two rises and bake it.  If you’ve spent any time in a kitchen, or even seen one on TV, if you know the difference between a tablespoon and a hectare, and you don’t make violent spastic movements when working with your hands, you can go from raw ingredients to baked bread in a few hours.  But…making good bread is a little more tricky.

I’m going to assume you’re a foodie since you are here at Mulligan Stew, and can tell the difference between a fresh baguette and months-old Wonder Bread refusing to mold.  So you know good bread has to score high marks in several areas:  beautiful plump form and expert scoring, caramelized and crispy crust, open structured crumb, creamy color, nutty and wheaty flavor.  A good piece of bread is a gold medal in the baking decathlon.  Over the last couple years I’ve gone from baking one bread to twenty different breads and am now working my way back down to one:  sourdough.  Simple is difficult, but can be fantastically rewarding.

Here’s the thing:  sourdough is flour, water, salt, heat, and time.  All the variables in starting a culture, keeping it fed, rising and judging your dough, and getting the right baking environment, they are all plates you’ve got to keep spinning.  Making naturally-leavened bread is what people have been doing for thousands of years—utilizing the bacteria found in grains floating like dust motes in the air to coax flavor out of flour and fill it with some air bubbles.  It’s just in the last hundred years bakers have begun using commercial yeast, which I should add is for the baker’s convenience and not for the benefit of the end user.  Yeast vs. natural levain, the title match will be over in the first round.  Yeasted bread goes moldy in a couple days, natural levain keeps bread fresh for weeks—BAM!  Yeasted bread doesn’t have the complex acids and salts of natural levain making the flavor profile one dimensional—POW!  Natural levain converts sugars in flour in a way that makes it more digestible and less likely to raise the glycemic index of diabetics—OOF!  In three hits, natural levain beats out commercial yeast, but it’s so much more than that.

If you want to experience the elemental nature of creating food, it’s hard to beat making your own sourdough.  It’s not that difficult to get a starter going, and after a week of building your own culture, you can keep it in the fridge and feed it once a week when you need to make more bread.  I’ve had mine about two years, but some bakeries in San Francisco have kept mother cultures going over 150 years.  Now that’s even-death-won’t-part-us commitment.  I’ve got some direction on making sourdough here.  If you think making bread is too daunting, try this on for size:  no-knead sourdough ciabatta.  Use the recipe for the no-knead ciabatta, substituting 1 tablespoon of sourdough starter for each ¼ t of yeast.  Basically you mix up some batter, leave it out for 12 hours, then give it a few mixes with a spoon, pour it onto some parchment, and slide it into a hot oven.  C’mon, even Spastic-hands McKitchen Disaster could bake this!

The first time you bake your own bread you’ll think, “This is ten times better than anything I could buy at the store,” which is true of almost every food you make yourself.  Don’t forget that the industrial food complex is not about making delicious food, it’s about making shelf-stable food that plumps up the bottom line.  Bake your own naturally-leavened bread and your body and hungry friends will thank you!

I want to keep things fresh and different around here. That’s why, sometime in the near future, I’ve invited a couple of food friends to throw their unique blogging styles into the Stew.

I try to align myself with those whose food intrigues them, and piques the interest of their readers. My hope, with these guest bloggers, is that they can offer new and different questions and ideas to your inquisitive minds, and also increase the readership of their own home blogs.

As they roll in, give them a read. Please check out their websites, and tell your friends. Hope you enjoy it!

Next Page »