Monday, October 31, 2011

Baba Ganoush

Did I mention that I hate eggplant?

The thought of the mushy, seedy, watery vegetable in fridge was making me a little queazy, honestly.  But I bought it, so I had to cook it.  I decided to go with the camouflage technique and try to put it into some unsuspecting hummus.

I've tried to make hummus before and haven't been very successful.  It never tastes quite right.  And I didn't expect it to this time, either.  I could have sworn I had tahini (sesame seed paste) in the house, but I didn't.  So I had to sub-in peanut butter, which just seemed weird.  I added a little sesame oil to make up for it.

An in-auspicious start when collecting up ingredients.  My hopes were not high.

I first cut the offending eggplant in half and put it in the oven to roast at 400 degrees for 30 minutes.

Then, I drained and rinsed some organic canned chickpeas (garbanzo beans).  I whirred them up with some water in the baby-food maker, and promptly put half the batch into three little containers for the baby.  It's nice to be able to cook for everyone at the same time!

I put the remaining chickpea puree into a bowl, and then added about a tablespoon and a half of natural peanut butter, a dab of sesame seed oil, about a 1/4 cup of olive oil, a teaspoon of garlic, and the juice of one lemon.  Then I snipped in some fresh parsley.  I whirred it all up.

When the eggplant was finished roasting, I took it out of the oven and cut it into chunks to cool.  [I planned to use the eggplant skins, as I understand they have disease-fighting properties.]

I whirred the chunked eggplant up with some water and then added the eggplant puree (which bore no resemblance to the seedy mess it started out as) to the chickpea mixture.  I stirred them together with a spoon, tasted, and decided to throw in a pinch of salt.

Voila!  A light and airy version of hummus that is excellent served with an extra drizzle of olive oil and a dash of paprika.  It was pretty good in its own right (if maybe a little peanutty), but not great compared to Lebanese-restaurant hummus or baba ganoush.  As I expected, unfortunately.

But the eggplant has been cooked and is surprisingly edible, so it's a win!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Pomegranate Chicken Salad

As part of the unfamiliar produce I've been buying lately, I picked up a pomegranate at Trader Joe's last weekend.  Fearful that it would spoil, I faced it down this evening, learning online how to de-seed it from various websites, and then having fun watching the recommendations work wonders.

I first cut the pomegranate into chunks.

And then I de-seeded it by turning the chunks inside out underwater.

Then I rinsed off the remaining pulp.

And added my glorious pomegranate seeds to a salad of kale, walnuts, and leftover rotisserie chicken, topped with cracked black pepper.  I made a quick dressing of apple cider vinegar and dijon mustard whisked together, and enjoyed my tart combination!

Farmers' Market

The whole family made a trip to the farmers' market at the Annapolis Mall this morning.  My toddler enjoyed trying to haul all the veggies all by herself!

Here's the rather random (on purpose) assortment of what we brought home, complete with some birds' egg beans I found at the White House farmers' market near my office last Thursday.  I'm trying to grab stuff I don't like / don't know how to cook / don't know what it is in order to simulate the CSA experience.

The thing I don't care for of this bunch is the eggplant.  I've had good preparations of eggplant and bad preparations of eggplant.  When it's good, it's really good; when it's bad, it's really bad.  I'll have to be careful to cook it just right!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

"Noodles" in Soy Sauce Broth

I've had plain, cooked spaghetti squash in the fridge for a couple of days, and have been trying to decide what to do with it.  Several years ago, I tried to serve spaghetti squash to my husband with tomato sauce, and he absolutely rebelled.

Admittedly, spaghetti squash is a really sad substitute for the real thing.

I've found that I really do like spaghetti squash when it stands alone, rather than as a weird, quasi-version of something else.  Hubby, on the other hand, has never so much as tried it again after the initial, bad experience.  But, I think there might be a middle ground.

Perhaps spaghetti squash would be good in place of noodles with a thin, Asian broth?

My husband fell in love with "thin Asian soup" on a cruise we took several years ago.  The chef clearly specialized in Asian broths, and my husband has a culinary adventure with the soup each night of the trip.

I started with this recipe in mind.  I put a pound of stew beef in the crock pot and topped it with 7 cups of water, 1/2 cup of ketchup, 1/2 cup of soy sauce, a tablespoon of red wine vinegar (I didn't have rice wine vinegar), a few drops of dark sesame oil, and some red pepper flakes.  Then I snipped in some fresh basil and added about a cup each of chopped onions and carrots.

After about eight hours in the crock pot, the result was superb.  I warmed the spaghetti squash in the microwave and then put it in bowls with a few more snips of fresh basil.  Then I ladled the soup over it.

