Wednesday, May 31, 2006

A New Look at Organics

It has taken me a while to work my way down through the old TBR (To Be Read) pile with everything else on my plate lately, but I've finally read through Organic, Inc.: Natural Foods and How They Grew by Samuel Fromartz and have a few thoughts to share with you.

The past few years have seen an enormous increase in the availability of organic foods, both as raw produce and as processed foods. And this availability hasn't all occurred at local farmers' markets... local groceries as well as the big chains such as Whole Foods and the big box stores like Wal-Mart have begun to carry more organic products on a regular basis. (For example, my local grocery, part of a local chain, has long had a large section for organic produce at its larger store on the north edge of town, but even their downtown store now has an entire section of organic produce, ranging from the usual greens and apples to lemons, avocadoes, pineapple, and kiwis.)

Fromartz found his curiosity piqued through his original infatuation with Whole Foods, and he decided to explore the topic, visiting farmers' markets, talking with organic farmers from small farms to the big industrial farms rivaling conventional ones, and investigating the history of organic foods from its original anti-industry intent over a hundred years ago, through the health food and fresh food phases, to the environmental concerns about sustainability today. And in doing so, he highlights the curious juxtaposition of an elitist taste for fresh produce from small local farms alongside the mass-market growth of organic "fast" food.

What has brought these seemingly contradictory forces together? Fromartz describes it as the intersection of pleasure and health: no longer does health food taste dull and grainy, but flavorful, fresh, and fun. Arguments about the detrimental effect of pesticides on food and soil still hold water, but the sight of fresh and colorful fruits and vegetables appeals more strongly to our more hedonistic desires.

So where does the author stand on the question of local vs. organic? According to Fromartz (both in the book and in his piece on Grist), it’s a wash:

...each represents such a small portion (1 to 2 percent) of the food supply. It's like two people in a room of one hundred arguing about who has the most righteous alternative to what the other ninety-eight are doing. Both are right for different reasons and can thrive simultaneously. (p.252)

Perhaps we can look on this as a transitional period, much like what organic farmers experience when converting conventional food production to organic. Supporting local agriculture and organic farms is a wonderful start, but it's going to take more and more people supporting both to get us to the point where small local farms can regularly draw in the income needed to keep them sustainable... and where organic farms can do the same. And to get more people to support local and organic foods, those people need to know more about the benefits of local and organic agriculture as well as be able to afford it.

Fromartz isn't overly optimistic that either local or organic agriculture will take over the market, but he does see growth for both. And for him, that's a start.

If you're still feeling not fully informed about either local or organic agriculture, this is a good book to read, with a little more hard market information than Jane Goodall's Harvest for Hope. But believe that you can go beyond his hopes, especially if you have a local farmers' market (many of which also feature organic produce) to support.

It's up to each one of us to make local, organic food more affordable!

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

If You Can't Take the Heat...

Did I say it was hot here this weekend? Try 90+ temps today, something we don't usually see here until July. Whew!

You know the old saying: "If you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen."

Well, my Dear Readers, I can take it... up to a point.

After finishing off the eggplant and chutney for lunch today, I realized my options for dinner were limited: some of the carrot bisque I had hoped to save for other lunches this week, or something made from scratch. (I know, the third option would be to go out to dinner, but as I exercised that option all too often last week, I wasn't willing to do it yet again.)

Fortunately, I had a new recipe in mind (another from Vegan With a Vengeance, which gets pretty high marks thus far), and it didn't require much time in the kitchen: millet-spinach polenta with sun-dried tomato pesto.

I started cooking the millet in my homemade vegetable stock, letting it simmer while I sorted and washed the spinach. As I pulled out the required herbs and spices, though, I stopped. Isa's original recipe called for Italian seasonings, but I still craved Indian food, and I didn't see any reason why I couldn't liven things up a little.

So instead of the oregano the recipe indicated should be added to the polenta, I pulled out dried Moroccan mint, curry powder, and a tiny touch of cardamom. And when I ran the softened sun-dried tomatoes through my little food processor, I added garlic, ground coriander, chili powder, and fresh cilantro.

The polenta needed to cool before serving, so I spread it in a small baking dish and slid it into the refrigerator. The recipe suggested slicing the firm polenta, then, and browning it in a frying pan, but I chose just to slip it onto my plate, top it with the pesto (which I think in this instance would be better labeled chutney), and head out to the cool shade of the backyard for another picnic dinner.

The millet polenta turned out creamy and mild with a pleasing hint of sweet curry and mint, and it was balanced by the salty, savory, chunky chutney. (I've lowered the quantity of salt in the recipe below, and I'll add that I used coarse sea salt, which tasted more salty than regular table salt.)

In short, perfect.

So good, in fact, that I had a second helping.

