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

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

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.

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.


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