a craft brew cracker? hill yeah!

You know the deal. You go out to meet up with some friends after finally agreeing on place, and though you arrive “not really hungry,” time goes by, and eventually you start feeling a little nibbly. Not steak house buffet kind of hungry, but definitely in need of something more substantial than those Goldfish crackers you see poking out of your friend’s kid-bag, or the mints you think you might have out in the car. This is why we love having our crackers at Random Row Brewery.  They go well with anything, are portable, and are nutritionally balanced, with vegan protein from organic seeds, and packed with vegetables from local farms.

But when you’re pairing crackers with your favorite brew (for me it’s whatever genius combination Mountain Culture Kombucha can come up with), maybe you don’t always want flavors that are too nuanced. Maybe you just want a “regular” cracker, like a Wheat Thin, Triscuit, Saltine, or any of the myriad brands you grew up loving for their salty plain-ness and ability to reliably serve as a medium for scooping or spreading other stuff.  Little soapbox segue here: did you know that all those crackers are brands of Mondelez International, which also owns Cadbury, Oreo, Chips Ahoy!, Nilla Wafers, Nutter Butter, and dozens of other candy and junk food brands? Mondelez International spent almost $3.4 million lobbying congress between 2012-2016, and you can bet it wasn’t advocating for stricter guidelines on marketing sugar to kids (source: Center for Responsive Politics).

Fortunately, our friends at Random Row are equally committed to supporting local food enterprises like ours, and wanted to expand our partnership. As conversations evolved, it became obvious that the perfect cracker to accompany beer would (duh) have beer in it.  So I went home with a growler of Comfortably Numb IPA and set to work, using my standard mix of organic seeds to make the base of the cracker:

I shared the product of this new concoction (beer cracker v1.0) with some friends at (you guessed it) Random Row on a Sunday evening, garnering positive feedback.  After many of my own samplings and debriefing with manager Zac Culbertson, we concluded that the black pepper was a little too much, and that there was a slight bitter aftertaste. The next week, I made another version, this time removing flax altogether, suspecting that it might be responsible.  I was wrong, and the resulting cracker was extremely brittle, with none of the binding properties that flax lends. And still a little too bitter.

So I went back to the drawing board, and incorporated some freshly baked butternut squash (from Double H Farm), and swapping out the hoppier Comfortably Numb for The Hill, a lager with a little richer flavor. Bingo! The yeasty smell of the crackers baking is divine!

Starting this week, you can find our new ‘craft brew cracker’ at Random Row’s Brewery on Preston Avenue, and pair it with your favorite beer, local Caromont Farm cheese, spread from Timbercreek Market, or your own BYO dip. Cheers, ya’ll!

butternut & sage crackers

I’ve been looking forward to experimenting with this one for a while now, waiting until an appropriately autumnal time. My husband and I have always grown butternut in our gardens (as I noted in last week’s primal pumpkin spice muffin post, they are as vigorous as they are delicious). In the good ol’ days (when buying bananas at a grocery store seemed a little colonial and gluttonous) we were more loyal locavores, and relied on the sweet hearty squashes to help feed us through the winter. I would slice the neck across into a series of 1/2 thick circles, line them in a glass baking dish, and chop a couple fistfuls of fresh sage. I would spread the sage on the top along with sea salt, black pepper, and a drizzle of olive oil, baking until the edges of the circles (the skin) was crunchy and the interior soft and creamy.  That warmth, aroma, and flavor was what I wanted to replicate in cracker form. These come close, and the curry I added (just because) really comes through. A slight creaminess is courtesy of that mysterious property of a good butternut to resemble, well, butter.

#vegan #gluten-free #vitaminA

Ingredients:  locally grown butternut squash, organic millet, organic flax seeds, organic raw sunflower seeds, organic apple cider vinegar, filtered water, organic dates, locally grown apples, himalayan pink salt,  fresh sage, organic curry

beet your heart out granola

Even if you can proudly resist candy, donuts, ice cream, and pretty much all processed sugars (good for you), you’ve got a crutch. Something you need after dinner (even if you’re stuffed), before brushing your teeth at night. A habit so entrenched you fear you might start slapping your loved ones or twitching on the floor if you can’t have it. At least I hope you do, because I don’t want to feel like I’m going out on a limb here. For me, it’s granola.

I’ve been making granola for years, baking enough every week to fill about three 1/2 gallon jars, using a basic formula but essentially winging it every time with different seeds, nuts, and spices. Believe it or not, my tiny family (basically, me and my husband, though my 3 1/2 year old is joining our ravenous ranks, slowly but surely) goes through it like wildfire even when I screw up and it’s not that good. Even at its best, it’s never as sweet as any other brand I’ve tried (oh, and boy do I still buy and try many) in which maple syrup or honey is among the first three ingredients. I consider those “dessert granolas” for enjoying in a mug of (raw) milk after dinner.

