Friday, May 30, 2014

Featured Vegetable: Swiss Chard

This leafy green was identified by a Swiss botanist and is a variety of Beta vulgaris, belongs to the same family as beets and spinach, and shares a similar taste profile with a flavor that is bitter, pungent, and slightly salty. The plant has numerous monikers, including silverbeet, Roman kale, and strawberry spinach, though I always see it as "Swiss chard" at the markets where I shop.

Swiss chard is one of several leafy green veggies often referred to as "greens", something we're supposed to be eating much more of because of their impressive list of health-promoting nutrients. Chard is available throughout the year, but its peak season runs June through August when it is in the greatest abundance at your market. So now is the time to run out and get some at your farmer's market!

Swiss chard has a thick crunchy stalk that comes in white, red, or yellow, with wide fan-like green leaves. Plants can grow to 28 inches high and look really good growing in the garden. They make a great display of color and look pretty even if you don’t plan to eat them!

As I mentioned, Swiss chard is a nutritional powerhouse -- an excellent source of vitamins K, A, and C, as well as a good source of magnesium, potassium, iron, and dietary fiber.

And like beets, chard is a unique source of phytonutrients called betalains. In this family are found reddish-purple as well as yellowish pigments that scientists have identified provide us with antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and detoxification support.

Sometimes at the market, different colored varieties will be bunched together and labeled "rainbow chard". I like to buy these because they're pretty. When the nutritionists tell you to "eat the rainbow" it doesn't get much better than this.

One cup of chopped Swiss chard has just 35 calories and provides more than 300% of the daily value for vitamin K. But skip this veggie if you’re prone to kidney stones; it contains oxalates, which decrease the body’s absorption of calcium and can lead to kidney stones. (One way to reduce the oxalates is to boil the chard.)

According to some research I did, chard shows benefits for blood sugar regulation in animal studies due to it containing syringic acid, a flavonoid shown to inhibit activity of an enzyme called alpha-glucosidase. When inhibited fewer carbs are broken down into simple sugars and blood sugar is able to stay more steady. While studies on humans have yet to be performed, I take this research nonetheless as another reason to incorporate it into my diet.

Cooking Swiss chard:

Prepare Swiss chard by rinsing the crisp leaves several times in warm water. Leaves and stalks can be boiled, sautéed, steamed, or roasted, but boiling seems to reduce the bitterness the best, from what I’ve read.

Ideas for using Chard:

Toss with penne pasta and olive oil, lemon juice, and chopped garlic
Add to omelets and frittatas
Use in place of spinach when preparing veggie lasagna

I once posted a recipe for Swiss Chard and Bacon Quiche. It's still one of my favorite things to do with chard, although now I’d make the crust gluten-free. And while that quiche is totally delicious, I would save a recipe like that for the weekend when I have more time to cook. Here’s what I typically do with Swiss chard on weeknights.

Sauteed Swiss chard with bacon & garlic

Chop some bacon into little bite-sized pieces and place in a saute pan. Get it nice and crisp.

Once crisp, you can either remove the bacon, leaving the fat, or leave everything in the pan. Either way, clean your chard well and chop off the stalks and then chop them into pieces the same size as the bacon. Dry these off really well before adding to the bacon fat else your stove top will get a good splattering of fat all over the place. Saute the chopped stalks for several minutes to soften a bit. Then add the leaves, which have also been chopped. Let the leaves steam a bit before giving everything a good stir. Add some chopped garlic, and continue cooking until the leaves are properly wilted (about 10 minutes), stirring every so often. Season with salt and pepper and sprinkle with a little fresh lemon juice before serving.

We had it last night alongside a piece of sauteed fish in garlic butter. Mmmhh, boy did we smell like garlic!

To make this vegetarian, simply replace the bacon with a generous amount of butter. Do not use oil and most definitely do not use margarine! That stuff'll kill ya.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Ethiopia in Los Angeles

It's been a long while since I've done a restaurant review. It's because I don't eat out that much anymore, as you know, and when I do, it's just some little taco place or Thai restaurant in the neighborhood - nothing really too out of the ordinary. But I wanted to tell you about my experience in Los Angeles last weekend.

