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How to Cook Exotic Grains Quickly

Steel-cut oats, kamut, barley, and other hard, chewy grains are tasty and good for you, but man do they ever take a long time to cook. They usually end up sitting in my pantry because I’m too lazy to devote the hour or so needed to get them soft. But I learned from the wonderful book Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz, that simply soaking the grains overnight makes them cook quickly. Imagine popping steel-cut oats in a pot of water and cooking them in 5 minutes before work. You can if they’ve been soaking.

If you’re a fan of fermented food, you can leave them soaking for several days on end, and they’ll start to taste kind of yummy and yeasty. This sounds gross to some people, but it tastes good and is good for you.

Farm Events: Where All the Cool Kids Are Going

We talk about food trends a lot at CHOW, and something that comes up part jokingly but part seriously is the idea that farmers are now sexy. And a recent event at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts called OPENrestaurant seemed to prove this point. It was billed as: “Urban farmers, foragers, homesteaders, and members of Slow Food Nation … share their expertise and help us all start thinking towards spring and planning our spring gardens.”

After waiting in a huge line to get in, there was another wait for a drink, and another for a bowl of kale soup. I noticed everybody there was so waifish it didn’t look like they ate, they were young, and they were beautifully disheveled—girls in sweaters with ultra long sleeves and striped socks, boys with I’ve-just-been-ramblin-round-the-Hebrides hair and poetical dazed expressions. The only thing that seemed farm-related was a table with a big pile of dirt.

Finally, after people had sat down at communal tables, the sous-chef of Chez Panisse stood up and made a garbled announcement, saying, “Please enjoy.” There was a confused silence, then somebody shouted, “Who’s here?” prompting the chef to identify the farmers and Slow Food people in the audience. I gleaned that you were just supposed to mingle and ask them questions.

A Bay Area urban farmer I’d been wanting to meet, Novella Carpenter, sat with us, and we had a great conversation. But overall I was left with the impression that, though there were a lot of people there who genuinely seemed interested in farming, the idea of farm-to-table eating had become more style than substance, and I’d stumbled onto the newest mid-20s “scene.” Not that that’s a bad thing, mind you—who doesn’t want to be in the midst of a cultural zeitgeist?

Note to Chocolatiers: Where Are the Good Advent Calendars?

We’ve long talked about creating a virtual Advent calendar here at CHOW, so it was with special interest that I read Stephanie Lucianovic’s post on Bay Area Bites about her quest for a good, chocolate-surprise-filled calendar.

She surveys fancy chocolatiers like L.A. Burdick, Scharffen Berger, Recchiuti, and CocoaBella in search of a calendar with great chocolate “finds,” but in the end, the only one she tracks down, by Godiva, is sold out. I join her in pleading with chocolatiers to step it up and create Advent calendars for the 21st century! Bonus points for the awfully cute photo of the author as a child.

Peppermint Ice Cream Tastes Like Christmas

One of the reasons I get so excited every year around Christmas is that December is the season of peppermint ice cream, that bright pink, Altoid-flavored treat that is one of those love-it-or-hate-it kinds of things. Either it tastes like ecstasy or Rolaids to you, no in between.

The best peppermint ice cream in the world is made by Mitchell’s, and if you don’t live in the SF Bay Area, you can’t have it. Do not under any circumstances try the Dreyer’s or Edy’s brands of peppermint ice cream now in stores; they are corn-syrup-viscous, fake tasting, and vile. Häagen-Dazs has an acceptable holiday peppermint flavor in stores right now. Though it lacks the beautifully fake pink color characteristic of old-school peppermint flavors, at least it’s studded with big hunks of peppermint bark and peppermint candy shards that give it the crystalline texture that peppermint ice cream lovers crave. And it’s a little down-market, but Baskin-Robbins makes a good peppermint as well, and it’s out there in the scoop stores right now. The texture is spot-on and melts smoothly, rather than into a syrup, in your mouth.

If you get really desperate, you can always make your own. Simply Recipes has the best recipe I’ve found, informed by ice cream master David Lebovitz and utilizing the all-important crushed peppermint candies. If that signature crunch and pink color isn’t as important to you as the minty flavor, CHOW has a wonderful recipe for Mint Chip Ice Cream. But since you can get that any time of the year, it doesn’t thrill me like the pink stuff—pink as Pepto-Bismol, minty as toothpaste.

Look Before You Eat

People make cakes into all sorts of objects (like our Wedding Cake Obsessive) but bento ornamentation isn’t exactly commonplace. However, the boxes of AnnaTheRed are incredible, edible dioramas, including scenes from video games like Super Mario Bros and Cooking Mama, popular anime characters, and even Wall-E with costar robot Eve made out of a quail egg. Her non-bento creations are also great, such as an army of rabbit cookies carrying plungers and an adorable turkey sandwich turkey.

Created with Admarket’s flickrSLiDR.

That’s a Mole!

