Sunday, January 25, 2009

It Depends How Thinky You Want To Be

One night my oldest niece, Cutie, was putting together her outfit for school the next day. Having reached her 6-year-old limit with accessorizing, she said "Oh, it's pretty enough. Let's play."

That's how I'm feeling right now about food - oh, it's complicated enough. Let's eat.

This week I finished Barbara Kingsolver's "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" about her family's year of living almost entirely off the food from their farm and farms near theirs. Think about that for a minute.... greens and apples and corn are good, good food. But do bananas grow in your neighborhood? How about coffee trees? Pineapple? Cranberries? Green tea? Cinnamon?

I totally understand her point - she wants to minimize her carbon footprint. She doesn't want to fly grapes in from Ecuador when she has perfectly good apples in her backyard. She wants to support local farmers and humane farming instead of corporate agribusiness. She wants to strengthen her family by sharing the responsibility and the spirituality of the whole process. Makes sense.

Feeling rather smug about having vegetables for breakfast this morning - an omlette with red pepper, spinach, and feta cheese - I took a gander at the provenance of what I was eating. The eggs were distributed from Ohio (possibly also the home of the chickens, but not sure), the red pepper was from Mexico, the spinach was from California and the feta cheese came from Wisconsin.


Healthful breakfast? You bet - all organic, two egg whites and one yolk, not too much cheese, etc. But local? Not by a long shot. They didn't even carpool.

Lunch was a slice of my favorite Mellow Mushroom pizza (spinach & mushroom). For dinner I made Thai Chicken - "product of Thailand" was seriously on everything, not unexpectedly.

The book is about more than the connection between food production and environment, though. It's about family and community connectedness - knowing your neighbors well enough to share growing tips and harvest abundance. Being deeply involved in the fuel you put in your body that powers your movement and your thoughts and your senses. Allowing every member of the household to point to something on the dinner table with some pride and ownership, knowing they grew and/or prepared it.

When I told Sweetie that two of my friends who also read the book have since started making cheese, he thought for a moment and said, "Wow. That must be a powerfully written book." It is, and it's a good read.

In my case, it honestly isn't going to bring about a sea change in our kitchen or our back yard. We already eat at home, we both cook, and I have spent too much time acquiring a recipe collection to throw 80% of it out because it depends on imported ingredients. Particularly since my Italian heritage requires foods that don't necessarily grow or swim here in Georgia. Our 1/10 acre isn't likely to yield more than a little summer produce and give us a reason to get outdoors more. But I did buy some vegetable seeds yesterday, and I so enjoyed my basil plant last year that I plan to grow some more fresh herbs this summer.

And while Kingsolver didn't go into this part, there's another, delayed benefit to family cooking. When I was growing up my mother was an ER nurse on the 11pm to 7am shift. In the winter, she would often come home in the morning and make me half a broiled grapefruit (a delicacy many of my Southern friends have never heard of). Think about it - she could've handled the aftermath of a serious car accident, worked on a patient having a heart attack, treated an abused child brought in by the police - she had to have been exhausted. Yet in the cold, still-dark morning she would make me this breakfast to be sure I had something warm and healthful before going to school. And if that's not love, I don't know what is. Right now - at 9:04 AM on Sunday, January 25, 2009 - 30 years or more after the days when she did this as a matter of course - I'm enjoying a broiled grapefruit from my own kitchen, and feeling loved and connected.

It lasts long, long after the meal is over. That's why it matters.

Broiled Grapefruit
One grapefruit, cut in half
1 TBSP brown sugar per half

Move oven rack up to the top of the oven.

Place grapefruit half (or halves) in a pie plate, or other dish that has sides. Sprinkle with brown sugar. Broil for 3 minutes or until white pith of the shell begins to brown.

Enjoy a warm, syrupy piece of citrus.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

PSA - Thigh Jab

With all the peanut talk in the news, and knowing so many folks are allergic, this is your twice-yearly reminder to fellow Epi-pen carriers to check the expiration date and replace if necessary!

Nurse Amy would like me to remind you that using an Epi-pen buys you time to get to the ER - you have to go, by ambulance, if you use your pen after exposure to the allergen. As she says, go ahead and skip the ambulance if you have shock paddles and oxygen in your car - otherwise, let the pros handle it.

This has been your public service minute. Carry on.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The "Freezing My Ass Off" Edition

Times when "Eleven" is a good number: million dollars won in the lottery, number of seconds shaved off your time for running a mile, percentage of your current salary that is your raise.

When "Eleven" is a bad number: when it's the full count of degrees outside. In Atlanta. WHERE I LIVE. Where I moved to escape the frozen wintry tundra of my native Pennsylvania (the same PA where my ancestors sucked it up and dealt with the weather for 350 years). And more power to them, I say.

It's crazy-cold. And when you have dogs you can't just sit in the house with warm cocoa and shake your head sympathetically at the folks forced outdoors. Oh, no. You bundle up, leash the dogs, and drag their ungrateful butts outside as punishment for not learning to use modern indoor facilities. Then there's the paw-wiping, the fur-drying... it's a good thing they're so stinkin' cute.


