Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Comfort food

Every grandparent worth her salt enters into some kind of conspiracy with the kid that leaves the parents out of the loop.  In my case, it was funny that I had the same conspiracy with both my grandmothers.  I don't remember how it started, but probably one grandmother started it, the other heard about it and thought it was a great idea, and the rest was history.

The conspiracy had to do with sauerkraut.

Both my parents were picky eaters and it turned out that both of them loathed sauerkraut.  I know they both had to eat plenty of it in their good German childhoods, but by the time I came along they had put it behind them with a vengeance, announcing that not only did they not like the stuff, it stank up the house.  So when it transpired that I loved sauerkraut, both my grandmothers were thrilled.  Not only did it give them a way to coddle their little darling, it was a way to figuratively smack their own ingrate children in the face.

The conspiracy would begin when a grandmother knew I was about to visit.  Somebody would have gone down in the cellar and brought up a jar of home-canned kraut, then hidden it under a towel in the kitchen.  The instant my parents left the house, the car not even out of the driveway, the kraut was out of the jar and on the stove, stinking up the house.  If life was really smiling on me, there might be mashed potatoes to go with it.

Since then, sauerkraut and mashed potatoes have been my ultimate comfort food.  For 18 years, my office was across the street from an old-style cafeteria, which had been in the basement of a downtown office building since 1920 or thereabouts.  All the ladies who served the food had also been there since 1920, I think, as had the tables, the chairs, the dishes and the little board with the white plastic letters spelling out the daily specials.  Nor had the menu changed since 1920 -- lots of vegetables, old-fashioned meat, three or four kinds of homemade pie, and mashed potatoes every day.

And at least once a week, maybe twice, there was sauerkraut.  Sometimes it came with pork roast, in which case I was in heaven.  Other times it came with sausage, in which case I just ordered the kraut and mashed potatoes.  How many lousy, rotten days at the office were made a whole lot better with that for lunch? 

These days, I've retired from that job and the cafeteria has closed.  When I need comfort food I have to make it myself.  And Dad was right, it sure stinks up the house.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Sorry, Mom doesn't approve

As a mom myself, I am always alert to advertisements that take my name in vain.  Such as the flyer we got in the mail last week from McDonald's, announcing that "Mom Would Approve" the breakfast sandwiches pictured, and pushed with coupons on the back of the flyer.

Well, not this mom. 

I don't want my kids or anybody else eating a sausage biscuit with egg, 500 calories, 58% of them from fat, and 1080 mg of sodium (that's more than 2/3 of the daily maximum for healthy diets).  Or a sausage McMuffin with egg, 450 calories, 53% of them from fat, and 930 mg of sodium.  Or a sausage egg and cheese McGriddle, 560 calories, 50% of them from fat, and 1290 mg of sodium.

What surprised me on my calculator-armed visit to the McDonald's nutrition website was that the huge sodium dose from those two breakfasts does not come from the sausage patty, which I would have expected from highly seasoned cured meat.  That has only 310 mg of sodium -- but the biscuit alone has 680!  The egg McMuffin has 850 mg of sodium, while adding sausage adds only 80 mg more.

Suppose you need a sugar jolt in the morning and order a deluxe warm cinnamon roll.  That gives you 590 calories, but only 36% of them come from fat.  Does that make you feel healthy?  It shouldn't, because that roll contains 36 grams of sugar -- almost as much as a 12-ounce can of industrial-strength Coke.  (And how many of those cinnamon roll eaters are washing them down with a large industrial-strength Coke?)

You can hit the junk food trifecta -- fat, sugar and sodium -- by ordering hotcakes and sausage.  Even without your Coke chaser, that will deliver 770 calories, 39% of them from fat, 930 mg of sodium and 45 grams of sugar.

Maybe you'd like a McCafe hot chocolate, featured in the coupons, with your sausage biscuit.  If you order the large, it'll bring 460 calories, 35% of them from fat, and 54 grams of sugar. 

In the name of moms everywhere, I take offense at being used to endorse breakfasts that are tasty, convenient, cheap, and a one-way ticket to a cardiac bypass, if diabetes doesn't get you first.  But it isn't just McDonald's that wants us to do the wrong thing.  Our whole food system socializes us to want fats and sweets for breakfast -- and has even brainwashed us into thinking that's a nutritious way to start the day.

