Links I Love

I bet you think this post is going to be about sausage, don’t you?
Well, you’re wrong.
(It’s true that I’ve been eating sausage ever since I moved to Chicago and my husband arrived home from nine weeks in Germany, where sausage is a religious experience, but I try to lean toward a veggie-centered lifestyle.)

I’ve decided to take some time to post about my favorite food videos and blogs, partly because I don’t have any recipes or photos to post this week and partly because I know that I’m always interested in finding new cooking shows and blogs to view, so I thought I’d share my faves.

Let’s start with the obvious. I view Foodgawker and Tastespotting daily. I’ve been unsuccessful in publishing with them, but they are such great resources for recipes, and lovely, lovely food photos. Ever since Gourmet magazine went under in 2009, I’ve turned to Bon Appetit as my premier professional resource. My number two is Saveur even though I honestly don’t really like the design of their webpage.

I recently fell in love with The Perennial Plate, a foodblog/online documentary about sustainable eating. The videos are succinct and beautifully shot.

The Perennial Plate Episode 91: Southern Table from Daniel Klein on Vimeo.

I found “Working Class Foodies” videos through a random Youtube search and I immediately spent an afternoon watching all of the available videos. Great photography and affordable, healthy recipes, make this a great show for low income foodies.

Cooking with Dog has been a favorite of mine for a few years now. Authentic Japanese dishes narrated by a fluffy grey poodle. The videos are informative and adorable.

I was vegan in my early twenties, and I still eat vegan on a regular basis, so I can appreciate a little humor when it comes to the veggie lifestyle. Vegan Black Metal Chef is a hilarious series of meat-free recipes prepared in a very hardcore manner.

CHOW.com’s Channel on Youtube is another fantastic resource of how-to videos that I turn to for expert advice and cooking tips. One of my favorite vids is Gabrielle Hamilton preparing a Christmas Eve dinner.

IF your looking for an entertaining food program that combines history and humor, check out The Supersizers series. This BBC show takes a food critic and a comedian and drops them into different historical periods (mostly in Britain) to experience the cuisine and culture.

Lastly, for local eats and food happenings I turn to The Chicago Reader. Their food reviews are pretty solid and I’m keen on their “Key Ingredient” feature where they challenge a local chef to cook up a dish using exotic ingredients, like gold leaf, wood ash or cod milt.

What are some of your food centered links?

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Heart Healthy Flax Crackers

Valentine’s Day came and went, where did the time go? I really wanted to post this before the holiday, but life handed me a bunch of lemons and I had to go make preserved lemons instead (which, by the way, are doing pretty well, fermenting as we speak).

Honey for your Honey

So, here’s a belated Valentine for you. Heart healthy flax crackers sweetened with honey. I keep a big ol’ bag of flax meal in the freezer (the stuff goes rancid almost instantly when left at room temp). Usually, I’ll sprinkled a tablespoon over my oatmeal in the morning, to boost my Omega-3s. But I wanted to do something more interesting and I found what looked like the world’s easiest recipe for crackers: flax meal, water, salt.

The recipe called for two cups flax meal, one cup water and a pinch of salt. I thought I’d get a little crazy and add honey and sesame seeds.

This picture makes it look like I had the easiest time rolling out the dough, but unfortunately, the crackers really gave me a hard time. I wasn’t able to scrape the sticky dough from my work surface. Flax seeds get incredibly gooey, almost slimy, when mixed with water. My hands were caked in cement-like flax dough that would not rinse off and it could have quickly turned into a nightmare had I not added about a cup and a half of whole wheat flour. The flour helped keep the dough firm and in place while rolling.

