Friday, August 29, 2008

Stuffing It

I have been so focused upon the question of raw milk (and my newfound uncontrollable desire to get my very own miniature cow) that I didn’t realize until slightly too late that I had run out of produce. This is not a common occurrence around here; between the farmer’s market, the Locally Grown co-op, and the offerings from the gardens of various friends, relatives and clients, we generally have overflowing crisper drawers and a kitchen counter virtually crawling with vegetables. Until today, that is.

I have been straying from my usual obsessive-compulsive menu-planning tendencies in favor of more spontaneous meals, mostly because I’ve had too much going on recently to be so anal about it all, but also due to the fact that it’s much easier to go with the flow during the late summer months when there are still so many fresh vegetables to play around with. After all, who wants to be all fussy about everything when you can so easily throw together a veggie plate and let the just-picked flavors shine on their own?
I had vaguely planned to do something with spaghetti squash today, but alas, my order from Athens Locally Grown yesterday was short both the crook-neck squash and the spaghetti squash. And somehow, some way, I had finally gotten to the bottom of my piles of potatoes, green beans, zucchini and tomatoes. I don’t know how that happened exactly.
Even the fridge was kind of bare for the first time in months. As usual, there was ample variety in the cheese drawer, and I was still up to my gills in fresh herbs, but other than those anomalies, I was mostly sitting on milk and soy milk, half a block of tofu, butter, flour, some frozen vegetables, a rock-hard hind end of a baguette, and an unexplainable big ole’ package of button mushrooms. After some initial head-scratching and a minor anxiety attack, brought on in no small part by the eleven-month-old who kept trying to dump over my mop bucket, I decided my only possible recourse was to stuff those mushrooms into submission (they were, after all, in MY fridge) and to serve them with a couple of simple tomato, mozzarella and basil pizzas. Never mind that I had to thaw and crush the tomatoes that I had just frozen last week in order to make it happen.
Eating tomatoes that were just frozen a week ago. The absurdity…
The stuffed mushrooms are one of my favorite cocktail-party appetizers. Not that I go to a lot of cocktail parties. Okay, not that I go to any parties. I really need to get out more.
Anyhow, about those stuffed mushrooms. When The Big Boy was 18 months old or so, I would sit in the snuggle chair with him after lunch every day to rock him to sleep for his nap, and I would often turn on The Food Network for a few minutes. It got to be our little routine, and he would ask me adorable questions about the food that was being featured or about the host of the show. Since we stuck to our schedule like glue, it turned out that we sat down just as Everyday Italian came on each day. The Big Boy (then better known as Odd Toddler) developed quite the crush on Giada De Laurentiis, and I ended up with a plethora of her recipes in my repertoire. I was still learning to cook (still am, actually) at the time and Giada became my mentor.
I kind of miss those days now that I think about it. I rarely watch cooking shows any more, and those days of The Big Boy nodding off to sleep with his sweet head on my shoulders are long gone.
Actually, that's not entirely true. He fell asleep with his head on my shoulder just last night, but we were both wedged into his little toddler bed at the time and I was spectacularly uncomfortable.
The stuffed mushroom recipe that I use to this day came from one of those Everyday Italian episodes. I remember wanting to jump through the TV when I first watched Giada make them, and I believe I ended up at the grocery store that very afternoon so that I could get the ingredients to cook them for the first time myself. The mushrooms become tender and rich as they cook, while still retaining that beautiful earthy flavor that makes them so addictive, and the filling is fabulously complex with contradictory textures (oh, those crispy breadcrumbs) and a sharp cheese that is balanced by fresh herbs. I love them.
STUFFED MUSHROOMS (adapted from Giada De Laurentiis, makes about 25 mushrooms)
  • 1/2 cup dried breadcrumbs (the perfect use for a rock-hard hind end of a forgotten baguette)
  • 1/2 cup grated Pecorino Romano
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 Tbs chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 Tbs chopped fresh mint leaves
  • salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 4 to 5 Tbs olive oil, divided
  • 25 or so large white mushrooms, stemmed
  1. In a medium bowl, stir together the bread crumbs, Pecorino Romano, garlic, parsley, mint, a pinch of salt, a grind or two of pepper, and 2 Tbs olive oil. Taste and add more salt & pepper if needed.
  2. Brush a large heavy baking sheet with a little bit of olive oil.
  3. Spoon a little of the filling into the cavity of each of the mushrooms and arrange on the baking sheet.
  4. Drizzle another Tbs or so of olive oil over the mushrooms (do not do this ahead of time or the mushrooms will become soggy and bland-tasting).
  5. Bake at 400 degrees for 20 to 25 minutes, until mushrooms are heated through and the filling is crispy and golden.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Hey Now, Brown Cow

I wish I had paid more attention in science class back in high school. I should have known it would come to this eventually, of course. Midway through college I smacked my forehead for not ever fully comprehending math and then had to do some painful knuckling-down to make it all the way through blasted differential calculus for my major. And it worked. I get math now. I get all of it. The problem though, is that I am far more interested in nutrition than accounting now, and I’m coming at it with very little scientific knowledge.

See, the raw milk debate has hit my household, and this kind of conversation works best if you know what you’re talking about. And I’m afraid I don’t exactly.

Since The Big Boy began drinking cow’s milk on his first birthday, I have only purchased the organic whole milk for him from the supermarket. Conventional milk scares me (the hormones and antibiotics involved in its production just don’t have any place in my child’s diet), and I’m not crazy about the processing involved in low-fat milk either. Matter of fact, I avoid all low-fat dairy, finding even yogurt to be suspect. Have you noticed how many more ingredients seem to go into things that have had their fat content altered?

As The Big Boy gets older, I am sure I will start steering him away from cow’s milk. Already he prefers soy milk in his cereal, but for now he drinks about 16 ounces of whole cows’ milk every day, and I don’t have much of a problem with that. He needs the calcium, he needs the fat for proper brain development (and because he’s too doggone skinny), and milk is kind of a comfort thing for him. This is not an issue for me. And when Little Miss Piggy turns one next month, I fully intend to start offering her whole cow’s milk as well.

A dairy-free diet isn’t really something I’m after for us. Cheese is entirely too important to all of us, and though I haven’t drunk (drank?) a glass of cow's milk myself in 20 years or so, I have found that soy products aren’t the most reliable substitute for dairy when, say, baking macaroni and cheese or pulling together an alfredo sauce. The soy milk is just too nutty, too off-flavored, too gritty-textured for use in some recipes. I’m pretty sure that milk will always have a place in my refrigerator.

For the past few months, as I have read more about the industrialization of organic dairy farms, and as I have tried to purchase as much of our foods locally as I can, milk has become kind of a hot button for me. Because though we are purchasing organically (at a whopping average of $6.50 per gallon, no less), suddenly that just hasn’t seemed like enough anymore. I still have no idea really where that milk is coming from, except for the disconcerting knowledge that it is coming from far away, and the processing is still a bit of an issue as well.

So, raw milk, right? It is the obvious next step. And it is readily available to us through Athens Locally Grown, from whom I have picked up three gallons now over the past few weeks. I have read a considerable amount about raw milk over the past year or so and have been somewhat flummoxed by the science behind it all, but if there is one thing I am clear on, it is that the loudest argument against raw milk is from the FDA and I just don’t see the government as being the most reliable source of nutritional information. Governmental bodies have given us the Farm Bill, the school lunch program, and the vast ethanol conspiracy amongst other travesties.

I am conflicted on this subject, and wish that I understood it all better so that I could not only feel totally confident with my decision to purchase raw milk, but also so that I could make an argument here for why others should do so too. My sister-in-law, a registered nurse and someone with whom I discuss most scientific questions with, has given me the green light for serving raw milk to The Big Boy, and she passed me a well-balanced article that has shed some light (though not quite enough for me to feel well-versed) on the subject. Just today, there was mention of raw milk in Bitten, the blog written by The New York Times’ food writer, Mark Bittman, which linked to some other articles as well.

And the thing is, The Big Boy truly loves the raw milk. I was a bit nervous when I poured him his first cup three weeks ago. The color is not quite so purely white, and the consistency is a little thicker, a bit more viscous; the taste a tad tangier. But he loved it. He saw the picture of some brown cows on the carton, and he gushed, “Brown cows make very yummy milk, mom. I really love brown cow milk.” And, lo and behold, it is less expensive than buying organic pasteurized milk at the supermarket, and if I need to, I can actually get in touch with the farmer in charge of the operation.

Today, when we got to the Locally Grown pick-up site, The Big Boy seemed more eager than usual, and I wasn’t totally sure why he was hopping around and craning his head while we waited for our bags, but the minute we got to the car, he handed me his empty big-boy cup and said, “Fill it up, mom! I can’t wait to have some more of that yummy brown cow milk.”

