Check out Mark Bittman’s article today from the New York Times about the true value of local, producers-only farmers markets.

 

 

Advertisements

My Arch-Nemesis … Brown Rice

long grain brown riceBrown rice has always been my culinary Kryptonite. No matter how many times I’ve tried to make it, I could never seem to get it right. One particularly mushy tray of brown rice may have even cost me a catering job one time.

Unlike white rice — which is so simple to make it practically jumps into the rice steamer and cooks itself — brown rice is really difficult for me to get right. It either turns out too crunchy, too mushy, or sometimes both in the same pot.

The problem has to do with the cooking time. While white rice is fully cooked in about 15 to 20 minutes, brown rice typically takes between 45 minutes and an hour to fully absorb all of the liquid. And a lot can go wrong during that amount of time.

Yet I truly want to be able to cook brown rice perfectly time after time because it has a lot more nutritional value than white rice. That’s because it still has the bran and the germ, which are removed with white rice. These make brown rice both higher in protein and give it a chewier, nuttier flavor than more “processed” rices.

Over the years, I’ve tried every preparation method for brown rice that I could get my hands on. I’ve soaked it, rinsed it, and even fried it in oil before cooking it. But it always turned out like a failed science project. I’ve probably thrown away more ruined batches of brown rice during my cooking career than any other type of food.

But the other day, I finally learned the secret to defeating brown rice.

I was listening to Terry Gross on National Public Radio while walking our three dogs. She had two cookbook authors on her program from America’s Test Kitchen. They have a new book about gluten-free cooking out and when the subject of brown rice came up, I was all ears.

They said that the trick to cooking brown rice wasn’t just the time, but the temperature. Given its structure, brown rice needs to hold a constant high temperature in order to absorb all the liquid evenly.

So when you simmer it, the rice on the bottom of the pot is cooked faster than the rice at the top of the pot. And when you let it sit covered for a few minutes after cooking it, the rice in the center keeps absorbing liquid, often resulting in the starchy, unappetizing mess with which I am so familiar.

cooked long grain brown riceI’ve been battling my arch-nemesis, brown rice for years,so I practically ran home to try it out. And it worked! About an hour later, I had three very tired dogs and one delicious pot of fluffy, perfect brown rice.

Thank you people from America’s Test Kitchen. You’ve allowed me to reach a peace accord with what was once my worst enemy, brown rice.

Perfect Brown Rice

1-1/2 cups Brown Rice

2-1/3 cups Water (or Vegetable Stock)

3 tsp Vegetable Oil (or Butter)

1/2 tsp Sea Salt

1. Preheat oven to 375F. Pour dry rice into a baking dish.

2. Combine the water and oil in a pot and bring to a boil. Stir in salt then pour liquid over the rice. Cover the baking dish tightly with two sheets of aluminum foil and place on the center rack of the oven.

3. Cook for 1 hour, then remove from oven and uncover. Fluff the rice with a fork then cover the dish with a clean dish towel and let the some of the excess steam escape for 5 minutes while some of the steam is still absorbed by the rice. Serve immediately and cheer your victory in your life-long battle against brown rice.

 

Parsnip and Apple Soup

Apple and Parsnip SoupIt’s been a very cold winter so far in Chicago this year.

Today’s high temperature is only 2 F and earlier this month we tied the all-time Chicago low record temperature of -16 F. That’s really cold for around here, although it sounds like it’s bad everywhere this winter (even Australia, where they are having a deadly heat wave!).

It hasn’t been so bad for me because I work (mostly) out of the house. So far, it’s only cost me one car battery.

Max the Dog

Poor Maxie hates winter in Chicago

But I really feel bad for our dogs, especially Max. Normally, Bud, Max and I walk at least a mile each day. We all look forward to it and It burns a surprising amount of energy in them.

When it gets colder than 20 F or so, it’s simply too cold for the dogs, especially for Max, who has a thinner coat and is shivering by the time we make it to the corner. And when they don’t get to walk and are stuck in the house all day, they get really charged up. Bud has been particularly naughty lately.

One benefit of this cold weather is that it makes hot soup such an appealing option for dinner. This winter, Sandi and I have been featuring soup/salad/homemade bread one night per week since before Thanksgiving.

