12/31/09

Why Popeye Popped Spinach, Not Pills: Vitamins Can Be Bad For You

I have been waiting for a study like this to come out.

A research group in Tel Aviv has finished one of the most comprehensive studies of Vitamin E supplementation, which analyzed all other prominent studies on the subject and considered data from over 300,000 people in the US, Europe and Isreal.

They found that, on average, popping Vitamin E pills may negatively impact quality of life.


From the press release: "To explain the meaning of this parameter," says Dr. Pinchuk, "consider a participant who was healthy during the first 10 out of 20 years of the study, but then suffered a stroke and became dependent on others throughout the following 10 years. The QALY [quality-adjusted-life-years] during the first 10 years of healthy life is 10, but after the stroke the quality of life is only half of what this person had before. Therefore, the second decade is considered the equivalent of merely 5 years of healthy life and in sum a person's QALY is 15...
On average, the quality-adjusted longevity is lower for vitamin-treated people. This says something significant."


Other studies have shown vitamins to be ineffective, or to cause birth defects or asthma, or to put undue strain on the kidneys. I think there will be more studies like this one. The body is not meant to be hit with vitamins, minerals or fatty acids in the concentrated form they are found in pills. Why pop capsules when you are better off with something yummy, like a spinach frittata, spaghetti marinara or toast smeared with nut butter.


Good sources of Vitamin E available at a farmers' market:
Eggs

Milk

Spinach
Wholegrain foods

Broccoli
Tomatoes
Asparagus



picture by Dusan Zidar via Dreamstime

12/30/09

Freedom Trail Fruits

Imagine a pilgrimage of ham hocks, smoked turkey wings and fresh black-eyed peas winding up the country, traveling from the South to the cities of the North as if re-enacting the covert operations of the Freedom Trail.

This is exactly what has been going on for generations, according to the NYT. Southerners have loaded trucks full of special white cornmeal, 'sweet meat' and other Southern specialties and driven them up from Georgia and the Carolinas to homesick city-slickers in Harlem, Brooklyn and neighborhoods in Philly and Chicago. They sell the items out of their trucks, with all the benefits of shopping at a farmers' market:

"Because to some cooks, buying ham hocks from a supermarket or a warehouse store isn’t the same. At the trucks, somebody will ask you where your people are from. They will tell you how long to soak the black-eyed peas and when to start simmering the seasoning meat," Kim Severson writes.

"'You don’t have those conversations when you go and buy your pecans at Costco,' Ms. Ferris said."


This is a story written for cultivores -- us voracious eaters who simply want to know more about our food, its culture and the history of our human passion for it. Who want to use food as a window into the world.

In the article Marci Cohen Ferris, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who specializes in the meaning of food in American culture, "points out that in Ralph Ellison’s 'Invisible Man,' the main character buys and eats a baked South Carolina yam on a Harlem street in the 1930s and is 'overcome by an intense feeling of freedom.'"

I feel the same way when I walk around the block tantalized by halvah, chorizo, camembert, miso, egg drop soup, collard greens, ceviche, bacon cheeseburgers, coconut curry and cannoli.

Intertwined is a lovely argument against being 100 percent locavore. Would okra from upstate satisfy the hunger pains of a Georgia-born Bed-Stuyer? Probably. Would it satisfy her homesickness? Not as much as buying from a traveling countryman.

And I would rather not trust my New Year's Hoppin' John recipe to a Yankee. Not only out of concerns for flavor authenticity, but Northerners tend to leave out the good-luck coin! (Whoever gets it in their serving is guaranteed good luck for the rest of the year.)

Eat poor that day, eat rich the rest of the year.
Rice for riches and peas for peace.
- Southern saying on eating a dish of Hoppin' John on New Year's Day.

photo by Artography via Dreamstime

12/23/09

Inside-Out Apple Pie


Here’s an easy and delicious way to have that holiday treat we’re all craving.


Note: Do not sub in a different type of apple. I know, I know; Granny Smiths are not my favorite snacking apple either. But their sturdy texture is crucial in this recipe; other types break down and become pulp under the heat. Also, don’t worry about the puckered mouth you get when you eat a Granny Smith raw. Here, the sourness is first mellowed by the baking and second, necessary as a counterpoint for the sweet filling and sauce. Lastly, you MUST peel the apples. If you skip that step, all the steam will get trapped inside and turn everything to mush. But peeling them gives a firm-tender apple with a savory-sweet filling -- tasting much like right-side-in apple pie. Maybe even better.


Inside-Out Apple Pie

*adapted from a Cook's Illustrated recipe for Baked Apples

Serves 4


5 Granny Smith apples

4 Tbs butter, softened and divided

1/4 cup brown sugar

1/3 cup dried cranberries, chopped

1/3 cup toasted pecans, chopped

3 Tbs rolled oats

1 teaspoon orange zest

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1teaspoon vanilla

table salt (dash or pinch, to taste)

1/3 cup maple syrup

1/3 cup juice (apple or orange) or cider


Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Peel, core and cut 1 apple in a ¼ inch dice. Combine diced apple, 3 Tbs butter, sugar, cranberries, pecans, zest, cinnamon, vanilla and salt in medium bowl.


