Wednesday, January 30, 2008

A Simple Snack. Made Simpler.

I have a confession to make. This is slightly embarrassing to admit, especially since I try so hard to be the poster girl for all things homemade. And of course I strive to buy as few packaged items as I can in an attempt to reduce both excessive waste (why, oh why, does everything have to come in blister packs these days) and unnecessary food miles. Because, obviously, anytime I buy a pre-made item like, say cookies, I have to confront the fact that each of the ingredients are grown or processed in different places, and then they are each trucked in to the final processing plant, and the packaging materials are trucked in, and then the finished packaged product is trucked back out to stores. And even then, we haven’t yet dealt with all my other neuroses about whether the product is made from organic ingredients, if high-fructose corn syrup is involved, and if there are ingredients I cannot pronounce.
Truly, it all gives me a headache. And God only knows what they put in Motrin.
But what about that confession, right? Well, here is the thing. For years, when I’ve craved popcorn, I’ve opened a box, ripped off the plastic wrapping, and put a bag of popcorn in the microwave. Truly, it is the only reason I even have a microwave. The Big Boy refers to the microwave as the popcorn maker and was aghast when I used it to reheat some pasta for lunch a few days ago. And what started this whole popcorn dialogue in the first place was a recent Amateur Gourmet post about microwaves, popcorn on the stove, and (oh, for pity’s sake) a discussion regarding the structural integrity of food that is reheated in microwave ovens.

Now I’m not one to bandy about architectural terms when it comes to warming up some leftovers for lunch. But it did get me to thinking because there are a number of issues with relying on microwave popcorn, and here is a short list that I have compiled:

  1. On the ingredient list of the most pure, organic microwave popcorn, there is an item called “color added.” I don’t feel like complaining about the rotten English there, and besides, Big Mama already had to listen to a diatribe from me on the subject, but why is color added to popcorn? And white isn’t a color anyway.
  2. The list of ingredients includes “natural flavor.” Um, what flavor? Popcorn flavor? Did the popcorn itself not come with its own flavor?
  3. The afore-mentioned over-packing issue.
  4. That whole food miles thing too.
  5. It doesn’t even taste that great.
  6. You have to use a microwave to make it.
  7. There is a nasty chemical in the bags the popcorn is popped in called PFOA (short for something I can’t pronounce, which means I don’t want it near my food) that has been deemed a likely carcinogen.
  8. Little kids get a BIG kick, and I mean a B.I.G. K.I.C.K. out of making popcorn on the stove.
Know how I found about number eight? Yep. I decided to go old school. When I went grocery shopping I purchased a bag of organic popcorn kernels and I popped it myself. And, because I’m in a list-making mood today, here is what I found out about popcorn that is popped on the stove:
  1. It tastes better. A lot better. Big Mama came over and polished off what I didn’t eat. And she kept making noises like “yum” and “wow.”
  2. Three-year-olds break out the big belly laughs when they hear the popping sounds in the pan.
  3. The ingredient list on the bag only has one ingredient listed. And I bet you can figure out what that ingredient is. And I’m sure you can pronounce it.
  4. It costs much less than microwave popcorn. Much, much, much less.
  5. There is far less packaging than microwave popcorn.
  6. It doesn’t take any more time than making it in the microwave. Okay, maybe it takes an extra 60 seconds. And you have to wash the pan. But is that really such a sacrifice?
  7. It reminds me of my childhood.
Who would have thought that such a simple activity would turn into such a moment of reminiscing? When I called The Carnivore to tell him of our latest cooking project, he waxed poetic about his own childhood popping-on-the-stove adventures. Mom and I started in with one of our “Remember when…” conversations, and the whole thing just made my day. A bowl of popcorn that was rife with profundities. Really, who'd have thought? And did I mention that it tastes great? Oh, yum. I want more right now just thinking about it.
Wanna try this at home? Just imagine, we could start a revolution. A popping corn revolution. I'm getting so excited...
  • 3 Tbs cooking oil
  • 1/3 cup popcorn kernels
  • Sea salt
  1. Pour oil and popcorn kernels into a really, really big pan.
  2. Put a lid on the pan. This is probably the most important step.
  3. Heat over medium-high heat.
  4. When the popping starts, begin to gently shake the pan.
  5. When popping slows to a near-stop, turn off the heat, wait a couple of seconds before lifting the lid to be sure popping has stopped.
  6. Get broom out anyway because you didn't wait and now there is popcorn on the floor.
  7. Toss the popped corn with salt.
  8. Join the revolution.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The January Greens

