Tuesday, December 14, 2010

So, Where's the Holiday Recipes?

I am working on this. I hope to get a couple new brunch recipes made this weekend. Otherwise, I've taken a different direction with this holiday season. I'm doing a lot less holiday and a little more for others. I decorated just the basics and most of the cooking and entertaining was done in November.

The last couple of cold weekends, I have basically been shuffling around in my jammies and wooly socks, drinking coffee and doing my shopping online in between clearing out the house for charity donations. You see this year, I looked around our toy-filled house and said, "Enough." Before more is coming in here, it's time to give away all the toys that our child has outgrown. Time to clear my own closets for warm clothes and shoes that others need.

So, instead of doing more around the holidays, my biggest effort has been to get us down to LESS. I also spent more on charitable donations than any one person on my list including my kiddo. After easily finding six 55-gallon bags of stuff to give away, I realized just how much we still have. Some of her "gifts" are clothes and activity fees and things she needs, not just toys.

For family, I created most of their gifts online, making photo albums to celebrate all the moments we shared in the past year. For nephews, I did gift certificates. Teens pick out their own presents better than I do. Why risk that gift becoming another donation quickly?

Tomorrow, the bags and bags go out for pickup. On Thursday, my spouse and I will show up to volunteer, loading two moving trucks of food and donations and new toys for families in need.

After an earlier health scare for a family member this year, we are pretty grateful and blessed that everyone is healthy and we'll be together at the holidays. This, we feel, is more than enough. It's all that matters.

I will cook this weekend. I'll try to post some good recipes soon. Right now, I'm enjoying this Christmas season in a way I haven't before. Less is good.

Monday, December 13, 2010

12 Books of Christmas

Not a big secret that I often get cookbooks to review. Many of these, I give away on this site, like these THREE books just last month. Others, I give to family and friends. And, I do keep a few. It's hard to let them go, but since I have over 300 on my shelves already ... here's some of the other books that will be under folks' trees this year. Don't ruin the surprise!

For My Brother-in-Law. If you asked my brother-in-law what his favorite meal is, the answer is easy; steak. Steak and lobster if possible. Given that Tramonto's restaurants are both upscale steak houses, this book should be perfect for him as he's started grilling more and entertaining at home. The recipes are definitely meant for entertaining, too. This is big food and premium ingredients for such recipes as; Crispy Sweetbreads with Pecans and Honey, Lobster Potpie, Pumpkin Soup with Foie Gras and King Crab Legs with Piquillo Pepper Butter. The book is meant to be for home entertaining, but home cooks need to be ready for a slightly longer list of ingredients than family meals. Some of the simpler recipes and book features appeal most to me; Braised Pork Shanks with Lentils or Turnips with Cinnamon and Prunes. I also like the oyster-buying and preparation instructions and the guides to different meat cuts as well as how to cook each different cut of steak. Tramonto's bold flavors are paired with personal photos and favorite scripture quotes to underscore the book's theme of family, faith and food.

I probably should keep this one and use it to create gifts for everyone next year. But, it will make a fantastic giveaway for January (hint). Think of it as the gift that keeps giving Orange Cardamom Marmalade, Smokey Tomato Ketchup made with citrus and smoked onions, Biscotti Christmas Trees, Brownie Pops, and a variety of fun "kits" as gifts such as the S'mores one with home made marshmallows and graham crackers. Yes, this should have been October's giveaway, but I get a bit busy at times. Always next year.

I gave this one as a wedding gift earlier this fall. The bride, my much-younger cousin, does not cook. The fifty recipes in the book were a perfect starter for her. I think someone must have been watching over my shoulder when I learned to cook because these are the very first recipes I learned; Chocolate Chip Cookies, Peanut Butter Cookies, Spaghetti with Meat Sauce, the first foolproof recipe for Roast Beef, Cinnamon Rolls, Mac and Cheese, Chicken Noodle Soup among others. I can't think of a better set of recipes to get a new bride started in the kitchen all in one small, non-intimidating book.

For My Father-in-Law
I have to confess when I read this one to review it, I got lost in the photos of wide open spaces and rugged outdoor men. Rugged outdoor men cooking. I had to re-read the book to look at the actual recipes. For my father-in-law who spends his life between Montana and the Southwest and has religiously observed "Steak Night" every Saturday for more years than I have been alive? This one is perfect. The chapters are organized not by courses, but each dedicated to a different ranch in a different part of the country. Much of the food is rugged and robust meats and marinades, but there are a few upscale gems like Ranchero Grilled Quail and Blackened Grouper with Orange Remoulade. While I might miss the photos, my mother-in-law will be pretty happy about her man in the kitchen with this book.

For My Friend Jerry, who loves bacon.
Who wouldn't love this book, right? Buried between the smoky meat-graced pages is the path to Bacon morning, noon, night, dessert, drink and midnight snack. All the recipes are from top chefs including Rick Tramonto, Ming Tsai, Pichet Ong, Bradford Thompson, John Besh and even some local ones for us like Celine Tio. This some very sexy, smoky meat recipes not to be missed for bacon lovers. Uh, don't tell my spouse I am giving this one away.

Book Review: Wow, Thanks!

If you want a peek at a few of the recipes from our book, The Cleaner Plate Club, check out this post from Sacramento Book Review. I love that the reviewer liked the recipes and really "got" the heart of the book. Thank you so much!

"If you think that cookbooks geared towards children are all about “kid friendly” (and mostly nutritionally devoid) foods like chicken nuggets and mashed potatoes, you’re clearly not reading the same cookbooks as I am. Authors and bloggers Beth Bader and Ali Benjamin both believe that having children should not automatically necessitate cooking one meal for the adults and a separate meal for the little ones. And their book, The Cleaner Plate Club, proves that they know what they’re talking about.

This gem of a cookbook covers all the bases. Getting to know your vegetables. Quick breakfast and lunch ideas. Healthy dinners featuring all kinds of meats, and a superb selection of meatless meals. And packed in between are pictures, fun little anecdotes about the author’s own kids, pertinent quotations and facts, and even educational blurbs covering topics from eating organically to the author’s own version of the “anti-diet ...”

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Holiday Recipes

I have not created some new ones for Christmas yet! I guess I've been a bit busy with all the other holiday activities, or I am just taking a vacation from baking after Thanksgiving! It happens.

Here's some favorite healthy recipes for the season, except the eggnog French toast. That one is just really good! I should be adding some Brunch ideas here soon, so stop by in between binges of online shopping!

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Overeating Expands More Than Your Waist

cross-posted at The Cleaner Plate Club

Always tough to talk overeating around the holidays, right? (insert flashback to that pie last week).

But a story on NPR got me thinking this morning. The main focus of the research compared the response of lab rats to sweet and fatty foods or to cocaine. The foods not only were more addictive in the drive to consume, but like the drugs, caused long term alterations to the brain. It certainly explains most of those moments when I believe I have to have chocolate ... or else. But one tiny detail mentioned in the article stuck in my mind.

The lab mice fed a fatty diet when they were weaned to maturity became obese. Not only did their brains show significant alterations, but these alterations did not go away even after the test subjects were back at a normal weight. The pathways in the brain that responded to the pleasure of fatty and sweet foods built a tolerance. More and more of these foods were desired to illicit the pleasure response from the brain. Like an addiction.

The researcher quoted in the article summed it up best, noting that this phenomenon may explain why obese children tend to stay obese for life.