And with a coconut-ginger-lime bar for dessert, I was more than happy with my meal.

For food like this, I can definitely take the heat.

Curried Millet Polenta with Sun-Dried Tomato Chutney

As noted, the original recipe comes from Vegan With a Vengeance and would be equally good, I'm sure. But sometimes you just have to give in to that craving and change things a little. Go easy on the spices in the polenta as a nice mild base is preferable for the spicy chutney. Serve warm or cold.

1 c millet
3 c vegetable stock
1 T olive oil
2 c shredded fresh spinach, well rinsed
1-2 tsp dried mint
1 tsp curry powder
1/4 tsp ground cardamom
1/2 tsp salt
dash of black pepper

Toast millet in dry skillet for about 5 minutes over high heat, stirring constantly. Rinse until water runs clear; drain.

In saucepan, bring millet, stock, and olive oil to a boil. Lower heat and simmer for about 25 to 30 minutes. Add spinach and spices; simmer another 10 minutes, uncovered, until all liquid is absorbed.

Spread polenta in a lightly greased baking dish and set aside for up to 2 hours to firm up. Make the chutney.

1/2 c sun-dried tomatoes
1 c boiling water
1/4 c almonds
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 T olive oil
1 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp chili powder
1/4 tsp salt
dash of black pepper
1/4 c chopped fresh cilantro

Soak tomatoes in boiling water for 15 to 20 minutes, until softened. Drain some of the water off.

Grind almonds in small food processor. Add tomatoes and water along with remaining ingredients and process until finely chunky. Allow to sit for a few minutes or more for the flavors to develop.

Serve slices or wedges of polenta topped with chutney. Enjoy!

Serves 6 to 8

Monday, May 29, 2006

I'll Bisque It

After enduring cool, damp weather for a good part of the month, I've been enjoying the hot and sunny days of this holiday weekend.

And though I've had plenty of items on my to-do list, I've still had ample opportunities to get outside and soak up this gorgeous weather.

The best way to do that? I retreat to the fenced-in privacy of my backyard, sprawl in the shaded grass beneath the old maple tree, and just be.

Naturally, if I'm going to relax outside, why not take my meals with me? Even though this weekend's cooking hasn't been typical picnic fare, there's no reason why I can't carry a plate and a glass outside.

Of course, the hot weather makes me more inclined both to food that is served cold and to food with Indian spices (since sweating also helps to cool the body). So... why not have both?

Among the other recipes from Vegan With a Vengeance that contain coconut milk, I decided to try a simple but tasty-sounding carrot bisque. Yes, it required some time at a hot stove to saute carrots and onions, but once I added the spices and vegetable stock and let it simmer, I could walk away for a bit, returning only to puree the bisque and add the coconut milk.

The soup tasted delicious warm when I made it for lunch yesterday, but when served chilled and garnished with chopped pistachios, with a glass of iced jasmine tea on the side, it tasted even better.

Dining outside may be fraught with its own minor perils: ants crawling up my leg, grass and wood strawberries tickling my ankles, the hot noonday sun scorching my skin. But when balanced with refreshing breezes, bird song, and the piquant pleasure of fresh food enjoyed in the fresh air, it doesn't seem like a difficult choice.

It's a bisque I'm very willing to take.

Muffin Can Beat This

I think I've adjusted pretty well to doing without a cup of coffee at home in the mornings. (I do have the remains of a jar of instant coffee, but let's face it, it's just not the same.)

Granted, a couple of times I've left home early in order to take the scenic route to work, walking to My Favorite Coffee House for a mocha before heading in to the office. It's not as wonderful as home-brewed coffee laced with fragrant cardamom, but it's a satisfying occasional treat all the same.

So perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise when I say that of all the muffin recipes I eyed in Vegan With a Vengeance, the mocha chip muffins ended up at the top of my list for recipes to try. After all, I do have a weakness for my own cappuccino brownies, and surely muffins would be slightly less sweet and decadent, right?


I had good intentions, honest. I used local whole wheat flour. I used Sucanat instead of more refined sugar. I refrained from using my luxuriously rich black cocoa. I used organic, unsweetened soy milk, and though I didn't have soy yogurt, the organic yogurt I had on hand was non-fat. And the chocolate chips? Grain-sweetened, thank you very much.

But the espresso powder? Well, I doubled that. I tipped in some fragrant cinnamon... and then a little more. And once I'd filled the muffin tins, I couldn't help but make a streusel topping with melted butter, more cinnamon, cane juice crystals, and chopped pecans.

So while this was intended as a somewhat more healthy recipe, I managed to turn it into dangerously tempting almost-vegan almost-brownie bliss.

And for breakfast on a holiday weekend, you just can't beat that.

