Goodbye Winter!

A frigid razor wind cuts through Chicago, but it can’t fool me. I know Spring’s on its way. See:

tiny buds

Most importantly, the time will soon arrive when farmer’s markets bustle with overflowing fruit and vegetables. I ache for the juicy cherries of summer, the vine ripened peaches, the watermelons. Has it been so long since watermelon season? I have forgotten what it’s like to feel the soft give of watermelon pulp as my teeth sink in for a bite. Unlike many people who shop at major grocery chains, I make a conscious effort to eat by season whenever possible. This means that I avoid most summer fruits and veg in the winter and vice versa. My winters consist of a whole lot of cabbage and starches, and not a whole lot of citrus or berries. I love cabbage. I’m a cabbage fiend, but it’s gotten a little out of hand recently. I’m totally ready for crisp salads, packing up simple sandwiches for picnics and fruit fruit fruit!

As a farewell, I would like to post two very simple winter meals that I consumed for a good portion of the season. I know it’s a bit strange to post winter recipes as spring lies ahead, but I wanted to say goodbye to my dear old friends. So, here is my goodbye letter to the winter foodstuffs:

Dear Butternut Squash, zucchini, red cabbage, broccoli and potatoes, et al.,

I love you guys! The carbs! The sugars! The abundance of nutrients! Thank you so much for keeping me company on blustery cold nights. I know we might not be seeing so much of each other over the summer, but I wanted you to know, my feelings haven’t changed. I know you will be there for me in full force starting next Autumn. So let’s keep in touch.

Love & Jellybeans,
N.

Butternut squash with olive oil and cinnamon, broccoli and brown rice

Red Cabbage and Potatoes

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Killer Tofu

I have a confession to make. For a good solid three years, I was vegan. I am not ashamed of my previous food choices and in fact, I continue to primarily eat vegan/vegetarian meals and I love it! Before you angrily close your browser in disgust, I hope you consider the abundance of foods available to veggie lovers. Contrary to the opinion that vegheads are self important, food nazis who can’t enjoy the simple pleasures of eating, or that they must be anorexic, or have severely traumatic relationships with food, the world of vegetarianism can be full of excitement and wonder. If your diet only consists of meat and dairy products, that doesn’t sound like a whole lot of pleasure or fun to me. I truly became a foodie when I entered into the world of fresh ingredients and vegetable bliss.

Part of my initiation into vegetarianism involved learning to cook with tofu. Prior to high school, my only other experience with tofu was a song from the Nickelodeon cartoon “Doug” sung by the fictional band, “The Beets,” it went like this: “OOooooeeeeeoooooOO, Killer tofu!” And I remember singing that at the top of my lungs with my sister and brothers, sometime in the early ’90s. Tofu was funny, strange and certainly exotic. I have to admit I feared it. I first tried making a stir fry with the vacuum packed, silken tofu and the jello-like blob that slurped out of the box completely disintegrated into a soupy mess in the pan. I invested in a tofu cook book and tried my hand at tofu “meat” loaf, barbecue tofu, and even tofu puddings. Some recipes failed miserably and I was left with slop, but for the successes I felt a sense of real pride. Tackling tofu takes patience and the ability to think outside of the box. It’s a fantastic food for creative, artsy types.

Tofu is not as frightening as you may think. The lack of flavor means that the squishy stuff will absorb surrounding flavors and does a great job of soaking up sauces and marinades. You can bake it for a chewy texture or steam it for a soft, pudding-like texture, you can make it for breakfast, dinner, lunch and dessert. It’s just as good as an egg, and you don’t have to worry about salmonella or cholesterol. Tofu is still my go-to when I want a quick protein boost. You can add it to smoothies, combine it with favorites like peanut butter and hummus, or eat it simply as the Japanese do: cold, garnished with only green onions and soy sauce. If you’re not ready for the traditional preparations, you may be overjoyed to learn that tofu can replace many common recipes.

I bring to you my favorite killer tofu recipe, scramble.

looks like eggs, but...

Here’s my recipe for basic tofu scramble:
1 block extra firm tofu
1Tbsp olive oil
1tsp black pepper
1tsp rubbed sage
2tsp oregano
1Tbsp turmeric
2 cloves garlic, minced
salt to taste

Drain the tofu (make sure this is not the vacuum packed, shelf stable tofu. Buy fresh tofu, packed in water, usually found near the produce isle). Squeeze out excess moisture from the block of tofu and crumble to medium curds.
In a pan on medium-high heat, heat the olive oil. Add garlic and cook for about a minute before adding tofu. Cook tofu for three to five minutes to heat through. Add remaining ingredients. The turmeric will give your tofu a golden color akin to the color of egg yolks.
The mixture only needs to be cooked until hot.
I love adding sauteed vegetables or greens to this basic recipe. The sky’s the limit with possibilities. So get out there and try it for yourself!

Tofu scramble with swiss chard and asparagus *heaven*


I Got the Blues

Not really. I just love blueberries! Tiny, sweet little beads of joy. And the color. Oh, the color. Readers, as you follow me along here in my humble kitchen, you may learn a few things about my general state of being. For starters, I am prone to laziness. I love all things culinary and crafty, but I’m no Martha Stewart. I do not have the time to make souffles while knitting a sweater and making precious crepe paper invites to my monthly tea party. No, sometimes I slap a frozen pizza in the oven and call it a done deal. On bad days, I may even resort to ramen. I know all about Escoffier, James Beard, Alice Waters. I can drop names like hotcakes. I’ve done my homework. But I live in the real world and I have a real job and I get tired after working all day. I arrive home around 8:30pm most nights, so I don’t always have the energy to whip up something from scratch.