Which makes a pretty solid case for starting better eating habits with kids now before the pattern is too hard to overcome.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Last of the Thanksgiving Recipes

This is our sixth year of cooking Thanksgiving dinner, and I think I am finally figuring out a few things. Sort of. Last year's potluck event with friends was the easiest ever, and I sure missed them this year when they were with family. But, the situation offered up a challenge. Is there a make-ahead Thanksgiving when one household is doing all the cooking?

Mostly, yes. While Wednesday was a lot of work, Thursday was free. Well, if "free" means housecleaning to you. Either way, the extra time on the holiday allowed me to remember such important hostess tidbits as "Is there enough toilet paper in the guest bathroom?"

Have to confess, I've messed that one up before.

Everything was prepped with minimal cooking. Even the mashed potatoes, which, a good friend and food editor explained to me, "restaurants make them ahead all the time!" Here's how:

Roasted Garlic, Parsnip and Potato Puree
2 entire heads of garlic, unpeeled and whole
1 tsp. olive oil
1.5 lbs. parsnips, peeled and cubed
3 lbs. Yukon Gold potatoes, diced, no need to peel
1/2 cup half and half
1/2 cup lowfat milk
1/2 cup parmesan, grated fine
3 tbs. butter
1 bunch thyme
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Cut the root end off the garlic heads, drizzle with olive oil and a pinch of salt. Wrap in foil and roast for 40 minutes or until soft and golden brown. Set aside to cool.

Place the parsnips and potatoes in a steamer for 40 minutes, until fork tender. While that is going place the butter, milk and half and half into a sauce pan. Add the thyme and heat to a simmer. Simmer for 10 minutes. Strain over a large measuring cup, discarding the thyme.

Squeeze the garlic cloves out of the husk into the work bowl of a food processor. Add the parsnips and potatoes. Pulse as you drizzle the milk mixture until you get a nice smooth, thick result, but not a liquid puree. Scrape this into an oven-safe baking dish that looks nice also for serving. Cool, cover and store for the next day's feast.

One hour ahead of the meal, heat the oven to 350 degrees, reheat, covered for 40 minutes. Uncover and finish browning for 10 minutes. Of course, this requires a second oven, or a potluck event where someone else is doing the turkey. Alternatively, you can reheat these in a crock pot if you only have one oven. A bit of parmesan sprinkled on top before browning makes a great presentation, too.

This is also fantastic for Christmas when you may serve something like prime rib, roast or duck. Next post ... Turkey soup.

Book Giveaways!!!




I've been guilty of procrastinating ... usually not for three months! August's book winner is Sarah (St)! At Our Table is headed to her table! Finally.

For September, October and November I am making up some time here and doing three book giveaways! So, be sure you comment below to win since I will be doing three drawings. Odds are good, right? To enter, leave a comment below with your pick of the three and I will do my best to draw from the names for that book so you have a chance at your favorite.

Book giveaways are:

Roger Ebert's The Pot and How to Use It

If you know the backstory here, Ebert is a critic and writer who lost his lower jaw to cancer. He can no longer eat, yet he wrote this book based on his personal experiences pre-cancer when he was trying to regain his health, losing a significant amount of weight. The book's recipes are often healthy ones, based on what Ebert learned from nutrition experts along the way. The text began as a blog post, and still reads that way with reader comments and reader recipes included.

Human nature being what it is, we only truly appreciate things when we no longer have them. This facet gives a special insight to Ebert's journey as a food writer who can no longer eat. Backed by his Pulitzer Prize winning writing skills, this one is a good read, not just recipes.


The Good Neighbor Cookbook by Sara Quessenberry and Suzanne Schlosberg is the next giveaway this month. Take a moment to think about every cookie exchange, new baby, funeral, block party, and new move-in that happens around you. Or, do you not even know your neighbors and wish you did? This book cleverly organizes recipes around each type of event in the lives of your community and gives some insight into why each event is significant and why these recipes are a fit.

The food is comfort food, reminiscent of the classic dishes we've been taking covered to the house next door for years, with updated approach and more sophisticated flavors; Summer Corn Salad with Chiles, Lime and Feta for example, or Roasted Almond Chocolate Chip Cookies. Show up with a few of these and the neighbors may forget all about how bad your lawn looks.

Mary Englebreit's Fan Fare Cookbook ... 120 Slow Cooker Recipe Favorites
Finally, after I get done with the holiday cooking in December, I am probably going to need more time to work out and less time cooking. I've been eyeing the crock pot with new affection and interest in one-pot meals. Should you find yourself in the same mindset, you might find the easy comfort food in this book a great guide for the busy new year ahead.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Culinary Misadventures Redux

If I had to pick my favorite post for just plain fun, it would be this one I authored and am re-posting now ... Happy end of week before a Holiday! Tomorrow, look for a recipe for Roasted Garlic Mashed Parsnips and Potatoes.

I am not Tony Bourdain. There is no camera crew following me around the world filming my lunch special. I don’t have to suck it up for the viewing audience and eat raw baby seal. It’s a good thing, as Martha would say. It’s a really good thing.

Even so, I’ve managed to be adventurous enough in palate to consume an odd item or two along the way. I've shared pounded kava root with the chief of a Fijian village. Had sushi right off the boat, parasites and all. Tried everything from mountain oysters and sea urchin gonads to quite possibly road kill. I didn’t ask, the cook didn’t tell. Some of it was even tasty. Some.

An occasional culinary mishap is the price of admission for those willing to bite deeply into the Sandwich of Life. The trick is to know when to eat. And when to run. It’s good to be a fast learner.

I grew up in a rural area, as my spouse puts it, “So, this is where the UFOs land!” Folks out there are not opposed to doing a bit of hunting and gathering. Well, a lot, actually. Kids brought guns to my high school all of the time. They were in racks in the pickup windows. We had a whole taxidermy room in the biology class. I kept my lunch in the fridge with the "projects." Nothing says "Lunch!" quite like having to reach in past Sparky the Wonder Squirrel forever frozen in mid-flight over your PB&J.

No big surprise that the annual fundraiser for the Future Farmers of America Club was an event called the “Wildlife Supper.” The wildlife supper was cooked by all of the moms. There were always tons of pies and sheet cakes, potato salads, canned green beans, and, uh, wildlife. This pretty much included anything that could be shot, stabbed, bludgeoned, or run over with a pickup. Sometimes all four.

The last year they hosted the fundraiser, I decided to get my Jed Clampett on and try some barbecued raccoon, and a side helping of possum. These were not good choices. This was my first lesson. While ‘coon is tolerable, if a bit gamy and stringy, possum tastes exactly like it smells. If you’ve never smelled a possum, then you should know that they smell just like they look. Even if you have seen a possum, this photo just says it all.

Like I said, it’s good to be a quick learner. However, even the most schooled of we culinary adventurers can be caught unprepared. A fellow foodie from work and I often head out for lunch to find new and different places to eat. This particular occasion, he had Cubans on his mind. Not the cigars, the sandwiches.

He’d spotted a new place near the Hispanic neighborhood downtown. It’s an area I love to go eat in, but one where I hate to park. The main lot is under a bridge, and usually inhabited by a huge flock of pigeons. The piles of pigeon dung are immense, and any time in the lot guarantees the need for a car wash and/or a shower. I dashed out of the car, hand over head, and ran for daylight. Funny thing, the pigeons were no where to be found, even though there was plenty of pigeon “evidence.”

It was a lovely summer day, high noon, outdoor seating and not a single other person in the tiny restaurant. Run. But J. was out for a Cuban, and the massive sign on the door advertised as such. Cuban it was. After scanning the menu repeatedly, I decided to ask what the special was.

“Guatamalen Tacos,” I was told. “It’s a specialty of my co-owner. His mother’s recipe.”

