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My sister, Allison, told me the other day that she determines her mood based on a Yahtzee game.

Every morning, she plays an electronic game of Yahtzee and if she has a good game, she knows it is going to be a good day. If she has a game where she makes a bunch of mistakes, she figures she should be extra alert that day so she doesn’t screw anything up. And if the game smites her with terrible dice? Obviously, her day is full of bad luck and she might as well get started at being in a bad mood.

I would laugh at the Yahtzee Theory, but I have my own such rituals. If I see a hawk, perched on a pole or tree, I know that I am going to have a good day. No matter what mood I was in before, I am immediately happier. The other day, even, I was crossing a bridge and noticed one seagull sitting on each of the street lights – each either facing the bridge or the water, in a remarkably ordered pattern. Even though I had a headache and was running an annoying errand, I knew that I was lucky that day.

Apparently, Allison was telling her Yahtzee Theory to our other sister, Lindsay. She mentioned that she thinks that her mood may not be determined by the Yahtzee gods, but just on the fact that she decided what kind of day she would have before stepping foot outside of her house. (And millions of self-help books would probably agree.) So, from then on, she would just decide she would have a good day regardless of what the all-powerful Yahtzee game told her.

Lindsay tried this theory just the other day – she decided before leaving that today was going to be a good day and nothing could stop her from being in a good mood. Not the 4 inch puddle of melted snow she stepped in as she left her house, soaking her shoe. Definitely not that fact that she missed her train and was late to work. But, when she got a call from her landlord saying her apartment flooded, she gave in. Today, is in fact a BAD day. As she rushed home, she texted Allison to say her f*!@#g plan did not work. With dread, she opened her apartment door, expecting the worst – water pouring out her door, furniture ruined, her shoes soaked in inches of water. But, she walked in to find nothing. Everything was just as she left it, dry. Her landlord had confused her unit number with another tenant.

At the end of the day, she decided maybe it WAS a good day after all.

Now what this has to do with Asian stir fry, I don’t know… They just seemed related. Plus, I thought a story might distract you from the fact that I used snow peas from California and rice noodles from god knows where.

Oh, and the fresh ginger I bought? Came from Hawaii. The stupid winter is killing me! I want my CSA box already…

The one thing I DID NOT buy was the garlic at New Seasons – from Argentina. Super close, right? I found some at City Market the next day from California.

Regardless, the dish was yum-town. It had some nice GREEN things in it, which will keep away the scurvy I would get if I would only eat locally (with my poor planning). Plus, I used the leftovers to make a wrap which I will highlight soon. A wrap that included a homemade peanut sauce – yum.

Having a reason to make peanut sauce means it is, indeed, a good day.

Recipe
Asian Pork Stir Fry

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Of all the people I know, my boyfriend Erik is the most affected by me trying to eat locally.  He has to listen to me talk about what vegetables are in season, wait for me while I pick up frozen meat in dark parking lots, and, most importantly, eat my cooking.  I love cooking so much that I tend to be the chef for the majority of meals, but lucky for me, he is a darn good cook himself.

Erik’s parents were born in Austria and Germany and his favorite foods are influenced by things he grew up eating – pork products of all sorts, potato dumplings, and anything made with vinegar.

I love being introduced to new food, so when Erik asked if I wanted him to make Sauerbraten with the chuck roast we received from my parking lot farmer, I was down.  We invited a couple friends over, went to the German market to pick up the extra ingredients we needed and had a German-inspired meal based around the Sauerbraten. (Not the most local of meals, but we did use Oregon-grown meat!)

He browned the meat and continued the braising in a vinegar-based broth.

Then cut up a beautiful red cabbage.

He prefers to cook it until it has been cooked down and loses its fresh cabbage taste, but not so long that it is entirely soggy.

Next, and my personal favorite part, he made potato dumplings unlike any dumplings I have ever had before.

He starts by toasting a breadcrumb in butter (a good way to begin anything, right?)

Then rolls the dumpling around the breadcrumb before cooking in boiling water.

At this point every corner of the house smells of slow-roasted meat and our guests arrive hungry.

