Tuesday, December 29, 2009

What I know about food

It’s that time of year when the lists begin for all of those improvements we want to make in our lives when everything starts anew. This year I’m going to take a different approach this year. Rather than listing what I want to do, I’m going to make lists that reminds me of what I already know. If I can remember my lessons learned and add to that list at the end of the year, it’s bound to put me on a better path. So here’s what I know about food:

1) Refined sugar is addictive and does little more for me than offer a temporarily tasty treat. I doubt I’ll ever cut sugar out of my diet totally, but I do want to remember that once I eat it two or three days in a row, I’ll begin to crave it. When I go without it for a week or so, that craving disappears.

2) Naturally sweet alternatives make me happy. I can make zucchini bread (with chocolate chips to get my chocolate fix) and one slice will satisfy that urge I might otherwise fill with ice cream or a candy bar. I’ve uncovered several recipes this year that work for me and incorporate some of the garden’s goodness, like sweet potato cake, pumpkin bread and butternut squash muffins.

3) Eating regularly fends off headaches and lethargy for me. I also feel better when I eat small portions rather than one huge plate of food.

4) Waiting before piling up a second helping works best for me. If I take seconds immediately after finishing one plate, I inevitably feel overfilled 20 minutes later. I do better if I wait that 20 minutes, ask myself if I still feel hungry then, eat just a little bit more if the answer is yes.

5) Growing the food I eat and being in the garden is refreshing for my body and soul. Every year I learn more about gardening and I don’t plan to stop.

6) Cooking gives me joy and a creative outlet. If I need to focus my creativity elsewhere temporarily, then I might want to plan ahead with leftovers so I don’t zap the creative well in the kitchen.

I’m game for sharing lessons with anyone who wants to contribute what you know about food. If you have a food lesson learned this year, post it as a comment and it might help us all become healthier in 2001.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

This week’s mealtime garden goodness: potatoes, broccoli and cabbage

I haven’t had much reason to cook recently since we’ve been out of the house so often during meal time. Last night, however, we invited a friend to join us and I drew from our store of garden goodies for the meal.

Our main course was braised paprika chicken with broccoli, prepared with one of our frozen bags of broccoli. Braising a meat helps to keep it moist and flavorful which definitely was the case with this recipe.

The side dishes were a potato cake made from a combination of our red and white potatoes and cole slaw, which I had made this summer and frozen. The only vegetable for the meal that I had bought at the store was onions.

The taste? The veggies were all great, although the chicken dish was a little over-salted, which Jim must have commented on at least three times. He’s usually the one adding salt to the meal. The next time if I dredge the chicken in a mixture that contains salt, I’ll be sure to also use a low-sodium broth so it doesn’t overpower us.

Christmas blessings to you all!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Gifts near completion

I put the top, protective, clear coat on the gourd birdhouses today. Tomorrow I plan to wrap them. Here are photos of three of these fun creations.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Garden gifts

The garden isn’t good only for the weekly menu; it can also be a great source of gifts. I’ve created gifts from my garden for the past few years. When I do this, I can be sure the recipient will not have received another gift like it!

Here are a few gift ideas:

1. Herb butter. One year when my herbs were still fresh and prolific in December, I set out butter to soften then mixed in the chopped herbs. I made homemade bread and packaged it all to give as gifts.

2. Sun-dried tomatoes. I like growing Principe Borghese tomatoes, which make wonderfully flavorful sun-dried tomatoes you can store for months. These I’ve packaged two different ways: one is to keep them dry and put them in a nice, air-tight storage jar with instructions to rehydrate before using; the second is to rehydrate them and place them in a jar with olive oil and perhaps some herbs. (I confess, I once forgot to rehydrate before filling the jar; I’m sure the recipients wondered why I thought I had given her a nice gift!) Because a lot of people haven’t cooked with sun-dried tomatoes, you might also want to include a recipe to use them in.

3. This year, I’m making gourd birdhouses. My cousin Harry prompted this idea when he gave me a gourd earlier this year. I turned it into a birdhouse that now hangs on our front porch. So when I saw gourds at the farmer’s market this summer, I thought that would be a good gift to make for some family and friends. I’m in the midst of painting them now, so when they are complete I’ll take some pictures to post. I’m following these instructions.

Next year, I might plant my own gourds now that I have saved some seeds. Or perhaps I’ll find another gift idea that warrants its own corner of the garden.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Giving the gift of diminishing food waste

The holiday season is all about food—food at parties, dinners, leftovers. There are the favorite casseroles and desserts, the scrumptious homemade rolls, the fun holiday season drinks and appetizers. For those of us who like to cook, it’s like a little taste of heaven to have a day to cook at our leisure and loving friends or family to enjoy the result of our hard work. Because of that, we sometimes go overboard and fix far more than we truly need.

