Tag Archives: vegetables

You may not want to hug the bug on your plate, but embrace it nonetheless

… Several years ago, in a reputable Thai fusion place not far away …

Halfway through dinner one evening I was appalled to find an inchworm doing its cute little humpbacked crawl through my noodle salad. The waiter was not sympathetic. “Our produce is all organic,” he sniffed.

I’m not particularly squeamish. I grew up a small town farm girl, and always tell my girls, “Dirt don’t hurt.”

I’m also a firm believer in the many benefits of organic produce, but that doesn’t excuse skimping on washing before service. When I insisted on a refund he just shrugged and took my plate away. Only half my meal was comped, and I walked out hungry after eating half of a worm’s playground. I hoped he wasn’t missing any friends.

The little incher wasn’t as big and hairy as this guy from the pumpkin patch last fall, but still. That was my first, and last time at this unnamed Sacramento restaurant.

… Flash forward, but not too far, to last week on my living room couch …

I read an article by Harold McGee in Issue 3 of “Lucky Peach” talking about “Handling Herbs.” Spanking mint as opposed to muddling it for mojitos to ‘liberate its minty essence without over-damaging the cells and eliciting a vegetal quality’ was a surprising tip, but I was most intrigued by his discussion of how bugs can make organic produce healthier and even taste better.

Maybe that’s why my backyard sage is so wonderful…

According to McGee, the flavors of herbs and spices come from the chemicals they make and store for chemical warfare against bugs, animals, and microbes. You wouldn’t munch on a cinnamon stick because it doesn’t taste good on its own, but if you simmer apple cider with whole cloves and cinnamon sticks, the resulting infusion is autumn comfort in a cup.

Thus, if a plant is damaged by pest invasion, that sends a message to boost its chemical defenses (aka antioxidants, aka flavor). McGee suggests reconsidering buying the less-than-pretty bug-eaten produce at the farmer’s market as it may be tastier and healthier than it’s more presentable neighbors. (!)

I’ve often heard food is only as good as the soil it’s grown in, but this was the first I’d heard that bugs can actually improve a plant’s nutrients and flavor. I guess it’s true for people and plants alike; whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

… And then, at a restaurant recently nominated for a James Beard award …

I had my second meet and greet with an unexpected critter in a restaurant setting. A few minutes upon arrival, while admiring the trays of artfully laid black trumpet mushrooms, locally grown oranges, key limes, and Persian cucumbers, I spotted a tiny mite-like thing crawling near my place setting. I wasn’t offended, but I didn’t really want to share my dinner with him, so I asked my husband to “get it.” He brushed his thumb over it, leaving a dark brown paint stroke on the white linen. I didn’t bother mentioning it to the waiter, and the entire meal was unforgettably decadent.

… Checking out the rearview …

I doubt that Thai-fusion waiter was up on his McGee so many years ago, but maybe I’ll reconsider my boycott. I’m can’t say I’m ready to slurp a scorpion lollipop like these insect treats we discovered at Pismo Beach last summer, but maybe it’s not such a bad sign if a healthy critter hops on my plate.

What do you think?

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Filed under Cookbooks and other Book Reviews, Obsessed with Produce, Techniques

10 Reasons to Rediscover Cauliflower

Yes, I think the cauliflower would creep quietly in. Its chaste, slightly coy presence makes this a vegetable that would never shout its qualities. ~Nigel Slater, Tender Greens

I’ve never heard anyone shouting from the rooftops about their endless love for cauliflower. Nor does it have the detestable reputation of brussels sprouts, lima beans, and the like. I don’t remember having much of an opinion at all about cauliflower, until I began my quest to increase the ratio of produce on my plate.

Guilt began creeping in whenever I would indulge in making my all-time favorite comfort food, homemade macaroni & cheese. At some point the idea of vegetables and cheesy, bubbly goodness merged (long before I ever considered this dilema.) Cauliflower, I remembered, is commonly coated in cheese sauce. I began substituting part of the pasta with chunks of steamed cauliflower. When I went on my gluten-free streak, I departed from pasta all together.

The funny thing is, I found I actually liked it. Yes, there will always be a special place in my heart for a big bowl of noodles. But whenever I replace a processed food with a vegetable, it makes the dish seem so much more a-live. A little sweet, a little nutty, a nicely cooked piece of cauliflower is a beautiful thing.

