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2015: A Year of Living Cooperatively with the @EastEndCoop #shoplocal

I’m down to the wire with making my New Year’s Resolution, but aren’t I always?

Last year, I resolved to Make Every Action an Expression of My Authentic Self. Did I achieve that? Maybe. It’s hard to gauge. And honestly, by springtime I forgot that was my resolution (today I had to search my blog to find last year’s resolution post, because I had no idea what it was.) But in general, throughout 2014 I’ve done a better job of leading my life in directions that feel meaningful to me. I’ve said yes to opportunities that fit right, I’ve said no to opportunities that do not. I’ve resisted taking on projects merely because they are expected of me, and have devoted my energies fully and enthusiastically to projects that are meaningful. That’s about all you can expect.

In this coming year, our family is making a resolution together: 2015 will be our year of shopping cooperatively. We will do all our grocery shopping at the East End Food Co-Op. Mr. Beez has been on the board of directors of the Co-Op for years. While we shop there as often as is convenient, it hasn’t ever been our primary grocery store. This is because I’m the one in charge of groceries, and I shop at whatever grocery store is closest or otherwise is the easiest choice at the moment. Mr. Beez and I have talked about needing to shop more regularly at the co-op. We believe in its mission. Mr. Beez, especially, is a true co-op believer. He goes to co-op conferences, he enthusiastically visits other co-ops around the country when we travel.

So in 2015, we’re co-op’ing it all the way! And if you haven’t been there for a while, you should join us for a visit. It’s not all wheat germ, hemp milk and teff (although they do have those things), they’ve also got a mean gourmet cheese section, local meats, and yes they carry Jeni’s. What else could I ask for?

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Food and friendship at the Big Harvest Potluck .@TheBigPotluck

Food and friendship at the Big Harvest Potluck .@TheBigPotluck

So in the weeks leading up to this year’s Big Potluck, when I would excitedly tell people that I would be “GOING TO A CONFERENCE IN BUCKS COUNTY!!!” They would inevitably respond “Why on earth are you so excited about Bucks County?” Bucks County is nice and all, but it’s not a hotbed of tourism. Technically, we were staying in Bethlehem, PA which is either in Northampton County or Lehigh County (and I don’t feel like taking the time to sort that question out with specificity), but the conference itself was held at Fordhook Farm, which is the test farm for the Burpee Seed Company, in Doylestown, PA (which is in Bucks County.) Pennsylvania has a lot of counties. IN ANY EVENT, I am not here to write about counties. I’m here to write about a food writing & blogging conference, so here we go!

I went to the Big Summer Potluck last year and had a totally fabulous time. In many ways, this conference is out of my league. Many of the attendees make their careers out of food writing, either through writing cookbooks or food-specific journalism or sponsored/paid foodblogging. Maybe for a second I felt intimidated by this, but I quickly resolved that hey, conference tickets are open for sale to anyone who would like to attend, and the hosts and attendees are all extremely welcoming, no matter how long your food writing resume is. As a matter of fact, you can’t tell the professionals from us amateurs, unless you really start digging in conversation. And you know what, this ended up being really cool, getting to so casually meet people who have made such big careers out of a field I so casually dabble in. I have no plans to ditch legal practice for food writing, but I think it is invaluable to get out of my law bubble, and get to know people in all kinds of different walks of life and industries.

Our lodging was the Bethlehem Sands resort, which was actually pretty cool. Part of the Bethlehem Steel mill has been turned into a hotel, casino, and outlet mall. They have a couple Emeril’s restaurants in the resort, too. I drove into Bethlehem itself because I needed to make an emergency nail polish purchase, and the town looks really cute. I wouldn’t mind going back.

Bethlehem Steel

The remaining steel mill structure looked absolutely gorgeous against the autumn leaves.

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We started things off by picking up our swag bags. The Big Potluck has  the absolute best swag. Hands down. It’s a small conference (60ish attendees), with big sponsors like Gourmet Garden, Kerrygold, OXO, KitchenAid, Sabra, Terra Chips and many others. This isn’t a hard-sell kind of conference. The sponsors know that the attendees love cooking and love food, and these companies all make top-of-the-line products, so the sponsors use the opportunity to show off new and unexpected things that their products can do.

pizza time

The first night of the conference was a pizza party at an absolutely GORGEOUS home. I can’t even describe how amazing this place was. It had it’s own little garden alcove where you could sit and chat, just like a little secret garden. Absolutely amazing.