Once I figured out that the flax meal alone wasn’t going to cut it, everything worked out nicely. Here’s the recipe I used with my alterations:

Honey Sesame Flax Crackers
2 cups flax meal
1- 1 1/2 whole wheat flour
3 Tblsp sesame seeds
1 Tblsp honey
1 tsp salt + salt for sprinkling on top of the crackers
1 cup water
1 tblsp olive oil

Pre-heat oven to 400.
In a bowl, mix the flax meal, sesame seeds, and honey. Slowly add the water until you have a firm dough.
Add flour until the dough is firm enough to roll on a board or table surface. I found that I needed to dust my board several times to keep the dough from sticking. Roll out your dough think (1/2 to 1/4 inch). Score with the back of a knife. Using a pastry brush, brush with olive oil and sprinkle salt and sesame seeds.
Bake for 15-20mins.


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These didn’t turn out quite as crisp as I would’ve liked. I think adding a tablespoon or two of oil to the dough would remedy that. Flavor-wise these crackers are quite tasty and nutty. Flax seeds are high in dietary fiber, micronutrients, and help keep cholesterol levels down. They’re a delicious way to protect your heart year-round.

Just don’t make the same mistake I did and pop your crackers in the oven without scoring them or else this will happen:

Oh well, they still taste great.


Corn for the Poor

I recently discovered polenta.

Although largely vegetarian, I tend to steer clear of starchy vegetables and in particular, corn. I’ve been influenced by knowledge of the corrupt corn industry (for evidence of this, watch “King Corn”), along with knowing that corn has a presence in practically every processed food in America. The enormous subsidies on corn make it cheap and plentiful, and the yellow stuff has been pinpointed as playing a central role in America’s ongoing obesity crisis.

Beyond nutrition and politics, my problem also concerns flavor. I don’t really like the way corn tastes. Well, let me re-phrase that and say, I don’t like the way un-nixtamalized corn tastes. You see, corn has some good nutrients, like amino acids, but they’re bound up and indigestible unless processed with an alkali (typically in the form of lime or wood ash). The native peoples of the Americas learned to process the corn in order to make the amino acids available for digestion. This processing is known as nixtamalization. Nixtamalized corn foods like hominy, and masa (used in tortillas and tamales) have a nutty, savory flavor and provide the vital protein necessary to nutrition.

"Las Tortilleras": women making tortillas, 1836. Mexico Hand-colored lithograph. Source = Voyage pittoresque et archéologique dans la partie la plus intéressante du Mexique par C. Nebel, Architecte. 50 Planches Lithographiées avec texte

Now for a little history lesson:

The European colonists had no understanding of nixtamalization, as it wasn’t necessary for the dominant European staple grain, wheat. So they ate mostly un-nixtamalized corn, and distributed the corn throughout Europe and Africa. The widespread use of unprocessed corn eventually led to protein deficiency in poverty stricken nations. Italy was one of those unfortunate countries. Modeled on the classic gruels that fed the masses since before the reign of the Roman empire, corn polenta lacks the vital amino acid niacin. Niacin deficiency thus leads to protein deficiency diseases, such as pellagra. Polenta was a poor person’s food and it was typically eaten to the exclusion of more expensive foods, like meat.

Unfortunately, corn-based foods are still eaten by the poverty stricken resulting in malnourishment. In the U.S. corn is phenomenally cheaper than most other grains, and the lower cost leads to higher consumption levels. While most people in America consume meat and dairy in excess, which provides the niacin lacking in corn, the over-consumption of carbohydrate heavy corn still poses significant risks to poor families in the form of increased diabetes and obesity.

As part of a balanced diet, polenta can be a cheap, filling and relatively healthy meal option. My own tight budget has led me to find recipes with more bang for my buck and polenta is incredibly dynamic in this respect. Accompanying polenta with a protein (either meat, dairy or vegetable) solves the niacin deficiency problem, just make sure to eat it on occasion rather than relying on it as a major source of sustenance. You can enjoy polenta as a thick gruel or chill the polenta, cut and pan sear when ready to serve. It freezes well and one cup can easily feed four people.

