Friday, February 28, 2014

Homemade Ranch Dressing

I am a voracious salad eater. But salads need dressing, I'm sorry. And they need fat to make them good. And as long as it's the right kind of fat, there's nothing wrong with that. 

My usual has always been the vinaigrette. I love all the varieties of oils one can use, as well as the choices in vinegars available today. One of my all-time favorite dressings is simply extra virgin olive oil and fresh lemon juice. It really doesn't get any more basic than that. So clean, refreshing, and alive with flavor.

There are so many great "fats" to choose from: walnut oil, avocado oil, truffle oil, pumpkin seed oil, and of course EVOO, but also a fully ripened avocado and silken tofu. There are probably a hundred different vinegars on the market. Some of my favorite are herb vinegars, citrus vinegars, balsamic and champagne vinegars.  The most recent thing I saw at Trader Joe's that I want to try is pomegranate vinegar. Sounds good. But my husband is not as fond of vinegar as I am, and sometimes I just need a change from all these vinaigrettes anyway. 

My husband is a big fan of creamy dressings, Ranch especially. I have shied away from it all these years because of the completely unhealthy ingredients found in not only the old stand-by, Hidden Valley, but in nearly all the other copycats on the market as well. Take a look at the ingredient list sometime. It's horrifying what's in there. The option of course is to find something healthier at the local health food store, but the ones there lack the traditional flavor I'm looking for. So naturally, when in a quandry about how to resolve the situation, I make it myself. 

Do try it. It's so easy, I promise. And the taste is so fresh, you'll wonder why you hadn't made it before. No need to ever buy bottled Ranch again.

Makes a little more than 1 cup.

Homemade Ranch dressing

Ranch Dressing

1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 Tbsp. chopped fresh chives
1 Tbsp. chopped fresh dill
1 Tbsp. chopped fresh oregano leaves
1 tsp. kosher or sea salt
1/4 tsp. garlic powder

Whisk all ingredients together in a medium bowl. Chill at least 1 hour to allow the flavors to develop. Stir well before serving.

NOTES: You can tweak it so that it is just right for you. I use less mayo and more buttermilk, like 1/4 cup mayo and 3/4 cup buttermilk. If you do that, the consistency will be a bit thinner. One way around this is to add buttermilk powder or a little sour cream to thicken it up. If I don't have fresh dill, I use dried. I also probably use a little more than the 1/4 tsp. garlic.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Adobe Stew

My friend, Imelda, and I used to meet at a quirky little restaurant called The Gypsy Den in Costa Mesa. Located in a far-out kinda strip mall called "The Lab", it was the half-way point between our two jobs, and a great place for lunch.

The decor is definitely eclectic. Zagat's calls it "early attic". The staff is heavily pierced and tattooed, and the menu mostly vegetarian. Offerings include salads, wraps and sandwiches, chilis and stews, even breakfast and desserts.

The Gypsy Den
Since we liked sitting on the patio, sometimes it was a little cooler there, so I would find myself ordering something called Adobe Stew. Simple, straight-forward, vegetarian, warm and filling.

Over time, I tried to identify just exactly what was in it. It was easy to spot the vegetables - they were listed on the menu and floating around in the broth. But what about the spices? They don't usually list those. You have to figure those out for yourself. 

So I did. At least, I think I did. Tastes pretty darn close to me.

I've been making this soup for years and I hardly ever change it much. Except last weekend I added 1/2 chopped jalapeno, because, as you know, I've been liking things a little hotter than usual lately.

So, here it is. 

Adobe Stew

1 Tbsp olive oil
1 onion, chopped
2-3 garlic cloves, minced
1 Tbsp each coriander and chili powder
1 tsp cayenne pepper
1-2 handfuls of frozen green beans
2 medium fresh zucchini (1 green, 1 yellow would be nice)
1 can (28 oz) stewed tomatoes, with juice
1/2 bag frozen roasted corn
1/2 chopped jalapeno (optional)
vegetable broth, enough to cover your vegetables
1 can pinto beans
salt and pepper
grated jack cheese 

Makes: a lot. You might want to cut the ingredient quantities in 1/2 to start.

