Thursday, March 25, 2010

Happy Spring! Some Colorful Daffodils

My last few posts, while culinarily worthy, have been photographically bland. I mean, chicken stock? Clam chowder? There's not a lot of zing in that.

I thought maybe you'd like some zing.

Despite the fact that you can't eat them, I love daffodils. This is my yard.

There's no way I can capture the exuberance, the scent, the joy of daffodils, but I tried.

These clumps of flowers, all facing the sunshine, remind me of young girls at a party. I think if you listen closely, you can hear them giggle.

This little guy is no bigger than a quarter. He's called 'Minnow."

Get out and enjoy the spring you have!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

I’ve Been Poisoned! Wheat in Chicken Stock?!?

I screwed up. That’s how I found out I screwed up big-time.

I whip through the grocery store like a whirlwind. I plan my menus weekly and arrange shopping lists by grocery aisle. There are times when I grab something off the shelf and don’t even stop the cart. And I’m a real hoot to go to the store with on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving (I like to watch people in the baking aisle stare at flour and sugar like deer in headlights). I am an Experienced Shopper.

I’m gonna blame it on the old guy that was standing there minding his business. He stood in the stocks and soup section, about two feet in front of the shelves. I suspect he was just trying to read the labels. I feel for him, because as far as I’m concerned, they all look the same, and I can’t read the tiny print with my glasses, either. I said, “excuse me,” and snuck my hand in front of him for a quart of chicken stock. Except I screwed up and grabbed vegetable stock. Which I did not discover until I got home.

It was no big deal, really. I knew I could use it for something else, it’s just that I don’t usually buy vegetable stock; when I want it I make my own. Well, maybe I wouldn’t have to, if Swanson’s brand was any good. Except that buried in a huge list of ingredients as part of a sub-list under “yeast-extract” was wheat. Only it wasn’t called out under the list of ingredients as required by the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004. (Like under the ingredients label on peanut butter you see “Allergen Information: Contains Peanuts” and everybody thinks, “Um, duh?”) Vegetable stock? Wheat? I can’t eat that. I took it back to the grocery store for a refund and went to get me some chicken stock.

But a Funny Feeling came over me.

I poured over ingredient lists. All the boxed Swanson’s chicken broths I saw contained wheat. I’ve been eating that chicken broth at least once a week for, dear God, years. I mean, I eat soup for breakfast...

Well then. This explains a few things (like PMS and fatigue and “digestive upset,” to name the tactful symptoms).

I went online and found out that Swanson’s is owned by Campbell Soup. If I had known that, then I would have known better than to buy Swanson’s; to the best of my knowledge there is no Campbell Soup that is wheat free. I used their customer feedback option to leave what I fully confess was a rather ranty little email, basically wailing that I’d been poisoning myself and WHY didn’t they use the allergen labeling system according to law and WHY was there wheat in chicken stock in the first place?

They sent back this very level-headed reply:

Ms. Marianne Richardson, we received your message and appreciate your taking the time to contact Campbell Soup Company.

The Campbell Soup Company follows all government regulations regarding the labeling of our products. In the case of the top 8 allergens (peanuts, tree nuts, dairy, eggs, fish, wheat, soy and shellfish) we list those ingredients in the product ingredient statement, no matter how small the amount might be. We do not include any of those items under the broader listings of "spices" or "natural flavors". We recommend that consumers always check the ingredient statement and evaluate the product based on the statement.

In regards to possible cross contact between products, we use an extensive and effective sanitation procedure in between different processing operations, and efforts are made to prevent any possible cross contact to the greatest practical extent.

Thank you for visiting the Campbell Soup Company website.

Campbell Soup Company Web Team

Which is basically true. My understanding of the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act was faulty and I had no one but myself to blame. (But they still didn’t answer why there’s wheat in chicken stock, which is a dumb thing to have in there. So says me. ::Flounce::)

I guess I’m not the only once wondering what’s up with wheat in chicken stock. Ms. Alison St. Sure, blogging over at Sure Foods Living (Practical advice for living with celiac disease, gluten intolerance and food allergies) has a wonderful post titled, Does chicken broth contain gluten, milk, soy? Yes. If only I’d seen her site! She did all the legwork and has listed some major brands of chicken stocks and what allergens they contain. It’s a nice site; by all means, poke around it a while.

According to Ms. St. Sure's research, there are Swanson’s brands that are gluten-free, but they weren’t available at the grocery store I was at. And by then, it didn’t matter. Let’s just say I was feeling “off” about pre-packaged food. I dumped some tainted frozen lentil soup and kung pao chicken leftovers and asked MP to make some homemade chicken stock, which he did.

Unfortunately, stock is about as photogenic as clam chowder.

The moral of the story is: Don’t assume. Wheat gets put in everything, from herbal tea to ice cream. Manufacturing processes change. Even people who have been on a gluten-free diet for a long time can get nailed by hidden wheat.

Wheat sucks. I’ve got the T-shirt to prove it.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

New England Clam Chowder

I am totally excited about spring. However, March doesn't fool me one bit. It's brisk out there. It's best to be prepared. There will be days that require something warming for both the body and soul.

New England clam chowder should do the job nicely.

As a soup, it flows into the cold nooks and crannies of your body and warms it. As a chowder, it provides something substantial. I'm big on soup for breakfast; it's porrigey and warming, and it contains a lot of nutrition in a small amount of food. You can't beat throwing a pre-portioned block of soup into the microwave for speed and ease. Clam chowder is what I want on those blustery mornings where I'm not really sure I wanted to get out of bed in the first place.

