Main photo: Beet Chocolate Cake. Credit: Lynne Curry

I never thought of myself as a beet fanatic. Sure, I like this versatile root vegetable well enough, but only recently realized that beets are pivotal to the menu at my restaurant, the Lostine Tavern — roasted, raw, pickled and puréed. Along with two types of pickled beets, we feature beetroot on a hugely popular open-faced sandwich, grated beet in our tossed salad and a riveting beet panzanella salad. But the best-selling item of all is the chocolate beet cake.

That’s right: This cake contains beets. A curious item for a tavern in the heart of Oregon’s cattle country, but that’s how good this is.

It’s become so popular, some customers ask for it before they order their meal while others request it for birthday cakes. So tasty and moist, it has caused more than one avowed beet hater to eat his words.

An irresistible tower of three-tiered chocolate layer cake with fluffy dark chocolate frosting, this cake is a scene-stealer and a crowd-pleaser that belongs on any holiday table. The fact that it’s a veggie cake is both a nutritional plus and a conversation piece.

Why beets?

True enough, beets are a root vegetable, but using them in desserts is not as crazy as it sounds.

Beets have the highest concentration of sucrose among all vegetables. They are, after all, the source for granulated sugar.

Just like using carrot cake or pumpkin quick bread, beets are moisture insurance in cake baking. Fully cooked in simmering water and then pureed, the beets stealthily mingle with the cocoa powder, sugar and oil in the batter. Dark red beets tinge the color of the batter a shade toward red velvet cake. For anyone to know there are beets in this cake, you’ll have to tell them. Then, delight in their surprise.

Good desserts

Some may be happy to know that beets are a unique source of phytonutrients with strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits. I just love knowing I’m getting another dose of veggies into my kids’ dessert.

The earthy sweetness of the beets heightens the flavors of the chocolate, rendering a cake that is none too sweet. I use this recipe for everything from birthday cupcakes to everyday snack cakes. It mixes in a single bowl and makes either three 8-inch round layers, two 9-by-13-inch sheet cakes or a lot of cupcakes.

The cake layers form a great base for embellishment with layers of cherry preserves and whipped cream, a light snow of powdered sugar or a scoop of vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce.

For the holidays, however, I take this cake to the hilt, slathering chocolate cream cheese frosting between three cake layers for a table centerpiece that is sure to capture everyone’s attention.

Beet Chocolate Cake

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 20 to 25 minutes

Total time: 35 to 40 minutes

Yield: 8 to 10 servings

Ingredients

2 1/2 cups puréed cooked beets
6 eggs, beaten
3/4 cup good-quality cocoa powder
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 1/2 cups vegetable oil
3 3/4 cups granulated sugar
3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons salt

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F.

2. Oil three 8-inch-round cake pans and line them with parchment paper.

3. In a small mixing bowl, beat the beets and eggs. Combine the cocoa powder, vanilla and oil in a large measuring cup.

4. In a large mixing bowl, whisk the sugar, flour, baking soda and salt until combined. Add the cocoa powder mixture to the flour and stir with a rubber spatula until well combined. Add the beet mixture and stir just until combined.

5. Pour the batter into the prepared pans. Bake until the sides of the cake pull away from the pan and a wooden skewer slid into the cake’s center comes out clean, 20 to 25 minutes.

6. Cool the cakes for 10 minutes and tip them out of the pans onto wire racks to cool completely.

Dark Chocolate Cream Cheese Frosting

Prep time: 10 minutes

Ingredients
6 ounces bittersweet chocolate
3 sticks unsalted butter (12 ounces), room temperature
12 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
1 tablespoon vanilla
3 cups sifted confectioner’s sugar

1. Melt the chocolate in a bowl over a pan of simmering water. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool to room temperature.

2. In a stand mixer, use the whisk attachment to beat the butter and cream cheese until perfectly smooth. Add the vanilla and scrape down the sides of the bowl.

3. Add the confectioner’s sugar and blend on medium speed until it is fully incorporated. Add the cooled chocolate mixture and blend on medium-high speed until it is very smooth and light.

4. Spread one-third of the frosting on top of each of the cooled cake layers and stack them to create three tiers. Leave the sides unfrosted.

Main photo: Beet Chocolate Cake. Credit: Lynne Curry

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Edibles, such as this package from Mitten Crate in Michigan, make great holiday gifts. Credit: Mitten Crate

You can’t go wrong with edible gifts at the holidays. Edibles send strong messages of sharing, goodwill, pride-of-place and uniqueness, while not cluttering up the recipient’s house for the rest of their lives. And for family and friends who cannot travel to you, a place-based edible always fits the bill.

Every state (and the nation’s capital) has a product just waiting to be discovered, sent and devoured.

Alabama: Goat cheese plays nicely with so many foods, especially the South’s pimento peppers. For a place-based kick and exciting centerpiece for a holiday cheese plate, try Bella Chevre‘s award-winning goat-cheese based pimento spread, more than a few steps up from the usual pimento cheese.

Alaska: Every holiday feast calls for a smoked salmon spread. But most seafood’s quality gets lost in the supply chain. Not so with 2 Sisters Seafood, located right on the wharf in Kenai. If sending a whole salmon filet feels too imposing, try a gift basket with shelf-stable smoked salmon products.

Arizona: The scions of Barry Goldwater have been slicing and dicing Arizona’s best fresh tomatoes, fruits, peppers and spices since 1989 to make Goldwater salsas. At the holidays, get a great gift package with four original sauces and the award-winning Bisbee barbecue sauce.

Arkansas: You could go for an entire gift basket from Kilwin’s sweets store, or you could opt for the classic Saltwater Taffy, with holiday packages featuring peppermint, eggnog, gingerbread and sugarplum flavors.

California: For a real surprise for your foodie friends, send them one of the infused products from Sonoma Syrup Co. Karin Campion crafts her infused syrups in small batches, creating perfection in syrups such as vanilla bean extract, Meyer lemon, mint, lavender, lime and salt caramel.

Colorado: The state’s distilling revolution is in full swing and is getting a kick with Cocktail Punk bitters, with flavors such as anise and fennel-layered orange, sage and mint in an Alpine-themed bitter, a cherry cocktail bitter that will make you forget syrupy grenadine forever.

Connecticut: For 20 years, Westport-based Biscotti Bites has been baking tasty little almond cookies perfect for serving with an afternoon coffee. Made using only good-for-you ingredients, they now come in almond, lemon and cocoa.

Delaware: Dolle’s saltwater taffy is the classic best and made for noshing even if you’re not beachside. The holidays bring all kinds of stocking stuffers, such as pumpkin spice taffy, deluxe Christmas misty mints and gummy Christmas trees and snowmen.

District of Columbia: The nation’s capital is indeed a state — of bliss — with the holiday package from Karen Mary Confectionary, which produces artisanal marshmallows in a five-flavor gift package: Classic Vanilla, Pumpkin Pie, Peppermint, Egg Nog, and Butterscotch, and Caramel Classic.

