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Archive for the ‘Culinary’ Category

The Crucible of Too Much

Tuesday, November 6th, 2012

The first dinner party I ever threw wasn’t exactly a disaster.  That’s pretty much the only good thing I can say about it.

GAP and I were newly married and we decided to have people over for dinner on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend.  Ten of them.  We had just moved into our first apartment together.  We were excited.  We kept inviting people.  When it was all said and done I had somehow managed to sign myself up for preparing a seated dinner for 12.  (Did I mention that this was my first dinner party?)  I won’t drag you through the details of it (thankfully most of them are hazy), but my primary memories include: gaspacho dip spilling all over my counter just before people started arriving, the enchiladas not being properly sauced and therefor ending up as tough as roof shingles, and barely seeing any of our guests because I was stuck in the kitchen up to my eyeballs in the realization that I’d bitten off way more than I could chew.

I suppose that if, after surviving that evening, I’d run for the hills with no intention of ever hosting anything again it would have been a justifiable moratorium.  Nevertheless, I’m glad I didn’t.  Because now, eight years later, I’m here to say that I think I’ve more or less cracked the code on entertaining.  That code?  It’s such a cliché I’m loathe to type it: Less is more.

At the time I’d watched enough episodes of Barefoot Contessa to understand the merits of making things in advance, choosing simple but tasty dishes, and not planning an event so demanding that you have no chance of actually enjoying it.  And yet it took me years of failed attempts at breezy, effortless entertaining before I finally got it through my thick skull.  I think somehow I felt I had to prove myself through the crucible of overdoing it before I gained the confidence to dial it down a knotch.  But now that I’ve hosted eight holiday cocktail parties, three Christmas dinners, three Easter dinners, one bridal shower, one baby shower, and countless smaller gatherings I have a better understanding of what constitutes a success.  This past weekend was the culmination of all that I’ve learned: Think about what your guests will find enjoyable, not what they will find impressive.  A stressed-out hostess makes for a stressful party.  And simple food is usually better than fancy food.  That’s it.

SSP’s first birthday party was Saturday, and family members started rolling into town Thursday evening.  Over the course of four days I served four different meals – two suppers, a lunch, and a breakfast – each without too much stress or incident.*  I spent none of them in the kitchen in a crazed dash throwing together last-minute dishes.  I sat down and enjoyed the company of my guests.  And we all gobbled up the food.

When I turned 35 earlier this fall I had many mixed emotions about it.  There is much about the excitement and anticipation of striking out into the world of adulthood for the first time that I miss.  But for every experience that was once exciting and is now ordinary there is another one that was once stressful and is now comfortable.  I enjoy the parties we throw so much more now than I did in the beginning.  I wish I could go back in time and take Ina’s advice to heart at a younger age.  But some things we must learn for ourselves.

*My sister did bail me out on Saturday morning by getting the salad prepared while I dealt with an almost-four-year-old who had decided that the excitement of company was as good a reason as any to completely ignore me.

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In the event that you’re interested, my menus this past weekend were:

Thursday Supper
Turkey burgers and tossed green salad

Friday Supper
Butternut Squash Soup (minus the ginger, half the cumin, plus about 2 tsp of brown sugar)
Two loaves of crusty bread
Three kinds each of cheese and charcuterie plus apple wedges scattered on a big carving board
Caramelized Vanilla Ice Cream (minus the salt, plus 1 Tbs vanilla extract)
Pepperidge Farm cookies

Saturday Lunch (Birthday Party)
Pulled Pork Sliders
Potato Torte (minus the summer squash)
Ricotta and Red Onion Pizza (dough ball purchased from neighborhood pizza joint)
Tossed Green Salad
Birthday Cake

Sunday Breakfast
Roasted Pear and Chocolate Chunk Scones
Scrambled Eggs

PS – In the event that you didn’t notice from the links above, I am a huge fan of SmittenKitchen.com.  Her readership is literally 8,000 times greater than mine.  (Seriously.  I did the math.)  So I don’t expect that my little plug here will carry much weight.  But her first cookbook was just released last week I’ve spent every spare moment since last Friday pouring over my copy.  If you’ve never read her, check out the blog.  And if you like the blog, do yourself a favor and buy the book!


