Thursday, May 30, 2013

No Green Thumb

Here is a confession: I may be a great cook, but I am a terrible gardener. You'd think the two would go hand in hand, but they don't. I've done in a lot of plants over the years, both indoors and out. In addition to my lack of natural ability, I'm also cursed with a shady backyard and bad soil.

The only plants that thrive in my garden survive in spite of me. Mint is basically a weed, and it shows up every spring, keeping us supplied for minty water, mojitos and iced tea all summer long. An oregano plant that was gifted to me resurfaces every year after I stuck it in the ground. In fact, it appears to be more healthy than ever, and this year I've already cut a huge amount of oregano to dry.

In an optimistic mood last summer, I bought a rosemary plant, and I managed to remember to water it occasionally. In the fall, I brought it inside and it survived the winter. This experiment has emboldened me to experiment further with planting herbs in containers. Recently I hauled out all of the pots I could find in the garage (from previous failed attempts to grow something green), and purchased seedlings of some of my most used herbs.

For about $70, I walked out of the garden store with 13 plants: three basils, three chives, two cilantros, two parsleys, lemon verbena, lavender, and thyme. And the soil to stick them in. And a bit of organic food. The plants were in the pots and watered in under an hour, and I am happy to say so far they are thriving.

I've already found myself out there snipping a few leaves for almost every meal--a chiffonade of basil to finish a pasta dish, chives for a soup, and parsley for a pâté. If I can manage to make these plants last, I will make back my money in no time. 

Herbs are integral to all of my cooking, but there are a few dishes that make them shine. I've written about my favorite chimichurri sauce, and I'm waiting patiently for a bumper crop of basil to make and freeze pesto. Another herb based favorite in this house is compound butter, which is a mixture of softened butter, herbs, and seasoning. Compound butter is a finisher, meaning you add it to your dish just before serving, ideally when the item getting the butter is still warm.

Compound butter isn't complicated to make, but don't let its simplicity fool you. It can be a game changer when it comes to mealtime, and once you start using it, it's hard to stop. In my house, we've been known to put it on every single component of a meal. Steak, fish, any cooked vegetables, and grilled bread are just some of the many foods that benefit from herbed butter. And with my new garden at hand, I expect to be eating a lot more compound butter this summer.

Compound Butter

4 oz. butter, softened
2 T. chopped herbs
salt and pepper to taste

Mix ingredients together. Do not refrigerate before using.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

"I'm Hungry...."

Are snacks the bane of your existence? If you have a child aged 2-18, the answer may be yes. Snacks to bring to school, snacks after school, snacks on the way to an activity, snacks when their friends are over, snacks before bed. Some days it feels like all occasions demand a little morsel to eat.

These small meals often need to be quick and portable, and must be "not boring." And, as if those criteria weren't enough of a challenge, you might also want them to to be healthy. I think any snack that's a fruit, veggie, or whole grain should be in the plus column, so I do make the effort to keep the pantry stocked with some quick options: applesauce packs, yogurt, dried fruit, sunflower seeds, fruit leather, crackers and cheese. Grapes, apples, and bananas are fairly portable. If I'm on top of things, I've got cut carrots, celery or cucumbers ready to go, frozen fruit that can be smoothie-fied, and granola for a parfait.

But then there are the hall of fame snacks. These are the ones that are healthy, quick, cheap, homemade, and no one seems to tire of them (at least not yet). If I have ingredients for these three snacks on hand, I know I am home free when faced with the inevitable requests for "just a little something to eat."

It's taken me a while to find out what many foodies already knew: you can make your own microwave popcorn. Using an old school brown paper lunch bag, you can create the most airy and delicious popcorn in the microwave in minutes. There's really no recipe. Just place a quarter cup of popcorn kernels in the bag, fold the top a few times, and microwave until done, about two minutes (time will vary depending on your microwave). Then remove the bag, keep it shut, and melt a 1/2 T. of butter or olive oil in the microwave in a separate bowl. Pour over the popcorn, sprinkle in a little bit of kosher salt or grated parmesan cheese and shake. 

Salsa Fresca
Putting out a bowl of salsa with chips on the table often redirects the inevitable "can I have a snack?" request before it's even asked. Salsa is one of those foods (like salad dressing or marinara sauce) that is best made from scratch, not only in terms of taste but cost. Obviously making fresh salsa using summer tomatoes is best, but there are seem to be more hydroponic options in the stores year round that aren't bad.

3-4 tomatoes, chopped
3 scallions, chopped fine
1/4-1/2 c. cilantro, chopped fine
Juice of one lime
Salt and pepper to taste

Mix all ingredients in a bowl. Taste and adjust seasonings. Best eaten within a few hours.

