Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Queen of Fats

I hope I'm not going too far out on the soapbox here, but I've been reading a book called The Queen of Fats, by Susan Allport, who was recently featured on NPR's The Splendid Table. She's a science writer who writes about how our American diet has become dangerously low in Omega-3 fatty acids and too high in Omega-6.

In one section, Ms. Allport quotes from Corinne Shear Wood, Human Sickness and Health: A Biocultural View, "good nutrition does not inevitably guarantee good health. Poor nutrition, however, always produces poor health." Wow.

Allport's argument is that food production in this country has been geared toward providing an abundance of cheap foods, which are not as cheap as they may seem if they are harming our health. If, in fact, as she argues "these foods do no meet all of our nutrition needs and that the health costs associated with these foods mean they are far from cheap." One major example is the move to feedlots and commercial use of corn to feed steer, in lieu of the grass these animals naturally eat. In essence, this argument is that the meat we eat today is inherently different than the meat of the grass-grazing steer of yesteryear. This is something Michael Pollan has been saying for years and which even George Will has acknowledged (Washington Post, Sunday March 8, 2009). Michael Pollan says "you are what what you eat eats, too."

It's an interesting thought to put the greater expense up front in healthier foods and potentially save it later in health costs. Something to think about when comparing the price of beef at Costco and the cost of grass fed beef at a farm market.

I've mentioned many foods and recipes on this blog that are high in Omega-3: salmon, walnuts, leafy green vegetables, cauliflower, cabbage. Other foods that include Omega-3s are flaxseed and tofu and many other fruits and vegetables.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Oats - Not Just for Breakfast Anymore

I did not grow up eating oatmeal, and, frankly, I have no idea when I first tried it, though I know it was as an adult. As a young child, I thought cereal came in three varieties: Rice Krispies, Corn Flakes and Wheaties. All cold. Those, along with Pop-Tarts, Blueberry or Brown Sugar Cinnamon, never frosted, and a completely weird, mitt-like toaster pastry called "Cinnamon Sticks" were the full extent of our weekday breakfast offerings. For many years, I imagined that I didn't like hot cereals (in four years of college in the South, I never once tried grits!).

I vividly remember eating oatmeal in Ireland several years ago, and though I'm sure I'd tried it before that, it was the steel cut oats at Ballymaloe House that really turned me into an oatmeal eater. Creamy from slow cooking on the stove for an hour or so, and served with an assortment of brown sugar, fresh fruit and nut toppings as well as cream from the cows that lived behind the hotel, this was an oatmeal that anyone could love. I still love Irish steel cut oats, though I rarely take the time to make them. There is a local restaurant at which I sometimes meet friends for breakfast that serves steel cut oats. I look forward to that steamy bowl topped with brown sugar and dried fruit and nuts all week. When the server announces that they are out of oatmeal, which has happened all too often lately, I am so disappointed that if I didn't like the company, I might just walk right out of the restaurant.

At home, I am happy with run of the mill (no pun intended) Old Fashioned Oats which cook up in the microwave in only 2 1/2 to 3 minutes. If you're really in a rush, Quick Cooking Oats take about a minute less. I follow the directions on the package, using just water and oats. Once heated, I top the bowl with a little skim milk, a sprinkle of brown sugar or real maple syrup, and an ever-changing mix of dried or fresh fruit depending on the season and what I have around. I try to add a small handful of chopped walnuts, as they are said to be full of Omega - 3 fatty acid.

What's newer to me is the use of oatmeal beyond the breakfast table and the occasional cookie. I have recently seen several recipes for meatloaf which call for oats instead of bread crumbs. I'll write about that soon, once I've had a chance to play with that idea a bit.
I rarely bake, partly because I'm not a huge sweet eater and partly because I feel too limited by the need to measure ingredients precisely. But, I have had success with banana bread. I was inspired by a friend who brought slices of an oaty one to a picnic last summer. It was delicious and when she told me the basic ingredients, I realized it was significantly healthier than the standard from my childhood (Cookie's Steakpub!). She never got around to sending me the recipe, but I played around with the idea of using oats as she did. I also tried using white whole wheat flour instead of refined white flour. White whole wheat flour is milled from white whole wheat, rather than red. It has the same the fiber and nutrition of traditional whole wheat, but has a milder flavor and lighter color that more resembles white flour. In a bread like this, you can simply substitute white whole wheat flour in a direct one-to-one ratio for regular white flour. And I reduced the fat and by adding non-fat yogurt to lighten it up.

The result is a great compromise between the sinfully moist and oily banana bread of my youth and the uber-healthy cardboard that sometimes tries to pass itself off as a treat. This banana bread is something your kids might eat after school or even in a lunchbox.