I've been thinking a lot lately about breakfast, and what we really should be eating for good nutrition.  Not sure I have the answer yet, but I know it isn't McGriddles breakfast sandwiches.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Vegetables in the news

You can often find the same subject on page one and the op-ed page of the New York Times on the same day, provided it's an important one like war, terrorism, financial crisis or politics.  But you don't often find it when the subject is a vegetable.

In today's newspaper, however, sweet potatoes hit the daily double.  On the front page, we learn that we're having a record harvest this year in the US, that sweet potatoes are being served at White House state dinners and appearing on 40% more restaurant menus than last year.  The bad news is that the engine of growth is the sweet potato fry, perhaps tying with sweet-potato-marshmallow casserole and sweet-potato pie for least nutritious preparation of a fabulously nutritious vegetable.

But the good news is that even if you fry it, the sweet potato is strong medicine for what ails you.  They're great for diabetics because they contain complex carbohydrates that don't raise blood sugar the way refined sugars and grains do.  And they're great for nutrition in general, rich in vitamins A and C, beta carotene and fiber. 

roasted sweet potatoes, with a little paprika sprinkled on for pep

The Center for Science in the Public Interest rated all vegetables on a complicated scale where points were awarded for vitamins and other good nutrients and deducted for fat, sodium, sugars and other bad nutrients.  The sweet potato scored 184, with nothing else within 100 points of it!  (The next three were white potato, spinach and kale.)  If you like to count calories, say about 130 for a medium baked sweet potato.

What I like about sweet potatoes is that unlike white potatoes, I'm delighted to eat them absolutely plain -- no butter, no salt, no gravy necessary.  I usually just bake them about an hour in a 400-degree oven, alone or alongside the chicken breasts.  They're also great cut into chunks, tossed with a little olive oil and roasted at 425 degrees for maybe a half hour.  Roasted vegetables, of course, can include both kinds of potatoes, winter squash, beets, carrots, parsnips, turnips, rutabaga, broccoli, cauliflower, onion and garlic, especially nice for a crowd, as everybody can choose what they like and leave behind what they don't.

On the op-ed page of the Times, we learn that plant scientists are developing new varieties of sweet potatoes to be grown in Africa, providing far more nutrients than the indigenous sweet potato, popular but vitamin-poor.  Some think that the sweet potato may be a key to overcoming malnutrition on that struggling continent.

So on this Thanksgiving night, I'm thankful for sweet potatoes and resolve to serve them more often.  Not only are they nutritious, they're beautiful, vanquishing the all-white meal in a millisecond.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Good gravy!

I am amused to see, in antique stores or the back of other people's kitchen cabinets, gravy boats that might hold two cups, overflowing.  In my family the official gravy container is our cat pitcher, a wedding present, that will hold eight and a half cups if it really has to, and isn't at all happy with less than five or six.

Many people besides those in my family, I suspect, love gravy but may be intimidated by making it.  If you're one of them, listen up.  Making good gravy does get a lot of dishes dirty, but it's not difficult.

The starting place, of course, is the roasting pan in which you have made a turkey.  The more good brown drippings in the bottom, the better your gravy will be, so I put the turkey neck, extracted from the top cavity, onto the rack alongside the bird for even more juice.  When the turkey is finished, remove it from the oven, remove it from the pan, set it aside (wrapped in foil and towels to keep warm, or turned over to your helper for carving) and take the pan back to the stove.

Put a cup or so of hot water into the pan and scrape all the browned bits free.  I use a plastic spoon with a straight edge for good leverage.  Don't worry about the strange congealed globs of unappetizing mystery protein; stir them in too.  They will give up their good essence but bow out long before showtime.  If the browned bits seem to be resisting arrest, you may want to put the pan over a burner and heat it up a little to speed the process, or add more water. 

Eventually, when the pan is clean, decant the liquid through a sieve into a clean pitcher or bowl.  Press all the liquid out of the debris in the sieve, then pitch the debris.  You're left with a pitcher of brown turkey juice, with fat beginning to rise to the top. 

