Tag Archives: pasta

Homemade Ranch Dressing & Easy Peasy Pasta Salad

25 Jun

Two for one recipe special today! In my continued effort t learn to make my own everything from scratch, I’ve been working on perfecting condiments. Mayonaise — not yet. But I found a really great recipe for a fairly simple homemade ranch dressing.

To begin, I followed this recipe for homemade ranch seasoning. I highly recommend just making this, and mixing batches of the dressing as you need it. The seasoning keeps longer and can be used for many other things — to season couscous, burgers, or chicken breasts, or as a powder on baked tortilla chips for homemade ranch Doritos (YEAH).

To make the dressing, just mix one tablespoon of the seasoning mixture with 1/4 cup milk and about 1/3 cup mayonnaise (though I’m sure you could also use sour cream, or maybe even yogurt).

Due to my impending move, I wanted this week to make something that would both get rid of the last of my ranch seasoning and would make a big batch of something I could eat without cooking throughout the week. Hence, this super-easy pasta salad was born, a great discovery for hot summer no-cook days. I’ll provide the recipe without measurements, since I made a batch based on the proportion of “how much pasta do I have left?” which was about 2/3 of a box.

  • Pasta, cooked, drained and cooled
  • Cubed turkey breast
  • Peas (cooked with pasta for the last minute)
  • Homemade ranch dressing.

Simply wait until the pasta and peas are cool, then toss in the turkey, and mix ranch dressing to cover the whole thing. Chill at least 30 minutes.

Easy Teriyaki Noodles

18 Jun

A super-easy recipe post this week. This is a pretty no-frills dinner (though easy to “frill up” if you so choose) but I was pretty proud of it, the product of one of those “what do I have in the fridge” kind of lazy nights. In fact, these are all ingredients I have on hand pretty much all the time, so it was really nice to accidentally discover a new recipe I could throw into the no-effort rotation.

What You’ll Need:

  • Sesame oil
  • Garlic
  • Scallions
  • Ginger
  • Soy sauce
  • Sugar
  • Angel Hair
  • Carrots
  • Peapods
  • Cashews
Yes — This was a no-measure recipe. Sorry! Have fun with it!

How You Do It:

  1. Bring a pot of salted water to boil, and cook the angel hair according to package directions.
  2. Meanwhile, heat the oil (probably about a tablespoon) in a large fry pan or wok over medium-high heat, 1-2 minutes.
  3. Add about a clove of minced/grated garlic, a handful of chopped scallions (whites and greens), and a few dashes of ground ginger (more if you like extra spiciness), and sauté about 2 minutes, stirring so the garlic doesn’t burn.
  4. Toss in carrots, peapods, or whatever veggies you choose, and sauté 3-4 minutes, until vegetables are slightly soft.
  5. Add about a tablespoon of soy sauce, a small pinch of sugar, and the cooked, drained angel hair pasta. Sauté to coat noodles.
  6. Add cashews and serve!

Everything here is easily substitutable — try it with whatever oil you have on hand, use rice noodles or orzo, etc. — so feel free to play around with ingredients and flavor, and let me know what else you have come up with!

Arugula & Goat Cheese “Ravioli”

4 Jun

This weekend, when I felt like spending some time in the kitchen, I decided to let the ingredients in the fridge speak to me. I knew I wanted to craft something vegetarian, and wanted to work with what I had.

The ingredients that automatically jumped out at me were arugula and goat cheese. I’ve been eating the two together as a lunch side lately, tossed with some homemade creamy balsamic vinaigrette. They seemed like a good pairing for the basis of a strong vegetarian dish, and I had just the pasta for it: lasagna noodles.

I’m always looking for creative new uses of lasagna noodles, because, while I really enjoy lasagna, I don’t always feel like making a dish that large. A few weeks ago, I tried, and liked this recipe for individual spinach lasagna rolls, so I wanted to use the arugula and goat cheese in a similar free form way that would require even less work on my part. I wanted to make a filling, and then just kind of throw it all together.

Hence, my fake-out arugula and goat cheese ravioli was born.

Here’s what you’ll need (for 16 ravioli):

  • Eight lasagna noodles, cooked according to the package directions
  • Your choice of sauce (I used tomato, but I think an alfredom béchamel or rose would work here too)
For the filling:
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 3 cloves finely chopped garlic
  • 5 ounces arugula
  • 4 ounces goat cheese
  • 4 ounces grated parmesan cheese
  • Black pepper

Here’s how you do it (forgive me, when I write out recipe directions, I can only remember them in the order I actually do them. So the directions below bounce between preparing the noodles, the filling, and assembling the whole dish because that’s how it’s the most logical to me. I’m incapable of doing one thing at a time.)