Mocha Magic Muffins

This is very close to the Mocha Chip Muffins found in Vegan With a Vengeance, though I've tried to tweak it enough to warrant calling this version my own. Still, big thanks to Isa for a fabulous book! The trick of mixing the espresso powder with the vanilla to intensify the flavor comes from Baking by Flavor, another good book for those of you who want to explore the origins of my technique for layering flavors. (I find most of those recipes too rich for me, but the concepts are great.)

1 1/2 c whole wheat flour
1/2 c Sucanat (or 3/4 c brown sugar or cane juice crystals)
1/4 c sifted cocoa powder
2 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
1 c soy milk
1/2 c canola oil
3 T soy yogurt
1 1/2 T espresso powder
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 c chocolate chips

1/2 c chopped pecans
2 T cane juice crystals
2 tsp ground cinnamon
2 T melted butter or canola oil

Preheat oven to 375 F. Grease muffin tins and set aside.

In large bowl, mix together flour, sweetener, cocoa powder, baking powder, cinnamon and salt.

In smaller bowl, mix together soy milk, canola oil, and yogurt. In a small dish, mix together espresso powder and vanilla, then add to remaining wet ingredients.

Add wet ingredients to dry ones and whisk until well blended. Stir in chocolate chips. Spoon into muffin tins, filling each cup about 3/4 full.

Mix together streusel ingredients and sprinkle over each muffin cup. Bake muffins 20 minutes or until toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Allow to cool 10 minutes before removing from pans.

Makes 18 muffins, so share!

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Gone Coconuts

For all that I love to tout local foods here, I do admit a weakness for certain foods that are most definitely not native to this Muskingum River watershed.

Examples abound: It's well known that I love to bake with chocolate, and the darker, the better. I'm extraordinarily fond of ginger, especially when paired with lime. And though I'm trying to wean myself off caffeinated beverages, I do still harbor great fondness for both coffee and tea.

Add to this list, then, coconut milk. I've long loved the taste of coconut (a fondness not inherited from my Dear Papa, that's for sure), and in recent years I've come to appreciate the potential of creamy coconut milk to make some very exotic recipes.

Lest you think I've fallen completely off the sustainable-food bandwagon, let me assure you that I do buy the organic coconut milk when I buy (it's a small step, at least). And for those appalled by the high fat content, I remind you that there is a "light" version available that works just as well.

It's not often that I cook with coconut milk, but when I get an urge to use it, I try to spread it around a couple of different recipes. Fortunately, my recent perusal of Vegan With a Vengeance gave me that opportunity.

One of the recipes to catch my eye was for a coconut-mint chutney, and since I have mint in abundance, I decided to give it a go. I also knew I needed a snack-like Indian-style dish to go with it, and as I wasn't up for the effort of making samosas, I chose instead to make an Indian-spiced version of eggplant parmigiana, with a cumin-laced cornmeal breading.

A match made in heaven: crispy eggplant, creamy but savory chutney (which I later blended; a much happier solution). What's not to love?

Then, since I had that marvelous coconut flavor in my mouth, I decided I wanted coconut in my dessert. I pulled out my trusty "Big Red" and found a butterscotch blondie brownie recipe that I adapted to showcase sweetened flaked coconut, mini diced candied ginger, and fresh lime juice.

Buttery and filled with tropical flavors (as well as good local whole wheat flour and eggs; I'm not that decadent!), these coconut-ginger-lime bars made a blissful ending to a meal that took me miles away in my mind. (Well, it was warm enough out to make me feel as though I'd been transported to the tropics, anyway.)

I still have more coconut milk leftover, so expect to hear about my continuing adventures soon.

I think you'll go coconuts for these ideas, too.

Coconut-Ginger-Lime Bars

Many times, I'll get a great idea in my head for the flavor combination I want to try, and what sort of result I want, but I have to search for the recipe to adapt to get that result. Happily, the Betty Crocker Cookbook has a wide variety of basic cookie recipes, and when I found the recipe for "Butterscotch Brownies," I knew I'd found what I was looking for. It's so easy to make that, really, I shouldn't need a recipe, but it's always good to get proportions right. I splurged earlier this year on the coconut extract and have been happy to find recipes in which to use it to bring out the coconut flavor. If you don't have it, don't worry about it.

1/2 c butter, melted
1 1/2 c Sucanat or brown sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla
juice of 1/2 lime
freshly grated peel of one lime
1/2 tsp coconut extract (if you have it)
1 1/2 c whole wheat flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 c chopped candied ginger
1/2 c coconut flakes (plus more for decoration)

Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease a 9 x 12 baking pan and set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, combine butter, Sucanat or sugar, eggs, vanilla, lime juice and peel, and coconut extract.