Don’t get me wrong, I like leftovers. But they can get old if you have to eat them daily for more than a week to use them up. There’s also the possibility they could go bad before you do use them all.

That’s what I thought about today after listening to a radio story on the BBC about wasted food. In London’s Trafalgar Square, author Tristram Stuart organized a free lunch to feed five thousand people to draw attention to the problem of food waste. He prepared the dishes with produce that was rejected by the supermarkets for superficial imperfections and was destined for the landfill.

In an article for Prospect Magazine, Stuart quoted Save the Children as saying the amount the average British household spends on wasted food a year would be enough to lift three malnourished children out of hunger. UK households reportedly waste 25 percent of all the food they buy.

So what about food waste in the United States? A 2008 report by the Stockholm International Water Institute, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the International Water Management Institute says as much as 30 percent of food in the United States is thrown out each year.

While we might not be able to pack up our leftovers and send them off to hungry children, there are repercussions of food waste that influence the ability of the world to feed its people. The U.S Environmental Protection Agency has raised concerns about the phenomenon because of the environmental consequences. There’s also the impact waste has on prices on the world food market. And think about the energy the entire food production and preparation process uses on food that doesn’t get eaten.

One of the good things about being a gardener is that when my vegetables don’t look great, I eat them anyway. I know they’ll still taste good. Yet, there is food waste in our household.

There are more than one billion people in the world who are hungry right now. Working toward eliminating food waste in our home might be just a small gift that won’t reach those hungry people today, but I can also add my prayers that one day it will make a big difference.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Rating the tomato salmon

When I had accumulated about five slowly-ripened-in-the-windowsill tomatoes, the last from this year’s garden, I decided to try a new recipe. Jim, who is my harshest critic since he lives with me and knows if he gives something a good rating he’ll have to eat it again. This time around?
Jim’s salmon rating: 9+
Beth’s salmon rating: 9

Jim said he might have given it a 10 if the salmon had been fried instead of baked. The recipe is below so you can try it for yourself. My guess is that it would work with any kind of fresh tomato that you like.

Tomato Salmon

Olive oil
½ onion, diced
1 garlic clove
4-5 San Marzano tomatoes
Small bunch fresh parsley
Salt and pepper
2 6-ounce salmon fillets

Warm olive oil in small skillet. Dice onion and cook on medium until soft. Add chopped garlic. Add chopped tomatoes. Cook until soft. Stir in chopped parsley. Season with salt and pepper.

Put the salmon fillets on a cookie sheet. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle sparsely with salt. Pile cooked tomato mixture on top, covering every bit of the salmon flesh.

Bake at 400 degrees 12 – 15 minutes.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Rating the butternut squash cupcake muffins

I teach a creative writing class at the local elementary school and at the end of each grading period, we have an American Idol-like writing celebration. When I asked my most recent class how they wanted to celebrate, they suggested cupcakes and popcorn. Being the softie that I am, I said yes. Then I was faced with the fact that I had agreed to feed them sugar, something I was pretty sure they didn’t need more of in their diet.

So I decided a compromise was in order. I had printed out a Jamie Oliver recipe for butternut squash muffins that he said were similar to carrot cake. I decided to try them and top them with a light, cream cheese icing. (I didn’t think the kids would go for his “frosty top” suggestion. I also left out the nuts since I was trying to pass these off as cupcakes.) Keeping in mind Oliver’s recent work in West Virginia where he’s trying to help people learn to cook and eat with good health in mind, I cut down on the amount of sugar in the muffin recipe by nearly half. I probably made up the amount of sugar in the icing I used.

The result? I liked them, although they definitely were a muffin texture rather than that of a cupcake. My husband, Jim, isn’t a huge dessert fan, but I asked him for a rating.

Jim’s rating: 9
Beth’s rating: 9
Fifth-grader rating:???

I took the experiments into school this morning for our writing celebration. After hearing the students read several exceptional stories for our guest judges, I uncovered the snacks for the day. I must admit that I cannot claim a roaring success with the muffin cupcakes. Only two students even picked up one to eat. (I was right about the nuts; they didn’t choose the ones with nuts on top.) They did eat the whole thing, but I didn’t hear any rave reviews except from the adults who assisted me with the celebration.