  • Start cooking the lasagna noodles. Drain and lay out flat on a plate or towel to dry. While you wait, prepare the filling.
  • Heat olive oil in a 12-inch heavy skillet over medium heat. Add garlic and cook, stirring frequently, until garlic turns golden brown, 1 to 2 minutes.
  • Add arugula and pepper and cook, stirring frequently, until arugula wilts, 2 to 4 minutes.Let arugula cool, then chop finely and transfer to a bowl. (I know it seems silly, and difficult, to chop wilted arugula, but it’s valuable so you aren’t picking arugula stems out of your teeth while eating.)

  • While the arugula is cooling, cut the cooked lasagna noodles into four squares each (for a total of 32 squares).
  • Preheat the oven to 375 and grease a 9 x 13 inch baking dish. Lay half of the lasagna squares out along the bottom of the dish.
  • Stir the cheese into the wilted arugula, and spoon a tablespoon-sized dollop into the center of each square.
  • Cover each with another lasagna square, then spoon the sauce over the whole thing.
  • Pop it in the oven and bake about 15 minutes, until heated through. Enjoy!

I love this recipe and the idea behind it. The great part about the free-form style is that it doesn’t matter how messy you get, which is especially valuable for me in the kitchen. The building is also relatively speedy because of this. But on the other hand, you could also really easily transform it into a traditional lasagna, or the filling for a real ravioli, if you have the equipment to make those from scratch, and make it a pretty fancy, company-worthy meal.

How to Shop for (and Eat) Whole Foods

22 Sep

A few weeks ago, I asked some of my Facebook friends for thoughts on posts and Laura, who writes the blog Shaped by My Life (a fellow IC writing alum) suggested posting a sample shopping list with an eye towards cooking with whole foods. I thought this was a great idea. So often, people don’t buy whole foods because they aren’t quite sure what to do with them. Also, I really love grocery shopping, and making lists, so this is post will be particular fun for me.

I thought I’d start with my general grocery shopping philosophies for whole foods trips.

First, don’t expect to get everything all in one place. I know it seems inconvenient at first, but the massive corporate chain grocery store that stocks everything does so to the detriment of other features like locality, quality, and health. Cheap products that can sit on shelves for months at a time are highly processed — if you want to begin avoiding corporate foods, processed foods and to prioritize local and organic foods, you’re going to have to go outside the big box. The good news is, you will likely quickly develop a routine that is not inconvenient: produce at the market, bulk grains and legumes at the co-op, meat at the local butcher, all in the same amount of time you’d normally spend weaving your way through the fluorescent aisles.

Second, don’t be scared off by the higher price tag. You will spend more in a single trip on whole foods than you are used to at the grocery store. But again, there’s a silver lining here! A single trip to the co-op will stock you up with more food that will last longer, and needs only to be supplemented with weekly produce additions. When you shop at the grocery store, you’re buying food that is pre-packaged to make a single meal. When you buy whole foods, you’re buying the pieces for lots and lots of meals, instead.

In general, a good method for figuring out what to buy involves thinking of the big categories of whole foods, and choosing the individual parts you like in those categories. This will give you lots of options for mixing and matching ingredients into many different meals. I’ve provided a list of the categories here, with a sample of what I would normally buy in each — but keep in mind that’s limited to my tastes, so the categories should be your guidelines.

Grains

You can buy grains either in bulk (where you fill your own container) or pre-packaged. Some of my favorites are:

  • Israeli & French couscous (Israeli for deconstructed couscous salad, french for Parmesan couscous)
  • Arborio rice (for risotto)
  • Pasta! (I usually get a smaller shape that holds sauce for baked mac n’ cheese and a longer pasta for tossing in lighter sauces)
  • Orzo/wild rice/brown rice (for pilafs, stir fries or beds-of kind of recipes)

Legumes/Nuts/Seeds

This is where a normal person would buy lots of bulk lentils and legumes. But I don’t like those, so I spend most of my energy here on nuts for snacks or meal garnishes and seeds for salad topping.:

  • Cashews!
  • Whole or slivered almonds
  • Sunflower seeds (great on spinach salads)
  • Walnuts (for crusting oven-baked chicken)
  • Pecans (for chicken salad)

Produce

I’m not a fan of canned vegetables, and frozen veggies don’t have as much flavor for me, so I try to buy mostly fresh produce. The few exceptions I make are:

  • Frozen fruit for smoothies (though you can just freeze fresh fruit)
  • Frozen corn and peas
  • Canned refried beans if I’m in the mood for Mexican
  • Dried fruit for salads and granola

