Friday, December 30, 2011

Looking ahead to a new year

Another year comes to a close and it’s time once again to make New Year’s Resolutions. Plans for the future, dreams, wishes, goals, whatever you want to call them. But apparently most of us make them.

Some of us make ours only to break them in February, but some of us make them and check back with ourselves at the end of the year to see how we fared in fulfilling them. I think that making resolutions is like making a business plan for the year – but for ourselves, personally. Goals are good – measuring them, even better. How else do we improve ourselves if we don’t set goals?

Some of my resolutions are probably not unlike many most of us have: exercise more, eat less, read more books, watch less television, get more sleep, etc. But one I also have is to challenge myself more in the kitchen. I mean expand my skills by cooking with foods I don’t usually cook with, trying new techniques, and new ethnic cuisines I haven’t yet explored. Like most of us, I find I cook the same kinds of things (Mediterranean being the most prevalent) over and over again. Regional American foods, Middle Eastern, and Latin American foods appeal to me lately and I want to explore them more. I am excited to begin the search for new recipes, and their preparation, and then to sit down to enjoy them.

Whatever your new year’s resolutions are, I hope cooking something that takes you out of your comfort zone is on the list. And if it is, I wish you all the best on your culinary adventure!

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

'Tis the Season

If you’re still wondering what to get some of the people on your Christmas list, and you’re a little short on cash, don’t despair. You don’t have to break the bank to let someone special know you care. Consider giving them a home-made gift, one that came from your kitchen.

Christmas cookies or cakes wrapped in pretty packages; home-made jam, flavored vinegars, or herb-infused oils in lovely glass bottles and jars; or baking mixes layered in Mason jars tied with ribbons, all make great gifts. It may seem simple, but that’s exactly what is so endearing. If it was made by you, with them in mind, the gift takes on greater meaning than something you may have simply bought at Williams-Sonoma.

This is a tough year for many people. If you like giving, but don’t have the budget you once had, consider giving something you’ve made. On the other hand, if you know someone who’s having trouble right now, consider having them over for dinner one night. Gifts from the kitchen warm everyone’s heart and are very much appreciated.

I decided to search for German Christmas cookie recipes. I wanted to make some for my dad, who will hopefully come home from rehab for the holidays. I’m thinking that having some of the goodies he remembers from childhood will be comforting as he comes home again after all these months away. 

Here is one of the recipes I just made. It’s one I grew up with and it’s really easy to make.

Zimtsterne (Cinnamon Stars)

3 egg whites
250g powdered sugar (1 cup)
250g ground almonds (1 cup)
2 Tbsp. cinnamon (heaping)
100g sugar (¼ cup)

Beat egg whites till soft peaks form. Add the powdered sugar and mix until just blended. Remove 2 heaping tablespoons to use later for decorating. Combine almond meal with the cinnamon and add to the egg whites.

Distribute sugar on a board. Roll out the dough on top of the sugar to ¼” thickness and cut out stars with a cookie cutter. Place cutout cookies on a sheet and decorate with the remaining egg/sugar mixture that you removed earlier. Bake at 350 degrees F until more dried out than baked. They should take on a little color but not much! Remove from oven and allow to cool on baking sheet. 

 Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Wild Rice

In a Native American magazine I recently came across there was an article about wild rice and its meaning to Native American people. I learned quite a bit. It seems that wild rice is the only grain indigenous to North America. It has twice the protein and fiber of brown rice and like any true rice, is gluten free.  It has a nuttier, crunchier texture than any other rice. Sometimes it’s mixed with brown, white, black and/or red rices for a “wild rice blend” which is really delicious.

Wild rice grows in rivers, creeks and shallow lakes and was harvested by canoe, mainly by the Chippewa/Ojibwa Indians of the Great Lakes Region (northern Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan and west-central Ontario (Canada). 

It's considered a sacred plant by the Native Americans and is hearty. But the plant requires a real winter for the seed to break dormancy, so climate change could have a negative impact on this food source as temperatures increase. Conservation programs are underway to reinvigorate wild rice growing regions to benefit not only humans, but wildlife, too. Where rice is abundant it drives biodiversity in those areas. Wild rice feeds waterfowl (mallards, ducks, etc.) and the beds create habitat for breeding and nesting. Moose, muskrats and minute invertebrates all feed on or use wild rice as well. 

Many Native American people today rely on this rice for income. Wild rice is harvested by hand, so it is not inexpensive. This is another reason why it’s sometimes mixed with other rices in rice blends in order to cut the cost. I find this to be a great idea for not only cost reasons, but also because an all-wild-rice dish can be a bit overwhelming.

