Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Adventures


Photograph courtesty of iStock.com

Christmas has always been my favorite holiday. I love the decorations, the cookies, even the fruitcake. It didn’t hurt that I was an only child (and the only grandchild) during my formative gift receiving years and, thus, made out pretty well in that department. For 34 years, I spent Christmas Eve with my extended family (who all shared a particularly festive last name of Rudolph). We devoured a multiple course meal (never too fancy, but just rich enough) and opened gifts one person at a time, oldest to youngest. Christmas day, a much more casual affair, was always a bit of a let-down even though the gifts I opened from my parents were usually more expensive and elaborate. It just didn’t have the same level of revelry and ritual.

In contrast, Mike’s family celebrations were always a little more turbulent than mine. While I didn’t know his dad that well, I understand that he didn’t like holidays very much and would always do something that would throw a wrench into the system. His final Christmas
was no exception.

Mike and I had the very definition of a whirlwind romance. We met in June, moved in together in September, and by December were talking marriage. For this reason, we thought it wise that he spend the holidays with my family especially since he’d not yet met my parents. After only a day in New York, we were awakened on Christmas Eve’s wee hours by a ringing phone. You see, Mike’s dad had only a few weeks before had a stroke. When we saw him last in the hospital, he seemed to be recovering nicely and his mother gave her blessing to our trip. Unfortunately, his health took a turn for the worse and our first family holiday was cut short by the news of his death.

After that, Christmas changed. For many years, I tried to insist that this historical family fact wouldn’t impact our festivities. By the next year, Little Locathor entered our family unit. And while a child returns a certain innocence and joy to the season, he couldn’t completely rid it of the pallor that the remembrance of a death imparts.

From 2005, we’ve celebrated in Chicago, usually just me, Mike, Thor, and my parents. While our holidays have been wonderful and we’ve created new traditions, like tracking Santa’s sled on the web and treating him with cookies AND Scandinavia’s aquavit, they’ve never quite matched up to the idyllic holidays of my childhood. Often, embarrassingly, because at some point, they’re punctuated by a screaming match between Mike and me. We’re both hot heads and the fight was always more about blowing off steam than any rift in our relationship. Regardless, however, it wasn’t quite the warm fuzzy, Hollywood holiday spirit that I was going for.

After 5 years, we’re trying something new. Mike turns 40 next week, a big occasion at anytime of the year, but with the sadness associated with late December, the thought of a party wasn’t appealing especially when the last large birthday celebration I threw for him was days after his dad’s funeral. Instead, we’re leaving. On Christmas Day, we’re flying to London with a short side trip to Paris – we’ll wake up there the morning of Mike’s birthday. But before that, tomorrow we’ll share a big Christmas Eve celebration with the Rudolph clan.

As news spread among my extended family of our change in plans, they changed theirs. As a kid, the longest trek made by a family member was from White Plains to Long Island, a few hours with traffic. Now we’re convening from California (both ends), Chicago, and New York. While I know it could never live up to the romantic memory of my childhood Christmas’, it won’t need to. This, instead, is a new beginning, a chance to exorcise the ghosts of Christmas past.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Mean Mr. Mustard Man: Homemade Holidays from the Spice Store

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One errand that I never resisted running as a child was a trip to the health food store. Located in a trailer behind our drive through bank, my mom and I would go to fill up our tamari bottles, buy whole grains, and, best of all, stock up on bulk seasonings. I still fondly recall sniffing the various jars of familiar and unfamiliar herbs and spices and sampling different spice blends.

It’s therefore unsurprising that one of my favorite stores in Chicago is The Spice House. Owned by friend, Patty Hurd, it’s an emporium bursting with sweet scents and spicy aromas. As a mom, I’m so pleased that Little Locathor shares my affinity for spice stores and never complains about our visits there.

Given our shared love, I thought it would be fun this year to take inspiration for our Christmas gifts from the spice store. In the past, our edible holiday gifts have been on the sweet side. We’ve made a hot chocolate mix with homemade marshmallows, jars of cranberry curd, and bags full of granola. Sweet gifts are great, but they tend to have limited utility. This year’s gifts, Thor’s Spicy Mustard and Vanilla, will hopefully provide months of tasteful joy for their recipients.

Both recipes are extremely simple to make. The mustard requires lots of measuring and scooping, great fun for kids. We then pack the jars and bottles in old berry boxes saved from our farmers’ market purchases. Instead of filling the boxes up with packing paper, we used some sweet as candy Satsuma tangerines. We then create tags from holiday cards received in years past. A gift that’s environmentally kind and delicious!

What edible gifts are you making with your kids?

Thor’s Spicy Mustard
Makes 6 4-ounce jars

1 cup brown mustard seeds
¼ cup yellow mustard seeds
1 ¼ cups white wine vinegar
1 cup dry white wine
1 cup mustard powder
1 cup water
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon allspice
¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

Combine the mustard seeds in a medium bowl with the white wine and vinegar. Let sit, covered, at room temperature for 2 days. Whisk together the mustard powder and water and let sit for ½ hour. Scrape the soaked seeds into the bowl of a food processor, add all the remaining ingredients, and puree until the mustard is creamy. Package in 4 ounce jars.

Vanilla
Makes 1 4-oz. bottle, increase accordingly

1 vanilla bean
½ cup vodka or cheap brandy

Push the vanilla bean into the bottle. Cover with vodka or brandy. Note on the gift tag that the vanilla should be steeped for two months.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Souffle Meditations on Perfectionism and Transitions

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This past Saturday, Little Locathor, my husband, and I shared an intimate family celebration. An exceptional wine (and a little blood orange soda for Thor) accompanied Niman Ranch rib chops fit for a king (and a queen and a few other royal members). I hand cut and fried potatoes to dip into a chive flavored béarnaise sauce. We opened a few Christmas presents since we’ll be travelling this holiday and finished up with a chocolate soufflé. It was a special evening, not due to the deliciousness of the wine or the richness of the food, but instead because of the dramatic contrast to how I’d spent this particular evening in years past.

Over the last five years, I had a standing date on December’s second Saturday: cooking for 150 mostly Republican guests out of a suburban garage. You see, since 2005, in addition to running Purple Asparagus I’ve owned a boutique catering company. While the previously mentioned party was the company’s most lucrative event, it was also the most stressful. Money is no object for these clients and their values, well, they don’t hew closely to mine, not in food, nor in many things. So the news of their decision to hire a new caterer was not unwelcome. The sadness of the story, however, is that these weren’t just clients. The wife was also my former business partner, one of my husband’s closest college friends, and my son's godmother.

A rift in the relationship had been growing over several years, precipitated by miscommunications and perceived and actual slights. But, ultimately, the relationship was sunk by the chasm created by divergent world views. Unfortunately, all the adages about money applied here – money can change you but it cannot buy you happiness.

Saturday’s dinner was thus a sort of goodbye to a relationship soured. It was also a way to honor transitions and life that doesn’t stand still.

I once read that career counselors suggest reevaluating your professional circumstances every five years to determine whether they continue to meet your values. A little over five years ago, I left the law. While my big firm partner income helped with our temporal needs, the work left me unfulfilled. Now, I’ve reached a similar point of transition.

Over the past year, I’ve been moving further away from catering. With the burgeoning demand for Purple Asparagus’ services, I had little choice. For the first few years, I could deftly balance the needs of Purple Asparagus with whatever suitable catering gigs came my way. That’s no longer the case. Managing volunteers, teaching classes, developing partnerships, and seeking out funding is how I now spend my days. And those days are more than full.

Transitions are exhilarating, cleansing, heart wrenching, and enlightening. They also help you see things clearly, especially yourself. I’m a perfectionist, always have been. I married a perfectionist, and worst of all, between the two of us, we’ve birthed one. Like Mike and I, Little Locathor has a bad habit. While many things come naturally to him, the things that don’t he’s very cautious about. So cautious that, until he feels completely confident, he’s hesitant to try them. It feels painfully familiar to me.

My first two careers demanded that perfectionist trait. Typos are a sort moral failing at my former law firm. Catering was even worse for me. I demanded that everything be perfect – in appearance, in timing, and in taste. December, the month that brings to most tidings of joy, was a grim march of checklists and schlepping. It was a month to survive, not enjoy.

Ultimately, I think my problem is that I’m a deeply imperfect perfectionist. I don’t deal well with the stress of it. It makes me fight with my husband, it gives me nightmares, and it makes me literally pull my hair out.

This December is much better. While I’m working damn near as hard giving cooking classes, meeting with potential new schools and partners, and fundraising, I’m not nearly as stressed out. The thing is, perfectionism isn’t expected or even welcome when cooking with kids. It’s not about creating the most beautiful plate or making every cookie exactly the same shape and size as the others. The process is more important than the product. Just this morning, I made Christmas fruit salad with 2 kindergarten classes. A class of 24 divided into 6 teams cut their red and green fruits, pulled apart their pomegranates, and whisked their honey-lime dressing. Not one looked or tasted identical to the others. More importantly, the kids had a blast and devoured every bite of ingredients familiar and not.

