Friday, June 26, 2015

Sugar Redux

Last year, around the time the movie Fed Up was released, I wrote about sugar in our diets. After talking to someone yesterday, whom I haven't seen in many, many years and who had a heart attack not long ago, about diet and health, and sugar, I went back to those posts and reread them. They are still relevant so I thought it might be a good time to link back to them.

Just last week the Washington Post editorial board both applauded the FDA's recent outlawing of artificial trans fat, and suggested that a sugar tax could further help turn around the unhealthy eating habits of many Americans.

If you'd like to read my thoughts about sugar in our diets, click here and here.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Mussels for An Easy Summertime Dinner

There was a piece in yesterday’s New York Times Opinion section by Paul Greenberg who wrote American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood. In it, he suggests that eating eating farmed oysters and mussels is both good for us and the environment. According to Greenberg, mussels filter gallons of water which helps fish and because mussels are filled with Omega-3’s (like tuna and salmon), eating them helps us. 

But the main reasons to eat mussels are that they taste great, are relatively inexpensive as seafood goes, and couldn’t be easier to prepare. I had made some mussels the night before reading Greenberg’s piece just because the omnivorous portion of the family loves them and on a hot summer day, it’s a great meal that doesn’t heat up the kitchen and goes well with a summery glass of dry rose.  

This is barely even a recipe. I bought three pounds of mussels which could serve 4 as an entree with some side dishes with a little heft, or six as an appetizer, but which Paul and I polished off alone with just a little broccoli steamed alongside and a piece of really good bread.

I washed the mussels in a couple of changes of cool water and checked to see if any had wiry “beards” which needed to be pulled off. With farmed mussels, few have beards and even if you do find some, they are little. Fresh, live mussels should all close up in the cool water. Discard the ones that don't. This batch did give off some dirt and sand, so I rinsed them well. 

After that, the absolutely easiest method, is to saute a half an onion, or a large shallot, or even a few sliced spring onions (which is what I used this time) in a couple of teaspoons of olive oil in a pan or pot large enough to hold the mussels as well, over medium heat for a few minutes and then add a minced clove or two of garlic and about a pinch of salt and a quarter teaspoon hot pepper (I like Aleppo). After about another two minutes, raise the heat and add about 1 cup of white or rose wine and let it gently boil for a few minutes to burn off the alcohol. Add in the cleaned mussels, lower the heat back to medium, make sure the liquid is still bubbling a little, cover the pot and let the liquid steam the mussels for about 10 minutes. 

If you want to get fancier you could add some celery in with the onion, or some diced tomatoes with the garlic. Herbs are always a great addition, and a few tablespoons of cream could go in once the alcohol in the wine has burned off. But these are just flourishes that while lovely, are not necessary if you want to keep things simple. 

I steamed some broccoli alongside, but you could easily throw it in the same pot with the mussels during the last five minutes or so of the cooking. Just keep the pieces of broccoli on the large size so they're easy to fish out when serving. 

Check inside the pot after about 10 minutes and make sure the shells have opened and that the mussels have plumped and solidified. At this point, if they have opened, toss the ones that stayed sealed tight. 

To serve, use a slotted spoon to place some of the mussels (and broccoli if you’ve cooked it all together) in individual bowls, then, when you can get at the broth and vegetables at the bottom, ladle some over each bowl. I reserved a little of the thinly sliced tops of the spring onion to toss on top before serving. Parsley would also work well here. 

Serve with great bread for dipping in the sauce. 

Friday, June 5, 2015

Late Spring

Summer paid us a brief visit, but now it's cool and wet again. I think my vegetable garden is doing better than my day lilies (see below!), but since it's been so rainy, I really haven't been out there to check on it much!

I've been trying out a few recipes from a cookbook Full of Flavor by Maria Elia who also wrote Smashing Plates. I found it in the sale area at my local independent bookstore and thought her approach was interesting. She gathers recipes around some of her favorite flavors (many of which also happen to be some of my favorites) and encourages the reader to improvise a little.

One of my goals in teaching cooking is to give others the confidence to know that they can deviate from the written recipe, so I thought I'd experiment with this book a little. The first recipe up was this one which, of course, I had to change around some and adapt to what I had on hand. I used spring onions instead of onion and added some diced up radishes and red cabbage to the mix to avoid some food waste. I used a mix of herbs as we are cilantro soap tasters around here and a very little goes a long way for us. In addition to a tiny sprig of cilantro, I used some lemon verbena, mint, and lemon balm. We topped the salad with Israeli feta and the almonds that Elia calls for. Quite good!

Yes, this deer is eating all the heads off of my day lilies

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Musings on Cooking

A food friend posted this Adam Gopnick piece from the New Yorker a little while back on her Facebook. It's a few years old but still gets me thinking.