I usually use local honey as a sweetener, but I wanted to try something different here– a breakfasty granola that’s less sweet but more textured and nutritious to get you through a busy morning. Steaming beets (my preferred preparation) leaves us with quite a bit of magenta juice in the bottom of the pot, and it’s too beautiful and nutritious to waste. Some of it goes into our sweet beet crackers, but the rest, I use in the granola, adding a bit of anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory betalain, folic acid, and circulation-boosting properties to my daily breakfast (read more about beet benefits here).

I combine the beet juice organic dates to create a purée about the consistency of honey, and mix with the oats and four kinds of protein-rich seeds. The result is a low sugar snack that can add crunch and a smidge of sweet to your yogurt or even your salad.

ingredients: certified gluten-free rolled oats*, beet juice, raw sunflower seeds*, raw pumpkin seeds*, dates*, chia seeds*, golden flax*, raisins*, filtered water, virgin coconut oil*, vanilla extract, cinnamon*, Himalayan pink salt, lemon extract

*certified organic

el cuatro (four seed roasted red pepper cracker)

I have been looking forward to the full swing of red pepper season, and here we are in mid-late August with the staff at Whisper Hill Farm‘s market stand nearly begging people to buy whole flats of the things.  I took them up on the offer last Saturday, bartering a four-pack of superstar omega bars to keep those hard-working ladies fueled as they packed up after market.

On Monday, a visit from the woman who must be the most self-sacrificing friend in the universe found us, with our collective clan of three boys, in our garden. You know that point in late afternoon, about an hour after waking naptime, when toys start to be used a little too aggressively, evidenced by balls hurling through the air, yelps that “so and so hit me with the book,” etc.? At that point, you know you missed some magic window in which smarter moms would have proactively transitioned everyone to an outside activity. Oops. I had been waiting for my first delivery from bulk distributor Dutch Valley Foods, headed my way on a tractor trailer with a vague ETA. Awaiting a call from the driver when he got close, we headed out to the garden. Fionn was eager to show his friends Carter (5yo) and Alan (3yo) how to pick tomatoes, which he is quick to remind you that he doesn’t like (“they are too squirby for me”), but respects simply because red, he now repeatedly declares, is his favorite color.

Carter had the idea to make a salad, so I offered the challenge to see how many colors we could find for it. The eager team waded from tomatoes to peppers to beets to carrots, through knee-high weeds in what other people might refer to as a “lawn.” We got a meager but respectable haul, and I used some of their very carefully-harvested cherry tomatoes (and basil) in the dough mixture.

These crunchy crackers are packed with Vitamin A and C from ripe red peppers and cherry tomatoes, but also chock full of nutritious seeds, including flax and chia.

Ingredients: roasted red peppers (Whisper Hill Farm), organic millet, organic flax seeds, organic raw sunflower seeds, cherry tomato, organic chia seeds, filtered water, organic extra virgin olive oil, organic dates, organic apple cider vinegar, sea salt, roasted garlic, fresh basil, smoked paprika, cayenne

 

sesame zuccumin crackers

Last week at the market (August 1), a palate-savvy young customer asked if I made anything with sesame. Though I do have a pumpkin sesame cracker recipe, it occurred to me that, with pumpkin season a couple months away, I should come up with something a little more summery to go with sesame. This cracker pairs fresh zucchini, onions, and tomatoes with organic flax, sunflower, millet, and sesame, cumin, and brava sea salt from generous fellow market vendor Jane Gregg of Spanish Food Works. I’ve been looking for a cracker to use my beloved Egyptian Walking Onion, which creates small bulblets at the top of the stalk (not underground, like most onions), and this was the one.  In late spring, the plant is glorious and alien (see photo below)– by now, the bulblets have made the plants so top-heavy that their dry brown stalks lay on their side, seeming to nap on hot August Days. 

The resulting cracker is more subtle than the vegan three seed pesto cracker I have been making the past few weeks, meaning that it could be good to eat with a variety of bean or pepper dips.