Contemplate how much liquid you have in the pitcher, compared to how much gravy you would like to end up with.  There's almost certainly not enough, so add more.  You could add chicken or vegetable broth from a can, or even plain water, but my favorite additive is found in the back of my fridge, the little mason jars of juices from baked chickens of the past.

Every time I fix a couple of chicken breasts in the oven, I deglaze the baking pan with hot water and scrape up all the good brown bits, just as described above.  Again, I strain the juices through a sieve into a mason jar and stash it in the refrigerator.  Usually the juice gets used within the next week to moisten pasta or risotto, or to add to a soup.  But as a turkey holiday approaches, I save it to add to my gravy.

Yesterday I had three little jars of chicken juice saved up, which went into the pitcher.  I ended up with six cups of juice.

A general rule of thumb is that one tablespoon of flour and one tablespoon of fat will thicken one cup of meat juice.  Keep that same ratio of flour and fat, but add more or less meat juice to make a thinner or thicker gravy. 

In a time-free world, you could stick your pitcher of turkey juice in the refrigerator, come back three hours later, lift the risen and congealed fat off the top, measure six tablespoons and discard the rest.  But in the real world, the turkey is waiting on the counter, the guests are going wild with the delicious smells, and you need to get that gravy going NOW.  So you don't have time to let the fat and juice separate themselves for accurate measurement.  Not to worry.  This is home cooking, not a cookbook testing laboratory.

Spoon off several tablespoons of liquid from the top layer of the pitcher, capturing as much fat and as little juice as possible.  Put it in a clean saucepan, large enough to hold all the liquid in your pitcher.  Add as many tablespoons of flour as you have cups of liquid, more or less.  Do not agonize; you can always add more flour later if you need to.

Cook the flour and the fat a few minutes over medium/high heat to make a roux.  Stir with a whisk.  This is a stage when you must devote your full attention to the gravy, so have your helpers do other tasks if needed. 

Then you can turn down the heat to medium and start to incorporate a little more liquid, whisking hard.  After all the lumps have been stirred down into a smooth soup, you can add the rest of the liquid from your pitcher, in two batches.  Keep whisking -- lumpy gravy is a cliche that you want to avoid.

After a couple of minutes, when the gravy has gotten hot again and is starting to bubble, you can stop whisking long enough to taste (probably needs a touch of salt) and to gauge the texture.  If it's too thick, add a little hot water.  If it's too thin, you'll need a little more flour. 

Here's how to do that without getting lumps.  Pull a half-cup or so of the gravy out of your pan and put it back into your empty pitcher.  Add another tablespoon of flour and whisk till it's smooth and totally incorporated.  Then pour back into the pan and whisk it in.  Whisk some more on general principles, making sure no colonies of thick gravy have collected in the corners of the pan.  Then decant into your serving boat or pitcher. 

If you haven't managed to delegate last-minute tasks like mashing the potatoes, cap the gravy pitcher with foil and cover with towels, or stick it back in the oven if the heat has been off a while.  It will stay warm while you finish your cooking and serving.

Finally, pour gravy over everything in sight!  Somehow, I missed the meat before I took this picture, but remedied the situation immediately with another ladleful.  There was plenty to go around.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Early Thanksgiving

My son leaves on Monday for Europe so we had to celebrate Thanksgiving early.  While all the rest of you were having an ordinary Friday, we were baking pies, making cranberry-orange relish and roasting a turkey.

Many years ago I went through a phase of hating Thansgiving, at least the preparation of a big dinner. 
As a kid I remember nothing much about Thanksgiving; we didn't cook a big dinner and might as likely have spaghetti as a roast chicken.  When I got married and my husband informed me that the most important part of a holiday was A Big Feast, I didn't much like the idea. 

As often as I could get away with it, I announced that my favorite way to chow down, since we apparently had to do so, was in a restaurant.  Coming up with the restaurant, however, was easier said than done; it was always crowded, expensive and frazzled; and the food was never that great.  But we did avoid cooking and doing dishes.

Finally one year I decided this was stupid -- if people wanted a big turkey dinner I might as well make it at home, so I could get the kind of stuffing and gravy I liked (as far as I'm concerned, you don't have to serve anything else to make Thanksgiving official, except maybe some cranberry-orange relish).  And since then I have learned that making a turkey dinner is one of the easiest things a cook can do.

