Friday, December 30, 2011

An Eatalian Plate: Winter Vegetable Salad

According to a recent article in the MSN Lifestyle section, the #8 unexpected thing men love about women is "culinary confidence". The gentleman being quoted describes how cute it is when his special lady eats something yummy in a restaurant and says "I could make this!" Bonus points if she's so bold as to ask the waiter how it's done.

MSN Guy: This one's for you.

I've mentioned that Dan and I visited Manhattan for a few days during the holiday season. Aside from Occupying Wall Street, we did a lot of walking and a lot of eating; we found some cozy spots and had some really special, fabulous food. On Dan's must-do list was to check out Eataly, a New York restaurant that's really like twelve restaurants under one gigantic pseudo-Italian roof. Each restaurant specializes in one thing, for example: fish, meat, pasta, vegetables, or beer (guess which one he wanted to try!).

Before we made our way to Birreria, the Eataly beer experience with really good craft beer and uber-extroverted bartenders, we stopped at Le Verdure, the vegetable place. It. Was. Delicious. We shared an antipasti called Insalata Di Finocchi E Agrumi (Citrus and Fennel Salad) which was so yummy and simple I thought "I could make this!" (see above).

The real Citrus and Fennel Salad. 
Based on my memory of the dish, what's listed on the menu, and what I have available at home (hint: not pomegranate or citrus), here is our version:

1 medium bulb fennel
1 small celery root
A handful of dried cranberries 
Note: The actual recipe clearly used pomegranate seeds, small pieces of an orange, and small pieces of a grapefruit. You could use those instead if you have them around.

3 T champagne vinegar or white wine vinegar
2 T lemon juice (about 1 whole lemon)
2 T good olive oil
1.5 T honey (I used raw honey)

Cut off the top of the fennel, pick off some of the dill and set it aside. 

Slice both the fennel and celery root as thinly as possible. I believe we could have done a better job if we owned a mandoline or similar food slicer, but a carefully applied knife worked out alright. Put the sliced veggies on a plate and mix in the cranberries. You can cover this and refrigerate it until ready to serve.

Next, mix together the rest of the ingredients - vinegar, lemon juice, olive oil, and honey - in a small bowl to make a honey-lemon vinaigrette dressing. It's a bit tangy by itself but the sweetness of the cranberries has a mellowing effect. Give your dill a quick chop and mix it into the vinaigrette as well.

When ready to serve, pour the vinaigrette mixture on top of the salad.

The "homemade" Winter Vegetable Salad
Check out more healthy living tips and great recipes at The Healthy Home Economist.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Why Are We Still Counting Calories?

The Biggest Loser counts calories (1100 per day? Please.). Weight Watchers turned them into points for those of us who can't count that high. Oprah had us all keeping food diaries and locking ourselves out of the fridge after 7pm. Is any of that really necessary to be healthy? Of course not.

They are all fine techniques for keeping ourselves accountable, important in it's own right, but they have very little to do with actual health. The number of calories in a food is not at all related (unless perhaps inversely) to what it can do for our bodies. Diet Coke, for example, might be a dieter's dream at zero calories but holds absolutely no nutritional value.

It's unfortunate that calories are what people understand: the entire worth of a food wrapped up and delivered as a shiny, comprehensible number. We like calories so much that in 2012, the FDA is expected to require restaurants with 20 or more locations to post calorie counts on all of their menu items. A recent study sent thirsty teenagers into stores that had signs posted by the regular sodas: "10% of your daily calories", "250 calories in one", and "Jog for 50 minutes to burn this off", and you better believe they were less likely to buy those sodas. Some of them went for water instead (this reminds me I need to post about what's wrong with bottled water), and some went for diet soda.

For the Really Really Health Conscious, we can count other things: fiber, fat, protein, sodium, cholesterol, saturated fat, monounsaturated fat, trans fat, soluble fiber, insoluble fiber, sugar, and carbs. Despite my earlier mocking, the Weight Watchers and Biggest Loser programs are good in that they do actually take into account several of these other important components. There are even smartphone apps and gadgets we can strap to our bodies to help us deal with all the counting. "Big Technology" really appreciates your investment, but listen: denying yourself chocolate on Saturday because you had extra pasta on Tuesday is a fine exercise in self-control, but it's no way to live. Check out two simple ideas to truly become a healthier individual.

Eat What You Want
The trick here is to stop wanting things that are processed and start wanting real food - easier said than done. Processed foods tend to be high in fat, salt, and sugar - things your body is programmed to want - and also likely include exciting, but artificial, colors and flavors. This means that if you're used to eating processed foods, your taste buds have adjusted to those strong lab-created tastes and real food probably won't taste like much of anything. It takes about three weeks for your body to readjust, so be patient.

While you're waiting for your 'buds to catch up, you could begin to work on your brain. Do some research on your own - read about factory farming or look up ingredients you don't recognize to see how they are made. With all of the reading I've done about the treatment of animals (hint: it's pretty bad), I no longer regularly desire fried chicken, a big steak, or nuggets of any kind. It's not that driving by a Chik-Fil-A doesn't smell good (IT DOES), it's just that I don't want to support the factory farming industry. I am starting to become addicted to how awesome I feel when I eat a salad of leafy greens or a simple stir-fry. Try making a few things from scratch, visit a local farmer's market or join a CSA to up your seasonal produce intake, or take a drive out to a farm where you can buy humanely-raised meats.

As much as you might try, there will probably be days when you can't live another minute without getting pizza delivery or digging into some chocolate (I understand, ladies). Oh well. As long as it's only sometimes, you'll be alright.

Be Active Doing Something You Love 
If you aren't absolutely wild about driving to the gym and going through the cardio-weights routine with the nagging worry that you don't quite measure up to The Girl On The Next Treadmill Over, stop. There are so many ways to exercise outside of a gym. You can workout more cheaply, get some sunshine in your life, and you might actually enjoy yourself. I ended my last gym membership a couple years ago during the notoriously frigid month of February. When they asked me why I wanted to leave, I told them I had been running and didn't need the gym. "Outside??" they asked. You bet!

Some other non-gym activities include: playing a sport - there are lots of social and competitive sports leagues in cities and suburbs. Run, it doesn't matter how far. If you can't run, walk. Ride a bike. Take a swimming class. Rollerblade. Work in your garden. Try yoga or tai chi with your local Parks & Rec organization. Find a workout partner if that helps. Go to the nearest high school and use the track. You can do lunges, squats, plyometric workouts (jumping on and off a bench), push-ups, walk, and run - all for free. The thing is, if you love an activity, you'll do it more often and it won't feel like a chore. Even if you need to invest in a bit of clothing to get started - one pair of thermal wind-blocking tights goes a long way - it will pay off in the long run.

For more posts about real food and healthy living, check out Real Food Wednesday.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

An Occupied Plate

Dan and I took a trip to New York City this week to partake in some of their abundant Christmas spirit. One item on our agenda: Occupy Wall Street. Sure, the movement has fallen off the radar of most news outlets, but a few OWSers meet daily at Zuccotti Park to continue to protest Big Everything. I wanted to see the movement for myself and consider what I would protest, if I were one for protesting: Big Agriculture. What is Big Ag, you might ask?

The idea of economic inequality is fine - people who work more or have unique skills probably should also earn more than the rest of us. The problem (and the OWS movement) arises when the majority of Americans (say, 99%) begin to feel like the riches of the wealthiest have not been earned. It gets even worse when those wealthy people and corporations are the ones that end up making the rules the rest of us abide by but don't apply those rules to themselves.

