Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Food’ Category

The American salad is in a sorry state. For most people, a salad means a dusty pile of iceberg, bacon bits, and mushy tomato wedges. It is something to be eaten out of obligation, or perhaps because there can be a McDonald’s-like enjoyment in the combination of bacon, ranch, and cheese bits (on a pile of iceberg, of course, so we don’t feel like total barbarians). Well, forget all those stale croutons and bottled dressings for a moment. If you take the time to beef up your salad skills a bit, a whole new world of healthy (and delicious) eating will open up for you.

What greens are you familiar with? Iceberg is the most common salad green, and, in my opinion, the most boring. You know romaine from Caesar salad, and have probably tried spinach with fruit and nuts or perhaps steak and blue cheese (all delicious, from my perspective, but not even the tip of the iceberg – ha). But what else is there?

Leaf lettuce is slightly more bitter and less crunchy than romaine. It is fairly delicate and is best washed immediately, rolled up in paper towel and stuffed in a ziploc bag with the air pressed out (this also saves you from trying to dress wet greens). Lettuces in general are not the most flavorful greens, and are best paired with strong-tasting ingredients. One of our favorites is Salad Niçoise, recipe here. It is a fairly involved salad featuring fish and lots of cooked vegetables. Notice the dressing: olive oil, red wine vinegar, mustard, and shallot. Easy to mix up in a small jar. If you don’t have shallots, use onion or (slightly less) garlic. Skip any of the veggies you don’t have; maybe try salmon instead of tuna (this salad is even better, by the way, with fresh fish). You can use whole potatoes and cut them up if you don’t have the fancy baby ones. I usually steam the veggies instead of boiling them because I think it’s easier. Whatever. Salad is not like baking. It is extremely flexible, governed only by what’s in your fridge and which flavors you like.

Arugula can run the whole range of mild to bitter. Most supermarket arugulas are stronger than lettuce without being terribly bitter. Because it’s more flavorful than lettuce, it’s good in very simple salads. Perhaps my favorite salad ever is arugula dressed with a little lemon juice, olive oil, and salt (for salad dressings, the proportions are usually one part acid to three/four parts oil, depending on your palate; a dollop of mustard adds flavor and keeps the dressing emulsified longer). Slice some onion very thinly and shave some parmesan on top. If you want to make this salad even better (and more expensive), toast a few tablespoons of pine nuts in a dry pan just until you start to smell them. Mmmmmmmmmmmm.

Kale is not as bitter as arugula, but it is tougher. It is amazing in this recipe, with our without the radicchio (a very bitter, but fabulous, non-green). Slice it thinly so you don’t end up with giant mouthfuls of tough leaves to chew. I usually throw a can of rinsed chickpeas over the top of this salad.

So now you’ve got some ideas. But the most fun in the kitchen, I think, comes from successful creativity, and salad-making is no exception. Being creative (while still making something you like) does require a little familiarity with your ingredients. That takes some effort, but it is worth it.

The first step is to assess your pantry. What oils, vinegars, and sauces do you have lying around? Do you know when to use red wine vs apple cider vinegar, or when lemon juice might be nicer still? If not, pour a tiny bit into a glass, warm it with your hand, and taste it. Please do not use vegetable oil for salad dressing. Please. And olive oil, especially if you’re using it for dressing, should be at least slightly peppery and not at all rancid. Good olive oil will make you cough if you drink it straight.

My most basic dressing requirements (if I had to narrow it down, which I’d hate to do) would be olive oil and sherry vinegar (a little nicer than red wine). Mustard would be a close third, as it adds so much depth to the dressing while also improving its consistency. This website lists Sally Fallon’s recipe for basic dressing. It is useful for learning some general proportions (note that the flaxseed oil is included for health reasons, not taste). Don’t forget salt and pepper.

Beyond the basics, apple cider vinegar (if you can find the raw kind, it’s even better) is versatile and delicious. If you mix it with olive oil and greek yogurt and pour it over chopped apples and shredded red cabbage (thanks to my wonderful sister-in-law for this awesome idea), you’ll wonder why you haven’t done it before. Coconut vinegar is fun for more asian-themed salads, perhaps with a dash of toasted sesame oil (which, by the way, will make all the difference in your stir-fry. Add it at the end, though; it’s not for cooking). Lemon, lime, or grapefruit juice serve well as the acid in dressing, as does orange juice (though it’s a little too sweet to use without some vinegar). Roasted root vegetables, crumbled feta, thinly sliced onion, and lettuce with lemon juice and olive oil are heavenly. Flavored oils and nut oils are both fun to play around with, though they’re less versatile than the basics.