Florida: You could win hearts with any of the homemade cookies from 5th Avenue Confectionary, in Naples, but for a quintessentially Florida feel, send the key lime macadamia nut cookies. These are some well-traveled cookies, rich, buttery, with a zesty lime twinge and smooth white chocolate.

Georgia: The gold standard by which other honeys are measured, The Savannah Bee Company’s  Tupelo Honey is great in all of its forms —  raw, honeycombed, or even in body care products — but nothing beats a slow river of gold fresh from a bottle.

Hawaii: Lots of chocolatiers in the United States source directly from cocoa plantations. Waimeia Chocolate Company, on the Big Island, is its own. Try its 70 percent estate cacao truffles with macadamia nuts, with fruit undertones and a velvet finish.

Idaho: From sturgeon nurtured in the waters of Hagerman comes America’s contribution to the world caviar market, Tsar Nicoulai. The James Beard-award-winning company’s masterful harvesting techniques capture the distinctive, palate-cleansing, refined pop with a buttery aftertaste.

Illinois: When you’re Rare Bird, a jam is not just a jam but a work of art. Elizabeth Madden makes preserves in the French tradition with flavors  such as cranberry Clementine, Meyer lemon rosemary and passion fruit curd. Her Black Label exclusive flavors come in tiny batches and sell fast.

Indiana: With a pedigree hailed in Bon Appetit and Food and Wine, Chris and Mollie Eley brought some four-star experience to their meatery in Indianapolis, The Smoking Goose. The company doesn’t send everything, but its salumi gift box brings together the best of its craft.

Iowa: Chefs around the country call on La Quercia, in tiny Norwalk, for the best American prosciutto around. But recent years has seen the pork artisans add a whole array of other products that would surprise: spicy salami, rolled pancetta and a silky lardo made from back fat.

Kansas: PT’s Coffee Roasting Co. is truly a rags-to-richly-roasted story, going from a tiny espresso shop in 1993 to a purveyor of single origin roasts from around the globe today. Try the PT’s Sample Box of the Holiday Blend for an introduction to what this industry exemplar can do.

‘Cadillac of pecans’ for edible holiday gifts

Kentucky: The Kentucky Nut Corporation has been producing the “Cadillac of pecans” since 1940, and puts together a stellar array of holiday-themed nuts such as cinnamon glazed and pralines. Perfect for noshing at holiday cocktail parties.

Louisiana: With so much to choose from New Orleans, pick something that makes holiday breakfast easier with Café du Monde’s beignet mix, the secret to pre-mixed fluffy Louisiana-style doughnuts. Pair it with any of the coffees for a breakfast-themed gift basket.

Maine: The last remaining traditional stone-ground American Mustard mill, Rayes, of Eastport, grinds out yellow and brown mustards according to traditional techniques. Try its Hot Five gift pack of five spicy mustards for heat-seeking loved ones.

Maryland: For holidays, sometimes easy and pre-made is best. That goes for nothing more than for breakfast, for which we recommend Michele’s Granola, made fresh in small batches in Timonium. Seasonal varieties such as cranberry pecan carry a festive flair.

Massachusetts: The season demands a sprinkling of red, and Willows Cranberries, of Wareham, delivers. Gift boxes include a mix of cranberry sweets, spices, teas, chutneys and syrups featuring the face-puckering berries from the bogs.

Michigan: When in Michigan, why pick just one? Especially when you can order a Mitten Crate, from two young entrepreneurs who ship everything from bourbon and cherry products, Slow Jams, hop soda, single origin coffees and saltwater taffy, all made in the wolverine state.

Minnesota: Perfect for college-aged kids or young adults heading back after the holidays, Native Harvest’s Wild Rice blends are harvested directly from the Minnesota Lakes by tribal members, nuttier and healthier than grocery store alternatives.

Mississippi: Mississippi does condiments like no other. Get your classics such as Carolina chow chow and low-country style pumpkin preserves or go for the Muscadine chutney from Farmer’s Daughter Brand Pickles and Preserves.

Missouri: Christopher Elbow’s Artisanal Chocolates look like gift packages unto themselves. For the holidays, turn to the gift collections featuring gingerbread, champagne, winter-spiced caramel, egg nog, peppermint and rum raisin.

Montana: If you’ve never tried a huckleberry, Huckleberry Haven is a great place to start. The berries, similar in taste and nature to blueberries, only grow at elevations above 2,000 feet and have long been used in traditional medicine by native peoples of the Northwester United States.

Nebraska: Orders top out a week before Christmas for Nebraska Bison, high protein, lower in fat and raised responsibly on a ranch by Randy and Jane Miller without the use of steroids, antibiotics or growth hormones. Try the gift guide or, if you’ve got your main meal covered, get the jerky.

Nevada: The state may not be known for its artisanal foods (many joke that the state food is the buffet), but it is home to one of the best one-stop artisanal online food sites, selling everything artisanal under the sun: caviar, coffee, tea, chocolates, preserves, cheeses and more.

Much-needed herbal teas

New Hampshire: When all is said and done, you’re really just going to need a cup of tea from Portsmouth’s White Heron Tea and Coffee Community, which ships organic teas, including 15 varieties of much-needed herbal teas around the country.

New Jersey: Take a load off the holiday baking — and really blow away the cookie-lovers in your family — with Fat Boy’s Cookie Dough. Cranberry nut is the seasonal choice, but most everyone would really just rather have good old chocolate chip.

New Mexico: For a gift that can sit on a shelf, and beautifully, try balsamic vinegar from Traditional Aceto Balsamico of Monticello. Grown from organic estate grapes in New Mexico, it’s made using old-world methods and aged in seven fragrant woods.

New York: Brooklyn abounds with artisanal food producers, but few have elevated their craft quite so exceptionally as Mast Brothers chocolate makers, whose gorgeously packaged chocolate bars, many of them single-origin, including a new line made with goat’s and sheep’s milk.

North Carolina: Mark Oberbay turned his passion for discovering new flavor combinations into Big Spoon Roasters, makers of nut butters using fresh runner variety peanuts from the Carolinas, wildflower honeys from the the Piedmont, local pecans, California Mission-variety almonds and pristine sea salt.

North Dakota: Choke cherries, native to the prairies of North Dakota, add a festive punch with pride of place. High in antioxidants and mouth twistingly tart, Dakota Seasoning’s chokecherry jam will give any North Dakotan a Proustian moment.

Ohio: Askinosie dark milk. Bangkok peanut. Brambleberry crisp. Ndali Estate vanilla bean. Triumph (that’s absinthe ice cream with hand-piped meringue kisses and crushed bitter orange candy). Or just refuse to choose entirely from Jeni’s Ice Cream and join the pint club.

Oklahoma: Here’s an idea whose time has come: slathering a Christmas bird in Head Country  barbecue sauce. Try the mix-and-match case of 12 and you’ll be giving the gift of barbecue expertise this holiday season.

Oregon: If you think a salt can’t change you, you’ve never tried Portland-based Jacobsen Sea Salt, harvested from Netarts Bay on the Oregon Coast. A favorite of chefs around the country, the salts come in flavors such as Oregon pinot noir, vanilla, white truffle, and good old flaked, a must for every ambitious home cook.

