Cochon 555 Pork Competition Turns Five, Kicks Off February 17 In Atlanta

baconMuch ado about pork products is made on Gadling, with good reason. Even if you’re sick to death of pork-centric eateries, and lardo this and sausage that, it’s hard to deny the allure of the other white meat (I can’t tell you how many vegetarians and vegans I know who still have a jones for bacon).

For those of you wanting to attend the ultimate porkapalooza, get your tickets for Cochon 555, a traveling, “National Culinary Competition & Tasting Event Dedicated to Heritage Pigs, Family Wineries & Sustainable Farming.”

The 10-city tour kicks off February 17 in Atlanta, and will include stops in New York; Boston; Chicago; Washington, DC; Miami; Vail; Seattle; San Francisco; and Los Angeles, before culminating in the dramatic Grand Cochon at the FOOD & WINE Classic in Aspen on June 16. Notice that Colorado gets two Cochon visits? The South isn’t the only place that appreciates pork.

Cochon was created by Taste Network’s Brady Lowe to raise awareness about, and encourage the sustainable farming of heritage-breed pigs. At each destination, five celebrated local chefs must prepare a nose-to-tail menu using one, 200-pound, family-raised heritage breed of pig. Twenty judges and 400 guests help decide the winning chef. The 10 finalists will then compete at the Grand Cochon for the ultimate title of “King or Queen of Porc.”

Depending upon venue, attendees can also expect tasty treats like Heritage BBQ; butchery demonstrations; mezcal, bourbon, whiskey and rye tastings; specialty cheese sampling, cocktail competitions; a Perfect Manhattan Bar, raffles, and killer after-parties.

For additional details and tickets, click here. Partial proceeds benefit charities and family farms nationwide.

[Photo credit: Flickr user out of ideas]

California Restaurant Month Kicks Off In January

chez panisseThe land of goat milk, arugula, and honey continues to prosper, and no surprise, given that California’s 81,700+ farms produce nearly half of all domestically-grown crops.

Thus, the third-annual California Restaurant Month kicks off in January, offering up 33 destinations where visitors and locals alike can savor the flavor of the nation’s most cutting-edge culinary state (sorry, New York).

Select California restaurants will offer special dining promotions such as prix-fixe menus, wine pairings, and other treats designed to promote the state as both food and vacation destination. Add-ons to culinary tourism are available, including skiing, surfing and spa visits.

Nine new dining destinations are a part of the 2013 promotion, including Berkeley (above photo is of the legendary Chez Panisse, now in its 40th year), Beverly Hills, Downtown Long Beach and Santa Monica. Established locales include the wine regions of Temecula Valley, and Santa Maria, Monterey, and Santa Ynez Counties, and small-farm epicenters such as Marin and Shasta counties.

[Photo credit: Robert Holmes]

Planning An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving Dinner, Portlandia-Style

farmersAbout four years ago, I wrote an Edible Aspen story on Brook LeVan, a farmer friend of mine who lives in western Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley. Brook and his wife, Rose (that’s them, in the photo), raise heritage turkeys, among other things, and part of my assignment was to ask him how to celebrate a locally sourced, cold-climate Thanksgiving.

Brook, whom i’ve since dubbed “The Messiah of the Roaring Fork Foodshed,” embarked on a lively discourse about apple-picking and root vegetable storage. It was inspiring, and sounded like fun … to a food geek like me. But how many urbanites realistically wanted to make their own pumpkin butter, or sausage for stuffing?

Fast-forward to 2011, when a little TV show called “Portlandia” blew up with hilarious, bitingly satirical (and dead-on) skits about farm-to-table dining (Remember Colin the chicken?), mixology, and preserved foods (“We can pickle that!”). Suddenly, being an avid home cook, home brewer, and fermenter of sauerkraut had become part of our cultural zeitgeist.

