Friday, March 31, 2006

Catch Up

No, I'm not planning to devote a whole entry to condiments, much as I relish the thought.

A number of interesting sites have come across my path, and I've been meaning to share them with you, but like many things, they've fallen by the wayside until I had some free time and a reminder to pay attention. So here's this week's notable "food for thought" web sites:

SustainLane is a new-to-me site on "healthy and sustainable living"... right up my street! They have an entire section devoted to food, including good reasons to shop local and organic, best sweeteners, best fruits and vegs to get organic, and more. I have yet to dig into all the articles (each article is short but contains good information and further links) but it looks like it's worth my time... and yours!

If you're wondering (still?) where to find some of that wonderful local and organic food, the Eat Well Guide helps you find restaurants, stores, farmers, and organizations within a 20-, 50-, up to 200-mi radius of your ZIP code.

Heritage Foods USA, organized as "the marketing arm of Slow Food USA," celebrates regional foods and specialties and promotes a "traceable food supply."

A recent interview on Grist featured Tirso Moreno, farmworker organizer. Turns out this week is/was national Farmworker Awareness Week, and Moreno has some pretty pointed things to say about the state of our nation's agriculture. I'd have to agree: if you think food is important, why not support the people who produce it for you?

That should give you enough reading and browsing to last you through the weekend! With any luck, next week I'll be back with more exciting adventures from the kitchen (I have lots of ideas but haven't taken the time to test them) as well as April's challenge for eating locally.

That is, if I've mustard up the courage!

Monday, March 27, 2006

Hurry Curry

It's amazing what a difference sunshine and warmer temperatures can make!

Despite a full day at work, I arrived home bursting with energy and a desire to cook something from scratch for dinner. On a Monday? Amazing!

And while I had considered revisiting the roasted potato and onion based soup I made a couple of weeks ago, I decided to take my inspiration tonight from Vegetarian Times and opted to enjoy a little curry.

I had found a recipe for a curried spinach-potato soup in the January 2005 issue of VT, and since I had picked up some fresh spinach at the store this weekend and made fresh vegetable stock, I thought, why not? Add to that hearing about a wonderful curry stir-fry, and you can guess that I was ready for that curry flavor myself.

The recipe itself was simple: saute onions, add curry powder, toss in potatoes and stock, simmer until soft, add spinach, puree, add milk. Not much to it, really, and easily thrown together in half an hour.

But could I leave it at that? Oh, no.....

Instead, I added fresh garlic and ginger to the onions and more spices to the curry powder. And after a walk while the soup cooled, I sauteed some sliced carrots with spices, raisins, and almonds for a colorful and healthy side dish.

So simple, and yet so good.

Normally if I'm in the mood to cook, I don't mind taking my time and enjoying the entire process. Granted, for most people, even this quick a dish isn't made quickly enough. But I enjoyed having the near-instant gratification for once, along with really good wholesome homemade flavor.

And since I have leftovers, I might hurry home for more tonight!

Hurried Curried Spinach-Potato Soup

The January 2005 issue of Vegetarian Times had an article on "superfoods" that are loaded with nutrients that are especially good for you. And if you don't know that dark leafy greens like spinach are good for you, then I'd have to wonder what you're doing here! Make this as simple or as spicy as you like.

1 T canola oil
1 medium onion, peeled and sliced thinly
1 clove garlic, sliced thinly
1/2" fresh ginger, peeled and minced
1 T curry powder
1 tsp chili powder
1/2 tsp ground cardamom
1/2 tsp salt
2 c vegetable stock
2-3 small potatoes, peeled and cubed
3-4 c packed fresh chopped spinach
1 c lowfat milk (or unsweetened soy milk)
juice of 1/2 lime

Heat oil in large saucepan over medium heat. Sautee onion, garlic, and ginger slowly until soft and lightly browned. Add curry powder, chili powder, cardamom, and salt, and fry for about 1 minute. Add stock and potatoes, bring to a boil, then cover and reduce heat to a simmer. Cook until potatoes are tender, about 10 minutes. Stir in spinach and cook until just wilted, about 1 minute. Cool.

Puree soup in blender or in pan with immersion blender until smooth. Add milk and lime juice and bring back up to desired heat. Serve garnished with dollop of nonfat yogurt or chopped cilantro.

Makes 4 servings

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Cinn-fully Good

In past years, throughout the cooler months I would bake bread nearly every Saturday morning. This year, though, it seems like I've baked bread only once or twice a month.

As this weekend approached, I had the Archivist's apple swirl bread in mind and felt the temptation to make something similar. At first, I thought I might try a white-wheat loaf with a pesto spiral worked through. But then I decided to save that for another week and to make a recipe from The Bread Baker's Apprentice that I haven't had in a while: cinnamon raisin walnut bread.

How could I go wrong with that combination? After all, cinnamon is one of my favorite spices, and I do love to bake with walnuts. (Raisins I can take or leave, but I was in the mood to take them today.)

