Blackberry Farm in Pictures

June 19, 2011 § 12 Comments

I’m spending this summer in Nashville, Tennessee, helping the new Commissioner of Education to create a three-year strategic plan to improve educational outcomes for all K-12 students in the state. Although the work will be intense and I’m away from my San Francisco garden, I’m soaking up what I can of the food culture here in the Volunteer State.

First up: Blackberry Farm near Knoxville, a celebration of locally-produced food, where the hubby, our friends, Jim and Katie, and I ate an enormous amount of Benton’s bacon, gorgeous tomatoes and other fresh produce grown on-site, and as you likely guessed, the best BLT I’ve ever sunk my teeth into. For you, our time in pictures…

The barn, where we indulged in many dinners and bourbons

The garden where the produce begins

What's the chicken thinkin'? Will my eggs be breakfast or will I be brunch?

Beautiful beans

John, Master Gardener, picking chard for our next meal

Volunteer sunflowers in the Volunteer State

Oregano and bachelor's buttons, whose petals will be tweezed for garnish

Serious tools for serious meals

Charming, unique and lovely

Is There A Crisis in Home Cooking?

November 3, 2010 § 9 Comments

Is it true that fewer and fewer of us are cooking at home?

Recently I read a poll by Harris Interactive finding that nearly 60% of Americans eat at least half of their meals out each week.

And last week, I attended a conversation between Mark Bittman, The New York Times food writer, and Ruth Reichl, author of multiple food memoirs and former editor-in-chief of the sadly now-defunct Gourmet. The dialogue encompassed a number of topics about food today, but the thing that struck me most was a conversation about this strange dichotomy in our society, where on the one hand we’re more food-obsessed than ever — watching shows like Top Chef, salivating over food porn and dishing about the hot restaurant in town — yet on the other, fewer people are cooking at home, from scratch, on a regular basis. Bittman and Reichl noted that people seem to feel that if they can’t make the restaurant-quality dishes they see on the Food Network, what’s the point?

But the thing is, that’s not the point. Home cooks generally don’t, and maybe even can’t, cook like restaurant chefs (I certainly don’t!): they don’t have a line of cooks, each focused on some minute detail like shaving carrot ribbons, they don’t have all day to put dinner on the table and they don’t have a restaurant-grade kitchen and clean-up staff.

The point of cooking at home is not to feel like you’re in a restaurant (because if it is, why not just go to one?), but to create food, from scratch, that is so much better for us, in myriad ways:

  • It’s cheaper and healthier
  • It strengthens your connections, to what it takes to make good food, to recipes that are favorites of family and friends, to your partner or child that’s helping you prepare and serve the meal (or who’s at least enjoying eating it!)
  • If you buy local ingredients, it helps to sustain your economy and community

At the farmers’ market

To be fair, we’re all busy, and it does take time to shop, prep, cook and present a meal. You can’t cook food from scratch in 10 minutes or less, unless you’re eating a salad with few ingredients, and even then — you’d have to be pretty speedy to wash, chop and assemble that fast.

But it is possible to cook healthy weeknight meals in 30-45 minutes or less from scratch, especially if you have access to fresh, local ingredients that don’t need much fussing to taste good. And, if you eat less meat, which many argue is better for you and the environment (click here for more info on that topic), that cuts down on cooking time too.

Romanesco broccoli, Dirty Girl Farm stand

Spurred on by the Bittman-Reichl discussion, I wanted to share:

  • How we menu plan and shop for the week
  • Our actual menu plan for this week — plus a link to a lot of other menu plans
  • A recipe for one of the meatless menu plan dinners that can be made in 30 minutes from scratch — and that even my husband, who generally insists on eating animal protein at every meal, enjoys (I’ll share this in a post later this week; this one is already quite long!)

I’m posting this now for three reasons:

1 — I’d love to know if the Harris poll, Bittman and Reichl are right — are we facing a home cooking crisis where fewer of us are cooking from scratch? Or do you cook at home regularly?

2 — If you don’t cook at home regularly, I’m hoping this post and the tools within it might inspire you to plan and cook some healthy, simple and tasty meals at home this week or next

3 — If you do cook at home regularly, I’m hoping this post might inspire you to go to the farmers’ market this week, try something new and bring it home for dinner. (If you live in S.F., you could head to one of the markets listed here.)

Winter squash at the Castro Farmers’ Market



Here are the three easy steps we take weekly to plan and shop for our meals:

1 — Plan how many meals I need to make: Every Saturday morning, I use this template (Menu Plan & Farmers Market List) to map out how many meals we’ll eat at home. Some weeks, you might be traveling, or have work or social lunch or dinner plans, so this helps you see how much food you need to buy and cook so that it doesn’t go to waste.

2 — Go to the farmers’ market: I like to see what’s in season before I decide what to cook. While it may seem weird to go shopping without deciding your ingredients first, this method leads you to eat what’s freshest that week and to try new things (for example, we tried sunchokes this week — amazing! More on that soon). And by using the meal plan template, you know the volume of food you need to buy (e.g., 10 servings of fruit; vegetables for two people for five dinners).