It could be the weather. Or maybe the sleep deprivation from having sick kids has finally caught up with me. Just last week, it was warm and sunny and we spent a few hours each day outside at the sandbox. The Big Boy built sand mountains while Little Miss Piggy lay on a blanket in the grass and kicked and blew spit bubbles. And I got to breathe fresh air and pretend that spring was just around the corner.

But then reality set back in this week. It is, after all, January. And I’m in a funk. Like schlump around the house in my slippers, sighing heavily, in a low-energy, nearly-depressed funk. I hate it when I get like this. When my list of things that are wrong with the world seems insurmountable, and I start to act lazy and mopey and just generally turn into one of those people that I don’t like very much. I feel like Eeyore.

Oh, this time of year just isn’t very much fun. I can usually stay positive through the cold days in November and December. And by February, the daffodils start blooming and my handful of disappointing tulips raise their pitiful little heads to give me something to laugh about. But January is the tough one for me. By mid-month all the excitement of the holidays has completely dissipated, and a sad anniversary for our family starts looming large in front of us, and I end up in this introspective, existential, annoying little mood.

Sure, I can still sort of see the humor in this kind of thing. And right before I do something rash, like start reciting bad poetry or reading angst-ridden philosophical tomes from college, you know, the American Idol auditions are aired and I’m able to park myself in front of the television and see, loud and clear, how bad my life could REALLY be. I suffer through the awful televised auditions every year, even though The Carnivore ends up putting a pillow over his head and groaning with agony. He has a tough time watching people make asses of themselves. I, on the other hand, love it. I mean, yeah, there are always a few uncomfortable moments, but for the most part, I end up falling down laughing at how delusional these people are. I should be embarrassed to admit all this, I’m sure. But I have no shame. Last night, I even tried to guess which drugs these morons were exposed to in utero.

It needs to get warm again. Fast. I'm clearly losing perspective.

But there were some successes yesterday. It wasn't all losers, all the time. Towards the end of our grocery shopping trip prior to dinner, during the time when I’m most apt to give in to The Big Boy’s unhealthy demands, we ended up dangerously close to the ice cream aisles and, lo and behold, a preschool-sized temper tantrum started brewing. He started fussing, Little Miss Piggy busied herself wiping snot in my hair, and I dug in my heels. And, because The Big Boy is, well, a big boy now, he jumped right out of the cart, opened the freezer case and pulled out a box of ice cream sandwiches and defiantly put it in the cart, folding his arms and setting his jaw at an arrogant angle.

“Oh, no,” I said tightly, and as quietly as possible. “This isn’t the way the world works, my little friend.”

I’m sure you can guess what happened next. He started jumping in place and raising his voice. Other shoppers began to look in our direction. Piggy began to whimper. But I had a trick up my sleeve. “If you really want ice cream sandwiches, darling, I understand and I will make you a deal.” He started to brighten up a bit. “I will not buy these things,” I said, pointing at the brightly-colored box that he had just put in the cart, “But I would be happy to take you home and help you make some ice cream sandwiches with real cookies and real ice cream.”

It took another few minutes of negotiation, but I won. And we had a delicious dessert of homemade peanut butter cookies (made with nothing more than peanut butter, sugar and eggs) sandwiched around luscious Haagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream, whose ingredient list was blessedly short and filled with words I could pronounce: cream, milk, sugar, egg yolks, and natural vanilla.

