Sunday, June 29, 2008

Roasted okra

Okra is another one of those misunderstood vegetables. And I admit it has an obvious drawback. It can be rather slimy. There are two ways to deal with the sliminess of okra. One way is to make the most of it and use okra in a stew. The other, is to cook it whole. If you don't cut the okra, the sliminess is trapped within. My favorite way to prepare okra, and really any unloved vegetable, is to roast it. My strategy for roasting is the same for just about any vegetable. Add copious amounts of oil and salt, and then roast at 350 degrees until soft and slightly browned or blackened.

In the oven, oil tends to stubbornly stick to the roasting pan. Many people suggest lining the roasting pan with tin foil. I hate throwing out all that foil though. Instead, I have one pan devoted to roasting vegetables. It is not a pretty pan, but that's OK. It does its job.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Potato Kugel

Another day, another kickball dinner, another kugel.

When I told my mother I made her potato kugel she said, "Did you make it right?"
"What do you mean?" I stalled.
"Did you make it in a muffin tin?"
"Of course I did!" I sighed in relief. She forgot to ask the other question. According to my mom, when making her potato kugel, one must always cook it in a muffin tin, not an ordinary casserole dish. And one must grate the potatoes by hand.

Grating five potatoes by hand doesn't sound so bad. But then there's that onion you have to grate, too. The crying! And you have to grate so fast. The potatoes start to turn pink, then brown, then black. Faster, faster, my mother goads.

So, if my mom isn't looking over your shoulder, go ahead. Use a food processor.

Potato Kugel
4-6 medium potatoes
1 medium onion
1 tablespoon non-dairy margarine, melted
3 tablespoons flour
1 tablespoon nutritional yeast (or another tablespoon flour)
1/2 cup silken tofu

Preheat the oven to 400 F. Spray a muffin tin with cooking spray (or oil thoroughly). Chop the onion and process in a food processor (or grate by hand). Add the tofu to the processor and process until combined. Add 1 tablespoon melted margarine. Set aside.

Working quickly, peel and roughly chop the potatoes. Process in the food processor. If you must do this in batches, cover the pureed potatoes with plastic wrap and refrigerate to keep from turning brown.

Mix together the potato, onion-tofu mixture, flour, nutritional yeast, and salt to taste. Fill the oiled muffin tin with the batter. The kugel doesn't rise much, so you can fill the cups nearly to the top. Bake for 1 hour or until the tops are browned.

EDIT. If you want to make these for Passover, sub matzah cake flour (ideally) or matzah meal for the flour.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

33 million: the number of cars needed to produce the same level of global warming as is caused by the methane gas emitted by livestock and their manure
--Six Arguments for a Greener Diet

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Stir-fried leeks

I hate wasting food, so I'm always trying to think of ways to use up leftover bits of food. Awhile back I made an Asian marinade for tofu. I didn't want to throw it out, so I added tomato paste and red wine to it and used it to marinade more tofu. After cooking the tofu, I threw in the leftover marinade and thickened it up for a sauce.It was one of the best tofu dishes I've ever made, and I've been thinking about it ever since. I tried to recreate it tonight, but it wasn't successful. So there's no recipe for that. I'm going to keep trying. But the stir-fried leeks I made were great, and I know exactly how to make those.

Stir-fried Leeks
This served one vegetable-loving person. Feel free to double or triple the recipe, just don't crowd the pan.

1 leek
2 teaspoons minced ginger (feel free to leave the peel on)
2 teaspoons minced garlic
pinch of red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon dark soy sauce*
1 tablespoon mirin
1/4 cup broth
oil for stir-frying (I use canola. No use wasting the good olive oil for this)

Clean the leek and chop it into 1-inch pieces. Heat oil in a frying pan over medium high heat. Add ginger, garlic, and red pepper flakes and cook for thirty seconds or until fragrant. Add leek and stir fry until bright green and slightly blackened, about five minutes. Add dark soy sauce, mirin, and broth and cook until most of the liquid has disappeared.

*Dark soy sauce is completely different from light soy sauce (the most common kind). It's darker (obviously) and has a more intense flavor. Use 1 tablespoon of light soy sauce if you don't have the dark.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Food in season

Library of Congress

Eating fruits and vegetables in season is better for your health and the environment. Growing a tomato in a greenhouse in December takes a lot more resources than a summer-grown tomato. And that June tomato has more nutrients, too. And it probably tastes better. But say you grew up in a city or the suburbs. And you have no access or inclination to garden. And your farmers market is filled with out of season produce from Chile (I'm looking at you Dallas). How do you know what's in season? Epicurious, the Web site associated with Bon Appetite and Gourmet magazines, has a peak-season map. And the Natural Resources Defense Council has a more extensive list. And often, your local paper will have a list of what to expect at the farmers market.