So how did the Native American people typically prepare wild rice? I read that it was often served with berries (such as blueberries, blackberries or cranberries) and meat. Though I haven’t tried that, a couple of ways I like to make it is either warm, mixed with other rices as a side dish to chicken or whatever, or in a salad. At this time of year you’ll find stuffing recipes using wild rice instead of bread for a gluten-free version. Some of them look quite good. This recipe was recommended to me several years ago by my sister-in-law. I modified it slightly by mixing the 2 rices together. The original called for all wild rice.

Wild Rice Salad

2 cups water, divided
½ tsp salt, divided
½  cup wild rice
½ cup brown rice
1 6-oz jar marinated artichoke hearts, drained and halved, reserve marinade
1 6-oz. can green peas (or use frozen and cook them)
1/3 cup coarsely chopped green or red bell pepper
3 green onions, chopped with both white and green parts
1 cup cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
¼ cup toasted slivered almonds, for garnish

1 1/3 cups light flavored oil such as canola or grapeseed
½ cup white vinegar
¼ cup grated Parmesan
1 Tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. celery seed
½ tsp. ground white pepper
½ tsp. dry mustard
¼ tsp. paprika
1 clove garlic, minced

First, we’re going to cook each of the rices separately, and later combine them. In 2 pots with lids, bring water and salt to a boil. Add the wild rice to one pot and the brown rice in another one, and stir each well. 
Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer the wild rice for 45 minutes to 1 hour, the brown rice for about 45 minutes (or follow the directions on the bag). Drain excess liquid from both and allow to cool slightly.

Meanwhile, combine all the dressing ingredients in a jar with a lid and shake well. Chop all the veggies.
When the rices are done cooking, in a large bowl, combine them with the vegetables, reserved artichoke marinade and half of the dressing. Toss well.  

Just before serving, toss again and taste. Add more of the dressing if needed. Taste for salt and sprinkle with the almonds and serve. This is best eaten at room temperature.

For Native American recipes featuring wild rice, consider visiting

Monday, November 7, 2011

Finally "Soup Weather"!

One of my favorite fall soup recipes is one I saw in an issue of Sunset Magazine many years ago. It was a recipe from Deborah Madison (of Chez Panisse and Greens fame), one of my favorite cookbook authors. She embodies much of what inspires me: vegetarian cooking, the Slow Food movement, and eating locally, organically, humanely raised food. The recipe was preceded by an article about different types of squash and as I read the recipe I knew I had to make it. 
Before I continue, let me tell you this: when it comes to many recipes, I usually cut quantities in half, because there are only two of us at home and I don't like leftovers for too many days. But when it comes to this soup, I make the whole recipe.  I never tire of it.

We liked the soup so well I offered to bring it to Thanksgiving dinner one year. Everyone there liked it, too. The following year I brought something else and everyone asked where the soup was!

As you can tell, this thing has become an annual tradition. I make it every Fall because the soup exemplifies this time of year: hearty, earthy, squashy. It can be modified in many ways: by changing up the type of squash used, by adding cream if you choose, or by varying the type of stock added. But no matter how it’s modified, it’s still a fantastic soup. I prefer it without the cream and exactly the way it’s listed in the recipe below because in all the years I’ve made it, I like this way best.

One ingredient that should not be changed out is the sage.  This herb and squash are good friends and totally belong together. The drizzle of the extra virgin olive oil at the end, right before you serve it, is also important, believe it or not, because the fat adds a mouth-feel that puts the soup over the top. I like it better than cream.
Butternut Squash

Squash can be a bit labor-intensive to prepare because some are tough-skinned and hard to get a knife through, while some may be large and hard to hold on to, which is why I like butternut (which can be easily peeled).  

Kabocha Squash
Though acorn squash is small and easy to cut in half without the use of a jack-hammer, it is not one of the more flavorful varieties and it's a little watery. I recommend going the extra mile and using 1-2 pumpkin varieties in addition to the butternut and maybe only a little bit of acorn. Kabocha is perhaps my favorite because it lends the soup lovely color and a deep, rich flavor.

It’s going to be another rainy weekend where I live, and for some of you, snowy. A friend of mine in Idaho got snow the other day and the East Coast has already been hit with it. If you are looking for something comforting to make this weekend to stay warm, get yourself some squash and sage and make this soup. Hopefully it will become an annual favorite of yours as well.