Banana - Oat Bread
(makes one loaf)

1-1/4 cups white whole wheat flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
3 medium ripe bananas
1 jumbo egg plus one extra egg white
1/3 cup brown sugar
scant 1/2 cup canola oil
1/3 cup non-fat Greek style yogurt
1 cup quick cooking oats (you can use old fashioned oats in a pinch)
1/2 cup chopped walnuts (optional)
1/2 cup chocolate chips (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray a loaf pan with cooking spray - either an 8 x 4 x 2-1/2 inch pan or a 9 x 5 x 3 inch pan. Mix flour, baking powder, salt and cinnamon in a bowl and set aside. In a large bowl, mix the oil, sugar and eggs. Add the yogurt and then the mashed bananas into the oil mixture and stir until well blended. Add the flour mixture and stir until moistened. Stir in the oats and nuts or chips if you're using them. Pour into the loaf pan. Place loaf pan onto a cookie sheet and bake at 350 degrees for about 55 minutes or until a knife or toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Not at all Irish

I've been working on this recipe for a while and decided to write about it today in honor of St. Patrick's Day. I'm not Irish and I won't be making a corned beef, but here is a cabbage dish that bears no resemblance to the boiled variety. I hesitate to call it cole slaw, as this dish is so crisp and fresh and vegetal, that I don't want to conjure up the mayo mush that ordinarily comes to mind.

If you've been to the new shop in Kensington, MD, sub*urban trading co., then it's likely you've seen the bowl of slaw in the refrigerator case. That slaw was a revelation for me - not only mayo-free, but actually delicious enough to base a meal around. I've eaten it over leftover brown rice with a little touch of crumbled feta on top and I've had it with quinoa. My kids, especially my son, love it. While sitting at one of their pleasant little tables, my friend Karen ate it one day with a side order of sub*urban's white bean salad and a bit of baguette. It makes a great side to just about any dish that doesn't have a prominent sauce. It would be great complement to a roasted meat, chicken or vegetable, alongside a starch. And, it is so compelling that you will be tempted to just eat it out of the bowl when you are supposedly checking the flavor for salt.

This is the kind of non-recipe that you should feel free to play around with. If you like it tangier, a bit more lime juice will do the trick. Love celery? Add a couple of additional stalks. Increase or decrease the amount of onion, salt and pepper to your taste. I used a mix of canola and olive oils as I wanted a lighter flavor than most olive oils provide, but experiment with that too. This dish needs to sit for a spell for the flavors to blend and for the cabbage to soften and "pickle." So you have to plan ahead a little. On the other hand, it takes only about five or ten minutes to set up - depending on whether you're cutting your own cabbage. I found precut cabbage (not cole slaw mix - it's just cabbage!) at Trader Joe's recently, which worked fine.
If you find yourself in Old Town Kensington, check out sub*urban trading co. It's an organic, gourmet market/bakery/carry-out that is, I think, also looking into becoming a bistro. The owners are a mother and son who do great things with both baked goods (the most delicous scones!) and savory dishes. I think she is the baker and he the savory chef. They have a couple of lunch items each day and one carry-out dinner item each afternoon. If you can't get there, here's my version of their slaw. I'm calling mine cabbage vinaigrette. Call it whatever you like, but give it a try!

Cabbage Vinaigrette

(serves 4 -6 as a side dish)

1 small head green cabbage (or half a large head), cored and thinly sliced or 1 (10 ounce) bag pre-shredded cabbage

3 stalks celery or to taste, thinly sliced

1/2 cup red onion, thinly sliced in small strips rather than in rings

2 1/2 tablespoons fresh squeezed lime juice, about 1 good sized lime. In a pinch, you can substitute cider vinegar, but the lime has a great, fresh flavor

2 tablespoons canola or other light vegetable oil (I've also used avocado oil)

1 tablespoon olive oil

kosher salt

fresh ground pepper

Mix the cut cabbage, celery and red onion in a large bowl. In a small bowl, mix the lime juice, canola oil and olive oil. Pour the vinaigrette over the vegetables and top with a pinch or two of kosher salt and a few grinds of pepper. Although the mix will not look slaw-like yet, the cabbage will give forth some liquid and will eventually look a bit "pickled." Mix well and let sit on the counter for about 1 hour, stirring occasionally. After the hour, taste for salt and pepper and serve. If not using yet, refrigerate until ready to serve. If you like this not too chilled, like I do, remember to take the bowl out of the refrigerator about 20 minutes before serving.

This dish is best served within a few hours of preparation as it will continue to pickle over time. I like it the next day, but it is a different taste.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Got Five Minutes?