Here are my top ten reasons why this underappreciated, white-headed stepchild is worth a second look:

1)    Even though it’s not a dark leafy green, cauliflower is healthier than you might expect.

Whole Foods adopted Dr. Fuhrman’s ANDI scoring system to help shoppers make healthier choices. Their website has listings of these scores. Anything below 50 is considered not-so healthy. Kale, mustard and collard greens score 1,000, the highest possible. Cauliflower scores 295, which is higher than tomatoes, butternut squash, and any of the top listed beans, fruit, nuts and seeds, or whole grains.

2) Cauliflower is relatively cheap.

Prices range anywhere from $1-2 a pound, or even less depending on season and availability.

3) It’s available almost year round, and not just because of cold storage.

It is known as more of a cool weather vegetable, but varieties of cauliflower are in season all year long, except July and August.

It’s best to buy it whole. Curds should be tight, and even if you don’t eat the leaves they tell the story of how long it’s been since harvest.

4) It’s easy to grow in most climates.

Cauliflower can be grown in the winter in mild climates, and in spring and autumn in cooler areas. It will withstand light freezing. (For this information I consulted “The Kitchen Garden Grower’s Guide.” It has brief, but handy little descriptions for growing most herb and vegetables.)

I planted my very first “cheddar” cauliflower this last fall. It wintered nicely, and is now engaged in some interesting sprouting activities.

5) There are some interesting varieties to explore.

Besides plain old white, other colors that occur in nature (not dyed!), include green, purple, and orange. I don’t notice any major difference in flavor, although reportedly these other varieties don’t have as much of the bitterness that can be present in the standard white. (Personally I think that may have more to do with freshness.)

Nutritionally speaking, orange cauliflower has 25 times the level of vitamin A, and the purple in cauliflower is caused by the same anti-oxidants found in purple cabbage and red wine (according to wiki).

Green, turreted Romanesco was clearly cultivated beneath the red clouds of Mars. This is probably my favorite variety, just because of it’s dramatic, unearthly presence. Oh, and it tastes good too. This beauty came in my FFTY CSA box.

6) Cauliflower cooks with little fuss or fanfare.

Cut into 1” pieces and steam for about 7 minutes (in a large, covered bowl with a little water in the microwave, stirring frequently) then season or add a flavorful sauce. Or, sauté bite-sized pieces for 6-7 minutes over medium heat in a little butter or olive oil till the florets begin to brown, then braise- add a small amount of flavorful liquid and cover for a few more minutes till tender.

7) It is quite versatile, culinarily speaking.

Not sure what to do with it? Recipes abound! Puree it (the better to sneak more veggies into your unsuspecting kids’ dinners because of its neutral color and flavor, my dear!) Roasted, pickled, sautéed, gratin-ed, raw, etc. So many possibilities, so little time.

And of course, cauliflower is a good replacement for pasta – this vegetable is made for cheese sauce. (Check out my gluten-free, dairy-free cauliflower gratin here.)

8) We all need to eat more vegetables anyway.

Michael Pollon said it most succinctly: Eat (real) Food, Not Too Much, Mostly Plants. ‘Nuff said.

9) It’s highly photogenic.

Even from the back.

10) Why does there always have to be 10? Ok, fine. Here’s my latest cauliflower recipe for you to sample:

Simple Curried Cauliflower

Ingredients:

1 head cauliflower, any color
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 tsp garam masala
½ tsp paprika
1 Tbsp red wine vinegar
¼ cup water, or so
salt to taste

Directions:

1)    Heat oil in a large skillet to medium high heat. While the pan is heating, trim off stem and cut cauliflower into bite-sized pieces.

2)    When the oil is hot but not smoking, add garlic. Cook just till garlic begins to brown, then add cauliflower.

3)    Sautee cauliflower for about 5 minutes, stirring often. Add water, and cover till cauliflower is tender and water is mostly gone. Add a little more water if necessary to achieve desired toothsome-ness.

4)    Season with garam masala, paprika, and salt to taste. Finish with red wine vinegar and remove from heat. Serve warm.