Winter Squash Soup with Sage

2 1/2 to 3 lbs. winter squash
1/4 cup olive oil, plus extra for the squash
6 garlic cloves, unpeeled
12 whole sage leaves, plus 2 Tbsp. chopped
2 onions, finely chopped
chopped leaves from 4 thyme sprigs or 1/4 tsp dried
1/4 cup chopped parsley
salt and freshly milled pepper
2 qts. water or stock
1/2 cup Fontina, pecorino or ricotta salata cheese, diced into small cubes

Preheat oven to 375F. Halve the squashes and scoop out seeds, brush surfaces with oil, stuff cavities with garlic, and place them cut side down on a baking sheet. Bake until tender when pressed with a finger, about 30-40 minutes, depending on size.

Meanwhile, in a small skillet, heat the oil and then drop in the whole sage leaves and fry until speckled and dark, about 1 minute. Set the leaves aside on a paper towel and transfer the oil to a wide soup pot. Add the onions, chopped sage, thyme and parsley and cook over medium heat until the onions have begun to brown around the edges, 12-15 min. Scoop the squash flesh into the pot along with any juices that have accumulated in the pan. Peel the garlic and add it to the pot along with the salt and water or stock and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer, partially covered, for 25 minutes. If the soup becomes too thick, simply add more water/stock to thin it out. Taste for salt.

Depending on the type of squash you've used, the soup will be either smooth or rough. Puree or pass it through a food mill if you want a more refined soup. Ladle into bowls and distribute the cheese over the top. Garnish each bowl with the fried sage leaves, add pepper, and serve.

Courtesy: Deborah Madison, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Food & Wine

Food and wine...meant to go together, like Laurel and Hardy, Fred and Ginger, yin and yang...... Though pairing food with wine may seem intimidating if you are new to entertaining/cooking/drinking, you really don't need any fancy degrees to make a wine selection. But if you need help, there are a ton of websites and books available out there should you need some suggestions. While those are a great place to start, I think doing your own homework will take you even farther.

Deciding what to serve with which foods comes from experience. When you one day hear yourself utter these words, you will know you have arrived: "We should open that bottle of ____ to go with this ____ I just made." (You fill in the blanks). When that day comes, you will have a good understanding of the marriage between food and wine.

Though I'm certainly no wine expert, I can tell you what I like. Ultimately it really does just come down to this: no matter what anyone tells you, either you're going to like it, or you won't. 

Often, I hear people say they only like Cabs or Chardonnay or whatever. While I think that's great that they know what they like, I think they are limiting themselves. There are so many wines out there from so many different parts of the world, and each offers new taste experiences. Be open to the differences in, say, a wine from South America or Africa. Consider different grape varietals from what you are used to. Have you ever heard of Gruener Veltliner or Nebbiolo? You may find one downright fabulous. Consider trying varietals that have been rescued from near extinction and are making a comeback, such as Viognier, or the Carmenere grape once grown in France but now thriving in Chile.

Over time, too, our tastes may change. I once drank Chardonnay. Now, I can't stand it. I had to give it up because no matter how many I tasted, I found that only the really expensive ones had the butteriness I was longing for. Most of them left me pucker-mouthed from their ueber-acidity.

These days I'm into Viognier and Pinot Noir. Interestingly enough, though one is white and the other red, they have similar characteristics. Both grapes are finicky and require a great deal of care in their handling. Both do best with climates that offer warm days and cool nights. Both are difficult to grow. I think that's one reason I appreciate them so much. They are also quite versatile with a broad range of foods and can even be enjoyed alone.

My sister introduced me to an Italian grape she enjoys: Nebbiolo. I recently found such a wine for a real bargain and keep going back to get more. I hope the store doesn't run out!

Take advantage of the wine tastings at your local wine shop, or head to a big retailer like Total Wine for a huge range of wines of every conceivable price point. I found a French wine for under $4 there once, which I really liked for an everyday wine. Don't let the price tag of some of these wines discourage you. Price does not necessarily always mean what you think. You may not like the expensive stuff and you may really like a cheaper bottle.

And why are some of them so dang expensive? A lot of factors can affect the price of wine. Limited grape production, for example, or the amount of special handling required. Ice wine, for instance, is usually pricey because the grapes stay on the vine several months longer than usual (most grapes are harvested in September/October). These hang on until the frost comes, intensifying their sugar content, and then the shriveled things have to be hand-picked in the dead of winter. Naturally the more care that goes into production, including the blending that the winemaker oversees, can drive up price, but more isn't always better. What if a $50 bottle doesn't taste good to you? 

Do not be intimidated by wine or the snobs who tell you what to drink. After all, it's just glorified grape juice!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Reader Entry: Ratatouille

Remy, Chef de Cuisine
While "Ratatouille" is one of my favorite animated movies, it's also a fantastic thing to eat. Thank you to the reader who suggested I use it as a blog post for the next Reader Entry. Great idea. 
Anton Ego, Food Critic

If you saw the movie, you'll remember the dish was served at the end when the nasty food critic, Anton Ego, comes into the restaurant prepared to rip it apart, as he does nearly every other dining establishment in Paris. Instead, when he is served Ratatouille (rat-tat-too-ee), he is transported back to his happy childhood. Needless to say, he gives the restaurant rave reviews.