Questions I Can’t Answer. Chickens I Won’t Eat.

Wednesday, February 29th, 2012

You can’t blink or you will miss it.  It’s in the first line of this article called ”Farming the Unconscious” posted on We Make Money Not Art.” You don’t even know to be looking for it.

The “it” I refer to is the fact that the project discussed in the article comes from the Royal College of Art.  Not agriculture.  Not livestock.  Art.  This is relevant because it throws into question whether or not the entire project was created as an earnest attempt to solve a problem, or as a commentary on modern animal husbandry practices.

I encourage you to read the article.  The images alone are quite impactful.  The jist of it is this: Most people understand that the factory farming methods applied to chickens are largely believed to be inhumane.  The birds have been bred over time to reach physical maturity in about six weeks.  This rapid growth cycle is often too much for the cardio-pulmonary systems of the birds to withstand and many of them die before they can be slaughtered.  On top of the questionable breeding they are housed in huge, windowless, poorly ventilated barns with little-to-no room for movement, standing on a bed of their own feces, and reduced to cannibalizing each other out of boredom.  Seriously, it’s pretty disturbing.

But more disturbing still is student André Ford’s proposed solution.

He suggests that if the demand for poultry is such that we must be able to produce it on a mass scale, then why continue to raise chickens when we could just grow them?  Yes.  Grow.  Like a crop.  It is (apparently…) the logical extension of Purdue University professor Paul Thompson’s belief that raising more tolerant blind chickens we could circumvent many of the animal welfare problems plaguing the egg and poultry industry today.  If they are blind they won’t object as much to the conditions in which they live.  So why not take it a step further, render them fully unconscious, and house them in the most economic conditions possible?  While the chicken isn’t technically headless, it is effectively brainless.  To quote Ford explanation of the project:

As long as their brain stem is intact, the homeostatic functions of the chicken will continue to operate. By removing the cerebral cortex of the chicken, its sensory perceptions are removed. It can be produced in a denser condition while remaining alive, and oblivious. The feet will also be removed so the body of the chicken can be packed together in a dense volume. Food, water and air are delivered via an arterial network and excreta is removed in the same manner.  Around 1000 chickens will be packed into each ‘leaf’, which forms part of a moving, productive system.
I won’t even try to pretend that the very thought of this doesn’t disgust me.  But if it is worth anyone’s time to explore this topic in the first place then it is also worth it for me to withhold my gut reaction at least long enough to earnestly consider the merits of such an approach.
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There are two major objections to factory farming: its negative effect on human nutrition, and concerns for animal welfare.  The nutrition concerns stem from issues like drug resistent bacteria that have evolved from use of antibiotics in animal feed, the effects of growth hormones from animal byproducts on children, and the compromised nutritional profile of many factory farmed animals.  The animal welfare concerns stem from the often-filthy and sardine-like conditions in which factory farmed animals are raised.  These conditions are a far cry from the idyllic pastoral scenes we like to envision when we think about where our food comes from.  But due to a flurry of media attention to this issue over the past five-ish years, we all know better now.
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In thinking about this collection of concerns I have to admit that it would be intellectually dishonest not to concede that Ford’s suggested solution could mitigate, if not altogether eliminate, most of them.  Growing chickens in plexiglass containers would keep them in a clean (perhaps even sterile?) environment, removing the need for the excessive antibiotics used today.  Removing their brains would prevent them from objecting to such conditions.  And such intensive growing practices could allow more animals to be produced at a time, potentially limiting the need for the growth hormones that are used to increase production rates.  I suppose the entire approach could be more efficient than current practices.
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None of this, however, changes the fact that if forced to choose between meat raised in these conditions and vegetarianism I would choose the latter every time.  And what frustrates me most about this is that I can’t really articulate why.  It’s a gut reaction.  It just feels wrong to me.  I am comfortable with my place on the food chain.  But I am not comfortable hideously subjugating an entire species of animals just because there is a market demand for cheap and abundant poultry.  Ford, however, would argue that we’re already there.  In his interview he candidly comments, “ Unfortunately, there is very little that is natural about the way the our food is currently produced.”
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But as for cheap and abundant poultry… A follow-up argument here is that if the poultry industry were to follow Ford’s lead, chicken could become incredibly inexpensive.  Think of all the malnourished people living in poverty who might be able to afford a package of drumsticks for the first time.  Meat is calorie-dense and (obviously) high in protein.  Would I rather grow a chicken in a plastic box or watch a child go hungry?  It’s a conundrum that throws my moral high ground into question.
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Here I am, more than 900 words into this post (if you’ve made it this far, bully for you!) and I don’t have an answer.  I won’t apologize for that because this is a topic that deserves some serious wrestling and I think it’s okay that I don’t yet have my views packaged up with a bow on top.  As I’ve said in previous posts on previous topics, asking these questions is the first step in answering them.
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But back to where I started: The Royal College of Art.  Does André Ford really want us to grow our chickens in plexiglass containers?  Or did he just assert that we should in order to set us to thinking about whether the ends they produce justify such extreme means?  Either way, it worked.
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This issue of our food supply is something I’ve explored in multiple prior posts.  If you’re interested, you can read further via the following links:
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Posts on eating meat
Posts on feeding the poor