I’ve really enjoyed making traditional favorites such as split pea and mushroom barley (we’ve been eating vegetarian since last April, so this is our replacement for the old standby beef barley), and experimenting with new soups, such as this wonderful Apple and Parsnip Soup that I found on the truly amazing VegHotPot blog.

What I love about this soup is it’s unusually complex flavor. It’s similar to a vichyssoise but with an apple and a couple of parsnips added. Yet because parsnips have such an interesting flavor — both sweet and slightly tangy, even smoky — that this soup really makes you sit up and take notice.

Parsnips are one of the most interesting — and often overlooked — of the winter root vegetables. They actually were used as a sweetener in Europe before sugar cane and sugar beets were introduced there. And they were the primary starchy vegetable in the US until they were overshadowed by potatoes after the Irish emigration in the 19th Century. Roasted parsnips continue to be a traditional holiday dish in many families.

This recipe is vegan, although I added a swirl of sour cream for the photo. Stay warm, everybody. Spring is coming, I promise!

Parsnip and Apple Soup

1 Large Onion

1 Large Leek

2 Garlic Cloves

1 tsp Ground Cumin

1 tsp Dried Thyme

Sea Salt

Fresh Cracked Black Pepper

2 Parsnips, peeled, cored and cut into medium dice

1 Potato, peeled and cut into medium dice

1 Large Apple, any sweet kind, peeled, cored and cut into medium dice

4-1/2 cups Water

4 tsp Organic Vegetable Base

Better Than Bouillon

I’ve been using this organic vegetable base.

Olive Oil for sauteing

1. It’s important to prepare the all the fruit and vegetables before you start cooking because the high sugar content in the onion, parsnip, garlic and apple can cause them to cook quickly and the caramelization can cause the soup to darken.

2. Put a soup pot over a medium flame. When hot, add a drizzle of olive oil and let it heat up for minute then add the onion, leek,  garlic, cumin and thyme. Saute for around 4 to 5 minutes on a low/medium heat until they soften then season with salt and pepper. Add the parsnip and potato and cook for another couple of minutes, stirring frequently so they don’t brown.

3. Add the apple, water and vegetable base, bring to a low boil then reduce to a simmer and cook over a low heat for about 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from heat. Puree the soup using either an immersion blender or by blending batches in a blender until the soup is smooth.

Like most soups, this one will taste even better the second day, once the flavors have had a chance to get to spend some time together in the refrigerator.

You can garnish this soup with a crusty spicy crouton, a sprinkle of sliced chives or scallion, or a swirl of sour cream or creme fraiche from a squeeze bottle.

 

 

Meat Free Mondays – Vegetarian Breakfasts

There’s a diner near our house that my wife and I like to visit at least once or twice per month. It’s called Les Brothers and there’s nothing fancy about it. There are probably diners just like it in practically every town and state.

Sliced bananas, peanut butter on matzoh

Going vegetarian and vegan has presented challenges when it comes to breakfast.

The service is often bad. That food it generally pretty good. And the ambience is relaxed, friendly and inviting. We like it because we feel comfortable there.

Whenever we go to Les Brothers, I always order the same thing. I’ve been having the corned beef hash and eggs over easy with Greek toast every visit for about the past 10 years and each time it’s exactly the same: Superbly delicious. I especially love the fact that they give you four eggs with it!

So when Sandi and I decided that we weren’t going to eat meat anymore, the first thing that occurred to me was that I wouldn’t be able to enjoy my Les Brothers breakfast. In fact, to be totally honest, the thought of giving up my favorite breakfast at my favorite greasy spoon diner probably delayed our eventual conversion to vegetarianism for several months.

Finally, however, we cut the cord. So long, corned beef hash, my old friend. I will miss you dearly.

For me, breakfast poses probably the biggest challenge to eating vegetarian, and especially eating vegan. For as long as I can remember, the first meal of the day has been associated with eggs, bacon, sausage, ham, cheese, corned beef hash or some other now-forbidden ingredient.

So I’ve been a little more permissive with myself  when it comes to breakfast. While meat has been taken off the table — both figuratively and literally — I am slowly weaning myself away from eggs and cheese.

