Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Unadulterated drinking water – a necessity for civilized people

(This was an op-ed that appeared in the Rutland Herald Wednesday, February 10. 
I'll leave it as it is, though I would make it much stronger if I were to write it today)

When I was a child growing up in Michigan, I visited Genesee County every summer to stay with relatives at their farms in the area. I also visited my Aunt Nina in the city of Flint where we were prohibited from taking the teensiest sip of tap water. This was in the 1950s. Old iron pipes, corrosion and high lead levels evidently have only grown worse as Flint tragically transitioned from a healthy metropolis into an impoverished ghetto whose water is shaving children’s intelligence down to a nub.  The drinking water was a sign even then, though, that Flint was not husbanding its citizens well, respecting their right to clean, unadulterated water. That right must supersede money and industry in a sustainable world.

As a child, however, I had no shortage of good water. We had perfect, icy cold, good tasting well water at home and on the farms, and of course Aunt Nine would bring a gallon or so home with her every day from Pa’s farm, to cook with and brush teeth, and drink in a pinch.

Keeping filthy Flint water in mind, let’s switch back to present-day Rutland, whose water has never had a very good reputation either. When we lived there in the ‘70s, we were told Rutland water was bad, and it tasted bad. Again, old pipes – ancient, even – iron and corrosion. Don’t know if we even knew what the lead levels were then. As I remember, there wasn’t much we could do about it. Bottled water was not a thing yet and we didn’t know the area well enough, and our brains hadn’t evolved far enough to think it was so important as to haul water from a spring. Besides, there was chlorine added to it to kill all the bad things and, if we had but thought, good things, too. But chlorine was necessary, so we accepted it.

Chlorine is one of those devilish blessings we’ve had to contend with in town water supplies ever since it was found effective in the early 1900s for combating the waste that humans create when they gather in groups. In that, we apparently resemble beavers, although beaver poop does not probably sicken beavers, only humans. Human waste sickens all of nature, not least because we ingest so many chemicals. Like chlorine. And fluoride.

We add chlorine to the water because if we didn’t it would make us sick. We would not be able to drink the water and we would die. Simple as that. Water is perhaps the most important nourishment of human life. As I said before, the right to clean, unadulterated water should stand far above industry and politics.

DPW workers in our cities and towns and villages have the tremendous responsibility to add the right amount of chlorine to our water – enough to kill the bad things; little enough not to kill us. But a visit to Rutland’s Water Filtration Plant web page will tell you that they have the responsibility for adding more chemicals than chlorine to the water supply. Under the heading the “Slow Sand Water Filtration Facility” is this information, “At the facility, we filter the water then add the following chemicals:  Chlorine for disinfection, Hydrofluorosilicic Acid (Flouride) for dental care, and Zinc Orthophosphate for corrosion control.”

Dental care! What an idea! Adding chemicals to our water for our choppers! In that vein why not add anti-depressants, anti-biotics, anti-psychotics, or Shalimar, for that matter. Might as well smell good while we’re all being medicated whether we like it or not. Or wait! Tranquilizers, to quiet us all down so we can’t object to things like fluoride being put in our water. S/he who controls the water controls the masses, to paraphrase... some wise person.

I don’t live in Rutland anymore. Sometimes the smell of chlorine in my village water is overpowering and at those times I take a big jug up to the Church Street spring and bring home a few gallons. We voted down fluoridation of our water many years ago. I don’t think our teeth are any worse than Rutland’s, and, most importantly we are not medicating people with fluoride every time they take a drink of water.
We could take a side trip and ask, What is this fluoride stuff anyway? An article in The Lancet Neurology newsletter dated 2/14, Neurobehavioural effects of developmental toxicity introduces its findings by saying, “Neurodevelopmental disabilities, including autism, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia, and other cognitive impairments, affect millions of children worldwide, and some diagnoses seem to be increasing in frequency. Industrial chemicals that injure the developing brain are among the known causes for this rise in prevalence.”