Merely a Source of Fuel

Monday, October 24th, 2011

Most of us live life on some kind of budget.  We reconcile our monthly expenses to our monthly income and determine what we can spend on everything from housing to Starbucks.  We are no exception and I make an effort to be mindful of our grocery budget, not to waste food, and to be economical (and healthy) by cooking from scratch.  That said, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thrown out a half-used bunch of Italian parsley that’s gone South, the last fourth of a quart carton of yogurt that has expired, or pitched the final portion of leftovers because it had lingered at the back of the fridge for too long.  I wince with a small amount of guilt every time this happens.  Nevertheless, it still happens pretty regularly.  I am fortunate to be able to afford these sorts of budgetary transgressions, but many people can’t.

Prompted by a meeting at the San Francisco Food Bank over the summer, chef Karl Wilder was inspired to pilot test the very budget that more than 45 million Americans must follow: food stamps.  Wilder determined that a family on food stamps can spend $1.33 per person per meal.  He then calculated that if he wanted to incorporate oil and salt into his cooking he would have to lower his per meal price to $1.22.  That meant he had a total of less than $4 per day for food.  It started as a week-long experiment, but grew into a two-month long project, which he blogged about on his site, Fusion on the Fly.

Wilder’s blog offers daily updates throughout the months of July and August, but it was his article for Huffington Post that tracked him through a week of his experiment that I found to be the most concise and captivating account of his project.  As I read through a week in the life of Karl Wilder I was struck by a number of things, but what I found most alarming was this: feeding yourself on this kind of a budget is an incredible amount of work.  This is a man who is a chef.  He knows how to buy what is in season.  He knows which independent merchants and which food markets offer the best value.  He knows how to effectively utilize ingredients that many people would find obscure.  And as best I could tell, for the duration of this experiment he had no other employment obligations.  Merely sticking to this budget was his whole job.

Consider that most people on food stamps are working multiple jobs for long hours under physically demanding conditions.  Cooking from scratch is likely the least appealing thing at the end of such a day.  Not to mention that most (would “all” be that big an exaggeration?) of them do not share with Wilder the benefit of a professional culinary education and likely don’t know how to make nearly as much of a food stamp budget as he does.

Wilder provides a great amount of detail about the foods he eats, their costs per serving, the tricks he uses to stretch ingredients, and the nutritional profile of his diet.  Having skimmed several of his posts I have learned that he offers little in the way of reflection, though.  As I glanced at the posts from the end of his experiment I was hungry for some key takeaway, some macro level epiphany about how we could help people on food stamps make more of what they have, or some insight into the food stamps existence in general.  He never offers one.  What he does offer, though, is a glimpse into what toll this kind of life has had on him.  He comments in his August 24th post that,

I admit to being bored by [this diet]. I am sick of many of the foods that work in this budget. I am ready for it to be over.