I spend a lot of time thinking about sodium. I guess that sounds pretty pathetic, but since giving up shopping as a hobby these last few months, I have extra time to devote to reading labels at the grocery store. I ramped up my label reading sometime last year after a bright yellow book jumped out at me from the jumble of covers on the packed book table at Costco. The book Eat This, Not That was written by the Editor-in-Chief of Men's Health magazine. My 16 year old son found it on the kitchen island and we ended up reading it half to ourselves, half aloud, sitting side by side on kitchen stools. We shrieked (OK I shrieked...he just grumbled in his very low, getting lower by the minute voice) our way through some of the revelations in the book: 2,656 mg sodium in a Chipotle Mexican Grilled Chicken Burrito, 2,080 mg sodium in Panera's Sierra Turkey Sandwich, and an out of the ballpark homerun 5,290 mg sodium in Macaroni Grill's Spaghetti and Meatballs with Meat Sauce. Some of these amounts are high due to the colossal servings these places put in front of us. However, we found that Chili's kid's Pepper Pals Crispy Honey Chipotle Crispers has 1,870 mg of sodium. Wow! Compare that to the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services recommendation that adults consume no more that 2,300 mg sodium in an entire day.

Here's a quick, quick, quick recipe that will help to control sodium. This tomato sauce takes only minutes more time and minimal additional effort than opening a jar of pasta sauce. I don't normally keep crushed tomatoes in my pantry, so that was one item I had to purchase the first time I made this sauce. Now I keep a couple of cans just for this purpose. I checked many brands of crushed tomatoes and found a wide range of sodium amounts. Bionaturae Organic Crushed tomatoes have the least of any I found. I have also used used San Marzano brand and Redpack and just added salt little by little. I always have fresh garlic and almost always have lemons. Lemons last a pretty long time in the refrigerator and are delicious in many recipes. And they come in handy for cocktails.

Lemon zest, for those of you new to this most lovely part of the lemon, is the bright yellow outer layer of the skin. To zest a lemon, gently scrape a washed and dried lemon against a zester (I use a Microplane zester) and hold the fruit very gingerly. Kind of how my first golf instructor told me to hold the club - like you're holding a bird - tightly enough that it doesn't fly away and gently enough that you don't squash it. Only take off the outermost layer of the peel. The white inner layer is quite bitter. The lemon added such a surprising, bright flavor and clearly reduced the amount of salt my palate required.

I found this recipe on which is a beautiful blog filled with delicious vegetarian recipes and mouth-watering photos. My version uses the same ingredients, albeit in different proportion, but I changed the method slightly to better control the salt.

Five Minute Tomato Sauce
(adapted from 101 Cookbooks)

makes about 1 quart

2 -3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (or more to taste)
3 medium or two large cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1 (28 ounce) can crushed red tomatoes
pinch or two of salt
zest of one lemon

Heat a saucepan over medium heat. After a minute or two, add the olive oil and let it warm up a little. Put the garlic and crushed red pepper into the pan, stir and let the garlic soften for about a minute. Don't walk away as you don't want to let the garlic get brown and crispy. Add the tomatoes and a pinch of salt to the pan and bring to a simmer. Mix in the zest and then taste. If you need more salt, add another pinch. Though the original recipe says to taste for salt before adding the lemon zest, I found that when I tasted for salt after adding the zest, I needed less.

This sauce is great as-is over pasta or tortellini for a quick weeknight meal. With the lemony flavor, I think it would also be a winner with fish - perhaps gently simmering some hake or snapper right in the saucepan and serving over orzo or whole grain couscous.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Mrs. Obama's Healthful Eating

Foodies have been buzzing about Michelle Obama's recent visit to Miriam's Kitchen, a DC center that feeds the homeless. Yesterday's New York Times Dining section featured her on the front page. Apparently, Mrs. Obama spent some time talking about healthy eating and promoting fresh, unprocessed and locally grown foods. Ruth Reichl, Editor of Gourmet magazine, applauded Mrs. Obama for promoting healthy eating for everyone, not just her own family. "Clearly Mrs. Obama is making a point. She thinks communities across the nation deserve to have access to fresh fruits and vegetables." What stood out to me is an anecdote about a terrific sounding creamed spinach without the cream, made by the White House chefs. Despite the fresh ingredients, and the creative, healthy recipe, Sasha did not like the dish. "No matter what you do,"sometimes kids are like, 'It's green!'." (exciting update!! - 3/18/09 - White House recipe for creamed spinach can be found at:

I think the key is to keep trying. Maybe they only take what my son and daughter's third grade teacher called a "no thank you portion" at first. As they get older and have seen the vegetable on your plate for so long it seems normal, maybe they'll try it again and like it. Maybe they'll never like it, but you'll never know if you don't keep trying from time to time.