Further on, the authors, Grandjean and Landrigen, both MDs, report that “A meta-analysis of 27 cross-sectional studies of children exposed to fluoride in drinking water, mainly from China, suggests an average IQ decrement of about seven points in children exposed to raised fluoride concentrations. Confounding from other substances seemed unlikely in most of these studies.”

That’s 7 points shaved off your child’s intelligence by something put into drinking water. On average.
Elsewhere in the same article the authors point out that “...the presumption that new chemicals and technologies are safe until proven otherwise is a fundamental problem.” I would take that little word “new” out of the mix and make this retroactive. Fluoride is not new but it has not been proved safe, especially when it is put in our water.

Lancet, as you probably know, is a highly respected publication.

My children and their families do live in Rutland. I want their water to be as pristine as possible. Whether fluoride is effective in preventing tooth decay or not is beside the point – it has no place in our drinking water.
My daughter, Isobel, who discussed this article with me and did some research for it, said, “This is about a population’s right to choose not to have dental treatments in their drinking water.” As a nurse studying for her master’s degree, she is well aware of the fact that medical and dental treatments must be performed only by choice. “Consent is the key here,” she told me. “I’ll take my water free of everything it can be free of, and I’ll get my dental treatments at my own discretion!”

Flint serves as an extreme example of disrespecting people’s need of clean drinking water. We simply cannot afford to take the tiniest step down that road. We must not adulterate our water any more than absolutely need be. Clean it up, please. Let’s begin by getting the fluoride out!

Tuesday, February 16, 2016


I can get a little intrigued by recipes, and though none come to mind just now some of them that sound bad simply are bad. Some are bad but you see possibilities. Some you just have to try in spite of knowing they can’t be right. Adapt them. Make them right.
I subscribe to a few on-line food blogs, some by friends and some by people such as Ruth Reichl, the former restaurant critic and head of Gourmet Magazine. The New York Times has one called What to cook this week that appears in my inbox a few times a week. Last week they had a technique that they said was for those gawdawful store-bought winter tomatoes (first, of course, they had to give us a lecture on how sick and tired they were of the ‘eat local’ imperative): halve them and put them in a casserole, add some herbs and a Bunch of olive oil – way too much, like 5 or 6 cups (who would do that?) and roast them at 250° for a couple of hours. Well, I would never go out and buy 2 ½ pounds of grocery store tomatoes but I had a 2.5 pound package of end-of-season Pratico tomatoes that hadn’t been perfectly ripe when I froze them, and I got them out and halved them and put them in a clay casserole and sprinkled them with rosemary, bay leaf, and thyme, 6 whole, peeled cloves of garlic, a couple of slices of ginger, then poured over maybe a cup and a half of olive oil. Roasted them for a couple of hours.
The result was about 2 cups of jammy tomatoes, about 1+ cup of tomato-y olive oil, and a couple of cups of tomato broth. A long time ago – in the parlance of credulous seekers of whatever was new— it was called tomato water and it made a big ‘splash’, ha ha, but I will simply call it tomato broth.
A lot of the jammy tomatoes were smeared onto a pizza, along with a drizzle of the tomato-y olive oil, but what was really good were some cod loins that I seared in the tomato olive oil, then plopped into bowls of the tomato broth along with some of the tomatoes and some of the buckwheat noodles called soba. Now that was delicious.
What are cod loins, you ask. This, from Great British Chefs: “As cod can be a large fish, the fillet is often too big for a single portion. It is therefore possible to buy the cod loin, which is cut from the middle section or fattest part of the fillet. Succulent loins are short and fat compared to longer cod fillets and they are considered the prime cut.” Doh!
This circumvents the problem of cooking the skinny end – the mermaid fin – along with the fat breast meat of a regular fillet, the mermaid swisher needing far less time to cook than the brawny chest. The loin, for the privileged few, for a buck more, is a piece of cod about 1 ½ inches square and maybe 4 inches long. It is amazing how good fresh well-treated fish can taste when done right.
You can find these at Green Mountain Fresh on State Street across from the courthouse in Rutland. GMF really is the place to buy your fresh fish nowadays – Boston Harbor one day, on your dinner table the next. They have frozen and farmed fish, too. I usually prefer frozen fish, as they are flash frozen on the ship when caught, but these are so fresh... why take that extra step.  The E-Z Peel shrimp are more delicious than I like to say, and they are farmed in Ecuador. What makes them so delicious? I wonder!
And I’m not saying this because John gave us passes to the Boston Seafood Show in a couple of weeks, either.
Anyway, that little fish stew/soup/broth was really good.
If you have some frozen whole tomatoes or want to buy some at the grocery store or hydroponic ones from somewhere fairly close, try out roasting them with quite a bit of olive oil and garlic and herbs as I outlined above. And use them any way you like. But do try this:
Cod loins in Tomato Broth
(serves 2)
  • 3 tablespoons tomato olive oil
  • 1 lb cod loins cut in squares
  • 3 cups tomato broth (you can flesh what you have out with chicken broth or other veggie broth
  • some pinches of the jammy tomatoes
  • 6 large green olives, pitted
  • 3 scallions cut diagonally including the green tops
  • a small bunch of cilantro, chopped finely
  • 3 ounces soba (buckwheat) noodles cooked to package directions
Heat the oven to 375°.
Heat the olive oil in a hot sauté pan over medium heat, scatter in the cod loins, let them cook for a minute and turn them. they’ll get slightly brown on all 4 sides. Don’t cook them too much. Take from the heat. Add the broth, the tomatoes and the green olives. Place in the oven for 15 to 20 minutes. Don’t overcook the cod. Make sure they’re still translucent in the center.
Meanwhile, cook the noodles. The usual directions are to add them to a sufficient amount of boiling water (not 7 gallons as the package says, but sufficient) and cook for 5 minutes, drain, refresh in cold water and drain again.
Ready to serve? Divide the noodles into two bowls. Divide the cod and broth into two bowls, scatter with the scallions and cilantro. Eat up.
PS: You may drizzle the hot soup with a little Jeon sauce – equal parts of soy sauce, rice vinegar and sesame oil.
Adaptation – it’s the name of the game!