The dish consists of garlic and onions, spinach, zucchini, eggplant, tomatoes and bell peppers and olive oil and herbs for additional flavor. How much healthier than that can it get? Talk about the "Mediterranean Diet"!

Ratatouille is versatile: it can be eaten as a side dish to meat or chicken, or as a main course along with crusty bread or over pasta.  I prefer it over pasta and make it a vegetarian meal,  starting off with a mixed green salad with a homemade vinaigrette.

Ratatouille is a great way to hang on to summer. Eggplant, tomatoes, and zucchini can still be found at the farmer's market, so this is perfect to make right now before the weather turns chillier and we all long for warm days again.

While some recipes I researched call for preparing each vegetable separately and then putting them all together at the end, I have never done this and frankly consider it a huge waste of time. It's all going to end up together anyway. Maybe there's something to it, but I don't have the patience for that. I just wanna eat! That's why I like the following recipe.


2 Tbsp. pine nuts
4 Tbsp. olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
3 large cloves garlic, minced or pressed
1 tsp. thyme leaves (if using fresh, use a little less)
1 small eggplant (about ¾ lb.), unpeeled , cut into ½-inch cubes
1 large green or red bell pepper, seeded and chopped
1 large zucchini, chopped
2 cups chopped fresh spinach leaves
3 large tomatoes (about 1 lb. total) , chopped
¼ cup minced parsley
Salt and pepper
Fresh basil
Lemon wedges or grated lemon peel

Toast pine nuts 5 minutes in a pan over medium heat and without oil until slightly golden brown. Remove from pan to cool.
Heat ½ the oil over medium heat. Add onion and garlic, cook until soft, about 3-5 minutes. Add remaining oil, and thyme through pepper, cook 5 minutes. Add zucchini through parsley, reduce, simmer uncovered about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are tender. Season to taste. Serve hot or at room temp. with pine nuts, torn basil leaves and lemon. Makes about 4 cups.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Flavor Profile: Stock

Stock is the basis of much cooking which is why we inevitably end up needing it eventually. Making stock is a little like making bring everything to a slow boil and then steep the ingredients for a period of time until you've extracted the flavors into the water. Then you strain the ingredients out, and what's left is the broth, or stock, which is then used to flavor all sorts of things.

But why bother? That's what bouillon cubes are for, or those cans of Swanson's, right? Sure, you could buy those, but homemade is soooooo much better. A lot of the ready-made varieties, particularly at conventional supermarkets, contain ingredients I don't like: too much sodium, yeast extract, artificial flavor enhancers, and sometimes chemicals. There are more natural versions without all these mysterious ingredients available at the health food store or Trader Joe's and sometimes I buy them in a pinch. But by making your own you can more readily control the sodium level as well as use ingredients you like best, and it's a whole lot fresher and healthier. That is a huge bonus, I think.

Ingredients for chicken stock
So I would encourage you to make your own whenever possible. You can make a bunch and freeze half of it for later use. Making stock is not hard, and the reward for doing it is a broth loaded with flavor. Stock can be added to rice or other grains instead of plain water when cooking them; to vegetable purees for more intense veg flavor; to poaching liquid; and of course it is the basis of nearly every soup. Since it's Fall and the beginning of what I like to call "soup weather" (just as soon as this heat wave leaves us!), I plan on making stock.

Veggies ready for roasting
Stocks come in a variety of different forms: meat, chicken, vegetable, and something called court bouillon which is typically used to poach fish. Vegetables added to any of these stocks can be either raw or roasted before-hand for an even deeper flavor. The flavor combinations are really endless.

Collect the scraps of vegetables used throughout the week and by the weekend you should have a good amount. You don't want any decayed or badly bruised parts (nothing you wouldn't eat), but ends or the outer leaves of things work well. For meat stocks, bones and other non-edible parts that would normally be thrown out are perfect.

Not every vegetable is suitable for stock-making, however. There are some that are not ideal. Those include cabbages, broccoli, cauliflower, tomatoes, artichokes and bitter greens. Some cookbooks mention that asparagus also doesn't make a good stock ingredient but others say it's fine to use. Some books also advise against starchy veggies such as potatoes and sweet potatoes, but then I find them listed in other recipes. Experiment and decide for yourself. 