With that in mind, I’d like to offer up Brook’s lovely ideas for making Thanksgiving not just eco-friendly and delicious, but fun and educational for family and friends. Ideas after the jump.

farmGet an early start on future holiday meal planning, especially if you want to order a heritage turkey – meaning an antique breed raised for flavor, rather than maximum output and yield. If you can’t find a heritage or organic bird, serve a different type of poultry or farmed game bird. The LeVan’s usually sell out of pre-ordered turkeys by July.

If possible, order your bird from a local farm, and make a field trip of picking it up. Maybe you can pick apples or winter squash as well, or purchase eggs, cider, preserves, or homemade bread or stuffing-mix.

Shop your local farmers market, food co-op, or specialty store for locally and/or sustainably-grown ingredients for your holiday table: potatoes, onions, or other root vegetables; winter squash, apples and pears, persimmons, pomegranates, even cheese.

Preserve seasonal foods. Whether it’s a bumper crop of summer peaches or pickled celery root or beets, there’s no end to the type of ingredients you can put up to last throughout the winter. Apple butter, fresh cider (you can often find local distilleries or farms that will press apples for you), poached pears, or pickled radishes all make wonderful additions to the holiday table.

Even if your Thanksgiving shopping consists of nothing more than a trip to a local farm stand or specialty market, it makes a difference, from both a taste and food security standpoint. As Brook said to me back in 2008, “When you make your dinner from all that local, fresh or preserved food, you’re going to put a taste memory in your family. It’s all about the little things we do, as individuals, each day. It’s flavor, and love.”

For more information on the LeVan’s family farm and learning center, Sustainable Settings, click here.

[Photo credits: Sustainable Settings]


Cheese festival season has sprung: the best in the West

sheep cheese Spring, as they say, has sprung. In farmstead and artisan cheese parlance, that means pastures are currently abound with calves, lambs, and kids (of the goat variety), and the first milk of the season is in. That’s why March is the kickoff month for cheese festivals, especially on the West Coast because of its more mild climate. The following just happen to be some of the nation’s best.

8th Annual Oregon Cheese Festival, March 17
Hosted by the Oregon Cheese Guild and Rogue Creamery, this much-loved event features dozens of cheese, beer, and wine makers. General admission is minimal, the sampling is free, and the vibe is laid-back. The festival is held at Rogue Creamery in Central Point, just outside of Ashland in southern Oregon. It possesses the vibe of a giant farmers market, with all of the vendors gathered beneath a giant tent. Events include a “Meet the Cheesemakers” dinner (held the night before), seminars, and tastings, including chocolate and cider.California Artisan Cheese Festival (CACF), March 24-25
What better place for a California cheese festival than wine country? CACF is held every March in Petaluma (located in Sonoma County, about 40 minutes north of San Francisco) and draws over 2,000 attendees who come to taste cheeses from the West Coast, Pacific Northwest, and Rockies. Sign up now to get in on local creamery tours, special lunches, and educational seminars.

On April 7, the inaugural Washington Artisan Cheesemakers Festival will take place in Seattle. In addition to cheesemakers from across the state, expect Washington food artisans, craft beer and cider producers, and winemakers. The event is a benefit for the Cascade Harvest Coalition, a non-profit dedicated to local food security.

Can’t make the festival circuit? Try taking a class at The Cheese School of San Francisco, which is focused solely on classes and tasting events for professionals and caseophiles alike. With an ongoing curriculum of classes taught by industry professionals, offerings may include everything from “Mozzarella Making” and “Craft Brews & Artisan Beers,” to “Sheep & Syrah” and “Springtime Cheeses and Loire Valley Wines.” This is the place geek out on dairy.

Admittedly, this video isn’t from a cheesemaker in the western U.S.; it comes from renown Jasper Hill Farm in Vermont. But it’s an excellent short clip on how cheese goes from cow to cheese case. Should you be fortunate enough to find Harbison at your local cheese shop, I strongly recommend you pounce upon it, because it’s simply dreamy.



