Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Red Corn Chowder

The change of season is rarely smooth in the DC area. Many falls we go directly from blasting the air conditioning to cranking up the heat in a matter of days. This year, I'm hoping for a slower transition. Though the other day I was wearing a tank top, yesterday and today there's a definite chill in the air. It's still in the 60's (unless you're up at 6 am when it's a bit colder - I'm crazy but just making sure the darling teens have something to eat before leaving the house) but I'm starting to think about soups and using the oven again. The farm stands are piled with the bounty of both summer and fall during this bridge season. Zucchini, basil and tomatoes are sharing table space with butternut squash and kale. As a result, this is a great time to take advantage of recipes that also bridge the seasons, calling for the best of both summer and fall.

I came across this beauty on a blog called The Wednesday Chef (she's a beautiful writer - check her out at, on which Luisa Weiss experiments with recipes published in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times Wednesday food sections. I had seen this Pete Wells recipe in the New York Times myself, but it just didn't click for me. After reading Luisa's description, I decided to try it after all, and it was a hit with the whole family. She made some changes and I made some more. The resulting recipe is below. It's not something I would have made several weeks ago, but it's perfect for this time of year - a hot soup calling for fresh basil and corn.

I had planned to use some homemade shrimp stock (I do remember I said I'd tell you what to do with those shrimp heads!! Keep checking back as I will get there) to make this, but completely forgot to defrost it. I think the water worked fine, but next time I might try the stock.

Red Chowder with Corn and Scallops

(adapted from The Wednesday Chef and Pete Wells)

serves 4 - 6
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, diced
2 to 4 cloves garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
1 celery stalk, diced
Half a large fennel bulb or one whole if small, diced
2 carrots, peeled and diced
4 cups fish stock, clam broth or water
4 ears corn, shucked, kernels cut off and reserved ( you can substitute frozen kernels - about 2 or 3 cups - later in the season)
1 pound potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch chunks
1 bay leaf
Red pepper flakes, to taste
1 28-ounce can low or no sodium added diced tomatoes (Trader Joe's now carries 14 oz. cans of no sodium added diced tomatoes - just use two cans)
Freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 pounds bay scallops (you could also use cut up peeled shrimp which is how the recipe was originally written)
2 basil sprigs, leaves cut into fine ribbons
1. Set a large pot over medium heat, and add the olive oil. Saute the onion, garlic, celery, fennel and carrots in the olive oil until softened, about 10 minutes. Season with salt.
3. Add the stock or water to the pot. Add the corn kernels, potatoes, bay leaf and a pinch of red pepper flakes. Bring to a boil, cover the pot, reduce the heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes.
4. Using the back of a wooden spoon, crush a third to a half of the potato chunks against the side of the pot. Stir in the chopped tomatoes and juice, return to a boil, lower burner again, and simmer for 10 minutes more.
5. Add the scallops, stir well. Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding salt, black pepper and more red pepper flakes to taste. Let the soup simmer for 4 or 5 minutes more on a very low flame. Ladle into bowls and sprinkle with the basil ribbons. I also drizzled a little bit of delicious olive oil on top of each bowl.
Eat happily with a whole grain baguette!

Friday, September 18, 2009

Chicken Soup

I've just finished cooking my traditional chicken soup and thought I'd share the recipe. This comes down from my mother's mother, with adaptations at each generation. My mother added the sweet potato and I incorporated some of the principles of stock making I picked up in my recreational French cooking series. My sister made her version of this soup and my sister-in-law Karen also makes a version. I came along after my grandmother stopped cooking, so I only knew my mother's. In her honor, I'll call it Evie's Chicken Soup.

I'm making the soup today for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, but I make it during the winter whenever one of has has a bad cold. You can serve it with the traditional matzoh balls (**my secret below the recipe) or with noodles. With an extra step, you can use the leftovers where stock is called for in a recipe. This is a pretty low salt recipe, so add salt to your taste. My cousin Scott used to infuriate my mother by adding salt to his bowl of soup (before tasting!) at every holiday dinner.