A little while ago, a friend invited me to the annual Mole to Die For tasting contest at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts in San Francisco. I was promised that there would be tons of abuelas furiously battling it out for mole supremacy, but much to my dismay, not a single grandmother was there cooking up a secret family recipe. Instead, volunteers manned the slow cookers. Out of the 11 moles I tried, none blew my mind—though rich and spicy, they were all too chocolaty for my taste.

Mushroom Ice Cream Tastes Good

Mushrooms in dessert: hell yeah! Far West Fungi, a mushroom store in San Francisco (and source for CHOW’s mushroom
), is making ice cream out of candy cap mushrooms.

I tried some, and it was maple-y and delicious. Candy caps are sweet, and do taste just like maple syrup. A web search turned up a thread on Chowhound about candy cap cheesecake,
different recipes for candy cap cookies, and one for candy cap bread pudding.

You can purchase candy caps dried, at Far West Fungi’s online
. These dishes would definitely be conversation pieces.

Ban Santa

My friends and I have been a little panicky lately: There’s a recession going on, but all the eggnog lattes, carols, twinkling lights, and retail madness seem to say—no, to scream—”Gifts are not optional.”

Collectively we’ve been discussing all the ways to be responsible, while still being generous—maybe some great DIY gifts, except after pricing out the supplies needed for infusing bourbon or making a handmade cookbook, it ends up costing more than we thought. We could pick a name out of a bag and only have to give one gift this year, but we each want to share something with the entire group. There’s also the idea of regifting, but I don’t know that any of my friends want the unwrapped Rick Astley CD I managed to save all these years.

As we went back and forth about what to do, it finally came to us: Do nothing. There would be no gifts, no panic, and no wrapping paper. Instead we’re each putting $10 into a pot and throwing ourselves a damn good dinner party on the cheap. And I think we’ll be doing a much better version than the New York Times’ model of a budget holiday party, at $30 a person (are you kidding me?!), with a twice-baked potato as the entrée. If a solitary Idaho spud doesn’t shout holiday party, I’m not sure what does.

When it comes down to it, we just want to spend some quality time with each other, and we can’t think of a better way to do it than by cooking, drinking cocktails, and eating together. I know that the idea of a no-gift holiday is not a new one, but (embarrassingly) it’s new to me. I admit it: I love to go shopping and pick out the perfect gift for someone—I get a real thrill out of doing the gift guides for CHOW each year. There’s no way to know if I’ll feel like I missed out on something when it’s all over, but I’m already feeling calmer. I wonder if any of you are coming up with cheaper but still fun ways to celebrate during the holidays?

When Having a CSA Box Starts to Suck

I really like my CSA box, but now that the months are getting colder, the selection is getting less and less diverse. Sure, eating seasonally sounds really good when you’re getting a variety of peppers, eggplants, strawberries, and other stuff, but when you realize it’s going to be all kale all the time for a few months it suddenly doesn’t sound so hot.

Last week I received chard, tat soi, kale, and arugula. The greens are beautiful, but the prospect of figuring out new and interesting ways to cook a box full of them every week makes me want to say F seasonal eating, I’ll buy whatever I want at the supermarket. But I’m sticking with the box through the less glamorous growing season and trying not to be a jaded little brat by remembering to be grateful I have access to any local produce throughout the winter months.

Martha Rose Shulman’s excellent book on vegetable cookery, Mediterranean Harvest, has helped me stay inspired. She has great recipes for greens, like a potato and greens galette, and a classic Spanish tortilla which I hid some kale in. I also made her roasted cauliflower with chermoula, an easy and fast prep for the often bland vegetable.

Google Books has most of the book available online if you want to check it out. Hopefully, by the end of the winter I’ll be like Popeye.

Even Food Writers Make Lame Thanksgivings

Slate caught my attention with this one:
“Why food writers secretly hate the November feast”
by Los Angeles Times contributor Regina Schrambling. She laments that editors have to come up with a new tortured twist on turkey day, even though readers will just make the same old stuff they always make.

Schrambling writes:

“In a country that worships sickening candied yams under marshmallows, I know that almost no one will try something like sweet potatoes Anna—a gratin of thin slices layered with thyme, Aleppo pepper, and lots of butter.”

She then admits that she, herself, will be making the same old stuff she always makes.

Yeah, it’s true that readers don’t want something weird or too clever when it comes to the biggest food holiday of the year. Last year’s interactive Neoslacker Interactive Thanksgiving on CHOW was kind of a bomb. Lesson learned.

But I was surprised that Schrambling plays it safe at her own feast. As long as you have the turkey, potatoes, and stuffing covered, I think Thanksgiving is a great opportunity to make your relatives try stuff they wouldn’t usually eat that you happen to like. In my case, I’m making CHOW’s Chicory, Tangerine, and Pomegranate Salad, as well as an appetizer of puréed carrots with harissa and dukkah from the Spice cookbook by Ana Sortun. It’s part of my secret plot to add more colorful botanicals to what’s essentially a very brown meal. What’s the most unusual thing you’re making for Thanksgiving?