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Ode to Kale

When I first got kale in my CSA box last winter, I was a little intimidated. Tough, leathery greens, stiff stalks, essence of bitter seaweed, are you sure this is good for me? According to my Whole Foods grocery sack, kale and collards score 1,000, the highest nutritional value you can get from a single food. I don’t normally take health advice from a paper bag, but it is a rather impressive number. My only question was, how could I make it taste good?

I’ve heard of some interesting techniques when it comes to winter greens. Massaging the leaves with salt to make them tender sounds ridiculously intimate and labor intensive. Just the other day I read about brining kale so you can create a wilted salad with a creamy vinagrette, not a bad idea if you are into raw food. (I personally haven’t had a raw kale salad I’ve been able to smile through.) Last winter I made a chard pesto that was divine (recipe here). I’ve also tried roasting kale to make crispy  “kale chips.” Those were actually pretty tasty, but the recipe I used needs finessing to evenly distribute the seasoning, a project for another day.

My favorite method I’ve adapted is quick, it takes about 20 minutes, and is reminiscent of Southern greens. I eat it for breakfast because I’m the kind of weirdo that prefers olives to doughnuts at 7 a.m. Popeye ain’t got nothing on me!

Simple Southern Style Kale

1 bunch kale
½ onion, diced (optional)
1 Tablespoon olive oil
¼ cup broth or water
2-3 teaspoons apple cider vinegar
salt and fresh cracked pepper to taste

Heat olive oil in a large, heavy skillet to medium heat. Cook onion, stirring occasionally, for a few minutes until softened and starting to brown.

Remove thick stalks from kale and discard. (You can chop up the stalks and cook these too, but it takes longer to soften them. I’m not usually that patient.) Roughly chop kale and add to the onions.

Sautee for a few minutes stirring frequently until it starts to wilt down.

Add broth or water and cover the pan (I use my pizza pan as a lid since my large skillet didn’t come with one). Cook for about 5-10 minutes until softened, stirring occasionally. 

Turn off the heat and add apple cider vinegar and salt and pepper to taste. Crispy bacon bits or diced ham and a glass of orange juice make this a complete breakfast.

Ode to Kale

lacy, leathery dragon wings
bitter turned sweet
by heat, vinegar, and salt

Popeye’s no match
for my breakfast Knock Out

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Farmer’s Market Chronicles-Week One

I was very fortunate to grow up on a ten-acre farm with an awesome variety of seasonal pickings. The change in seasons was marked by the surrounding trees. An almond tree bloomed outside my window as soon as the sun broke through the winter sky a few warm days in a row. The only time we saw snow in the California Central Valley was when a strong wind blew through the orchards in full bloom.

By April/May, our first summer fruit came. Cherries, glorious cherries, could be harvested for a few short weeks. In June, apricots arrived, which led to more than one apricot fight with the goopy, fallen fruit. Not a pretty picture.

In June/July we had nectarines, my all time favorite summer fruit. Until peaches arrived in August that is. It’s impossible to argue with the perfection of a sun-warmed peach picked straight from the tree, so juicy you have to eat it barefooted and dripping in the grass.

Now that I live in a metropolitan area, the closest I come to enjoying fresh summer fruit, besides my now biweekly produce box from Farm Fresh to You, is going to the farmer’s market. The good news is I work only a few blocks from a one. The bad news is it closes from October-April. But here we are again, hello May!

I am so thrilled to be reporting on the first farmer’s market of the season. It was an absolutely gorgeous day in the neighborhood.

My loot for this first week:

Sugar snap peas – $3.00 / 1 pound (split the pound with a lovely friend)
Blood oranges (I think they should be called purple oranges. They’re too pretty to be called something so visceral)- $2.00 / pound
Pink grapefruit – $1.00 / pound
Cherries – $4.00 / pound
Native grain bread – $4.25 / loaf

Don’t tell anyone, but I’m a closet vegetarian. I don’t eat meat for the first two meals of the day. I don’t think I could ever be a full vegetarian. For one thing, I like meat. For another, I wouldn’t want to be rude in imposing my dietary wants (not needs) on anyone who was gracious enough to cook for me.