Pennsylvania: Bacon. Yes, not because it was trendy in 2007, but because it’s the best when cured perfectly and sliced thin. Or take any of the other traditional Pennsylvania German products from S. Clyde Weaver, which has been smoking meats and creating farmstead cheeses since 1920.

Rhode Island: The state is home to a Humble Pie you’d be proud to eat. The company makes classic pies with a twist (think pumpkin hazelnut) using exceptional local ingredients such as Aquidneck Honey and maple sugar from the Bats of Bedlam Maple Farm.

South Carolina: In between meals, reach for the sweet stuff known as Carolina Crack, one of the state’s best peanut brittles, a fluffy brittle made in small batches by Jake Lyerly.

South Dakota: For a gift of meat that does some good, South Dakota’s Wild Idea Buffalo-meat gift boxes offer an excellent variety of products from grass-fed buffalo that roams the region’s prairie. It is tender, juicy, and grassy, as befits its pedigree.

Tennessee: The market keeps at Marché Artisan Foods in Nashville puts together an excellent basket featuring regional specialties such as Olive and Sinclair chocolate bars and brittles, Nashville Jam Company jellies, Williams Honey Farm honeys, Falls Mills flour, grits and Sunday Morning pancake mixes. Call to order a basket.

Texas: In lieu of BBQ sauce, try Dallas’s Mozzarella Company. Renowned cheese maker Paula Lambert puts together an exceptional cheese selection inspired by the region, and for the DIYers in the family, she will ship a make-your-own mozzarella kit.

Utah: In a state where other vices are often verboten, share the love at the holidays from Amano Artisan Chocolate with a 70 percent Dos Rios bar (or a sampler set). Sourced from the Dominican Republic, it’s one of the most unique on the planet, with chocolate evoking cinnamon and orange.

Vermont: Dragonfly Sugarworks is the epitome of what many Vermont syrup companies do best: work year-round to craft a range of graded syrup. For something extra special, try the Vermont Fancy, a light amber syrup with a delicate flavor perfect for pancakes, crepes or ice creams.

Virginia: Route 11 does a distinct American potato chip — made in small batches, perfect crispiness, real seasonings such as barbecue and classic salt and vinegar and a sweet potato chip like none other make the company one whose chips get sent around the world.

Edible and drinkable

Washington: If your only experience of Washington-roasted beans is that mermaid-clad Venti, try Caffe Vitta, which is gaining  national cred as a roaster of farm-direct single origin coffees from around the globe. The roaster also has a sweet collaboration pairing its coffees with local Theo Chocolates.

West Virginia: West Virginia Fruit and Berry uses fruit fresh from the mountain to fulfill any possible jam needs: blackberry, blueberry, raspberry, cherry, all made using no corn syrup. No-dairy apple and peach butters are a fresh change for those who eschew milk.

Wisconsin: To choose one Wisconsin cheese maker is an impossible task, but Roelli’s Cheese Haus, with a 100-year-history of making European-styled cheeses in Wisconsin, has upped its game in recent years with national awards for its Dumbarton Blue and Little Mountain alpine cheese.

Wyoming: Life in the West demands a certain level of heartiness. Enter Jackson Hole’s Bunnery Natural Foods, with a range of four granolas, sunflower-seeded oatmeal, coconut-vanilla pancake and waflle mix and a number of other choices for time-strapped holiday hosts.

What about you? Do you have a favorite artisanal food item from your state?

Main photo: Edibles, such as this package from Mitten Crate in Michigan, make great holiday gifts. Credit: Mitten Crate

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Baker Andrew Heyn of Elmore Mountain Bread scoops flour he's just milled. Credit: Monica Frisell

Across the country, bakers are starting to mill their own flour. The idea might seem silly. Make your own flour? Might as well make your own air. But like fresh ground coffee and fresh squeezed orange juice, fresh milled flour is a galaxy away from its banal supermarket counterpoint.

Flour’s job is often structural, delivering flavors such as butter and chocolate in sweets, or fermentation in bread. Flour stands in the background and doesn’t make a peep, like the ideal child of yore. This silence comes from stripping away the most flavorful elements of grains through the milling process, which generally removes all of the germ and much of the bran.

“Fat equals flavor,” a chef friend declared in the early ’90s, when fat was a popular thing to fear. I’ve found his statement holds true, even in grains.


Grain kernels have three parts: bran, endosperm and germ. Most of the oils are in the germ and the bran, which also hold minerals, nutrients and flavors. Flavor and fat are volatile. Once exposed to air in the milling process, the oils in grains spoil quickly. Bran has other strikes against it, and the biggest is that it interferes with making lofty, airy loaves of bread.

Roller mills, which were adopted in the late 1800s, allow for removal of bran and germ. One advantage of this is shelf stability, and another is making flour that is mostly endosperm, a powerhouse of starch and protein that’s great for baking.

Stone milling was the way to make flour for millennia. Now, millstones prop up mailboxes on suburban lawns, but the technology is having a revival. Bakers are adding stone mills to their kitchens because the process allows them to use more whole grain flours and experiment with flavors.

“Fresh milling is a new frontier in the repatriation of wheat to our regional economies,” said Steve Jones, director of The Bread Lab and Washington State University’s Mount Vernon Research Center. The place is a magnet for inquisitive bakers drawn to the science that is following flour back to the field. The lab has small mills to test grains as scientists, and resident baker Jonathan Bethony, investigate varieties, seeking types that grow well for farmers and perform well for bakers.

“The flour is flavorful and quirky. The flavor is a plus for sure, the quirkiness can be a pain,” Jones said of fresh flour.

Flour aged to improve its strength

Flour is typically aged to improve its strength and even out irregularities that newly milled flour can display. Again, I think of children, who are tamed into good behavior. Time, or in many cases, bleach tames young flour, and its potentially wild expressions.

“We are working to add some predictability back to the equation. Fresh milled is usually weaker but in our experience still makes incredible bread and again the flavor makes it all worth it,” Jones said. “Grassy, nutty, chocolate and various hints of spice? You don’t get that from old flour.”

Jonathan Bethony mills wheat for flour at The Bread Lab. Photo credit: Kim Binczewski

Jonathan Bethony mills wheat for flour at The Bread Lab. Credit: Kim Binczewski

Fresh flour is one of the primary reasons Tabor Bread exists in Portland, Oregon. Owner Tissa Stein saw a gap in the foodie city, where there was wood-fired pizza, but no place exclusively making wood-fired bread, nor house-milled flour.

The bakery opened two years ago, in a house down the street from a dormant volcano, Mount Tabor. The kitchen is tucked behind the oven and mill, which are visible from the café. The Austrian mill has its own room, but the walls are glass, so people can see the action.

The pine-planked mill is pretty as a piece of furniture. Baker/millers pour grains in the hopper, and inside the wooden casing, two large stones grind grains into flour. Customers like to see this tool at work.

Stein likes being able to bake with whole grain flour for flavor and nutrition. She fell in love with bread of this quality when she lived in California and bought Desem bread from Alan Scott, the baker and oven maker who launched a wave of  microbakeries in America. Scott built an oven in Stein’s backyard, and influenced her decision, decades later, to mill whole grains and capture their vitality.

