Saturday, November 23, 2013

Healthy Sides for Thanksgiving

I know, it's like sacrilege. But something has to temper my love affair with butter fat for this holiday. The kid will pick and choose her healthy bites, however. Brussels sprouts more loaded with bacon and aged Gouda, YES. Brussels sprouts with quinoa and just enough bacon to taste good? Hmmm, more for me at least. It is a tough sell after a couple weeks of Halloween sugar binge have ignited her inner hummingbird (SUGAR! SUGAR!). So, I will eat my vegetable test recipes and be happy I can eat fibrous vegetables again now that pesky gallbladder was forcibly evicted.

As for the kid? I am calmly reminding myself, two steps forward, one step back. She is also coming into the age of wanting control in her food choices. This is the point where I hope that we've laid some groundwork and she knows good choices. I have to let go and step back a bit. I have to use approaches like "Build Your Own Salad" night and let her choose recipes and start cooking more.

And eat my Brussels sprouts while I do. 

It is kind of amazing that one of the most loathed vegetables ever is now quite sexy along with its Brassica cousin, kale. This is one of the things I remind myself on the "one step back" days with my own kid. She eats more veggies — and a much wider variety of them —than I ever did at her age.

Brussels Sprouts, Light on the Bacon, with Quinoa

1 lb. Brussels sprouts, ends trimmed (or removed from the massive stalk) and halved
2 Tbs. Olive Oil
2 slices bacon, diced
1 onion, halved and thinly sliced
1/4 cup dried cranberries (craisins)
1-1/2 cups quinoa, prepared (I like the red and white quinoa blend with buckwheat and millet)
1 Tbs. honey
1 Tbs. white wine vinegar, or apple cider vinegar
Salt and Pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Toss the olive oil and Brussels sprouts and roast for about 10-12 minutes, or until golden brown on edges. While the sprouts are roasting, render the bacon in a skillet. When just done and not too crisp, add the onion and sauté until caramelized. Add the vinegar to deglaze the pan, then add the honey and craisins, stir as it thickens for about two minutes. (If you are concerned about using the bacon drippings, drain the fat and replace it with a tablespoon of olive oil.)

Toss the sprouts with the quinoa and the bacon-onion sauce. Salt and pepper to taste. Enjoy for your holiday meal while I wonder how my annual pie/dessert recipe has become a Brussels sprout one instead!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Hail Ceasar: Avocado Ceasar Salad

I have a longer-winded post to put here. It has to do with why I've suddenly begun focusing on ingredients that are natural powerhouses of anti-inflammatory goodness. I'll work my way back to that story. I'll get it together, right after I plan a few sides and a dessert for Thanksgiving!

Alrighty. This is lighter without the egg, and uses all healthy fats from avocado.

Avocado Ceasar Salad

For the dressing:
1 ripe avocado, peeled
2 lemons, juiced
1/2 cup avocado oil
4-6 anchovy filets
2-4 garlic cloves (depends on your threshold for garlicky)
1/2 tsp. Worcestershire
1 Tbs. white wine vinegar
salt and pepper to taste

Blend this in the blender until creamy smooth and chill. The lemon juice and vinegar will hold the fresh, light green color.

4 hearts of Romaine lettuce, cleaned and chopped
2 oz. grated Parmesean
Tomatoes, if you like

Toss the salad greens with the dressing, garnish with the cheese and optional tomatoes. If you have leftover dressing, it will keep without turning brown, for a few days in the refrigerator.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Thanksgiving 2013: Make Ahead Cranberry-Pear Compote

And so begins the month of my favorite holiday. I hate that most stores — with the exception of cooking gadget ones — have simply fast-forwarded to commercializing the meaning out of Christmas. So, each November, we toss out the jack-o-lantern and celebrate the season of Gratitude.

Now, looking at things historically, I'm going to have to say the pilgrims that followed after were tremendously ungrateful. I would not blame Native Americans for perhaps regretting helping the first batch survive long enough to send back to Europe for more recruits. There is nothing like an ungrateful guest to mess up your spirit of generosity and love of your fellow man.

This is why Native Americans are always heroes in my version of the Thanksgiving story and why I celebrate more their spirit of generosity in the holiday than the "Thanksgiving" of white folks having arrived to take over. But I digress.