These, though, are notoriously great for stock:

green onions/scallions
parsley and other herbs
squash (any kind)
green beans
bell peppers

It's important to start with cold water, add the ingredients and more water, if needed, to cover everything, and bring this to a boil. Simmer vegetable stocks for about 30 minutes, meat stocks for about an hour. Strain out the chunky stuff, add salt and maybe some pepper, and voila! you have stock.

So get out that large stock pot you have and rarely use and fire up some broth. And next week, when it's cooler (let's hope), you are ready to start making soup. That's when I'll share with you my absolutely favorite soup recipe.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Why I love food

The subject of food conjures up a whole range of emotions in people, and for most of us they are good ones. Food provides comfort, brings families and friends together, and is always present at special occasions. Food not only provides nourishment, but simply makes life more enjoyable.

While eating it is certainly fun, the preparation of it can be therapeutic. Like it has been for me lately. My life has perhaps never been as stressful as it is right now, and on particularly tough days I downright crave the chance to get into the kitchen and cook (some days I just want to order a pizza). Cooking requires focus, and at least for a little while, the diversion does me good.

Taking the time to read a recipe, decide if it sounds good to me, gathering ingredients, preparing and chopping the food, finding the right vessel to cook it in, tasting it, adding more of this or that until it's just right, and then assembling it and cooking it, watching it so it doesn't burn.....requires attention. I can lose myself in this process. A momentary vacation.

It's also a great way to express creativity. A meal, or even a single dish, properly executed, is a joy. As the dish comes together, the various textures and flavors create something out of nothing other than what started out as just a list of ingredients. Will the marriage of all these flavors work, and will I like it? The suspense of waiting to see how a dish will turn out can be exciting.

This is what I find so fascinating about food. There are countless ingredients out there, from all over the globe, and it's the combination of these ingredients that either work or don't work that make cooking, and eating, so very interesting.

We all long to release tension and express ourselves. For some of us, this takes place in the kitchen.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Greens and the ANDI Index

Not too long ago I watched a PBS special on Dr. Joel Fuhrman. When I later googled the man to learn more about him I discovered that not only is he a former figure skater, but he is also the same Dr. Fuhrman who developed the ANDI scale, which measures the nutrient density of foods. This index was devised to help us identify which foods offer the biggest bang for our buck, so to speak, in terms of nutrient density. If you’ve been to a Whole Foods Market you’ve probably seen the “Health Starts Here” posters around the store, which feature this same ANDI index (see end of post for the list of foods on this index). At the top of this list are greens of all sorts, as in green leafy vegetables. Things like meat and cheese rank lowest.

The show was informative. The take-away for me was something I find easy to remember: GOMBS, which stands for Greens, Onions, Mushrooms, Beans & Berries, and Seeds. These foods, he says, are perhaps the most important for our health and focusing on getting these in to our daily diet would go a long way to prevent many diseases.

Motivated to eat some, I promptly went out and bought a bag of mixed greens at Trader Joe’s, as in collard and mustard greens (not lettuce greens) and made a sauté of them, adding onions and garlic,  some white wine or chicken stock and bacon for flavor. I used the recipe on the back of the bag as a guide, using little pieces of bacon instead of sausages the recipe calls for because that's what I had in the fridge. In fact, here’s a little side note: I recently discovered “bacon pieces” at Trader Joe’s which I find much more convenient than long slices when all I want are just a few pieces to flavor something like this. I crisped the bacon first, of course, then removed it and most of the grease from the pan and continued on with the recipe.

Sauteed Greens

2 sausages or a few strips of bacon, chopped
1 onion, chopped
1-2 cloves garlic, chopped
olive oil, if needed, or not using fat from meat
1 bag Trader Joe's Greens
chicken or vegetable stock or white wine or a combination of both
salt and pepper

Slice meat and brown in saute pan. When finished, remove both meat and most of the fat from the pan. Keep saute pan on medium high heat and add onion, cooking until translucent. Add garlic, saute for 1-2 minutes. Do not burn garlic. Add greens and just enough stock/wine to add moisture but not make a soup out of it. Cook until greens are wilted and most of the liquid has evaporated. Add salt and pepper to taste.

An alternative to the greens is Swiss chard, which I really like, especially because of all the vibrant colors it comes in (see photo, right. It also comes in neon yellow!). I saute it like spinach, with  garlic and onion as well, but I sprinkle a little lemon on top at the end right before serving. Chard stalks are a bit thicker and tougher than spinach so I usually cook those first, then add the leaves about 5-6 minutes later.

