Thursday, February 18, 2010

Valentine's Dinner for Nine

Valentine's evening proved to be the perfect time to try out my March Gourmet recipes. We had family visiting from out of town for President's weekend and we were nine for dinner - four adults, my two teens and my nieces and nephew who are 11, 8 and 5. I ended up making two recipes from different issues of March Gourmet magazines, both of which were delicious and perfect for Valentine's dinner.

The first, Chicken in Riesling, was from 2008 (find the recipe here). I had made this once before back in September or October and moved it into the "keeper" file as all four of us liked the dish. It's rich without being heavy as a result of the lighter touch of the creme fraiche (!) and lemon juice. It's a one pot meal with carrots and potatoes cooked right in with the chicken and Riesling. The header notes to the recipe say that it's just another chicken in wine stew, like a coq au vin.

I simplified a little, as you all know I have a hard time leaving a recipe alone. I cut the butter, and used olive oil for the leeks, but added in a tablespoon of butter into the stew at the end for richness. I also used cut up chicken pieces instead of the whole chicken. I used a mixture of breasts, thighs and legs, with extra legs for the kids. I used more than the equivalent of one chicken this time, as there were so many of us. Lastly, I used a mix of some really lovely, tiny little yellow potatoes I had purchased for heaven knows what a week or so earlier, and some cut up baby red potatoes to fill in. Only downside? My brother-in-law thought the tiny potatoes looked enough like olives that this usually hearty eater took a rather petite serving of this dish. Once every one had been reassured they were potatoes, everyone dug in. You can see from the photo that he was justified in his confusion.

This is not close to the health quotient of the quinoa/bulgur/lentil dishes I also love, but this would make a great meal for company or a special occasion. It's just rich enough that you simply can't overeat, but light enough that you don't feel like you need an immediate angiogram. The sauce is compelling, silky from the creme fraiche and dab of butter and with that tangy hit of lemon. The recipe says to add the lemon juice to taste and I ended up using 2 tablespoons.

This is lovely with a baguette as you will want to sop up some of the sauce. You don't need to serve any other vegetable, but if you like, a salad with a touch of lemon juice in the vinaigrette would be a nice complement. We drank more Reisling with dinner.

Later, the adults enjoyed some Kir Royale Sorbet from March, 1994 (find the recipe here), while the kids had ice cream sundaes. The vivid red color of this sorbet makes it the ideal Valentine's day dessert. Plus, it was light and tart after the chicken. I used frozen raspberries as there are no domestic raspberries available in our DC area markets this time of year.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Behind the White House Photo Opps, School Gardens Desperate for Help

I just wanted to share this with everyone. This came from a DC schoolteacher and was originally posted on another blog. I've wanted to write about this issue since I read the always incendiary Caitlin Flanagan's piece in the January/February issue of the Atlantic, entitled "Cultivating Failure." This snowstorm has given me the time to finally do so.

In her piece, Flanagan criticizes the Edible Schoolyard concept as she claims it doesn't help students in the failing California schools to pass standardized tests. However, as is her way, she doesn't just opine, she pokes everyone in the eye with her extremist posturing. Instead of providing an even, journalistic article, Flanagan begins with a completely hypothetical example of the American born child of an illegal Mexican immigrant farm laborer who is here by virtue of his parents' sacrifice to offer him a better life, entering sixth grade in Berkeley, CA, only to "head out the field, where he stoops under a hot sun and begins to pick lettuce" rather than learn math. She continues with her diatribe by insulting Alice Waters, school volunteers, and ultimately faults the school system for falling prey to the "visionary and charismatic" Waters and "allowing these gardens to hijack the curricula of so many schools."

When I first read her piece I had an instinctual opposition to everything she was saying, but I wanted to stop and think about whether I was actually responding to her thesis or if I was just put off by her hyperbolic and ridiculous assertions. Was she hiding a kernel of truth under a bushel of hyperbole? Has she exposed the Emperor in the "altogether" or is she a bitter and biased shrew all too willing to once again criticize well intentioned school volunteers, not to mention Alice Waters?

After a second thorough reading of her piece, I concluded that her argument was too flawed to be persuasive. While Flanagan is correct that the situation in many California schools, much like DC schools, is desperate, isn't the problem due more to budget constraints not the existence of an Edible Schoolyard garden in several schools? Perhaps most importantly, she did not speak to staff or families in a school with a garden to get their perspectives on how helpful and effective they are as teaching tools and as a means for nutrition education.

