Saturday, March 24, 2012

Not your usual eggs and toast

As I've mentioned before, I don't really like eating the usual breakfast foods for breakfast. No pancakes or bear claws for me, and I'll pass on the oatmeal or toast with jam. Instead, I prefer something warm and savory, perhaps something that one might normally eat for dinner. For this week's Dark Days Challenge, the bonus challenge is to make a SOLE breakfast. If I were eating meat, I could have done bacon, eggs, and toast. Or I could have gone the smoothie route, making one with berries I'd frozen during the summer as well as some currently-available Bloomsdale spinach (for that extra nutrient punch). Instead, I went with one of my favorite breakfast classics: a "wallet egg," inspired by the cookbook Every Grain of Rice.

It's pretty simple: Fry up a couple of eggs from Capay Farms in either some Clover butter or Frog Hollow Farm olive oil, but make sure they stay runny. Serve over Lundberg brown rice, with some green onions from A. Nagamine Nursery sprinkled on top. (If not concerned about being SOLE, add some oyster sauce on top, which really makes a difference in the flavor.) The runny eggs will mix into the rice as you eat. It's comforting and filling.

Another quick breakfast I like eating is mushrooms on toast. Saute some mushrooms (here I used a combination of shiitake, oyster, and cremini) from J&M Ibarra Farms with some diced onions from Catalán Farm in a little olive oil from Frog Hollow Farm. Splash in a little local beer or wine, if you have any. When the liquids have been absorbed, sprinkle over a little chopped parsley from A. Nagamine Nursery, and serve on a slice of toasted sourdough bread from Sumano's Bakery.

While breakfast isn't exactly my favorite meal of the day, at least I've got a couple dishes up my sleeve that I can fall back on in a pinch.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Dinner in a flash

I'm not very good at making dinner quickly. Somehow I always end up choosing recipes that take a long time to complete. Considering that I don't get home until almost 7PM, it often means it's closer to 8:30 or sometimes even 9PM by the time we sit down to eat. Lately, I've been trying to make meals that are simpler (and thus faster) to make. For this meal, which is also this week's Dark Days Challenge, I made Welsh rarebit with spinach and roasted asparagus, served with creamy butternut squash soup (which I had made earlier in the week).

The rarebit is insanely easy: After sauteing some Bloomsdale spinach from Tomatero Farms (40 mi), I mixed it with some white cheddar from Spring Hill Jersey Cheese (90 mi) and a little whole grain mustard (not local — it's a Polish brand I really like, and it's the only mustard I've got in my fridge) and a splash of Strauss (90 mi) milk. Then I spread it over a slice of bread from Beckmann's (30 mi) and broiled the whole thing until the cheese was brown and bubbly. Meanwhile, I sprinkled some asparagus (from a vendor whose name I just realized I don't know, even though I've been buying my asparagus from them for the past three years) with some olive oil from Frog Hollow Farm (70 mi) and some thyme from my yard, then I roasted the lot at 450°F for about ten minutes.

The soup included butternut squash from Happy Boy Farms (35 mi), leeks from Catalán Farms (40 mi), milk from Strauss, and cream from Clover (90 mi).

Having dinner on the table in under half an hour is practically unheard of around here. I have to say I was pretty proud of myself.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Beet simple

This week's entry into the Dark Days Challenge is a recipe from Food52, an online community of people who love to cook and eat. I've been cooking from this website almost exclusively the last couple of weeks. For dinner last night, I made French "peasant" beets with bucherondin cheese and a big hunk of ciabatta. It was delicious, filling, and quite nutritious — but, to be honest, after having it for dinner and then again the following day for lunch, I think I'm done with beets for the season. (Didn't I say that the last time I had beets as the main course? This time, I mean it!)

Fortunately, winter is winding down, and we'll soon be done with beet season. In the meantime, we've entered the quiet space before spring arrives at the farmers' market. Greens and root vegetables are still available but in much smaller supply. All the heirloom varieties of apples are gone, although there is still plenty of citrus. Asparagus, my favorite vegetable, is already available and is about to start making an appearance at every meal (I love it that much).