If you have any flavorful recipes for greens, I’d love to hear from you because I need more inspiration on cooking these things. Shoot me an email at and let me know how you like to prepare them. Meanwhile, I will keep searching for more recipes. Maybe my vegetarian cookbooks have some unique ways of adding flavor to them, or online I might find some southern way of preparing them, as they seem to eat them quite frequently in the South.

ANDI Scale - Aggregate Nutrient Density Index

Of the top 10 items on the list greens comprise 9 of the top 10 foods! A rating of 1000 is the highest score a food can get.

1. Collard greens, mustard greens, & turnip greens 1000
2. Kale 1000
3. Watercress 1000
4. Bok choy 824
5. Spinach 739
6. Brussels sprouts 672
7. Swiss chard 670
8. Arugula 559
9. Radish 554
10. Cabbage 481
11. Bean sprouts 444 
12. Red peppers 420
13. Romaine lettuce 389
14. Broccoli 376
15. Carrot juice 344
16. Tomatoes & tomato products 190-300
17. Cauliflower 295
18. Strawberries 212
19. Pomegranate juice 193
20. Blackberries 178
21. Plums 157 
22. Raspberries 145
23. Blueberries 130
24. Papaya 118
25. Brazil nuts 116
26. Oranges 109
27. Tofu 86
28. Beans (all varieties) 55-70
29. Seeds: flaxseed, sunflower, sesame 45
30. Walnuts 29

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Free cooking classes from Jamie Oliver

Check out what I just read this morning. If you live near Long Beach, California and have kids, you are in for a treat. Free cooking classes from a celebrity chef!

The Long Beach Press Telegram article I read features a story about Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution truck that has rolled into their town. I'm sure many of you have heard of his Food Revolution television show (been on for 4 years and has received an Emmy), but I had no idea he had this 50' semi-truck driving across the country! Complete with eight cooking stations and six ovens, kids learn how to cook in it. Awesome.

I love this guy. I've watched his shows over the years and read and cooked from many of his cookbooks. I really enjoy his style. It's casual, uncomplicated, home-cooking based on simple ingredients anyone can easily put together.

And how many people really put into practice that they preach? He is making it his mission to change the school lunch program in America, as he's done in his native England (it's been no easy task). Educating American kids on how to cook for themselves, so they can have more control over what they are eating is another one of his goals. He wants to put an end to childhood obesity.

I commend him for his efforts and think for this very reason, celebrity is a great thing: when you put it to good use, raising enough money to make things like this happen for the betterment of society. Jamie says he is dedicating the next 20 years of his life to this cause.

The truck starts in California and heads east. For more information on what Jamie's up to click here.

If you get the Cooking Channel, check out his show, Jamie at Home. He's a lot of fun to watch (and the English accent's pretty cute, too!).

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Nuts and Seeds: Powerhouses of Flavor and Nutrition

Fall is here again! My favorite time of year. I love the overcast mornings right now, heavy with dew that clings to spider webs and drips off trees. It feels like Fall, if only in the mornings and evenings right now. But that's close enough for me. 

This is also the time of year that puts me in the mood to do more cooking and baking and this is the right time to add nuts and seeds to a variety of dishes. They are perfect for many fall-themed dishes. Warming and nutritious, so we can pack on some fat before the winter season (ha ha!).

Actually, that's not true. Thank God low-fat diets are becoming a thing of the past. In our quest to rid ourselves of our dreaded fat, we mistakenly thought we needed to stop eating fat, like nuts, seeds and avocados. Come to find out, we need those fats. It's the bad fats we could do without. Even doctors are calling for an end to the low fat diet craze that's been so pervasive for so long. Dr. Andrew Weil (for some time now) and lately even Dr. Oz are telling us a healthy diet should contain some level of healthy fats. In many ways, it lubricates the body.

Nuts and seeds provide protein, fiber and many essential vitamins, minerals and amino acids but because of their fat and calories, eat them in moderation. For example, most nuts have anywhere from 150-200 calories and 16-20g of fat per ounce so a little goes a long way.

Storage of these foods is important. Nuts and seeds should be stored in air-tight containers away from light in a cool, dry place. Storing them in a fridge or freezer can help prevent them from becoming rancid. Buying them in bulk can be a great savings but that means storing them properly will be even more important.

I add seeds and nuts to my salads, grind them and substitute their "flour" for some of the wheat flour in recipes, and top my yogurt and fruit with them. 

Here's a salad I make a lot when we have Mexican food for dinner. It's my version of the pepita dressing they serve at El Torito Restaurants, although better. I know you can buy the bottled dressing at the supermarket but I much prefer my own, made fresh without preservatives and artificial ingredients found in the bottled variety. No specific quantities are listed because I pretty much "eyeball" it as I go, tossing everything in the food processor and then just hitting the switch. Add more garlic if you like, less cilantro, it's up to you.