I would never have thought of making dumplings with a fried breadcrumb in the center or making pot roast with a vinegar-based broth, but it was delicious.

And I didn’t do a single thing.

Even the cook enjoyed it.

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Today is the first day I haven’t had four thousand holiday items to complete.  I haven’t wrapped a present.   My only cooking skill tested was making a cold-cut sandwich.  (Unless using the microwave counts?)  And, I have been wearing my home pants all day.

It feels great.

Overall, I love the holidays.  I love the way everywhere you go people are all freaking out about buying just the right present, the way your family members fly or drive for miles and miles in order to just spend a few days together, and, of course, I love hosting dinner parties.

I made food for three in the last week.  I would say that I hosted them, but none were at my house, so it wasn’t really me hosting.  Just me cooking.

A lot of me cooking.

Including, (ominous music commencing) bum, bum, buuuuuummmmm…

Duck.

How did I cook the duck, you must be wondering? I tried asking everyone I knew if they knew how to cook it, but the response I most heard was, “Why would you want to cook a duck?” (By the way, not helpful.)

Luckily, I received a very important book for Christmas: Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child.  There were recipes for Duck a l’Orange, for roast duck, and for grilling duck.  But, I chose to brown my duck and then cook it, covered, in a casserole dish.  Finally, I threw some parsnips in the casserole dish, to cook in the duck fat.  Yum.

But, when I was staring at this end of the duck,

I was a little nervous.  I am not going to lie.

Now, I am not going to say that the duck was the most succulent, tasty piece of meat I have ever made. (It is possible I cooked it too long because it was a smaller bird than the recipe called for and I am food-thermometer disabled.)  But, it isn’t about the best food on Christmas Eve, is it?  (No, of course not, Mary Sue. It is about being together and celebrating the holidays!)

And beautiful table settings.

Fortunately for everyone, there are wonderful restaurants in town that serve amazing food.  So, I didn’t have to try out new recipes every night of the week.

One of the restaurants we visited, I just learned, is closing New Year’s Eve. Lovely Hula Hands has always served delicious food from local ingredients and is one of my favorite restaurants in town.  Don’t worry too much about the hole in our culinary establishments, they are opening a new restaurant called Lovely’s Fifty-Fifty, which will serve pizza and appetizers, and remain focused on buying food from local farmers.

Lucky for me, they provided a wonderful steak for people who were not looking forward to eating duck.

And other things for people who weren’t so sure about eating steak.

But, for the brave souls who were willing to eat my duck, I put as much love into making it as I could. And it helped that I received this great gift for Christmas from my littlest sister, Lindsay.

It was one of the most thoughtful gifts I have ever received.

(Modeled here with a plate of duck by Erik.)

I hope you enjoyed your holiday (and post-holiday resting time) as much as I did.

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I consider a great dinner party meal to be one that requires prep before the guests arrive, seems more complicated than it really is, and, of course, has your guests salivating from the minute they walk in the door until they put that first bite of food in their mouths.

Beef short ribs fit each and every criteria I have for dinner party food.

(By the way, spell check wants me to use criterion instead of criteria – the singular version. Do people still use that word or has it gone the way of agendum?)

(Aside complete, continue…)

Plus, remember when I met the farmer in a dark parking lot and filled my freezer with meat?

freezer

Can you see the short ribs in there?

Lately, I have made them quite a few different ways – in a ragu and served over noodles, baked in the oven, cooked on the stove, even finished under a hot broiler to crisp up the outside once they were done stewing – but, my favorite is one of the simpler methods. (Thank goodness, I need a little simplicity.)

raw short ribs

Cooking the short ribs for a long time and using the broth as gravy. It keeps the flavors together and allows for a variety of ways to serve the dish.

short ribs

This dish takes a while to cook – about 4 hours including prep time – but it only requires a half an hour of hands-on time. Plus, it can be cooked the day before and just heated up when your guests arrive.

Warning.