And since this bread goes well for breakfast (toast or French toast), lunch (peanut butter sandwich), and even dinner (perhaps with a blue- and cream-cheese spread), well, there was nothing to stop me from conjuring up that magnificent yeasty smell and firing up the oven.

Truth be told, the cinnamon, raisins, and walnuts are kneaded into this loaf instead of swirled, though I did roll extra nuts into the dough as I shaped it. But no matter.

When you've got fresh bread full of fragrant ingredients, it doesn't really matter how it looks, as long as it tastes fantastic.

And believe me, it does.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Bean There, Done That

Since I only used half a pound of tofu in last week's nine jewel rice, I was determined to use the remaining bean curd for its originally intended purpose: peanut tofu.

I hadn't made this dish since last summer, but I knew it was worth revisiting, even if I didn't have fresh green beans to go with it (or a "Siam sundae" waiting for me afterward).

Of course, the events of the week kept me from even marinating the tofu until Thursday, after which I returned the now flavored and sauteed cubes to the refrigerator until I had time and inclination to make the peanut sauce and cook the rest.

Lately it seems like the only time I've had to get deep into cooking has been the weekends, and so it was that this evening I finally pulled everything together -- marinated tofu, peanut sauce, organic broccoli, and soba (buckwheat) noodles -- and whipped up a satisfying dinner.

Funny, I used to hesitate before cooking with fresh tofu because I couldn't get it to hold the right texture or to taste just right. But after learning a trick or two, it just doesn't bother me any more. No big deal!

And the results have bean worth it.

Pecan Pi

Who said you shouldn't play with your food???

(Pecan Shortbread Cookies)

Why not have a little fun?

Thursday, March 23, 2006

A Toast to Sharing

Earlier this week at a work function (or "dysfunction," as some of us like to call it), the Archivist and I had a cozy little chat about our weekend baking.

Obviously I love to ramble on about my own baking adventures, else why write this blog? But I also love to hear what other passionate bakers are making in their kitchens, in the hope of getting new ideas.

And when that other baker is the only other vegetarian on staff, an avid gardener, and one of the coolest people in the building, I listen.

The Archivist mentioned that she had baked bread and, in the mixing, had too much dough for her original purposes. So she pulled out some apples, chopped them and mixed them with cinnamon, and made a couple loaves of apple swirl bread on top of everything else.

The look on my face must have been one of sheer rapture (I love bread with yummy things swirled in, though I don't often make it myself) because she immediately offered to bring me some to sample.

Sure enough, the next morning, before she had even taken the time to divest herself of hat, coat, and coffee thermos, the Archivist stopped by my office and handed me a chunk of bread wrapped in foil. (Happily, I had the last of the chai spice shortbread on hand and could offer her a couple cookies in return.)

I sampled one slice later that morning -- sweet apple spice bliss! -- but as she recommended toasting the bread for the best flavor, I saved the rest for today's breakfast.

She's right. That was some seriously tasty toast!

So many thanks to the Archivist for sharing some of her home-baked goods -- and for giving me a few new ideas.

And I wouldn't be surprised if we share again sometime soon!

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

What Will Feed the World?

Just a quick post to point you to a recent article over on Grist by Tom Philpott called "Food, sustainability, and the environmentalists" -- a good quick argument for what sort of food production is truly sustainable.

Philpott puts it succinctly, as always:

What he was asking me, in essence, was, "can sustainable farming feed the world?" To which the only wise response is, "can unsustainable farming feed the world -- for long?"

His article echoes what David Kline, Amish farmer and writer, said in a lecture here on campus earlier this month: at a time when oil prices are rising and we have reached (or will reach very shortly, depending on your point of view) Peak Oil, worrying about how your food is produced and gets to your table at a reasonable cost should be high on your list of priorities, because the cheap food will not last.

All the more reason to support your local growers!

Monday, March 20, 2006

Jewels of Denial

I had other plans for cooking this weekend, but by Sunday evening, all I wanted to do was to use up some of the vegetables sitting in the fridge.

They weren't old or wilted or anything like that... a little past their prime, perhaps... dare one say, mature?

Ah yes, welcome, my friends, to the Land of Denial... that legendary ancient river of flowing excuses.

So, what does one do, you may ask, when faced with a refrigerator full of asparagus, broccoli, carrots, snow peas, and chick peas that need to be used up?

In looking around, I found I also had some fresh tofu, a can of pistachios and almonds and cashews (courtesy of my Fabulous Aunt, who knows how much I love these nuts), and just enough brown basmati rice to make one of my favorite Indian recipes, nine-jewel rice.

This rice dish is a nice change of pace from other Indian dishes because the spicing is very mild. Once you've sauteed the onion and garlic and ginger, you only add cinnamon, cardamom, and salt and pepper to give it its sweet but savory taste.

On top of that, once you've prepped the vegetables, it's a breeze to throw together because everything gets thrown into the same big skillet to sit and simmer for a nice long time before sprinkling it with a mixture of nuts.