Evie's Chicken Soup

(serves 8 - 12)

Large cut up chicken or parts - about 5 pounds ( I like to use kosher chicken for this as it's been salted and soaked)

1 sweet potato, peeled and left whole

1 medium to large onion, peeled and left whole

4 -6 carrots, depending on their size, peeled and cut into two approximately equal lengths

4 stalks celery, trimmed and cleaned and halved as with the carrots

1 parsnip, peeled and trimmed

1 "Jewish Bouquet Garni" - I use a large handful of parsley (stems and all), dill and 10 - 12 black peppercorns wrapped up in muslin and tied with kitchen string. Feel free to substitute ground pepper. You can also omit the muslin and string and drop the dill and parsley right into the soup still tied up in the rubberband, but you will have bits of the herbs floating in the soup that way. I prefer a clearer soup.

1 - 2 Telma brand chicken stock cubes - optional. You can find these in the kosher section of many grocery stores and at kosher markets. I use one or two if the broth seems weak when I taste it. They are very high in sodium and have some MSG so I prefer to omit them. If you have a flavorful chicken you won't miss them. If you decide to use the cubes, do not add salt until the tasting stage!!!

1. Get out a large stock pot. After years of making soup right up to the edge of my pot, I finally bought myself a 16 qt. pot. Much easier! Put the chicken pieces in the pot, leaving out any livers, hearts, etc. Cover with water by a couple of inches. Today, with just under 5 pounds of chicken, my water line after the pieces were covered came up to 7 quarts.

2. Put the pot on a burner set to high and bring to a rolling boil. After the water has been boiling for about 5 - 10 minutes, skim off the foam and grey-brown goo that floats to the top. This sounds gross, but is a crucial step.

3. Lower the burner slightly and keep the chicken and water at a slow boil for about 30 minutes.

4. Once the water is mostly clear, add all the other ingredients to the pot. Bring back to a boil, then lower the burner to maintain the contents of the pot at a simmer. Cover the pot with the lid slightly ajar so that steam can escape.

5. Simmer for about 1 hour.

6. Stir the contents of the pot and skim off any obvious bits of fat. Taste the soup and add salt and pepper to taste.

7. Remove the chicken pieces to a bowl and reserve for another use - chicken salad, maybe?

8. Remove the parsnip and sweet potato and eat (or save for someone else). If you like onion, break up the onion into smaller pieces and leave in the soup. It should just about fall apart. Remove the herbs or "bouquet garni."

9. The soup is ready to serve like this, however, if you've made it a day ahead you have an opportunity to skim off the layer of fat that will rise up and solidify when you refrigerate the soup. If you would like a fancier presentation, strain the soup of all the cooked out vegetables and put just the broth back into the pot (use a strainer over another pot or bowl - do not just pour it over a colander like you are dumping pasta. I have done that - duh. Press down on the strained out vegetables to get out all the broth and flavor). You can add new, fresh carrots and celery to the broth and cook it for another 20 minutes or so before serving. This method also provides a clearer broth if you want to use it for stock.

L'shanah Tovah!

**Matzoh balls: After years of using a hand beater to make stiff peaks out of the egg whites for my mother to use in the matzoh balls, I now use a mix. They come out great.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

A Well Stocked Pantry

I've been thinking a lot about my pantry. While living in an apartment recently with virtually no pantry space, I know I had to shop more frequently and we definitely ate carry out food several times a week. It's challenging to come up with a meal at 6 pm when all you have on the shelf is a box of pasta, a box of crackers and a few tea bags. On the other hand, when the pantry gets so full that the hardware holding the pull out drawers seems to be buckling, I have to quite forcefully remind myself while standing in the store that I absolutely do not need another can of borlotti beans or another color of quinoa. Every once in a while, maybe twice a year, I try to do a massive clean up of the pantry and freezer, just to see what got pushed to the back as a result of my overzealous grocery shopping.

