Friday, May 28, 2010

Garden-Fresh Lunch

Market to Mouth's theme this week has been meals made from just-picked garden-fresh produce.

On Monday, I featured spaghetti squash infused with chervil, served with sides of wild arugula and yellow rapini flowers, and leeks poached with pear.

I bought the produce for the Meatless Monday dish from the farmer's market stand of Eric Skokan, farmer, chef, and bistro owner.

Wednesday, I observed Eric at the Black Cat Farm Table Bistro preparing Lamb with Baby Turnips and Pea Greens using produce from his organic farm. This was a dish he intended including on that evening's daily-changing menu.

Yesterday, I prepared a lunch for myself and two friends with just-picked salad greens (pics above) and we ate lunch (pics below) under the shade of a beautiful maple tree in the backyard of a home I'll be care-taking for the next month.

Tracy, the home owner, is a member of the group, Boulder Culinary Gardeners, as is chef, Eric Skokan. BCG members are an egalitarian lot, sharing their wisdom with other local farmers and gardeners striving for organic, healthy and sustainable gardens.

I don't have a garden, but I love the opportunity to care for the gardens of others, especially when I can pick, prepare and eat directly from their backyards!

This summer, for the second summer in a row, I have the good fortune of caring for the properties, vegetable gardens, and egg-laying hens of two BCG members -- Tracy and Barbara.

Follow this link to see posts featuring Barbara's urban farm, where I was last August, watering, picking, cooking and eating extraordinary produce and fresh eggs, and where I'll be again this August.

But back to yesterday -- as you can see in the top pictures, Tracy has a wonderful selection of lettuces in her garden.

For lunch, I picked wild arugula, spinach, Bordeaux spinach, butter lettuce, purple-leafed lettuce, and chives with flower blossoms intact.

All the leaves were young and delicate and so I simply washed them, putting them through the salad spinner, and then I served them plain on a platter with a few of the yellow rapini flowers leftover from the bag of greens I bought last weekend at Eric's Black Cat Farm stand.

Simplicity is the key when you have access to tender, baby salad greens.

I served the platter with sides of oils, vinegar, and lime wedges. (On hand, I had olive and walnut oil, though hazelnut and avocado oil would be suitable accompaniments too.) That way my guests could choose whether they wanted to add additional flavor to their salad greens.

With the platter of garden-fresh salad greens, I also served a variation on traditional Waldorf Salad using ingredients I had on hand:
  • half a chicken breast,
  • some celery,
  • bottled artichoke hearts in olive oil,
  • apple,
  • walnuts,
  • chives,
  • and I bound the salad with a dob of sour cream and lemon juice.
The other platter is something I made up, again with ingredients on hand. I poached a fillet of mahi mahi on a bed of leeks and celery and some leftover chervil from my purchase last weekend at Eric's farm stand.

Poaching the fish in a pan (lid on) with half a cup of water and the juice of one lemon, meant it was infused with the delicate anise-flavor of the chervil, and the leeks and celery.

With the heat on low, the fish cooked in less than 10 mins, after which I let it sit to cool (lid off). Meanwhile I prepared an avocado, oil mayonnaise:

Avocado Mayonnaise
  • 3 eggs yolks
  • 1 and half cups of grapeseed oil or a mix of grapeseed and olive oil
  • one clove garlic
  • half an avocado
  • juice of half a lemon and or a splash of balsamic vinegar
  • salt and pepper to taste
In a blender, whiz the yolks, garlic, lemon and or vinegar, salt and pepper. Very slowly, drizzle in the oil, bit by bit, so that the yolks and oil emulsify or thicken.

The key is patience when making oil mayonnaise. It's too easy to pour the oil quickly,which can cause the mayonnaise to break or fail to thicken.

Finally, add the avocado, and then a splash of water -- this will give the mayonnaise pouring consistency.

As you can see in the pic above, I served the sliced mahi mahi on a platter with the poached vegetables under the fish. I then poured the avocado mayonnaise over the fish, topping it with the lavender-colored chive blossoms, and lastly, I decorated the edge of the plate with red and green Bordeaux spinach leaves.

The two friends, who shared the above lunch with me, were happy to volunteer that it was a sumptuous but simple feast!

If you're hankering for something other than a barbecue this long weekend, try your hand at the above outdoor-lunch menu. If you don't have a veggie garden, it might mean shopping at your local farmer's market for interesting, just-picked salad greens, but the end result is definitely worth it.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Organic Lamb with Baby Turnips & Pea Greens

Last Monday I mentioned that I'd be at Black Cat Farm Table Bistro hosting an upcoming episode of the Culinary Gardening series.

With camera gear crammed into his kitchen, we filmed Eric Skokan, the farm and bistro owner, preparing a dish from his daily-changing menu, one that featured vegetables and greens he'd harvested from the farm that day.

I also took pictures, in between asking lots of questions. I began by asking where the lamb for the dish came from. You see, Eric is now grazing lambs for his bistro on his farm.

