Sunday, August 2, 2009

July 4th redux

I've let this post languish for too long - to the point that I question its relevance anymore. But its absence has kept me from posting regularly, so I think it is worth including, especially since it involves food, family, and tradition, the three pedestals upon which Cooking 4 Four is build. So, if you can forgive me for not being timely, I give you the Annual July 4th Lobster Luau!

Every July 4th (or thereabouts, depending on when the holiday falls), the family gathers at my grandparents' house on Cape Cod. And by 'family', I mean the lot of us - aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, brothers, friends, etc. This past 4th, there were 20 people there, which is actually one of the smaller gatherings we've had - over the years, as the family has grown, various factions have moved farther away or have other responsibilities. Whomever can come does, and those that can't make it we hope to see next year (though we'll see them in a month or so as well - family gatherings are a common occurrence). And every 4th my grandfather organizes the "luau", by which he means a traditional New England lobster and clam bake. There's actually something quite funny here - you have an Italian-American family cooking a traditional American meal and calling it by a name usually associated with pineapples, pig-on-a-spit, and grass skirts. Not sure why my grandfather started calling it a luau, but that is its official name. So if I ever invite you to the Cape for a luau, you can leave the plastic flower lei at home.

The main menu for the luau includes shrimp, lobster, chicken, steamers, potatoes, corn, carrots, and onion. The shrimp get served two ways - as shrimp cocktail and sauteed in olive oil and garlic (really, what's a luau without olive oil and garlic?). The rest get thrown together into some lobster pots along with some corn husks and garlic (again, you gotta have the garlic). Actually, "thrown together" isn't really correct - each item is placed into a pot in a particular order, all of which is orchestrated by my grandfather. Honestly, the order of things isn't that important, but you have to make sure that things are evenly distributed and that there is enough space between everything so they cook together. A couple of lobsters, a potato and onion, a few carrots, a couple cloves of garlic, a piece of chicken, some corn (halved) and some corn husks. Repeat until all the food is in the pots. Turn on the gas and cook until done. When is that? When the last potato you put on top is tender enough you can slide a knife easily into it. Somewhere between 1 and 2 hours. Throw the steamers on top during the last 15 minutes or so.

My brother, Carl, with today's entree

Ready to cook

My grandfather making sure I did everything right

Time to eat!

The rest of the celebration involves plenty of wine, beer, and desserts (as usual). This year I brought along some of my homebrew and made this awesome blueberry and strawberry buttermilk cake. And when not eating there is plenty of time to hang out, catch up, go to the beach, play some bocce and do a little night fishing (for the record, I caught two stripers - both too small to keep). All in all, our 4th of July Luau is one of my favorite family events - we have 4 generations enjoying each others' company, keeping traditions alive, and eating great food. If only we had some hula dancers too...

My brothers, Jeff and Carl, fishing in the fog

Uncle Dougie playing bocce

Jack showing off his bocce prowess

Jack at the Sundae School

Friday, July 24, 2009

Attleboro, MA? Or Seattle, WA?

Another wet week in this very wet summer...

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Are my potatoes OK?

I know I've left that July 4th post lingering, but I wanted to get this one up. I'll elaborate on the other one soon.

The past couple of days, coinciding with the summer weather that has finally arrived, I've noticed that our potato plants don't seem to be doing so great. Many of them are turning yellow and getting all droopy - quite clearly, they're dying. Now, I know that eventually the plants die back, but I don't think that is supposed to happen for quite some time. But this is our first attempt at potatoes, so I really don't know. Here's what some of the plants are looking like (click on the image for a bigger view):

I'm starting to get nervous about our potato crop (or potential lack thereof). So, while in the garden this afternoon tying up some of the tomatoes, I decided to do a little digging around the potatoes to see what was going on. At first I couldn't find anything that remotely resembled a potato (unless you count rocks). Now I was very worried. I decided to try another spot and after a few seconds my fingers brushed up against something that seemed promising. I carefully brushed more dirt away and to my great surprise, pulled up this guy:

Looks like the potatoes have done just fine. :)

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Independence Day (preview)

No time right now to post a full story on how we spent the 4th of July. Instead, here's a taste to get your mouth watering...

