Monday, December 1, 2008

A Local Thanksgiving, Sort Of


We had a very local Thanksgiving. Sort of. We went to Maryland but brought a lot of veggies from the CSA with us.

The adventure started on Thanksgiving eve when we boarded an Amtrak train to Cumberland, Maryland - about 45 minutes from Deep Creek Lake, where we spent the holiday with my parents.

The overnight ride took about 15 hours, and it was mostly great. We met some amusing passengers (like this beefy ex-marine type who kept saying "Namaste, buddy" to the baffled snack bar cashier of South Asian descent), watched the snowy shores of the Youghiogany River drift by from the lounge car, and got cricks in our necks from sleeping in recliner coach seats.

We also hauled a bunch of food for Thanksgiving dinner, like sweet potatoes, cranberry relish, pie pumpkin, and potatoes and leeks for a soup the night after.

With a few feet of snow on the ground outside and a cozy fire going, we prepared a fairly traditional dinner that also included turkey, stuffing, green beans, and lots o' wine. I felt so thankful for the food on the table, for the family sitting around it, and for family and friends who weren't with us.

The leftovers were plentiful, and we took all the food back to Washington, DC, where we spent the rest of the weekend. But as fun as the train was on the way there, we flew home with lighter bags but heavier stomachs.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Lost

The carrot peeler disappeared last Thursday night.

It was the strangest thing. On Wednesday, I was peeling carrots like crazy, trying to use up the store-bought bag before picking up the first winter box for my CSA. On Thursday, I lugged home two overflowing bags of pie pumpkins, butternut and acorn squash, apples, mushrooms, sweet potatoes, more potatoes, onions, popcorn (yes!), cranberries, leeks, and a huge bag of juicy, juicy carrots.

I love carrots. Especially raw. Growing up, carrots were one of two vegetables that I ate (the other was green beans). I love the easy preparation and crunchyness. Carrots make the best snack.

And I was really looking forward to the carrots in my CSA, because they taste so fresh and worlds better than their counterparts at the grocery store.

So I was completely baffled when I went to look for the peeler, carrot in hand, and it was gone.

There has been some chaos in my household lately. We finally moved Ryan's turtle in last weekend, which to my surprise has been more high maintenance than Karl the cat, who sits on the bed and stares at the turtle all day long. We had to drain the 40-gallon tank, take out all the rocks, bring it over, create space for it, and design a set up for Grace to sun herself and dry off.

Amidst all of this, the carrot peeler vanished and we think Karl had something to do with it, but who knows? You can't ask a cat these things.

I try to keep my kitchen utensils to a minimun and stick to the basics, but this is one that I can't live without. So I resolved the situation in the easiest way I could think of and bought a new one, which works wonderfully.

Now I can eat carrots again, and I feel calmer already.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Good Fight

Sometimes I feel like it's me vs. food.

I entered the kitchen last night with the best of intentions - to make a pasta with butternut squash, sage, and pine nuts recipe that caught my eye earlier this week from one of my favorite food web sites, The Kitchn. I had fond memories of a similar recipe that I made last year, although I realize now that my selective memory blocked out the bad stuff.

That is, how freaking hard it is to cut open a butternut squash. This guy was almost a foot long and its, ahem, bulge at the top was five inches wide. The recipe made it sound so easy. Just cut the squash in half, scoop out the seeds, peel the skin, and chop into 1-inch cubes.

I suppose the real problem here is how dull my knives are, but after wrestling with the squash for about 10 minutes, I thought my hand was going to fall off. (It didn't help that I burned the top of my hand on the oven while mixing up roasting pieces of squash.)

The peeling went a little better, although sliced skin flew every which way.

I felt a bit beaten down as I fried the roasted squash, garlic, and onions together with pasta and sage (I didn't have pine nuts). I had sore triceps, hand cramps, and all. But in the end, I think I came out on top. Although the final result tasted a little dry, the flavor of butternut squash has been one of my favorite food discoveries since I joined a CSA, making last night's battle well worth the fight.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Cry, Cry, Cry

While I haven't been very diligent about photographing my meals lately, I used a lot of food from my CSA this week.

On Sunday night my intention was to make the yellow spaghetti squash that had been taunting me from its waiting place on my kitchen table. I had never prepared nor eaten spaghetti squash before, but with Ryan on a business trip and a prior bad experience with the food, I thought it would be a good time to make it and catch up on some trashy tv.

Of course I was too tired to cook on Sunday night, so I vowed to make it on Monday and even found a recipe for pear and radicchio salad to go along with it, since those were two other items from last week's box.

Instead I *prepared* a dish, which is what I used to do all the time before I truly started to cook. I took the last 5 potatoes that didn't make it into the kugel and threw them in a pot of boiling water. Once softened, I mashed with butter and salt and paired with a small salad consisting of the remaining green lettuce and carrots from the CSA.

Then I watched Extreme Home Makeover and cried at the reveal.

Of course I was too tired to cook on Monday night, so after staring down the squash, I vowed to make it on Tuesday and scrambled some eggs with sauteed diced leeks and sliced heirloom tomotoes, both from the CSA. I prefer my tomatoes of the grape variety, but I have to say that these orange-colored orbs were sweet and tasted delicious mixed with the eggs.

Then I watched Gossip Girl and cried when I realized it was a repeat of the season premiere.

Tuesday night was the second presidential debate, and I was determined to make that squash, especially since Ryan was home and game to eat it. I preheated the oven to 375, poked some holes in its gleaming skin, and stuck it in the oven for an hour. While it cooked, I chopped a head of radicchio with pears and tossed with a dressing of garlic, olive oil, salt, pepper, and lemon juice.

Once the squash was ready, I sliced it open (my knife went through it like butter), scooped out the seeds and gook, and used a fork to gently peel away the strands. I was enthralled with how much it looked like spaghetti! We made a recipe called spaghetti squash with Moroccan spices. I should say that the recipe recommended microwaving the squash, which I find horrific for some reason, but I found that baking it made my kitchen smell really good.

We then cried (with joy) as Obama thumped McCain.

Spaghetti Squash with Moroccan Spices (from epicurious.com)

1 (3 1/2- to 4-pound) spaghetti squash
1/2 stick (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter, cut into pieces
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

Pierce squash (about an inch deep) all over with a small sharp knife to prevent bursting. Cook in an 800-watt microwave oven on high power (100 percent) for 6 to 7 minutes. Turn squash over and microwave until squash feels slightly soft when pressed, 8 to 10 minutes more. Cool squash for 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, melt butter in a small heavy saucepan over moderately high heat. Add garlic and cook, stirring, until golden, about 1 minute.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Happy New Year!


Fall is suddenly here! The air is chilly and crisp. I even bundled up in a heavy jacket today, and my feet crunched over some leaves on my way to work.

This is my favorite time of year. It's that back to school, football game weather. It's the kind of weather that makes you want to bake something, anything, just so you can turn on the oven to warm up the kitchen.

And last night, I did. In honor of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, I made some traditional foods for dinner, including potato kugel and honey mustard chicken.

The honey is eaten to celebrate a sweet new year.

Somehow, we have three bottles of honey in the cupboard. One is from the CSA, the second came back with us from our trip to Mexico, and the third we bought from a small canoe livery in the middle of Ohio (random, but true).

Because of our extensive honey collection, we were pretty happy to usher in Rosh Hashanah. Tonight, I'll dip some apples into the honey (and probably tomorrow night, and the next night too).

L'Shana Tovah!

Potato Kugel (from kosherfood.about.com)

8 medium potatoes
2 onions
6 eggs
1/2 cup oil
4 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
1 heaping Tbsp. salt
1/2-1 tsp. pepper

1. Preheat oven to 400° Fahrenheit (200° Celcius).
2. In a large bowl, mix eggs, oil, flour, salt and pepper. Set aside.
3. Coarsely grate the potatoes and onion by hand or food processor. Let stand 3-5 minutes. Squeeze out excess liquid. Add grated potatoes to the egg-flour mixture. Mix by hand only until smooth.
4. Pour into a greased 9x13 inch baking dish.
5. Bake, uncovered, for 1 hour or until golden brown on top and a knife inserted in the middle comes out clean.
YIELD: 12-14 servings.