For many who live this way it may never be over. We have few jobs in the U.S. and the jobs we have often pay so little food is a luxury.

When I say I’ve walked a mile in my brother’s shoes I know that my shoes have custom insoles and by comparison are more comfortable.

While Wilder’s second paragraph is more telling when it comes to the nutritional epidemic that is going on amongst the poverty stricken in this country, it is the first paragraph that hits me the hardest.  I suspect that many poor people feel they are helpless to change the distribution of wealth in America (by and large they aren’t wrong about that) so the fact that there is a larger issue at hand isn’t what afflicts them on a daily basis.  What afflicts them on a daily basis is the fact that they are condemned to a diet that isn’t enjoyable.

For most of us food is a significant vehicle for pleasure.  It is what brings us together at the table with friends and family.  It is a means of relaxation and recreation and communion.  But for people on food stamps food is merely a source of fuel; a source of stress and effort and very little pleasure.

I don’t have a solution here.  I wrote this post not because I believe I have anything new to add to the conversation.  I wrote this post because it made me sad learning about Wilder’s experiment, how difficult it was even for him, and how futile it must be for the 45 million Americans who live it every day.  Maybe you were already aware of the complicated nature of this plight.  Maybe you were already familiar with Wilder’s project.  But maybe you weren’t.  Maybe I’ve exposed you to an issue that wasn’t known to you.  If that’s the case then I’ve broadened the general awareness around this issue, and I have to believe that can only be a good thing.

Favorite Fall Recipes

Thursday, September 1st, 2011

In response to a couple of requests submitted in comments on yesterday’s post, I’m sharing my Chicken Chili recipe with you today.  Also, because it would just be plain mean of me not to, I’m sharing the recipe for Pump Cakes, which are more than a muffin, less than a cupcake, and highly addictive.  (Anna – The Pump Cake recipe comes from Pam F, so if you like it be sure to give her the credit!)

White Chicken Chili

Ingredients
½ C vegetable oil
1 C yellow onion, medium dice
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 jalapeño peppers, ribs and seeds removed, small dice
1/2 tsp. dry mustard
1 tsp. cumin
½ tsp. chili powder
¼ tsp. cayenne (or black pepper if you have a milder palate)
6 Tbs flour
1 whole chicken, roasted and cooled (or 1 store-bought rotisserie chicken)
3 cans low sodium chicken broth
2 cans white beans, such as Great Northern, drained and rinsed
Salt and pepper
1 bunch cilantro
1 cup sour cream

Procedure

  1. In a large stock pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat sauté onion in vegetable oil 3 to 4 minutes.  Reduce heat to medium and add garlic and peppers and sauté 5 minutes more.  Add spices and mix thoroughly. 
  2. Add flour and stir into onion/pepper mixture.  Cook roux 3 to 4 minutes until it turns slightly golden.  Meanwhile heat the chicken broth in a separate saucepan over medium heat. 
  3. Whisking constantly, add chicken broth to onion mixture.  Then add and beans.  Bring to a boil over high heat and then reduce heat to medium low and simmer.
  4. While broth is simmering, remove skin from chickens and pull meat off the bones.  Chop the meat into small dice and reserve in a medium bowl. 
  5. Add the chicken to the broth and beans and continue to simmer until it reaches your desired consistency – probably about 45 minutes.  It will start off at a runnier consistency than it should be, but will thicken as it simmers.  If it gets too thick, just add water back in, ½ cup at a time. 
  6. Add salt and pepper and adjust seasonings as necessary.
  7. Finely chop cilantro and stir into sour cream.  Serve alongside. 


Pump Cakes

These are a perfect autumnal snack.  A cross between a muffin and a a cupcake, they’re actually not that bad for you.  If you wanted to be really healthy, you could use raisins instead of chocolate chips (which my mother does…) but I think they’re much better with the chips. 

Ingredients
1 box spice cake mix
1 C canned pumpkin puree
2 eggs
1/3 C water
12 oz bag chocolate chips

Procedure

1.  Mix all ingredients together in a large bowl with a spatula or wooden spoon.
2.  Portion the batter into a greased muffin tin and bake according to cupcake directions on spice cake box.

