Hello, Parsley!

Let’s talk about parsley.

One of those undervalued ingredients, usually slapped on the plate as an afterthought, parsley has somewhat of a bad reputation. Maybe the problem hinges on the grassy flavor of the herb, some would even describe it as “soapy”. The flavor never really dominates the palate and some people tend to think of parsley as flavorless. Parsley can also be difficult to clean completely and unfortunate diners may experience dreaded grit in the teeth. Another possibility is that many of us have not even eaten fresh parsley, instead tossing it aside to get to our steak. But parsley really does have a flavor, and it’s bright and peppery with hints of mint and licorice.

I want to convert you to parsley.

It might seem like a foolhardy task, seeing as how parsley is already widely used and very much present in the American kitchen, but few people view it as noteworthy. Bloggers can’t get enough of bacon but no one wants to stump for parsley. We take parsley for granted, and it’s really a shame. Because this stuff rocks! It’s refreshing and slightly sweet, it pairs well with fish, with melon, with starches. You can whisk together a vinaigrette with parsley and wow yourself with the color, the panache. I’m only just starting with my sweet, sweet parsley-lovin’.

Mediterranean cuisine makes ample use of the wondrous leaf and provides the perfect starting point for dishes were parsley shines. Fresh and light, tabbouleh salad is one of my favorites. Traditionally made with bulgur wheat, I make mine with quinoa for the extra protein. Quinoa (pronounced Keen-wa) is a South American grain and one of the few grains containing complete proteins, making it a wonderful choice for vegetarians. The nutty flavor of the quinoa compliments the peppery, lemony taste of parsley and together they make an irresistible meal.

Oh, and don’t bother using this recipe with dried parsley, the flavor just doesn’t compare. The volatile oils that contain the peppery parsley flavor do not survive the drying process and leave behind flavorless, green, paper flakes. I personally think that dried parsley is pointless.

Quinoa Tabbouleh Salad
1 cup of quinoa
2 cups water

1 bunch of parsley, finely minced
1 tbslp of dried or fresh mint
1 small tomato, diced
2 scallions, diced
1-2 cloves of fresh garlic, minced
2tblsp olive oil (add more to taste)
The juice of one lemon

Bring 2 cups of water to boil. Rinse the quinoa until the drained water runs clear. Quinoa does contain saponins that can make the grain taste bitter if not rinsed. Once the water is boiling, add quinoa, reduce heat, cover, and simmer until quinoa has absorbed the water (about 10mins). Fluff with a fork. Set your quinoa in the fridge to cool or make the quinoa ahead and use when ready.

Parsley, like most herbs, grows close to the soil. Because the leaves are curly they have a tendency to trap sand. I soak the parsley in a deep pot of cold water for a few minutes, allowing the grit to sink to the bottom. Rinse the parsley thoroughly. Remove the stems and mince finely. Do the same with your mint (or in my case, use the dried mint that you’ve been hoarding in your cupboard).
Add all remaining ingredients to your cooked quinoa. Salt and pepper to taste.

Of course tabbouleh is a wonderful side dish but for me, it’s a meal unto itself. This recipe made enough for me to pack lunches for a week. The lemon juice keeps the parsley fresh and the quinoa maintains it’s shape without disintegrating into mush.

So, give it a try and let me know what you think.

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Orange Spiced Cranberry Sauce

I’m almost embarrassed to admit how long it took me to realize that one could actually make cranberry sauce from scratch. For some reason, the thought had lodged in my brain through habit and advertising that cranberry sauce came from a can. Every Thanksgiving I would anticipate the slurp of the jellied cranberry sauce as it slid out onto a plate. I would designate myself the “cranberry sauce slicer” and happily slice up the jello-y, ruby-colored cylinder using the ridges from the can as a guide. These experiences account for my confusion as to why it was called “sauce.” Cranberry sauce is one of my favorite things about Thanksgiving because it’s one of those “Thanksgiving and Thanksgiving only,” foods. We might enjoy turkey, mashed potatoes, yams, or gravy throughout the year, but let’s be honest, the cranberry sauce makes Thanksgiving.

Growing up, my family was less fortunate and relied heavily on cheap, packaged foods that mostly came in the form of donations to the needy. Mine was a childhood mired with Velveeta cheese, Spam, and neon-orange colored, powdered juice mixes. Thanksgiving was one of the few occasions where fresh foods were prepared, but even then they were limited. Freeze dried potatoes were an abomination on the holiday, and my father would make gravy from the drippings of the turkey, but my family still preferred the pre-made pumpkin pie found in the grocery store, along with whipped cream from an aerosol can, stuffing from a bag and any combination of frozen corn, beans and peas.