Relating this to agriculture and the food system: decades ago, the companies that figured out how to produce foods most cheaply end up with the most profit. They made animals grow faster in less space and with less disease, they didn't worry what effects their actions might have on the environment, and the treatment of employees was sacrificed all to maximize profit. Producing and selling food for so little has baked the idea of "cheap food" (cheap in every sense of the word) into our economy and society. Americans spend only about 7% of their income on food; by comparison, Chinese spend 33%, the French spend 13.5%, and Japanese people spend 14.2%.

Those most successful agricultural companies are the ones that make the rules today thanks to digging their financial fingernails into politicians and lobbyists. Their rules govern most of us (say, 99%), but the companies themselves are exempt. Would it be okay if I made an antibiotic resistant strain of salmonella? I think not, but Big Ag has been allowed to.
  • As of 2007, six companies owned 75 percent of the global pesticide market, and just four companies sold half of the world's seeds. Three companies happen to be on both lists.
  • Four companies - Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, Bunge, and Louis Dreyfus - control 90% of the global trade in grain.
  • Just three companies process upwards of 70% of all beef.
  • Four companies create 75% of all breakfast cereal, 75% of snacks, 60% of cookies, and 50% of ice cream.
  • Anheuser-Busch InBev and SABMiller produce 80% of the beer consumed in the U.S. For the arithmetically challenged, that means 4 out of every 5 beers Americans drink sucks.
  • Altogether, the U.S. meat industry uses 29 million pounds of antibiotics each year. To put that in perspective: all humans in the United States use just over 7 million pounds per year - that's for all of our prescriptions and hospital stays combined.
As part of the 100% of us that eat food, I am glad we got to see the OWS movement for ourselves.

The Christmas tree in Zuccotti Park - some might say a tree for the 99%.
And the lovely evergreen specimen on Wall Street in front of the NYSE.  

Sources And Recommended Reading:

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Say "No" To Fake Meat!

I love vegetarians (one in particular)! I have a lot of respect for the choice to give up meat, whether for personal health or animal well-being, but it's not yet the right choice for me. I still, and probably always, will believe that humanely raised animals or wild caught fish are supreme additions to a meal. The main argument I've heard against the idea is that humanely raised meat is too expensive. This is easily dismissed: eat less of it. Quality over quantity, people! Feature meat as the supporting actor rather than the star of your dinner, use it infrequently, and your wallet will be fine.

As great of a choice as vegetarianism CAN be for your body and for the planet, vegetarians are easily seduced (like the rest of us) by processed foods. Soy and wheat can be turned into many things, and there is no shortage of processed meat substitutes on the market for veg folk: Boca burgers, Morningstar patties, Tofurkey, and TVP (textured vegetable protein) to name a few. I've always disagreed with these types of food on principle. In fact, I recall turning my nose up at one of the first dinners Dan offered to share with me. He had prepared pasta with tomato sauce and used ground TVP in the sauce as a meat substitute. My feeling is this: pasta is delicious with no animal products whatsoever, but if what you really want is something that looks, cooks, and tastes like meat - for goodness sakes, eat some meat.

There is one dish that I've broken my own rules for, only because if I make it with meat half of the people in the house will be excluded from the meal. The dish is "Sausage" and Peppers with onions and crushed tomatoes over brown rice; I use these Italian-spiced vegetarian sausages. Can you guess the very first ingredient on the package? Wheat Gluten! The protein-component of the wheat berry, separated from the rest of the plant and mushed around until it has a kinda-reminds-you-of-meat-if-you-haven't-had-meat-in-five-years consistency. This dish is dead simple to make and, as it turns out, really tasty without any meat substitutes whatsoever. I have aspirations of making my own sausage-like substitutes with lentils and almond meal, but have not yet had a successful attempt.

Italian Peppers & Onions (&Vegetables)

2 onions, cut into large pieces
2-inch piece of ginger, chopped
4 cloves garlic
1 bulb of fennel, chopped
4 carrots, peeled and chopped
3-4 bell peppers, cut into long slices
8oz fresh shitake mushrooms, chopped
1 zucchini, chopped
1.5 cups black beans (either canned or re-hydrated)
1/2 cup chopped black olives

2 jars of diced tomatoes, preferably no salt added
1 cup brown basmati rice
Pinch of red pepper flakes
Salt & Pepper
Italian-ish spices like oregano, basil, sage, rosemary, marjoram, and thyme.

Start a pot of water boiling for the rice - 2 cups water for 1 cup rice. Bring the rice to a gentle boil, lid on but tilted, and simmer until the water has been absorbed which should be about 30-40 minutes.

Put a dollop of coconut oil (or other oil good for higher-heat cooking) in your pan.  Add the onion, garlic, ginger, fennel, and carrots. Cook on medium-high heat for about 5 minutes, until they start to get soft.

Add the bell peppers, zucchini, mushrooms, black beans, and black olives. You could substitute other veggies or beans here; we chose these because they were what we had on hand. Cook for a few more minutes, until heated through, or when the mushrooms begin to shrink and the peppers begin to get tender.

Add the canned tomatoes, red pepper flakes to taste, and about a teaspoon of whichever Italian-ish spices you have around. Salt and pepper as needed.

Those who would like to could easily add some all-natural meat sausages.  Serve over rice.

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Couple That Eats Together...

This is an example of how I eat during the week:

Breakfast (old-fashioned oatmeal sprinkled with muscovado sugar) sitting next to Dan at the table. Not so bad, right? Wait. He works on a crossword puzzle and I work on checking email, news, weather, and Facebook status updates from people I barely know. We both try to keep track of Henry since he is a "morning dog", meaning he is at his orneriest and most likely getting into something. The other day I caught him trying to pull the Christmas lights off of our tree. He prefers ornaments, but they have all moved out of reach.

Lunch (leftovers from the night before or salad) at my desk, in front of the computer, on Twitter or working.

Dinner (something yummy we cook together; do we get points for that?) on the couch with the TV on, probably watching The Daily Show.

Isn't that terrible? I think so.

New Year's Resolution #1 (and there will be others)
Eat dinner. With Dan. At the table.

I know, it's a novel idea.

Resolutions like "lose weight" or "get healthy" are kind of nebulous and hard to achieve (although if they work for you, that's awesome). When are you officially "healthy" and how much weight lost is enough? I need something concrete and do-able, so I'm starting out 2012 by resolving to eat our dinners together at the table without the distractions of TV and computers at least 4 times per week. If it goes well, the sky (or 7) is the limit.

This was all inspired by an article posted on CNN recently about a woman who spent six months living in Paris with a Parisian family. It highlights five major lessons she's taken from the experience. One of those is that the family did not once sit down to dinner in front of the TV and zone out from each other. Dinner was always an event and always a delicious affair. We've got the delicious part down but could use some work with the rest of it.

If you already sit down to dinner at the table with your family and/or significant other, that is absolutely wonderful. If not, consider joining us in on this resolution!

For more healthy living ideas or great recipes, check out Food Renegade's Fight Back Friday.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A Classic Plate: Make Your Own Pizza

Just about everyone appreciates a good pizza. With so many varieties, we can all find something to like: thin crust, deep dish, classic, gluten-free, and sans cheese for The Vegans. Even dogs enjoy a good slice now and then.

On a pleasant Spring day, when we hadn't had Henry very long, we decided to take him on an outing into the Fell's Point neighborhood of Baltimore City - a lovely spot - to practice seeing lots of people and being social. As we strolled back to the car at the end of a successful afternoon, he zeroed in on it. Head down. Tail up. Sniffing. One stealthy chomp towards the ground, and he had it. A fully intact, day-old slice of cheese pizza no doubt dropped there in the wee hours by a bar-goer stumbling home. Unfortunately, this was before Henry knew "out" (he still hears it only selectively), and we were in the "prying things out of jaws" stage. Eventually, I believe he was willing to trade for a large bite of hot dog.