Monday, June 29, 2009

Veggie Garden Roundup

Just wanted to give a quick run down of what we have growing in our home vegetable garden (and other vegetable "areas") along with some pics.

Main Garden Bed

Potatoes (2 varieties)
Yukon Gold
Russian Banana Fingerling

Summer Squash (1 variety)
Cocozelle Zucchini (x4)

Tomatoes (16 varieties!)
Brandywine (x2)
Super Sweet 100 (x1)
Caruso (x2)
Prince Borghese (x1)
Yellow Perfection (x1)
Pole Perfect Purple (x1)
Red Grape (x2)
Sun Gold (x2)
Sweet Chelsea (x1)
Mountain Princess (x1)
Caspian Pink (x2)
Mountain Delight (x1)
Margherita (x1)
Cherokee Purple (x2)
Garden Peach (x2)
Green Zebra (x2)

Onions (2 varieties)

Broccoli (x4) - FAILED (bunny food and already flowering)

Peas and Beans (3 varieties) - limited success
Oregan Giant (edible pod pea)
Blauhilde (pole bean)
Royal Burgandy (bush bean)

Container Garden

Peppers (4 varieties)
Thai Dragon (x2)
Red Beauty (x2)
Sweet Banana (x1)
Carmen Sweet Italian (x1)

Carmen Peppers - don't they look incredible? (more on these in a later post)

Tomatoes (4 more varieties)
Matt's Wild Cherry
Sweet Pea Currant
Small Fry
Mr. Ugly

Eggplant (x1)
Garden Huckleberry (x1)
Ground Cherry - Cossack Pineapple (x1)

Cold Frame #1
Swiss Chard (Charlotte)
Carrots (Danvers 126)

Cold Frames #2
replanted with leaf lettuce and arugula after recent tragedy
(not looking particularly promising)

Cold Frame #3 and #4 - new this year
Being re-evaluated after limited success with leaf lettuce, beets, and swiss chard and complete failure with purple dragon carrots (100% failed germination)

Other areas
Asparagus bed
Rhubarb bed
Herb containers (basil, parsley, oregano, cilantro)

Wow. I knew we had a lot, but I've never tried listing everything all at once. And this doesn't even include our small community garden patch! We must be nuts. Seriously, I'm quite happy with what we've accomplished so far - our successes seem to outnumber (or at least outweigh) our failures. Can't really complain about that.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Farm-rasied meats

After reading Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma, I decided one of the best things I could do for my family was to avoid meats from animals raised on massive feedlots. Mr. Pollan does a masterful job of laying out all the things wrong with feedlot-raised animals so I won't go into it much here (EDIT: but you can read this online article from The Atlantic to find out more). Suffice to say, I am happy to avoid them. But, since vegetarianism isn't in my nature, I needed to find a viable alternative. I started doing a little research, looking for farm-raised meat that I might be able to get my hands on. It turns out that there are quite a number of farms in New England that sell meat and eggs from their animals. None seemed just right though for this change in diet I had planned - some were too far away, others offered a very limited selection, a few only sold meat "by the cow" (or 1/2 cow) or had a too-expensive "a la carte" system. Luckily, we found Chestnut Farms.

So, now, once a month we pick up our share of 15 lbs of assorted meats from animals raised by Kim Denney and her family as part of Chestnut Farm's meat CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). In our red-and-white cooler, we get various cuts of beef, chicken, and pork (we opted out of the lamb) - all are farm-raised, free-range, and hormone- and antibiotic-free. And local. Again, I'm talking about animals that are raised on a place that more-or-less looks like the image in your head when you hear the word "farm" - something like this...NOT like this.

In addition to being better for us and better for the environment, the meat we get tastes unbelievable. The pork is like no other pork I have ever tasted. The chicken tastes more "chickeny". The beef is flat-out delicious. All in all, I couldn't be happier with our decision to go this route. Sure, it's more expensive than buying our meat at the supermarket, but I don't think it is all that much more (we pay $7-$8 per pound for everything - so while $7 for a pound of ground beef is quite a bit more than what we'd pay at Stop & Shop, we even out with the tenderloin steaks). Regardless, I think it is worth it - given the quality of the meat we are getting, I'm happy to pay more. As Michael Pollan explains in Omnivore's Dilemma, Americans currently spend the smallest percentage of their income on their food than ever before. It comes down to choices and we've made the conscious choice to spend more money on our food than our cell phones.

