celebrating Here and Now

A Year Without Target

Happy New Year!  This year, I’m not going to Target.  Seriously, that’s a resolution!

Ok, so I am behind on some stuff.  Blogging, for example.  Somehow, I got so busy cooking with fall produce that although I have plenty to say about squashes and root vegetables and late-season greens, I missed the window of opportunity to write about what I was making week after week after week, until the growing season ended along with my remaining shreds of intent.

In restaurants, the early months of the year can be the leanest ones.  Everyone goes on a diet or a budget for the New Year, which means people eat out less, at least until they lose their resolve not to.  Without the inspiration of fresh, local produce to keep the menu in its preferred state of constant and creative change, our Cafe simmers quietly through the winter by plating classic comforts as we await the reopening of our favorite farmers’ markets and anticipate the awakening taste of spring’s first tender asparagus.

Although I have yet to find the time to put away my Christmas decorations, and although my first visit to the gym this year did not occur until January 12th, I am determined to make good on some of my resolutions this year.  In fact, I believe my chances for success are greater if I strive for long-term actualization instead of declaring myself a lost cause two days into the year.

In my life and in my work, food and community are inextricably, symbiotically connected.  The choices we make about what we consume every day have a very direct effect not only on the physical health of our own bodies but on the economic, environmental, and emotional health of our communities and our world.

This year, I want to give myself a better awareness and understanding of my choices as a consumer of stuff that’s not food.  Because my public self screams LOCAL LOCAL LOCAL all day long and yet, at the end of many days I find myself at the hypocrite end of a shiny red shopping cart, pushing my child who eats multicolored Goldfish crackers from a bag I have yet to pay for in cash or future uneaten dinner, loading up on way too much… STUFF.

No more, I say.  In 2012, I’m staying out of Target.  Who’s with me?


Fresh Corn Risotto

Fresh corn risotto in portobella cap with cabbage-beet slaw. Photo by Heather Mull.

Inevitably, the highly anticipated first local corn of the season gives way within weeks to the following scenario:

BUYER:  How much for corn today?

SELLER:  Four dollars for the dozen.

BUYER:  What about by the ear?  I really just need a couple…

SELLER:  Dozen or nuthin darlin.  And the dozen is 18 ears today.

So we need more things to do with corn than to boil or grill it and eat it from the cob.  Fortunately, anything goes with risotto.  Fresh corn, however, is particularly delectable.  The pop of juicy, sweet kernels in the same bite as savory, starchy rice makes it texturally delightful as well as delicious.

In my opinion, the key to delicious risotto is beginning with a really flavorful stock.  Chicken stock is usually used in risotto, but vegetable stock works too.  Recipes for vegetable stock can be really complicated and specific, but I like to keep it simple with carrots, onion, celery, garlic, and peppercorns.  Dried mushrooms add dimension to the stock, and a splash of olive oil provides enough fat to bind the flavors in the absence of a soup bone.

Arborio rice is favored in risotto because its high starch content allows it to be firm, chewy, and creamy all at once.  The grains of rice are coated with fat by sauteeing them with a soffritto of olive oil and onion.  I like to add fresh ginger to the soffritto but don’t add the corn until the risotto is nearly finished, which keeps its texture and flavor intact.  After deglazing with white wine, simmering stock is added to the risotto a little at a time.  Stirring almost constantly gives the risotto its creamy texture as starch is loosened from the grains and incorporated with the cooking liquids.  Although risotto is frequently finished by adding butter and parmesan cheese, they are not essential to the creaminess of the dish.  Leaving them out reduces fat and calories, as well as making the risotto accessible to vegans, who almost never get to eat risotto.  I add salt and ground pepper at the end, as well as chopped basil or cilantro.

Though it is generally served as a first course, risotto can stand alone as dinner, especially if it’s not actually alone.  At our cafe it often comes stuffed in a portobella cap with a side of sauteed spinach.  Leftover risotto can be fried up as risotto balls, or transformed into veggie burgers when mashed with black beans.

And if your dozen was really supersized this week, you could always try it with a side of corn on the cob.


Despite its ancient Andalusian origins, gazpacho is perfect for Pittsburgh in the summertime.  As such it’s an ideal place for me to Finally Begin This Blog after weeks of Having a Blog But Not Writing Anything On It Yet Due To Overthinking It Entirely But Not Necessarily Procrastination.

Gazpacho embodies what I love about eating local – taking fresh ingredients that taste good together, not doing a whole hell of a lot to them, and ending up with a delicious, seasonally appropriate dish, in this case, a soup that refreshes on a warm summer’s day.  Not to mention not having to fire up the stove at all when it’s 90 degrees outside.

I can tell it’s time to make gazpacho when tomatoes become plentiful for their price, which happened late this season.  Springtime was exceptionally cold, wet, and long-lasting this year, and crops were late getting into the ground for many farmers.  This has affected the timing and yield of harvests throughout the summertime.  So here we are ten days from September and I just made my first gazpacho of the year, probably a month later than I usually do.  Maybe this fall will remain so warm that we will be enjoying fresh tomatoes till Halloween.  While I don’t like what this would infer about global climate change, it would certainly help all those “Sexy (Insert Stereotype Here)” Halloween costumes make sense if they didn’t have to be worn under winter coats!

Of course, there are a zillion ways to enjoy fresh tomatoes, but gazpacho just makes so much sense to me due to the availability of its other ingredients coinciding with the peak of tomato harvest.  Traditionally, gazpacho contains tomatoes, cucumber, bell pepper, onion, garlic, olive oil and other seasonings.  Preparations vary throughout Spain, and variations in the Americas have been enjoyed for centuries.  My gazpacho also features spicy peppers, red onion, fresh corn and basil which are all abundant locally right now.  Toasted cumin and in particular, a splash of tequila make it a thoroughly New World gazpacho.  The texture of gazpacho was once achieved by pounding the vegetables with a mortar.  Although today’s Cuisinarts have streamlined the process substantially, the resulting soups tend to be a little too smooth.  I like to use an immersion blender to puree the tomatoes and cucumbers roughly, then stir in the other ingredients.

Another feature of traditional gazpacho is the inclusion of stale bread, which is soaked and then  pounded together with the tomatoes and other ingredients.  Although it would add to the texture and heartiness of the soup and give new life to bread heels, I can’t bring myself to add something on its way out to something super fresh, so I don’t.  Given the carb-consciousness and gluten intolerance of today’s diets, serving people bread they can’t see is almost unconscionable anyway.  I prefer to serve sliced baguette with the gazpacho, which can then be soaked in the soup if you like.

Though it’s been likened to “liquid salad”, there are more ways to enjoy gazpacho than with a spoon.  It’s great to scoop with chips, in burritos and quesadillas, as a garnish for eggs, beans, and other dishes, and it makes a deliciously tangy sauce for pizza too.  However you eat it, gazpacho brings together the flavors of summer’s bounty in a way that will haunt your taste memory fondly all through the winter months.

Even if we’re still eating it on Halloween.

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