Speaking of the farmers' market, the following vendors provided the ingredients for my meal: the beets were from Tomatero Farms (40 mi), the butter was from Clover (90 mi), the shallot was from Borba Farms (40 mi), the cheese was from Redwood Hill Farm (90 mi), and the bread was from La Boulange (50 mi).

Thursday, February 23, 2012

A vegetarian Lenten challenge

Lent began yesterday with Ash Wednesday. Even though I'm no longer a practicing Catholic, nine years of Catholic school have instilled in me a need to give up something for the forty days before Easter. This year, as I do most years, I've given up meat. (I've also given up eating out, unless someone else is paying. Besides being sacrifices, both are actually ways for me to try and save money.) It just so happens that this first week of Lent coincides with a challenge-within-a-challenge from the Dark Days Challenge, which is to make a SOLE (seasonal, organic, local, ethical) vegetarian meal.

To be honest, cooking vegetarian is sort of a normal occurrence around here. Because it's important for me to eat locally- and ethically-raised meat, which happens to be expensive, I don't often cook a lot of meat. Lately, though, I've been exploring my SOLE meat options and have been buying more meat (and thus increasing my food bill!). Coming back to meatless cooking allows me to fall back on old favorites, as well as to discover new vegetarian options.

Finding new vegetarian recipes can be somewhat of a challenge for me and my tastes. I don't typically like to cook with soy-based meat alternatives — too processed and don't always taste very good. I also think that most vegetarian dishes one finds in magazines or cookbooks are too focused on beans, soy, or other proteins, as if the main point of the meal is to replace the meat that is "missing." For me, eating without meat is an opportunity to put more vegetables in my diet. I'd rather eat a plate of greens over a brick of tempeh any day.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Trail food

The Anthropologist and I went on a 12-mile hike today with the Sierra Club. We were the youngest of the group by at least twenty years -- and we got our asses kicked by nearly all of them. We were left in the dust while the rest of the 22-person group sped off up the steep hills of the county park. I huffed and puffed, my legs and feet protesting as we came down the inclines toward the end of the hike. By the end, I was so sore I could barely walk up and down the stairs in my apartment.

Despite all of that, it was a good time. We stopped for lunch at some picnic tables overlooking the hills, watching a red-tailed hawk swooping over the trees. I had packed more than enough food, just in case we needed to immediately replenish all the calories we were going to burn: bacon sandwiches with arugula and slow-roasted tomatoes (from the freezer), tortilla chips, Pink Lady apples, oatmeal raisin cookies, toasted nuts and dried cherries, and Mojo snack bars. The sandwiches are this week's entry into the Dark Days Challenge, as all the components happened to come from local sources. The bread is a California black from Beckmann's Bakery (30 mi), the bacon is from Range Bros. (120 mi), the arugula is from Heirloom Organics (40 mi), and the tomatoes were from a U-pick at Full Circle Farm (20 mi), which I had slow-roasted back in September and had stashed in the freezer for mid-winter occasions such as these.

It was the sort of lunch that was nice to eat outdoors, even though it was suddenly gray and chilly (and the Anthropologist hadn't brought a sweatshirt or rain jacket). It felt appropriate to be in nature, enjoying the scenery, and eating foods that had come from relatively close by.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Welcome spring!

Around here, Groundhog Day is actually known as Imbolg, the midway point between winter and spring. Instead of waiting for a large rodent to tell me whether or not there will be more winter, I celebrate the return of evening light and the inevitable approach of spring. This year, my almost-spring meal coincides with this week's entry into the Dark Days Challenge.

As I mentioned at Yule, for the sabbats, I like to cook from Cooking by Moonlight. For this celebratory meal, I chose sun-kissed carrots baked in foil, made with carrots from Tomatero Farms (40 mi) and oranges from Rojas Family Farms (190 mi). I served the carrots with a variation of Food52's chicken breast with cream of herb sauce, using chicken legs from Petaluma Poultry (by way of Whole Foods; 90 mi), cream from Clover (90 mi), and herbs from my garden. To sop up the delicious sauce, there was ciabatta from La Boulange (50 mi).