This year, my gratitude is for the other members of my extended family offering up their homes and time to host Thanksgiving. Wow, we've had the joy of making this feast for six years now and I love the cooking and preparations so much. It was hard to give in on this. But, I am grateful.

Post-surgery, I am on limited physical activity for a few weeks. I am also running about half speed. I generally tackle way more than any sane person would attempt (with varying success), and I am way beyond guilty of over-committing myself.

So, this year, I am trying something new. Gratitude. Rest. The joy of letting others do for me. But, unlike the generations of following pilgrims, I plan on being an excellent guest.

I also plan on taking some sides and a pie, at least. This one is great because you can, say, make it ahead of having surgery and stash it in the freezer. Then, while you are still tired, you just remember to take it out of the freezer right before your afternoon nap, just a couple days before the holiday. One side dish done. No battling desperate grocery shoppers over that last bag of fresh cranberries, either. Because, it's Thanksgiving, people, not Black Wednesday in the produce aisle.

Ginger Cranberry-Pear Compote
6 pears, peeled, cored and diced
12 oz. bag of fresh cranberries, rinsed
1 cup dry red wine
1 vanilla bean, halved and seeded (use the empty bean to mix with sugar for vanilla sugar)
1 lemon zest plus juice
1/8 tsp. cloves
1/4 tsp. ground white cardamom
3 Tbs. candied ginger, chopped
1 cup honey
1/2 tsp. salt

Once the pears are diced, sprinkle the lemon juice over them and set aside. The lemon juice keeps them from going brown while you tend to the cranberries.

Add the honey, cranberries and red wine to a pot and heat to a gentle simmer. The cranberries will begin to pop and become thick and syrupy. This is fun to watch. About ten to fifteen minutes of popping, most of the berries should have burst, then add the vanilla bean, spices and salt. Simmer until thick.

Now, if you like a very thick cranberry sauce, and this is too liquid for you, just take 1/2 tsp. of organic corn starch and dissolve in a teaspoon of water. Whisk in, simmer, and this should thicken the works perfectly.

Add the pears and simmer just 2-3 minutes. You don't want the pears to go to mush especially if you freeze this ahead. Taste and adjust the sweetness (add a bit of honey if needed), and the salt. A bit of salt helps the flavor pop, like cranberries. Garnish with the lemon zest if serving now. Or, blend in and then let the mixture cool. Freeze. Thaw a couple days before Thanksgiving, warming to room (or just a bit warmer) temperature for serving.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Wedding Soup: Or, What to Feed an Angry Pancreas

Recently, I got to take a field trip to the ER.

Now, it takes a fair bit of pain for me to concede defeat and even go to the normal doctor. And, to be honest, I was afraid I would get there and get a lecture on why women my age should not try to do P90X. And get laughed at. But, I have never managed to pull a muscle, not know it, then wake up 12 hours later in pain on the scale of childbirth (and I know from experience) and not be able to breathe. So, off to the ER at six am on a Sunday.

"Oh, my. Your pancreas is angry," said the ultrasound tech. "And look at all those gallstones."

The ER doctor put things in terms I understand clearly. "You should have surgery. Life's too short to go without truffled Gouda."

So surgery it is in a few weeks when my organs are not so worked up. In the meantime, I get to eat bland food and make surgery jokes with my family. My brother offered to take my gallstones for some odd reason. And, I had fun offering my kid the mutinous non-essential organ for show-and-tell once its out.

I also have been making soup. Soup that's good enough and comforting for even my most angry digestive organs.

Wedding Soup
For meatballs:
1 lb. ground veal, or ground turkey
1 lb. ground very lean beef or bison
1 lb. ground lean pork
2 tbs. basil
2 tbs. parsley
1 cup bread crumbs
1 cup grated Parmesean (unless you can't eat cheese like me, then you can just wish it were in here)
1 egg
pinch of salt and couple turns on the pepper mill

Mix well. Roll into dime-sized balls, placing on tray. Imagine an Italian grandmother over your shoulder making you do them over if they exceed the size of a dime even a tiny bit.

For soup:
44 cups chicken stock
3 or 4 parmesean rinds, optional (I miss cheese)
2 small heads escarole, or 6 oz. spinach if you can't find escarole cleaned and chopped
pinch of red pepper flakes
8 oz. Acini di Pepi pasta
½ cup grated parmesean, optional (did I mention how much I miss cheese?)