Begin by heating the oil in a wide soup pot. When warm, add the onion and cook until transluscent (5-8 minutes). Add garlic and spices, stirring constantly to avoid them burning. But get the spices good and fragrant.

Next add the vegetables, and saute until everything comes back up to temperature (the frozen veggies are going to cool everything down). Once it's back to a boil, turn down heat and cover. Simmer 25-30 minutes. Add pinto beans, salt and pepper and give it a good stir.

Ladle stew into a bowl and top with grated cheese.

If you're ever in Orange County and need a place to eat, try out one of the 3 Gypsy Den's: Santa Ana, Costa Mesa, and Anaheim.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Five reasons to eat more Chocolate

I can’t imagine anyone not liking chocolate. I know someone who is allergic to it and I find that horribly unfortunate. I mean, the cacao bean should truly be considered a gift from the gods, and the more I read about it, the more I am convinced that it is our duty to honor these gods by consuming as much of it as possible in our lifetime.

Here’s why.

1. It boosts immunity and fights cancer – chocolate contains antioxidants called flavenoids which strengthen the immune system. And there is some evidence that chocolate may reduce C-reactive proteins thereby lowering the risk of contracting one of the many “inflammatory diseases” that plague society today. Inflammatory diseases are things like cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, even Alzheimer’s disease, and any “-itis” in the body: arthritis, tendonitis, appendicitis, diverticulitis….“itis” means inflammation. *

2. It can lower blood pressure and LDL cholesterol - need we say more why this is so important?

3. It lifts your mood – chocolate contains theobromine, a chemical found in the human body when we are in love. Love of people, love of chocolate – it’s all the same thing as far as the body is concerned.

4. It gives you more energy – chocolate naturally contains a trace amount of caffeine and we add sugar to it to make it sweet, and both offer a little “get-up-and-go” when you need it, like in the afternoon. But there's no reason you can't eat it for breakfast, too. Pain de chocolat, anyone?

5. It makes life sweeter – let’s face it, the stuff is great. And life is hard. And we work hard. And we suffer. Chocolate can ease our suffering. Therefore, we should consume more chocolate. (Think cold weather and a cup of hot chocolate - what that does to your soul. Mmmhhhhh).

There is one caveat, however, and that is in order for us to take full advantage of chocolate’s health benefits, it must be dark chocolate with a minimum cocoa content of 70% (milk and white chocolate don’t offer these benefits) and should ideally come from Europe where their processing results in chocolate with higher amounts of flavenoids. It’s the flavenoids that are responsible for all the health benefits of chocolate. So, nix the American stuff, or research brands made in America by companies that care about quality. The easiest way to do this is to buy your chocolate from reputable markets such as Whole Foods or your local health food store, or places like Trader Joe's and look for fair trade/organic chocolate. We're not talking Hershey's, Mars, Cadbury and the like, ok?

My absolute favorite chocolate is from Switzerland. I think they are Chocolate Masters (I capitalize this because they should truly be revered), even better than the Belgian stuff. If you’ve never had the pleasure of trying Lindt chocolates, you are missing out. I am happy to report that while once difficult to find in this country, it's now accessible in lots of places. Try Cost Plus World Market. There's a lot of other cool imported stuff there, too, by the way.

Here's a great article from one of the most respected natural physicians of our time, Dr. Andrew Weil, on inflammation and the ideal diet to combat it. He eats a square (how is that possible?!) of quality dark chocolate each day. No wonder I like this guy.


Friday, February 7, 2014

Around the World...India

In my Flavor Profile on spices many moons ago, I mentioned that I love Indian food. With its bold, assertive flavors, and vegetarian dishes that are far from boring, it's no surprise that this cuisine is so popular the world over.

Indian cuisine reflects a 5,000 year history of various groups and cultures interacting with one another, leading to diversity of flavors and regional cuisines. Later, the British and Portuguese added their influence to the already diverse Indian cuisine. And diverse it is - there are at least 36 regional cuisines in India!!

The development of these cuisines was shaped by Dharmic beliefs, and in particular by vegetarianism, which is a growing dietary trend in Indian society. A normal diet in early India consisted of fruit, vegetables, grain, eggs, dairy products, honey and sometimes meat. Over time, segments of the population embraced vegetarianism, primarily due to the advent of Buddhism, as well as a climate that permitted a variety of fruit, vegetables and grains to be grown throughout the year.

