Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Turning Leftovers Into a Comfort Dish

‘Tis the season for cooking, eating large, and holiday parties. We went through 10 pounds of potatoes this past weekend for Hanukah latkes, (my favorite recipe is Joan Nathan’s crispy potato pancake). The eaters of all ages declared them delicious, but still, I felt like I was bathed in oil by the end of the frying session. So when Sunday dinner rolled around, I was looking for an antidote to the latke, something quick and slightly more healthy.

Enter ribollita, a hearty Italian vegetable soup eaten over torn pieces of stale bread. I find ribollita incredibly satisfying in the colder months, and a fantastic way to both eat your vegetables and clean out the bits of leftovers in the fridge. I treat it more like a concept than a recipe, and it tastes different every time. You can use more or less of your favorite veggies, or replace the veggies with something you like more (or happen to have on hand). Red wine, beef broth, and more tomatoes makes for a heartier soup, while white wine and chicken broth makes for lighter fare. This last time I made it, I didn’t have fennel but I had leftover chicken meat in the fridge, which I added with great results. Ribollita is a blank canvas, so paint away.

My Ribollita
Serves 4 (with some leftover for one or two lunches)

4 slices of bacon or pancetta, sliced into ½ inch pieces
3 carrots, peeled
3 celery stalks
1-2 onions
2 cloves garlic
½ head cabbage (or 1 bunch kale or Swiss chard)
1 potato (optional)
1 fennel bulb (optional)
3-4 cups broth (chicken or beef)
1/2-1 cup wine (red or white)
1 14.5 oz. can diced tomatoes (or fire roasted)
1 14.5 oz. can cannellini beans
1 cup cut up chicken (very optional)
2 t. oregano
1 bay leaf
1 sprig rosemary
4 thick slices of good bread
salt and pepper to taste
Finishers: balsamic dressing, olive oil, and/or parmesan

Using a large soup pot or Dutch oven, cook bacon on medium heat until browned, 5-6 minutes. While bacon is cooking, cut carrots, celery, onion cabbage and optional vegetables into bite sized pieces. When bacon is browned, add all vegetables and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Mince garlic and add it to the pot, cooking and stirring one minute more.

Add broth, wine, tomatoes and spices to the pot. If the vegetables are not covered by liquid, add more broth/wine until they are covered. Cover pot and simmer gently until veggies are cooked through but not mushy, about 30 minutes. Add beans and cook a few minutes more. Taste for salt and pepper and add to taste. At this point the soup can be held until it is time to eat.

Toast bread until golden but not browned. Rip one piece of toast into each bowl, then ladle soup on top of the bread. Finish with grated parmesan, a splash of balsamic and extra virgin olive oil. Eat immediately!

Friday, November 9, 2012

A Reflective Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is just around the corner, and I for one am excited. Many holidays and celebrations have special foods attached to them, but Thanksgiving is a holiday about food. About the harvest specifically, and taking the time to appreciate what our farmers grow for us (or we grow ourselves). And everyone has their recipes they love, handed down from relatives and friends. So I’m not going to share my favorite Thanksgiving recipes (although I do make the best cranberry sauce), since chances are you won’t use them anyway.

But I will say this. Somewhere along the way, this holiday has transformed into a holiday of excess of calories and dishes, and that troubles me. In some ways, this display of conspicuous consumption goes hand in hand with a general trend our society, which is that amidst a shocking amount of food waste there are still hungry families in the country. Think about this: the average American wastes well over 200 pounds of food each year, even though more than 17 million American households struggle to feed themselves. Translation: one in five children in the US today struggle with hunger. And those kids are hungry even though about 40 percent of food produced in the US today does not get eaten.

There are things we can all do on both sides of this equation. We can donate food to the Arlington Food Pantry, and support organizations like Lovin’ Spoonfuls and Share Our Strength. We can applaud and ensure the government’s continuing role in providing programs like Food Stamps and school meal programs, which puts food directly on the plate of hungry people facing challenging economic times.

We can also do our part to reduce our own food waste. We can cook at home more, eat or freeze leftovers, order less at restaurants, and not be tempted to buy those five heads of pre-packaged lettuce at Costco just because they are inexpensive (but eventually two will end up in the trash). Freeze ripe fruit for smoothies. Turn stale bread into breadcrumbs. Use chicken bones to make soup.