Heat stock until it boils. Add pinch of red pepper flakes. Drop in meatballs (carefully) a few at a time until all are added. Add parmesean rinds, and turn down heat to simmer. Simmer for 30 minutes. You will need to stir occasionally to prevent the cheese rinds from sticking. Add escarole and simmer for another 15 minutes. Add pasta and simmer again for 20 minutes. Sprinkle in parmesean and stir to blend.

A few notes. The reason this soup is called Wedding Soup, so I am told, is that the cost of using all the different meats meant it was only served on special occasions. Variations on this would be to also add two cups of cooked, shredded chicken AND/or drizzle in an egg mixed with the parmesean to add more body to the soup. The flavors of all the meats and the parmesean rinds make a rich and satisfying broth. Use good parmesean, you will be rewarded with great flavor. Save your rinds, you can use this trick to add flavor to any soup. Save them for when you can eat cheese.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Chilled Corn Soup with Crab: Goodbye Summer, It's Been Great

There's this wonderful few weeks of overlap where the biggest harvest of summer bounty mingles with the first apples and winter squashes of fall. For those of us with a full four seasons, we get a second planting of lettuces and greens, and we get a nice long goodbye to summer favorites with a few tomatoes lingering into October.

I love this time of year. When the change of seasons come, I welcome the new harvest. When winter comes, it may sound strange, but I also welcome the absence of abundance. We humans are funny creatures. It seems like we have to know absence to really be grateful for what we have. When spring greens show up, I am so excited for their fresh, bright flavor. I know, without winter, I wouldn't feel this so deeply.

All things have their place.

So, before the apple recipes and pumpkins arrive on my table (and they do), let's take a moment to say a loving goodbye to summer favorites.

I had a chilled corn soup at a new restaurant here in town, called Novel. The chef was the sous for Momofuku. Crazy to leave that for a relatively small Midwestern city, but we have an amazing food shed here that can draw chefs from afar, or bring them back home even from Europe.

This is not their recipe. This is me tasting their food and interpreting what I taste into a recipe of my own. I probably missed a few elements, but still landed in a place I am happy with. The crazy thing about this rich, creamy soup is that is has absolutely no dairy in it at all. It's guilt free. It is not effortless, however.

Okay, let's get started.

For the corn and stock:
6 ears of corn
2 bay leaves
2 large carrots, peeled and chopped
1 onion, peeled and quartered
2 ribs celery, chopped
6 cups water

For the soup:
Kernels from the six ears of corn
4 cups stock, reserve the other two cups in freezer for another use
1/2 tsp. salt or to taste
white pepper to taste

Sriracha sauce
12 oz. cooked, chilled large lump crab meat (or claw meat)
2 small squares of nori (seaweed), sliced in thin ribbons
1 green jalapeño, seeded, and sliced very thin

Shuck the corn and blanch it for 2 minutes. Allow to cool. Using a chef's knife, slice the kernels and the corn "milk" onto a baking sheet. Do not throw away the corn cobs. Reserve the corn and any of the corn "milk," or liquid from the corn). Add the corn cobs to a stock pot with the other ingredients for the stock. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer, covered for one and a half hours. Strain the solids.

Add the corn and its liquid to a blender along with stock. You need to do this in batches. Once the soup is pureed, use a chinois and press it with the pestle in a rolling motion around the sides of the sieve to get all the liquid. The soup will be creamy and rich from the corn without any added fats or cream. Season with salt and white pepper to taste, then chill.

To serve, portion about 3/4 of chilled soup per bowl, six bowls total. Place 2 oz. of crab in the center of each bowl. Make 3 dots of Sriracha at the edges of the bowl, alternating with 2 slices of jalapeño. Add a few slivers of nori. It's got a subtle fishy-seaweed scent to it, like the air at the beach.

Say a loving farewell to summer.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Tomato and Peach Panzanella

Tomatoes pair with a lot of things you would not expect. Mint, for one. Tarragon, too. Watermelon even. And peaches. With summer's heat dragging into September, it's good to embrace these unusual combinations and enjoy. This is a light, fresh salad inspired by a friend of mine who insisted that peaches and mozzarella are a perfect blend, too. The peaches help make it more kid-friendly. Good advice.

