Thursday, May 28, 2009

Vinaigrette Again???

It's funny how you realize things sometimes. I was about to write about a new recipe for a vinaigrette potato salad I created for a barbecue last Saturday, until it came to me like the proverbial lightbulb, that I have been very vinaigrette heavy lately. Now this is a "healthier" food blog, but still. It came to me quite suddenly that I still really don't like mayonnaise.

Anyone who knows me from "back in the day," to quote my darling son, knows that I didn't eat mayonnaise as a child. I ate tuna on bread. Chunks of tuna on bread, no mayo. I was that odd child who visited a friend's house and at lunchtime announced that I preferred my tuna dry. This was in the day before picky eaters.

I am always thrilled to make a salad or slaw with olive oil and a complementary acid (lemon juice, lime juice, vinegar) and I don't miss the mayo at all. I think I just never got over my childhood disgust at the creaminess. My Dad, too, hated mayo. He hated it so much that many a wait person learned the hard way that if he sent back a sandwich that was supposed to be mayo free, bringing it back to him with the mayo scraped off was just not going to cut it.

So I apologize for being repetitive and blogging repeatedly about vinaigrettes. If anyone would like the potato recipe, please comment below and I'll reconsider. In the meantime, instead of a recipe, today I'm providing a brief list of foods that I've found that have made my transition to healthier eating much easier. They are mostly painless changes and all are delicious.

*Fage nonfat yogurt - there are other brands of Greek style yogurt out there now but I think this tastes best. I like it with a drizzle of agave nectar (see below) or honey to lightly sweeten it and then whatever fruit - fresh or dried - I have around. It is also delicious with a little granola. Yum.

*whole wheat couscous - why not? It tastes exactly the same.

*agave nectar - from the agave plant. It supposedly has a lower glycemic load than sugar and honey and is sweeter so you need less. I get mine at Trader Joes's which is much cheaper than Whole Foods.

*walnuts - I try sprinkling these on a salad or my yogurt occasionally as they are full of Omega- 3s. On its own that wouldn't do it for me, but they are delicious. I try to use these in lieu of pecans or peanuts.

*almond butter - slightly healthier than peanut butter and tastes great. Again, I get mine at Trader Joe's which has a much better price.

*Barilla multigrain pasta (yellow box) - I will probably devote an entire entry, shortly, to the pasta issue, but for now just know that I really like this. It's less obviously not regular pasta, though I wouldn't use for a ragu or meatballs and spaghetti. With veggies, etc. it's great.

Oh, and I am not getting paid to advertise for Trader Joe's. Just saying.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Ok - Maybe I'm a Groupie

I am no longer feeling guilty about purchasing that asparagus last week for $8.00/lb. Those of you who actually know the price of asparagus off the top of your heads are now thinking I have completely lost my mind. While I did purchase it at a store and, therefore, paid some markup (I have since bought some right from a farmer at a farm stand for about $6.00 per pound), it was some of the sweetest, freshest asparagus I've ever had. It was grown nearby, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and had been picked fresh. Maybe it was my imagination working overtime to justify the price, but it almost seemed like a different vegetable. Sweeter and less of the bite we usually associate with the tip of the asparagus. The first night I roasted the spears with olive oil and a little kosher salt. The second, I simply steamed them as I wanted to really taste the asparagus flavor without any distractions. This week I tried this faux risotto so that my family would have a little variety.

Friday evening I saw Michael Pollan speak about his book In Defense of Food, and I realized that purchasing that asparagus was among the sanest things I've done in the last four weeks. His message is clear and convincing: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." This is the subtitle of his book which has just been released in paperback. The book tour for this release brought him to the DC area courtesy of Politics and Prose bookstore, though the talk was actually held in the Round House Theater in Bethesda to allow for a larger crowd.

I had read In Defense of Food some time ago when the hardcover version first came out. Pollan said that he wrote this book to provide people with a more positive approach to food than his earlier Omnivore's Dilemma depicts. He wanted to provide people with an idea of what they can eat if they are concerned with health. He consulted many experts, and read many studies and came up with the credo above. Loosely, his definition of "food" generally means non-processed food - that which our grandparents (or great-grandparents) might recognize - and not artificially prevented from "going bad" by numerous chemical additives.