But the true winner of the day was the casserole I made for dinner. A few months ago, to curb my appetite for new cookbooks, I signed up for a daily dinner recipe to be emailed from My Recipes. Most of the time, the recipes are for meat entrees, and often I just delete the email without so much as a second glance, but recently there was a Winter Greens and Potato Casserole that just sang my song. A seasonal recipe that sounded earthy and filling and downright warm and comforting. And oh, how easy it was to put together and how utterly satisfying it was to eat. I went back for seconds and I’m looking forward to leftovers for lunch today. Even better, though this casserole may sound like a vegetarian’s dream, The Carnivore ate seconds as well.

  • 1 lb kale or mustard greens (or a combination of the two), chopped
  • 2 lbs red potatoes, sliced very thinly
  • 2 cups vertically sliced onion
  • 1 1/2 tsp salt
  • 3/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 4 oz shredded provolone cheese
  • 1/2 cup vegetable broth
  1. Bring about 6 or so cups of water to boil in a Dutch oven. Add greens, and cook for 3 to 5 minutes, until wilted and slightly tender. Drain.
  2. Coat a 9x13 baking dish with cooking spray or butter.
  3. Arrange 1/3 of the potato slices in a single layer in the bottom of the casserole dish.
  4. Top with 1/2 of the onion slices.
  5. Sprinkle with 1/2 tsp salt and 1/4 tsp pepper.
  6. Top with half of the greens.
  7. Sprinkle with half of the cheese.
  8. Add another layer of the potato slices (1/2 of the remaining amount).
  9. Top with remaining onion.
  10. Sprinkle with another 1/2 tsp salt and 1/4 tsp pepper.
  11. Top with remaining greens.
  12. Top greens with remaining potatoes.
  13. Sprinkle with remaining cheese.
  14. Pour broth over casserole.
  15. Sprinkle with remaining 1/2 tsp salt and 1/4 tsp pepper.
  16. Cover casserole dish and bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes.
  17. Uncover and bake for another 30 minutes, until lightly browned and potatoes are tender.
I still haven’t quite figured out the best accompaniment to this dish – last night I served it alongside spicy pan-fried fish, but since the fish was from WAY far away, it kind of cancelled out the local/seasonal aspect of the casserole. Suggestions are welcome.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Master of Deception

Thanks to the influence of Michael Pollan and countless newspaper and magazine articles on the subject, I have embarked on a quest to eliminate high-fructose corn syrup from our diet. Remember how giving up trans fats was the big thing last year? Well, HFCS is next on the list around here. It is evil and it is vile and it is (grrrrr) hidden away on the ingredient list of more items than you would ever expect.

And I’m just not going to take it anymore.

So grocery store excursions are becoming increasingly more time-consuming. As if taking a nursing baby and a moody preschooler to the market isn’t enough to try one’s patience, add in a neurotic female who must read every word of every food label and, well, things can get testy.

What used to take 20 minutes has now become an all-afternoon adventure. Case in point:

Yesterday I decided to do our weekly grocery shopping at Walmart (oh, how I despise that place) because in addition to food, we needed diapers and a few other discount store items. To refrain from making unnecessary jaunts to town, I decided to suck it up and get it all done together. And after making sure The Big Boy went potty before we left, and Little Miss Piggy had a fresh diaper, and all three of us had full bellies, we spent another half-eternity buckling everyone into the car and making sure pacifiers and Hot Wheels were all within reach for the whopping six-mile car trip.

But then, of course, Little Miss Piggy decided she needed to nurse (again) right after we pulled into the parking lot which, of course, resulted in another rather funky diaper change. So finally, I stash the baby in her sling on my chest, plop The Big Boy in the three-man-cart of his choosing and, 45 minutes after I announced it was time to get in the car and go to the store, we are finally actually IN the store.

The part of the shopping experience that requires my greatest patience, though, hasn’t even begun. Taking a young child into any food store is an exercise in frustration, and I have learned that redirection is one of the few weapons in my arsenal that works with any regularity. Well, that and conflict avoidance, because, you see, if you just don’t shop on those middle aisles where all the cookies and fruit roll-ups huddle, waiting to attack, then most problems can be circumnavigated rather easily.