Sift together flour, baking powder, and salt, and add gradually to the wet ingredients, stirring until well mixed. Fold in candied ginger and coconut flakes.

Spread batter in prepared pan, and sprinkle with more coconut, if desired. Bake at 350 F for 30 minutes. Allow to cool completely before cutting into squares.

Makes 15-24 squares, depending on how big you want them

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Mint to Be

One of the mainstays in my herb garden over the past few years has been mint. Such a hardy herb it is, one of the first to bounce back every spring (if not earlier), and more than happy to take more than its fair share of garden space.

At present, I have four patches of mint: a sprawling patch of spearmint between the house and the garage (in perfect range for a quick iced tea fix); a handful of chocolate mint runners along the house (yes, it's ideal in brownies); a tiny but persistent clump of peppermint; and an ever-expanding mound of bergamot-scented Moroccan mint.

Over time, I've come to appreciate the Moroccan mint the most. Its flavor is reminiscent of a green, soft Earl Grey tea, and it pairs well both with citrus flavors and floral ones.

So far, I've limited my adventures with this variety to teas and sweets. I've made a classic Moroccan mint tea with green tea leaves and dried lemongrass (harvested one year only from my garden) and a light floral tea with lemon balm (related to the mints), lavender, and rose-scented geranium. I've dried some to infuse sugar, which then found its way into strawberry jam and on top of fresh peaches. I haven't tried using it in savory dishes, though I suspect that's only a matter of time.

To help myself make more extensive use of this wonderful herb, then, I sat out in the refreshingly hot sun today to pick mint for drying. Lots of mint.

I want to make sure that I have plenty of mint to carry me through next winter, so that I can enjoy its bright, sunny flavor on the darkest days of the year.

And while this mint dries, I'll be sure to use plenty of fresh mint now.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Braising a Fuss

Of all the cuisines I've learned to cook (in whatever small way yet explored), I think those of the ancient Silk Road lands fascinate me the most.

Indian cuisine, naturally, tops the list, as I'm sure you've guessed by now. But I've also become intrigued in the past couple of years with both Persian and Georgian cooking, both for their similarities to each other and for the refreshing mix of flavors often found in Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian cooking.

And as the weather warms back up, I find all three cuisines especially appealing because the emphasis on light cooking that brings out spices and vegetable flavors suits my stomach perfectly.

So, when I have a bottle of pomegranate molasses, baked tofu, and a crisper drawer full of fresh vegetables, what can I do but create a new dish that borrows from all three cuisines?

I started by peeling and cubing a small eggplant, then salting the cubes and allowing them to drain, drawing out the bitterness, while I enjoyed a breather in the backyard. After rinsing the eggplant thoroughly, I began chopping vegetables, setting out spices, and pulling out all the ingredients needed for what I had in mind.

First I sauteed a chopped sweet Vidalia onion until it browned and became wonderfully fragrant. After adding garlic and spices (cumin, cinnamon, ginger, fenugreek), I tossed in the eggplant and a handful of halved grape tomatoes and stirred.

I drizzled pomegranate molasses over the mixture, and as soon as it hit the pan and the spice-laden onions, the most divine fragrance wafted up to greet me and to induce a blissed-out trance (momentarily). How to describe that aroma? It was richly tangy and slightly fruity and filled with the exotic dreams of faraway lands... just amazing.

When I came back to my senses, I added fresh cilantro, baby spinach leaves, cubes of baked tofu, and some vegetable stock, then covered the pan and let the vegetables braise for about half an hour. At the end, I toasted some chopped walnuts and tossed those on top of the now-deeply-flavored and mouth-watering vegetables.

I could hardly wait for dinner!

And though I had considered cooking the last of my brown basmati rice to go with the vegetables, I chose instead to use the last of the lavash from Saturday's dinner to scoop up this savory, tart, well-spiced meal.

After cleaning my plate thoroughly, it seemed only appropriate to savor the last piece of pistachio cake for dessert.

All in all, it was a thoroughly satisfying meal, lacking only a glass of good red wine and the company of the fair Titania (who inspired this dish) to make it absolutely perfect.

It's a dish I'll be happy to make again sometime.

Silk Road Vegetable Braise

The starting points for this recipe are the baked tofu recipe (possibly from Moosewood) shared by the fair Titania and the Roasted Eggplant and Chickpea Stew from Local Flavors, but it also contains influences from Silk Road Cooking and previous happy combinations of spices and vegetables. Make the baked tofu the night before, or replace it with chickpeas (or meat if you're so inclined). Serve with rice or with flatbreads that are just right for dipping, play some exotic music, and maybe you'll even feel inclined to read mystical poetry with your guests afterward.