It was only a few short years ago, while working at a natural foods grocery store (where I learned more about whole foods than I ever could have on my own) that I got my first taste of homemade cranberry sauce. It was that very moment when I realized that the “delicious,” jellied cranberry sauce in the can was nothing more than corn syrup* with some cranberry flavoring. Now that I know the difference, there’s no substitute for homemade. Over several holiday seasons I have spent time perfecting my own recipe for cranberry sauce. I don’t much care for like the leathery cranberry skins that seem to stick in your teeth all day, so I strain them out to get a velvety texture.

I learned the basic recipe from watching over the shoulder of a chef in the natural foods deli where I used to work circa 2006. I have added fragrant orange zest and crystallized ginger. The sugar can be adjusted to taste, as the orange juice will add sweetness as well as flavor.

Orange Ginger Cranberry Sauce
16 oz cranberries (fresh or frozen)
1cup/ 8oz fresh orange juice
1 Tblsp grated orange zest
3 large pieces of crystallized ginger (or to taste), chopped
Pinch of sea salt
1 – 1 ½ cups evaporated cane sugar (or other natural sweetener)
1 tsp cinnamon
2 tsp of cornstarch (I use non-GMO) added to

Rinse the cranberries. Add orange juice, orange zest, ginger, sea salt and cinnamon to a large pot over medium heat. Let the juice come to a slow boil, this infuses the liquid with the ginger and cinnamon. Add cranberries and slowly add the sugar to dissolve. As the cranberries begin to heat and turn bright red, begin mashing or blending. I personally using a potato masher and it works just fine. A hand blender would also do the trick. As the mixture begins to boil and the berries are mashed, the juice will thicken. I add a little cornstarch to make a more jelly-like sauce, it’s completely optional.

Once the sauce has cooked and thickened (5-10mins). Turn off heat. I strain the sauce with a fine wire sieve. Chill 1 hour to overnight. Serve. See how easy that is? Who needs a can of sugary, processed cranberry jelly when you can make something as good as this.

The spices in this recipe make me think of Christmas. I can almost hear the jingle bells off in the distance.

*There is a lot of information on the web about high fructose corn syrup. In my personal opinion, it is not healthy to consume in even moderate amounts. See this study done at Princeton. This is one example of many that provide reasons to drop corn syrup from your diet. And again, this is not professional/medical advice but only a personal opinion informed by research.


The Chicago Dog

Can you believe I’ve lived in Chicago for nearly two years and have never managed to eat a Chicago dog?
It shouldn’t be a surprise to people who know me personally, but I’m not much of a meat fan.
Hotdogs especially make me suspicious. Aside from a brief period in my pre-kindergarten years when I enjoyed noshing on uncooked weiners straight from the package, I have largely managed to avoid most tube-shaped, processed meat products. You just never know what’s in those things.
Since I don’t have a natural appetite for hotdogs, I have never stood in a two hour line outside Hot Doug’s or gone for a late night, drunken, catcalling, weenie-fest at The Weiner’s Circle, nor have I ever grubbed at Chubby Weiner’s in Lincoln Square, a corner store bedecked with a giant, cartoon hotdog outside it’s entrance. I feel like I’m missing an essential Chicago experience.

Chicago loves hotdogs and it’s hard to blend in and pretend to be a true Chicagoan when you don’t partake.
So in the spirit of getting to know my new hometown a little better, I’ve decided to finally try out the Chicago dog, sans the actual dog.

But first, a little background: Chicago hotdog lore has the Chicago-style hotdog originating sometime during the Great Depression around the famous and now non-existent Maxwell Street Market. Nowadays, there are hotdog joints galore and a particularly cult-like following for the hometown favorite.

The ingredients, listed in topping order, are:
1. poppyseed bun
2. yellow mustard
3. two tomato wedges
4. a dill pickle spear
5. chopped white onions
6. pickled sport peppers
7. neon green sweet relish (which is somewhat difficult to find outside of Chicago)
8. a sprinkling of celery salt
9. Never, ever, ever ketchup

When it’s all said and done it should look a little something like this:

Technically, a Chicago dog is made with a Vienna beef hotdog, but the results are easy enough to replicate using a faux-dog. As a side note: my favorite brand of fake weenie is Lightlife Smartdogs, I find them eerily realistic in texture and flavor.

