Friday, December 12, 2008

What's Up With the Seafood Watch?


(Mackerel photo by Amy Groark, kindly shared via a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works License.)


If anybody is actually reading this on a regular basis, you might have noticed that I'm adding Seafood Watch ratings to my seafood recipes. I decided to do this after seeing some discussion on sustainable fish choices in some of the comments on Beyond Salmon, home of my sometimes-teacher and blogging role model Helen Rennie (aka, The Fish Queen).


I'm trying to live by the the idea that every dollar you spend is a vote for the world you want to live in*. The money we spend on food is one area where we have the most access to alternatives, and where our choices have the most impact.


Each of us has to decide:

Which issues are important to us:
- ecology
- local vs. global economies
- food security
- animal treatment
- health & safety
- tradition
- social justice / fair trade
- etc.

How we should support those values:
- giving up a food vs. eating less of it
- changing our consumption of specific foods vs. focusing our attention on how they're produced, where, and by whom
- opting out of something entirely vs. using our dollar votes and voices to influence how it's made, sold, etc.
- which businesses (both manufacturers and retailers) we should support

How strictly we want to adhere to those choices:
- religiously
- carefully
- whenever practical
- more often than not
- better than we used to (i.e., the baby steps approach)



I strongly believe that there are no right or wrong answers to these questions. Nobody can decide for you, and nobody else should.

Not that it's wrong to put forward an argument for your own position. But nobody else is qualified to analyze your values and personal situation and decide what's right for you. And anyone who claims that there is only one right way has something to gain by having you adopt that way**.



Making a conscious decision on how to spend your food dollars takes a lot of research. But don't let that scare you off! Learning where your food comes from and how it's produced is empowering; it means that your choices are really your choices. Here are a few topics you might want to read about:
- conventional vs. organic production (and certified organic vs. not certified but meeting many or all requirements)
- pastured vs. grain-fed/industrial animal products
- local vs. non-local production (i.e., "food miles")
- monocultures and biodiversity
- social justice in the production and distribution of food
- globalization


After you educate yourself on these topics and examine your values, most of the decisions you make are going to be pretty straight-forward. They may not be easy or convenient, but they'll be pretty easy to formulate, ex: "I'm going to start buying fair trade coffee".


However, when it comes to choosing seafood, things gets more complicated. The impact your seafood purchases depends on the species, how it's fished, and where it comes from. And that means that you have to make a LOT more choices than just conventional eggs vs. cage-free.

So, in the interests of helping you make informed decisions about voting with your food dollars, I'm going to be posting the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch ratings for any seafood dishes I post. That rating assumes that the reader is buying their seafood in the US. Those of you in other countries may want to consult one of the buying guides from The Seafood Choices Alliance.



Now, I would like to make two things clear:

1) I am posting the ratings as an informational tool, not to imply what you "should" be doing. The choice is yours. I'm not going to judge you for making choices different from mine, and I'm not going to give you any brownie points for making more extreme choices than I do.

Anyone who educates themselves on the issues and makes an informed, honest choice based on their own values and circumstances has my respect, no matter where that choice falls on the spectrum.


2) This blog is NOT the place to debate issues of what people should eat, whether for health or ethical reasons. By all means, have that discussion, but take it to another venue.


* that's the subtitle of The Better World Shopping Guide. We received it as a housewarming gift from our awesome real estate agent, Ken Sazama, and I highly recommend them both.

** a quote from Shakira (a dancer in Illinois, not the Columbian singer)

Shrimp with Vanilla Bean Butter

This recipe was inspired by a lobster dish I had at Legal Sea Foods a couple of years ago. It was absolutely brilliant, but, unfortunately, was a special, and I haven't seen it since. Here is my version, adapted for serving at home.

It's fast, it's easy, it's tasty, and it will impress your guests!




Notes:

As with many of my recipes, the ingredients matter. This recipe is especially sensitive to quality, so don't skimp!