I love reading cookbooks even though I don't need more recipes. I get into how people combine ingredients and hope to see some different cooking methods.  Most of us who habitually read cookbooks, blogs, etc. are simply looking to see how other people have creatively done this. Or maybe, to learn about new ingredients. And sometimes, just to drool over food we will never create at home. The ideas do percolate even after perusing a coffee table, chef-y cookbook that is purely aspirational.

But cookbooks do give the illusion of perfection. If you follow these 8, 10, 4, 25  steps correctly, you will achieve the perfect dinner and all will be good in your life. Perfect doesn't exist so don't even go there. But start somewhere and make like Nike. Just do it. Just try something new and see what happens.

Once we're comfortable with basic cooking skills, we can create meals from whatever we have in the kitchen.  I'm not talking about a crazy tv show challenge where chefs must make a meal out of coffee beans, grape jelly and squid, but typical weeknight dinners. If your pantry and refrigerator contain the right ingredients, cooking gets easier.

I think most people need to feel like they can do this with muscle memory, that they won't ruin a bag full of groceries, that there's no time to experiment. But, as with any muscle, it gets stronger with practice, and the duration and intensity of the exercise should be increased in small increments. You wouldn't run a marathon without training for months. Likewise, make small forays into the kitchen if you're not already cooking everyday. Make a one pot meal first: a pasta dish, a chicken dish, a soup. Serve a simple salad on the side. I read once that when taking up jogging as exercise that you should increase your distance by only 1/4 mile per week. Per week!

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Sweet Potato, Greens, and Bean Soup

We woke to a 64 degree house this morning, and though it felt great for sleeping last night, I had to do some cool acrobatic moves in order to bundle up without actually removing myself fully from the blankets. Just last week I worried that I was too late planting lettuce and chard as DC had a tease of the heavy air of August, which seemed poised to roll right over us for the duration. Today, with a high of 55 or so, it feels like a soup night again. Now I'm worried that I was premature planting my warm weather seedlings!

All winter, I kept finding sweet potatoes in soup recipes. Joe Yonan of the Washington Post had a sweet potato broth based soup with collards and black eyed peas. And then there was the streamlined sweet potato and kale soup in the Arcadia Mobile Market Seasonal Cookbook, written by JuJu Harris of the Arcadia Mobile Market, a service run by the Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture in Alexandria. 

I had planned to make a hybrid of these soups for a class I was to teach in March, that ended up snowed out. I had some ingredients around that I didn't want to waste, and things went in a little bit different direction, but, inspired by the above recipes, I ended up with hearty vegetable soup for a snowy day.

This soup is perfect for this time of year as well. Go ahead and substitute any other bean you like for black eyed peas, or other greens for collards. Use turnips instead of rutabaga, or throw in a parsnip or two with the carrots. If you're OK with salt, and the soup seems bland when you taste it, throw in a splash of Worcestershire sauce. Add more hot pepper if that's your thing. Play with this and use whatever you have hanging around the vegetable bin.

Easy Sweet Potato, Greens, and Bean Soup

(inspired by Joe Yonan and JuJu Harris)

makes a big potful

1 small bunch collard greens rinsed and dried
1 onion, peeled
2 stalks celery, washed and ends slightly trimmed off
2 carrots, washed and ends slightly trimmed off
1 Tablespoon olive oil, more if pan looks dry
Sprinkle Aleppo or Maras pepper (or 1/4 teaspoon cayenne)
1 rutabaga, washed and peeled
2 small sweet potatoes, washed and peeled
1 Tablespoon tomato paste
4 cups broth or stock (I use vegetable to keep the soup vegetarian, but can be chicken or beef)
4 cups water
1 can black eyed peas, drained and rinsed in a colander
1 cup small pasta shape - shells or ditalini work well
salt and pepper

Cut out the thick center rib of the collard greens. Put the leafy areas to the side and dice up the ribs. Then cut the leaves into ribbons or thin strips. Reserve those separately from the diced up ribs.

Put a large soup pot over medium heat on your stove. Dice the onion, celery and carrot. Add a little olive oil to your pot and then the onion, celery, and carrot and the reserved diced collard ribs. Sprinkle on a little salt and pepper and the Aleppo or hot pepper. Mix from time to time and cook until the onion begins to turn translucent, about 8 or 10 minutes.

Dice the rutabaga and sweet potato as the other vegetables saute. Add them to the pot, give it a good stir, and let that cook for another five minutes or so.

Add in the tomato paste and another pinch of salt and grind of pepper. Let that cook while mixing for 2 or 3 minutes.

Add in the water and broth or stock, the ribboned collard leaves, another pinch of salt and grind of pepper, and bring to a boil.

Once the soup boils, lower heat to medium low and let it simmer (still bubbling, just not too hard) for about 10 minutes.

Throw in the beans and the pasta and cook for another ten minutes.

Test a piece of the pasta to see if it's done. You want it al dente -- just a little bite to it, not crunchy and not mushy. Check for salt and pepper.

Serve topped with a little grated parmesan cheese if you like.