3 large heirloom tomatoes, or 3 cups heirloom cherry tomatoes, sliced.
2 peaches, sliced
4 oz. fresh mozzarella diced
3 sprigs basil, leaves torn
2 sprigs mint, leaves torn
2 slices, crisp bread (toasted well in oven, not browned), broken into croutons

1/4 cup olive oil
2 Tbs. white balsamic vinegar
1 Tbs. honey

Coase sea salt (smoked is nice here)
Fresh black pepper

Arrange the salad ingredients on a plate, topping with the torn herbs and cheese. Hold the bread until just before serving. Whisk the dressing together and drizzle over the salad. Season with the coarse salt and pepper. Just before serving, add the croutons.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

What Grows Together, Goes Together: August Salads

Cooking this time of year is so easy, it's like cheating. When a friend praised my seasonal cooking efforts, she made it sound like some kind of special feat. The truth is, it's easier. Mother Nature does the food pairing for you. All I have to do is get the tomatoes out of the garden before the squirrels do. I keep hoping one of them bites into a cayenne pepper by mistake. Clearly the dog needs more outdoor time since her favorite pastime is waiting for the mangy tomato thieves to come down out of the trees, only to chase them back up.

I love our dog.

For the tomatoes we do get, or the ones we get at the farmer's market, I find myself following my own advice. "If it grows together, it goes together."

What's in season now: onions, green beans, and the nightshades — potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant and peppers. Weekly, we have a pot of the Roasted Ratatouille from my cookbook, and the other favorite using most of these ingredients as well is the Caramelized Onion and Tomato Summer Salad. I've probably made these both 20 times. We love them, but once in a while change is good.

Or, at least I thought so as I eyed a huge skillet of onion caramelizing. Hmmm. I decided to change up the dressing for the summer salads a bit and found a new favorite: Creamy Caramelized Onion dressing. Like the Roasted Beet Dressing, you use the vegetable puree to add the richness to the dressing, not more oil or eggs or dairy. I could eat this one plain, or as a dip. Instead I used it as the dressing for the Summer Salad and put a spin on the usual German Potato Salad using heirloom potatoes, purple and green beans, caramelized onions and capers.

You can use the dressing on any salad as well, of course.

Caramelized Onion Dressing
One cup caramelized onions (recipe from my book, The Cleaner Plate Club, below)
1/4 cup white balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup olive oil
2 tsp. Dijon mustard, or coarse grain mustard
1/2 tsp. salt
Several grinds of black pepper

Into the blender it goes. Out comes creamy goodness. Use on the salad recipe below, or add tomatoes, capers to make the book's Summer Salad recipe.

German Potato Salad Redux
2 lbs. small new potatoes (we like rose fin, purple, and yukons)
1 lbs. green beans, blanched in boiling water for two minutes, then shocked in ice water
1/2 cup caramelized onions (recipe below)
2 Tbs. capers, optional
Salt and pepper to taste
2/3 cup of the Caramelized Onion dressing

Wash and boil the potatoes until fork tender. Remove from boiling water with slotted spoon. You can use the boiling water for blanching the green beans and save heating up your kitchen more. Allow the potatoes to cool. Drain the green beans. Toss in bowl with the caramelized onions and dressing. Add capers if using. Salt and pepper to taste.

This recipe is from the book. I call it Caramelized Onions because of the sweet glaze and golden color. They are actually onions "agrodolce" from the vinegar and sugar used in the recipe. Either way, they taste great. Leftovers are good on sandwiches as well.

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 large onion, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme or rosemary (optional), or use 3 teaspoons dried thyme
1. Combine the oil, sugar, vinegar, and salt in a large skillet with a lid over medium-high heat, and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Add the onion and sauté for a few minutes to start the browning process.
2. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and cook for 10 minutes longer, stirring occasionally. Sprinkle with fresh herbs, if desired, before serving.
Makes about 2 cups of cooked onions

Friday, July 12, 2013

Beet the Heat: Beet Sorbet and Ginger Beet Apple Smoothie

The solstice came and went, it's oddly light outside before six am and blessedly light for enough hours at the end of the work day for me to water the garden and weed a bit. Of course, this also means it's hot. Hot weather and long, extended sessions in the kitchen don't mix, so we've been taking our veggies cold these days.