Pizza

Dinner the first night was grilled pizza. Last year, we did a make-your-own grilled pizza. For an indecisive glutton like me, that was a problematic approach, because I loaded up my pizza with every single topping available, and it was a hot mess. This time, they offered 5 or so pre-made gourmet options, all of which were just delicious. I liked this approach much more, because the chefs were much better at identifying delicious combinations, and exercising the appropriate level of topping restraint, than I would ever be.

Veggie appetizers

We also gorged ourselves on mountains of roasted and fresh veggies and amazing amazing Sabra dips. I usually just eat hummus plain, but there was this hummus with caramelized onions and pine nuts and other stuff that I just could NOT get enough of. #FancyHummusFTW


Burpee Farms

The next day we ventured to Fordhook Farms for the main conference. Autumn in Bucks County is simply gorgeous. The air was crisp, the leaves were beginning to turn, the sky was clear, everything was amazing.

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Canal House

The speakers including James Beard Award winning author, Barry Estabrook, who discussed the very real ethical issues of factory farming. I’ve for so long toyed with the idea that we need to, at a minimum, eliminate mainstream factory-farmed meats from our diet, and if we don’t eliminate animal products entirely, at least restrict purchases to ethically farmed meats. I keep beating myself up for not just jumping in and doing this, but it feels like such a huge effort, when it’s so easy to be willfully blind and opt for convenience.

Christopher and Melissa of Canal House (pictured above) shared the journey of opening their own food photography studio and publishing house, and their work to share the delicious, simple cooking, suitable for home cooks. I am eager to check out some of their cookbooks, and hopefully improve my seasoning/spice game in my home meals.

Karen Thornton shared her experiences researching her family’s history, and cooking history. I think her talk was the most meaningful to me on a personal level. She talked about feeling like her family did not have much in the way of “food culture,” but how you can make a food culture, from the things that are meaningful to you, your parents, your children, your siblings. I’ve often felt that our family’s food traditions were few, even though my cousins made an effort a few years back to make a Farina Family Cookbook. What I lacked wasn’t a family food culture, but perspective on that. Even if we did not create certain recipes themselves, they are recipes that are meaningful to us, and that we share with the ones we love. This is tradition, this is a food culture.

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Our lunch of grilled veggies, soup and salad, was delicious. I love being at a conference where everyone is snapping pics of their plates.

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We had an activity where everyone was given an apple and sent out to take a picture I took the one above, and just loved it. I showed it to Christopher (of Canal House) and she complimented me on it, and it made me extra-happy.

A new component of the conference was a writing exercise led by Cheryl Sternman Rule. I started the exercise somewhat unenthusiastic, but by the end of it, wound up with a quick piece of writing that I really enjoyed (and will share in a later post). For the “Open Mic” session in the later afternoon, adventurous writers shared what they had written. All the writing dealt with food, but in such incredibly different ways. One writer had the most amazing, emotional, stirring piece, that I think literally everyone in that room had tears in their eyes. The room was absolutely silent after she read, but reluctant to wrap up the Open Mic on such a serious note, I volunteered to read my piece, which was a funny one. It was a nice balance, and a lot of people came up to me afterward to tell me how much they liked my piece, and how they absolutely could relate to it.

We had a late afternoon ice cream break, because OMG YES WE NEED ICE CREAM. They had several different varieties, all of which I tried (oink oink), but the bleu cheese ice cream with candied pecans was absolutely divine. It sound so disgusting, but it was amazing. It was sweet and creamy, with just the tiniest hint of the pungent bleu cheese.

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We wound down the day with some delicious, fresh cocktails and, OMG, tethered hot air balloon rides!!!

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Taking a hot air balloon ride was one of the unfinished items on my 30 before 30 list. A tethered ride isn’t exactly the same as a real ride, but I was sure as heck not going to pass this opportunity up. I’m so glad we got to go up in the air!