And for Thanksgiving, we can prepare a beautiful meal with the spirit of celebration in mind, rather than opulence, and be thankful for what is on the table.

Happy Harvest.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Apples = Fall In New England

The fall is always a busy time for me, most especially because it’s an intense time for local food. The Massachusetts harvest is in full swing, and I have been feeling the pressure to pick, freeze and can as much local produce as possible before the frost sets in. I have a special shout out for this year’s raspberries. I am sheepish to admit that this is the first year I made my way to the Wright Locke Farm, just over the Arlington line in Winchester, to pick their amazing raspberries. My jam was so yummy I returned for a second day of picking.

But what is New England without apples? While I remember picking apples in Wisconsin as a kid, I connect apples with this part of the country. And not just because Johnny Appleseed was born in Leominster (check out the fascinating profile of the hard cider-making apple profligator in Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire). The apple orchard defines the New England landscape. For a few years I've gone to Westward Orchards in Harvard, and picked from their selection of McIntosh, Cortlands, Empires and Macouns.

It's almost impossible to pick too many apples, since they last a long time in a cool dark place. In my house, though, a half-bushel disappears in a matter of weeks. If we aren't eating them straight up in lunches, we are baking them one way or another. This year my children took charge, and each developed their own apple recipe. They are simple, but simple is best when it comes to working with fresh local produce picked at the height of the season. Both apple dishes were so yummy, we ate everything before I had a chance to snap a photo.

Perfectly Appl-y Applesauce
cooked by my son, adapted from our friend Gus

About 12 apples, preferably more than one variety
2-3 T. Brown sugar
1/2 to 1 t. Cinnamon
1/2 t. Kosher salt

Peel apples if desired, then core and slice apples into about 10 slices. While you are working, place the apples already sliced into a bowl of water with half of a lemon in it to keep apples from browning.
Drain applies and add to a saucepan.

Cook on low heat until softened, about 20 minutes. If the apples appear dry after 10 minutes or so, add about a 1/4 cup of water. Once soft, gently mash the apples with a fork or potato masher. It's okay to leave a few chunks. Add 2 tablespoons of brown sugar, 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon and the salt. Taste, and add more sugar or cinnamon if desired. Best served warm.

This sauce will keep in the refrigerator for two weeks or in the freezer for 6 months.

Apple Crisp 
Serves 8, cooked by my daughter

About 8 apples
1 stick (8 T.) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 c. brown sugar
2/3 c. flour
2 c. rolled oats
1/2 t. Kosher salt

Butter 8 6 oz. ramekins (or to kick up the adorable factor, use 8 oz. wide mouth mason jars, or an 8 x 8 pan). Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

In a bowl, measure the butter, sugar, flour, oats, and salt. Using your hand (or a spoon if you don't like getting your hands dirty), cream ingredients together until the dry ingredients are coated by the butter.
Peel and core the apples. Cut apples into thick slices, then cut the slices into 3 bite size chunks. While you are working, place the apples already sliced into a bowl of water with half of a lemon in it to keep apples from browning.

Drain the apples, and divide among the ramekins. Place the crumble on top of each. Don’t worry if they are a bit full because the apples shrink during cooking.

Place ramekins on a sheet pan and bake until apples are soft and bubbly, about 30 minutes. Serve warm with whipped cream or ice cream (or both, as we did).

Monday, August 20, 2012

In The Can

I am devoting my blog space this week to celebrating the time tested process of preserving foods at home.

More than ever many of us are concerned about where our food comes from and what is in it, so it's no surprise that canning is making a comeback. Canning means having more control over what we eat, and using food when it tastes best, is the least expensive, and is grown locally. Plus you use a simple, chemical-free preservation process. And really, there's nothing like opening a jar of summery tasting preserves in the middle of winter.

I started canning only a few years ago, when a friend and I took a class at the Waltham Fields Community Farm. I know some folks are squeamish about canning for fears that it is either too much work or not safe, but neither are true. In terms of safety, all that is needed is a plenty of boiling water and some care. The Ball Jar website is invaluable for tips on safety, process and equipment.

In terms of cost and time, for about $50 and five hours work, I churned out twenty 1/2 pint jars of delicious peach butter (a cross between a spread and a jam) from peaches I bought at the Arlington Farmer's Market. So I have a yummy peach spread for my toast all winter, plus several holiday gifts to boot.

