Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Barley and mushroom risotto, turkey stuffing, lots of veggies, sweet potato casserole, and carrot cake

This week has been quite chaotic, but I managed to do a lot of cooking (partially because I needed distraction).  Squirt (my rat) got really sick last week, and after a few days of feeding her by hand and sleeping on the couch with her, she got bad enough that I knew I had to put her down.  It was rough, and I still miss her like crazy, but it's getting easier as time goes on.  Anyway, cooking gave me a good way to keep myself busy.  

First I made some barley and mushroom risotto.  This came from the same cookbook as the picadillo (Lorna Sass's "Whole Grains Every Day, Every Way"), but I see that it was also featured in the Washington Post.  I left out the parsley because I didn't have any, and I used dried portobello mushrooms because that was the only choice (other than the morels at $26/oz) at the store.  I also used green onions instead of the leeks because that's what I had handy.  I had a few space-out moments (like when I halved the recipe but forgot to cut down the liquid), but I managed to recover and the texture turned out beautifully.  It tastes good, too, but next time I'll reduce the amount of fennel seeds, or perhaps leave them out all together.  I knew that they taste somewhat like anise (which I don't like at all), and I suppose that should have been enough warning.  I still like it, but it would be much better without that flavor.

I also wanted to try out a stuffing recipe in preparation for Thanksgiving, and I thought it would be perfect while I had a little bit of turkey left.  I found a tasty looking recipe at Kalyn's kitchen (a very good website with a lot of whole grain recipes), so I tried it out.  I used basic whole wheat sandwich bread (with flax seeds) that I made last week.  I halved this recipe, too, but I didn't measure the veggies and I think I used a bit too much of them.  It tastes really good, but it could use a little bit more bread.

I then went crazy with the veggies.  Nothing too inventive, but I made lots of steamed broccoli, steamed carrots, roasted cauliflower, and roasted green beans with almonds.  I found out yesterday that it's National Roasting Month, so it worked out perfectly.  Oh, and I almost forgot about the sweet potato casserole that is delicious and amazingly simple (it only has sweet potatoes, crushed pinapple, cinnamon, and walnuts).

And my final concoction was a carrot cake sweetened with pineapple and raisins.  It's really good (and would be even better if I had remembered to add the vanilla).  I'm still amazed at how great these things turn out, and I don't miss refined sugar at all.

I can't cook for a while because I'm leaving on Friday, but now I have a new distraction because Bahareh got me a hamster for my birthday.  He's quite adorable and amazingly soft, but he's not quite sure about his new cage/owner.  Hopefully he'll figure it out soon.  Any name suggestions would be appreciated.  Right now I'm throwing around Rocko/Rocky, Pollan, and, Clack (I've been listening to far too much Car Talk lately), but I'm also waiting to see if anything about his personality jumps out at me. 

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

This week's creations

Most of my leftovers were gone by the end of the weekend, so on Monday I got back into the kitchen.  I found an interesting recipe for Quinoa and Beef Picadillo in my new whole grains cookbook, so I went for it.  Basically you saute onions, garlic, green pepper, cumin, and ground beef, then add diced tomatoes and green chiles, raisins, and spices (oregano, chili powder, and cinnamon) and let it simmer for a while.  Then you add in cooked quinoa.  I love the interesting blend of the spices, and once again the raisins work even though I had my doubts.  It is definitely more of an authentic mexican dish than the usual tex-mex fare.  I'm really excited to try more recipes from this book because there's a lot of variety and this one really hit the spot!

I also roasted a turkey breast on Monday so that I could make some sandwiches this week.  I didn't do much to it - just rubbed a little bit of olive oil on it and sprinkled some thyme on top, then roasted it at 350 for a while (I think it took about an hour and 15 min).  I love turkey (and haven't had any for a while), so I'm really enjoying it.  There's nothing new or exciting about it, but all I wanted was some good simple turkey.

And finally, today I roasted a butternut squash.  Coincidentally, I made this much like the turkey.  I cut it into small cubes, drizzled olive oil and thyme on it, mixed it together, then spread it out in a pan and roasted it at 450 for about 35 min (stirring once).  It's delicious and simple.  After not venturing much into the winter squashes before, I'm really enjoying them now.  They're so easy, and there isn't a rush to use them since they last so long.  I still have a spaghetti and acorn on the counter, but I'm wishing I would have filled my apartment with them before the farmers' market closed.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Book review: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle; In Defense of Food; Twinkie, Deconstructed; Harvest for Hope; The Omnivore's Dilemma

I've been meaning to do this for a while, but I suppose that it's better late than never.  There are a few books that have really changed the way I think about food, so I'll say a little bit about each one (in the order in which I read them).

