Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A Family-Friendy Alternative Meal Plan for Let's Move by Parent Blogger Michelle Stern

Not too long ago, I expressed my frustration with the Let’s Move Let’s Cook series of videos on the White House’s website. With poorly written recipes calling for hard to find ingredients (smoked paprika and haricots verts), I think that these meal plans have the potential to do more harm than good. While the White House and Chef Marvin Woods, the author of the original meal plan, ignored my criticisms, the Chicago Sun-Times incorporated them into a larger article on the Chefs Move to School program. Timing couldn’t have been better.

Ever since my critical post, I’ve been prodding several of my favorite bloggers to create alternative meal plans, ones that take into account the realities of everyday families. And today, we release them.

The first comes all the way from California. Michelle Stern owns What’s Cooking, a certified green company that offers cooking classes for children in the San Francisco Bay Area. Not only do her classes teach kids and their families to enjoy delicious homemade foods, but they also motivate families to use food and cooking to help those less fortunate. Like me, Michelle was invited to the White House, where she participated in the launch of Michelle Obama’s Chefs Move to Schools initiative. She has appeared on ABC's View From the Bay 7 times and was recently a guest on a radio show about Childhood Obesity. In addition, her blog won the 2010 Parent & Child Green Blog award from Scholastic. When she isn’t in the kitchen or at the computer, she’s the head chauffeur for her two children, dog walker to her two mutts, and chicken feeder for her backyard flock.

To check out her family-friendly meal plan, visit her blog, What's Cooking.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Squash Fatigue: Simmered Yellow Squash


It's that time of the season when fatigue begins to set in at least with certain vegetables. Tomatoes, peppers and eggplants, I never tire of, but zucchini, yellow squash, and cucumbers, I'm nearing my end. Unforunately, my garden and CSA have other plans. Therefore, I'm pretty happy when I come up with a new recipe that pleases me, my husband, and Little Locathor.

Simmered Yellow Squash with Oregano, Tomato & Capers
Serves 4

2 small summer squash, sliced ¼-inch thick
2 cloves garlic minced
2 teaspoons unsalted butter
1 sprig oregano or basil
½ cup diced tomato
1 teaspoon capers
2 tablespoon toasted bread crumbs

Heat the butter in a small skillet. Add the butter and heat until melted. Stir in the squash. Cover and simmer over medium-low heat for 10 minutes. Add oregano and diced tomato. Cover and simmer for an additional 15 minutes. Add drained capers, salt, and pepper to taste. Sprinkle bread crumbs on top. Serve warm.

Fed Up with Fast Food: Blogging with Mrs. Q

Guess who was guest blogging over at Mrs. Q's well-known Fed Up with Lunch about fast food. Not the little locavore, though he's got plenty to say about McDonald's. Here's a little of what I said:

I’m sure that this blog’s regular readers will remember Mrs. Q’s recent post criticizing McDonald’s ad campaign, which insinuated that its Egg McMuffins are pure and unprocessed. I read this entry with great interest, especially the comments that followed it, many of which were quite critical of her description of the fast food giant’s offerings as “utter crap.” See, my family also does not frequent McDonald’s, or least not any more. Our rationale, however, is a little different than Mrs. Q’s and I wanted to share it given some recent developments at the USDA.

To read more, click here.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

You Say Tomato, I Say Yum: Tomato Soup from the Vine


Busy planning Purple Asparagus' Corks & Crayons, I figured I would resurrect this post since it's on my menu this week given the plethora of tomatoes we have in our garden this year. A friend suggested planting hot peppers next to the tomatoes to deter the squirrels and it's worked!

I first grew tomatoes as a grown-up on a roof deck of a condo building. With two of my friends, we planted, watered and tended ten different heirloom varieties. With visions of BLT's, Caprese salads and pizzas with fresh tomato slice, we watched with great anticipation as some of our crop began to ripen. Finally, one morning, we journeyed up the stairs to harvest our first pick. With great horror, we saw that all of the ripe tomatoes were gone, ripped from their little green stems. Another of our neighbors had unceremoniously tossed them into his salad the evening before. When asked about it, he apologized and offered to replace them from the grocery store. Ugh. As politely as I could muster, I told him that the next harvest was spoken for.

These days we don't need to worry about rude neighbors, but crazy squirrels. Our first tomatoes were marred by bites or carelessly tossed into the beds of other plants. For some reason, as the season has gone on, our rodent friends have lost interest and the tomatoes have been allowed to ripen and turn color. I'm crossing my fingers that one of these days soon we'll have enough to make a bowl of soup as it is the Little Locathor's favorite.