It's a wonderful dish that can last you well into a week, depending on how many people you have dipping into it. But since there's just me, well, I needed help.

I called my Opera-Loving Friends and had no difficulty persuading them to join me for dinner this evening, sharing this dish along with an Indian-spiced potato salad and some of my delectable chai spice shortbread for dessert.

There's still some left in the fridge even after that impromptu dinner party, but at least I think I'll be able to polish off the rest before those vegetables meet an untimely demise.

After all, there's no denying this is good food.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Feeling a Little Chai?

It amazes me sometimes that as much as I love Indian food, I haven't been eating it for very long.

My first exposure to it came from an Indian co-worker when I lived Down South. At a fellow staff member's potluck, this woman brought homemade pakore and chutney, and I found myself intrigued.

But it wasn't until I moved back to my home state of Ohio and plopped down in the midst of Amish country that Indian cuisine became a vital part of my life. (Go figure!) Although our community has no Indian restaurant, at least once a year the campus hosts an Indian dinner. And between my Opera-Loving Friends, who eagerly share new Indian restaurant adventures with me, and a former student, who cooked with me and brought for me from her home in Bombay spices that her grandmother had roasted and ground, I learned to love all the rich flavors of Indian cooking.

Best of all, I came to love Indian spiced tea -- chai -- and learned to make my own by simmering black tea with cardamom pods, whole cloves, slices of crystallized ginger, the occasional cinnamon bark or peppercorns, sugar, and milk. That alone can make a very satisfying dessert.

But over time I've found that I really enjoy using chai spices in baked goods to liven up standard recipes with a faintly exotic taste. And since all that cardamom in last week's cookies tasted so good, I thought I'd bake with it again this week and decided to pull out the recipe for one of last year's creations: chai spice shortbread.

This time around, I doubled the amount of cardamom and added more of the mini diced crystallized ginger. With all whole wheat flour and a touch of maple sugar, these buttery morsels turned out deeply browned and richly flavored with a bit of a kick (vaguely reminiscent of pepperkakor).

In short, perfect!

Since I hope to cook some good Indian food tomorrow, these will make a terrific dessert after a veg-filled rice dish. I might even have some left over to share with friends.

But I won't be chai about enjoying plenty myself.

Chai Spice Shortbread

This warm, spice-laden, and inviting shortbread is based on a recipe from Epicurious (Pecan Shortbread Cookies) and a brilliant idea shared by Dear Reader Tina. Once the idea entered my head to use the spices from chai in cookies, I knew I had to try it in combination with buttery shortbread. Enjoy with a nice warm cup of tea, my dears!

1 c whole wheat pastry flour
1/4 c maple sugar
1/8 tsp baking soda
1/8 tsp salt
1 to 2 tsp ground cardamom
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/2 c (1 stick) chilled unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 T whipping cream or soymilk
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 c mini diced crystallized ginger

Preheat oven to 325 F.

Whisk together flour, maple sugar, baking soda, salt, and spices. Cut in butter using a pastry blender. Stir in cream and vanilla, then add ginger until moist clumps form. Gather dough into a ball, using your clean hands to knead the dough together and to work the butter all the way through. Flatten dough into a disk.

Roll dough out on floured surface to 1/4- to 3/8-inch thickness. Using floured cookie cutters, cut out favorite shapes and arrange on baking sheet. Gather scraps, reroll, and cut out additional cookies. (You can do this until the dough is almost all gone; it hasn’t toughened any of my cookies yet!)

Bake cookies until lightly browned, about 20 minutes. Cool on rack. Store in an airtight container at room temperature.

Makes 2 to 3 dozen cookies

Friday, March 17, 2006

My Wild Irish Rose

Though I don't often "celebrate" St. Padraig's/Patrick's Day in the conventional fashion (I have a chronic aversion to green beer and shamrock shakes), I will admit that my Celtic heritage likes to surge forth a little for the day.

I'll not dance a wee jig for you, though I might slip a CD by Cherish the Ladies, Solas, or another fine group onto the player and sing along.

And while I've got to be in the right mood for a Guinness, an Irish coffee, or even my favorite nutty Irishman, this year I've got an excellent non-alcoholic drink to lift in a toast to fair Erin's isle: wild Irish rose tea.

Somehow I got the brilliant idea to toss a few dried red rose petals from my (organic) herb garden into the pot while steeping some good Irish breakfast tea. Add milk and sugar as usual, and there you have it: a bracing brew with a delicate floral taste that brings back memories of misty summer mornings with the dew clinging to the green, green grass and the velvety red rambling rose.

No, I'll probably not be wearing green or a silly button that says "Kiss Me, I'm Irish," but after a cup of good Irish tea, I might slip into a bit of a brogue to wish you a hearty Irish blessing (one of my favorites being, "May you be in heaven half an hour before the Devil knows you're dead!").