Sundried Tomato Polenta
1 cup polenta
2 1/2 cups water, stock, milk or soy milk
1 tblsp olive oil or butter
1 shallot chopped
1-2 cloves of garlic, finely minced
1/4 cup sundried tomatoes sliced
1/4 cup scallions (green onions) chopped
1 Tblsp basil
2 Tblsp parmesan
salt and pepper to taste

In a four quart pot add oil/butter, garlic, and shallots and sweat until tender crisp (about 2-3mins). Add water. Bring water to a boil. Slowly pour in polenta while whisking to avoid clumps. The polenta will thicken pretty quickly. Add sundried tomatoes, scallions, basil, parmesan and salt and pepper. Continue stirring, and cook until desired consistency. 10-15mins. Remove. You can serve immediately or fill a grease lined pan, chill and cut and serve when needed.

I have to say, even if the nutritional profile isn’t so great, this polenta turned out amazingly good. There are endless possibilities for add-ins and cooking methods. Polenta can be oven baked, cooked with cream for a fattier meal or even sweetened for a dessert. It’s great for breakfast with marinara or with mushrooms, and it makes a fun appetizer or finger food at parties.

I consider myself on the lower end of the income spectrum, but it’s still possible to eat healthy, delicious meals.


Caprese, mon amour

Probably the best thing about summer cooking is that it takes so little to make something wonderful.
Think about it.
Winter revolves around generating heat, warming yourself over the hot oven, roasting tubers and boiling soups, glutting on fat and starch and heavy cream.
Chicago’s long, ragged season of frost lasts for nearly six months and the summers are short, and often brutally hot and humid.

I don’t want to bother with an oven right now. So, it’s a good thing I have a long, varied playlist of salads in my mental repertoire. I am so good at combining raw vegetables and fruits that I even considered becoming a raw vegan at one point! Seriously. And with all this juicy, summertime produce laying around, why bother messing with perfection?

I think a nice Caprese salad is just about one of the best things ever thought up by the human mind. Shakespeare? Meh, I could take it or leave it, but bring on the Caprese!

All you really need to make a delicious caprese salad are the following ingredients:
Really good heirloom tomatoes, bright red and at their peak of ripeness.
Really good mozzarella, not the spongy, block kind of processed mozarella, but real, honest-to-goodness, soft mozzarella packed in brine.
Really good basil, I prefer large leaves, deep green and fragrant.
Really good olive oil, extra virgin, preferably cold pressed, with a lovely greenish-yellow sheen and a buttery flavor.
(P.S. Spectrum makes the best olive oil I’ve ever tasted in my life).

Cut the tomatoes and the mozzarella in thick, hearty slices. Alternate tomato slices with basil leaves, then mozzarella slices. Sprinkle with sea salt and coarse black pepper and drizzle with olive oil.
I think the best way to enjoy caprese is while reclining, on a beach, or in a hammock or the sunny greenery of your own backyard.


Zen and the Art of Seaweed Salad

Chris has been in Germany for four weeks, and I really thought I was going to get more work done. Alas, with a full time work schedule and a giant chunk of my day devoured by my commute, I get home with two hours to myself before bedtime. My weekends are booked with laundry, grocery shopping and housekeeping duties. I miss having a partner to help out around the house.

I’ve begun to realize that I spend most of my time running around, worrying about what needs to get done. I think that can be said for most Americans. The very American concept of “efficiency” demands more of people for less in return. I don’t consider myself a “spiritual” person, but throughout my life I have found comfort in Buddhist philosophy and thought. I find particularly poignant the Buddhist emphasis on “mindfulness,” or the importance of awareness in the present moment. How often do we stop and really think about our existence, or our place in the world?

My most meditative moments tend to happen when I’m cooking. There’s something to be said for that. Food is more than nourishment, it is an intrinsic part of being. Which is why I prefer foods that are close to their origins, prepared simply and true to their being. Obviously that doesn’t mean that I limit myself to raw vegetables, or eliminate all flavor enhancing seasonings, but I aim for simplicity. And I’m finding that when I pay attention to the nature of the food I’m preparing, my meals are healthier. When I eat vegetables with the intention of tasting the vegetables and not dousing them in butter or cheese or salt, the outcome is a healthful, meaningful meal.

