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This Christmas Eve the Sabas are in New York seeing the sights before what I hope will be a very relaxed holiday. Today we’re eating out: it’s Balthazar for lunch and then the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station for an evening snack. I don’t think we’ll need much more than that after lunch.

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This is a deviation from our usual Christmas day traditions, which always begin at my childhood home (in Auburn, AL) and then proceed to the grandparents’ (in Columbus, GA). Usually, my grandmother cooks a rib roast. This year, I’m cooking on Christmas and so it isn’t going to be as complex. Here’s my menu that I came up with over the last few days based on what I had, what looked good in my cookbooks and, of course, input from the rest of the family:

Bloody Marys and tortilla española

Duck with turnips and rice (Arròs amb ànec i naps)

Cooked bitter greens

Panettone and coffee

The duck comes via a recipe featured in Canal House Cooking, Volume 2, and in another version on saveur.com. It involves cooking the duck in a casserole with rice and white beans and root vegetables. I love rice-based meat and veg dishes like this. The Panettone comes via the grocery store. I still have an unreasonable fear of baking.

The holidays are of course one of the best times for eating food and remembering past meals. It’s not surprising that two pieces of writing I like to listen to at this time of year involve in depth descriptions of food. One is Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales. Each year I look forward to hearing Thomas narrating lines describing roast turkeys and gravy, parsnip wine, and “moist and many-colored jellybabies.”

A close second is Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory, in which the main character (a young Capote) helps his friend (an older relative) procure the ingredients for fruitcake. Here is just one passage from the very beginning that sticks in one’s mind:

“Three hours later we are back in the kitchen hulling a heaping buggyload of windfall pecans. Our backs hurt from gathering them: how hard they were to find (the main crop having been shaken off the trees and sold by the orchard’s owners, who are not us) among the concealing leaves, the frosted, deceiving grass. Caarackle! A cheery crunch, scraps of miniature thunder sound as the shells collapse and the golden mound of sweet oily ivory meat mounts in the milk-glass bowl.”

Of course, these stories are not merely about food, but those ingredients and dishes that only come on special occasions serve as anchors for the deeper, more transcendent ideas.

Happy holidays and best wishes to all.

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Last weekend I had the opportunity to attend part of the [ New York City Meat Hackathon ], a three day brainstorming event that brought together programmers, entrepreneurs, policy experts and farmers with the aim of solving some of the problems surrounding the ethics of eating meat in the US. As its name implies, the idea behind a Meat Hackathon was to use extant technologies to create tools for the various parties involved in sustainable meat production, from the farmers themselves to home cooks who, if they’re privileged enough, have the choice of buying it.

Several institutions, dubbed the “steak-holders,” were invited to present challenges  to teams of tech- and food-oriented enthusiasts who would come up with ideas to address them. It was interesting to see the variety of entities represented, which ranged from food-production corporations like  [Applegate ] to representatives from non-profit advocacy groups like [ Food and Water Watch ]. The teams would then have a day to formulate ideas and create prototypes for tool that would be presented to a panel of judges. The team that produced the best idea would win an award. You can read more about the challenges [ here ].

In my capacity as a fly on the wall I was able to observe some of the planning sessions on Saturday afternoon. I was particularly drawn to the challenges presented by the Vermont Meat Processing Working Group. In brief, the challenge was to help farmers raising sustainable meat in Vermont better communicate with processors and consumers and hopefully turn better profits in doing so. It was interesting, although not surprising, to hear that while demand for sustainably raised meat is on the rise, the interest doesn’t always translate to good business for small-scale farmers on the production end. The issues involved were complex, ranging from farmers’ inability to schedule appointments at slaughterhouses to the consumers’ lack of understanding just what went into producing meat sustainably and, thus, the rationale behind higher costs in markets.

I was curious to see what the groups came up with and returned Sunday evening to find out. There were three pitches presented for tech tools related to the Vermont Meat Processors’ challenge. First was the cleverly-named [ Slot for Slaught ], a website allowing farmers to find and schedule appointments at slaughterhouses months in advance. Second was another web-based tool called FarmStamp, which acts like a FedEx tracking system for animals moving from farm to processor to market. Finally, there was a smart-scale called [ CARV ] that would allow data related to cuts of meat passing through the slaughterhouse and processing facility to be quickly digitized and stored on a server. CARV ended up taking first place over all, and Slot for Slaught came in second.