“Going directly from grain to flour to mix with only a day or two in between,” she said, enhances the taste, and the food value of the bread. Fresh whole grain flours add complexity, building layers of flavor from the lively enzymes on the bran that feed the sourdough cultures.

Fresh flour rather gymnastic

Fresh flour can be rather gymnastic because of those enzymes and other factors, but the challenges are hardly insurmountable. In fresh milling, people are tapping into a tradition, as Dave Miller did in the late 1980s. Getting a whiff of fresh flour as an apprentice at Berkshire Mountain Bakery really made an impression on him.

Bottom stone and wooden casing at the Plimoth Grist Mill, which runs on water. Credit: Amy Halloran

Bottom stone and wooden casing at the Plimoth Grist Mill, which runs on water. Credit: Amy Halloran

“That imprinted the whole thing for me,” Miller said. “As a baker you never get to smell fresh flour, and you don’t know what you’re missing.”

The moment when grains are cracked open is when the flour has the most potential nutrition, he believes. By the time he opened his own Miller’s Bake House in Northern California, he knew how he wanted to bake, using a wood-fired oven, organic grains and a stone mill. His experience is a model for others taken with the concept, and putting it into practice.

Theoretically, milling also lends more choices in sourcing, but current production for industrial milling and industrial baking limits what’s available, and its channels of distribution. Baker Graison Gill, of Bellegarde Bakery in New Orleans, is keenly aware of the flow of grain.

“We’re at the mecca of transportation for grain barges and elevators and silos,” Gill said. The Mississippi River handles 60 percent of grain exports for the country, but access to flour and grain is slim for the bakery. The constraints are partly why he chooses to mill some of the flour he uses. Making great bread with wildly good tastes and superior nutrition factors into the decision as well.

“When you’re stone milling you’re preserving the integrity of the grain,” he said, and all its vitamins and minerals. In the case of wheat that means, “Omega 3 fatty acids, plus phosphorus, folic acid, zinc, magnesium, iron, potassium, mono- and polyunsaturated fats and vitamins C, B and E.”

Bellegarde makes 4,000 to 5,000 loaves a week, selling to a mixed wholesale clientele of wine shops, supermarkets and restaurants. All of the breads incorporate some fresh milled flour. The fall menu of specialty breads was built to feature these stone ground whole grains, including wheat, rye, blue and yellow corn, buckwheat and durum. Louisiana rice and wheat go into the Acadian Miche, and a Pecan Flax bread is also made with Louisiana wheat. The Louisiana wheat is soft, and soft wheats are better for pastries, so he can only add so much to a bread.

“I got some Texas-grown hard red winter wheat and I made a loaf of it on Saturday and that was incredible,” Gill said. Aside from a few places milling grits, Bellegarde is an anomaly, which is a catch-22. Until there are more people seeking unusual grains, farmers can’t grow crops to serve the market.

The emergence of mills in bakeries can change that. Just as farmers markets acted as bridges to build local agriculture, mills are essential infrastructure for leveraging production of staple crops in small acreages and out of the commodity system.

Fresh flour, however, is not just a moral proposition, but a quick ticket to righteously great tastes. Dig around, and you might well find your favorite baker is getting curious about their main ingredient.

Main photo: Baker Andrew Heyn of Elmore Mountain Bread scoops flour he’s just milled. Credit: Monica Frisell

***

It’s hard to do justice to all the miller-baker all-stars, but here’s a list of some bakeries milling some or all of their flour.

United States

Miller’s Bake House Yankee Hill, California

Tabor Bread, Portland, Oregon

Bellegarde Bakery, New Orleans

Elmore Mountain Bread, Elmore, Vermont

Bread & Butter Farm, Shelburne, Vermont

Green Mountain Flour and Bakery, Windsor, Vermont

Zu Bakery, South Freeport, Maine

Berkshire Mountain Bakery, Housatonic, Massachusetts

Farm & Sparrow, Candler, North Carolina

Sub Rosa, Richmond, Virginia

Boulted Bread, Raleigh, North Carolina

Renards European Bakeshop, Princeton, Wisconsin

Baker Miller, Chicago

Crooked Tree Breadworks, Petoskey-Harbor Springs, Michigan

460 Bread, Driggs, Idaho

Nomad Bakery, Derry, New Hampshire

Hillside Bakery, Knoxville, Tennessee

Canada

Fol Epi, Victoria, British Columbia

600 Degrees, Tofino, British Columbia

Boulangerie Bonjour, Edmonton, Alberta

True Grain Bread, Cowenchen Bay, British Columbia

The Night Oven Bakery, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

Some restaurants that feature fresh flour

Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Pocantico Hills, New York

All Souls Pizza, Asheville, North Carolina

Pizzeria Locale, Denver/Boulder, Colorado

Some independent mills closely tied to bakeries

Wide Awake Bakery outside of Ithaca, New York, is linked to Farmer Ground Flour.

Pizzeria and Pane Bianco, Phoenix, are linked to Hayden Flour Mills.

Annie’s Bakery, Asheville, North Carolina, shares a roof with Carolina Ground, a mill associated with a slew of other bakeries in the area.

Stone mills can supply your home baking

Farmer Ground Flour, Enfield, New York

Hayden Flour Mills, Phoenix

Carolina Ground, Asheville, North Carolina

Grist & Toll, Pasadena

Camas Country Mill, Eugene, Oregon

Maine Grains at the Somerset Grist Mill, Skowhegan, Maine

Greenwillow Grains, Brownsville, Oregon

Anson Mills, Columbia, South Carolina

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A holiday fruitcake. Credit: Shutterstock/Hurst Photo

Like many people, I thought fruitcakes — like Twinkies — came wrapped and packaged and were the kind of food that goes into the fallout shelter with you. It never occurred to me that real people made fruitcakes and consumed them in real time.

My mother had a stack of untouched fruitcakes in tins from long-gone retailers like S.S. Pierce. I found a few in the cupboard last month as I was cleaning out her house. Still virginal, and probably still safe to eat in the case of a nuclear attack.

Then I married into my husband’s Irish family.

Family’s fruitcake recipe holds dear memories

Michael comes from a long line of professional bakers who make fruitcakes for holiday giving with their own little floury hands. (Family lore is that his grandfather actually was the inventor of Marshmallow Fluff and was robbed of the glory.)

Grandfather Hynes’ fruitcake recipe for 40 loaves was part of the bounty of our marriage. We had our friend the pastry chef adapt the recipe for our wedding cake, doing the math to make it come out as three-tiered edible greatness. Everyone went home with a healthy chunk. My mother kept one whole layer of the cake for herself in her fridge, and for the next 10 years she had a slice of it for dinner with a healthy shot of Maker’s Mark.

Weddings were just fine, I learned, but the real fruitcake moment was Christmas. According to my sister-in-law Maryellen, making Grandfather Hynes’ fruitcakes was the most special and sacred childhood holiday ritual in their Worcester, Mass., household.