Pepita Salad

a combination of plain yogurt and sour cream
1 clove garlic
a pinch of salt and pepper
small handful of washed and chopped cilantro, some stems included (doesn't even have to be dry)

1 head Romaine lettuce, washed, torn into pieces and placed in a large salad bowl
pepita (green pumpkin) seeds
queso fresco or feta cheese, crumbled

Place all the dressing ingredients in the food processor and process till smooth. In a large bowl, pour dressing over lettuce, sprinkle with seeds and cheese. Toss and serve.

Now, one of the best things with nuts that I've made in a long time is this cake.

Apricot Almond Cake

5-6 fresh apricots, quartered
1/2 lb. (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 1/4 cups sugar
3 eggs
zest of one orange
1 tsp. almond extract
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup finely ground almonds (preferably toasted)
2 tsp. baking powder
powdered sugar for dusting

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour a 9-inch springform pan.
  2. Cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, and mix thoroughly between additions. Add the zest and almond extract.
  3. In a separate bowl, mix the flour, ground almonds, and baking powder, then stir the dry mixture into the egg mixture just until blended.
  4. Smooth the batter into the springform pan and distribute the apricot quarters evenly over the batter, pressing the pieces in lightly.
  5. Bake for 50 to 60 minutes, until a toothpick or skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean or with tiny crumbs clinging to it. Let cool, then invert onto a plate and dust lightly with powdered sugar. Soooo good!

Friday, September 23, 2011

Honey, I love you

I've been away for a while because of a series of unfortunate events and a work load that would make your head spin. I really don't even have time to write today, but I just have to. It's cathartic. I guess you could say that I am reaching to food for comfort, even if it is only writing about it. Today I wanted to write about honey. 

I've loved honey since I was a little kid. It reminds me of my dad and he's in the hospital right now, so I want to dedicate this post to him.

My earliest recollection of eating honey was when Dad would take a banana, mash it with a fork, mix in some plain yogurt and wheat germ, and drizzle a little honey on top. I loved it. I was most likely eating it while watching "I Love Lucy".

Today, I still eat it as an afternoon snack, or for breakfast, except that I now use ground flaxseeds instead of wheat germ and sometimes add walnuts or sunflower seeds for a little crunch.

As I did some reading about this golden elixir, I didn't realize that honey is really a seasonal food. That's because it's dependent on the flowers available to the bees in spring and summer. But since honey can be stored indefinitely, it is available to us year round. Thank goodness for that. Did you know that honey is the only food that doesn't spoil? It may crystallize, but that can easily be remedied by immersing the honey jar in a little warm water till it liquefies again. 

Though honey is metabolized as sugar when it enters the body, it still remains a healthier alternative than "the white stuff". Honey is natural, whereas sugar is processed and refined, stripped of any nutritional value. Honey contains more than 180 different substances the complex interrelation of which makes artificial production impossible. It contains minerals, vitamins, enzymes, and antioxidants, all of which sugar cannot claim.

Honey has been used for thousands of years for medicinal and religious purposes. It is often "prescribed" for sore throat, upset stomach, allergies, and diabetic ulcers. It can be applied topically on wounds. When applied to the skin, I read, hydrogen peroxide is produced and acts as an antiseptic.

Honey comes in various grades: light, medium, dark and amber. Each type has a distinctive flavor, depending on the source of the nectar. Honey from Europe tastes different than many honeys here and that's what's so interesting about travelling and tasting foods in other countries - the regional differences.

Another (and extremely important) reason to eat more honey is to show support to our bees. Seriously! Bees are responsible for 75% of our food supply. They pollinate flowers but also plants, many of which we eat, and the dwindling bee population has many scientists and farmers quite concerned about our food supply.

I recently saw this recipe at If you have some honey at home, consider making this while stone fruit is still available. Today is the first day of Fall, so make it soon before the fruit disappears.

Grilled Peaches with Honey-Almond StreuselENLARGE IMAGEPhoto: Leah Koenig


1/2 cup blanched almonds
1/4 cup flour
1/4 cup sugar
2 tsp. acacia (or other light) honey
1 1/2 tsp. lemon zest
1/2 tsp. ginger powder
4 tbsp. cold unsalted butter, cut into cubes

Juice of one lemon
1/4 cup acacia honey, plus more for drizzling
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
4 firm peaches, halved and pitted
Canola oil or cooking spray for grilling


1. Make the streusel: Process almonds in a food processor until fine and flour-like. Add flour, sugar, honey, zest and ginger powder and pulse to combine. Add butter pieces and pulse until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs; be careful not to over-process. Set aside. 