Dan hearts pizza!
Since not everyone enjoys Cold Dirt Pizza, I'd like to share our recipe and some special techniques for a successful homemade version. Dan and I have been making pizza together since the very beginning. In fact, one of our first forays into the adventures of cooking together found us newly dating, making cute heart-shaped pizzas for each other.

Note: The sauce and dough recipes are thanks to "Rabbit Food" - one of our favorite cookbooks.

The Dough
The first thing you need is some good pizza dough. You can buy it pre-made at a store, but it's very simple, inexpensive, and tastes better when you make it yourself. Mix up the dough around the time you eat lunch (it won't take longer than 20 minutes), set it aside, and it will be ready when you want dinner.

Makes two 12-inch pizzas.

2 tsp active dry yeast
4 cups of flour
1 1/4 cups hot water
3 Tbs olive oil
1/2 tsp sugar
1/4 tsp salt
Dashes of garlic powder, pepper, thyme, basil, oregano, and/or red pepper flakes

Mix together the yeast, sugar, and 1 cup of flour. Add the warm water and let it sit for 10 minutes. Mix in the oil and spices. Begin to add the rest of the flour 1 cup at a time until kneading is required (meaning you can't mix it with a spoon anymore). Then, knead in the rest of the flour 1/2 cup at a time until the dough is no longer too sticky to handle. Dan had to add in more water than is called for to get the mixture right - you be the judge!

Separate the dough into equal two parts. Set it on an oiled baking sheet (very important!), cover with a kitchen towel, and let it rise. It will be ready after about 60 minutes, but you will have better results when it's left for several hours.

When ready, channel your inner Italian to twirl the dough into pizzas or simply press them flat.

The Sauce
Again, you can buy the sauce pre-made but I recommend making it yourself. It's very easy and you have total control over the spices and flavor. I would add loads of garlic whereas Dan would toss in extra crushed red pepper.

Makes enough sauce for two 12-inch pizzas.

1 can tomato sauce
1 can tomato paste
2 tsp olive oil
2 tsp sugar
Dashes of garlic powder, pepper, thyme, basil, oregano, and/or red pepper flakes

Mix it all together. Taste often, and adjust spices as necessary.

The Toppings
Go wild! Topping your pizza is the most fun; use your favorite fresh vegetables and herbs. In my most recent pizza I used finely diced mushrooms, onions, and a bunch of garlic. Dan used mozzerrella cheese slices, sliced mushrooms, a green chili pepper for some kick, and fresh basil leaves (don't add the basil until the end of cooking). We also used a shredded Italian cheese blend along with some grated parmesan. Both pizzas were fabulous!

Cooking Tips
Everything has been really easy so far. Just put your pizza in the oven, cook at about 400 degrees for 15 minutes or until the crust is golden and cheese bubbles. Take it out, slice it up, and enjoy.

But wait.. if you don't have a pan that will hold a 12-inch pizza, how do you get it from the counter to the oven? And how will you get it out when it's hot? Success at these steps has eluded us until recently. I would pile the toppings and cheese on, making my pizzas so heavy that they could not slide into or out of the oven without dozens of mushroom and onion casualties.  One simple piece of equipment (and a bit of practice with it) can fix all that: a $10 pizza peel like this one.

I would also recommend investing in a pizza stone, which goes for about $50 and really does make a difference in the texture of the crust.

Buon appetito!

Check out more great ideas at the Real Food Wednesday blog.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

An Olive Oil Faux Pas

This is like the time I found out agave nectar isn't natural or even that good for you. Or when everyone realized that margarine, touted as the antidote to "fattening" butter, is actually really, really unhealthy (and butter is awesome). It's a little bit like everyone scarfing down products advertising "whole grain" but reading the ingredient list reveals only one "whole grain" constituent way at the bottom. Beyond frustrating. Except this is worse.

I love extra virgin olive oil. I cook with it just about every day. It's supposed to be healthy, and it clearly agrees with Mediterranean women. As it turns out, my well-intentioned EVOO purchases are A) probably not what I thought they were, and B) really bad for me. Based on an article from nutritionist Andy Bellatti's blog, let me summarize my mistakes.

What I Do: Go to Trader Joe's and buy the biggest, cheapest bottle of olive oil that I can find. Everyone says it's healthy, and I use it a lot, so this must be good idea.
Why That's Wrong: Andy tells us to "look for the California Olive Oil Council logo on a bottle" or "look for the Protected Designation of Origin logo", guaranteeing that what's in the store was actually produced and processed where it claims to have been (Spain or Italy for example). And, he says, while an expensive bottle doesn't necessarily mean that it's good, if you're getting 34 ounces for $6.99 (guilty!) it is most likely crap. I just read the ingredient list on our latest olive oil bottle, which is silly because there should only be one ingredient, but it includes "refined olive oil" and "extra virgin olive oil". What is refined olive oil, you might ask? Not all olive oils are created equal, and about half of those created in the Mediterranean region are of such poor quality that they must be refined to make them edible. No thank you!

What I Do: I have never paid much attention to the packaging of my olive oil, although I do choose glass bottles over plastic ones. I will say those slender, dark green bottles always look so fancy, but naturally they tend to be more expensive. I like to store the oil in a cabinet above the sink which also happens to be next to the stove. Once I had a really pretty bottle of it that I left out directly on top of the oven.
Why That's Wrong: Once again, you get what you pay for. Air, heat, and light all cause olive oil to turn rancid. It should come in a dark bottle (light), you should store it in a cool place (heat), and tightly reseal the container after use (air). It's also a good idea to look for bottles with a "Best By" date far into the future which likely means the product is more fresh.
Real, delicious EVOO I picked up on our trip to Greece. It's not even expensive there. COME ON Euro!
What I Do: I use EVOO in everything. Stir-frys, soups, thai curries, Indian dishes, salad dressings, lightly frying food, roasting vegetables - everything. I have never paid attention to whether or not the oil is smoking or to how hot it gets.
Why That's Wrong: Apparently, when olive oil is heated higher than about 250 degrees, and especially if you see it begin to smoke, the beneficial vitamins and antioxidants are turning into toxic prooxidants. The experts recommend cooking with a different healthy-fat oil that can take the heat such as coconut or avocado and saving the high-quality EVOO for things like hummus, salad dressings, or drizzling over fish and veggies after cooking.

Lesson learned!

For more healthy eating and lifestyle tips, check out the blogs featured on Food Renegade's Fight Back Friday.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A Saucy Plate: What's in Honey Mustard?

I was driving into work this morning and one of the local radio stations was asking people to call in with bloopers about things they've done in a restaurant. Had I called in, I would have shared the story of That One Time I Lit A Napkin On Fire. In an effort to get to the bread faster, I threw the fancy cloth napkin off of the bread basket and directly onto a candle. The waitress had to come over with her tray to beat the fire out.

As I was saying, people were calling in. One woman said she accidentally poured the honey mustard sauce meant for chicken fingers all over her child's mashed potatoes thinking it was melted butter. Whoops! This started me wondering - what is in packaged honey mustard sauce?

I didn't hear the name of the restaurant in question, but let's look at the sauces of two places nationally known for their chicken fingers/nuggets: Chick-fil-A and McDonald's.