We are all distressed by the poor state of many schools today, and as important as it is to shore up the math and reading instruction, it just doesn't make sense to ignore other enriching learning experiences, especially those that can greatly affect the health of the students.

Check out what one DC school teacher has to say:

Behind the White House Photo Opps, School Gardens Desperate for Help

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My Guilty Pleasure - A Little Too Creamy for My Girl

I have a confession: I love creme fraiche. I know this doesn't seem like a proper food item for the healthierkitchen lady to love, but it's true. Most of the time Greek yogurt does the trick for a creamy touch, but every once in a while, a dollop of creme fraiche provides a touch of alchemy. It's so concentrated that a little goes a long way, so the fat and calories per serving is not as extreme as it might seem at first glance.

Creme fraiche is, according to its label, a French cultured cream. Not sure what that means, I consulted The Food Lover's Companion. As best as I can gather, in this country, creme fraiche is something of a thickened cross between heavy cream and buttermilk. What I know is that it is tangy and silky and delicious and makes a great sauce without curdling when heated.

Molly Wizenberg of Orangette and My Homemade Life fame had a recipe in Bon Appetit last year which jumped right out at me. I am always looking for salmon recipes as we eat salmon so often. This one seemed so different, so unique, so simple, so creme fraiche. I made it a few times and while I thought everyone else enjoyed it too, it later came to my attention that my daughter didn't much like it, blaming the creaminess of the creme fraiche. Not like creme fraiche?

I guess I had mistaken her lack of enthusiasm over the salmon to have been caused by the salmon itself, as my daughter is not much for flesh of any kind. She offered up one of my other salmon recipes (check it out here) that she loves as proof that it's the creme fraiche that's the problem.

Just the other day, while fiddling around with the stir-fried forbidden rice, I thought about how nice it would be to have some salmon with the rice sometimes. My first thought was a Cooking Light glaze with miso that I've been making for some years (remember that one, Charis?) but that recipe and all the similar versions I've collected include some sugar and just didn't jump out at me as enough of a complement to this rice.

Then I remembered the creme fraiche salmon and Maddy's complaint. Despite an attachment to cheese, Maddy really doesn't love dishes that are too creamy. She does, however, love spicy foods. Remembering a tube of wasabi paste left in my fridge from another marinade, I played with the combination of the creme fraiche and the wasabi. This is the result. It's really much better with wild salmon, and a piece that's not too thick. I also calculated the calories and fat grams of the creme fraiche, per serving and it's really not too bad. If my math is correct (always questionable) then as used in the recipe below, it only adds 27.5 calories and 2.75 grams of fat per serving.

I originally envisioned serving this with the forbidden rice that was the spark of inspiration, but it would also be great with mashed potatoes as well (try my comfort mash!).

Salmon with Wasabi-Creme Fraiche

adapted from Molly Wizenberg and Bon Appetit

(serves 6)

2 pound fillet of wild salmon
salt and pepper to taste
3 tablespoons creme fraiche
1 teaspoon wasabi paste
2 scallions, thinly sliced

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Place salmon fillet on baking sheet lined with aluminum foil and lightly sprinkle with salt and fresh ground pepper.

2. In a small bowl, mix the creme fraiche with the wasabi paste and spread on the salmon fillet.

3. Sprinkle the scallions on top.

4. Place in oven for about 15 minutes until the salmon is cooked through.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Much Ado About Rice

Much as with pasta, the conversion to brown rice in my house has been greeted with reluctance, at best. The nutty, rich taste of brown rice is completely lost on my family, who though they will eat it grudgingly if put before them with no starchy alternative within sight, will always choose white rice when they order their chicken-onion rice bowls at Fu Shing.

The reasons for attempting the switch to whole grain rices are similar to those in favor of using whole grain bread - the grain still has the bran and germ which provide the bulk of the health benefits. The refining process removes not only the brown color, but the vitamins, minerals, and fiber that help keep us healthy. Compelling as these arguments for brown rice are, if it doesn't also taste good, I can't sell it at home. I think they figure that since I practice yoga, my appreciation for brown rice is inevitable, and therefore, not at all persuasive. I will say that the simple act of serving it repeatedly without offering a white rice alternative has at least stopped the complaining. However, I want to do better. I want to convert their taste buds.