The sign is now flashing RUN, RUN, RUN AWAY. I ordered the tacos. Out they came, stale tostada chips with cabbage, carrots, onions, and what was supposed to be chicken. The meat was gray. I could not recall a single cooking method that produced gray chicken. Black chicken, pink chicken, raw chicken, but not gray chicken. It did not taste like chicken. I tried to place the flavor, this mildly pungent taste. Gamy like, like … a wildlife supper. Oh. My. I glanced over at the deserted roost under the bridge. Then I wondered, was I was eating The Other Gray Meat? No, couldn't be. Maybe it was just old chicken, that's why it was gray. Sure.

I just now did a Google search on the term Guatemala Taco. I can't type what I found. It's vile, worse than a Southpark marathon on late night cable. I wish I hadn’t looked. Oh, I wish I hadn’t. Run, run, run. Run, Lassie, get help, no, not the pigeons, Lassie! Lassieeee!!

So, now I know. More than I ever wanted to. I did find a reference to someone actually eating a real taco in Guatemala, and I am feeling a bit better. What would we do without this Internet thing? Not know the truth about Guatemalan tacos, for one.

I recovered from the incident. Well, as far as I know, we’ll see after the lab tests. The next adventure came along sooner than I had planned — the next day. I was ready this time. Queasy, perhaps, but ready.

It was Friday, a half day Friday. So, my husband and I went to an Asian furniture store that was having a closing sale. There was a lot of really interesting stuff in the store. Possibly the most interesting item was the store owner, who insisted on following us all around the place telling stories non-stop about life in Korea and visits to other parts of Asia. Every part of the store. Non-stop.

At one point, we were on the loading dock. The owner was going to show us something on a truck. As he tried to open the rusted lock, he groaned and grabbed his lower back. He then described his long-standing injury, in great detail.

The his voice got quiet, and his eyes got a bit wild. He looked around and came in close to us.Run, oh dear, sweet child, run.

“Ever hear of a Two-step Charlie?” he whispered. There was no one else on the dock. I do not know why he was whispering. “It’s a snake from Vietnam, if it bites you, you might live two more steps.” His eyes glowed, kind of like Kaa, the boa constricter in the cartoon Jungle Book. (Trusssst in meeee …) He ran off to the small, dingy bathroom where there was a cabinet. From this cabinet he pulled a gallon jar filled with cloudy liquid and a couple of filthy shot glasses from the back of the toilet tank. Run while you still can.

When the light hit the bottle, I saw floating in it a huge and very dead black snake. It had been dead for a long time, reminiscent of a 20-year-old dusty jar off the shelf in my old biology classroom.

“It’s snake wine!” the owner went on. “I drink it for my back pain. Just one little shot and I don’t feel a thing, the venom, you know. It’s diluted by the alcohol. You should try some!”

I eyed the grimy shot glasses in his hand. Frankly, I am not sure which scared me more, the glasses or the wine. I felt my leg muscles twitch violently. I had the car keys. I could make it. One-step back Charlie, two-steps back Charlie. I was leaving my spouse in closest reach of the owner. "Sorry, honey, it’s been a bad week with the tacos and all …”

Just then the owner dived back into the bathroom, jar in hand, thankfully. “Oh, if you think this one is potent …”

Oh, please, no. Please, please, no.

“The Albino Two-step Charlie is even more venomous!” Another cloudy jar of doom proffered. Another step toward the door. Quiet, quiet, so he doesn’t see … "trusssssst in meeee, jusssst in meeee ..." Oh, sweet Julia Child in heaven, no ... three-steps back Charlie.

“But, then, I could get into trouble for giving someone something so strong!” he gloated. Some kind of testimony to his bravery for drinking a decaying reptile carcass in grain alcohol. Hey, it’s not a worm, but, you go for it. I did. I ran. We ran. Politely, quickly, but we ran.

Back in the safety of the parking lot, my husband looks at me and says, “Hey, how about tacos for lunch?”

Oh, help me. Please, please, help me.

There were no tacos that day. It was all I could do to order the tamales wrapped in banana leaves. I was not packed for another culinary adventure. I was ready to sit home and eat a peanut butter sandwich. Although, peanut butter has been an adventure trip in and of itself lately what with the salmonella and all.

In fact, should you want to go new places and try unpronounceable, exotic ingredients, and risky meat substances, you need look no farther than the nearest drive-thru. Tires hum on the hot pavement. Windows down, Pink Floyd on the radio. Your adventure beckons like neon arches on a dark, deserted highway. You'd better runnnn, run, run, run ...

Opening Day: A Gatherer Goes Hunting


I am about to tread into controversial ground. In hunting boots.

Anytime you bring up “meat” in sustainable circles, that single word brings to mind a hundred issues. First, it is the least environmentally-friendly food group as we currently produce it, and is too often associated with food-borne pathogens as a result of factory farm and industrial-scale slaughter practices.

But beyond that is a deeper issue, a vestigial primal instinct within that perhaps we civilized humans would rather not acknowledge. Meat must come from an animal. That animal is killed to provide it. Consumers are too far removed from this fact. We don’t buy a cow. We buy sirloin in neat, sealed packages. Or, we get a double-cheeseburger in a box through a window.

How would we feel about meat if it were not so easy? What if the first step in that roast recipe was "Pull the trigger?" I decided to find out for myself.

Well, not all by myself. Each year, millions of hunting permits are issued, and 16 percent of those are now issued to women — a 72 percent rise in women hunters overall. Many of those women are taking to the woods not for a trophy — despite the novelty I would enjoy of finally having a “nice rack” — but to feed their families during a tough economy.

While hunting isn’t sustainable as a food source for every household in our nation, it is an important activity for the overall management of the deer population. With the reduction of natural predators, the deer population has risen from an estimated 500,000 nationwide in the 1900s to 25 to 30 million currently. Deer overgraze on young trees, reducing habitat for other species and cause deforestation.

Each year, the overpopulation of deer cause hundreds of millions in damage to agriculture crops, $60 million in New York state alone, and an estimate $750 million to the timber industry nationwide as well. Without enough habitat, deer end up living in close proximity to populated areas, resulting in 1.5 million “car vs. deer” accidents yearly. A current program in my own state opened up hunting in a local park due to fears that the overpopulation of deer — an estimated 200 per square mile — would result in a significant spread of Lyme disease.

Armed with these statistics to bolster my conscience, and a .30-30, I headed to the woods with two friends, both seasoned hunters, and both very patient with a novice. Deer hunting is not that easy, actually. You can invest days of time and end up eating mac-and-cheese if you were counting on venison. Or, in earlier days, going without.

My friend had spent hours scouting on his land, putting up deer stands, even planting milo and fruit trees to feed the deer for the coming harvest. Compared to the lifestyle of feedlot beef, these deer have it far better — and are killed more humanely by a skilled hunter.

Skill being the operative word. If you are born after 1966, you are not required by law to take a firearm safety course in order to get a hunting license, even though you should. This is a good idea not just for the deer, but your fellow hunters. As a matter of conscience, you should also know how to aim the rifle and shoot well for the least suffering of the animal. This means time to practice.

You are also required to know the laws in your state that determine the size and sex of deer you are allowed to shoot. It may seem ironic, but all the hunters that I know are advocates for conservation of wildlife. Hunting license fees are also a major source of revenue for each state’s conservation department.

And, you are required to get up way before dawn and freeze your butt off in a deer stand for hours, days even. All in hopes of that moment when you hear the crashing in the woods of a large buck, your heart pounds, you check to see if he is of legal size, yep, you raise the gun and aim, contemplate this moment of life and death, then wonder, “Did we remember at 4 a.m. to put a round in the chamber?”