The kiddo gave this recipe a sidelong glance at first. But then she drank two glasses of it. We, of course, finished the meal by having a competition to see whose tongue was the most pink. (I won. I like beets). Oddly, I made the sorbet recipe for a dinner with adult friends and we did the exact same thing. I can blame the wine for that one, though!

Cool kitchen tip: Roast a whole bunch of beets, garlic, or any other long-cooking veggies all at once in an evening. Allow them to cool and store in the fridge for use throughout the week. I do any blanching and shocking of green beans, asparagus and boiling potatoes at the same time, too. Then, during the week I have chilled veggies to put on salads for quick, no-heat required dinners and smoothies.

Beet Sorbet
1/2 cup organic apple juice concentrate
1 Tbs. grated ginger
Juice of 1 lemon
1/2 cup agave syrup or honey
3 large beets, roasted and peeled (about 1 and one-quarter cups)
4 cups ice

You need a hard-core blender for this, one that does frozen desserts. If you don't have this, you can dice up the beets and go slower in smaller batches, OR you can just use 3 cups water instead of the ice. You'll need to then pour the mixture into an ice cream maker. Place the mixture in the freezer if you are not going to use right away. You may have to thaw it a bit to serve later. Serves about 10 1/2 cup scoops.

Ginger Beet Apple Smoothie
1-1/2 cups apple juice, chilled
1 Tbs. agave syrup
2 medium-large beets, roasted, peeled and chilled
1 Tbs. grated ginger
Juice of 1 lemon
2 sprigs of mint leaves
Beet greens from the tops of the beets (about 8 large leaves)
1 cup ice

I love this recipe because it finally gives me an easy way to use those beet greens when I use the beets, too. They add some good nutrition to the mix as well. Bonus! Place items in the blender from liquid to the ice (easiest to hardest) to give your blender a fighting chance. Blend well. Serve. Compare tongues and chill as in you chill, not the drink. Serves 6.

Smoothie or Juice?
It seems like everyone is "juicing" these days. I've seen several people at work, proudly drinking a murky gray drink in some kind of blender cup and announcing how much they love their cleanse. I don't want to hear about your cleanse. That's between you your lower intenstine alone. Really.

The big difference between the two is that juicing removes all the fiber and solid matter from the fruits and vegetables in the mix. Smoothies just kind of grind it all in. Smoothies can have a bit of a texture like orange juice with the pulp. If that bugs you, then you might prefer to juice. The absence of fiber in the juice does lead to a few warnings to start slowly on that cleanse. Again, I don't want to know. Given that the average adult in America eats only 15 of the 25-38 grams of recommended daily fiber, I'll take the smoothie.

Further, the fiber in the smoothie can help moderate the uptake of the sugars in the drink, slowing the glycemic load a bit. Juice is pretty much a straight spike in your blood sugar. Juicers also remove the peels along with pulp. Fruits like apples have most of their nutrients near the skin as well as much of the phytonutrients. So, smoothies are better for nutrition content, too.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Just Dip It: Kids eat up to twice as much vegetable when served with a flavored dip

Researchers just confirmed what every mom armed with a bottle of ranch dressing will tell you: Dips do make kids eat their vegetables. Even though we had already tested this theory over a thousand carrot sticks and red pepper strips ourselves, I do like seeing some validation that kids will try more vegetables, eat more of the vegetables and be twice as likely to enjoy those veggies with a dip.

Since only ten percent of four-to-eight-year-olds eat their five-a-day as it is, it's just really nice to read about kids eating vegetables at all.

Two other important keys to the research; repeat exposures are still the most effective way to get kids to try vegetables. Also, small portions that encourage trial instead of intimidating help kids get past their veggie-phobia.

Let's Dip!

Wait. Before you reach for the Costco-sized bottle of that commercial ranch dressing — many of which contain MSG, artificial flavors, preservatives and genetically-modified oils — think again. Its easy enough to make your own dips and dressings, many of which can be made with more vegetables!

Here's recipes for some of my favorite dips and dressings.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Pretty in Pink: Floral Beet Salad

I had a similar dish at a place called Unforked. But, it was missing a tangy something and just not quite a tasty as it was beautiful.