The tricky part is buying the turkey far enough in advance that it thaws.  Although I do recall one Thanksgiving morning when I awoke and realized the turkey was still in the freezer.  I put it in the microwave, hit auto-defrost-18.00 and a l-o-n-g time later it was ready to go in the oven, with no hard feelings.  Miraculously, the metal clamp that held the bird's ankles crossed, which I forgot about till it came out of the microwave, didn't arc out and start a fire!

What you must realize is that no matter when the turkey gets done, you take it out of the oven, wrap it in foil and then in a whole lot of big towels to stay warm, and put it aside until everything else is done.  Take your time with the gravy and potatoes and vegetables; the turkey will still be there when it's time for dinner.  If one of your helpers is feeling particularly ambitious, he could start carving and put the slices onto a hot platter, thus speeding the eventual serving of plates.

You must also realize that the most important part of the dinner is the gravy.  If the gravy is good, and there's plenty of it, people won't notice other areas that might not be 100%.  Since those of you whose sons aren't going to Europe are probably not going to fix your big dinner till next week, I'll write up my gravy tutorial and post it in plenty of time for you to make magnificent gravy in case you don't already know how to do so.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Risotto 101

Many years ago I read about an exotic Italian dish called risotto, and decided it was something I could make at home.  The cookbooks said to use arborio rice but I couldn't find it in my supermarket, so I used plain old long grain white rice.  Otherwise I followed the recipe, starting with toasting the rice in butter, then adding broth and hot water as the dish cooked over high heat.  The dish tasted great -- a big step up from the plain white rice of my childhood -- and became our regular preparation when rice was on the menu.

I can't remember how many years this went on before I ate risotto in a restaurant in New York, made with arborio rice and no doubt including other fancy ingredients.  I realized this was a different animal entirely from the faux risotto at home.  Eventually arborio rice made it to stores in the sticks, and I switched my preparation to the official version.  At the same time, risotto switched from a side carbo to the entree.

Best of all, I realized that just like pasta and soup, risotto could be the vehicle for infinite permutations of whatever was hanging around the refrigerator, which you may have realized by now is my favorite genre of cooking.  It's great for absorbing vegetables, anywhere from a couple of stray leaves of arugula to a big bunch of broccoli.  A little meat, whether it's leftovers or something new, goes a long way toward pepping up a dish of risotto, and of course the parmesan cheese grated in at the last minute adds protein as well as flavor.

Today's risotto, with radicchio, butternut squash and leftover chicken

As with pasta and soup, imagination is the key ingredient in fixing risotto.  Whatever you have around is probably going to work as an additive.  Some of my favorites:

-- Winter squash makes a classic Italian risotto.  If you have leftovers, just put the cooked squash into the skillet and mash it up a bit with your spoon; it will practically dissolve in cooking and turn the rice orange (beautiful!).  If you're starting from scratch, you can cut the raw squash into thin bite-size pieces, no more than 1/8 inch thick, which will retain their shape.

-- Another classic is radicchio.  In Italy, the words trevisano or trevigiana on a menu indicate the presence of radicchio, after Treviso, the city where farmers developed a technique to blanch the leaves and make the plant prettier and less bitter.  In Milan, the rice capital of Italy, I ate risotto trevisano con gamberi, with shrimp -- a magnificent combination that is easy to do at home.  But even without shrimp, radicchio makes a fine risotto.

-- Summer vegetables can all go in risotto, but you have to be careful not to overcook them, particularly zucchini.  I often saute the zucchini first, then take it out of the pan and let it rest on a plate until the rice is almost done.  It goes back into the skillet only long enough to warm it through and meld the flavors.

-- Olives add color as well as a concentrated flavor kick. 

I'm partial to risotto with mostly vegetables, but a cookbook check will reveal many ways to up the meat content for heartier versions.  Clams, squid, fish and of course shrimp are classics.  Sausage, pork, chicken and veal show up in various combinations with vegetables.

If you don't have risotto in your home repertoire, here's the quick technique recap. 

Risotto has the reputation of being tricky, difficult, beyond the scope of the beginner or hesitant cook.  But that rep is undeserved.  The tricky part consists solely of the fact that for 20 minutes you have to stand there, watch and stir.  You won't be able to do anything else during this time period, but so what? 