However, the lamb he used for this dish came from another local organic farmer.

The cut he used for the meal is steaks from the lamb leg. He prepared them by browning the steaks on one side in a small skillet lined with oil, and sealing the other side before popping the skillet into a medium oven for about 15 minutes (rare to medium-rare).

I was a bit dubious about cooking lamb steaks like this, since in Australia we might use the eye fillet or the eye of the loin (like a beef tenderloin) for the cooking method Eric employed.

To accompany the lamb, Eric prepared just-picked baby turnips, with green tops intact, and sugar snap-pea greens with flowers still intact.

Using grapeseed oil for sauteing -- it can withstand high heat and is mild in flavor -- he added half a teaspoon of chopped garlic to the pan, and some peeled and cubed potato.

While the potato cooked, he chopped the leafy tops from the tiny turnip bulbs, leaving an inch of sweet stems in place.

When sauteed, the turnip stems release their sugars and brown up beautifully, as do the bulbs (pic below).

As the cubed potato browned, he tossed in a handful of the snap-pea greens and a pinch of kosher salt. Some of the raw pea greens were kept in reserve to garnish the plate (pic above).

Eric uses either kosher salt in his cooking or sometimes sel gris or grey salt, an unrefined, moist sea salt that's harvested from the Brittany region of France's Atlantic coast.

It's considered a gourmet salt and has a price tag to match, but it's a treat, so consider having it on hand for special-occasion cooking.

Into a second saute pan, he added a handful of turnip leaves to the browning bulbs (pic below) along with another pinch of kosher salt, plus a few shreds of grated lemon rind.

He squeezed the juice from half a lemon over both the pans of sauteing veggies because, just as I've mentioned many times in posts on Market to Mouth, lemon zest and or lemon juice enhances the natural flavor of fresh produce.

The zing factor of lemon also cuts through oil and fat, which will dominate a dish without the addition of citrus or the tart kick of a splash of vinegar.

Pulling the lamb leg steaks from the oven, Eric let them sit for about 10 minutes. This allows for the juices, which have settled during cooking in the rarest area, to radiate throughout the steaks.

Before platting the lamb, he spooned some lamb au jus, a lamb stock reduction, to which he'd added mustard, onto the plate. The thinly sliced lamb went over the sauce, and then Eric loosely scattered the browned turnips and potatoes and the greens around the meat, garnishing the dish with spindly, raw pea greens and white pea flowers.

To add piquancy, he topped the lot with additional shreds of lemon rind, which would register on the palate as a sharp, fresh bite.

When I asked whether he might swap out the lemon for orange zest and or juice, Eric responded that orange is a more distinct flavor and he therefore uses it with warmer, pungent spices.

He had me taste another au jus on the stove, one that was infused with cardamom pods, proposing that this was a sauce more suited to the addition of orange due to its pungent, aromatic quality -- I agreed.

As you can see in the pic at the top, the "scatter" presentation technique showcases the beauty of the individual vegetables --I especially love the effect of the raw pea greens framing the plate.

Eric's presentation style is a trick I'll employ; after all, why wouldn't you want to show off farm-fresh, simply prepared vegetables in such a tantalizing, au naturel fashion.

Oh, and the lamb steaks, they were incredibly tender!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Meatless Monday

Last week I uploaded episodes 1 and 2 in the Culinary Gardening series I'm hosting.

Filmed in collaboration with Boulder Valley Channel 22 and Eric Skokan, the owner of Black Cat Farm, this past Saturday I visited the Black Cat's stand at our local farmer's market.

I wanted to purchase some of the delicate greens Eric talks about in episode two and prepare them for a Meatless Monday meal.

That's Eric in the pic below, at the farm's market stand, bagging handfuls of arugula.

I bought some of his wild arugula, which is in the tub next to the one Eric is handling.

The wild variety has a peppery kick, whereas the broad-leaf arugula is slightly nutty and mild in flavor.

In addition to wild arugula, I chose chervil, for its anise flavor, Bordeaux spinach, a hybrid red spinach, Tatsoi, a varietal of Chinese cabbage, and rapini flowers -- they're the delicate yellow flowers arranged at the edge of the plate in the pic above.

Without a doubt, Eric had the most unusual varieties of greens at the market.

In past years, I've visited a Hmong family's stand especially for their unusual Asian greens; however, Eric's greens are now surpassing their selection in interest and flavor.

I paid $5 for just over a pound of green, red, and yellow spring leafy-greens and flowers and once home, I washed and drained my purchases, allowing them to dry before I stored them in paper-towel lined Tupperware bowls.

Because the flavors of each of my purchases is distinct, for today's meatless Monday dish, I chose to use the wild arugula for its peppery wow-factor, the rapini flowers for their beauty as a garnish, and the chervil to add anise flavor to bland, spaghetti squash.

I chose not to cook the greens at this meal, knowing that cooking would compromise their flavor, texture and color. Instead, I simply stirred chopped chervil into the cooked spaghetti squash, and used the arugula and rapini flowers as a side garnish to the squash.

