Miss Ginsu: About/Bio


Alternatives to Turkey and Pie

Tolstoy begins Anna Karenina with this famous line: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

Similarly, of Thanksgiving dinners, I might say, "Average Thanksgiving dinners are all alike; every interesting Thanksgiving dinner is unique in its own way."

Thanksgiving meals I grew up with were always the most basic Midwestern fare (probably because grandma didn't really enjoy cooking). The menu: turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, green beans and pie.

In college, I went vegetarian and dined on Tofurkey with stuffing, veggies and the rest of the fixings. (In retrospect, I might've done better to have simply baked a nice casserole.)

I was recently impressed to learn that many southern folks consider a ham to be an essential aspect of the Thanksgiving feast. (Honestly, I really don't know where they find the room in their ovens.)

And in my Polish neighborhood, a Thanksgiving dinner might include turkey alongside "Meat Stuffing, Fruit Stuffing, Vegetable Salad, Pierogies, Apple Cake and Apple Cherry Cake," as advertised in the window of the local cookshop where I snapped this image:

Thanksgiving in Greenpoint

While I'm usually a traditionalist for the Thanksgiving feast, this year I have a broken wrist and a busy week, so we're keeping it as simple and as local as possible with products from our CSA, the NYC farmers markets and the local foods at FreshDirect.

Putting aside tradition, we'll be going with Duck and Flan instead of Turkey and Pie. I've decided on duck breasts because they're fast, they're easy, they're 100% dark meat (no fighting over the legs) and they'll still be lovely with cranberry sauce.

Our Simple, Local Thanksgiving Menu:
You'll note that almost everything on the menu can be found within 200 miles of the city, so I want to offer my heartfelt THANKS to all the people who work hard to grow raise, process and transport our food.

Ending the meal with a slice of pumpkin flan offers a nice change of pace from the standard pumpkin pie. Additionally, if there happens to be anyone on a gluten-free diet at your dinner table, they'll appreciate the lack of crust.


Flans are pretty easy to make, except for two tricky parts at the beginning and end of the process: caramelizing the sugar and flipping the cooked flan onto a serving plate. Just pay close attention at these junctures and you'll have no problems.

And remember, if you should happen to burn the caramel, it's not a big deal. Just open the window to air out the kitchen, soak the burnt sugar off the bottom of the pan with hot water and try it again with lower heat and a watchful eye.

If you have pumpkin pie spice in the cupboard, you can just use a teaspoon of that in place of the ginger, mace/nutmeg, cinnamon and allspice/cloves.

Spiced Pumpkin Flan (Serves 5-6)

2/3 cups sugar (divided into two parts)
3 large eggs
2 cups canned pumpkin puree
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon mace or nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground allspice or cloves
1 cup heavy cream

1. Preheat the oven to 350° F.
2. In a small saucepan, cook 1/3 cup of the sugar over medium heat until it begins to melt. Don't stir or touch it; just lower the flame and heat it, swirling the pan until the melted sugar caramelizes to a golden brown.
3. Quickly pour the liquid caramel into the bottom of a 9" quiche/flan dish or cake pan. Turn the dish to evenly coat the bottom. Allow to cool.
4. Meanwhile, whisk the eggs in a mixing bowl, blending in the pumpkin, cream, salt and spices.
5. Place the quiche/flan dish inside a roasting pan (with high sides) and pour hot water into the roasting pan until it measures about half-way up the side of the flan dish.
6. Carefully move the roasting pan to center rack of the oven before pouring the pumpkin batter into the flan dish. (This process prevents flan flubs on the way to the oven.) Bake until the flan is firm in the center, but still has a little jiggle — about 50 to 60 minutes.
7. Carefully move the hot flan dish from the roasting pan to a wire rack to cool. Then chill in the refrigerator at least 2 to 3 hours. (Overnight is better.)
8. To serve, warm the flan for a few minutes before running a knife around the edge of the dish. Place a large plate on top of the flan dish. Gently flip both together so that the flan gently flops onto the plate. Lift away the flan dish and cut the flan into wedges.

Having an interesting Thanksgiving dinner this year? Drop a note in the comments!

Happy Eating!
Miss Ginsu

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Wow of the Week

Having missed the farmers' market today, I was at the Bowery Whole Foods picking up some eggs. And then I saw these beauties...

Ostrich Eggs
When you're in the mood for a truly remarkable omelette

Ostrich eggs. Local, even. You can see the quail eggs on the shelf above for size reference.