Make the rest of your menu beforehand, or put your helper in charge of the last 20 minutes worth of cooking other things.  Pare, chop or slice in advance whatever ingredients you're going to put in the risotto, place them right by the stove, and figure out whether they need to cook for 20 minutes (in which case, add them as soon as you add the liquid) or less (in which case, add them later in the cooking process). 

Maybe you want to saute your ingredient first, rather than just add it to a pan of liquid, but don't want it to cook the whole 20 minutes.  If so, saute it in the skillet, unload it onto a plate, and add it back to the risotto at the appropriate time.

Get a big skillet so your rice will cook in a wide, shallow layer.  Decide what kind of liquid you're going to use and have it at hand, can or bottle opened, ready to pour.  I always use about a half-cup of wine and a can of chicken broth, but you could also use other kinds of broth or vegetable juice.  When the moment comes to add liquid, you want it NOW, lest your rice burn.

Put a generous serving of olive oil in the skillet and get it hot.  Dump in as much arborio rice as you would normally use in other rice preparations.  I have a little measuring cup that came with my rice cooker, and one measure (it's probably about 3/4 cup) is what I would use to serve two of us.  The same quantity of rice serves two of us in risotto.

The rice is starting to turn brown -- time to add the liquid.

Stir the rice in the hot skillet and watch very carefully as the grains begin to toast and turn opaque white, then begin to get brown.  A few seconds after I add the rice I also add finely minced garlic and keep stirring so it doesn't burn either.  When the rice looks like it's starting to brown, pour in about a half-cup of liquid.  It will sizzle furiously and begin to cook away. Don't let the pan dry out; add some more liquid a half-cup at a time and keep stirring.  You want the rice to cook in liquid over high heat the whole time. 

Bubbling away, with only enough liquid to cover. 

Italian cooks will heat up a pan of broth and keep it at a simmer on a separate burner, adding it a bit at a time to the skillet with the rice.  I'm not quite that finicky; I add broth straight from the can but in small enough doses that the rice mixture never stops bubbling away.  And after I use up my can of broth, which isn't enough, I add hot water from my electric kettle.

Adding raw sliced squash

So when is it done?  The rice grains should be al dente, not soft.  And the whole preparation should be almost soupy, not so you need to eat it with a spoon but so it has a definite sauce-like quality.  The arborio rice sheds starch as it cooks and makes the liquid creamy.  But you do have to make sure the liquid doesn't cook away.  I find that when the rice is almost done and I issue the two-minute warning for people to get to the table, it's a good idea to add a half-cup of hot water and stir that around to make sure the risotto isn't dry.

You can grate parmesan cheese into the risotto in the pan and stir it around to melt, or you can let people cheese their own plates at the table.  A big grind of black pepper is usually pretty good too.  Mangia!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Caramelize your troubles away

So what do you do when your fresh tomato tastes more like styrofoam than tomato?  Or when your  apple has a mushy texture?  Or when your red pepper is bland and insipid?

Sometimes you know from the start that the produce is going to be underwhelming, such as when you buy supermarket tomatoes in winter.  Often the sinking feeling comes when it's too late to do much about the situation -- you've already sliced the pepper, or bit into the apple.  But you aren't so disappointed as to throw the food away.

This is the moment for the frying pan!  Whatever meager, pathetic juices and flavor that vegetable or fruit may have can be maximized by heat and some oil or butter.  After everything caramelizes, you'll have a concoction far more delicious than you ever dreamed could emanate from such a sorry beginning.

For tomatoes, slice or quarter them and put them into a hot skillet with olive oil, then cook on high heat a couple of minutes longer than you think is wise.  (Put a spatter guard over the skillet to keep the stove clean.)  The tomatoes will get really brown, and maybe even borderline charred, but that's OK.  Turn them and do the same to the other side. 

If the tomatoes give off so much juice that they're starting to stew rather than saute, pour it off into a cup and set it aside.  Finally, all the edges have been nicely browned and the tomato has gotten very soft.  At this point deglaze the pan with a little marsala wine or sherry and turn the heat down while the wine reduces to a rich reddish-brown sauce.