His love of tomato soup all started when he pilfered a bowl of mine at one of our favorite restaurants. After finishing it off, he declared: “Mommy, I finally like soup.”

This recipe doesn’t involve a lot of ingredients, but instead lets the flavor of the tomatoes shine through. Accordingly, use the best and ripest tomatoes that you can find. With the exception of the bay leaf and pepper, I purchased all of the ingredients locally.

Tomato Soup
Serves 6

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ large or 1 medium yellow onion, diced
1 garlic clove, minced
1 small celery stalk, thinly sliced
1 small carrot, peeled and thinly sliced
½ bay leaf
2 ½ pounds red ripe tomatoes
Kosher salt
Freshly ground pepper

Roughly chop the tomatoes. Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the onion, garlic, celery, carrot and bay leaf and cook until softened, approximately 7 minute. Scrape in the chopped tomatoes and cook until they have broken down thoroughly about 45 minutes to an hour. Puree the tomatoes in a blender or food processor. Push the puree through a fine mesh strainer or a food mill. Return the strained tomato puree to the saucepan and bring to a simmer. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve in shallow bowls.

Kid Cooking Tips
With a kid safe knife, such as our wavy cutter wavy cutter, kids can cut the totatoes, celery and carrots. They can stir in the ingredients and the soup while it's simmering. Finally, they can assist with pushing the puree through a strainer or a food mill.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

What's Grows Together, Goes Together: Pear Squared Salad

Searching for inspiration for a new recipe for this week's Green City Market Sprouts presentation, I had to look no further than the market itself. At Leaning Shed, amongst all of the deliciously different tomatoes, I found some lovely pear shaped ones, a little longer than a cherry. Leaving them alone, I walked only a few stands down to find real pears, a little firm, but nothing that a few days on the counter wouldn't cure. Pears and pears together - natural fit but for the fact that I've never seen pears and tomatoes paired. Nevertheless, intrepid was I, I returned to the Shed and bought a bagful. The resulting recipe, Pear Squared Salad, was a huge hit both among the sprouts and their parents.

Pear Squared Salad
Serves 2-4

2 tablespoons plain yogurt
1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
1/8 teaspoon cumin
1/4 teaspoon honey
pinch coriander
pinch cinnamon
pinch kosher salt
1 pear, cored and chopped into small pieces, sprinkled with 1 teaspoon lemon juice
1/2 cup pear tomatoes, quartered
1/2 teaspoon chopped cilantro

Mix together the first eight ingredients in a medium bowl. Add the pears and the pear tomatoes and sprinkle with cilantro.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Making Pappads

I've written about my good friend, Nikita, in past posts. A terrific cook who is generous with her time, she taught a semi-unruly group of 15 kids how to make samosas and cilantro chutney for Purple Asparagus, which I documented in Samosa Madness! She recently took on the far easier task of teaching me and a fellow school friend to make pappads.

If you've been to an Indian restaurant, you've had the deliciously wafer thin pappadums often paired with the tart cilantro chutney or the sweet tamarind version. Pappads are similar, but are instead from northern India, made of legume flour, and are grilled, not fried. Chip-like, lower in fat, papads are an amazingly delicious treat.

Many months ago, Nikita had promised to show me how to make these delectable little snacks, but we needed a hot, sunny day since the pappads traditionally dry on large sheets in the hot Indian sun. This summer has provided its fair share and so the three of us spent the morning pounding and rolling in Nikita's sunny mid-rise condo with a few calls to India and Nikita's mom for advice. A fun morning of gabbing culminated in a barbecue as the boys returned.

Nikita dropped off a package of the dried only a few weeks back. Serving them multi-culturally with hummus and baba ghanoush, I've eaten all but one. Thankfully, Nikita, always generous, supplied me with another batch sent from India.


1.5 pound mung dal flour
1.5 pound urad dal flour
1.5 tablespoons baking soda
3 tablespoons kosher salt
1.5 tablespoons coarsely ground black pepper
scant teaspoon asefitada
cumin water (1 teaspoon cumin seeds boiled in 2 cup water) - uses for kneading the dough
canola or olive oil for rolling out the papads

Mix together the first six ingredients in an electric mixer fitted with a dough hook (Nikita used a bread machine to knead the mixture). Add enough water to make a dry dough. 193

Knead for 10 to 15 minutes. Remove large chunks of dough from the mixer and beat with a rolling pin until the dough is softened and pliable.