And these Irish eyes will be smiling all day.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Nothin' But Truffle

When the Gentleman breezed into town back in January, we enjoyed lunch and coffee at My Favorite Coffee House.

Being a hard-core caffeine addict, the Gentleman commented how he hadn't yet found coffee as good as that in his new neighborhood, and he proceeded to get another refill.

A few weeks later, in the course of a phone conversation, he begged (very nicely, of course) me to send him some of the darkest, richest coffee beans ("as black as my soul") from the coffee house's offerings.

"And what are you willing to pay me for them?" I said nonchalantly.

"Um... I'll send you the money?" he offered uncertainly.

"I don't think so," I replied coolly. "If I'm going to go to all this effort for you, the least you could do is send me espresso truffles in return."

"All right," he readily agreed. (Such a pushover!)

I consulted the Bean Guy and sent the Gentleman a pound of dark, rich roasted beans along with a small bag of chocolate espresso beans (yeah, I'm a pushover, too), both of which pleased my friend very much.

Meanwhile, I waited.

Occasionally, when the Gentleman would call, I'd ask, "So... where are my truffles?" And he would promise to send them right away.

And I waited.

Finally, he informed me last week that while he was unable to get ONLY espresso truffles from his online source, he did pick out a nice assortment box, and it was on the way.

And I waited, until today -- at last! -- they arrived.

Ah yes, chocolate bliss, thanks to the Gentleman. He's a good guy.

Even if he is a handful of truffle.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Rice of Spring

Way back in high school, our foreign language club took a trip to England, France, and Spain. Though I had been well taught by the Chef Mother to have a somewhat adventurous palate, I wasn't terribly impressed by the food I found on most of the trip (save for the croissants and sweet butter served for breakfast at one Parisian hotel -- bliss!).

When we arrived in Spain, hot and weary, naturally we had to try the national dish, paella. Traditionally served piled high with shellfish, chicken (or some other meat, I don't remember), and vegetables, this saffron-infused rice dish made a stunning presentation, especially offered on big platters to wide-eyed teenagers. As much as I loved shrimp, though, I wasn't very keen on the whole thing.

But hey, the rice was good.

Fast forward to a mere five or six years ago, when I invited Mitch Heat and his then-roommate Danya to dinner over spring break. I wanted to make something wholesome but elegant for these kind young men, and when I found the Spring Vegetable Paella recipe in my copy of Moosewood Restaurant Low-Fat Favorites, I decided it was time to overcome my old prejudice.

The rice (in this case, brown basmati rice) cooks in a broth of water and brine from a can of artichokes, with saffron liberally sprinkled in. And the vegetable mélange served on top includes artichokes, asparagus, red pepper, and peas for an extraordinarily colorful dish.

These fine gentlemen brought the makings of a spinach salad, while I added a sublime garlic bread to the table, with a Grand Marnier-drizzled torta de almendra (almond cake) for dessert. Truly a fine feast overall!

But what I remember most about the evening is that dear Mitch took six or seven helpings of the main dish. "Please pass the paella," he would say with dignified formality.

Finally I chuckled and asked, "Are you really that hungry, or do you just really like the paella?"

"I really like saying 'Please pass the paella'!" he grinned.

I couldn't argue with that, and I couldn't argue with how good this vegetarian version of paella tasted, so it has ended up in my spring cooking repertoire for the past few years.

Today's version added carrots and baby portabella mushrooms to the mix, adding more color and a deeper flavor that turned out beautifully. (I'm not a big fan of mushrooms, but I have to admit that I liked the baby 'bellas in this.)

Fresh vegetables and rice the color of sunshine on a dreary (but warm!) day -- how can you go wrong?

Please pass the paella, Mitch... it's good to eat with you again, even if it's only in spirit, every time I make this dish.

It's the perfect way to welcome Spring.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Cheese, That's Good Bread!

It's been a while since I last made the Georgian cheese bread I love so much, but as I was searching for the perfect loaf to complement the Spanish potato garlic soup I intended to make this weekend, this recipe jumped out and seemed absolutely perfect.

I know, it seems like an odd match when you consider that Spain and the Republic of Georgia are at opposite ends of the continent. But when you consider that both cultures share a love of flavorful food served at joyful feasts, a passion for wine-making that is not widely known or appreciated outside their own countries, beautiful soulful music, and a healthy relaxed and celebratory attitude toward life -- well, why shouldn't they share a menu, too?

So after I started the soup this morning by roasting the potatoes, onions, and garlic, I mixed up the dough for one loaf of bread, using whole wheat pastry flour for a nice change of pace. Add in that delectably salty cheese filling, twist the dough into a knot, bake, and there you have it:

Granted, my knots never seal the dough entirely, so some of the cheese oozed out and stuck to the pan, causing me to implement a little damage control by slicing off a piece for myself. (Quality control, you know.)