Because spaghetti squash and chervil are subtle flavors, as an additional side, I poached leeks and pear, an equally subtle and delicate combination, and one that I knew would compliment, rather than compete with the center vegetable.

Chervil Spaghetti Squash with Poached Leek & Pears & Wild Arugula
1) Cut a spaghetti squash into pieces. Gently simmer for about 20 mins or until the flesh begins to come away from the skin in spaghetti-like strands.
2) Using a fork, scrape the squash from the skin into a pan. Top with some grated Romano or Parmesan, and a dob of butter. Gently heat, stirring until the cheese melts.
3) Meanwhile, slice and wash of grit, half a leek. Wash and chop a pear, one of the hard-flesh varieties. Pop the leeks and the pear into a saucepan with a little water and gently simmer with the lid on for about 10 mins.
4) Roughly chop a handful of fresh chervil and stir into the spaghetti squash. Season to taste.

To Serve: Spoon a portion of the spaghetti squash into a large bowl. Garnish with a sprig of chervil. To the side, add a spoonful of poached leek and pears. To the other side, line the squash with arugula topped with rapini flowers, drizzle with an oil such as avocado, almond or walnut oil, and squeeze some fresh lemon juice over the raw greens.

Tomorrow, I'll be at Eric's, Black Cat Farm Table Bistro hosting the culinary gardening series from his kitchen, while he prepares several dishes with some of his spring harvest.

This week I'll blog about those dishes, and the tips and tricks Eric employs as Boulder's only authentic, organic farm-to-table chef.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Black Cat Organic Farm Episode 2

Culinary Gardens - Black Cat Organic Farms - Part 2 from BVMA on Vimeo.

Yesterday, I featured Episode 1 of the Culinary Gardening series produced in conjunction with Boulder Valley Media Alliance (Channel 22), and Eric Skokan, the owner of Black Cat Farm and Black Cat Farm Table Bistro.

Today, Episode 2 is available for viewing (above).

Filmed again on Black Cat Farm, we followed Eric into his root cellar, a dugout with stairs leading 6 feet down into a small, damp room that maintains a temperature of around 40-degrees Fahrenheit.

The dug out, which reminded me of a very snug wine cellar, is a recent addition to the farm. Built in the fall of 2009, it has yet to stand the test of a hot, dry Colorado summer.

It did do its job over a very long and cold winter, successfully storing and maintaining around 10,000 pounds of vegetables!

Most of the veggies stored appeared on the Black Cat Bistro's fall and winter menus, but at the time of filming, about 600 pounds of root vegetables were still in the

As you can see in the pic to left, and in the video above, tubs of gnarly parsnips line the side of the cellar, as do turnips, and parsley root, a conical-shaped veggie that tastes like carrot and has a green-leaf top like flat-leaf parsley.

Eric cooks and purees parsley root, using it as a bed for meat dishes, with the green tips as a parsley salad accompaniment.

Next to the root cellar is a hoop-house, a temporary hot-house that can be moved. Should there be an infestation of disease, on an organic farm like Black Cat, the structure can be relocated, leaving the disease behind.

Starting afresh on a clean patch of earth means chemicals are not necessary, the use of which would render the growing process of hot-house vegetables non-organic. A temporary hoop- house, versus a fixed, greenhouse structure, is one of the conscious choices Eric makes as an organic, farm to table chef.

Unlike the damp, near-freezing temperature of the cellar, the hoop-house was steamy warm and filled with the gentle aroma of moist dirt, and in that dirt there were lots of veggies starters and more young salad greens.

Eric's intention with the farm is to make sure his bistro menu showcases the myriad of produce grown on the farm, with a fun selection of seasonal vegetables appearing on plate as cooked, pureed, and or roasted in combination with raw, crunchy, leafy salads -- something I tried to achieve with my last Meatless Monday post.

Because the Black Cat Bistro menu is truly seasonal, the challenge on the Farm is to plant variety so that say, carrots aren't the signature vegetable over winter, and red lettuce isn't the summer salad ingredient.

To counteract the potential for a repetitious menu, Eric grows around 200 varieties of vegetables and fruits on 10 acres! And one of his personal favorites is asparagus.

We end Episode 2 up close and personal with several spears just starting to appear above ground. Eric shared details of a dish he intends preparing with asparagus and local morel mushrooms.

Episode 3, which I'll upload in the next few weeks, begins with a discussion over the now fully-grown asparagus and a sampling of both green and white varietals. I was absolutely blown away by the tenderness and sweetness of the raw spears, but more on that in episode 3!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Black Cat Organic Farm

Culinary Gardens, Black Cat Organic Farms Part 1 from BVMA on Vimeo.

About a month ago, I began working on a Culinary Gardening video series in collaboration with Boulder Valley Media Alliance (Channel 22) and local chef, Eric Skokan, the owner of Black Cat Farm Table Bistro.