Not everyone has a farmers market or produce stand near by. And often, they're only open a few hours a week, possibly when you're working or, um, sleeping in. And that's OK. Even the vegetables at your local grocery store will be cheaper and healthier when you buy in season.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Spicy Eggplants

This recipe comes from my friend La. I have no idea where she got it from. When we lived together, the two of us went on a glut of copying down recipes. We each had a stack six inches thick of things we wanted to try, and we would have to take turns being in charge of the cooking because we both wanted to choose the recipe.

I've changed the recipe around a bit (who has szechuan peppers?) and added some quantities (the recipe just says "chili" what kind and how much?). This is a good one to try on eggplant haters. It's also good for that eggplant that's been sitting in your fridge too long and is starting to go bad. Just cut and discard any brown spots.

Spicy Eggplants
1 pound eggplant (about one med to large)
3 tablespoons oil for frying
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1 inch of ginger, chopped
1 onion, sliced
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon hoisin sauce
1/2 teaspoon chili garlic sauce
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
1 1/4 cups broth

Cup eggplant into cubes. Set in a collander, sprinkle with salt, and let the juices drain. After about 30 minutes, squeeze any excess liquid from the eggplant and rinse off the salt.*

While you're waiting, combine soy sauce, hoisin, chili garlic sauce, sugar, rice wine vinegar, and broth. Set aside. (This is a good time to start the rice, too.)

Saute the garlic, ginger, and onion in the oil over medium heat for about 30 seconds, or until they are fragrant. Add eggplant and saute another 2 minutes.

Add the sauce mixture, and simmer uncovered for 10 minutes or until eggplant is tender. Increase the heat to reduce the sauce until thick. This took me about six minutes.

*If you're in a hurry, you can skip this step. Salting the eggplant is supposed to get rid of any bitterness. It's more important if your eggplant has been sitting around for a while, but if you just bought it today, you can skip it.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Access to food and walkable communities

I moved to Louisiana just after college. I spent the four previous years living carless in Philadelphia. The transition from a carless lifestyle in a city to what I like to call the smallest big city in America was eye opening. So many things about that move changed how I view food and the way we buy, prepare, and eat it. Two things about my personal experience really stick in my mind: access to healthy food and walkable communities.

I moved to southeast Louisiana just a few weeks after Katrina and Rita hit. Everything was in chaos, and I'm still amazed that I managed to find a place to live. People laughed when I asked if they had any vacancies. A friend of a future coworker decided it was easier to rent to me than to call back all 400 people who had left messages on his answering machine about his one vacant apartment. I rented the apartment sight unseen.

The dishwasher was broken, the water tasted fishy, the bathroom walls were made of glass, and there was a hole in the doorway where one night a frog wandered in and climbed into my bed. And yet I was relieved to have anywhere to live at all. But what a change it was from Philadelphia.

Just like in Philadelphia, I lived within a mile of a supermarket, a pharmacy, a video store, and a park. But in my new neighborhood, it was impossible to walk to any of them. There were no sidewalks, the road, where cars careened at 50mph, had no shoulder, the edge of the road quickly gave way to a water drainage ditch that was tacky with mud, and an interstate highway separated me from that supermarket. And so I no longer walked to work and on errands. I no longer took an evening stroll to relax. And I gained 10 pounds.

As I neared the end of my first year, I began looking for a new place to live. A year after Katrina and Rita, the vacancy rate in my town still rivaled Manhattan's. I had two requirements for a new apartment: sidewalks and somewhere worth walking to. It took a month of combing the streets looking for "for rent" signs (no one bothered to advertise, places went so fast), but I finally rented the first floor of a building downtown. There were sidewalks. And I could use them to walk to a library, museums, restaurants, the post office, parks, the bank, and the Saturday morning farmers market.

And slowly the weight came off.

But I haven't gotten rid of my car yet. Even though there are many, many places for me to walk to in my new neighborhood, there's not a single supermarket. The closest grocery store is about three miles away down a very busy street. I considered taking my bike, but a friend who works in the ER told me how she always sees immigrants in the ER who have tried to bike down my city's main streets. And I, too, see them every week. I hold my breath as I watch them pedal down the street, groceries hanging from a broom stick tied to the handlebars of their bikes as cars pass them honking their horns.

For people in my neighborhood without cars, and many of my neighbors can't afford them, the only choice besides the farmers market (only open for four hours on Saturday morning) or restaurants is a convenience store. The kind of store where you can buy packaged, shelf-stable food and a gallon of really expensive milk. The kind that doesn't carry any fresh food whatsoever.