His approach is to acknowledge the link between nutrition and health without going overboard and focusing too heavily on the individual nutrients in each food. He suggests paying more for better food, eating less of it in the process. His feeling is that high quality foods, prepared well, and eaten in an enjoyable manner, is infinitely healthier and will be as emotionally as satisfying to us as an all you can eat buffet filled with high fat, high sodium "edible foodlike substances."

His suggestion is that rather than trying to find a wonder nutrient and then adding that nutrient to every item in the supermarket, we reject the Western diet in favor of foods that are closer to their natural state. Other than processed foods, he does not advocate rejecting any food groups in favor of others and rather than suggesting a particular type of diet, reminds us that many traditional methods of eating all around the world seem to be healthier than the Western diet. This quote about the Western diet, which our government is wedded to as a result of the pressure of the big lobbies, says it all:

"All of our uncertainties about nutrition should not obscure the plain fact that the chronic diseases that now kill most of us can be traced directly to the industrialization of our food: the rise of highly processed foods and refined grains: the use of chemicals to raise plants and animals in huge monocultures; the superabundance of cheap calories of sugar and fat produced by modern agriculture; and the narrowing of the biological diversity of the human diet to a tiny handful of staple crops, notably wheat, corn and soy. These changes have given us the Western diet that we take for granted: lots of processed foods and meat, lots of added fat and sugar, lots of everything - except vegetable, fruits, and whole grains" (In Defense of Food, p. 10).

As I noted when I discussed Susan Allport's book The Queen of Fats (which Michael Pollan references in his book), perhaps spending more money on healthy food now, could decrease spending on health care later. This seems to be an area the Federal government as well as the states should investigate. As a system, if helping all people, even the poor, to be able to purchase higher quality, healthy food will avoid the sky high medical expenses we incur for diabetes, heart disease and cancer, then isn't it an obvious approach to at least try? Our government should not be beholden to big business and chain restaurants whose only interest is to find ways to sell us more and more fake food. It's really shameful.

Now I get down off my soapbox.

Whole Wheat Orzo "Risotto" with Asparagus and Mushrooms

(serves 4 - 6 as a side dish)

3 tablespoons olive oil, divided (you will use 1 tablespoon and then the other two)

1 shallot
8 oz. crimini mushrooms, sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
three sprigs of thyme
1 pound fresh asparagus, ends snapped off and cut into 1 inch pieces
32 oz. low sodium chicken or vegetable stock
3/4 lb. whole wheat orzo (can substitute regular orzo) - this is about 3/4 package.
1/4 cup grated parmigiano reggiano cheese
salt and pepper to taste

Warm a saute pan over medium heat, add 1 tablespoon olive oil and then add the shallot and garlic. Stir regularly and after about one minute, add the mushrooms. Let those cook for five minutes or so, stirring occasionally. Sprinkle with a little salt and pepper.

While the mushrooms cook, briefly steam or microwave the asparagus so that it can go into the pan partly cooked and won't get mushy in with the orzo. Bring it just to a bright green and then plunge into cold water to stop the cooking.

Once the mushrooms are softened, empty the contents of the pan into a bowl and wipe out the pan.

Put the pan back over the medium heat and add the rest of the olive oil. Add the orzo and stir until the orzo is coated with the oil. Add a sprinkle of kosher salt. Add just enough broth to cover the orzo and bring to a boil. Once it boils, immediately turn the burner down to a simmer. Stir often so the orzo doesn't stick to the pan!

Once the pan seems dry, add more broth to cover the orzo and repeat as above. Once that broth cooks down, add the rest of the broth 1 cup at a time (using water if you run out of broth), until the orzo is al dente or soft with a slight resistance in the inside.

Add the mushroom/shallot mix back into the pan along with any accompanying juices. Add the asparagus in as well, stir gently and cook for another minute or two.

Add in the parmigiano reggiano and stir until melted.

Taste for salt and enjoy!