Eric's situation is unique: he owns and operates a neighborhood-style bistro, he grows much of the organic produce for his bistro on Black Cat Farm (10 acres he leases from the county), plus, he sells his produce at Boulder Farmer's Market.

Just one of these ventures is enough to keep the average person extremely busy, which Eric is, however despite this, he also considers himself extremely lucky because he has a life where he's able to immerse himself in his passions: cooking and gardening.

We began shooting the series on Black Cat Farm at the end of March, in between several sizable spring snow storms.

At that time, farm interns were harvesting winter produce that had been planted the previous June. Varietals grown from seeds that Eric sources via Boulder Culinary Gardener's seed exchange program, and from FEDCO, a seed coop in Maine, and that are suited to Colorado's climate.

The soft-leafed greens that interns were harvesting for the Bistro's daily-changing spring menu had not only survived Colorado's winter, they had, to my surprise, thrived under an insulating blanket of snow!

I had the chance to nibble on some winter spinach, hazelnut-like mache (also known as lamb's lettuce), anise-tasting chervil, parsley root leaves, and turnip greens.

We'll be observing Eric in the kitchen preparing these greens as accompaniments to several Black Cat Bistro signature dishes in future episodes!

Working in the kitchen with amazing organic produce pulled from the earth within hours of being prepared and eaten is the reason, I gathered, that Eric dedicates himself to operating an authentic, farm to table restaurant.

Do check back this week for more; I'll be uploading the second episode in the series, which includes footage of Eric's amazing root cellar, a dug out in the ground next to his hoop-house--a temporary hot-house--plus some footage and discussion on growing asparagus.

Meanwhile, learn more about Eric, the Black Cat Farm, and the bistro, by watching the 9-minute video above. Enjoy!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Meatless Monday

Food is like fashion: trends come and go.

One of the trends that has been around awhile is the penchant for stylish restaurants to serve par-cooked vegetables.

Now some vegetables are suited to being served and eaten hot and partially raw, like radishes, which we often think of as a cold, salad veggie.

For the meatless dish (above), I char-grilled Easter egg radishes so that they were piping hot on the outside, but still crunchy and firm and not as hot on the inside.

Asparagus is another vegetable that does not need to be boiled till it's limp and tasteless.

You may recall the dish I posted last Meatless Monday: Grilled Asparagus atop Fried Bread with Tomato Salad.

My preference these days is to grill asparagus spears in a skillet, just as I grilled the radishes. This cooking technique ensures the color of the vegetable isn't compromised, the flavor remains intact, as does firmness, texture and crunch.

One vegetable that does not lend itself to the par-cooked method is eggplant.

Much to my chagrin, I was served trendy, almost raw eggplant as an appetizer at an Italian restaurant late last week. Given that it's fairly neutral in flavor with a sponge-like texture, eating par-cooked eggplant is akin to eating a dirty kitchen sponge -- not nice!

Eggplant needs to be cooked well in order for it to be palatable and in order that the naturally occurring toxin solamine (or solanine), present in high quantities in eggplant and the other nightshade, potato, is destroyed.

If you're a raw foodist, it really is important to understand that cooking certain foods was a crucial step in human evolution; cooking eliminates the danger of ingesting naturally occurring toxins and it makes some foods easier to digest.

Solamine won't kill you, but like any toxin, it's not something you want to consume often. So cook your potatoes and eggplant!

Today's Meatless Monday meal is a combination of cooked, par-cooked and raw, which made for an unusual and interesting combination of the following:
  • hot, soft food(polenta)
  • hot, crunchy food (radishes), and
  • cold, crunchy food (sprouted beans).
Squash Polenta with Grilled Radishes and Sprouted Beans
1) Into a pot pour a cup of polenta and 3 cups of water. Bring to the boil.
2) Peel, core and chop a small acorn squash into chunks.
3) Add squash to polenta and once the pot is boiling, turn heat to low. Stir contents often.
4) Cook polenta and squash for about 30 mins. At the 20-min mark, add half a cup of your favorite firm cheese. Continue stirring until the cheese melts, the squash is soft and the polenta mix solid but not too solid. Taste test for seasoning, add salt and pepper to your liking.
Note: If you prefer your polenta soft, add more liquid, i.e. water, stock or even half and half if you want to enrich the flavor.
5) Set cooked polenta aside, now wash a bunch of radishes, either plain radishes or the colorful Easter egg radishes I used, and then cut the radishes in half lengthwise.
6) Heat a skillet lined with a spoonful of olive oil, drop the radishes into the skillet and stir them about on high until the skins are charred and hot, and the insides are still firm.

To Serve: Spoon a portion of steaming hot polenta onto a plate, decorate the edges with the char-grilled radishes and top the lot with a sprinkling of raw, sprouted beans, lentils and peas.

You can sprout your own bean / lentil mix (follow this link and watch a New Zealand couple with heavy accents show you how to sprout at home).