Still, how this bread turns a simple filling into layers of tempting cheesy goodness is a wonder to behold:

Imagine that bread, warm and tender, paired with a savory tomato and potato soup with a rich garlic broth, as well as with fresh organic greens tossed in a tangy vinaigrette, and perhaps a glass of a bold red wine. Imagine sharing this meal with someone you love, with soulful guitar music in the background.

Imagine how much happier we'd all be if we just shared good bread.

Spicing Things Up

Ever since I picked up a couple ounces of fresh ground cardamom at the local co-op earlier this week (they sell their spices in bulk), its fragrance has permeated the house, tempting me.

"All right! I give in!" I cried. "I'll bake with you!"

So not only did I lace this morning's zucchini bread with cardamom, I also decided to take a cookie recipe that I hadn't made in a while and tweak it so that that fresh cardamom flavor would sing out.

Long time ago, when I first picked up the book Uprisings (a whole-grain baking book), I tried the date-nut cookies from the People's Company Bakery in Minneapolis. I had noted a couple of changes that I thought should be made, and in looking at it again last night, I thought it would work well for what I wanted to do.

Removing the dates from the list of ingredients, I adjusted quantities of a couple of items and added plenty of cardamom. Once I finished mixing, I scooped small lumps of dough onto cookie sheets and let them bake.

I ended up with nutty, cardamom-laden cookies -- and a surprise.

What I had forgotten about this recipe is that although these cookies may look rather geological and substantial, the first bite tells you that these morsels are surprisingly light and airy, with only a hint of sweetness. A nice surprise, indeed!

What a delightful way to spice up the weekend!

Cardamom-Walnut Cookies

The original recipe of date-nut cookies, from Uprisings, called for more flour and eggs, plus more cinnamon and a lot of dates. Though very good in the original form, I thought something more subtle would be in order. Despite the large amount of cardamom for the recipe, its elusive quality means that in that first bite, you know you're tasting something good, but when you try to pinpoint it, it escapes. So, you might have to have another cookie. It's OK... they're good for you.

1/2 c butter, softened
1/4 c honey
1 egg
2 1/2 T milk or soy milk
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 c walnuts, chopped finely
1 3/4 c whole wheat pastry flour
1 tsp cardamom
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp baking soda

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Cream together butter and honey. Mix in egg, milk, and vanilla until well blended. Beat in walnuts.

Whisk together flour, cardamom, cinnamon, and baking soda, then add gradually to wet ingredients, mixing until well blended.

Scoop walnut-sized lumps of dough onto ungreased cookie sheets. You can flatten them slightly or leave them in lumps; they won't spread much. Bake at 350 F for 12 to 15 minutes, until lightly browned and firm to the touch. Remove to wire racks to cool.

Makes about 2 dozen

Feeling Squashed

You remember that big zucchini I picked up at the farmers' market last summer and immediately shredded and froze?

Yeah, I've been guilty of forgetting it for most of the fall and winter, too.

But last night I pulled out a couple packages of it to let them thaw in time for me to make a loaf of zucchini bread for my breakfast this morning.

Since I don't make zucchini bread often, I tend to stick with the traditional recipe found in Big Red. Today's loaf, however, became extra special with the use of several local ingredients: eggs, butter, whole wheat flour, walnuts, and, of course, zucchini.

Thanks to the use of all whole wheat flour and Sucanat, this loaf turned out slightly more grainy than the usual soft bread, and the crust had a pleasing crispness to it that made a nice contrast to the tender crumb.

I'm glad I got up early to make this -- for one thing, I was well and truly hungry by the time it came out of the oven, and for another, I knew it was only the beginning of a day full of baking and cooking.

Glad I squeezed it in while I could!

Friday, March 10, 2006

Tofu for Two

Spring break starts today, and before Phoenix heads off on her trip and Mr. Nice Guy heads back to his major research project, I suggested that we head out to dinner somewhere, their choice.

Why am I not surprised that they chose our favorite Chinese restaurant?

Mr. Nice Guy made a beeline for the buffet, enjoying his beloved wonton soup and other goodies, while Phoenix and I salivated over the many tofu dishes. (There's a reason the menus are in plastic sleeves, you know.)

Both of us have a passionate attachment to the tofu seaweed soup, which arrived tonight with extra everything (cabbage, carrots, nori, tofu) and big florets of broccoli:

I firmly believe that this soup outranks chicken noodle soup for its healing properties, and looking at that colorful bowl, can you blame me?

For entrees, Phoenix enjoyed her favorite, curry tofu:

while I decided to branch out and savor a full plate of Szechuan tofu:

I ended up taking half of mine home, opting instead for a dish of chocolate ice cream (shared with Mr. Nice Guy) to ease the burn. (Whew!)

After all, we deserved a break today.

Stories and Food

Last summer, I picked up a copy of Simply in Season and reviewed it for you here, telling you that it was one of those rare cookbooks that brought me much joy because of its celebration of good, simple foods appreciated in their own time.