For fresh produce I always try to get a mix of:

  • Leafy greens
  • Green stalk veggies, like green beans, asparagus (or again, for normal people, broccoli)
  • Tomatoes and a variety of peppers
  • Carrots and celery
  • Lots of onions (I always get at least one red, white and yellow) and garlic!
  • Portable fruit like apples, oranges and bananas
  • Berries, watermelon or pineapple for chopped up snacks/cooking

And then I toss in a few extras depending on what’s there and what looks good seasonally, like cauliflower, zucchini/summer squash, red cabbage, or alfalfa sprouts. Obviously, the possibilities are endless here, so I suggest you figure out your most used veggies, and pick those up each time, and then supplement that with one or two other veggies each trip. This way, you have variety  but don’t overwhelm yourself and end up throwing lots of produce away as it’s spoiled.

Meats

Meat is a lot like produce for me — I pick up the same few things each time, and then add in a bit for variety. I try to get a mix of meat types so I’m not consuming a ton of red meat, and to work in some seafood. My staples are:

  • Chicken breasts (not a fan of the low meat content of other chicken parts, but wings and thighs are best if you like dark meat)
  • Pork chops and/or tenderloin
  • White fish like tilapia or cod (this is a purely Marissa-picky thing, as it’s the only kind of seafood I really like)
  • Ground beef or lamb and/or some fancy form of these like ground buffalo, lamb shanks or sirloin steaks
  • Meats you can use for deli sandwiches. If you’re lucky, your co-op will sell nitrate-free ham, or sliced chicken and turkey. But if not, it’s really easy to buy and cook a chicken or turkey breast and slice it up yourself!

Dairy

Dairy covers a lot, and those things have variety in them (like cheeses!) so here’s a breakdown of what I buy:

  • Milk and/or soymilk. I usually get regular milk for drinking and cooking, and soymilk for smoothies
  • Butter (which I always get in stick form because it measures easier for baking, but can still be used on toast, etc.)
  • Sour cream for sauces
  • Yogurt (I get a large, vanilla container for smoothies and then smaller individual packages in flavors for midday snacks!)
  • And cheese galore! I try to get one or two hard cheeses that work for both sandwiches and grating, like sharp white cheddar and Gruyere or another Swiss, plus fresh mozzarella for salads, Parmesan for pasta, plus some orange cheddar or something else that will melt into a cheddar sauce well.

Baked Goods

Now, by baked goods, I don’t mean cookies and snacks. I make those myself! I mean things that are made in an oven, mostly forms of bread. I usually keep:

  • Whole grain bread sliced for sandwiches
  • Wheat tortillas (for enchiladas, lunchtime quesadillas and wraps)
  • English muffins or bagels for breakfasts

The only things not considered in these categories are sauces, condiments and drinks. Once I’ve stocked up on the basics, I assess the recipes I know I have in my cart and get the corresponding condiments (mayonnaise for sandwiches, mustard for everything, BBQ sauce for pulled pork, vegetable broth, peanut butter, etc.). I basically don’t buy drinks at the store because I consume pretty much exclusively water and milk, but I know that co-ops often stock really delicious local root beers or soda waters, as well as adult beverage treats.

I’ve also not included the things I have in my pantry on a regular basis that don’t need to be purchased on each trip to the store: baking goods like flour, sugar, baking soda and powder, etc; spices and seasoning, like dried herbs, lemon juice, balsamic and other vinegars; honey, and lots and lots of olive oil. Never run out of olive oil.

I know that changing your shopping habits might seem daunting at first, but I promise you that lists become routine very quickly. And you’ll really enjoy getting to spend time creatively piecing together different pieces to make your own meal.

Cooking with whole foods means more than cooking in a more healthy way — it means learning to think about how foods fit together. I know that can seem overwhelming, especially for people who want cooking to be easy, something they can do at the last minute. Once you get the hang of it, and get used to stocking your house with a variety of whole components, it will be easy! I usually take some meat out of the freezer in the morning, and then decide what to do with it when I get home, depending on what I have, and how hungry I am/how fast I want the cooking to go.

The pride I feel when I can open the fridge and freezer and think: Hmm, I’ve got walnuts, chicken, spring green mix, orzo — hey! I can make that walnut-rosemary crusted chicken on a bed of orzo pilaf with lemon-sprinkled salad greens! is unparalleled. Give it a shot!

Ok — what did I forget? What are your whole food staples, and what are your favorite recipes to go with them? Leave a comment and share with readers, as I know my taste and cooking style are limited!