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Plenty: more than enough

Leo gave me a book for Christmas that I had limited interest in reading – it was the autobiography of Gloria Steinem –  so I exchanged it for a cookbook. I do consider myself a feminist but am more interested in cooking than how Gloria stays cute in spite of her feminism and her age.
I seldom buy cookbooks – has anything new been written since Elizabeth David? I’d wanted this one for a while, though, Ottolenghi’s Plenty. Why? Vegetables! I’m tired of my usual treatments of them. I bought my son, Jerusalem, also by Ottolenghi, for the same reason. If you buy locally you need to work to put some excitement into beets and parsnips in the wintertime. Different spices, treatments, combinations. Presentations. Ethnicities. “And,” I explained to his quizzical look, “it’s not as though you need to spend a mint on spices. The Co-op has a fresh and inexpensive quality selection in their bulk department. Best buy in town.”
Plenty was a couple bucks more than the $29 Steinem book and deciding not to belabor the fact that you could feed a person for almost a week for that price, the prevalence of hunger on the streets, the... well I DID say not to belabor, right... I think I would concentrate on the vibrancy of its photos and the usefulness of its suggestions. This is not a baking book, where you need to follow a recipe perfectly, it is a vegetable book, and suggestions do quite well, putting even direct orders to task. For instance, in Roasted parsnips and sweet potatoes with caper vinaigrette, I really liked the combination of those two vegetables with cherry tomatoes and a vinaigrette of  lemon, capers, maple syrup and dijon mustard with a garnish of sesame seeds. My note to myself, though, is to “cut parsnips and sweet potatoes the same size, put all in the roasting pan at the same time and don’t forget the sesame seeds.” I did follow directions to a T the first time but now would spread out to make this dish my own. Little Moroccan oil-cured olives would be good in it. Whole heads of garlic cut in half and roasted along with everything else are just so. darned. good! And gorgeous.
Another idea, this of adding almonds and Medjool dates to arugula with a crumble of Turkish sheep’s cheese (I would use feta) with some dill and basil and red chard leaves? And adding pomegranate molasses to olive oil for the dressing? I really need that little February push of pomegranate. And dates. I think you can get most of the ingredients at the Co-op.
The photos are luscious: Small, thin watermelon wedges drizzled with some olive oil, basil leaves, Turkish cheese and thinly sliced onions with some coarsely ground pepper look wonderfully messy aside a scooped-out wedge of rind but I scarcely need a recipe for it. Oh, but doesn’t it sound good on this February morning?
I’m working from the back of the book forward as I write here, just as I worked from the front when I first got the book, cooking as I went. Supposedly I would meet myself in the middle if I continued in this manner, but the front of the book is more seasonal, so I may just have to go back there. But first, here’s a Quinoa salad with dried Persian lime, and I remember that someone told Leo to tell me that she wanted to know what to do with quinoa. Ottolinghi has lots of ideas. Dried lime skin, though, may not be available to most people. I happen to have slivers of it that I’ve had for a hundred years and now I’ve put some into a clean coffee grinder and made the powder the recipe calls for. Way to spend a half hour or so, Sharon. But Ottolenghi tells us that it is addictive, this dust, and so I will try it out.