Cut ½ inch slice off the stem top of each apple; reserve. Peel the apples and hollow out a wide middle hole (about an inch from the apple edge) using a melon baller or paring knife, being careful not to pierce the bottom.


Melt remaining tablespoon of butter over medium heat in an oven-proof skillet. When butter bubbles die down, place apples into skillet, cut side down. Cook until surface is golden brown, about 90 seconds. Flip apples over and fill with cranberry/oat/nut mixture, packing it down into the hollow and piling it on top of the apple. Place reserved apple caps on top of the filling. Pour maple syrup and juice or cider into the skillet. (If you are using a wide skillet, you may need more of each; you want ¼ to a ½ inch of liquid on the bottom.)


Place skillet in the oven and bake 35 to 45 minutes, basting every 15 minutes. Serve without the caps and generously doused with the syrup sauce.


photo by Nsilcock via Dreamstime

12/22/09

Thou Shalt Not Kill


"I don't eat living things," says a beige-dressed woman at a holiday party.

"Me neither," I agree. "I like them to be killed first."

Beige Woman turns on her heel in a huff and I am left wondering if she meant she is able to
photosynthesize, that she only consumes air, water and sun.


The next time this little fantasy of mine plays itself out, I will be armed with the Natalie Angier's research from today's NYT.


In a nutshell, she says, plants are living creatures, too. Not only do they grow, react and reproduce, but they are complex creatures that have invested much in their own survival.


Humans with chlorophyll-pigmented skin are saints. The rest of us are murderers.


Happy Holidays!



picture by Eti Swinford via Dreamstime


12/16/09

Brussels Sprout Slaw


By popular request, here's my new go-to holiday recipe for brussels sprouts (which, I maintain, are the absolute cutest of the cabbage family. Don't they look like green sleigh bells?) I made it for Thanksgiving but it would make a nice palate-cleansing side dish for any game-heavy meal. I am dreaming of serving it along with some lamb...

The dish also gets a holiday star for its convenience factor. You can prepare the majority of it in advance, it travels well and it doesn't require any space in the oven!

Happy Holidays!

Brussels Sprout Slaw with Maple Pecans
*adapted from Bon Appetit's 11/09 issue
8 servings

cooking spray
1 cup pecan halves
1/4 real maple syrup
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt (plus more for seasoning, etc.)
1/4 teaspoon black pepper (plus more for seasoning)
1/4 cup whole grain Dijon mustard (whole grain is key)
2 Tbs apple cider vinegar
2 Tbs fresh lemon juice
1 Tbs sugar
1/4 cup olive oil
1.5 pounds of brussels sprouts, trimmed

NUTS: Preheat oven to 325. Spray large sheet of foil with cooking spray and set aside. Whisk maple syrup, salt and pepper in a medium. Add pecans; stir to coat. Spread pecans on cookie sheet in a single layer. Bake for 5 minutes before stirring. Bake another 6 minutes, or until glaze is bubbling thickly. IMMEDIATELY transfer nuts to foil or they will harden to the pan. If stored airtight, these can be made a couple days ahead.

BRUSSELS SPROUTS: Bring large pot of salted water to a boil. Add brussels sprouts and cook for about 5 minutes, until "crisp-tender." They should still be a lovely bright green. Drain and rinse with cold water. When cool and relatively dry, slice to 1/8 to 1/4 inch thickness. Can be made up to 3 days ahead; chill.

DRESSING: Combine mustard, vinegar, lemon juice and sugar in a small bowl. Whisk in oil. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Can be made up to 3 days ahead; chill.

An hour or so before serving, coat the brussels sprouts with dressing and mix in some pecans. Garnish the serving dish with additional pecans.


picture by "Egis" via Dreamstime

12/11/09

Ugly Roots make Yummy Soups


One of my favorite vegetables this time of year is celery root, also known as celeriac. Despite its name, this hearty veg is not the root of celery. It does anchor some stalks that are awfully celery-like in appearance, they don’t taste very good and I’d skip putting them in your bloody mary. Still, celery root is from the celery family and the same salty flavor base – so familiar in stocks, hors d’oevres trays and, of course, “ants on a log” – infuses this starchy tuber.


While it is rather homily in appearance, it can add a lot of pizzazz (without being garish about it) to dishes such as gratins, purees, stews – pretty much anything you would use potatoes for. In fact, that is how I think of celeriac: a celery-flavored potato.


The weather has made me obsessed with soup. It has been two-soup day every day this week, a feat which was greatly helped by a large pot of the below.



Soothing White Winter Soup

Serves 6 as an entree, 12 as an appetizer

NOTES: 1) don’t worry about knife skills as you prepare the ingredients; you are going to puree everything anyway. 2) An immersion blender makes this dish a breeze to make.


2 Tbs bacon grease

2 shallots, sliced

2 leeks, well cleaned and sliced

1 medium celery root, peeled, roughly chopped into 1-2 inch chunks

4-5 parsnips, peeled, roughly chopped into 1-2 inch chunks

1/3 -1/2 cup fresh horseradish, peeled, roughly chopped into 1-2 inch chunks

1 head romanesco cauliflower (looks like light-green, pyramid-studded sea coral), roughly chopped.