For now, we will stick with it. Could you dash the hopes of such a cute four-year-old? And I will keep reading up on the subject until I am a little more sure that I know what I’m doing. But will I serve it to Little Miss Piggy when she’s twelve months old? I don’t know. I think I’m leaning towards waiting until she is a little older, which means I may be buying two different milks for a few years here. I really, really wish I had paid more attention in science. Ms. Gallagher, wherever you are, I would like for you to know that it may have taken 18 years, but I’m finally willing to admit you may have been right. Science is something I will need in real life.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Simple Life

I’ve had pole beans on the brain all day today. Sometimes it goes like that. As far as I know, I’d made it 30-something years without ever tasting a pole bean, much less giving them any thought whatsoever. And like all of us now, so far removed from where our food comes from, I had grown accustomed to the vague thought that for each particular vegetable, there are only a small handful of varieties. I mean, who knew there was a green bean that wasn't a regular old green bean, right?

It’s all a fallacy, of course, one of the great lies of corporate agriculture. For very clear and hard-to-fault economic reasons, over time the farmers that feed us (and the seed companies that essentially decide what will be grown) have winnowed down the selections until consumers got what they wanted. Now, when you go to the supermarket, all the strawberries are gi-normous and unblemished, the peaches are unnaturally firm, and the squash are exactly the same size. We asked for it. They delivered it. I recently read How to Pick a Peach: The Search for Flavor from Farm to Table and found the analysis of how we got to this place of homogenized produce to be endlessly fascinating. The book doesn’t only focus on the politics of food however; its true purpose is more to serve as a resource of information on individual fruits and vegetables, with hints on determining ripeness, instructions on how to store the bounty, and recipes for best flavor. I love that kind of thing. Love, love, love.

We are in our third year now of eating off the grid, of attempting to source as much as possible of our foodstuffs away from the confines of the supermarket, and I still spend most of my time in a clueless fog of carting home obscure (to us) items of produce that I have no idea how to cook and even less of an idea of where to put it when I get it into the kitchen.

It can be daunting - don’t ever let anyone tell you differently. But it doesn’t have to actually be difficult. I have gone to both my mother and grandmother with questions (especially the first time I found a bunch of beets in my CSA box), I have done internet searches just to find out what something is called (ever seen green garlic?), I have spent countless hours reading cooking magazines word-for-word, and I have had picked the brains of all the farmers I have purchased from.

The bright side is that it didn’t take long at all before I would purposely buy things that stumped me. Once I learned where to look for information, I wanted nothing more than to search out heirloom varieties of common veggies and to find uses for items I hadn’t even known existed. This has led to mis-steps, of course, but a good challenge never hurt anyone. Matter of fact, I’m still a little steamed that I wasted those stunning paprika peppers on a pasta dish earlier this evening that turned out so spectacularly un-spectacular. That was just no way to treat a pepper.

Live and learn.

For the most part, I do not find general Googling to be the best source for recipes when I drag in my farmer’s market finds - the results are entirely too vast and I wouldn't know who to trust nor what to do. Sure, I get plenty of recipes online from the food blogs that I devour on a daily basis, but those aren’t the first place I turn to when I’m dribbling around in bags of unknown beans and strangely-shaped peppers. During the summer, I have a small stack of cookbooks that I keep within easy reach at all times for both general information and for recipes: Chez Panisse Vegetables, a gorgeous fount of information with soul-soothing line drawings and recipes that range from the simple old-fashioned type to the only-in-the-Bay-Area-restaurant kind of thing; the afore-mentioned How to Pick a Peach, which is now my go-to for general information on selecting and storing fruits and vegetables; a couple of reliable Moosewood Restaurant and Mollie Katzen vegetarian cookbooks; and my absolute favorite, that funky, painfully-eighties, badly-photographed, but virtually indispensable Joy of Gardening Cookbook.

Look, you can dress a girl up and teach her how to cook. You can send her to college and let her spend some time traveling. You can buy her books that teach her big words, and you can hope she learns a little bit of culture from her single and carefree years spent catting about. But when it all comes down to it, you can take a girl out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the girl. Chez Panisse is just a little bit above my raising. The Joy of Gardening Cookbook is a little more working-class, a bit less sophisticated, a comfortably small-town, down-to-earth, back-to-basics cookbook for everyday use.

Frankly, it's right up my alley.

And when I found myself with a pound of Kentucky Wonder Pole Beans and no idea whatsoever about what I should do with them, when Alice Waters and Russ Parsons gave me nothing more than the sound of crickets in the night, I found what I needed in my trusty old Joy of Gardening Cookbook. In less than a minute, I learned that pole beans could be cooked and served in the same manner as all other snap beans, which meant I could have gone on to my other big-city cookbooks, but I felt right at home where I was and so I kept reading, even though I already knew good and well how to cook a snap bean.

I ended up going for the simple old-school preparation on these pole beans, partly because the fried rice dish I was serving alongside was going to have ample flavor on its own, but also because the information I read said that the pole beans had a nutty flavor and so I didn’t want to overshadow that with too much pomp and circumstance. As it turned out, plain and simple was the way to go. Pole beans are incredibly flavorful, much more so than regular old green beans, with a nice lumpy shape and a pronounced nuttiness. I loved them. They were wonderful for dinner, and just as satisfying warmed up for lunch today.

  • 1 tsp olive oil
  • 1/3 cup fresh breadcrumbs
  • 2 Tbs butter
  • 1 pound fresh pole beans, washed and trimmed
  • 1 tsp fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  1. In a small skillet, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add breadcrumbs to pan and cook, stirring, for a minute or two, until breadcrumbs are crispy and have browned a little. Set aside.
  2. In a steamer basket or metal colander set over a pan with an inch or so of boiling water, steam the beans, covered, for 3 to 4 minutes, until crisp-tender.
  3. In a large skillet, heat the butter over medium heat. Add the beans and the parsley and cook, stirring constantly, for a couple of minutes, until heated through.
  4. Season with a generous pinch of salt and a grind or two of black pepper. Taste and adjust seasoning if desired. Top with breadcrumbs and serve immediately.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Ennui Shatterer

I was feeling a certain ennui regarding dinner this afternoon. I had planned to serve a pasta dish with a roasted red pepper and cream sauce, but we had pasta last night and then I had yet another leftover pasta dish for lunch today and, well, I just wasn’t feeling it, you know? There were plenty of vegetables around from Saturday morning’s rainy farmer’s market jaunt, and The Carnivore had a piece of meat in the fridge he needed to cook, so I decided to switch gears and throw together a vegetable plate instead.

That afore-mentioned ennui was still a problem though. I mean, I had potatoes and squash and some pole beans, but since we weren’t expecting many guests at the table tonight, I wanted to go easy and only cook as much as we would actually eat in one sitting, so three veggie dishes seemed like overkill. The thing was, I just couldn’t make up my mind what to make with any of my options. I knew I wanted to cook the pole beans, and when I bought them I had originally planned to make one of my usual green bean recipes with them, but frankly, I was sick to death of both of those dishes and wanted to try something new. This would be my first foray with pole beans anyhow, so I poked around in my cookbooks to get some details on what they actually were and how to prepare them. For this, I stuck with The Joy of Gardening Cookbook, a completely quirky and out-of-character-for-me tome from the early eighties with horrifyingly bad photography and hopelessly unfashionable recipes. As usual though, I got the information I was looking for about these beans and found enough general guidance on possible ways to cook them that I was able to wing it for myself.

I love that cookbook. My mom found it for me at a yard sale a few years ago, and I think I use it more often than any of the others in my embarassingly extensive collection. I would cry if I ever had to live without it. Matter of fact, I need to pencil that in on my desert island list…

The beans turned out deliciously, by the way, but they were completely overshadowed by the fried rice dish that I served with them. Just as I had been about to start peeling squash for the squash ribbon recipe that I like so much, I started getting hinky about not having any protein or starch on the menu and I remembered running across a recipe for vegetable fried rice when I was flipping through some recipe clippings over the weekend. Eureka, right? Oh sure, I had never actually made fried rice before, and it was going to involve scrambling an egg (another first for me - don't laugh) as well, not to mention that I was running low on time and would have to use WHITE (!) rice instead of brown, but my entire day thus far had been an exercise in futility so I was up for a little challenge.

And this recipe just looked like such fun. As with my favorite frittata recipe, this one too is essentially a framework by which you can use what you have on hand at any given time, and always come out with something a little different than before but equally delicious. I substituted like mad of course, since I didn’t have the oil called for in the original recipe, I had no intention of using bacon, and I didn’t have all the vegetables on the list either, but we’ve all had fried rice enough times to know that almost anything goes.

Like I said, this is my kind of recipe. And okay, I was just a wee bit nervous about the whole thing, especially that egg-scrambling business, but the recipe is truly foolproof. No experience required, you know? Best of all, we all loved it, even The Semi-Permanent Houseguest who doesn’t usually eat vegetables, but who ate every bite of this. Next time, I intend to use brown rice, for sure, though I’m not entirely positive the results will be as delightful since I have always read that white rice is best for this type of dish, but this recipe is most certainly going to be put into heavy rotation around here.