As for quinoa, wouldn’t you agree with me that it should be used in the same way rice is, as a little starch, lighter than most? To cook it, Ottolenghi tells us, “Place (1 cup) quinoa in a saucepan with plenty of water, bring to the boil and simmer for 9 minutes. Drain in a fine sieve, rinse under cold water and leave to dry.” Here’s another quinoa recipe on page 228, “a simple salad for a spring brunch,” involving avocado and fava beans. Oh yum, especially when adding in lemons, garlic, and radishes, with cumin, olive oil and chile flakes. Another reason to anticipate spring.
In a recipe for Fried lima beans with feta, sorrel, and sumac, he tells us to use spinach and double the amount of lemon juice if you can’t find sorrel. That’s handy advice but I say get some seeds and grow it in any crevice you can find. The spear shaped leaves are wonderfully sour in omelets and stews and even salads and they are the first green in spring and the last in fall. I wouldn’t be surprised if I could still find a good leaf or two in my garden this weird winter.
Lentils and chickpeas, rices and quinoa are his starches, along with several kinds of beans, as in Mixed beans with many spices and lovage, another of the herbs I’m constantly urging you to grow for its celery/tarragon taste. Here’s another treasure – Caramelized fennel with goat cheese. I hope I remember this in fennel season. Yes, I am aware that the supermarket is liable to have it now. I may have to indulge.
Let’s face it, I’m not going to get back to the beginning of this book where I especially love a Spicy Moroccan carrot salad, which I may make tonight because I do have some of those big sweet Farmers’ Market carrots from either Greg or Paul, I can’t remember which. I loved the Beet, orange and black olive salad except for the olives. I think I’d substitute those little Moroccan ones next time. It’s served on bitter radicchio. But right now I am going to give you a recipe I haven’t tried yet but will as soon as I can get some endive.
Nutty endive with Roquefort
from Plenty, by Ottolinghi
  • 1 ¾ oz Roquefort cheese
  • ¾ cup Crème fraîche
  • white pepper
  • 1/3 cup roughly chopped pine nuts
  • 1/3 cup roughly chopped walnuts
  • 1 tsp butter
  • salt
  • 2 endives
  • a few leaves of radicchio, Treviso or baby chard
Grate the Roquefort on a coarse grater and place in a bowl with the crème fraîche and some white pepper. Use a whisk to mix thoroughly to a thick mixture. Taste and adjust the seasoning.
In a hot frying pan lightly toast the nuts with the butter and a pinch of salt. Keep shaking the pan to get an even golden color on all the nuts. Leave to cool.
Trim the base of the endives and pick off the outer leaves. Trim a bit more to remove more leaves until you get to the core. Using your hands, smear each leaf with plenty of the Roquefort mix. Form bundles of six to eight leaves pressed together each leaf partly encased in a larger one.
Line a serving dish with some red leaves. Place a few bundles of endive on top, stacking them or leaving them standing against each other. Sprinkle generously with the toasted nuts and serve.
Ottolenghi suggests this as a ‘starter’. I think I would arrange single crème fraîched leaves on a platter and scatter the nuts over all the leaves for an hors d’oeuvre.