2. Preheat outdoor grill or grill pan to medium-high heat. Whisk together lemon juice, honey and cinnamon in a bowl. Add peach halves and gently toss to coat.

3. Brush grill or grill pan with oil, or coat with cooking spray; lay peaches face down and grill until softened and caramelized, about 5 minutes. Brush domes with more of the lemon-honey mixture, flip with tongs and grill on other side, 2-3 minutes. 

4. Preheat the broiler and set your oven rack in the highest position. Lay grilled peaches face up in a 9x13 baking dish. Spoon a generous amount of streusel onto each peach half. Broil until lightly browned, about 5 minutes; serve drizzled with additional honey.

Now the tables are turned, Dad, and I'll be feeding it to you as you recover from surgery. As soon as you can swallow again, I'll be mashing you a banana, mixing it with yogurt and flaxseeds (or wheat germ, if you prefer) and drizzling it with honey. The calcium, omega 3's and carbohydrates will be good for you, as they were for me when my body was growing and getting stronger. Hang in there.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Around the World...Spain

It's hot, finally! We sure waited long enough for summer to arrive, just when it's about to end. It's in the 90's and I hate the heat - I feel like I'm melting. I find it's best to keep cooking to a minimum and eat cool, refreshing things.

Gazpacho is perfect for the heat. It's a cold, Spanish, tomato-based, raw vegetable soup originating in the southern part of Andalusia, Spain. The original recipe likely included stale bread, garlic, olive oil, salt and vinegar. Today's variations can include avocado, parsley, watermelon, grapes, meat stock and seafood. But in Andalusia it's usually bread, tomato, cucumber, bell pepper, onion, garlic, olive oil, wine vinegar and salt.

Recipes I've researched vary in terms of ingredient composition, texture and viscosity and even where the recipe hails from. But no matter where it's from or what exactly is in it, gazpacho is the perfect way to use up the bounty of summer vegetables that many of you are enjoying (and I say this jealously because my garden won't produce jack).

Experiment with either of the recipes listed and add what you like or have on hand. Add more garlic to your taste (or less), vary the garnishes, use different kinds of tomatoes or multi-colored peppers, try it with red onion or sweet onions like Maui. There's really no way to mess up this soup. It's good any which way you make it. I mean, just look at this photo!

Garnishes are important and I especially like little croutons. If they are big chunky things, it just doesn't work. Make smaller ones. Also perfect as a topping are chunkier vegetables that are found in the soup, such as diced tomatoes or cukes. Sometimes things that don't appear in the soup, like chopped ham or hard-boiled egg, make it as a topping, or where I once worked, bay shrimp on top.

To make it more authentic, use Spanish sherry vinegar and Spanish olive oil. You can find these at Cost Plus World Market. While you're there, pick up a nice Spanish red wine to go with it, like a Tempranillo.

Andalusian Gazpacho

1 (2-inch-long) piece baguette, crust discarded
2 garlic cloves
2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons Sherry vinegar (preferably "reserva"), or to taste
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin (optional)
2 1/2 lb ripe tomatoes, cored and quartered
1/2 cup mild extra-virgin olive oil (preferably Andalusian hojiblanca)

Garnish: finely chopped red and green bell peppers

Soak bread in 1/2 cup water 1 minute, then squeeze dry, discarding soaking water.
Mash garlic to a paste with salt using a mortar and pestle (or mince and mash with a large knife). Blend garlic paste, bread, 2 tablespoons vinegar, sugar, cumin, and half of tomatoes in a food processor until tomatoes are very finely chopped. Add remaining tomatoes with motor running and, when very finely chopped, gradually add oil in a slow stream, blending until as smooth as possible, about 1 minute.
Force soup through a sieve into a bowl, pressing firmly on solids. Discard solids.
Transfer to a glass container and chill, covered, until cold, about 3 hours. Season with salt and vinegar before serving.

Farmstand Gazpacho

2 cups peeled and diced (1/4 inch) hothouse cucumber
2 cups diced (1/4 inch) red bell pepper
2 cups diced (1/4 inch) ripe tomato
1/2 cup diced (1/4 inch) red onion
2 cups tomato juice
1/2 cup red-wine vinegar
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 dashes Tabasco sauce

Place all of the diced vegetables in a large bowl. Add the tomato juice, vinegar, oil, and Tabasco. Season with salt and pepper and toss.
Transfer half of the mixture to a blender or food processor and pulse the machine on and off to coarsely puree the contents. Return the pureed mixture to the bowl and stir to combine. Refrigerate for 4 to 6 hours before serving. You can easily double this recipe for a large party.

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