1) "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" by Barbara Kingsolver.  Barbara and her family buy a farm in North Carolina and pledge to only eat locally grown and produced food (with a few minor exceptions like spices) for a year.  They grow a lot of produce and raise turkeys and chickens, and find everything else they need at farmers' markets and nearby farms.  It's a really good read because she combines humorous stories about learning how to successfully farm (like figuring out how to sneakily give away tons of zucchini) with some really important lessons that they learned.  She also points out many health (and taste!) benefits of eating locally produced organic food.  And the best part is that there's no hint of an elitist attitude.  She makes a good case for eating completely locally, but fully admits that it's not possible for most people.  But, there are some great resources for a few changes that everyone can do.

I was hesitant to read this book because I knew it would change the way I think, and I figured it was easier being ignorant.  This didn't radically change my habits, but afterwards I did start shopping at the market occasionally, and I started paying more attention to where food comes from.  It also prompted me to get the bread machine (her husband makes a fresh loaf every day), and that's been a fantastic change to my life.

Oh, and there's a great website with some of the recipes she includes in her book.

2) "In Defense of Food" by Michael Pollan.  I have become obsessed with this guy.  The cover of the book has the phrase "Eat Food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants.", and that's the heart of the book.  He starts off with a critique of nutritionists, saying that the whole industry has rotated through the low fat and low carb crazes, and that none of them make any sense.  Sensible eating is far more healthy.  Then he describes some of the chemicals and processing methods in "food-like products" that you find everywhere.  He gives great examples about how humans in different regions of the world can live on practically any diet as long as it's real food.  Finally, he gives several suggestions on how to eat "real food", such as not eating stuff that your great grandmother wouldn't recognize as food, only shopping on the outside aisles of the grocery store, not eating things with more than 5 ingredients, and not eating anything with an ingredient that your 5 year old can't pronounce.  He also touts the benefits of eating locally.  It's one of the most informative books I've read, but unlike Omnivore's Dilemma (see below), it's a very quick and easy read.

This book changed my life.  I read it on a camping trip in August, and halfway through the book I went for a walk and decided that it was time to change.  I decided to follow his "guide" for eating as best as I could.  This meant shopping at farmers markets, cooking more, and not eating any pre-packaged foods (with a few exceptions, like Whole Foods crackers which only contain whole wheat).  Perhaps the biggest change was switching to 100% whole grain everything.  I barely ate white rice or pasta before and always bought "wheat" bread, but now I make sure that everything is 100%.  I also eat organic foods when they're affordable.  It reduces my consumption of pesticides, but more importantly, it means I'm not eating genetically modified foods.  It was a big change (and most of all, a big challenge), but I was up for it and it's been a lot of fun.  He's more of a journalist (he won't tell you specifically what to eat and what not to eat - he's not a nutritionist - but has some great ideas on changes in food policy and methods that need to be considered.  Recently he wrote a letter to "the next president" that is very impressive.

3) "Twinkie, Deconstructed" by Steve Ettlinger.  This wasn't the best read, but it was somewhat informative.  It goes through the ingredients on a twinkie, one by one, and explains how each one got from the farm (or lab, in some cases) to the twinkie factory.  Some of the explanations are quite frightening and reinforced my decisions to avoid packaged foods.  It got boring quickly, though, so I scanned through for the ingredients I was most interested in reading about (like high fructose corn syrup).

4) "Harvest for Hope: A Guide to Mindful Eating" by Jane Goodall.  This was an interesting read.  It's similar to the Pollan books in that it describes some of the reasons to support the local food movement and not to eat all of the fake food.  But she goes more into the environmental effects of such an eating system.  She did several things to piss me off, like describing the amount she eats in a day, which adds up to about 500 calories.  She's also a member of PETA and definitely has a very elitist attitude and looks down on meat-eaters.  She had some good ideas and resources, though, and I'm glad I read it.

5) "The Omnivore's Dilemma" by Michael Pollan.  Again, he did a great job with this book.  It's much more dense than "In Defense of Food", but a really great read.  It's divided up into 3 sections: the first lays out how everything we eat is soaked (both literally and metaphorically) in corn and oil, the second describes two organic meals (one from Whole Foods and the other from a small organic farm in Virginia), and the third describes a meal that he hunted and gathered himself.  This guy is a great journalist and he gets to the bottom of everything.  When he calls up Joel Salatin who owns the Virginia farm, and Salatin won't ship him pork because that goes against his beliefs, Pollan takes a trip to the farm and works on it for a few weeks (doing everything including butchering the chickens).  This book goes into great depth about the problems in farming - people are being payed by the government to grow two crops, corn and soybeans, which has forced the cows onto feedlots and destroyed farming and the environment.  The description of Salatin's farm and his intricate method of crop rotation that eliminates the need for pesticides and fertilizer is beautiful.