On a non-food level, one of the best things about being part of the Chestnut Farms meat CSA has been the experience of getting to know the people that produce our food. Every month when I pick up our share, Kim is there to greet me. She spends a few minutes chatting with everyone and somehow remembers everyone's name. Each month before the pick-up, Kim sends out an info-packed email newsletter about the goings-on on the farm as well as what has been happening in her and her family's lives. There are regular "open barns" where the public is invited to spend an afternoon on the farm. Our kids have met Kim and they understand that she raises the animals that become our food and they are acutely aware that the food on our plates came from a once-living animal (a fact which makes our daughter Emma a tad uncomfortable, which I actually think is a good thing - more on this in a later post).

In my quest to provide my family with high-quality, healthy, local foods, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Kim and her family. Their decision to do what they do has given me and my family the opportunity to choose where and how our food is produced.

P.S. check out this great article in a recent issue of edible Boston about Chestnut Farms.

(pig and cow images from Chestnut Farms website)

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

House Ale

I've only brewed this one once, so I'm not really sure I'm ready to call it my house ale, but I like it enough in its simplicity that I certainly can see brewing it on a regular basis.

This is a basic pale ale (or, more accurately, a "special bitter") with a beautiful copper color and a refreshing hoppiness. And even though clarity has little, if any, effect on overall flavor, I particularly like how clear this turned out. Perfect for any meal or occasion (ideal serving temp: 50-55oF).

Jim's Pale Ale
Batch Size: 5.00 gal
Boil Size: 2.5 gal
Estimated OG: 1.044
Estimated FG: 1.012
Estimated IBU: 31.0
Boil Time: 60 Minutes

Mash Grains
3 lbs Pale Malt, Maris Otter
8.0 oz Caramel/Crystal Malt 60L

1.75 lbs Extra Light Dry Extract
1 lbs Amber Dry Extract

Hop Schedule
1.00 oz Challenger [7.00 %] (45 min) 23.2 IBU
0.50 oz Williamette [5.80 %] (10 min) 2.1 IBU
0.50 oz Williamette [5.80 %] (1 min) 1.8 IBU

1.00 tsp Irish Moss (Boil 10.0 min)

Burton Ale (White Labs #WLP023)

Mash Schedule
Single Infusion, Batch Sparge
Total Grain Weight: 3.50 lb
75 min @ 150.0 F

bottled with 4oz of fructose

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Community Garden

In addition to our home garden, we decided to sign up for a plot in the Attleboro Community Garden - a partnership between the City of Attleboro and the Attleboro Land Trust (of which I have been a board member for the past year and a half). The community garden is relatively small, so we only wanted to take a plot if there were any remaining after the sign-up period. The City was generous enough this year to expand the garden by about 30 feet - digging up part of the adjacent parking lot and putting down a nice layer of compost. This allowed the Land Trust to add about a dozen more plots. We got the last one - plot #56.

The weather this spring has been pretty terrible for gardening - lots of rain and cold - but we finally had a nice weekend a couple of weeks ago, so Linda and I planted our plot with the cucumbers, onions, and peppers that didn't fit into our home garden. The cucumbers are going to take over this small space, so my plan is to build some trellising for them to climb all over. Hopefully, we'll be able to manage two gardens, but really, the vegetables we get out of this plot are really secondary to being part of this community project. What I am really looking forward to is getting to meet some of the other gardeners and seeing how the different plots grow over the summer - each one has its own personality.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Freezing the Harvest - take one

Eating locally and seasonally as much as possible are two of my major food tenets. Unfortunately, this is not always possible. So, to extend the season of locally-grown veggies, we've decided to try freezing some this spring/summer. We probably won't have enough of a harvest of our own, so our plan is to buy an excess of vegetables at local farmer's markets when they are available instead. This year we'll start off relatively small and see how it goes. Hopefully we'll be eating local produce in January.