I think perfectionism is a little like a soufflé. So many factors, both within and without your control, can interfere with the pursuit of perfection. For example, the soufflé picture above (about to be devoured by the soufflé shark) almost didn’t happen when my oven began a sputtering death – shutting itself off. And even if you can achieve perfection, it fleeting. The second you remove the soufflé from the oven, it begins to deflate. Just between the time I removed it from my malfunctioning oven and took this picture, it was at least an inch shorter. But fully inflated or fallen, it’s tastes just as good.

Chocolate Souffle
Serves 8
Adapted from Julia Child's The Way to Cook

7 ounces semisweet chocolate melted with 1/3 cup espresso or very strong coffee
2 cups 2% milk
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
4 large egg yolks
6 large egg whites
1/2 cup granulated sugar

Preheat the oven to 425 F. Butter a 2 quart round baking dish. Wrap and tie a piece of parchment around the dish so that it reaches at least 3-inches above the dish.

Whisk the flour and milk in a medium saucepan. Set the pan over medium heat and bring to a boil slowly. Cook for 2 minutes, whisking all the while. Remove from the heat, whisk in the salt, vanilla, egg yolks, and the melted chocolate.

Pour the whites into the bowl of a stand mixer. Beat the whites with the whisk attachment on medium speed to soft peaks. Increase the speed, sprinkle in the sugar and beat to stiff peaks.

Fold the chocolate mixture into the egg whites carefully but thoroughly. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and set it on the lower rack in the oven. Immediately turn the temperature down to 375 F. Bake for 50-60 minutes. Remove the paper and serve.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Shop at Green Grocer and Support Purple Asparagus



Green Grocer is one of my favorite Chicago food spots in Chicago. A small independent grocer in West Town owned by my friend Cassie Green, Green Grocer stocks a variety of organic and locally grown or produced goods. During December, Green Grocer will donate a percentage of its sales to Purple Asparagus.

So for an easy way to support Purple Asparagus and to stock up on your holiday cooking needs, stop by Green Grocer.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Pizza Party!

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Cold winter days and pizza nights are a natural partnership. With our frigid, gray weathers, I pulled out my tried and true pizza recipe on Friday night. The formulation has gone through some twists and turns over the years. Back in March, I began substituting whey reserved from ricotta making for water. It's a subtle change that gives the dough a little more character.

The only problem with this addition, of course, is that you have to have whey on hand to make this recipe. Me, when I now make ricotta, I divide the cheese by-product into small containers that I freeze. For those of you who don't have a stock of frozen whey, well, you were out of luck. That is until now.

Before I began digging around in my downstairs freezer, I realized something. We were using fresh mozzarella and it occurred to me the keeping water that I usually throw down the sink could serve the same purpose as my whey. I was right - a great discovery since I know that cheesemaking may not be everyone's cup of tea. Simply substitute the mozzarella water for either the whey in my recipe or the water in your ordinary pizza dough recipe. If you don't have a full cup, add tap water.

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We make tiny little pizzas, eight in all, devouring six and leaving the final two for leftovers. Little pizzas allow Little Locathor and I to come up with a number of combinations. On Friday, we topped them with a little bacon, pepperoni, sausage, peppers, roasted garlic, goat cheese and fresh mozzarella. With a salad on the side, it was a great start to our Wintry weekend.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Purple Asparagus' Ultimate Set of Tools for Chefs Move to Schools

To support the Chefs Move to School program, All-Clad and several other kitchen manufacturers have teamed up with Partnership for a Healthier America to provide 1,000 schools with tool kits made up of induction burners, pots, knives, and some common utensils. Not long after the announcement, I learned from Audrey Rowe, Deputy Administrator for Special Nutrition Programs in the Food and Nutrition Service of the USDA, that these kits were really intended to be used for food demonstrations. I had asked because while I find our burner and pots useful in our Purple Asparagus presentations, these are not the most critical tools in our bag of tricks.

I have found that the best way to engage kids in our nutrition education, to build enthusiasm in them about trying new fruits and vegetables, is to get their hands dirty and involve them in every stage of the cooking process. Over the years of running our school programs, we've developed our own tool kit, a box full of kid sized utensils, 25 of each, along with a few other critical items (first aid kid of course!). With our experience of providing hundreds of hours of educational programming to thousands of Chicago parents and children, I thought it would be useful to chefs starting to move into their adopted schools to see the Purple Asparagus bin in various stages of packing.

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CALIF 015 CALIF 017


On the bottom, we've got little silicone rolling pins - given their cost, we only stock six of them and divide classes into teams of kids. They're great for rolling out tortilla and samosa dough. (Sur la Table)

Next to them, we have 25 each of tiny whisks and rubber spatulas. (The Kids' Table and Sur la Table)

On the side, there's our first aid kid adjacent to commonly used ingredients like extra-virgin olive oil, honey, balsamic vinegar, and honey. In the side corner, we've got a bottle of sanitizing pellets for the many programs in facilities without sinks.

The next level is our veggie peelers and kid cutters. Twenty stainless mashers are hiding under the peelers. I know some people who cook with kids in schools teach them how to handle real knives. Working with kids K-4, 25 at a time, this thought makes me a bit squeamish. Thankfully, board member, Elena Marre, owner of The Kids' Table found these wonderful wavy cutters. Ordinarily used for garnish cutting, they are a safe, effective way for kids to cut nearly anything. (Peelers from Sur la Table; bowls and cutters from The Kids Table or Northwestern Cutlery)

The third layer is filled with small cutting boards, 25 stainless steel small bowls, a can opener, a set of tongs, a strainer, hand sanitizer, and an extension cord for our electric appliances like hand blenders, induction burners, ovens, etc. We've also got BPA-free measuring cups and spoons. (Cutting boards and small utensils from a restaurant supply store; bowls from The Kids' Table; and measuring tools from Sur la Table)

Finally, we fill in the top with compostable tasting cups (perfect for kid size portions), forks, knives and spoons. We've also got rubber gloves for instructors and small plastic bags for unused ingredients. (Our compostables come from a restaurant supply store, but Whole Foods also carries these items).

Before closing our box up, we layer in our clean towels and an apron for the instructor.

This bin, supplemented with glass demonstration bowls, a knife roll, and a handful of other small equipment, has provided cooking education from the far north suburbs down to far south side of Chicago. It's taught 4-year olds at farmers' markets how to mash raspberries for homemade soda and fourth graders how to make pumpkin muffins.

While we're always on the prowl to find some new fun tool for our box of tricks, this is a great starting point for any school program.

Posted as part of Fight Back Fridays.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Snow Days and Rice Crispy Treats

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Certainly, I'm not the only one with fond memories of listening to news radio on snowy mornings for school closures. Snow days were one of the great pleasures of my childhood, time spent alternating between outside snow play and indoor lazy day activities. Given that my mom was a school teacher, she too would have the day off so we could host friends, build snowmen, make cocoa, and, of course, play around in the kitchen.

As a parent, it was a sad day when I realized that here in Illinois we don't get snow days. We're a tough bunch here in the Midwest. No matter how deep the accumulation or how low the wind chill, school must go on. As a working parent, I know I should be grateful, but still . . .

So when Saturday's weather reports predicted our first snowstorm, I didn't think as an adult about errands not run or sidewalks to shovel. Instead, I was as giddy as Thor about the possibility of a snow day that we could actually enjoy. We made snow angels, took a long walk, had a snowball fight, made hot cocoa, and made a giant mess in our kitchen. Within four hours, we'd prepared brownies, cashew brittle, gingersnaps, oatmeal cookies, marshmallows, and the very pinnacle of nostalgic indulgences: Rice Crispy Treats.

I have not made them since high school, but one nibble of one recently sent me in a swoon and it got me thinking - why must they be made with margarine and bagged marshmallows? How awesome would they be if I used the real deal - butter, sugar, and real vanilla? Suspicions confirmed. Even my husband who originally pooh poohed my suggestion because he "never liked them" rated them tops among the days baking experiments.

I brought them that evening to a friend's Chanukah party and apparently, without my knowledge, she too was guilty of Rice Crispy nostalgia. I'd wished I'd made more because they were the first to depart the dessert tray. At least I'd saved some for the little locavore who rated them tops as well.

Cheers to snow days!

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Little Locathor and his snowSam.

Rice Crispy Treats

1 envelope (1 scant tablespoon) unflavored gelatin
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup light corn syrup
1 pinch kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Vegetable oil cooking spray
5 tablespoons butter
5 1/2 cups puffed brown rice

Spray two 9 x 13-inch baking pan with cooking spray. Line with parchment and spray with more oil.