2 ginger gold or honey crisp apple, cored, peeled, roughly chopped into 1-2 inch chunks

6-8 cups chicken broth (more if lid doesn’t fit very tightly)

1 cup cream

sea salt, black pepper

scallion tops, finely chopped (optional garnish)


In a large stock pot, warm bacon grease over medium heat. Add shallots and leeks; lightly carmelize and take off the heat. Add the rest of the vegetables (minus the scallions) and the apples to the pot, along with 6 cups of broth. Cover pot and bring broth to a boil. Allow to boil until everything is very tender, about 40 minutes.


Puree, either with an immersion blender right in the pot, or transfer portions to your standing blender. Blend until soup is all one smooth consistency. Stir in cream and additional broth until soup is desired consistency. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve piping hot, topped with scallions if desired.



picture by Chiyacat

12/7/09

City Council Speaker Sees Great Things for City Food System


Describing Mayor Bloomberg's initiatives, such as serving free breakfast in schools and 'banning' trans fats, as important first steps but ultimately "piecemeal", City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn is about to release a new plan for the entire food system (production, transportation, sales) of New York City.

Looking forward to examining the details!


picture by Michal Jesensky

12/4/09

Grass Dinner or Shot in the Neck? Using Drugs to Fight E. coli


In typical American fashion, Big Agriculture is trying to solve a bad habit with yet another bad habit. Like overdosing on aspirin to continue one's extended drinking binge, the U.S. Agriculture Department is now testing a drug to lessen E. coli outbreaks.

It is like they haven't even bothered to ask why such outbreaks have risen so sharply in recent years. While cow-borne illnesses have been on the rise for decades, according to the NYT, the industry has initiated 52 recalls of beef tainted with E. coli since January 2007, compared with 20 in the three previous years.

“I was looking for anything that could help us because people were getting sick and people were dying,” Dr. Richard Raymond, the Agriculture Department’s under secretary for food safety from 2005 to 2008, told the New York Times.

Why does "anything that could help" seem to always come in the form of a drug?

The primary reason cow-related diseases are on the rise is because most cows are fed corn and animal products. (Yes, they are vegetarians by nature, but who cares about nature when fattening them up is so profitable.) This may not explain the jump over the last two years, but it does offer a better solution than a shot.

Before cows were switched to corn diets, they had neutral pH digestive systems. We humans have acidic stomachs. Therefore, any bug that could live in the cow found the environment of our digestive systems inhospitable to say the least.

When cows are fed an improper diet, namely corn instead of grass, their stomachs become acidic. And over the years, a strain of E. coli has mutated to withstand the cow's acidified rumen. This mutation, which is nothing but our own self-created Frankenstein bug, is what is surviving to kill or paralyze us.

To reverse this trend, microbiologists have found that we can reduce the number of bugs by as much as 80 percent simply be returning cows to a grass diet, allowing the rumen to de-acidify. (Remember, the bad bugs don't like neutral pH environments.)

The vaccine may have comparable efficacy rate, although it is too soon to be sure -- not only about its efficacy but about any potential side effects. After all, we are just now learning about the problems caused by the long-used antibiotics pumped into our meat and dairy sources to keep them healthy despite their unhygienic living conditions.

Grass, on the other hand, has wonderful side effects. Not only is the meat uncontaminated and drug-free, it is full of omega 3s, beta carotene and other nutrients largely missing from the sickly flesh of corn-fed animals.

Grass dinner or a shot in the neck? Easy to see what the cow would prefer, but I am afraid the industry will go for the latter.


picture by Dennis Chudonov

11/24/09

Recipe Chain: Purple Kale with Cream and Bacon

Unlike a hilarious game of telephone, the following recipe has been passed along unadulterated and retaining its original yumminess. I picked it up at the "information" stand at the Borough Hall farmers' market. Each greenmarket seems to have one of these, and they are usually stocked with great recipes for whatever you will find being sold around you. The greenmarket, in turn, took this particular recipe from The 100-Mile Diet: Local Eating for Global Change. I've copied the recipe verbatim, to pass it on its pure form. My notes are in italics.

I have a never satisfied hunger for kale, so that was my "late fall green" of choice. Although, "green" is a misnomer, as the kale I was using was purple -- which, when I went to drain the cooked leaves, temporarily turned the sink violet. Later, the cream in the dish became a soft lavender, lending a bit of whimsy to this veggie heavy dish. Other than the seasonings, every ingredient can be found from a local source. We ate it with roasted sweet potatoes, also available in the market right now.

Casserole of Late Fall Greens
serves 2 as an entree, 4 as a side dish

2T unsalted butter (salted butter also worked fine, just reduce salt elsewhere)

1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs (drop a couple crustless slices in the food processor, and crumb away)

Kosher salt and fresh black pepper

1 cup heavy cream

2 cloves of garlic, smashed and peeled

2.5 ounces of bacon (about 3 strips) (whenever I buy bacon, I immediately repackage it into 3 strip allotments before freezing; this seems to be the perfect amount to add flavoring to greens, potatoes, egg dishes...)