VEGETABLE FRIED RICE (serves 2 as a meatless main dish, or 4 as a side dish)
This is the perfect seasonal recipe: just use whatever vegetables you have on hand. Serve with additional soy sauce at the table so diners can adjust the flavor to their liking.
  • 2 Tbs sesame oil
  • 2 large eggs, beaten
  • 1 medium yellow onion, coarsely chopped
  • 1 or 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 medium yellow squash, cut into 1/2-inch dice (don't get out your ruler - this isn't rocket science, and a little unpredictability never hurt anyone)
  • 1 bell pepper, cut into 1/2-inch dice
  • 1/2 tsp smoked paprika (my new favorite jar in the spice cabinet)
  • 2 cups cold cooked long-grain rice (this is a wonderful use for leftover rice)
  • 1 tsp chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 2 Tbs soy sauce, plus more to taste
  1. In a large skillet, heat 1 Tbs oil over high heat. Add eggs and cook, stirring constantly, until scrambled and a little toasted looking, breaking up the egg into small pieces as you stir. Transfer to a plate and set aside.
  2. Add the remaining tablespoon oil to the pan.
  3. Add the onion to the pan and cook, stirring constantly, for about 2 minutes, until soft.
  4. Add the garlic to the pan and cook for another 30 seconds, stirring constantly.
  5. Add the squash, the bell pepper and the smoked paprika to the pan. Cook for about 5 minutes, stirring constantly, until the vegetables have softened.
  6. Add the rice to the pan and cook, stirring constantly, for 3 minutes or so, until rice is heated through.
  7. Add the scrambled eggs, the parsley, and the soy sauce to the pan. Cook, stirring constantly yet again, for a couple of minutes, until hot.

Monday, August 25, 2008

In Case of Emergency

An emergency roster of quick pantry meals is a necessity around our house. While I generally work from a weekly menu, and I do not mind spending two hours leisurely putting together a complex dinner, sometimes other factors work against me (not the least of which is the presence of two small and unpredictable children in the household). And frankly, I just don’t think it hurts to have a couple tricks up my sleeve so that we can avoid last minute take-out meals, which are expensive and hardly imaginative.

Of course, when we ran out of water for about six hours on Saturday (ironically during a rainstorm) we did pick up pizzas. There is a time and a place for everything, after all.

For the most though, I try to be flexible. Sometimes extra people show up for dinner at the last minute, The Carnivore doesn’t come home from work until an insanely hour, time gets away from me, or a kid goes down sick and precipitates scrapping a trip to the supermarket (or co-op, farm, or farmer’s market, as the case may be). It is for those times that I make sure we always have staples on hand for what I call pantry meals. Bags of broccoli and Brussels sprouts are stashed in the freezer, along with tomatoes, whole-wheat pizza crusts, tortillas, and batches of pesto and marinara sauce. I keep unnaturally large quantities of brown rice, whole-wheat orzo and whole-wheat pasta in the pantry, and I make sure to never, ever, not-even-in-a-snowstorm run out of eggs, specialty cheeses, lemons, onions, garlic, canned beans (because you don’t exactly have time to soak dried beans overnight in desperate situations) and olive oil. And of course, in the summer, it would be truly rare for me to not find an array of peppers in the crisper, along with green beans and squash.

With those ingredients, a handful of choices exist at any given time for emergency meals, and many of the options can be stretched so that I can feed up to 10 people without breaking a sweat. I’m proud of this accomplishment; it was a long time coming.

And now with soccer season beginning, every Monday is going to be an emergency for the next couple of months. We will struggle – partly because neither The Carnivore nor I think soccer is a real sport – to have us all at the fields by six pm; and since bedtime will come right on the heels of our returning home, dinner will have to be cooked, eaten and cleaned up from before we leave the house at 5:45.

We will be in crisis mode, I tell you, especially since The Carnivore doesn’t exactly get home in time to help. And since not everyone keeps a library of these types of meals in their head, I think it is only fair that I share mine here while I limp through the next eight weeks or so of this not-a-sport-season.

This evening I will serve Rainbow Penne Pasta (made with peppers and garlic that I bought at the farmer’s market this past Saturday), topped with crumbled feta (purchased from Athens Locally Grown), and served with lemon-parsley bruschetta (using a baguette also picked up at the farmer’s market). And if, per chance, any extra guests show up at the dinner table, this recipe is easily doubled; plus, leftovers are scrumptious for lunches.

Let the games begin.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Basil Perfume

Eating locally and organically can be an expensive proposition. Since we must eat though, cooking is at least the kind of hobby that can be justified relatively easily. I do try to be aware of the costs involved, and spend an inordinate amount of time weighing the warring merits of buying sustainably-grown/produced items with our attempts to stick to a budget. As long as the kids are still at home and I am contributing very little to the household economy, scrimping will be part of my lifestyle.

Truth be told, I’ve always been a scrimper. That will probably never change.

So I do my best. When my mother or grandmother, or The Carnivore’s clients, offer up the bounty from their gardens, I am elated. Organically-grown local produce for free? Yes, yes, and yes. And if it is more than we can eat right away, so much the better. Then I am able to freeze these summer treats for use in January when I’ve grown desperate. My next goal is to learn how to can, so I will be able to ‘put up’ jars of tomatoes and such in the pantry, but I believe that project may need to wait until Little Miss Piggy has detached herself from her perch on my hip. Maybe by next summer…

In recent years, even if I have planted nothing else, I have tried to keep a couple or three basil plants around during the summer. Organic basil from the supermarket is outrageously expensive, especially considering how prolifically I use it, so I have long attempted my own little patch of it. Alas, I always ended up with spindly, pitiful little plants that would give up the ghost long before summer was over and which never provided me with enough leaves at any one time to make pesto (which is kind of the point of growing basil, really).

Every year I would try again. And every year, I would stalk around the yard, flailing my arms about and railing against the injustice of it all when I would never find more than two or three half-inch-sized leaves to take inside and use as a garnish. A garnish! Oh, the humanity.

Finally I realized I was planting the wrong variety. And then I felt particularly ridiculous.

Sometime late this past winter, when I was lolling about on my mother’s sofa with a sleeping baby draped across me, Mom tossed me a seed catalog to keep me busy. I read it word-for-word, cover-to-cover, and then I started back at the beginning. It was the Seeds of Change catalog no less, and there were profiles of chefs who source their ingredients locally, and all sorts of fascinating information about heirloom varieties of tomatoes and such. I fawned over the pages of basil plants and discussed the different varieties with Mom (or whichever sibling walked through the room) until Mom handed me her seed order and told me to write down the basil variety I wanted.

I love her. And the lettuce leaf basil that I chose. She ended up with forty-eight (48!) plants and we are now up to our eyeballs in basil. Mom sends plastic grocery bags full of basil leaves home with any adult who comes to her house. It has gotten to the point where she’ll drive up and throw bags of it at me before peeling back out of my driveway. I have even threatened to leave some of it on the hoods of the cars at the farmer’s market on Saturday mornings.

But, oh, it is so utterly delicious. The flavor is strong and spicy, with hints of pepper, and the leaves are mongo-sized and crisp. I have even (I can’t believe I’m going to admit to this) rubbed the leaves on my neck as perfume. Basil just sings my song.

The harvest has been so plentiful that I have experimented with different ways of preserving it, but none has come close to the splendor of pesto. I have attempted freezing individual leaves for use in the winter with awful results. Preserving it in the fridge in a container full of salt worked okay, but the leaves lost their crispness and thus some of their appeal; and drying it destroys too much of the flavor. So I keep blending batches of pesto and freezing them in little containers. I'm going to need to get another freezer, for sure.

I have tried numerous pesto recipes over the past few years, using different cheeses, different nuts, with and without lemon juice, and with varying amounts of basil, but in the end, it was the simplest recipe that won out. Using too many ingredients muddies the flavor, and frankly the added expense of using nuts never really added enough to either the flavor or the texture to make it worthwhile (especially when making and freezing multiple batches at a time). Interestingly, the quality of the olive oil and the parmesan cheese is irrelevant, which helps considerably while I’m buying both in bulk right now.

The best part? The pesto freezes perfectly without compromising the quality, and can make even the dreariest winter day seem brighter and much more bearable. Not to mention, keeping batches of pesto on hand means dinner is ready in the time it takes to boil a pot of pasta.