Not at Walmart, though. There they stick the organic yogurts right next to the neon, hyper-sweetened kiddie versions. And brightly-colored cupcakes lurk dangerously close to the cage-free eggs. And what do you think is directly beside the organic milk? Why, strawberry “milkshakes,” of course.

Conflict avoidance just isn’t an option at Wally World. So I dance madly around the yogurt section, picking up every possible healthy option and excitedly extolling it’s virtues to an increasingly suspicious three-year-old. "Look!" I shout. "French vanilla! That means this vanilla comes from another country." "Wow. Check out this one! It has strawberry bananas in it? Can you imagine? I've never seen a strawberry banana before?" Five excruciating minutes later, I win, though I pretend I’ve given in to his demands by settling for the organic fat-free blackberry yogurt. He grumbles a little and, being smarter than I tend to give him credit for, he starts immediately angling for a “special treat.” See, he knows good and well that I gypped him on the yogurt. So he starts wearing me down before I’ve fully recovered from the near-meltdown on the yogurt aisle.

And I’ve gotta admit, I was sorely tempted to just cave in and grab a bag of gummy worms from the end-cap. But doggone it, I was sacrificing my favorite coffee creamer in the name of this HFCS-Freedom Fight and I was already kind of on edge about it. “Creativity,” I reminded myself. There has to be some creative alternative to gummy candies that will seem just as appealing to a three-year-old. Redirection is my best friend, after all.

And then it hit me. And I nearly knocked myself over trying to reach behind my head to give myself a good old-fashioned pat on the back.

Dried apricots.

That’s right. Dried apricots. No sugar, no high-fructose corn syrup. No chemicals that I can’t pronounce. No long ingredient lists. And, best of all, they’re big, they’re bright orange, and they’re chewy. Just. Like. Gummy. Candy. And The Big Boy thought he’d gotten away with something, because these “apricot gummies” came in a much bigger bag than the nasty sugar-coated worm things that he had originally requested. He snickered at me and ate them greedily, refusing to share even one.

Jessica Seinfeld, eat my dust.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Snack-and-Read Sundays

I love to read. I don’t just mean that, given nothing else to do, I will read in lieu of twiddling my thumbs. I truly, absolutely LOVE to read. And I worry constantly about instilling this same love of words in my children. I can only assume this compunction came from my mother. She too loves to read, and devoted her entire career to libraries. It didn’t hurt that we didn’t have a television during my early childhood, and with the exception of the few months that we lived with my uncle and his stepchildren, I was never really around other children. So, with no one to play with and no TV to rot my brain, I read. And I read. And I read.

And it stuck with me. Up until the past couple of years, I preferred suspense novels to all else. Lest anyone think I’m over-intellectualized, it should not be overlooked that I leaned towards the mass market pulp: John Sandford, Stuart Woods, James Patterson. Even during my twenties, when I went out every night after work to shows or just to hang out with friends, my favorite pastime for hours spent alone was reading. I would curl up on the sofa in sweatpants and read an entire day away. I loved the escape of immersing myself in a fictional character, living for just a few hours in a world that existed only within the confines of a book.

I read the newspapers during my lunch breaks or between classes, and of course dragged myself through the pages of countless textbooks, but for leisure, for true relaxation, fiction was all I wanted. When I would talk to my mother, we always discussed what each of us was reading at the time, and I began to fear she was losing her mind. She had always read fiction when I was a kid, but she was suddenly beginning to only read non-fiction. And it didn’t make any sense to me. She complained about feeling manipulated by fiction, but it was exactly that which I loved about it. I didn’t want to think. I didn’t mind being strung along by some author I had never met. And actually enriching my mind was nothing more than an afterthought. I got enough of that from my professors. I certainly didn't want to waste precious reading time on learning.

Mom said it was an age thing. I had no other response than ‘whatever.’ Clearly, growing up wasn’t going to be any fun at all if it meant I would no longer be interested in fictional stories.

