Even though eating and cooking remain a firm part of my daily routine, blogging has admittedly taken short shrift this past month. Let’s chalk it up to my impending cross country move to the San Francisco Bay Area for a new job and adventure. The logistical and emotional preparation has sapped up my extra time.

Now that my ducks are in a row,  the writing wheels have resumed their turn. I’ve done a lot of thinking recently about food communities, what they mean, and how we develop culinary hubs where we live. Next Big City just picked up one of my Grid posts about community kitchens across United States cities, where I spoke to a number of their benefits, including:

  • Serving as an alternative communal site for food preparation and distribution
  • Easing the burden on small-scale and artisan food producers who want to deliver locally made food to city residents
  • Challenging the traditional notion that culinary pioneers need to front gobs of cash to open up their own gourmet storefronts
  • Offering shared, mixed-use production and sales facilities to accommodate more humble food operations

This alternative community venture supports new artisan food producersMy article highlights San Francisco’s Forage Kitchen, a work in progress food production and event space that typifies a successful food community. No one can argue that the Bay Area has a storied history of supporting alternative culinary ventures — just take a look at the Ferry Marketplace or the “Gourmet Ghetto” neighborhood in Berkeley, home to Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse and the cooperatively-owned Cheeseboard Collective.

Yet I’ve seen community food hubs develop more and more in smaller East Coast cities as well. In my home turf of Providence, R.I. a gourmet olive oil shop has opened up across the street from renowned Seven Stars bakery. Just over the city border in Pawtucket, R.I., Hope Artiste Village boasts a number of food-related ventures, including a top notch local coffee roaster, and a great wintertime farmers market.  And when I visited Portland, Maine two weeks back, I visited the Public Market House, which provides low-overhead business space for smaller food vendors who want to downsize from their own storefront. Together in this larger building, food producers are worth more than the sum of their parts.

This multi vendor hub brings foodies together in Portland, MaineThis type of cluster effect, and the food community that results, really excites me going forward. Owning your own food business no longer has to be an isolating adventure for the elite. And that means more opportunities to try new meals and savor the act of food production with your friends and loved ones. Cheers to that.

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Fresh local peaches are perfect for summer dessertsSummer is the perfect time to highlight a bounty of ripe juicy fruit. What better way to celebrate the season than with a trifle?

For those of you who have not been properly introduced, the trifle is a throwback dessert to bygone days of 18th century banquets, when people wore curly wigs, and custard stole the show at dessert tables. Back then, traditional trifles relied on whatever was at hand in the kitchen: leftover sponge cake, sherry, or freshly-whipped cream. If the ingredients weren’t used in the trifle, they’d be thrown out.

As I made my own vegan trifle, my focus shifted to the fruit — specifically, ripe peaches, raspberries, strawberries, and mango — combined with a rich vanilla coconut cream.

While not at all a traditional trifle (I don’t think Elizabeth I knew about vegans), what this trifle lacks in authenticity it makes up for in taste. Let me tell you, this summery dessert delivers. My family shared it last night for my mom’s birthday, and no one passed up seconds.

The main ingredients here are a vegan vanilla sponge cake, a bounty of fresh fruit, preserves, and a hand-whipped coconut milk cream.

A simple sponge cake makes the perfect vanilla base for all of these fruits. I baked one cake, cut it up, and voila:  two layers of my final trifle dish were already done.

1 1/3 cup of non-dairy milk mixed with 1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar 

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 cup sugar

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 tablespoon cornstarch

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup vegetable oil

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Mix together the milk and vinegar and set aside for 5 minutes. Together, the milk will curdle a little bit, which will provide leavening for the whole mixture. This is how you get the sponge-cake quality without any eggs.

Mix together the wet ingredients, and then the dry. Combine. I cooked mine in a lightly-greased springform pan at 375 degrees for 25 minutes. You’ll know it’s done by a nice golden yellow color and when a knife stuck in the center comes out clean.

After the cake had cooled for a while, I cut it in half to spread on strawberry and raspberry preserves.

I also cooked and hand whipped the coconut cream with only a few simple ingredients: coconut milk, confectioner’s sugar, vanilla, and cornstarch (it serves as a thickening agent). Although it was rich and delicious, the texture was not quite perfect — I would use the word “drippy.” With that said, I think the coconut milk has a great deal of potential, and I’ll keep experimenting before I post the final recipe.

Assembling the dessert is the best part about the trifle. There are very few rules, especially when you’re breaking them all to begin with.

This particular fruit trifle was a whirlwind of improvisation. My layers went like this: cake, strawberries, peaches, coconut whipped cream…then more cake. Next went some raspberries, scattered with a bowl of mangoes and lemon juice, which were then topped with more raspberries and peaches. As I went, I liberally dolloped on cream.