And then there’s balsamic. It comes in a couple classes. The cheapest kind is labeled simply “balsamic vinegar” and is great in marinades for meat or dressing for just about any veggie salad. The best, and most expensive, will be labeled either “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena” or “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia“. You can explore Wikipedia for more information on what separates the classes of balsamic. Suffice it to say, the real stuff is syrupy and sweet, needs no oil, and is too expensive to use regularly. But nothing else will make your tomato, basil, and mozzarella salad shine in the same way.

So the next time you’re at the grocery store, look at the greens. Pick something out you haven’t tried before. Taste a piece, then imagine which of your on-hand dressing ingredients would compliment it best. Add some fresh (steamed, roasted, whatever) vegetables, or don’t. Maybe it would be good with cheese or nuts. Got any fresh herbs with a short shelf-life? Maybe they’d be nice in the mix. A can of fish or chickpeas can be thrown over the top to turn it into a main course. It’s your salad; make it how you want. Just leave the wilting iceberg and mystery bacon bits for someone else.

I apologize that this is such a long post. I can’t help it; I love salad. If you’ve made it this far, feel free to share your salad ideas and experiences. I would love to hear them.

Read Full Post »

One of the quickest ways to save money in the kitchen is to learn to avoid food waste. Making the most of what you’ve got is the guiding principle behind all sorts of traditional techniques, like canning, pickling, and yogurt-making. More modern home cooks achieve this goal by focusing on meal planning and freezer cooking. At the very least, we try not to purchase more than we can reasonably use (this is one of the reasons buying produce at Costco isn’t always the best idea).

I’m not sure if it’s just the blogs and news sources I read, but this seems to be a growing trend in other areas of life as well. It’s cool to shop at thrift stores and repurpose old stuff. People clip coupons like they’re going out of style. And most first-time moms at least toy with the idea of cloth diapers, if only because they’re now routinely discussed in baby books and websites. Frugality, it seems, has stopped being an embarrassing necessity for the poor and become a buzzword. Home economy has married eco-friendliness, do-it-yourself skill, and freedom from the cubicle in an extremely convincing way. If you don’t believe me, spend a few minutes poking around sites like Mr. Money Mustache, Northwest Edibles, Simple Mom, or Small Notebook. These people are out there, and their audiences are huge.

The kitchen, for me, has been the most interesting place to save money and avoid waste. Fortunately, the possibilities here are endless. Eggshells and coffee grounds make much better garden amendments than landfill additions. Old-fashioned kitchen staples like sourdough, homemade pickles and condiments, and yogurt add nutrition and interest to your dinner without the wince-inducing grocery receipt. Kitchen scraps can be tossed in a compost pile or fed to worms to make powerful garden supplements. All of these things, though, require some investment of time, skill, or money. It can be difficult and overwhelming to imagine making your kitchen entirely waste-free. I certainly haven’t done it. But I have learned one trick that is ridiculously easy, requires little time or skill, and almost no money. With this trick, you can make something delicious from something you’d otherwise throw away. Just make your own stock.

Most cookbooks that have recipes for stock require things like juicy beef bones, whole vegetables, and pricey bunches of herbs. Ignore them, unless you are learning how to make a particular traditional French recipe or something and want to know how to do it the exact right way. Here’s what you do instead:

Find yourself a gallon-size freezer bag. Anytime you cook, evaluate what you’re about to throw away. If you make, say, a roast, throw the bones in your bag afterwards. Carrot ends, limp celery, aging bunches of herbs, garlic and onion peels, and cheese rinds all work wonders in stock. Apple peels are great, as are citrus peels (though watch how many you put in your bag; I’ve made some pretty bitter stocks by not paying attention to this). The ends of leeks or green onions are fantastic. With certain things you might want to be a little more careful. I save the hard ends of my asparagus, for instance, but I put them in their own bag, because I really only want that flavor in very particular instances (like cream of asparagus soup).

When you decide you want to make stock, dump the contents of your bag in a big pot and add water. Stock made with whole vegetables will be more flavorful, and if you need a strong-tasting broth, you may want to add one or two. I usually don’t. A splash of wine or vinegar will help draw the gelatin from your bones and add flavor. A bay leaf, a couple peppercorns, some dried mushrooms or herbs, or even a piece of dried seaweed will add both flavor and nutrition. It is completely up to you. Bring your pot to a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer, and leave it until you feel like it’s done. I’m sorry that I don’t have more precise timing for this, but once I’ve got stock on the stove, I tend to forget about it for hours. If you’re forgetful like me, it’s helpful to cover your pot and only remove the lid for the last hour or so of cooking so you don’t boil off all the liquid and burn everything.

If you’re using bones, it’s a good idea to skim off the nasty foam that rises to the top in the first half hour or so of cooking. But bones aren’t necessary; I make delicious, vegetarian stock all the time.