Baked Tofu
juice of 1 orange
juice of 1/2 lime
1/4 c soy sauce
1/4 c maple syrup
2 T toasted sesame oil
1 T pomegranate molasses
1 T chopped fresh cilantro
1 T minced fresh ginger
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 lb tofu, drained and pressed

Mix all marinade ingredients. Place pressed tofu in a baking dish and pour marinade over top. Allow to marinate for one hour, turning tofu over after 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350 F. Bake tofu (in the baking dish or on a baking sheet) for 45 minutes, turning tofu over after 20 minutes. Brush with marinade as needed.

Allow to cool (can be refrigerated for 2-3 days). Cut into strips or cubes.

Vegetable Braise
1 c sweet onion, chopped
2 tsp olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp fenugreek leaves
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1 eggplant, peeled, cubed, salted, and rinsed
1 c cherry tomatoes, halved
2 T pomegranate molasses
1/4 c chopped fresh cilantro
1/2 c vegetable stock or water
3 c fresh baby spinach
baked tofu (prepared as above)
1/4 c toasted chopped walnuts

Saute onion in olive oil in large skillet over medium-low heat. Allow to brown and carmelize; be patient! Add garlic and spices and saute for 1 minutes more, to allow flavors to develop.

Add eggplant and tomatoes, stirring to mix everything. Drizzle pomegranate molasses over the mixture; inhale deeply and appreciate how wonderful this will taste! Add cilantro and stir. Add stock or water and allow to bubble before turning heat down to a simmer. Place spinach and tofu on top, and then cover the pan and allow vegetables to braise for 30 minutes. Stir occasionally, gently working the spinach and tofu into the mix.

Spoon onto serving plate or dinner plates and sprinkle with walnuts. Serve with rice or flatbreads.

Serves 4

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Taken for Pomegranate

Let me tell you about one of my best friends, the fair Titania.

We met nearly six years ago in choir, sitting side by side as she sang soprano and I sang tenor in Handel's "Messiah." As is my usual holiday tradition, I baked baklava, and I took several pieces to some of my singing cohorts just before our performance. Titania was so thoroughly impressed that she addressed her Christmas card for me to "The Baklava Queen."

Over the four years she spent here, we shared many a fine dining experience together, whether visiting one of our favorite local restaurants, wandering farther afield for eating and shopping, or cooking at home and making a delicious mess of my kitchen. And though you might think that with my advantage of several years and having a Chef Mother, I would have taught her a great deal about cooking, I'd have to say with all due modesty that she taught me just as much, if not more.

Steamed kale? Never ate it before Titania declared it to be her favorite comfort food and made it for me. Draining yogurt to use like sour cream or cream cheese? All her idea. Fabulously creamy guacamole? It's her recipe I always use (not that I need a recipe any more!).

On top of that, we packed a lifetime of memories into our shared cooking adventures and shared passions for fresh produce (especially from the farmers' market), making simple but lush-tasting desserts (anyone for pears poached in mead and drizzled with a spiced yogurt sauce?), and throwing caution to the wind in order to whip up an experimental dinner that ended up tasting sublime.

While I don't really consider myself a foodie, and I don't succumb to every desire to try something new, the fair Titania does sometimes share some of her experiments and finds with me. And so after she called me one evening and talked while whipping up a braised squash with a very exotic sounding sauce containing pomegranate molasses, I was intrigued.

I'd never even eaten a pomegranate before Titania introduced me to it, but soon I knew how to peel or even juice a fresh pomegranate, I'd had hummus strewn with jewel-like pomegranate seeds at her house for Thanksgiving, and I learned to love drinking pomegranate juice (especially in mocktails). But pomegranate molasses, a thick and tart concentrate of the juice, was new to me, and I oohed and ahhed over her description of it.

Should it surprise anyone, then, that my generous friend then sent me a bottle in a care package and challenged me to find new ways to use it?

Tonight, I finally accepted that challenge. I had half a pound of tofu leftover from Saturday's Indian feast, knowing that I wanted to try Titania's baked tofu recipe (which I believe she got from one of the Moosewood cookbooks but likes to tinker with regularly). And what better way to ease into using pomegranate molasses than with other ingredients in a marinade?

The marinade itself has mostly an East Asian bent: soy sauce combined with rice vinegar, sesame oil, ginger, garlic, cilantro, and orange juice. To that I added a dash of lime juice and about 1 tsp of the pomegranate molasses to bring the flavors back west a bit to straddle the Sino-Indian divide, so to speak.

I marinated the tofu for about an hour, turning it over once to let the sauce seep in thoroughly. Then I baked it in the marinade for about 45 minutes, again turning it once halfway through.

I haven't tried the tofu yet, but it smells absolutely marvelous, and my whole house is filled with its rich garlicky fragrance. I'll see how it turned out tomorrow night, when I throw together an experimental South Asian vegetable braise that I think the fair Titania would enjoy wholeheartedly.

