Tuesday, October 26, 2010

gentle cream

Every morning there they are – the players of my a.m. – the coffeepot, the coffee, and Thomas’s Half-and-Half.

Yes, I love my coffee. My coffeepot? Not so much! A great, black, overpriced monster, so officious you’d think it would do more than make coffee; but if that IS all it can do you’d think it could do it without being so intrusive. Always flashing its little red eye at me!  “Girl! Clean me!” Or, “Girl! Change my filter!” Insisting on beeping every morning – just what everyone needs in the morning, five shrill electronic beeps –  to tell me the coffee’s ready.

Which is insane, of course – am I not standing here staring at you as you begin to gurgle, making sure you haven’t decided to spurt great puddles of black greck all over everything? Did you think I would forget my first coffee injection of the morning? Are you not gurgling into a vacuum bottle that will keep it hot? And please, do let me remind you that it is MY coffee, so get busy!

As for the coffee itself, my favorite lately is Pierce Brothers’ Holy Smokes – organic, Free Trade – from the Co-op. I grind it all at once when I buy it because I don’t like the noise of the grinder first thing in the morning (hint hint, Mr. Coffeemaker!). And I mean! Really! How freshly-ground does this old palate need it to be?

My VPR mug sits on the counter next to the monster. I pour my Thomas’s half-and-half into it before the coffee. It’s my cream of choice except when I have whole, unpasteurized raw milk from one of my neighboring farms.

Why Thomas’s? Well, 1) it’s bright and cheery and good tasting; 2) it’s local – Thomas Dairy has been around since Orin Thomas started delivering his own cows’ milk back in 1921, and now the milk comes from six local farms – as one of their wryly clever ads says, “Trucked in all the way from up the street” – and it’s owned by the grandchildren, Richard, John, Perry, and Christa (John’s daughter, Abbey, is now showing an interest); and 3) it is  gently pasteurized.

Which is to say, it is NOT ultrapasteurized – that is, cooked until you could keep a pail of it in your pantry for months and not a creature would take the slightest interest, unless it accidentally tripped on a box of Jell-o and fell in and drowned. Almost all the organic milk you can buy is ultrapasteurized. And what that means, of course, is that our organic dairy farmers produce a wonderful product that is then picked up and shipped out of state to be processed, subjected to ultrapasteurization and homogenization, then shipped back here deader’n a doornail.

I’m standing here watching the dastardly coffee-pot when it occurs to me –  I’ll bet Thomas’s is about the only milk we can get that ISN’T ultrapasteurized. And yup, next time I look in  the Co-op’s dairy case I find that’s absolutely true.

People who haven’t been paying attention buy this organic, ultrapasteurized milk and exhort their kids to drink it – Because it’s GOOD for you! But it’s probably NOT good for little Noah and Emma, first of all because it’s cooked, and second because if Mom and Dad have been paying attention to the official line for the last half century they have certainly come down with the prevailing idea that animal fats are not good for them and so they are feeding little Carter and Madison skim milk or 1% ultrapasteurized water that has probably had dried (skim) milk solids added back into it so that it doesn’t have the mouth feel of water. Dried milk is often made by spraying milk onto a hot screen and then peeling the evaporated solids off the screen.
Eew. It’s not a good thing. And drinking milk without its natural fat just further upsets the balance between its good Omega-3’s and everything else’s Omega-6’s.

And maybe, since little Liam and Charlotte would rather drink soda, Mom and Dad have brought them sweetly flavored chocolate or strawberry milk. We are getting very far from whole, natural, or healthy here, or even the meaning of... Milk!

Anne Mendelson in her book, Milk: The surprising story of milk through the ages,
writes, “As shown by USDA and census statistics, consumption of both whole milk and butter was steadily declining during the 1950s and ‘60s while the number of fatal heart attacks rose – along with decreasing use of animal fats overall and increasing use of vegetable oils. Yet to this day the American Heart Association – which readily accepts money from manufacturers in return for putting AHA approval stickers on products like Cocoa Puffs breakfast cereal and Smart Balance De Luxe Microwave Popcorn – still inveighs against milk with the milkfat that is simply part of the nature of milk.”

Those people who feel that pasteurization is needed in order to kill off any dastardly microbes should demand with their milk dollars milk that has been heated to the agreed upon high heat (of 160° - 170°) for a short time (20 seconds)  rather than the higher heat of  280° for a shorter time (at least 2 seconds), which is what produces ultra-pasteurized milk.

Still gazing at my black plastic coffeemaker, I realize that I have never seen the inside of a dairy processing plant nor do I know the exact process Thomases uses, so I drive up to Thomas Dairy just north of Rutland and talk to John and Richard Thomas, who are cousins, and it works this way: Milk from each of the 6 dairy farms they buy from is picked up every other day – their one milk tanker is on the road every day of the year –  then fed into one of several bulk tanks built into the walls of the rather small processing plant. A portion of that milk is kept whole and the rest goes through the process of separating the milk from the cream. At that point whole milk is added back to a portion of the separated skim milk to make the 1% and 2% milk. Cream is added to the whole milk to make the half-and-half, which is 11-12% butterfat (trivia fact: half-and-half originally meant half skim and half lite cream which is 20% butterfat. Just to give you more of an idea, heavy cream is 43% butterfat and butter contains about  80% butterfat).