Chick-fil-A Honey Mustard Sauce
distilled vinegar
modified corn starch
mustard seed
soybean oil
natural flavors
dehydrated onion
sodium benzoate (a preservative)
xanthan gum
guar gum
corn syrup
caramel color

McDonald's Tangy Honey Mustard Sauce
dijon mustard (distilled vinegar, mustard seed, salt, water, white wine, spices)
corn syrup solids
soybean oil
distilled vinegar
modified food starch
egg yolks, and 2% or less of the following:
mustard seed
xanthan gum
titanium dioxide
benzoate (preservative)
yellow 5
yellow 6

I am relieved to see that both honey and mustard make an appearance in both substances. Turmeric is used for coloring, which is a great idea since turmeric is an incredibly healthy spice with anti-inflammatory properties. It's bright yellow color makes it great for these sauces. So why did McDonald's have to throw in Yellow 5 and Yellow 6? I wish I knew. These artificial colors are both known carcinogens - meaning they are known to cause cancer. Titanium dioxide, another ingredient on the McDonald's list, was classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as a potential carcinogen because it has caused respiratory cancer in rats. Yes, it's used in minute substances in the sauce, and yes, that's probably okay if you only eat it twice a year. But what else is titanium dioxide good for? It's one of the whitest substances known to man, so it's really good at refracting light. This makes it a key ingredient in many sunblocks, and it's great as a protective coating for your car. Mmmm.

Not to pick on McDonald's. The Chick-fil-A list is better, but only slightly. What are those mysterious natural flavors? They are, by definition, some flavoring developed in a laboratory using things derived from natural sources. These natural sources could be anything - including tree bark - according to the USDA. "Natural flavors" could even mean MSG, which has to be listed by law but can be listed as a "natural flavor". MSG is known to cause adverse reactions in many people including headaches, chest pain, and numbness or tingling in the face.

Time for a real Honey Mustard Sauce recipe. I haven't tested this one out myself, but I believe Food Network chef Alton Brown and 50-some reviewers know what they are talking about!

Alton Brown's Honey Mustard Sauce
5 T medium-body honey (wildflower honey should work)
3 T smooth Dijon mustard
2 T rice wine vinegar

Combine all ingredients in a bowl and whisk until smooth. This can be used as a dressing or a dip.

Friday, December 2, 2011

I Heart Mushrooms

I admit it. I have an unabashed love of mushrooms.  Oyster, portabello, shitake, porcini, even the common cremini. And that's only what you can (sometimes) find in stores! Some Baltimore locals, who are clearly better than I, have expanded upon the 'shrooms available to them by learning how to forage for their own.  In fact, an interest in mushroom foraging is blooming all over the country. I have not yet had the good fortune to meet any of these folks, but I have met more than a few at the other end of the spectrum: people who don't like mushrooms. I immediately recognize these people as inferior. Is it wrong to judge someone based on their food choices? Probably. What if they were similarly judging us mushroom lovers?

"How can they think a bowl full of pureed fungus is half as good as a Big Mac?" they would say.

Oh, but it is.

There are few foods more satisfying on a crisp Autumn evening than a well-done mushroom soup. In fact, as I write these words there is a large pot full of the little guys boiling on my stove. Their aroma is one of fresh, moist earth, verging on meaty; the smell is a bit salty. There are five varieties in my pot, each one beautifully unique and infinitely flavorful.

The recipe comes from the capable kitchen of Jamie Oliver, converted from the metric system for readers' convenience and slightly modified because we can't find all of the same ingredients easily in the States.

2 packages dried porcini mushrooms
A dollop of olive oil
600g fresh mushrooms (Pick up a few varieties in the produce section to equal 600g. I was able to get cremini, shitake, and portabello easily; I got lucky and found some fresh oyster mushrooms as well. The more exotic the better! Weigh them on the scale in the produce section if the weight is not listed or they are not packaged.)
1 bulb of garlic (6-7 cloves)
1 red onion
A bit of butter
1 handful of fresh thyme
4 cups vegetable stock
1 handful fresh parsley
2T mascarpone cheese
A bit of lemon juice
Salt and pepper

Put the dried porcini in a bowl. Heat up water just to boiling and pour it over the porcini, just enough to cover them. Set aside.

Chop the red onion, garlic cloves, and pick the thyme leaves. Throw all this in a bowl and set aside.

Slice, roughly chop, and rinse off the fresh mushrooms. Heat a dollop of olive oil in a deep pan (I used a wok-style pan), and add the fresh mushrooms. Cook for about a minute. Add the onion/garlic/thyme as well as a knob of butter to the pan. Stir this all around for another minute or two.

Meanwhile, strain the porcini liquid (but save it). Chop half of the porcini and leave the other half whole. Add all the porcini as well as the liquid to the pot. Bring the entire mixture to a simmer and let it cook for about 20 minutes, until most of the liquid has cooked off.

In a separate soup pot, combine the broth and the mushroom mixture. Once again, bring to a simmer and cook another 20 minutes, uncovered. After that,  break out your immersion blender and blend the soup until it's a good chunky consistency - not smooth. If you are lacking in immersion blender inventory, ladle half of the soup into a blender, blend, and put it back in the pot. Add parsley and mascarpone.

Important: This really makes the dish. When serving, combine a bit of lemon juice, salt, and pepper and spoon a little of this into the soup. The lemon brings out the best parts of mushroom flavor.

For more great recipes and healthy living ideas, check out Fight Back Fridays over on the Food Renegade blog.

Monday, November 28, 2011

A Spicy Plate: The Biggest Rip-Off

I was in my local David's Natural Market picking up a few things. Being a specialty store, it's not the most cost-friendly, but they do have sales and if you pay attention to what you're buying you can actually do alright price-wise. They tend to have the more unusual items on my shopping list like muscovado sugar, brands that use BPA-free cans (most don't and I do not need 1200% more BPA in my body), as well as ice cream and butter sourced from local farms. They also have a great bulk section loaded with oats, nuts, legumes, and spices.

I strolled past the jarred spices and picked up a container of bay leaves. Seven dollars! I was annoyed at the price, but tossed them into my cart, figuring I would see if they had any in the bulk section when I got there. They did, and I'd like to share the numbers with you:

1 jar of gourmet bay leaves (.14 oz) is around $7.
Bay leaves in bulk (I purchased about .5 oz) are 79 CENTS.

Yep, a spice company sold bay leaves in a tiny jar for $50 (that's fifty) per ounce and I got a bag of bulk bay leaves for $1.58 per ounce.

I'll admit, this is an extreme example, but it illustrates a great point which is that buying spices to cook with can be prohibitively expensive and probably scares a lot of people away from branching out in their cooking. I'm sure there is some quality difference between the jarred and bulk spices, but for dried leaves that are removed from the dish before it is eaten - whatever difference there may be is not worth the spike in price. With other spices, I imagine the most improvement in flavor is obtained by grinding them freshly in the kitchen (remember how it was with coffee?), which I am not prepared to do.

So how can you afford spices? And which ones are worth your money? If you haven't figured it out, look in the bulk section of stores; huge chains generally do not sell spices in bulk but some health food stores do. The absolute best place I've found to purchase spices is at ethnic markets - Indian, Mexican, and all varieties of Asian. There, the spices are inexpensive. They typically come in large packages so you won't have to buy a new jar every other week, and it's easy to find the exotic ones that have been eluding you. Here's my list of essential dried spices for cooking (not baking):

Bay Leaves
Cardamom (green pods and/or powder)
Cayenne Pepper
Chili Powder
Coriander Seeds (these are the seeds that form on your cilantro plant, for you herb gardeners)
Cumin Seeds
Curry Powder (mild-to-medium)
Garam Masala (it's a blend of other spices, but it's tedious to make and so good it's worth buying)
Ground Coriander
Ground Cumin
Nutmeg (whole is better than ground, but both are good)
Sea Salt & Black Pepper (freshly ground)
Vanilla beans (whole)

I'd love to know if readers have other suggestions for must-have cooking spices! Once you've got your spice cabinet stocked, get inspired to use them and whip up some flavorful and aromatic dishes.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Wheatless Wednesday (The Last)

We thought it would never come. The end of not eating wheat - and just in time for stuffing and pies! Questions still need to be answered. How do we feel? Have we lost weight? Are we going to change our diets forever?