Then I started dating The Carnivore. At first I was so utterly attracted to the fact that he was a reader (unlike previous boyfriends) that I didn’t notice he only read non-fiction. He read every word of the newspapers, the local music rags, and any political books he could get his hands on. When I finally noticed that he didn’t ever stick his nose in a fictional best-seller, I started to get a little worried. It turned out he agreed with my mother. It was an age thing, he said. Oh dear, I thought.

And somehow, ever so gradually, it crept up on me as well. I didn’t wake up one day and think to myself, “Today is the day I will stop reading novels.” Rather, I first got hooked on cooking magazines, and then I dove headfirst into a sea of food lit and didn’t ever, I mean ever, want to come up for air.

It began with Julie and Julia, a book written by a food blogger and which my mother found for me shortly after I began blogging about food myself. And I loved it. I howled with laughter at the author's antics and read whole sections of it out loud to The Carnivore. I fell madly in love with reading food blogs themselves, which turned me on to other food lit. I read Anthony Bourdain, Gael Greene, Ruth Reichl, Amanda Hesser. I scoured Amazon for similar items (man, I love that feature) and I started devouring every chef biography I could find (thank God for used books).

I didn’t REALLY want to give up fiction altogether though, or so I thought. When the most recent Patricia Cornwell novel came out, I eagerly snagged it and couldn’t wait to jump back into the Scarpetta character that I’ve gotten to know over the past 15 years or so.

Imagine my dismay when I realized I no longer cared about Scarpetta. Or her sidekicks, or even the story itself. I just had no interest in them anymore. I had (oh, say it isn’t so) grown out of it. And all I could think was that I wanted to hurry up and finish it so I could move on to the newest book that just arrived in the mail, one which I had been looking forward to for the past few weeks: The Amateur Gourmet. Yep, another non-fiction food lit-type book.

I wonder if it is an age thing.

Sundays are snack-and-read-days around our house. For only one day a week, we release ourselves from all obligations other than attending church, and we prefer the early service so that we can be home by 11am and have the entire day ahead of us to lounge in our pajamas, read the newspapers and whatever books we’re in the middle of, and play with the kids. There are no chores beyond making the bed and doing the dishes, and there is a non-negotiable moratorium on money-related tasks. The Carnivore will do no bids. I will neither communicate with my clients nor tinker with our own budget. And I will not cook dinner.

That’s right. Even I want a day off from cooking. Oh sure, The Big Boy and I might whip up a batch of peanut butter cookies if we’re so inclined (like we were this week), but any cooking is limited to desserts or snack foods. It’s a hard-and-fast rule, and we stick to it religiously, even planning our Saturday dinners so that there will be leftovers for Sunday lunch.

Ah, but we love to snack while we read (or while we watch Planet Earth – our latest addiction). Salsa and tortilla chips is my usual favorite, but it’s all but impossible to find decent tomatoes right now, and we’ve already run through the stash that I froze at the end of last summer. The Carnivore leans toward creamy blue cheese dips, and in my long-running quest to find the perfect recipe for him, I have gotten hooked as well. Finally, a few months ago, I happened across a winner in the AJC “From the restaurant of…” column, whereby the food section obtains readers’ favorite recipes from local restaurants. And honest to goodness, after attempting countless permeations on blue cheese dip, it is a great relief to have finally found one that The Carnivore deemed worthy of ending the quest.

Oh, and it is such a satisfying way to spend the day. With a couple handful of carrots and a big batch of blue cheese dip, we curl up with our children and our books and loudly crunch away.

  • 1 cup Hellman's mayonnaise (yep - it has to be Hellman's, I've tried others with bad results)
  • 1/2 cup sour cream
  • 2 Tbs cold water
  • 1 1/2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
  • 1/8 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp finely ground black pepper
  • 7 oz crumbled blue cheese (I often add more)
  1. In a bowl, whisk together the first six ingredients.
  2. Stir in the blue cheese.
  3. Chill at least six hours before serving (it takes that long for the flavors to develop).