BASIL PESTO (adapted from Everyday Italian, makes enough to serve with one pound of pasta)
  • 2 cups packed fresh basil leaves
  • 1 garlic clove, peeled
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 tsp coarse salt
  • 1/4 tsp ground black pepper
  1. In a food processor, blend the basil and garlic until finely chopped.
  2. With machine running, gradually add the oil, processing until well-blended.
  3. Transfer to small bowl, and stir in the parmesan, salt and pepper.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Green Bean Fries (for pity's sake)

Feeding small children is an activity rife with more complications than raising a baby elephant in a ninth floor walk-up in a big city. I speak from experience – well, in the feeding kids thing, not the elephant in an apartment thing. Obviously.

I just never realized how much creativity would be involved in meal-planning when children entered the picture. Assuming that your kids will enjoy the same things you yourself like is one of life’s biggest fallacies. And while I’m willing to admit we all need to accept the differences in each other, I am not only not at all willing to cook separate dinners for everyone, but I also have some nutritional laws in our household on which I am not going to budge.

These tenets include, but are by no means limited to: children will eat foods that come in colors other than beige, high-fructose corn syrup is not a food group, a variety of foods will be consumed over the period of a week, candy will not be kept around the house, the majority of desserts shall be completely homemade so as to control preservatives and other chemical nonsense, and if a child chooses to eat meat, that is his prerogative, but he will have to endure mom sitting at the other end of the table mimicking the animal’s natural cute sounds while said animal is being eaten. Hey, it’s my table. I will moo if I want to.

Suffice to say, I have faced some challenges since these children have come into my life. And some wins have been easier achieved than others. Here are a few of the highlights:

The Big Boy, who as a younger toddler would have lived on fruit, hit a stubborn streak for a year or so in which he began to turn down every fruit offered. No bananas, no apples, no pears, no berries, nothing. I tried re-naming things, like calling blueberries ‘dinosaur eggs,’ but that victory was a short-lived one. So we started having daily smoothies, and The Big Boy was allowed to press the buttons on the blender. Fruit? Check. Protein? Check.

But then vegetables went by the wayside as well. See, when The Big Boy was a one-year-old, he would eat anything I put before him. He loved Brussels sprouts and broccoli and carrots. Even spinach and lettuce didn’t faze him. And you know what I did? I patted myself on the back, thought I must be the greatest mother ever (with the obvious exception of my own mother, of course), and wondered when I could expect to receive my gold medal. I'm sure you can guess what happened next though. The higher one thinks of herself, the harder she will fall. When The Big Boy clamped his mouth tightly shut and violently shook his head over virtually anything other than grits or pasta, I was shocked and dismayed. So I got creative. Again. And I started serving green beans with a big ole’ blob of ketchup (organic so as to avoid the high-fructose corn syrup) and deemed them ‘green bean fries.’ Ketchup has high levels of lycopene, as well as counting as a serving of either vegetables or fruit (depending on how OCD you want to be about it). Two years later, that trick still works.

And so I put dried fruit in The Big Boy’s oatmeal, and make my own berry sauce for his pancakes. I steam vanilla soymilk for him in my espresso maker and call it a ‘Vanilla Steamer’ (a trick I ripped off from Jittery Joe’s). And if he can be convinced that frozen fruit is a dessert treat, then so be it. Motherhood is not easy.

The thing is, kids just don’t seem to eat very much, and so I worry about every bite he puts in his mouth. If he will only be eating three forkfuls of food for dinner, then I need for those bites to be relatively nutrient-rich. And it has certainly not escaped my attention that his behavior is adversely affected when he eats packaged foods. I cannot be certain if it is the preservatives, the high-fructose corn syrup or some other additive, but without fail, every single time he is given a ‘juice drink’ or a bag of sour candies, he turns into a terrorist. Regular sugar doesn’t seem to have the same negative results. Meal-planning, errand-running, and play dates are virtual minefields. One does what one can.

I am filled with gratitude that the nearly-11-month-old Little Miss Piggy is still eating every bite of each dish I put in front of her, but I’m simultaneously gearing up for the battles ahead. I will wear these stubborn little buggers down, if it takes every ounce of strength I’ve got. In the meantime, if anyone has any other proven ideas, I'm open for suggestion.


GREEN BEANS WITH GARLIC AND SHALLOTS (serves four as a side dish)
This recipe is delightfully flavorful, and much more elegant than a typical green bean side. The Carnivore and I enjoy it as is, and serve it to the four-year-old with ketchup for dipping (which also serves to mask the assertiveness of the garlic, something which typically offends little children of a certain age).

  • 1 1/2 pounds fresh green beans or haricots verts
  • 3 Tbs butter
  • 1/3 cup thinly sliced garlic
  • 1/4 cup thinly sliced shallots
  • 1/2 tsp dried rosemary or Italian seasoning (or 1 tsp fresh rosemary)
  • 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp kosher salt
  • ketchup for small children (argh)
  1. In a steamer basket or metal colander covered with a lid and set over a large pot filled with about an inch of boiling water, steam the beans until crisp-tender. Drain.
  2. In a large skillet over medium heat, melt the butter.
  3. Add the garlic and shallots to the melted butter and cook for 3-5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until garlic is lightly browned.
  4. To the pan, add the beans, herbs, salt and pepper, and saute for another 3-5 minutes, until heated through.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Five and Ten

It is a rare day indeed in which I eat a meal I have not cooked myself. Many factors converge to make this true, of course, not the least of which is the two small children at the dinner table who are not quite tamed enough to be taken to fancy restaurants. We are hermits these days. Years of being out and about all the time mostly satisfied our need for that sort of thing, and we are content for the most part to spend our free hours down our little dirt road with our children and our own thoughts. It should also be noted that I am a consummate penny pincher and as such, am not terribly fond of tossing money around. Eating at home promotes family bonding, sound financial discipline, and feeds into my own desires to be creative in the kitchen.

But even I have my moments.

The Carnivore and I have enjoyed the occasional meal out since the birth of our first child, but these were never romantic, candlelit dinners for the children have always joined us. And, for the most part, these are lunches at restaurants, not dinners. For Mother’s Day brunch, the family generally treats me to Farm 255, and we have had other few-and-far-between moments at other, café-like appropriate places to take children who will most likely drop more than a few crumbs under the table. At the point in which The Big Boy reached the relatively well-behaved stage, before Little Miss Piggy came into our lives, we even all went out for dinner a time or two at better-than-family-restaurants, but frankly our standards are high when it comes to evening meals. If we’ll be dropping serious bank at an establishment, then what we really want to be eating is food that I cannot cook at home on my own. And those are not the types of places you take children to.

Miraculously, we found ourselves in the position this week to go out by ourselves, dressed up like people who have not been married for eight years, with the ability to linger at the table as if we didn’t have two young children at home asleep in their beds and under the watchful eyes of my sister-in-law. See, when you leave your kids with a Registered Nurse who is a mother herself, well, worrying about the babysitter will be the furthest thing from your mind. I highly recommend it.

The Carnivore, bless him, suggested we go to the Five and Ten, an award-winning restaurant in Athens headed by a James Beard Award-nominated chef. We had eaten there twice before, maybe six or so years ago, when we celebrated a friend’s birthday over appetizers one evening, and again for Sunday brunch following another friend’s wedding. I was not nearly as aware of fine food back then, and neither occasion really lent itself to the kind of meal in which the restaurant is truly known for. So it was with great excitement that I donned earrings the baby would not be pulling out, and packed a tiny purse that was not stocked with matchbox cars and crayons for the preschooler. ‘Twas a strange feeling indeed, though not nearly so satisfying as the moment in which we walked into the restaurant and I pointed at a high chair by the hostess stand and said, rather emphatically, “We will NOT be needing that.”

The Five and Ten serves a seasonal menu with many locally-sourced ingredients and does an immaculate job of perfectly and simply preparing some of its fresh offerings. For an appetizer, I ordered one of the specials, a sculpturally-appealing salad of sliced heirloom tomatoes, baby arugula and fried okra. The tomatoes were a revelation, firm and meaty, with a fruity flavor that was very low in acidity and was balanced by the barest hint of a delicate dressing. There were four exquisite pieces of okra that we tried hard not fight for. The breading was thin, crispy and light and somehow the okra was still bright green and ever-so-slightly-cooked, with none of the stringiness that turns most people away from the humble little vegetable.

We also ordered a cheese plate with accompaniments of quince membrillo, roasted grapes, toasted pecans, paper-thin slices of tart apple, and bread. They offered three of the Sweet Grass Dairy cheeses, all of which I have been dying to try for the past year, and with our server’s help I settled on Sweet Grass’ Green Hill, a soft-ripened cow’s milk cheese that recently won top honors in the American Cheese Society competition. Its flavor was mild, with a texture similar to cheddar, and was delightful for nibbling though I think it might get lost if used as a supporting role in a recipe. I now can’t wait to try some of their other cheeses as well. The Carnivore also chose Point Reyes Blue cheese for our plate, which we both had a lot of fun tasting. Blue cheeses are strong, and this one, while not the strongest one offered on the menu, was plenty in-your-face with its flavor while still managing to not overpower the palate.