The other night, I wanted a decadent treat on a dime. Enter pound cake. What I love about pound cake bought from the store is that it literally lasts forever. I know, I know, that’s because it’s laden with all kinds of gnarly preservatives, right? Well, anyway I had some laying around in the cupboard, on hand for unexpected dessert moments. I’m going to go ahead and use my Jacques Pepin card to fluff up my cred. I love Jacques Pepin. I used to curl up in front on the tv on Sunday mornings and watch him on PBS. I learned how to dice an onion, cut avocados, and the proper way to crack an egg, all while enjoying Pepin’s delightfully cute French accent. I have been watching a lot of Jacques Pepin’s “Fast Food My Way,” recently, and he makes such simple, elegant desserts with only pound cake, fruit and chocolate. So, I’m taking the lazy train to dessertville here, but at least I’m in good company.

Blueberry sauce on the stove, bubbling away

First, I start with a bag of frozen organic blueberries. I, like most people, can’t generally afford to buy everything organic, but berries have some of the highest rates of pesticides. Blueberries also have incredibly high amounts of good ol’ antioxidants (which all fruits and veg contain, but some more than others). I’m using frozen berries simply because in my neck of the woods they are cheaper than fresh, obviously last longer, and come in handy for spur-of-the-moment pies, muffins, pancakes…etc. I also love me some blueberry smoothies!

I don’t like to measure ingredients if I can get away with it. In this case I dumped what was left of half a bag of bluebs into the pot with a tsp of cornstarch to help thicken the syrup and a couple of Tbsp of sugar. You can add a bit of water or juice to keep the berries from scorching. Turn the heat to medium and stir, coating the bluebs in the starch and sugar until they begin to sweat and finally to burst open and pour out their delicious, ambrosia-like juice. Keep a close eye on it and let it cook to your desired consistency. To thicken nicely, it only takes about five to ten minutes.

Once done, pour over the sliced pound cake and Voila! A decadent, gourmet dessert on the fly. A spoonful of whipped cream would doll it up nicely, if you want to get fancy. Happy eating!

So simple and unassuming.


On Beets

Scrub a beet.

The deep vermilion will color the white bristles of your vegetable brush. Scrub off the thin layer of earth, only later to find that its soil has penetrated the deepest parts of the flesh. Place the beet in a small pot of salted water to boil. The water will bubble and the beet will slowly bleed into the pot until it becomes like a single beating heart, thrusting against the rising currents.
The beet is the most human of vegetables.

A metaphor.
As it softens, it releases the lifeblood. Pierce it with a fork and watch the juice bleed like a wounded soldier, or a knifed assassin, a melodramatic scorned lover of Shakespearian proportion. The dramatic effect diminishes when baked or sauteed.
A freshly boiled beet, drained of its crimson liquid and placed steaming on a wooden cutting board is a thing of beauty.
Step away from it for a moment. Watch the steam rise and think of your own beating organ. Think of the shape, the heat of your own machinery. Palm the newly heated beet and feel the heaviness, swollen with hot water and now fleshy. Marvel over the sudden metamorphosis from hard knotted fist, to soft, delicate, meat.

The knife will cut through with very little resistance. Split at the center, the beet astounds with its presentation of the color red. Only blood has this depth in its hue, this power, this overwhelming sensuality. The center of the beet pulses red, a velvet crimson. If you touch your finger to the hot middle, it will come away with a drip of dark pink. The beet is never a solid color, it gradiates from almost black to a white-pink, like a dappled rose. The center of the beet swirls around, a picture of chaos, mismatched on the inside.

The steam arising from the root smells of that same earth rinsed off before cooking. Like something from deep inside the ground. And the beet is a root, the lifeblood of the plant. It holds the nutrients for the plant’s continued survival. An unlikely piece of artwork.  The plant itself, floppy leaves, an unassuming green color, muted red veins and stems, not much different from a lettuce. Only through digging under the layers of soot, can we recover the beet from its cloistered hermitage.

For the longest time, I despised beets. My mother slopped them on the plate, dumped out from a can and heated in a bowl in the microwave, with a bit of melted butter. She thought they were healthy.  I thought they tasted like dirt, feet, mildew. It was only after years of refining my palate to enjoy earthy flavors like quinoa, brown rice, and greens that I could appreciate the succulence of the beet. I learned that with a bit of balsamic vinegar, a pinch of sea salt, a sprinkling of dill, a beet on its own becomes a thing of wonder.

A boiled beet, sliced and presented on a bed of dark greens, paper thin slices of red onion and almonds, can outdo any filet mignon. The texture is beyond delicate.  A boiled beet, dressed in fresh basil and olive oil can stand alone as a meal. I have had them baked with garlic and topped with broccoli sprouts, pickled and served with potatoes, eaten alone fresh from the pot in all their earthy glory.
The beet is a miracle of a vegetable, lowly yet satisfying and so very poetic.