Food For Thought From Readers

8 Jul

You may have noticed that I’ve started doing end-of-the-week roundup posts, full of interesting or relevant articles from around the food writing world that I haven’t had a chance to cover in more depth. I plan to continue that, but this week, I’ve got so much great feedback from readers of the blog, that I thought I’d do a reader/food blog friend roundup post this week. Enjoy!

In yesterday’s post, I asked whether or not you know who works for your food. My friend and fellow MFA graduate Liz over at Flexitarian Writer answered back with a post in her usual style of thorough, in-depth research on Tropicana orange juice.

When I asked for good food writing, I heard from a number of people, but got some really cool sounding suggestions from the fantastic short story writer Andrew Scott, who recommended Holly Hughes’ most recent roundup of the Best Food Writing, and Heat by Bill Buford, which you can listen to an excerpt of here. I’m especially excited to check that out, as I’m always a fan of book-length immersion journalism.

Some delicious-sounding recipes to check out in response to my video post of the World’s Easiest Recipe for other healthy and simple concoctions:

  • Cristina from An Organic Wife shared her homemade pizza crust recipe, which is a great go-to, because you can top pizza with whatever you’ve got on hand. I’m looking forward to giving this a shot, having only failed miserably at making pizza from scratch.
  • Celeste, who is eating her goodbye to my former city of Ithaca, NY passed on these delicious pasta dishes from Ithaca’s own, the world famous vegetarian mecca of Moosewood.
  • And Steve from Or Until Golden Brown suggested his hearty Sausage and Kale Bean Soup which I will definitely tuck away for the cold weather months. Fun fact: Steve and I have been friends since middle school, which means he knew me when I was a terrible cook. One afternoon, Steve, our friend Meredith and I were working on a project together for our ninth grade physical science class. Meredith was cooking hot dogs for lunch, and asked me to watch them for a minute while she went to the bathroom. She returned to find me staring intently at charred black dogs, smoke alarm nearly set off. In my memory, Steve was on the ground, he was laughing so hard at me.

A couple food writer friends have embarked this month on challenging themselves to eat locally, an endeavor that I think is totally plug-worthy. July is a great month to go local, the peak of summer harvest in most of North America. Check out travel writer Shelley Seale’s explanation of why she’s undergoing a month of eating local and organic, or get an update from Steff Says, on hoe her Locavore July is going so far.  Both are valuable resources for why local food matters, not to mention how to actually do it and stay sane.

Finally, if you’ve got the time, this video is a fascinating portrait of local food sourcing, wherein one village in Britain tries to develop an entirely independant local food system, in the fact of a post-oil economy.

Happy Weekend, All!

Couscous Salad For One

28 Jun

Last week, I made chicken salad for one and extolled the virtues of taking your time on cooking for yourself. Enjoy the process, luxuriate in a nice bottle glass of wine, take care of yourself.

This week, I say: forget that!

Not really. But I’m trying to be realistic, too, and I know that the real challenge of cooking for yourself — and making something healthy and delicious — occurs when your schedule is hectic and harried. When you’ve worked all day, when you’re exhausted, when you just want to curl up and watch TV all night instead.

There is hope! Here’s one of my all-time favorite recipes, which also just so happens to be easy, and super fast!

The deconstructed couscous salad. I pseudo-invented this recipe, inspired by a similar salad from my number one very favorite local (and I do mean local) restaurant, The Cafe. Their version was Israeli couscous, tomatoes, basil, crispy corn, smoked salmon, toasted pumpkin seeds, currants & arugula. Fancy and delicious.

But incredibly easy to recreate with just about any ingredients you happen to have in your house. The basic formula I use is couscous + greens + chopped veggies + crunchy nuts/legumes + dried fruit (optional). I’ve sung the praises of Israeli couscous before, and always have it on hand for this recipe.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to putting the salad together (or apart) with the ingredients I use most commonly, so you can all see just how unbelievably fast and easy it is.

Step One: Get couscous started. Toast the desired amount of couscous (one serving is about 1/3 cup dry) in a little olive oil in a small pan for one or two  minutes, stirring constantly. Add two parts broth (so 2/3 cup for one serving) and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally.

Step Two: Prep toasted nuts. (Feel free to skip and use pre-roasted or raw nuts, too!) I just throw a few handfuls of sliced almonds into a skillet with some salt, garlic powder and maybe a little paprika.

Step Three: Chop vegetables. I usually diced a few tomatoes, then toss them in some salt, pepper and balsamic vinaigrette. Microwave a little frozen corn or dice some bell peppers for something extra.

Step Four: Cheese. My deviation from the original! Because I can’t see tomatoes and basil and not want some nice, thick, slices of fresh mozzarella, too, I salt a few of these on a plate.