Beloved Crunchy Kale 
Crunchy kale is an apparently magical concoction, compelling even the most suspicious eater to succumb to its power. My son calls it his "beloved" kale. At a class I taught recently, a mother watched in utter disbelief as her son stuffed handful after handful of kale chips into his mouth, leaving little green bits stuck to his hands, shirt and teeth. But as he was eating his veggies with relish, we forgave him his manners. 

1 bunch lacinato kale
3 T. canola oil
1 T. apple cider vinegar
Kosher salt to taste

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F. 

Destem the kale pieces by taking the bottom of the stem in one hand and, starting at the bottom of the leaf, slide the other hand along the leaf to remove both sides of the leaf. If the top of the leaf is still connected, separate them. 

Place parchment on two baking sheets and lay the leaves side by side. They can be close but not touching. Pour oil and vinegar into a bowl. Using a pastry brush, lightly paint both sides of each leaf with the oil/vinegar. Sprinkle with salt.

Bake for 16-20 minutes, until crispy, rotating pans if needed to ensure even cooking. Taste and sprinkle on additional salt if needed while still warm. Crunchy kale will keep in an air tight container for 2-3 days. You can recrisp the kale in a 250 degree oven or a toaster if needed. 

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Cooking really does matter

When I was in cooking school, I had the good fortune of volunteering to assist a class through Cooking Matters, which is a program of the national anti-hunger organization Share Our Strength. Cooking Matters teaches cooking to low-income families, relying on an amazing (and amazingly small) group of paid staff along with volunteer chefs and nutritionists. I am about to complete my fifth tour with Cooking Matters as a chef instructor, and I've taught adults and kids in schools, Head Start programs, and health centers.

Cooking Matters classes have the twin goals of encouraging participants to cook more at home and make healthier eating choices. Each class has a hands-on cooking approach combined with nutrition information, and with adults we meet one week at a grocery store to learn about smarter food shopping. 

It doesn't seem possible, but you can be hungry and obese in our country, thanks to our twisted food system that offers up a dizzying array of fattening food on the cheap. If you only have a dollar to spend on lunch, where else can you best feel full than off the McDonald's dollar menu? Cooking Matters smartly recognizes that hunger and health can be tackled together with home cooking. Every class recipe costs no more than $1.40 per serving and increases exposure to whole grains, more veggies, and lean meats.

Cooking from scratch at home is practically a political act, and is certainly is a dying art. Food writer Michael Pollan's new book Cooked posits that the best thing we can do for your health and the health of the planet is to get back to cooking at home. But home cooking does more, by addressing hunger as well.

Hunger is an all too common problem in this country, and plenty of people with homes and jobs don't know where their next meal is coming from. A new documentary, called A Place At The Table, explores the shocking facts about hunger in our country. What's even more shocking is that, given the fact that there are millions of hungry children in America, some lawmakers are proposing to cut food stamps this year, despite the power of the program to ameliorate childhood hunger and poverty.

Every time I teach for Cooking Matters, I am blown away by the participants' enthusiasm for cooking, even when they must feed their families on an incredibly tight budget. One of my favorite items to teach in Cooking Matters class is a frittata. It's delicious, inexpensive, and a great way to use leftover ingredients. It can even be made ahead--in class, we often cook individual frittatas in muffin tins to show that they can be reheated in seconds for a fast breakfast. If there's even a small amount of smoked meat, skeptical kids suddenly seem interested. My most recent frittata at home included spinach, onion, smoked turkey and cheddar, all items threatening to go bad in the fridge. Yum.

Anytime Frittata

Serves 4.

8 eggs
2 T. light cream or milk

1/2 t. salt, or to taste
1 grind of black pepper, or to taste
2-3 T. olive oil

2 c. chopped veggies (red pepper, corn, spinach, broccoli, zucchini, mushroom, onion, scallions)
1/4 c. diced ham, turkey, turkey bacon, or bacon
1/2 c. shredded sharp cheese (cheddar, fontina, feta)

In a bowl, beat together eggs, cream, salt and pepper. Set aside.

In a large oven proof skillet, heat 1 T. oil on medium high heat. Add raw veggies and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Remove from pan.

Add another 1-2 T. oil to the pan and heat on medium high heat. Swirl around the pan to coat the sides. Add egg mixture to the pan. Sprinkle meat, vegetables, and cheese around the eggs. Cook on the stove top until bottom is set but top is still runny, about 5 minutes.

Heat broiler. Remove pan from the stovetop and place under the broiler. Cook frittata until eggs are set and top is slightly browned, about 5-7 minutes.