If you were, as an entirely hypothetical situation, to prepare this the day before a big dinner party your boyfriend can’t attend because he has to work… And you made the house smell outrageously delicious… He may grumble about how “unfair” you are for the entire three hours the dish is cooking. (But, it also might inspire him to take you out to an amazing dinner, because now all he wants is something outstanding to eat. Hmmm. I may want to replace the “Warning” with “Added Benefit.”)

Recipe
Beef Short Ribs

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I watch my day care provider, Betsy, put down a glass of milk in front of me. My four-year-old eyes filling with tears and I say, “I don’t drink milk.”

She looks exasperated, two kids are throwing their food at each other and her daughter is hanging on her leg.  “You don’t have a choice. Drink it.  Milk is good for you.  All kids like milk.”

“But, I don’t have to drink it. I don’t like it.”

“Drink,” she says with a do-this-or-I-am-going-to-put-you-in-the-corner-all-day look.

“Fine,” I take a small sip and immediately start gagging (which brought no sympathy from Betsy), presumably in a manor fitting to an over-exaggerated four year old.

When my mom shows up a few hours later, I run over and tell her the horrors that occurred during lunch.  She turns to Betsy and says, “She doesn’t drink milk,” and I turn my face up to her and smile sweetly, knowing this will never happen at day care again.

This memory of milk, the cool, slightly-sweet thickness of it, is hard for me to handle on a queasy stomach.  I spent the majority of my childhood avoiding anything related to the product – cottage cheese (GAG ME), sour cream, yogurt, and even milkshakes.

But, slowly, with years of convincing, I started to incorporate some dairy products into my life. Cheese? Delicious.  Yogurt? Not my favorite, but not gag-worthy and pretty healthy.   Oh, and sour cream? Did anyone know it is actually good?

Now I find this whole new world of cooking involving cream.  Adding a bit of cream to a sauce adds a new level of complexity to the flavor, a richness that no amount of butter or chicken stock can mimic.

I also have found a whole new way to spend my time: standing in front of the milk aisle reading labels.  Do I choose organic? Hormone free?  Milk raised closer to my home but non-organic? How do I know the cows aren’t stuck in a barn attached to milking machines all day?

cow_pioneer woman

I’ll tell you one thing – it was easier to just eat what I liked and not have to think about where everything came from all the time.

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In my meat-buying post I mentioned that I am obsessed with Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms, the god of beyond organic farmers everywhere. He has been featured in a few of Michael Pollan’s projects, including Food Inc., an eye-opening documentary on how far removed we have come from our food source, and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, one of my recent favorite books.

Joel’s philosophy about raising animals for meat is that he is not a beef, a hog, or a poultry farmer, but a grass farmer. He believes in using the land properly: by rotating animals from field to field, composting and using earthworms to ensure his grass is in fine shape, and maintaining a significant amount of forest on his land to maintain a close-to-natural ecosystem.

Joel4
Hi Joel! (It is weird I think he is cute, right?)

His system allows animals to eat what they would naturally eat in the wild – not corn products (there is a reason cows have the stomachs they do, because they are supposed to eat grass!) or other animals (as encouraged by the USDA before that whole mad cow thing happened). The salad-bar raised cows give us meat that is lower in fat overall, but higher in the good omega-3 fat, lacking antibiotics and hormones you find in commercial beef, and higher in a number of vitamins. See…better!

When I read about Joel and his farming techniques (more here and here), it just made sense. Being sustainable isn’t about being a yuppie, tree-hugging Oregonian, it is about using our human brilliance to mimic nature, encourage the land to give back to us, and still getting what we want.

Hamburgers.

http://www.slowbar.net/

http://www.slowbar.net/

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I am going to admit something right here.  Pork chops make me nervous.  I see them wrapped in brown paper in my fridge and immediately start worrying about cooking.

What if they turn out dry?

What if they are undercooked and I give someone (ahem, me) parasites?

What if I am a terrible cook and that is why I can’t figure out how to make a decent pork chop? (Ignore that last one, we probably don’t have time to get into my cooking insecurities quite yet.)