[Photo credit: Kate Arding]

Five foods of fall

fall foodsIt seems like summer had just begun (that’s because a few weeks ago in Seattle, it had), and now we’re in the throes of early winter fall. It’s actually a beautiful time, what with the trees turning color, cutting through the gray and damp. The weather is crisp and on rare days, the sky is cerulean. There are worse places to experience the change of season.

Living in such an autumnal environment makes me crave the colorful foods of fall. The region you live in determines when exactly certain ingredients make their way in and out of local farmers markets, true. But there’s a general timetable for these foods, so start looking for them now. As some extra incentive, these foods are high in nutrients like beta carotene, vitamin A, and antioxidants, and most make for beautiful additions to the holiday table when piled in a shallow bowl, or added to a cheese plate.

1. Persimmons
A traumatic childhood experience with an unripe persimmon led me to give this fragrant, glossy orange fruit a wide berth for over 20 years, and not until I began working as a vendor at the Berkeley Farmers Market did I work through the pain and overcome my aversion. If you’ve never tasted an unripe persimmon, it’s like biting into a mouthful of metal filings. They’re so astringent, they literally suck all of the moisture from your mouth. Tough, tough stuff. Happily, I’ve grown to love (ripe) persimmons for their cheerful appearance, intriguing texture, and sweet, spicy, perfumed flesh redolent of apricots, cinnamon, and allspice.

Persimmons are indigenous to Asia, but grow well in temperate climates. The two most common varieties are Fuyu and Hachiya. Fuyus resemble squat tomatoes, and are ripe when they turn bright orange but are still firm to the touch. I enjoy eating them out of hand or sliced into salads. Try them sliced with bitter greens, toasted walnuts, and fresh or soft-ripened goat cheese, with a Sherry vinaigrette.

[Photo credit: Flickr user caryn74]fall foodsHachiyas have an elongated, acorn-like shape, and are soft and gelatinous when ripe. Their sweet, pulpy flesh makes them an excellent addition to baked goods such as cake or tea bread, or try them in sorbet or a steamed pudding topped with unsweetened whipped cream. They’re also delectable for out-of-hand eating: simply cut off the top and scoop out the jelly-like flesh with a spoon.

Hachiyas are high in tannins, and the astringent substance that makes them so unappealing when unripe is also corrosive, so be sure to avoid using aluminum cookware or foil when working with them.

Dried Hachiyas are also delicious and diverse in the kitchen. Choose fruit that is soft, but not so ripe you’re unable to peel it. After peeling, pass a wire through the calyx, or stem end, bring the ends of the wire together to form a circle, and hang it on a line in a cool, dry place. You’ll need to massage the fruit periodically to help break down their internal membrane and to release moisture. Enjoy them for snacking, baking, or in porridge or oatmeal. They may develop a harmless fine, white powder on the surface.

2. Winter squash
The much-maligned winter, or hard squash is a nutritional powerhouses, high in iron, riboflavin, and vitamins A and C. With their thick, durable shells, which come in a breathtaking array of hues, textures, shapes, and sizes, they can last up to a month without refrigeration, as long as they’re kept cool and dry. You can compost the skins and pulp, and dry their seeds so you can grow your own squash next year.

I find even the names of different varieties of squash tempting: sweet dumpling, acorn, Cinderella, sugar pumpkin, cheese pumpkin, buttercup, butternut, delicata, red curry, kabocha, and hubbard. Note that carving pumpkins are not meant for eating; the flesh is too stringy and the flavor inferior, although the seeds are delicious when roasted.

There are literally hundreds of heirloom varieties of squash out there; get to know some of the growers at your local farmers’ market and find out what they recommend for your purposes. When selecting squash, choose ones that are heavy for their weight, with no soft spots.

While most hard squash have sweet flesh, there’s still a range of flavor complexities between varieties. Some are more watery while others have a more pronounced squashy flavor or firm or creamy flesh. You may want to experiment to see what works best for your specific recipes, but the most common varieties work equally well for sweet or savory dishes.