I personally think it would serve our best interest to meditate over our meals and really think about what we put in our bodies. We live in a culture where everything needs to be done faster, where a meal comes from a box or a microwave, where cheaper is considered better. What would happen if we all took five or ten minutes to sit in front of our dinner and ask, “How will this meal nurture me?” People work to own a bigger home, a bigger car, a lifestyle of more. What would happen if we said, “I want less?”

Mindful Seaweed Salad
1-2 cups dried Arame seaweed
1 small carrot, peeled and grated
2 scallions, sliced
1 tsp ginger (powdered or fresh)
1/2 tsp ume plume vinegar
1 Tbsp rice vinegar
1/2 Tbsp sesame oil
Sesame seeds to taste

Arame has a wonderfully mild flavor, it tastes of the sea without being strongly flavored like nori. It also has a firm texture, almost
like al dente pasta. Like all sea vegetables, arame is naturally high in iodine, as well as calcium, iron, magnesium, and vitamin A. It is a truly nurturing food.
To make this salad, boil the arame for 10mins. Drain and set aside to cool, or plunge into an ice bath.
Toss the arame with the remaining ingredients. Ume plum vinegar is not a true vinegar, its the brine from umeboshi (Japanese pickled plum). Umeboshi are a common
Japanese snack food, they are extremely high in sodium but are a good source of probiotics.

I recommend eating this with a hot cup of green tea while reading the Lotus Sutra.


Cheese Please

I’ve been reading about cheese. It’s not really a topic that many people agonize over, but I have a conflicted relationship with dairy. I was diagnosed as lactose intolerant at the age of ten after months of mysterious and crippling stomach pains. This was one of the worst things that ever happened to me. Not only did I come from a family that consumed simple carbs, dairy and meat almost exclusively, but it began a long association with cheese and excruciating pain.

My issues with lactose were the primary reason that I decided to try out veganism in my early 20s. I was looking for respite. I spent quite a lot of money on lactose pills for the times when I wanted to enjoy an ice cream cone, or cream cheese on my bagel. It was tedious to constantly monitor my intake for lactose levels. Eventually, I gave up on dairy. As I have mentioned already in this blog, I was vegan for a solid three years before I decided to make a (limited) comeback.

I gave in partly because avoiding dairy in our culture proved profoundly difficult and also because I love food.

I have made the decision to return to dairy, but due to my long absence, I am a novice fine cheese eater. For instance, a few weeks ago I ventured to my local specialty shop and had to force myself to confess that I knew absolutely nothing about cheese. I explained to the adorable boy at the counter that I was a former vegan. He nodded in recognition and offered his own admission: he didn’t know anything about cheese until he started working at a fine cheese shop. See, there was no need for me to get all embarrassed about my lack of expertise.

I plunked the bottle of Côtes du Rhône that I had found in a discount bin down on the counter and asked him to help me pair the cheeses. We tasted a piave, a ewe’s milk hard cheese, and a French triple cream that tasted like buttery silk. I bought sampling sizes of each and dashed home to experience them in full.

There I sat at the dinner table with the sizable chunks of cheese and a hearty glass of the Côtes du Rhône. I tasted each individually first, sipping at the wine between tastings. The piave was salty and sharp with a slightly nutty finish. It tasted like a younger, softer version of parmesan. The ewe’s milk cheese was salty as well, with brine crystals that popped between my teeth. This cheese was more buttery and its flavor lingered in my mouth even after the sip of wine. The triple cream was almost beyond description in its buttery richness. The rind on the triple cream was mild with only a hint of earthiness. I had to restrain myself from gobbling the entire wedge in wild abandon. I then moved on to experiment with tasting the cheese in combination with the wine, a most pleasurable exploration. The piave really came alive with a mouthful of the wine, the ewe’s milk cheese intensified in flavor and the triple cream mellowed and contrasted nicely with the acid. I realized that the cheese boy had offered me the safest cheeses for my home tasting and I was happy to find myself considering more pungent flavors. I don’t know if I am yet ready to tackle the blues or the mysterious, cave ripened and mossy varieties, but I realized that there’s really no need to fear the cheese counter.