2 cups of cooked winter greens (spinach, swiss chard, kale, broccoli raab, etc) (see first step of instructions)

1/3 cup of freshly grated hard cheese (cows milk or sheeps milk would be best) (I got grater-happy and ended up using 1/2 cup; less than that and the cheese's contribution may have been lost.)

To prepare and cook the greens, remove any tough stems and roughly chop. (To yield 2 cups cooked you will need 1 pound of spinach or brocolli raab, 1 3/4 pounds of swiss chard, or 1 1/4 pounds of kale.) Bring a pot of lightly salted water to a boil and cook until the greens are tender (spinach 30 seconds, swiss chard 1 minute, brocolli raab 2 minutes, and kale 8 minutes). Drain and squeeze to remove excess water.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Butter a 4 cup shallow gratin dish. Toss together the breadcrumbs and 1 T of melted butter with a pinch of kosher salt and a little ground pepper and set aside.

In a medium saucepan, bring the cream and garlic to a boil over medium-high heat and then turn down the heat and simmer vigorously until the cream is reduced to about 3/4 cup. Take the pan off the heat and remove and discard the garlic cloves. Let the cream cool slightly and then season with 1/4 t of salt and a few grinds of black pepper.

In a large skillet, cook the bacon until crisped and browned. Drain on a paper towel and remove almost all of the excess fat from the pan. Add the remaining 1T of butter and return the pan to the heat. Add the cooked greens with 1/4 t salt and cook stirring constantly for 1 minute. Evenly spread the warmed greens in the gratin dish.

Crumble the bacon over the greens. Sprinkle on the cheese. Pour the seasoned cream over the greens/bacon/cheese and top with the bread crumbs. Bake in the 400 degree oven until brown and bubbly - about 25 minutes. Let it rest for 10 to 15 minutes before serving.

picture via Dreamstime

11/17/09

Pumpkin Patch Pasta

The gifts of Pumpkin Project Day keep on giving…


A recent
dinner popped up after adapting a recipe for “Autumn Pasta” by Ariana Sherlock for Torii Mor Winery. The original recipe calls for butternut squash, not pumpkin, and a couple complications. But this simplified version is not only delicious, it is awfully fun to say. (Five times fast, I dare you!)


Pumpkin Patch Pasta

serves two


3 Tbs olive oil, divided

1 ½ - 2 cups frozen (or roasted fresh) pumpkin chunks, large dice

2 garlic cloves, minced or pressed

2 sprigs of fresh sage leaves, chiffonade

salt and pepper

5 cups loosely chopped swiss chard, stems removed

2 servings linguine, cooked al dente in salted water

¼ cup grated parmesan

½ cup walnuts, finely chopped (garnish)


Heat 2 tbs oil in large skillet. Add pumpkin and allow to brown, by avoiding stirring, on at least one side over medium heat (~3-5 minutes.) Add garlic, sage, salt and pepper. Use pasta water to scrape up any yummy charred bits from the pan. Add last tbs of oil to pan and then add the swiss chard. Sauté 4-5 minutes until well wilted. Add pasta and cheese; toss well. Plate and garnish with walnuts.



photo by Susan Law Cain

11/15/09

Farmers and Eaters Robbed by Rain

Quote of the Day

“We were just a couple of frogs short of a Bible story... It was surreal. It just kept raining and raining and raining.”

-- Patrick Horan, a local farmer, on the year's poor growing season that is now coming to a close.

Find the complete NYT story here.



picture via Dreamstime

11/10/09

The Grandchildren of Giraffes: Passing Down the Toxins in Our Food

Nicholas Kristof has joined the bandwagon against BPAs (synthetic estrogen found in hard plastics, cans, etc. ) and he has done a good job summing up the studies that have been flooding recent science journals.

He brushes past the most interesting part though, because his article is more of a warning than a musing on how fascinating our understanding of biology has become. These studies show that our lifestyle habits today may affect the health of our grandchildren -- even if we don't live to meet them.

If that reminds you of a long-discredited theory by the early 19th century biologist Lamarck, you are right. His logic was that traits acquired in a lifetime could be directly passed on to subsequent generations. For example, because a giraffe stretched his neck to reach the top leaves, his offspring were born with long necks.

Darwin, of course, came along and proved Lamarck wrong (although Darwin had some Lamarckisms of his own.) But, scientists are now finding, Lamarck may have been partly correct all along.

(I reported on this new field, called epigenetics, in April. For a great primer on the subject, I highly recommend this video by NOVA.)

Don't want to contribute to your grandkids (or your own) risk of cancer or infertility? Avoid, when possible, canned foods and hard plastics. Easier said than done, I know. I have yet to be able to cut everything out.

But the farmers' market certainly helps.


photo by R. L. Wolverton, via Dreamstime



11/6/09

Eggplant, Addictive?

There are still a few eggplants hanging around the farmers’ market and they are desperately seeking kitchens. I highly recommend taking them home with you. They are great for layered dishes, roasted and mashed with tahini or simply grilled.

And who can resist a plant that comes with trivia?


Saving the best for last:



(1) While the ones at the market are, of course, local, eggplants immigrated from places like India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.


(2) Eggplant, like its cousin the tomato, is technically a berry. (I can just see eggplant alamode on the next episode of Chopped.)