You can get easily overwhelmed by the available canning equipment. But you don't need them all to be successful. For peach butter, I used three pots: a big one (a 12 quart with the strainer insert) to sterilize jars and create the vacuum seal, a medium one (6 quart) to cook the jam, and a smaller one to skin the peaches. For any canning project, I use a magnetic stick to pick up the flat lids once they are washed and keep them clean, a grabber to move the cans in and out of boiling water without boiling your fingers, and a wide mouth funnel to get the food in the jars. All of these can be found in the canning section of any hardware store or here. So give it a try!

Peach Butter
adapted from Smitten Kitchen, makes about 12 1/2 pint jars

10 pounds peaches
3 c. granulated sugar
The juice from 3 lemons
1 t. salt

Start the largest pot of water to boil with empty glass jars and bands in it. Bring it to a boil, then turn off and let the jars and rings sit. In a bowl of hot (not boiling) soapy water, wash new lids.

At the same time, fill a smaller pot with water and bring to a boil. Set up a bowl with ice water and the jam cooking pot nearby. Use a sharp knife to score the bottom of each peach with an x. When the water is boiling, drop in peaches. After about 1 minute, you will see the skin start to peel away from the fruit. Remove the peaches and place in the ice water bath. When the peaches are cool enough to handle (about 30 seconds), the skin should peel right off. Cut the peaches in 4 pieces directly into the cooking pot. Repeat the process as needed until all peaches are skinned and cut.

Add sugar, lemon juice and salt to the pot of peaches and bring to a simmer. Allow to cook about 40 minutes at a simmer, or until the peaches are soft. Remove from the heat and, using an immersion blender, puree the peaches until smooth (this is optional but worth the effort). Return to the heat and cook at a simmer until thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, about 20 minutes. While cooking a second time, keep a spoon and bowl nearby and skim off any froth/scum that rises to the surface.

When the butter is getting close to being done, remove the glass jars and bands (with tongs or the grabber) from the warm water and place on a clean towel nearby. Rinse the soapy water off the lids and, using the magnetic stick, place them on the clean towel. Bring the large pot of water back to the boil.

When the butter is done, ladle it into the jars, leaving a 1/2 inch of space at the top. Wipe the rims and put lids and rings onto the jars. Place jars back into the boiling water, making sure they are fully submerged, and boil for 10 minutes. Remove from the water and place on a clean towel. You should hear the lids form the vacuum seal quickly. Allow jars to sit undisturbed several hours, until cool.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Where The Buffalo Roam

I recently returned from a family trip to South Dakota, which was wondrous on many levels. We saw vast stretches of prairie and grasslands, witnessed colossal thunderstorms and wildfires, and mingled with antelope, prairie dogs, and grazing cattle. As for the food, we definitely were in the heartland. We ate every possible meat and potato combination, and my children discovered the joy of deep fried cheese curds and fry bread tacos. In fact, the word "fried" describes a large portion of the food we consumed.

But the big revelation for me was bison (commonly called buffalo, but bison is the more precise term). I've eaten bison before, but it is prevalent on menus in that part of the country. I had bison burgers, chili, and tacos, and all were delicious.

The population of bison in the U.S. has gone from near extinction at the end of the 19th century to estimates of 450,000 today, and there are now over 4,000 bison ranchers. Even "farmed" bison are always "free range," left to wander and graze on grass. They consume less food and use less space than cattle do, and therefore have a smaller environmental "footprint." Rising bison numbers means an increased need for grasslands, and some bison ranchers consider grassland preservation to be a twin goal to expanding the bison population. The state and federal governments are also encouraging bison farming, at least in the plains states. Bison are allowed to graze on the Buffalo Gap National Grassland, and I witnessed several groups of bison at Custer State Park, a 71,000 acre South Dakota preserve that is home to more than one thousand of these wandering, gentle animals.

Not only is a rise in the bison population good for the environment, bison meat is lower in calories, fat and cholesterol than beef. And bison can even be a local food choice, with bison farms in nearby Connecticut and Maine offering direct shipping of bison. I also found bison (from South Dakota) at The Meat House in Arlington Heights. Bison meat will cost you, to be sure, but like all other meats, I try to use it sparingly in order to be able to buy quality.