Then, your moment is gone and so is the deer. And, you end up firing that round off trying to put your old school .30-30 back on safety. No deer, but I sure did nail that tree branch below. I just don’t know how to cook it.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Thanksgiving: Ginger Pear and Cranberry Tart



I have a little tradition of my very own that is centered around Thanksgiving. Each year, I try to make one unique dessert. The tradition started with the Vanilla Sweet Potato Pie with Brown Sugar Pecan crust and keeps evolving. I've not yet done a pumpkin dessert. Crazy, huh? This year's dessert, I taking the cranberries off the menu as a side dish and putting them in the dessert course. Also, adding pears. A fall harvest? Why do apple and pumpkin and pecan get all the love? So, pears it is.

Ginger Pear and Cranberry Tart
For Crust:
1 cup all-purpose flour
2/3 cup almonds
3 tbs. sugar
1 tbs. candied ginger
1 stick butter
1/3 cup cake flour (not self-rising)
1/2 tsp. Salt
4-5 tbs. Ice water

For Filling:
8-10 red pears, peeled, cored and sliced
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup fresh cranberries
1/4 tsp. ground anise
1/4 tsp. ground cardamom
2 tbs. candied ginger
1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise and seeds scraped out with back of knife
1/4 tsp. Salt

For the crust, put the almonds in food processor and pulse to chop fine. Add the flours, candied ginger, salt and sugar to the food processor next and pulse to combine. Add cold butter one tablespoon at a time and pulse a few times until mixture resembles coarse meal. Add ice water one tablespoon at a time and pulse just until dough starts to come together. You may not need all the ice water. Less water is best. Try not to overmix. Gather dough into a ball and flatten into a flat disk. Cover in plastic wrap and chill for at least one hour and up to a day.

Roll the dough out between sheets of plastic wrap to about a 14-inch round. Peel off top layer of wrap and then invert dough into tart dish, remove wrap. Trim the edges to fit. Cover crust with plastic wrap. Place dish with crust in the refrigerator to chill while you make filling.

Place rack in bottom third of the oven. Preheat oven to 400°F.

Spray a baking sheet with nonstick spray. Very important if you like this pan and do not like scrubbing. Add the sliced pears, 1/2 cup sugar and the candied ginger and toss to combine. Place the baking sheet in the oven for 1-1/2 hours. You will need to check this and turn the pears every 20-30 minutes. You will also wonder, "How will all those pears fit in one tart?" They cook down. A lot. When done, they will be just golden on the edges and the sugar will be syrupy.

Remove from oven and allow to cool. Leave the oven on. In a bowl, combine the cranberries, spices, vanilla bean seeds and salt. Add the cooled pears and what syrup spoons up with them from the baking sheet. You may have some syrup left on the baking sheet, and this is fine. Save it for pancakes. Really.

Toss the filling mixture gently so the pears don't fall apart. Then arrange it in the chilled tart shell. Bake at 400, in the lower third of the oven for about 50-55 minutes, or until the tart dough is just golden brown. Allow to cool to nearly room temperature before serving. You may also make ahead through the baking and put back in the fridge to chill. Then, bake in the oven while everyone is eating (and getting seconds).

This is over the top with some type of alcohol-infused whipped cream. But, vanilla bean gelato works just great by me, and who needs another dish to prepare?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

What's on for Thanksgiving?


Honestly, things are still a bit undetermined around my house for the holiday. But, I have plenty of recipes to choose from for the holiday menu. Can you tell Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday?

Here's a list of favorites that I have made the last two years:

Turkey
Brined. Definitely. Now, keep in mind we get a pastured bird, one that has not been injected with salt water like many familiar grocery store turkeys. If your bird has been injected, no need to brine since this will not work. The spouse has Turkey Duty.

Salad
Yep, salad is a must since I found local sources for my greens for Thanksgiving. Here's some favorites that we've served for the holidays.

The Sauce

The Green Vegetable

Sweet Potatoes

Dessert

Also, I love the Serious Eats recipe sharing going on now in their Thanksgiving section. It makes me want to do a whole new menu all over again!

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

School Lunch: Healthier Chicken Nuggets


Ali and I are taking a look at school lunch and some tips for packing a decent lunch and dealing with the "competitive" foods offered at school. If your school menus look like the ones I deal with, there's a whole lot of nuggets in the mix.

Ali deals with a far more picky eater than I do, and if you are having serious food battles, you should check out her post. As for the school lunch wars around here, it's mostly a fight to keep the ground we've gained toward raising a healthier eater and not losing our hard won turf to the lure of the school cafeteria with nuggets and pizza for main courses. Chips and Cheetos, chocolate milk and even ice cream as USDA-acceptable sides.

Here's a healthier, homemade version from our book:

Golden Crisp Chicken Nuggets
3 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 1-1/2 pounds)
2 tbs. plain whole milk yogurt
1 egg, beaten
1 cup breadcrumbs (you can use Italian-seasoned for flavor)
1 cup panko breadcrumbs
1/2 cup grated Parmesan
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 tsp. dried Italian herb blend or Pizza Seasoning (Penzeys.com)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Cut the chicken into nugget size pieces.

Mix the egg and yogurt together in a shallow dish. Place another shallow dish next to it with the breadcrumbs, panko, grated cheese, herbs and seasoning. Keep one hand for the "wet" hand and one for the "dry." Mix the chicken in the egg-yogurt mix, then using the "wet" hand, move pieces to the breading mix. Use your dry hand to sprinkle the crumbs over the top and turn to coat each piece well.

Repeat, placing the battered nuggets on a baking sheet. If you have ever crossed up your wet and dry hands, you'll know it — your fingers will be well coated!

Bake the nuggets on a cookie sheet for about 25 minutes, or until the internal temperature at the center of your thickest nugget is 180 degrees. Don't over bake.

So, why plain yogurt? Some of the best, real fried chicken starts with a soak in buttermilk to give the chicken that bit of tangy goodness. Yogurt has a similar flavor, but a thicker texture that will help this baked version hold onto the crumb mixture. The panko is a light and crisp breading, it gives the nugget that great crunch that you normally don't get with baked versions.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Wicked Good Pumpkin Soup




Given that pumpkins are synonymous here with fall leaves and cooler weather, it's hard to remember that there are a lot of Asian dishes that include pumpkin, and several ingredients that are seasonal that grow in a second herb harvest for the fall. It's a shorter season, but that one last burst of herbs and greens is a nice gift before winter sets in.

This soup combines the garlic harvest, cilantro, lemongrass and of course, pumpkin.

Asian-style Pumpkin Soup
1 bunch lemongrass, thinly sliced root part 1-inch, or you can find it in a jar at the store
1 bunch green onions, whites and 1-inch of greens sliced
2 cloves garlic
1.5 tbs. grated ginger
1 tbs. olive oil
1 tbs. key lime, or lime juice
3.5 cups pumpkin puree (made mine fresh, or use 2 cans)
1 15 oz. can coconut milk
2 cups chicken stock
2 tbs. sugar
1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes
1/2 tsp. ground galangal (penzeys.com or ground ginger)
salt and pepper to taste
1 bunch of cilantro, chopped

Heat the oil, add the ginger, garlic, lemongrass, green onions and sweat for 15 minutes. Add the lime juice, chicken stock, pumpkin and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer for 15 minutes, adding the red pepper flakes and galangal. Swirl in the coconut milk and sugar, bring back to a simmer. Use a stick blender to completely puree the soup until smooth. Salt and pepper to taste. Serve warm, garnish with the cilantro. Sriracha hot sauce also makes a nice garnish.