Every year, the children and their father would grate, mix and steep the fruit, then bake and wrap dozens of cakes to give to family and friends and other fruitcake-poor households. And the weekend to do it was the weekend immediately after Thanksgiving. Fruitcakes, Maryellen explained to me, “need time for the fruitcake to mature.”

So she came up to our house for Thanksgiving with a plan to use the rest of the weekend to re-create the treasured memory of fruitcakes past with her brother. She had it all planned. (She is a very organized person). The two would bond over their reminiscences and perhaps a healthy shot or two of Jamesons.

She went to the store and bought 48 small stainless loaf pans along with several bottles of spirits, sacks of aromatic spices, flour, and sugar, bags and bags of dried fruit and nuts, and two enormous cans of Crisco. I was surprised Crisco was even still available – and shocked to see that the label proclaimed it both “Transfats Free” and Kosher. Who knew? She needed to buy a lot since this was going to be an annual tradition in my house, I was informed. I vetoed the Crisco and opted for butter.

I had some problems with this idea. Specifically, that weekend we were doing a big neighborhood Sunday brunch to celebrate my daughter’s recent engagement. Industrial-scale fruitcake making tends to take over the kitchen for a number of days and makes putting together an elegant brunch for 30 a bit of a challenge. Secondly, her brother (my husband, remember) had absolutely no interest in the project. He’d long ago moved on from baking to tinkering with robots and software. And my daughters just thought it was plain weird. That left me as the designated helper, and a tad grumpy about the whole enterprise.

We got out my bathtub-scaled mixing bowls and began to mix the batter. We began with our spatulas and spoons, but by the end we were up to our elbows in the batter. Fruitcake batter is a turgid proposition and as a result a very good upper-arm workout.

By early Sunday morning, the batter was ready. The kitchen began to smell like a pub. We were a little woozy just from the waft of the alcohol, but I assumed that was a bonus. Maybe we’d been just a little overgenerous with the Jameson’s?

Once all the tins were filled to perfection, we loaded them in neat rows in my heavy duty, professional-quality Viking range. The kind with the door that closes so firmly it takes two hands to open. I cleaned up the kitchen and went in to glare at my husband sitting in front of his computer.

Suddenly, a huge boom! Kids rolling out of bed. Windows rattling. A terrorist attack? A plane falling out of the sky? Should we call 911? I ran into the kitchen — the direction of the bomb. What I saw was the doors blown open on my two ovens and the kitchen window with a spider web of cracks and a sweet mist of spirits. The fruitcakes were still innocently baking in their tiny tins. The Jameson’s and port had evaporated with a bang. I closed the oven doors, took an extra nip of Jameson’s for my nerves and decided never again.

But the fruitcakes were delicious. And every single person who received one raved about it as the first and only fruitcake they’d ever eaten and enjoyed. And we still have the tins, right? And so here we are again, making the fruitcakes, and I share Grandfather Hynes’ special Irish fruitcake recipe with you all.

Grandfather Hynes’ Fruitcake

You can use this recipe to make 40 loaves by scaling up the ingredients by 10. You’ll need a lot more whiskey!

Yield: Makes 1 (4-pound) cake or four loaves

Ingredients

2 pounds dried fruit (currants, some dark raisins and some candied citron)

1 bottle or more of good quality port, Irish whiskey etc. You’ll need enough to cover the currants and raisins as they soak overnight

8 ounces (1/2 pound by weight) white sugar

Approximately 8 eggs (1/2 pound by weight)

1/2 pound butter (If Crisco speaks to you, go with it!)

2 tablespoons grated nutmeg (It’s best if grated fresh.)

1 tablespoon salt

1/2 tablespoon ground mace

2 tablespoons ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

8 ounces (1/2 pound by weight) all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 pound candied cherries

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 250 F.

2. Let the dried currants, raisin and citron steep overnight in the port or whiskey.

3. Cream the sugar, eggs and butter (or shortening).

4. Add the salt, nutmeg, mace, cinnamon and cloves and mix well.

5. Add the flour and baking soda and mix well.

6. Add the steeped dry fruits and mix until well incorporated.

7. Pour the batter into greased pans.

8. Place the cherries in the loaf pans by hand. Bury a row of cherries, evenly spaced, in the batter so each slice has a cherry for color and flavor.

9. Bake for 2 hours, checking for doneness by inserting a toothpick into the center.

10. Cool the fruitcakes in pans placed on a rack.

Note: Tipple on any remaining whiskey — especially if its Jameson’s. It will make the fruitcake much more delicious.

Main photo: A holiday fruitcake. Credit: Shutterstock/Hurst Photo

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Speedy spaghetti with last-minute lemon sauce. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

“Pasta is to the Italians somewhere between a sacrament and a psychotropic drug.” So said Slow Food co-founder Folco Portinari of his countrymen’s food habits at a conference 20 years ago. He offered the startling fact that anthropologists studying Italy’s gastronomical landscape had tracked down as many as 1,000 forms of pasta. In the dried category alone, there were 350 variants, from the familiar spaghetti and fusilli to exotic shapes such as Ave Marias, cecamariti (“husband blinders”) and the racy cazzetti. Yet every now and then, a pasta maker comes up with another one.

Futurist spaghetti

The latest was recently introduced by Rustichella d’Abruzzo, which has been turning out some of the best dried pasta in the world for four generations — good enough for Pavarotti and Michelin-starred chefs alike. Its new product, recently launched at a New York City press event with considerable splash, is so revolutionary in the pasta universe that it could be likened to the discovery of a planet. Pasta Rapida 90″ is an artisan spaghetti conceived to cook in 90 seconds to commemorate the firm’s 90-year anniversary, the makers said, and to “end the controversy between Futurism and spaghetti.”

The comment refers to the Italian artistic and political movement that had its heyday in the 1920s — coincident with the founding of the company in 1924 by Gaetano Sergiacomo, maternal grandfather of proprietors Stefania and Gianluigi Peduzzi. In 1932, Futurism’s leading spokesman — poet, social reformer, misogynist and crackpot F.T. Marinetti — wrote “Cucina Futuristica,” a manifesto against pasta. He led a crusade to convince the Italians that their pasta “addiction” had produced a nation of dreamers that was mired in the past and would bring the country to ruin. Marinetti designed menus to prepare them for the “more aerial and rapid” lifestyle of the 20th century, but his campaign failed. Mussolini made the sleek new aluminum trains run on time, but he couldn’t outlaw pasta. Rustichella prevailed.

RustichellaTeam

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The Rustichella pasta “family.” Credit: Rustichella D’Abruzzo

Tradition meets innovation

The funny thing about the Italians is that while they are steeped in tradition, they are forever embracing new ideas, whether they are designing Ferraris or making pasta. Rustichella is no exception. It is produced in the Vestina hills of Abruzzo, a region wedged between the Apennines and the sea that is rich with artisanal food traditions, having changed little since the sixth century, when it was described by one Ottavio Mamilio as “a breast that dispenses milk and honey.” The producers say it is the valley’s wheat — exceptional for its high protein content, mixed with mountain water, then extruded and dried at low temperatures for up to 56 hours (compared with 4 to 6 hours for industrial brands) — that makes their pasta so good.