I went with a flank steak, which is a lean cut of beef and even leaner if you are working with bison. The key is a long marinade and a quick cook. Cook straight from the fridge, rather than bring the meat to room temperature before cooking, and that helps prevent overcooking. For a quick weeknight meal, marinate the steak the night before and serve with a chimmichurri sauce, a tangy Argentinian accompaniment for grilled meat.

Grilled Bison Flank Steak with Chimmichurri

For the marinade:

1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
1 bison flank steak, 1 to 1 1/2 pounds

Place meat and marinade in a sealed container or bag. Marinate in the fridge for a minimum of one hour, or up to overnight.

Remove from the fridge just before grilling. Shake off excess marinade and grill on direct heat for 3 minutes on a side, until nicely charred, and then move to indirect heat until just pink in the center, or until the meat registers 145 degrees F. Let the meat rest a few minutes before slicing.

Chimmichurri Sauce

1 cup packed cilantro leaves and stems
1 cup packed flat parsley leaves
6 T. extra virgin olive oil
2 T. red wine vinegar
1-2 garlic cloves
A pinch of red pepper flakes or Aleppo pepper
Salt and pepper to taste

While meat is marinating, put chimmichurri ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth. Taste and adjust for seasonings. Spoon over sliced meat.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Veggies, Veggies Everywhere

The season of fresh and vibrant local produce is upon us, and I have been digging through my recipe files to remember all the ways I love to eat the summer’s bounty. I especially love dishes that don’t involve too much stove or oven time, and I favor treatments that are delicious without needing to be exact about ingredients or measurements. These are some of my favorite summer “recipes,” but feel free to treat them as guidelines and get creative!

Beet salad

Trim ends off of beets and place in pan with enough cold water to cover the beets. Bring to a hard simmer and cook, covered, until beets are tender, about one hour (this is one exception to the “don’t use the stove too much” rule, but worth it). When a fork easily slides into and out of the beet, they are done. Rinse under cool water, rub skin off, and cut into cubes.

At this point, the beets are ready for anything. My favorite way to serve them is to add crumbled goat cheese and toasted walnuts. Splash on some white wine vinegar and olive oil. Add fresh basil if you have some around. Salt and pepper to taste.

Ribboned zucchini

There are a million different ways to use zucchini and other summer squashes. They are fantastic in bread, on the grill, as a fritter, or in lasagna. A lightning fast no-cook option is this:

Using a vegetable peeler, slice long thin ribbons of zucchini. Place in a bowl and toss with lemon juice, olive oil and salt. Arrange on a plate and, using the peeler again, shave slices of cheese on top. Serve immediately. Use a dry aged cheese like Parmigiano Reggiano or Robusto (an aged Dutch cheese) for best results.

Cucumber avocado soup

Okay, I know avocados aren’t local, but they are essential in my house. I could eat this soup every day in the summer and be a happy camper. The lime keeps the pureed avocados green, so you can make a big batch a day or two ahead.

2 ripe avocados
1 cucumber, peeled and cut into rough chunks
juice of two limes
3/4 c. chicken broth
1 T. sour cream
1 small handful of fresh cilantro leaves and stems
salt and pepper to taste
Place all ingredients in a blender and puree until smooth. Serve garnished with sour cream and cilantro.

Slaw of any kind

There is infinite variety available in the cole slaw category. Cabbage is usually the base, but even within the cabbage family there are options: napa, purple, bok choy. For dressings, you can start with buttermilk, oil, or mayonnaise. Slaw is very forgiving for substitutions and lazy measurements, and each one I make is different. Lately I’ve been focused on Asian flavors. Here’s what I did recently.

For the veggies:
1/2 head green cabbage, thinly sliced
2 carrots, shredded
1/2 cucumber, thinly sliced
1 mango, diced (optional, but delicious if you can find it)
1 bunch scallions, thinly sliced
1 handful fresh cilantro, roughly chopped

For the dressing:
1/3 c. rice vinegar
2-3 T. grated fresh ginger (use a microplane here if you have one)
3 T. sesame oil
3 T. canola oil
salt and pepper to taste
Mix veggies in one bowl, and whisk the dressing in another. About 15 minutes to one hour before serving, dress the veggies.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Liquid Summer Necessities

Summer’s arrival last week was timed perfectly with the heat and energy-sucking humidity. In this weather, I don’t feel like turning on the oven; in fact, I’m convinced my appetite actually decreases. Which is saying a lot for me. But my interest in cold and fruity drinks, alcoholic or otherwise, is definitely on the rise.