(3) The tiny seeds running through the flesh, which are slightly and pleasantly bitter, contain trace amounts of nicotine. (Tobacco is a distant relative.)



The below gluten-free version of a pasta standby uses both tomato and eggplant. The saltiness of the tapenade balances out the sweetness of the berry vegetables. (Forgo adding extra salt to your tomato sauce.) But if you are feeling less adventurous or are craving a more classic pairing, replace the tapenade with herbed ricotta.


Tapenade “Ravioli”

Serves 2


Pasta

2 medium or one large, preferably narrow, eggplant, peeled

salt

olive oil


Tapenade

1 packed cup pitted kalamata olives

4-6 Tbs fresh parsley

1 small can anchovies with capers (optional)

black pepper


Sauce

1 cup tomato sauce

2-3 garlic cloves, minced or pressed

1 red jalapeño pepper, minced

grated parmesan cheese (garnish)


Heat oven to 400 degrees. Slice peeled eggplant in ¼ inch thick rounds and lightly salt. Set aside to “sweat” 15-30 minutes. Meanwhile, in a food processor, combine olives, parsley, anchovies and pepper to make tapenade filling. Grind into a paste.


Coat a jelly roll pan or well-lipped cookie sheet with 1/8th inch of oil. Pair eggplant slices according to equal sizes. Lay one half of each pair flat on the pan. Spread tapenade “filling” on top. Place matching eggplant slice over tapenade, pressing firmly down. Bake for twenty minutes, flipping with a spatula halfway through.


In a small pot, simmer tomato sauce with garlic and red pepper about twenty minutes. When eggplant “ravioli” are done, use spatula to arrange on plates. Top with spoonfuls of tomato sauce and grated parmesan.



photo by Isabel Poulin

11/5/09

Hold the Music: Bands Drive Away Farmers' Market Shoppers

A study analyzing the rapid increase of farmers' markets in Indiana (222 percent between 1994 and 2004) was released from Purdue University yesterday. The researchers looked at what factors increased a market's popularity. The following ranked highest, when all other variables were held stable:

1. Cooking demonstrations brought 200 more people to a market
2. Concession stands attracted 110 more
3. Each additional product/vendor drew in 20 more
4. The presence of WIC (Women Infant & Children Farmers' Market Nutrition Program) attracted 20 more.

Interestingly, live music discouraged people from supporting the market. When music was played at a market, attendance declined by an average of 200 people. This from the press release: "These findings could indicate that customers attend the market to shop, not to be entertained", the researchers explained.

Reminds me of the farmers' market we visited in Montana, desperate to taste some of the local beef we had been watching graze all week. Other than a few stands with arugula and tomatoes, and a table tended by bonnet-bound girls offering chicken and eggs, the market resembled a county fair. There was cotton candy and fudge, kettle corn and pulled pork sandwiches. Knick knacks, handmade and otherwise.

And yes, we left, before they finished setting up for the band.


photo by Jaimie Duplass, via Dreamstime

11/4/09

Mushrooms: “Grey is a color, too!”


With frequent reports reminding us to eat our colors, mushrooms are often under appreciated for the nutritional powerhouses they are. They can bolster the immune system (yes, keeping H1N1 at bay), lower stress and reduce the risk of many chronic illnesses. Because of their hearty texture, they can also be a great way to replace or “stretch” the meat called for in more many recipes. One of my favorite tricks is to mix ground portabellas (just throw them in a food processor) into ground beef and then use to make hamburgers, lasagna, etc. as you usually would. This is particularly good if you are using grass-fed beef that has a normal (aka non-reduced) fat content. The mushrooms help lighten up the meal without losing any valuable Omega 3s.


Last night I made a mushroom and sage sauté and served it over polenta. I used criminis, which also go by the name baby portabellas or, alliteratively, baby bellas. They are the same shape as white button (still America’s favorite), but darker and more flavorful. While each mushroom type seems to have its own expertise in the nutrition game, but criminis are among the best. If you are looking for adventure, however, check out Madura Farms stand (Union Square, Grand Army Plaza, Carroll Park… click here to see if they come to the market near you): they have oyster, shitake, chanterelles, hen of the woods, you name it – all of which are yummy simply sautéed with butter and salt.


Mushroom and Sage Ragu

Serves 2


2-3 Tbs olive oil

8-12 inches of sausage (optional), such as the turkey sausage from DiPaola, cut on the bias into ¼ inch slices

1 large yellow onion, halved and sliced thin

Broth (chicken or vegetable) or water

4 cloves garlic (less if you are using non-local garlic), minced or pressed

2 yellow tomatoes, halved and sliced thin

1 pepper (half of a bell, if you want a mild dish, jalapeño or chili pepper if you want to jazz it up; mince spicier pepper, slice into 2 inch sticks for milder peppers)

2 cups crimini mushrooms, quartered

1/3 cup red wine

3 Tbs chopped parsley

2 Tbs chopped fresh sage

kosher salt and black pepper

grated parmesan


Heat skillet and allow oil to coat the pan. Add the sausage, if using. Allow to brown by leaving untouched for about 2 minutes. Flip the sausage slices and repeat. When browned on both sides, remove sausage to plate with slotted spoon. Set aside.