Something Tangible

Friday, August 26th, 2011

With some big changes on the horizon (moving into his big boy room in the next couple of weeks, followed closely by the arrival of a baby brother) Nanny wisely decided to incorporate some increased structure into IEP’s weekly schedule.  Moving forward each week will include a designated day for crafts, gymnastics class, field trips, library story time, and cooking.  These are all things that they’ve been doing anyway, but assigning each one a day of the week makes things a little more predictable for IEP, which I think will be good for all of us. 

Wednesday was the first official cooking day, and I’m already thrilled with it.  IEP was waiting for me at the back door when I got home from work (which is unusual), knocking and waving as I approached.  When I got inside he exploded into a chorus of, “MOMMY!! LOOK!  LOOK!  LOOK!!  MOMMY!! MOMMY!!”  He ran to the kitchen counter and pointed very proudly to a loaf of banana bread sitting on a cooling rack.  He requested a seat on the counter and immediately picked up the entire loaf, so that I could get a better look at his creation. 

IEP eagerly told me – replete with hand motions – about how he squished the bananas, cracked the eggs, dumped the flour, and made the mixer spin.  Per Nanny, when he awoke from his nap he couldn’t wait to see the final results and quickly declared, “Banana soup is toast!  Show Mommy!  Show Daddy!”  When GAP got home he was too excited showing off the banana bread to go through the explanations again, but he made it quite clear that he was pleased with the results by sinking his teeth right into the loaf without bothering to ask that we slice off a piece. 

I’ve written before about the benefits of having something to show for yourself, and IEP’s pride and excitement really resonated with me.  As someone who’s been cooking her whole life I know well the feeling of being tickled by the fruits of your labor.  I feel such satisfaction at seeing a cake on a platter, a slice of pie on a plate, a platter of chicken parmesan, or an especially colorful salad that I’ve made.  It’s probably been 25 years since I uttered the phrase “Mommy! Look!” after completing a dish, but a tiny remnant of that sentiment still lives in the back of my mind every time I put dinner on the table.

Cooking may not turn out to be IEP’s thing.  Perhaps he’ll move on to matchbox cars, or painting, or the construction of a treehouse.  But I hope he’ll always find a way in his life to create something tangible.  Seeing his face light up with pride on Wednesday filled me up in so many ways.  And yesterday morning at breakfast I was filled again, more literally though, with delicious banana bread made by my equally delicious son.

The Mother of Invention

Monday, August 15th, 2011

Apparently I should challenge myself more often.

I enjoy cooking and I like to think I do a pretty good job of it.  I make dinner from scratch nearly every weeknight (although pregnancy has seen me slack off a bit more than usual) and I’ve developed some decent culinary skills in the past 10 years.  However, I’ve come to realize that I’m in a bit of a rut, and that rut has been enabled by weekly grocery trips.

Last week the Family P skipped town for a few days.  We’d been planning to escape the heat and enjoy a change of scenery.  So our usual Sunday grocery trip was significantly curtailed and only included a few basics that we needed to get us through Wednesday.  I took it upon myself to create dinners for Monday and Tuesday nights from things we already had on hand.

I’ve given myself this challenge before and it doesn’t always pan out so deliciously.  I’ve ended up eating cottage cheese, baked beans, and leftover biscuits.  Blech.  But last week I guess I was inspired.  On Monday night we had a pasta dish with broccoli, chicken and a white wine and mascarpone sauce.  On Tuesday we had BLTs on challah with homemade fried okra.  Both meals were both wonderful, and wonderful departures from our typical go-to menu rotation.

Wednesday evening as we left town I got to thinking about my culinary adventures from the prior nights.  They didn’t require any more time or skill than dishes I normally make.  They didn’t require that much more creativity.  But there was something about them – something about the challenge at hand – that made them more fun, both to prepare and to eat.

