Chocolate Dreams

After a lot of thought and consideration, after talking to many people, crunching numbers, and lots of brainstorming, I present to you my new website of food adventure.

I’m working on creating a bean-to-bar chocolate-making business, and I’m excited to finally be launching the website.  It’s still quite bare, but what’s there is all genuine, straight-from-the-heart content, which I think is a natural lead-in to making genuine, right-from-the-bean chocolate.

I hope to start having samples available in early 2011.  Go to the site and take the survey or just sign up to hear when beta testing begins.

Busy, Inspired

I know that it’s been like a month-and-a-half since my last post.  I’ve done a little re-design of the site, as you may have noticed.  I have a few posts that are in the pipeline, but gotta get through some other stuff first.  There are a couple really exciting things happening soon:

The Flatlander Fund Auction happens on December 9th, where the remaining bars of chocolate that Dan made will be auctioned off, along with many fabulous items donated by local (and not-so-local) businesses.  Read all about the items up for bid on the Flatlander Fund site.  I’m going to be in charge of putting together trays of passed appetizers that evening made with some food generously donated by excellent local businesses, including Prairie Fruits Farm, Sweet Indulgence, and World Harvest. They probably won’t last all night, so come early and bid often!

On a more personal note, I’ve grown the courage to embark on a journey of exploration, innovation, and much degustation.  You’ve read (many times by now) of my fondness for Dan’s chocolate, and how inspiring he was to me.  I want to take that inspiration and focus it on re-starting bean-to-bar chocolate making in Central Illinois.

I’m planning on taking the same first steps that Dan did, starting with small equipment, building my own skills as my portfolio of creations grows.  I plan on offering “beta test” chocolate through various venues, and I hope to make my way up the ranks to being a part of the Farmers’ Market by next summer.

Since I really owe so much of this to Dan, and because it’s a cause I believe in, I plan on donating a portion of all profits to the Flatlander Fund, and I’m thinking about offering a special “Dan” bar or “Flatlander” bar where much more goes to the Fund.

I don’t quite have a name picked out (suggestions welcome!), and I’m still in the process of finding what equipment I’m going to be starting out with, but I am really excited to start this journey.

If you want to be among the first to hear about this as it develops, and/or want an opportunity to become a beta tester, fill out this Google Docs form.  Thanks!

Tea-Smoked Duck Breast

When I found out that I made it to the second round of Project Food Blog, I rushed to see what the second challenge was.  Titled “The Classics,” the second challenge asks bloggers to tackle a classic dish, but it has to be something outside your normal comfort zone.  I feel pretty comfortable with most cuisines, especially if I have someone else’s recipes to fall back on, but one that I have a hard time with is traditional Chinese.

For this challenge, I chose a dish I’ve never eaten and never attempted before–Zhangcha or tea-smoked duck.  In addition to being part of a cuisine that I’m not comfortable with, I’m cooking with an ingredient that I’ve only used once or twice before–duck.  Duck has beautiful, richly flavorful meat, and it offers up a large amount of one of the best cooking fats available.  You can’t just roast it like a chicken, though.  Almost all the meat in a duck is dark meat (including the breast) because unlike chickens, ducks actually use most of their muscles.  With all the fat and all-over dark meat, it takes a little extra care to cook duck properly.

At some point I made an impulse purchase at the farmers’ market of a local, pasture-raised duck.  I had no specific plans with it (since I don’t cook duck), so it sat in my freezer for… well… longer than it should have.  I pulled it out for this challenge and saw that unlike typical farm-raised birds fed plenty of grains, this bird was relatively lean.  I cut off all the usual pieces, reserving the extra skin and fatty bits for the rendering pot.  The wings and the rest of the bones went to making a simple duck stock.  Since I was just going to use the breasts for this dish, the legs and thighs were rubbed with spices and are, as I type this, on their way to succulent confit deliciousness.

In preparing for the smoking, I rubbed the duck breasts with salt and ground Szechuan peppercorns.  I wanted to let the duck breast’s flavor come through, so I didn’t add some of the additions I saw in other online recipes like garlic, or Shiaoxing wine.  The various recipes I found differed on the initial preparation of the duck, whether it was steamed, dipped in boiling water, or rendered in a hot pan.  Since I was just going for a couple of pieces instead of a whole duck, I opted to score the skin and render off most of the fat.

After letting the fat render out and seeing the skin brown, it already looked delicious, but we must continue to the smoking.  I don’t have a wok, so I lined a pot with heavy-duty foil and mixed lapsang souchong (a campfire-smoky black tea), pu-er (an earthy, aged tea), raw rice, and brown sugar.  This tea mixture went at the bottom, covered by a steamer basket.  The duck went in, skin side up, and I covered the pot.  Over medium-high heat, I let it heat up until I saw wisps of smoke coming out.  The aromas in the kitchen at this point were mouth-watering.  After 10 minutes of cooking, I turned the heat off to let the duck continue to absorb some of the smoky flavor still remaining inside.