Pour 1/4 cup cold water into the bowl of an electric mixer. Sprinkle with gelatin.

Mix together sugar, corn syrup, salt, and 1/4 cup water in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil and cook, swirling the pan occasionally, until syrup reaches 238 degrees (soft-ball stage) on a candy thermometer.

Fit the mixer with the whisk attachment. Begin whisking gelatin mixture on low speed. Gradually pour the syrup in a steady stream down the side of the bowl. Increase the speed slowly to high and then beat until is thick, opaque, and has almost tripled in volume. Don't overbeat. Add vanilla, and beat just to combine.

Spray a rubber spatula with cooking spray and scrape the mixture into the first prepared baking pan; smooth with a greased offset spatula. Let stand at room temperature, uncovered, until firm, at least 3 hours or overnight.

Scoop the marshmallows into a large saucepan, add butter, and cook over medium heat until melted. Add rice and stir strongly to combine. Press into the second prepared pan and cut into squares.

Best served on the same day that they're made, if they last that long.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

A Death in the Family



Samuel the Spaniel as drawn by Thor
10/24/2002-12/2/2010

Today has not been a good day. I can barely speak, much less write, as my tears gush. In just about an hour, I will see my beautiful beautiful eight year old Springer Spaniel, Sam, for the last time. He had a major neurological meltdown, which reared its head just about a month ago and has progressively gotten worse to the point that yesterday he was no longer able to stand, much less walk.

Sam was a gentle soul, not the sharpest claw on the paw, but the best friend and companion we could have ever asked for. Beautiful, kind, and stoic, he will be deeply missed by many especially Little Locathor. Thor understands that Sam will likely not be here when he returns from school - a homecoming that I deeply dread.

Sam was a simple soul who was born in the suburbs of Minneapolis in the town known for Spam. He loved bread, especially sourdough. It will be difficult for me to make or buy a country loaf in the near future as this dog could hear a bread knife cutting through the ceramic like crust from rooms away.

I've always had dogs in my life so I'm not a stranger to this kind of goodbye. On the first day of my senior year in high school, my family learned that my Scottish terrier Mac had cancer. We put him to sleep two days later. The night before his last day, I slept with my head on his bed, comforting only myself as he obviously knew nothing of his fate. Shortly before midnight, I woke up and wrote the following in my composition book. Please be kind, it is the work of a sad 17 year old.

I'm going to shoot the stars tonight,
shredding their light into infinite slices.
Letting each
bury themselves
into their
universal grave.

I'm going to shoot the stars tonight.
Draining the sky
of all its light.

I'm going to shoot the stars tonight,
but I'll save one for you,
a last lonely dot,
fearing the blackness of the night
and the threat of tomorrow.

September 2, 1985

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Me, Sam and the future Little Locavore in vitro during better times.

As I've only gone through this before as a high schooler, if any readers have suggestions on how to help a 1st grader through this, I'd much appreciate it.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Red Carrot's Anti-Fast Food Guidebook Entitled "Bad Stuff"

Dinner conversations in our house can be interesting.

Over spaghetti squash with clam sauce, Mike and I were talking politics. I listened in on today's Let's Move conference call in which, Michelle Obama launched the Faith and Community prong of the East Wing's initiative. My description of it led to a discussion of one of our favorite topics to hate, Sarah I-Can-See-Russia-From-My-House Palin.

We've never shied away from political discussion in front of Thor so we explained the Yukon Queen's new attack against Michelle Obama, how Palin is defending the right of parents to make their children fat. We then talked about San Francisco's Happy Meal "ban." This gave Red Carrot's founder an idea.

His idea is a book, an Anti-Fast Food Guidebook entitled "Bad Stuff," with chapters on all the bad fast food places like McDonalds, Taco-Bell, and Jack-in-the-Box (not Chipotle though) and why you shouldn't eat at them.

He also wanted to write a section on how fast food companies "cheat." As the son of two attorneys, he divided his reasoning into four parts:

1. Fast food companies use expensive commercials during kids programs to get kids interested, which is unfair because healthy food doesn't have an advertising budget.

2. Fast food companies use science to develop products that appeal to kids' palates.

3. Fast food companies steal. [This was really interesting. He explained (with visual props) that it wasn't like stealing my spoon, but instead stealing my mind, by doing focus groups to gather information about our palates].

4. Fast food companies use toys to incentivize kids to eat bad food.

Little Locathor is ready to take on Mamma Grizzly in all out food politic warfare. I'm not sure she can out-reason the first grader. Bring it Palin.

Reposted as part of Real Food Fridays

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Little Locathor Saves the Day or at Least the Apple Pie

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Kids can do so much in the kitchen - peel, roll, mash, stir, and chop. They can also save recipes from recipe oblivion.

It's been a while since I've followed recipes too closely. Especially, at the holidays when I'm serving multiples courses, I'm usually just throwing stuff together. Hopefully, if it turns out great, I can piece it together from cursory notes or my memory. I think that these may not be the most reliable resource much longer.

After our feast, I served a pumpkin cheesecake and apple pie. The former and richer of the two overshadowed the latter at first, but the apple pie revealed its charms the next day. A pie tasting better the following day? Yup.

Following in our family tradition of Thanksgiving pie for breakfast, my mother ate a slice the next day for breakfast. Calling up to me from our family room, she proclaimed it the "best apple pie she'd ever eaten." My husband, who's not a pie eater, decided that then he had to try it. With a sheepish grin, he described it as "tough" (not a derogatory descriptor for the crust, but instead a very high compliment indeed).

At this point, I figured I better write down the recipe before it was lost to the ether. On a lark, or so I thought, I consulted my son.

"How many apples?" I inquired.

"Two" he responded.

His response confirmed my suspicion as to his value as a recipe writer.

My mom then suggested "5," to which Thor corrected:

"No, grandma, there were 2 apples and 2 pears."

A ha! The secret ingredient to my wildly successful apple pie was the two overripe Bartlett pears that I added as a last minute replacement. Tasting it again, sure enough, the silky mush that enveloped the softened apple slices were pears.

Little Locathor saves the day, or at least the apple pie.

Apple Pie with a Cinnamon Crumb Crust

1 recipe pate brisee
2 pears, peeled, cored, and sliced
3 large apples, peeled, cored, and sliced
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon each of cinnamon, nutmeg
pinch of cloves
grated rind and juice of 1 lemon
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup packed brown sugar
1 stick cold all-purpose butter, cut into pieces
1 pinch cinnamon

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Roll out the pie crust and crimp the edges. Poke with a pork several times. Lay a piece of aluminum foil on top and weight it down with pie weights or dried beans. Bake for 10 minutes. Remove the foil and weights and bake for another 10 minutes. Let cool completely.

While the crust baking, mix the apples, pears, flour, sugar, spices, lemon juice, and rind in medium bowl.

Stir together the flour, brown sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl. Use your fingers to cut in the butter until the mixture is crumbly. Fill the crust with the apple-pear mixture. Sprinkle the crumbs over the top and bake on top of a sheet pan for 50 minutes to an hour or until the crumb topping is slightly browned.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

You Gotta Have Faith: CLOCC'S 1st Ever Skillet Minister Cook-Off



In the spring, I attended the Building a Healthier Chicago conference organized by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. One of the ranking officers talked about the obesity crisis and his suggested approach to it. He proposed a multi front attack: Get em where they work, live, learn, and pray. I've worked in plenty of schools, given classes to people in their homes and occasionally their offices, but worship homes were a new frontier to me and to Purple Asparagus.

It's not surprising that I wouldn't have thought of it. While both my husband and I spent many a sabbath morning at Sunday school, religion has fallen a bit to the wayside for me and my family. I'm not proud to admit that weekend chores and the occasional opportunity to sleep late has interfered with attendance at our church. Nevertheless, both my husband and I have vivid memories from childhood of the strong community created within our individual congregations so I understand the powerful influence that churches can have on their parishioners.

The Building a Healthier Chicago conference planted a seed in my mind, but given my weak religious roots, I had no soil in which to plant it. Perhaps it was simply serendipity or something more directed in its unseen influence, but only a months after the conference, the bed revealed itself.

CLOCC (the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children)is a nationally recognized consortium that brings together hundreds of diverse organizations and individuals to confront childhood obesity in Chicago. With big thinkers on their board and staff, they'd already concluded that engaging the faith community was a critical piece of the puzzle of public health. James Kenady, an ordained minister on staff at CLOCC, called me mid summer to explore a cooking component for their first ever FAITH Summit. He wanted to find a way to creatively engage the faith leaders around the issue of healthy cooking.