The recipe I use is from Cooks Illustrated and can be found here... sort of. You need to have a subscription to access the recipe, but the discussion of their chowder vision is interesting. I'm not about to mess with the Cooks Illustrated business model or break copyright rules, so I can't exactly print it out for your perusal, but you can also find it in The Best Recipe. Really, with what I'm about to tell you, you can take any clam chowder recipe and make it your own.

Typically that means salt pork or bacon. I'm fond of bacon—salt pork can be difficult to find. Bacon can be purchased then frozen in 3-4 ounce bricks and thawed when you want it. (Do be sure the bacon is gluten-free, if that's a concern.) If you want to avoid meat/pork products, use half olive oil half butter. You'll be missing out on some flavor, but I understand how these things go.

This depends on where you hail from. I suspect the purist wants only onions. I myself like a few stalks of celery. I suppose if you were to go that far, you may as well add a carrot and have a mirepoix, but I just can't bring myself to do it. I've had clam chowders that did, and they were lovely—I've even added half a red pepper into mine—but it's just not part of my chowder vision. Any time you sauté vegetables for a soup like this, you want to do it long and slow. Onions need time to get golden and develop their sugars. If stuff starts to brown on the bottom of the pan, good! You’ll scrape that up later when you add your liquid (but if it bothers you too much, cut back on the heat and add a few tablespoons of liquid to the onions. But let them brown!)

I like using brown rice flour to make a roux, but be careful—brown rice flour browns much faster than wheat flour. Two tablespoons ought to do it, but it depends on how thick you chowder vision is. I’ve seen recipes call for a half a cup of flour or more. This leads me to two subsets of the thickener, potatoes and dairy.

The traditional potato would be a red potato with the skin left on, but I have been experimenting with baking potatoes and gotten some stellar results. I like to use and immersion blender and puree the mixture halfway, before I add any clams. This allows the starch in the potatoes to break down and make the chowder quite a bit thicker. The CI recipe is specifically looking for a potato that doesn’t do this, but... It all depends on what you want. Using a starchy potato and blending part of the soup is a great way to thicken the soup and give it mouth feel without using heavy cream or a lot of flour.

The CI recipe uses heavy cream. I take issue with that. While I have no problem with heavy cream, too much fat in the mouth tends to deaden the flavors, and in this instance, I really feel you'd be better off with heal-and-half or whole milk. Clearly if you're trying to make a lower-fat version, you’ll be better off skipping the cram and thickening with starchy potatoes, blending, and perhaps using a bit more flour in the roux or less liquid for the stock. Still, entire regional variations are based on what version of dairy is used—don’t be afraid to experiment!

This is the part that freaks people out. "I don't know anything about clams!" "I can't get fresh clams!" Nope, won't wash. You can make lovely chowder with canned clams. But there are a few things you do want to look for:

The fewer ingredients on the can, the better. Try to avoid canned clams with a lot of phosphates as preservatives. I've found canned clams with citric acid as the preservative work wonderously well. Same with clam juice—the fewer ingredients, the better.

Clams are mollusks. They have all their bits thrown together under the shell, and when they're processed, all those bits end up in the can. You might not want to think too hard, is what I'm saying. Although do keep an eye out for shell fragments.

I actually do have access to fresh clams. When I asked how much, in round about figures, seven pounds of littleneck clams might cost, my fishmonger told me he didn't sell clams by the pound, but by the dozen—and it worked out to $50. If you have access to fresh clams cheaper than this, marvelous! If you're not quite ready to blow $50 on a soup, then canned clams will set you back about six bucks.

Canned clams and clam juice both contain salt, so consider that before you follow any recipe's recommendations for salting. That said, I feel like if you don't salt the potatoes while they're boiling, the soup won't ever taste right. A little during and then, when the soup is finished, do the final adjustment. There's nothing wrong with keeping the salt content on the low side and letting others salt as they will.

Pepper, however, is a must. If you've never ground your own peppercorns, now is the time. I think chowder should be peppery, but this means different things to different people. Again, pepper to the not-quite-there and then pass the grinder.

Chowder is a lot more exciting to eat than to photograph. It's um... white and lumpy. Don't be fooled. Beneath this bland exterior is a rich and satisfying flavor experience. Crackers are an absolute must. Glutino has a decent cracker for soups, but just to eat it out of hand it has a strange aftertaste, plus they're a bit pricey. I like the Ener-G brand myself. Or heck, make your own crackers! This chowder certainly deserves it.

The link below goes to a page of several different regional recipes that vary in complexity from crock pot to fresh clams. If you are of a more analytical bent, Cooking for Engineers has a great walk-through for clam chowder as well. The important thing is to try one. March can be cruel with those blustery winds, so fortify yourself. You’ll be happy as a clam.

Take me to New England clam chowder nirvana!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Signs of Spring!

On March 1 I spotted my first flower! It's a crocus. Nothing fancy, just some bulbs I got a the hardware store. I confess, my first thought was not, "Oh Joy! A Flower!" but more along the lines of, "What the hell is THAT?"

It's been a long winter, friends.

The peach tree is still closed tightly -- and this is good, because the temperatures will be cold enough these next few nights to potentially damage any flower/leaf buds that are too exposed. This is how I lost 2/3 of last year's crop. But I'm not bitter... Somewhere I had read about how in northern states farmers will occasionally pile snow up around the trunks of orchard trees when they know the temperatures are going to drop again, and this is what I did. I don't think I can do 2 AM tarp covering/snow-poking anymore.

But when I downloaded the pictures, I found on the camera a picture which I did not take:

MP was poking about in the garage and got around to assembling his new BBQ smoker. Apparently he was proud of his new baby and wanted to record the moment. It looks very... pod-like. And shiny.

Crocus and smokers -- I ask you, can spring be far behind?