I wanted to serve it very simply, so I stir-fried some rice noodles in some of the rendered duck fat with garlic and a sprinkle of Szechuan peppercorns.  A tiny drizzle of sesame oil added a nutty element to the noodles.  Biting into the duck, the flavor was more delicate than I expected, but you could taste the tea, the peppercorns, and a hint of smoky sweetness.  The meat was tender and moist, the skin could have been rendered a bit more, or perhaps would be better if I crisped it up after the smoking.

This is a technique that I’d like to use again.  With the foil in place, cleanup of the smoking equipment is easy.  Perhaps I could tea-smoke some pork cheeks, strips of marinated beef, or maybe chicken thighs?  Trying different types of smoking materials would be interesting too.  I’m still waiting for the confit to be finished–the smell from the oven is amazing.  Even if I don’t buy duck again soon, I have a couple quarts of duck stock and more than 8 ounces of duck fat just waiting to be used in the best home-fries ever.

If you’d like to help me out, voting for this round starts Monday morning (6AM PDT 9/27).  Click my Project Food Blog widget on the right, or, once the voting starts, you can probably click this link to get to the voting page.

Hunger Challenge Days 3 & 4

I started this challenge thinking that the most difficult part would be making meals cheap enough to meet the budget and keep everyone full.  I was wrong.  That part is easy, for us anyway.  I’ve realized in doing the challenge that there’s much more to living on SNAP benefits than just eating on $4.50 a day.

I like to cook pretty cheap meals anyway.  Over the past year we’ve eaten more and more meatless meals, but even when I am cooking with meat I like using cheap cuts–not just because they’re cheap, but the fact that they tend to taste better than the premium, leaner cuts.  I have a well-stocked pantry and a freezer that already has plenty of cheap food that’s ready to go.  I have spices and oils and cookbooks and knowledge that all make the job of cooking cheaply much easier.

It’s not about the budget, it’s about time and knowledge.  My job is flexible, both my wife and I work day jobs that allow us to come in a little earlier and leave a little earlier so that we can transport the kids to where they need to be.  We get our salary, and have sick days and vacation days galore.  We and our kids have our share of activities during the week that can make the dinner prep schedule a little tight, but we have the means to pick up a pizza every once in a while when we don’t want to cook.  On the weekends I can spend luxurious hours in the kitchen preparing lots of food, or elaborate dishes that don’t fit in during the week.  This is time that people facing poverty often don’t have.

Even more important than time is knowledge.  Everyone can think of beans and rice… but canned beans are relatively expensive and dried beans take hours to cook (after hours of soaking).  I know that lentils are just as cheap, just as (if not more) nutritious, and can be prepared in as little as 15 minutes.  Some of the best dishes you’ll ever eat are those that are borne out of the poor, working class people of those places.  As a great example, Indian cuisine is full of dishes that at some point were conceived by poor people who wanted to get a good-tasting meal out of cheap or bad-tasting ingredients.

Beyond learning different cuisines, people need to learn basics that can save them money.  I used paneer in a dish earlier this week that I bought from an Indian grocery store, but I could have made it myself for half the price if I needed to.  I bought bread for my daughter’s sandwiches, but anyone can whip together a loaf in 5 minutes (plus the time to let it rise and bake).  Flatbreads are even easier… like the chapatis I made on Monday.  I made enough for 6 people with 30 cents of ingredients in 10 minutes.

These are all lessons we hear everywhere.  ”Shop the perimeter of the grocery store.”  ”Avoid processed food.”  ”Learn to cook.”  But what are we doing, as a community, to make it happen?  There are classes and recipes at Common Ground as part of their Food for All program on how to cook healthy meals on a shoestring budget, and I think that’s a great start to helping educate people.  What other resources are out there right now?  How are people learning to overcome the convenience of unhealthy pre-packaged foods?

I hope that there will one day be a larger facility, a community kitchen, where people can not only learn how to make (good, healthy, delicious, cheap, easy) food, but maybe have a chance at starting their own business venture.  Community gardeners could have a place to process a neighborhood’s crop of tomatoes or pumpkins into canned goods to last for months.  I want this community kitchen to come together because people need to be sharing their knowledge.

Like many people, I have the luxury of a pantry so full I could not buy food for at least a week and still be very well-fed.  On the other hand, a growing number of people are starting to face the reality that they are struggling each week to put anything into their pantry.  That balance needs to be shifted.  As I mentioned during the Million Meals for Haiti event, hunger is a global problem, but it’s also a local problem.

There’s no single solution here, but I hope that people will do whatever they can to make a difference.  You can donate money to your local food bank, or donate your time to places that package or distribute food.  Support the Flatlander Fund in its mission to create a community kitchen for Champaign and Urbana.