I feel good. As I've mentioned in previous WW posts, I think the foods I've been eating are more agreeable to my body than things like pizza and cookies. Also, I have tons more energy, especially in the mornings! There are still nights where I fall asleep on the couch at 9pm, but I blame that on Henry's 5:30am please-pet-me-nuzzles-and-tail-wagging. As for losing weight, I have no idea. We didn't weigh ourselves when we started (bad experimenters) and we don't own a working scale to weigh ourselves now.

Dan doesn't think he feels any differently. He finds that he isn't craving his usual wheat-full food like sandwiches or pizza, but he is looking forward to drinking his homebrewed beer.

Are we going to change our diets in the future? I've already written that I am permanently replacing the cinnamon-sugar sprouted grain toast I normally eat in the morning with old fashioned oatmeal sprinkled with muscovado sugar. I'm going to continue turning down cookies and cake at the office. I think we will eat pizza less often. I have never been a big pretzel or white-bread-sandwich eater.

Wheatless Recipe
We've made this "Amazing Beans" recipe several times over the past year and it's always really good! In fact, it was the first dish that inspired us to improve our collection of spices; it is one of the reasons our cabinets remain stocked with essentials like cumin seeds, turmeric, coriander seeds, cardamom pods, and garam masala. If you don't have these, find an international/Asian grocer or market and look there. The spices will be unbelievably cheap and you can usually find some really interesting items.

One great thing about Amazing Beans is that they are made in a slow cooker. Slow cookers/crockpots are handy because you can turn them on in the morning, let the Dinner Fairy work her magic all day, and come home to a nice-smelling kitchen full of ready-to-eat food. Once you learn to shove that nagging worry about the house burning down into the back of your mind, slow cookers are wonderful things. This particular recipe has you cook the food for 5 and 1/2 hours, adding some things, then cook it all a bit longer. I wasn't sure how to work this out since I'm gone for 9ish hours every day. Dan (and a Christmas light timer) to the rescue!  He gets full credit for the idea, and it's a good one if you don't have one of those fancy crockpots where you set the cooking times. Read on!

1 cup dried lentils (black lentils are recommended, brown ones are easier to find and are also good)
1/2 cup dried chickpeas
1/2 cup dried kidney beans
3 bay leaves
3 green cardamom pods
1 cinnamon stick
1 small onion
2-inch piece of ginger, peeled
6 garlic cloves
2-4 Thai, Serrano, or Cayenne chilies (we have used jalapenos in a pinch)
1 T cumin seed
1 T coriander seed
1 good lug of olive oil
1 t turmeric
1 t red chili powder
2 T tomato paste
1/2 cup Greek yogurt
1/4 cup heavy cream
1 T sea salt
7 cups water
Handful of fresh cilantro, chopped

Rinse off the lentils, chickpeas, and kidney beans. Every website I've ever seen advises you to pick through for stones - I never do that. Let your spirit of adventure and fondness for your dentist be your guide.

Put the rinsed lentils, chickpeas, kidney beans, bay leaves, cardamom pods, tomato paste, and cinnamon stick in the slow cooker.

In a blender or food processor (I use my average-at-best blender and it works fine) blend the onion ginger, garlic cloves, and chilies into a paste. You shouldn't need to add any liquid as the onion will be a bit watery.

The next step is to roast the cumin and coriander seeds. Add the seeds to a dry pan over medium-high heat. You'll need to stand there and stir/shake the seeds so they don't stay in one spot too long and burn. After about 2-3 minutes you'll notice them start to get a bit darker and become fragrant. Once browned, put them in a dish to cool; once cooled, grind them. You can use a fancy spice grinder for this, a mortar and pestle, or you can put the seeds in a plastic baggie and beat them with a rolling pin or something else heavy. All good options.

Heat the olive oil in a pan and add the onion mixture from your blender. Let it brown for about 5 minutes, add the smashed cumin-coriander seeds, red chili powder, and salt. Heat this all together for a couple of minutes. Add it to your slow cooker along with the tomato paste and water.

Cook this for 5 and 1/2 hours on high. If you're like me and out for more than 5 and 1/2 hours at a time, this is when you dig out the Christmas light timer. Set it to start 5 and 1/2 hours before you will get home and plug everything in; the mixture can sit undisturbed in the crockpot until the timer allows it to start cooking.

After 5 and 1/2 hours, add the yogurt and cream. Mix that in and continue cooking for another 30 minutes.

Top with the fresh cilantro. Brown basmati rice and naan (not wheatless) are excellent additions to the Amazing Beans.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Sugar. Oooohhhh Honey Honey.

I don't exactly have the credentials to warrant people coming to me for dietary advice. That's part of what A Peaceful Plate is about: giving unsolicited food guidance to the masses (40 or so people). I imagine if I was the sort of blogger who received questions, a really popular one would be:

Dear Peaceful Plate,
What types of sweeteners should I use? It seems like they are all bad.

Or maybe:

Dear Peaceful Plate,
I loooooooove diet soda. I have four every day. Is that okay?

To answer those completely fake, but likely popular questions, I would like to discuss the various options people have when it comes to sweeteners. Here's the caveat: if you have too much of ANY of them, ANY of them can be bad for you. Even the ones that aren't so bad in moderate amounts. Most of your sugar intake should come from whole foods like fruit - not soda, not energy drinks, not prepackaged candy or cookies, not cocktails or juices. Some added sweetness is fine in an occasional treat like dessert or a tasty morsel that you've made from scratch (nope, not cutting up and baking a log of cookie dough).

Sugar (sucrose, common table sugar): White sugar is made by refining raw sugar, which comes from the sugarcane plant. There's a good explanation of the process on Sucropedia that I do not need to reproduce here. It's complex and involves heating, spinning, clarifying, adding things to separate crystals from syrup and making the sugar white (bone char, anyone?), more spinning, and drying.

Brown Sugar: Brown sugar used to be a slightly less processed version of white sugar, but these days they just add molasses back into the white stuff. Seriously, read the label.

Turbinado, Demerera, and Muscovado Sugar: These are all examples of less refined cane sugars, muscovado being the least refined of all. You can often substitute turbinado or demerera when white sugar is called for; muscovado is an awesome brown sugar sub, and unlike refined brown sugar, it gets it's deep color and rich taste naturally from the sugarcane. When made under regulated conditions, it evenpacks in more nutrients and minerals than other refined sugars. Muscovado is in the midst of making a comeback, and can currently be found in specialty food stores and online. It's my topping of choice for a bowl of old fashioned oatmeal or baked apples, and here are 8 other ways to use it.

Agave: This one surprised me - agave nectar is not a good choice as labels would have you believe. It's highly refined, and it has more concentrated fructose than high fructose corn syrup. Even if it says "raw". Even if it says "natural". These terms are barely regulated by the food industry. FoodRenegade's blog has a great write-up that goes into more detail.

Honey: Honey, on the other hand, is a delicious natural sweetener. It's great for adding to hot beverages. You can stir it into Greek yogurt. You can ferment it to make mead and impress your friends. Bears love it. Honey can be purchased both pasteurized (what you regularly find in stores) and raw - I prefer the taste or raw honey, but both types are good. If you can find local honey (think orchards or farmer's markets), eating it may even help to temper seasonal allergies. Just be sure not to do your honey-shopping from any drugstores. A recent study found that honey from Walgreens, Rite-Aid, and CVS is guaranteed to be lacking pollen (there goes the allergy help) and is also pretty likely to be laced with harmful heavy metals.