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As a decidedly not tech-savvy person, I was impressed. But I think the true value of the event for me was that it raised more questions than it answered. One question I was left with is whether it is truly sustainable for people who live in major cities to eat sizable portions of meat on a regular basis. Is it really cost effective for a farmer in Vermont to export meat to farmers’ markets in New York? Even if this problem is surmountable, will the increasing demand eventually lead farmers to cut corners and produce bigger, faster?

I’m not an expert these issues, but from the perspective of an urbanite on a budget, I think the answer is probably eating less meat of better quality, maybe even far less. In order for quality and ethics to be ensured, the cost is going to be high and the amount produced lower than what we’re used to seeing on the shelves of supermarkets, even places like Whole Foods, where sustainability is pushed.

I’m not the first to advocate the “less of higher quality” approach by any means. This principle is encoded into some of the oldest and complex cuisines in the world. Next time you’re eating a bowl of Vietnamese noodles, assess how much meat is in there. There might be a few slices of meat, far less than you’d get at an American steak house, and yet it still tastes satisfying and meaty because it contains a broth that was extracted from other parts of the animal that often go in the trash.

There is a deeper, more systemic attitude that we in the US will eventually have to change if we’re going to “make meat more democratic,” in the words of the Hackathon’s sponsors. Namely, this will be accepting that eating less animal protein may not necessarily mean eating less well. I’ve always been a “sides” person, and I believe more and more that balanced meals of costly but ethically-produced meat not just supplemented with but complemented by vegetables on the plate is a conceivable way forward.

Steak for two

Comb your supermarket, butcher or farmer’s market to assess your options. Read labels and talk to people who know more about meat than you. Ask the opinion of your butcher about what cuts are cost effective and choose something that is within your range but you feel good about buying. Ask about the differences between top loin, tenderloin, Porterhouse, T-Bone, ribeye and flat iron. Feel empowered with the information you now have. Buy half the amount of a sustainably-produced cut you’d usually buy per person and feed two for one. Trust that your side dishes will pick up the slack for you.

Take your cut home, season with salt and pepper and sauté in lots of butter in a cast-iron skillet until it’s cooked to the consistency you prefer, which should be medium rare or below if you’ve got quality meat. Each side should be browned but the center should still be pink. Let it sit for ten minutes after frying so that you don’t lose all the juices.

But before you even cook the steak, start your sides.

If it’s fall or winter, get colorful potatoes, squashes, kale, shallots. Make the potatoes into oven fries and garnish with tabasco, or pan fry onions until they caramelize. Steam kale the Italian way: in olive oil and chili flakes, or turn it into a more decadent gratin with béchamel sauce and parmesan cheese, baked until bubbling in the oven. Squash likes to be roasted or gratinated. I prefer the latter.

If it’s summer, get juicy tomatoes and [ slow roast them with rice ]. Nothing could be better alongside a steak than good tomatoes, seasoned with salt and pepper and slow cooked until the point of collapse . Make salads of sweet zucchini dressed in oil, vinegar, chili, or prepare some creamed spinach with pearl onions.

In spring, buy a big head of iceberg lettuce to make an old-fashioned wedge salad. There is nothing more simple and yet so decadent as a wedge of iceberg lettuce covered with bleu-cheese dressing.

Plate everything nicely. You might even cut your steak into nice slices or place it to one side of the plate and one of your sides in the center. Avoid the blue-plate special hunk of meat in the forefront and two sad lumps of veg in the back approach. Relish the fact that you can enjoy all of this luxury.

Now that I’m about halfway through a fall CSA, I want to post some thoughts here about how it has affected cooking, shopping and eating. On average, I’m still going out to eat as much as I cook (about 1 in 3 meals out). That’s fine with me because I enjoy eating in a restaurant as much as I do eating in. This is for another post, but there are some things I believe should not be prepared by home cooks. Pizza, for example.

I’ve commented before that I don’t think costs have changed much. I still spend about as much on groceries as I did before, including the cost of the CSA per week.

One thing that has changed, however, is the amount of planning I do. Getting a weekly shipment of vegetables dictates at least some of the things I’m going to make. I’ve found that this constraint can be either a nagging annoyance or an unexpected pleasure. This depends on the amount of planning you are willing to put in and fun you are willing to have with it.

