Tuesday, July 26, 2011

too hot for food?

Hoping for some inspiration. Are beets inspiring?
Is it possible? Can it really ever be too hot to play with food? Somehow today, I cannot even bring myself to think about it with much pleasure. I can guarantee I'm not approaching the kitchen with one grain of creativity. How can that be?

I've been sitting here, well, maybe lying here, thinking about this for awhile now. Where's the excitement, the adventure, even just the promise of something wonderful to eat? I've thought sorbet, seafood salad, even hot peppers---nothing.

It's just that I usually live for this shit, to quote Sixteen Candles. This is new territory, unpleasant and most uncomfortable territory. So I am blaming the heat and whatever else I can think to blame because, frankly, it's getting a little scary.

Hopefully, tomorrow I'll be writing about herb gardens or pantries or cookware or fresh organic produce. Today, I cannot for the life of me think of anything that sounds good to cook, to eat, or to put in print.


Wednesday, July 20, 2011

it's eggplant season, finally.

My attitude toward food is relatively simple. I count myself one of those who lives to eat rather than eats to live. That, of course, leads to lots and lots of decisions, some peculiar, a few mainstream, about what constitutes good food. On these issues I am certainly not unbiased.

I emphatically favor local foods in season, which means we try to buy that way. It's not necessarily easy, but it's good for the planet, and maybe more importantly, the food just tastes better and is most certainly healthier. With modern transportation, refrigeration, and demand, all sorts of foods are in stores all year from all over the world. They look tempting, but under that lovely exterior, lies virtually nothing that deserves a place on our plates or in our mouths.  The issues of genetic modification, hybridization for the purpose of creating thicker skins and more readily shipped produce, as well as ad campaigns to convince us we need tomatoes and grapes in February are worthwhile topics we'll save for another time. Right now it's summer, and so much is available to us, we could have a food party every day just reveling in the excitement of summer produce.

fresh, organically grown, local---it doesn't get much better

I live in central California in the San Joaquin Valley, and here this year tomatoes are just entering the markets. I mean real tomatoes, grown in the ground and grown just miles from where I live. This is the time of year to really enjoy tomatoes. If you want them in February, buy lots of them now or in the next month or two and throw them in freezer bags to be pulled out and used next winter. Clearly, you won't use these tomatoes in a crisp salad, but they'll be great as an ingredient in any cooked dish.

Another vegetable we see way too much throughout the year is eggplant. What kind of eggplant grows in December? And where? I know it's not in my garden, and I live in an area with a pretty mild winter. Eggplant needs heat, and it needs summer. Right now eggplant is looking pretty good. We cooked our first of the year this week, not a fancy or elegant dish by any means but seriously good.

large chunks of perfectly fresh eggplant
Often eggplant recipes begin with directions to peel, slice, and salt the purple beauty. It's a pain, it's wasteful, and it's totally unnecessary. What is important is starting with very fresh, very firm, and fairly young eggplant. Organically grown is always a plus as far as I'm concerned. Bottom line as always---it's going in your body!

For a simple dish that can be prepared after work in about an hour, try this eggplant with rice. And if you're lucky enough to be able to eat cheese, you must try eggplant on pizza. It doesn't get much better!

Eggplant with Rice

  • 1 medium eggplant, cut in large chunks
  • 1 onion diced
  • 2 TBS olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped or sliced
  • 1 lb ground beef or chopped lamb shoulder
  • 1 to 2 cups cooked brown rice
  • 1 can diced tomatoes in juice, I use Muir Glen
  • sea salt and pepper, to taste
Heat olive oil in saute pan and brown eggplant. Eggplant will absorb oil as it browns, so add a bit more if needed. Add onion, garlic, and meat to pan and saute until light brown. Sprinkle with about 1 tsp salt and 1/2 tsp pepper; you can add more later if needed.
Pour in tomatoes and juice and simmer, covered, for about 30 minutes or until eggplant softens.
Add rice and continue cooking, covered for about 10 minutes until heated through.
Taste, adjust seasonings if needed, and serve.

I know this looks like a winter dish, but trust me, it's great in the summer.

Not very pretty, but really, really good---that's eggplant.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

making the most of a cobb salad

Of course, I've mentioned my lack of grace when it comes to my need to give up cheese. I love cheese. Though it may seem surprising, salads are often where I miss cheese the most. Surprising partly because salads usually have so much already going for them, you'd think you'd hardly miss the cheese. That, of course, is the goal, but it is not always a given.

In the past, when I wanted a simple dinner salad, I'd almost always think blue cheese dressing, maybe with some tart vinaigrette thown in for a piquant touch. If not that, then a Greek style with feta. Caesar salad, of course, features cheese, as does my favorite salad-as-a-meal, Cobb Salad.