Or you can buy sprouts at your local organic market or farmer's market. I bought a small pack at Whole Foods Market for about $3.

"Sprouting" is soaking a seed until it germinates. Rich in protein, vitamins and minerals and live enzymes, sprouts are an easy-to-digest raw food, they're also delicious, with an almost peppery flavor, and they're crunchy.

Sprouts are the perfect accompaniment to spring salads, and hot dishes in need of texture, color, added flavor and crunch.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Food Revolution Friday

A number of weeks ago, an email titled "Food Revolution Friday" was sent out to Jamie Oliver fans.

From Meatless Monday to Food Revolution Friday -- it's catchy, it's fun!

And these campaigns are great educational vehicles for anyone who is interested in learning how to feed themselves, and their family, a healthier diet.

Given that it's Friday, I thought it fitting to introduce readers to, if you don't already know about it, Jamie's Food Revolution Community Page on Facebook.

There you can get the latest news from Jamie, participate in a community of like-minded people, and share your thoughts on the "revolution."

Today, my contribution to the revolution is several quick-to-prepare, healthy, family-and budget-friendly meal ideas.

Friday evenings are the one night of the week when it's very tempting to heat up a frozen pizza or some other pre-packaged meal high in sodium, sugar and saturated fat.

Yet, if you have any corn or wheat tortillas on hand, either large or small, it's just as easy to put together your own yummy pizza.

And what's more, this is the kind of meal that kids love to help prepare because the steps are simple, they get to use their fingers, and they can pick the toppings they want, and then taste-test as they put the pizzas altogether!

The pic at the very top is a fish tostado and just above, shrimp tostado.

My recipe can be altered to suit the ingredients you have on hand. Follow the link and see for yourself how easy it is to put these together with minimal ingredients and minimal energy.

To the left, is my version of a mini corn tortilla pizza. The recipe is here.

Remember, you can make the mini corn tortilla variety, or you can use large wheat or rice-flour tortillas.

I've included anchovies, but leave these off if you don't have them or if, in your household, they're not a kid-friendly food.

Experiment with the recipes, improvise, and you'll be delighted with how easy and fun it is to make your own healthy pizzas over heating up the frozen, supermarket variety.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Where was Your Chicken Grown

If seeing chickens raised in confined, inhumane conditions on an industrial farm disturbs you, then why would you choose to eat those chickens?

I posted that question on Facebook after watching an interview with Nicolette Hahn Niman, author of Righteous Porkchop and advocate of animal welfare agriculture.

Toward the later part of the middle of the interview, Nicolette makes a comment along lines of ...

Source your food from places you'd be wiling to visit. If you wouldn't want to go there, you shouldn't be eating food raised there.

If you eat animal protein, as I do, Nicolette's challenge is very confronting.

I tend to avoid visual material that documents the inhumane treatment of animals on factory or industrialized farms, and for sure, I wouldn't visit a factory farm; I simply cannot tolerate seeing animals suffer. But I do choose to eat animal protein.

Chicken is a staple in my diet. I eat it at least once or twice a week. It's a tasty light meat, which lends itself to being prepared in a myriad of ways and it's budget-friendly.

This past summer I house sat a small urban farm where owners Barb and Morris raise chickens for their eggs. That's Barb above, holding one of her baby chicks (also to left).

The chicks pictured here, are now full-grown, egg-producing hens.

During the day, the chickens roam free, scratching for feed in their quarter-acre yard, pecking at kitchen scraps, and flapping about in dust baths.

At night, they go into their enclosure, where they snooze and roost on railings.

Barb's free-range chickens live, as Nicolette would say, "a life that respects their fundamental nature."

And when given that opportunity, Nicolette also says those animals tend to be healthy, which means this system of farming, doesn't require all kinds of chemical imputs, and it therefore produces healthier food.

These days, I buy eggs that are labeled Certified Humane which means the eggs come from hens raised according to stringent Animal Care Standards.

Increasingly, many of my friends are bypassing the store --and labels-- and going to the source, buying their eggs direct from urban, backyard farmers, like Barb, whose eggs are no more expensive and they're the real deal: eggs from free-range, happy, healthy hens!

Sourcing humanely-farmed chicken has been a little more challenging. I look for either the Certified Humane stamp or the AWA label.

Food labeling is a minefield of misinformation and confusion, so familiarize yourself with the real meaning behind the labels on chicken and egg cartons at your local market.

I'm eating less chicken and meat these days both for budget and health, as well as for ethical and environmental reasons.

(Nicolette does a great job of explaining how and why factory farm manure is an environmental hazard. Fast forward to the 4 min and 37 second segment of her interview.)

But when I do choose to eat humanely-farmed chicken, I thoroughly enjoy it. Here are just a few of the simple and delicious chicken dishes I've posted on this blog:

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

What's in Your Food

Do you ever wonder what's in your food?

You know, as in preservatives, synthetic flavoring and dyes, pesticides, herbicides, hormones, antibiotics ... the list goes on.