I think I fixed that. You can, of course, swap out microgreens, mache, or tender lettuces if your little diners are not excited about peppery spring arugula. For the big people, I'd advise keeping the peppery greens. The edible flowers are just fun and you can call it "Forest Princess Salad" or something that might get your little girl to give it a whirl.

For the greens:
2 cups arugula, or lettuces as above
4 sprigs mint leaves
12 or so edible flowers  (really be sure these are edible, a lot of our favorite garden flowers are toxic)
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1 Tbs. olive oil for drizzle

For the dressing:
Juice of 1/2 lemon plus zest
1/2 cup organic canola mayo
1 Tbs. white balsamic vinegar
1 small clove garlic
1/4 cup mint leaves chopped
1 tsp. honey or agave, optional

Beets: 4 large or 8 small-to-medium beets, roasted and peeled
Coarse salt to taste

Mix the dressing and chill to marry the flavors. Toss with roasted and peeled beets (see below) and place 1-2 beets on each of four plates, salt to taste. Toss the greens with the lemon and olive oil, reserving the edible flowers for last. Top the beet mixture with the 1/4 of the greens for each plate. Garnish with flowers. Eat while visualizing yourself astride a unicorn prancing through a field of wild flowers. Or while drinking a nice, crisp white wine (big people only).

To roast beet, remove stems and greens, reserving for another use. Wash well. Place in foil. Heat oven to 375. Roast for about 45 minutes, or until tender when pierced. You may want to roast a few beets at a time in the foil packet, for use in other recipes. Remove from oven. When cooled, use a paper towel and "wipe" the peel off the beet.

Friday, June 07, 2013

Pretty in pink: Lemon-mint Beet Hummus

I like hummus. But, I concede to a co-worker that the plain old stuff is, well, rather plain. It's like white paint at the hardware store. Great for ceilings, right, but even better as the base for mixing in pigment to make all the different paint colors imaginable. Whether its decorating, cooking or just life in general, everything is a lot more exciting if you see what they could be instead of what they are not.

By far, my favorite hummus yet is the Sweet Potato Hummus from last fall's chef demo at Powell Gardens. But it's spring, and beets are in season. The deep pink color of this hummus is stunning on a plate with edible flowers, green herbs, and lettuces, or with spring carrots or fennel.

Roasted Beet Hummus
1 medium roasted beet, peeled (roasting instructions below)
1/2 can garbanzo beans, rinsed and drained
1/4 cup tahini paste
Juice of 1 lemon plus zest
1 Tbs. balsamic vinegar
2 Tbs. packed mint leaves
1 small clove garlic
1/3 cup olive oil, plus more if needed
Salt and pepper to taste, start with 1/2 tsp. salt

To roast beet, remove stems and greens, reserving for another use. Wash well. Place in foil. Heat oven to 375. Roast for about 45 minutes, or until tender when pierced. You may want to roast a few beets at a time in the foil packet, for use in other recipes. Remove from oven. When cooled, use a paper towel and "wipe" the peel off the beet.

To make hummus, add all ingredients except olive oil to food processor. Pulse to combine. While the blade is running, drizzle in the olive oil, using a bit more if needed to get the texture you like. Taste and adjust the salt and pepper. Chill well to let favors marry. Great with a bit if feta cheese on top for serving.

Friday, May 24, 2013

School Lunch by Democracy Or, when that whole menu-voting thing goes horribly wrong

One last post on school lunches before the bell rings and it's summer!

“We got to choose the school lunch!” said The Kiddo.

“That’s great, honey, but you never eat that lunch,” I replied.

“I’d like to eat it that day, Mom, and will you please come, too? It’s a special lunch we planned and you’re always working. The other moms come.”

Oh, the Working Mom Guilt card. I hate that card. Almost as much as I hate school lunch. But, I was intrigued. The kiddo caught my interest with the menu she voted for; a stir fry, fruit salad, veggie dishes. I thought, Hey, maybe they are testing some new healthy menu items and getting the kids to participate through voting!

So, I moved heaven and earth. Or, at least a few meetings, and I went to school for lunch. One day, very soon, my child won’t want me anywhere near her at school, I reminded myself. I focused on how happy The Kiddo was to see me, and on my visions of actual food. I held her hand and walked in our single file to the lunchroom.