I’m not usually one for extrapolating broad meaning out of specific situations, but this one got me thinking about other ruts in my life.  I wonder if there are other aspects of my daily routine that I would find more rewarding if I broke out of my normal patterns.  What if I hopped on a rowing machine at the gym instead of the elliptical?  What if I took the back roads to work instead of the highways?  What if I turned on some music when I got home in the evenings?  Some of these changes might not delight me as my menu shake-up did, but others might.

The old maxim goes that necessity is the mother of invention.  Last week I experienced that very phenomenon.  However, I am very blessed and rarely find myself needing anything I don’t already have.  It isn’t often that I’m called up to invent.  But my kitchen adventures last week made me realize that perhaps I should force myself to invent more often.

Five Dollar Post – Why the Fascination with Brinner?

Friday, July 29th, 2011

At lunch yesterday I sat in my company’s cafeteria with my normal dining companions and we got onto the topic of what to have for supper.  (There’s nothing like planning the next meal before you’ve finished the current one…)  One coworker mentioned “brinner” (breakfast for dinner) with the same enthusiasm I’ve heard from lots of other people in the past couple of years.

I piped up and said, “I just don’t get what all the fuss is about brinner.”  My colleague responded, “But, it’s breakfast for dinner!!” as though that explained everything.  I told her that I understood that she was current with some sort of cultural heatwave around eating breakfast for dinner (after all, there was an entire episode of Scrubs dedicated to the fascination with brinner), but that I still didn’t understand why breakfast served in the evening was any more exciting than breakfast served in the morning.

Then it hit me.  I came up with my very own (probably genius!) theory regarding this otherwise inexplicable excitement over an egg served after 10:00am.  I posited that the excitement stems not from breakfast at supper time, but breakfast at all.  No matter how many nutritionists preach the value of starting the day off right – with a full breakfast – far too many people blow it off.  We stir protein powder into a glass of milk and call it a meal.  We eat a Nutrigrain bar in the car on the way to work and think it counts as breakfast.  Or we skip it altogether.  But very few people – or perhaps more accurately stated, very few young working people – eat an actual breakfast every day.

And that is why so many of my contemporaries are drooling over brinner.  If they don’t eat breakfast for dinner, they don’t eat it at all.  Breakfast foods are wonderful.  Eggs, biscuits, smoothies, pancakes, waffles, bacon, and so on are terrific foods.  Forsaking them all for the convenience of a granola bar is a shame.  But I think that may be what has happened here.

I may not eat bacon and eggs every morning, but I do eat a real breakfast every single day.  And if I ever stopped, well, I’d be very cranky for starters, but more importantly, I’d really miss eating breakfast.  Perhaps then the fascination with brinner would resonate with me too.

Because it’s Friday and I’m feeling lighthearted, let’s take a little poll.  Do you eat breakfast every day?  What is your most common breakfast?  I’ll go first. As I mentioned before, I’m a crank if I don’t eat breakfast, so I take it seriously. Most days I make a strawberry-banana smoothie and a piece of whole wheat toast with peanut butter.  This week it’s been toasted banana nut bread, an egg over easy, and a small bowl of strawberries.  In the winter I switch to oatmeal and hot chocolate.  Okay, your turn!

An Unfinished Product

Friday, October 1st, 2010

There are many reasons why I find Julia Child inspiring.  Her passion for good food is foremost among them.  But as I’ve been making my way through her posthumously-published memoir My Life in France I’ve fallen in love with her for many other reasons.

She was nervy and determined.  She was a bit of a bohemian.  She was an intrepid rookie with the French language.  She was a beloved misfit in a nation of prim and tiny women.  She was staggeringly in love with her husband.  She didn’t take herself too seriously. 

These are all both laudable and endearing in the same breath. 

But on pages 71-72 of her book she makes the following confession:

But I was bothered by my lack of emotional and intellectual development.  I was not as quick and confident and verbally adept as I aspired to be.  … Upon reflection I decided I had three main weaknesses: I was confused (evidenced by a lack of facts, an inability to coordinate my thoughts, and an inability to verbalize my ideas); I had a lack of confidence, which caused me to back down from forcefully stated positions; and I was overly emotional at the expense of careful “scientific” thought.  I was thirty-seven years old and still discovering who I was.