Get the point? However you throw it all in, I guarantee this trifle will taste delicious. After all, it’s summer, and there’s no use wasting any time you could be enjoying your food.

I know I’ve said before that I’m not really a baker. But I lied. Quite often I love to bake, especially when I can do a little experimenting with flavors. Case in point: these Chocolate Brownie Cookies with Walnut and Sea Salt that I whipped up for a dinner this week.

A few of you just paused — sea salt? However, let’s take a step back. Who doesn’t like that heavenly spot between sweet and savory? Sea salt is a delicious complement to many sugar-laden baked goods. Salted caramel, anyone? Or, how about this chocolate-covered pretzel toffee?

The initial chocolate cookie recipe is tweaked slightly from The Post Punk Kitchen (check out those ladies for a number of incredible vegan recipes) but I think those of you with a hankering for a sweet ‘n salty fix will enjoy my variation. And yes, the texture is very much like a brownie, thanks to a shorter baking time and super moist batter. No hockey puck cookies here. With that in mind, the walnuts and light sprinkle of sea salt offer a vital crunch to this crowd-pleasing treat.

Chocolate Brownie Cookies with Walnut and Sea Salt

3/4 cup canola oil

1 1/3 cups sugar

2 teaspoons vanilla

1 tablespoon flax meal

1/2 cup non-dairy milk (almond, soy, coconut)

2 cups all purpose flour

3/4 cup cocoa powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

A liberal pinch of sea salt

1/2 – 1 cup chocolate chips (depending on how big your craving is)

1 cup chopped walnuts

Directions

Preheat oven to 350 F. Whisk together flax meal and milk in a small bowl and set aside.

In a large bowl sift together flour, cocoa, baking soda and salt.

In another large bowl mix oil, sugar, vanilla, and flax/milk mixture. In batches, fold in the dry ingredients. You should get a nice stiff dough, at which point you can add chocolate chips and walnuts.

Roll dough into 1 inch balls and flatten into a disc. Place on a very lightly greased cookie sheet about an inch apart.

Bake for 10 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool for about 5 minutes, then set them on a wire rack or plate to cool completely.

As they cool, sprinkle a few crystals of sea salt on the top. Delicious. Makes about 12 big cookies.

In other cookie news, Family Circle magazine’s “Presidential Cookie Bake-Off” is underway this week in preparation for July 4th, with First Lady Michelle Obama and Ann Romney vying for the prize. Now’s not really the time for me to get into the problematic gender implications of this contest, but it’s worth thinking about as you check out the recipes. Michelle has submitted a recipe for White and Dark Chocolate Chip Cookies (with the inclusion of mint chocolate…interesting), while Ann shares hers for Oatmeal and M&M Cookies. Neither batch is vegan, so you’ll all have to tell me which you prefer. In the meantime, make sure you’re all registered to vote for the actual election.

Oh, summer. Sometimes it’s 100 degrees and humid and you have a mysterious insect bite/rash on your ankle (hint: last week). And sometimes it’s perfect.

This weekend I struck gold. My family hosted cousins for a backyard picnic complete with late afternoon breezes, red wine, and tales of Italian relatives growing figs in North Providence, R.I. (it can be done!). Best of all, an early visit to the farmer’s market inspired many delicious dishes for the evening, all of which were light, fresh, and reflective of the summer season. You really can’t ask for more.

It all started in the morning when my mom and I shopped the town farmer’s market. Asparagus had never been part of the dinner equation, but who could resist these beauties?

These green asparagus tasted delicious with a quick grill on the barbecue. With just a hint of char, the stalks retained their crisp, juicy bite. Do not underestimate freshly-grown asparagus. When I was little, these grew wild behind our house. I’ve loved them ever since.

Also at the market: ruby red radishes. I was tasked with creating an interesting salad to share for the evening, and decided to go with quinoa, my personal favorite. As a vegan, I often seek out this protein-packed seed — it cooks like a grain and really satisfies. A quick survey of the kitchen revealed ripe avocados and edamame I’ve been itching to use, so I threw it together into a delicious salad, complete with a drizzle of homemade lime dressing.

Quinoa, Radish, Avocado & Edamame Salad with a Lime Dressing

1.5 cups dry quinoa

4-5 small radishes, chopped

1 ripe avocado

1 cup frozen edamame

1 lime

Olive oil & salt

To start, prepare the quinoa according to the instructions on whatever box it came in — the general rule of thumb is 2 cups water for every cup quinoa. Once all the water is absorbed and the grain cooked, fluff that pot o’ quinoa with a fork and put it in the fridge to cool for at least half an hour.

While the quinoa is cooling, cook your edamame in a pot of salted, boiling water. Important Note! Do this only briefly, and dunk them in cold water immediately afterwards so they don’t get mushy — the salad relies on the combination of crisp textures. The satisfying pop of the edamame is key.