Add onion to same pan over medium heat. While the onion is cooking add a bit of broth to the pan, to deglaze the yummy brown bits left by the sausage. When onion is soft (~4 minutes), add garlic. After two minutes, add tomato and cover. When tomato has broken down (3-5 minutes), add pepper, mushrooms and wine. Cook covered until pepper has softened (3-5 minutes). Stir in parsley, sage, salt and pepper. Simmer uncovered until sauce reduces to desired dryness. Serve over polenta (recipe below) and dust with parmesan.



Polenta

Serve 2 to 3


2 ½ cups chicken broth (recommended) or water

kosher or sea salt

2/3 cups very fine cornmeal (available on Fridays at the Union Square Farmer Market)

4 Tbs half and half or 2 Tbs cream (available from Milk Thistle)


Bring broth and salt to a rolling boil. Stirring constantly to stave off lumps, slowly add cornmeal. When the mixture starts to thicken, stir in half and half. Stirring occasionally, simmer until mixture is desired thickness, 3-20 minutes. (Traditionally, polenta is served very runny but I like mine approaching the consistency of mashed potatoes.)



photo by Photowitch, via Dreamstime

10/26/09

Halloween Pumpkins: Trick or Treat?


According to this NYT oped, my sentiments about delicious orbs of pumpkin being left on the stoop to rot are echoed in France, where Halloween is slowly but surely taking root.





skull photo by penywise

photo of miniature pumpkins and other autumn vegetables by Paul Prescott

10/23/09

Ginger and Chorizo-Infusion in Minutes "Splat"

Last weekend, there was a festive clam bake at the farmers’ market at Carrol Park. People were swarming around, slurping broth from shells, as they considered multi-hued potatoes, maple syrup and bunches of rainbow kale. They inspired me to finally buy a “splat bag” – a mixture of mussels and clams – from the fishmonger and lug it home. That evening it became the below:

Ginger and Chorizo-Infused Mussels and Clams


1 chorizo, sliced into thin bite-size sticks
1 onion, sliced thin
6 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
2-3 inch piece ginger, minced
1 small red chili, minced
2 ½ cups white wine, such as chenin blanc
juice of two small limes
1 Tbs butter

1/3 cup (or more) chopped cilantro
1/3 cup chopped parsley

1 5lb “Splat” bag of mussels and clams, well-rinsed, any open shells discarded.

In large deep sauce pan, brown chorizo. Remove and set aside. Add onion to pan and sauté, scraping up any brown bits left from the chorizo. Add garlic, ginger, chili, wine and lime juice. Bring to a boil, with cover on. Add back chorizo. Stir in cilantro and parsley. Add mussels and clams. Boil until all shells are open, 15 or so minutes. (Check the bottom, too.) Serve piping hot with plenty of broth, and maybe some toasted bread to sop it all up.


picture by Zheng Dong


10/21/09

Molasses-Olive Oil Pumpkin Bread


The first pumpkin recipe of the season! (Well, if you don't count toasted pumpkin seeds and mashed pumpkin with butter.) Pumpkin and molasses compliment each other beautifully, especially in baked goods. This bread turned out fluffy and moist in texture but dense and dark in flavor. The olive oil lets the molasses and pumpkin shine, without weighing them down.


Molasses-Olive Oil Pumpkin Bread


Ingredients:

2 large eggs, at room temperature

½ cup olive oil

5 tbs water

1 cup pureed pumpkin (fresh or canned)

¼ cup sugar

½ cup molasses

1 ½ cups all purpose flour

½ cup oat flakes, divided

1 ½ teaspoon salt

1teaspoon ground nutmeg

1teaspoon ground cinnamon

1teaspoon ground clove

1teaspoon baking soda

1/2 cup coarsely chopped walnuts (optional)


Preheat oven to 350º degrees. Briefly beat eggs in a large bowl. Stir in olive oil, water, pumpkin, sugar and molasses. In a separate bowl, combine the rest of the ingredients except 1/3 of the oatmeal and the nuts. Add the mixture of dry ingredients to the pumpkin/molasses bowl in three parts. Stir to mix but do not over stir! Don’t worry if there are still lumps. Stir in walnuts. Pour batter in a greased standard-sized loaf pan (9" x 5"). Dust the top with remaining oat flakes. Bake for 45-60 minutes until a knife slipped into the center of the loaf comes out clean. Let cool before slicing.



picture by Dušan Zidar

10/19/09

Pumpkin Project Day


I love October. You have the end of the summer’s harvest and the first of the winter vegetables all at the same time. But even amidst all this plenty, October would not be October without Pumpkins.

I am not talking Jack o’Lanterns. While I am not against these haunted decorations per se, when I see them sprouting up in advance of Halloween, I shake my head, wondering why someone took one of the earth’s brightest bon-bons, turned it into a monster and set in on the stoop to rot. Pumpkin is far too yummy for decoration!

I’ll admit my October Pumpkin Project Tradition started with salvaging seeds from such candlelit carvings. Today, it has expanded to a half-day event that hordes every last spoonful of orange flesh and then freezes it away to be savored for at least the next three months.

Here’s the only rule to Pumpkin Project Day: Make too much. It is a true “project”, and if you are going to do it, you might as well get as much return on your effort as possible.