Most importantly, I could never get away with full on vegetarian meals every single day with my rather carnivorous family. Did I mention my almost three year old’s favorite food in the world is sausage? And if I won’t make special meals for my wanna-be picky kids, then why would I make a separate meal for myself? But, that doesn’t mean I can’t try to turn the focus of our meals towards vegetation.

I’m always trying to figure out new lunch combinations that I can make at work. It’s pretty challenging to eat fresh with limited equipment-microwave, toaster oven, and steak knife. (I’m seriously considered bringing in a cutting board and chef knife.)

This is my new favorite veggie lunch wrap:

1 spinach tortilla
2 thin slices of brie
1 handful sugar snap peas
1 handful grated carrot
a couple of teaspoons of Drew’s All Natural Shitake Ginger dressing

Melt brie on tortilla for about 20-25 seconds in the microwave. Top with veggies & dressing. Wrap & enjoy.

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Asparagus Festival

On Sunday, we went for the first time to the Stockton Asparagus Festival. We saw some interesting festivities:

like the Famous Skateboarding Dog

Sous Vide Children

and of course, deep fried asparagus

When it came to asparagus, I was a late bloomer. I never liked it as a kid. In fact, I didn’t like it till maybe 8 years ago. I think it’s because I had only had it droopy and plain. The bitter, green, stringy, squishy pencils did not appeal to me. But then, my mother-in-law made it something like this simple, yet fabulous recipe. Just garlic, olive oil, and Kosher salt adorning asparagus roasted to perfection at a high heat. I became an instant asparagus fan. The funny thing is, it won over my picky eater as well. Sometimes I think the key to convincing a picky eater to try something new is to not offer them any of what you are oohing and ahhing over. Works like a charm!

Broiled Garlicky Asparagus

Ingredients:
1 bunch asparagus
1 Tablespoon olive oil (no need to measure really)
1-2 cloves garlic, crushed
Kosher salt

Directions:

1)   Turn on broiler. Snap ends from asparagus and lay them straight on a foil lined cookie sheet.

2)   Crush garlic over the lineup, drizzle with olive oil, and sprinkle a pinch or two of sea salt. Use your fingers to roll them around and evenly distribute garlic and salt.

3)   Set oven rack 2 rows down from the top. Slide in the sheet and set the timer for 5 minutes (timers are key when broiling). When time’s up, stir them around. If they are still bright green and crunchy, broil for another 2-5 minutes depending on the thickness and how tender you prefer it. Eat immediately, with or as a meal.

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Baby Bok Choy Salad with Asian Dressing

My baby bok choy salad recipe was born on July 23, 2009. Its birth date is recorded in my recipe journal, how cute is that? The recipe came about because I couldn’t resist buying bunches of these pretty little bundles at the farmer’s market, and I was curious to see how it tasted raw. It’s shouldn’t be too big of a surprise that it works beautifully. Especially since raw cabbage, a close relative, makes such great salads (and salsa!)

I’m thrilled spring is finally here, and that my CSA box delivered four dainty bunches of baby bok choy nestled in a sweet little carton, clearly destined for my dinner tonight.

Fresh Baby Bok Choy Salad with Asian Dressing
Serves: 2-4

Ingredients:
4 small bunches fresh baby bok choy
1 lemon cucumber, or ½ of a regular or English cucumber
1 orange, peeled and chopped
Toasted sesame seeds for sprinkling, about a tablespoon

Dressing:
3 Tablespoons Bragg’s Amino Acids (or low sodium soy sauce)
1 small clove of garlic, crushed or minced
2 Tablespoons dark brown sugar
1 Tablespoon seasoned rice vinegar
1 teaspoon ginger juice (or 1 tsp fresh grated ginger, or ½ tsp ground ginger)
Splash of Sriracha (Asian hot sauce)
3 Tablespoons olive or peanut oil

Directions:

1)   Wash and pat dry bok choy, chop into bite size pieces and put into a large bowl. Discard the last inch of the root ends.

2)   Dice cucumber and add to bowl along with peeled and chopped orange.

3)   Whisk dressing ingredients in a small bowl and then toss with veggies. Sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds and serve.