Since we are currently in asparagus season and since all four of us thoroughly enjoy good asparagus, asparagus seems like a good place to start this little endeavor. Our personal asparagus patch is only in its second year and, even though we really wanted to, we did not harvest any this year. However, there is plenty of local asparagus available. So, with freezing in mind, we bought 6 pounds of asparagus from Four Town Farm (yes, only 6 lbs - I said we were starting small). After doing a bit of research online (this pdf from Iowa State is particularly useful), our freezing process went like this:

1) Sort the spears into three rough size classes - small, medium, and large. Cut or snap off the bottom inch or two.

2) Blanch small portions in boiling water - 2 minutes for small spears, 3 minutes for medium spears, and 4 minutes for the large spears.

3) Shock the asparagus in ice water - 2 minutes for small spears, 3 minutes for medium spears, and 4 minutes for the large spears.

4) Dry the asparagus

5) Bag the asparagus in appropriate-sized portions and freeze.

Simple as that.

I had never done this before, so I was sort of flying blind. I'm a bit worried that I blanched the asparagus for too long, even though I followed the 2,3,4 minutes guide. They seemed pretty well cooked to my taste, so I think I'll have to be careful not to overcook them come January.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009


Honestly, officer, it was an accident. I didn't mean it. In fact, I'm not really sure what happened. I'm pretty sure they got water, either via watering can or rain. Though I must be wrong. Still, I've never seen things go so fast from this good:

May 27
to this bad
June 1

Salt Hay Mulch

I hate weeding. I also hate weeds in the vegetable garden*. So, something's gotta give. The past couple of years, the weeds have won. Try as we might, we just can't keep up, and by July 4th I'm often rationalizing the state of our garden by saying that we're just camouflaging the vegetables from the herbivores. Nobody seems to buy it. So, this year, I decided to give mulching a try. I wasn't really sure what the best thing to do was - I wanted natural, but I also wanted effective, and I'm not convinced I could get both. Well, after very little research (which is unlike me), we ended up mulching with some salt marsh hay (actually, we went to our local nursery to get a sheet of black plastic, but they didn't have it and the guy suggested the salt hay. Since the salt hay is a lot more natural than plastic, his suggestion was pretty much all I needed)

First I did some preliminary weeding, hoping to set the little buggers back a bit. Then I laid some old newspaper down between the vegetable rows before placing a layer of the salt marsh hay down. The neighbors had a good laugh watching me try to get both the newspaper and the hay down while the wind gusted up every now and then. But in the end, I used up one of the two bales, pretty much covering the rows between our tomatoes and zucchini. Th onions and beans still seemed too small for me to be messing around them - if/when they get bigger, I'll add more hay - and I left the potatoes clear so I can "ridge" them.

I don't actually expect to beat the weeds. I'm just hoping to stave them off a little while. Hopefully, we don't end up with an abundance of weeds growing up through the hay.

* "weeds" in the lawn however are just fine - in fact, I'm pretty sure our neighborhood hates us since we're most certainly the source of 99.9% of the dandelions in our area. Our lawn is pretty much the exact opposite of uniform, green, and grassy. But it is alive with bees, snakes, frogs, and caterpillars - which is far more important.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

First Harvest!

We had our first salad from our garden the other day. A nice mix of leafy lettuce, arugula, and baby Swiss chard. Sixty-three days from seed to table.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Sunday Gravy

Despite my French-Canadian last name, my cultural heritage is actually Italian (or more accurately, Italian-American), on my mom's side. As a kid, I had no idea that it wasn't "normal" to have lasagna at Easter, calamari and scungilli on Christmas Eve (and manicotti and meatballs on Christmas Day), or at least two dozen people over for Sunday dinner (including any number of "cousins" and "uncles"). Linda's given up trying to figure out who's who ("Is that Big Joe or Little Joe?" "Neither, that's Anthony's son Joe" "Big Anthony or Little Anthony?" "Little Anthony, Big Joe's brother" "And who's that over there?" "That's Anthony, Little Joe's brother." ). My Nonna seems to always be cooking something and none of us grandkids are ever in danger of starving at her house, which was right down the street from where I grew up - a street which within a mile lived us, my grandparents, one of my aunts and her family, my uncle and his family and my mom's cousin (who was like my aunt). It took me a while to learn that when most kids referred to their "family" they meant just mom, dad and sis.