It was with a bit of hesitation that I approached the idea of a cheese-less Cobb. A salad like this is not something I'd be comfortable ordering at a restaurant. Not that I'm ever too comfortable ordering anything at a restaurant. Still, this scares me a bit more than other dishes with so many opportunities for cross-contamination. So preparing it at home was and is my only reasonable option. And of course, I love playing with food, so that's not such a bad option.

At the same time, since I like to make the same meals for both of us and avoid feeling like a short-order cook, I had to consider other substitutions. I have to be careful about bacon, since all manner of additives can find their way into some of it. GK will eat beef or turkey bacon but not pork. I can't stand beef or turkey bacon. Oops, that wouldn't work. This time I settled on bacon-less for him and bought pre-cooked nitrite-free, pork bacon for me. He did, after all, get lots of beautiful raw-milk blue cheese that would be absent from my plate. (sigh) I may plan on keeping some pre-cooked turkey bacon in the freezer for him if this salad becomes a stand-by. I settled on fresh lemon juice with organic olive oil, salt, pepper, parsley, and chives from the garden for the dressing. From my daughter Kristen's kitchen garden, were the cherry, grape, and pear tomatoes.

My salad, almost complete, it just needs some perfectly ripe avocado slices and a bit more dressing..

Eggs were a little over-cooked, but that blue cheese looks great.

The meat in these is the roasted turkey breast described a few days ago. This is quick and easy to prepare, though you can also buy turkey from the deli or use chicken breasts. Add sliced or quartered boiled eggs, slices of avocado, and red or green onion. I like to decorate a plate of leafy lettuce (a combination of red leaf, better, and red butter lettuce is great) with each ingredient piled separately and dressed on the plate. They can all be mixed together and served mounded in a bowl or plate, as well. It's just not as pretty that way.

It's hard to tell these are different salads until you look closely.

Friday, July 8, 2011

gluten-free fresh pasta

Good pasta is one of the dishes so many of us miss when gluten is out of the picture. Sure, there's rice pasta, but it can be gritty and pasty. There's a nice quinoa pasta from Ancient Harvest, and it's not bad IF you can eat corn. Bionaturae has some okay choices, again with corn. For me none of them work. I've tried several, and the ones I like, don't really like me. I can't eat corn products, and I don't do so well with gums. I'm also just not a big fan of rice pasta either. Yuck! Really, if I'm going to eat rice, give me some worth eating---chewy, tasty brown rice just being itself.

Still, like so many other dishes that we can live without if we must, pasta just sounds really good sometimes. And fresh pasta sounds even better. Enter Shauna and Danny, Shauna James Ahern and Daniel Ahern, Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef. Their newest contribution even includes a video how-to of rolling out the pasta. I'm excited, though I haven't tried it yet, I know I can eat every ingredient on that list. That's a big deal, a really big deal. Check it out at gluten-free fresh pasta

Thursday, July 7, 2011

how can they call it dairy-free?

I'm getting a little crazed these days as I read label after label and they seem to contradict themselves more often than not. I just don't get it. I do my homework, I read the labels, I stay abreast of the names disguised and clearly stated of the ingredients I need to avoid. And yes, I whine a bit as that list continues to grow. But I expect to do that, I don't complain about that.

What has me more than a little angry is the "dairy-free" or "non-dairy" labeling. Many people have trouble digesting lactose, it's true, but lactose is not the only component in dairy products. Of course, you know that. Who doesn't know that? Apparently those who label our "dairy-free" products don't. Check out the products calling themselves dairy-free. Take dairy-free cheese for instance, virtually all of them contain casein. I'm only aware of one brand without casein. I have never seen a soy cheese without casein. The same holds true for almost all rice cheeses. True, they're lactose-free usually, but including casein, the protein present in milk from cows, goats, sheep, etc., by any definition I know, precludes these from the non-dairy designation. And yet, there it is.

Milk protein is dairy. How can it be otherwise? Any product that contains casein or caseinate should truly not be labeled non-dairy or dairy-free. We make a clear point of addressing gluten, the protein in wheat, rye, barley, etc., that gives so many of us grief, to put it mildly. Please, let's be as clear about dairy.

And now I'll get off of my soapbox.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

everyday eating

I have had a great few days playing with all sorts of foods I would call marginal, though I am definitely not saying they are lacking in taste or even particularly unhealthy. It's just that they don't work well for me on a daily basis. I'm talking about desserts and breads and crackers, gluten-free and dairy-free, of course, but still not my daily diet.

So today, it's back to basics for me. By basics, I mean all my favorite proteins, fats, and carbs in the tastiest, simplest, healthiest forms. I am not a dietician or a medical professional of any sort, so I'm not prescribing but describing the foods that make me feel good. As is the case for any foodie sort, it will not make me feel good if it doesn't taste good, oops I mean great.