On that note, try salmon. Salmon seems to be the workhorse in my fish repertoire and I probably cook it close to once a week. There are many reasons why, when I stand at the fish counter, I am repeatedly drawn to salmon. We all know it's a healthy source of Omega - 3 fatty acid, which we are told helps prevent heart disease. It's a versatile protein that can be cooked in a myriad of delicious ways and is near to impossible to ruin. Lately, it's been one of the less expensive fish options available. And, this is a biggie...many kids will eat it. Both of mine will, as will several of my younger nieces and nephews. For taste, I prefer wild Alaskan salmon. This also seems to be the salmon of choice as far as sustainable seafood and health issues go. I have tried the organically farmed Irish salmon available at a number of stores, and, in a pinch, it's fine too.

For a number of years, I relied on a miso/soy sauce glaze from Cooking Light which my family loved. I have since received two other Asian inspired recipes for sauces to use with salmon which have been uniformly popular. However, the sodium content of the miso and soy sauce, even the low sodium soy sauce, keeps me from using these recipes as often. Plus, variety is crucial when you eat salmon as often as we do.

I've tried some other marinades with maple syrup and they are often tasty enough, but this recipe is something special. It's simple both in terms of required ingredients and method. The end result is, as with the roasted cauliflower, more than the sum of its parts. This dish, while not fancy, is as appropriate for guests as for a weeknight family dinner. As the recipe amounts are per fillet, it can be reduced and expanded without much mathematical prowess.

I found the inspiration in The Balthazar Cookbook, from the restaurant of the same name in New York City and adapted it to make it a little more user friendly for the home cook. For purposes of reducing the sodium content even further, read the labels of the bread crumbs and the Dijon mustard carefully. I found whole wheat bread crumbs with no salt added at Whole Foods recently. I no longer use the readily available commercial brands of bread crumbs as the ingredient lists often include corn syrup and chemicals in addition to the bread. I have made bread crumbs myself from time to time, and if you are inclined to do so, that's another way to control the contents. However, having some already on hand makes this a go to weeknight recipe.

Mustard - Crusted Salmon
(adapted from The Balthazar Cookbook)
serves 4

2 tablespoons olive oil
4 salmon fillets, each about 6 -7 ounces
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard per fillet
1 teaspoon whole wheat bread crumbs, per fillet

-Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
-Spread 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard on the rounded, non-skin side of each piece of salmon.
-Sprinkle 1 teaspoon breadcrumbs on top of the mustard on each fillet. Use your fingers to gently press the crumbs into the mustard.
-Heat a large, ovenproof saute pan over a high flame and add the olive oil (note - If you have a non-stick pan that can go in the oven at 450 degrees you can use that. Many nonstick pans are not appropriate for that heat, though. Also, if the handle is not heatproof, try covering it with aluminum foil before you put it in the oven). Let pan get nice and hot. When you feel a good amount of heat rising as you hold your hand about two to three inches over the surface of the pan, add the salmon, mustard coated side of the fish down. Lower the flame to medium and sear the fish until a crust forms, about 3 -5 minutes.
-Carefully flip the fillets and sear the other side for about 2 minutes more.
-Transfer the pan to the oven to finish cooking for about 10 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fillets.

Balthazar recommends serving this with lentils, which would be delicious. I recently served this with roasted broccoli and a quinoa "salad." Last time, I sauteed spinach (see last post!) and made a dish of white beans. I'm a little deficient in the photography department or I'd have a photo to share. I hope to add photos to the blog soon!

**For those of you who can't use bread crumbs, try one of the maple syrup marinades: Mix 1/4 cup rice wine vinegar, 1/4 cup maple syrup, 2 tablespoons orange juice and dash of salt and a couple of grinds of black pepper. Marinate the salmon in this for an hour or two in the refrigerator. Reserve the marinade and pour into a small saucepan. Bring it to a boil and then lower the heat and simmer until it reduces a little. Grill the salmon either on a grill pan coated with cooking spray or olive oil or barbecue grill until the fish flakes easily. Serve with the reserved, reduced marinade. You can even garnish with some scallions or chives if you like. This is great with brown rice or whole wheat couscous or even a quinoa salad.

Friday, March 6, 2009

How Green Is Your Dinner?

There are many things that I will not do for my health until such time, if ever, as I am pressed completely to the wall. For example, I will never completely give up pasta. Some people feel this type of strong commitment to chocolate. For me, it's pasta. I will limit my portions, I will try each generation of whole grain pastas and I'll cook it al dente to lesson the amount of starch and, therefore, decrease the speed at which it is converted to sugar in my body (this one sounded reasonable when I read it, but boy, does it sound completely desperate now). But, I don't think l will ever be able to completely excise it from my diet. And if I eliminated it from my family's, there'd likely be a mutiny.