The tomatoes can be served as a side dish, or stashed in the fridge for a future pasta, risotto or soup.  If there's extra juice in the cup on the side, it can be added back or saved to be a cooking liquid.

I like this cooking method so much that I'll buy tomatoes from the supermarket all year, knowing they won't be fit to eat raw, but knowing that they'll cook down to a delicious ingredient.  It's also possible to cook a large quantity of tomatoes with olive oil in a pan in a hot oven, for instance if you are the lucky recipient of a windfall from the garden.

For peppers, either red or green, saute them in olive oil over high heat until they're browned on all sides, maybe even hitting the borderline of charred.  If the pieces are large, use the spatula to push the curved parts down flat against the pan.  I like my cooked peppers limp, so I'll turn the heat down and let them keep cooking on the back burner for a while, but you might like to take yours off the heat while they're still on the crispy side.

You can also cook peppers under the broiler (you don't need to use oil this way, although they're delicious served with a bit of olive oil drizzled on top) or if you have a gas stove, you can toast them over the flame like a marshmallow (never having had a gas stove, I cannot testify to this method but I have read about it many times).  With either method, cook until the skin chars (if it chars too much, you can peel it off).

Cooked peppers can be served as a side dish or saved to go into a sandwich or onto a pizza.  I usually think they're too assertive to make good soup vegetables, but love them in pastas and risotto.

For apples or pears, saute them in a skillet with butter, getting all sides brown (but not brown/burned as with tomatoes and peppers). You can eat them at this point, or turn the heat down, cover the pan, and let them cook a while, maybe add a bit of orange juice, water, or wine if you want a fancy dessert.  A little nutmeg, cinnamon or ginger on top makes it special.

Of course, you can always turn disappointing apples into applesauce, but this is a nice alternative and works nicely when you have only one or two pieces of dud fruit instead of a bagful.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Soup du jour

Last night's dinner -- bean soup with cauliflower and canned diced tomato -- looks a lot like the bean soup behind the title of this blog, doesn't it?  But it's different!

Soup du jour is one of my favorite meals. The plan can begin from scratch with a favorite ingredient, or emanate from leftovers or vegetables that should probably have been eaten two days ago. I tend to make up the plan as I go, but these basic concepts underlie my efforts:

-  Always start with chopping and browning an onion or two.  There is no kind of soup that won't benefit from that flavor, and it makes the kitchen smell great.  If you're running late on fixing dinner, the smell will make people think the situation is under control, even if it's not.

-  After you’ve browned the onion, garlic and other ingredients but before you start adding liquids, deglaze the pot with a little wine (fortified wines like marsala, vermouth or sherry are particularly nice). Stir around a little to dissolve all the good brown stuff on the bottom of the pan, then add the rest of the wet ingredients.

-  Always have a lot of chicken broth on hand. I’m happy with Kroger canned. Strangely enough, their “low fat” variety has less sodium than the “low sodium” variety, in addition to lower fat. Add chicken broth to anything that needs more liquid at the last minute.

-  Life is easier if you have one or two default seasonings that can go into most varieties of soup. My favorite is Penzey’s Galena Street Seasoning, a mix of salt, sugar, black pepper, paprika, nutmeg, sage, cayenne and red pepper. Ordinarily I shy away from any seasoning mix that includes salt, but you do need salt in most soups, especially those containing beans. Less than a tablespoon of Galena Street is usually all the seasoning you need for a small-to-medium pot of soup; you know it will have enough salt, enough heat, and enough flavor oomph without pesky blending and tasting.

-  Keep some dry, canned or frozen ingredients that you can add to soup at the last minute if your pot looks a little skimpy or somebody new shows up for dinner. For instance, diced tomatoes, various kind of beans, tiny pastas, olives, chicken broth. I don't usually have frozen vegetables on hand but a handful of corn, peas or edamame would do nicely too. Bacon, ham, pepperoni (turkey pepperoni if you’re feeling healthful) or other cured meats can hang around the fridge for a while and add both bulk and flavor.