Two events have positively affected my beverage life lately. The first is the arrival of strawberry season in Massachusetts. Recently I picked over ten pounds of gorgeous strawberries at Verrill Farm in Concord, and I hope to get back for more before the brief season is over. The second is the arrival of a new cookbook called The Homemade Pantry, 101 Foods You Can Stop Buying and Start Making. It’s an inspiring reference book for making everything from cheese to bread to ketchup.

While leafing through The Homemade Pantry (in an effort to avoid cleaning and hulling the aforementioned pounds of berries), I came across a recipe for berry syrup. Bingo! A path to use lots of berries before they spoil, and to enjoy that unique local berry flavor past the season. Add some of this rosy syrup to seltzer, and you have a great homemade soda. Pour the syrup over French toast, and you will start to wonder why you ever needed maple syrup. And it’s an excellent mixer for cocktails—so far I’ve had it mixed with gin and basil, and limoncello and mint (recipe below), both with excellent results.

Another necessity for summer drinks is simple syrup, which really is simple. It’s a mixture of sugar and water that’s quickly cooked to dissolve the sugar, and therefore is a perfect sweetener for cold drinks that doesn’t have a gritty texture. My son likes to squeeze lemons and mix the juice with a splash of simple syrup to make tart lemonade. And it’s perfect in iced coffee.

One of my favorite hot weather wines is a vinho verde, a dry "green" wine from Portugal that’s slightly bubbly and best served cold. I found three choices recently at Menotomy Beer and Wine, and one of the best aspects of vinho verde is the price — I have yet to find a bottle for more than $9.

With so many choices for staying hydrated, I'm ready for a long, hot summer.

Strawberry Limoncello Crush
makes 1 6 oz. drink

2 oz. limoncello
3 T. strawberry syrup (recipe follows)
4 mint leaves
lime wedge

Place syrup, limoncello, mint and lime wedge in a glass. Muddle with a spoon (or muddler if you have one). Add ice and top with seltzer.

Strawberry Syrup
adapted from The Homemade Pantry

2 pounds strawberries, cleaned and stems removed
4 cups water
juice of 2 lemons
½ cup sugar
pinch of salt

Place strawberries and water in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, lower to a simmer, and cook until the strawberries are soft, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and blend the mixture until smooth (using an immersion blender or, alternately, by placing the liquid in a stand blender and, after letting cool a bit, pulsing until smooth). Using a fine mesh strainer, strain the syrup into a clean pot. Add lemon juice, sugar, and salt. Bring back to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer until the syrup is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Taste for sugar and add more if needed. Allow to cool.
Keep refrigerated (will last about 2 weeks; can also be frozen).

Simple Syrup

Mix 2 cups sugar and 2 cups water in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, and boil for 2 minutes. Allow to cool. Keep refrigerated (will last indefinitely).

Monday, May 14, 2012

Party Dishing

For anyone connected to any level of primary school, mid-May is about the time that the long parade of end-of-the-year events kicks in. Lunches, potlucks and celebrations abound, and most of them require a food contribution. Even if you aren’t on a school schedule, the warmer days mean block parties and BBQs. There’s a sense of waking up from some kind of social hibernation, even with a mild winter like ours.

So for the past few weeks I have found myself frequently in need of a dish to bring somewhere. Maybe you do too? Here’s what I’ve been bringing lately

Savory Tart

If you keep puff pastry in your freezer, making a fast savory tart is simple, and always big on the “ooh, aah” factor. Puff pastry isn’t scary. Really. Here’s what to do:

  • Defrost it in the fridge overnight
  • Roll it out to the desired size (depending on your serving dish)
  • Dock it (which means poke a lot of holes in it with a fork to inhibit the rising)
  • Bake for 10-15 minutes at 400 degrees until lightly browned
  • Add toppings, return to the oven and bake until bubbly, another 10-15 minutes.

You can get your toppings ready while the pastry is in the first bake. My most recent creation involved carmelized onions, shaved asparagus, and manchego, but the sky’s the limit. Olives, feta and basil? Chives, smoked salmon and mascarpone? Let what’s in your fridge or pantry dictate.