I'm told it takes a hammer to open one of these eggs... and a brave soul to harvest them.

To be honest, I'm not sure what's more impressive, their girth or their price tag.

Miss Ginsu

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FoodLink Roundup: 06.16.08

Cupcake's Link Roundup
Happy Bloomsday! Last week, Cupcake was located in Chinatown, NYC, just south of Canal on Mott Street. (Another win for Mr. Hazard.) Where in the world is Cupcake this week? Post a guess in the comments.

US Tomato Industry in "Complete Collapse"
Gosh, wouldn't it be great if we had accurate paper trails on our produce crops? Of course, I couldn't help notice the x-treme price-jump effect this news produced in the grape tomatoes at my local market... see here for the evidence at Flickr.

Triple whammy
As with many things mythical and natural, it seems that three is a magic number in the kitchen.

Tasting the Grape, Among Other Things
A conference to taste those wines that "you would not, of your own volition, spend an entire weekend drinking"

Japan, Seeking Trim Waists, Measures Millions
Can you imagine the uproar this would cause in the US?

10 paths to painless pizza-making
Smitten Kitchen does up a very liberating guide to the art of making pizza at home.

Peak-Season Produce Map
An excellent use of the internet. Thanks, Epicurious!

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FoodLink Roundup: 03.24.08

Link Roundup
Last week, Cupcake was romping in Barcelona, España (Yes, Mr. Hazard, you were right on with Spain!) Where in the world is Cupcake this week? Think you know? Post it in the comments.

The Fat Pack Wonders if the Party’s Over
Fellow NYC food blogger Jason Perlow gets diabetes, drops off the pounds and challenges the culture of excess embodied by some food media heavies.

The Myth of Food Miles
A backlash against the UK locavore movement. "The concept of food miles is unhelpful and stupid. It doesn't inform about anything except the distance travelled..."

Putting Dunkin' Donuts Coffee to the Test
I'd always suspected it was a viral marketing scheme (or perhaps an alien brain wave device?) that managed to convince a nation of Dunkin' Donuts coffee superiority.

The Turnip That Stirred Panic
“I’m now on constant alert against this and other rooted vegetables,” GiaQuinta said. Hilarious.

Leaving Behind the Trucker Hat
It's like a headline from The Onion: American Youth Flee Hip Urban 'Hoods for Country Backwaters.

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A Quick Bite of 1946, Anyone?

I think most of us have played the "would you rather" game. It's usually a contest of bad and worse. Would you rather be turned into a zombie or an oompah-loompah? Would you rather give up your firstborn child to Britney Spears or a tribe of cannibals? Would you rather eat a kitten or a puppy?

The wacky world of Foods 1946 presents us with this conundrum:

Would you rather spend more time in the kitchen and eat a sustainable, locally sourced, home-cooked meal of ham & pureed vegetable soup, roast goose with roasted vegetables and a side of applesauce, mashed potatoes and turnips, fresh-baked corn muffins and then plum pudding and fresh-ground coffee to finish, a'la 1846. (Click into the image for the larger view.)

A Winter Meal of 1846


Would you rather spend less time in the kitchen and enjoy a meal composed of packaged foods: split pea soup (from a mix), canned ham, minute rice, canned asparagus tips, canned artichoke heart salad, corn muffins from a mix and a last course of strawberry shortcake (from frozen strawberries and a biscuit mix) served with instant coffee, a'la 1946.

A Winter Meal of 1946

Granted, I could go for some strawberry shortcake right about now, but I think you see what I'm getting at here.

The world of 1946 was so sure that your answer to this "would you rather" query would favor speed and cheap processed foods, they'd most certainly be floored to hear that 2007 voted "locavore" as the word of the year, that people around the globe ware increasingly more interested in Slow Food or that Community Supported Agriculture programs were thriving and growing.

Oh, 1946! Everything was so plain, so clear and so logical for you, wasn't it?

Tomorrow, just a little more fun from Foods 1946.

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Eating local. Like, really local.

Busy Bee Pierogies

Chez Ginsu is currently located in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and contrary to what that moniker might lead you to envision, large swaths of this place are dirty and decidedly industrial.

Though certain sectors of the 'Point are hip these days, my end of the hood remains cheap and old-school (in good part because we sit squarely in the middle of the largest land-based oil spill in U.S. history. But hey... cheap rent).

My closest thoroughfare, Nassau Avenue, features a charming Luncheonette, a couple of pizza joints, several examples of the ubiquitous Chinese takeout counter and a fleet of Polish eateries.