*Don’t forget the couscous in here!* It doesn’t need a lot of attention, just an occasional stir to make sure all the liquid hasn’t evaporated.

Step Five: Greens. Since you’re not cooking these, it’s best to do this step last, to avoid wilting. Here’s a fun culinary trick that will make you feel like a real chef: the chiffonade.

First, stack the leaves on top of each other like so.

Then, roll the stack as tightly as possible into a cigar.

Finally, slice across the cigar, allowing long, thin strip of basil to unfurl before your very eyes!

Step Six: Assemble. I like to be fancy in presenting something this simple and so I lay each ingredient out in a row across a plate, deconstructed.This also allows you to taste each delicious, fresh ingredient on its own…

Or mess the whole thing up!

And there you have it. A lovely, satisfying entree grain salad, all done in — top to bottom — less than 20 minutes. As I said, I typically make this meal with these ingredients, but the flavors are so easy to switch out. I’ve also made this with a combination of fresh spinach (which I sprinkle with a little red wine vinegar), sunflower seeds, dried cranberries and blue cheese, and with cherry tomatoes, fresh sliced asiago cheese, arugula (with just a bit of olive oil, mustard and black pepper), and leftover bacon crumbles. The couscous is a perfect backdrop — it carries flavor but doesn’t bring much of its own to the dish, so you can sprinkle whatever you want across it and create your own super-easy, healthy, and in most cases, vegetarian masterpiece from this slate.

How to Eat Your Veggies

10 Jun

The subtitle of this post should be “Especially if You Don’t Like Them.” Picky eaters, I feel your pain. A truncated list of the vegetarian staples I dislike includes pinto beans, garbanzo beans (and therefore hummus), cauliflower, eggplant, summer squash, butternut squash, olives, artichokes, tofu and mushrooms. I gag over the grimy paste of lentils mashed between the flat plates of my teeth, the slimy flesh of an eggplant slipping towards the back of my throat. Once, in a nice restaurant in California, I accidentally put a slice of mushroom in my mouth—masked under the thick alfredo sauce on my manicotti, which I had ordered without mushrooms—and the gritty edges of it, its slickness against my tongue, made me so sick I had to run to the bathroom to spit it out in a trashcan.

Did I mention I was a vegetarian for seven years? Right, go see how well that worked for me.

So at the request of Lindsey, I decided to compile some of the lessons I’ve learned as a picky eater, unhealthy vegetarian and ethical omnivore about how to best incorporate more vegetables into your diet. Bear in mind, these are tips for people who struggle with this, or who find themselves resistant to veggies, even though you know they’re good for you. If you love vegetables and have no trouble eating any of the things detailed above—awesome!

But if you want to do better (because you know, in your heart, it truly is better for you) this advice might be the place to start.

1. Incorporate veggies into existing meals.

One of the most frustrating things to me, as someone who really loves to cook and bake from scratch, is the dreaded recipe rut. You develop a list of old standbys that you make every five days or so, over and over. And that gets boring.

One way to change that up is to find veggie add-ons, an easy way to rotate one standard dish into many variation. My favorite personal example is this homemade baked mac and cheese recipe. Aside from being really easy and much better than a blue box, it’s easy to switch up. I’ve added in  garlic chicken and sliced red onions, or, the favorite, cubed ham and frozen green peas.

2. Find small ways to substitute vegetables for meat.

This is more of an anti-tip, and is specific to the picky eaters or meat lovers out there. Don’t try to replace your meat staples with veggies. If you love black bean burgers, great! Keep it up! But if you love a nice grilled buffalo burger or homemade Juicy Lucy, don’t try and sell yourself on a black bean burger. You’ll only be reminded of what you’re missing, and that’s the path to a strong dislike of vegetables.

Eating veggies doesn’t work if you always feel like you’re being deprived. Instead, try to swap out meat where you won’t notice it. I found I much prefer a hearty, chunky vegetable bolognese, instead of a meaty one! Less heartburn, too. This is so flavorful and chunky you won’t miss the meat — you might even prefer this version.

3. Tack veggies onto existing meals

This seems overly simple, but sometimes having vegetables on hand and always thinking about adding them is all it takes. Keep your fridge stocked with the makings of a simple salad (go for spring greens or spinach rather than iceberg) and a variety of toppings. I love blue cheese, walnuts and dried cranberries, but chopped avocado, egg and cheddar, feta and black olives, etc. work too. Other simple vegetable side dishes like these Israeli carrots make adding vegetables easy. That way, when you’re planning chicken and rice, or steak and potatoes, you can add a couple handfuls of veggies.