Besides, there is so much you can do with pumpkin! In addition to make puree for pie, bread, pancakes, soup and reduced into a side dish, I freeze raw pumpkin in thin slices (for sautéing, scalloping or layered dish-ing) and bite-size chunks (for roasting, curry-ing and frying).

And, of course, I still gotta roast the seeds.

To get started, pick out some pumpkins. In general, “sugar” or “pie” pumpkins are better for dessert preparations while conventional varieties such as Howden or Magic Lantern are better for more savory dishes. But don’t fret about the type; you can’t really go wrong when it comes to pumpkin.

Then cut them into halves or quarters depending on the size. No one tells you how hard this is. I usually have to place the chopping block on the floor and go at with my full weight. I dream of investing in a hatchet those mornings, but it would be a uni-tasker in our kitchen and Pumpkin Project Day only comes once a year.

Once you have them open, scrape out the seed and stringy bits of flesh. Reserve the seeds in a big bowl of water, to start their cleaning process. Also reserve a few raw pieces of pumpkin for chunking. Place the rest of the pumpkin pieces in a large pan, such as the one you will use for turkey next month and roast and 400 degrees for about an hour, or until very tender.

When cooled, scrape the pumpkin “meat” out and puree. Freeze or use immediately in place of “canned pumpkin” in any of your favorite recipes. I also like to serve pumpkin puree as a side dish, hot with a bit of butter.

With the reserved raw pumpkin, use a peeler to take of the tough outside. And then cut into bite-size chunks. You can roast or add to stews and curries the way you would with potatoes.

With the seeds, work them free of the orange string bits in the bowl of water. (They can be allowed to soak overnight, if need be.) Pat dry and spread them out in a single layer on oiled cookie sheets. Stirring occasionally, roast at 300 until dry and crisp, about 20-30 minutes. Salt and snack.


picture by Dmitry Skalev

10/16/09

Tomato Cryonics

Tomatoes are on their way out for the year. But they are still plentiful in the market, so now is the time to stock up!

If you want to eat them fresh, buy from sellers that are still putting out slices to taste – otherwise you run the risk of getting a mealy one. But grab the value bags of tomatoes with abandon if you are making tomato paste or tomato sauce. Deborah Madison, in her farm-to-table cookbook Local Flavors, convinced me to make tomato sauce for the rest of the year, simply by sharing her trick to save room in the freezer: zip lock bags laid on the freezer floor freeze flat and thin, easy for storing AND thawing – you can just place the frozen bag in the same water you are bringing to a boil for pasta and before you know it you have spaghetti marinara.

The recipe itself is a cinch. No blanching, peeling, coring or seeding necessary. Just quarter the tomatoes and toss in a pot.


Tomato Sauce

~6 cups
6-7 pounds of tomatoes, rinsed and quartered (about 2 large “apple” bags from Fred Wilklow’s Orchard)
6 Tbs fresh basil or marjoram (optional), chopped
4 Tbs olive oil
salt, pepper

Throw the tomatoes and basil in the largest pot you own; cover and add medium heat. The tomatoes should begin releasing their juices immediately, but double-check to make sure the tomatoes don’t scorch. If they are still dry at the bottom after the first 4-5 minutes add a bit of water and cover again.

Let cook about 30 minutes until the tomatoes have completely broken down. Pass through a food press or blender, to make it a uniform consistency. Simmer with cover off, stirring occasionally for about 60 minutes, until sauce is desired thickness. Stir in olive oil and seasonings. Cool before portioning 1 cup allotments into ziplock freezer bags.

10/9/09

Joyless Pursuit of Perfection

There was a very pretty opinion piece in the NYT this week by Timothy Egan. It covers his trip during harvest time to lush and fertile Yakima Valley in Washington State, and dovetails on the recent story about the dancer paralyzed after eating an E. Coli tainted burger grilled by her mom. In addition to beautiful descriptions, even if some of the transitions are choppy, the piece offers a few fun tidbits (apples originated from Kazakhstan?!?!) and, of course, food politics.

My favorite parts, however, are his references to perfection. He does get deeply into it, but I think some misguided pursuit of this unattainable state indirectly causes rows of identical cookies, identical boxes of cereal, identical frozen meals and in, Egan's view, tasteless apples.

Here is an excerpt:

"Red Delicious, which is to a fruit bowl what plastic surgery is to beauty, is still the most popular apple — a polished piece of fruit that can keep its buffed pose year-round in near-freezing warehouses, but is utterly tasteless.

Honeycrisp, which is sunshine in a marbled orb, and Gala and Fuji are all coming on, as are innumerable varieties that had nearly been lost in the joyless pursuit of the perfect apple....

... How much of the danger from leafy vegetables can be blamed on the industrial model that produces cheap calories I don’t know. But as consumers follow Michael Pollan’s advice to get to know our food producers, we will learn to see the processed burger and the industrial vegetables for what they are — cheap global commodities that carry some risk.