The spaghetti squash was firm and just a bit crisp: the perfect consistency for noodles in a soup.  My husband even ate them!  He had two bowls!

And, then, just for fun, here's a shot of my toddler attempting to eat the "noodles" with chopsticks just like Mama and Dada.

Spinach Pizza

My toddler made me so proud today.

We stopped at a pizzeria to grab slices of pizza for lunch while we were out running errands this afternoon.  When shown the slices of cheese pizza behind the counter, my toddler asked if she could have one with spinach on it.

Well, yes.  Yes, of course!  She ate almost a whole slice, including all the spinach.

My husband noted that I had done an excellent job of brainwashing her about vegetables.  To prove his point he asked her, "Do vegetables come in a can?"

To which my brilliant two-year-old replied, "No, Dada.  They come from the ground.  You pick them, and then you eat them."

That's right, sweetie.  So proud.

Pumpkin, Apple, Zucchini Muffins

My husband is usually the breakfast cook for our family.  He does a wonderful job cooking us hot eggs and toast, even on busy weekday mornings.  On this rainy Saturday, he and the kids are sleeping in, and I've been sneaking around in the kitchen.  Today's menu: Pumpkin, apple, zucchini muffins.

I admittedly started with a pumpkin muffin mix from Trader Joe's.  It has more sugar than I would like, as well as an additive (Arabic gum), but it's pretty clean compared to most boxed cake mixes.  The box directions call for water, eggs, and oil.  I substituted egg whites for the eggs, and applesauce for the oil.  Then, I grated in about a cup of zucchini, just to see what would happen.

They turned out exactly as I hoped.  After 18 minutes in the oven, the muffins emerged sweet, chewy, and delicious.  I paired mine with a small scoop of plain, fat-free Greek yogurt topped with a dusting of ground nutmeg.  The cool, tart cream contrasted perfectly with the warm, sweet muffin; I could've sworn I was having cream-cheese frosting.

...And the best part?  I'm eating this plate of heavenly, baked goodness, sipping a cup of hot tea, and the entire family is STILL asleep.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Veal Patties in Parsley Sauce

One of the reasons I don’t enjoy cooking is that pretty much everything I make pales in comparison to what I could get at a restaurant.

Not tonight!
For years, I had been lusting after my mom’s veal patties with parsley sauce. She used to make them when I was a little kid, and they were my favorite meal. She long ago lost the recipe, but remembered that it came from an old Weight Watchers cookbook. Armed with that knowledge, I searched on google for “veal, patty, parsley, Weight Watchers” and found exactly what I was looking for here. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

The veal patties were easy -- if time consuming -- to make. I found local, pasture-raised ground veal and local parsley (both from Virginia) at Whole Foods. I updated the recipe a bit to suit my more modern tastes (does anyone still cook with margarine?) and to make it a bit healthier.  To do so, I removed the salt and the egg yolks, switched to whole-grain bread crumbs and low-sodium chicken broth, and used olive oil instead of margarine.

1 cup evaporated skim milk, divided
2 slices whole-grain bread [I used Ezekiel bread] torn into pieces
2 tbsp. olive oil, divided
½ cup diced onion
1 lb. ground veal
2 egg whites
¼ tsp pepper
Dash each ground nutmeg and ground allspice
2 tbsp chopped fresh parsley, divided
1 & ½ cups low-sodium chicken broth
2 tsp all purpose flour


In food processor combine half the milk with bread and process for about 30 seconds. let stand for 5 minutes.

In small skillet heat ⅓ of the olive oil; add onion and saute until softened.

Add onion, veal, egg whites, and spices to processor and process until smooth.

Add ⅓ of the parsley and process to combine.

Refrigerate covered for 15 minutes.

Using moist hands, shape veal mixture into 8 patties and cook, turning once, until evenly browned.

Add chicken broth, cover, and let simmer for 15 minutes, turning patties once.

Remove patties from pan and keep warm, reserve pan juices.

Combine flour with remaining milk, stirring to dissolve. Stir into pan juices, stirring constantly, bring to a simmer and cook until thickened.

Stir in remaining parsley.

Serve over patties.

Having omitted the salt from the original recipe and having used low-sodium chicken broth, I found that the patties needed just a dash of salt at the table before they tasted perfect.

Each bite was like actually tasting my childhood. It was AMAZING. The patties have a lightness to them that’s heard to explain, and the thin sauce is inexplicably delicious.

I also made an incredible side dish with a recipe that I found here. Sweet, earthy, and crunchy, this acorn squash stuffed with chunky natural peanut butter, honey, unsweetened applesauce, and cinnamon was exactly the right thing to pair with the veal.