4. or – Tack meat onto veggie meals!

Can’t take credit for this one—comes straight from Scott. He’s always said one of his biggest hangups when it comes to eating vegetables was feeling like a meatless meal just isn’t complete, even if it’s filling. So if you find eating salad a chore, try sliced flank steak on top! Not a fan of brown rice stir fry? Try adding cashew chicken. You might be surprised at how you expand your vegetable-heavy entrée options by doing the counter-intuitive thing and adding meat to round out the meal.

This also works as a way to transform vegetable-oriented side dishes that you enjoy into whole meals. The avocado-mango salsa I made for last weekend’s gathering has also made a well-received appearance on top of a piece of pan-fried tilapia with rice, a meal that could have easily appeared “complete” without the produce.

5. Try new veggies – then try them again

Now we get into the suggestions that involve less concrete advice and more of a shift in your mental state. A willingness to expand your horizons is key. I went into more detail on this in my ode to swiss chard, but I have countless examples. As a picky eater, I spent most of my life defiantly standing my ground against changing my diet, adamant in my belief that no one else had the right to tell me what I did or didn’t like.

But sometimes, our tastes change. Sometimes, we don’t even know how or why we dislike something. Sometimes we just don’t like the look of a vegetable, so we never learn what to do with it, or how wonderful it could be. Giving it a shot can make all the difference.

A few months back, I drooled over a recipe in Cooking Light, by Mark Bittman, for chicken and Gruyère quesadillas with mustard greens. I’d never had mustard greens and they sounded like they would be bitter and pungent. But then, the very next week at the co-op, bunches of shiny mustard greens waited for me fresh from a local farm. I figured – why not? I already had a recipe in mind.

You know what happened? I discovered I like mustard greens. Bittman’s a great chef, and he knows what he’s doing with these ingredients. The greens, wilted in garlic and tossed with the sweet, sharp cheese, are mild and savory, delicious.

But that’s a first-time-around success story. What happens if you try a recipe with a new vegetable – and you hate it?

Try another one.

Most vegetables have multiple preparation possibilities, and taste different in each one. The first few times I cooked kale at home, tossed with sausage and tomato into a pasta with lemon juice, or baked into a chevre macaroni and cheese, Scott was not a fan. But a few months later, he had a kale salad at a restaurant and loved it. While this may be because that chef possesses greater culinary talent, I choose to believe it’s because raw and cooked kale taste very different.

Expanding your horizons might take time. You have to be willing to acknowledge the possibility of liking something you didn’t think you could.

6. Learn how to prepare vegetables well

This goes hand-in-hand with the last tip. If you don’t know how to steam or saute asparagus, or what on earth to do with a kohlrabi, one of two things is going to happen. You’re either going to skip trying this vegetable (kohlrabi) or you’re going to let someone else do the work (asparagus). That is, you’ll buy frozen or canned vegetables instead of the fresh, seasonal options in the produce section.

Do not succumb to this. While I usually keep corn and peas in the freezer, I believe vegetables belong in the crisper, not the icebox, because the difference in taste between the two is enormous. A fresh, crisp green bean beats the pants off the soggy, microwaved frozen version. If your vegetables don’t taste good, you won’t like to eat them. And it’s important to remember they really can taste good!

A simple Google search will give you plenty of recipes and preparations. Seek out those from sources whose food you usually like. I rely heavily on Mark Bittman, Jamie Oliver, Cooking Light and the epicurious group of magazines, because I trust them to know what they’re doing. Or, you could always ask me!

7. Don’t be afraid of deciding you don’t like something

We come full circle, back to picky eating. While it’s important to keep an open mind about vegetables, and to dig your hands into figuring them out, and learning the best way to prepare them to their ultimate deliciousness. But if you do all that, and you still can’t stomach a brussel sprout?

Well, ok. You don’t like brussel sprouts.

You don’t have to eat every vegetable on the face of the planet. But there are a lot – way more options than for grains or meat. I’ll bet most of us eat only a fragment of available produce. Once you’re willing to give things a shot, a real shot, you can also be willing to cast them aside.

This is key, because it keeps eating your vegetables from feeling like a chore. Like something you have to do. Like all those nights I couldn’t leave the dinner table until 9PM because I hadn’t finished my broccoli (which I still don’t like!) You won’t eat your veggies if they don’t taste good, and you won’t do it if you feel like you’re being forced to.

The only way to know what you don’t like is to try a lot. And then try them again, and try some more. Eventually, you’ll discover it’s actually pretty fun. Every trip to the store becomes like a choose-your-own-adventure book.