If you like a more traditional pumpkin or squash soup, this French Heirloom Pumpkin Soup is a nice version. Not sure which type of pumpkin to use? Here are a few tips on edible pumpkins. Finally, if you like curry better, here's a Curried Pumpkin Soup.

Be safe trick or treating tonight!

Friday, October 29, 2010

Bleu Cheese and Roasted Fall Fruit Salad, or Why I will NEVER be Martha Stewart




I've mentioned it before, but I do work full time. When I say full, I mean 50 hours a week full, and none of that includes time for cooking and blog posts. I drink lots of coffee. I take vacation to clean my house. Somehow it all works out.

Until I hit a tipping point. Like, say, a 60 hour week. And a full weekend. With company for dinner. In fact, one of the few things I can count on in life is if I have a full weekend planned, work will go nuts. We do have folks over for dinner quite often even so. I like company. I like a full table. I'm just a lousy hostess sometimes. Okay, most of the time.

I hit a new low. After a long week, I got up at 6:30 am to run a 5k with the kid, off to her soccer game, farmers market, then we cleaned house and cooked dinner, had company over. I did the dishes between dinner and dessert, ate, and made everyone coffee. When I took the kid upstairs for bed before rejoining the adults ... the soft music, lying down, dark room, sleepy child snuggled up ...

Yeah, I fell asleep for an hour with a table full of guests.

At least the salad was good. Maybe even good enough to put up with the hostess.

Bleu Cheese Crostini and Roasted Fall Fruit Salad
2 anjou or bosc pears, sliced into eighths
1.5 cups red grapes, sliced in halves
2 tbs. olive oil

Eight slices of baguette
6 oz. Gorgonzola dolce, or mellow bleu cheese

1.5 cups Tokay or Muscat wine
1 small lemon, juice only
1/4 cup honey

1 tbs. walnut oil
3 cups arugula, or arugula and mixed greens

2 tbs. black walnut pieces
salt and black pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 375. Toss the sliced fruit with the olive oil and place on a baking sheet. Divide the bleu cheese among the slices of baguette and place on another baking sheet. The bread tray should go closest to the top of the oven. Roast for about 15-20 minutes until everything is just a bit golden brown.

Put the wine, honey and lemon juice in a small sauce pan and bring to a simmer over low heat. Allow to simmer for about 20 minutes until it is thick and syrupy enough to coat the back of a spoon.

For assembly, toss the greens with the walnut oil and divide among four plates. Top with the roasted fruit, placing and even amount of pears and grapes on each salad. Salt and pepper to taste. Add two slices of the bleu cheese crostini. Drizzle the wine syrup over the top and sprinkle on the black walnuts.

Don't fall asleep.




Thursday, October 21, 2010

Fall Harvest Salad





I love fall. I know, those leaves turning means I have to put on a jacket and socks, which I hate. But it's hard not to enjoy the leaves and the cool days. Fresh apples and pears. My annual pumpkin worship rituals.

After a day of pumpkin patch exploring and soccer games, we were just insane enough to have company for dinner in an already overbooked day. Fortunately we had the most gracious of guests — folks that wanted only soup and salad. Brought wine and gifts, AND send you a thank you card the next day. For soup and salad.

Granted it was a good salad.

Fall Harvest Salad
3 cups greens, mixed arugula and spinach.

1 apple, sliced
1 pear, sliced
2 clementine oranges, sectioned
1 pomegranate, seeded (yes, in advance)
Pumpkin seeds, 4 tbs.
White stilton with lemon peel, 2 oz.

Dressing:
1/2 cup lemon olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon
3 tbs. honey
1/4 cup white balsamic
Salt and pepper to taste

This serves 4 adults and one kid along with a cup of soup for a light fall meal. If you cannot find the Stilton with lemon peel, just use plain white stilton and zest the lemon used in the dressing over the top of the salad.

Other favorite salads for this season:

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Sweet Dumpling and Musquee de Provence


Sweet Dumpling

Still in love with pumpkins this fall! This was just window light on my much smaller than normal pumpkin collection. I have decided to scale back so I can cook all the ones I buy this year. It's tough with 300 lbs. of winter squash, but I think I can manage 100 lbs.!!!

Tons of Halloween Recipes!



Friday, October 01, 2010

Best Applesauce EVER.





I declined a birthday party invite for my kiddo. We, okay, I had a busy weekend planned and a lot of conflicts. For starters, it's the first weekend I have not had to juggle soccer games with my farmers market habit. So, right off, I'm due for a nice long, relaxing market day. Second, there is this farm tour thing.

I know. If you ask a five-year-old if she would rather go nuts jumping on inflatables and eat cake with 20 screaming kids, or go pick apples with the folks ... I know. This officially makes me the Fun Nazi, right? Or does it?

I've been to a lot of birthday parties for kids. A lot. I survived the Princess party. Barely. Sparkles still give me flashbacks of an army of sugar-frenzied princesses tearing through wrapping paper and screaming for "More Presents!!!!" Wow, that one hurt.

Which is part of the reason I declined this invite instead of canceling our plans. You see, this is one of those where the whole class is invited to a party for a kid we do not know. I'm sure he's a great kid. But. The venue has the kids play for most of the time, then gather in a "cake room." On one end of the room, I kid you not, is the Birthday Throne. The birthday child sits here and then proceeds to open TWENTY presents and eat cake.

I guess if you are five this is like a dream come true, right? But, where I stand, it feels like an obscene amount of overload. I don't ever remember twenty — TWENTY — birthday presents or a huge party for ME with my whole class in attendance, not even when I turned 40. (I just quietly drank good red wine for that one.) Certainly nothing on that scale every year when I was a kid. I turned out fine. Opinions vary, but overall ... just fine.

In the backdrop of the present overload is a frenzy of kids cranked on sugar and upset because THEY are not in the throne getting stuff. They barely know the other kids. And the whole thing is indoors just as fall's perfect weather is calling me the most.

Granted, we have had a couple huge birthday parties for the kiddo before I scaled back. But I mandated NO presents. For one event, I asked for donations of lightly used books to rebuild New Orleans libraries INSTEAD of presents. The kid will not remember this. She just remembers having fun with her friends. Which is kind of the important part, right?

So, I have my reasons. And I say ... let's go pick apples. Do a hay ride. Be outdoors where Mommy can hear herself think. And meet farmers who grow good food and have a laugh in the sun, play hide and seek in the hay bale maze. And just be.

Did I mention apples? Because if you pick the apples, then you need to make this Best Applesauce Ever. It's better than cake with blue sugar-and-shortening frosting. Maybe better than presents.

Besides, there's another birthday party at a similar place in a couple weeks, smaller party, and for a really good friend. I might even be in the moonwalk that time. Look out kids, it'll be like an earthquake in that thing when I bounce.

Best Applesauce Ever
8 large Gala apples, peeled, cored, sliced
1/2 cup dry red wine such as Temparillo or Cabernet
1 large sprig rosemary, chopped
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 tsp. Ceylon (soft) cinnamon
1/4 tsp. Szechwan peppercorns
1/2 tsp, salt
1/4 cup sugar, or to taste

Put the ingredients except sugar in a large pot and cover. Bring to a boil, then turn down to a nice simmer. Simmer for about 25 minutes, stirring once in a while to get all the apples cooked. Use a stick blender and puree to desired texture. I like chunky. Mix in sugar gradually, stopping when it hits just the right amount of sweetness.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

History of School Lunch: Lesson 2, When Politics Hit the Plate


In the Beginning, Some Good Ideas

Long before the 1946 legislation, there were some good models for a school lunch program in existence. One such program initiated by Victor Hugo in France in 1877 was not only innovative for its time, but even ahead of current programs in one facet. Hugo designed a lunch program that distributed identical lunch “tickets” to both children who were receiving free lunches and those paying. Doing so, he eliminated social stigma for the free lunches and any barriers to participation.

