Pretty Little Things

Chicago has been experiencing a remarkably mild winter, the mildest in over seventy years, in fact. I’m not complaining, but it’s still quite chilly in the Midwest and with several months of cold weather on the horizon, I’m aching for Spring. I recently scored a bag of organic lemons and used several of them to bake up lemon squares. I didn’t photograph the lemon squares (although they were fantastic), however I did have a problem figuring out what to do with the seven leftover lemons.

A bit of internet research led me to tackle the art of preserving lemons. Yes, this is my very first try at home pickling. I’m not going to lie, next to yeast breads, canning and pickling terrify me. I just don’t have faith in my abilities to think that I can actually make pickles at home. But in actuality, pickling is ridiculously easy. Let me show you how it’s done.

Lemons, meet salt. Salt is your friend. Salt will keep any bad bugs away from your pickles and encourage nice, helpful bugs to flourish. This sets the ground work for lactic acid fermentation, the same kind of fermentation process as yogurt and sauerkraut.

Next, the lemons needs to be thoroughly scrubbed. I let mine soak in vinegar and water for a bit before scrubbing, to help loosen any waxes or resins. Next, quarter the lemons, making sure to keep them intact at the bottom so that they can be completely packed with salt. While it’s not necessary, I think it’s a good idea to go through the lemons with a sharp paring knife and remove as many seeds that you can find. Collect the juice as your de-seeding. Pack each lemon with salt. I used sea salt which is coarser and forms a thick paste as it mixes with the juice.

After that, simply pack the lemons tightly into a sterilized jar (boil the jar for a few minutes, remove and set on a clean towel). Top the jar with the juice of one or two lemons and pour in a few tablespoons of salt. Close the lid and shake to distribute the salt. You can set in a cool place for a few days and then refrigerate for a month or so until the peels are soft.

I cannot wait to start using these in soups and sauces. They look like little rays of sunshine.


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.

Carrot Cake on a Cold Day

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What do you do on a frosty winter’s day with a bag of carrots that are starting to turn? Bake carrot cake of course! I’m snowed in this weekend, so I thought I’d do double duty and heat the house with my baking while also clearing out the fridge. The beauty of this recipe is that I already had everything I needed in the cupboard. I nixed the traditional cream cheese frosting because I prefer to cut the sugar and enjoy the sweetness of the carrots and fruit.

Carrot Cake

2 cups flour ( I use whole wheat flour)
1 tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt
1 cup sugar

2 cups grated carrot
8 oz. crushed pineapple
½ cup raisins
1 cup chopped walnuts
1 tsp vanilla
3 eggs
¾ cup oil
¾ cup milk
1 tsp cinnamon
¼ tsp nutmeg
¼ tsp ground clove

Pre-heat oven to 350F.
In a large mixing bowl combine grated carrot, raisins, pineapple, walnuts, spices and all wet ingredients. In a separate bowl combine dry ingredients (four, sugar, salt, baking soda). Slowing add the dry ingredients into the wet mixture. Mix thoroughly.

Pour batter into a greased cake pan. I used a 9” round springform pan.
Bake 45-50mins.

To use honey instead of sugar, increase the sweetener to 1 1/2 cups and add one cup of flour.

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The perfect treat after a day of sledding!

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.

Happy New Year Hunan Style

Happy New Year’s Eve!

I had a very eventful Christmas with my sister and her family in Virginia. Surprisingly, cooking wasn’t at the forefront of my holiday this year. Instead, I was treated to my sister’s Polish-influenced cooking (her husband is of Eastern European descent). I particularly enjoyed her beet juice and tortellini soup.

Now, I’m back in Chicago and ready to do some catching up in the kitchen.

I’m a Christmas baby, born four days after the holiday and this year I went to the newly opened Lao Hunan in Chicago’s Chinatown for my celebratory dinner. The always fabulous Chicago Reader rated it one of the best new restaurants of 2011 and the proprietor, Tony Hu, is dedicated to bringing authentic regional Chinese cuisine to Chicago. Hu has established himself as “The King of Chinatown,” with four other restaurants, Lao Shanghai, Lao Sze Chuan, Lao Beijing, and Lao Yu Ju. Having already tried and loved Lao Sze Chuan I was dying to try Lao Hunan.

I thought the décor was a touch gimmicky with a giant portrait of Mao Zedong and the words “Serving People” blazing across the wall of the dining room and the wait staff wearing communist army uniforms. But the food. Oh, the food. This was my first time trying Hunan cuisine and I loved the chilies, garlic and ginger in every dish. I ordered the Stewed Tofu Xiang Xi Style for my main course, which was deliciously spiced, but the stand out of the evening was the wood ear mushroom salad.

The menu simply calls the dish “Healthy Wood Ear Salad,” but it doesn’t do justice to the complex flavors and textures of the mushrooms and marinade. Wood ear mushrooms are spongey, slightly gelatinous mushrooms that look like ears. I was somewhat hesistant, but my first bite won me over. The wood ear mushroom has a toothsome, fleshy texture and a flavor of wood and earth. A little research reveals that is has been used for medicinal purposes in the East for hundreds of years and it has proven cancer fighting properties.

Here’s my variation based purely on my tasting the dish at Lao Hunan. Not having access to the actual recipe means that I could be missing something, but I think this comes close.