Wilted Spinach Salad

I love making this “salad” where the spinach gets partially cooked. Baby spinach is best here, since you don’t have to do much cleaning or trimming, but it’s good to take off the large stems. As an aside, the best way to clean gritty greens is to let them soak for about 10 minutes in a large amount of cold water. The water loosens the grit and it falls to the bottom of the bowl. Lift the greens out, leaving the water and grit behind, and dry in a towel or spinner.

6 oz baby spinach
1/3 cup pine nuts
1/3 cup golden raisins
4 T. olive oil
1 1/2 T. balsamic vinegar
½ t. salt and a few grinds of black pepper to taste

Check spinach for big stems and grit; clean if necessary. Put spinach in your serving bowl, pour balsamic vinegar on top and combine.

Put olive oil, nuts, raisins, salt and pepper into a pan. Gently heat until the nuts are toasted and the raisins plump up, about 5 minutes. Turn off the heat and immediately pour oil mixture over the spinach. Toss to ensure the hot oil is distributed. Taste and adjust seasonings. Best served within one hour.


Dips are always easy party food. I have a few recipes that involve pantry items, so that I can usually scare one up without a trip to the store. Tapenade, which is a Mediterranean olive relish typically made with anchovies and capers, is very adaptable. This version, made with dried figs, comes from my mother.

1 cup pitted kalamata olives
1 cup dried figs (about 6 extra large Turkish figs)
1 clove garlic
2 T. red wine vinegar
2 T. extra virgin olive oil
black pepper to taste
optional: ¼ cup fresh herbs, like parsley or oregano, and 1 T. fresh rosemary
Cut figs in half and put in the food processor. Process until the pieces are small. Add the remaining ingredients and pulse until the tapenade is finely chunked but not yet a smooth paste. Taste and adjust seasonings.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

My “I don’t have to eat mass produced energy bars anymore” Granola Bars

I try to deny it, but I am often faced with the reality that every one in my family needs food that can be consumed on the run. Kids must bring a snack every day to school (usually eaten at warp speed on the playground). Most afterschool activities, whether cultural or athletic, occur between 3 and 7 pm; without an afternoon snack on hand, kids come home gnawing on their water bottles. And sometimes I just find myself inconveniently stuck in the car, famished.

Given that portable snacks are an inevitable modern necessity, energy bars have crept into my house. There’s a wall of them at every grocery store, and my house has settled on one brand that provides a quick calorie fix, but is lacking in flavor. After choking down one of these nameless bars a few weeks ago, I became determined to make a bar made from scratch that was comparable in terms of fat and sugar but tasted better.

I started with this chewy granola bar recipe, since they are whole grain and can be flexible in terms of ingredients. The first attempt was tasty: I included almonds, coconut, dried cranberries and chocolate chips. But how do they stack up in terms of the numbers? I made a comparison of the sugar and fat content of my bars with the nutrition label on the name brand energy bar. My first round was admittedly higher in fat and sugar (I have to point out that even at their sugariest, my bars still have far less sugar than flavored milks).

For my next attempts, I (sadly) lost the coconut and nixed the nuts (making them school-friendly). I replaced some of the honey with light corn syrup, and swapped the butter for canola oil. I settled on chocolate chips and dried cherries, and voila! The end result has only one more gram of sugar and two more grams of fat than the store bought comparison bar. They are nut free and, if you find the right oats, gluten free. These bars take 5 minutes to mix, 30 minutes to bake, and cost far less than $1 a piece (the price for many energy bars). But best of all, my bars have something those manufactured energy bars can’t have: flavor and texture. Lots of it. That’s worth the extra two grams of fat to me.

Don’t like cherries? Try another dried fruit. Don’t like chocolate chips? Skip them (then put that yummy coconut back in). If nuts are not an issue, by all means replace the chocolate chips with them. But give these a try. They make for some truly enjoyable snacking.

My Granola Bars

1 2/3 cups old-fashioned rolled oats

1/3 cup oat flour (can use rolled oats ground in a blender or food processor)

1/4 cup brown sugar

1/2 t. salt

1/2 cup unsweetened cherries, roughly chopped

1/2 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

5 T. canola oil

3 T. water

4 T. light corn syrup

2 T. honey

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Line an 8x8 inch baking pan with parchment paper (Spray the pan lightly with cooking spray, lay down one sheet in one direction, spray again, and lay down a second sheet cross ways. Spray the top sheet lightly with cooking spray).