I started by halving an acorn squash and scooping out the seeds. Then, I added a tablespoon each of peanut butter, honey, and applesauce to each half.

I put it in a baking dish with 2 cups of water and baked it for an hour.

When it came out of the oven, I scooped out all the squash and toppings, mashed them together in a bowl, and then returned the delicious mash back into the acorn squash shell for a beautiful presentation.

I outdid myself!!

I felt the need for something green, so I served the veal patties with the acorn squash and some steamed broccoli. Paired with a Sam Adams Octoberfest, it was one of the best dinners I’ve ever had.

CSA Virgin can rival a restaurant any day!

Nutty Vanilla Butternut Squash & Kale Soup

Last weekend, I bought a bag of kale, an acorn squash, a butternut squash, and a spaghetti squash from Trader Joe’s. I was hoping to prove to myself that I could be overwhelmed with fresh, seasonal vegetables that I don’t usually eat, and find something to do with them anyway. I arrived home from work last night to find both the butternut squash and the spaghetti squash getting a little weird and mushy in spots. It was time to cook them before it would be too late!

The spaghetti squash was easy. I had cooked those before. I halved the squash (which took two knives and a high risk of personal impalement), scooped out the seeds, rubbed it with olive oil, and cooked it cut-side down on a baking sheet for 30 minutes in the oven at 350 degrees. Once the squash itself was in the oven, I cleaned the seeds and popped them in, too. They took about ten minutes to toast.

When the spaghetti squash came out of the oven, I let it cool and then scraped it with a fork into a plastic container. I put it straight in the fridge. I’ll figure out what to do with those gorgeous strands some other time.

Meanwhile, I was making somewhat more complex (but still easy!) Nutty Vanilla Butternut Squash and Kale Soup. The recipe was inspired by this recipe for Nutty Vanilla Sweet Potato and Kale Soup, and the comments on it, which suggested that it was possible to use butternut squash instead of sweet potato. I actually arrived that the recipe via This & That, a blog about cooking produce from the same CSA I just joined!

1 large butternut squash
1 teaspoon of chopped garlic
1 can lite coconut milk
1 cup 1-percent milk
1 tsp allspice
1/4 tsp black pepper
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
4 cups kale, trimmed, washed and torn into small pieces
1 vanilla bean
1/4 cup raisins
1/4 cup unsalted peanuts, for garnish
Shredded coconut, for garnish


Halve the butternut squash, scoop out the seeds, and then cook in the microwave for 15 minutes.

Heat a large pot on medium high. Spray with cooking spray and add squash (scooped out of the skin), cooking until it begins to brown. Stir in garlic.

Add coconut milk, milk, allspice, pepper and flakes.

Bring to a boil, then reduce heat, cover and simmer for 30 minutes.

Mash squash with potato masher or puree with immersion blender.

Add raisins, kale and vanilla and cover. Allow to cook for 8-10 more minutes, until kale is bright green.

Portion into bowls and garnish with 1 tbsp each peanuts and coconut.

The soup turned out fragrant and delicious, and was an excellent use of the butternut squash. My veggie-phobic husband ate his entire bowl (including the kale!) and even sopped up the remaining broth with a piece of bread. This was his first experience with kale, and he declared it “okay.” That’s very high praise from him!

The CSA Virgin really hates to “diagnose” her food. She would prefer to make a recipe, enjoy it, and be done. But, admittedly, there was room for improvement on this otherwise excellent concept. The soup came out a little thick (perhaps because of the substitution of butternut squash for sweet potatoes), so I think I’ll add a little water or vegetable broth to thin it next time. Neither my husband nor I is a big fan of thick, creamy soup.

The original recipe called for garam masala (an Indian spice blend). While I’d like to say that I used allspice because I didn’t have, or couldn’t find, garam masala, that’s not true. CSA Virgin purchased BOTH allspice AND garam masala at Whole Foods, and then grabbed the wrong one when she started to cook. Not a fatal error, but one I might correct next time.

Overall, I think my squash night was successful. I now have two bowls’ worth of Nutty Vanilla Butternut Squash and Kale Soup and an entire squash’s worth of spaghetti in the fridge.

Normally, the fridge is looking a little bare by the end of the work week, but not this week!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Sodium in Beet Greens?!

While I was eating my lunch (beet greens and brown rice) at the office today, I decided to look up the nutritional profile of beet greens. I had never actually eaten them before, so I was unfamiliar. It turns out that they’re nutritional powerhouses, with tons of vitamins and minerals, plenty of fiber, and lots of protein (similar to kale and other greens).