When the quinoa is cooled, toss in the edamame. Add the chopped radishes.

Make a quick lime dressing: the juice of 1 lime, a splash of olive oil and salt to taste. Drizzle over the whole thing. I didn’t add any this time, but I think a light addition of cumin to the dressing would also work really well.

Toss the avocado on top and serve — easy!

And just because I can’t help myself: here’s the baguette from Provencal bakery that we also purchased from the farmer’s market. An all-around tasty complement to the entire meal, with a beautiful knotted and cracked-top crust.

I’m waiting to start my second attempt at bread-making — I’ve ordered my first oven thermometer to ensure that my dough is rising and baking at the correct temperature. I’m new to this accuracy thing. Regular old cooking doesn’t necessarily demand things down to the degree Fahrenheit…I’m slowly coming to terms with the fact that baking does.

As, I wait, however, I keep drifting back to bread that inspires me. Saveur had a wonderful feature on breadmaking in its May 2012 issue, which I highly recommend to other novice bread makers. The website also has a drool-worthy gallery of artisan loaves sprinkled across the United States. If I ever need convincing that a cross-country road trip is worth it — this is it.

Make This Bread -- I wish.

I’ll be baking my second loaf in the next day or two, but to bide my time I’ve been re-examining a few key loaves that have influenced my love affair with bread over the years:

1) Seven Stars — When I was at school in Providence, R.I., Seven Stars was the go-to location for delicious bread (and a cafe without Internet access…perfect for getting work done without the distraction). The bakery’s durum stick is moist, airy, with a delicious dark crust. It’s reminiscent of a sourdough in texture, but doesn’t quite go there in flavor. I love slicing this bread lengthwise, hoagie-style, for one of my favorite simple meals — the tomato sandwich. What do you get when you cross ripe, summertime tomatoes, a little olive oil, salt, and pepper, plus the dreamy crusty bookends of the durum loaf? A delicious mess, with tomato dribbling down your chin.

This artisan loaf demands attention. A beautiful airy interior pairs perfectly with ripe summertime tomatoes.2) Acme Bread — Let me introduce you to Acme’s sourdough. Like most Bay Area foodie success stories, this bread’s origins has ties to the locavore Alice Waters movement. Acme Bread was founded by Steve Sullivan, one of Water’s former bus boys at Chez Panisse, who went on to become the restaurant’s in-house baker. The company has since grown from its Berkeley, C.A. store front to a year-round stall at San Francisco’s Ferry Marketplace, the one-stop shop for city visitors seeking out local and artisan food (think gourmet blood orange vegan doughnuts and delicious pour over coffee). I was never a sourdough fan until I had this little number. I mean, look at that crust. The sourdough’s distinct flavor is due to a naturally-occurring wild yeast starter instead of baker’s yeast.

This sourdough is made with a wild yeast starter instead of traditional baker's yeast.3) Buono’s — This is an old school, Italian bakery bread with a flaky, dark smoky crust. Don’t be fooled by their website — while other bread makers spend time creating sexy marketing materials, the Buono’s crew is busy churning out delicious authentic bread again and again. My great-grandmother lived around the corner of this bakery when I was little, and I remember always scarfing down Buono’s bread (and pepper biscuits). Buono’s is a beloved favorite.

This is my first loaf.

Fresh out of college, I’m working on a couple of projects this summer. The first, my paying job, involves digging dirt and teaching as I help develop horticulture and gardening programs here in Rhode Island. I’ve spent my last two summers working on some variation of this same activity, so I’ve landed squarely in my comfort zone for this awesome post-grad opportunity.

The second project, however, is a little trickier: how to produce a dynamite artisan loaf.

I’m the type of person who, when given a free afternoon and friends to feed, beelines to the kitchen. I love cooking. Even so, baking bread is unchartered territory for me. I’m pretty picky with the bread I buy, so I’ve always been intimidated by the task of achieving that same quality by hand. Now, as I ponder major life changes, I figure it’s as good a time as any to try.

One exciting development regarding this summer’s bread-making: my use of the biga, an Italian word for the pre-ferment, the mother, the starter. It’s similar to the SCOBY that brewers use when making kombucha — a yeasty kick in the pants needed to get the process going. Most breads I’ve made in the past have been no-knead, quick-rise, easy. But now I’m itching for a challenge.

This first loaf — got to say it looks pretty nice, doesn’t it? It’s got a beautiful dark crust with a good bite to it, and the inside is cooked throughout. But this first biga starter, a whole-wheat variation that essentially lumbered through the fermenting process, produced a super dense dough. When I cut into this bread, there was no sign of those delicious air pockets I come to expect in a quality artisan loaf. Alas, the saga continues as I experiment with new techniques. Recipes will come as I start to work out this biga business. I don’t want to lead anyone down the wrong path.  

Stay tuned for more food and more developments. I sense biga things on the horizon.

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