There is this section along Fairfax Avenue just south of San Vicente that I have travelled past for many years. It isn't more than a few blocks long and it was established in the late 1980's with a single restaurant. After a little while other business people flocked to the area to open shops themselves nearby when they saw how successful this one restaurant had been. Eventually the area became well-known as an Ethiopian hangout and in 2004 the mayor coined it "Little Ethiopia". 

Every time I would drive by this unique little neighborhood I would tell myself that "some day" I would have to stop and explore it. Of course, as most things go, that day just never seemed to present itself, until recently.

I was invited to join a group of former co-workers and their friends at that very first restaurant I mentioned earlier, which was then, and still is, called Rosalind's. 

The group meets there quarterly and is a collection of former work associates, their friends or spouses, or fellow volleyballers. The one woman who connects all of us is, no surprise, Ethiopian, and it was she who we deferred to when it came time to order dinner.

She ordered a sampler platter that allowed us to try a variety of specialties, both vegetable and meat.

A typical presentation

This sampler was served on a large round platter on top of Ethiopia's staple, Injera, a unique unleavened flatbread made of teff. I had heard of teff but had never tried it.

Teff is an African cereal that is cultivated almost exclusively in Ethiopia, used mainly to make flour and out of this flour comes Injera.  Injera is the national dish. It's a sourdough-risen flatbread with a unique, slightly spongy texture.  It's used as not only the starch of the meal, but the utensil as well, for Ethiopians don't eat with fork and knife. They eat with their hands, using Injera to scoop up the food. 

Ethiopian dining is therefore a very communal event! You can't be shy, either, or you'll get the leftovers after everything has been picked through. You have to just dive right in.

But let me not get ahead of myself. The first course was a simple salad dressed lightly with lemon juice and maybe a little oil. 

Then came the platter, which contained vegetables dishes such as a carrot and cabbage combination, green beans with onions, pureed chickpeas, lentils and sauteed collard greens. The meats included lamb and beef which I didn't have (not my thing) which was fine because there was a chicken and hard-boiled egg dish that I fell madly in love with. Called Doro Wot, it has a very unique spice blend as a base for the sauce, cooked with pureed onions, garlic and chicken broth. Super-delicious. And of course, I was immediately compelled to make it myself.

But let me finish with the dinner. When we had eaten the meal, our waitress came by with a smoking pan of green coffee beans. She passed the pan under our noses so we could enjoy the smell of roasting coffee beans. She then took the beans back into the kitchen and ground them and then returned with a pot of freshly brewed coffee served in little cups much like espresso. It was divine. Alongside the coffee drinking we had burning frankincense, which is part of the "coffee ceremony". (Trivia question: where did coffee originate?)

After we were stuffed to the gills, our Ethiopian friend took us a few doors down to a market with all sorts of African items for sale. I was particularly interested in seeing the spices and food products and my friend showed me which spice blend to buy to make this incredibly flavorful sauce. It's a red chili pepper blend but contains over 14 different spices. I scoured the internet (of course) for recipes for Doro Wat and found several. This one, though sounds exactly like how the technique was described to me, so I'm going to try this one.

I found it on a pretty cool-looking website called Food Republic. I'm going to just insert the link to it here. Nice picture of it, too!

I'll let you know how it goes.

But if you're ever driving along Fairfax and you come across this part of town, I do encourage you to get out and explore and perhaps eat at one of the local establishments in Little Ethiopia.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Frittering away the evening

I am approaching Week 6 on the Low-FODMAP Diet and I must say it has been successful overall. I've had setbacks, but as it says in the book I've been reading, this is normal. "Life happens" and you eat things accidentally, or out of habit and forgetfulness, and have a setback. You get the bloating, the gas, the diarrhea or the constipation, the cramping, the whatever, and you don't feel so good. And it reminds you, like when you fall, to get back on your feet and continue. More than anything, you want to feel good again.

It has been such an enormous relief to now have the tools with which to take back control of my health. I felt so out of control, and for me, that is a very difficult thing. I don't like feeling helpless and weak and don't want life to just blow me around like a leaf in the wind. I can honestly say that this way of eating has changed me, and to those two doctors in Australia who created it, I will be eternally grateful. 

