Tuesday, June 26, 2007


You know how it goes, right? You have five minutes to read a quick article online, but of course you find something fascinating and then it snowballs. Hours pass. And you're still in front of the computer.

I sat down for a minute to eat a salad yesterday afternoon and, like I often do, I went to the New York Times Dining Section online to see what was new, and I happened upon this really cool article on farmer-writers and the consumers who are increasingly becoming intrigued by where their food comes from. Clearly, this was right up my alley. I read half of the article out loud to my mother, and then emailed her the link, which she has already included in her blog.

Of course, as these things go, there were a few organizations and authors mentioned in the article that I wanted to know more about, and so I began yet another day in the life of The Great Online Quest that didn't end until I had about 15 different windows open in my browser and I was beginning to bemoan that there wasn't enough time in the day.

The coolest find of the day was Edible Communities, a collection of regional publications regarding local food. Once I landed on the Edible Atlanta site, I was already pulling out my debit card to subscribe. And then, lo and behold, I dug around in Edible Nation, the most fascinating blog I've found in a while.

So if you need me, that's where I'll be. I have an entire year of posts to catch up on.

Monday, June 25, 2007

The Unlikeliest of Vegetables

You might think a vegetarian would know everything there is to know about vegetables, but you would be wrong. For the past three years, I’ve been fairly fascinated by cooking. I’ve learned all sorts of cooking skills, read countless foodie books, and tried numerous new recipes. But I’d never played with a fresh beet until a couple of weeks ago. I’m not even sure I’ve ever noticed a fresh beet in the grocery store.
Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against beets. They’ve just not been registering too high on my radar. I remember my grandmother growing and pickling them when I was a kid, and I was a fan of the sweet and slightly tart, chilled pickled beet slices when she would serve them alongside a light summer dinner, but then I’d forget all about them. They just weren’t the kind of thing I went around with a craving for.
Until now, that is.
Three weeks ago, when I happily unloaded my bag of vegetables from the farm, I was completely stumped when I pulled out a small handful of beets with the greens attached. I didn’t have a clue what to do with them. Beets recipes don’t show up that commonly in the magazines I read regularly, and I couldn’t find anything appetizing (if I found anything at all) in the cookbooks that I pull down from the shelf most often.
So I did what any self-respecting independent woman of the new millennium would do. I called my mom. “Boil them,” she said. “Humph,” I replied. Because truly, what kind of culinary challenge comes from boiling a vegetable? The only thing that gets boiled in my house is pasta. Big Mama got a little defensive. “I like my vegetables to be cooked simply,” she sniffed.
After a little Googling, I came upon a recipe for pickled beets that sounded easy enough, and appeared much less sweet than the other recipes I’d stumbled upon so far in my search. It was more of a sliced-beets-in-vinaigrette kind of thing, really, but I thought I would give it a shot. After all, I had zero other options so far.
First step was to boil the beets (maybe Big Mama was onto something here). Then you peel them, slice them, dunk them in the “pickling” juice, and refrigerate them for at least a few hours. I got all stressed out about the boiling part – I always have this big fear that all the nutrients and flavor will go down the drain with the discarded water at the end, but I gave it my best shot. After fighting with the peeling, which didn’t “slip right off” like the recipe claimed it would, I got busy slicing. I managed to slice maybe two beets before my curiosity got the better of me. I mean, what kind of a person would pickle a vegetable without first tasting it plain to see what the blank canvas offered by itself?
It was an epiphany. Plain boiled beets are absolutely delicious. So delicious, in fact, that I was sorely disappointed with the pickled beets when they were ready. I repeated the whole procedure again with my next batch of beets from the farm, and got the same results. Pickled beets just aren’t as good as plain old beets.
So yeah, I should have listened to my mother to begin with. But don’t tell her I said that.
THE PROPER WAY TO TREAT ONE POUND OF BEETS (makes a great lunch for one pregnant vegetarian)
  • One pound of beets, greens still attached
  • 1 Tbs olive oil
  • 1-2 cloves of garlic
  • Pinch kosher salt or sea salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • Balsamic vinegar or hot sauce, to taste
  1. Cut the greens off of the beets and reserve (you'll need them in step 4).
  2. If all beets aren't the same size, cut the larger ones into chunks roughly the same size of the smallest ones.
  3. Put beets in pan, and cover with water. Bring to a boil. Continue boiling for 20-30 minutes, until beets are easily pierced with a fork. Drain. Quickly peel beets under cold running water and discard the peeling.
  4. While the beets are boiling, cook the greens: roughly chop the greens; finely chop the stems.
  5. Heat olive oil over medium heat in a large skillet.
  6. Add greens and toss with the oil until the greens have begun to wilt.
  7. Add garlic, salt and pepper on top of the greens; cook until the greens are wilted and shiny.
  8. Toss with either balsamic vinegar (if you're partial to sweet/tart flavors) or the hot sauce (if you're the spicy type).
  9. Serve greens alongside the beets for a seriously yummy and light summer lunch.