Chicken in Honey Mustard Sauce (from judaism.about.com)

4 pounds chicken pieces
1/2 cup flour
4 Tbs. pareve margarine
1/2 cup Dijon mustard
1/2 cup honey
1/2 cup chicken bouillon
blanched roasted almonds for garnish

1. Coat each piece of chicken with flour, and brown the chicken in the melted margarine.
2. Arrange the chicken in a greased pan.
3. Mix the honey, mustard and bouillon and pour this over the chicken pieces.
4. Cover and bake in preheated 375 degrees Fahrenheit oven for 45 minutes.
5. Garnish with the roasted almonds. Serve over a bed of white rice.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Chopping and Chakras


When I moved into my condo two years ago, I often heard a man chanting somewhere outside my window while I was in my kitchen. I never knew where it came from, but it sounded like rapid-fire meditation with chakras in full gear. Gradually I stopped noticing, even when I started spending more time in the kitchen.

Yesterday I was in a very domestic state - cleaning, doing laundry, and other chores - when I decided to make sauteed summer squash with red pepper and onion for lunch. I had all of those vegetables from my last CSA delivery, along with garlic and parsley. It was one of those rare occasions where I had everything at my fingertips.

But the recipe required a lot of prep work. As I chopped vegetables, lost in my own thoughts, I suddenly heard the chanting outside my window. I peered out but only heard the familiar rhythmic mantras of someone seeking spiritual nirvana.

Wikipedia describes meditation as a mental discipline that is practiced for many possible reasons: to achieve "a higher state of consciousness, to greater focus, creativity or self-awareness, or simply a more relaxed and peaceful frame of mind."

I've never formally meditated in my life, except for belting out a couple of long "oms" during yoga class. But for me, cooking is a form of meditation. I find myself very focused as I manage the whole food preparation process into a meal to be eaten.

Cooking is a good activity for goal-oriented people who like to see tangible results after they put a lot of hard work into something. It reminds me of why I once trained for a marathon. After several months of hard work and motivation, I achieved a goal - an incredibly empowering and satisfying thing to do (although the pay off of cooking is eating, which is much more pleasurable than running 26.2 miles).

Maybe that has nothing to do with meditation. I don't know. But I find that activities that require me to work with my hands, like cooking or gardening, tap into that creative part of my brain. There is something so rewarding about completing these kinds of projects. I always feel better afterwards - kind of like getting that runner's high.

Sauteed Summer Squash with Red Pepper and Onion (from The New York Times)

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 medium onion, chopped (about 1 cup chopped) (I used a whole onion, medium sized)
2 plump garlic cloves, minced (I love garlic and used 5 medium-sized cloves)
1 1/2 pounds summer squash, cut in 1/2-inch dice (I used 2 squash)
1 small red pepper, cut in 1/4-inch dice
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

Heat the olive oil in a large, heavy skillet over medium heat, and add the onion. Stir often and cook until tender, five to eight minutes, then add the garlic, summer squash, red pepper and about 3/4 teaspoon of salt. Turn the heat to medium-high and cook, stirring, until the squash is translucent and the red pepper tender, about 10 minutes. Add freshly ground pepper, taste and adjust salt. Stir in the parsley, and remove from the heat. Serve as a side dish, or use it as a filling for a vegetable tart, gratin or frittata. (I served over brown rice.)

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Going Greek


I made a refreshing and easy Greek salad recipe last night using mostly local ingredients.

The cucumbers came from Ginkgo Organic Gardens on Chicago's north side. I've been volunteering here throughout the summer, although this is the first item of produce that I've taken home with me. That's because all the food grown here is donated to Vital Bridges, an Uptown non-profit that serves low-income, HIV-positive individuals.

I absolutely love this idea because when I think of food pantries, I think of canned goods that are high in sodium and not always nutritious. In fact, I was even made fun of once for buying a low-fat, low-sodium canned soup to donate to a food drive, but I felt that someone who can't afford to eat healthy shouldn't eat this kind of processed food in the first place.

That's what leads to health problems like obesity and high cholesterol for a group of people who have little access to quality health care.

I don't know of any other dedicated "food pantry" gardens in the city, but this one donates about 1,500 pounds of food a year - all from a lot that is the size of single family home. When I think about all the vacant lots in Chicago, a lot of people could be fed with nutritious produce.

Yesterday after all the food had been harvested for the weekly delivery, I was helping to clear the cucumber bed when I discovered a few big ones left behind. We determined that they wouldn't last another week, which is how they ended up in my salad.

I combined the cucumbers with some grape tomatoes that I picked up at a farmer's market on Damen in the North Center neighborhood and added a green pepper from my CSA. The rest of the ingredients were not so local - the red onion and feta cheese came from Whole Foods, as did the lemon that was squeezed into the dressing which included olive oil, garlic, salt, and pepper.

Greek Salad (from mediterrasian.com)


3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1½ tablespoons lemon juice
1 clove garlic—minced (crushed)
½ teaspoon dried oregano
¼ teaspoon sea salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, and extra for garnish
3 tomatoes—cut into wedges
¼ red onion—sliced into rings
½ cucumber—sliced into thick half-moons
½ green pepper (capsicum)— julienned
4 oz (120g) feta cheese— cut into small cubes
16 kalamata olives (I didn't include olives)

Place the olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, salt, pepper and oregano in a small jar with a screw-top lid and shake to combine.

Place the salad ingredients in a large bowl.

Pour the dressing over the salad and toss gently to combine just before serving.

Garnish the Greek salad with a little freshly ground black pepper.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Veggie Love

Tonight's meal used up a bunch of veggies, and I've got major leftovers. I love when that happens.

I wanted to use up the eggplant, tomatoes, and romano beans, so I set out to find some recipes.

Since I had tried grilled eggplant a few weeks ago and sauteing is my favorite way to cook, I started to look at pasta dishes that called for some slicing and dicing. Several happened to include tomatoes, but since I didn't have enough tomatoes (or time) to make sauce, I zeroed in on recipes that included them diced.

This penne with eggplant, tomato, and basil recipe met all of my criteria. While the directions seemed a bit daunting, it wasn't very complicated. Neither was the garlicky romano beans side dish that I made at the same time.

The key was to prepare all of the food beforehand, which I don't always do. But I'd recommend doing that with these recipes, especially if you make them together, because you won't have much time to peel or chop anything once you get started.

For me the key ingredient in the pasta was the crushed red pepper flakes. I probably shook in a bit more than 1/4 teaspoon, which enhanced the flavor and complimented the overwhelming amount of eggplant.

The beans were slightly crunchy and refreshing. The infused oil didn't have much flavor, but I thought the beans tasted great on their own anyway.

Penne with Eggplant, Tomato, and Basil (from Taunton Press)

1/4 cup plus 2 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil; more for drizzling
1 medium eggplant (1 lb.), cut into 1/4-inch dice (about 6 cups)
Kosher salt
1 small red onion, thinly sliced (We had a white onion, so I used that instead)
1/4 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes; more to taste
1-1/4 lb. tomatoes, seeded and cut into 1/2-inch chunks (about 2-1/3 cups)
3 medium cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 cup roughly chopped fresh basil
3/4 lb. dried penne rigate (I used rigatoni)
1/2 cup coarsely grated Parmigiano Reggiano or ricotta salata

Bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil.

Heat 1/4 cup of the oil in a 12-inch skillet over high heat until shimmering hot. Add the eggplant and a generous pinch of salt. Reduce the heat to medium high and cook, stirring occasionally, until the eggplant is tender and light golden brown, about 6 minutes. Transfer to a plate. Reduce the heat to medium, return the pan to the stove, and add the remaining 2 Tbs. oil, the onion, red pepper flakes, and a pinch of salt. Cook until the onion is tender and golden brown, about 6 minutes. Add the tomatoes and another pinch of salt, and cook until the tomatoes start to break down and form a sauce, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute. Return the eggplant to the pan, add the basil, and cook for 1 minute more to let the flavors meld. Taste the sauce and add salt if needed.

Cook the pasta in the boiling water until al dente. Reserve a small amount of the cooking water and drain the pasta. Put the pasta in a large bowl and toss with the eggplant mixture. If the pasta needs a little more moisture, add a splash of the pasta water. Taste and add salt if needed. Put the pasta on a platter or divide among shallow bowls and finish with a drizzle of oil. Sprinkle the Parmigiano or ricotta salata on top and serve immediately.

Garlicky Romano Beans (from kitchen-parade-veggieventure.blogspot.com)

GARLIC- and ROSEMARY-INFUSED OIL
1 cup olive oil
a large sprig of fresh rosemary
5 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed with flat of a knife
Heat oil, rosemary and garlic in a skillet (the larger surface area heats the oil more evenly and quickly) until the rosemary sizzles.
Turn off heat and let rest for 20 minutes.
Remove the rosemary and garlic.