I'm not done yet. I'm to now start adding things in again and test the results. This may take several more weeks of patient experimentation.

I'm sorry to report that my sourdough experiment failed. Nothing happened to my starter. It just sat there, staring at me. I found myself talking to it (I know!) encouraging it: "come on, you can do it...". Crazy. Finally after about 10 days (hey, I gave it a chance, didn't I?) I tossed the lot down the sink. Dejected, I haven't started a new batch yet. My friend Ken, who is anxiously awaiting some starter from me when this takes off, encouraged me to try again. So I will. Sometime this week.

In the meantime, I had a menu to plan for the upcoming week, and decided that I wanted something I hadn't had in while. I don't eat fried food very much at all. Don't care for it usually, but sometimes I get a hankering for vegetable fritters. As I paged through one of my vegetarian cookbooks to find some inspiration, I found vegetable fritters with tzatziki. If you know me, you'll know that I ADORE tzatziki. And I already had everything I needed on hand, including some homemade lactose-free plain yogurt. I just needed some vegetables and some oil to fry them in.

After my visit to the market, I got started.

Vegetable Fritters with Tzatziki

The dip:
1/2 cucumber, coarsely grated
1 cup plain yogurt
1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
2 tsp fresh lemon juice
2 Tbsp chopped fresh dill
1 Tbsp chopped fresh mint (optional)
1 garlic clove, crushed
salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the fritters:
1 large eggplant, peeled and thickly sliced
2 zucchinis, thickly sliced
1 egg, beaten
4 Tbsp all-purpose flour (to be gluten free, I used tapioca flour but I think rice flour would work just as well)
2 tsp. ground coriander
1 1/2 tsp. ground cumin
salt and pepper

For the dip, mix the cucumber through salt and pepper together in a bowl and set aside.

Layer the eggplant and zucchini in a colander and sprinkle with salt. Leave for 30 minutes. The salt will pull out the bitterness in these veggies. Rinse in cold water, then pat dry very well.

Beat the egg in one bowl. Put the flour and remaining seasonings into another bowl. Dip the vegetables first into the egg, then into the seasoned flour and set aside.

Heat about an inch of oil in a deep frying pan until quite hot, then fry the vegetables a few at a time until they are golden and crisp. 

Drain and keep warm while you fry the remainder. Serve warm on a platter with a bowl of the tzatziki dip lightly sprinkled with paprika.

I served these as a first course before we had prosciutto-wrapped chicken for the main course. This is a super-simple recipe. You can get very fancy with this dish and add a sage leaf or rosemary twig before wrapping, you can make a slit in the chicken and stuff it with fontina cheese before sealing it back up and wrapping in the prosciutto, you can stuff it with spinach and feta before wrapping...........the possibilities are endless. But this is a simple, fast, straight-forward dish that takes less effort and still tastes great.

Prosciutto-wrapped chicken

Chicken breasts (1 per person)
Prosciutto slices (1-2 per breast, depending on the size of the chicken)
Ground sage
Garlic powder
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Rinse and pat dry your chicken breasts.
Sprinkle with salt and pepper and rub 1/4 tsp ground sage and a bit of garlic powder on to both sides.
Wrap each chicken breast with a slice or two of prosciutto. Place on an oiled baking sheet, and bake in a preheated 350 degree F oven for 40 minutes or until done. Allow to sit 5-10 minutes before serving, to allow the juices to be reabsorbed into the chicken so they stay juicy.

I like to drizzle a little bit of balsamic glaze around my chicken breast on the plate for a little sweetness. Prosciutto-wrapped chicken is also delicious with roasted asparagus or roasted potatoes with rosemary. Either way, everything is excellent with a glass of French Rhone wine.


Friday, May 2, 2014

The Berry Best Berries

May is the month of the Strawberry! Everywhere I look, another community in Southern California is celebrating this luscious red fruit (see bottom of post for a listing of some of them). Strawberries should be on everyone's shopping list right now, and in California this is easy. Did you know that California supplies nearly 90% of the nation's strawberries?