Ottolenghi’s Plenty! I think this kind of book is worthwhile when you need to put some vegetable energy into February. Is it worth all the coggs being jogged, the immense environmental and energetic expense that it takes to make a book like this? That’s up to you to decide. But remember that you can pass it on and around to family and friends. You might even get to taste the results.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016


Making bread can be hard work. First you have to measure all this flour and decide to salt or not to salt at this stage of the game, or when, and how much sourdough (first making the sourdough, which takes lifetimes) or yeast – and if yeast what kind of yeast, the little blocks of it you get at the grocery store or the granules you get at the Co-op; then water – how much, you don’t want dough soup – and then there’s the mixing. A backbreaking undertaking. Kneading, too – you need strong hands for that, fighter’s hands. Also time, oodles of time, to let it rise and punch it back down and let it rise again. Sounds like a war, doesn’t it. And then, do you cover it or not, put it in a warm place or cool, for how long.
And then the question arises, Is it good for you? So many people seem to have some ‘gluten sensitivity to all those white carbohydrates. Even brown ones, or rye ones, or seedy. Doesn’t it all turn to sugar in the intestines? And how do they grow wheat these days, and what have they done to it before they plant it. Maybe better just to grab a loaf at the grocery store and pretend you didn’t –“Let’s don’t and say we do”, as my weary grandmother used to say. And we’re not talking Wonder bread here, we’re talking artisan-of-some-sort bread, at anywhere from $5 to $10 a pop! It’s expensive, man, and you don’t want to see it turn blue so you eat it up without further ado.
But I dunno, there’s just something about bread...  I can’t let it go, and neither can you. I know you! And that’s why I keep mentioning it, writing about it. Good bread, I say. The best bread is, I say. And that’s why I keep trying to find MY method of making it.
I make a decent pizza dough with a lot of yeast and a lot of warmth in a very short time. It can also be formed into a loaf and it tastes really good as bread – kinda like the French baguette, but I’m sure it simply is not a nutritious thing. Too danged easy. Too danged fast, too much yeast. That loaf or crust simply explodes into being!
I loved Bear Mountain Bakers’ bread and cried with the rest of you when Chris had to shut it down just months after Ray died because of the deteriorating wood-fired oven. Their bread had the physicality of their own souls and the taste of their lives, but it is no more. Grandbabies have taken Chris over. Ooh La La Bakery at the Farmers’ Market makes wonderfully seedy and chewy bread, and there are other makers, too, but something goads me into trying to make my own.
Chris gave me some of the Bear Mountain starter when she closed down. I tried that, shared it with a friend who’s keeping it going a good year after I gave it to him, but mine got away from me, and my bread in the meantime didn’t translate into Bear Mountain’s. Even Chris found it simply wasn’t the same without that big brick oven.
I’d had pretty good luck with the no-knead bread, but still wanted something more like sourdough but easier. But just as good. And nutritious.
all mixed up and ready to go
cover with a damp cloth
but not all the way
Well, hold onto your hats. I think I’ve found it. The bread I’m making now could not be easier  and its flavor is the best, with a texture so similar to Bear Mountain’s Honey Oatmeal it’s not even funny. And instead of $$$, it costs ¢¢¢.