I put the carrots, sliced red onions from Borba Farms (40 mi), honey from Small Bees (10 mi), and orange juice in a foil packet and put it alongside the pan of chicken legs, leaving them to roast while I made the cream sauce. This sauce was basically a mix of shallots from Borba sauteed in olive oil  from Frog Hollow Farm (70 mi), white wine (Two Buck Chuck — unfortunately not local), and the cream, cooked down until thick. After the chicken legs came out of the oven, I poured the rendered fat into the sauce, which made a good thing even better. The whole meal was extremely delicious and wholly satisfying. It was a great way to mark that the Dark Days are drawing to a close.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Sweets for the sweet

The double challenge for this week's Dark Days Challenge is to create a sweet treat suitable for Valentine's Day using only SOLE ingredients. Since I've got to stick to local and seasonal, this eliminated chocolate, sugar, and any "romantic" fruits, like berries or mango. I toyed with the idea of doing poached fruit, perhaps serving it with a blood orange sorbet. However, the most obvious contender, pears, were no longer available at the farmers' market. Apples were aplenty, though, and in lots of different varieties.

My favorite apple vendor, Prevedelli Farms, sells a dazzling array of expected and heirloom varieties of apples. They've got Fuji, Red Delicious, and Granny Smith, but they also have Pink Lady, Sundowner, Gravenstein, Mutsu, and Hauer Pippin, a variety originating in the Santa Cruz mountains (can't get any more local than that). My favorites are Pink Lady and Sundowner, which are actually rather similar to one another and have a complexity of flavor that I don't find in the run-of-the-mill Fuji. I often buy from the "not-so-pretty" box — because what's a few bumps when they're only a dollar a pound? And particularly when you're going to turn the apples into sorbet.

I found my inspiration while Googling apple recipes, which pointed me in the direction of the baked apple sorbet from Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams at Home — a book I happen to own. It's a pretty straight-forward recipe: bake apples with apple cider and sweetener (in my case, Pink Ladies from Prevedelli [40 mi], with honey from Small Bees [10 mi] and local cider [I forget from where]) until soft, then blitz with an immersion blender before freezing in an ice cream machine. The original recipe calls for vanilla and cinnamon, neither of which are local, so I went with Meyer lemon zest (from my tree) instead. The result is a sweet-tart dessert with a hint of floral from the honey. Jeni recommends serving it with whipped cream (Clover, 90 mi) and a glass of whiskey.

To be honest, this really just tasted like frozen applesauce. Not to say that it wasn't delicious — it just didn't fulfill my idea of an ideal, decadent Valentine's Day dessert. The whipped cream helped a bit, and when not eating for the challenge, I did find that a drizzle of Rebel Yell whiskey over the top boosted the flavor. While it's not what I actually want to make for Valentine's Day dessert, the sorbet is pretty nice for what I could do with what's available locally right now.

And what did my Valentine think? The Anthropologist liked it okay, as I did, but was expecting something creamier. I made up for it later in the week when I made ginger-black sesame ice cream for the Lunar New Year.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Roots take center stage

As I work my way through the second week of my detox, I can see the end in sight. This is mainly because I'm ending it earlier than as instructed by Whole Living magazine. I'm no longer interested in starving myself in the interest of "getting healthy," and anyway, I've learned the lessons that needed to be learned: I'll be packing the fruits and veggies into every meal with smoothies, salads, soups, and side dishes. And this will get easier as the year goes on and we come into spring and summer — bringing with them, all the amazing produce (asparagus! peas! corn!).