For maximum flavor and to help support your local farmer, buy your berries at the farmer's market. For a fun thing to do with kids sometime, some farms offer "u-pick" opportunities. In fact, it can be fun for adults as well. A farm we have in our area offers tractor-led wagon rides through their fields where sampling of the produce is actually encouraged. There we got to taste freshly-picked, sun-kissed berries. It was a little warm from the sun, bursting with juice and with such an intense flavor, it far surpassed any berry I could have purchased from my local supermarket. It was incredible.

Strawberries are great in so many things, but one of my favorite ways to eat them is simply sliced and sprinkled with just a little bit of sugar to get the juices flowing. I let them sit out at room temperature for about half an hour and then top them with a little whipped cream. It's delicious and light.

Another way I like to eat them is in muffins. Strawberry and Ricotta Muffins are light and fluffy and divine to eat on a Sunday morning. Muffins are fun to make: they're easy and fast and really convenient to take with you as you head out the door in the morning. But muffins are best eaten the day they are made. I've also made strawberry muffins with walnuts but this time I wanted to make them with ricotta. If you're dairy free, you can just eliminate it or try coconut yogurt instead. Enjoy!

Strawberry and Ricotta Muffins

· 2 cups medium strawberries
· 3/4 cup ricotta
· 2 large eggs
· 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
· 10 Tbsp. butter melted and cooled, divided
· 2/3 cup sugar
· 1 tsp. lemon zest
· 2 cups flour (I use cake flour for a lighter texture)*
· 2 tsp. baking powder
· 1/2 tsp. salt
· 1/4 tsp. baking soda

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Gently wash, hull, and cut strawberries into quarters. 

2. Brush a 12-mold muffin tin with 2 Tbsp. melted butter. Set aside.

3. In a bowl, whisk together ricotta, eggs, and vanilla. Stir in remaining butter.

4. In a large bowl, use your fingertips to rub together sugar and lime zest until sugar is moist. Mix in flour, baking powder, salt, and baking soda. Use a spatula to gently but quickly fold ricotta mixture into dry ingredients. Don’t overwork it. The batter will be thick and heavy. Stir in strawberries and spoon batter evenly into muffin tins. Bake until tops of muffins are golden and springy to the touch, about 20-25 minutes.

*You can make your own cake flour by substituting 2 Tbsp. of flour per cup of flour with corn starch. Or if you're on a gluten-free diet, substitute your favorite GF flour blend, ideally one that contains tapioca flour. It provides a nice light texture to baked goods, along with cornstarch and white rice flour.

Makes 12 muffins.

Strawberries added to greens offers a fresh and different flavor element to salads, especially when the dressing consists of balsamic vinegar. My favorite is "fig balsamic" - slightly sweet  and perfect for a salad containing strawberries. Fruit, combined with nuts and cheese, dressed with a great vinaigrette, is perfect for a springtime lunch. Add a little sliced grilled chicken for a more substantial entree salad.

Strawberry, Hazelnut and Goat Cheese Salad

· 1/4 cup hazelnuts
· 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
· 2 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar
· 1 tsp. dijon-style mustard
· 1 tsp. honey
· 1 clove garlic, minced
· 1 shallot, minced
· 1/4 tsp. salt
· 1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
· 1 head butter lettuce, washed and torn into bite-size pieces
· 1 cup strawberries
· 1/4 cup goat cheese, crumbled

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Put hazelnuts on a sheet pan and bake until toasted, about 10 minutes. Put nuts in a clean kitchen towel and rub vigorously to remove skins. (Don’t worry if not all of the skins come off.)

2. In a small bowl, whisk oil, vinegar, mustard, honey, garlic, shallot, salt, and pepper.

3. Gently wash, hull, and cut strawberries into quarters.

4. In a large bowl, toss lettuce, strawberries, and hazelnuts with enough dressing to coat evenly. Pile high onto salad plates and top with goat cheese. Serve immediately.

Makes 6 servings.

Local Southern California Strawberry events:
Through June - Tanaka Farms Strawberry Tours, Irvine, (949) 653-2100.
California Strawberry Festival, Oxnard, (888) 288-9242.
Garden Grove Strawberry Festival, Garden Grove, (714) 638-0981.
Vista Strawberry Festival, Vista.

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