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

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