Eating extra vegetables at every meal is one way I've found to cut back on the pasta. Dark, leafy greens seem to do the trick really well. They are packed with good vitamins, calcium, anti-oxidants and fiber, and when cooked well, taste great. They taste great with pasta and grains as well as beans. And the best part is that it's so easy to prepare them.

So, kale. I love kale. My family tolerates kale. But they eat it! Kale was another vegetable I had never eaten before last winter and now serve regularly. Often, I just saute it in a large non stick frying pan in a little bit of olive oil, with minced garlic and crushed red pepper. Pretty much the same way I've done spinach over the years. Kale retains a little more body than spinach and doesn't get as mushy when sauteed, which I really like. I'll provide the recipe below. Recently, I threw some leftover kale, as well as the tougher ribs I'd cut from the kale leaves the day prior, into a beef and barley soup that was cooking away on my stove. It was delicious and there was not a word during dinner. Just a lot of noisy slurping.

I do, however, use spinach in just about everything else I can think of. If it seems to go with a winter soup, I throw some in just before serving. Sometimes, I buy the big bags of spinach at Costco and then it's a spinach week around here. Sauteed. Swirled into soups. Spinach salad. With pasta. I prefer baby spinach when I'm buying at the grocery store this time of year. It cooks more quickly, and there's usually no trimming of tougher stems required.

After mastering spinach and kale, I turned to chard. Turns out, my husband likes the mix of chard and spinach as a sauteed side dish. Chard comes in a red tinged form, too, which can be fun on the plate. Chard is a little milder and softer than kale.

Broccoli rabe intimidated me. Is it broccolini? Is it kale? How to cook it? Trader Joe's used to sell it already cut up in salad like bags, so when I came across this Giada De Laurentiis pasta recipe, I decided to try it. The trick is to boil the broccoli rabe briefly before cooking it further in a skillet. Takes out some of the bitterness. Sadly, the Oz-like brains behind Trader Joe's have decided to no longer carry that item, so I have had to start cutting my own rabe.

I noticed just yesterday, however, right in my neighborhood Safeway, an entire rack of precut and bagged greens: mustard, kale, chard and collard. No excuse not to try them any longer.

Sauteed Greens (works with spinach, kale, chard, or a mixture of them)
(serves 4)

1 bunch kale, chard or spinach, or bag of precut greens
2-3 large cloves garlic, minced
pinch dried crushed red pepper
kosher or sea salt

If using a bunch of kale or chard, cut the tender leaves away from the tougher, spiny stems. You can save the stems for a soup or other longer cooking stew if you like. I try to do that if possible, but sometimes they are wasted. Cut up the leaves into smaller pieces, the size you like for salads.

Wash the greens in cool water, and spin dry lightly, leaving just a touch of water on the leaves.

Heat a tablespoon or so of extra virgn olive oil in a large non-stick skillet on medium heat. If you prefer, you can use a mister or olive oil spray. Add the minced garlic and let it soften just briefly. You do not want it to brown.

After about a minute, put a large handful of the greens into the pan and stir frequently from the bottom. As the greens soften, add the rest of the greens by handfuls until all of the greens have softened. If the pan seems dry during the process, add a 1/4 cup of water or stock. Once the greens have softened and darkened, add a pinch of kosher or sea salt and a pinch of crushed red pepper.

You can serve this as a side dish with a pasta dish, or most meat or chicken dishes. I like it over brown rice or quinoa.

Orecchiette With Sausage and Broccoli Rabe
(adapted from Giada De Laurentiis, Everyday Italian)

(serves 4 with leftovers, unless you have a teenaged son )

We love this dish with broccoli rabe as well as with kale or chard. With kale or chard, you don't have to boil the greens first.

2 bunches broccoli rabe (or 1 large bunch chard or kale)
16 ounces dried orecchiette pasta or other small shape like penne or farfalle (for this dish we go traditional and use white pasta. Feel free to try whole wheat or rice pasta if it suits your diet better)
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 pound Italian chicken or turkey sausage, casings removed (if you like it very spicy, use spicy Italian sausage, if you like it less spicy, use mild sausage)
3 garlic cloves, minced
pinch of dried crushed red pepper
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese (optional) - use a real Parmigiano Reggiano, please. no green cans!!!
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

-Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the broccoli rabe and cook until crisp-tender, about 1 minute. Strain the broccoli rabe out of the pot and set aside in a bowl, leaving the pot ready for cooking the pasta.
-Cook the pasta in the same pot of water, stirring occasionally, until tender, but al dente, or firm to the bite. Reserve one cup of the pasta cooking liquid and then drain the pasta.
-Meanwhile, in a large, heavy skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of the oil over medium heat. Add the sausage and cook, breaking up the larger pieces with the back of a spoon, until the sausage is brown and juices form, about 8 minutes. Spoon most of the resulting liquid out of the pan and discard. Add the other tablespoon of olive oil, the minced garlic and the crushed red pepper to the pan and cook about 1 minute. Add the broccoli rabe and toss to coat. Cook until greens are soft and tender. Add the pasta and enough of the reserved cooking liquid, 1/4 cup at a time, to moisten. Stir the Parmesan cheese, if using, and the black pepper into the pasta mixture. Serve.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

There Are No Coincidences

In rereading Laurie Colwin's essay collections Home Cooking and More Home Cooking, both written before her premature death in 1992, I am struck by how relevant her writing is today. In writing about food, and particularly, mealtime, in the introduction to More Home Cooking, she writes "I know that young children will wander away from the table, and that family life is never smooth, and that life itself is full, not only of charm and warmth and comfort but of sorrow and tears. But whether we are happy or sad, we must be fed. Both happy and sad people can be cheered up by a nice meal." In commenting on the difficulties facing families in which both parents work long hours, she says "These are hard times for people who like to eat, who like to cook and who hate to do both but need to. Our present economic system leaves us pressed, drained, exhausted, and yet...and yet we still need sustenance, and contact." Certainly words to think about, as we children of privilege navigate our way through this economic tornado.

This recipe evolved from a Melissa Clark column in the Dining section of the New York Times last year. In it, she described a red lentil soup she tasted at a friend's dinner party. She altered the friend's recipe a bit, and I altered hers a bit. It's an interesting and surprisingly delicious soup - sort of wintry, but sort of spring-y with it's burst of lemon. Fitting for this week as the snow melts into what we hope will be a spring weekend.

I had never used red lentils before I made this soup. In fact, I'd never even heard of them. And, I'd only used bulgur years earlier in the stuffed peppers recipe found on the Old World brand box and once, in an ill-received attempt at tabbouleh. Not that my version was bad, but we found that no one in the family actually liked the strong taste of so much parsley. Oh, and there was the Cooking Light bulgur salad with chickpeas and dried cranberries that my family hated so much that they renamed the grain "vulgar." My recipes are vetted by a tough crowd!

I have found red lentils in the bulk area at Whole Foods and at my local organic market (MOM!) The red lentils are without the hull or casing that you generally see on brown and green lentils, so as they cook, they fall apart. Not so great in most dishes, but, as Melissa Clark notes, perfect for this soup.

Bulgur or bulgur wheat, a staple in Middle Eastern cooking, is wheat kernels that have been steamed, dried and crushed. For anyone with gluten issues, I'm pretty sure bulgur is a no-no. If so, just leave it out of the recipe. The soup will be fine without it.

I have been pretty lucky lately in finding low or no salt stocks at Trader Joe's and even in some of the regular grocery stores near me, such as Safeway and Harris Teeter. For sure Whole Foods and the organic markets and coops should have them. If your store does not carry them, I recommend you ask about it at customer service as I've found that when I've asked about items in the past, they will sometimes try to acquire them if they perceive there's enough interest.

Red Lentil Soup
(serves 4)

(adapted from Melissa Clark)

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 large carrots, peeled and diced
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt, more to taste
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
pinch of ground chili powder or cayenne
1 quart low or no salt added chicken or vegetable broth
3 cups water
1 cup red lentils
1/4 cup bulgur
juice of 1/2 lemon, more to taste (can add some zest too)
3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro (I leave this out as we don't care for cilantro or you can substitute parsley).

1. In a large pot, heat the olive oil over high heat. Add onion and saute until starting to brown, about 5 minutes.

2. Add garlic and carrots and saute several minutes more.

3. Stir in tomato paste, cumin, salt, black pepper, and chili powder or cayenne and sauté a few minutes more.

4. Add broth, water, lentils and bulgur. Bring to a simmer then partially cover pot and simmer until lentils are soft, about 30 minutes.

5. Using an immersion blender or regular blender or food processor, puree half the soup then add it back to the pot ( I have actually skipped this step and the soup was fine).

6. Stir in lemon juice and cilantro, if using. Taste and add more lemon juice and/or salt if necessary. Melissa Clark suggests serving the soup drizzled with good olive oil. I'm sure that would be great, but I feel there is enough olive oil in the recipe and usually garnish with some toasted pepitas or a tiny crumble of whole grain tortilla chips.