BEANS
Salted water to cover
1 pound beans, ends snapped
1 tablespoon garlic and rosemary-infused oil
1 tablespoon good bread crumbs (tonight, a Swedish rye)
Salt & pepper

Bring the salted water to a boil. Add the beans and cook for 5 minutes or until done but still bright green. (They cook faster than regular green beans.) Drain and toss with the oil and bread crumbs. Season to taste. (I left out the bread crumbs)

Saturday, August 23, 2008

At the Lake

Every summer I spend a long weekend at my parents' lake house in western Maryland. It's about a 10-hour drive from Chicago.

Since Ryan couldn't make it this year, I got a ride with my sister's family. In the mini-van. With my 2- and 4-year-old nephews. And the dog.

It was a long ride.

In the 20 summers that my family has spent up there, we've always eaten the same meals. Grilled hamburgers. Grilled chicken. Corn on the cob. Salad. Yuengling beer.

This year I brought some food from my CSA - a bag of carrots, potatoes, an eggplant, and a watermelon. I wasn't concerned about introducing some "new" foods into the mix, but I wondered how it would play out.

The carrots were easy. In fact, my nephews and I ate most of them before we got there. They helped me peel all of them before we left Chicago by standing on little stools to reach the sink. Once I showed Max how to peel down from the top of the carrot (instead of the other way around), he was a pro. Nate mostly watched and knawed on a peeled one.

I wanted to use the eggplant as soon as possible because it had been a few days, and I was worried that it would go bad if we waited too long. Our first night there as hamburgers sizzled on the grill, I cut the eggplant into vertical slices, dipped each side in olive oil, and salted. Then I threw them on the grill for about 7 minutes on each side. Delicious!

A few nights later, we boiled and mashed the potatoes with butter, milk, and salt. Decent, but not enough flavor.

My favorite food moment came with the melon.

I was upstairs when my mom, Max, and Nate sliced it open. "Linds?" my mom called out. "Are you sure this is a watermelon?"

"I think so," I said. The CSA newsletter had said I would get either a watermelon, an orange fleshed musk melon, or a green fleshed honey dew.

"It's yellow!"

I went downstairs to see for myself. My mom was cutting up little pieces and digging out the seeds as my nephews gobbled them up. She couldn't cut fast enough. They literally squealed with delight.

It looked like a watermelon. It tasted like a watermelon (but sweeter). We decided that it was a watermelon. (Unfortunately I forgot to bring my camera but here is a great photo of the watermelon taken by someone else who is in my CSA.)

Okay, so that would be my favorite CSA-related food moment.

My true favorite food moment came when we made s'mores. I think Max and Nate liked them too.




Saturday, August 16, 2008

Camping Trip

As summer begins to wind down, I managed to squeeze in two short vacations over the past two weeks.

First I went to Missoula to visit my friend Ali, who moved from Chicago last year. (I'll blog about the second trip in a later post.) Every Saturday there are three farmer's markets, which we hit up to buy food for an overnight camping trip.

We got some onions, garlic, squash, carrots, chard, cheese, and potatoes to make a veggie stir fry over the campfire and what Ali calls a "tinfoil surprise" (put chopped up potatoes with whatever veggies you have in tinfoil, throw it into the fire for awhile, unwrap, and eat).

But our planned meals almost didn't happen.

We set out for a campground later that day, a spot a little over an hour away on the Bitterroot River.


We were car camping so we didn't bring a container or rope to sling the food up in a tree, but we did have some bear spray just in case.

But bears turned out to be the least of our problems.

We hadn't made a reservation and that campsite was full. So were the next 8 campsites that we tried.

We had driven around for about four hours and it was starting to get late when we pulled into Holland Lake. Apparently there are a lot of unmarked campsites in Montana where you just have to know where to go. Ali had been to the lodge at the lake before and knew there was camping. But from the road, we never would have known.

We pulled in, and there was one open site! So what if it was right next to the bathrooms with no view of the lake?

Then we realized that the site was reserved. It was also 7:30pm and would get dark in about an hour, so we decided to stay. The camp manager said that if the group came and kicked us out, we could set up our tent in the "day use" area.

We were hungry, so we took our chances and started to build a fire. Our wood was a little wet and moldy, so it didn't quite roar. We made our tinfoil surprises but since it was late, we decided to eat the veggie stir fry with eggs for breakfast the next day.

Even though it was practically dark, we held our breath every time a car went by on the road - hoping it wasn't the people who reserved our site.

By this point we were starving. Throwing in the surprises had just about killed the fire, but we kept them in the embers. One of them cooked a little more than the other, but they weren't bad with some added seasonings. And we didn't have to worry about putting out the fire, which took care of itself!

We tucked in the tent for some uninterrupted sleep (for me anyway, Ali thought she heard an animal in the middle of the night and couldn't fall back asleep).

The next morning, we walked down to the lake. It was spectacular!


We made our eggs and veggie stir fry (over her camp stove - no more fire), packed up, and headed home, thanking the Marsenichs on our way out for not showing up.


Thursday, July 24, 2008

Exploring Other Options

The other day I visited the Lincoln Square Farmer's Market. With no CSA box coming for a few weeks, I decided to stop by and see what was available.

It was a beautiful sight.

There was so much color and variety - corn, tomatoes, onions, broccoli, lettuce, beets, greenbeans, blueberries, raspberries, zucchini, bread, flowers, cheese, and more.

I didn't go into the market with a plan, which is usually my downfall when I go to the grocery store. I'll buy some produce without a specific recipe in mind and always find that I'm missing something when I decide to make a dish.

While I've gotten a lot better at knowing what foods go together and anticipating what I might need, I still follow recipes closely and rarely improvise.

I bought some zucchini at the farmer's market and found a recipe for zucchini pasta on the New York Times web site. I didn't have tomatoes though, and even though the recipe didn't include garlic, I think almost any recipe is enhanced by it. I also needed pasta.

My commute from Lake Forest is over an hour on a train, and I'm usually unmotivated to do much when I get home. So rather than wait until then to go to the store, I decided to buy the missing ingredients in Lake Forest. I normally opt against this because everything costs more there.

But I was getting hungry, so I went for convenience over price. There's a small produce market in a quaint brick alleyway called Amadei Mercatino, where I picked up some tomatoes and garlic ("Did you squeeze it?" the owner asked. "Always squeeze garlic. It should be hard. If it's soft, you don't want it.")

It is a charming little hidden nook that overflows with bright flowers and colorful, fresh produce, and I knew I would get quality food. But by the time I bought those items and the pasta at a specialty food store across from the train station, I was out almost $10, which seems ridiculous for a bag of noodles, two tomatoes, and garlic (especially considering I had bought zucchinis and a bunch of onions for maybe $2 at the farmer's market).

But I liked how the dish turned out and decided my investment was sound when I had enough for lunch the next day.

Zucchini Pasta (from the New York Times)

Salt and pepper
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
5 or 6 medium zucchini, rinsed, trimmed and cut into ribbons or coins
1 large onion, chopped
2 or 3 sprigs thyme (I subbed garlic for thyme)
2 tomatoes, in wedges or roughly chopped, with their juice
1/2 pound cut pasta, like ziti or penne (I used 3/4 pound, which gave me plenty for leftovers)
Freshly grated Parmesan or freshly chopped parsley for garnish.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt it. Put olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add zucchini, onion and thyme, and cook, stirring occasionally. Add salt and pepper and adjust heat so onion and zucchini release their liquid without browning. Cook for about 20 minutes, or until very tender.

Add tomatoes and their liquid to zucchini and raise heat a bit so mixture bubbles. Cook pasta until it is nearly but not quite tender. If sauce threatens to dry out, add a little pasta cooking water.

Drain pasta and finish cooking it in sauce. Serve, garnished with parsley or Parmesan.

4 servings.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Making Do


I received some potentially grim news from my CSA over the weekend. The weather over the past year - the recent floods, a later-than-usual winter, and last summer's drought - had taken its toll. Home Grown Wisconsin decided not to deliver food boxes for the next two weeks and will add two weeks on at the end of the season.

The farmers simply needed time to catch up and let their food grow. Too much had either rotted or washed away, and they had to replant a lot of crops.

I knew this was a risk going into the CSA, but I consider myself very lucky to have access and the means to buy fresh and healthy food until it starts up again. I feel terrible for the farmers though. For their sakes, I hope they can overcome this setback and recover their losses. I don't know how devastating the weather has been to their bottom lines, but this gives me all the more reason to buy from them whenever I can.

So with no CSA box coming for awhile, I'm going to do the next best thing - shop at farmer's markets and grocery stores that sell locally grown food in the meantime.

Tonight I went to the Green Grocer, a new store in Chicago that sells food from Midwestern farmers. I bought a bunch of chard, a yellow squash, and a jar of tomatillo salsa from a farm near Madison, Wisconsin. I was going to make quesadillas but when I stopped by my Mexican grocery store, several boxes filled with corn tortillas beckoned me (so did the price - only 36 cents for a dozen!).