It should be noted that both The Carnivore and Odd Toddler have decided to eschew beets season entirely. I'm the only one in the house who enjoys them at all, but the pleasure I'm getting from them is more than enough to make up for the reluctance of the rest of my family.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

For the Love of Arugula

As hard as it may be for me to admit, sometimes convenience and efficiency are the name of the game. I’m a work-at-home mother of a three-year-old little boy, I’m 22 weeks pregnant, I’m obsessive about a clean house, and I have a large family which comes with its own set of demands. Occasionally, this will mean that it’s a tad bit difficult to pull together a complete gourmet dinner in time for our uncommonly-early dinner hour. But it would kill me to just open up a box of Tuna Helper, or to stop by the store and pick up something pre-made from the deli. That would be like losing my religion. Publicly, no less, since I tend to flog myself in open forums when I feel I’m falling down on the job.
Normally, this isn’t much of an issue for us anymore. I’ve cut back even more on my client-load, and since The Carnivore tends to come home around 4pm and is thus available to hang out and play with Odd Toddler, I’m freed up for an hour or so to get dinner together. Plus, now that we’re participating in the CSA and are getting weekly share boxes of amazingly flavorful, just-picked produce, I’ve been leaning towards slightly simpler meals in order to let the freshness shine through. After all, it would seem a shame to overcook a beautiful piece of zucchini into limp submission when a quick toss in olive oil and sea salt over a grill pan for 3 minutes is all that’s needed to bring out the best texture and the sweetest flavor.
Last week though, The Carnivore pulled twelve hour days for five days in a row, which meant Odd Toddler was out of sorts from missing Papa, I was a little bedraggled from tending to Odd Toddler’s every demand from morning to night, and it was difficult to even find time to cook, much less make a dinner in which Odd Toddler and I could eat early, and which The Carnivore could easily re-heat when he straggled in the door, late and exhausted. I have a few go-to, quick-and-easy, ingredients-always-on-hand recipes in my repertoire anyway, for those days when everything goes wrong and time is of the essence, but they are the kinds of things that work in any season and don’t take advantage of fresh ingredients (like French toast and cheese grits or linguine with clam sauce). The quantity of produce we receive in our weekly CSA share boxes demands that I find creative ways to use at least one item in each meal, so it can be a bit challenging to not only use the fresh vegetables but to also do so in a quick-cook, satisfying, easily reheated meal.
And I love a challenge.
At some point late in the week, I got a later than anticipated start on dinner and realized at the last minute that the pasta dish I had planned wasn’t going to work out after all since I was out of tomato sauce (and tomatoes aren't yet in season around here). I thought about a pesto sauce, but was also out of basil. And when I leaned towards clam sauce, I saw that I was out of parsley. I had a few options still left to me when I remembered a recipe I had seen in Giada de Laurentiis’ Everday Italian cookbook for an arugula pesto. I love arugula, a spicy, peppery type of lettuce that is delicious in Mediterranean-style dishes, and lo and behold, I had received a large bag of it in the last share box.
All the other ingredients in the recipe were things I keep in the pantry at all times, and in the kind of heat we’ve had here for the past few days, a light pasta dish with some crusty bread and a fresh green salad tossed with a homemade vinaigrette sounded perfect for dinner. Since the food processor could be used, Odd Toddler was conscripted into service (since he has ruled that he is now the only person in the household allowed to push the buttons) and together, he and I whipped the pesto together in no time flat. Honestly, it took as long to make the sauce as it would have to open a jar of store-bought pesto and stir it up.
And it was utterly delicious. The pesto was more assertive than the usual variety made with basil, and the spiciness of the arugula really shined through. And I know I’ve said it countless times before, but I’ll say it again: whole-wheat pasta is the way to go. The nutritional value is light years ahead of white pasta, much less slimy, and far more filling (especially with a sauce as light as this one).
ARUGULA PESTO (adapted from Everyday Italian, serves four as an entree)
  • 2 cups packed fresh arugula
  • 1 garlic clove
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese (freshly grated is best, but the canned variety will certainly do)
  • 1/2 tsp course salt, plus more to taste
  • 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste
  • 12-16 ounces whole wheat spaghetti noodles
  1. In a food processor, blend the arugula and garlic until finely chopped.
  2. With machine running, gradually add the oil, processing until well-blended.
  3. Transfer to serving bowl, and stir in the Parmesan, salt and pepper (add more salt & pepper to taste).
  4. Meanwhile, cook the pasta in heavily-salted boiling water until al dente.
  5. Scoop the pasta with a slotted spoon or a small strainer directly from the water into the pesto, tossing as you go. (A little of the pasta water will undoubtedly drip into the pesto, but don't panic. The tiny amount of starchy, salty water that will get in will help the pesto adhere better to the noodles). Add more pasta until desired consistency and sauce-to-pasta ratio is reached.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Rethinking the Virtuous Shopping Cart