From Abruzzo, then, you would expect the slowest of slow foods. Instead, Rapida 90″  is designed to cook in the shortest time possible — “without any sacrifice in flavor or porosity,”  the proprietors said at its debut. Though it is made with the same raw materials and passed through the same bronze dies as the company’s traditional spaghetti, giving it the desired roughness that sauces cling to, its creation required a serious engineering effort that took nearly two years. Rapida is not pre-cooked; there is no messing with the wheat endosperm where the proteins reside; there are no additives. The secret, which is under international patent, is in its shape. A conventional spaghetto is a cylinder with a hole in the middle invisible to the naked eye. As it boils, the gluten fills in the hole, cooking in about 10 minutes. Rapida, by contrast, is designed with a gap along its length that looks like a seam. It opens during cooking, enabling faster penetration of water. Seconds before the pasta is done, the “memory effect” of glutens causes the gap to close again, returning the strand to its original form.

The benefits

To the home cook, the breakthrough may not seem important, but for the professional chef, it is revolutionary. One of a restaurant kitchen’s biggest challenges is juggling simultaneous cooking procedures for multiple orders. Hence the all-too-common shortcut of pre-cooking the pasta, at risk of wasting portions that go unused. Rapida eliminates such waste, and the reduced cooking time, factored exponentially, means less energy use to boot.

After talks with Rapida’s chief designer, Giancarlo d’Annibale, I discovered that the new pasta has some health advantages as well. Because exposure to heat destroys wheat’s complex gluten structures, the shorter cooking time preserves more of the pasta’s protein.

I tasted Rapida at its debut, where Michelin-starred chef William Zonfa tossed it in a saffron-tinted sauce specked with leek confit and guanciale. Rapida has the rich flavor of durum wheat that only semolina pasta delivers, but because the invisible gap makes the strands less dense, it slides down the throat like delicate, fresh egg pasta. It was in my stomach before it left the pan.

All in all, we’d have to conclude that Rapida is a keeper. These pasta makers were using their noodles when they invented the new spaghetti-of-speed.

Rapida can be purchased in store or online at Dean & Deluca, Market Hall Foods or Murray’s. For further availability, visit the the importer’s website.

Last-Minute Lemon Sauce for Speedy Spaghetti

© Julia della Croce 2014

Make this quick sauce while the water for one package of Rapida is boiling.

Prep time: 4 minutes

Cook time: 2 minutes

Total time: 6 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

3/4 cup good extra virgin olive oil

6 small garlic cloves, halved and bruised

Zest of 4 large organic lemons

6 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

1/2 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley

Directions

In an ample, heavy skillet over low heat, warm the olive oil with the garlic for 2 minutes, pressing the cloves without smashing to release their flavor. Turn off the heat. Stir in the remaining ingredients just before adding the cooked pasta to the skillet. Serve piping hot.

Main photo: Speedy spaghetti with last-minute lemon sauce. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

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Vintage pasta label. Credit: Courtesy of Gerardo di Nola Pastificio, Naples

We’ve come a long way since the days when Americans thought Italian cuisine meant spaghetti or ziti in rivers of “marinara” set on red-checkered tablecloths. Even if mistaken notions persist about what genuine Italian cooking really is, we’ve embraced every new pasta that has come our way (think squid-ink fettuccine or agnolotti al plin), and we’ve become more sauce savvy, too. Amatriciana and puttanesca are commonplace in restaurant and home kitchens alike, and “carbonara” is a household word from New York to Nebraska. Arrabbiata, cacio e pepe, aglio e olio — you name it, we love them all.

Nevertheless, the canon of pasta-and-sauce pairings has remained something of a mystery outside the borders of Italy. The immense number of different shapes is daunting to us foreigners; out of sheer exasperation, we find ourselves asking, “Why so many?” There are “priests’ hats,” “wolves’ eyes” and “horses’ teeth,” “church bells,” “little loves” and “kiss catchers.” It is not enough to make pasta bows (farfalle); there must also be little bows (farfallette) and much bigger bows (farfalloni). There are not only small reeds called cannelle, but also very small reeds, large smooth reeds and large grooved reeds. Some shapes have more than one name (penne lisce and mostaccioli, for example, are one and the same).

A 19th-century graphic depicting rival pasta makers. Credit: Courtesy of Julia della Croce

A 19th-century graphic depicting rival pasta makers. Credit: Courtesy of Julia della Croce

The roots of this maccheroni madness go back to the fierce rivalry among dried-pasta manufacturers in 19th century Naples, where the southern Italian pasta industry mushroomed during the Industrial Revolution. At one point about 1,500 pastifici competed for business, engaging in price wars or introducing ever-newer products to lure customers to their brand. But probably more than anything, the seemingly endless variations reflect the expansive nature of the Italian people — their imagination and love of show.

The American versus the Italian approach

Americans are characteristically laissez-faire about pairing rules. James Beard once told me that he saw no reason to be bound by tradition; he believed we ought to be inventive with pasta recipes. By contrast, the Italians are always mindful of the pairing principles derived from a long history of pasta eating. Over the centuries, tried-and-true guidelines have emerged, based primarily on the ingredients in the dough and the architecture of each resulting shape — hard wheat or soft wheat, dried pasta or fresh, long or short, smooth or ridged. Various pastas absorb and combine with sauces in different ways depending on their wall thickness, density and structure.

Meanwhile, sauces — condimenti, as the Italians call themhave inherent texture, flavor and color attributes. The foundation of most is olive oil or butter, given body with tomato purée, meat, vegetables and/or cheese. The art of pairing can probably best be explained by herding all the unruly strands and little shapes into three separate tribes, as it were — each with their own swimming pools or sauces. (Here we will concern ourselves with dried pasta alone.)

Golden rules for pairing dried pasta and sauces

Strands

Lightweight

Capelli d’angelo (“angel hair”), cappellini (“fine hair”), vermicelli (“little worms”), fedelini (“very fine noodles”): Use all in broths or broth-based soups. The latter two, being thicker, are suitable for light, sieved tomato sauces, but none of these long, lightweight pastas can support dense cream-based or meat sauces.

Medium-weight

Spaghetti, spaghettini, spaghetti alla chitarra (“guitar-string spaghetti”), mezze linguine (“half linguine”): This group is sturdy enough for olive-oil sauces such as aglio e olio as well as tomato- or brothy seafood-based sauces that easily slip along the surface.

Heavyweight

Linguine (“long tongues,” aka bavette), perciatelli, bucatini, fusilli bucati lunghi (“long hollow coils”): Because these shapes have more weight than those in the previous subcategories, they will all support a relatively unctuous sauce such as basil pesto, but they are also sprightly enough to consort with sauces suited to medium-weight long pasta. By tradition, linguine is inexplicably inseparable from fish or shellfish sauces, though fluid tomato sauces make a pleasant match, too.