Staple foods of Indian cuisine include pearl barley, rice, whole-wheat flour, and a variety of lentils, peas and mung beans. Some pulses, such as chickpeas and kidney beans are very common, especially in the northern regions. These are sometimes also processed into flour.

The most important and frequently used spices are whole or powdered chili pepper, black mustard seed, cardamom, cumin, turmeric, asafoetida, ginger, coriander, and garlic. One popular spice mix is garam masala, a powder that typically includes five or more dried spices, especially cardamom, cinnamon and clove. Each culinary region has a distinctive garam masala blend.

These are wonderful spices! No matter how many you throw together, you have a winning combination and can't go wrong. These warming spices satisfy my love for flavorful food when sometimes nothing else will do. 

Years ago I enrolled in a 12-week cooking class which was a ton of fun. This was "hands-on" training - not just sitting there watching someone else cook.  I had signed up to be part of the prep team. We chopped things up and prepared the "mise en place" for the chef. We'd get there a few hours before class started and learn.

What was so great about this course was that each week we learned about and then tested another cooking technique. It kept things very interesting. One week we made pastry and bread dough, another week we sauteed, smoked, or roasted. The night we braised, we prepared these dishes. (Braising, by the way, means to cook slowly, in a covered pot, with a little bit of liquid).

We prepared all 3 of these recipes one night. They were really good and went well together for a complete vegetarian meal. It is a lot of chopping, so it's best to plan to make all 3 on a weekend when you have a little more time. The good news is you'll have a lot of leftovers that you can freeze and take out when you don't have time to cook during the week!

Vegetable Curry

1/4 cup clarified butter (ghee)
1 large onion, coarsely chopped
1/4 cup freshly grated ginger
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
3-4 Tbsp. curry powder depending on how much you like
1 1/2 lbs. tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped (Pomi tomatoes by Parmalat are great if you don't want to chop)
2 large boiling potatoes, cut into 1/4 inch cubes
1 small cauliflower, separated into florets
about 2 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1/2 pound green beans, cut into 1 inch pieces
1/4 cup finely chopped cilantro or parsley
10 oz. frozen "petite-style" peas
fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

In a large saute pan, heat butter, add onion and saute until softened, about 1 minute. Add ginger, garlic, and curry and saute 1 minute more. Add tomatoes and simmer for 2 minutes uncovered.

Add potatoes and cauliflower and enough stock to cover. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer gently until potatoes are somewhat tender. Add green beans, peas and more stock if necessary. Cover and simmer until all vegetables are tender (depending on how cooked you want everything to be). The entire cooking process should take about 45-60 minutes. 

Remove from heat, add herbs, toss well, season to taste with salt and pepper, and adjust seasonings.

Lime Saffron Rice

3 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1/2 gram saffron threads, ground in a mortar and pestle
1 tsp. coarse sea salt
11 oz. basmati rice (about 1 1/2 cups)
2 oz. unsalted butter, melted
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Place stock, saffron, salt and rice in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Lower heat, cover and allow to simmer for 15 minutes until liquid has been absorbed.
Remove from heat, cover with a clean dry towel, the lid, and allow to stand covered until the rice is fluffy and the liquid has been absorbed, about 5 min. more. Fluff with a fork or wet rice paddle.
Add butter and lime juice, stirring gently and season to taste with salt and pepper.
Add 2-4 Tbsp. chopped fresh cilantro or parsley on top before serving.

Mango Salsa

3 ripe mangoes*, peeled and cut into 1/4 inch cubes
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1/2 small red onion, finely chopped
1 Tbsp. chopped lime zest
1/2 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
1 tsp. sugar (or more if fruit isn't well ripened)
1 pinch of salt

Toss all ingredients together gently in a bowl. Serve within 1 day. Variation: add 4 Tbsp. chopped freshly cilantro or mint. You can substitute 3 cups of any peeled and chopped ripe fruit (nectarines, papaya, peaches, etc.). Can also be served over grilled fish or with tortilla chips.

* Since mangoes are typically in season May - September, try Trader Joe's for mango, already cubed, in the freezer section. Makes this recipe even easier, just thaw before using.

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