Ingredients:
organic zucchini (Whisper Hill Farm), organic millet, organic flax seeds, organic raw sunflower seeds, organic sesame seeds, egyptian walking onions, cherry tomatoes, filtered water, organic extra virgin olive oil, brava blend sea salt (Spanish Food Works), lemon juice, organic cumin

superstar & mighty mint bars

This is the perfect portable “treat” for the kiddos (you don’t have to tell them that there’s little bits of kale inside), or a great chewy re-fuel after a workout. In slightly more than 200 calories, each bar is a good source of protein (10 grams!), iron, Vitamin E, fiber, magnesium, phosphorus, copper, & manganese, a very good source of Vitamin K, and contains about 1,900 mcg of omega-3 fatty acids from four kinds of seeds. Since just enough certified organic raisins and dates are used to hold the bars together, it wouldn’t technically be lying to call this a “chewy raisin bar” for the little ones particularly wary of new foods.  This is nutrient density at it’s best! 

mighty_mint_omega_bar
mighty mint omega bar

Flavors include superstar (vanilla rosemary) and mighty mint (cacao nibs with peppermint)

Ingredients (superstar bar): organic raw sunflower seeds, organic raw pumpkin seeds, organic seedless raisins, organic medjool dates, organic flax seeds, organic chia seeds, raw hemp seeds, local organic kale, sea salt, vanilla extract, lemon extract, fresh rosemary

 

Order here.

tangy spinach crackers

Last Monday, I helped the PB&J Fund wrap up the semester’s Chef-in-Training program, working alongside Chef Harrison of Brookville Restaurant.  The challenge to the two teams of middle-schoolers was right up my alley: “Here is what is available from farms locally right now. Make a meal.” Spread on their prep tables were:

  • 3-4 pounds of fresh chicken drumsticks and thighs from Timbercreek Organics
  • a quart of fresh strawberries
  • a big bag of fresh Red Russian kale (baby leaves)
  • asparagus
  • a gigantic bunch of fresh tarragon

I was shocked at how quickly the two teams plunged in and rolled up their sleeves, leaving Chef Harrison, the PB&J staff, and myself to mill around for a while, making observational comments (kinda lame ones, in my case) and offering minimal suggestions as a sous chef and dishwasher. I won’t bore you with the menu details, but they definitely deserve some kudos for creativity and speed!

 

As I walked home with a little of the leftover tarragon in my pocket, I wondered what the heck I was going to do with it, excited by a little kitchen challenge of my own. Somehow, I had gotten through life thus far never growing or cooking with tarragon, and I was a little at a loss for what to combine it with. So… (insert “doodily-oop doodily-oop doodily oop” fast forward time warp a la Wayne’s World here), I researched online and played around with a test batch of crackers, adding some curry, anise, and a little sweetness from currants to my standard base of sunflower seeds, flax, and spinach. I really like the result, and might be experimenting more with tarragon!

Each bag contains two servings of 1.5 by 1.5 inch crackers, which are a good source of Vitamin K, Manganese, and Magnesium, with only have 2 grams of sugars (from the raisins) per serving.

Ingredients:
organic golden flax, organic millet, local organic spinach, organic pumpkin seeds, filtered water, organic raisins, organic extra virgin olive oil, raw apple cider vinegar, fresh ginger, sea salt, locally grown tarragon (Planet Earth Diversified), organic curry, organic anise seed

 

good neighbors & nutrient density

I’ve been so preoccupied in the last few weeks with a) scrambling to catch up with spring in our slacker vegetable garden and b) brainstorming logistics for my pilot subscription program this summer, that I’ve been lax with posting recipes on the site. Though most of my recent experiments in the kitchen have yielded success (flavor, toddler appeal, proper mouthfeel, etc.), others left me questioning myself not only as a baker, but as a competent adult: a crumbly fail of what I intended to be a chewy nutrient bar (not photographed because my hands were too coated in chia seeds, dehydrated kale, and tears to operate my phone’s camera); and a whole sheet of deliciously sweet quinoa beet crackers which ended up in the compost bin, charred and black, after I decided to “crisp them up” really quickly in the oven. Long story. In any case, I look forward to bringing my newer secret recipes to scale. After taking samples around to my favorite vendors at the farmers market, Caromont Farm is interested in replacing her Carr’s crackers with some of mine for her cheese samples. Baby steps!

As the streets of Baltimore (home to some of my closest family) erupted with misplaced frustration about persistent economic disparities, I came home Tuesday last week to find a surprise wedged between our screen and front door. A leaky red box of imported cocoa powder, aside an unopened box of Whole Foods’ 365 brand “Quack’n Bites.” The kind my kid recognizes inexplicably and steals from other kid’s snack bags as I sigh disapprovingly (is there a gene for brand recognition, somehow?). I hid the box in the darker part of the pantry until I could regift it again to someone more appreciative.

I didn’t need to ask who left these items, for two reasons. First, our next door neighbors had already made clear that they “don’t eat organic,” quick to bring over any cereal branded to vaguely convey health properties, whether or not they had an organic label. I was told, at one point, that they “don’t eat that healthy stuff, honey.”