Polish food has never been one of the world's most beloved cuisines. Ask anyone — even those who are fairly well-versed in food — to name all the Polish dishes they know. The most you'll likely get from them is pierogies, kielbasa and maybe Zywiec, Greenpoint's Pilsner of choice (though most are unlikely to pronounce it correctly... the company's begun advertising the stuff as "Z-Beer" for the tongue-tied American market).

So although I'm a big fan of local food sourcing, eating locally (as in, eating in the neighborhood) hasn't exactly topped my priority list.

Recently, I wondered if maybe that position was wrong-minded. I decided to give some serious examination to local foodstuffs. Making a stop at Nassau Ave's Busy Bee Food Exchange, I purchased meat pierogi (pierogi z miezem) and beet-horseradish condiment (cwikla). The Bee deli case also featured a few creamy salads and pints of "bigos," which is supposed to be a hunter's stew made of beef stock and sauerkraut.

Pirogi, for the uninitiated, are Eastern European dumplings... tasty little dumplings filled with a variety of substances.

When I lived in Minnesota, we frequently went out for Friday lunches at the Ukrainian Catholic Church gymnasium in North-East Minneapolis. There, little old men served endless cups of coffee and took orders while little old ladies tirelessly produced phyrohi (potato, kraut-pork or plum... your choice). It was great. Cheap, tasty comfort food made by little old ladies. You really can't beat that.

Those memories flowed back to me as I prepared my pierogi. Pierogi can be served boiled or pan-fried, like potstickers. When I tested The Bee's meat pierogi, I pan-fried 'em and was very pleased with the results. Served alongside the bright-magenta cwikla with a cucumber & sour cream salad? Good eats at a good price.

Of course Stella, my Polish landlady, instantly knew I'd been sullying her building with store-bought pierogi. Polish landladies have special radar for betrayals of that ilk.

The very next day Stella knocked on my door bearing a look of supreme confidence and a plate covered in three types of freshly boiled pierogi she'd just made: cabbage-bacon, potato and sweet cheese. I intended to eat just a few and share the rest with my roomie. But they were good. Really good. I ate them all.

As it turns out, local eating is good, but really, really local eating... now that's superb.

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In praise of the microseason

Williamsburg CSA
Williamsburg CSA

First day CSA
First Day of my CSA (June)

Last day CSA
Last Day of my CSA (November)

See more food photos: missginsu @ flickr

Some people know the season via the calendar. These folks enjoy what I consider the seasonal four-pack: Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter.

Those in close contact with farmers' markets and CSA groups know a veritable color wheel of microseasons within those macroseasons embraced by the rest of the population. There's ramp-morel-lettuce season followed closely by spinach-pea-strawberry season. There's the highly anticipated tomato-corn-zucchini season. Right now, it's very clearly sweet potato-cranberry-Brussels sprouts season.

Thanks to Just Food, a nonprofit org dedicated to things like food-selling opportunities for small farmers and food-buying opportunities for urbanites like me, I was able to hook up with the Williamsburg Community Supported Agriculture group this year and enjoy six months' worth of microseasons in the form of organic produce from the farmers at Garden of Eve.

CSAs exist all over the country (I used to belong to the Loring Park CSA in Minneapolis), and while I wouldn't say membership is a good decision for everyone (some people, for example, just wouldn't be satisfied with the "Iron Chef Mystery Ingredient" aspect of a CSA group's weekly variety pack, and some would have no clue about what to do with three pounds of kohlrabi or a quarter-peck of habañero peppers), I've found that supporting local produce from actual people has been ethically, sensually and culinarily satisfying for me*.

Additionally, I've learned a lot about preservation. In years past, home cooks dealt with the seasons as they arrived. If it was tomato-corn-zucchini season and the kitchen overflowed with bags and bags of red, yellow and green produce, everyone ate succotash, zucchini bread, fresh vegetable chowders, and buttery cornbread muffins.

Thanks to a constant flow of produce available in any local shop, today's cooks are far less practiced in using up a surplus. Canning, drying, fermenting and pickling are the arts of the ancients. We buy what we need. The majority of us will never be pressed into anything resembling our progenitors' annual frantic frenzy of canning, baking, stewing and jamming an entire orchard or garden over the space of a week or two during the harvest.

That said, today's CSA member (and thrify produce buyers in general) often discover a need for those techniques of antiquity.