I made chard and squash soft tacos instead.

To create this dish, I chopped the squash and sauteed in garlic and olive oil, added the cut pieces of chard and covered for a few minutes. Meanwhile, I heated up a few tortillas, then added the veggie mixture, and spooned a bit of the tomatilla salsa on top followed by a sprinkle of grated parmesan.

The cooking part took very little time, and the taste of the corn tortillas brought back some great memories from my trip to Mexico - it was the shopping part that took awhile, mostly because the Green Grocer is nowhere near where I live. But I'm glad I made the extra effort.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Cool Down


It's steamy hot in Chicago, so I made a chilled cucumber yogurt soup the other night. This is another recipe from Barbara Kingsolver's book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (since the strawberry rhubarb crisp was so tasty).

This is a very simple recipe but as usual, a few mishaps occured. We didn't have any dill, giving the soup a strong yogurt taste (I think the dill would have added more balance to the flavor). Due to some major spillage during the food processing, my soup turned out a little chunkier than expected. But I think that added good texture. I also subbed microgreens from my box for the garnish.

Cucumber Yogurt Soup

8 small-medium cucumbers peeled and chopped
3 cups water
3 cups plain yogurt
2 tablespoons dill
1 tablespoon lemon juice (optional)
1 cup nasturtium leaves and petals (optional garnish)

Combine ingredients in food processor until smooth, chill before serving. Garnish.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Take Two

I'd like to improve the photography on this blog, which is a challenge because my kitchen is dark and I do most of my cooking at night.

But I had some time this afternoon and thought what better recipe to experiment with than strawberry rhubarb crisp.

I know what you're thinking - didn't she already make a strawberry rhubarb dish? Good memory! I did, but it didn't turn out as well as I'd hoped. The rhubarb was too crunchy, and frankly, I didn't even know how it was supposed to taste.

Early this week, Ryan and I went out for dinner, and the restaurant had a strawberry rhubarb dessert on the menu. Knowing that I might get more of these ingredients in my CSA box this week, we ordered it to see what we were missing.

It was completely different than the dish I had made - the strawberries had melted into a sweet fruity goo that was filled with tender but tart rhubarb. The ice cream quickly fell through a toasty crust and dissolved, becoming one with the sugary goodness.

I didn't try to recreate the dish I had made before. Instead I found a recipe that required baking the rhubarb rather than sauteing, as that's what seems to have tripped me up the first time.

I found a recipe for strawberry rhubarb crisp on the Animal, Vegetable, Miracle web site. For those who haven't heard of it, this is a book written by Barbara Kingsolver about her family's experience living off their land for a year. I'm only on the fourth chapter, but already I'd recommend it.

Anyways, here's my attempt at creating food porn.


I also tried to stage a shot of a piece on a plate with some ice cream. It must have looked so good that Karl wanted a taste.


Strawberry Rhubarb Crisp (from Animal, Vegetable, Miracle web site)

3 cups strawberries, halved
3 cups chopped rhubarb
1/2 cup honey
Mix thoroughly into an 8X8 ungreased pan.

1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup rolled oats
1/2 cup brown sugar
3/4 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. allspice
1/3 cup butter
Mix until crumbly, sprinkle over fruit mixture and bake at 350 for 40-50 minutes, until golden. (I took mine out at 40 minutes because I only had 2 cups of strawberries and rhubarb. I used 1/3 cup of flour, rolled oats, and brown sugar.)

Friday, July 11, 2008

Chinese Food



Week 3: cucumbers (including the longest cucumber I have ever seen!), rhubarb, sugar snap peas, onions, strawberries, lettuce, green top beets, bok choy, zucchini, and micro greens. We were also supposed to get either kohlrabi or turnips, but neither of those items came in my box. I'm looking into it.

On Wednesday night we made Baby Bok Choy with Cashews even though my bok choy looked more like a young adult. Bok choy is Chinese cabbage that resembles spinach with its big dark leafy greens.

When I was growing up, my family would go to one of two Chinese restaurants in town and I would always order the same thing - chicken mushroom. But I wouldn't eat any of the mushrooms. That's how picky of an eater I was.

As I got older and began to eat more vegetables, I would order chicken with snow peas. I don't even remember bok choy on the menu anywhere. I feel like I've come a long way.

This recipe turned out fairly well. It was easy to make, although I would try it with actual baby bok choy next time because the bigger stalks were difficult to cut. I think they should've been more tender, but we didn't want to cook them for much longer because the leaves had already wilted quite a bit.

I served with tofu and brown rice.

Baby Bok Choy with Cashews (from Simply Recipes)

2 Tbsp olive oil
1 cup chopped green onions, including green ends
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 pound baby bok choy, rinsed, larger leaves separated from base, base trimmed but still present, holding the smaller leaves together
1/2 teaspoon dark sesame oil
Salt
1/2 cup chopped, roasted, salted cashews

Heat olive oil in a large sauté pan on medium high heat. Add onions, then garlic, then bok choy. Sprinkle with sesame oil and salt. Cover, and let the baby bok choy cook down for approximately 3 minutes. (Like spinach, when cooked, the bok choy will wilt a bit.)
Remove cover. Lower heat to low. Stir and let cook for a minute or two longer, until the bok choy is just cooked.
Gently mix in cashews.
Serves 4.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Speaking of Cabbage...

The New York Times named it one of the 11 best foods you aren't eating in this article yesterday.

Maybe the Times should join a CSA!

Saturday, June 28, 2008

C is for Cabbage

Even though I am getting deliveries every other week, the CSA recommends using most of the food within the first 5 days or so. Some can go in the freezer, but I see it as a challenge to cook and eat as much as possible within the first week.

Of course I am going to be out of town the next two nights, so we've been a little more frantic than usual to use the food.

Last night we wanted to use the cabbage and still had some mint left over from the first delivery. Ryan went online and found a recipe called ginger-scented tomato and cabbage soup with fresh mint.

One of the ingredients was alphabet pasta!


We enjoyed the soup a lot. It was steaming hot so we ate outside, where it was much cooler than in my kitchen. All the vegetables still had a little crunch, and the cabbage added some nice texture.

Ginger-Scented Tomato and Cabbage Soup with Fresh Mint
1 head of cabbage
4 ounces small pasta, such as alphabets
2 onions, coarsely chopped
3-5 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon butter
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 small carrot, diced
2 cups diced fresh tomatoes
6 cups vegetable broth
10-15 fresh mint leaves
salt, black pepper and cayenne pepper to taste

Cook the pasta, drain and set aside.
Lightly sauté the onion and garlic in butter until softened. Stir in the ginger and carrot and cook for a few moments; add tomatoes, broth and cabbage.
Cook over medium heat until the vegetables are tender (15-20 minutes).
Adjust seasoning.
Ladle the soup over several spoonfuls of pasta per person.
Season each portion with a sprinkling of fresh mint and serve immediately.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

A Summer Feast


Week two of the CSA was greener than the first: two different kinds of lettuce, collards, cabbage, green zucchinis, sugar snap peas, parsley, grape leaves, garlic scapes...and some mushrooms and strawberries for color.

Last night I decided to dig in and made a 3-course meal.

First, I trolled some other blogs for recipe ideas.

For the first course, I found a recipe for strawberry and feta salad. I was so excited to get strawberries after all the rain in Wisconsin hurt the first harvest, but there was enough to give everyone a pint in their box this week. So when I discovered the recipe on Closet Cooking (which has a much better picture than I took), I knew this was it.

Can I just say yum?

The salad was so fresh and crisp and sweet and cheesy, while the tangy dressing added flavors of garlic, mustard, honey, balsamic and raspberry vinegar....This was a big winner, a perfect refreshing summer recipe, and I will definitely make it again.

For the main course, I decided to make the stuffed grape leaves recipe from the CSA newsletter. This was both fun and slightly problematic to make.

The fun part was stuffing and roling up the grape leaves. It was pretty simple. I dipped the leaves into boiling water for about 30 seconds and removed the stems. Then I laid the leaves shiny side down and placed about a tablespoon of the mixture (ground beef, rice, cinnamon, salt, and pepper) across the leaf and folded forward, right side, left side, and then rolled it up tight.

Then I mixed together chopped garlic, lemon juice, mint, and a cup of water and poured the mixture over the grape leaves, which I had put in a pot. Simmer for an hour, and that's it.

I was worried that the meat wouldn't cook well, but the real problem was the flavor. There was none. I had way too much meat left over (1/2 pound beef for eight grape leaves = way too much meat). It was nearly tasteless. But the grape leaves held up well, and I'd like to experiment with another recipe.