-  Yesterday’s leftovers can become today’s soup. Start with onion, of course. Cut the leftovers into bite-sized pieces and throw them into the pot. You’ll probably need to add liquid (chicken broth, wine, tomato juice, milk, whatever). I also keep canned cream soups on hand (cream of onion or celery is a good all-purpose base; cream of shrimp is great for seafood or vegetable leftovers) as a base. If it still doesn’t look good enough to eat, add any of the things in the previous paragraph, or stick a small potato in the microwave for four minutes and dice it into the soup.

-  Sometimes it helps to put everything into the blender and make it smooth.  That also helps incorporate ingredients like cheese or tomato paste that might otherwise not be properly distributed throughout the soup.

-  Most soups improve with a grating of parmesan cheese at the table. And/or you can stir a spoonful of pesto into each bowl.

-  Many soups improve if you put finely shredded spinach or kale in the bottom of the bowl before you ladle in the hot soup. You can practically fill the bowl with greenery because it will shrivel to nothing in the hot liquid. It’s tasty, beautiful and nutritious.

-  Make bean soup in quantity, using at least a one-pound bag of beans.  It's no more work to cook up a huge batch than a small one, and after dinner you can freeze the rest in one-quart containers.  Then someday thaw out one quart of the soup and use it as a base for anything else you have on hand, like the half cauliflower languishing in my vegetable drawer last night.  It's surprising how many foods will play well with beans, and since the beans provide both bulk and protein, small quantities of leftovers will work just fine.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

How I met my friends the vegetables

When I was a kid I recall vegetables as being very limited and very tedious.  We had iceberg lettuce salads every night, with bright orange Kraft french dressing. Mom was an early adopter of frozen vegetables, of which we ate green beans, lima beans, peas and corn, and fresh corn on the cob in summer.  Canned peas as an ingredient in tuna salad (yuk) and canned beets.

We went through carrots by the truckload, because when people started whining "when is dinner?" Mom would issue peeled carrots to shut them up till the real food was served.  We also had lots of celery, with a stick of Velveeta cheese nestled inside the curve for special occasions.  When we visited my grandparents in springtime we had asparagus every day, because Grandpa had a big patch.  Everybody but Dad ate raw cucumbers and tomatoes, and we would all eat stewed tomatoes that my grandmother canned.

But I was truly amazed later in life to learn that God had created more than those ten or twelve vegetables. Starting with an almost-blank slate, I remember vividly my introductions to several new varieties.

The first time I ate an artichoke was in 1968 on a business trip to Washington DC.  The guy I was talking to, about the age of my father, apparently thought it would be a kindness to teach the cute young thing a little culture, so we both ordered artichokes and he showed me how to pluck the leaves and chew the meat out of each one.

The first time I ate eggplant was in March 1970, a month before we got engaged.  My mother was visiting and Ken and I were serious enough that he had to be introduced.  He took us to a fancy restaurant, now defunct, and both Mom and I ordered the eggplant casserole even though neither of us knew anything about eggplant.  We both loved it; I have always remembered that casserole as a good omen for the marriage as well as for the vegetable.

The first time I ate an avocado was about 1975, when my friend Gail returned from having spent a couple of years in exotic California and showed me how to slice it open and wham your knife blade into the pit, then twist a bit to remove it.

The first time I ate kale was about 20 years ago when I had the idea to stir raw shreds into a batch of mashed potatoes.  It tasted good and the next day I eagerly heated up the leftovers, being a mashed potato lover, only to discover that cooked kale doesn't taste at all like raw.  That was the first and last time I ever ate cooked kale, although raw has become a staple.

The first time I ate cauliflower was probably in the late 70s, having read in a cookbook that you should gently simmer it whole in a big pan of milk (that was the last time I ever used that recipe). 

The first time I ate edamame was in the 90s in a Japanese restaurant in Chicago around the corner from the apartment of a woman I worked with on many projects, and on the generous expense account of our employer.  But until 2006 I never knew that you could buy them frozen in a bag already out of the shell.

The first time I ate parsnips was about ten years ago, after my husband got onto a kick of revisiting his childhood dinner memories and brought a bag home from the grocery store.

The first time I ate escarole was in October 2000 in an Italian restaurant in New York.  We were there early, wanting to get in one last fine meal before we had to catch our flight home. A side vegetable arrived; we had no idea what it was and asked the waiter.  No doubt taking us for rubes who always eat dinner on the farm at 5:45 pm, he sneered when he told us.