It is well-known that Julia Child didn’t discover her passion and talent for cooking until she was in her late thirties, and her famous cooking show “The French Chef” didn’t debut until she was 50.  But the quote above resonated with me even more than her late-blooming career.  For her struggles in this vein are highly similar to demons I’ve battled many times myself.

I am thirty-three now.  I am a wife, mother, and professional.  I have a graduate degree.  I should be able to defend any position I have, right?  I’m not so sure.  What I do know with certainty is that I continue to struggle with many of the same issues that our beloved Julia describes.  When challenged I sometimes become nervous and emotional, rather than confident and knowledgeable.  I have become comfortable with many of my beliefs without first really questioning why they are so.  And when situations arise that call for me to explain or defend myself I rarely find myself short of words, but often find myself short of well-formed thoughts.  When I am flummoxed I get quiet.  And for any of you who know me in person you know that “quiet” is a highly out-of-character state for me. 

But it seems I am in good company.  I’m learning from her memoir that Julia Child was a work in progress – an unfinished product – throughout most of her adult life.  I find this heartening on a number of levels.  First, it spares me the shame of not having it all worked out yet.  Second, it means that I have a lot of living yet to do.  (How sad and dull life would be if by the age of 33 there were no mental gymnastics left for me to attempt.)  And lastly, it reminds me that no matter how much of my world view I am able to articulate, there is always more to learn.

A Nation of Gluttons

Wednesday, September 29th, 2010

News flash: Americans aren’t eating enough vegetables

We are a nation of gluttons.  We read it every day.  We hear stories on food deserts.  There are “special reports” about our addictions to convenience foods.  There is a whole movement called Meatless Mondays sweeping health- and eco-conscious consumers who aim to reduce their carbon footprint and up their vegetable intake.  And yet, as a nation, we still fail.

I am no vegetable saint.  I get a decent amount of produce in my diet, but on many days I still don’t meet the federal guidelines.  (Like many people, I’m better with fruit.)  Nevertheless, I have some go-to vegetable recipes that keep me from turning into a French fry, and in an effort to serve the greater good (I’m so charitable!) I’m going to share them with you today.

My Favorite Salad Dressing
This is from Ina Garten’s Barefoot in Paris cookbook.  It is our regular salad dressing and is also quite good drizzled over steamed veggies.  It keeps in the fridge for 4 or 5 days, although you may need to stir it if the oil has begun to separate. 

1 egg yolk
½ tsp spicy brown mustard (Grey Poupon or similar)
½ tsp kosher salt
¼ tsp freshly ground black pepper
2-3 Tbs white wine vinegar (depending on how much zing you like)
½ C extra virgin olive oil

Whisk all ingredients except the oil in a small bowl.  Then, while whisking rapidly, add the olive oil in a slow, steady stream.  Adjust seasonings to taste.  (And don’t eat this if you’re pregnant.)

My Favorite Broccoli
Super easy and so much better than steamed broccoli.  It’s not a pretty dish, but trust me, the flavor is great and this is really cozy in the winter.  (You can also use this preparation for cauliflower, which actually is pretty when roasted.)

2 heads broccoli, cut into large florets
¼ to ½ C olive oil
Kosher salt and black pepper

Preheat oven to 400.  Spread broccoli florets onto a large baking sheet.  (I use a half-sheet pan.)  Drizzle with the olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Using your hands, toss to coat.  Roast for 10 minutes.  Then pull the pan out and flip each floret over with tongs.  Put back in the oven for another 10 minutes.  Ta Da!  (To do sweet potatoes, cut them into thick slices and extend your roasting time to 15 minutes per side.)

My Favorite Brussels Sprouts
Deb Perelman over at Smitten Kitchen is frequently a genius.  This recipe is evidence of that.  I won’t re-type it here because if you go over to the SK site you’ll get all of Deb’s witty banter and stunning photos.  But I will sing its praises saying that the rich, deep flavor provided by the combination of the pancetta and balsamic vinegar is just to die for.  But, if you’re a vegetarian you can easily omit the pancetta and the dish won’t suffer too much.  Be forewarned, though, that if you don’t like the flavor of balsamic vinegar to begin with, this recipe isn’t for you!