Serve with a green salad and a hearty grain bread (lightly spread with goat cheese if you're feeling fiesty)

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Chili is as Chili Does

While my mind is set on Spring my body is still here in one of the worst DC winters I've experienced since moving to the area 19 years ago. A blast of Arctic air this week and a late snowstorm brought us back to the comfort of a chili dinner. My family loves chili and I have been making it several times each winter for years. However, when I first started making chili years ago, I used a pre-made spice mix. This was no ordinary mix, but a handmade blend using Vermont maple sugar, created by the daughter of a family friend from the old country (NY!). My mother used to buy cases of the packets of Ali's Chili Mix for my brother, my sister and for me. This was the chili of choice for all of our families until Ali stopped production. I used the last packet of the chili spice close to ten years ago, and my chili making floundered for a while after that.

Some years ago, Cooking Light published a recipe with a spice blend that sounded similar in spirit to Ali's. After many pots of chili and much tinkering with the recipe, I came up with one of my own that is now my family's chili of choice. It is relatively simple to make, and I serve it right in the pot on our kitchen island next to bowls of toppings such as diced onion and tomato, light shredded cheddar or Mexican cheese blend, and fat-free yogurt for those who wish to cut the spice a little. Sometimes, I dice some avocado as well. Serve over pasta or with a whole grain bread.

Lately, I have been able to greatly reduce the amount of sodium in the dish with the more readily available low or no salt added cans of beans and diced tomatoes. Even if you aren't able to find the reduced sodium beans, take the time to open all the cans, dump them into a colander or strainer in the sink and rinse them well before using. I recommend using less than full water pressure on them, though, as they can otherwise get sort of smushed. The best thing to do when adding salt to a recipe, though, apart from limiting the amount, is to switch to kosher salt and sea salt. Kosher salt is inexpensive and very versatile. I use it in all my cooking. The crystals are larger than iodized salt, so by volume, 1 teaspoon of kosher salt yields quite a bit less sodium than the same amount of iodized salt. In some of my recipes, I use a light sprinkle of sea salt at the end, for huge flavor with less sodium.

I make many variations of this chili depending on my mood at the time and how extra healthy I feel like making it. It can be made vegetarian, with ground turkey, or ground beef or a combination of any or all of the above. Most grocery stores sell chiles in adobo sauce. The Vermont maple sugar is a specialty item that you do not need to purchase. I use it as a nod to Ali's chili. Just substitute brown sugar or agave nectar if you have it.

Wendy's Kitchen Sink Chili
(cause everything's in there!)
inspired by Cooking Light's Chili Especial

serves 8

1 can chipotle chiles in adobo sauce
2 pounds lean ground beef (I generally use sirloin) or turkey
1 medium to large onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil
2 1/2 tablespoons chili powder
2 teaspoons unsweetened cocoa powder
2 teaspoons dried oregano
2 teaspoons cumin
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon Vermont Maple Sugar (can substitute brown sugar or agave nectar)
2 cups water (feel free to substitute some red wine or beer for some of the water)
1 (28 - ounce) can of diced tomatoes, undrained (can substitute 2 14.5 ounce cans. I use Muir Glen no salt added Fire Roasted Diced Tomatoes)
2 (15 - ounce) cans kidney beans (use no salt added if you can find them), drained and rinsed
1 (15 - ounce) can pinto beans (use no salt added if you can find them), drained and rinsed
1 (15 - ounce) can black beans (use no salt added if you can find them), drained and rinsed
1 1/2 cups frozen sweet corn
1 1/2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

*optional ingredients: one small eggplant (peeled), 1 zucchini, 3 -4 large carrots, each diced.

- Remove 1 chili from can. Dice up and set aside. Reserve remaining chiles in sauce in a sealed container for another batch. If well sealed, these keep for a long time! (Note: this is where the hotter flavor comes from. Use more or less depending on your taste.)
- In skillet, cook ground beef or turkey until browned with no more pink showing in the meat. Break up larger chunks with the back of a spoon. Drain fat.
- In large pot or Dutch oven cook onion and garlic in the oil, over medium heat.
-Once the onion has softened and become translucent, add chili powder and next four ingredients (chili powder through salt). Cook 1 minute, stirring constantly.
-Stir in the diced up chipotle chile, the Vermont maple sugar, the water, the cans of tomatoes.
-Add the drained, cooked meat in to the pot. Bring to a boil. Once boiling, cover, reduce heat to low, and simmer for 15 minutes to a half an hour.
-In the meantime, open the cans of beans and rinse and drain.
-Once the meat mixture has simmered for the 15 minutes to half an hour, add the beans and simmer 15 minutes more.
-Stir in the wine vinegar and simmer 5 more minutes.