I’m having to undergo a complete brain flip to switch my ways of thinking about food. I’ve long been obsessed with having a Virtuous Shopping Cart, which for many years centered around shopping the perimeter of the grocery store. I would focus on fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and dairy products, doing my best to completely avoid the middle aisles of the store, where all the over-processed foods lurk. Doing without canned soups, or boxed macaroni & cheese, or even cookies isn't that hard to do.

When we decided to start having children, I made the choice to step it up a little by buying organically as often as possible. This was a slight change over my previous shopping habits, but didn’t require all that much thought. If an item, such as milk, was available in conventional and organic, I would pick the organic and try not to obsess too much over the difference in cost (because of course, my background in finance had to go through its own little brain flip in order for me to justify paying more for these items). If conventional tomatoes were on the only ones on the shelf, I would still buy them. It was only when the choice was there, did I actually make the effort. I wouldn't give up an ingredient solely because it wasn't available organically.

Now, however, my new focus on buying locally-grown or produced food items is requiring a sea change in my ways of thinking. For so long, it didn’t occur to me to think twice about buying bell peppers in January, or apples in March, or spinach in October. Health was my only consideration, and so I mindlessly consumed any and all produce at any old time of the year. The environmental impact of my purchasing habits was the furthest thing from my mind. As a matter of fact, with the rampant growth of foodie culture and the obsession with international cuisine over the past 10 years or so, I can recall countless times when I would be proud that my shopping cart included Italian olive oil and vinegar, Greek olives, Jamaican coffee, Central American mangoes, and French cheeses. Though it appeared to make me a cosmopolitan consumer, somehow I was blind to the irony that I was driving one of the most fuel-efficient vehicles available (I had a Honda CRX at the time), yet I was contributing quite detrimentally to an oil-dependent economy in my grocery shopping habits.

So here I am now, after recently reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (my vote for book of the year), and currently reading the less-accessible Coming Home to Eat by Gary Paul Nabhan, trying to set some new boundaries for myself without becoming an utter freak. I’ve always tried to refrain from being too strict on myself because martyrdom truly isn’t my strong suit. After all, when I first made the decision to avoid processed, packaged foods, I didn’t give up pasta. I mean, sure, I could have insisted that I make my own pasta by hand, but more likely than not, I would have starved to death. There were (and still are) only so many hours in the day, and spending six to seven hours on making dinner seemed a little excessive when balanced against my then work schedule, school schedule, and need for sleep.

And certainly I would have starved to death when I decided to eat organically four or five years ago. Only so many items were even available organically around here for a while, and I probably could not have lived on that handful of ingredients alone. Of course, I could have moved further south, joined a commune and given up all earthly pleasures in order to grow all my own foodstuffs, but I’m sure that would have been rife with its own set of problems.
For obvious and absurd reasons then, I will not subscribe too rigidly to a local foods-only diet at this point. After all, I would miss so many things (coffee, olive oil, tuna, flour, etc) and would end up shriveled and cranky, with a pounding headache, in my badly-managed martyrdom. But I am coming up with some rules that I will attempt (not force myself, mind you, but attempt) to adhere to.