They are kind, generous people living in a small one story concrete house, patient with a landlord that seems to ignore nearly every aspect of maintenance. They mow their grass with a regularity that puts us to shame. Raising their 5 year old grandson, they receive some public assistance (I think), and get food donations every once in a while. When deer season comes and they get lucky, you can bet our freezer gets stocked, too, especially if I’m willing to help process the bigger cuts. Reciprocation is impossible– when we still had chickens, they persistently refused offers of eggs. “We don’t eat them rich brown eggs.” I tried meekly to share some local apples once, and it was only (after my third attempt at persuasion) that the boss (mom) of the house finally conceded they might be good fried with pork chops. I considered it a huge success that they reluctantly accepted a pre-made meal of plain pasta with sauce and cheese this past weekend as a thank you for the cocoa and crackers. I felt like I was acting out some kind of sketch comedy, standing in their smoky doorway trying to “sell” something so plain and inoffensive. Secondly, I deduced the gifter because the boxes reeked of cigarette smoke, as anything would after 30 seconds or more of exposure to their interior atmosphere.

While our opaque recycling bin hides wine bottles, theirs hides cans of Mountain Dew. They shun organic for their own reasons, as I seemed to snub the Quackers for my own.

As days went by, the whole situation bugged me. I didn’t share a skepticism about organic foods, so what could I possibly have against innocuous goldfish crackers (even their overpriced organic equivalents)? Did I just resent major retailers’ lucrative attempts to “organic-wash” what was essentially junk food? Had I turned into a party-pooping, home-baking snob, or worse– a proselytizing (and hypocritical) dietary zealot? After all, red wine is about as empty in calories as Mountain Dew.

So I snuck into the pantry and looked more closely at ingredient and nutrition label:

  • 17+ ingredients (the top three by weight being white (organic) flour, vegetable oil, and natural cheddar cheese flavor)
  • 130 calories for a 68 cracker serving
  • 21 grams of carbohydrate (only 1 being dietary fiber, 0 grams sugar)
  • 2% each of daily values of Vitamin A, Calcium, and Iron
  • Despite a seal on the front (designed, I’m sure to cue the sensation of authenticity) which claimed inclusion of “Real Organic Cheddar Cheese,” said cheese came AFTER salt, by weight, on the list of ingredients, right before paprika

That pretty much validated my assumptions, though, in the poor Quack’n Bites’ defense, there were no added sugars. I guess I’m not the only party-pooper, though: Quack’n Bites earned a C grade on Fooducate, a rating web site on which “minimally processed, real foods with intrinsic nutrients will score better than processed foods that are poor in built-in nutrients.”

I compared the Quack’n Bites’ nutrition label with one of my newer kitchen inventions, for which I used my new best friend, Recipal. It generates nutrition labels for recipes (a function it performs much more expertly than a lot of the free versions out there, which I’ve also tried). It. is. awesome. And I swear they are not paying me to say so.

Curried Sweet Potato & Flax Crackers are one of my simpler recipes, grain-free and packed with baked organic sweet potatoes and golden flax seeds. First of all, even your toddler can probably pronounce the ingredients, and the vitamin content is much higher, with more protein and fats (mostly omega 3s), less sodium, and more than 50% fewer carbohydrates.  And, somehow, ten 1.5 inch square crackers have 20 fewer calories than the 68 Quack n’ Bites, though their serving weight is identical. This is a classic case of nutrient density, which is going to be the next drumbeat coming from dieticians, many of whom are advocating for a standardized “nutrient density score” to help people make better decisions about how to “spend” their calories. Ironically, Whole Foods has an Aggregated Nutrient Density Score (ANDI) on their web site (as does the CDC, and DrFuhrman.com, among others). Keep in mind that any “ranking” rubric is misleading, since EVERY food has some unique nutritional properties, and the less domesticated versions of crops tend to have more beneficial phytochemicals (as Jo Robinson’s Eating on the Wild Side explains in detail). Watercress scores more highly than sweet potatoes in CDC’s scoring, for example, but if I’m interested in getting more Vitamin A, you can bet I will opt for the latter. It depends on what nutrients that matter to you; and whether you trust pill vitamins to make up for the nutrients lacking on the plate.

Party-poopery aside, it comes down to this: I don’t resent empty calories (hey– we all have our vices), but I reserve the right to resent empty calories that are mass-produced, over-packaged, and branded to convey wholesomeness to busy parents who don’t have time to scrutinize nutrition labels in the store aisle. This reminder, after a week of aforementioned “ooopses” in the kitchen, is enough to keep me moving forward with a mission to make nutrient-dense snacks that are tasty enough for kids and grown-ups alike. When it comes to feeding children with developing brains– and with, like mine, an impatience for seated mealtime, I don’t want “cheese” crackers to be my only healthy option for food on the go. Until my guy is old enough to wield the power of consumer choice on his own, I will not let snack-time be wasted.