The best antidote for such a thing is to see, touch and experience food as it comes off the fields. As imperfect as this harvest picture is, it satisfies a need that has never bred out of us as people."

honeycrisp apples via Dreamstime

9/30/09

The Summer's Last (Edible) Flowers


Sadly, we may only have one more week of squash blossoms. These palm-length orange flowers have a subtly perfumed taste that adds a unique dimension to any dish. If you find some, buy as many as you think you can eat in a week!

They are good simply sautéed quickly in butter (remove the stamen inside the flower first) and make a lovely side dish or garnish for a grass-fed steak. That said, after I was inspired by Greenmarket recipe writer Maria Alvarez, I spent much the summer thinking about different ways to stuff them (winner: stuffed with feta, egg battered, fried.)

For a delightfully delicate change-of-seasons dish, also gather some of summer's last tomatoes and peppers and try the below main dish.

Blossomed Catfish


20 large fresh squash blossoms
2 Tbs olive oil
½ medium or 1 small onion, diced
3 garlic cloves, minced
1-2 fresh green chile such as serranos or jalepenos
1 small green bell pepper, seeded and de-ribbed, cut into half inch cubes
1 medium tomato, boiled, peeled, cored and chopped
¾ cup fresh cilantro leaves, roughly chopped
½ cup white wine
1 pound catfish filets, sliced into 2” by 3” squares.

Cut the tough bottom off the flower; pull out and discard the stamen. Rinse the flowers thoroughly and slice crosswise into ½ inch tubes.

Sauté onions in olive oil. After 3 minutes, add garlic and both types of peppers. Sauté until peppers soften, about 3 to 4 minutes. Add white wine, stir. Adjust heat to medium low heat. Place fish pieces around pan. After 2-3 minutes, flip fish. Add blossoms, tomatoes and cilantro. Cover and allow to cook 8-10 minutes, until blossoms are well wilted and fish is cooked through. Season with salt and serve with extra broth from pan dressing the plate.

Rice and fresh corn make good compliments.


picture by Harris Shiffman
via Dreamstime

9/28/09

Cabbage Buds from a Tree

Rumored to come from Brussels, but bearing no resemblance to sprouts, Brussels sprouts are making their first appearances in the market -- although I had trouble locating them at first.

I was scanning the stands for heaps of perfect dollhouse-sized cabbages when my eye caught on a thick stalk almost 2 feet long. It was wrapped with Brussels sprouts like a sting of bulbous lights on a Christmas tree.

Despite eating hundreds of these creatures over the last few decades, I had rudely never considered the upbringing of this button-cute member of the cabbage family. Apparently, they bud in bunches of 20 to 40 on the thick stem of a plant that grows several feet tall. Here’s a picture of a harvested field, where mostly stalks remain.

While most everything in the cabbage family (including kale, broccoli and cauliflower) is going to get even tastier as the temperature dips, I see no reason to wait. Besides, is it possible to resist snatching up a stick ornamented with Brussels sprouts?

Below is my favorite way of preparing them, not only because it is so simple. Roasting them caramelizes and chars the outer leaves, giving their texture an added dimension.

Roasted Brussels Sprouts
(with fig option, see below)
- serves 4 as a side dish

1 pound Brussels sprouts, trimmed
2-3 Tbs olive oil
kosher salt and fresh ground pepper

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Combine oil with salt and pepper. Add Brussels sprouts and toss. Spread on a large baking sheet and roast for 30-45 minutes until just tender enough to pierce with a knife. Serve while still hot.

For a festive rendition, 15 minutes before the sprouts are done, add 8-10 fresh dark-skinned figs that have been de-stemmed, quartered and lightly coated in oil. Garnish the duo with pomegranate seeds.


picture via Dreamstime

9/18/09

Are Farmers' Markets the New Starbucks?



In a new book due out next month, Everything but the Coffee: Learning about America from Starbucks (University of California Press, October 2009), historian Bryant Simon explores the unmet needs Starbucks came to fill in American culture.

“At its peak,”
the press release reads, “Starbucks thrived by giving Americans what they thought they wanted, which wasn’t coffee. It was predictability, class standing, a sense of community, more natural and authentic products, and a sense of themselves as caring and more benevolent individuals.”

That last sentence, minus predictability (I always find myself surprised at our greenmarket), might as well be describing a farmer
s’ market. Fittingly, farmers’ markets are on the rise. According to the most recent data from the USDA, the number of farmers' markets in the United has grown from 1,755 in 1994 to 4,685 in 2008 — over 2.6 fold. And preliminary reports suggest the pace of growth is only increasing.

According to Simon, with its comfortable and aesthetic seating areas and eco- and employee-friendly policies, “the success of Starbucks is, in essence, a plea for an older form of state action and everyday neighborhood involvement.”


(Simon explains that the recent dip in Starbucks sales is primarily due to copy-cat places also supplying these other “beyond-coffee” needs. “Now that
Cosi and Panera look like Starbucks, it just doesn’t seem special,” he said.)

What is the growing popularity of farmers’ markets, I would argue, if not also “in essence, a plea for an older form of state action and everyday neighborhood involvement.” It provides
Everything and the Food. Hell, Starbucks is even involved in a youth food project at a farm 20 miles from Boston that contributes to local farmers' markets.

Are farmers’ markets the new Starbucks?

I sure hope so!



picture by Jim Boardman via Dreamstime