I have a feeling this is only the beginning.

For further reading see: Laura Werlin’s Cheese Essentials: An Insiders Guide to Buying and Serving Cheese (With 50 recipes)


Pita Party

Growing up, I didn’t know the slightest thing about Mediterranean cuisine. I had never heard of dolmas, there was no knowledge of falafel in my house and had no idea what hummus was or what it even could be. In fact, the word “hummus” sounded like something akin to the plaster used in drywall. The word “tahini” sounded like an exotic, Caribbean island. When I got to college, my very first roommate (and I would have to say best) Rachel, taught me a thing or two about international dining. I had my first taste of pita and falafel at a tiny restaurant in Flagstaff called “Mountain Oasis.” Not a top notch restaurant, but their famous “Mediterranean Plate” was the beginning of a very long love affair. I immediately fell head-over-heels for the spices and flavors of the Mediterranean. Luckily, I was not alone.

As we were smart, inquisitive young women, we did what any nerdy scholar would do when faced with a new obsession: we read books. This was the time when I began my cookbook collection and unlike so many people who flip through and drool, we actually cooked from the cookbooks. Well, Rachel cooked from the cookbooks and I mostly ate whatever she cooked.

Rachel learned to make every possible Mediterranean dish she could find. I remember coming home to a giant bag of fermenting dough in the fridge, waiting to be patted out into pita, and dolmas steaming on the stove and filling the apartment with the smell of lemon and grape leaves. Our other roommates decided to throw a “Greek” party and instead of a blow-out, drunken, college rager the likes of Animal House, we researched Greek dishes, lounged around in our togas made from sheets and gorged on pita and feta (and I think at this time me and Rachel were vegan and I had made fake feta from frozen tofu dressed with balsamic). Oh the times we had in the kitchen.

I still have not learned to make pita from scratch. I generally shy away from making my own breads. I know I’m not supposed to admit that on this here food blog, but making bread from scratch is my idea of hell. The same way that I wouldn’t want to grind my own sesame seeds for tahini, or pick my own sugar beets, boil them down and process them into granules for my own sugar. Some things are better left to other people. I love a classic pita and I have to say that homemade pita is the most delicious bread possible, soft and chewy. I would even say that Rachel’s homemade pita is better than French pain au levain. Seriously. But if you don’t have several hours of free time, or the inclination to deal with that strange biological mass known as yeast, then just pick up some quality pita at the grocery and don’t think too much about what you might be missing.

Roasted Vegetables for Pita:
1-2 zucchini, I like to slice on the diagonal
1 red pepper, sliced into strips
1/2 red onion
2Tbsp olive oil
pinch of salt and pepper
1-2tsp basil

Pre-heat oven to 450. High heat is necessary to carmelize the vegetables. Toss the veggies in a 9×9 baking dish and coat with oil and spices. Cook for 18-20 mins until browned. (Honestly, I don’t think a recipe is necessary for this, but I feel obliged).

roasted zucchini, onion and red pepper

Tahini Sauce:
1/2 cup tahini (sesame seed paste)
3 gloves garlic, crushed
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup lemon juice
1 teaspoon parsley, finely chopped (optional)
Mix tahini, garlic and salt. Add olive oil, lemon juice and parsley. I find this is better made in a food processor or blender. You can thin with a bit of water but be careful, water will make the oils in the tahini coagulate and turn into a lumpy mess.

You can add feta, shredded lettuce or cabbage, pickles, olives, cucumbers, tomatoes, sprouts, just about anything to your pita. It never gets old.

Pitalicious

Pita sandwiches are still a reliably healthy, quick meal. Even after arriving home from the dirty, smelly, Chicago subway at 8:30 in the evening, I can still muster the strength to roast some veggies and whip up a bowl of tahini sauce for a satisfying pita pocket. It’s true that I have never actually been to the Mediterranean, and for all I know my pitas are on par with the American PB&J. I honestly don’t get too hung up on authenticity. When it’s good, it’s good. There will always be a place in my heart for (Americanized) Mediterranean.