Get the biggest shrimp you can find and afford. The larger shrimp will have a crunchier, crisper texture, more like that of a lobster tail. They are pricey, but it's worth it. I wait until they go on sale and then buy a bag or two. No matter what size you buy, be sure they still have their shells on. The toasty flavor that you get by cooking the shrimp in their shells is integral to this dish!

Don't substitute vanilla extract for the vanilla bean. It won't work.

And, for the love of the food gods, do not, I repeat: NOT, use margarine or other butter substitutes. You have been warned...

One substitution I can recommend is to use lobster tails (broiled in their shells) instead of the shrimp. You're on your own for cooking instructions, though; I hear it's hard to cook them through without drying them out.



Shrimp with Vanilla Bean Butter
Serves 2 as a main course, or 4 as an appetizer

Time:
Prep: 5 minutes, not including thawing time
Cooking: 4 minutes


Ingredients:

12 oz to 1 lb. shrimp, still in their shells
Olive oil or clarified butter for brushing (less than 1 Tbsp)

3 Tbsp butter
1-inch length of vanilla bean
salt to taste (optional)


Instructions:

- If the shrimp are still frozen, thaw them, but do not remove the shells. It's safest to thaw them overnight in the refrigerator. I usually thaw them in a bath of cool water on the kitchen counter, changing the water once or twice, and removing any ice that forms. However, that method does NOT meet food safety guidelines. I warned you, so you'd be trying it at your own risk.

- Preheat your broiler or grill on high.

- Slit the vanilla bean lengthwise, and scrape out all the tiny seeds, and place the seeds in a small microwaveable bowl or sauce dish.

- Add the butter, and microwave on the lowest power setting (try defrost!) until melted and warmed, but not spattering. Stir to mix.

(Feel free to melt the butter using the method of your choice. You can also clarify the butter for fancier presentation, but that's optional, and I prefer the flavor of non-clarified butter.)

- Pat the shrimp dry with paper towels, and place on a broiler pan or grilling skewers. Brush or spray with oil to lightly coat the shrimp, paying attention any exposed flesh.

- Broil/grill the shrimp 4-6" from the heating element, turning once, until the flesh is just opaque, and the shells are toasted, about 2 minutes per side.

The exact color of the toasted shells is up to your personal prefernce: they may have a few light brown toasty spots on them, or be somewhat blackened. The only important thing is that the flesh is fully opaque, but not dried out, and that the shells give off a nice, toasty flavor.

Serve in the shells, with dipping butter on the side.


Serving Tips:

Accompaniments: This is amazing with pan-grilled asparagus (recipe coming soon). Keep any starch accompaniments relatively neutral: creamy mashed potatoes without herbs, pasta with butter, or just some good bread. I love the idea of the texture of a creamy risotto with this, but risotto isn't really risotto without the cheese, which would clash with the vanilla... (Maybe a garlic-and cheese-free pseudo-risotto should be my next experiment...)


Wine Pairings: This is absolutely perfect for a Viognier. If this is a celebratory dinner, a decent dry champagne-style sparkling white would also work well. I am a fan of Korbel; it's not in the same league as Veuve Clicquot, but it's a very nice wine, and a good deal for the price ($12-15).


Presentation: If you really, really want to, you can shell the shrimp before serving, but they look so much nicer in their shells! It's not hard for the guests to shell them at the table: pull the meat out by hand (make sure they've cooled enough to handle), or use your fork to lift the meat out from the shell, and your knife to cut it free at the base of the tail.

For formal presentation, you can sever the meat from tail before serving (don't pull the meat out of the shell, just use a sharp knife to slice through it where it meets the tip of the tail), or provide finger bowls of lemon water and small towels or napkins.