Spaghetti with fresh tomato and basil, a classic pairing. Credit: Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Spaghetti with fresh tomato and basil, a classic pairing. Credit: Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Tubes

The tubular shapes have relatively thick walls, which make them sturdy enough to support not only chunky tomato-based sauces with or without meat, as well as cheese or cream preparations. (Diagonal cuts are especially handy in this regard.) Despite the versatility of these shapes, the size of the ingredients in accompanying sauces should be kept in mind. For example, wide tubular cuts are big enough to trap meat bits and vegetable chunks (think rigatoni with broccoli and anchovies); not so in the case of petite variants such as pennette (“little quills”). Tubular shapes are also ideal for baked dishes because they hold their shape and firmness during a second cooking in the oven.

Anelli (“rings”), ditaloni (“thimbles”): Ideal for pasta e fagioli and other bean soups because the ring shape nests cannellini beans, lentils and such.

Penne (“quills”), penne rigate (“ridged quills”), penne lisce (“smooth quills”), pennette, rigatoni: These go with olive oil- or butter-based vegetable, meat and tomato sauces and also with cream-based concoctions. Olive oil-based sauces stick to ridged shapes better than to smooth ones. The slimmer pennette are best matched with light vegetable or tomato sauces containing, say, wild mushrooms or eggplant (though traditionalists wouldn’t dream of making pasta alla Norma with anything but spaghetti).

Quirky shapes

Farfalle (“butterflies”): Their delicate “wingspan” suits them to light sauces based on either olive oil or butter, as long as there are no big obstacles in their flight path.

Fusilli, fusilli corti (“short fusilli”), tortiglioni (hollow “spirals”), radiatori (“radiators”), gemelli (“twins”) and various twists: Shapes like these are designed to trap cheese and ricotta sauces or unctuous nut sauces, such as pestos. Ragù and other meat sauces love to collect in their coils, too.

Strozzapreti (“priest stranglers”): These handmade dried forms call for tomato, meat and sausage sauces.

Conchiglie (“shells”), riccioli (“curls”), ruote (“wheels”), lumache (“snails”): Short and stubby shapes such as these work well with hearty sauces featuring meat, vegetables, cheese or cream.

Main photo: Vintage pasta label. Credit: Courtesy of Gerardo di Nola Pastificio, Naples, reprinted from “Pasta Classica: The Art of Italian Pasta Cooking,” by Julia della Croce

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Lunch from Tsukushi in Otaru, Japan. Credit: Evelyn Iritani

As a visitor, I’ve always been alternatively intrigued and frustrated by Japan’s food culture.

Intrigued because I know that behind almost every shoji door or noren divider there is probably a mouth-watering surprise of some sort.

Frustrated because my inability to speak or read the language — despite several years of college courses and patient tutors– leaves me unable to know exactly what I am walking into. I peek through what appear to be restaurant doorways and wonder: Can I afford what’s producing these stomach-rumbling aromas, and exactly what will I get?

So when a retired businessman offered to take me to his favorite spot for lunch during a recent visit to Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido, I was thrilled. There is nothing better than sharing a local’s “everyday” fare.

I was not disappointed.

East meets West in Otaru, Japan

Otaru, a picturesque port town a half-hour train ride from Sapporo, the island’s capital, was built on the fortunes of fishermen and traders. Wrapped around Ishikari Bay, the city features a “Venice of the Far East” canal lined with old warehouses.

A short walk away is Sakaimichi Street, a historic shopping area whose 19th-century western-style buildings, once home for banks and trading companies, are now filled with trendy shops selling Hokkaido glassware and seaweed candy.

Otaru’s civic leaders are passionate about preserving history, and within a few blocks of the port there are museums devoted to the city’s history, the railway system, the Bank of Japan, Venetian art, music boxes and even literature.

Tsukushi is tucked away on a side street and just around the corner from the Literary Museum, where you can learn more about novelist Sei Ito, who was one of Otaru’s most famous residents. If a filmmaker was trying to cast an authentic Japanese seafood experience, this tiny restaurant looks the part.

Behind its sliding doors, Tsukushi boasts a three-sided bar built around a stone robata-yaki grill. Dried salmon and flatfish dangle from hooks on the ceiling and ceramic shochu jars line the bar. Five hundred yen ($4.25 U.S., according to a recent exchange rate) will buy a shot of the shochu, a potent Japanese liquor. Fluttering paper banners advertise the daily fare in bold brush strokes: seafood, seafood and more seafood.

We arrived shortly after the restaurant opened at 11:30 a.m., and the 11 stools filled rapidly with salarymen and women, utility workers and young female tourists. Linger too long and you’ll be asked to leave — politely of course. This is Japan, after all.

otaru1

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An artist along the canal in Otaru, Japan. Credit: Evelyn Iritani

It was nearly a decade ago that Katsuhiko Kawanishi decided to go out on his own after cooking for more than a decade at other people’s hot stoves. The Hokkaido native named his restaurant Tsukushi after the horsetail plants whose green shoots mark the end of Hokkaido’s long winter.

Kawanishi starts his day early, meeting with one of the three or four main fish brokers who serve Otaru or visiting one of the local markets where fishermen bring in their daily catch. During my visit in early fall, the hakkaku, or sail-fin poacher, was in season. This unusual fish, whose large dorsal fin gives it the appearance of an eight-sided prehistoric monster, is a Hokkaido specialty and is eaten grilled or raw.

Unfortunately, there was no hakkaku on the menu the day I dropped in. But I still had more than a dozen different versions of donburi to pick from. Donburi, which means rice bowl, is a form of Japanese comfort food.

At Tsukushi, the donburi was covered with different types of sashimi, or raw fish, topped in turn with a sprinkle of salty dried seaweed called nori. For 500 yen ($4.25 U.S.), I was served a bowl of noodle soup, salty pickled vegetables and a bowl of steaming hot rice covered with thin slices of maguro tuna, squid and tobiko, delicate flying fish eggs. I chose the cheapest offering, but there were 15 kinds of donburi topped with everything from scallop and salmon eggs or crab, squid and salmon to sea urchin.

I returned the next day at lunch to try Tsukushi’s teishoku meal set, which included a piece of grilled fish accompanied by a bowl of rice, noodle soup, sashimi and pickled vegetables. For 630 yen ($5.35 U.S.), you could try one of seven varieties of grilled fish, including hokke (atka mackerel), sanma (saury pike) grilled with salt, or salmon collar.

In the evenings, Tsukushi becomes a robata-yaki restaurant, serving all kinds of grilled meats and seafood with beer and sake. Arrive before 6:30 p.m. and you can get a special meal set for 1,300 yen ($11.04 U.S.) that includes two drinks (beer or sake), sashimi, yakitori and pickles. And don’t tip the chef or waiter. That custom has still not caught on in Japan.

Unfortunately, I ran out of time long before I reached the end of the menu. But a couple visits to Tsukushi convinced me it is possible to eat very well on a budget in Japan with the right introduction. If you go, tell Kawanishi-san I sent you.

Main image: Lunch from Tsukushi in Otaru, Japan. Credit: Evelyn Iritani

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Shrimp Pasta With Classic Vinaigrette is a specialty of teen cook Arieanna McKnight of New Orleans. Credit: Dreamstime

“It must be so easy for you!”