A few years ago, I attended the International Association of Culinary Professionals conference in New Orleans during which the Kids in the Kitchen section organized an amazing cooking competition. Only a few years after the devastation of Katrina, Sheila Crye, the head of the section recognized that among the precious possessions lost, family recipes were at the top of the list. Sheila, with the help of other section members, including Williams-Sonoma's Laura Martin Bacon, created a contest that combined writing and recipes to stir a powerful stew of family cuisine. The children connected with family members, many of whom had been displaced from the Crescent City, to resurrect a favorite recipe and then submit it with a story. The event was heart wrenching and heartwarming all at once. The event deeply resonated with me.

With this recollection, I suggested what ultimately became the Skillet Minister Cook-Off. We partnered Chicago chefs with church cooks and asked them to make over a congregation potluck favorite into a healthy option. Three teams competed, creating three completely different yet delicious dishes. They presented their dish to 20 judges selected by raffle at the FAITH summit. Each team explained what changes they made and how they felt their congregation would react to their recipe.

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Were this to become a regular addition to the FAITH conference, I would draw upon lessons learned and refine the competition, but it was, for a first time, terrific. The teams were enthusiastic and the mentors passionate. The dishes were reflective of the rich diversity of the Chicago church community. We had a Episcopalian church resident within a Puerto Rican neighborhood that transformed a traditional rice, pea and pork recipe by substituting turkey bacon and removing the MSG laced spice blend. Another church, whose oven was on the fritz, made a deconstructed lasagne with rice pasta, bison, and a "bechamel" forged with low fat ricotta and pureed white beans.
The winning recipe came from Obama's home church, Trinity United.

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Not unlike the first couple, the three person team was made up of some serious overachievers, making not one but four dishes.

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To level the playing field, we asked the judges to base their decision on only one of their dishes. Problem is, once the panel of 20 tasted their Crustless Sweet Potato Pie, I think it was all over.

All of the other recipes will be posted on the CLOCC website, but I do believe that this pie would be a delicious and healthier addition to any holiday table.

Special thanks go to Jill Houk, Lois Levine, and Mike Smith, our chef mentors.

Trinity United's Crustless Sweet Potato Pie
Serves 8-10

1 pound peeled sweet potato cut into 1-inch cubes
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup condensed milk
3 ounces Splenda
1/4 cup egg white
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Place paper muffin cups into a muffin tin. Cover sweet potatoes with water in a large saucepan. Bring the water to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to a brisk simmer and cook until tender, approximately 20 minutes. Drain and cool. Mix the cooked potato with butter, milk, splenda, and egg whites in an electric mixer until well blended. Add cinnamon and nutmeg. Pour into baking cups and bake for 45 minutes until just set. Let cool. Serve plain for a virtuous treat or with some whipped cream for a more devilish dessert.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Little Locathor Founds Red Carrots

Red Carrot

So much for family cooperation. The little locavore announced a few weeks ago his intention to found an organization called Red Carrot. Originally, he explained that he plans to host events that "bring families back to the table." Sound familiar?

Given his gift of gab, talent for sales, and general good fortune (just a few months back he won over $6,000 in a raffle), this revelation was occasion for concern. Especially since he's already had the opportunity to reveal his plans to the lovely Mrs. Tom Vilsack at Healthy Schools Campaign's annual fundraiser. It apparently made an impression as she shared the news at a meeting the next day.

Fortunately, he since has decided that Red Carrot will only assist Purple Asparagus in our educational programs. Whew. Lawyer-trained pappa locavore suggested that it become a wholly owned subsidiary, just after we amend our by-laws.

In the meantime, I thought I would share his lovely hand drawn logo.

Monday, November 15, 2010

From Trash to Table, Happy Accidents and Mint Chimichurri

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A few weeks ago, my husband and I were in a popular Chicago cocktail bar populated with 20something hipsters when 1980's favorite, Duran Duran's Hungry Like the Wolf streamed through the speakers.

Days after that, I drove by a chic Lincoln Park boutique. In its windows, it's manequines wore asymetrical belts slung around their hips, just like the one I wore as a high schooler in 1986.

I discovered the last indication that the styles of the 1980's are back with a vengeance in the pages of the food section detailing pesto varieties.

Oh, snore.

Perhaps, I overdosed on pesto as future foodies during the Reagan/Poppy Bush era, but the comeback of the ground herb paste doesn't interest me. Not that I don't love the combination of sweet basil and pungent garlic bound together with olive oil. I do. But the recipe developer's recent tendency to transform every other leftover herb into (fill-in-blank) pesto leaves me cold.

I, instead, turn to another herb based condiment: chimichurri. Chimichurri, a traditional South American condiment is tart and refreshing whereas pesto is rich and velvety. Ususally made with parsley, chimichurri is a great way to transform leftover mint - an herb that I always seem to buy too much of.

Pairing it with a strip steak from our meat share, a delicious treat found in our last month's delivery, and another leftover, Spiced Sweet Potato Mash, Thor and I made a happy discovery. Sweet potatoes and mint are a delicious combination - one that I plan to repeat on Thanksgiving.

Mint Chimichurri

1 1/2 cups mint leaves
1 garlic clove
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
pinch red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

Puree all of the ingredients in a food processor. Serve with grilled meats or sweet potatoes.

I'll be teaching a Trash to Table class on November 26 at the Notebaert Nature Museum, showing how to transform leftovers into delcious dishes. For more information, click here.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Happiness is a Full Pantry: Baked Spaghetti Squash

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Just this past Sunday, I put up my last jar. My cabinet is stocked full of jams, jellies, pickles, and preserves. I've canned tomatoes, dried peppers, and frozen berries. I poached my peaches, covered my black currants with vodka, and juiced and frozen my cucumbers. I'm officially ready for winter, with not a minute to spare given that the winds of the Great Lakes cyclone are howling at our door.

In years past, I'd make jar after jar of jams and fruit preserves with an occasional pickle thrown in for good measure. This year, I invested in a Wisconsin made pressure canner, allowing me to put up more tomatoes. Using our first jar on Monday, I made a real winner of a recipe. Full of vegetables, low in carbs and long on taste, Baked Spaghetti Squash with Italian Sausage and Mozzarella, was a perfect antidote to a stormy October night.

Next year, a root cellar . . .

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Baked Spaghetti Squash with Italian Sausage and Mozzarella
Serves 6

1 large spaghetti squash
1 pound Italian sausage, casings removed
28 ounce can of tomatoes
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 green pepper, trimmed, seeded and chopped
1/4 cup red wine
1 teaspoon oregano
pinch of red pepper
1/4 pound mozzarella, grated
2 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese

Preheat the oven to 425 F.

Poke the squash all over with a fork and put it on a dinner plate in the microwave. Cook on high for nine minutes. Turn over and cook for an additional 9 minutes. Remove and cool for at least 5 minutes.

While the squash is cooking, heat a saute pan over a medium-high flame. Add the sausage, cooking and breaking it up with a wooden spoon until it is no longer pink. Add the garlic and cook for another minute. Pour in the tomatoes, breaking them up with a spoon. Stir in the peppers, red wine, oregano, red pepper and salt to taste. Simmer for about 10 minutes until slightly thickened.

Butter a casserole dish. Slice the squash in half. Scoop out the seeds and then scrape out the strands into the dish. Mix in the sauce and the grated mozzarella, stir to combine. Sprinkle the parmesan cheese on top. Place in the oven and bake for about 10 minutes or until lightly bro-wned on top.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Cheers to Kitchen Experiments! Pumpkin Banana Smoothies

Thor's Majon recipe

Although Thor is a good eater, helping in the kitchen is not really his thing. He'd rather play catch with dad, build elaborate edifices with his blocks, and draw various sports related sketchs (Anyone want to join the Dog Fetch League? We've got uniforms and league rules). So on Sunday afternoon, when he scheduled a meeting (yes, seriously a meeting with coasters and everything) to discuss creating a new recipe, I knew I had to play along.

His recipe, which he develped all by himself, with only a little assistance from me in pouring is pictured above. Still a phonetical speller, it's not easy to decipher. To translate, it's got pink grapefruit juice, apple cider, orange juice and watermelon. Because every delicious drink needs a cocktail name, like Martini or Shirley Temple, he called it the Majon (soft j).

I too played around in the kitchen on Sunday using some leftover pumpkin puree and blackened bananas, I created a Pumpkin-Banana Smoothie, which after receiving an enthusiastic thumbs up from Little Locathor will be featured in Purple Asparagus' November school programs.

Pumpkin-Banana Smoothie
Serves 1

1/3 cup pumpkin puree
1 overripe banana
1/2 cup apple cider
ice

Puree all of the ingredients in a blender.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Happy Healthy, Green Halloween



Image Courtesy of Kiwilog

Late October is a scary time. Both the crisp autumn air and the falling leaves whisper the promise of ghosts, ghouls and goblins soon to arrive. These days also bring other frightful things. While I know I’m going sound like a fuddy-duddy, I have to ask: when did Halloween become the holiday of excess?