Seafood Watch:
(Note: the rating only applies to seafood purchased in the US. Readers from other countries may want to try the Seafood Choices Alliance)

Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Score: Avoid

Shrimp is listed as a "good alternative" if it's produced in the US or Canada (farmed or wild), but the vast majority of shrimp you'll find is produced in supermarkets is imported, which is on the "avoid" list. Your fishmonger may be able to get you domestic shrimp, as well as lots of other tasty seafood.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Creamed Codfish with your choice of base (i.e., yummy white goo)

This is one of those love-it-or-hate-it dishes. Quite literally: half my family loves it, and the other half hates it. I love it. My dad loves it. My husband loves it. My gramma loves it. Several of my aunts and uncles hate it. But since I'm not feeding them, who cares. :)

Salt cod is one of those funny things: it looks weird, and smells more than strange, but, with that alchemy of food that never fails to surprise me, makes the most delicious things. Plus, it's fairly cheap, and keeps forever, so it's easy to prepare.

If the idea of salt cod doesn't immediately turn you off, give it a try. It is an incredibly satisfying, filling, warming goo. You'll get something similar to brandade if you substitute olive oil for the butter, puree it until smooth, and optionally add some garlic. (Although the internets tell me that "real" brandade doesn't have garlic.)

Serve on top of mashed potatoes. (The smoothness is your call: I like mine lumpy, my husband swears by whipped.) Alternatively, cauliflower puree makes a lighter, sweeter base.

I meant to take some pictures of this dish, but it was so good, we ate it before I could get around to it. Instead, here is a photo of my gramma, Peg Donnelly, who gave me this recipe.

(That's her in the foreground; is she a looker, or what?)



Creamed Codfish
Serves 2 to 4, depending on how hungry you are

Ingredients:

Salt Cod:
1lb salt cod (bacalao)
2 tbsp butter
2 tpsb flour
1/2 to 1 cup heavy cream
salt and pepper to taste (lots of pepper!)


Goo Base:

1 lb potatoes (whichever variety you like best, peeled or just scrubbed) or cauliflower (fresh or frozen)
2 Tbs butter
1/4 to 1/2 cup cream, to produce the desired texture (more for potatoes, less for cauliflower. Milk may be substituted in the potato version only)
salt and pepper to taste


The night before you want to serve this dish, cover the salt cod in water, with about 2 inches extra. In the morning, drain the water and cover again. If you have time, drain, cover, and soak a third time when you get home from work.

Prepare the goo base: cut the potatoes into pieces about 1" cube, or cut the cauliflower into florets. Cover with cold water and sprinkle with salt. Bring to a boil over high heat. Turn the heat down to medium and simmer until tender. Drain, then add the butter and cream/milk and mash or puree. Salt and pepper to taste.

Prepare the white sauce: melt the butter over medium heat. Add the flour, and cook until it releases a cooked, nutty smell. Add cream/milk, and cook, stirring, until thickened. (It should be about the same thickness as a good marinara sauce.)


Cook the cod: drain the cod a final time and cover with water, with at least 2 inches extra. Bring to a boil over high heat, then turn heat to medium and simmer until the fish flakes easily with a fork. Drain, and allow to cool until it easy to handle. Flake with a fork or your fingers, checking for and removing any bones. Add fish to the white sauce, and warm over low heat until nice and hot.


Serve on top of mashed potatoes or cauliflower puree. Salt and pepper to taste, but don't be shy about the pepper!


A sauvignon blanc would cut through the fishy flavor, while the full body of a chardonnay (I prefer unoaked) would complement the richness of the cream base.


(update 12/08)
Seafood Watch:
(Note: the rating only applies to seafood purchased in the US. Readers from other countries may want to try the Seafood Choices Alliance)

Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Score: Avoid for Atlantic Cod. Pacific Cod is a Good Alternative if trawl-fished, or a Best Choice if caught on longlines.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Potage Crecy (sort of), Two Ways

One of my comfort foods is my mom's carrot soup, aka Potage Crecy. There is nothing like it on a cold night: rich, velvety, and thick, with some chewy multi-grain bread. (Which is why I'm DYING for Volume 2 of Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day, which will deal with whole-grain breads.) The chilled variation at the bottom makes a fantastic summer dish.