Alternatively, put everything in a crock pot with the heat on high, and turn it down to low once it’s boiling. I’ve only done this once, but the results (and ease of cleanup) were so fantastic that I think it may be my new preferred stock-making method.

Once you’ve turned off the heat and the stock has cooled a bit, strain it. I usually do this twice, once through a colander and once through a finer sieve. Put it in the fridge if you’ll use it in the next couple days, or freeze it (preferably in smaller containers so you don’t have to thaw a giant batch all at once). If you’re feeling adventurous, stir a spoonful of miso into the hot liquid after you strain it. This is also delicious (and full of probiotics!).

How do you use the stock? Soup is the obvious answer, and is one of the frugal cook’s best friends. This stock also makes a mean gravy or adds flavor and nutrition to a pot of beans or whole grains.

Yes, I said “adds flavor and nutrition” about a million times. Doing so cheaply is one of my highest goals in the kitchen, and making stock is the easiest way to do that.

Got any waste-reducing kitchen tricks of your own?

Read Full Post »

A couple of years ago for my birthday, Stephen bought me an immersion blender. It came with a handy mini-food processor that I use to make salad dressing and baby food, and a whisk that would be amazing for whipped cream if whipped cream didn’t for some reason take me two hours to make (the motor isn’t strong enough to work that long without burning out).

But the immersion blender itself is amazing. I use it at least once a week. So I thought I’d share a couple of my favorite uses.

1. Mustard

Homemade mustard is tastier than even the fancy stuff and is way cheaper. As a side note, don’t buy mustard seeds in those expensive little spice jars. They’re available quite cheaply on Amazon. I found my favorite recipe online here.

Throw the following into a glass jar (or your non-reactive container of choice):

6 tablespoons mustard seeds (I usually do half yellow and half black, but do whatever you’d like; black are stronger)
1/3 cup apple cider vinegar
1/3 delicious beer (don’t skimp on quality here)
1-2 tablespoons prepared horseradish (sometimes I’ll use even more; I like it strong)
1 teaspoon salt

Leave it in the fridge overnight, or until you happen to remember it’s in there. Then unscrew the cap, stick your handy immersion blender into the jar and blend until it reaches the consistency you like. It usually takes me a minute or two. Just know it will not ever be as smooth as dijon. That requires fancy equipment.

2. Deliciously Creamy Soup, with or without Actual Cream

This is out of Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything, only very slightly adapted.

Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a soup pot over medium heat. Once melted, add 2 chopped shallots (or 1 small onion) and 1 1/2 pounds sliced carrots. Cook until they begin to soften (about 5 minutes). Add 4 cups chicken or vegetable stock (that you’ve made from that freezer bag you keep full of vegetable peels and ends, cheese rinds, and bones, of course) and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to a simmer and cook another 10 to 15 minutes, or until the vegetables become fully tender. Immerse that blender and blend! This is delicious garnished with parlsey or chervil. Without cream, this soup is the reduced essence of carrot. If you add a little cream, it will be richer, though less divinely carroty. This recipe is also quite adaptable to whatever flavor combinations you happen to like and whatever you have in the fridge.

(Bittman calls for 6 cups of stock here, but as I like a thicker soup, I’ve reduced it. Do with it what you will.)

As an alternative, use peeled and chopped butternut squash in place of the carrots and sub in 2 cups coconut milk for 2 cups of the stock. Add 2 tablespoons chopped garlic and 1 1/2 tablespoons curry powder (if you’re feeling adventurous, make your own) in Step 1. Cilantro (or perhaps roasted peanuts) would be the garnish of choice here. I make this soup all the time, and will often throw in whatever about-to-expire greens we have in the fridge for the last 5-10 minutes of cooking (the time depends on the green) with great success.

3. Homemade Mayonnaise

If you love homemade mayonnaise and own an immersion blender, boy are you in luck. Erica over at Northwest Edibles has shared her method of making America’s favorite condiment here. Because I lack the planning skills necessary to maintain a well-stocked refrigerator and because I refuse to let that stop me from trying a recipe, I used lime juice instead of lemon and my own homemade grainy mustard in lieu of dijon. It is still amazing. If you like the taste of olive oil (and the olive oil you have on hand is decent), don’t hesitate to use that. Want to make your spouse/family/friends love you forever? Use melted and cooled bacon grease for some of the oil. When I don’t want the mayonnaise to taste like a particular oil, I use grapeseed (available cheaply at Costco).

The best part is that this takes less than a minute to whip up. Seriously, folks, this is life-changing.

What are you favorite ways to use an immersion blender?