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Off the Wagon

We’ve fallen off the local, seasonal eating bandwagon. There, I’ve admitted it. I feel as if I should be attending meetings. “Hi, my name is Sarah. I am an eat-it-when-I-want-it addict.”

It is so easy to eat locally in the spring and summer, especially in the South. Nearly everything I want or need grows in our region, if not within 30 miles of our house. I can just jump right up onto my high horse and settle into the saddle in the most sanctimonious of fashions. (Until I start craving cherries, that is. The fruit that seems to only come from California and Washington when in season in this country. But that’s a whole other topic altogether, and Mom is working on this problem for me).

Winter can get a bit bleak, even here. Other than apples and pears, which grow here, and citrus, which grows in a neighboring state (close enough for me, in other words), all the other fruits in the grocery store come from South America. And since organic apples are so bloody expensive, I try to limit us to five or six of them per week, which means, of course, that The Big Boy gets to eat the apple flesh and I’m stuck munching on his discarded peelings like a rabbit.

It is relatively easy to stick with eating fruits only when they are in season, especially if you’ve ever tried one of those vile, sour-tasting, strange-textured blueberries from goodness only knows where in January. Besides, nothing will ever compare to the ecstasy of a sun-warmed, plump, fully ripe blueberry eaten right off the bush. From my kitchen table, where I sit right now, I can see the spot where the blueberry bushes used to be. There were maybe 50 of them, big, tall and sprawling, and they produced more berries than any one family could dream of eating. The owners of the property never minded berry poachers, and we would often hear families with young children over there early in the day, stocking their buckets and trying to make friends with our nosy dogs. We joined in the harvest as well, but tended to go later in the afternoon. The heat didn’t bother us so much, even though we would bake in the sun, and the warmth only made the blueberry juice taste that much sweeter. The Big Boy loved them, and he would sit in his wagon while The Carnivore dumped handfuls of the berries in his chubby little hands. I, the sensible and self-controlled one, would fill up plastic containers to take home with us.

And then, early last spring, we watched in dismay as the son of the property owners dug up all the bushes to make way for tree seedlings for his landscaping company. We sat on some abandoned concrete steps to nowhere on our side of the property line and heaped curses upon the man's head. I suppose we should plant our own blueberries now. We have plenty of land. I’m just not sure I have the patience to wait for new bushes to mature.

Hmmm. I did go off on a tangent there, didn’t I? What I meant to say when I began typing this, was that vegetables are my weakness. Even though they too obviously taste better when in season, and especially when local and super-fresh, I have a hard time depriving myself of some of my favorites during the winter. Summer squashes are soft and a bit mealy during December, but as you can clearly see from my last post, I baked up a couple batches of crook-neck squash casserole just a week or so ago. Don’t get me wrong, I felt guilt over the whole concept when I was buying them, but buy them I did.

And then I went back to the store and got zucchini so I could make the Italian Vegetable Soup recipe that I crave so often. The carrots and celery in my crisper drawer came from California. And the mushrooms that I will be using for a frittata for tonight’s dinner are Pennsylvania grown. I am a heathen.

At the end of our CSA season (a startlingly early date in the beginning of last August), I was still able to supplement our grocery store purchases with locally grown produce from the Saturday morning farmer’s market. Then it too shut down for the year, and I silently granted myself carte-blanche to purchase anything I wanted, so long as it was grown in the continental United States. I tried not to feel too guilty because, after all, at least the vegetables grown here can be certified as organic, and my money will be supporting farmers in this country, and hey, California is a lot closer than Chile, right?

But let’s be brutally honest. It is a well-known and widely accepted fact that the average fruit or vegetable travels 1,500 miles to get into the average American’s hand. California is a good 2,500 miles away from my house. Obviously, I suck. There is just no way around it.

Maybe a good, old-fashioned coarse correction is in order here. After all, I noticed on the blog of one of our farmer’s market vendors that she and her tablemates ate a mostly local Christmas dinner. I failed to even feel guilt over the worldwide meal I enjoyed for the holiday. I. Am. Ashamed. Some changes are going to have to be made to the Beam family winter menus.