In a month or two, (around Meyer Lemon season), it will be time to start signing up for a new CSA year. For those who plan on joining one (localharvest.org compiles national listings), here's a few tips I've discovered that might make your produce microseasons more efficient and enjoyable:

Block out some time. Right after pickup, you'll want an hour or so to care for your vegetables. Rinse the apples and pears. Wash and dry the lettuces. (I love my salad spinner.) Cut the carrots into sticks for easy snacking. Separate the celery stalks from the celery roots. Rinse and chop up the beet greens for easy sauteing.

Triage. Softer fruits and vegetables will rot first. Can't use 'em right away? Think: chutneys, sauces, jams, soups. A lot of fruit and veggies freeze better once they're already cooked (Quickly blanch and shock tomatoes to get the skins off, then toss 'em in a freezer bag.) Save any root vegetables for last.

Same technique, different vegetable. Enjoy mashed potatoes? Try the same thing with mashed celery root, carrots or parsnips. Ratatouille, soup, slaw, salad and stir-fries are all your friends. The butternut squash soup is just as good with acorn squash. Sauteed greens are yummy whether they're beet greens, mustard greens, turnip greens, escarole, chard, kale, frisee or spinach. Nearly anything can be pickled. Almost everything is tastier when it's done up with a layer of olive oil, salt, pepper and some roasting time in the oven.

* That is, apart from the getting dressed and leaving the house early on Saturday morning thing.

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Food bloggers, you are being watched.

They know what you're thinking. They record what you're typing. They're snatching up excerpts.

Though you may sometimes believe you're addressing an empty auditorium (hear that echo?), research companies are listening. And reporting.

One of the latest "well, this shouldn't be shocking" findings to cross my desk is the revelation that companies have now established themselves as experts on the "blogosphere," mining the web for blogs, newsgroups and comment threads that indicate consumer preferences. They then distill all they find into whitepapers and research to distribute to companies.

(This is a great business model, by the way... they dig through what's free for the taking, digest it, and sell the findings. It's like foraging in the woods for mushrooms, but with less physical mud beneath the fingernails.)

Case in point: the lead story on Umbria, a market intelligence company specializing in blog chatter. Umbria has determined that "Low Carb is Out, Organic is In" and has published a whitepaper to this effect.

From April through June, 2006, Umbria's agents monitored the blogosphere to understand key trends in Organic food purchasing, specifically: where, what, why and for whom.

They targeted their research for conversations about Wild Oats Markets, Whole Foods Market, Safeway and Wal-Mart and provide an "interesting cross-section of attitudes and trends related to Organic purchasing across a broad range of income levels and geographic accessibility."

I know you're busy and protective of your email address, so I'll summarize the results for you:
Those online talking about Organic foods are overwhelmingly female, a fact that's particularly interesting when you look at the total number of women (segmented into Boomer, Gen X and Gen Y age ranges) who blog and comment.

Conversation was punctuated by the April release of Michael Pollan's hot-topic book, "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and Wal-Mart's May announcement of a big push into the Organic marketplace.

Wild Oats and Whole Foods tend to dominate discussions about Organic foods. Few bloggers seemed randy about trucking over to Wal-Mart for their Organics.

Women in the Gen Y group (15-30) appear to be the most salivation-worthy bunch from the perspective of retailers (apparently they love browsing and shopping at high-end Organic shops) and there's a "give 'em samples!" recommendation.

When it comes to Organic purchases, people are not as concerned about the environment, as they are about flavor, their health and the well-being of their kids and pets.

Also... some people think Organic foods are too expensive, snooty, hippie or just far too much ado about nothing.
It's only ten pages. You can go read it for yourself, but that's pretty much the gist of it.

Maybe I'm way off base here, but I really believe that the demise of the Organic philosophy came as soon as the US bill for the government certification of Organic foods was signed into law back in 2002. Wal-Mart just happens to be the most obvious of the nails in the Organic foods coffin.

Why? Well, it takes $400-$2,000/year and at least three years to be certified Organic by the government. That's meant to ensure quality and avoid fraud, but it's still a lot of cash for a little farm. Thereafter, there's a lot of paperwork and inspections. And if you grow organically managed lettuce but live beside to someone who chooses to spray, there's no way you can be certified.

That's why a lot of small-scale farmers choose to say they're "all natural" or "organically managed," or use "integrated pest management" (think: ladybugs).

Organic foods can be shipped from across the country or around the world, losing nutritive value as they age in transit, using up a bunch of fossil fuel in the process and robbing your local economy of an agricultural income source.