Entrees were a difficult decision indeed. I was torn between a hand-cut pasta dish and another for North Carolina trout. Our very attentive (and cute as a button in her sundress and snow boots) server adeptly steered me towards the seafood, for which I was most grateful. The skin of the fish was crispy and well-seasoned, and the flesh was as perfectly-cooked as I have ever had, with a melt-in-your-mouth texture and a bright hint of lemon. The Carnivore, of course, chose some such meat dish that meant nothing to me so he had his plate all to himself (he is no dummy).

The dessert choices stumped me again, and I waffled mightily between a chocolate trifle and fried peach turnovers with ginger ice cream. The server who up to now had no difficulty at all with being decisive hemmed and hawed for a moment when I told her my dilemma and ended up suggesting I order them both. Contrary to form, I refrained. Everything had been so delicious, so perfect, and the servings had been so sensibly-sized that I did not want to ruin it all now by gorging myself and returning home bloated and grumpy with no memory of the individual bites of such unrivaled food. I ordered the turnovers and was not disappointed. The plate arrived with two hardly-larger-than-bite-size crisp pastries filled with hot, firm chunks of fresh peach next to a small scoop of homemade ice cream spicy with ginger. When at first I wanted to turn my nose up at the overpowering flavor of the ice cream by itself, my taste buds were thrilled at the transcendent and beautifully-matched flavor when I took a bite that married the ice cream with the turnover. I meant to share the dessert with The Carnivore, but after the first couple of bites, I moved the plate much closer to myself and held out a fork as a weapon. He sat back in his chair and raised an eyebrow at me, but did not push the subject. Like I said, he’s no dummy.

It has been many years since I have had a meal so divine. I do hope it doesn’t take quite so long before we do this again. And I know just the restaurant whose doors I will want to darken…

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

With a Whimper

For seven days, I have committed to chronicling all of my meals here. This is Day Seven.

I would have liked to end this little project on a high note, maybe with a wondrously-cooked meal of tofu or seaweed, possibly with a complex recipe for sushi at-home or a vegetarian turducken. But who am I kidding? The seventh and final day, due to some poor advance planning, landed flatly on a Sunday, and as I very well know, Sundays are No-Cook Days at my house. So it is not with a bang, but a whimper, that this experiment finally ends.
It kind of goes without saying then that our most virtuous meals are not eaten on Sundays. In fact, I tend to graze all day long, eating pastries at church, followed by leftovers for lunch and then an absurd amount of snacks all afternoon long. On the best of days, I might melt some cheese on top of a plate of tortilla chips and call it nachos for dinner.
Don't get me wrong. This is how Sundays should be. We spend the afternoon in our pajamas, reading the newspaper, playing on the floor with the kids and watching G-rated movies or Planet Earth. Most weeks, I stock the fridge with homemade dips for our afternoon snacking, but I have been known to heat up some frozen, packaged vegetable egg rolls and serve it with prepared sweet and sour sauce (complete with high-fructose corn syrup). Rules are made to be broken, right?
Lucky for me, and your opinion of me, it was my week to bring food to Sunday School so on Saturday afternoon, I baked The Best Blueberry Coffeecake, one of my all-time favorites. It is a crowd-pleaser, to be sure, rich with cream cheese, topped with cinnamon and sugar, and virtually studded with an abundance of blueberries. I have made copies of this recipe for countless people now, and finally have the chance to share it here as well.
Anyhow, I said I would be completely honest, so here goes. Sunday's food diary follows:
BREAKFAST: 2 cups of Cafe Choco Andes coffee with organic vanilla soymilk; bowl of organic Heritage Heirloom Whole Grains cereal with unsweetened organic soymilk
MID-MORNING SNACK: one entirely too-small slice of The Best Blueberry Coffeecake (recipe below, made with organic, crazy-expensive ingredients); a few polite sips of a very feet-tasting homemade latte that my sixth-grade brother delivered to me at church (Mom, please take your espresso machine back to the store and explain to the clerk that it makes your lattes taste like feet - I'm sure they will understand)
LUNCH: finally, the last of that leftover Orzo with Tuna, Garbanzos and Herbs; a few slices of Marinated Cucumbers
EARLY AFTERNOON ADDICTION: very large, homemade cappuccino made with Cafe Choco Andes coffee and organic vanilla soymilk
MID-AFTERNOON MADNESS: slice of birthday cake baked by Tommy's mom
EARLY ABORTED DINNER: three very unsatisfying bites of cheese sandwich made with sprouted whole wheat bread, swiss cheese, whole grain Dijon, organic baby spinach trucked in from who-knows-where, and marinated cucumbers (before sandwich was tucked into a container in the refrigerator after realizing 'twas not at all what I was craving)
SECOND, MORE SUCCESSFUL, DINNER ATTEMPT: organic yellow corn tortilla chips topped with melted Monterey Jack cheese, lustily dipped into fresh salsa made with organic tomatoes given to us by The Carnivore's clients, jalopenos from my mother's garden, onions and garlic from the farmer's market and store-bought limes and cilantro
PREDICTABLE EVENING SNACK: stove-popped popcorn
THE BEST BLUEBERRY COFFEECAKE (serves 10 self-controlled people or 4 more realistic eaters, adapted from the AJC Food Section)
  • 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter, softened
  • 4 oz cream cheese
  • 1 cup plus 2 Tbs sugar, divided
  • 1 egg
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 cups fresh or frozen (unthawed) blueberries
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  1. Beat the butter and cream cheese together in an electric mixer on medium speed for a couple of minutes, until creamy.
  2. To the mixer, gradually add 1 cup of sugar, beating well.
  3. Add egg to the mixer, beating well.
  4. In a small bowl, combine flour, baking powder and salt.
  5. Add flour mixture to mixer, stirring just until incorporated.
  6. Stir vanilla into mixture.
  7. Carefully fold berries into mixture.
  8. Pour batter into a greased 9-inch round cake pan or springform pan.
  9. Combine remaining 2 Tbs sugar and cinnamon and sprinkle over batter.
  10. Bake at 350 degrees for 55 minutes.

Monday, August 18, 2008


For seven days, I have committed to chronicling all of my meals here. This is Day Six.

I'm suffering. It's all very melodramatic, really. This entire food diary experiment has caused some of this suffering of course (there's nothing quite like confessing one's sins publicly to keep one humble, you know), but truly the greatest source of pain and anguish has come in the form of an innocuous container of orzo. Remember on Monday when I made Orzo with Tuna, Garbanzos and Herbs? Well, I doubled the recipe since we had eight people at the dinner table that evening, but it turns out that was entirely unnecessary, and there were MONGO amounts of leftovers. While normally I love having leftovers around, because that gives us something to eat for lunches, I tend to get sick of any particular dish after eating it for, oh you know, every day for an entire stinking week.

It was Sunday afternoon before I finally ate the last of it. I hope to never see it again.

The thing is though, when I planned last week's menu, I assumed we would have no leftovers on Monday night, so it didn't strike me as a particularly bad idea when I penciled in Mediterranean Orzo for Saturday night's dinner. See, I hadn't anticipated reaching the third level of orzo salad burnout by then.

But reach it, I did. And now I have (oh, woe is me) leftovers from the second orzo dish in the fridge, just waiting for me to nibble on it for the next, I don't know, five or six days. This is what burnout looks like, my friends. And it ain't pretty.

Saturday's Food Diary:

BREAKFAST: 1 cup of Cafe Choco Andes coffee with organic vanilla soymilk (I was in such a hurry to get to the Saturday morning farmer's market that I failed to pour myself a second cup; more suffering ensued as a result); it should also be noted that I forgot to actually EAT breakfast on my way out the door - I'm telling you, the market rules my life

MID-MORNING REDEMPTION: big honking bowl of Banana Nut Rainforest Crisp cereal with organic unsweetened soymilk; homemade cappuccino made with Cafe Choco Andes coffee and organic vanilla soymilk

LUNCH: another dadgum bowl of that Orzo with Tuna, Garbanzos and Herbs (woe, I tell you, woe)

LATE AFTERNOON ADDICTION: my second homemade cappuccino of the day

DINNER: Roasted Pepper Panino made with peppers and basil from my mother's garden and onions from the farmer's market (recipe below); and the spectactularly badly-planned yet incredibly tasty and wonderfully-textured Mediterranean Orzo using locally-produced feta cheese that I obtained through Athens Locally Grown, and shallots from the farmer's market (recipe below)

EVENING SNACK: one of the yummy, chubby homemade dark chocolate chip and pecan cookies that my sister-in-law made

LATE EVENING ADDICTION: one measly Edy's Strawberry Fruit Bar (and now I have come to the indisputable conclusion that one is most assuredly not enough)


HUMBLE ROASTED PEPPER PANINO (makes four sandwiches)
I developed this recipe for a contest, which I did not win - hence the word 'humble'
  • Red bell pepper (1 large or 2 small)
  • Poblano pepper (2 medium sized)
  • 4 oz crumbled gorgonzola or feta cheese
  • 1 Tbs butter, room temperature
  • 1 Tbs Dijon mustard
  • 8 slices rustic artisan bread (like Italian sandwich bread or ciabatta), sliced fairly thickly
  • 1/2 white onion, sliced thickly
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh basil leaves
  • approximately 1/3 cup olive oil
  1. Roast the peppers over a gas stovetop flame or under the oven broiler until charred, turning so that peppers are blackened all over. Place in a bowl, cover with a kitchen towel, and let steam for about 10 minutes, until skin is loosened. Peel and discard charred skin, discard stem and seeds, and slice peppers into strips.
  2. In a food processor, blend the cheese, butter and mustard until creamy and spreadable.
  3. Spread the cheese mixture on each slice of bread (one side only).
  4. Arrange the pepper strips, onion slices and basil leaves on half of the slices of bread, and top sandwiches with remaining bread slices (cheese sides facing in, of course).
  5. Heat a skillet or grill pan over medium heat; brush one side of each sandwich with olive oil. Cook sandwiches, oiled side down, until golden brown and heated through, then brush other side with oil, flip sandwiches over, and cook until other side is golden brown.