My next adventure: parsnips. This is my “I have no good reason for not eating this vegetable” vegetable. People love parsnips. I even have bookmarked recipes. But they just don’t look appealing to m: the key is, I know now that’s not a good reason not to try something. So next week, I’ll be giving them a shot. I’ll let you know how it goes!

 

What advice do you have for incorporating more vegetables (or fruits!) into your diet? What are your favorite vegetarian or vegetable-oriented main dishes? Have you overcome your dislike of some food to later discover you loved it?

An Ode to Swiss Chard

3 Jun

The recent string of bad luck I mentioned a few posts back included the unfortunate side effect of kicking me out of my apartment for a few days, which means I spent Memorial Day weekend in a hotel room, eating crappy room service and takeout. So I was very glad to swing by the co-op on my way back home this week, and even more glad when I saw fresh, bright red bunches of one of my favorite vegetable “discoveries”: Swiss chard!

I say “discovery” because I’m a recent convert to the joys of Swiss chard. Here is my dirty little vegetarian secret, readers: while I spent seven years as a vegetarian, I never really liked many vegetables. We’ll get into what that did to my health (not to mention weight) in some future post, but it stemmed from my being a truly picky eater, growing up and well into my twenties. So when I decided to start eating meat again, I knew I needed to recommit to vegetables, too, or risk being a meat-and-potatoes eater, which would not be good for either my waistline or my heart.

So I got adventurous, or at least, as adventurous as I was willing to, and started buying at least one new vegetable at a time—whenever I made a trip to the co-op or placed an order with my a la carte CSA. And one fateful week, that meant I ended up with a big, flashy bunch of rainbow-stemmed Swiss chard.

I had no idea what to do with it. And most people don’t—it’s a leafy green, but doesn’t look like something you can shred up into a salad, or just eat raw. It’s gigantic. And colorful! A quick visit to the internet later, though, I had some information and a few very promising recipes.

Chard (pronounced with a hard “ch” sound like charge) comes in many varieties, all with enormous, extravagant leaves and brightly-colored stems in many colors. You can eat both the leaves and the stems, though the two have different tastes and purposes. The leaves tastes a lot like a thicker, crunchier spinach (chard’s cousin) with a hint of sweetness, while the stems are more pungent, like a flavorful celery/leek combo. Chard is actually a member of the beet family, which I think helps explain its  bitter/sweet flavor.

Swiss chard is also incredibly good for you—based on nutritional density and variety, it is the second richest vegetable in the world (after spinach)! So it’s worth a shot.

My first go at Swiss chard, several years ago, was this yummy pasta concoction from Vegetarian Times. This dish was delicious, but a bit overwrought. I’m not a big fan of recipes that I need to buy many specific ingredients for that I can’t easily reuse over and over, and until I find a few other recipes with golden raisins and heavy cream, this one stays a specialty, rather than a staple.

This past autumn, then, when I took another run at chard, I was thrilled to stumble upon and try this simple, creamy pasta sauce steeped with chard, tomato and red onion.

Unbelievably flavorful, it even won over Scott to chard on his first taste of the vegetable! (Those are big, momentous successes for a picky eater like myself—whenever I convince someone else to try something new, I feel I’m balancing out all of the times I’ve turned down a food I never even bothered to taste.) Plus, this recipe takes only about 20 minutes start to finish, including the easy veggie prep time, and is constructed completely of things I always have in the house, when chard is seasonally available.

Fast, easy, delicious. What more could you ask for in a recipe?

Scott recently lamented to me the difficulty of encountering leafy greens at the grocery store. There are so many varieties, he said, even subsets within types, that just the sight of them at the grocery store can be overwhelming. What’s the difference between lacinato kale and black kale? Between dandelion greens and mustard greens? And to complicate matters, I said, there is a difference. The flavors are so distinctive from one type to the next, and a misuse of the particular strengths of one green will so often lead to a bitter, burnt taste in a dish, that the threat of failure puts him right off, pushes potential shoppers along to the safe bell peppers and tomatoes.

My advice to him then, and to you all now, is take it one step at a time. Grab one type of produce with which you are unfamiliar next time you’re at the store, and then find a recipe uniquely suited to that vegetable. That recipe will be tailored specifically to the flavor profile of the vegetable, and will help you develop an understanding of how that vegetable should be used.

You all don’t know me well enough yet to fully understand when I say this, but if I can do it, so can you. I’m a huge klutz. (Really, a huge klutz. I once hit myself on the head taking a can of PAM out of the cabinet. My own hand, hitting my own head.) And I’ve never been a good cook. But it really is as easy as

  1. Buy something
  2. Find a recipe.
  3. Try it!

And trust me, if you’re going to try and expand your vegetable horizons, swiss chard is a much easier place to begin than, say, a hubbard squash.