What Michael Pollan gets at is this: The absolute best way to ensure your vegetables are raised in the way in which you would grow them yourself (if only you had the time) is to know your farmers. We need to be able to look someone in the eye, have a conversation, and know that the eggs we're buying aren't from miserable, debeaked chickens stuffed into tiny laying boxes.

Unfortunately, we live in little enclaves separated from our local neighbors and craftsmen. We shop at big national stores, and we talk about those stores as if they ensure something virtuous for our food purchases. They don't. Walk around Whole Foods and do your own survey of what's local, what's Organic and what's conventionally sprayed produce flown in from Chile.

I wish I had the time and opportunity to source everything I buy. I can't. I have a day job. So I do the best I can. I get eggs, fruits and vegetables from my Community Supported Agriculture group, which is supplied by Eve, from Garden of Eve farm on Long Island. I've met her. She doesn't seem evil to me.

We get milk and yogurt from Hawthorn Valley Farm or Ronnybrook at the NYC Farmers' Markets.

J. picks up turkey sausage from DiPaolo farms and cheese and bread from Anne Saxelby at the Essex Street Market. She's passionate about cheese, she rides a cute bicycle and all her stuff is artisanally-made American foods.

That's not to say that I'm never going to savor a Hawaiian pineapple or a Florida orange. Sometimes you gotta get a nice box of Clementine oranges to stave off the scurvy. But the more you purchase locally from actual people, the more you do for your neighborhood, state and region.

Buying from local farmers means you stay in touch with the seasons (wow! the first pumpkins are showing up at the market! cool!), you feel proud about the successes of your neighbors, and you enjoy food quality and regional variety that just doesn't ship well.

Umbria can go on all they like about how hot Organic foods are. Maybe they are hot. But they're not the real answer.

The real answer is good food made by people who actually care about it and about you. And there's nobody who can slap a certification on that... except you.

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Point & click for orchard, field and meadow

This was on the NPR Marketplace Morning Report:

Local Foods Plymouth... like FreshDirect for the farmers' market.

The website is supremely limited, but the report made it sound like it’s been really popular there. People said they liked picking up all their farmers' market produce in one place.

I like the way they handle expectations on the first page (you can only order on Tuesdays) and they inform you that if you don’t pick up by 6 p.m. on delivery day, your food gets donated to a local charity.

Like City Farms & Community Supported Agriculture, online farmers' markets could offer yet another option for busy urbanites to connect to the bounty of the fields... and it gives small farmers a way to manage inventory and prevent waste.

I’m sure we’ll see more of this to come as the various pockets of our culture become more web-savvy.

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Commentary from the Culinary Catwalk

And now, from the partially-obstructed-view cheap seats, your faithful food correspondent, Miss Ginsu, launches a paper airplane dispatch on the trends in taste.

For your munching pleasure, a quick survey of the latest culinary currents:

"Organic" is like, totally over.
Now that Walmart owns Organic, that label is sooo last decade. Rumor has it that ubiquitous Stonyfield Farm has been shorting its longstanding clients on Organic yogurt in order to better supply the low-price leviathan. What's hot? Local, artisanal foods. Real food made by real people who really care. Every savvy grocery exec on the block is reading "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and taking notes. Expect to see the grubby, mud-caked mugs of (regionally appropriate) farmers and ranchers in a food retailer near you.

Snacks cooked in kettles.
Ain't no party like a kettle-cooked party... not only are we seeing an upsurge in crunchy sweet-and-salty treats from the food indies (via Kettle Foods, Hain (under its Terra brand), and the previously mentioned "ike & sam's" line, for example), but industry heavies such as Frito-Lay are also burnishing their kettles.

Coconut water.
Yup. Coconut water is one more in that long lineage of niche foods that see consumer consumption gains once the marketing hacks start to sing the good health song. (Think: soymilk, pomegranate juice or the Amazon acai juice currently making rounds through metro juice bars.) When I worked in kitchen prep, coconut water was considered useless runoff. Health drink? Hell... we just drank it. Now the folks on the kitchen prep crews will have to fork over every precious drop of this electrolyte-rich liquid to the health-conscious public.

Awareness of varietals and, yes... geographic origins.
When my corner bodega starts shilling Tropicana 100% Valencia Orange Juice, it's time to take a hard look at consumer awareness of produce varietals. It ain't just for food nerds anymore. I'm betting we're going to start seeing many, many more products in the standard grocery arena that would once have been considered high-end specialties. Sumatran iced coffee. Ginger Gold apple juice. American Artisanal Cheeses.

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