A few years ago Atlanta had a rare snowfall with bitter, bitter cold. And nothing warms (and stays warm) like a good soup. Black beans are a relatively new arrival at my dinner table; didn't grow up with them, was rather suspect of them. But wonderful recipe reviews prompted me to give this soup a whirl, and thank goodness I did.

This recipe was the first, and maybe only, time that Sweetie called me the following afternoon with a request for leftovers for dinner that night. No need to cook, he said, we've got that wonderful soup. If that's not a ringing endorsement I don't know what is.

Best of all, it freezes beautifully! I usually double the recipe and freeze it in quart-size freezer bags. If you're short a can of beans, try adding corn after you've done the puree. The taste is terrific, but pureeing the yellow corn with the black beans just doesn't look so hot.

I like to serve this with Jiffy cornbread. For as much as I usually love to serve soup with salad, this soup is so vegetable-intensive I don't feel the need. It's high in fiber and black beans are a super source of iron. Iron is best absorbed when consumed with vitamin C, and that's where the tomatoes come in. Not familiar with chipotle chiles? They're easily found in the Hispanic foods aisle of your local supermarket, and they keep forever in the fridge.


2 canned chipotle chiles in adobo sauce
Cooking spray
2 cups coarsely chopped onion
1 cup chopped carrot
3/4 cup thinly sliced celery (totally optional)
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons dried basil
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon chili powder (note: before I get started I measure all of the dried spices into a small cup. They all get added to the soup at the same time.)
2 bay leaves
2 cups water (less if you like a thicker soup)
3 (15-ounce) cans black beans, rinsed and drained (for some reason there is a HUGE variance in the amount of sodium in different brands of canned black beans. I've found the Kroger organic black beans to have the lowest sodium content without breaking the bank)
2 (14 1/2-ounce) cans vegetable broth or chicken broth - again, watch the sodium
2 (14.5-ounce) cans no-salt-added plum tomatoes, undrained and chopped (I like the fire-roasted Muir Glen tomatoes)

1/2 cup plain nonfat yogurt or sour cream (this tames the heat)
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro (I've never used it, but I can see how it fits the theme)
8 lime wedges (oh, definitely! Just use bottled lime juice if fresh limes are pricey)

Remove 2 chiles from can; reserve remaining chiles and sauce for another use. Finely chop chiles. If you want to reduce the heat, scrape out the seeds and throw them away.

Heat a large Dutch oven coated with cooking spray over medium-high heat. Add onion, carrot, celery, and garlic; sauté 8 minutes or until onion and carrot are tender. Stir in chiles, cumin, basil, oregano, chili powder, and bay leaves; cook 1 minute, stirring constantly. Stir in water, beans, broth, and tomatoes; bring to a boil.

Partially cover, reduce heat, and simmer 2 hours, stirring occasionally.

Remove from heat; discard bay leaves.

The recipe says to "Place 3 cups of soup mixture in a blender. Let stand 5 minutes; process until smooth. Return pureed mixture to pan, stirring to combine." What a MESS. A few whirls with a stick/immersion blender is much, much easier.

Ladle 1 1/4 cups soup into each of 8 bowls; top each serving with 1 tablespoon yogurt and 1 1/2 teaspoons cilantro. Serve with lime wedges.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Resolved: Bread

From the sheer volume of bread-baking articles in this month's cooking magazines, it seems a lot of people desperately want to squish some dough between their fingers and marvel at the miracle of yeast, water, and flour. Or make use of the bread machine that so many folks got a few years ago that are currently filling the shelves at our local Goodwill.

I have no such resolution. Believe me, I'm in no way immune to the wonderfulness of homemade bread. I've just never had much luck or skill with it.

Resolved - I found a better bread recipe. This honey-oat bread is just terrific. Is it cheaper than buying bread? Probably not, or not by much, unless you're buying $6 boutique loaves with organic flours hand-milled by fifth-generation waterstone operators. Actually, that would be a steal for $6.

Making homemade bread is really about the experience and the incomparable bread that results. It's about getting your hands in the dough and literally shaping your daily bread. It's about the warm, yeasty smell that fills the house. And of course it's about a pat of butter and a little jam.

[Oh, and an aside about the daily bread business. Last week I was at the supermarket with the "daily bread" reusable shopping bag our church sent out. Someone in line behind me harrumphed, "A church?? Being environmental?" I didn't ask her what her problem was, but seriously - what is her problem?]

As usual, I took a few necessary liberties with the recipe. It turns out I don't have two loaf pans (me???), so I made one loaf of bread and one pan of rolls. The rolls were finished after about 30 minutes, and I used billiard-ball size pieces of dough.

Also a quick clarification on the oats. "Quick-cooking oats", and nothing else, are what's needed. You will not make the recipe more healthful by using steel-rolled oats; you'll make it gravelly. Using "old-fashioned" oats won't work, either. The quick-cooking oats dissolve into the water and honey like a very thin oatmeal, and it's imperative to use them for the texture of the bread.


Servings: Makes 2 small loaves.