To read more of my second post for Kiwi Magazine click here.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Club Sprouts at Green City Market

In the midst of working on my day job, catering, I was desperate to find something to post today. Regular readers may notice that I've been a bit more disciplined about posting here - three times a week. Nevertheless, I hit a wall today after hitting one snag after another in the kitchen. I was so glad then to come across this video that features our work at Green City Market this summer. The recipe, Pear Squared Salad, can be found here.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Chefs in the Classroom and the Washington Post

It's been a good few weeks for publicity. As I mentioned, last week, you may have seen me on page 3 of last Tuesday's Chicago Tribune, seeming as if I were accepting the celery root award. Today, if you live in DC or scope out other city's food sections, you'll see my mug surrounded by some chef hatted munchkins in the Washington Post, a picture accompanying a terrific article by Jane Black about Chefs Move to Schools. It describes Monday's Chefs in the Classroom event for which Purple Asparagus provided a curriculum focused on children's book Little Pea, written by Chicago author, Amy Krouse Rosenthal.

To see a bunch of adorable kindergarten kids chomping on veggies, check out this video.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Indian Summer, Global Warming and Grilled Currant-Mustard Chicken Thighs

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It was a fine weekend in Chicago full of endless blue skies and autumn trees in full plumage. It was also hot, the thermometer hovering near 80 F. With fall duties on my agenda, including planting mums and changing over closets, this spike in temperature was not welcome. Then there's the suggestion from our friendly neighborhood weathermen that these warm days are with us for a little while, about a week they say.

Of course, we've always had Indian summer, a day or two of unseasonable warmth in autumn. But this is more than that and it seems to underline recent assertions by Chicagoans in the know that in 20 years our weather will be more like that of Arkansas. That may sound nice to those of us who've survived a Chicago winter or two, but let's not forget what that means for Arkansas and rest of the southern states of this country, much less that of the southern hemisphere. And still politicians debate about the existence of global warming.

Not wanting to fire up the air conditioner again, we threw open all the doors and windows. For dinner, we lit the fire in our Big Green Egg so as to avoid the oven and served a meal of fall ingredients cooked summer style, including Grill Roasted Butternut Squash Served on Mustard Greens with Goat Brie and Walnuts and Red Currant-Mustard Chicken Thighs.

Red Currant-Mustard Chicken Thighs
Serves 6

1/2 cup red currant jelly
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
6 boneless skinless chicken thighs

Combine the first 4 ingredients in a small saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, whisking frequently. Turn the heat to medium and reduce by half to a sticky glaze. Fire up a grill or heat a non-stick grill pan. Brush the glaze all over the chicken thighs and cook until they reach 165 F. This won't take long at all. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Friday, October 8, 2010

In Praise of the Braise: Butternut Squash-Rosemary Puree

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When the trees change colors and the air acquires that crisp snap of fall, the slow cooker returns to my kitchen counter. After months of quickly cooked (if at all) vegetables and grilled meats, braising re-enters my culinary vocabulary and not a minute too soon.

Braising, slow cooking, stewing all give us the luxury of time. Throw a handful of hard, sinewy, ingredients, add a liquid, maybe a few, and a certain alchemy occurs. I particularly love when you start the process early on in the day, depart, and return to the aromas of the hearth.

This has been a busy week for me, a good one as well. Due to my organization Purple Asparagus' involvement in Healthy Schools Campaign's Chefs in the Classroom Day, my face has been seen in several media outlets, including the Chicago Tribune and ABC7, and my voice heard on WBBM. I've received word yesterday that I may even get a picture in the Washington Post (but, shhh, I'd hate to spread it around and then it not happen).

On a week like this, short on time, long on stress, I love the braise - delicious dinner with minimum of effort. I made the recipe from my last post Beef Braised with Wine and Onions. Using an arm roast, the meat turned out sturdy, yet silky. I served these wide strands of meat enveloped with a slightly acidic sauce atop Butternut Squash-Rosemary Puree. Even Little Locathor ate every bite.

Butternut Squash-Rosemary Puree
Serves 3

1 small butternut squash
1/4 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon chopped rosemary
1 minced garlic clove
salt to taste

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Halve the squash and remove the seeds. Line a baking sheet with silpat or parchment and set the squash flesh side down. Roast until tender approximately 40 minutes. Let cool slightly and then puree in a food processor. Heat the cream, rosemary and garlic in a small saucepan to a simmer. Cook for 5 minutes. Pour the cream through the feeding tube and puree with the squash. Season with salt and pepper.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

A Market Inspired Alternative Meal Plan to Let's Move's Let's Cook


Photo credit, Chicago Tribune, from an article about Monday's Chefs in the Classroom Event

Since my critique of the Let's Cook series on the White House's Let's Move website, I've posted several delicious meal plans from guest bloggers. It's now my turn.

In the past, to create a meal plan, I would scour through magazines and cookbooks on a Friday night searching for inspiration. Saturday, I would shop, both at farmers’ markets (during the season) and the grocery store for the staples not available at the market. This year changed all that. As a member of two CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture), my menu is defined by what arrives in my produce box from Harvest Moon Organics and what meat is in the freezer from my monthly pick up from Cedar Valley Sustainable Farm, a meat CSA. We still go to the market and the grocery store, but that’s just to fill in around what’s already here. As I’ve written before, it’s a very comforting way to plan a menu.

I served the following meals late in September, a particularly good week for my kitchen. With few evening meetings, we were home for dinner every night that week – a rare occurrence. I think it’s a terrific set of dinners for early autumn.

You'll likely notice that there’s something missing from my meal plan that you may want to reincorporate for your family: bread, pasta, and potatoes. My husband adheres to a low carb diet after his doctor strongly recommended it for the health of his heart. He has a family history of heart disease and high cholesterol and a severely bad back prevents him from vigorous exercise. We don’t go crazy, so you’ll see breadcrumbs, legumes and other starchy ingredients here, but we have tried to excise all of the simple carbs from our daily routine. Well, except one, nobody’s given up wine around here.

I suggest setting aside a few hours on Sunday, whatever time is good for you, to prep for the rest of the week’s meals. Much of this Sunday time is unattended, so you could read a book, help your kid with their homework, play a game, or watch television while you’re getting ready for a week full of delicious, nutritious meals.

SUNDAY:

1. In the morning, soak a pound dried chickpeas by covering them with water in a large bowl.
2. At any point at least an hour before dinner, start making your meat mixture to stuff in the peppers for Sunday’s supper. You’ll use the remaining mix to make Meat Loaf for a meal later in the week.
3. Cook the hollowed out green peppers in salted boiling water for 3 minutes. Remove with tongs and drain. Add ½ pound of trimmed green beans. Cook for 2 minutes and then remove to a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking immediately. Set the peppers in a pan ready for stuffing. Wrap the green beans in paper towels then package in a container and refrigerate.
4. While the Stuffed Peppers and Meat Loaf are baking, prepare the Moussaka up until the point at which it goes in the oven.
5. Cook the chickpeas. Drain the chickpeas and put them in a large saucepan. Cover with about 1 ½ inches of water and add a teaspoon of salt. Bring to a boil, skimming any foam that rises to the top (you don’t have to be obsessive about this). Reduce to a simmer and cook until tender. Let cool then package the chickpeas in their cooking liquid and refrigerate.
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Stuffed Peppers/Meat Loaf
Makes 1 loaf and 4 stuffed peppers

2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
1 carrot, peeled and diced
1 celery, diced
1 garlic clove, minced
1 pound ground pork
1 ½ pounds ground beef
2 teaspoons kosher salt
½ cup chopped Italian parsley
1/3 cup ketchup
1/3 cup sour cream
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
2 large eggs
1 cup bread crumbs
Freshly ground pepper
4 large green peppers, blanched
6 slices bacon

Preheat the oven to 350° F. Heat the oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add onion, carrot, and celery and cook until softened approximately 7 minutes. Stir in garlic and cook until fragrant. Remove from heat and let cool slightly. Whisk the eggs slightly in a large bowl. Mix in the sautéed vegetables. Add the pork, beef, salt, parsley, ketchup, sour cream, Worcestershire sauce, bread crumbs, and a few grinds of freshly ground pepper. Combine with your hands, being careful not to overmix.

Slice off the first ¼-inch top of the stem of each pepper. Remove the ribs and seeds. Slice off a small bit of the bottom so that it will sit flat. Sit the peppers into a 9-inch round baking pan. Press half of the mixture into a standard metal, glass or ceramic loaf pan. Lay two slices of bacon on top of the meat. Scoop the remaining meat loaf into the green peppers. Halve each of the remaining slices of bacon and lay on top of the peppers.Set each pan onto the center rack.