The writers of Simply in Season have recently started their own blog, called, appropriately enough, Simply in Season. It's not updated frequently, but it does serve as kind of an ongoing addendum to the book, sharing thoughts on locally-grown seasonal foods, recipes, and upcoming events.

In browsing the archives, I found a post called "Food that satisfies body and soul." And surely you've been reading these pages long enough to know that that kind of title is sure to lure me in.

Cathleen's tale of taking good homemade local food on a flight reminded me of my own culinary preparations for visiting my parents last winter. But what struck me about her post was her reflections on why this food satisfied her so much: "I knew and liked the story of my food."

Wow. That says it all, doesn't it?

When you partake in locally-produced foods, when you know the farmers involved in raising the crops or the livestock, when you know the care that is put into the food's production, and especially when you've had a hand in crafting the food yourself... you know the story of your food. And in a world where it's all too easy to be dependent on mass-produced food from faceless grocery shelves, it's good for us to reclaim the stories of our food.

Stories are vitally important in forming who we are. Whether we allow the stories that are told to us to plant seeds in our minds and souls... or we learn to tell our own stories to affirm our own growth and to nurture others (as I've learned in working with Sojourner on her current project)... the words and the ideas in these stories bring us to a fuller sense of ourselves and our places in the world. And we cannot forget that everything in our lives has a story to tell, a story that has a subtle but profound influence on us... even (or perhaps, especially) food.

Do you know the story of your food? Do you like the story of your food? Do you share the story of your food? If not, perhaps it's time to change that.

After all, you're never too old to enjoy a new story.

Monday, March 06, 2006


When you're looking for a fairly quick meal that's nutritious and delicious, what do you reach for?

On most nights, I hope for some good broccoli in the fridge so that I can throw together my all-time favorite comfort food of whole wheat pasta, steamed broccoli, toasted walnuts, garlic and pepper, a bit of cheese, and a drizzle of olive oil.

But when I have time on the weekends, I like to prepare a few things that will carry me well into the week, like soup and bread.

Sometimes, though, I'll feel a little more ambitious. And this weekend, I managed to think well in advance, pick up a few extra items at the local co-op, and assemble a small pan of lasagna to be baked off tonight.

(There's a nifty little trick there: if you assemble the lasagna one day, cover it and put in the fridge, then bake it slowly.... one hour with the foil on, about half an hour with the foil off.... the sheets of lasagna will cook themselves so that you don't have to fuss with boiling them. Isn't that great?)

This lasagna... just enough to fill a loaf pan... combined the best of winter and spring: snowy white cottage cheese and plenty of mozzarella for the comfort of cold weather, and steamed asparagus and a hint of dill from last year's garden for that fresh breath of spring warmth.

I could hardly wait to get home tonight and fire up the oven.

And why not, when the results are so tempting?

So easy to make, so easy to bake, so fragrant and tasty to enjoy for dinner, with a light salad on the side.

It makes me so happy to have such an easy and healthy meal, I could almost sing!

Winter-Spring Asparagus Lasagna

I don't bother with recipes for lasagna any more; I just throw things together. Use this as a blank slate for your own creations!

1 bunch asparagus, cut into 2" or so pieces
16-oz container lowfat cottage cheese
2 tsp dried dill
1 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp ground ginger
whole wheat lasagna ribbons
shredded mozzarella

Steam asparagus until tender. Drain.

Mix cottage cheese with herbs until well blended.

In lightly greased loaf pan, arrange one layer of whole wheat lasagna. Spread 1/4 of the cottage cheese mixture on top, and sprinkle 1/3 of the asparagus on top. Top with more lasagna. Repeat twice more. Spread the remaining cottage cheese mixture on top, sprinkle with mozzarella, cover with foil, and refrigerate overnight.

The next day, set the loaf pan on a cookie sheet and put it in the oven. Turn oven on to 350 F and bake for one hour. Remove pan from oven, remove foil, and return pan to oven to bake for an additional 30 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool before serving.

Makes 3-4 servings and happy stomachs!

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Daily Bread

I think I have loved making bread ever since I kneaded and shaped my first loaf. The Chef Mother might have a different story to tell, but that's how I remember it.

There is almost nothing that compares to mixing basic ingredients into something that feels so soft and tender when you knead it, smells so earthy and vibrant as it rises and bakes, and tastes so wholesome and satisfying when fresh and warm.

I love to cook, there's no denying it. But to bake bread -- ah, now that encompasses both love and passion, magic and mystery, partaking in creation and communion with the world. It's sublime.

So you might guess that among my cookbooks, my well-worn and honored bread books have been chosen for their authors' deep appreciation for and simple joy in the wonderful complexities of bread-baking as well as for the marvelous variety of recipes. And of those bread books, one stands out above the rest: The Tassajara Bread Book by Edward Espe Brown.