In putting this list together, I realize that the process of cooking at home for most meals is one that requires not just planning, but space. This list of items that I like to have available at all times for meal preparation is large and I'm not even including the obvious staples like bread, milk, juice, etc. I cook for a family of four composed of myself and my husband, and my teenaged son and daughter. This list is primarily items useful for dinner prep. If you're a baker, you know what you need way better than I do. You can also see that I do my shopping all over the place. Don't feel like you have to do so. You can find everything in one store to save time. Just check the labels for sodium and fat content and read the ingredients!!

Shelf Items

dried pasta - several shapes, some whole grain and some semolina. I like De Cecco and Barilla brands as well as Trader Joe's organic for white pastas, and I like the Barilla Multigrain and Whole Foods brand whole grain. Rustichella D'abruzzo is great too, but pretty pricey.

canned tomatoes - whole, diced and crushed. Trader Joe's now has "no salt added" diced tomatoes and I recently found a great brand of whole tomatoes at my local organic market (Mom!). Bella Terra by Racconto has a great 28 oz. can of Italian tomatoes with only 35 milligrams of sodium per serving.

tomato paste - cans or refrigerator tube which is more economical if you only need a tablespoon at a time.

Jarred tomato sauce - as I'm only using this for really short turnaround dinners, I like to buy the good stuff - few high quality ingredients and not too too much sodium. I particularly like Rao's and Paesana brands. World Market also has a really good tomato sauce with artichokes.

sun dried tomatoes in olive oil


whole wheat couscous

rice - Uncle Ben's brown rice and brown basmati as well as regular basmati rice. I also keep boxes of Trader Joe's frozen quick cook brown rice in the freezer - the individual bags cook up in like 2 minutes.

barley - great for adding in to soups in winter

oils - canola and olive. I keep two kinds of olive oil - one for everyday cooking and for use cooking with heat (I like Zoe and the Costco 1.5 liter bottle of Filippo Berio organic, cold pressed oil). For a summer tomato salad or for drizzling and finishing dishes, I use an oil from San Luis Obispo, California called Robbins Family Farm Ascolano, that I found at the Kensington farm market. There is a stand there and at the new Bethesda farm market where you can sample several oils to see what is to your taste. Many stores also allow you to taste before buying. Look for cold pressed as it retains more of the healthy antioxidants and vitamins. If you're getting fancy with salad dressings, maybe also some walnut oil (keep it in the fridge and check it if it's been sitting around as it goes bad quickly).

Olive oil or vegetable cooking spray

Vinegar - I like Unio Moscatel vinegar for an all purpose "red" wine vinegar but most brands are just fine. I also keep sherry vinegar and rice vinegar for more specialized recipes. Balsamic is tricky as the good stuff is outrageously expensive and not found in most grocery stores. Look for one that has actually been aged.

sweeteners - brown sugar, white sugar (I am now using pure cane sugar), agave nectar, honey, pure maple syrup

flour - I do so little baking that when I do it is generally to try something healthier. I mostly use white whole wheat flour for that. It can be used one for one in baking and is not as refined as regular flour. I also keep some white flour for that rare cake and for occasional breading of chicken or fish.

bread crumbs - I like to keep a canister of this because who really wants to make their own all the time? Whole Foods has a great whole wheat version that is very low in sodium.

spices - I have tons, but at a minimum, kosher salt, black pepper, chili powder, ground cumin, ground coriander, some kind of hot pepper ( I really like Aleppo now - thanks Glenn!), curry powder, cinnamon and paprika.

dried porcini mushrooms - reconstitute quickly in hot water and great for soups and sauces

dried cranberries - great in oatmeal, salads,

mustard - dijon and wholegrain

low sodium stock - I like the shelf stable boxes which you can reseal and refrigerate for later use. I keep chicken and vegetable and in the winter I keep beef as well.

oatmeal - quick cooking and old fashioned

canned beans - black, cannelini, garbanzo, pinto, kidney. Look for low sodium and/or rinse them well before using.

vermouth - a great substitute for white wine in a recipe. Lasts a long time and the flavor is milder than some wines - no oak to fight with your recipe.

bottled salad dressing - look for one with few ingredients and lower sodium. I've been buying Lucini brand lately. Really tasty!

low sodium soy sauce - Trader Joe's is terrific - it's even made in Japan. Look for ones that have few ingredients, the primary one being soy.