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Another Use for Vinaigrette

The other night dinner was to be a rotisserie chicken. Easy, relatively inexpensive and boring as can be. I had originally thought to serve it with a deconstructed hummus salad I'd seen on another food blog, but when I visualized a mound of beige chickpeas on the plate with beige chicken, I thought better of that dish. Instead, I used the already opened cans of chickpeas as the basis for an updated three bean salad. I immediately looked to an already started red onion for a touch of color and flavor. I added some green beans cut into inch long pieces, and some halved grape tomatoes. If I had some frozen, shelled edamame, I would have thawed a couple of handfuls and added them too. For the vinaigrette, I stuck with the flavors of hummus: lemon juice, olive oil, and garlic. Although I'm giving you some amounts in the recipe below, this vinaigrette is one that is best done by taste - add more lemon juice if it seems to heavy on the olive oil, or vice versa. I let it marinate about an hour so I did have to plan ahead, but once dinner time rolled around, there was nothing left to do but eat.

Right now, the better part of the lower levels of my house are covered in plastic sheeting and drop cloths. Drywall! It's likely to be a mess all week with the worst dust on Thursday and Friday. I'll have to be flexible about meals this week as I suspect many of them will be out.

Chickpea Salad

(serves 6 as a side dish)

2 cans salt free chickpeas, drained and rinsed

1/4 - 1/2 pound green beans, trimmed and cut into one inch pieces

handful or two grape tomatoes, halved or even quartered if large

1/4 cup roughly diced red onion, or more to taste

1 clove garlic, minced

juice of 1 medium lemon

3 tablespoons olive oil, more to taste if needed

kosher salt and pepper to taste

Place first five ingredients into a medium bowl. Gently mix. Sprinkle lemon juice over top and gently toss. Pour olive oil over top of ingredients, then sprinkle kosher salt and pepper. Gently toss once more. Let sit about an hour. Toss before serving. If you have some fresh herbs around, a couple of teaspoons of chopped parsley or thyme would be a great garnish.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Apres le Deluge

Wow! I can't believe it's been almost three weeks since the great flood. In some ways the house is significantly improved since the first week. It's quieter without all the industrial fans and dehumidifiers running nonstop. The kitchen is functional with a brand new stove and dishwasher. Our bedrooms seem completely normal. Apart from the kitchen/family room area, if you don't look too closely at floors, walls and ceilings you might not even realize anything happened here. We have been given the word from the water abatement company that all is dry everywhere, however, still no repairs to drywall, paint, floors, and cabinets.

As a result, my attention has been on many projects other than cooking and testing recipes. I have completely dropped off the face of the earth as far as the cooking school assisting at Culinaerie is concerned. I've limited my cooking to old reliables such as chili, pesto, salmon and pasta. I hesitate to stock the pantry and fridge too full as I don't know what my access to the kitchen will actually be once drywalling of the ceiling begins on Monday (it was supposed to begin today but has been pushed back a bit).

During the 8 days we had no lights and no appliances in the back of the house, we ate out a bit and carried out a lot. Many thanks to sub*urban trading for their prepared dinners! One night Maddy and I shared a roasted New York strip unlike any I've had before, as it was truly a roast and not cut like the usual strip. That came with roasted fennel and heads of garlic, from which we popped individual cloves to spread on the bread they provided. Another night my family, unbeknownst to them, feasted on sub*urban's stinging nettle lasagna. I merely said it was veggie lasagna, and let everyone decide for themselves what they thought. It seemed to be made with phyllo dough rather than noodles and was delicious, albeit rather rich and buttery.

We will probably have limited use of the kitchen on and off for the next several weeks during paint and drywall, and again in late June when we will have to move out for a week or so to have the floors refinished. My posts during this time might not be consistent and might be less recipe based than usual, but I hope to keep up with my food and nutrition reading and share some of that with you.
On that note, the James Beard Foundation awards were Monday night in NY, and one of the books that won is worth checking out if you're looking for healthier recipes. Ellie Krieger's The Food You Crave won in the Healthy Focus category. I have made many recipes from this book and find them to be delicious and satisfying. We really love her Portobello Lasagna Rollups and Maple Mustard Chicken Thighs. I found my copy at Costco some time ago at a great discount, but I haven't seen it there lately.
Oh, and props to my sisters-in-law for experimenting with quinoa!!