Read Full Post »

Pink Slime and Lettuce Soup

A few months ago, when pink slime first became big news and consumers suddenly cared about the contents of their fast food hamburgers, a friend of mine wrote a couple of interesting articles. The first addresses the issue of pink slime as used in school lunches; the second is, I think, a response to comments received on the first. School lunches aside, Joy’s apparent defense of the food industry initially bothered me. “That we can now extract every edible bit of cow and disinfect it with traces of ammonia,” she says in the earlier article, “is not only less wasteful but wondrous.”

Ammonia in our beef? Gross. That our beef is dirty enough to need ammonia to be safe? Even grosser. This was my initial response, and I stand by it. But looking beyond the issue of pink slime for a moment, I also think Joy is right. We live in such a constant state of excess that we can afford to think a process that saves “the equivalent of 1.5 million heads of cattle” is beneath us. When we shop at the supermarket, we can ignore what actually goes into sausage, pretend that chickens only make white meat, and forget about all of the less-than-perfect produce that gets wasted because of consumer demand for uniformity.

We decry the evils of the Food Industry while demanding food that possesses all the uniformity and sterility of a factory product. As Joy points out, “very few Americans have experience with agriculture (an herb garden is not agriculture). As a result, they don’t realize that even organic raw cow or chicken looks gross while it’s being butchered, no matter the method.” We have a problem with perspective, and a little experience with food production, a little more connection to our food supply (to borrow a hipster-foodie phrase), might help us change that perspective

Inspired by Barbara Kingsolver’s beautiful book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, we have been gradually shifting our food supply away from the supermarket (though, like most Americans, we remain pretty reliant on the industrial food system, and happily so). We get most of our dairy, meat, and produce locally, make quite a bit from scratch, and, this summer, have enjoyed the luxury of our first garden. This process has been a fun challenge for me, but it’s come with a few surprises.

For instance, when we signed up to purchase raw milk from a local farm, I figured we’d use about one and a half gallons per week (Laila loves milk, ok?). What I didn’t realize is that, in the summer months at least, raw milk can turn quite sour by the end of the week. Now, not having milk is not something I’ve ever had to deal with. If it runs out or goes sour, there’s always more at the grocery store (which I don’t think ever closes), and it takes forever to sour anyway. But this milk is available once a week; what I pick up on Monday is all we get ’til the next delivery (obviously, we can still buy grocery store milk, and often do, but let’s pretend for a minute). As a result, I’ve learned some extraordinary things about milk. For instance, yogurt-making isn’t really all that difficult. Soft cheese is even easier. My newest discovery? Apparently, if you leave raw milk out on the counter until it sours and separates, what you get when you strain it is whey and traditional cream cheese (please don’t take my word on the safety of this; I’m going on what Sally Fallon says in Nourishing Traditions). My former-but-not-quite-yet-gone self thinks this is gross. My new-but-not-quite-yet-convinced self thinks it’s amazing, and delicious to boot.

Another discovery we’ve made is that, apparently, garden lettuce doesn’t stay tender and beautiful forever and ever, on into oblivion, as I previously imagined. In fact, it’s only lovely for a few weeks before the heat encourages it to bolt and grow bitter. The result is ridiculous quantities of tough, strong-tasting lettuce that no one wants to eat, or so I thought until I discovered this recipe for lettuce soup. We humans used to know all sorts of tricky ways to use up over-abundant or less-than-desirable produce (and meat). Lettuce soup is one of those.

Here is my version:

creamy lettuce soup

Lettuce Soup

1 1/2 pounds old lettuce, washed and chopped (it really is prettier if you use only green lettuce, but I used a mix of green and red, and it tasted just fine)
1 large sweet onion or 2 large leeks, chopped (whichever you have is fine)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
zest of one lemon
1 quart beef stock (I imagine that chicken stock, as recommended in the original recipe, would be nice for a more delicate soup, but as my lettuce was so strongly-flavored, beef stock seemed a better option)
1 tablespoon honey
1/2 cup yogurt
1/2 cup miso (optional; dark miso is my favorite)
6 steamed fingerling potatoes, as garnish (optional)

Warm the olive oil in a large soup pot over medium-high heat. Add the leeks or onions, nutmeg, and lemon zest, and sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Cook until soft.

Add the lettuce and stock, cover, and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer until the lettuce is tender (3 or 4 minutes if your lettuce is as tough as mine).

With an immersion blender, blend the soup until smooth (or blend in batches in a traditional blender, then return to the pot, and reheat). Remove one cup of the soup into a separate bowl and mix in honey, yogurt, and miso, using the back of a spoon to break up the paste. Stir back into the pot.

Serve with potatoes or additional yogurt as a garnish.

We ate our soup with a side of millet toasted with butter, then simmered in water until soft and topped with one of our garden tomatoes.

toasted millet and tomatoes

Enjoy!

Read Full Post »