To toast your own sesame seeds: Preheat a non-stick pan over slightly less than medium heat. Once it is hot, add ¼ cup raw sesame seeds to the dry pan. Remove from heat and swish the seeds around constantly for a minute or two until they turn golden brown. Spread toasted seeds onto a clean dry plate too cool. Store in an airtight container or plastic bag at room temperature for a couple of months. You can freeze them for longer.

Add some cooked chicken to make a lovely dinner salad.

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Cream of Broccoli Soup and Grilled Cheese Croutons

Spring is here! My garden is calling, but unfortunately so is the freezing wind, cold rain, and strong desire to cuddle up with a fuzzy dog and a warm book. A cup of soup would fit this picture perfectly.

Broccoli has been making welcome appearances in my CSA box as of late. I love broccoli and cheese soup, but my kids still object to the little green trees, even though dinosaurs eat them. I set out to create a soup I hoped would change their minds, which of course means no visible broccoli.

A cream soup sounded good, but I didn’t feel like going out in the nasty weather to buy cream. All I had was skim milk, so I hoped the tiny yellow potatoes in my drawer would thicken things up. It worked! It worked so well that you wouldn’t know there’s no cream.

I decided to make some cheesy croutons to go along with the soup for a few reasons:

1) So I wouldn’t miss the lack of chunky broccolets
2) To avoid make a bunch of individual grilled cheese sandwiches
3) So my kids wouldn’t get full on grilled cheese to avoid eating the scary bright green soup

I can’t say my plan worked perfectly. My 7 year old just said the soup tasted like broccoli even though I called it Green Monster Soup to gloss over the fact that it’s full of broccoli. My 2 year old spent the meal trying not to try it, but when she finally did, she said, “Yummy!”

Green Monster Soup (Or, if there are no picky eaters within earshot, <No Cream> Cream of Broccoli Soup)

Ingredients:

2 large heads of broccoli, thick stem removed (about 1 lb usable pieces)
2-4 Tablespoons butter (2 if you prefer low-fat, 4 if you like butter)
½ onion, diced
1 clove garlic, crushed
4-5 small, or 1 large potato peeled and cubed (about ½ lb)
2 Tablespoons flour
1 can natural chicken broth
1 cup water
2 cups milk (any fat you prefer, it’s creamy even with nonfat)
¼ teaspoon salt if you use 4 Tbsp butter, 1/2 teaspoon if you use 2 Tbsp
one good handful shredded cheddar

Directions:

1)   Heat a large pot to medium. Melt butter and sauteé onion till soft and transparent, about five minutes.

2)   Add crushed garlic and broccoli. Sauteé another five minutes, stirring occasionally, while you peel and cube your potatoes.

3)   Sprinkle flour over broccoli and stir till it disappears.

4)   Add potatoes, broth, water, milk, and salt. Bring to a boil on high, then reduce heat to medium low and simmer for about 15 minutes until the veggies are tender.

5)   Puree the soup in small batches in the blender, being very careful to vent the blender’s lid slightly and cover with a clean kitchen towel to prevent lava soup explosions, and pour the creamy stuff back in the pot. Stir in the shredded cheese.

6)   Serve with my grilled cheese croutons (particularly if you think it will convince your picky eaters to try a very green soup.)

Grilled Cheese Croutons

This is a great way to use up loaf ends that never get eaten.

Ingredients:

3 Tablespoons butter
1 clove garlic, crushed
4 slices old-ish sandwich bread
1-2 handfuls grated cheddar

Directions:

1)   Heat a large non-stick (or verrry well seasoned cast iron) skillet to medium heat. While waiting for the pan to heat, cube the slices of bread.

2)   Melt butter. Add garlic and stir till fragrant, about 30 seconds.

3)   Add bread cubes and stir quickly so the bread soaks up the butter as evenly as possible.

4)   Let the bread sit undisturbed for a minute or two till one side browns nicely. Then flip ‘em.

5)   Throw the grated cheddar over the bread cubes, stir once to evenly distribute, then let it sit undisturbed until the cheese is crispy. (It won’t come out of the pan happily till it crisps up.) Loosen the lot of crispy goodness with a spatula. Slide it onto a plate and let cool a moment before breaking it up into bite-sized pieces.

6)   Sprinkle over soups, salads, or just pop ‘em in your mouth.

It is rather green, isn’t it.

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