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Hot Air Balloon

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I was really amazed at how smooth the hot air balloon rides was. I hardly noticed when the balloon lifted up into the air. We only went about 70 feet up, but it was a gorgeous view and we just loved it.

bubbly

We wrapped up the evening with plenty of wine– white, red and bubbly– and a simple but delicious meal of antipasti, spaghetti bolognese and garlic bread.

Mr. Beez and I end up going to a lot of conferences, but this is the first one that we went to together, with shared interest in the subject matter. We had such a nice time together, sharing a weekend of learning about something that is big in both of our interests. In the last three years, I’ve spent a lot of my (limited) free time on conferences and other structured activities. I’ve hit a point where I need a little more unscheduled time, if anything just to hang out with my family and teaching Baby Beez about all the cool things to explore in our city. I’m not sure if I’ll attend again next year. If I do not attend, it is absolutely not a reflection on the conference itself, but rather a refleciton on how I need to prioritize my time at the moment. The Big Harvest Potluck was amazing, fun and inspirational.

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Just in Time for Passover: Amazingly Easy Crock Pot Brisket

Just in Time for Passover: Amazingly Easy Crock Pot Brisket

I went to Costco hungry last week, what of it?

You know what happens when I go to Costco hungry? I BUY A GIANT BRISKET.

At least brisket is tasty, and makes my decision very easy when I had to figure out what to try for my next crock pot meal. I didn’t even look for a recipe, brisket is one of those things you just make. So make it I did. All that being said, brisket at Costco is enormous because it is Costco, but do briskets any smaller even exist? Like, if there was no Costco around, how would people even get a brisket big enough to feed all their Passover guests? In any event, there IS a Costco nearby, so this is a baseless worry.

This whole brisket took me a whopping 5 minutes in prep time and about 7 hours in cooking time. The only downside to this recipe is that because the brisket is inevitably so big (Costco!) there isn’t much room for all the potatoes, onions and carrots that usually accompany the brisket. There is a lot of juice left behind in the crock pot afterward, so you can always roast more vegetables separately and ladle the brisket juice over them generously.

Crock pot brisket

A-May-Zingly Easy and Tasty Passover Brisket:

-Big-giant brisket

-A couple of onions, chopped (or for an even easier approach, frozen chopped onions, use 1/2 to 1 bag)

-4-6 cloves garlic, minced (or again, to make things even easier, a couple of spoonfuls of minced jarred garlic)

-4 or 5 potatoes, peeled and quarters

-A few handfuls of baby carrots

-Low sodium beef broth

-Kosher salt and pepper

-Worcestershire sauce

To make this delightful dish, put the onions, garlic, carrots and potatoes in the bottom of the crock pot. Lay the brisket on top, with FATTY SIDE UP. This means that as it cooks, the fat will drip down through the meat, flavoring it. Pour several shakes of Worcestershire sauce over the meat, as well as some salt and pepper. Pour in a bunch of beef broth in, so that the meal does not dry out during cooking. Set on low to cook, and let cook about 7 hours.

When the cooking time is up, take the brisket out and let it rest for a few minutes, then slice the meat against the grain. This brisket is not only perfect for Passover dinner, it can also be sliced thinly and used in au jus sandwiches (and the juice left behind in the crock pot is perfect for that), or even as filling for some creative tacos.

Quite honestly, this came out just as delicious as if I had cooked the brisket in the oven. Even though that method isn’t too difficult, this one is so incredibly easy, that I think I’m never going back to my old methods.

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All kinds of catch up

All kinds of catch up

This week has been a busy one, what with making presentations, writing presentations and all kinds of additional things going on at work. Even though I try to post 5 times a week, sometimes there is a week like this, where I post on Monday and then it’s radio silence until the weekend. Over the last several weeks I have made several crock pot meals, but haven’t gotten around to posting all of them.

Several weeks ago, after having an enthusiastic chat with the butcher at Marty’s Market, I bought a 1/2 rabbit and tried my hand at rabbit stew. The butcher recommended the Robert Irvine recipe from Food Network, which I modified a little to make in the crock pot. The stew came out pretty good, but it did need a little tweaking, because the wine flavor was fairly overpowering compared to the other flavors. The whole family did like it, but did not love it enough for me to go out and drop another $20 on rabbit. If, however, I end up with some butchered rabbit for free, sure I’ll try it again.