Luckily for us, we’re big fans of cool season greens like kale and collards. And some of our favorite vegetables like cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, carrots and potatoes are growing around our area right now. As a matter of fact, there was a broccoli and cheese soup recipe in last week’s food section that I’m dying to try, and (oh, the synergy) I saw that broccoli is available for order from Athens Locally Grown. Now if I can just remember to make my order during the two-day window that is offered, and then drag myself into town during their three or four hour pickup window on Thursday afternoon. This will not be without its sacrifices.

Regardless, I will happily share our beloved braised cabbage recipe here since we are fortunate enough to be smack dab in the middle of local cabbage season right now. We first tried this technique a couple of years ago and we were hooked from day one. This is the first and only recipe I have used for cooking cabbage, but The Carnivore and I agree it resulted in the best-tasting cabbage we’ve both ever had, including at Southern meat-and-three restaurants. We keep swearing we will make this for company sometime so that we can convert a cabbage-hater or two, but we never really feel like sharing. We love it that much. And any time one can excite a devout meat-eater with cabbage, one ought to count her blessings, I think. And the carrots, oh the sweet, tender carrots. I put as many of them in this dish as I can fit into the pan. The Big Boy will fight us tooth and nail for the beautiful, bright orange slices. And you know the rules, right? If a three-year-old has cleaned his plate and is poaching carrots from our plates, well then, a mom can consider it all a job well done.


BRAISED GREEN CABBAGE (adapted from All About Braising, serves 6)
  • 1 head green cabbage (about 2 lbs), outer leaves discarded, cut into 8 wedges
  • 1 large yellow onion, thickly sliced
  • 4 or 5 large carrots, cut into 1/4-inch rounds
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1/4 cup vegetable broth
  • 1/8 tsp crushed red pepper flackes
  • Coarse salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  1. Lightly oil a 9x13 baking dish.
  2. Arrange the cabbage wedges in the dish in a single layer.
  3. Scatter in the onion and carrots.
  4. Pour in the oil and broth.
  5. Season with salt, pepper, and the red pepper flakes.
  6. Cover tightly with foil and braise in the oven at 325 degrees for 2 hours. Turn the cabbage wedges with tongs after one hour (they will fall apart a little - don't stress too much over this).
  7. After two hours, remove the foil, increase the heat to 400 degrees, and roast until the vegetables begin to brown, about 15 minutes (this makes the carrots even sweeter).
  8. Serve warm, sprinkled with additional coarse salt.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Squash and Rice Casserole

Honest to goodness, New Year’s Day stresses me out. What should be a perfectly relaxing holiday is instead a long and drawn-out day filled with admonitions to begin diets, get organized, start exercising... It’s all very depressing. And it was coming from all sides yesterday. Even the newspaper, instead of focusing on the Iowa Caucus, which is THIS WEEK, wasted scads of paper printing other people’s resolutions (to make the rest of us feel inadequate) and instructions from the experts on how to stick to your own resolutions. Booorrrrrring.

It’s a holiday, people. Enjoy it. Eat cake. Read a trashy novel. Watch football. Life is short.

For Christmas, my sister-in-law gave me a Joy of Cooking page-a-day calendar. I’d so been looking forward to starting it and had it sitting out proudly on the menu desk in my kitchen. I’m too much of a stickler to have peeked ahead, so instead of paying any attention to what The Carnivore said when HE read through the first few pages (a week too soon, I might add), I woke up yesterday and ran for the calendar immediately after starting the coffee, eager to learn something new. Imagine my utter dismay when the first page was about how to stick to a diet.

IN A COOKING CALENDAR! I mean, you’ve gotta be kidding me, right? The first page of a cooking calendar is about dieting. What a letdown. I was hoping for a new recipe, or a kitchen tip, or possibly some interesting food fact about New Year’s Day and black-eyed peas. What did I get? A diet tip.

Oh, the horror. The horror.