For dessert, I decided to make zucchini bread since I typically saute it with other veggies. I found a recipe on Smitten Kitchen, which features photos that make you want to reach inside the computer and stuff your face with them.

The delicious smell wafting out of my kitchen was the first sign that the bread would turn out well. In anticipation we walked up the block to Baskin Robbins and bought a pint of vanilla ice cream. This turned out to be a great call. The bread, with its slightly nutty taste from the addition of chopped walnuts, stood quite well on its own. But the warm bread soaked with the cold vanilla ice cream was phenomenal. We saved some ice cream for tonight, when we made the second loaf.

Luckily we still have another zucchini left.

Strawberry and Feta Salad (from Closet Cooking and Allrecipes.com)
1 clove garlic (grated)
1/2 teaspoon honey
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/2 tablespoon raspberry vinegar
1/2 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 serving romaine lettuce (cut into bite sized pieces)
1 handful strawberries (sliced)
1 handful feta cheese (crumbled)
1 handful slivered almonds (toasted)

Mix the garlic, honey, mustard, vinegar and oil.
Toss the lettuce, almonds, strawberries and almonds with the dressing to coat.

Stuffed Grape Leaves (from Home Grown Wisconsin)
8 fresh grape leaves – blanched – dip in boiling water for about 30 seconds
1/2 C. uncooked brown rice
2 Tbs. fresh or dried mint
1 Cup Water
1/2 pound ground lamb, beef or pork (we found this was way too much meat for 8 grape leaves)
Pinch of cinnamon, salt, pepper
2 garlic cloves
1 lemon

Mix meat with rice, salt, pepper and cinnamon.
Remove stem from grape leaf, spread leave on flat surface, shiny side down
Place about 1 teaspoon of meat mixture across the leafabout 1/2 inch from stem point.
Fold leaf forward toward stuffing.
Then fold right side over and roll leaf very tight. When fully rolled, squeeze it to secure. Repeat. Neatly place each stuffed roll in large pot in layers.
Pound garlic with mint and salt.
Add 1 cup water and juice from lemon andpour over grape leaves.
Cover and bring to a boil. Turn down to simmer, cover and cook slowly for 1 hour.
Steam until grape leaves are soft, but not falling apart.
Don’t over cook.

Zucchini Bread (from Smitten Kitchen)
Yield: 2 loaves or approximately 24 muffins
3 eggs
1 cup olive or vegetable oil
1 3/4 cups sugar
2 cups grated zucchini
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 cups all-purpose flour
3 teaspoons cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup chopped walnuts or pecans (optional)
1 cup dried cranberries, raisins or chocolate chips or a combination thereof (optional)

Friday, June 20, 2008

The New Frontier

Last night I ventured into uncharted territory. Dessert.

Until now, I've used my CSA ingredients in stews, salads, soups, side dishes, dressings, toppings, and snacks. But never dessert.

That is, until I got some rhubarb. At first I wasn't quite sure what to do with it. Of course, I had heard of rhubarb pie, but I didn't see myself making that.

Actually I couldn't understand how rhubarb - which looks like red celery - would transform into a dessert. It looks more like a vegetable that you would dip into hummus or salsa.

But a quick search on epicurious.com brought up mostly tart, pie, and compote recipes, often made with strawberries, which are also harvested this time of year (sadly though, the waterlogged strawberry crops mean much fewer, if any, pints in my box this summer, according to my CSA).

I settled on a rhubarb and strawberry compote with fresh mint spooned over vanilla ice cream.

After I stopped drooling, I chopped the rhubarb into 1/2 inch pieces, which went into a saucepan with 1/4 cup of water and 1 1/2 cups of sugar and simmered for 10 minutes. I either cut the rhubarb too big or should have simmered longer because the final outcome (stirred together with halved strawberries and mint and chilled for an hour before spooning over ice cream) was more crunchy than tender.

This was noted in the recipe - to cook until tender - but I was too busy preparing dinner to think about tasting it. This was shocking to realize, because I have a huge sweet tooth.

So next time, I'll be sure to make dessert separately.

Rhubarb and Strawberry Compote with Fresh Mint (from Bon Appetit, May 2008)

3 cups 1/2-inch-wide pieces fresh rhubarb (cut from about 1 pound)
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
1 1-pint container fresh strawberries, hulled, halved
2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint

Combine rhubarb, sugar, and 1/4 cup water in heavy large saucepan over medium heat. Bring to simmer, stirring occasionally, until sugar dissolves, about 3 minutes. Simmer gently until rhubarb is tender but not falling apart, stirring occasionally, about 7 minutes. Remove from heat. Stir in strawberries. Transfer to bowl and stir in mint. Chill until cold, about 1 hour.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Summer of Green(s)

I've jumped on the non-fossil fuel emitting bandwagon. I have always ridden a bicycle, but for the first time, I'm making a conscious effort to reduce my driving.

This, in part, came about because of my participation in a CSA. During the winter share, I realized I was buying less but driving more to the grocery store. Instead of my weekly run, where I'd buy food for the next several days, I would pick an ingredient or two from the box, find a recipe, and drive to the store to buy what was missing from my shelves -- a few times a week.

I felt like these extra trips defeated the purpose of community supported agriculture, which should cut down on greenhouse gas emissions through deliveries of locally grown food (I say "should" because of current research challenging the notion that eating local always leaves a smaller carbon footprint than eating food that comes from farther afield, depending on how food is packaged and transported, what type of food it is, and how it is grown).

I have since started going to the small Mexican grocery store around the corner more but still shop often at the nearest Jewel and Whole Foods, which are close but not walking distance.

With warmer weather (finally!) hitting Chicago, I decided to cut those short car trips out as much as possible. I took my rusty but trusty 12-year-old mountain bike to a bike shop and got a rack and two collapsable baskets installed on the back.

And just in time for the summer CSA, which started Wednesday!

Speaking of green, there is a lot of that in this share.

Fortunately, many of the Wisconsin farms that contribute to my CSA were not hit too hard by all the rain and flooding that is devastating parts of the Midwest. At least that's the preliminary report. In the first box, we got lettuce, spinach, asparagus, green garlic, mint, and chives (topped by purple flowers, who knew?).


While there are many greens, the share includes some brilliant colors - those purple flowers, bright red radishes (which tasted crispy and spicy in my salad last night), chewy white mushrooms, dark red stalks of rhubarb, and a jar of brown pear butter.


There is more urgency to eat this food. The shares are going to come hard and fast every other week, instead of once a month, and many of the greens spoil if not eaten in a few days to a week.

We've already made a small dent with a big salad last night and sliced mushrooms, radishes, hearts of palm, and goat cheese. The night before, Ryan tested one of the recipes included in the CSA newsletter.

Spring Linguine

1/2# asparagus – prepared and cut into 1 inch pieces
1/2 # mushrooms, sliced
2-3 stalks of green garlic, sliced
Handful of spinach
1 pd. Linguine pasta
Salt and pepper, chives, parmesan cheese (we subbed asiago cheese)

Boil water and cook pasta according to directions on package
Meanwhile, sauté garlic, asparagus, and mushrooms in olive oil, until slightly tender.
Turn off heat and add spinach – season with salt and pepper
Add drained linguine (hot)
Toss well
Top with chopped chives and shredded parmesan cheese

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Mexico: Las Preguntas y Las Respuestas

I haven't posted for awhile, but not because I abandoned this blog or my interest in community supported agriculture. My summer share starts in June, and I can't wait to start cooking up more fresh, local produce.

My hiatus came in part because Ryan and I took a wonderfully long and interesting vacation. In April we spent two weeks in Mexico, including 10 days in Chiapas and the rest in Mexico City. Chiapas borders Guatemala and is home to many ancient Mayan ruins and villages where indigenous cultures and languages still thrive today.

"You're going where?" was the first reaction of many friends and family when I shared our plans. "Is it safe?"

The short answer is yes. Many people may associate Chiapas with the Zapatista revolution that began in 1994, the largely non-violent movement for indigenous rights that continues to this day. There have been army crackdowns, but certain areas in Chiapas openly declare themselves autonomous of the Mexican government and under Zapatista rule via billboards along the roads. As tourists we felt no danger. While we drove past a few military bases and through a half dozen checkpoints manned by armed police, no one ever stopped or searched our car. To be honest I was way more nervous about driving than I was about encountering political violence!

Since I've gotten a lot of the same questions about the trip, I decided to post some of the most commonly asked Qs.