Stay tuned for further developments.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Cumin Get It

After months of not having time to get together and cook, the lovely Phoenix and I went all out today, making a delectable Indian feast for ourselves (and, of course, the ever-popular Mr. Nice Guy).

Phoenix found several "lessons" in each dish that we made, starting with lavash. Now, admittedly, lavash is not an Indian dish, nor is the hummus we made for an appetizer, despite being laced with cumin, coriander, cayenne, and cilantro. But the two worked well together, and since we had no naan, who could complain?

Phoenix has made the lavash before, only baked them longer to make them crispy. She found that the underbaked softer version, while not as soft as naan or pita, was entirely acceptable for dipping into the tomato-speckled hummus. (And she also found that frying the onions and garlic with the spices before adding the chickpeas and tomatoes to the hummus made it far more flavorful than the hummus she has made before!)

Next, we started on the main course, beginning with a turmeric-laced brown basmati rice (easy enough to cook) to accompany two nicely contrasting entrees.

In a deep skillet, we sauteed and simmered a mixture of peas, carrots, and potatoes (all local!) livened up by two dried chile peppers, a handful of tomatoes and cilantro, and the usual mix of spices (yes, more cumin and coriander! and garam masala to boot).

In an old saucepan, we made palak paneer, with a rich creamy sauce of pureed organic spinach blended with garlic, ginger, spices, tomatoes, and yogurt. (To be fair, it was really palak tofu as we used pressed tofu instead of the paneer cheese. Still good!)

Taken all together, what a colorful, flavorful, nutritious meal we made!

We managed not to fill up on the entrees, saving room for dessert. (Did you think Phoenix and I wouldn't make dessert? You don't know us very well!) I had found a recipe for a Persian pistachio cake in Silk Road Cooking a couple of years ago, and since some of the flavors (pistachios, rose water, yogurt) are the same as in Indian sweets, I thought this would be the perfect time to try the recipe.

The recipe, simple enough, turns out an impressive 2 1/2" high cake with just the right moistness and sweetness and flavor. The rose water, often a tricky ingredient for our American palates, was balanced by fresh orange peel and rich vanilla extract, making it a subtle floral note in an exquisitely flavored cake. How can you resist?

All in all, we enjoyed a marvelous feast... along with the usual excellent company. And I was more than happy to share leftovers with Phoenix and Mr. Nice Guy (though I confess a weakness for the palak paneer and kept all of the leftovers of that dish), especially since they graciously washed the dishes for me. What teamwork!

It's such a delight to cook with a friend and to share the work in the kitchen, even more than sharing the joy of the meal itself.

And I hope Phoenix and I will be able to seize more chances to cook together yet this summer!

A Brunch of Bananas

I know it's been a while since I've posted, but since most of my cooking lately has been the routine, unimpressively easy meals I tend to throw together for myself (and the occasional small dish of cookie dough, but we won't discuss that here), there hasn't been much worthy of an entry.

Today will be different, though, because the lovely Phoenix is ready to resume her cooking lessons after an incredibly hectic final semester.

Before we started on a lavish home-cooked Indian feast, however, we needed to fortify ourselves with a good breakfast... or brunch, as the case may be. And what better way to start a weekend than with homemade pancakes?

Homemade banana-nut pancakes, that's what.

Yes, I've taken my grandfather's trusty pancake recipe and tweaked it once again to come up with a nut and spice-laden pancake (with local whole wheat flour, egg, and pecans, plus organic soymilk) with slices of organic bananas baked onto the bottom for a combination of cool and spicy, crunchy and creamy wholesome goodness. Add a little unsalted butter and good local maple syrup, and you've got a plateful of heaven.

With freshly-squeezed orange juice and herbal tea on the side, sunshine streaming through the windows (after more than a week's worth of rain), and a day of cooking fabulous food ahead of us, we couldn't ask for a better breakfast. And before you ask, I'll give you the recipe.

I promise you, you'll go bananas for it.

Banana-Nut Pancakes

I never knew my grandfather (he of the fantastic pancakes), but if I could meet him now, I'd thank him for the best pancake recipe ever. In the meantime, I'll thank the Chef Mother for teaching me how to cook so that I could eventually take such a basic recipe and dress it up in all sorts of different ways. Weekends are made for pancakes.... and I love them all.

1 1/4 c whole wheat pastry flour
1 T Sucanat or other natural sweetener
1 T baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/4 c finely chopped pecans
1 egg, beaten
1-2 T canola oil
1 c soymilk
1 banana, sliced

Whisk together dry ingredients. Beat together egg, oil, and soymilk. Make a well in the dry ingredients and whisk in the liquid ingredients until well blended. Allow to rest for a minute or two while you heat up the skillet.