Bake for 30-45 minutes or until the meat reaches 165° F. Let it sit for 10 minutes while the cauliflower is roasting. Serve the peppers on Sunday. Let the meat loaf cool and then wrap in aluminum foil. Refrigerate for up to a week or freeze. You can serve the leftovers either at room temperature or reheated.


Roast Cauliflower
Serves 4

1 large cauliflower, trimmed and separated into florets
1 ½ tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
½ teaspoon kosher salt

Increase the oven temperature to 400° F. Arrange the cauliflower in a single layer on a 9 by 13 baking pan. Drizzle with oil and sprinkle with salt. Roast for 10 to 15 minutes or until the cauliflower is lightly browned.


Braised Green Beans with Tomato and Onion
Serves 4

1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
1/2 white or yellow onion, chopped
3/4 pound green beans, trimmed
1/2 tomato, chopped

Heat the oil over medium heat in a skillet with a cover. Add onion and cook until slightly softened, approximately 3 minutes. Dump in green beans, tomato, and 1 tablespoon water. Cover and cook for 15 minutes or until the green beans have softened. Season with salt to taste.


MONDAY

Moussaka
Serves 4 with leftovers

I prepare the Moussaka and prebake it on Sunday night so that all I have to do on Monday, usually a busy day, is heat the oven, brown the Moussaka, and make a green salad.

1 large eggplant
1 pound ground lamb
Approximately ¼-cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
2 large cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon nutmeg, preferably freshly grated
1 teaspoon dried oregano
12 ounces tomato puree
½ cup red wine
½ stick unsalted butter
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups warm milk
pinch nutmeg, preferably freshly grated
2 large eggs
5 grinds freshly ground pepper
1/3 pound grated goat cheddar or mozzarella (substitute cows milk mozzarella, if you can't find the goat variety)

Preheat the oven to 300º F.

Peel the eggplant and cut into 1/2-inch slices. Set them in a colander and sprinkle with approximately 1 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt. Let the eggplant drain for 1/2 hour.

Cook the ground lamb in a large sauté pan or skillet over medium high heat until it just loses its pink color. Add onions and garlic and cook for 10 minutes. Add the cinnamon, nutmeg, oregano, tomato puree, red wine and salt and pepper to taste. Reduce the heat to medium and cook for about 1/2 hour. Remove from the heat.

Wipe the eggplant slices dry. Heat 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil in a large non-stick sauté pan over high heat. When hot, add a single layer of eggplant slices and cook until they are just browned on the exterior. Repeat with additional oil and eggplant slices.

Melt the butter in a small sauté pan over medium heat. Sprinkle in flour and whisk until the mixture is smooth. Whisk in the warm milk and cook until the mixture thickens, stirring constantly. This will take between 1 and 3 minutes. Let it cool slightly, then whisk in the eggs, salt, pepper and nutmeg.

In a medium sized oval casserole or a 9 by 9-inch baking pan, layer half of the eggplant slices. Spread all of the lamb sauce on top. Sprinkle the meat with half of the cheese. Top with remaining eggplant. Smooth on the white sauce over the top and then sprinkle with remaining cheese. Bake for 1 hour. Cool to room temperature and then refrigerate overnight.

The next day, preheat the oven to 350° F and bake until browned.


Yogurt-Scallion Dressing
The recipe makes dressing for 2 salads.

This is delicious with romaine or green leaf lettuce. I like to cut up a cucumber or radish to toss with the lettuce.

3 tablespoons plain low fat yogurt
1 tablespoon mayonnaise
2 teaspoons finely chopped scallion
¼ teaspoon kosher salt

Mix all ingredients in a small bowl.


TUESDAY

I do admit that there’s a little irony in the ingredient list. One of the biggest critiques that I had for Let’s Move Let’s Cook series was that it called for hard to find ingredients like smoked paprika. That being said, when I looked back at what I used to make this soup – one of the seasonings was smoked paprika, which I use frequently given its versatility. If you can find it, it’s a good spice to have. If you cannot, substitute sweet paprika, chipotle chili powder or chili spice mix. The resulting soup will taste a little differently, but it will still be delicious.

This is a terrific almost vegetarian soup. You could round this out with some whole wheat pita bread and a green salad.

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Chickpea and Tomato Soup
Serves 4

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 leek, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 teaspoon cumin
pinch coriander (optional)
1/8 teaspoon smoked paprika, sweet paprika, or ground chipotle
3 red beefsteak tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped (you could substitute canned)
4 cups chicken stock
2 cups cooked chickpeas
1 small bunch kale or Swiss chard, ribs removed

Heat the oil in a large sauce pan or a soup pot over medium heat. Cook until the leeks give off moisture and are softened about 5 minutes. Add garlic, cumin, coriander, paprika or chipotle. Stir and cook until fragrant about 30 seconds. Scrape in tomatoes, pour in the chicken stock, and add half of the chickpeas. Bring the liquid to a boil and then reduce to a simmer. Cover and cook for 15 minutes. While cooking, thinly slice the kale. After 15 minutes, remove the soup from the heat. Let cool slightly. Puree the soup in a blender, food processor, food mill or with a stick blender. Return the soup to the pan. Add the remaining chickpeas and the greens and cook until the greens are wilted, about 10 minutes. Serve warm.


WEDNESDAY

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The chicken with peppers and a touch of arugula, another way to serve it.

Hummus
Makes approximately 2 ½ cups

On our low carb diet, we often substitute hummus for mashed potatoes. If you don’t have time to make it, there are certainly many delicious commercially prepared versions.

1 15-ounce can chickpeas
¼ cup tahini
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove, roughly chopped
1 tablespoon lemon juice or more to taste
¼-½ teaspoon kosher salt

Strain the chickpeas over a small bowl. Put them in the bowl of a food processor. Add tahini, olive oil, garlic, lemon juice, and kosher salt then process until smooth. Add liquid from chickpeas through the feeding tube until the hummus reaches the desired consistency.


Parmesan-Crusted Chicken Breasts
Serves 4

Of course, you could always buy bone-in chicken breasts for this recipe and remove the bone to use for stock. Since this is a regular dish in my after work repertoire, I often take the easy way out with pre-pounded chicken cutlets. I like to pair it with roasted, marinated, multi-colored peppers.

4 chicken cutlets or chicken breast halves, boned, skinned, and pounded between two pieces of plastic wrap or parchment
¼ cup all-purpose flour
2 large eggs
3 tablespoons water
½ cup whole wheat crumbs (I use panko-style)
½ cup grated parmesan style cheese (I use a Midwestern cheese called Sarvecchio)
2 tablespoons snipped chives, optional
Zest from half of a lemon
1 teaspoon kosher salt
5 grinds of pepper
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Place two shallow bowls side by side. Put the flour in one bowl. Mix together the water and egg in the second and then the bread crumbs, cheese, chives, lemon zest, salt and pepper in the third. Heat the olive oil in a non-stick sauté pan over medium high heat until hot but not smoking. Dredge the chicken first in the flour, then the egg mixture and finally the bread crumb mixture. Add each piece of meat into the pan and immediately turn the heat to medium. Sauté for approximately 4 minutes on one side, 3 minutes on the other. Serve warm with the following recipe for marinated peppers.


Mama Lena’s Roasted and Marinated Bell Peppers
Serves 4

6 bell peppers of various colors
6 garlic cloves
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
¼ teaspoon sherry vinegar
½ teaspoon fine sea salt

Grill, broil or roast the peppers over an open flame. Put the peppers into bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap until cool to the touch. Remove the skins and the seeds from the peppers. Slice into ¼-inch slices. Very thinly slice garlic cloves. Mix together the peppers, sliced garlic cloves, olive oil, vinegar and salt in a medium-size bowl and marinate for at least an hour, preferably overnight.


Green Beans with Balsamic-Shallot Dressing
Serves 4

½ green beans, trimmed and blanched on Sunday
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 shallot lobe, finely chopped
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar

Heat the oil in a sauté pan over medium heat. Stir in the shallots and cook until softened. Let cool slightly and whisk in the balsamic vinegar. Toss with the green beans and sprinkle with salt.


THURSDAY

Whole Wheat Pasta with Broccoli-Tomato Sauce
Serves 4 with leftovers

1 large clove garlic (3 large if using tomato puree)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 bunch broccoli
1/3 pound bulk Italian sausage (optional)
4 cups tomato puree or tomato sauce
pinch dried basil (if using puree)
½ teaspoon dried oregano (if using puree)
1 teaspoon salt (if using puree)
pinch of red pepper flakes, optional
1 pound dried whole wheat pasta, such as shells or rotini
parmesan or romano cheese to top, optional

Chop the garlic very finely. Remove the broccoli tops from the stems and separate them into florets. Slice the stems to ½-inch thick. Heat the olive oil in a medium soup pot over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook, stirring constantly, for a minute. Add the broccoli and stir to coat with the oil. Dump in the sausage (if using) and cook until no longer pink. Pour in tomato puree or sauce and sprinkle in red pepper flakes. If using puree, add the herbs. Cover and cook for 15 minutes to a half hour depending on how soft you like your broccoli. Taste for seasoning.