My Favorite Sautéed Spinach
This is more of what my grandmother would have called “a procedure” so don’t get hung up on measurements.  It’s hard to mess this up.  The quantities below will make about two servings.

½ bag prewashed spinach
½ small yellow onion, cut into half moons
1 clove garlic, minced
olive oil
salt and pepper

Drizzle about 3 Tbs of olive oil into a large skillet or sauté pan over medium-high heat.  Add the onion and garlic and sauté until softened, about 2 minutes.  Add the spinach and turn it frequently with tongs so that it cooks evenly, about 2 minutes.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.  You could also top with some grated parmesan if you’re feeling fancy.

My Favorite Pumpkin Soup
This week I finally had to put on a fleece for my morning outing with our dogs.  That means soup weather is just around the corner.  Pumpkin is packed with beta carotene and other stuff which I’m told is good for me but I don’t really know why.  So I eat it.  It’s delicious in pies, but I actually like this soup better.  (I prefer to eat my autumnal pie calories in the pecan format.)

2 shallots, minced
2 Tbs unsalted butter
1 can pumpkin puree
1 can low sodium chicken broth
1 Tbs brown sugar
1 tsp kosher salt
½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
¼ tsp freshly grated nutmeg
¼ to ½ cup cream

Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat.  Sauté the shallots until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes.  Add pumpkin puree and sauté for about one minute before stirring in the chicken broth.  Bring to a gentle simmer and add brown sugar, salt, pepper, and nutmeg.  Simmer, uncovered for about 5 minutes until thickened slightly.  Add cream and adjust seasonings to taste.

Have Chopsticks, Will Travel

Friday, September 10th, 2010

Sometimes I am broadsided by issues that I had no idea were issues, such as last weekend when my family and I attended the Japanese festival in town.  Like all the other festival-goers we meandered around the grounds taking in the sights and demonstrations.  And when the time came we waited in line to pay for little paper boats of soba noodles.  We plopped down on a set of stairs, pulled our chopsticks from their paper sleeves, and gobbled away.  It was a beautiful evening and I had nary a care or concern all evening.

Then I remembered this article that I read last week about the environmental drain of disposable wooden chopsticks.  Apparently China goes through about 45 billion (with a “b”) pairs of chopsticks annually, or 130 million pairs a day.  Less jaw-dropping but still troublesome is the export market for chopsticks which tallies at 18 billion pairs per year.  In terms of land usage that means 100 acres of trees (about 100 American football fields’ worth) need to be felled every day.    

This is one of those topics that catches me off guard.  I had never once considered the environmental implications of wooden chopsticks.  Frankly, I prefer them because they don’t slip between my fingers and I feel less clumsy using them.  But now it seems that with every spicy tuna roll I eat, I’m killing the earth just a little bit. 

Like most issues, this one has a flip side: the economic implications of the wooden chopstick industry.  Apparently it employs more than 100,000 people in more than 300 factories throughout China.  Those people would, presumably, be out of work if there were a blanket conversion to reusable chopsticks.

The final component of this conundrum (not for me, but for the Chinese government) is cost.  Apparently disposable chopsticks cost about a penny a piece, whereas sterilization of reusable ones can cost anywhere from 15 to 70 cents.  Restaurants are disinclined to absorb this cost, but consumer advocacy groups are staunchly opposed to it being passed on to consumers. 

This isn’t an issue I can solve.  If I’m being perfectly frank it isn’t even an issue about which I have strong feelings one way or the other.  (There seem to be merits to each side.)  The reason it caught my attention is because it pulled me out of my little Midwestern work-a-day life and reminded me that there is more to the world than the radius in which I orbit.  Sometimes it’s good to be reminded of these things.  There are problems other than my own, that I might never have imagined, but which are no less significant to the people they affect than mine are to me.  (Also, if I’m feeling particularly green, I might start taking my own chopsticks with me.)