Even today in the US, not all lunch programs have addressed this issue. According to a 2008 New York Times article, only 37 percent of high school students in San Franscisco who are eligible for free meals took advantage of the program primarily due to a two-line system that exposed the kids to social stigma in front of their peers.

In the US, many of the early school lunch programs were a joint effort between school staff — who saw an immediate improvement in student performance with better nutrition — and early parent-teacher organizations. Some of the features of these early programs included school gardens, having children help prepare meals and in one case, keeping a cow on school property to educate kids about the source of their milk.

These innovative programs sound quite a bit like the “ground-breaking” Edible Schoolyard movement from Berkeley. It may be surprising to learn they were in place in the early 1900s. They were born out of necessity and a singular goal of getting better nutrition to kids who need it for their health and their academic performance. Still, the grassroots programs were not reaching all students or in place in all schools in the country.

Enter politics

While the 1946 legislation sounded like a good thing, there are a few key points about the bill that were the seeds of the school lunch problem we now face.

First, the legislation served two purposes, one more than the other. Rather than be focused solely on feeding children a nutritious meal, the program was designed as an outlet for surplus agricultural commodities — a means to prop up food prices for farmers. School lunch menus were now dependent on the foods provided instead of planned around the foods children needed for optimal nutrition.

The legislation set the foundation for serving agricultural interests above child welfare, opening the door to the commodity-driven food products and commercially-processed items that dominate today’s food supply and thus, our children’s school lunch menu.

Second, the national funding had to be matched by state funding. This was a problem specifically for states with lower income and areas of poverty — states with higher numbers of minority children were especially troubled. The states’ matching funds were often sourced from increased enrollment fees. Suddenly, low-income kids were presented with an additional barrier to school attendance instead of a free nutritious meal.

The irony of this is significant when you consider that early lunch programs a century before and up to 1946 were specifically designed to provide meals in order to encourage school attendance by these children.

Despite the obvious inequality that resulted from the program, no significant changes were made to the legislation for the next 25 years, until 1971.

In effect, the higher enrollment fees became a kind of Jim Crow law that kept minority children from receiving an education as well as lunch. As late as 1963, the National School Lunch program in Alabama, Georgia, Virginia, and Mississippi only reached 26 percent of non-white children as compared to 62 percent of white children.

During the 1960s, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare tried to take over the National School Lunch Program in order to correct these issues. The USDA fought the takeover attempt and retained the program even as they were unable to make it successful.

By the early 1970s, Earl Butz “King of Corn” headed up the USDA as Secretary of Agriculture. His policy of “go big or get out” fueled the growth of agribusiness giants such as Monsanto and food processors like ConAgra, a heavy emphasis on commodity crops such as corn and soy, the decline of family farms, and our resulting food supply that is heavily skewed toward processed commodity food “products” and cheap factory-farmed meat.

The failing school lunch program, inundated by USDA agribusiness politics, moved to privatization. School cafeterias disappeared. There was a rise in centralized distribution of processed and often branded school foods. USDA nutrition standards hit such an all-time low that in the late 1970s and 1980s ketchup counted as a “vegetable.”

Thirty years later, about the only improvement we’ve seen is that ketchup is no longer considered a vegetable. Nutrition guidelines still allow for a “balanced meal” of sweetened and flavored milk, chicken nuggets or “corn dogs,” tater tots, and canned fruit in heavy syrup. Branded fast foods and processed junk foods are available for purchase in our schools.

Americans now rank number one in the world for our obesity rate, and our food system as a whole is incredibly broken and fraught with politics. The current school lunch legislation being proposed may help remove those “competitive foods” but won’t fund better options well enough and what increase there will be for funding will come at the cost of food stamp programs.

Here we are 2010 ...

Related Posts:

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Fuzzy Winter Melon Gourd Thing





Fuzzy Wuzzy wuz a gourd
Fuzzy Wuzzy musta been shorn
Fuzzy Wuzzy wasn't fuzzy, was he?

Or maybe he was when he was younger. Fuzzy did have this strange white powdery stuff that kept coming off the skin, which explains its other English name "ash gourd." And a scent like honeydew crossed with cucumber and watered down. It arrived in my CSA bag. Okay, the bag isn't really big enough. It came along with the bag. Conveniently with lemongrass. And herbs. Hmmm.

I think they know I like a challenge.

Fuzzy gourds, or bi dao in Vietnamese, are originally from Southeast Asia. They are common throughout other parts of Asia now, and are often used to make soups, stir fry and a fruit drink.

Given the smell, I figured a raw preparation would be best. Here are two ways you can prepare your Fuzzy Gourd, both with sexy Forbidden Rice (black rice). You can also leave out the Fuzzy Gourd since, well, I am not sure where you could begin to find one.

The black rice can be found at a good grocery store, or a Whole Foods type place. A health food store might also carry it. Which makes good sense, as black rice contains more antioxidants, particularly anthocyanins, in a serving than blueberries. Forbidden rice was so named because it was so prized, only the emperor was allowed to eat it. Fortunately, you can now get it for about two bucks a pound in the bulk aisle.

Black Rice Salad (Savory) with Lemongrass Dressing
1 cup black rice
1-3/4 cups water

For the dressing
4 stalks lemongrass, thinly sliced about 6 inches of the ends
1 bunch cilantro, chopped
1/4 cup Tamari soy sauce
1/3 cup brown rice wine vinegar
2 tbs. sugar
1/4 cup canola oil
juice of 1 lemon
1 tbs. ginger, fresh minced

For the salad
1 cup diced winter melon (optional)
2 red bell peppers, diced
1 green or 1 purple bell pepper
1 bunch scallions, white and 3 inches of the green sliced
1 bunch Asian long beans, cut to 1-inch pieces and steamed for five minutes
2 tbs. sesame seeds

Prepare the rice by placing the rice and water in a covered sauce pan. Bring to boil, reduce heat and simmer for about 30 minutes until liquid is absorbed and rice is al dente. Allow rice to cool while you prepare the rest of the salad.

Whisk the dressing ingredients together and allow to marry. Place all the salad ingredients into a large bowl. Toss with the cooled rice and add the dressing. Toss again and then cover and chill. Allow the dish to chill about four hours, and flavors the blend, before serving.

For the sweet version:

1 cup black rice (bulk bins, whole foods)
1-3/4 cups water

For the other salad ingredients:
1 cup winter melon, seeded and diced (optional)
2 bell peppers, red and yellow, diced
1/3 cup dried cranberries
1/3 cup shredded carrot (about 2 carrots)
1/4 cup macadamia nuts, or slivered almonds
1 small bunch parsley, about 1/4 cup chopped
1 small bunch basil, about 1/4 cup chopped

Dressing:
2 tbs. walnut oil
1 tbs. apple cider vinegar
1 tbs. apple juice (no sugar added)
1 tbs. agave nectar
salt and pepper to taste.

Prepare the rice, it needs 30 minutes to cook. Prepare the dressing and toss all ingredients together, allow it to cool in the refrigerator for 2 hours so the flavors blend.


Goodbye Summer: Peach Sauce

The first day of fall arrived with a giant harvest moon in the sky. But weeks before, summer was fading. Slowly each week's crop of peaches lost a bit of their summer sweetness. When I see this happening with a favorite food, I kind of, well, hoard. Then a few days later I realize I am stuck with WAY more of that item than we can eat.