While the sauce is cooking, cook the pasta according to the directions. Serve topped with cheese.


Raw Kale Salad with Tomato and Almonds
Serves 4

1 tablespoon orange juice
1 teaspoon white wine vinegar
A few dashes hot sauce
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 small bunch kale, preferably dinosaur, sliced ¼-inch thick
½ medium tomato, diced
6 toasted whole almonds, chopped

Stir together the orange juice, vinegar, hot sauce, and salt and pepper to taste in a medium bowl. Whisk in olive oil until thickened. Stir in kale, tomato, and almonds. Let sit for about an hour or until the kale has softened.


FRIDAY

It doesn’t have to be Friday, but on one of days of the week, we have a leftover night with Meat Loaf as our protein. You could serve the rest of the hummus and roast peppers with a green salad. You could also toss the peppers with pasta and a bit a cheese, goat or mozzarella.

SATURDAY

You can start this in the morning and set into a slow cooker all day, perfuming the house with its meaty fragrance. By the time the dinner rolls around, you’ll have a plateful of tender meat slices to top pasta, polenta, or mashed potatoes. Serve with a green vegetable on the side either a salad, broccoli, or peas.

Beef Braised in Wine & Onions
Serves 4 with leftovers

1 chuck roast, approximately 3 pounds
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 large yellow onion, thinly sliced
6 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup full bodied red wine
1 cup beef broth, preferably homemade
1 14-ounce can diced tomatoes
¼ teaspoon dried basil
½ teaspoon dried Greek oregano
Pinch of red pepper flakes

Season the roast with salt and pepper. Brown it on all sides in a Dutch oven over set over medium-high heat. (I do this in the insert to my slow cooker). Remove the meat to a plate. Reduce the heat to medium and add the olive oil. After about a minute, add the onion, stirring until softened and slightly browned, approximately 10 minutes – you may need to reduce the heat to medium-low. Add garlic and cook for approximately 2 minutes. Add red wine and bring to a boil. Reduce slightly. Add broth, tomatoes, basil, oregano and red pepper flakes, return to a boil. Add the chuck roast and any juices that have accumulated onto the plate. Reduce to a low simmer, cover, and cook for 3-5 hours until extremely tender, flipping the meat about half way through. This can be done in a slow cooker on low, which would take about 6 hours. Remove the meat from the pot and put onto a plate. Reduce the sauce by increasing the heat to medium high. Let the sauce reduce to your preference. Adjust the sauce seasoning with salt and pepper. Serve on top of the polenta.


No Stir Polenta
Serves 4

I found this recipe in the dearly departed Gourmet Magazine. It’s so easy that it makes polenta more plentiful in my household. If, however, you don’t have 45 minutes to wait, you can always use an instant polenta.

2 cups water
2 cups chicken stock
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup polenta or coarsely ground cornmeal
2 tablespoons unsalted butter (optional)
1 tablespoon grated parmesan cheese (optional

Heat the water and chicken stock in a large saucepan to a boil. Add salt and reduce the heat to low heat. Whisk in the polenta in a slow stream. Stir constantly for 2 minutes. Cover for 10 minutes. Remove the cover and stir continually for one more minute. Repeat this process 4 more times. Remove the cover and add butter and parmesan.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Autumn Enters, Baseball Departs: Corn-Cheddar Souffle

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For me, the beginning of fall is not marked by Labor Day nor the equinox. No, autumn doesn't officially begin until the last baseball game is played in Chicago on the south side.

I'm a relative newcomer to the appreciation of America's pastime. Never one for sports, it wasn't until I met my sports crazed husband, that I understood its appeal. I fell in love with the game many autumns ago when the game was won over by a series of underdogs starting the Arizona Dbacks defeating the 1990's dynastic Yankees to our own White Sox, the second team of the second city, whose dramatic and decisive World Series cemented me as a lifetime fan. We've had season tickets since 2006 and we've seen our share of wins, losses, rain days, and fireworks. Throughout the six month season, I get attached to the other season ticket holders around us and the ballpark and so when it comes to an end at that last home game, it's hard for me to keep a dry eye.

Today's game was a particularly emotional one with the retirement of long time organist Nancy Faust and the possible departure of two of the most beloved White Sox players of this decade. Paul Konerko and A.J. Pierzinski have each come to be almost inseparable to the White Sox brand. Both crucial to bringing the World Series trophy to the "Cell" as the rechristened Comiskey Park has come to be known. Each player's contract is up this year and there's no guarantee that either will ever play again in a White Sox uniform.

We sat on a crisply cool October afternoon cheering our Sox to a 6-5 victory over the Indians, a day that seemed so full of promise that it could almost disguise itself as one in April were it not for the sky festooned with autumn's colors of red, orange and yellow. It was then that I knew that summer was over. The outdoor markets will close in just a few weeks, the leaves will drift away from their branches and snow will soon fall. To savor the moment, but yet honor the transition, we enjoyed a meal of autumn flavors, including Gingered-Pear Pork Chops, Honey Glazed Acorn Squash and a Corn-Cheddar Souffle, stuffed in the last of our purple bell peppers.

Corn-Cheddar Souffles
Serves 4

1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1/2 cup 2 % milk
1/4 cup grated cheddar
salt, pepper and nutmeg
kernels from 1 ear corn
2 eggs, separated
Pinch of cream of tartar
4 bell peppers, hollowed out and with a touch sliced off the bottom so that it will sit flat

Preheat the oven to 375 F. Heat the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in the flour and cook for about 2 minutes. Whisk in the milk and cook until thickened. Season with a touch of salt, pepper and nutmeg. Add cheese and heat until melted. Remove from heat and cool slightly. Whisk in egg yolks and then stir in the corn. With an electric mixer, whisk the egg whites until frothy. Add cream of tartar and increase the speed. Cook until stiff peaks form. Fold in about a third of the corn and cheese base into the whites gently. Add the remaining amount and fill the bell peppers with an equal amount of batter. Bake in the center of the oven until puffed and golden about 20 minutes.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Snofrisk: A Special Surprise From the Chicago Food Film Festival



Photo Credit www.jarlsberg.com

In my view, the first ever Chicago Food Film Festival was a resounding success. Purple Asparagus walked away with a big wad of cash from donations as the event's non-profit beneficiary; I got to try a few new varieties from my favorite burger joint, DMK Burger Bar; I drank my fill of Portuguese rose thanks to Lush Wine and Spirits; and spent two delightful evening with my two favorite farmers, Jenny and Bob Borchardt of Harvest Moon Farms. Oh, and, yes, the movies were pretty entertaining as well. Truthfully, unfortunately, I didn't get to see much of the film festival as I was helping the volunteers in the kitchen, but the bits I did see (including The Best Hamburger in America) seemed very well made.

But the most happy, unintended, consequence of the weekend was my discovery of Snowfrisk, a spreadable goat/cheese from the makers of Jarlsberg. Jarlsberg donated a whole bunch of cheese, what would have seemed like an endless supply, but for the seemingly endless line of people anxious to try it. When I saw the prominently displayed Norwegian flag, I knew I had to commandeer a package to bring home for my son.

As I've mentioned here many times, I love cheese, all kinds of cheese. And this one is no exception. 80% goat and 20%, the Snowfrisk has a delightful tangy taste, rounded out by its saltiness. Softer than chevre, more substantial than cream cheese, this is going to be my new favorite for bagels, dips, and cheese spreads, like my very favorite pimento cheese. This week, I spread it on corn cakes and sprinkled some zucchini-thyme compote on it for dinner side. Thor loved it minus the zucchini. I'm not sure where it's sold yet, that's on my "to investigate" list. For now, I'll enjoy the remaining package. Just this morning, I spread it onto a poor man's bagel (two pieces of toast sandwiched with Snowfrisk with a whole cut into it) at Thor's suggestion.

I use Alice Waters' recipe for Corn Cakes found in Chez Panisse Vegetables. It's flawless and cannot be improved upon, so I won't try. It's also a book that I recommend to anyone who shops regularly at a farmers' market or buys a CSA as it provides recipes for common ingredients as well as ones those off the beaten path. I then top them with this Zucchini Compote. I would only note that these cakes can be made ahead of time and reheated in the oven even though I know that Alice would not approve.