Spring Rain & Risotto

25 May

I’ve been planning to write this week’s recipe post about risotto, and finally got around to making it last night, but then springtime in the Midwest got the better of me. Thunderstorms shattered most of the afternoon and evening, darkening my apartment and backyard, ruining my photos, especially of something as blob-like and generally unattractive as risotto.

Now, I’m not complaining about the rain. I absolutely love gray overcast days, and nobody does a good thunderstorm like the Midwest (no, I won’t argue–I’ve live in a lot of places and these are epic). And certainly, a spring rain, even with heavy winds is much, much better than the tornadoes that have been ripping through the states directly to the north and south of mine.

But I had this lovely little idea to write about risotto as the perfect meal for a seasonal eater, to describe the ways in which you could tweak the vegetables and the cheese, even a few herbs, depending on what was fresh at the farmers’ market that Saturday, and create a timeless, interchangeable meal as a testimony to the cycles of nature.

I was going to show you this bright and vibrant picture of the yellow and green bell peppers I chopped up for the dish, and share this very well-received winter risotto I made back in January, when the snow was up to our knees, with smoked gouda, mushrooms and spinach (well, mushrooms on Scott’s risotto, none for me, thankyouverymuch. Ugh. A topic for future discussion).

Instead I got this mess of a risotto: brown, because I used beef broth (first time I’ve done that in a risotto, by the way, and I think I prefer the lighter chicken broth/white wine combo), flecked with black from the cracked pepper, shot under early evening clouds.

Not exactly stellar food blog photography. But let’s talk about the food and cooking itself for a moment.

I used this recipe from Saveur magazine because I had beef broth and bell peppers, so I substituted green bell peppers for the green beans, a trade-off that worked just fine.

I made risotto because I wanted a hearty vegetarian meal. I had a swim scheduled for later in the evening–my first official day of training for the triathlon I hope to complete in Omaha this summer, so I wanted something that would keep my body fueled without weighing me down. Risotto is great for this, packed full of whatever veggies you have on hand, with all the carb power of a pasta (which, technically, arborio rice is) but none of the weight of meat. Add to that the digestive aids of vegetables and you’re ready for an 8PM workout.

Risotto is one of my favorite things to cook because it requires time and patience. You have to add the broth slowly, and in small amounts, you have to resist the urge to stir furiously, constantly, to cook on a higher heat, to speed things up. Well, you can do any of those things, but you’d end up with a risotto either undercooked and crunchy or overstirred and gummy.

My new favorite thing to do is listen to The New Yorker fiction podcast while I cook, and there was something very meditative about standing over the stove, watching liquid be slowly absorbed into rice, while listening to the dulcet tones of Jhumpa Lahiri reading a heartbreaking story  by William Trevor. I felt a little like one of those “foodies” I by turns deride and praise.

And it was while I was able to lose myself in thought, when I wandered over to watch rain drip off the lilacs hanging wet and heavy from the bush outside my kitchen window, that it occurred to me that this is still a springtime risotto, a risotto so affected by its season that even photos of the meal show its place in the cycle of the year. Thunderstorms define spring in the Midwest as much as baby lettuces do. They are a part of this place, a part I love, a part for which I will gladly tolerate bad photographs. Because the storms and the peppers remind me of how connected we are to the land on which we live, and how deeply those little details of land, weather, and food inject themselves into our everyday, and how much we can learn about a place in those interjections, even if they are sometimes inconvenient.

Roasted Red Pepper Pasta

17 May

I promise tomorrow morning, we’ll get right back on a regular posting track, with a sharp, angry rant (something to look forward to!) but for now, just a note about what I made for dinner tonight…

A recipe from one of my all-time favorite sources, Cooking Light magazine, for Pasta with Roasted Red Pepper Cream Sauce.

Yes, that is my dinner in the grass. I ate outside tonight because it’s perfect weather here: 60s, sunny, breezy. Pretty uncommon for Iowa in springtime.

Notes:

- This was my first time roasted bell peppers at home, and I don’t think I’ve yet mastered the technique. I could not get those pesky skins off, even after 1o minutes under the broiler and 20 minutes in a sealed plastic bag. Any tips, home chefs?

- Pay attention to ratio here. I tried shrinking the recipe to make just enough for one, and ended up with about a mouthful of roasted red pepper puree. I had to add much more of the tomato mixture to make enough sauce.

- Even so, still tasted good!

- Serve with some greens! The sauce is great, but on the sweet side. My little side salad of spinach, sunflower seeds and red wine vinegar was perfect alongside.

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