By experimenting with a variety of brown (and other whole grain) rices, I've found a few that are more pleasing to my family's taste than regular old brown rice. One type I like is brown basmati rice which is a little lighter in both color and taste than shorter grain. As a complete aside, white basmati rice, seems to be a marginally better choice, in terms of sugar conversion or glycemic load, than other Asian white rices, including sushi rice, as the starch content is lower. Brown basmati is flavorful and aromatic, but not quite as nutty as other brown rices.

Brown Kalijira rice, which is ridiculously challenging to find, but which my Harris Teeter carries (I have asked my local organic market to order it!) has been the biggest revelation. It is a tiny, pearl-like, heirloom grain that has a little of the hearty, nutty flavor of standard brown rice, but which is much more delicate and rich. Cooked in some chicken stock or with a little olive oil in the water, it is a standout side dish. Cooked right in the pan for a one-dish chicken dish, it is stellar. So far I've only seen Lotus Foods brand. An additional benefit of the small grain size is that it cooks in half the time of regular brown rice.

Lotus Foods also sells a black rice, generally know as "forbidden rice," although I was unable to figure out what is forbidden about it. This is more widely available than the Kalijira, and available in other brands as well. When I first bought a package some years back, I had no idea what to do with it and it sat in the pantry cabinet for months before I finally made some underwhelming dish with it. Recently, though, I came across a fried rice recipe that piqued my interest and actually was a big success with the doubters. I simplified it a bit and I'm providing my adaptation below. You can also cook it just like other rices on the stove top. The taste is a bit nutty and the grains have a little bite to them, and most importantly, my family has liked this combination of taste and texture. Black rice is actually dark purple and colors the water a deep purple as it cooks so watch out for staining of dish towels or white rubber spatulas. Like brown rice, it's also a whole grain, and like the brown Kalijira, it's also an heirloom variety.

Lundberg brand sells many types of rice but my favorite is the Jubilee blend. Though not quite as light tasting as the Kalijira, it is also a mix of several types of smaller grained rice including russet colored Wehani and purplish-black Japonica rices (both created by Lundberg domestically) in addition to a few types of brown. This mix provides for a slightly reddish-hued, multicolored blend that brightens up both your taste buds, and the look of your plate. No blah brown color here.

An additional option is the pre-cooked bags of brown rice that you can find in the freezer sections of Trader Joe's and Whole Foods. They are not quite as rich and nutty tasting, and are probably have slightly less of the healthy vitamins and minerals, but they microwave up in about two minutes and are great in a pinch.

I've been making fried rice with brown rice for a while thinking that since it has a little soy sauce in it anyway, no one would immediately realize that it was brown rice. That only sort of works. I hear "is this brown rice?" with a knowing look passing between them, as though they are on to me and will continue to eat, but only grudgingly. With the black rice, it's immediately apparent that this is a different animal, so no rhetorical questions. And, since it tastes so good, chewy and nutty, I also don't get much of that eyeball rolling.

Try some of these other types of rice. You might find that the flavor of brown Kalijira appeals to your teen in a way that Uncle Ben's brown rice does not. Or that your six year old daughter who loves only pink and purple will actually eat the plum colored forbidden rice. Or maybe not. I think we might have an easier time converting the white rice eaters if we treat these grains as completely different items, rather than as a substitute for what we're all used to.

I've actually played around with this recipe using a couple of ounces of diced up bacon or pancetta or some slivered shiitake mushrooms. This is an easy recipe to use as a base and experiment a little. I particularly like it with seafood and fish. Roast some shrimp and broccoli (see my earlier post) to top it off or serve it alongside some salmon. One the initial cooking of the black rice well before you want to make the fried rice so it can cool. You could even make the rice the night before and refrigerate it, which would make prep the next evening extremely quick.

Fried Forbidden Rice

(adapted from chef Sang Yoon and Food & Wine)

(serves 4 - 6 as a side dish)

1 cup black ("Forbidden") rice
1 - 2 tablespoons canola or peanut oil
1 medium onion, diced (I particularly like red onion in this)
2 tablespoons low sodium soy sauce
4 scallions, thinly sliced

1. Prepare 1 cup black rice according to the directions on the package. I throw a teaspoon or two of oil into the water before coooking so it doesn't stick. Once cooked, set aside to cool, uncovered.

2. Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add the oil and then the onion. Cook the onion until it gets soft and translucent, about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add in the garlic and cook for 2 - 3 more minutes, stirring occasionally.

3. Add the rice into the pan and cook until warmed through.

4. Stir in the soy sauce.

5. Once arranged in serving bowl, garnish with scallions.