The traditional recipe is made with carrots and potatoes (think Vichyssoise, but hot and with carrots instead of leeks). My version uses cauliflower instead of potatoes, which makes the mixture sweeter, and lighter in texture. This recipe has a nice balance of the carrot and cauli flavors, but some people prefer a stronger carroty flavor. Feel free to play with the proportion of carrots to cauliflower until you find the ratio you like best.

Resist the urge to add cream - it doesn't make it any better, and even dilutes the flavors. (Believe me - I tried it!)





Potage Jessy
(Jessy is the nickname my family used when I was little, including most of the times I ate this soup)

Serves 4 as a meal or 6-8 as an appetizer

1/2 lb carrots, peeled and chopped into rounds
1/2 lb cauliflower floretts & stem pieces (frozen or fresh)
2 cups of chicken stock
2 Tbsp butter (optional, but highly recommended)
2 tbsp chopped fresh parsley (optional) or the fresh herb of your choice (dill is nice too)
salt and fresh ground pepper to taste

Special equipment:
- blender, immersion/stick blender, or food mill


Instructions:

- put the carrots, cauliflower, and chicken stock in a large saucepan over medium-high heat, and bring to a boil

- lower the heat and simmer until the vegetables are tender but not falling apart (10-15 minutes)

- pour half the cooking liquid into another container and reserve.

- puree the vegetables and remaining cooking liquid until very smooth

- continue to add the remaining cooking liquid 1/4 cup at a time, pureeing, until you reach the desired consistency.

- add butter and puree until completely incorporated

- ladle into bowls and garnish with chopped parsley

- add fresh-ground pepper and salt to taste
NOTE: salt is usually not needed unless you used sodium-free stock!

This is great with a nutty whole-grain bread and a crisp white wine. A grassy french-style sauvignon blanc would pick up on the herb garnish, while the rounder body of a nice chardonnay (I prefer the unoaked ones) would complement the smooth richness of the soup.


VARIATION:

For a nice summer dish, serve chilled. You can also omit the parsley and substitute a heaping tablespoon of full-fat yogurt (regular or strained), placed in the middle of the dish. For a real treat, use home-made yogurt. (It's not that hard, really!) A nice sauvignon blanc would really pick up the zing of the yogurt.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Don't anger the food gods!!!

So, some of you may be aware that, in addition to being both a food and computer geek, I am also a dancer. At my last class, our teacher gave us her Lebanese husband's recipe for a cucumber and yogurt salad, and mentioned that it can be made with fat-free yogurt. As I did in class, I would like to set the record straight:

Fat-free yogurt is a sin in the eyes of the food gods.

Seriously. I'm very much against one-size-fits-all dietary advice; if a low-fat diet is a good choice for you, then go for it. However, most reduced-fat foods (not to be confused with foods that are naturally low in fat) make the food gods cry, and fat-free yogurt is possibly the worst offender.

Full-fat yogurt, especially the yummy strained kind ("greek style", "labneh", etc.), is a beautiful thing. It's thick, rich, creamy, and twice as tasty as sour cream. Low-fat yogurt is to full fat as wonder bread is to a fresh, crusty, home-made loaf. Fat-free is the equivalent of taking a big bite of flour and yeast.

If you're watching your fat intake, you'd do much better to buy full-fat yogurt, and eat a smaller portion, savoring it slowly. The better the yogurt, the less it'll take to satisfy you.


That said, getting good yogurt isn't always easy. Fage Total is becoming more widely available (it recently moved from the "specialty" section to the regular yogurt case at my Star Market), but it is expensive.

So what do you dowhen you're faced with the choice between sublime yogurt at five dollars per pint and nasty fake yogurt full of corn syrup and fillers? Make your own!

Now, I know that is going to scare a lot of you off, but stay with me, you can do this...


HOW TO MAKE YOUR OWN YOGURT:
(it's not that hard, really!)

Tip: quality ingredients make a big difference here, so be sure to read the notes below each ingredient!