Tear the dough into large chunks. Roll them into logs and oil them.


Roll each log as thinly as possible without tearing. Set out the circles onto a tarp or clean sheet in a warm sunny place. Let dry.

When the circle starts to curl up, flip and dry the other side.

When the pappadums are dried, package them carefully in a bag.

You can cook the pappadums by grilling them or microwaving them for 45 seconds on high. They're done when they're lightly browned and very crisp.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Garden Fresh Gazpacho


For many years, I had a black thumb. Herbs, annuals, perennials all wilted at my touch. I'd almost given up until I came across the earth boxes at my favorite garden store this year. Starting out with one box, we planted a couple of broccoli seedlings. Within a few weeks they had shot up looking green, leafy and vibrant. I went back and bought a few more boxes, adding peppers, eggplants, and tomatoes. And for the first time, I have a thriving garden from which I made dinner (or at least part of it).

Anyone in Chicago could attest to the heavy, stale heat that we endured on Saturday. A simple walk to our neighborhood street festival and back knocked me out. Needing a pick me up, I made this delicious gazpacho, the gold standard of cold summer soups.

Garden Fresh Gazpacho
Serves 4

Adapted from Gourmet

1 2-inch piece country bread, crusts removed
2 garlic cloves
2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons Sherry vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
2 pounds ripe tomatoes, cored and quartered
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 cucumber peeled and cut into small dice
1 bell pepper seeded and cut into small dice

Soak the bread in water for 1 minute. Squeeze the excess liquid out. Puree the garlic, salt, vinegar, sugar, and 1 1/2 pounds of the tomatoes in a food processor. With the motor running, add the remaining tomatoes and the oil through the feed tube. Push the soup through a fine mesh strainer into a bowl. Stir in the cucumber and pepper. Set the bowl into another larger bowl filled with ice and chill in the refrigerator until very cold.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Compost Chronicles: Urban Composter

Photograph Courtesy of iStock Photo

It's been almost a year since the Illinois legislature passed S.B. 99, intended to make commercial composting viable in Illinois. Prior to the passage of this act, Illinois required a commercial food scrap composting facility to obtain a pollution control permit, an arduous and financially prohibitive process. The bill amended the Illinois Environmental Protection Act to remove food scraps from the definition of garbage so that now Illinois treats food scrap composting in the same manner as landscape composting, allowed in the state for years. To read more about the legislation, click here.

Despite the passage of the bill, the dream of commercial composting for residential purposes (i.e. curbside composting found in cities like Portland, OR) is still just that, a dream. Given the financial climate, it would be very difficult for a businessperson to raise the funds to build a composting facility available to the general public and the City just doesn't have the resources to fund one at this time.

Given this reality, any Chicagoan wanting to reduce their organic waste that heads to the landfill will need to explore small scale, home-based composting systems. About a year and half ago, Michael Morowitz had asked me to prepare a down and dirty guide on these systems for The Local Beet. At the time, I was having my own composting struggles so I begged off. Fifteen months later, with my electric composter churning away and my worms fat and happy, I think I can provide a brief introduction to the realm of urban composting. I'll also explain how to tap into the more expert worm wranglers and compost keepers for more knowledgeable advice.

To start out, I want to make it perfectly clear, I do no outdoor composting. We live in an old rowhouse a few door down from Ravenswood, the el, and Metra. We've had rat problems in the past, including one that nuzzled its way through crumbling brick outside our back door, glided down what must have been a rodent slide, and peeked its way through the gap in our laundry room cupboards. Seeing this, we called our contractor who removed said cupboards and found no rat, but three tiny dead mice babies. Sealing up the hole, replacing the cabinets, we seem to have been rodent free (knock on wood) since then. But I will do NOTHING, not one thing, to attract any of these critters to my back yard. If you're looking for advice on compost piles, rack composting systems, solar composting devices, or the drums that require turning, look elsewhere, I've got nothing for you.

What I can tell you is how we, as a family of three who eat at home regularly, have diverted most of our food waste from the garbage to the compost bin.