But they’re also surprisingly high in sodium. Who knew?!

One cup of cooked beet greens has about 347 mg of sodium, or 14 percent of the recommended daily allowance. When compared to canned soup and other sodium-laced processed foods, the amount of sodium in beet greens is nothing.

But I was nonetheless surprised!

Kale chips!

From everything I've read about joining a CSA (at least in my geographic area), you have to develop a deep, loving relationship with kale.  You'll get lots, and lots, and lots of it.  I grabbed some kale from Trader Joe's last week, and decided to start my learning process with kale chips.

I'd heard that kale chips were a good as potato chips, with a lot less calories and lot more nutrients.  I usually assume that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.  But not in the case of kale chips!  I tossed some kale with olive oil, coated a pan with cooking spray, spread them out on the pan, and then popped them in a 425 degree oven for 5 minutes (they probably could have used 6).  When they emerged from the oven feeling crisp, I sprinkled them with a little garlic salt and a little paprika while they cooled.  They were phenomenal.  Thin and crispy like a perfect Lay's potato chips, but with an additional richness from the garlic and paprika.

Why eat junk food when you can have these?!  These are still a treat, because there was probably one to two tablespoons of olive oil in the plate of chips.  But these a great way to enjoy kale, and to get some much-needed vitamins in a way that feels absolutely sinful.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Accidental Zucchini

Two weeks ago at Trader Joe’s (before I decided to focus on local food), I purchased what I thought were two cucumbers. Leave it to the CSA Virgin not to know the difference between two different kinds of oblong, green vegetables: When I sliced into the first one, I realized I had zucchini instead. Yuck.

There are very few vegetables that I actually hate. Some are better than others, but I’ve been known to pick around only four: zucchini, mushrooms, cauliflower, and red bell peppers. Zucchini and mushrooms are the only two vegetables I have hated practically since birth. I truly hate their texture when cooked, and their taste does nothing to make up for it. I could always take or leave cauliflower, but it didn’t make my enemies list until a highly unfortunate incident involving creamed cauliflower and food poising several years ago. Red bell peppers are the weird one: I like them in virtually all stand-alone preparations (raw, roasted, grilled, etc.), but I cannot stand them if they show up in a mixed veggie side dish (the frozen medleys are the worst offenders). Weird, I know.

So, there I was at the counter, slicing into my accidental zucchini, and wondering what I was going to do with it. I had only just convinced my husband that I would make full use of CSA vegetables, so if he came home from work to see two, perfectly good zucchinis in the trash, I would have a lot of explaining to do. Not to mention, I know my CSA will probably have a bumper crop of them next summer, just because that’s my luck. So, it was time to find a way to like a zucchini.

I hit the web and found this recipe for Zucchini Oven Chips.

1/4 cup dry breadcrumbs
1/4 cup (1 ounce) grated fresh Parmesan cheese
1/4 teaspoon seasoned salt
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons fat-free milk
2 1/2 cups (1/4-inch-thick) slices zucchini (about 2 small)
Cooking spray

Preheat oven to 425°.
Combine first 5 ingredients in a medium bowl, stirring with a whisk. Place milk in a shallow bowl. Dip zucchini slices in milk, and dredge in breadcrumb mixture. Place coated slices on an ovenproof wire rack coated with cooking spray; place rack on a baking sheet. Bake at 425° for 30 minutes or until browned and crisp. Serve immediately.

For bread crumbs, I used half a slice of Ezekiel bread made into crumbs in my baby-food maker. [Ezekiel bread is hard and crunchy to begin with, so it makes excellent bread crumbs with no toasting.] I skipped the salt because I had “garlic salt” in my pantry instead of “garlic powder,” so I assumed they would be salty enough. I also went a little heavy on the freshly-ground black pepper because I prefer my food to be spicy. I had only 1-percent milk, so that’s what I used. And I used a pizza tray instead of a wire rack. I popped them in the oven and they were perfectly done in 20 minutes (rather than the 30 the recipe called for).

The result was incredible. They had none of the watery mush I usually associate with cooked zucchini. They were spicy, crunchy, rich, and wonderful. Restaurant-appetizer worthy. They were so decadent, in fact, that I poured myself half a glass of red wine to go with them. And then I ate the entire plate of them: a whole zucchini’s worth.

If I could turn around a lifetime’s worth of zucchini-hate with just one, simple recipe, maybe there’s hope for mushrooms, cauliflower, and red bell peppers, too? And for my husband’s hatred of virtually all vegetables?

I guess we’ll find out!

My new CSA

On Saturday, our family paid a visit to Practically Organic, a Community-Sponsored Agriculture (CSA) farm that is only four miles from our house.