Marinated Wood Ear Salad Hunan Style
8oz dried wood ear mushrooms
1 cup boiling water (to rehydrate the mushrooms)
2 tblsp rice vinegar
3 tblsp chili oil
1 tsp dried chili flakes
1 small diced chili pepper(a jalapeno works just fine)
1 small chunk of fresh ginger, peeled and sliced
2 large cloves of garlic sliced
1 tsp Chinese Five Spice (or a mixture of star anise, Sichuan peppercorn, cinnamon, cloves and fennel seed)
Tamari (or other soy sauce) to taste
1-2 scallions, chopped

In a bowl, pour the boiling water over the mushrooms. Let set for 15-20mins until mushrooms are fully rehydrated. The mushrooms will be slightly rubbery, yet soft. If the mushroom feels hard or very chewy, let them continue to soak. Once fully re-hydrated, drain and squeeze out any excess water.

In a pan on low heat, add chili oil, chilies, ginger, garlic and spices until the garlic and chilies are slightly soft but not browned (about 2-3mins).

Add the rehydrated mushrooms and cook on medium heat for a few minutes to further soften the mushroom. The heat allows the mushrooms to absorb the flavors of the spices. Add vinegar and tamari. Remove from heat. Put in fridge to cool. Once cool, serve with chopped scallions.

Last year, I resolved to challenge myself in the kitchen and for the most part I stuck to my resolution. Yeast breads no longer terrify me and I’m gaining more confidence with pastry. This year, rather than claim that I want to lose weight or get fit, I am going to focus on eating and preparing healing, wholesome food. I want to focus on food as medicine and cooking as therapeutic. I think that’s definitely a manageable goal.

Ginger Nut Cookies

It’s cookie time in the Oliver-Turner household. In anticipation of the holidays I’m rolling up my shirtsleeves and getting out the sticks of butter. I’m traveling to DC/Virginia this year to spend Christmas with my sister, brother-in-law and nephews, and currently studying up on my cookie craft.
This sounds incredible, but I haven’t spent a single holiday season with children in my adult life. I’m looking forward to taking part in their joy and excitement and I think me and Chris are both giddy about the toy shopping.

My sister and I are planning an epic cookie-fest for sometime during the holiday week leading up to Christmas. I will be bringing along my famous chocolate chip pecan cookie recipe, and I’m excited to add to my repertoire ginger nut cookies. Inspired by Herman Melville’s short story, “Bartleby the Scrivener,” which I read just recently. In the story, an eccentric scrivener, working at a law office in the early half of the 19th Century, refuses to continue with his work. Throughout the story, the narrator, Bartleby’s employer, notices that he seems to only eat crunchy ginger nut cakes. If I could, I would only eat these spicy ginger nut cookies, but alas, I’ll have to settle for them on occasion.

Ginger Nut Cookies
Dry ingredients:
2 cups all-purpose flour
¼tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ground cloves
½ tsp nutmeg
½ tsp ground black pepper
2 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp baking powder

Wet Ingredients:
½ cup softened butter
¼ cup oil (I used walnut), you can also sub shortening.
1 cup packed brown sugar
1 large egg (you can add another egg if you want a softer texture)
¼ cup dark molasses
¼cup + extra for finishing, finely chopped walnuts and almonds

Preheat oven 350F.

In a large bowl combine dry ingredients. Stir together and set aside.

In another bowl, cream together the butter, oil and sugar. You can use an electric mixer; I use a flat, wooden paddle spoon. Once the butter/sugar mixture is well mixed and fluffy, add in the egg and beat for a minute or two. Add the molasses and nuts. Slowly stir in the dry mixture. The dough will be slightly sticky.

Roll dough into balls, about 1Tblsp large, place on a lined baking sheet. The cookies will spread quite a bit, so be sure to place them with a little room between each. Garnish with chopped nut mixture. Bake 15mins.

I think I’m going to go enjoy these cookies with a cup of cheer.

Roasted Eggplant Stew

The chill of a Chicago November is really something to be reckoned with; the cold here has claws. We’re going on three years in the Midwest and I haven’t acclimated at all. I’m beginning to think I’ll never get used to this. At least the frost motivates me to get in the kitchen, fire up the oven and heat the apartment with the steam of bubbling pots, the warmth of baking bread. This eggplant stew is a bit labor intensive, but it will warm you to the core.

Roasted Eggplant Stew
2 large eggplants
2 Tblsp unsalted butter
1 small onion, minced
2 small celery stalks, minced
3-4 garlic cloves, minced
2tsp cumin
1 tsp smoked paprika
Black pepper to taste
Cayenne pepper to taste
1-2 bay leaves
1-2 tsp sea salt
6-8 cups water or stock
1/4 cup sour cream or plain yogurt

Start with two, large, firm eggplants peeled and cubed. Sprinkle with sea salt and olive oil and roast for 35-40mins at 400F. Sure, I could just stew the eggplant in a pot, but roasting beforehand imparts a deep, smoky flavor.

Next, mash the roasted eggplant to a fine pulp. This step isn’t necessary if you’re planning on using a hand blender. Since I don’t have one and I prefer to limit the electric appliances, I hand mash with a potato masher.

Now, in a 6quart pot, over medium heat, melt the butter until hot. Add the minced onions, celery and garlic. Cook until softened. Then add your spices, stock, and eggplant puree and sour cream/yogurt. Simmer for 15-20mins to allow the flavors to come together.

The cumin, garlic and cayenne give a wonderful warming quality. I prefer a spicy tingle to my stew and use the cayenne liberally.

Here’s to the long winter ahead. We can get through this!