Meanwhile, I made this simple dish of roasted root vegetables, inspired by Whole Living's Roasted Winter Vegetables with Canellini Beans. It's also my next installment of the Dark Days Challenge, since it happens to be made up of farmers' market veggies served over relatively-locally-grown brown rice. It's dead easy: I chopped up carrots and fennel from Capay Farms and celery root from Catalan Farms, sprinkled them with thyme from my garden (as well as a little salt and pepper), and roasted them at 425°F for about 25 minutes. The original recipe calls for garlic, leeks, sweet potato, and brussels sprouts, which I would have thrown into mix if I'd had any. Oh, and beans. I don't know a source for local beans (anyone in the Bay Area who does, please let me know!), and since I hadn't soaked any of the dried beans I do have, I left them out.

I'm looking forward to continuing to eat healthy, while experimenting with new and exciting recipes. One of my new years' resolutions was to actually cook from the food magazines I subscribe to — because it's high time I put Food & Wine, Sunset, and Cook's Illustrated to use. (I also get Cooking Light and Real Simple, but I'm letting those subscriptions lapse, as their recipes don't inspire me and use too many convenience and out-of-season foods.) I also recently discovered the food "community" Food52, which I recommend you check out for the food photography alone. How can you not want to eat every recipe you see when the food looks that gorgeous?

Saturday, January 14, 2012

All in one pot

This week for the Dark Days Challenge, we have been challenged further to create a soup or one-pot meal using SOLE ingredients. I find this funny (funny-interesting, not funny-ha ha) because I started this challenge making soups and stews and felt that I was cheating for not doing a meal that was comprised of many dishes. Since I'm detoxing for the next couple weeks, my next entry in the challenge is a very austere beet and roasted garlic soup from Whole Living. It is, to put it simply, a pot of pureed beets with some seasonings thrown in. But it's still mostly beets. After eating this soup two days in a row (for dinner, then lunch the following day) plus a smoothie on the third day which involved beets (as well as apple and berries), I think I've had enough of beets for a little while. At least enough of the ruby-red-stain-everything-it-touches variety. I still want to make some pickled golden beets.

The beets came from Happy Boy Farms, the onions from Borba Farms, the garlic from Catalán Farms (all 40 mi), the thyme from my garden, the bay leaf from one of my families' yards (30 mi), and the Meyer lemon from a friend's yard (11 mi). I roasted the beets in foil for an hour the day before. The next day, I rubbed off the peels (thus dyeing my hands pink) and cut them in quarters. I "sauteed" sliced onions in a little water, then added the herbs and beets to the pot along with more water. Meanwhile, I roasted the garlic cloves, but I neglected to wrap them in foil so they turned out rather crunchy instead of soft. After the soup had been simmering for about ten minutes, I added the garlic and lemon and attempted to use my immersion blender, only to find the beet chunks were too big for the machine to manage. So I had to fish out the beets and cut them smaller. Once blended, I had a vivid magenta soup that would really well as a first course for a slightly heartier main dish (I'm imagining something like this). But I ate it as an entree with a salad and felt virtuous — albiet still a little hungry.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

New year, new diet

This week, I embarked upon what is turning into a yearly event: the post-holidays detox diet. For those of you who don't know me, I never eat as much meat as I did at the end of this past December. The sausages? The fish? The three kinds of meat dishes my mother served at Christmas Eve dinner? That's not my usual dining style. Plus all the sweets and boozy drinks! (Admittedly, that was not all that unusual.) By the time January rolled around, it was time to overhaul my diet and go back to a more healthy way of eating.

This is the second year that I'm following Whole Living's 28-Day Mind + Body Challenge. I don't usually go in for diets or cleanses — it doesn't make sense to me to drink only liquids or deprive myself in any serious way — but I find that the "action plan" is fairly sensible. It basically requires that you cut out certain things (dairy, gluten, meat, sugar, alcohol, caffeine, and processed foods) and eat only fruits and veggies, grains, beans, and eventually fish. It's just for two weeks. Then you start introducing the "banned" foods back into your now-healthy diet in a way that will hopefully be sustainable.