Ingredients:

- 1 quart whole milk

Choose the most flavorful, full-fat milk you can get your hands on. I usually use Jersey cow milk from a local dairy (Shaw Farm, which is available in several shops around the Boston area, including The Dairy Bar, an offshoot of Kickass Cupcakes in Somerville). When that's not available/convenient, I'll buy whatever organic brand the supermarket carries.

- 1/4 cup of plain yogurt

This is your starter culture that "innoculates" the milk with the bacteria that will turn the milk into yogurt for you. (Don't let the thought of bacteria gross you out - these little guys, also known as "bioflora" help keep you healthy by setting up shop in your digestive tract, crowding out bad bacteria that can make you sick.) This yogurt MUST be fresh to ensure that there are enough bacteria still alive in there, so choose yogurt whose expiration date is at least a week away. For future batches of yogurt, you can just save the last bit from your last batch, but you'll get the best results if you make it within 5 days of the last batch.

Choose a yogurt that you like for the starter: the specific strain of the bacteria will affect the final flavor of the yogurt. I use Fage, since that's what I'm trying to duplicate. I'm told other people have gotten good results with Stonyfield Farm.


Equipment:
- a saucepan that can contain at least 1 qt. of milk
- a yogurt maker OR a 1 qt glass jar with lid (I'm told the big applesauce jars work really well)
- a spoon for stirring
- a big bath towel (if not using a yogurt maker)
- thermometer (optional)
- a pen and paper for notes

Instructions:

- wash your hands and the glass jar and lid (or the tub and lid that came with your yogurt maker).

- heat the milk in the saucepan over medium heat, stirring frequently, until you can only just keep your finger in it for a count of three. If you're using a thermometer, that should be about 170 degrees F.
DO NOT LET IT BOIL, and be sure to stir it often enough to prevent a skin from forming on top. If the skin does form, skim it off before proceeding.

- take the milk off the heat, and let it cool until you can keep your finger in it for a count of ten, but it still feels very warm, like a nice bath. If you're using a thermometer, that's about 110 degrees F.
IMPORTANT: the milk is a yummy growth medium for the helpful yogurt bacteria, but other bacteria would flourish in there too. Be sure to wash your hands before testing the yogurt, particularly if you have touched anything in the meantime, such your nose/mouth/face, money, dirty dishes, or raw meat.

- place the starter yogurt in your jar or the yogurt maker's tub. Add a small splash of the warm milk, and mix well. Add the rest of the milk, a little at a time, until completely mixed.

- If using a yogurt maker, cover the tub, place it in the yogurt maker and turn it on (follow the manufacturer's instructions). If you're not using a yogurt maker, cover the glass jar, wrap it up snugly in the towel, and place it somewhere away from drafts.

- Let your yogurt incubate until it reaches the desired tartness and is just a little runnier than you had in mind. For me, that's usually 8 hours, although you could do as little as 4 if you like it very runny, or up to 12 if you like your yogurt really tart.

- Put it in the fridge to chill and thicken a little further.


You can enjoy your yogurt as-is, stir in some fruit or jam, or move on to the following steps to make thick, rich, strained yogurt.


HOW TO MAKE STRAINED YOGURT (aka "Greek-Style" or "labneh")

Equipment:

- a large sieve (1 qt capacity)

- 2 large coffee filters (the big ones used for coffee urns and office coffee makers)

- tin foil

OR

- a yogurt strainer


Instructions:

- If using the sieve method, place the two coffee filters (in a double layer) in the sieve. Otherwise, assemble the yogurt strainer according to the manufacturer's instructions (i.e., put the strainer part in the basin).

- Dump the yogurt into the filters or the strainer section

- Cover, and leave in the fridge to strain for 4-8 hours or until it reaches the desired thickness.

- Pour out the whey (or save it to make something else, like gjestost or whey ricotta)

- Place the strained yogurt into a storage container, and enjoy!


Coming soon: some recipes for using all that yummy yogurt!