Read the labeling on any packaged food carefully; it's often horrifying to note the number of chemical acronyms masquerading as food.

You may recall the post I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the bright orange yolks in the eggs that I ate in Australia. The enhanced color is the result of an additive, a synthetic carotenoid.

For health and health safety, food consumers (that's everyone!) need to demand that all food labeling be transparent so that we can make conscious choices about what we feed our brain and bodies.

I went to an event last night and there was a buffet of deli sandwiches, deli-meat pinwheels, crudites and cut fruit, popcorn, brownies and Rice Krispy treats, bottles of pop, and lots of plastic: cups, plates, knifes & forks, and all the food was on plastic platters.

With every bite of my plastic-tasting deli meat and cheese sandwich, deli-meat pin wheel, and fruit pieces, I honestly wondered what I was ingesting.

If you google "What's in our food" there are copious links to articles and blogs containing a lot of disturbing information, I mean overwhelmingly disturbing to the degree that it's hard not to feel as though, as a friend of mine once said, food is dangerous!

And then there's the recent New York Times article about President's Cancer Panel releasing a 200-page report declaring the health dangers of chemicals in our food and environment and the consideration that citizens should give organic food over non-organic food.

A number of years ago a school friend of mine died from non-hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer that originates in the lymph system. Toward the end of her life we talked about "why," what could have caused her to be dying at 43 with no family history of cancer, having enjoyed a full and fun life in a beautiful environment in rural Australia?

Judy reflected that as a kid she rode her bike to school alongside the state's biggest, industrial fruit orchards, through mists of chemical spray.

She wondered if the regular, direct contact with herbicides and pesticides, and then eating the fruit sprayed with those chemicals, caused her cancer.

I have no doubt it did.

With her treatment options exhausted, Judy turned to an organic diet and meditation, but it was too late.

Food can be scary, but living in fear of eating is just as dangerous to one's health.

The alternative: be a conscious consumer!

Think about what you're buying at the grocery store, read labels, say no to packaged, bottled, frozen and processed foods containing acronyms masquerading as food.

Be tireless in your pursuit of clean, organic, real food and humanely-farmed meat, poultry and dairy, and sustainably-fished seafood.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Meatless Monday

Yesterday I opened a wrapped pack of 2 chicken quarters I'd purchased only to discover that the meat was off.

I'd bought the chicken at a small Whole Foods in Boulder. The store is closing soon and I wondered if that had anything to do with the meat-counter associate's carelessness.

Selling meat with a high stench factor is an enormous liability.

I simply cannot understand how the chicken pieces passed within range of the associate's olfactory sense without him realizing that the chicken belonged in the trash and not in a customer's grocery cart.

Needless to say I returned the meat to the same store. But I was so put off by having been sold it in the first place, rather than exchange it for more meat, since none of the meat or fish looked
fresh, I asked for my money back.

There is no better deterrent to eating meat than being around bad meat!

That said, I had my meatless Monday meal, last night, Sunday. The vigorous color and freshness of the vegetables in the meal above were a delicious alternative to my proposed chicken dinner.

Grilled Asparagus atop Fried Bread with Tomato Salad

1) Place several pieces of bread onto a baking tray and drizzle with olive oil.
2) Bake in the oven until the bread is golden. Or you can fry the bread in a pan on top of the stove.
3) Snap off woody bottom part of asparagus spears, wash, and then toss them into a heated skillet lined with olive oil.
4) Shake the skillet about so that the asparagus char grills evenly.
5) Meanwhile top fried bread with lashings of garlic-infused chic-pea hummus, then lay asparagus across the hummus toast.
Note: Or you could spread the bread with an easy variation on Welsh Rarebit: to grated cheese add seeded mustard, S&P, cayenne pepper, bind with an egg yolk, spoon atop bread and bake in the oven till golden.
6) Sprinkle hummus fried bread with your favorite cheese and some chopped green onion.
7) Drizzle with olive oil and lemon juice, season with salt and pepper.

To Serve: You can either serve this dish plain (pic to left) or with a tomato salad, as in the pic above.

For the salad, I simply chopped a large fresh tomato and added green olive chunks, and a dressing of squashed capers, olive oil and lemon juice.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Slow Food

While on Phillip Island, Australia, I had several meals out, one in particular was a very long Sunday lunch.

A leisurely three-hour meal might seem like a drawn out affair, but the view through dappled light out the second story restaurant, over the esplanade and across the bay was delightful, as was the opportunity to sit and relax and eat in an unhurried fashion while in good company.

At the two-hour mark, I did start to feel a bit restless; we'd had dessert and were waiting for coffee, which in Australia does not come with dessert, but after, as the grand finale and digestif to a meal.

And then there's the check, which does not come quickly, and sometimes not at all, well, not until you ask for it.

During my young adult years, living in Melbourne, long weekend lunches or lengthier dinners, never made me restless because that was, and is, how we choose to dine (sometimes) in my home country. In other words it's a cultural norm.