To be honest, I liked last year's plan better. This year, I find that I'm hungry all the time, and it has become clear to me that the plan wasn't designed for someone who has to be on her feet several hours a day. So I've been tweaking the diet plan a little, adding non-wheat grains to what is supposed to be a week of only fruit, vegetables, and seeds, so that I'm not passing out on the classroom floor. But I've been learning a lot, and as I move away from this "detox" and into my usual way of eating, I plan to eat as many fruits and vegetables every day as I am now (somewhere between six and ten servings!). I'm enjoying starting the day with a fruit-kale-flax smoothie, and I like the notion of starting dinner with a salad or pureed vegetable soup. What this detox is also teaching me is to return to reasonable portions, so that I'm not gorging on restaurant-sized platters of food at every meal.

This week, I was chatting with my assistant director, who, after being vegetarian for the last two years, is aiming to go vegan in the next couple months. Her reasoning is that a vegan diet can cure cancer and reverse the signs of aging. I'm not sure about the science behind either of those things, but I do agree that a plant-heavy diet is the way to go, diet-wise. I don't agree, however, that meat, dairy, and other animal products are the root of the health problems of Americans, since humans have eaten those foods for a long time — it's the kind of meat/dairy and how much you're eating and how often that's the problem. Cookiecrumb over at I'm Mad and I Eat wrote a thoughtful commentary on vegan eating that further convinced me that I ought to bring ethically-raised, local animal products (and protein!) back into my diet sooner rather than later.

For one of this week's detox dinners, I made roasted broccoli and butternut squash with peanut sauce over quinoa. It was my own take on the magazine's Steamed Broccoli and Squash with Tahini Dressing. First of all, all vegetables taste better when roasted. And I had to swap butternut for delicata because that's what was available at the farmers' market. And I never stock tahini but I always have peanut butter on hand. Finally, I needed something to serve with the veggie dish because I can't really get used to the idea of eating only vegetables for dinner. The dish was wholesome, and I felt virtuous. Plus I really love peanut sauce.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Thai-style green curry

Once again, I've almost entirely failed at producing a SOLE (seasonal, organic, local, ethical) meal for this week's Dark Days Challenge. I blame it entirely on the absence of my usual farmers' market. I haven't had access to the variety of foods that I normally would be purchasing for the week's meals. I've been relying on Whole Foods and Trader Joe's, and I've been planning my meals around recipes from The Splendid Table, for which I bought entirely non-local ingredients, like pasta, ricotta cheese, and pizza dough.

Okay, and I blame it on post-holiday laziness.

This week, I made a vegetable curry, which used all local ingredients except for the curry sauce itself. I used pumpkin from Capay Farms (120 mi), red bell pepper from Borba Farms (40 mi), and baby bok choy from A. Nagamine Nursery (40 mi), and served the curry over brown rice from Lundberg Farms (195 mi). The curry sauce included Thai green curry paste (a gift from a Thai friend — I fully intend to learn to make my own curry paste one of these days), fish sauce, brown sugar, and coconut milk, all non-local.

I wasn't sure how much curry paste to use. The container called for 50 grams for the cup of coconut milk needed to make the sauce. After looking at a couple recipes in the Thai cookbooks I have, I used three tablespoons and a can of coconut milk — resulting in a curry so white hot that I could barely eat it, even when I mixed in some Strauss plain yogurt (the way they do with Indian curries) to cut the spice. I ended up going out to get another can of coconut milk the next day and mixing that into the leftovers. That helped tremendously, leaving enough heat to get my sinuses going. Next time, I'll use just one tablespoon.

The curry also was originally rather yellow, as you can see in the photo. I think the pumpkin contributed to that. When I added the extra coconut milk, it took on more of a greenish hue.

For Christmas, I received three cookbooks: The Elements of Life: A Contemporary Guide to Thai Recipes, Land of Plenty: A Treasury of Authentic Sichuan Cooking, and Beyond the Great Wall: Travel and Recipes in the Other China. I have a lot of Chinese and southeast Asian cooking in my future. Maybe I'll finally get the hang of this green curry.