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.