And it became clear to me that there's no one big problem with our food system. It's a series of problems. I constantly hear people say that fat people have no self control and that the poor could eat well if they really tried. But it's not lack of control and laziness. It's a hundred little obstacles in the way like a highway blocking the path to the grocery store.

Monday, June 9, 2008


This past weekend, my kickball team got together for matzah ball soup. The woman who hosted everything was nice enough to make a vegetarian soup, too. So of course, I had to bring a kugel.

Kugel is basically Jewish casserole. If you're British, you might call it pudding. Potato kugel, sweet or savory noodle kugel, and broccoli kugel are all traditional. This is cauliflower leek kugel. And it is not at all traditional. There are herbs! And leeks! And nuts!

The first time I made this someone told me he didn't finish his first helping because it was so good, he thought it wasn't kosher. This past weekend, a woman told me it was better than her grandmother's kugel. I don't want to get anyone in trouble with their Bubbeh, but this stuff is good.

This is all to prepare you for the matzah ball soup. See, Eastern European Jewish cooking hasn't changed much. Did you see how excited I got about the fresh herbs? So when I saw that my friend had added vegetables to the soup, I was amazed and delighted. Green beans and new potatoes in the matzah ball soup. It was enlightening. Traditionally, matzah ball soup is just matzah balls and broth. Maybe a sliced carrot. (But never in my mother's soup.) So the idea of adding fresh, spring vegetables really blew me away. Enough that I went home and made my own matzah ball soup. I made this recipe, boiling the vegetables in the broth while the matzah balls cooled in the fridge. The cooked vegetables hung out in a bowl while the matzah balls cooked. If you've read much of my blog, you'll know to trust me when I say the matzah balls absolutely have to wait in the fridge an hour before you cook them. I'm all about the short cut, but you don't want to end up with matzah balls that disintegrate.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Vegetable pasta, two ways

Looking over my posts, two things are pretty obvious. One, I eat 90 percent of my food out of bowls. And two, I like cooking techniques that let me throw things together without fussing too much about recipes and measuring. In honor of both of these things, I present you two vegetable pasta dishes that look and taste pretty different, but are prepared using the same method. And in a bowl.

Corn-Tomato Pasta

Green Beans and Caramelized Red Onions with Spaghetti

So here's the loose method.

Step 1. Boil pasta. You know how to boil pasta right? (Did I ever tell you about the time I tried to teach a roommate how to boil pasta?)

Step 2. In a frying pan, heat enough oil to coat the pan. I usually swig my bottle of oil around the pan twice. If you're a measure-er, this is probably about 2 tablespoons. If you're using onions or garlic, add those to the pan first. You want to give them enough time in the pan to mellow out so you don't get that sharp taste from either of them. When it's time to add your corn or green beans, turn the heat up. You want the outside of these vegetables to get crispy, even a little blackened. It adds flavor. You can test whether the vegetables are done by poking them. I suggest using a fork to poke. Fingers are too easily burned. The vegetable should give a little, but not too much. You can also try biting into a vegetable, but remember they're hot.

Step 3. Add the tomatoes to the saute pan last, if you're using any. They're going to release a lot of liquid, and this means that your other vegetables won't be frying so much as steaming. Cook the tomatoes until they start to fall apart. Depending on how small you chop them, this can take anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes. The juices from your tomatoes will mix in with the oil and create an orange-colored sauce. This is a good thing.

Step 4. Add the drained pasta to the vegetables and mix everything together well. You might want to add some olive oil for more flavor. You definitely want to add salt. Serve in a bowl.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

blueberry crumple

This was the last week for strawberries at the farmer's market ($1/pint!) and the first week for peaches and blueberries ($3/pint!). The blueberries were so cheap, I bought two pints. So now I have three pints of fruit. Did I mention I have a hard time eating fruit? A pint of blueberries is going into the freezer, but that still leaves two pints of fruit for berry desserts. And so we have, individual blueberry crumple. Not quite a cobbler, not quite a crumble. Still delicious.

I was out of oatmeal, so I made my usual crazy cobbler recipe without the oatmeal. Like most of my favorite recipes, it doesn't really have a recipe.

Blueberry Crumple

Mix equal parts flour, margarine (or oil), and sugar*. Add a sprinkle of cinnamon if you feel like it. The mixture should be crumbly. If it's too wet, add more flour and sugar. If it's not sticking together enough, add more fat.

Put your berries in a baking dish. If they aren't very sweet, add a bit of sugar of your choice. Sprinkle the flour mixture on top and bake at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes or until it smells too good to wait any longer.

*If you want to go the traditional crumble route, add an equal amount of quick or regular oatmeal.