The first time I ate brussels sprouts (now this is getting a little embarrassing) was about four years ago, at the Chinese buffet, surprised to find that it wasn't vile after all, as I had imagined it for decades.

I can't remember the details of where or when I met broccoli, lentils, sweet potatoes, bok choy, spinach, fresh limas and peas, zucchini, winter squash or any number of other vegetables that are now on our regular play list, except that all the meetings occurred well into my adulthood.  Many of those vegetables weren't available in my Midwest childhood, although I suspect most of this limited repertoire simply came about because my parents were not adventurous eaters.

Since I tend to be a picky eater myself -- but an adventurous picky eater, if you can imagine it -- I am really glad that I have managed to come so far since the frozen green beans.  When I was a kid we thought of dinner as meat and potatoes, with vegetables as a grim afterthought.  Now more and more I look at vegetables as the centerpiece.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Healthiest lunch of the day

What a luxury to have homegrown tomatoes in November!  Our tomato crop was a disaster, thanks to a terrible drought and our being away for a month, unable to water them.  My husband ripped the plants out at least a month ago.  But there's always some overachieving gardener whose tomato machine keeps cranking them out, and if you're really lucky, you go to that person's house one day when she's in deaccession mode.

I often make tomato sandwiches with beautiful, red, ripe tomatoes, but this one was so juicy I thought the toast would turn to mush before I finished eating.  So I used a fork instead.  The plate had a few empty spaces on it that cried to be filled with a complementary color.  Such a treat!  And I still have plenty left -- thanks, Marti!

Monday, November 1, 2010

Sodium al pomodoro

In my recent reading about sodium I was reminded (no surprise) that most of our sodium comes from processed foods rather than salt added at home.  But then I read (surprise) that the five major culprits are soups, condiments, canned foods, prepared mixes and -- tomato sauce!

I phased out tomato sauce from my pantry this summer, simply because I think tomato products with more solids give better results, but reading this gave me a sudden paranoid anxiety about the other canned tomato varieties in my cupboard, of which there are many.

A fresh tomato has only 14 mg of sodium.  But thanks to the magic of industrial food processing, that's not what you get when it comes from a can. The sodium content varies greatly by type of tomato product, and also by brand.  I spent a few minutes checking labels at the store this afternoon and here's what I found among the diced tomatoes.  All serving sizes were 1/2 cup.

Kroger diced with no added salt -- 20 mg
Del Monte diced with no added salt -- 50 mg
Del Monte diced -- 200 mg
Kroger diced -- 220 mg
Hunt's diced fire roasted with garlic -- 240 mg
Hunt's diced with green pepper, celery and onion -- 280 mg
Hunt's diced with basil, garlic and oregano -- 300 mg
Hunt's diced fire roasted -- 310 mg
Kroger diced Italian style -- 330 mg
Kroger diced chili ready -- 480 mg
Red Gold diced with roasted garlic and onion -- 500 mg

I had not ever noticed tomatoes packed with no added salt, but I bought some today and unless they turn out to be awful, I think I'll use them exclusively.  I do like the fire roasted flavor but don't think it's worth the sodium price.

But these tomato products are nothing compared with sauce.  A half cup of Hunt's tomato sauce has 820 mg!!!!!!

I was surprised to find that tomato paste, which would seem to be almost as heavily processed as tomato sauce, could be had with relatively little sodium, if you read the labels carefully.  Here the serving size is 2 tablespoons.  You could multiply that by 4 to get a half cup serving to compare to the tomato sauce, but since tomato paste is more concentrated than tomato sauce, maybe we should multiply by 2 or 3.  Let's try 2.5:

Kroger tomato paste -- 20 mg (call it 50 mg to compare)
Kroger Private Selection Organic tomato paste -- 20 mg (compare at 50 mg)
Hunt's tomato paste -- 105 mg  (compare at 262 mg)
Kroger Italian style tomato paste -- 300 mg (compare at 750 mg)

Two easy conclusions:  first, there seems to be a lot more variation among brands in tomato paste than in diced tomatoes.  Second, if you want some smooth tomato product in your cooking, thin down a lower-sodium paste to the desired consistency rather than use sauce.