For example, whole eggs have been replaced exclusively with egg whites. And instead of gobs of unhealthy shredded cheese — or worse yet,  processed cheese food — I’ve been allowing myself to enjoy queso fresco, a light and tasty Mexican cheese (translated as “fresh cheese” in Spanish) made from either raw cow milk or a mixture of cow and goat milk.

Mild-flavored and crumbly like feta, but without as much saltiness, queso fresco is the perfect accompaniment to these breakfast tacos made with egg whites, fresh chopped kale and a little Sriracha sauce.

Egg Whites, kale, Sriracha and queso fresco

Vegetarian Breakfast Tacos

Now that summer’s here, fresh fruit at the height of its ripeness is at its most affordable at the produce markets. Lately, we’ve been enjoying an abundance of fresh Michigan cherries and whole pineapples for as little as $1.50 apiece.

So while it has been difficult to say goodbye to my traditional, if unhealthy, favorite breakfast, it’s been a joy to discover new and delicious breakfast options that are both healthier and more flavorful. It’s about time we started creating some new traditions anyway.

This Year’s Garden – Part 1

Since we moved into our house in 2004, we have been planting a bigger and bigger garden every year. This year, however, we have more than doubled the size of our backyard garden. Plus, we are committed to keeping it 100% organic.

The larger garden wasn’t my idea. One day, I came home and Sandi had cut down all the bushes and small trees that had been growing along the back fence of our yard, about a 20-foot line of shrubs. She simply decided that she didn’t like it anymore.

Backyard Garden

Before Sandi’s Purge

Expanded Garden

After we converted this space into an expansion of the garden

We also noticed that an area along our driveway, which had been covered with stones, was the area that was getting the most sunlight of any area in our yard. So we removed about eight feet of the stone, filled it with topsoil and planted it as a squash garden.

Pumpkin Patch

We removed about eight feet of stone and put pumpkin and acorn squash plants

The problem with having a garden that is more than twice the size is that it requires more than twice the attention. Fortunately, over the past several years we have learned a lot from the many gardening mistakes we have made. This year, for example, we planted tomato plants far apart from each other so that we won’t have the tomato jungle that characterized our late summer garden in previous years.

Tomato Plants

This year we spread the tomato plants far apart

We originally erected a three-foot wire fence to keep the dogs out of the garden, but our new puppy, Max, who joined our family last December, surprised us by being the pit bull high jump world champion and kept getting himself trapped inside the garden. So we had to tear that fence down and built a four-foot fence.

Max the Pit Bull

The World Champion Pit Bull High Jumper

It’s only mid-July and already we are beginning to get some zucchini, yellow squash, patty pan squash, jalapenos, green peppers and cucumbers. There are tomatoes on all four types of plants — beefsteak, teardrop, plum and heirlooms — as well as tiny pumpkins and strawberries coming in. The only thing we are still waiting to see are the green beans.

Lots of squash

Zucchini, Yellow Squash, Patty Pan Squash and Cucumber plants are going crazy!!!

We also are having trouble with one certain spot of land. We tried spinach on it, but they all shriveled and died. So then we planted snap peas, but they don’t seem to be doing well, either. I don’t know if it’s because we planted them too late — they are an early or late crop, I learned after they were in the ground — or if there’s something wrong with the soil in that spot. We’ll see how they do.

Snap peas and trellice

These snap peas are the second thing we planted in this corner. The spinach all died.

A recent bout of high humidity combined with heavy rains caused an explosive growth spurt, as evidenced by the size of some of our zucchinis, which literally grew overnight.

Today's vegetables

Here’s what I pulled out this morning

I anticipate a heavy yield this year. We had more tomatoes, peppers and jalapenos last year than we knew what to do with. I can only imagine what it’s going to be like this year, especially since we’re already getting a lot of vegetables. I may have to open my own farm stand!

Green beans

Green beans are growing quickly, but no flowers yet

Have you planted a garden this year? How is it doing? What have you planted? What sort of problems are you having? I just love gardening, don’t you?

Garden love

Don’t you just love gardening?

Pineapple Cashew Stir Fry

When I switched to a vegan-ist diet about seven weeks ago, I did so because of the purported health benefits.