Sprinkle salt lightly over the skillet to keep the cakes from sticking. Pour 1/4 c batter into the pan and allow to spread. Top with banana slices. When the edge of the pancake becomes dry-looking, flip the cake and brown the other side.

Serve with butter and real maple syrup.

Serves 4

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Posh Potato Salad

Since I'm walking down a culinary version of Memory Lane this week, let's linger a little while on the subject of potatoes.

I often claim broccoli as my favorite vegetable, but I think that's because I tend to think of potatoes as being something more than simply a vegetable -- it also has the satisfying density of starchy grains, a pleasing mild sweetness, and the heartiness of a main dish.

Sort of an über-vegetable, you might say, ranking right up there with bread as the staff of life.

Growing up, I loved my potatoes way more than meat in my meat-and-potatoes family. I thrilled to see those special occasions when creamy mashed potatoes appeared at the dinner table so that I could build up a big mound on my plate, create a lake of butter at the top, cover it up, and then eat my way through a "volcano" of mashed spuds with a succulent butter lava flow.

The only reason I liked seeing roast beef on the Sunday menu was because it meant beef and potato hash come Monday night, and I loved those pan-fried potatoes.

And when the Chef Mother made twice-baked potatoes, with the potato pulp whipped with butter and cream cheese and sprinkled with Cheddar? Sheer bliss, I'm telling you. (It's a wonder my cholesterol level is as blessedly low as it is.)

But let's be absolutely clear on one thing: I was not a fan of potato salad.

Covered in a yellow-tinged mayonnaise dressing, loaded with celery and onions and sometimes hard-boiled eggs, potato salad disgusted me. I simply could not stand it.

It wasn't until I was out on my own that I realized that potato salad did not have to be like that. In fact, with a light olive oil vinaigrette and a sprinkling of scallions, it could be quite tasty. What a revelation!

Since that discovery, I've taken to experimenting with the simple base of steamed red potatoes and a vinaigrette. Like it spicy? Go Southwestern and add chili powder, kidney or pinto beans, chopped bell peppers, and maybe some corn. How about a garden fresh flavor with dill and borage added? Or why not an Indian version with sweet potatoes, curry spices, cilantro, and a splash of lime or dollop of chutney?

The possibilities are endless, based on what's in the fridge. And this week, I had lots to choose from. I ended up tossing local red potatoes with asparagus, some of my oven-dried tomatoes, a handful of local walnuts, crumbled blue cheese, a simple balsamic vinaigrette, and some fresh dill from the garden.

Simple but elegant, this potato salad looks and tastes gourmet but is just as satisfying (if not more so!) than any other. Serve it on a bed of mixed greens, and you have a whole meal.

I love potato salad now -- when it's done my way.

Posh Potato Salad

Do you really need a recipe for this? If you know how to prep and steam vegetables, and you know how to use a spoon, you're pretty much set. Vary this in any way you like, using the suggested themes above or your own inclination, and use different vegetables, seasonings, nuts, and/or cheeses.

6-8 red potatoes, scrubbed, cubed, steamed
1 c asparagus, trimmed and steamed (other green vegetables work, too)
1 T oven-dried or sun-dried tomatoes)
1/4 c chopped walnuts
1/4 c crumbled blue cheese
2 tsp extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp balsamic vinegar
black pepper to taste
freshly snipped dill

Once the vegetables are cooked, all you have to do is toss everything together. Really. And if you're not quite sure how to wield a spoon, throw everything into a large plastic container with a tight, leakproof lid, and dance around with it, give it a really good shake or a few acrobatic tosses into the air, and get your exercise, too. Why are you expecting anything more in the way of instructions?

Serves 4

Friday, May 05, 2006

Chip Off the Ol'... er... Chip

As I was growing up, I developed a real craving for my afternoon snack fix. I could almost always resist the candy drawer, but the salty stuff? Bring it on!

On Saturday afternoons, the Chef Mother and I would often share a bowl of popcorn, sometimes made more flavorful with a dash of seasoned salt or by being popped in fabulously artery-clogging coconut oil or bacon fat. (Wouldn't touch it now, of course, but oh man!)

My other favorite was the humble potato chip -- no added flavors (I didn't indulge in those until later) and no dips (though I eventually came to appreciate those, too).

And in our household, one little-known brand reigned supreme: Ballreich's.

Made in a small factory in a small town in the northwest part of the state, not far from my grandmother's house, these chips were (and still are) the best ever. Somehow they manage to taste succulent and buttery, and if you're inclined to dipping, the marcelled (rippled) chips could stand up to the richest sour cream.