Mix oats, oat flour, brown sugar, salt, cherries, and chocolate chips in one bowl. Whisk together canola oil, water, corn syrup and honey in another bowl. Pour wet ingredients over dry ingredients. Stir until all dry ingredients are moistened.

Scrape batter into the prepared pan, pressing down on the batter to spread it to the edges. Bake 30-40 minutes until browned.

Cool thoroughly, at least one hour. Remove the bars from the pan using the parchment paper as a “sling.” Cut into 12 pieces (a serrated knife helps here, and if they aren’t cooled thoroughly they can crumble). Store individually wrapped or in an airtight container. They can also be frozen. They keep four days (although they haven’t lasted that long at my house).

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Cutting Off the Flow

Recently the USDA passed new regulations concerning the school food programs, based on the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010. While the regulations are not perfect (they still allow pizza to count as a vegetable, for example), their passage is mostly good news for getting healthier lunches at school made with ingredients sourced nearby when possible.  

Reading about the new regulations got me thinking. About milk. About flavored milk specifically. And about the Arlington Schools, where my two kids attend. I love my kids’ schools. The teachers and staff are fantastic, and my kids have thrived. But I’m going to come out and say it: our public schools should not be serving chocolate milk every day. Or strawberry milk. One 8 ounce serving of those chocolate babies has 25 grams of sugar. And the kids who eat breakfast at school can get a double dose every day. 

Massachusetts has passed new nutrition standards that will require schools to phase out most flavored milk anyway by 2013. So why wait? Even though Arlington may have a low rate of obesity among its kids compared to the rest of Massachusetts, 10% of Arlington kids are still overweight. We can do better.

Some critics, namely from the dairy industry, say kids need their calcium and if chocolate milk is the only way to get it, then so be it. But I’m not sure milk is the holy grail of nutrition. In fact for millennia humans consumed animal milk products only in soured form; the idea of drinking non-soured milk has developed only since the mid-1800s and was fueled by the discovery of pasteurization. These new non-soured products with higher levels of lactose highlighted that many humans are in fact lactose intolerant, something the dairy industry glosses over as it tries to sell milk as nature’s perfect food (for a fascinating read on the history of milk consumption check out Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages). The bottom line is that are plenty of alternative edible vehicles for calcium and protein, like veggies, grains, nuts and seeds, and soured milk products like cheese and yogurt.

I don’t think kids should never drink chocolate milk. They just shouldn’t have the opportunity to drink it every day at school. We have become an eating culture where eating in restaurants and 800 calorie beverages have become daily occurrences. The school that ban cupcakes on birthdays but still serves flavored milk every day has it backwards. We need to treat treats as treats, not as daily expectations. Schools can help reinforce that message right now.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Facing The Kitchen Demons

I have had my share of kitchen disasters. I’ve cut my fingers and burnt pans so badly I threw them out. I’ve overcooked and undercooked food. I’ve left out key ingredients, made bread that doesn’t rise, polenta with lumps, and puddings that puddle. I once gave my secret banana bread recipe to a friend and mistakenly wrote 3/4 cup of baking soda instead of 3/4 teaspoon (I choose to think that the resulting volcano of batter was actually her disaster, not mine). A week ago I had a glass dish explode in the oven. That was a first for me.

My mom is my biggest culinary inspiration. She was among the first women to graduate from the Culinary Institute of America, and the first woman to grace the kitchen at New York’s La Grenouille. But even she had her days. At La Grenouille, where I’m sure she wasn’t feeling any pressure to perform, she was in charge of soufflés. At some point in her tenure, her soufflés stopped working. She still served them, but they weren’t what they were supposed to be. For about a week, she had a black soufflé cloud over her head. And just like that, it cleared up. She never figured out the problem, but at least the owner didn’t have to come make the soufflés for her (as he supposedly did once for a previous chef).