If you do much Asian cooking, add in fish sauce (nam pla), peanut oil, hoisin sauce, sesame oil, sriracha and or chili garlic sauce.

Fresh Items

I always have:

tomatoes - in season

The first few are the base of almost every dish in French, Italian and Spanish cooking.

I almost always have:

Fage fat free Greek yogurt
parsley (you can freeze this too)
baby spinach (I throw it into most soups in the winter)
cheese - Parmigianno Reggiano, goat and sometimes mild feta
bananas -not local, not seasonal, but we love them all year round and they're great in healthier baked goods, especially when they are starting to get brown.

Freezer Items

chop meat - if you eat meat, keep some frozen. Unlike more tender cuts of meat, it will not matter much in your final dish. If you have this, you can always make a last minute chili, meat sauce or meatballs. I like chicken, turkey, lamb and/or grass fed beef for this. Trader Joe's also has frozen turkey and beef meatballs that are pretty good in a pinch.

Frozen shrimp - most of what you get in the grocery store has been frozen anyway... Look for U.S. and/or wild

nuts - Walnuts, almonds, pine nuts. I keep all but small portions in the freezer because I've read they keep longer. Who knows?

frozen vegetables - chopped spinach, corn, edemame, peas

frozen fruit - for smoothies

I'm sure I've left out some of your favorites. Please write and let me know! Also, I'd love to hear your comments about any of the above.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Mixed Grill - Vegetables, That Is

This dish is just amazing. It comes from my sister-in-law, Liz, and is healthy as can be. The first thing you have to do is get the right pan for cooking vegetables on the grill. I found the perfect one at Bed, Bath and Beyond and it was under ten dollars. It's a non-stick pan about the shape of a wok, with holes all over it. It holds a large amount of cut up vegetables and is easy to clean.

I made this just last night and forgot to photograph the results so you'll have to trust me that it is colorful and appealing as well as delicious and healthy.

I am not even going to write this out as an actual recipe it's so simple. Just fire up the grill if you're using coal, and then cut up the vegetables. If you're using a gas grill, you can light it after cutting the vegetables. Medium heat is best -- not too hot -- you don't want the vegetables to burn, just soften and get some attractive grill marks and flavor.

Cut up a combination of vegetables into bite sized pieces. I would recommend always using onion for flavor, but any combination works. Last night I used about half an Asian eggplant (long, skinny kind), a small zucchini, two large onions (one red and one white) cut into wedges, a yellow pepper, and some broccoli. Everything but the broccoli was from the farm stand. I like to add some cherry tomatoes at the end just for a little extra flavor. They also provide a little "sauce" to the mix.

You'll want to spray the pan with cooking spray or olive oil from a mister, and either spray the vegetables as well or put all the cut vegetables into a Ziploc with a tablespoon or two of olive oil and mix it around so that all are lightly coated. Put the vegetables in the pan on the barbecue and sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. If you like, you can also sprinkle on some other herbs or even some garlic powder.

The vegetables take a while to cook -- that's why you should wait to add the tomatoes if you're adding them -- they cook very quickly. If you're grilling anything else that cooks quickly, start the vegetables first. Depending on the heat of your grill, it could take anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes. Check the pan and stir up the vegetable mix frequently, but between stirring, close the top of the grill. When the majority of the vegetables seem soft and slightly charred, add the cherry tomatoes if you're using them. Cook for about 5 more minutes. The tomatoes should look slightly shriveled but not burst when done.