Easy Pineapple Cashew Stir FryAs many recent books, documentaries and other bloggers have claimed, eliminating meat, dairy and processed food from your diet can reduce your chances of contracting chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer. It can improve your overall daily health. And it has even been known to reverse certain medical conditions, including arthritis, high blood pressure and anemia.

I can personally attest that I have had more energy since going vegan-ist. I feel stronger, have suffered fewer minor injuries while running, and generally have a more optimistic outlook and less anxiety and stress. Given what I had read and seen prior to making the switch, I sort of expected — or at least hoped — that these things would happen.

What I didn’t expect, however, was for my sense of taste and smell to improve so much. Even with my usual summer allergies, I can smell things better than ever before, such as subtle aromas around our home or the different types of cooking smells I encounter while running through my neighborhood.

I’ve heard a lot of people say that food tastes better when you start eating clean, and it’s true! For one, you have to pay more attention to the selection and preparation of your food, so I think you naturally focus more on tasting it when you eat. And because you eat mostly fresh produce, grains, nuts and so on, the flavors aren’t buried under mounds of preservatives, pesticides, steroids, genetic modification, growth hormones and other fallout from modern processed food.

But because my sense of smell is more enhanced, the flavors of food are more dynamic.

Now, I know this all may be wishful thinking on my part. In fact, my mom and Sandi were joking the other day that I would be off vegan and on to some other obsession in a couple of months, like I always do.

Maybe so. But for the time being, I’m going to enjoy the explosive flavors of these amazing foods. If only for a little while.

Here’s a quick and easy Pineapple Cashew Stir Fry I have been making lately. As I’ve noted in an earlier blog, stir fry can be just about anything. But the sweet tartness of the fresh pineapple (perfectly in season right now) combined with the crunchiness of the cashews really made this one taste exceptionally delicious.

Pineapple Cashew Stir Fry

1 to 2 TBS Coconut Oil

2-1/5 cups White Rice, cooked

1/2 Red Onion, slivered

1/2 Red Bell Pepper, ribs and seeds removed, julienned

2 White Mushrooms, sliced thin

1/2 Zucchini, cut into medallions

3 Garlic Cloves, crushed

3/4 cup Fresh Pineapple, large dice

1/2 cup Baked Tofu (recipe below)

1/2 cup Cashews, roughly chopped

1/4 cup Soy Aminos (or Reduced Sodium Soy Sauce)

3/4 cup Water

1 TBS Corn Starch

Freshly Ground Black Pepper to taste

1. Place a large non-stick sauté pan or wok over a high flame. Leave it there for about a minute or two so it gets very hot. Add coconut oil. It will start to smoke in about 10 to 15 seconds. Add the onions and peppers and toss. Cook until slightly wilted, about 2 minutes, tossing frequently. Then add tofu, zucchini and pineapple. Toss/cook for about a minute.

2. Meanwhile, in a glass measuring cup, combine the soy aminos, water and corn starch and stir together. Set aside. Add garlic to the pan. When it becomes aromatic, about 10-20 seconds, add the liquid to the pan and stir. Within about a minute, it will turn into a glaze. At the last second, add the cashews and season with the freshly ground pepper. Given the sodium in the soy aminos or soy sauce, you won’t need to add any additional salt. Toss everything together, remove from heat and cover until ready to serve.

3. To plate, spoon about 3/4 cup of white rice onto on side of a pasta bowl, then spoon the stir fry onto the other side of the bowl. If you want to be really fancy, make it into a yin-yang pattern. Or press the rice into a small bowl and invert it into the top-center of the plate and arrange the stir fry around it. Garnish with additional cashews, sliced scallions, toasted sesame seeds or whatever you like.

Tofu is made from soybeans and is a handy ingredient to have lying around. It comes in a variety of forms, including silken, firm and extra firm. Silken is quite soft, doesn’t have to be refrigerated, and will fall apart when handled.

Firm tofu has a slightly tougher texture, but will still crumble quite easily. I like to use it in place of scrambled eggs sometimes.

Extra firm tofu will hold its structure, so it can be sliced and diced into any size you want.

Both firm and extra firm tofu come packed in water. You will want to gently squeeze some of the water out before you use it.