MEDITERRANEAN ORZO SALAD (serves 4 as a main-course salad, or 6 to 8 as a side dish, adapted from AJC Food Section)

  • 1 cup uncooked orzo pasta (I prefer the whole-wheat kind)
  • 1 large shallot, thinly sliced
  • 2 cups packed baby spinach, chopped
  • 16 oz cooked chickpeas (or one 15-oz can, rinsed and drained)
  • 3/4 cup crumbled feta cheese
  • 3/4 cup julienne sun-dried tomatoes (if not using oil-packed, then add a little extra olive oil to the salad)
  • 1/2 cup chopped kalamata olives
  • juice of 1 to 2 lemons, to taste
  • 2 Tbs olive oil, or more to taste
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  1. In a large pot of boiling, heavily salted water, cook the orzo for 8-10 minutes, until al dente.
  2. While orzo is cooking, combine the sliced shallot and spinach and large bowl. When orzo has been drained, immediately toss with the shallot and spinach to wilt the vegetables.
  3. Stir in the remaining ingredients, and add more lemon juice, olive oil, and salt and pepper if needed.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Painful Truth

For seven days, I have committed to chronicling all of my meals here. This is Day Five.

You know how at the beginning of this little seven-day food diary adventure, I said I would be totally honest? How, even if I broke down and went through a drive-through, I would cop to it?

Yeah, well, about that. I wish I hadn't said it, 'cause I've got some 'fessing up to do about a little, um, fall from grace that occurred yesterday. See, it all began with a series of unfortunate events...

I got carried away Friday morning, just doing things. I had a client coming by to go over some work I'd done, and so I spent the morning madly straightening up and making sure the kids and I were all presentable. Breakfast went fine and right on schedule, but sometimes the center just doesn't hold. Inexplicably, as The Client and I were sitting at the table reviewing some papers, The Semi-Permanent Houseguest chose that moment to pick up one of The Carnivore's guitars and start a little impromptu jam session in the loft directly above us.

And things just went downhill from there. Little Miss Piggy went down for her nap later than usual, my mother came by with some fresh vegetables (bless her - this was not part of the downhill slide, it was just a simultaneous occurrence), my nephew waffled about whether he wanted to run errands with me, and then I had to yank the baby up early from her nap so that we could caravan with my sister-in-law to an appointment. While normally, I can adapt rather calmly to chaos, somehow, in the midst of it all, The Big Boy and I forgot to eat lunch. And lunch is kind of a non-negotiable thing for me.

So it was that I found myself, about an hour and a half past our usual lunchtime, trying to reason with The Big Boy as he suffered from an incredible, pseudo-psychotic meltdown when I tried to extricate him from his friend's sandbox before he was ready. I had felt a tension headache coming on for days, and not surprisingly at all, my head went into full-force rebellion right along with my four year-old.

An hour later, accompanied by what had burgeoned into two extraordinarily uncooperative children under the age of five, I realized I had broken one of my cardinal rules, a rule that my own mother had drilled into me as a young child myself, something I should have kept front and center in my mind during this week-long public food diary experiment: I was starving and I was in a grocery store.

Never, ever go anywhere when you're starving to death. Never. Just don't do it. This is how I lost my religion.

Any other day, I would have been able to control myself. I would have picked up a protein bar from the health-food section and scarfed it down in the car on the way home, or I'd have grabbed an Odwalla protein smoothie or something equally virtuous. But not this time. Little Miss Piggy hadn't had enough of a nap, The Big Boy and I were giving each other the stink eye over his earlier meltdown, my head was splitting open, and I was close to the breaking point. I pretended I didn't know the children in my cart and I calmly crossed everything off my grocery list as I made it through the store, and when I got to the other side and saw a table stacked with boxes of chocolate iced Krispy Kreme doughnuts, I marched right to it, picked up a box, and ate one right there. In the middle of the store.

And then I ate another one (okay, two more) as I drove to the recycling center to sort my glass and plastic.

That's right. I had three doughnuts yesterday. What of it?

Here is Friday's food diary, the good, the bad, and the ugly:

BREAKFAST: 2 cups of Cafe Choco Andes coffee with vanilla soymilk; bowl of Banana Nut Rainforest Crisp cereal with unsweetened soymilk

LATE MORNING SNACK: Strawberry and banana smoothie made with vanilla soy yogurt, organic bananas, and conventionally-grown (read: chemically grown), mass-market, frozen strawberries; followed by a homemade cappuccino made with Cafe Choco Andes coffee and vanilla soymilk

LUNCH: bupkis

AFTERNOON SNACK: Three chocolate-iced Krispy Kreme doughnuts (see above public flogging)

LATE AFTERNOON CONSOLATION: another homemade cappuccino

DINNER: Since we have had an additional three houseguests for the past two weeks, I've been doubling and tripling recipes so as to follow the traditional Southern rule of always making too much food so guests do not starve on our watch. Thus, the refrigerator was slap full of leftovers and I declared it a Clean-Out-The-Fridge dinner, which suited everyone. I ate leftover Orzo with Garbanzos and Spicy Couscous with Garbanzos. Actually, Little Miss Piggy ate most of the garbanzos off my plate. I just ended up with the detritus. It's not like I needed the calories after gorging on the doughnuts.

EVENING SNACK: Stove-popped popcorn

LATE EVENING ADDICTION: 2 Edy's Strawberry Fruit Bars

If anyone needs me, I'll be at the altar on Sunday morning.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Athens Locally Grown

For seven days, I have committed to chronicling all of my meals here. This is Day Four.

I picked up my first order from Athens Locally Grown on Thursday afternoon, and I can definitely see adding this to our meal-planning and shopping repertoire. The variety of products available is superior to that of the farmer’s market and opens up many more possibilities to us, but since once doesn't have the option of actually touching and smelling the produce and making impulse decisions, I will still be attending the Saturday market as well.

The Locally Grown system allows for an order to be placed online on Mondays and Tuesdays (though I noticed many items were already sold out by Tuesday, so I definitely advise making your order sooner rather than later), with a scheduled pick up time on Thursdays between 4:30 and 7:00 pm. For me, that particular quirk is the only drawback to this. By that time of the day, I have a volatile situation with a four year-old who could potentially melt down at any time, a husband who is about to arrive home starving to death, and a baby who will fall asleep in the car during a time when I most certainly do not want her taking a nap.

But what do you do, right? This pickup time is ideal for everyone in the world except me. Kind of hard to hold it against them.

We scheduled some other errands for the same time period so that we wouldn’t have to make a special trip to town, and my sister-in-law was with us, which allowed me to leave Little Miss Piggy in the car with her while I waited for my order. All in all, the whole thing went, well, adequately. I arrived right at 4:30 because I wanted to get home as soon as possible to get dinner started, but I realized too late that the line begins earlier and I should have arrived around 4:15 if I wanted to beat the crowd. Thus, I waited in line for maybe 15 minutes before reaching the table where I told a volunteer my name and handed over my bags. The volunteer then took a piece of paper with my order on it from her stack and went through the tables and coolers and the truck collecting my order for me.

Each of the items was marked with a label with the customer’s name on it, which certainly prevents mistakes from being made, and the volunteers were amazingly efficient and cheerful considering the amount of work that is involved for them. The only glitch for my order was that my beans weren’t there – apparently that farmer had not delivered them – which was mildly frustrating but, frankly, is just the nature of things when you’re trying to buy your foodstuffs directly from the source. Read: I need to be a little less high-strung about perfect meal-planning. Athens Locally Grown is a big deal around here, and I saw somewhere around 30 to 40 customers there during the first 30 minutes of the pickup time (before the after-work rush) so I think it is an impressive feat that they have pulled this off so well to begin with.