Splenda, Equal, Aspartame, Sucralose, Saccharin, etc: Get outta here! Yes, the FDA says they are safe to eat, but I have my doubts. Once, before my Peaceful Plate days, I accidentally ate some sugar-free Reese's Peanut Butter Cups and had a stomachache and headache for several hours afterwards. You will definitely find artificial sweeteners in products labeled "sugar free", but you have to read labels because manufacturers may sneak them in elsewhere. Yogurt is a great example as many brands contain aspartame. Even if there is nothing in these chemical sweeteners that will cause cancer or diabetes or some new disease, they are still bad. Human taste buds are malleable - about three weeks of eating a given diet and our tastebuds will adjust to it. If we cut out salt, something Americans consume far too much of, food might taste a bit bland for a month but then we'll learn to taste a smaller amount of salt which naturally occurs in foods; cheese is a good example. What if we turn that principle around? Consuming Splenda, which is 600 times sweeter than sugar, can dull our threshold for sweetness to the point that sugar is no longer sweet enough. So we dump more Splenda packets into our coffee, and we are apt to indulge in more cookies, more cake, and more candy to satiate our sweet tooth. All of which can lead to weight gain, diabetes, and cancer.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Wheatless and Meatless but Not Beetless Wednesdays (Part 3)

Three weeks down and we are still going strong! Dan thinks he isn't enjoying the benefits of wheatlessness as much as he should be because he's had a cold most of the time and a mild case of poison ivy (from pulling it out of Henry's mouth - remember my post about that dog eating EVERYTHING?). Conclusion: wheat has nothing to do with poison ivy immunity. I, on the other hand, think that my digestion has improved, I have an easier time waking up in the morning, and I am sure that I feel better after eating my new breakfast of old-fashioned oatmeal.

Lessons Learned
Just one lesson for the past week. I typically try to cook a bunch of food at some point over the weekend so that we have lots of leftovers. Planning ahead is good, but not the moral I was getting at. In the span of about three hours on Sunday, I attempted to squeeze in: kale chips, vegetable broth, cranberry-apple crumble, celery root and cashew cream soup, and sweet potato latkes. Everything turned out a little weird (although the vegetable broth is still unknown), which leads us to the lesson - Don't Rush!

Wheatless Recipe
We really enjoy homemade veggie burgers. Many recipes use flour to bind the vegetables together and if you go with a store bought variety, you can be assured some wheat and soy will be in there, too. The wheatless beet and oat burgers we made this week are a wonderful edition to an Autumn menu - beets are in season so now is the time to use them!

Beet, Oat, and Chickpea Burgers
1 beet, grated
1 can chickpeas, rinsed
1 potato, boiled (throw it in some boiling water for about 15 minutes or until you can put a fork through it easily)
some oats (3/4 cup?)
1 T tomato paste
4 cloves garlic
1 t cumin
pinch of sea salt, or to taste
1/4 t chili powder
1 t garam masala
1 T olive oil

Beet hands!

Preheat your oven to 350F.

Put the grated beet, chickpeas, and potato into a bowl. Mix and mash them all together.

Add the salt, garlic, olive oil, tomato paste, and all spices. Mix it up again and let it sit for a couple of minutes.

Add ground oats 1/4 cup at a time until the mixture is a consistency that you could form into patties. We only added 1/4 cup total.  Spread more oats out on a burger-sized plate. Form beet patties one at a time and press both sides of each onto the plate so the burgers are coated with the oats.

Place the patties on a baking sheet; line it with parchment paper if you wish for easier clean up. Bake them for about 20 minutes, or until they start to look crisp on the outside.

We enjoyed our burgers bun-less and they were delicious! The garlic and spice flavors really stood out. Another win for beets!.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Battle of the (Coffee) Beans

I've previously made note of Dan's coffee habit and my opinion that everyone should make their coffee at home. The theory is that homemade is no more time consuming than stopping at your favorite coffee shop, cheaper (even accounting for high quality and fair trade beans), and far better tasting. To confirm the "better tasting" notion, A Peaceful Plate has conducted a blind taste test with six coffees intended to represent a broad spectrum of what folks out there may drink.

The Players
Myself and Dan along with Nescafe Instant, a Chock Full O' Nuts can, a medium roast blend brewed in a Flavia machine (for those of you with single-serving machines like Keurig), a regular coffee from Starbucks, Dan's fair trade Peruvian beans ground a week prior and stored in a plastic baggie, and Dan's fair trade Peruvian beans ground just before the tasting.

All coffees were tasted black, without added cream or sugar.

The Method
Dan and I served each other small pours of each type of coffee in random order; the drinker never had knowledge of which type they were given. The server took notes as the drinker reacted to each coffee and described it's aroma and flavor.

The Hypothesis
As with any good scientific study, we had a hypothesis.  You can probably guess what it was: the fresh ground Peruvian beans will taste the best.

The Results

Katy's Reaction Dan's Reaction
Nescafe Instant bad small - terrible!!!!!!; too strong; could barely drink it fruity smell; interesting; doesn't taste as good as it smells; doesn't make me want to drink more
Chock Full O' Nuts can it's pretty and frothy; some smoothness but a bitter flavor deep burnt smell; good round flavor in front; way too bitter at the end
Flavia (Medium Roast) good smell; some sweetness; makes my mouth feel very dry and is too bold sweet smell; disappointing; not bold or as strong as expected; tasted like it's been sitting in a paper cup
Starbucks (Regular Black Coffee) watery texture; not a lot of flavor; like warm water with some bitterness no real smell; finishes clean; good but not flavorful - middle of the road
Fair Trade Peruvian Ground 1 Week Ago And Stored In A Plastic Baggie no scent; not bad; just ho-hum very little smell, nutty?; some bitterness and some dryness; stale
Fair Trade Peruvian Ground On The Spot burnt stinky smell; taste is SMOOTH; rich flavor; VERY GOOD decent smell, richness; "aaaahhhh this is delicious"; good taste; very little bitterness

I must confess my biggest worry as a participant was that my novice coffee tastebuds would betray me and prefer Nescafe Instant just as a novice wine drinker might be over the moon about a White Zinfandel. I can recall drinking exactly five cups of real coffee in my life: four cappuccinos and one espresso during a trip to Italy in 2009. Tall, skim, no-whip lattes and mochas from Starbucks don't count as "real". While I did not enjoy the smell of the freshly ground Peruvian beans, it is clear that Dan and I both found the taste to be superior. I want to emphasize that word again, because it truly was superior - none of the others even came close.

Hypothesis: Proven.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Mighty Bean

Not long ago, I modified a black bean soup recipe and the result was so flavorful I knew I would write about it. My dilemma: what is there to say about black beans? I thought I might write about their nutritional prowess - calculations of fiber, protein, and iron. But I'm reading Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food, and I'm in the midst of his chapters regarding nutrition science's Big Mistake. Science picks apart it's understanding of a food's value into it's nutrient parts, or rather, those nutrient parts of which science is aware. Nutrition scientists haven't always known about antioxidants or omega-6's or good versus bad cholesterol, so it's entirely possible that the bean has magical properties that have yet evaded nutritionists. Let's leave our understanding of the black bean at this: it is good for us.