**note: to substitute veggies for the meat, you can use only one pot! In the large pot, cook the diced carrots, zucchini and/or eggplant in 1 Tablespoon of olive oil on medium heat. Then add the onion and garlic after 5 or so minutes, and follow as above. To include these extra veggies to a meat based chili, simply start the veggies in the large pot as I describe here and the meat in the skillet at the same time and follow instructions above.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009


Welcome to my cooking blog! I'm starting this to document and share what I've been cooking for dinner lately in hopes that other families can use the healthier recipes that my family has enjoyed. Look at it this way, I'm doing hours of work culling and testing recipes so you don't have to!

I have close to 100 cookbooks, plus an entire shelf of books about food and cooking in general. I have recently, due to a lack of space, started borrowing cookbooks from the library and photocopying the recipes I want to try (Karen - is that a copyright violation?). I reserve them right from the comfort of my home office and get a lovely email from the library system advising me when they're ready for me to pick up. Not as satisfying, I'll admit, but I've completely run out of shelf space. I also read and tab Gourmet, Bon Appetit, Coooking Light and often Saveur and Food and Wine each month. I clip both the Washington Post and New York Times food sections every Wednesday. And, I am sometimes the annoying person who has ripped out a recipe from a magazine at the hairdresser, doctor, or car dealership. When I have time, I read 5 to ten food blogs per week, as well. I always search out recipes that are relatively healthy, easy and delicious sounding.

Some of you know that I took many recreational cooking skills classes over the years at the noted French culinary school here in Bethesda. I was most inspired by a series of culinary skills classes that covered, in an extremely abbreviated way, the essence of French culinary training. I learned to make creamy, delicious, rich foods such as cauliflower gratin, proper mashed potatoes (use a ricer and LOTS of butter), pate a choux and the like. Most importantly, I learned about tastes that complement each other and how to think about cooking without a recipe, or, at least, using a recipe only as a starting off point.

Then, just over a year ago, I had a horrible and startling wake up call about the fragility of life, health, and my genetic predisposition for really bad heart problems. And I learned that heart disease is the number one killer of women in America. From there on out I spent a lot of time thinking about how I could help my and my family's health through what and how we eat. How to reconcile the French cooking with heart health?

So, during the last year, I have read everything I can about heart health and diet, and general health and diet. I've read Marion Nestle, Michael Pollan, Gary Taubes, The Glycemic Revolution, and more recently, Mark Bittman. I've also read any number of cookbooks. I subscribe to the Center for Science in the Public Interest's Nutrition Action newsletter.

Just over a year ago, I began my journey, limiting saturated fats (no more mashed potatoes with butter), sodium, white flour, white rice and highly processed products whenever I cook. It wasn't as hard as it sounds, and when not at home cooking myself, I'm just not obsessive about it. At home, I try to make vegetables and whole grains the basis of our meals. And, yes, I'm dragging my family, which includes a teenaged boy and girl, along on this journey.

My primary goal is to have my family enjoy our dinner, while doing no major harm to our bodies. We are a family that, against the greater tide in our area, eats dinner together most weekday nights. Many weekend evenings we gather together, adults and kids, with relatives and friends to share homecooked dinners. This is home, not restaurant cooking. I will be cooking with lots of vegetables and grains that may be as new to you as they were to me until last year. Give them a try. And then try them a couple of more times. Some will grow on you. Eventually, they may grow on your family, too. I'm guessing that you and your families will not realize the healthier nature of most of these recipes (OK - some of my beloved nieces and nephews always know). These are recipes that I hope you can share with your families and friends, healthy, yet luscious, heart-warming and heart healthy. However, there is no magic bullet here, and no guarantees about health - I'm a cook, not a doctor or a scientist. This just seems to make sense. Join me for the ride.

The following recipe was a revelation for me. It epitomizes all I'm trying to do. As simple as can be, relatively healthy and truly delicious. It makes cauliflower eaters out of everyone who tries it. The value added of a little bit of olive oil is astonishing.

Roasted Cauliflower

(adapted from Gourmet magazine)

Serves 4

1 head cauliflower (for my family, the bigger the better. The leftovers are great)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 teaspoon kosher or sea salt

-Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 450 degrees F.
-Cut up cauliflower into bite sized florets. Toss with olive oil in a bowl or ziploc bag. When coated, spread cauliflower in a single layer in a large shallow baking dish. I use a half sheet pan lined with tin foil.
-Roast cauliflower, stirring and turning over occasionally, until tender and golden brown, 25 to 35 minutes.
-sprinkle salt over cooked cauliflower

*If you are cooking something else in the oven at the same time at a lower temperature, this works just as well. Simply leave the cauliflower in the oven a bit longer.