The next step is to pasteurize every mixture, and then all but the heavy cream is homogenized.
Homogenization consists of  passing the liquid under high pressure through a tiny orifice, making the fat globules smaller, increasing their number and surface area, which keeps them suspended throughout the more watery substance and prevents the cream from rising to the surface.

It is this last process that Anne Mendelson finds most objectionable. “...virtually all the pasteurized milk that reaches us has been centrifugally separated, recombined to standardized milkfat percentages and homogenized. These steps do more to denature milk than anything else that happens to it in manufacturing. The creamier ‘mouthfeel” and fresher flavor of whole raw milk at a well-run... dairy farm ... reflect not just actual freshness but the fact that the basic milk structure is intact. You can get nearly all the same effect from unhomogenized pasteurized milk – at least, if it comes to you very fresh and was pasteurized by the right method.” There is an added benefit to unhomogenized milk and cream – there is some evidence that the smaller globules of fat are able to get caught on the walls of the arteries and can clog them.

When I asked John and Richard, separately, whether they would consider offering unhomogenized whole milk (called cream-line milk) if they found there was a demand for it, both looked thoughtful, perhaps even intrigued, and agreed that it was a possibility.  Whole milk which is never separated, only gently pasteurized, and bypasses homogenization would simplify their process immensely, and be much less expensive to produce.

In the meantime, there’s another solution if you want your coffee cream unhomogenized. Since Thomas’s doesn’t homogenize their heavy cream, you could mix a small container of it with a quart of skim milk. That is, if you don’t mind shaking your coffee cream!

Those of you in the central/eastern part of the state can buy Strafford organic cream-line milk. It is unhomogenized and simply pasteurized. Monument Farms Dairy (that link under construction), a little north of here, also does no ultra-pasteurization, but their milk is homogenized. None of them allow their milk to contain any added hormones or antibiotics.

I asked John Thomas why it was that my half-and-half and cream lasted so incredibly long – I can leave a freshly opened carton in the fridge while I leave for a long weekend, and when I come back it’s still fresh.  He said he didn’t know, but that a lot of chefs won’t use anything but Thomas’s heavy cream because it stays fresh and sweet and always whips up nicely.  I told him that when I make crème fraiche with any other cream (and when and why would I do that?) it sometimes won’t sour and thicken at all. He’s not a cook, but he filed away that fact. I think it’s because Thomas’s is so fresh. And local! Its shelf life starts moments before you reach into the cooler to buy it.

Ah, finally – the monster emits its five beeps and I pour my first cup of coffee. I wish someone made coffeemakers locally.

Crème Fraiche
Gently whisk a tablespoon or two of good (Cabot’s) sour cream into a pint of  Thomas’s heavy cream in a bowl, loosely cover and leave in a warm place until piquantly soured and quite thick – this usually takes about 3 hours. Serve a dollop of this over pies, pot roast, or breakfast toast. For a special dessert, serve it over good preserves or jams or jellies served in very small bowls, with tiny spoons. How precious!

Originally Published as a Twice Bitten Column in the Rutland Herald 10/25/10

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

the gourmet connection

I met with a rep from Zabars recently.

It was an old e-mail from last winter that I answered out of belated curiosity, in which Sam – that’s the rep’s name – had written, and I quote, “I should like to partner with you with recipes, (and/or) submitted samples of whatever food/houseware items you choose.”

Though through journalistic integrity I could not, of course, accept anything that might color my opinion – of Zabars?? – still I couldn’t help thinking that maybe a new Cuisinart food processor to replace my 1986 model (nesting bowls, maybe easier to clean, but no doubt more shoddily made) from the fairly new housewares department on the 2nd floor down on 80th street and Broadway in New York City, would come in handy.

The first floor of the Zabar's emporium – as I’ve just found out that you probably don’t know – is full of smoked salmon, lox, cream cheese, bagels and herring salad. Olives. Cheese. They do an IMMENSE business. Zabars is probably the first New York City food name I ever learned.

But that was a different time, back in the ‘70s, when I still didn’t know how to make my own lox, or couldn’t buy it in any number of grocery and/or specialty stores. That was before I found that the best bagels in the world (as I know it) are made by a little Burlington company by the name of Myers'es. And that the recently reopened Café Terra (where Sam and I met one drizzly afternoon) serves them just the way I like them – toasted, with lots of butter and a thin layer of cream cheese.

Still, Zabars is, to me, an iconic name, retaining a certain mystical food romanticism from years back. And if Café Terra would spread a little of that Zabar’s lox on that Myers bagel over that cream cheese, and sprinkle that with thin crescents of onion, that would be all the better.