When I first encountered it at a nearby bookstore about a decade ago, the unassuming cover of the then-25-year-old book might have escaped my notice except that the name "Tassajara" jumped out at me. A quick skim of the pages piqued my interest: loose "formulas" for bread variations based on a few standard techniques, simple but clear illustrations, and a thoughtfully light-hearted spirit running through the book, inspiring a heightened awareness of good ingredients and the process of converting them into "the staff of life."

Bread makes itself, by your kindness, with your help, with imagination streaming through you, with dough under hand, you are breadmaking itself, which is why breadmaking is so fulfilling and rewarding (p. vi).

The Zen of breadmaking, the breadmaking of Zen. And why not? Bread calls for our devoted attention, our profound gratitude, and offers us the whole world in return.

Several of the Tassajara recipes are among my favorites: the basic wheat bread, the never-fail French bread, the oatmeal bread, and the blissfully sweet and spicy cinnamon rolls and pecan rolls. But this morning I turned to one of the more unusual but equally tasty recipes: cornmeal-millet bread.

At last, I had the chance to use both the locally-produced whole wheat flour and cornmeal together with local honey and organic millet. And just to liven things up a little, I added some ground organic flax seeds for extra flavor, color, and nutritional goodness. After all, Brown himself notes:

Recipes do not belong to anyone -- given to me, I give them to you. Recipes are only a guide, a skeletal framework, to be fleshed out according to your nature and desire. Your life, your love, will bring these recipes into full creation (p. vi).

So I tweaked and I mixed, ending up with a dense and slightly dry loaf packed with whole grain wholesomeness and crunchy, nutty flavor. The first couple of slices, still steaming and slathered with local butter so rich it almost tasted like a mild cheese, proved that with the right inspiration and love for the creation, a basic recipe can turn into something divine.

Brown tells us, "I do not bake to be great. I bake because it is wholesome. I feel renewed, and I am renewing the world, my friends and neighbors" (p.4).

Maybe you can't live by bread alone. But when you bake bread with this attitude of love and attentiveness, that bread becomes more nourishing than mere food.

Go make some bread. Share it with someone you love. Do it today.

You'll see.

Cornmeal-Millet-Flax Bread

Based on the cornmeal-millet bread recipe in The Tassajara Bread Book, this recipe makes only one loaf that is denser and even more crunchy than the original. It's substantial, it's real, it's gooood.

1 1/2 c lukewarm water
1 T active dry yeast
2 T honey
2 c whole wheat flour (or 1 c whole wheat and 1 c unbleached)
2 tsp salt
2 T canola oil
1 c cornmeal
1/2 c whole millet
1/2 c ground millet
1/2 c ground flax seeds
1/2 to 1 c more whole wheat flour

Combine water and yeast in large mixing bowl and allow yeast to bloom. Add honey and 2 c whole wheat flour, stir until well combined, and allow sponge to rise for 45 minutes.

Sprinkle salt around the edge of the batter, drizzle oil right behind it, and fold salt and oil into the batter. Add cornmeal, millet, and flax seeds, stirring until combined. Work in enough whole wheat flour to make the dough firm enough for kneading. Turn dough out onto flour-covered board and knead for up to 10 minutes, until dough is (comparatively) smooth and springs back only slightly under your touch. Cover with a clean towel and allow to rise for 1 hour. (It won't rise much, but have faith!) Press air out of dough and allow to rise for another 45 minutes to an hour.

Press air out again and shape the dough into either a standard loaf (to go in a greased loaf pan), a freeform loaf or a boule (to go on a cornmeal-dusted cookie sheet or baking stone). Preheat oven to 350 F and allow loaf to rise another 20 to 30 minutes.

Bake loaf at 350 F for 1 hour, until it sounds nearly hollow when tapped. Cool on wire rack.

Makes one substantial loaf worth sharing with good friends.... eat and partake in the joy of creation!

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Taking a Bisque

If it's Saturday and the temperature outside is hovering around freezing, there's a good chance I've made a pot of vegetable stock and am wondering what kind of soup to make with it.

I like to go through most of my soup repertoire over the winter, rarely repeating a recipe and often adding a couple of new ones to the collection. But it's rare that I just throw together whatever strikes my fancy -- too risky.

You may have noticed, though, that this year I'm taking a few more risks in the kitchen by cooking without a recipe. And since that tactic worked so well for vegetable curry, why not use it to make a thick Indian-spiced soup?

Better yet, why not go out on a limb and attempt one of Mitch Heat's favorite words: a bisque.

And sure enough, in checking my pantry and the refrigerator, I discovered that I had everything I could want to make a rich, thick, coconut-laced curried sweet potato bisque.

First, I sauteed the onions slowly, allowing them to brown and carmelize thoroughly, then added fresh garlic and ginger and dried chiles to round out the base flavors. After sprinkling in the spices and frying them slightly, I threw in the cubed sweet potatoes and a quart of fresh vegetable stock, brought it to a boil, and let it simmer until everything was soft.