Q: Where did you go?
A: We flew into Mexico City and Tuxtla Gutierrez, and spent our first night in the mountain city of San Cristobal de las Casas. From there, we rented a car for six days with overnight stops in Ocosingo (pictured), Palenque, and Lacanja Chansayab for 2 nights before circling back for another night in Palenque and four more in San Cristobal. We spent our last four days in Mexico City.


Q: You drove? Are you crazy?
A: Yes and yes. It was terrifying at first. The roads are curvy and steep. They have two lanes, no shoulders, and loads of tour buses, combis, and smelly trucks. You didn't want to get stuck behind these trucks, but the only way around them was to pass in the oncoming lane. We soon got used to certain "rules" of the road. For example, if the car in front of you wanted to let you pass, the driver turned on the left turn signal, leaving you a few precious moments to zoom by before the next blind curve. Sometimes a car would pass a line of traffic so brazenly that my stomach would drop in anticipation of a spectacular crash with a car speeding from the other direction. This never actually happened, but we saw a few accidents after the fact.

Many villages also had several unmarked topes, or speed bumps, to slow down vehicles as they drove through the towns. Even though we almost bottomed out the car a few times, the topes seemed like a good idea to me. Men, women, children, dogs, chickens, roosters, cows, and goats all share the road, so the topes made it safer for them (one of my favorite scenes was driving past a dozen goats wearing face masks and marching single file down a road). Sometimes a group of villagers, usually children, would raise a rope across the road when they saw us coming. As we slowed down, the children would run to the car with bunches of bananas, boiled chestnuts, or other local treats, demanding a few pesos for them. The children were quite aggressive, and occasionally effective, with their sales tactics. They wouldn't take no for an answer.

Driving also gave us more flexibility and afforded us some interesting glimpses into village life. We saw women in embroidered blouses haul babies, lumber, food, and other goods in patterned slings; men wearing ranchero hats and clutching machetes disappear into dense forest; and uniformed school children playing with friends. There was never a dull view of the lush, green mountains, which often drifted in and out of cloud forests. Ryan might disagree but one of my favorite driving moments occurred when we tried to pop in a cd of Mexican guitar music from Palenque but found a disc already in there - of Madonna's greatest hits! (In fact, I know Ryan would disagree.)

Q: What did you see?
A: Trying to keep this short here, so I'll stick to a few highlights.

We visited several Mayan ruins in Chiapas, including Tonina, Bonampak, and Palenque, but I was most taken with the remote ruins of Yaxchilan (pictured). We had to hire a boat to take us up the Usumacinta River, which has crocodiles on one side and Guatemala on the other. We arrived to a rickety dock and hard-to-climb staircase that led up to the ticket office. The entrance was down a path and through a tunnel built hundreds of years ago in one of the ancient buildings. When we emerged from the otherside, we found a sprawling field with some of the tallest trees I have ever seen. To get to some of the temples, we hiked on paths through the jungle to the sounds of howler monkeys and singing birds. Definitely a lot of atmosphere! In Mexico City, we also visited the Aztec ruins of Tenochtitlan, which were only discovered in the middle of the city about 30 years ago. We also went to Teotihuacan, about an 1.5 hour busride outside of the city. No one really knows who lived there but they sure built some tall temples.

Chiapas has numerous indigenous villages where different languages are spoken, including Tzotzil, Tzeltal, and Chol, to name a few. Clothing is one of the features that distinguishes the different villages, as each place has its own distinct embroidery and clothing style. Lacanja Chansayab, for example, is home to some of the last 600 or so Lancandon Indians who wear long, loose tunics that look like nightgowns (pictured). This was a fascinating area to visit, as the Lacandon were virtually isolated from civilization until the middle of the last century. In recent decades the government has deforested about 80 percent of their land for cattle ranching and built paved roads that made their villages more accessible to the outside world. The campomento where we stayed was part of a growing eco-tourism movement in Chiapas. Adjoining the property was a nature walk with signage that pointed out the indigenous flora and fauna as well as a milpa, which was the traditional place where corn, beans, and squash were cultivated.

Animals are plentiful in Chiapas, and many can be found on or near the roads. On the way to Ocosingo, we stopped to find a bathroom. Ryan wandered off and returned about 20 minutes later to bring me back to the store he had found, through the owner's house (a big room with several family members gathered around), up a muddy path, past some chickens, to a cage. Inside the cage was a tejon, which is like a cross between an anteater and a raccoon, trying to claw his way out. When we went back through the house, they showed us shoebox with a few little baby tejons that were smaller than the palm of my hand! We also came across this rooster at Tonina. Can you guess who is imitating the rooster?



Q: Where did you stay?
A: We mostly stayed in budget friendly hotels, cabanas, and for one night only, a hilariously small tree house. In San Cristobal, we couldn't get enough of the Posada Morales, a lovely hotel set in a hillside full of exotic plants and flowers with bungalow-like rooms that overlooked the city.


Another beautiful spot was our cabana at the Campomento Rio Lacanja in Lacanja Chansayab. We'd lounge on the hammock on the porch that opened up to the pristine Rio Lacanja.


Q: What did you eat?
A: Lots of Mexican food - at restaurants, in hotels, at roadside establishments, from street vendors, on boats.... We ate quesadillas, tacos, enchiladas, or tostadas with meat, shredded lettuce, and tomato, and all came with beans and tortillas (pictured is a woman from Zinacanton making tortillas with a traditional wood press). One of my favorite dishes was Sopa Azteca, a spicy soup that includes avocado, cheese, and fried tortilla strips. I also became addicted to eating huevos a la mexicana (eggs with tomatoes, onions, and jalapeno peppers) for breakfast because the meal gave me the hours of energy I needed to walk up all those stairs at the ruins.

Our visits to the ruins included some interesting food-related experiences. While walking to Palenque, a young man asked us if we wanted champignones (mushrooms). We declined but noticed a few individuals who probably took him up on his offer. We practically ate a full meal at Tonina, where our guide pointed out several edible plants, such as chile peppers and coffee, growing amidst the ancient stone structures.

Speaking of coffee, we had high hopes for some good brew because Chiapas has numerous fincas (coffee plantations) and a growing Fair Trade movement. On our very first morning we stumbled down to the hotel restaurant and ordered cafe con leche, but what arrived was watery Nescafe. Except for a few specialty cafes in San Cristobal, it was Nescafe or nothing. We suspected that they don't drink their own coffee because it costs more to buy Fair Trade, but we don't know for sure. I never got used to it but our New Zealand friend Kiri dealt with the bad coffee by pretending it was herbal tea.

We met Kiri and and her husband, Guy, through the Lonely Planet message boards while trying to find a Passover seder in San Cristobal. They responded and we each arranged to bring certain items for the seder plate. We procured a shankbone in Palenque from a baffled but cooperative owner of a carniceria, and some speckled eggs and greens from a market in Ocosingo. Kiri and Guy made charoset and brought wasabi instead of maror and tortillas for matzo. It was an interesting and long night. Our seder lasted five hours, not because we got so caught up in the Hagaddah but our restaurant was out of some of the food we ordered, so they went to the store, fired up the stove, and finally brought out the food at about 11pm.

Q: Did you get sick?
A: Moctezuma was the Aztec ruler who welcomed the Spanish conqueror Hernan Cortes into the city of Tenochtitlan out of fear that he was an important god. This ultimately led to the ruler's demise, the downfall of the powerful Aztec empire, and the beginning of the Spanish conquest throughout the country.

So it's not surprising that Moctezuma's Revenge is the name given to that horribly unpleasant condition that sometimes afflicts travelers in Mexico.

The guidebooks all warn not to drink tap water, ice, produce, fruit, or street food. Except for tap water, I have to admit that we drank and ate everything from the start, and I felt perfectly fine throughout the trip. But on our last day we went to Xochimilco, the only remaining canals left from when Mexico City was a swampy lake hundreds of years ago. Here you can rent a boat and buy food, drinks, and a few songs from a mariachi band on the water. I suspect the squash blossom quesadilla led to my own downfall on our last night.

Q: Did you get engaged?
A: No, but on a visit to Zinacanton, a village outside of San Cristobal, we tried on the traditional wedding outfits, and one thing led to another and....


Just kidding!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Fish Out of Water

My winter CSA share ended in February, so I am biding my time until the summer share starts in June.

I would probably make the same thing over and over again if my boyfriend wasn't on such a fish kick.

Aside from tuna from the can, I have never gotten into fish. But omega 3s are all the rage and I am trying to be a more adventurous eater, so I've been giving it a try.

My boyfriend has been on a mission to find red bean ice cream after our last few sushi outings came up empty. The other night he went to an Asian supermarket and came back with something red alright (hint: it had a head).