In the interest of fairness, I will share with you one thing I dislike very much about beans. There are two ways to buy them: in a can (i.e. ready to eat but loaded with sodium) and dried (i.e. a days-long-sanity-robbing effort to re-hydrate). While I firmly believe the process of re-hydrating dried beans of all varieties is deserving of it's own article which I may get to at a later date, my technique is summarized below:
  1. Dump a LOT of beans into a colander. I say "a LOT" because you can freeze beans you're not immediately going to use and the whole process is too much of a pain to go through very often. Rinse them and pick through for stones.
  2. Put the beans in a large bowl, fill the bowl with enough water to cover the beans by 2-3 inches, cover, and set in the fridge. Leave it there at least overnight; I have abandoned beans in the fridge for up to 36 hours with no noticeable ill effects.
  3. Things that would be soft after 36 hours underwater: a potato, a block of parmesan, a dictionary. Not beans! Dump them in the crockpot, fill it with water, and cook on low for 8-10 hours.
  4. The beans are almost soft enough. If you're not going to use them immediately, this is the time to store them in the freezer. Otherwise, a bit more cooking in the destination meal (simmered in a soup, for example) should get them there. 
Aside from this annoyance, I have only praise for the mighty bean.  Beans are good for us. They are filling. They are yummy. Based on a recipe from So Good and Tasty and my own personal preferences for ginger and a lot of garlic, I've concocted a delicious black bean soup to demonstrate why all that soaking and boiling is well worth it.

1 yellow onion
5 garlic cloves
A thumb-size piece of fresh ginger
1 bell pepper
3-4 carrots
3-4 celery stalks
2.5-3 cups of re-hydrated black beans
A good squirt of lemon juice
Some water or homemade stock

1 T ground cumin
2 t ground coriander
1 t paprika
A pinch of chili powder
1 t dried oregano
2 bay leaves

Chop all the veggies. No need to arrange them photogenically. Heat a dollop of oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add the onion, garlic, ginger, celery, carrots, bell pepper, and all the spices into the pot. Stir them around often for about 10 minutes until they have softened a bit.

Add the black beans, lemon juice, and enough stock or water (whichever you are using) to cover the mixture by about 2 inches. Bring it all to a boil, cover, and simmer on low heat until the liquid has reduced to the point of barely covering the beans. This should take about 50 minutes. Check the water level periodically - if it gets low or you want a soupier soup, you can add more.

Get out your immersion blender! Remove the bay leaves (I always forget) and blend.

For more recipes, tips, and anecdotes, check out Fight Back Fridays on Food Renegade.

For even MORE healthy lifestyle ideas and real food cooking, go to Butter Believer Sunday School!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Wheatless Wednesdays (Part 2)

Our crusade to rid our diets of wheat for four weeks continues! We are really getting the hang of things. Aside from cooking, Dan enjoyed another burrito bowl, we attended a crab feast, and we even went out to dinner at a local restaurant catering to dietary quirks.

Lessons Learned
  • Once again, planning tops the list. There's no easier way to break a wheatless pledge than to get caught hungry and without alternatives at the office pizza party. To keep a variety of snacks and meals available on a whim, we have to plan ahead, make a lot of things from scratch, and do some shopping at specialty stores. Dan has also made some modifications to his snack choices. While he would normally enjoy a grilled cheese sandwich on a lazy Sunday afternoon, these days he can be found noshing on a ball of fresh mozzarella.
  • The problem is in the soy sauce. Last week I mentioned we found out we couldn't eat at a particular Asian restaurant because everything on their menu (except salad) had wheat in it. I couldn't figure out what the wheat ingredient was until we tried to make our own stir-fry this week: it's the soy sauce. Gluten-free varieties exist, but we ended up making our own zingy sauce with rice vinegar, chili garlic paste, lime juice, moscovado sugar, and sesame oil.
  • Teamwork is going to be another major factor in our success. We don't have kids, undoubtedly leaving us with more free time than the average family, but we do have two full-time jobs, one crazy dog, a flag football team, a volleyball team, a running club, and plans with friends that keep us busy. By sitting down together to plan our meals and sharing kitchen responsibilities we both reap the benefits, and it makes finding the time to cook from scratch a lot easier. Togetherness is an element missing from many American meals, but shopping and cooking alongside each other is one way to reclaim it.
Wheatless Recipe
Last week, I featured a dessert so this time we're going to the other end of the menu. At a typical restaurant, appetizers might include rolls, sliced bread, breadsticks, or deep-fried-something, but none of that works for us. I had some farmer's market sweet potatoes on hand and was attracted to the title and photos of Farmhouse Baked Ricotta. I modified the recipe a bit, so I will reprint it here with our changes.

1 container ricotta cheese (The original recipe calls for 500g, but all we could find was a 412g size - thank you Imperial measurement system.)
1+1/3 cups grated parmesan cheese - we happened to already have a container of parm; any other sharp, hard cheese would work just as well. 
1-2 sweet potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced

Heat oven to 400F. 

Line a muffin or cupcake pan with 11 baking cups. Thanks to using a bit less cheese than recommended, we won't fill all 12 cups. Mix the ricotta and the 1 cup of the parmesan together in a bowl. Layer each baking cup with cheese mixture - 2 potato slices - more cheese mixture. Sprinkle what's left of the parmesan generously on top.

Bake for 20-30 minutes.  You will see the tops get puffy and start to look brown when they are done. Remove from the oven. The original recipe includes a fresh herb sauce to drizzle over these delightful little creations. We made the sauce, but I'm not including it here because I think a bit of pesto, which you can buy pre-made, would have been just as good (and much less work!).

Dan ate these warm, cold, with and without the herb topping and has confirmed every variation was delicious. Use them as a snack at lunch or as a dinner appetizer. 

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Wheatless Wednesdays

Dan and I are conducting an experiment in wheatless living. It started on Thursday, October 27, and ends on Thanksgiving, which I find quite appropriate. Mainly for it's alliterative cuteness, I plan to chronicle our progress each Wednesday.  I'll post lessons learned and a wheatless recipe we've enjoyed.

Week 1
Last Thursday morning, Dan sent me an article outlining the premise of a book called Wheat Belly.  Dr. Davis, the author, blames expanding American waistlines almost entirely on the over-consumption of wheat. He cites changes made to the wheat plant itself and it's prominent role in our diet as the culprits. I'm in agreement with Davis that wheat is everywhere (cereal, bread, pretzels, cakes, cookies, pasta) and is added into a lot of foods where it doesn't belong (Doritos, lunch meats, some candy bars). Even so, I'm not sure I buy the entire argument. Some of his statements are quite strong and evidence appears spotty, but at the end of the article he presents us with a challenge: try eating no wheat for four weeks and see how you feel.


The next few minutes went something like this:
10:00am - We agree that no wheat for four weeks is a great idea.
10:02am - I realize we can't get pizza for dinner as we'd be planning. Sad face. Chipotle burrito bowls are decided upon instead.
10:10am - Dan realizes he can't drink his latest batch of homebrewed beer. Really sad face. He thinks he can avoid giving up beer altogether if he only chooses bottles that list ingredients (not many) and buys the ones that don't list wheat (even less).

Lessons Learned
  • Plan ahead. The first two days of our experiment found us eating the same foods for lunch and dinner.  We made Jamie Oliver's Hamilton Squash, and it was delicious, but after having it for lunch neither of us felt like eating it again a few hours later. We got our butts in gear and went to the store armed with a list and a plan by the third day.
  • Wheat is everywhere. I thought we would be able to find at least a few places to get wheatless take-out and suggested Pei Wei (steamed rice, vegetables, and some sauce should be okay, right?), but their nutritional information sheet online tells a different story. Only their salads are safe. 
  • It's hard to change your habits. For Dan, it's missing a grilled cheese or peanut-butter-banana sandwich at lunch.  For me, it's furiously munching on tortilla chips at a party to distract from the cupcake display.
  • More energy? By Sunday, I noticed feeling more energized, particularly in the morning. Dan, on the other hand, was a bit sluggish and half-jokingly complained of "wheat withrdrawal".
Wheatless Recipe
I've been inspired again by farmer's market "seconds" apples and put together a Jamie O dish: Apple Crumble, modified for the purposes of our experiment.