This recipe is very versatile. It can be kept in the refrigerator and used to add texture and additional protein to salads, stir fry, casseroles, chili, stews or practically any dish. I seasoned this one with Garam Masala, a mixture of Indian spices, but you could just as easily use chili powder and cumin, Italian seasoning and granulated garlic, simple salt and pepper, or nothing at all.

Baked Tofu

2 tsp Garam Masala (or whatever spices you want)

14 oz package Extra Firm Tofu

1. Preheat oven to 350F. Spray a baking sheet with pan spray.

2. Remove tofu from package and gently squeeze out excess water. Cut into 1/2 inch slices and place on baking sheet. Spray tofu with pan spray then sprinkle with half the spice mixture. Bake for 15 minutes.

3. Remove from oven. Use a spatula to gently turn each tofu slice, sprinkle with remaining spice mixture and return to oven for another 15 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool completely.

4. When cool, cut tofu slices into cubes. These will keep in your refrigerator up to a wek. You can also freeze them for up to two months.

Meat Free Mondays – Compound Salads

When I was attending culinary school full-time, I also worked full-time in a restaurant kitchen. Although it was stressful, it also was a great experience because I learned a thousand times more on the job than I did in the classroom or the school’s kitchen.

Compound SaladsOne of the most important lessons I learned was how to deal with different kinds of people. For example, the first chef I worked for was a guy named Chef Mark. To say he had a temper is like saying Donald Trump is a little immodest sometimes. Working for Chef Mark was like going to work inside an active volcano each day: You never knew when it was going to blow up. (He eventually got fired for throwing a back waiter into the salad station during a particularly hectic dinner service.)

Still, I learned a lot from Chef Mark, not just how to deal with somebody who could occasionally switch into Mr. Hyde, but also about cooking. Despite his flaws, Chef Mark knew a lot about food and how to transform it into something extraordinary.

“I’m not going to teach you how to cook according to a recipe,” he told me one day. “I’m going to teach you how to cook, period. You can throw away your recipe book.”

From Chef Mark, I learned how to balance and counteract flavors against each other for heightened effect: Sweet, sour, salty, bitter, unami, etc. Textures, colors and plating also could be assembled in different combinations to create something unique.

Most importantly, I learned how to take any ingredient and build a dish around it, complementing it with both the expected and unexpected in order to surprise and delight the diner.

Take compound salads, for example. A compound salad is any type of salad that is based on some sort of central ingredient, such as a particular vegetable (such as green beans, grilled vegetables, asparagus), a grain or legume (rice, lentils or any kind of beans), fruit or even a protein (tuna, chicken, eggs).

Broccoli salad, for instance, is centered on the crisp, crunchy and relatively neutral flavor of fresh broccoli. You can complement it with a dressing that has a tangy flavor and creamy texture, as well as garnish that builds on or contrasts its primary flavor, such as the smoky flavor of bacon, the sweetness of raisins, the sting of onions.

Or consider tuna salad. The dry, slightly fishy flavor of the tuna is given a bit of crunch with celery, sweetness and a little bite with onion, and it’s all balanced with the lemony, tart flavor of mayonnaise, then underscored with just the right amount of salt.

Once you start thinking about flavor profiles, you can create a compound salad out of practically anything. Just apply the four elements of any compound salad:

1. The main ingredient

2. The dressing

3. The garnish (whatever you add to the salad to complement the primary flavor)

4. The seasoning (salt, pepper, cayenne, Adobo, Tony Chachere’s, etc.)

When the weather gets warm, I often build cool, refreshing compound salads out of anything I find lying around. Compound salads are handy to have in your refrigerator because they make a great snack, are perfect for a quick lunch, and can even round out a dinner as an appetizer or side dish.

In this instance, I just happened to have some quinoa left over from something else, so I combined it with some black beans, added a garnish of red onions, carrot, celery, red bell pepper and scallion, dressed it with an nice little Greek Oregano Vinaigrette, add a touch of sea salt and fresh cracked black pepper, and I had wonderful compound salad that we enjoyed for a several days.

I’m not going to post a recipe because, really, there is no recipe. Plus, I want you to try it yourself. Find some ingredient you already have lying around, think about its flavor profile, then just build something new around it. You may surprise yourself with what you come up with.

While my time with Chef Mark may have been stormy, I came away from it a much better cook and a more versatile person.