Nearly 1 in 5 kids in Champaign county live below the poverty line (18.7% according to a 2008 report).  Over 900,000 Illinois residents depend on food pantries each year, a number that’s grown during this economic recession.  September is Hunger Awareness Month, but I hope that you can find a way to remember each month that you can make a difference.  I don’t know how they do it, but the thought that our food bank can turn a $1 donation into $10 worth of food for needy families is a clear example of “every bit helps.”  Try this: each month, instead of going out to dinner one time, spend a little time in the kitchen and donate some of those extra bucks you saved.

SNAPping into the Groove–Days 2 and 3

As I promised earlier, I wanted to talk about yesterday’s budget, including some more info about our dinner.  One of the harder things to do when following a strict budget is finding a way to get all the nutrition you need without spending lots of money.  My go-to ingredient in cases like this is the nutrient-dense lentil.

When served with rice, lentils are one of the few vegetarian sources of complete protein.  Along with their protein comes iron, B vitamins, and fiber–all very important when on a restricted diet.  Adding in some vegetables helps round out the nutrition, and ethnic stores often have inexpensive produce.  I chose some tindora (technically a fruit), available for $2.40 per pound.  If you’ve never seen or eaten tindora, I’d describe it as somewhere between okra and zucchini.

The flatbreads in front are chapati, made with a finely ground whole wheat flour.  Not pictured, but also on the table was some plain basmati rice.  The dal (lentil dish) on the left is a simple red lentil dish, cooked with a touch of ginger and turmeric, tempered with some cumin seeds, mustard seeds, hing, dried chillies, all fried briefly in butter.  It’s a favorite in this house, and costs only a few dollars to make 4-8 servings (depending on how many other dishes).  I’ll try to recite the recipe below.

The dish on the right is an improvised tindora curry.  It was inspired by this video made by a Chicago chef who has become a YouTube star under the name vahchef.  The tindora was sliced into 1cm rounds and fried in a little cumin and mustard-scented oil with a diced onion and then a few cloves of sliced garlic until they softened a bit.  I added a can of tomatoes and let it simmer until everything was cooked through.  More spices were added to adjust the final flavor, like coriander and a little home-ground garam masala.  While that was going, a pot of split moong dal was cooking until the lentils were tender.  I added the lentils in and let it all simmer for about 10 minutes to let the flavors meld together.

Both dishes were delicious.  Even our guests (one of whom is Indian) really enjoyed everything.  Looking back, I thought that we overspent yesterday, but our total for the day was only about $15.70 (compared to our daily allocation of $18 for 4 people).

Today I made matar paneer (a tomato-gravy curry of peas and cheese, seen above), which left plenty of leftovers.  Breakfast was similar to yesterday, and Megan’s lunch was the same.  I had food from yesterday (already counted in that total), and dinner for us included the matar paneer.  Our younger daughter had some yogurt and a banana… she ate very well at daycare today.  Our older daughter ate some leftovers from the weekend (cost accounted in today’s total).  Today’s total is only $13.69!

To be honest, this week isn’t terribly different from how I cook sometimes.  Okay, I didn’t even make it to the farmer’s market this past weekend (like I normally do), and only a couple ingredients were organic (because that’s what I had).  So far, I haven’t made any big meat dishes.  When I look at it, we’re all full, happy, and have many different flavors to keep us interested.  It may not be 100% nutritionally complete, but we have fruit, vegetable, dairy, grain, and fiber all represented.

Our Favorite Dal

The toasted spices in the tempering give this dal a rich, smoky flavor that goes well with any Indian dish, or by itself with some rice.

serves 4-8 (depending on whether it’s a main or a side)

  • 10 oz. red split lentils, washed
  • 1/2 – 1 tsp dried ginger powder
  • 1/2 tsp turmeric powder
  • 2 Tbsp butter
  • pinch of asafoetida (hing) (optional)
  • 1 tsp brown mustard seeds
  • 1 tsp whole cumin seeds
  • 2-4 dried red chillies
  • salt
  1. Put lentils, ginger, and turmeric in a heavy saucepan with enough water to cover by 1/2 an inch.
  2. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally, reduce to simmer, covered loosely, until lentils are tender, about 15-20 minutes.
  3. Add salt to taste, about 3/4 – 1 tsp.
  4. In a small heavy frying pan, melt the butter.
  5. Add the asafoetida, if using, then immediately add the mustard seeds.
  6. After a few seconds, add the cumin seeds, then after another 10 seconds, the dried chillies.
  7. In about 30 seconds, when the mixture is very fragrant and the seeds and chillies have darkened just slightly, dump it all over the cooked lentils and stir to combine.
  8. Taste for salt and adjust, as needed.

P.S.  If the recipe seems a little daunting, don’t despair!  I hope to be starting up some ethnic cooking classes through Common Ground.  I’ll show you all the techniques and shortcuts you can use to make these kinds of dishes at home–fast, easy, and cheap.

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