It was founded by Louis Zabar who emigrated to Brooklyn from the Soviet Union in the early 1900s in order to escape the pogroms. In Brooklyn he rented a farmers’ market stall. By 1950, when he died, he and his wife Lillian owned 10 stores. The 1995 obituary of Lillian Zabar in the New York Times quoted sons Saul and Stanley as saying “The business was started in 1934 and now has about 35,000 customers a week and $40 million in sales a year.” A move and expansion in the 1970s made Zabar's one of the largest supermarkets in Manhattan and one of the best known specialty stores.

In our meeting, Sam told me that when he retired to his Vermont house in Pawlet (for years he’d flown himself back and forth from New York City to Pawlet), he’d asked Saul – an old school friend – what he could do for Zabar’s in Vermont. And the reason for our meeting boiled down to the fact that Saul Zabar set Sam to gain more recognition of their on-line site, Zabars.com, and more name recognition, Period.

Oh, I said, everyone knows Zabars.

“Vermonters don’t,” said Sam. He had a bit of a thing about Vermonters and their perceived unworldliness. I was patient. I didn’t correct him.
“Maybe food writers do, but not most Vermonters,” he said.

I gazed at him. Maybe some salmon caviar, or even some nova lox.

“So Saul’s idea was for me to get in touch with food editors and writers and provide whatever they needed – recipes, whatever.”  The list had dwindled, to... recipes. To... whatever! He paused and looked at me and shook his head slightly, “but you don’t need recipes, do you?”

I shook my head. Nor Cuisinarts, either, I supposed. Nor lox. Nor caviar. 

“And you write about local food. Do you ever write about gourmet food?” I thought that oxymoron over for awhile and decided not to even try to go there.

Come to find out, he had sent the Herald newsroom piles of bagels and cream cheese and herring salad, and they didn’t seem grateful. “They even seemed kind of angry about it,” said Sam. And they didn’t even call me, I thought! But, Yes, I said, there’s something about disciplined journalists not accepting...

“They acted like it was a bribe or something,” said Sam.

I shook that off and really did try to help him. But, I said, we don’t raise our own salmon or smoke it. So when someone has a yen for it it would make some sense to go on-line, at least to some people, and order it from Zabars dot com.

“But,” he shook his head dismally, “how to get the name out there?”

As we parted he said, “Remember, Zabars will provide you with whatever you need.”

I said, But we don’t need anything from Zabar’s. Zabar’s needs something from us.
He nodded sorrowfully.

For the next hour I walked around the Co-op, up Center Street, to Depot Park and the Tuesday Farmers’ market, and asked everyone I met if they knew what Zabar’s was. None of them did.

So, maybe a paper cup with Zabar’s printed on it. I’ll settle for that.
That meeting must have been still in my mind because when I read this recipe by Francis Lam on the Salon.com site it jumped right out at me:
Silky Marinated Salmon
•    About 2-3 ounces of salmon per person as an appetizer
•    Lime juice, as needed
•    Extra virgin olive oil, as needed
•    Salt, to taste
•    Green chiles, minced, to taste (optional)
•    Horseradish, grated, to taste (optional)
•    Dill, chopped, to taste (optional)
•    Pink peppercorns, ground, to taste (optional)
•    Shallots, minced, to taste(optional)
1.    Cut salmon into 1/4" – 1/8" strips. Set them in a bowl just a little bigger than you need to hold them. Season with salt and toss lightly.
2.    Combine olive oil and lime juice in a ratio of 2 parts of oil to 1 part lime, enough to cover the fish in the bowl. Heat the mixture with any of the optional flavorings to 110 degrees. Whisk together as much as possible, and toss with the salmon.
3.    Let salmon marinate in the warm liquid for 15 to 20 minutes. The heat won't cook it, but will speed up the marinade's penetration into the fish. Remove fish from marinade and serve immediately with salad greens, toasts, or however you'd like. Or leave the fish in the marinade for a few hours or overnight for a more traditional ceviche effect.

So I picked up some frozen Alaskan sockeye salmon, wildcaught, from the Co-op (good choice on the Monterey Aquarium’s website), and ceviched it. And it lived up to its name, all silky and pink and full of savory sweet salmonness. And I bought some frozen Myer’s Bagels from Café Terra and some Philadelphia cream cheese, and had myself a nice cream cheese and ceviche treat!

I want to say congratulations and thanks to Café Terra’s original owner, Jen Hogan, and new owner, Jake Pluta, for keepin’ on keepin’ on. It has free web connection, so it becomes the place to have some good coffee or tea and a bagel or soup or sandwich while you’re checking Facebook or chatting with a friend. It’s a light and airy place, chock full of original art, and it’s open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Thursday and until 9 p.m. Friday, when they offer entertainment. Just up Center Street east of Wales.

And don’t forget – check out Zabars.com. We wouldn’t want them to think we’re just a bunch of  ungourmeticized Vermonters!
Published in the Rutland Herald 10/12/10 in my Twice Bitten column