For the Filling:
10ish medium apples of a few different varieties, peeled and sliced
2T water
1/3c sugar
Sprinkle of cinnamon

For the Topping:
1/3c brown rice flour (I think any alternative flour would do here)
1/2c oats
1T cinnamon
3T butter, cut into small pieces
1T sugar
handful brown sugar

Heat the oven to 375 degrees.

Put the filling ingredients in a pot and heat them on the stove until the apples get a little soft. I cooked mine about 10 minutes, but you may need more or less time depending on what type of apples you used and how many.

Mix all the topping ingredients except the brown sugar in a bowl with your fingers until they get a crumbly texture.

Drain most of the liquid out of the pot with the apples and dump them into a deep baking dish. Top with the crumbly topping.  Sprinkle a handful of brown sugar over the whole thing, and bake it in the oven for about 25-30 minutes.  It's done when the topping gets crispy and the apples are soft all the way through.

Monday, October 31, 2011

A Peaceful Halloween

Happy Halloween to everyone and safe trick-or-treating to all the kiddos out there!

I read, think, and write regularly about the treatment of animals within our food system. We know huge corporations wield their power over cows, chickens, and pigs, but there is another species whose mistreatment deserves some attention: humans.  It is people who harvest fruits, nuts, and vegetables, and unfortunately those same corporations are guilty of taking advantage of their workers in the form of low wages and miserable conditions.

I love cashews.  They are a yummy topping in stir-frys.  They can be turned into a delicious dessert. But have you noticed cashews are one of the only nuts you can't buy in the shell? Cashews are a cousin to poison ivy, and between the shell and nut lie the same pesky oils that cause severe rashes in many of us.  It is the job of human workers, mainly in subtropical countries like Vietnam and parts of Africa, to remove the shell and toxins from these nuts.

Cashew workers are typically not given gloves or masks, so the oils cause burning and rashes on their hands and eyes.  In May of this year, several hundred workers went on strike in Mozambique because of their low wages (about 56 USD per month) and no access to toilets during their workday. What can we, the consumers, do?  Try peanuts, pecans, or almonds.

The vast majority of candy bars being tricked-and-treated every year are likely to have been made with cocoa beans picked by children. In fact, the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture estimates there are 284,000 children working on cocoa farms along the Ivory Coast of Africa in hazardous conditions.

What companies buy these beans?  Hershey, Mars, Nestle, and the U.S. division of Cadbury.  They claim the treatment and age of workers on foreign farms is beyond their control. Could it also be related to this equation: cheaper labor = cheaper cocoa beans? Certainly. 

As any woman knows, giving up chocolate is not an option, but alternatives do exist in the form of "fair trade" products.  Fair trade items are more expensive for the consumer, but they protect the farmer and the workers by making sure more money goes into their pockets. While fair trade food may be a bit harder to find, most specialty stores carry a lot of it and it is quickly becoming more mainstream. Those of us who can find it and can afford it should absolutely be purchasing fair trade when possible.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Ode to the Pig

I've seen several articles trumpeting the resurgence of the McRib sandwich on major news websites this week. These are websites that typically report on political happenings and environmental crises - so kudos to the McDonald's marketing team for a job well done.  The sandwich gets "released" every so often which generates interest and excitement among many consumers.

At this point, I must confess that I intended to search for #McRib chatter and post snippets of people's excitement over the sandwich. I did do the search, and I found a lot of happy remarks, but I was incredibly surprised at how much of what I read was anti-McRib. I've chosen to post those remarks instead:
Either Twitter is a haven for opinionated, yuppie foodies or it's a truly representative sample of Americans who have some sense. I hope the latter!

One must assume that McRib pork comes from factory farmed pigs based on the sheer quantity required to meet the demands of millions of customers . Everything I've read about the factory farming of animals makes me sad.  Sad for the animals who cannot speak up for themselves and angry at huge companies for taking advantage.  I'm not a vegetarian, and I understand that the eventual fate of any for-food animal is the same, but I believe also that the type of life they get to live matters. Every living thing will die one day, however, a life spent meandering outside, rooting around in the earth should be unanimously accepted as better than a life spent confined in a pen, sickly, and presumably unhappy.

Ode To The Pig
A factory pig's days
are no roll in the mud.

Dirty and crowded and stale.

So much potential for them,
with a toddler's intelligence
and social as a wagging dog.

But owners Smithfield and Tyson
need to keep expenses low.

Living among filth and disease,
the hogs grow too large for their bones
because of antibiotics.

Now Americans can devour
pork sandwiches
for a few bucks.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A Humble Plate

Henry, our adopted dog, will eat anything.  I've caught him with chunks of lint he's theived from the laundry room trash. Rocks and mulch from the back yard are prized, crunchy treats. A dirty paper towel or a decorative silk flower arrangement?  He'll take both. Presented with an expanse of freshly mowed grass, Henry goes into "whale mouth" by dropping his bottom jaw and running it along the ground to fill it with clumps of the loose pasture as if he were a large ocean mammal gathering krill. He's most excited to go outside in the Fall because he knows a delightful temptation awaits in unlimited quantity: LEAVES. As with most dogs, Henry cannot be reasoned with.  Arguments such as "Rocks are not for eating," and "Here's a handful of your real food," fall on deaf (but cute) ears.

Not So Different
I was reminded of Henry's love of non-food substances when reading an article on artificial sweeteners at Food Renegade, and I realized that we humans are also guilty of an affinity for non-food.  It's not our fault, really.  Non-food is scattered among real food at the grocery store. It sits at eye-level, calling out to us from colorful, ergonomic packaging.  It says "I'll make you skinny!" and "I'll prevent heart disease and cancer and you'll live forever!"

Unfortunately, a lot of the products making these claims are working very hard to compensate for what they lack: real food.  Let's take an example. Dannon's Light & Fit Vanilla Yogurt sounds like something that would be very good for you. I want to be "Light & Fit" and I would bet a lot of other consumers do, too. Yogurt is well-known for providing calcium, protein, and those active cultures that placate our digestive systems.  However, Dannon's contains the following non-yogurt ingredients:  modified food starch, fructose, kosher gelatin, natural vanilla flavor, aspartame, citric acid, potassium sorbate, caramel color, acesulfame potassium, sucralose, annatto extract, and sodium citrate. Blech.

Go Humble
Have you ever heard an apple announce that it's good for your heart?  Or heard a carrot rant and rave about how little fat and sugar it has? Old-fashioned oats don't feel the need to boast "100% whole grain", although that's exactly what they are. It doesn't get much lower-carb than broccoli, but you won't see weight-loss companies advertising the flowery green.

We need to forget about labels and their claims and eat as much "humble food" as we can.

Humble food is something your great-grandmother would have recognized as food. It probably contains ingredients that you can picture in their natural form. A good rule of thumb is that humble food is something you could make. Whether you choose to is a different story. You might have a paralyzing fear of bees (guilty!), so bee-keeping is not for you but you could make honey. You could press your own olives, juice your own grapes, and deep-fry your own potatoes.

Some things you probably couldn't make:
  • High Fructose Corn Syrup
  • Chemical sweeteners - e.g. Splenda, Aspartame, Saccharine, Stevia powder
  • White Flour, Rice, or Pasta - i.e. wheat in which the bran and germ (the nutrient-and-fiber-rich parts) have been removed.
  • Artificial colors
  • Deli meat
  • Feedlot beef - sure, you could raise a few cows given enough land, but confining them in a small concrete pen and pumping them full of corn, soy, and antibiotics would be hard for even the meanest among us.
Keep in mind that most real food is not found in the middle aisles of a grocery store.  It's found in the front as sustainably-farmed produce and in the back as pasture-raised meat and dairy.  Naturally, the shortest path from the front to the back of the store is straight through the middle where those boastful processed items are. Hug the perimeter, read the ingredient lists to look for things you could have made, and remember that rocks are not for eating!