That’s what I hear from fellow moms several times a week. They’re talking about one of the biggest bugaboos of the working parent: the home-cooked family dinner. Because I’m a professionally trained chef, they think I’m immune to that end-of-the-day hustle to think up a new meal and get it on the table.

In many ways, it’s true. My professional training is a boon, but just as often I, too, am stumped after a long day working to figure out what my family might eat with minimal fuss or complaint.

The dinnertime crunch is a very real issue for many working parents. So much so that in September, Slate published an article reviewing the findings of a pair of sociologists who determined the home-cooked meal is a source of stress and angst for families — particularly for moms.

They came to this conclusion after studying 150 moms for 250 hours, focusing on 12 families in particular. In the end, they concluded home-cooked meals were under-appreciated and caused stress, especially for low-income moms who can’t afford fresh produce and have poor kitchen setups. Even those who could afford better were stymied by the ingratitude of their families.

In short, the study concluded the home-cooked meal as an idealized goal is nothing short of tyranny — particularly for the mothers who attempt to produce it.

A spate of responses to the Slate article came swiftly. The New York Times quickly published replies, as did a variety of culinary luminaries. The commentary ranged from disbelief to admonishment that cooking shouldn’t be — isn’t — so hard.

Family dinner should be a family effort

But I have a different take on the issue. I won’t quibble that cooking can be hard after a long and tiring day — especially when lack of skill or resources make it difficult to even begin thinking about what’s for dinner.

When you work full time, it’s hard enough to want to make your own meal, much less come home and prepare food for other people. I spoke with one mom recently who said she had the “luxury” of a caregiver to help with her young children after school while she was still at work. The best helper she could find could barely cook, and the best cook was hardly a caregiver. The end result was that she came home after a long day and began preparing a meal for her already-starving school-age youngsters.

And she counted herself among the lucky ones because she could afford the help.

So what’s the solution to the tyranny of home cooking for working parents?

Don’t do it.

That’s right, I said it: Don’t do it. Don’t make it only your responsibility to pick the food, decide on the meal and then cook it, because right under your very noses you may have the best kitchen helpers you could find — and they won’t charge you a cent.

They’re your kids.

Now, I’m not suggesting pressing your youngsters into child labor or giving them full responsibility for making the meals at home. What I am suggesting is giving them credit for being able to pick out good food and having the willingness to prepare it.

I heard this loud and clear in the three years I worked on “FutureChefs: Recipes From Tomorrow’s Cooks Across the Nation and the World (Rodale, 2014).” Over and over again I heard from parents who weren’t cooks themselves, who struggled in the kitchen, but had kids who had a passion for cooking born from living in our food-obsessed world.

One young man, Tyler Trainer, not only began cooking for his family but started a small catering business when he was in his early teens — much to his parents shock. “We don’t know where he got it from,” his mom told me.

This was true whether or not the kids were from affluent families. Among many great examples is Arieanna McKnight of New Orleans, who is from what she calls a “low-income” family. She got involved with cooking watching her father use what he had in the kitchen to create great meals. As a middle-school student, she joined an activist group that engaged young people in the future of New Orleans — particularly school food and food justice issues.

Working with kids such as Arieanna and the other 100 or so kids in the book, I realized that often the “tyranny” of the scratch meal is one self-imposed by parents, especially those with older kids who are willing and able to help.

Of course, in the end, every parent and every family has to figure out what works for them. Time and money constraints are not to be taken lightly. But programs exist to teach kids to cook and make great choices and even help families buy fresh produce at limited cost, although they continue to be an overlooked resource in winning the battle for home-cooked meals.

In my opinion, these programs are the forward flank of an American movement back to the home kitchen — a movement based on strength, knowledge, pride and joy.

Is there a FutureChef hiding in your house?

Shrimp Pasta With Classic Vinaigrette

Yield: 6 servings

This recipe first appeared in on “FutureChefs: Recipes From Tomorrow’s Cooks Across the Nation and the World” and was created by Arieanna McKnight of New Orleans.

Arieanna teaches cooking classes at Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools, or “The Rethinkers,” a program created in 2006 to help low-income kids be part of the discussion about how to rebuild the city’s schools in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The program focuses on everything from school safety to building architecture to school food reform and has been able to overhaul school lunch programs to be healthier and fresher using a school lunch report card, which assesses the quality of school food.

“I started out as a middle-schooler at the program and now I’m teaching other kids,” said Arieanna, 17. She said learning about and becoming an advocate for food justice is one of the most important aspects of her education with the program. Last year, the teen cooked with Taste of the NFL in New Orleans, a nonprofit that creates “parties” around National Football League events, with proceeds going to fight hunger in the community.

Arieanna said her greatest influence is her father, who works as a chef in New Orleans’ French Quarter. “I live in a low-income family and we don’t always have as many things to work with,” she said. “I’ve watched my father always make us something good to eat, even if he didn’t have regular ingredients. It’s taught me to be creative with what I have.”

Shrimp Pasta With Classic Vinaigrette is her unique take on a classic New Orleans shrimp pasta salad. She uses crab boil to give the shrimp an intense flavor. Because local and seasonal eating is an important part of how she has come to rethink food, she uses Gulf shrimp for this recipe.

Ingredients

For the vinaigrette:

2 cloves minced garlic

2 teaspoons minced shallots

2 teaspoons minced fresh parsley

1 teaspoon grated lemon zest

2 tablespoons coarse-grain mustard

Juice of 1 lemon

1/2 cup white balsamic vinegar

1 cup extra virgin olive oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the pasta:

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

1 pound pasta of your choice

For the shrimp:

1 pound large Gulf shrimp, peeled and deveined

1 tablespoon crab boil seasoning (such as Old Bay)

For the garnish:

1 large tomato, diced

6 fresh basil leaves, cut into a chiffonade, for garnish (optional; see note below for directions)

Directions

1. Make the vinaigrette by whisking all the ingredients together in a small bowl. Set aside.

2. In a large pot, bring 4 cups of water to a boil over medium heat. Add the salt and olive oil. Add the pasta and cook to al dente according to package directions. (The time will vary depending on the type of pasta you choose.) Drain and transfer to a large, deep platter or pasta bowl.

3. Meanwhile, cook the shrimp by placing them in a medium saucepan with just enough water to cover them. Stir in the crab boil seasoning and bring the mixture to a boil. Cook until the shrimp turn pink, 3 to 4 minutes.

4. Drain the shrimp and add to the pasta.

5. Add the vinaigrette to the pasta and shrimp and toss well. Add the diced tomato, toss again and garnish with basil leaves, if desired.

Note: To make a chiffonade, stack the leaves of fleshy herbs (such as basil) or other greens on top of one another and then tightly roll them into a small cylinder. Using a sharp knife, cut the cylinder crosswise into narrow slices. When the slices are unfurled, you will have thin slivers of herbs or greens.

Main image: Shrimp Pasta With Classic Vinaigrette is a specialty of teen cook Arieanna McKnight of New Orleans. Credit: Dreamstime

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