Most likely, I will not buy food this way every week, solely because the pickup time is too big of a hurdle for me when I still have the Saturday farmer’s market as an option, but come November, when the market shuts down for the winter, and Locally Grown is the only choice available (and Little Miss Piggy will be a little older and more reasonable), I’ll be leaning heavily on them. And until then, I’m sure I will be making reasonably consistent orders for items like eggs, feta and milk, for which I have found no other sources.

This, our first order, consisted of one gallon of raw milk (which I’ll be interested to see if The Big Boy will appreciate), flat-leaf parsley, okra, Café Choco Andes coffee, feta, and those missing beans. I am very curious to taste the feta (local cheese!) and will report back on that shortly.

Following is Thursday’s food diary.

BREAKFAST: 2 cups of Café Choco Andes coffee with organic vanilla soymilk; leftover frittata from Wednesday night’s dinner (frittata is one of my favorite leftovers)

LUNCH: Leftover Orzo Salad with Garbanzos (I am never going to finish it…)

MID-AFTERNOON ADDICTION: homemade cappuccino made with Café Choco Andes coffee and organic vanilla soymilk

LATE AFTERNOON MIS-STEP: Okay, so I was at the mall (a highly unusual event in and of itself) to get new eyeglasses (first new pair since summer of 1999 – call me a cheapskate, it won’t hurt my feelings) and you know those cups of hot, soft pretzel bites you can get in shopping malls? You know what I’m talking about right? They’re buttery little pillows of high-carb, nutrient-free, heavily-salted madness. And I love them. So I ate one. Only one. One little-tiny pretzel bite. Not an entire cup – just a one-inch square. And I need to find that wet noodle, because it’s time for a flogging.

DINNER: a very decadent, high-fat Fettucine Alfredo made with those knockout Bionature noodles that I keep raving about, steamed broccoli (flog alert: the broccoli was frozen, mass-market, and conventionally-grown) and Lemon-Parsley Bruschetta (recipe below – made with a fresh garlic loaf from Earth Fare, organic lemons from 3000 miles away (grrr), and parsley picked up from Athens Locally Grown)

EVENING SNACK: You expect me to say popcorn, don’t you? Well, I was helping my nephew with his Algebra 2 homework (which I last attempted in 1989) and I didn’t eat a snack. Lesson to take home: helping kids with homework is a valid weight-loss tactic.

LATE NIGHT ADDICTION: Edy’s Strawberry Fruit Bars, obviously (but I only ate two of them – I’ll beat this addiction yet – or, if anyone from Edy’s ever reads this, yes, I’ll be glad to be your spokesperson in exchange for free popsicles).


LEMON-HERB BRUSCHETTA (adapted from Everyday Italian)
  • Baguette or loaf of artisan bread, such as ciabatta, kalamata olive, or Tuscan garlic (my favorite)
  • 1/8 cup olive oil
  • juice of half a lemon
  • coarse salt & pepper
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1 to 2 Tbs fresh basil or flat-leaf parsley, chopped
  1. On an angle, slice bread into 1/2 to 3/4 inch thick slices.
  2. Combine olive oil, lemon juice and a pinch of salt in a small bowl.
  3. Lay bread slices on a baking sheet and broil for 1 minute, until golden on top. Flip slices over and broil other side until golden.
  4. If using any bread other than Tuscan garlic (which already has garlic, obviously), rub cut side of garlic clove onto toasted bread. The heat will melt a little bit of the garlic onto each slice, infusing it with flavor.
  5. Using a pastry brush (or, if you are like me, a cheap paintbrush from the hardware store), brush the lemon oil over the slices of bread.
  6. Sprinkle bread with coarse salt and a grind of pepper.
  7. Sprinkle with chopped herbs.
  8. Serve immediately.


My girlfriend Becky sent me the most fabulous links for coupons on organic dairy products from Organic Valley and Horizon. Bless her.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Usual Suspects

For seven days, I have committed to chronicling all of my meals here. This is Day Three.

I like to think of myself as being well-rounded and interesting, but I'm beginning to think I've been fooling myself all this time. Honestly, I'm as predictable as they come. Like clockwork every day, I drink my two cups of coffee (not one, not three, but two - exactly two). Most mornings, I have cereal for breakfast. Sure, sometimes I throw caution to the wind and, you know, have cheese toast. Then I'll have the previous night's dinner leftovers for lunch, and follow that with a mid-afternoon cappuccino. I'm not at all sure why I thought keeping an online food diary for seven days would make for stimulating and fascinating reading. Frankly, I could just cut and paste each day's breakfast and lunch and save us all the trouble.

Maybe I can find redemption in the dinner menus (and hope that no one notices I served yet another grain with feta and garbanzos and fresh herbs).

Oh, to be fair, I suppose this was a most absurd week to embark on this project anyhow, since I'm being much less creative in an effort to please the palates of the houseguests, and not all of my usual menus work well with such a crowd. Or I could just break down and admit that we eat a lot of garbanzos around here. They're delicious really, in case your household doesn't cook a pound of them a week, and they serve as an ideal source of "meaty" protein for vegetarians. I toss them into green salads and grain salads, chilis and other bean soups, make hummus with them, and even snack on them by themselves (Little Miss Piggy loves them plain). And, if you haven't tried garbanzos before, obviously I have a plethora of recipes this week that use them.

Here is Day Three's thrill-a-minute food diary:

BREAKFAST: 2 cups of Cafe Choco Andes coffee with organic vanilla soymilk (a shocker, I'm sure); big, huge, ginormous bowl of organic Banana Nut Rainforest Crisp cereal with unsweetened soymilk

MID-MORNING NERVE CALMING RITUAL: cup of organic Mother's Milk herbal tea (to promote healthy lactation - just bear with me here)

FIRST LUNCH: leftover Crispy Flattened Potatoes (can you believe there were leftovers?) and Brussels Sprouts Cockaigne

SECOND LUNCH (it was one of those days): leftover Orzo with Garbanzos (there they are again)

LATE AFTERNOON ADDICTION: homemade cappucino made with Cafe Choco Andes coffee and organic vanilla soymilk

DINNER: Frittata with wild rice, feta and pecorino romano cheeses, organic mushrooms, peppers from my mother's garden, and garlic and onions from the farmer's market; and Spicy Couscous with Garbanzos (recipe below)

EVENING SNACK: Stove-popped popcorn (like clockwork)

LATE EVENING ADDICTION: Edy's Strawberry Fruit Bars (of course)

Does anyone want to guest blog tomorrow's food diary? I'm sure it's fairly obvious what I'll be eating. Maybe we should just cut this little exercise short and go back to our regularly scheduled programming...


SPICY COUSCOUS WITH GARBANZOS (serves 6 as a side dish)
This is a nice variation on the usual rice side dish, and can be made ahead of time.
  • 1/3 cups slivered almonds
  • 2 cups vegetable broth
  • 2 oz white wine
  • 2 cups whole wheat couscous
  • 1 Tbs olive oil, plus 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 red bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and chopped
  • 1/2 small onion, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 cups garbanzo beans
  • 2 tsps fresh parsley or basil (or a combo of the two), chopped
  • 3 oz crumbled feta cheese
  • 1 tsp or so of hot sauce (like Tabasco, Texas Pete or Valentino)
  • salt, to taste
  1. Spread almonds on a baking sheet and toast in a 325 degree oven for about 10 minutes, until golden and fragrant. Set aside to cool.
  2. In a medium saucepan, bring the broth and wine to a boil. Remove from heat, stir in couscous and set aside for 5 minutes.
  3. In a skillet, heat 1 Tbs olive oil over medium heat. Add the bell pepper, onion and garlic, and saute for about 5 minutes, until onion is translucent and pepper is tender.
  4. In a large serving bowl, combine the almonds, couscous, sauteed vegetables, garbanzos, herbs, feta, hot sauce and 1/4 cup olive oil.
  5. Taste and add salt if needed, more hot sauce if desired, and more olive oil if texture is too dry.
  6. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Becoming (a little more) Paranoid

For seven days, I have committed to chronicling all of my meals here. This is Day Two.

For genetic reasons, I suffer from mild paranoia. And this little project is only feeding into that. I mean, you try it some time. Keep a public food diary and see if you don't start looking over your shoulder every time you take a bite.

Big Brother is watching.

Honestly, it makes your food taste different. And to cap it off, I miscalculated my veggie needs when I was at the market on Saturday, and I am going to run out of locally-grown produce by dinner tonight. The same thing happened last year immediately following the end of the CSA season. After becoming accustomed to receiving such a vast quantity of veggies in each week's box and supplementing that with a few things from the farmer's market, I found it difficult at first to get back into the habit of buying a week's worth of produce solely from the market. Well, that, and I didn't take quite enough cash with me last Saturday. And we have an extra four people at the dinner table these days. So yeah, excuses, excuses.