I find my mom’s tenacity comforting, especially when faced with my own challenges. The bane of my existence in cooking school was pie crust, or pâte brisée in French (which means “short pastry”). Good crust should be simultaneously flaky and tender, and achieving that balance frightens many a cook. Culinary school students learn to make a crust by hand using only flour, salt, butter, and ice water. Sounds simple enough, but mine never quite turned out. Some were so tough I couldn’t cut them, and some fell apart. I panicked, I practiced, I obsessed. Going into my final exam, I had myself all frothed up that I was going to pull a pâte brisée to bake. But I didn’t. And then I graduated.

I really want to make my crusts just like centuries of pastry makers have done, but I have finally found the key for me is using my stand mixer. That, and including an ingredient like sour cream or egg yolks that has enough fat to coat the gluten in the flour and ensure tenderness.

My favorite pâte brisée recipe these days come from Flour, a stellar baking cookbook. This recipe works every time, and it’s so versatile I put sweet and savory fillings in it. Often it's the basis for a quiche, a great vehicle for a pantry meal. This week's quiche had frozen spinach plus some leftover goat cheese and pesto. Fast and yummy.

So I finally feel that I have conquered the crust, but I am sure other culinary catastrophes await me. I say, bring them on.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Winter Farmers Markets

Yes, we are having some crazy warm days for January. But it’s always at this time of year when I start to feel a little “food envious” of those in more temperate climates who enjoy year-round local produce. Unless we have spent a large portion of the summer months stocking the pantry and freezer, we in Massachusetts are not able to live 100% locally all year and still enjoy variety in our diet. But things are getting a bit easier with the proliferation of winter farmers markets. A few years ago farmers markets didn’t go past November — this year there are 30 winter markets operating around the commonwealth. Arlington doesn’t have its own winter outlet, but there are several choices nearby. 

The Cambridge winter market boasts a large number of vendors and live music. Somerville has a market in an old Armory building on Highland Avenue, and Woburn has its winter farmers market at Spence Farm. Several communities house their winter markets in local garden centers (a creative repurposing of space in the fallow months): Russell’s Garden Center in Wayland has been hosting a winter market for a few years and Mahoney’s in Winchester is starting up a winter market on January 14.

I went to Wayland this past weekend in search of ingredients to make a big pot of some kind of stew, and I found them. Carrots, potatoes, onions, apples, hearty greens, and root vegetables were plentiful. I splurged on some locally raised beef short ribs, and found a mix of organic salad greens. I decided to turn my ingredients into a pasta sauce when I found fresh spinach tagliatelle. But for the meat, the cost was comparable to shopping at the grocery store for similar items. 

A number of vendors are offering ready-to-eat products, like granola, baked goods, jams, but the longest lines by far at Wayland were at the fresh produce stands. It’s clear that we Northeasterners are craving our veggies. Almost all of the winter markets are open for business on the weekends. The vendors are different at each market and in some cases vary weekly. Check Mass Farmers Markets for specifics, and get out there and hunt for some local goodies!

My Winter Market Ragu

3 lbs bone-in beef short ribs, trimmed of excess fat
2 28 oz. cans diced tomatoes, plus more if needed
½ bottle red wine of your choosing
1 onion, peeled and cut in half
2-3 cloves garlic, peeled
2 lbs carrots, cut into 1 inch pieces
2 lbs potatoes, cut into one inch pieces
2 bay leaves
salt and pepper to taste

In a heavy pot (like a Dutch oven), over medium-high heat, brown the short ribs on all sides. Remove ribs. Drain off excess fat, and add onion and garlic to the pan. Stir onion and garlic until they begin to brown, then add wine to the pan to deglaze. Add tomatoes, and return the ribs to the pan. If the ribs are not fully covered by liquid, add more tomatoes and/or wine. Add bay leaves, and bring the liquid to a simmer. 

Cover the liquid directly with parchment, and put the lid on the pot. Braise ribs for a minimum of two hours until meat is tender and falling off the bone (disclosure—I left them braising for six hours while accomplishing a number of post-holiday errands, and they only got better). 

Remove ribs from the pan, and bring the liquid to a boil. Add carrots and potatoes, leaving the pot uncovered. Cook vegetables until tender, about 30-40 minutes. At the same time, the liquid will be reducing until thick. If the liquid reduces enough before vegetables are done, put the lid on to finish the vegetables.

While the vegetables are cooking, take rib meat off the bones and shred with your hands. When vegetables are done, return the meat to the pot, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve over your choice of pasta.