I use a tiny amount of yeast – 1/8 teaspoon to 1 ½ pounds of flour – and I let it rise anywhere from 17 to – so far – 24 hours, and I don’t touch it or worry about it in between mixing it and baking it and I do not  add any more flour after it’s risen, so that every speck of it has been fermented. That transforms the wheat into something more easily digestible, some say, and develops the flavor exponentially.  When I put it to rest I cover it with a damp clean (duh) dishtowel, but not completely – I fold it back a tad so that whatever microbes are in my kitchen have a chance to add their power to that little bit of yeast. It takes me 10 minutes to mix it up and 5 minutes to get it in the pan when I’m ready to bake it, and it bakes for give or take 50 minutes. As I say, I don’t touch it in-between. I mix it up at my convenience, and I bake it off the same. At this rate I could make a loaf every day and give 2 out of 3 away. If we all did that we’d be able to feed the hungry. It makes a big loaf (for 2 people) so I can cut it in half and give half to a friend.
19 hours later i'm going to bake it
In the roaring hot pan, dotted with 
olive oil, sprinkled with coarse salt,
put the hot cover on and back into
the oven
half done, take it from the pan with tongs and put it back into the oven top down to finish baking

As for ingredients, so far I’ve been using King Arthur’s white but will begin to experiment with Vermont grown grains such as Gleason’s, available at the Co-op. I’ve begun to add seeds – nigella, cumin, hemp hearts, sunflower and sesame seeds, usually a combination of 2 or 3, and not too many, considering all the time the strength of their comparative flavors – and shortly I’ll begin to add in handfuls of different grains – buckwheat and rye, semolina and/or whole wheat. I haven’t added in nuts yet, nor dried fruits, but I can’t wait to experiment with them.
I use a stand mixer to make the dough, but it certainly could be done by hand. I would not use a food processor because the dough needs the action to be stretching and kneading, not cutting. I use a deep cast iron frying pan with a cover to bake the loaf in.
Here’s a basic recipe:
Sharon’s Loaf
  • 1 ½ pound flour (about 4 ½ to 5 cups)
  • 1 rounded teaspoon sea salt – don’t skimp
  • 1/8 teaspoon yeast – skimping allowed
  • scant 2 cups distilled or filtered water
  • 3 or 4 tablespoons sunflower seeds plus 1 tablespoon sesame seeds
    or1 heaping teaspoon nigella seeds plus 2 teaspoons of cumin seed and 1 tablespoon sesame seeds.  
In the bowl of a mixer, if you have one, measure the flour, salt, yeast and optional ingredients. Whisk them up and, using a dough hook, add enough of the water to make a moist ball of dough, firm, not runny. If you add too much water just work it a little longer and it will probably come together. If that doesn’t work then add a bit more flour.
Mix it well, then set the bowl aside in a cool place. Dampen a clean dish cloth and cover most of the bowl. Leave it undisturbed for 17 to 24 hours. It will rise to at least double and perhaps even triple its beginning bulk.
When ready to bake the bread, heat a heavy covered casserole in the oven to 450°. Take the pan from the oven and scrape the dough into it– do not add anything to the dough at this point, just scrape. Don’t arrange it or tamp it down. You may drizzle it  with a little olive oil and sprinkle with flakey sea salt, put the cover back on, put the pan in the oven and bake for 25 minutes. Take the pan from the oven, the loaf from the pan (it will have almost filled the circumference of the pan, be nicely domed and the crust nicely lapped and cracked and golden brown) and put it back into the oven upside down. Turn the oven to 400° and let the bread bake for another 23 minutes. It will get dark but watch that it doesn’t burn.
Place the loaf on a rack and let it cool, if you can wait. I’m not quite sure what the difference is because the longest time i’ve waited to cut into it is maybe ten minutes.
This produces a very distinct crust that will soften when stored in a bag. The grain will be close with a nice distribution of small air bubbles. It will be moist, not dry. And the flavor will be mellow and grown-up, nicely dressed, nothing raw or fluffy about it. It keeps well.
Imagine a person living in 1375, for instance, who gathers herbs and seeds and nuts and grains and pounds and moistens and mixes and leaves to rise with microbes from his or her own environment and then bakes in embers. That’s a lot of work.
I can imagine that’s what I’m doing except that in my loaf the ingredients are much easier to obtain and I’m leaving the work to fermentation. It would be most interesting to compare loaves made in exactly this way from different environments. I imagine the taste would vary rather stunningly from your kitchen to mine, but I dare say it would all be manna from the gods.
Remember to share.