The High Tech

Almost two years ago, I ordered the Nature Mill electric composter. The marketing materials suggested that this machine could do it all. Not only would it churn vegetable and fruit waste into finely ground compost, but it could take on meat and bread scraps (two no-nos for the worm and outdoor compost bins). My first disappointment transpired when I opened the box and realized the size of it. The Nature Mill people suggest their machine will fit under the sink (a replacement for the garbage disposal). In fact, it does fit in a standard under the sink cabinet as long as you don't plan to open it up, which is how you add the scraps. Okay, small impediment. I located it downstairs in our laundry room, set it up according to the directions, and began adding our waste.

The first week or so, all seemed to be a go. But then, it began to stink. Reviewing the instructions, I realized that the mixture needed balancing so I added some baking soda and sawdust pellets and it evened itself out. Feeling confident, I then decided to add the protein that I was assured it could handle. About a half a cup of shrimp shells (spent from making stock) were tossed in with veggie waste and coffee grinds. Within a day, the stench emanating from the machine could knock you back. Note to self, no more animal protein.

A few more weeks went by and it seemed to operating smoothly until it wasn't. The machine shorted out. I called the company and they replaced the control panel and everything seemed fine, that is until the couscous incident. Along with vegetable waste, baking soda, sawdust, coffee grinds, I added a whole mess of cooked couscous left over from a DIY Couscous table that Purple Asparagus organized for Lab School. I'm not sure what happened but within a week or so, I found these little tiny seeds (or so I thought) clinging to the interior sides of the bin. They didn't concern me that much at first, until they started to multiply. For those of you who know your bugs will realize that these multiplying seeds weren't seeds at all, but maggots.

Vowing not to be beaten by the machine, I cleaned out the machine with a mask covering my mouth and nose and gloves on my hands. I started it up again, but something that I did in cleaning must have damaged the apparatus, and the machine wouldn't churn. Harumph. I gave up for the time being.

A few months later, I put aside the maggots from my imagination and called the company. Unfortunately, at this point the warranty had expired. After some sweet talking and firm talking, they finally offered to sell me another at cost (allowing me to upgrade). Hoping that I wasn't throwing good money after bad, I agreed.

It arrived, I unpacked it, I set up the culture, waited two weeks (a step not explained in the first manual) and it seemed to be working. Until it wasn't. Another call to the company, another package returned, and another composter sent. This was last year.

Fast forward to today, after all that headache, it's working. Situated in our kitchen, it churns a few times a day. We fill it with fruit and veggie scraps, an occasional bread crust, balancing this all with a judicious amount of baking soda and coffee grinds. With a pretty deep well, we divert a large percentage of our daily food scraps to our Nature Mill so despite the effort and cost involved, I do think that it was worth it. I also do know that the company, a new one, did work to improve their product and their manual, so that us first-generation owners probably worked out a lot of the kinks for them. If you've got the resources and want a simple composting with less ick factor this may be the way to go.

The Low Tech

In between all of the hassles we endured with the Nature Mill, friend and author Tim Magner, gave Thor his book Earl the Earthworm Digs for his Life, which inspired the little locavore to ask for a pet worm (along with his sports jerseys and Wii games) for his 5th birthday. Ordering a worm ranch from Montana with a 1000 red wigglers, we started our experiment with vermicomposting.

A far easier process (with just a bit more ick), we have a large green perforated rectangle that sits another rectangular box slightly bigger than the first. We lined it with newspaper scraps, dumped the worms with the accompanying castings, and covered them with a bunch of food scraps and another layer of shredded newspaper. I closed up the hard cover of the box and we waited. A few weeks later, most of the foodstuffs had been processed into soft brown bits and the newspaper soaked through. Our little red friends wriggled in and out of the shreds. I added more food and more newspaper and covered it back up. Things were going very smoothly. The bin emitted no odor and it was a pretty easy to maintain. As it got warmer, things got a little dicey as we saw some little flies around the box, both in and out. I pulled out my used copy of Worms Eat My Garbage, which recommended covering the bedding with a thick sheet of plastic. Once I did that our bug problem ceased.

The worms are pretty easy to maintain. I feed them every other week, allowing my food scraps to rot a little in a compost pail that I keep under the sink (apparently it's easier for the worms to work through partially decomposed foodstuffs). Quarterly, I need to drain out the worm poop that accumulates in the bottom tray. Cutting it with lots of water, I pour that as a fertilizer in our garden. While there's a bit of ick factor involved in the worms, once you get over it they are actually rather easy to handle.

Over the course of these two years in these adventures, I’ve learned a few things about worm wrangling and compost keeping. Here are my top 5 tips.