I was a bit shocked to see the school principle at the head of our line handing out brown paper bags to each of us. I was a bit more surprised to see the food selections; hamburger, hot dog, chicken patty, and the obligatory and neglected dried up carrot sticks in a bag and bananas. I was quite stunned to see potato chips count as a vegetable. And really shocked that kids could get a juice and chocolate milk both, and “ice cream.”

After bending double to take my seat at the kid-sized table, I unwrapped my “patty” as best I could with my knees up at table height. Looking at The Kiddo with my characteristic one eyebrow raised and a “WTF?” expression, I said, “So, where’s the stir fry?”

“Well, Mom, I voted for those things. But, the other kids all voted more for this menu,” she said.

“Oh.” And my mind left for a moment, contemplating the age-old philosophical question: which came first, the chicken or the nugget? If we want our kids to eat better, when do we quit feeding them the same old things with a resigned, “Oh, they won’t eat anything else.”

I love the idea of giving kids control in food choices. When it works, the voting method was designed to help kids feel in control of making healthier choices like chicken stir fry or veggie-loaded pizza on wholegrain crust. The key is that all the choices need to be healthy ones, not giving them the chance to vote more junk foods onto the menu. Hamburgers, hot dogs and chicken patties/nuggets/fingers/fries should not have been on the ballot with chips and “ice cream” as running mates.

The answer just does not get simpler: kids will quit eating nothing but these foods when we quit serving nothing but these foods. Further, when we do serve these occasional foods, they should actually be food, not chemicals and fillers binding together a bit of cheap food.

So, what was in that "ice cream?"

As an example, let’s take a closer look at that “ice cream” that was “made with loving care” as the ingredients list proudly claimed. Here’s what else that ingredient list had to say:

By regulation, the ingredients have to be listed in the order of the quantity of each. You’d expect “milk” or “cream” to be first. You’d expect it, but look closer and you may find that this product has more sweetener than milk.

Corn Syrup, Skim Milk, Sugar, High Fructose Corn Syrup
Wait. There’s more corn syrup in there than skim milk? Yes, and if you look closely there are THREE different types of sweeteners. Why not just sugar? Here’s where labels get tricky. By using three different types of sweeteners, it prevents the first ingredient to be listed on the label from being “Some Kind of Sweetener” instead of milk (or cream). Corn Syrup and HFCS are also thickeners giving the frozen liquid more of an ice cream like texture when frozen. Except that this substance, thanks to some other additives, can be thawed and refrozen with little change in texture unlike real ice cream.

A texturizer for processed foods, often made from corn starch.

Whey, Buttermilk and Cream
Actual milk products!

Cellulose Gum, Guar Gum, Carrageenan, Carob Bean Gum
Thickeners used to replace the fat in ice cream.

Natural and Artificial Flavor
Let’s give this one some context. “Natural flavor” does not mean that this is actual vanilla, for example. It only means flavoring derived from natural sources. For vanilla, this could actually mean castoreum, which is an extract derived from the dried castor sacs of the North American Beaver. I kid you not.

Now, exactly why it is easier to acquire some type of sac from the nether regions of a beaver than it is to grow a few orchids is completely beyond my comprehension. But, there it is. And, I would prefer not to imagine how this additive was ever discovered in the first place. But, we can all rest safe knowing that no actual vanilla beans were harmed in the making of this “ice cream.”

Cellulose Gel
Apparently, you can never have enough gums, gels and thickeners in your ice cream.

Vitamin A Palmitate
Synthetic vitamin added to replace vitamin content lost during the separation of the milk liquids.

The final ingredient, according the label, is “made with loving care.” Enough said.