Whereas in Colorado, my adopted home, we don't sit long over a meal, particularly not when eating out where food is ordered, arrives promptly, is eaten rapidly, and often the check is delivered with dessert and coffee with the unspoken message to eat and beat it.

With that acculturation, it's no wonder I felt restless two hours into Sunday lunch; I'm no longer used to the practice of lingering over a meal without feeling pressured to move quickly on to the next thing.

Once upon a time, I understood the Australian preference for a drawn-out lunch or dinner as the definition of slow food; however, the slow food movement is so much more than a lingering meal.

The mission of Slow Food International states that "Slow Food works to defend biodiversity in our food supply, spread taste education and connect producers of excellent foods with co-producers through events and initiatives." And that slow food is "good, clean and fair food."

The intention of slow food international is to counteract the harmful health, environmental and social effects of fast food, defined as food sold in a store or restaurant with pre-cooked or pre-heated ingredients and served in a packaged form.

With an emphasis on the food cycle: where it comes from, how it's grown and who makes it, Slow Food fosters the joy and sensuality of eating real, unprocessed food.

Perhaps the pace of a lingering Australian meal is more demonstrative of the Slow Movement which "aims to address the issue of time poverty through making connections."

The culture of "eat it and beat it" is an illustration of time poverty and one that is definitely not conducive to connecting, not to the food, one's meal companions as in friends and family, or to the larger community.

Slowing down, lingering and conversing, whether over a meal or just a tea / coffee break is conducive to building relationship, and it's an opportunity to enjoy life's simple pleasures.

An outgrowth of Slow Food and Slow Movement is Cittaslow, Italian for Slow City, municipalities that are committed to improving their quality of life via a number of criteria:
  • a population of under 50,000
  • environmental protection and sustainability
  • local products
  • hospitality
  • infrastructure, road safety, bicycle paths
  • historic buildings
  • new technology
  • cultural and historical values and diversity
  • unique town identity
There is only one city is the U.S. which has the designation of Cittaslow and that is Sonoma Valley, CA. Sonama Valley chose to be Cittaslow "by claiming its own values instead of being another look-alike city with the same fast food, the same local craft products, and the same menus."

I've never been to Sonama Valley, so I'm wondering if along with their slow city status, they've managed to adopt a culture of the slow, lingering meal or if despite meeting the above criteria, they still eat it and beat it.

With the season of outdoor eating almost upon us, I'm going to make a commitment to invite some friends over for a backyard lunch in the garden, under the trees, at a long trestle table, French-country style!

And I'm going to see if we can linger over our lunch for an extended period, enjoying the spiritual, sensual pleasure inherent in a slow meal that encourages communion, without feeling anxious by the illusion that the day is wasted if we don't move quickly on to the next thing.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Smart Snacking

Today I left Phillip Island for Melbourne airport en route back to my adopted home of Boulder, CO.

But not before one last sweet with a frothy cappuccino at a local cafe.

Over the last couple of weeks I've been indulging in sweet snacks by way of coping with the emotional challenges inherent in this trip to a quiet, rural Australian island.

I wouldn't recommend using food as an emotional coping strategy, it's one of the primary contributors to weight gain and the slew of subsequent health issues that accompany carrying extra pounds.

Yet I've been doing it; even on tiny Phillip Island there is an active cafe culture where desserts and cookies like those above and left are beautifully displayed, and for a self-professed sweet tooth, they're oh so hard to resist.

So I didn't resist!

I book-ended my light lunches and nutritionally balanced dinners with one or two daily treats along lines of baklava, chocolate Tim Tams, plain croissant with jam, chocolate croissant, banana bread, apricot slice with cream cheese frosting, and cookies.

The fact is, sometimes we do seek comfort in food, especially sweet and salt snacks. With that reality check, here's another: I think there's a way to be smart about snacking.

In Boulder, I keep a mix of raw nuts, sunflower seeds, dried cranberries, raisins and coconut date rolls in my cupboard. I buy them in the bulk aisle at Whole Foods, and once home, I mix them together to create my own trail mix.

I also tend to reach for salty snacks like plain corn chips, potato chips or rice crackers dipping them in tapenade or thick pesto or homemade guacamole or salsa.

Yet what I know about my salty snacks (versus the sweets I've been eating) is that I'm swapping out sugar for sodium, and butter for vegetable oils which we tend to over consume, because if you read the labels of processed foods, you'll find that they usually contain one or two.

Vegetable oils like sunflower and safflower are rich in Omega 6 fatty acids and today, snack and processed foods tend to be our main source. Whereas Omega 3 and 9 are found in whole, unprocessed foods like deep-sea fish, flax seeds, walnuts, avocado, seaweeds and green algae.

Healthy smart snacking begins with cutting down on our over-consumption of Omega 6 oils, and it feels as though I've done that while in Australia, after all I haven't eaten chips and crackers, though chances are the store and cafe bought sweets were made with vegetable oils!