3 — Decide on dishes and go to the grocery store: Armed with a bagful of produce, I write down in the meal planning template what dishes to make. So, if I nabbed a great end-of-the-season eggplant, I’ll make Indian baingan bharta if we’re going meatless, or moussaka if we want some meat. Then I’ll write a grocery list to buy the remaining ingredients (dairy, eggs, meat, cereals) — and I’ll write them in the order I walk through the store so I can get in and out in 30 minutes. Here’s the completed menu plan template and grocery list: Menu Plan Completed & Grocery List.



You saw above our menu plan with what we’re eating this week. You’ll see that I usually cook enough for dinners so that we have leftovers for lunch. Here’s a link to This Week For Dinner, a blog where the writer posts her weekly menu plans every Sunday and her readers post theirs (click here). Lots of ideas!


How many times per week do you cook at home?

How do you approach menu planning and food shopping?

Candy’s Capacity to Connect – Food Traditions (Part 2 of 2)

October 31, 2010 § 16 Comments

Much to my disappointment, my husband and I don’t get trick-or-treaters at our house. It’s perched atop a steep hill; you have to lean into the incline and be in pretty good shape to reach the peak without huffing and puffing. Not exactly an easy feat for a five-year-old in a costume carrying a heavy bucket of candy.

But we went for a walk today, on Halloween, and we saw our fill of trick-or-treaters with their parents, siblings, friends, cousins. Luke Skywalkers and elephants and witches zigzagged from door to door, excited and hopped up on sugar, collecting even more candy in their pumpkin-shaped pails. It was fun to observe these kids keeping a tradition alive, having a blast with their families and friends, and to see the adults’ inner children — and their own creative costumes — emerge.

In this age of rising obesity and diabetes rates, much of the discussion around candy and refined sugar is about how awful it is. And I agree that too much of anything isn’t good for you. But most things in moderation are fine. And with the holiday season now in full swing, there’s nothing like biting into a delectable confection — whether it’s a Milky Way or home-made toffee — to conjure up memories of traditions that you’ve shared with family or friends.

One of our family traditions: my mother-in-law, Anne Lynn, creates 350 pounds of Christmas candy every year.

There are many awesome things about this tradition, even beyond that 350 number. For example:

The 30 or so varieties — including butter brickle (hard toffee coated in chocolate and walnuts), peanut butter cups, pretzel cups (crushed pretzels in white chocolate), chocolate-covered cherries, chocolate-dipped pretzels, butterscotch-coconut marshmallows and Christmas-tree-shaped peppermint patties. Anne Lynn has a core set of recipes that she makes every year, and she experiments with a few new ones based on flavor combinations she encounters in chocolate shops while traveling.

Making pretzel cups

The sheer volume of production that’s somehow executed in six weeks in your average home kitchen, with a four-burner stove and a normal amount of counter space. But once candy time comes, the kitchen and dining room are given over completely to confection creating, and as my mother-in-law says, “You’ll be really lucky if you get to eat anything but chocolate.” She’s not kidding. It’s a good thing they have a grill out back.

The straightforward system Anne Lynn uses to determine who she’s going to give the candy to. Every year, she gets out her yellow legal pad with last year’s list. Anyone who was particularly helpful, or kind, to her or her family gets added — even if it’s the woman at the department store she met only once, but who went out of her way to assist. Anyone who didn’t write a thank-you note gets crossed off — even if it’s a long-time friend. Simple, efficient and based on the Golden Rule.

But perhaps the most awesome thing is seeing how many connections and fond memories have been formed over the years because of the candy. Thirty years ago, Anne Lynn’s elderly next-door neighbors invited her into their kitchen to teach her how they made their Christmas candy. She made half a pound that year. Anne Lynn carried on their tradition, keeping their varieties — and now that they’ve passed away, in some small way, them — alive.

When Anne Lynn expanded from half a pound a year to ten, her mother would come over, and they’d crank out the ten pounds in a single day. Now, her brother and sister-in-law, kids, nephew, niece, their significant others and friends travel from as close as a few miles away to as far as thousands of miles away to help out and learn in the candy kitchen.

The master chef teaching her nephew to make peanut clusters

Convening at the candy kitchen is a chance for family and friends to re-connect to Anne Lynn and to each other, and in some cases, to form new bonds.

Teamwork: sprinkling walnuts from the bowl onto butter brickle

Friends of ours who’ve never met Anne Lynn but are smart enough to write thank-you notes receive the candy for Christmas, and when they finally meet Anne Lynn, there’s an immediate spark. When we wanted a family tradition integrated into our wedding, Anne Lynn was gracious enough to make a few trays of candy, and our guests still talk about how much they enjoyed the sweets.

Anne Lynn’s chocolates at our wedding

As the holidays approach and many of you prepare to drive or fly to visit relatives or dear friends, consider this:

Is there a food tradition you remember fondly? Your dad’s deep-fried turkey, your grandma’s mushroom stuffing, your aunt’s pumpkin bread with a cream cheese swirl, your friend’s cardamom cookies?

Could you ask that person to teach you to make it when you see them? Could you make the time to reconnect with a tradition and with a loved one, carrying an old custom, a new memory and a stronger bond into the future?

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