I loved pulling up to see a true family farm, a beautifully-kept house surrounded by rows of vegetables, free-range chickens, and houses for bees. While I talked with Shawn Sizer, the farmer, my toddler fed the bunnies with Mary Ann, Shawn’s wife, and pet the miniature rescued horses in the pasture. We walked the fields and Shawn pulled some gorgeous veggies for us, including beautiful candy-striped beets, which I had never seen before. It was an absolutely idyllic experience.

[My toddler, who learned to garden with me last summer, wasn’t shy about taking a turn pulling up the crops. I had to stop her and apologize more than once! I guess it’s a good thing that she already knows the simple joy of pulling fresh food from the ground.]

When we got home, I was so excited to cook my very first CSA vegetables.

I promptly washed and chopped everything. My plan was to roast the veggies (beets, carrots, and parsnips) and to cook the beet greens (I wasn’t sure the other greens were edible, based on some quick web research).

I coated the root veggies in olive oil, then sprinkled them with dried thyme and cracked black pepper. I popped them in the oven to roast and...

...That was the last time they looked so good. On my very first CSA cooking experience, I completely burnt the veggies. I was devastated! I had this beautiful, free bounty from a sustainable, local farm and I absolutely destroyed it. I tried to eat the results anyway, but there was no denying that my amazing veggies had turned into little more than charcoal puffs.

Clearly, CSA Virgin has a lot to learn.

Thankfully, my beet greens turned out wonderfully. I cooked them the only way I know how to cook bitter greens: I put a little bit of olive oil in a pan and browned some garlic and diced onions. When they were almost done, I added the greens, along with red pepper flakes and cracked black pepper. Then I stirred it up until the greens wilted. Voila, a lovely side dish!

I ended up packing it for lunch at work and re-heating it with some brown rice. It was absolutely delicious. The heat of the red pepper flakes balanced the bitterness of the greens. And I got an unexpected surprise: The gorgeous red “beet” color in the leaves bled into the onions, turning them a pretty pinkish purple!

I wish I hadn’t burnt all the lovely roots from the CSA, but the trip to the farm was still a success. I got something good to eat, showed my daughter where food comes from (ahem, where food SHOULD come from), and convinced my husband that we should lay out a substantial amount of our money on the CSA.

We filled out the paperwork and wrote our check as soon as we got home. In 2012, we’ll be sharing in Practically Organic’s vegetables, herbs, and special hot peppers!

Why Join a CSA?

Over the last several years, I started paying closer and closer attention to the food that I eat.

It all started when a friend recommended that I read “Fast Food Nation.” Appalled at the descriptions of factories along the New Jersey turnpike pumping chemicals into our food, I swore off “natural” and artificial flavors, “natural” and artificial colors, preservatives, and other chemical additives in my food. In addition, I vowed to stay away from high-fructose corn syrup, partially-hydrogenated oils, and any other hard-to-pronounce ingredients that smacked of excessive processing.

This, of course, turned me into a compulsive label reader. I no longer bought any packaged food product without turning it over to read the ingredient list. This new-found awareness about my food led me to question even foods that didn’t have labels to read. I would pick up an apple in a grocery store and think, “This apple seems rather…waxy” (turn out, it’s due to coatings of wax made out of petroleum or insect secretions). I would notice unusually vibrant oranges and tomatoes in the produce section, and wonder how they got that way (exposure to methane gas). I hadn’t found a worm or a bug on my produce in years, and I wondered what pesticides were being used to accomplish that (lots). And then I happened upon a documentary about the “kill gene” in genetically-modified corn, and decided enough was enough.

In addition to my new-found curiosity about what was being done to my food, I was also trying to eat healthier. I found logic I could agree with among vegan and paleo diet enthusiasts alike. The one thing I noticed about each diet I researched was that vegetables were never forbidden. Intelligent, informed people (doctors and nutritionists included) could disagree about the merits of meat, dairy, grains, and even fruit and legumes. But no one – NO ONE – disputed the health benefits of vegetables. I concluded that I needed to eat more vegetables and eat everything else in relative moderation.

It became clear to me that the solution to both of my problems (how to get processed foods out of my diet and how to increase my consumption of vegetables) was to join a Community-Sponsored Agriculture (CSA) farm. Doing so would allow me to have a degree of control (or, at least, knowledge) over what was being done to my food between the farm and the table. And it would force me, by delivering a crate of veggies to my door each week, to put veggies at the center of my meals. There will be other benefits (like environmental sustainability and potential cost savings), but those are just gravy for me. My motivation is really to get food in as close to a natural state as possible and to strive for nutritional excellence.
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