Sure, I know that I'm going to carry very little credibility on this issue. After all, who wants to hear about an aversion to dieting from a skinny chick? Truth be told, I do have to pay attention to my weight, and I often (when I'm not pregnant or nursing) adjust my diet accordingly. And I follow a fairly strict adherence to a policy of moderation. Because I absolutely, steadfastly refuse to swear off ALL the good stuff. That, my friend, is nothing but a recipe for disaster. My favorite diet tip, on any day EXCEPT New Year’s Day (when I clearly don't want to hear anything at all about dieting), is to enjoy everything you like (here’s the key) in moderation.

But then again, I probably shouldn’t be given too much credence. I’m the odd one who adds the fat and calories BACK IN to diet recipes. See, I like healthy cookbooks and cooking magazines; they tend to include more vegetarian-oriented recipes. But, and I know I’ve mentioned this before, I get super cranky about ingredient lists that include fat-free dairy items and egg substitutes. Flavor is too important, and life far too short, for that kind of nonsense.

So I take perfectly good diet recipes, and I get busy negating the ‘diet’ part. Which, um, is probably more ridiculous I think. But in my defense, low-fat and fat-free dairy items are, I swear, the reason I had such bad skin for the 10 years or so that I subscribed to the low-fat diet concept in the late-eighties and early-nineties. And that egg substitute product has far more chemicals in it than an actual egg. Plus, and here is where my science really starts to get faulty, I wholeheartedly maintain that all these fake fat-free foods don’t fill you up for more than 10 minutes. So if you're hungry again immediately, then saving those calories just wasn't worth it then, don't you think?

I know, I know, if I try hard enough, I can justify anything. Parsing words isn’t going to change the fact that what I’m really doing is just adding the flavor back in. Calories and fat grams, be darned. Which brings me to my favorite new recipe…

A recent issue of Cooking Light had a squash-rice casserole recipe that sounded intriguing. And since it, unlike most old-fashioned Southern squash casserole recipes, didn’t call for three or four sticks of butter, I got a little excited. Because even if I added some much-needed fat back into the recipe, it would still be healthier than if it had gobs of butter in it. So I got busy tinkering. I substituted yellow squash for the zucchini, went for vegetable broth in place of the chicken broth (a vegetarian trick I rely on regularly), opted for brown rice in place of white rice (which, by the way, actually made the recipe MORE healthy), used full-fat cheese and full-fat sour cream in place of the reduced-fat and fat-free items called for in the original recipe (important for the flavor, remember), and used whole-wheat breadcrumbs rather than plain old white ones (again, making the finished product MORE healthy).

You see how good I am at justifying my actions. But if you just focus on the brown rice and the whole-wheat breadcrumbs, you can almost (if you stretch yourself) pretend that the extra fat grams from the dairy products are canceled out. And besides, since there is less fat in vegetable broth than in chicken broth, I actually REDUCED the fat in, well, one little tiny ingredient.

Whatever. When I made this casserole for The Carnivore’s family and for my family at Christmas, it got rave reviews. So if you’re counting calories for your (argh) New Year’s Resolution, this may not be the recipe for you.


SQUASH AND RICE CASSEROLE (the fattened-up version)
  • 8 cups sliced yellow squash or zucchini, or combination of the two (about 2 1/2 pounds)
  • 1 cup chopped red onion
  • 1/2 cup vegetable broth
  • 2 cups cooked brown rice
  • 1 cup (4 oz) shredded extra-sharp cheddar cheese
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 1/4 cup (1 oz) grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1/4 cup whole-wheat breadcrumbs
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp black pepper
  • 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • Cooking spray
  1. Combine squash, onion and broth in a Dutch oven and bring to a boil. Cover, and reduce heat to simmer for 15 - 20 minutes, until squash is slightly tender, but not all mushy.
  2. Drain, and slightly mash the squash.
  3. Combine squash, rice, cheese, sour cream, 2 Tbs of the parmesan cheese, breadcrumbs, salt, pepper and eggs; stir together.
  4. Pour into a 9x13 casserole dish coated with cooking spray, and sprinkle with remaining parmesan cheese.
  5. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.
  6. Broil for a minute or so until top is browned.