The problem is that peaches don't last that long. At least not when they are ripe when picked — which is the only way they ever taste as good as they can. Weeknight dinner and 1.5 lbs. of peaches to use or lose. What to do? If you still have one more magic week left south of here, this one's for you.

Savory Peach Sauce (for pork chops)
1.5 lb. Peaches, peeled and sliced
1/2 cup champagne vinegar
1/2 cup honey
2 cloves garlic
1 tbs. olive oil
1 onion chopped
1/2 tsp. allspice
1 tsp. ginger
1 tsp. dijon mustard
1 sprig rosemary, chopped
1/4 tsp. salt
pepper to taste

Heat the olive oil in a skillet. Add the onion and garlic and saute. Add the vinegar, peaches and spices and herbs. Simmer for about 10-15 minute to soften the peaches and reduce the liquid. Add the honey and combine. Salt and pepper to taste.

Friday, September 24, 2010

French Heirloom Pumpkin Soup





It doesn't look edible, does it?

Well, looks can be deceiving. When we cut into this Brode Galeux D'Eysines pumpkin, the kiddo's first remark was, "It smells like a peach!" And it did, the squash flesh was a yellow-orange with a fruity aroma somewhere between peach, hazelnut and that characteristic winter squash earthiness.

Once the soup was prepared, I didn't have any trouble getting the kid or vegephobe adults at the table to dig in with a wedge of Rosemary Olive Oil bread for a spoon.

All goes to show, never judge a vegetable by its rind. You can learn more about this and other exotic heirloom squashes here at rareseeds.com. Or, you can just go to your farmers market and explore. I highly recommend the exploration approach.

French Heirloom Pumpkin Soup
1 5-6 lb. pumpkin (Galeux D'Eyesines, Rouge Vif D'Etampes, or Musquee de Provence)
2 tbs. olive oil
2 leeks, sliced
1 yellow onion, diced
2 sprigs rosemary, chopped
3 sprigs thyme, chopped
1 tbs. chopped sage
1/2 bunch Italian parsley, chopped
8 cups chicken broth
3 tbs. butter
1/3 cup half and half
1 tbs. sugar, optional
pinch nutmeg
salt and pepper to taste

First, get a sharp knife. Cut the pumpkin in half, scoop out seeds. Cut the halves into manageable chunks, then cut away the outer rind. Dice the flesh into 1-inch cubes. It's really not so hard if you have a good chef's knife.

Heat the olive oil in a large stock pot, medium heat. Add the leeks, onion and herbs and sweat the aromatics until translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the pumpkin cubes and the chicken stock and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer, cover and let simmer until the pumpkin is tender, about 20-30 minutes.

Puree using an immersion blender. Swirl in the butter and the half and half. Add the nutmeg, then taste and adjust the salt and pepper as needed. Use the sugar if you like a slight sweetness to your soups.

It's pumpkin season! One of my favorite times of the year as I have this slight odd habit of collecting pumpkins. If you are looking for information on pumpkins, these posts will be a great source of tips, recipes and descriptions.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Dark Tales from the School Lunch Room

The Main Course

In 2008, the largest meat recall in history occurred. 143 million pounds of beef were recalled. 37 million pounds of that meat had already been served to the one slaughterhouse's primary buyer: the school lunch program. The recall was based on the slaughter of downed, or sick, animals. Most of the animals were former dairy cows that could no longer produce. In other words, pretty low quality stuff.

Three of the six largest meat recalls in history are due to contamination from E. coli 0157:H7. The bacteria can cause things like renal failure, coma, and death.

In 2009, The National School Lunch Program purchased 3.5 million pounds of a substance called "pink slime." Pink slime is a meat "filler" product that is made by taking the cheapest of meat scraps from many different slaughtering plants, pushing these through a machine to create a paste, separate the fat out, then combine the resulting paste with ammonia to allegedly kill pathogens. Often the addition of pink slime to meats increases the pathogen count, so the meat ends up with ammonia AND nasty bacteria. Cost savings to use the slime added up to only three cents per pound. Yet, 70 percent of the burgers consumed in the US contain, you guessed it, pink slime.

If you are having the school's chicken nuggets today instead of beef, here's a look at the ingredients and how they are made.

HFCS, It Does a Body Good?

Actually, this should be milk. Or what kids drink should be.
On the (Dark) Side

If you are looking for the healthier items on the menu, the optional side dishes are often the best choices. But, canned and bland as a whole, few kids are likely to choose them.

Let's be honest here, even if the vegetable sides were school garden fresh and prepared by chefs, some of the kids won't eat them. Even in the home of Jamie Oliver, Britain's new health minister is reviewing Oliver's school food program efforts since many kids will not participate. So, here is the dark side of school lunch. Darker than the sides of cheetos, froot snacks, sherbet and "tri-taters" that might make it onto kids' plates. Perhaps darker even than pink slime. Ready for it?

School lunch is one meal a day.

Many of the reasons kids won't eat healthier foods when these are available and well-prepared have to do with those other two meals of the day, and the first five years of meals they experienced before kindergarten. If you want to fix school lunch, you have to fix home dinner.

Would you like a bit of extra sauce? Food alone won't fix it.

There needs to be health education, innovative programs that engage kids in the process of growing or cooking foods, or helping shape their menus. These is the good side of programs like Berkeley's, where gardening and cooking education have been shown to increase vegetable consumption for a significant number of kids. These programs need to happen at home, too. It's just going to take a whole lot more than that one meal.

Dessert

Given that the average school lunch has sweetened yogurt with a sugary muffin as a protein choice daily, flavored milks that have as much sugar as soda, canned fruit in heavy syrup and froot snacks as sides, and HFCS in baked goods and even entrees for "flavoring," do we really need dessert?

Appetizers, Related posts in this series

School Lunch: A History Lesson

First, Your Homework

There's a new documentary that is opening tomorrow. It's on the history of school lunch and the debate over school lunch issues. It's called "Lunch Line." I plan on trying to see it as soon as it opens here.

Congress is also mulling over two versions of School Nutrition legislation. They will vote on the final version in days. One version takes money from the food stamp program, one does not. Neither adequately funds school lunches. About the best benefit of the legislation is that it will eliminate "competitive" foods in schools such as junk foods, processed snacks and fast foods. You can take action here. And read more about the issues with the new legislation here.

Now, the History Lesson

The first school lunch legislation was passed in 1946. The program was not designed as a way to help feed hungry kids alone. It was also established to use surplus agricultural commodities which in turn kept food prices from crashing. The program was funded with $10 million per year in 1946 dollars (114.6 million today) to feed 6.7 million children. Today's budget is $11 billion annually to feed 31 million kids daily.

What are "surplus agricultural commodities?" Commodities may not sound much like food, but historically this meant the basic items produced from a farm; corn, wheat, soy, rice, meat, milk, eggs, fruit and vegetables. Not so much now, but we'll get to that in a later lesson.

In many ways, the 1946 legislation was well-intentioned if not fairly administrated. Okay, it sounded good at least.