Zucchini-Thyme Compote
Makes approximately 1 1/2 cups

1 medium zucchini, cut into small dice
4 large garlic cloves
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Heat the olive oil in a non-stick saute pan over medium heat. Add garlic and cook until fragrant a few seconds. Add zucchini and cook until softened approximately 7 minutes. Add thyme, salt and pepper to taste. Use to top corn cakes.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Cohabitating: Fried Green Tomatoes with Field Peas

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There are many pleasures associated with living in the city, including easy access to world class restaurants, our choice of farmers' markets, and the proximity to downtown locales.

There are also some small disadvantages, the smaller the worse. I know that country folk have to contend with an assortment of varmints. Us? Crazy squirrels and, shudder, rats. It's been a particularly active year for latter the species. In our set of attached rowhouses, we and our neighbors have seen more than our fair share of the Rattus norvegicus, both dead and alive. I know the genus name only from Pixar's Our Friend the Rat, a short film associated with Ratatouille. It seems appropriate that the featured dish in said movie highlights tomatoes, since our enemy, the rat, pilfered our last beautiful red ripe heirloom tomato. Boo hoo.

I'm tired of battling the creatures for the fruits of our vine. I also realize that I'm probably being optimistic to believe that any more will turn red given the drop in temperatures. So sadly, I stripped our plants of the hard green balls, realizing that summer is officially gone. The silver lining? I get to make Fried Green Tomatoes, an early autumn pleasure, that I indulge in only after the possibility of ripe fruit is gone. Partnering them with some stewed field peas, a newcomer to our markets, we had a delicious almost vegetarian supper, in spite of the rats.

Field Peas with Tasso and Fried Green Tomatoes

1 teaspoon vegetable oil
2 ounces tasso ham sliced
10 ounces fresh field peas (you could substitute soaked black eyed peas)
¼ cup chicken stock
1 ¾ cup water
1 small tomato, chopped
2 to 3 small green tomatoes, sliced 1/2-inch thick
1/4 cup all purpose flour
1/2 cup cornmeal
1/2 cup buttermilk
dash tabasco
salt to taste
vegetable oil for frying

Heat the vegetable oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the ham and cook for about 5 minutes or until lightly browned. Pour in water and stock and bring to a simmer. Add the peas and tomato and cook until the peas are tender 30 to 45 minutes.

Heat about an inch of vegetable oil in a heavy medium skillet to 325 F. Whisk the tabasco into the buttermilk and the salt into the cornmeal. Dredge the tomato slices first in flour, then dip in buttermilk, and then into the cornmeal. Fry the slices until golden and serve on top of the field peas.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Harvest Farewell: Moroccan Spiced Corn Soup



Photo Credit iStock Photo

These are the days of change. Every day, the early autumn sky is dotted by more and more colors - schoolbus yellow, pumpkin orange, and brick red. The temperatures continue to decline, the air turning from humid to crisp. The markets are changing as well, each week the tables shrink, summer's produce disappearing seemingly before our very eyes. All this creates busy days for those of us who seek to capture at least some sliver of the harvest canning, drying and freezing.

This week's market buy destined for the freezer was fresh corn, which I saved in two ways: frozen kernals, shaved from the cob, and then as stock, both of which are put to good use in this recipe.

Moroccan Spiced Corn Soup with Harissa
Serves 4

3 ears corn
1 small shallot
2 sprigs thyme
4 cilantro stems
1 ½ tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/3 cup finely chopped red onion
1 medium garlic clove, minced
½ Serrano chile, seeded and minced
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
¾ teaspoon coriander seeds, toasted and finely ground
¾ teaspoon cumin seeds, toasted and finely ground
Pinch of cayenne pepper
1 Yukon Gold potato, cut into 1/8 inch dice
1 ½ tablespoons heavy cream
1 tablespoon finely chopped cilantro
4 teaspoons of harissa

Shuck corn and remove kernels from the cob. Place corn kernels into a bowl. Put cobs into a medium saucepan with shallot, thyme and cilantro stems. Cover with water and bring to a boil. Simmer for 20 minutes. Strain and reserve as corn stock. Heat olive oil in a medium saucepan until hot, but not smoking. Sauté red onion and Serrano chile slightly softened, approximately 2 minutes. Add minced garlic and sauté until fragrant approximately 30 seconds. Sprinkle pan with all-purpose flour and spices and cook, stirring constantly, for 3 minutes. Add 3 cups of the corn stock and bring to a boil. Add potato and simmer for 5 minutes. Add corn kernels and cook for 10 minutes or until corn and potatoes are both tender. Let cool slightly and puree in a food processor. Force through a fine mesh sieve, pressing hard on solids; discard solids. Return to cleaned pan and bring to a simmer. Add kosher salt to taste, about 1 teaspoon. Add heavy cream and cook for 2 minutes. If the soup is too thick, add any remaining corn stock or water. Remove from heat and stir in cilantro. Pour into bowls and top with a teaspoon or less of harissa.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Autumn Equinox: Tomato, Avocado and Cilantro Pesto

Tomato Picture

Last night, the end of the Autumnal equinox, we feasted on tomatoes. Among the decay of my backyard full of withering vines, Mike and I enjoyed a bottle of rose and ate another September tomato salad. While many other cooks celebrate the coming of fall with pumpkin, sweet potatoes, apples, or some other late harvest crop, for me, there is no better way to celebrate the end of summer than to revel in its glory.

I've talked about our small urban garden a few times during this growing season. Finally, I've successfully grown more than herbs. Cucumbers, peppers, raspberries, and green beans, have been among our "crops." But nothing has made me more proud than our glorious heirloom tomato plant. Carefully tended, watered, and shrouded with screen after the first tomato was pecked by birds, the giant fruit started to redden in early September. Each of the orbs weighing at least a pound has fed us well providing several days of tomato enjoyment.

Back in May, we ate day after day of asparagus, roasted, grilled, and sauteed, until it disappeared from the market, replaced by the remainder of summer's fill. And so, I find it mildly comforting, that I ended the growing season in the same manner that I began it, gorging myself on the season's best.

My seasonal indulgences remind me of a Emily Dickinson quote that I cannot find. In essence, she told us that only by enduring scarcity, can we fully appreciate plenty.(Interesting how words can be ephemeral, but concepts timeless.) We soon come to the end of our eating cycle, about to enter into the days of root vegetables and bitter greens. I love those days too, and when I tire of my diet of underground dwellers, I'll comfort myself with the thought of stalks of asparagus shooting from the spring earth and later vines heavy with red tomatoes. But until the bitter end, I'll continue to gorge myself on my tomato salads, including this, my favorite: Tomato, Avocado and Red Onion Salad with Cilantro Pesto

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Tomato, Avocado and Red Onion Salad with Cilantro Pesto
Serves 2-4

1 large heirloom tomato, sliced 1/3-inch thick
1 avocado, sliced 1/4-inch
1/2 red onion, thinly sliced
1 small bunch cilantro
1 large garlic clove
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup toasted pumpkin seeds
kosher salt

Puree the last five ingredients together in a food processor until smooth. Intersperse the tomato, avocado and red onion on a platter. Dab the salad with gobs of cilantro pesto (you'll have extra of this, you can either save it for remaining tomato salads or freeze it for the dark winter months).

Watch What You Eat! First Ever Chicago Food Film Festival



Food movies are so delicious. Movie theater food, not so much. The first ever Chicago Food Film Festival changes all that this weekend.

Following up on the continued success in New York, the folks at the Food Film Festival have made their way to the Midwest. On September 24 and 25th, they'll transform the MCA Warehouse into a screening room to show some of the favorite movies from the past four year's festivals.

Packed with mouth-watering documentaries, features, short films and food, the festival brings you the opportunity to taste what you see on screen for a multi-sensory, full-bodied experience.

On Friday, take in a series of short films, including Craig Noble's The Perfect Oyster during which you can feast on the Fanny Bay variety from Shaws. On Saturday, the focus is on the big Bs: burgers and beer. Check out The Beer Wars, Cud, and a shortened version of The Best Hamburger in America, directed by the festival founder, George Motz. During the screenings, get your fill of burgers from DMK Burger Bar and brews from Stone Brewing, Half Acre and Two Brothers.

What are you waiting for? Buy your tickets now to feast, view, and support Purple Asparagus, the festival's non-profit partner all at the same time.

Click here for tickets. General admission (which includes food and booze) is $30.00.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Blogging at Kiwi!



Just two days after celebrating Little Locavores one year anniversary, I have some very exciting news. I've signed on to guest blog at Kiwi Magazine's blog: Kiwilog.

I've been a fan of Kiwi since I first picked up at Green Fest a few years back. It's a parenting magazine for the environmentally conscious rich with tips on nutrition, education, and healthy lifestyles. I couldn't imagine a publication with values more aligned with mine.

I'll be posting once a month, generally on the third Monday. Bookmark the site and keep an eye out for some exciting developments on it, which should be taking place in the next few months.

To read my first post, Local, Sustainable, Delicious!, click here
 
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