A more nutritious alternative to the rapidly digested carbs and empty calories in cake, pastries, cookies, and chips is a combination of slowly digested carbohydrates as well as protein. For example:
  • whole grain crackers with nut butter, avocado, soft white cheese or boiled egg
  • oatmeal or whole grain nut and seed bars (read labels carefully if store bought)
  • homemade trail mix (pre-packaged varieties often contain fried & salted nuts and extra sugar)
  • yogurt (the dessert in the middle of the pic at top is, believe it or not, is low fat yogurt and fruit)
  • some protein drinks (read labels for added sugar and sodium and acronyms masquerading as food)
Controlled portions of smart snacks such as those just listed contain Omega 3 unsaturated fats, protein, minimal simple sugars and thus slowly digested carbohydrates, plus vitamins and minerals.

Upon my return to Boulder, it'll be back to controlled snacking of the healthy variety, but I confess, I'm having afternoon tea with an Australian couple next weekend and I'll be making YoYos to go with the tea--they're the shortbread cookies sandwiched with butter cream in the pic above. Here's the recipe!

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Meatless Monday

I happened upon a Nigella Lawson cooking show on the TV this weekend.

The British Domestic Goddess has a thing for comfort foods, in particular eggs, cream, butter and cheese.

Nothing wrong with a dash of dairy, it adds richness and flavor to just about any dish and if you're going without meat for a day, eggs and cheese can be a great protein alternative.

In fact, last Meatless Monday I linked to my recipe for custard-based Caramelized Onion Quiche.

However, Nigella's cooking tends to involve more than a dash of dairy.

I watched her as she made her favorite "comfort meals for one," including puree of peas with heavy cream as a side to baked lamb shank; spaghetti cabonara with pancetta, eggs, heavy cream, Vermouth, and Parmesan; a skillet meal of potatoes, bacon, and eggs beaten with heavy cream all tossed together till the eggs set and the cheese melted.

Oh, and the dessert: pots of chocolate with, you guessed it, chocolate, eggs and more heavy cream.

Actually, I think the chocolate pots came after the cabonara and before Nigella announced that she often treats herself to a comfort meal out if she's on her own -- the scene segued to the domestic goddess sitting outdoors at a fast food cafe, tucking into cheese-smothered french fries.

By the end of the show, having listened to Nigella punctuate mouthful after mouthful of cheesy, creamy, egg-y, runny chocolate-y goo with "yum," I was sure I could feel my liver twitching at the sheer richness of all the saturated fat in her comfort food meals.

And then I wondered, if Average Citizen cooked and ate daily from Nigella's, Baking and the Art of Comfort Cooking, would they wind up in the same predicament as Morgan Spurlock who ate his way through two months of McDonald's food for his documentary Super Size Me?


So the moral of this story: eat comfort foods in moderation.

I've been reminding myself daily of this for the past two weeks because one of the ways I've coped with the emotional stress of spending time on Phillip Island, Australia with my father who is fast fading in a nursing home with dementia is by engaging in emotional or comfort eating.

Though, in my defense, my daily small portions of sweets (my comfort food of choice), have been at afternoon or morning tea or dessert after one of the balanced meals of Tasmanian salmon salad, lamb and veggies, quiche and salad, and basa fish with bok choy that I've prepared or that my sister made or which I've eaten out.

In other words, the comfort foods I've eaten were sweet treats book-ending nutritious meals that were light on saturated fat and big on flavor.

Today, my last Monday on Phillip Island, I've made myself a comforting, vegetarian or meatless meal of stuffed butternut squash accompanied by arugula scattered with roasted hazelnuts.

And for dessert, I bought myself a piece of thick, moist, banana bread from Mad Cowes.

Eggplant Stuffed and Capsicum Dip Stuffed Butternut Squash

1) Slice a small butternut pumpkin (or acorn squash) in half lengthwise. Scored the flesh with a knife and place the halves on a baking tray. Moisten the flesh with olive oil.
2) Cut a small eggplant into chunks and place the pieces on the baking tray with the pumpkin. Drizzle the eggplant with olive oil, coating the pieces by tossing them about in the oil with your fingers.
3) Place the baking tray into a 375-degree oven for about 30-40 mins.
4) Remove the softened flesh from the pumpkin skin (pic left) with a spoon, placing it into a bowl.
5) Add several spoonfuls of the capsicum dip from last Tuesday's post (that's a spoon of the dip in the pic above), test taste, and if it needs more dip, add to taste.
6) Remove the soft flesh from the eggplant skin (pic above) and toss into the bowl with pumpkin mix.
7) Spoon mix back into pumpkin skin and place baking tray back into a 350-degree oven for about 15 mins or until heated through.

To Serve: Place stuffed pumpkin half onto a plate along with several handfuls of peppery arugula or baby spinach leaves. Douse salad greens with balsamic vinegar, a splash of olive oil and lemon juice; dot with roasted hazelnuts or filberts.