1. Always maintain a balance between browns (paper, coffee grinds, sawdust, wood pellets) and greens (most everything else). Otherwise it will stink.
2. Keep out the protein, fats, and bread. After my shrimp shell incident, I keep the animal protein out of my compost. Otherwise it will stink.
3. With your worm bin, make sure the food waste is always covered, at least by shredded newspaper and preferably with a thick piece of plastic. Otherwise, you’ll get flies.
4. Be patient especially at first. With either the worm bin or the electric composter, don’t put in too much waste to start. Otherwise it will stink or you’ll get flies.
5. Make sure to chop or tear your organic matter into small pieces, it’s easier for both the electric composter and the worm bin to process the waste. The longer it takes, the more likely it will stink.

Since this is more a story about composting than a guide, I have a few resources for those of you wanting to find more detailed information on composting.

In Chicago, there’s no one who makes composting more fun than Stephanie Davies of Urban Worm Girl. With her school programs and Worms and Wine events, Stephanie makes composting fun and easy. She sells what has to be the most attractive worm bin, deep green and shaped sort of like a pagoda.

In the suburbs, you can find the grand dame of the garbage heap, Kay McKeen and her organization SCARCE.

The bible on vermicomposting is Worms Eat My Garbage by Mary Appelhof. Anyone starting out with worms need to have a copy of this book.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Easy as Pie: Rasperry-Rhubarb Pie


In scanning through Twitter, I recall a recent blog post, which suggested that farmers' markets can reduce stress. In all due respect, despite my love of them, I do not agree. While farmers' markets have their pastoral qualities and a convivial atmosphere, there's something rather dizzying about them, especially at the height of the season. A dozen different shapes and types of eggplants, squash, beans, and greens, I want to buy them all. What's for dinner is never a simple question for a farmers' market shopper. This can be particularly dangerous for market newbies. Who hasn't overbought at one time or another during summer's zenith?

In contrast, there's something so comforting about my CSA share. I love it not only because I get a manageable amount of certified organic produce, but also because I know that I'm eating exactly what I should. So for example, this weekend, we had good friends of ours over for dinner. Ordinarily, during the market season, I agonize over my menus - there's so much available and so many recipes to try. It could take me takes me hours to create one that seemed to make sense, one that I would change almost the instant, I stepped into the circle of market tents. This year, my menu was circumscribed by the box I'd picked up earlier in the week.

At first, when I opened it up to find a few stalks of rhubarb, I groaned. Believe me, we ate our fair share of it, at the end of May, in savory and sweet dishes. Plus, I've got bags of it packed away in freezer bags for the leaner months. But then I remembered the many recipes I've seen partnering rhubarb and raspberries - two ingredients I've never found together at the market. Pulling up my easy and stress-free pie crust recipe. I mixed, rolled, and baked my garnet-shaded pie over the course of an afternoon.

Raspberry-Rhubarb Pie
Serves 8

2 ½ cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
2 sticks unsalted butter, cut into small pieces, chilled
¼ - ½ cup ice water
3 cups fresh or frozen raspberries
3 cups sliced fresh or frozen rhubarb (1/2-inch thick)
1 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

Mix together the flour, salt, and sugar in the bowl of a food processor. Add butter and process until the mixture is sandy. Pour in the water through the feed tube, while pulsing. Pulse until the mixture just starts to hold together. Line a medium bowl loosely with plastic wrap. If you have a scale, measure 10 ounces of dough into it and wrap up the dough pressing it into a flat disc. Repeat with remaining dough. Chill for an hour. A half hour after you put it into chill, preheat the oven to 400 F. If you leave it in for longer, you'll have to let it soften outside of the fridge for a little while to make it pliable. Roll the larger disc to a 1/4-1/8-inch thick. Fit it into a 9-inch pie plate. Trim and crimp the edges. Prick the dough with a fork. Cover with aluminum foil and weight with dried beans or pie weights. Bake for 15-20 minutes. Remove the foil and weights and let cool. Increase the heat to 425 F.

Combine the raspberries, rhubarb, sugar, and salt. Scrape into the cooled crust. Roll out the remaining crust to 1/8-inch thick and cut into 1/4-inch slices. Weave into a lattice and seal at the edges. Brush with egg wash (1 egg yolk - 1 tablespoon milk).
Return to the oven and bake for 1 hour.

Cool and serve, preferably the same day.
blog design by brooksiedesign