Use leftover roasted squash in stir-fries, tossed in at the end of cooking with toasted sesame seeds, soy sauce, and bitter greens. Roast peeled slices until they’re lightly caramelized and serve them with a handful of fresh arugula, candied pepitas (hulled pumpkin seeds) or crumbled bacon, and shaved pecorino cheese, and a vinaigrette of roasted pumpkin seed oil or good-quality balsamic vinegar. Use squash in baked goods like tea breads and cakes.

3. Grapes
Unless you shop at the farmers market, you’re likely unaware of just how many table grape varieties are out there: Bronx, Golden Muscat, Niabell, Ladyfinger, Black Monukka. Some are winey and intense, others slip their skins and have a squidgy texture, similar to wine grapes.

The beauty of grapes is that they require no more than a rinse and they’re ready for the table. I use them halved and paired with fresh or grilled chicories and shavings of a dry, semi-firm cheese like Manchego for salads, or roast them with a bit of olive oil and serve them alongside wilted greens like Lacinato kale and grilled sausages. Feeling lazy? Pile them in a pretty bowl, pour a glass of dessert wine, and pop in a DVD for a low-key evening with friends or your main squeeze. Spitting seeds isn’t sexy, so do ask for a sample before purchasing.

4. Brussels sprouts
Poor things. Dissed by children almost everywhere, and equally unloved by many adults, Brussels sprouts get a bad rap due to poor cooking technique or old product. Like all brassicas (the genus of cruciferous vegetables–members of the mustard family–that includes broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower), these guys can get seriously sulfurous and nasty if overcooked or past their prime.

Look for tiny, tightly-closed sprouts (you can also purchase them on the stalk at farmers markets and some grocery stores) the size of large marbles. The shouldn’t be gargantuan, or have yellowed, withered outer leaves or be opening up like a flower in bloom. You’ve been warned.

Get your fresh sprouts home. Heat up some bacon fat or olive oil, and saute them over medium-high heat until the outer leaves just begin to open, and they’re slightly caramelized (this is the key step). Finish things off with some minced garlic cooked until fragrant. Toss sauteed sprouts with crumbled bacon, crisped prosciutto, toasted breadcrumbs, or grated pecorino or Parmigiano Reggiano. Try a combination of the above. Spike them with chile flakes, chopped, toasted nuts, or drizzle with walnut or hazelnut oil (don’t try to cook them in these; their smoke point is too low and the oil will scorch). If for some crazy reason these ideas don’t make you a convert, just do what a friend of mine did as kid: sneak them into the bathroom and flush them down the toilet.
fall foods
5. Pears
European pears (as opposed to the crunchy, apple-like Asian varieties) possess a refined elegance that calls to mind the days when they were cultivated for French nobility.

The year-round availability of domestically grown varieties of European pear can be attributed to their affinity for cold storage. Pear season is usually over by the end of November, and unlike apples, European pears require a period of cold storage at 32 to 35 degrees before being ripened for several days at room temperature prior to selling. They’re just simply delicate for picking and shipping when ripe.

To further ripen them at home, place in a paper bag on the counter. If you can’t use fully ripe pears immediately, refrigerate them or they’ll get mushy.

I prefer pears poached in red or white wine or a simple syrup spiked with vanilla bean, ginger, or spices like cardamom, cinnamon, and star anise. As a dessert, this showcases their elegant shape, and makes for a sophisticated finale to a dinner party. Remember to slice a tiny piece of the bottom off of each pear before serving, so they’ll stand up on the plate (you can also use a dab of whipping cream, creme fraiche, mascarpone, or creme anglaise to anchor them in place). Serve with a healthy dollop of same, or vanilla or honey ice cream. Hello, autumn.

[Photo credits: soup, Flickr user Tammy Green aka Zesmerelda]

Why Brussel Sprouts are Healthy