Saturday, October 29, 2011

Secret ingredients

Don't you love discovering a secret ingredient?  Something that you would have never thought to add to a favorite dish, but after you taste it, you realize it was a really good idea?

One of my top ten in this category is black olives as an ingredient in minestrone, or any similar vegetable soup. 

I remember exactly when and where I discovered this secret.  We were in Cincinnati for the Metropolitan Opera Auditions, and on the way home we stopped at Pompilio's, a venerable old Italian restaurant in Newport, KY.  In the minestrone we discovered the secret ingredient and loved it.  Since then, I've often added olives to my soup.  They add a little salt and a lot of concentrated flavor, and they look pretty.

Pitted kalamatas, which I can usually get at the olive bar in my local grocery, are perfect; sometimes I cut them into halves, other times serve them whole.  If I can't find pitted, I'll sometimes get another fancy black olive and cut the pits out; it takes a while, but you need less because the pit-full varieties tend to be saltier and stronger.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

All choked up

Artichokes thrive in cool weather and we're starting to see some beautiful ones in the market.  Our favorite way to eat chokes is the simplest -- cut off the sharp pointy ends, scrub them, stick them into a plastic bag still wet from the rinse, and microwave for a while.  On my 25-year-old oven, I do 14 or 15 minutes on high, but I suspect it would take less time in a more modern appliance.

Then eat by hand, dipping each meaty petal into some nice sauce.

This is a messy process.  Your hands get wet from the water still clinging to the petals.  And after you've chewed the meaty pulp off, you have to pile up the stringy remains of the petal on your plate or in a big garbage dish.  We can't imagine doing anything else at the same time, so the artichokes are the first course, all by themselves on a plate.  After we've finished, we return to the kitchen, wash our hands, serve up the rest of the meal on a new plate and sit down again.

You might be wondering what's in the creamy yellow sauce.  I make this by eye, with approximately equal parts of dijon mustard, olive oil, and lemon juice.  Shake it up to blend everything together, and it will keep forever in the fridge if you don't eat it first, which you will.  It's also good on brussels sprouts, green beans, sliced tomatoes and probably a lot of other vegetables; a spoonful peps up your regular salad dressing. 

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The mystery food project

We are blessed with a lot of kitchen storage space.  Shortly after we moved into this house 25 years ago, I decided we needed more cabinets, so I installed a whole wall of them in our TV room, right outside the kitchen door.  Some of that space is used for lightbulbs and paper products, but most is food. 

The flip side to having lots of cabinets is the potential for accumulation of food that has long outlived its official shelf life.  And sometimes mystery food that you aren't even sure when and why it arrived, or what you planned to do with it.  It must have seemed like a good idea at the time, but today you wonder why.

For some people this is not a dilemma.  When they come upon superannuated mystery food, they throw it out without a second thought.  I am not one of these people.

Fortunately, I have had excellent experience with superannuated food.  My conspiracy theory of the world includes a section on expiration dates, which I believe to be a plot by manufacturers to get you to throw out perfectly good stuff and buy more.

Recently my husband and I were discussing what might happen in a global disaster, since the worldwide food supply chain is only a few days long.  He opined that we could eat for a year on what was in our cupboards.  I thought that was an overstatement, but had to admit that we do own a lot of food.

And I decided to embark upon a project to eat it up.

I'm not going to try to eat from the cupboard every day (although we obviously could, for a while if not for a year).  But I am going to try to use up some albatross food every week.

To start off, here's a bag of bread mix that somebody brought me as a hostess gift a long time ago. 

Yes, you read it right -- 2003.  But it baked up nicely and even rose as it should.

I thought it was kind of pedestrian as bread goes, but my 12-year-old granddaughter and all the men thought it was wonderful, and the kitchen certainly smelled of cinnamon all afternoon.  A couple of slices got Zoe through three hours of arduous math homework, and helped the guys survive till a late dinner.  To date nobody has died, which is good because now the project can continue to another week.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Bad ideas in breakfast

I spend a lot of time thinking about breakfast.  I know that in my lifetime I have gone through many phases of favorite breakfast foods, adopting some product or preparation as my default and eating it every day for weeks or months.  At least before I retired, breakfast was one of the most stressful meals of the day.  Being getting-up-challenged, I was always running late, always under pressure, always willing to trade off a decent breakfast for an extra ten minutes in bed.  Even when I took the time to eat something, I rarely sat down to do so. 

I know this pattern is not a healthy one.  Now that I live a life of alleged leisure, I eat better at breakfast, if only because I can take my time about it.  But I'm still interested in (and often concerned about) the things that the Big Food Industry tries to sell us for breakfast.

Here's what I found on prominent display the other day in our deli/bakery department:

I looked more closely to see what this product was.

"A healthy and delicious way to start your day" -- well, maybe delicious, but hardly healthy.  Check out the label:

How about those carbs?  If you're trying to lose weight, this could be your entire daily dose of carbohydrate, or even twice your daily dose. 

By contrast, a big bowl of steelcut oatmeal has 27 grams of carbs, and 1 gram of sugar -- half the fat of the breakfast cookie, and only 5% of the sugar.

One cookie has 320 calories, with 100 of them from fat.  By contrast, the oatmeal has 150 calories, with 25 of them from fat.  Even if you pour some decadent "fat-free half-and-half" over the top, you'll add 50 calories, with zero from fat.

Heck, you might as well just eat a regular oatmeal cookie -- 218 calories, 80 of them from fat, and a tad less sodium.

But of course, it's hard to eat a bowl of oatmeal in the car while you're driving.  Or to keep it in your desk drawer for days when you arrive at work unfed and cranky.

Nevertheless, I think this is on balance a bad idea.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Pretty peppers

We found these peppers at the farmers market the other day -- don't think I've ever come across any that weren't flat color.  You might almost think it was an apple, with the beautifully mottled color.

I wish it had tasted as good as it looked.  Somehow we've had very few wonderful sweet red peppers this year, the kind that makes you want to just eat them out of hand.  Instead we usually open them up, have a taste, and say "let's cook them."

Not that there's anything wrong with that.