It also looked a little too straight out of the water for my taste, but I swallowed and gamely looked for a recipe for red snapper.

I can't find the one we ultimately used at the moment, but it included lemon, lime, chopped garlic, salt, and pepper. It was so simple. We wrapped up the little guy (or girl?) in tin foil and baked at 350 for, well, I can't remember how long. But I'll look for the recipe and post when I find it.




Cute, huh?!

Despite starting out with a very fishy smell, the fish tasted good - very tender and with mild flavor, and some red bean ice cream to wash it all down.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Eating local

I ate a perfectly cooked chicken last night.

The meat was white and juicy and so tender that it practically melted away as I sliced through with a knife. Big props go to my boyfriend, who cooked the chicken with radishes and small potatoes from my stash. He also sauteed spinach with garlic, creating a deliciously wholesome but simple meal.

While he was slaving away in the kitchen, I called a friend who moved to Singapore last summer using Skype, the free Internet phone service. It was my first Skype experience, and it blew my mind.

Here I was talking to my friend who is thousands of miles away for free. And I could see her! She had a video camera and showed me the view from their apartment.

It was 14 hours ahead, so while we were cooking dinner, she was (I assume) done with breakfast. It was already tomorrow there. It was like I could see into the future!

Anyways.

When they moved to Singapore, they started (and inspired me to start) a blog about their culinary adventures. Their blog is aptly named after durian, a famously odorous fruit found in Southeast Asia that, according to them, tastes like "hot garbage." Check out their blog for more impressions and insights about life and food in Singapore. I miss you guys!

As I chowed down on my very American meal of chicken, potatoes, and spinach last night, I realized how my foray into exploring new food and recipes does not compare in the slightest to what they are learning and tasting.

While I always recognized that a big part of moving or traveling to a new country means trying different foods, I now see how doing that follows one of the basic principles of CSAs - eating local.

But I think I'm relieved glad that there's no risk of durian showing up in my next CSA box.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

A rare event

Did anyone see the lunar eclipse the other night?

We had clear skies in Chicago when a dark, cloudy layer started to creep over the moon. As I drove to a restaurant, I saw lots of people on the streets craning their necks to get a look. It was a rare event that won't happen again until 2010.

The eclipse occurred the night after I returned from a long weekend ski trip with some of my closest girlfriends. When we first started going on the trip 7 years ago, we all lived in Chicago. Slowly through the years, almost everyone has left except one friend, who is moving overseas this summer. The weekend definitely took on a new meaning this year since we don't get to see each other very often.

But this was our fifth trip together, and we have established certain traditions over the years - many that involve food.

We are pretty healthy eaters, but we always go crazy on the junk food. It might have something to do with the altitude or the fact that we burn through so much energy on the mountain (or most likely that we give ourselves permission to live it up during this trip), but we typically stop at a gas station near the airport and load up on bags of chips and other crap for the two-hour drive. After a day on the slopes, it's all about beer and cheesy nachos (this year, we added a car bomb shot and two slices of pizza with a beer for $5 to the mix, but that's another story).

Every morning we eat a huge breakfast to fuel up for a day on the mountain. This is one of my favorite parts of the trip. We mix up to three cereals with fruit, toast bagels, hard boil eggs, and drink oj and coffee. This year one of my friends made a tofu scramble with some veggie sausage. While I love breakfast and know how important it is not to miss, I typically don't eat more than a banana and have a cup of coffee, so I savor these meals.

We also started a non-politically correct tradition that we like to call White Trash Dinner. It involves a crusty mac and cheese casserole made with Velveeta and our own version of pigs in a blanket (tofu pups wrapped in crescent rolls). My friend closely guards the casserole recipe, but the tofu pups are easy to make and served with bbq sauce and mustard dips.




The best part about these big meals is sitting around the table and catching up with each other. Since we don't all live in the same city anymore, its during these moments that we truly reconnect.

It's sad that this trip has become that rare event for us to see each other, but I feel confident that we will reunite before the next lunar eclipse!

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Spicing it up

Over the past few weeks, we've had a major weather event almost every day here in Chicago - from sub-zero temps to 50 degrees and back again to crazy wind, a thunderstorm that turned into sleet and snow, to blizzard conditions. My office, along with many others in and around the city, even closed early today.

It has reached that depressing point in winter where we've been through a lot but there is so much more to go.

That's sort of how I feel about those potatoes in my cupboard. I've been through so many of them but there are so many more still left.

Okay, I promised myself no more posts about potatoes.

But it raises a reality of subscribing to a CSA. You get what you get. It's winter, so I got a lot of root vegetables. I have to admit that it got a little old after awhile. The more stews and soups that I made with the same ingredients, the less interested I got. Unfortunately my list of rotting food is a little longer than usual this month.

A few weeks ago I took a cooking class with my boyfriend. We made some great dishes, including a moroccan chickpea stew over quinoa. What I liked about it is that the recipe calls for some items from my CSA (carrots and onions) but also for spices that I don't typically use, like cinnamon, turmeric, and cayenne.

After the class I paid a visit to The Spice House, a local store that sells spices from all over the world in bulk. This place is great. You can smell and taste any spice, and buy amounts as small as a 1-ounce sample, if you want to try one out without commiting to a whole jar. It's an inexpensive way to experiment with different flavors (thanks, Klein, for the suggestion!).

I made the stew tonight. It's hard to tell in the photo, but it's resting on a delicious mound of quinoa, which just might be the new couscous for me. The colors and the new flavors even helped lift me out of the winter doldrums.


Moroccan Chickpea Stew [from Rice and Spice by Robin Robertson]

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1 zucchini, diced (I subbed broccoli, which soaked up the flavor really well)
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
1 16-ounce can diced tomatoes
2 cups vegetable stock or water
Salt, to taste
1/2 cup dried apricots
1/4 cup raisins
Zest of 1 lemon
2 1/2 cups cooked or canned chickpeas, rinsed if canned
2 tablespoons minced fresh cilantro or parsley
6 cups hot cooked couscous or rice (or quinoa)

Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat until hot. Add the onion and carrot and cook, covered, for 5 minutes, or until softened. Add the zucchini, garlic, cinnamon, turmeric, salt, cayenne, tomatoes, stock or water, and salt to taste. Reduce the heat to low, and simmer for 25 minutes.

Meanwhile, soak the apricots in hot water for 20 minutes, then drain and finely chop. Add the apricots, raisins, lemon zest, and chickpeas to the vegetable mixture and cook 5 minutes longer, or until hot and the flavors are blended. Stir in the cilantro or parsley and serve over couscous or rice (or quinoa).

Serves 4-6.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Puzzled No More

My devoted readers (all three of you!) may remember my post about Thanksgiving and pumpkin pie and a reference to a puzzle that my boyfriend and I have been working on at his sister's house.

A 3,000-piece puzzle that we've been working on for over a year.

While I spent countless hours hovered over the puzzle, I probably placed less than 100 pieces. It was incredibly difficult as many of the pieces not only looked the same, but some had the same shapes. In fact the last two pieces didn't fit because the two right pieces were in the wrong place! Luckily my boyfriend's sister was a whiz at finding the wrong pieces.

Anyways, we finally finished it the other night.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Starch City

I love french fries. Nothing says brunch more than an omelet with some hash browns. I'll eat potatoes mashed, sweet, roasted, or baked. Au gratin, boiled, seasoned, or in chips. You name it.

But I am maxed out. Despite weeks of making them, my cupboard overfloweth with potatoes.

On Thursday, I received my third and final winter share. It came with tons of potatoes: Austrian crescent fingerling potatoes, red and yellow flesh potatoes, and a mixed fingerling potato medley (which included Austrian crescent, baby blue, red thumb, AND Russian banana fingerling potatoes).

That's in addition to the potatoes that I still have left over from last month (sweet potatoes, and more red, white, and purple ones).

Potatoes are highly nutritious and tasty, but that doesn't mean I want to eat them every day. But I think I will have to if I hope to clear out my pantry by summer.

So if you have any good potato recipes, please, please, please send them my way.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Dueling Pizzas

My boss gave me a recipe for pizza dough, so I thought I'd try it out.

In anticipation I invited a friend over for dinner.

Since the dough takes several hours to rise, chill, and then thaw, I wanted to do part of this ahead of time. My first attempt failed miserably. The dough never rose.

After consulting with my boss and my mom (who makes bread all the time), they advised me to put the dough in a warmer place. The next night I mixed everything up and put the batch on top of my radiator for a few hours. It seemed to do the trick, but unsure of how it should look and might taste, I asked my friend to buy some back up dough at the store.