Would I do it again? I would definitely make this recipe again. But before I tried to pass it off as a cupcake, I would like to learn more about the different between creating a cake-like texture and a bread-like texture. In the meantime, I still have a couple of leftovers to enjoy!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Using the last tomatoes

Yes, it’s December, far too late to be using fresh tomatoes, yet I am. Our weather this fall was a little bit different than usual and I picked my final red tomatoes from the vine last week. Today it’s snowing.

I’ll be using those final tomatoes this evening, with some onion, garlic and parsley, as a topping for baked salmon. I’m also experimenting today with butternut squash cupcakes. Just don’t tell my students, who asked for cupcakes for their writing celebration, what the secret ingredient is. I’ll let you know tomorrow if they pass the fifth-grader taste test.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Books to help with good eating

Since it’s the season of giving, I thought I would share some of the books I’ve read and used in the past five years that have helped guide me to this path of more extensive gardening and better eating. If you’re buying for someone with these same interests, consider one of the following.

Simply in Season—a wonderful resource for using seasonal produce. Not only does this book include good recipes, it also talks about when to harvest and how to store fresh produce.

Extending the Table . . . A World Community Cookbook—includes a wide variety of international recipes. There’s always something new and fun to try in here.

Moosewood Cookbook—a classic of vegetarian cooking. After 20 years of using this book, I still return to my favorite recipes in it.

Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day—I love this easy way of baking bread! I almost always have something I’ve made from it in my kitchen.

One Bite at a Time—specifically written for those dealing with cancer. Although I didn’t find a lot of the recipes to be extremely flavorful (but think about it, I mostly used it when going through chemo) I still value the health and ingredient information it includes.

Chef MD’s Big Book of Culinary Medicine—will get you thinking more deeply about what our food can do for us. It includes interesting research about food and how it relates to our health, as well as some fun recipes.

What books do you recommend? Jim keeps asking me what I want for Christmas, so I’m open to suggestions!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Easy cooking for a Friday evening

I’m at another writing retreat so once again I chose the easy way to feed myself and my writer friends. Last night we ate two of my favorite dishes—Swiss chard lasagna and winter cole slaw.

The Swiss chard lasagna recipe originated with the Moosewood Cookbook that a friend gave to me 20 years ago. Their recipe is for spinach lasagna. I substituted my garden chard (my chard is even more beautiful in the cold weather; its flesh is sturdier and ribbons of yellow, white and red wind vibrantly through the green), my own preserved tomato sauce and added more parmesan cheese than they called for. This is one of those dishes you can assemble in a baking dish the day before so it’s simple to cook when you’re hungry. The results? Here’s what my friends rated it:
Lin: 10
Mary: 10

Since I ate the last of my garden lettuce this week, I pulled some winter cole slaw out of the freezer for the salad. It’s one of those vinegar recipes my mom gave me a couple of years ago when I told her I had more cabbage than I could eat. I think it’s quite tasty and I know it’s healthy since cabbage is in the cruciferous vegetable family, that gang of cancer fighters that I go to for support. Cabbage is also a great supplier of Vitamin C, folate, manganese, potassium and dietary fiber. My husband prefers creamy cole slaw, so instead of subjecting him to my freezer slaw, I brought it to a more appreciative crowd. Here’s what the writers rated it:

Lin: 10
Mary: 10

And yes, we did have dessert. I had Cushaw left from Thanksgiving week since that’s what I used to make our pumpkin pie. My husband clued me in that this southern heirloom squash actually makes tastier pie than pumpkin; he was right. So I made the leftover puree into pumpkin bread, or in this case, Cushaw bread. Topped with a little cream cheese, it’s an excellently moist and slightly sweet dessert. It’s not bad for breakfast either. Here are the ratings:

Lin: 10+
Mary: 10+

Okay, maybe I should have asked Lin and Mary separately for more honest ratings, but I think it’s safe to say from their reactions they really did enjoy the food.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The hard frost arrives

I picked my final four raspberries yesterday morning with icicle fingers. A month later than usual, we got our first hard frost. I plucked a few ripening tomatoes from the now brown vines and cut some beautifully sturdy Swiss chard and arugula, then welcomed the warmth of my house when I brought it all inside. A cup of tea does wonders to warm the fingers!

So does a bowl of soup. I tried an experiment over the weekend and admired the unexpectedly pretty results. I made soup stock from our leftover turkey bones and plucked then shredded the meat from it. I sautéed onions, celery and carrots in olive oil then added the stock, meat, white beans and chunks of butternut squash. The squash added a pleasant yellow-orange tint to the broth. I cooked until the beans and squash were soft then seasoned with cumin, oregano, red pepper, black pepper and salt. We’re still savoring the results.

As the weather gets colder this week, I’m sure I’ll continue to look for foods that bring welcome warmth.