An hour later, I took out the chiles, pulled out my trusty immersion blender (easily my favorite power tool in the kitchen), and pureed the entire pot full of soup, adding some chickpeas and coconut milk to thicken the bisque and enhance the flavors. Then, I tossed in fresh shredded kale, returned the pot to the burner, and headed out for a late afternoon walk.

The divine fragrance wafted out to greet me when I came home, so I quickly ladled up a bowl full of vitamin- and spice-laden goodness and topped it with a drizzle of tamarind chutney.

Authentic Indian cuisine? I highly doubt it. But was it good? Oh yeah.

Definitely worth the bisque.

This Chick's Sweet Potato Bisque

I've made sweet potato bisques before, so I just winged it on this one. Not that hard, really, when you've made as many soups as I have in the past several years! If you don't have an immersion blender (which really is a fabulous tool for work like this), use a regular blender and puree this in small batches, covering the lid with a towel so that you don't spatter hot soup all over your arms and cause burns. (It's not fun, believe me.) This stands very well on its own for a meal, though you might like to splurge a little and add some bread (good naan if you can get or make it) or a couple of vegetable samosas. Top with your choice of chutney (tamarind is fantastic!), plain yogurt, or chopped cilantro.

2 T canola oil
1 onion, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1" fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
2 dried chile peppers, holes poked into them so they don't explode
2 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp curry powder
1/4 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp salt
2 sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed
1 qt vegetable stock
1/2 can chickpeas
1/4 c light coconut milk
2 c washed, chopped greens (kale or spinach)
optional garnishes: chutney, yogurt, or chopped cilantro

Heat canola oil in large heavy saucepan. Saute onion over medium heat until well-browned and fragrant, easily 10 to 15 minutes. Add garlic, ginger, and chiles and continue to saute another 5 minutes, making sure the garlic doesn't burn. Add cumin, coriander, cinnamon, curry powder, turmeric, and salt, and fry spices until fragrant, another 1 to 2 minutes.

Add sweet potatoes and stock, bring to a boil, then turn the heat down to simmer for one hour. When sweet potatoes are soft, remove the pan from the burner and remove the chiles from the soup. Puree everything! (Carefully!) Add chickpeas and coconut milk and puree until smooth.

Return pan to burner and add chopped greens, allowing to simmer until greens are wilted and flavors are well-developed.

Serve with any or all of the optional garnishes to hungry people.

Makes 6-8 servings

For Batter or Verse

A leftover streusel is handy
For muffins from carrots -- how dandy!
On Saturday morn
This breakfast is born
And sweetens the heart more than candy.

The batter gets whipped up so speedy!
A good thing -- my stomach is needy!
And if I can wait
'Til the cakes hit my plate,
I'll eat only two -- won't be greedy!

You don't think me much of a poet?
Dear Readers, how truly I know it!
My creativity strays
In far different ways:
My baking -- now that's where I show it!

(P.S. Don't worry... I won't quit my day job!)

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Eat Like You Live Here: March

Where did February go???

In the midst of all that beautiful spring-like weather, a major house-cleaning, a sudden burst of writing activity, and a relaxing retreat weekend, I completely lost track of the time passing by, just enjoying each day as it came and went.

(Not a bad way to live, really, though it did mean I slacked off on cooking much, as I'm sure you could tell!)

I don't know about you, but all those other activities kept me from doing much with February's local foods challenge. Sure, I bought some new potted herbs, but though I also picked up some potting soil, I didn't get any seeds started for spring greens.

I did at least make arrangements with the good folks at the local grist mill so that I could stock up on whole wheat flour (3 five-pound bags!), cornmeal (2 two-pound bags), and rolled oats (2 two-pound bags) for my baking. And believe me, I thanked the kind lady profusely not only for getting the bigger bags ready for me -- but for making these good things available in the first place!

So now that March has caught us by surprise, what's up for this coming month? Don't worry, I'm going to go easy on you! This month, let's have fun with local foods:

1. Have you found a restaurant in your city/town (or nearby) that makes an extra effort to support local farmers by featuring local foods? If so, treat yourself to lunch or dinner at that place. (Why not take a friend, too?) Savor the food -- and tell the managers or owners why you've chosen to eat there. (Leave a good tip for the wait staff, too -- they'll appreciate the support!)

2. Think ahead and dream! Are there foods that you know aren't grown locally for you but are locally available for a friend in another state? Why not work out a swap?

3. If you haven't planted any seeds or potted any herbs yet, I'd encourage you to do it. You'll enjoy digging your fingers into the soil, and the little green shoots that herald new life will brighten your day.

See? Nothing too difficult there. After all, eating locally should be a pleasure, not a chore. And the more you enjoy it, the more you'll want to share the joy with others.

As for me, I'm heading back into the kitchen this weekend, I promise. I've got plenty of good produce and good ideas, and I hope to have some things to share with you once the oven is off and the dishes are put away. (Sorry I can't leave samples here for you to nibble!)

Treat yourself this month, and enjoy the return of spring!