Beth Bader is the author of The Cleaner Plate Club: Over 100 Recipes for Real Food Your Kids Will Love. You can find her recipes and food musings at her blog Ex-expatriates Kitchen.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Is a CSA Right for You?

by Beth

So, you’re thinking about joining a CSA. It sounds all locavore and romantic, right? But every day you are already getting surprised by some school project that your kid forgot to tell you about, or if you can just get your socks to match. Do you really want to be ambushed weekly by a vegetable, too? Here’s how to tell if a CSA is your best bet — and how to make it work for your busy family life.
You are comfortable cooking with what you have on hand.
CSAs are a great fit for you if you are at ease in the kitchen, keep a few pantry goods on hand and you know you can use whatever vegetable that arrives in some kind of salad, roasted, raw dish or soup.
What if this is not you?
Here’s the magic secret: cooking is just formula and technique. You can modify any recipe with what you have on hand. Do you have a recipe for slaw? That red cabbage or kohlrabi will work there. Do you have your grandmother’s chicken soup recipe? Toss in the week’s carrots and potatoes while its simmering to add some veggie heft to the bowl. Got beets or root veggies galore? Simply roasting these with a bit of olive oil and salt and pepper and they are table-worthy.
Still worried about veggie surprise?
You can still buy local at the farmers market, supporting many of the same farms that offer a CSA. As mentioned in the previous post in the series, you can even “subscribe” to a farm, much like a CSA with pre-purchased market bucks. Pre-pay, and then pick your favorites at the farmers market where you farmer sells.
Another great step is to learn what’s in season when for your area. Ask your farmer which of these items he or she is planting. Then, you can plan ahead for each week easily.
Some surprises in life are good.
Even when they are leafy and green. Over the last decade, thanks to our CSA habit, my family has learned about the joy of heirloom tomatoes; how much fun it is to shell peas together; and, that crunchy purslane is not a weed, but perhaps the best salad green ever. We’ve also fallen in love with microgreens and miner’s lettuce, baby kale and bok choi — things I may never have bought otherwise.
You can fit a weekly pick up into your schedule.
Shortening the path from farm to table is one of the main reasons to choose local foods. The good news is your lettuces that were traveling 1200 miles to your plate now only need to travel twelve. It’s just not financially feasible for your farmer to travel those extra miles to each of the 50-plus CSA members’ doorsteps, thus most farmers choose a central location in town where their CSA members can come pick up the weekly subscription. Others have pickup times at the farm location or the farmers market, or other delivery options.
What if my schedule is really tight?
Good news for you, many CSAs do offer a delivery service for an extra fee. Your fresh vegetables show up in a cooler on your front step. Like UPS, only healthier. Or, you can also do a “split share” with a friend who can pick up the weekly box and then divide the produce. If your friend is also willing, and wants a full share of the CSA, he could just pick up both boxes and you can get yours later. But, you might have to share some of your tomatoes as a thank you.
I still can’t pencil in the produce.
Our lives are loaded down with a lot! It’s hard to fit even breathing in some days. A CSA may not be right for you — yet. But, you can start toward that path by making time to add more fresh produce to your grocery cart. Or, better yet, make it even once a month to the farmers market. Even a monthly purchase of local food feeds your local economy by two-fold. You may find out how much you enjoy the variety and experience at the farmers market and make time for more local food as a result.
You’re good with a knife.
The crazy thing about those veggies in the CSA box is that they don’t ever come pre-cut, washed and individually packed in plastic containers. Some would say this is one of the best things about a CSA, given we generate about 31 million pounds of plastic waste per year in the US. Most of which cannot be recycled.
Of course, this does mean some added prep work, breaking down those veggies into clean, ready-to-cook pieces. Personally, I find my “chop time” kind of like therapy from my day job. The bits and scraps make fantastic compost for my own “local food” garden out back.
No thanks, I like my fingers where they are.
Did you know you are actually less likely to cut yourself with a sharp knife than a dull one? Knife skills are easy to learn and there are a lot of online videos to guide you. Not only will you be able to get that CSA basket prep work done, but every time you cook, you’ll save time and be more efficient just by learning a few easy techniques.
I still don’t have time.
Many hands make the work light. No, really. Every Thanksgiving, the first list I make is the menu and “shop list.” The second is the “chop list.” My spouse and I then split the knife duty and get the prep work done in advance. It’s a great system, and kids can even help with some of the easier prep tasks like washing and peeling, or shelling peas and fava beans. Older kids — if responsible, and based on your parental judgment — can even help with the chopping part. Make good food a family activity.
Why do you, or don’t you, participate in a CSA? Are there tips you can share for how to make your diet more local and still do-able when busy? I’d love to hear them!
Beth Bader is the author of The Cleaner Plate Club: Over 100 Recipes for Real Food Your Kids Will Love. You can find her recipes and food musings at her blog Ex-expatriates Kitchen.