Anyways, I digress. The point here is that much of my way of thinking about food comes from this upbringing. For me, family and food have always been abundant and inseparable. And no more so than on Sundays, when my Nonna or my mom would prepare the gravy. Now, I can't say with certainty that we had gravy every Sunday, but Sunday gravy was certainly the norm.

Yes, I said gravy. No, it's not the stuff you put on turkey at Thanksgiving (that's "brown gravy") and it's not the stuff that goes on biscuits (I don't know what that is). It's a red sauce. It's tomato-based. But it's not "tomato sauce" or even "spaghetti sauce". It's certainly not "marinara sauce" and you can't buy it at Stop & Shop. It may or may not involve meatballs, but always includes some kind of meat (usually pork and/or sausage, occasionally steak, rarely chicken). We always had it with macaroni - which meant ziti or penne or rigatoni - crusty bread, a salad, and red wine. The recipe that follows is not really a recipe so much as a template for making gravy - there aren't really any quantifiable amounts for the most part (though I'll try to ad lib some). This is what happens when the recipe comes from my Nonna - I don't think I've ever heard her use the words teaspoon or quarter cup. "How much oil, Nonna?" "Enough." "How long do you simmer it?" "Until it's done." "How do you know when it's done?" "You know." So, you just do it. And it comes out good, but never quite like hers. Because you never do it quite like she does - mostly because she doesn't tell you everything. Not out of spite of course, but because there are things that she assumes everyone already knows about cooking - for her it's second nature (maybe even first nature) and she doesn't realize that it's not like that for everyone (so actually, she doesn't even assume you know - not knowing isn't even a possibility). We always joke about strapping a camera to her forehead so we can record every single step. Even then, I'm sure we'd miss something.

Since I no longer live right down the street (though we're still just 40 miles away), I've started making Sunday gravy more and more myself. It's a slow food - you need several hours to do it right - so Sundays are good for it. Of all the recipes on this blog, this one is the most important. Sunday gravy is what this blog is all about - paying attention to what and how we eat. Gravy is about food, family, and tradition, and taking the time to appreciate them all. Of all the meals that I make, this is the one that connects me to my Nonna, my mom, and my aunts and one that I hope Emma and Jack will be calling me (or their Nonna) for advice on when they grow up.

(Generally, with this recipe, I cook a pound of macaroni, which is more than enough for the four of us, with leftovers. I also end up with a few cups of gravy that I freeze for another day. Adjust according to your needs, though I'd hesitate to go any smaller. Also, for the meat you can mix and match any number of cuts of pork, beef, and sausage - just be sure that it is fatty enough to take a long braising without drying out. Meatballs are another post.)

Macaroni and Gravy
~1 lb Italian sausage (hot and/or sweet)
~1 lb boneless "country style" pork ribs
2 28oz cans crushed tomatoes (I use Pastene brand, "Kitchen Ready" tomatoes)
1 medium onion, sliced
red wine (maybe a 1/2 cup?)
vegetable oil (olive oil will burn too quickly)
red pepper flakes (optional)
  1. Heat oil over medium heat in large stock pot (be generous with the oil)
  2. Brown pork and sausage, turning occasionally, about 20 minutes
  3. While browning add onion, salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes (if using)
  4. Deglaze with red wine, scrapping the bottom of the pan
  5. Add tomatoes
  6. Rinse tomato cans with about an inch of water each and add to the gravy (this is one of those things Nonna doesn't tell you about - you just catch her doing it one day and when you tell her that she never told you about it, she replies, "Of course you do that!")
  7. Continue to cook on medium heat for 20-30 minutes, stirring occasionally (make sure that you've rigorous bubbling, but be careful not to scorch the bottom)
  8. Reduce heat; simmer for at least 2 hours, 4 hours would be much better; stir occasionally
    (you should notice a change in color, sheen, and consistency over the hours - darker, shinier, thicker. I actually gradually reduce the heat over the hours)
  9. Remove meat to separate bowl
  10. Serve over macaroni, with meat on the side