You can serve this as a side dish with meat or fish or as a main dish with some pasta or quinoa and a little cheese such as mozzarella, parmesan or goat cheese crumbled on top.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

It's No Bargain

I am really not getting on that well worn soapbox here. Really I'm not. But what can you do when media stars align, so to speak? I have mentioned before the concept that cheaper food might not be such a bargain if it harms our health. I wrote before in the context of beef. Our mainstream model of corn-fed, feedlot raised livestock quite likely produces a meat that is inherently different than the grass-fed variety. Sadly, it is not different in a good way. Grass fed livestock produce meat higher in Omega-3s and other healthy nutrients, in part, due to the grass, and which are generally not injected with hormones and antibiotics.

Just recently, the Washington Post ran a column by Ezra Klein which makes a similar argument about shrimp. He quotes a new book, Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture, by Ellen Ruppel Shell. While no one would object to paying less for good food, this column discusses how cheaper shrimp today are simply not the same as the shrimp we ate as children. Much of the shrimp available at a low price today are farmed in Thailand, according to Shell. As Klein put it, "the little critters are covered in antibiotics, pesticides and disinfectants." Yum.

Based on Shell's book, Klein says that "the taste is different, the nutrition is different, the accompanying chemicals are different, the impact on the environment is different, the waters it lived in are different, the food consumed is different."

This doesn't even take into account what Klein says are documented abuses by some of the Thai companies: migrant labor, child labor, worker torture and rape. Who knew?

I do know that I have made an effort for some time to purchase wild shrimp from USA when available. Harris Teeter ($6.98 per pound in today's flyer) often has them as does Whole Foods. Giant and Safeway sometimes carry them as well. Much like with salmon, the wild version is tastier and as we are learning, healthier and better for the environment. With careful shopping, you can find both wild shrimp and salmon for less than platinum rates. I just purchased a huge fillet of wild sockeye salmon at Costco!

I am very intrigued by Marvesta shrimp, though, and would love to get some. Marvesta is a shrimp farm on the Eastern Shore of Maryland that produces farmed, fresh, environmentally friendly shrimp with no hormones, no chemicals, no antibiotics and no preservatives. Their website describes their facility as "bio-secure." Some of the best chefs in the area are using these shrimp. Unfortunately, the demand by chefs is high and production is still low so there are not many to be had retail, though that option exists on their website. I have been checking from time to time to see if there are any available but not yet. Their prices are reasonable for clean, fresh head on shrimp.

Just a few days after the Ezra Klein's column in the Post, I came across the cover article in Time magazine, "Getting Real About the High Price of Cheap Food." Time says "A food system -- from seed to 7 - Eleven -- that generates cheap food at the literal expense of healthier produce is also a principal cause of America's obesity epidemic. At a time when the nation is close to a civil war over health-care reform, obesity adds $147 billion a year to our doctor bills."

A funny kind of Kismet.

Here's a non-recipe for shrimp that is so easy and pretty foolproof. Just another way to cook shrimp that will later be tossed into something else from shrimp salad to a veggie pasta, or served as a main dish with vegetable and perhaps couscous on the side. Try to find some wild Gulf shrimp for this. I'm still waiting to try the Marvesta. When I get some, I'll provide some ideas of what to do with the heads.

Roasted Shrimp

This recipe works for any amount of shrimp. I usually buy about a pound and a half for my family as the amount is much less once you peel the shrimp. Serve this with anything you like shrimp with - or even roast some broccoli right along with it (put the broccoli in first and add the shrimp after about 10 minutes). You can add whatever seasonings you like or none at all if you're using the shrimp in something else.

I use a half sheet or jelly roll pan lined with aluminum foil for this. Preheat oven to 400. Lightly coat the pan with olive oil or cooking spray. Toss the peeled and deveined shrimp with thinly sliced garlic, a little salt and pepper and spread out on the pan in a single layer. Roast for 5 - 10 minutes. You can check them after five minutes too see if the flesh has turned opaque with the telltale pinkish-orangey striations of a cooked shrimp. Feel free to leave out the garlic.