Here's a few other quotes from the 1946 legislation that might make us all yearn for the good old days, or at least the old days of good lunch as it was promised:
  • "The need for a permanent legislative basis for a school lunch program, rather than operating it on a year-to-year basis, or one dependent solely on agricultural surpluses that for a child may be nutritionally unbalanced or nutritionally unattractive, has now become apparent."
  • "It is hereby declared to be the policy of Congress, as a measure of national security, to safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation's children and to encourage the domestic consumption of nutritious agricultural commodities and other food ..."
  • "The educational features of a properly chosen diet served at school should not be under-emphasized. Not only is the child taught what a good diet consists of, but his parents and family likewise are indirectly instructed."
While it may seem like some of our lunch items around today have enough preservatives to have endured since 1946, the lunch program then contained a lot fewer processed foods. It was 1946 after all. Here are the recommendations for a typical meal per child:

Milk, whole, 1/2 pint

Protein-rich food consisting of any of the following or a combination thereof:

  • 2 oz. Fresh or processed meat, poultry meat, cheese, cooked or canned fish
  • Dry peas or beans or soy beans, cooked, ½ cup
  • Peanut Butter, 4 tbsp.
  • Eggs, 1

Raw, cooked, or canned vegetables or fruits, or both, ¾ cup

Bread, muffins or hot bread made of whole grain cereal or enriched flour, 1 portion


So, at least 66 years ago, folks knew that our country's future was linked to healthy children. That not all agricultural commodities are healthy foods. And that the meal provided should be exemplary of what families should eat at home. The meal was also based on whole foods; milk, protein, vegetables, fruits and whole grains.

My, how we've changed. Next post, The Dark Side of School Lunch.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

S is for Squash (sort of) and Saffron

When I see an unusual fruit or vegetable at the farmers market, on impulse I have to stop and ask "What is that?" The next thing I do, almost before the farmer can answer, is buy it and being to figure out how to cook it. Maybe I should get out more, get a social life, just get a life ... but this is my version of fun. Hey, I have a kid, I used to get out more.

This is a cucuzzi, an Italian variety of edible gourd. Not a true squash. It tastes like zucchini and cucumber blended. The texture is a bit drier than zucchini, and you can certainly use zucchini in the following recipe, it works even better actually. But, how else was I going to cook a giant s-shaped gourd?

Squash and Tomato Gratin
1/3 cup basmati rice
pinch saffron
2/3 cups water
1/2 tsp. sweet paprika
1 tsp. coriander
1/8 tsp. ground anise

2 eggs
1/2 cup crumbled feta

2 lbs. cherry tomatoes or diced heirloom tomatoes, halved
1/2 large onion, diced
1 tbs. fresh oregano
3 medium zucchini or one cucuzzi, sliced 1/4 inch thick
2 tbs. olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Place the ingredients rice through anise into a sauce pan and bring to a boil. Turn heat down and simmer about 20-30 minutes until the rice is done. Fluff with a fork to blend the spices. Set aside to cool.

While the rice simmers, spray two baking sheets with cooking spray. On one, add the tomatoes, oregano, onion and 1 tbs. olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Spread out to an even layer. On the other baking sheet, toss the zucchini (or cucuzzi) with the remaining 1 tbs. of olive oil and lay out the squash slices in an even layer. Roast the vegetables in the oven, tomatoes on the top rack, about 10-15 minutes until edges are just golden.

Add the two eggs and all but 2 tbs. of the feta cheese to the cooled rice mixture. Assemble gratin in a 9x13 casserole dish by building one layer of zucchini, then a layer of rice. Next layer of zucchini, then rice. For the top layer, add the tomatoes and the reserved feta cheese. Bake in the oven for 30 minutes.

When done, it sort of looks like this. Which is a mess. Casseroles are tough to make pretty, right? It's a bunch of stuff together in one baking dish. It tastes good and it makes a nice one-dish meatless main.



Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Potluck Contest: Wish Me Luck

So, the New York Times has a contest to submit your “Signature Pot Luck Dish.” My spouse once advised me that we needed such a thing.

“We need a signature dish,” he said. “You know, for parties.”

Wow, few thoughts on this. First, I am so married to the metrosexual. Which is not a bad thing, it has its benefits. But, as the down-to-earth type with probably a wardrobe too heavy in flannel shirts, I find irony in these moments of how opposites can attract.

My approach to potlucks, like my flannel attire, is practical. Here’s some tips, some of which I learned from screwing up. But never numbers 2 and 5. Never.

1. Your hostess does not have room in her oven, on her stove, or in her fridge for your item. Think about last Thanksgiving when Aunt Martha showed up with her ingredients in a bag for Stewed Brussels Sprouts, left it all on your counter with her cheap wine gift, poured a huge glass of your good stuff and tottered off to the couch leaving you with another dish to prepare? Yeah, it’s like that.

2. Which reminds me of another “Signature” effort for parties. If you bring the cheap stuff and drink the good stuff, you will not be invited back. Unless you are family. In that case, they will start hiding the good stuff and opening your wine to pour for only you. Just sayin.’ Choose wisely. You’re drinking it.

3. So, arrive with your dish prepared and ready for the table. This includes all the items required for service; platter, bowl, basket, serving spoon, fork or shovel. All of it.

4. Be prepared to take it all home with you unwashed. Really. Look around, isn’t there enough for the host to clean up as it is?

5. I don’t care if you don’t cook. Leave your one half-eaten bag of chips offering at home if that’s all you are bringing. See item number 2 and join Netflix. You’re going to need entertainment for staying home alone with your box wine and chips.

6. Finally, consider food safety. We’re looking at a maximum window of four hours between 40 degrees and 140 degrees. For long parties, someone may barf and it won’t just be from the cheap wine. If your signature dish is hot, invest in a chafing dish or a crockpot that can be transported easily. If cold, bring a small cooler with ice and put out only what will be eaten fairly soon. Refresh as needed with chilled items.

7. Finally, is there ONE signature dish? Not really. What you bring should vary with the time of the event, type of event (meal, party, brunch, shower), and the season or holiday. So, with that said, here are two of my go-to dishes and the events I would bring them for.

Fennel, Orange and Pomegranate Salad

Best for Thanksgiving, Christmas Brunch or Dinner

Why: Citrus and Pomegranate are in season and at their best. The light, tangy salad is a good foil for all the heavy dishes that are typical of these holiday gatherings. As a bonus, the salad is colorful and gorgeous especially for Christmas with the gold, red and green colors.

When Not: Long events like cocktail parties. The greens won’t hold up and will wilt, requires two hands to eat and a fork, and the greens may end up in your teeth. It happens.

Orange, Fennel and Pomegranate Salad
5 oranges, rind cut off and sliced
3 medium fennel bulbs chopped, plus 2 tbs. of the fennel fronds
1 pomegranate, seeded
6 cups mixed greens

For Dressing, Whisk Together:
Juice of 1 lemon, about 1/4 cup
2 tbs Champagne vinegar
3 tbs. olive oil
2 tbs. honey
salt and pepper to taste

Combine everything but the greens, including the dressing. At party, place greens on your platter. Add the other items on top.

Red Pepper and Kalamata Tapenade

When: Best for Fall and Winter cocktail parties

Why: Combined with pita wedges, a block of Manchego, and some salami, sopressta, prosciutto, etc. this makes a nice antipasto platter that will hold up to transport and sitting out for a bit. This is what to make when you don’t have time to actually MAKE anything. Easy and still classy.

When Not: Hmmm. I guess if you are hanging out with anyone who can’t eat salt or cured meats. It’s not as good for summer meals, either.

Red Pepper and Kalamata Olive Tapenade
1/2 cup roasted red peppers, drained
1-1/2 cups pitted kalamata olives
½ cup pine nuts
1 clove garlic
Black pepper to taste

Process all in the food processor. Taste and adjust for the black pepper. Chill for at least two hours to allow the flavor to marry. Be sure those olives really are all pitted. I’ve lost a food processor blade this way before. This makes a great sandwich spread, too, so save yourself a bit for home.