I realized early Tuesday that I was going to run out of produce, so I jumped on the computer to make an order with Athens Locally Grown, essentially an online farmer's market whereby you place your order on their website from what is listed as available and then pick it up a few days later. Orders are taken on Monday and Tuesday, and pickup is a small window of time late on Thursday afternoon. This was my first time ordering from them, mainly due to the inconvenience of the pickup time, and I committed a major error in waiting until Tuesday when many items had already been snapped up by people who plan better than I do. So I missed out on the Swiss chard that I wanted, along with eggs and apples (grrrr). I won't make that mistake again next week. The variety of offerings is vast and downright lovely, and I was even able to order some dairy products. If this works out for us, I can see doing this on a weekly basis in addition to the farmer's market during the CSA off-season. Details to come, of course...

Anyhow, what this does mean is that I had to go to the supermarket yesterday and buy organic mushrooms, bell peppers and spinach from much further away than I would have preferred. Now where did I leave that wet noodle I flogged myself with last time?

For those who want to hold me to a higher standard, here is Tuesday's food diary:

BREAKFAST: 2 cups Cafe Choco Andes coffee with organic vanilla soymilk; big bowl of Heritage whole grain flake cereal with unsweetened soymilk. I'm beginning to see a pattern here.

MORNING SNACK: Cherry-banana smoothie (recipe below)

LUNCH: Leftover orzo salad from Monday

LATE AFTERNOON ADDICTION: homemade cappucino made with Cafe Choco Andes coffee and organic vanilla soymilk

DINNER: Baked macaroni and cheese (recipe below), crispy flattened potatoes (speaking of patterns...), and brussels sprouts cockaigne (made with frozen mass-market brussels sprouts)

EVENING SNACK: Stove-popped popcorn (creature of habit, I know, I know)

LATE EVENING ADDICTION: 2 (okay, 3) Edy's strawberry fruit bars


SMOOTHIE (makes the perfect amount for one adult and one small- to mid-sized child)

  • 1 cup yogurt - we prefer to use Silk vanilla soy yogurt
  • 1 banana
  • 1 cup frozen fruit
  1. Put all 3 ingredients in a blender and whir away until everything has been pureed. You may have to stop the blender a time or two and shake things up so that all the fruit can get to the blade. Under no circumstances should you take off the lid and start poking at the mixture with a metal knife while the blender is running (like my mother did).


MACARONI AND CHEESE (adapted from Joy of Cooking, serves 4 or so as an entree)

  • 8 oz whole-wheat penne
  • 1 large or 2 small leeks, sliced thinly (I got this idea from an episode of Bones, of all places)
  • 1 tsp olive oil
  • 2 1/4 cups grated sharp white cheddar cheese (note: cheese is not yellow by natural circumstances)
  • 2 Tbs salted butter (not margarine, not oleo)
  • 2 Tbs all-purpose flour (I have tried using whole-wheat flour with disastrous results; stick to the plain old white kind)
  • 2 cups whole milk (soy milk adds a very off flavor to the dish; stick with regular cow milk)
  • 1/2 onion, minced
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/4 tsp paprika
  • 1 tsp whole-grain mustard
  • salt & pepper
  • 1 Tbs butter
  • 1/2 cup fresh breadcrumbs (made from stale baguette or from a few slices of whole wheat bread that has been cooked at 200 degrees for a couple hours until crispy; run bread through food processor until crumby)
  1. Cook noodles in large pot of heavily salted, boiling water until al dente. Drain and set aside.
  2. Add the olive oil to a small skillet and saute the leeks over medium heat until tender, 1 to 2 minutes. Set aside.
  3. In a large saucepan, over medium heat, melt 2 Tbs butter.
  4. Whisk the flour into the melted butter and cook, whisking constantly, for 3 minutes.
  5. Gradually whisk the milk into the flour-butter mixture.
  6. Stir in the leeks, onion, bay leaf, paprika and mustard.
  7. Simmer gently, stirring often, for 10 to 15 minutes, until thick and bubbly.
  8. Remove from the heat and stir in 2/3 of the cheese.
  9. Season with salt (about 1/2 tsp) and pepper (about 1/4 tsp). Taste and adjust if necessary.
  10. Stir in the cooked pasta.
  11. In a greased 1 1/2 quart baking dish, pour in half of the mixture. Sprinkle with 1/2 remaining cheese.
  12. Top with remaining noodle mixture, and sprinkle with remaining cheese.
  13. In a small skillet over medium heat, melt that last Tbs of butter.
  14. Add breadcrumbs to melted butter and toss to coat.
  15. Sprinkle breadcrumbs over top of macaroni.
  16. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes, until breadcrumbs are lightly browned and casserole is bubbly at the edges.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Eating Transparently

For seven days, I have committed to chronicling all of my meals here. This is Day One.
I knew I was going to embarass myself with this little project. Matter of fact, I can't believe I got myself into this in the first place. I eat a shocking amount of food. And I realize, now that I'm looking at the absurdly long list of things I ate yesterday, I eat all day long.
It's a long list, folks. And yet I inexplicably lost a pound yesterday.
I'm sorry.
- 2 cups Cafe Choco Andes coffee (organic, fair trade, locally-roasted coffee purchased at the farmer's market) with organic vanilla soymilk. I would have had more, but I'm still nursing a baby.
- big bowl of Heritage organic whole grain flake cereal with organic unsweetened soymilk
- 2 figs (picked from the organic tree in my yard)
- big bowl of leftover Italian vegetable soup from Saturday's dinner (made with organic zucchini and leeks purchased at the farmer's market, organic broth, and dried organic oregano from my mother's garden)
- small plate of fettucine with fresh pesto (the pesto was made with organic basil from my mother's garden and organic olive oil; the fettucine was the delicious organic whole-wheat Bionature brand that I highly recommend)
- homemade cappucino made with Cafe Choco Andes coffee and organic vanilla soymilk (if you're addicted to Starbucks and haven't bought yourself a Krups, please let me give you a little push in that direction)
DINNER: this entire meal went over very well with the family and the current crop of houseguests, most of whom are carnivorous
- Spicy corn on the cob (recipe below; made with organic butter and organic corn purchased at the farmer's market)
- Squash ribbons (made with organic squash and onions purchased at the farmer's market)
- Orzo with tuna and garbanzos (recipe below; made with organic whole-wheat orzo, organic canned garbanzos, organic lemons grown 3000 miles away, organic olive oil, and organic parsley from the farmer's market)
- Stove popped popcorn (cooked in organic olive oil)
- Three Edy's strawberry popsicles (I am so ashamed)
- In the Italian vegetable soup, I used some white bowtie pasta. White noodles stress me out, but I really wanted to use bowtie in this dish, and I couldn't find whole-wheat bowties. I should have made my own from scratch. Please hold while I flog myself...
- The canned tuna in the orzo is a guilty pleasure. I need to find a source that is more sustainable than what I picked up at the supermarket, but I haven't gotten around to it yet. I feel bad about this.
- The popcorn was not organic this time because Walmart doesn't carry it and that happens to be the store I was in when we had run out of our organic brand. Conventionally-grown corn is a bit of a nightmare though and should be avoided.
- Some people don't like to run out of crack. I feel much the same way about those Edy's popsicles. I'll give them up when you pry them out of my cold, dead fingers.
SPICY CORN ON THE COB (adapted from Cooking Light, serves 6)
  • 6 ears corn
  • 5 Tbs butter
  • 1 tsp chili powder
  • 1/2 tsp coarse salt
  • 1/2 tsp ground cumin
  • 1/4 tsp finely ground black pepper
  • 1/8 tsp ground cayenne red pepper
  1. Melt the butter and combine with the herbs & spices.
  2. Shuck the corn, and brush the herbed butter onto the corn.
  3. Wrap corn in aluminum foil.
  4. Bake at 450 degrees for 25 minutes.


ORZO WITH TUNA, GARBANZOS AND HERBS (adapted from Bon Appetit, serves 4)

  • 9 oz uncooked whole wheat orzo (this can be tough to find - I found it at my health food store; substitute regular white orzo if necessary)
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 3 Tbs fresh lemon juice
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 1 15 oz can garbanzo beans, rinsed and drained (conversely, you could use dried beans if you plan ahead, which I didn't in this case)
  • 2 Tbs chopped fresh herbs (I like to use basil and parsley)
  • 2 1/2 oz crumbled feta cheese
  • 1 can tuna in olive oil, drained
  • Salt & pepper to taste
  1. Cook orzo in large pan of boiling salted water until al dente. Drain.
  2. Whisk olive oil, lemon juice and minced garlic in large serving bowl.
  3. To the bowl, add cooked orzo, drained beans, chopped herbs, feta and tuna. Toss well.
  4. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  5. Serve warm or at room temperature. Note: leftovers make a delicious lunch for the next day.