So what did I think of the famous Chicago dog?

Amazing!

Really. I grew up eating hotdogs with mustard and ketchup and maybe, if things got fancy, a little relish. Most of the time, we didn’t have buns and used a folded slice of bread, resulting in a soggy doggy mess. The Chicago dog is a revelation. With two, ripe tomato wedges, I honestly didn’t miss the ketchup and that’s saying something because I’m a ketchup fiend. I don’t really understand the aversion to ketchup in Chicago, it may have something to do with this particular type of hotdog pre-dating the corn syrup sweetened Heinz ketchup we all have come to love.
I had a hard time tracking down “sport peppers,” and I had to settle for pepperoncini instead. Why did it take me so long to put hot peppers on a hotdog? Genius!
Yes, Chicago gets props for it’s salad-dog, as I like to call it.

Just be careful and make sure you have a plate conveniently placed directly below the fist that’s stuffing the dog in your mouth, otherwise you’ll probably have to change your shirt.


Bagels for the Baking Inept

A little over a month ago I made a quiet resolution to myself to push my limits in the kitchen and branch out into new terrain. So for the past week I have been thinking about making bagels. Why bagels? Well, mostly because I really like bagels and Chris really likes bagels and we usually buy them from the grocery store. The grocery store bagels are pretty awful; they are dry, airy and have a slight metallic taste. I decided to make bagels partly because I wanted a decent bagel and partly because they are smaller than a loaf of bread and seem more manageable.

You don’t understand.
I am a complete and utter klutz when it comes to handling breadstuffs. As mentioned here previously, I have always believed that I don’t have the patience or determination to succeed as a baker. I give up easily. If I fail at something, I typically do not try it again. Yeast terrifies me. Success in baking depends on such a wide range of factors from making sure the dough is kneaded just enough, to ensuring it has proofed properly and diligently timing every step of the process. There are so many opportunities for things to go wrong and this very fact acts as a deterrent for me. I don’t want to spend hours working on something that might turn out like poop.

Now I can say I have done it. I have made bagels! I proved to myself that most of my fears were unprecedented. The great thing with bagels as opposed to bread is that they do not require a very long rising time, which means less time for error. Here’s how it’s done:

Bagels for the Baking Inept1 ½ cups warm water (110-115*F)
1 Tbsp rapid rise yeast (1 packet)
1 Tbsp sugar
1 Tbsp oil
1 tsp salt
3 ½ cups bread flour (unbleached)

Toppings:
1 egg white
Sesame
Poppy seed
Caraway seed
Minced onion
Minced garlic

In a large mixing bowl, stir together water, yeast, sugar and one cup of flour. Let sit for 5mins to activate the yeast. Stir in oil, salt and the rest of the flour, conserving the ½ cup, to make a stiff dough. Add more flour if the dough is too soft and sticky.

Use the ½ cup of flour to lightly flour your hands and a flat surface. Knead the dough for about ten minutes until the dough is smooth. Cover the dough with a clean tea towel and set it aside in a warm place for about 15 minutes. This allows the dough to rest and begin rising.

Divide the dough into eight pieces and roll with your fingers to form 9-10 inch strips. Pinch ends together to form a ring. Place on a flat surface or baking sheet and cover with a towel for another 15mins.

While the dough is rising, bring a 6quart pot of salted water to a boil. Preheat oven to 450*F. Set a plate, lined with a tea towel to absorb the water, next to the stove. Tea towels are made from tightly woven cloth, so they are less likely to leave lint and fibers on your bagels. You can also use paper towels.
When bagels are ready, boil each (two or three at a time, depending on the size of the pot) for about 1 minute on each side, turning with tongs. This is an important step as it gives the bagels their characteristic chewiness.

Remove and place on baking sheet(s). Brush bagels with egg white and sprinkle with toppings.

Bake for 20-25 mins.

These bagels filled my tiny apartment with delicious baking smells and they did not disappoint. They are everything a bagel should be, chewy, dense, and perfect for toasting.

There is no metallic taste from shelf stabilizers and dough conditioners, just the pure flavors of the wheat, the yeast and the toppings. I made three plain, three sesame and two garlic for my first go. The sesame bagels were outstanding. I had no idea they would taste so completely different from store bought bagels.
The great thing is that this recipe is easily doubled and the extra bagels can be frozen to maintain freshness. A couple of hours on a Saturday can result in amazing bagels for two weeks.

I am now a convert to bagel baking. Lookout!


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*