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

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 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.


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

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.

School Lunch the Next Big Challenge

I've been living in a comfortable little nook. That's over now. See, we (by which I mean the kiddo) has transitioned to public school. The Big K. Now most moms do their sobbing next to the school bus as it pulls away, as for me, the panic clinched my gut when I perused the menu.

Here's the first page.

Not so bad right, look these kids are learning about healthy food choices. Look, there is that confusing pyramid thingy.

Funny thing about today's school lunch. Kids can actually CHOOSE from five options. My kindergarten student could be daily making nutrition choices on her very own. And, hey, they apparently spent ten minutes of one day educating our kids on smart choices, so we're all ready, right?

Here's the choices:

At this point, I have a few questions.
  • Where are the healthy choices?
  • Um, does sweet yogurt and a muffin count as a meal, really?
  • Where is the actual food?
  • Who is Tony and why would he be making our kids pizza? Why would branded frozen food be on the menu?
  • In the first half month of school, why are chicken nuggets or a fried chicken item an option 11 of 13 days?
  • Sides offered had some healthier, but “bland and canned” options. Even so, sides also included baked Cheetos, fruit snacks, sherbet, and “tri-taters.”
I have made my own healthy choice since my kid really isn't ready for making her own — if there were decent options available. My choice? We're going to keep packing lunch.

But, thanks to the fantastic school lunch system, I get to have daily struggles over my choice and my child's questions like:
  • Why do the other kids get pizza and I don't?
  • I want to get school lunch like my friends
  • My friend gets juice instead of milk, why don't I?
  • What's a corn dog?
Honestly, I have no clue what a corn dog actually is or contains. As for the other questions, I did some soul searching (and pantry searching). I have a few options for dealing with these questions.
  1. Give in, let my kid eat this junk. Undo all the good I have done so far.
  2. Let her try it and pray she knows it tastes bad.
  3. Do my best to make sure her teacher understands my point of view and does not let her eat junk. Like she isn't busy enough as it is.
  4. Argue. Persist. Educate.
  5. Find options that both my kid and I are happy with.
  6. Fight the system. They’ll get better food maybe by the time my kid is out of college.
  7. Become a lunch lady and just fix it myself.
It’s going to be a blend of options 4&5. It’s a challenge, but I am up to it. Dust off the cookie cutters and make a few star-shaped vegetables. Start cooking interesting lunch entrees on top of all my dinner cooking. Get creative. Go team.

Maybe, just maybe, I am even up for number 6 — changing the school food system — now that I am a card-carrying member of the PTO and a Room Mom.

Seven’s out. Really, the whole hair net thing doesn’t work for me, and I can’t fix other folks’ kids in just one meal a day.

Next posts:
Dark Secrets of School Lunch. It'll scare you more than Halloween. Or corn dogs.