When she arrived, we decided to make both pizzas because we were hungry and we wanted to see how they would compare to each other.

As we heated up her pizza stone in the oven, we sauted sweet potatoes and onions, spread them over the homemade crust, and covered with rosemary, sage, garlic, crushed red pepper, and mozzarella and parmesan cheese.

Since the stone was so hot, it only took about 12 minutes before it was done. Here's how it turned out. Free to sing along or hit mute.



As the homemade crust cooked, we prepared the store bought dough with the same ingredients, plus a few heads of broccoli left over from some pre-dinner snacking.

Oddly it took on the shape of the state of Massachusetts (without Cape Cod).


Ten minutes later, we were ready for the taste test.

The homemade pizza looked the part. Imperfectly round, the pizza looked straight out of a wood-burning oven set in snow covered mountains.

The pizza had lots of flavor, especially garlic and cheese. In fact, I think we over-cheesed. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing. The crust, made with whole wheat flour, was chewy with a hint of honey. The taste was natural and unprocessed.

Aside from its likeness to the Commonwealth, the store bought pizza had a more polished, professional look. The dough was like a fluffy pillow with a sweet taste.

The flavor in the rest of the pizza was more subtle. The ingredients seemed more evenly distributed with fewer concentrations of garlic and crushed red pepper flakes.

To sum up, they were both winners.

And so were we, since we got to eat them.

Pizza Dough [from my boss]

Put 1/2 cup warm water, 1 tablespoon honey, and 1 teaspoon yeast into a small bowl or cup and mix. Let sit for approximately 10 minutes.

In a separate bigger bowl, add:
1 1/2 cups flour
1 1/2 teaspoon coarse (kosher) salt
1 1/2 tablespoon olive oil

Pour yeasty water into mix, knead with hands or mixer, cover, and let rise for 1/2 hour or longer. Refrigerate dough, still covered, for about 2 hours

An hour before you're ready to eat, remove dough and let stand in room temp for about 1 hour
It is ready to be flattened, topped, cooked (at 450-degree oven) and eaten.

*Potato, Sage, and Rosemary Pizza [from epicurious.com]

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
12 ounces unpeeled small Yukon Gold potatoes, sliced into very thin rounds
1 (13.8-ounce) tube refrigerated pizza dough (or homemade)
2 teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary
2 teaspoons chopped fresh sage
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1/4 teaspoon dried crushed red pepper
1 cup (packed) grated whole-milk mozzarella cheese (about 4 ounces)
1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 400°F. Heat oil in heavy large skillet over medium heat. Add potato slices in single layer. Sauté until just tender, about 5 minutes. Cool briefly. Unroll dough on rimmed baking sheet. Scatter potato slices over dough, leaving 3/4-inch plain border. Sprinkle with rosemary, sage, garlic, and crushed red pepper. Sprinkle with cheeses to cover. Bake pizza until crust is crisp and cheeses melt, about 20 minutes. Using metal spatula, loosen crust from sheet. Slide out onto platter or board and serve.

*Variations: We preheated oven to 450 degrees for almost an hour with the pizza stone inside. It was so hot the pizzas cooked in 10-12 minutes. We also subbed sweet potatoes for the Yukons and added onions and broccoli.

Monday, January 14, 2008

The Price of Sugar

The other night I saw a disturbing documentary called The Price of Sugar.

The film examined human rights violations of Haitian immigrants at a sugar cane plantation in the Dominican Republic and followed a Catholic priest's quest to improve their lives. It described how sugar companies smuggle Haitians across the border, strip them of identification papers, and essentially turn them into slaves. Literally they live in deplorable conditions under armed guard and barbed wire. With no papers, they can't leave without facing arrest. Without proper food and healthcare, many live, work, and die on the plantations.

In addition to addressing several issues related to immigration and Dominican nationalism, the movie points out, without going into enough detail, that the United States has lucrative trade agreements with the sugar companies.

Since I joined a CSA, I've been thinking about food differently. For the most part I am more conscious of where the food comes from and how far it travels to get to me. I'm trying to buy and eat more food that was grown in an environmentally friendly way.

But there are only so many kinds of crops grown in the midwest or in this country, for that matter. This film reminds us that some of our favorite foods, like sugar and coffee, are grown elsewhere in the world and often have a human cost.

One way for American consumers can strike back at these sugar companies is to buy fair trade items. I admit that I have never felt that compelled to do so. It always seemed like this abstract concept. But after seeing this movie the last thing I want is for these sugar companies to profit off of me.

I won't pretend to cut sugar from my diet. I love ice cream too much. But greater awareness can go a long way at the grocery store when I am making decisions about what to buy.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

All I need is patience

Risotto takes patience.

You need to add broth, let the rice absorb the liquid, and repeat several times until the rice is tender. This requires much standing by the stove and vigilant stirring (note cool action shot below!).


We made pumpkin walnut risotto last night while listening to the New Hampshire primary coverage on the radio, with frequent runs into another room to check the online results.

After we combined ingredients and began to stir, it became increasingly clear that the candidate we both support was not going to win, despite several polls which had predicted the contrary (hint: his initials are B.O.).

We both thought his nomination was inevitable, but now we have a race that may not be decided for weeks.

On one hand, this is good because it gives more voters the chance to have a say. On the other hand, this makes me anxious. Like many Americans (and most of us who live on this planet) I am hopeful and excited that we're about to replace a terrible president, but I also worry about the potential outcomes of this election.

Like in cooking, where the slightest recipe variation can affect the taste of the entire dish, the vaguest shift of perception can change minds and votes (okay, that's not the greatest analogy but work with me, people). Sometimes the resulting flavor is a happy surprise. But sometimes you wish you never substituted this ingredient for that one. You wish you could take it back.

I just hope our country doesn't feel that way when the campaign is over.

I can't wait to find out.

Pumpkin Walnut Risotto [from the 12/19 issue of the Chicago Sun-Times]

(Speaking of recipe variations, I should note that we didn't make the walnut paste, but instead added those ingredients after sauteing the onions and pumpkin. We also added a 15-ounce can of tomatoes instead of a 10-ounce can. My boyfriend thought the risotto tasted like spagettios. That may have been why.)


MAKES 4 SERVINGS
½ cup walnuts
1/3 cup packed fresh parsley, chopped
2 cloves garlic
7 tablespoons olive oil, divided
Pinch salt
1 cup onions, chopped
½ cup canned pumpkin or 1 cup pumpkin flesh, chopped
1 (10-ounce) can peeled plum tomatoes, chopped
Salt and pepper, to taste
1½ cups long grain rice
4½ cups hot chicken broth
freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Process walnuts, parsley and garlic to a paste. Add 4 tablespoons olive oil, a tablespoon at a time. Add a pinch of salt; reserve.

Heat remaining olive oil in a large heavy pan; fry onion until lightly colored. Add pumpkin; continue to saute about 4 minutes. Mix in walnut paste. Add tomatoes; mix well and simmer until thickened. Season with salt and pepper. Add rice; stir-fry for a few minutes. Add hot broth in stages, stirring to use up all the broth. Allow rice to almost dry out before each addition.
Risotto is ready when it is no longer watery and rice is tender while retaining a very slight firmness in the center of each grain. It takes 20 to 30 minutes. Mix in half the Parmesan; sprinkle the remaining half on top.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Smells like...

I wasn't sure what to expect when parsnips showed up in my December delivery. Honestly I couldn't recall ever eating one.

But they looked like white carrots, so how bad could they be?

I diligently searched for recipes and found an interesting one called Parsnip Potato Curry. But it called for lots of spices that I don't have, and while this would have been a good excuse to round out my spice rack, I've been less than motivated to make potatoes lately.

So with those parsnips guilt tripping me everytime I opened my refrigerator, I finally did something about them tonight.

I found an easy recipe called Parsnip Puree that called for parsnips (check), butter (check), chicken broth (check), and sea salt and pepper (check and check).

I peeled and cut them into 1/2 inch pieces.


That's when I first noticed the smell. It was hard to place, so I proceeded to boil them for about 35 minutes until tender.

Then I scooped about half the parsnips into the blender, added some butter and chicken stock, and pressed the puree button.

The stuff on the bottom moved but the 'nips on top hadn't budged. I opened the blender to mix them up a bit.

That's when the smell of vomit hit me.

But something about the butter and chicken stock neutralized the odor enough for me to press on. I also opened a window and turned on the fan.

By the time I finished, I had a mashed potato-like mixture that actually looked like vomit.


While it still kinda smells, I am taking little bites as I write this post and wishing I tried that other recipe instead. But alas, I used them all up tonight.

I don't want to be a hater, but I hope no parsnips show up in my January delivery.

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