1 3/4 cups warm water (105°F to 110°F) - use a meat thermometer. If the water is too hot to touch, it's too hot
1 tablespoon dry yeast - this is about 1 1/2 packets of yeast
3/4 cup quick-cooking oats
1/3 cup honey - spray the measuring cup with non-stick spray for easier cleanup
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 1/2 teaspoons salt (table salt, not kosher salt)
5 cups (about) all purpose flour

1 large egg, beaten to blend
Additional quick-cooking oats

Stir 1/4 cup warm water and yeast in large bowl. Let stand 10 minutes to dissolve yeast. If you see a few bubbles, it's working.

Stir in remaining 1 1/2 cups water, 3/4 cup oats, honey, oil, and salt. Stir in enough flour to form soft dough. Coat another large bowl with oil. Transfer dough to oiled bowl and turn to coat. A "soft dough" will stick to your hands a little, but it won't stick in globs.

Cover with plastic wrap, then kitchen towel and let rise at room temperature until doubled in volume, about 1 hour. After 20 minutes or so the plastic wrap will look a little foggy - that's totally normal, it's the gases created by the dough rising. Here's what the dough looks like after an hour or so:

Oil two 8 1/2x4 1/2x2 1/2-inch loaf pans [oil them very well - the only problem I had was getting the bread out of the pan, due to too little oil]. Punch down dough; shape into 2 loaves. Place 1 loaf in each pan. Cover and let rise in warm draft-free area until almost doubled in volume, about 20 minutes.

Here are the rolls in their raw state:

Preheat oven to 350°F. Brush tops of loaves with egg; sprinkle with additional oats. Bake until brown on top and tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 40 minutes. Cool completely. (Can be prepared up to 1 day ahead. Store airtight at room temperature.)

Makes 2 small loaves, or two pans of rolls.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Less Is More

It's never really been my style, but for the past two weeks I've been ruthlessly de-cluttering. Books? That's what libraries are for - two boxes went to Goodwill. Rarely-used serving dishes? Banished to the basement. Dogs? Well, they can stay but no shedding, guys. I mean it. And on top of all that I found my labelmaker and, well, pairing a decluttering urge with a snazzy little labelmaker has made the basement (part of it, anyway) look like someone organized lives here. I hope she sticks around.

Obviously with all this activity - and with Sweetie out of town - a big dinner wasn't really happenin'. You know, when doing a Big Clean it always looks a lot worse before it looks better! It's what I like to call "infrastructure cleaning" - at its core, it's in better shape, it's just not obvious yet through the mess I made while getting to the stuff to be thrown out. Right? Right??? Atlanta has been plenty dreary and foggy and rainy this weekend - in other words, good soup weather.

Periodically I'm swiveling in my seat to look at my sparkling-clean kitchen counter. Pathetic.

One of the best things about chicken soup is its versatility. It can be a thin, light, fresh soup before a main course; a comforting slurpable when under the weather; an elegant cream dish; or a robust, hearty main course. I went the main course route this evening.

This recipe is mostly hands-off, but because of the 50 minutes required to roast the vegetables and the additional hour of cooking time, you can't do an impromptu soup-making with this recipe. But for today, when I was home most of the day but too busy to stand over the stove, it was perfect. The caramelized vegetables give a lovely depth and sweetness to the soup. Fresh rosemary is essential - dried just won't cut it in this.

You may notice that there is minimal seasoning - just garlic and rosemary. I had my doubts about that because I love lots of herbs, but the soup was terrific. I added a little salt and pepper, but that's it.

If you're planning to have leftovers (this will be my lunch tomorrow), keep a little broth on hand. The pasta soaks up broth like nobody's business.

Roasted Vegetable-Rosemary Chicken Soup
Cooking Light

8 servings (serving size: about 1 cup

1 cup (1-inch) cubed carrot - just shred it.
1 cup (1-inch) cubed onion (I don't know what "cubed onion" is. Just chop it.)
1 cup coarsely chopped mushrooms (too thin, and they'll burn)
1 cup (1-inch) pieces celery (I didn't include it - cooked celery creeps me out)
1 cup (1-inch) pieces red bell pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil (use vegetable oil if that's what you have)
1 cup water
2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 (14-ounce) cans fat-free, less-sodium chicken broth
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 pound skinless, boneless chicken breast, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
2 cups uncooked whole wheat rotini pasta (I used orzo, the tiny rice-looking pasta, instead) - gluten-free pasta works fine

Preheat oven to 375°.

Combine first 5 ingredients in a large bowl; drizzle with oil, and toss well to coat. Arrange vegetable mixture in a single layer on a jelly-roll pan lined with foil. Bake at 375° for 50 minutes or until browned, stirring occasionally.

At this point, if you need to put the brakes on the recipe go ahead - you can roast the vegetables in the morning and put the soup together in the evening if that's more convenient for you.

Combine water, rosemary, salt, garlic, broth, and chicken in a large Dutch oven; bring to a boil. Reduce heat, and simmer 30 minutes. Add roasted vegetables; simmer 30 minutes. Bring soup to a boil. Add pasta; simmer 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.