Rabbit Stew Ingredients

Rabbit Stew

I made crock pot stuffed peppers that were SUPER easy, I’ll never make stuffed peppers in a stove again. I can’t find the recipe I used online, but it needed a few tweaks anyway because it turned out kind of bland. Here’s how I would try making it next time:

4 bell peppers, cored

1 lb ground turkey

2 cups instant brown rice (it sounds like a lot, but it works out)

1 cup V-8 Juice

1 can diced or stewed tomatoes, preferably with some kind of flavoring (italian style, with green chiles, etc. depending on how you want it to taste)

4-6 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 bag frozen diced onion

some salt and pepper

1 jar of pasta sauce, whatever flavor you like.

Instructions:

Mix all the ingredients except the bell peppers and pasta sauce. Fill the peppers with the mix. Pour a little pasta sauce on the bottom of the crock pot and placed the stuffed peppers inside. Pour the rest of the pasta sauce on top. Cook on low for like 8 hours.

Slow Cooker Stuffed Peppers

I tried my hand at barley mushroom risotto. The recipe tasted good, although barley has a chewier texture than arborio rice. Risotto is just so easy to make, and you had to cook the veggies separately ahead of time with this recipe anyway, so I didn’t consider it to be much of a timesaver. It tasted good and made a decent dinner, but was no revelation.

barley mushroom risoto

This week, we tried “The Very Best” Chicken & Biscuits from Ella Claire Inspired. The recipe was good, but needs some tweaking before I can agree to the “Very Best” title. There wasn’t enough liquid in the pot and the flavor was too mild for my family’s taste. This recipe was easy enough that we’ll likely try it again, but we will throw in a lot more chicken broth and a whole bunch of garlic. Every recipe in this house has to involve nearly a whole bulb of garlic, what can I say?

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I went shopping at Costco this week while hungry, which resulted in me buying a giant brisket because WHY NOT. Looks like that giant slab of meat will be my crock pot project for dinner tomorrow night. I have to say that doing one night of crock pot cooking a week has made a world of difference for our family. The meal is already done when we get home (instead of not getting to eat until nearly 8pm), and there is usually enough to last 2 or 3 nights. The small added task of picking and prepping recipes has had an unexpectedly wonderful payoff.


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32 before 32– Simple slow-cooking: Split Pea & Ham and Vegetarian Lentil Soup

With spring refusing to show up, my crock pot endeavors have continued to be all soup, all the time. I’ve been keeping up with my recipe-a-week goal, but since the last two weeks have been pretty hectic, I’ve gone back to some super-simple recipes.

I love split pea soup, and have always made it as a vegetarian soup. I wanted to try it out this time with some ham for extra flavor. I probably should have just used smoked hamhocks, but I went all out and got a big old smoked ham shank.
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This soup turned out so incredibly good. I generally followed the recipe on the split pea bag, and threw the ham shank in there. After the slow cooking, the meat fell off the bone. There were big chunks of salty ham throughout the soup, and the soup had a rich, salty flavor. Mr. Beez is not into split pea, but the ham appealed to him, and he specially requested I try my hand at making a ham and bean soup. That sounds good to me!

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This week I also went for a basic lentil soup. I included celery and carrots just because I happened to have them, but I almost always put kale in lentil soup.

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I had some crusty bread that ended up stale, so I tried my hand at homemade croutons. I had fresh parsley but not dried, so I figured I’d just throw fresh parsley in there. Next time, I wouldn’t bother with fresh parsley. Dried parsley would actually stick to the croutons, but the fresh parsley barely did. I drizzled the bread chunks with garlic powder and olive oil, baked at 400 degrees for 15 minutes, and they came out quite nicely.

Homemade croutonsI’ve made lentil soup a million times before, and it usually turns out amazing. Unfortunately this time, I didn’t have a heavy enough hand with the seasoning. I only put one veggie bouillon cube in there and did not include tomatoes. The soup is pretty good, but doesn’t have the usual awesome flavor. It turned out OK but not great. I may strain some of the liquid, blend it with more spices and make a vegetarian pate with it.

Vegetarian Lentil Soup

I’ve got this week’s crock pot meal cooking right now, Rabbit Stew. I’ve never made rabbit before, but the butcher at Marty’s Market assured me that this recipe’s a good one. I’ll let you know how it goes!