Most important of these new, yet still-evolving rules, is that I will try to feed myself, where possible, within some newly-drawn political lines. I’m aiming East of the Mississippi and South of the Mason-Dixon line (you can surely see why I often amuse my mother and sometimes confound my husband). So, since I know good and darn well that strawberries grow within those boundaries, then I will refrain from buying packages marked California-grown. And since I’m also aiming to eat seasonally, when strawberries are available in Georgia in May and early-June, I will eat them to the point of gluttony. After all, I will miss them in August.

My CSA membership has made much of this possible for me right now, along with Saturday morning visits to the local farmer’s market, so that this whole exercise doesn’t yet seem futile. This summer will be mostly easy, even fun, but I’m a little wary of the coming fall and winter, especially with a newborn around the house to throw things completely out of whack. So I keep reminding myself: the point here is be mindful, to eat locally and seasonally as much as possible, but not to kill myself doing it to the point where all the challenge and the fun has been leached out.

And, in the interest of full disclosure, I have already fallen hard from my newly-established and still-precarious pedestal. Cherries are in season in California right now. After piously walking by the beautiful bags of plump, bright red cherries for a solid four days, I completely caved in last week (twice) and have now gone through around five pounds of these luscious fruits over the past week. And I might cave again. Cherry season is so painfully short. So sweet, so juicy, yet so very short.

The three-week Spring Greens session of the CSA is now over, though I still found some vibrant and tender bunches of kale and chard in my first share box of the summer session. Even though I was thrilled to death by the appearance of broccoli and zucchini in last week’s box as well as the aforementioned chard & kale, I focused most of my recipe-sleuthing efforts on the end of the greens harvest so that I wouldn’t miss out on one of my last opportunities to cook with these wonderful greens this year (unless the farm continues to plant and harvest them all summer).

So far, I’ve been stingy with the chard, and have mostly used it in sautees, with crushed red pepper flakes, olive oil and garlic, but I was ready to do something different this week, and I lucked into a recipe for Swiss chard calzones (never would have thought of it myself, even though I've made spinach calzones for years) in Vegetarian Planet. Calzones are easy to make, either with homemade pizza dough, or even with (shudder to think) the convenient little refrigerated packages of pizza dough from the grocery store. I prefer to grill mine, but they can be baked in the oven with similar, though somewhat slightly soggier, results.

This particular recipe called for tomatoes, which would have been delicious, but I substituted some mushrooms and bell peppers that were already waiting patiently in my crisper drawer. The ricotta was fabulous – I usually use mozzarella or feta in my calzones and this was a welcome change.


SWISS CHARD AND RICOTTA CALZONES (serves 2 as an entree, or 4 as a side dish; adapted from Vegetarian Planet)
  • 2 Tbs olive oil
  • 2 cups sliced red onions
  • 2 large garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 cups chopped vegetables (such as tomatoes, bell peppers, mushrooms)
  • 1 bunch Swiss chard, leaves chopped, stems diced
  • 3/4 cup Ricotta cheese
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • fresh-ground black pepper
  • crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 batch pizza dough (or, in times of utter desperation, when you don't have two hours to make dough, one refrigerated package of pre-made pizza dough)
  • 1-2 more Tbs olive oil, if grilling
  • 2 Tbs cornmeal, if baking
  1. Heat the olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the garlic and the other vegetables, and cook for 5 minutes more, stirring frequently. Add the chard and cook for another 5 minutes or so (until tender, but not mushy), stirring often. Drain remaining liquid.
  2. Add ricotta cheese, and season well with salt and pepper and red pepper flakes.
  3. Roll dough out flat, and cut into either 2 large equal-sized pieces, or 4 smaller equal pieces.
  4. Divide mixture between portions of dough, but only cover half of each piece. Fold empty side of dough over to make a pocket around the filling and crimp the edges with a fork to seal.
  5. If grilling, brush both sides of the calzones with olive oil, and cook on grill or grill pan over medium heat for about 3-5 minutes per side. If baking, skip the oil and sprinkle a baking sheet with the cornmeal. Top with the calzones and bake at 450 degrees for about 15 minutes.
  6. Serve hot with marinara sauce for dipping, if desired.