I am not teaching this week, so I have lots of time to play with food (interspersed with self-pampering activities---facials, manicures, hairdresser, etc. this is my vacation after all) but mostly, playing with food. Playing for me often means making sure our kitchen is stocked with safe foods. Sometimes we all want a quick snack or a no-brainer, no cooking dinner, especially with our current weather conditions---hot and hotter. This requires advance planning and prep when you can't order pizza or grab some cheese and crackers. This should be everyday stuff because we do eat everyday, and we darned well out to be able to eat well and eat safely. For me, partly because I love to cook and I hate pain, this means eating at home. Sometimes, clearly, we can't spend everyday in the kitchen even if we want to, and I do realize that not everyone wants to. (Don't understand it though.)

Simple things like cold cuts aren't even so simple. Salami often contains milk products, sliced deli meats can have all manner of additives, including gluten, and you can count on too much sodium and an array of ingredients you can't pronounce. We are fans of simple roast turkey, sliced thick or thin, depending on its intended use. I pick up packages in the store, even from high-end companies, and quickly put them back after reading the ingredients. This I do a couple of times a month with the identical products. I don't know if I'm hoping for a miraculous change from the company or that I'll decide I can really eat all that junk. Neither happens, anyway. I always put the package back in the case. The same is true at a deli counter. Read the ingredients. Look at the labels, same companies. I did recently buy 6 ounces of sliced turkey at a natural foods grocery without additives for 7 or 8 dollars. It made two sandwiches, and these were not large sandwiches. I bit high, I believe, for everyday meals.

Instead, on days like today when I have the sense of extra time, I like to roast a turkey breast to slice after it's chilled. It really takes so little time that this could be an evening meal with leftovers sliced for the next day or two. I simply rinsed and dried a two-pound turkey breast, sprinkled it with Frontier Herbs Savory Seasoning blend and a little sea salt and black pepper. I rubbed a bit of good olive oil over all sides, and placed it skin-side up on a small round cake rack in a covered pan. I used Le Crueset's low-sided, round covered pan. Then I simply poured about an ounce of white wine in the bottom and set it uncovered in the oven which had been pre-heated to 400. After a few minutes, I covered it and turned the oven down to 325. I use a remote meat thermometer, but you can go by feel of the meat if you prefer. When the thermometer registers 150 or 160, remove it from the oven, and let sit with the lid slightly ajar. I should mention this is not as pretty as a Thanksgiving Day turkey, but it's moister and its uses are almost limitless. Slice it thin for sandwiches, thicker for salads, or in chunks for a salad like the Cobb.

I have not had a Cobb salad since realizing I had to avoid dairy products. That is about to change. It may not be a traditional Cobb, but it should be a great tasting one. Some of the turkey breast that just came out of oven will find its way into that salad. The dressing will be my usual olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper with an herb or two from the garden thrown in for good measure. I can eat everything in a traditional Cobb except the blue cheese, so while I may whine as I put some on GK's and not mine, it will be mostly for show.

I have gotten used to creating a pretty wide safety zone between me and ALL dairy products. This blue cheese, in fact, the blue cheese for the Cobb salad was purchased for that specific purpose. We don't keep it in the house, normally. He goes out to lunch with friends several times a week, so our agreement to keep our house a safety zone for me doesn't really keep him from enjoying those foods that I can't eat. And of course, we make the occasional exceptions for him like the blue cheese for a few salads and bagels for yesterday's salmon.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

getting ready for the fourth

My almond flour adventure continues, but I've had to slow it down a pace or two. There are only two of us in the house when we don't count Coco, and almond flour, while a healthy alternative to grains, is pretty rich. Since the biscuits were so good fresh from the oven, we ate way too many, making continued baking throughout the day a little less appealing. Still, I want to try those lemon bars! Maybe today.

Of course, today, celebrations are taking center stage. We do something each year for the Fourth of July, though the scope and location sometimes change. The emphasis on food never changes. Though this day seems to call for more casual food, it does not suggest less attention or enjoyment. This year it will just be the two of us plus Coco, who celebrates her fourth birthday this July 4. The heat is just crazy here; earlier this week I needed a sweater, and 108 is the last prediction I heard for the fourth. We are going to stay inside, crank the AC, and have a quiet little feast before the fireworks which are visible from our back yard. Unfortunately, it will probably still be over 100 degrees at 9 or 10 when they start. Maybe we will have to skip the display this year or watch some on TV.

Hot dogs and hamburgers are served here on very rare occasions and never for a group, event, or celebration. As I know I've mentioned, they are WAY too much work with little appreciation.  This year our menu will feature beautiful lox from Vital Choice. It's a fun day at our house when a Vital Choice order arrives, but eating it will be much better. This year we're planning on a full side of pre-sliced salmon, served with capers, diced onions, and for GK horseradish-cream cheese and bagels. I'm as yet undecided about what I'm serving as the dairy-free, gluten-free alternative to the bagels and cream cheese, though several ideas are running through my head. I know I've mentioned that I, personally, don't do too well with grains of any kind. Right now, I'm thinking butter lettuce leaves, but the decision is yet to be finalized.

And for dessert Elana's lemon bars.