With all my anxiety, I am constantly looking for ways to dress them up.  I have tried breading them in breadcrumbs and Panko, marinating, pounding them down and frying, and the old-fashioned baking-them-in-the-oven-method.  When I saw a recipe for giving them a hazelnut crust (with Oregon hazelnuts, obviously) I thought I might have found a winner.

Some people disagree.

Those people were not me – I thought this method was near perfect!

First, I pounded those suckers down to 1/3 an inch, dipped in a beaten egg, and then in the roasted, pulverized hazelnuts.

Before we talk about the cooking, I want to discuss roasting hazelnuts.  I have toasted hazelnuts for a number of meals and I always chop and brown them in a pan.

NO MORE!

From now on, I am going to leave them whole in a 400 degree oven for 10-12 minutes.  They came out golden brown and so, so tasty (I may have eaten a couple (dozen) straight from the oven), and once they are cooled, you can roll them in your hands to remove the skins.

hazelnuts

This method toasts the nut entirely, not just the outsides the way I did before by using the pan, and increases the intensity of the flavor deliciously.

After breading and throwing in a pan to brown the outsides, I popped the pork chops in an oven for a few minutes.

I served this dinner with roasted beets…

beets

…and sautéed mushrooms (with my utter obsession these days with mushrooms, I will be sure to add a perfected recipe soon) and happily ate.

pork-chop-dinner

Oh, by the way, the pork came from New Seasons Pacific Village and was delish.

Here is the recipe for the chops – enjoy!

Hazelnut Pork Chops (adapted from Food and Wine)

1 cup hazelnut

½ cup flour

1 tsp salt

2 large eggs

4 six ounce pork chops (pounded 1/3 inch thick)

salt and pepper

¼ cup olive oil

Cooking Instructions

Preheat the oven to 350°. Place the hazelnuts on a rimmed baking sheet and bake for about 12 minutes, or until richly browned. Transfer to a cutting board or kitchen towel and cool until able to handle.  Rub nuts with your hand or the towel to remove the skins. Chop roughly.  Place in a food processor and grind until a course powder.

Spread the flour into a shallow bowl.  Place the hazelnuts, mixed with one tsp of salt, in another shallow bowl.  Beat the two eggs in a third.

Season the pork chops with salt and pepper. Coat pork chops first in flour (shaking off excess) then dip in egg.  Finally, coat in hazelnuts and set aside for cooking.

In a large skillet (with a splatter screen closely by) heat the olive oil over medium heat. Without crowding the pan, cook the pork chops until brown, about three minutes per side. Next, transfer the chops the oven and bake for 4 minutes, until they are barely pink in the center.

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Portland is known as a food town.  We have the farms, the butchers and the customers interested in quality products.  I am lucky enough to walk down the street a few blocks, buy beef grown in Oregon, and leave feeling smug at how good I am at buying locally.  Unfortunately, when I visited Chop, a local butcher known for having some of the best local meat in town, the grass-fed short ribs I was eyeing came from Montana.  Apparently Chop hadn’t found a completely grass-fed, commercial beef product that was up to their standards.
cow
Huh.  I guess I can cross buy meat from convenient retail store from my to-do list.

Next, I decided to talk to people who bought sides of beef directly from a farmer.  Usually, you can buy a whole cow, a half, or a quarter.  What I didn’t put together is that a quarter of a cow is over 100 pounds of meat.  100 pounds!  I barely have enough room in my freezer for ice cream, let alone a quarter of a cow.

Luckily, I remembered eatwild.com, a resource for local, pasture-raised beef, pork and poultry, and searched for local farms who sell to households.  I found Abundant Life Farms, a farm modeled after the famed Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms (more on my crush on Joel later) and committed to raising quality meat while sustaining the land, being responsible to the environment, and giving animals a happy life.

A week later, I find myself meeting the farmer in a rain-soaked, dark parking lot.  He is standing at a card table lit with a battery-powered lantern, surrounded by a semi-circle of a dozen grey coolers full of meat.  I bring home my collection of pork chops, a fryer, chuck roast, pork shoulder, and short ribs, a little disappointed that he ran out of bacon and ground beef, and move the ice cream down a shelf.

freezer

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