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.