It doesn’t require much time, actually, just a few minutes with your vegetables. I like to array them on my desk or on top of a flat shelf behind the couch. I clear everything else off and let them sit there silently. A few dull moments and then the ideas come. I use this as an excuse to write with pen and paper, something I rarely do otherwise these days. I jot things down. Raw materials I have and must use within the week are underlined. Arrows are drawn from one to the next, boxes go around the names of complete dishes, showing the way ingredients can fit together to form something greater than the sum of the parts. Then in the margins, those ingredients that I don’t have are listed. An instant shopping list for the week and a chance to ask myself it all of those extras are really necessary.

This is something I am starting to look forward to ahead of time. Both productive and enjoyable, it’s a way to use my hands and eyes to come up with wild ideas when the stakes are low. The worst that can happen is that a meal doesn’t taste as good as you thought it might.

I’m not advocating spending an hour (unless you want to and then I’d say go for it). Just ten minutes with a clear surface, an array of ingredients you want to use, and some writing utensils.

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Two purple-topped rutabagas are currently staring me down and I’m feeling a bit intimidated. I could peel them, chop them and roast them in a pan but that feels like an easy out. I turn to my bookshelf for support and pull off two of my standbys: Nigel Slater’s Tender and The San Francisco Chronicle Cookbook. I like them each for different reasons: the former for its taxonomy by vegetable (in alphabetical order!) and the latter for its regimen of straightforward and sensible dishes that are vegetable-heavy but never bland. Another thing I like about this practice: ten minutes with vegetables results in more cookbook reading.

I thumb through the pages. Slater has an entire section devoted to rutabaga. One recipe immediately stands out. It’s titled “A baked cake of rutabaga and potato.” The recipe calls for very thinly slicing rutabagas and potatoes, layering them in a pan with a sauce made from butter, garlic, Dijon mustard, thyme and vegetable stock, adding plenty of salt to taste, and baking until golden brown. According to Slater, “Rutabaga’s ability to sponge up liquid is shown to good effect when it is baked with butter and vegetable stock.” I have potatoes in my share this week, and Dijon mustard in the fridge. One should always try to have butter and stock kicking around. I’m sold.

Tonight I have to spend some more time planning how to use the rest of this week’s veg, and I have leftovers to use up from last week, but I’m already looking forward to making that rutabaga and potato cake in a couple of days. I’m going to update this post when I do.

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Update [Dec. 16, 2012]: I did eventually make Slater’s cake of rutabaga and potato and, as promised above, am posting it here now:

A baked cake of rutabaga and potato (From Nigel Slater, Tender: A Cook and His Vegetable Patch)

Notes: I made this twice- it was a great way to use rutabaga. Good-tasting mustard is key since you will be putting 2 tablespoons of this in the sauce. I had a vinegary grain mustard on hand, but the recipe calls for dijon. Either way would work, just make sure you like the taste of whatever you choose. I didn’t have butter so I used olive oil. This was also fine, and lightened the taste substantially. Next time I’ll try butter though.

Ingredients:

1 lb potatoes

1 lb rutabaga

4 cloves garlic

7 tbs butter or olive oil, or a mix thereof

Dijon or vinegary grain mustard

1/2 cup vegetable stock

Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

Preheat oven to 375 F.

Peel the rutabaga and wash the potatoes well. Fill a large bowl half way with cold water.

Slice the washed and peeled veg into very, very thin disks (you want them to be semi-transparent). Put the rutabaga slices in the cold water while finishing so that they don’t turn brown.

Peel and thinly slice garlic. Melt butter over medium heat in a pan, add the garlic and sauté until fragrant. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in mustard.

Now pat the rutabaga and potato slices dry and arrange them in a layer in the bottom of a smallish baking dish or casserole. Over this layer, pour about a third of the butter/mustard mixture. Add salt and pepper – be liberal with both. Then repeat this step twice more. Finally, pour the 1/2 cup of stock over the top.

Cover the dish tightly with aluminum foil (I didn’t have any, so I just got another dish and made a lid out of it) and put it in the oven. Cook until the vegetables have become soft – about an hour. Then remove the foil and turn up to 425 F, browning the top.

Serve with a crisp salad or simple omelets with chunks of bacon.