I had the chance to tour the factory when I was younger and was fascinated by the process of slicing, rinsing, and cooking the chips in what seemed to my eyes to be enormous quantities (though seeing the size of the big-name chip plant in my current hometown lets me know just how small an operation Ballreich's truly was). And when I got a free bag of chips at the end -- well, I didn't know it then, but they made a customer and a fan for life.

Unfortunately, living a couple of hours away, I no longer have the regular chance to indulge in my favorite because the company does not distribute their products widely. My Dear Papa informs me that there is one grocery in town that carries them, but as it's not within walking distance, I never remember to go there. And according to the company's web site, they do ship orders to customers at home and could even arrange monthly shipments for me (so tempting!).

But when I happen to find Ballreich's chips unexpectedly, I turn into a kid again and get unreasonably excited.

Thus it was that today, at a meeting of my professional state organization (for which I am an officer, no less), I earned the good-natured laughter of my colleagues by falling into raptures over a small bag of these incredible potato chips, included in the box lunch.

Naturally, I took the opportunity to explain my lifelong love affair with this snack -- as well as the importance of local foods. And do you know, I ended up as the grateful recipient of two extra little bags of chips: one from the group's chair and one from our generous hosts.

Oh, happy day! when a business meeting ends up in such simple delights and when I get to revisit an old friend.

I love it when my chip sails in!

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Feeling Just Peachy

Despite all appearances from what you read here, I don't think I have an exceptionally large sweet tooth.

Yes, I love to bake desserts, but after the first few servings, I'm generally happy to give away the rest (with rare exceptions).

Still, I feel like my day isn't quite complete if I haven't had a little smackerel of something sweet after dinner (like Pooh and his hunny pot). That might be a cup of herbal tea, a dash of homemade liqueur or dandelion wine, a mug of homemade hot chocolate, a cookie, or if I'm really virtuous, a bit of fruit.

For months now, I've been eyeing the jars of peaches I canned late last summer, wondering what I would do with them. And after dinner tonight, despite lying low all day with a migraine, I decided to take down a pint and make a small pie.

I made a tender whole wheat crust (using local flour and non-hydrogenated shortening) and lined a small casserole dish, drained the peaches and dumped them into the pastry, and then sprinkled the peaches with Moroccan mint sugar before covering them with the top crust.

After the standard baking time, I pulled out a dish of miniature peach pie perfection:

Naturally, I couldn't wait long for the pie to cool, so that first slice ended up looking very messy:

Doesn't matter, though, really, when the taste was so satisfying and reminiscent of summer.

Just a little slice of heaven -- and I'm feeling just peachy.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Eat Like You Live Here: May

The lilacs are blooming, and my backyard is greening up nicely, so it must be time for May to arrive, bedecked with baskets of lusciously fragrant flowers and greenery. And, truth be told, I'd rather be outside, sprawled in the grass, than in the kitchen.

But since it's time for your May challenge (and mine), I must tear myself away from my rapt concentration on a field of perfect violets and ask: How did you do with April's challenge?

Dear Reader Tina tells me that her local farmers' market is already open (lucky Ann Arbor!) and that she has already made a very fruitful visit. Tina, I'm so jealous! But believe me, I'm counting down (4 weeks from this coming Saturday) until our local market opens.

Aside from digging up and potting some of my Moroccan mint to share with friends, I haven't planted anything new as I won't be working my big garden this summer. I have, though, been enjoying the wild edibles of my backyard as well as the perennial herbs (esp. borage and dill) now making their appearance.

And while I've found some other local snacks (like tortilla chips), I've mainly been concerned with working more local ingredients into my own snack-baking, such as a delectable blueberry-lavender pudding cake or a refreshing new herbal brew.

Now that the warm weather is encouraging more local produce to get growing, here's hoping it will be easier for you to eat local! This month's suggestions include:

1. Visit your local farmers' market or look for local produce appearing in the grocery store. Buy some and enjoy!

2. Look around your area for local food producers that offer tours or at least a somewhat closer view into their operations. Just in a fifty-mile radius from my home, there's a local dairy that offers tours, a world-renowned manufacturer of jams and jellies, two wineries (one of which I've already visited and will tell you more about later), a couple of chocolate makers, and heaven knows how many farms! Schedule a tour -- if not for now, then for later this summer -- and enjoy sampling local foods.

3. Have you planted anything yet? If you're in the area, Crown Point Ecology Center in Bath is having their second annual plant sale on Saturday, May 20th. I may stop by there to pick up a couple of organic tomato plants!

4. Need more inspiration? Locavores has made May their challenge month for eating local as much as possible, and the authors of the Hundred-Mile Diet series have set up their own Hundred-Mile Diet web site.

As always, I'd love to hear your additional suggestions or adventures in eating local -- I'm always open to inspiration.

And until next month, eat well -- and eat local!