This book has been very widely read lately, and I'm hoping it causes people to stop and think about what's actually going on.  It sounds like Obama is somewhat aware of the problems (especially after reading Pollan's letter), so hopefully we're getting somewhere.  This one firmly reinforced my food changes, and I'm very happy with the choices I've made.

Unfortunately life is going to get a bit harder now that my farmers' market is closed until June.  This week I stocked up on meat (a turkey breast, turkey sausage, and ground beef), and got some of the small amounts of produce left (a spaghetti squash, an acorn squash, and a head of cabbage).  I'm far more concerned about eating quality meat, dairy, and eggs (no hormones, antibiotics, and given a "real life" on the pasture), and I can continue to get these from the market across town.  I'll have to start eating more produce from the grocery store, and I'll buy organic when it makes sense.  I'm still not sure how the Kingsolvers lived without fruit for the winter...

All in all, I would recommend all of these books.  And, coincidentally, I would start with the first two I read because they're both easy to read, informative, and entertaining.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Chickpea curry

I've become obsessed with Indian food lately, but I rarely get to eat it. In fact, I hadn't had any since Mom visited in September. So this week I decided to make a curry for the first time. I found a recipe for a chickpea and spinach curry and got to work. It's hard to pick out recipes for a cuisine you don't know much about because you can't tell what works well (if the spice ratio seems reasonable, etc.). It turned out ok, but not great. The ginger completely overwhelms the dish so that you can't taste the curry powder at all, so I'm sure it would have been better with different amounts of both. Garam masala would be a nice addition, too (and thanks to the Dekalb Farmers' Market, I now have some!). Next time I'll try a different recipe, but I had to start somewhere!

Afternoon apple adventures

There are two things that I'll miss about Michigan when I move.  One is the fall colors.  This place is beautiful in the fall - I've never seen such vibrant colors.  Unfortunately you can blink and miss it because it usually goes from colorful and crisp outside to brown and bone-chillingly cold in about two weeks.  Right now there are a few trees that still have leaves, but even they are mostly brown and dingy.

The other thing is apples.  I never liked apples growing up, but that's because everyone seems to think that Red Delicious apples are the only kind that exist.  News flash: they lie (they are indeed red, but not delicious... or even edible).  Luckily my apple horizons expanded once I moved up here.  There are about 20 varieties of apples readily available in the fall (both at the markets and at grocery stores).  When I first discovered Honeycrisps, I don't think I ate any other kind of fruit for a few weeks.  And lately I've fallen in love with Jonagolds (they have a very similar taste and texture to Honeycrisps, but are much cheaper).  

I've been meaning to pick some apples again, but haven't been able to find the time for the last few weeks.  Today I had a free afternoon (and it warmed up to 55!), so I headed out for an apple adventure.  There's an orchard a few miles away (one of the benefits to living outside of the city), so I decided to check it out instead of going to the one that's way across town that I've been to before.  This one is a much smaller scale - they have a stand set up with pre-picked apples, bags for picking your own, and gourds (and they also have peaches when they're in season), and a self-pay box.  I picked up my 1/2 bushel bag and headed out to the orchard.  Unfortunately, many of the varieties aren't available this late in the season, but they had Mutsu, Northern Spy, Golden Delicious, and Ida Reds left.  The great thing about picking your own is that you can see what you like.  The Mutsu (aka Crispin) are good - quite crunchy with a somewhat sweet, somewhat tart flavor.  I also really liked the Northern Spy, so I got as many of those as I could find.  And I got a few Golden Delicious (they're not my favorite, but far better than the Red variety).  I'm not a fan of the Ida Reds because they're not crisp, so I passed on those rows.  

It was an adventure to pick because the trees were picked over and I had to climb into the tree to get to them.  It was worth it, though.  I got several months worth of apples for $12, and had a really good time getting them.  The place I've gone in the past is busy (it's also a cider mill and bakery), but this was an entirely different experience.  I only saw 2 people while I was there, and it was really nice to be out in the middle of nowhere and really enjoy the beautiful day without much interruption.  Now the only downside is that I won't be able to put anything else in my crisper drawer for a few months :)